Was John Calvin a Nominalist?

Was John Calvin a Nominalist or a Realist? Does this question even have meaning? What were the primary influences of this theology?

Last year (or was it earlier this year?) I published a three-part series addressing these questions and exploring the nominalist roots of John Calvin’s theology. Here are the links to my articles:

The ‘Christian Perspective’

From my article ‘The Abstraction of God and the Culture Wars (Nominalism 7)

“Often the Christian perspective on culture comes to amount to little more than colonizing isolated issues, which are assessed in terms of a divine will that has already been abstracted from any larger sense of teleological and ontological order. Failure to recognize an inner-logic within the world (including human nature) often leaves evangelical spokespersons unable to point to the normativity of Christian moral order, or the fittingness of God’s commands within any scheme larger than, and antecedent to, mere will. A result of this functional nominalism is that Christian contributions to the public discourse can become largely unintelligible to those in different ideological communities. Worse still, such unintelligibility is seen to be inevitable and unavoidable, thus disincentivizing Christians from exploring new and creative ways to communicate.”

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2016 and the Triumph of Nominalism

if liberty really does require that questions of ultimate meaning be relativized, as our Supreme Court has claimed, then all that is left for public conversation is to see who can yell the loudest.

if liberty really does require that questions of ultimate meaning be relativized, as our Supreme Court has claimed, then all that is left for public conversation is to see who can yell the loudest.

As the tumultuous year of 2016 draws to a close, new political forces, impulses and ideologies dominate American public space and demand to be taken seriously. From the surprising groundswell of support for socialism that we saw in the Democratic primary to the political potency of social media in the Presidential election, it is clear that American politics is entering a new era where the winners and losers can no longer be easily quantified according by familiar canons.

However, one force that has been all but overlooked this year, but which remains central to understanding the emerging political scene, is the triumph of philosophical nominalism.

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The Fittingness of Biblical Ethics

From my Colson Center article ‘The Abstraction of God and the Culture Wars‘:

In talking about sexual morality, it is typical to find pastors, Christian spokespersons and lay people alike, operating as if there can never be any question of a right-ordered nature that precedes and animates God’s commands: we simply need to know what the rules are and to keep them.

Under such a scheme, all the ordering of our world is deliberate ordering and creation becomes radically contingent. It thus becomes difficult to speak of certain sexual patterns as being “rightly ordered” or “fitting” in any sense more general than, or prior to, God’s pedestrian commands.

Indeed, it is easy to slip into assuming that for God to be truly free and all-powerful, the categories by which our moral and material lives are ordered must be wholly the result of God’s disposing will and not rooted in structures antecedent to His commands, such as the fixities of His nature that find expression in the inherent patterns embedded in creation’s design.

Among evangelicals from legalistic backgrounds, this functional nominalism often finds expression in the notion that the only objective criteria for making decisions is sin-avoidance. In areas where the category of sin does not apply, the only criteria to influence our decisions is personal subjective choice. There are thus no categories with which to talk meaningfully about the telos of a thing, or the internal logic of nature’s ordering, independent of moral questions about right and wrong.

This type of abstraction from teleology turns creation into a playground for us to do with as we like provided we do not sin, while the criteria for determining what counts as sin is truncated to specific divine commands interpreted independently from the teleological-directedness of how creation is. (The recent flare-up in Moscow Idaho’s food debates hinge on this very problem, as do some of the modern music myths that have taken the church captive in recent years.)

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Series on Nominalism

I’ve been publishing some articles with the Colson Centre dealing with the debates between the medieval nominalists and realists, looking at the relevance these debates have for issues in contemporary culture.

Throughout this series I hope to show that these seemingly archaic philosophical distinctions are actually of profound practical significance for how we understand our world today, in everything from sex to food.To read these articles, click on the following links:

Also see my series on Nominalism and John Calvin:

Realism and Moral Communication

From ‘Gay Marriage and Creational Realism‘ (part 5 in my 6 part series on nominalism vs. realism)

For the nominalist, in order for God to be truly free and all-powerful, the categories by which our moral and material lives are ordered must be the result of God’s disposing will and not rooted in structures antecedent to His will (i.e., the fixities of God’s nature or the inherent patterns of creation). The nominalist will thus find it difficult to speak of things being “fitting” or “rightly ordered” in any sense more general than, or prior to, God’s pedestrian commands….

Unfortunately, the impasse of communication that persists in the “gay marriage” debate has left some Christian thinkers suspecting that genuine dialogue with unbelievers about the meaning of marriage is impossible. The thinking tends to run something like this: if someone doesn’t share our Christian worldview, there isn’t much we can appeal to when defending traditional marriage. Moreover, why would it even make sense for the other side to listen to us given that they don’t share the worldview that gives rise to our understanding of marriage in the first place?…

If the Christian understanding of marriage arises from the raw command of an omnipotent God arbitrarily constituting the world in a certain way that might just of easily have been otherwise, then I agree that there is little we can say about the moral constitution of the world to those who do not share our theocentric worldview. On the other hand, if we are realists then we believe that God’s commands about sexual ethics flow out of the teleological directedness intrinsic to creation itself. Under the realist scheme of things, it becomes possible to appeal to unbelievers on the basis of that ordering without needing to invoke explicitly Biblical arguments.

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The Abstraction of God and the Culture Wars (Nominalism 7)

This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.

Last week I attended an event at the classical Christian school my son attends where I had the opportunity to watch two girls debate the source of morality. They both did a remarkable job, with one student arguing that God’s commands are the ultimate source of moral values, while the other student took the position that God’s nature is the ultimate source of moral values.

The debate harked back to the famous question that Plato recorded Socrates’ asking his interlocutor Euthyphro: “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” This is a question we have also visited a number of times in this ongoing series on realism and nominalism. Throughout this present series I have been suggesting that neither the goodness of an action nor the goodness of God’s commands can be related to each other as efficient cause and effect, but that both are themselves effects of a prior cause: God’s absolutely perfect nature. I have attempted to show that this seemingly detached academic question actually has enormous practical significance in how we view the world around us and our obligations to each other and to God.

In this post I intend to wrap up many of the themes we have explored so far in our series, and conclude with making some observations about the ramifications these questions have for our involvement in the, so called, ‘culture wars.’

Is the World Good?

Many Christians—Protestant evangelicals, Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox alike—have imbibed various forms of nominalism, theological voluntarism and divine command theory which have oriented them to perceive the world as essentially a collection of disconnected particulars but with no intrinsic teleology integral to, and discoverable within, the created order. Instead, order is seen to be imposed extrinsically through mere fiat by the raw injunctions of God. But moral order that is imposed on creation is not order at all, but isolated commands that might just have easily been otherwise. According to this more nominalist understanding of the world (which again, is often more implicit than explicit), while creation may not be evil, it is without inherent meaning and therefore not fully ‘good’ in the most complete sense. I have suggested that this nominalist turn often emerges when teleology is defined externally by God’s will, with no reference to the internal nature of things.

The Given-ness of Creational Order

In Reformed circles especially, the notion of God’s will flowing out of, and conforming to, a teleology intrinsic to the world’s design, is often treated as an imposition to God’s total freedom or as undermining the importance of special revelation. Moral order is thus seen to be imposed on creation externally without having an organic relationship to how creation is by virtue of its design. Resistance to what Oliver O’Donovan has termed “the linking of moral obligation to the natural generic-teleological order” leaves order eclipsed by law, so that the moral order we are bound to affirm is seen as arising externally through the imposition of “the Christian perspective” onto the otherwise formless raw material of the universe.

The Fittingness of Biblical Ethics

In talking about sexual morality, it is typical to find pastors, Christian spokespersons and lay people alike, operating as if there can never be any question of a right-ordered nature that precedes and animates God’s commands: we simply need to know what the rules are and to keep them.

Under such a scheme, all the ordering of our world is deliberate ordering and creation becomes radically contingent. It thus becomes difficult to speak of certain sexual patterns as being “rightly ordered” or “fitting” in any sense more general than, or prior to, God’s pedestrian commands.

Indeed, it is easy to slip into assuming that for God to be truly free and all-powerful, the categories by which our moral and material lives are ordered must be wholly the result of God’s disposing will and not rooted in structures antecedent to His commands, such as the fixities of His nature that find expression in the inherent patterns embedded in creation’s design.

The Playground Mentality

Among evangelicals from legalistic backgrounds, this functional nominalism often finds expression in the notion that the only objective criteria for making decisions is sin-avoidance. In areas where the category of sin does not apply, the only criteria to influence our decisions is personal subjective choice. There are thus no categories with which to talk meaningfully about the telos of a thing, or the internal logic of nature’s ordering, independent to moral questions about right and wrong.

This type of abstraction from teleology turns creation into a playground for us to do with as we like provided we do not sin, while the criteria for determining what counts as sin is truncated to specific divine commands interpreted independently from the teleological-directedness of how creation is. (The recent flare-up in Moscow Idaho’s food debates hinge on this very problem, as do some of the modern music myths that have taken the church captive in recent years.)

Creation and Common Grace

Creation expresses God’s nature; as such, the ordering of reality creates the context in which God’s commands can be seen as normative. Precisely because of this, we shouldn’t think that individuals or cultures without access to God’s explicit commands are completely bereft of ethical consciousness.

Though this may seem like a small point, this has profound ramifications for how we approach apologetics. For example, we should be filled with horror at the way Karl Barth (and many advocates of, so called “presuppositional apologetics” as well) taught that until an unbeliever explicitly presupposes the truth of scripture that there is no point at which we can, or ought, to try to connect with them philosophically. Barth expressed this erroneous view in The Doctrine of the Word of God, when he declared that

“Man’s capacity for God, however it may be with his humanity and personality, has really been lost. We cannot, therefore, see that at this point there comes into view a common basis of discussion for philosophical and theological anthropology, the opportunity for a common exhibition at least of the possibility of raising the question about God.”

In later 20th century thought we saw a similar error in the attack against evidentialist apologetics that became trendy for reformed theologians following Cornelius Van Til. In its worst forms, the rejection of evidentialism was often proffered on the spurious ground that one must first buy into the whole Christian package in order to make sense of anything. What is missed, or at least not given sufficient attention in this paradigm, is the fact that there are verities which believers and unbelievers share in common by virtue of our shared creation; verities that form a basis for discussion for philosophical and theological anthropology. (I have argued this point in more detail in my article ‘Gay Marriage and Creational Realism.’)

Creation and Literature

Overemphasizing the noetic effects of sin and underestimating the reality of common grace has enormous ramifications in how we approach pagan literature. When we come to a text like Homer’s Iliad, or the plays of Sophocles, is our knee-jerk instinct to assume these texts have nothing valuable to teach us regarding human nature and God’s world? If so, we will conceive our task primarily to unearth worldview deficiencies in these writers: to attack, criticize and condemn.

But if, on the other hand, we recognize that the ordering of reality has left the imprint of a divine grammar that even pagans cannot help but recognize, then we will come at these texts expecting to find additional confirmation of the inherent logic of creation – a logic which not even human sin can fully eradicate. Once again, there is a structural order to creation that is larger than, and prior to, God’s pedestrian commands.

Christian Order and Public Dialogue

While the realist understanding articulated by Alister McGrath when he declared that “God’s nature is somehow expressed and embodied in the ordering of the world,” may be recognized as a theological truth, in practice we often fail to see this as providing a coherent basis for talking objectively about moral order with unbelieving communities. A practical result of this is that communication between Christians and non-Christians is brought into atrophy, since the Christian is neither able to make appeals to creation nor to contextualize the moral law in terms of natural teleology.

Under these erroneous ways of thinking, the Christian perspective on culture comes to amount to little more than colonizing isolated “issues”, which are assessed in terms of a divine will that has already been abstracted from any larger sense of teleological and ontological order. Failure to recognize an inner-logic within the world (including human nature) leaves evangelical spokespersons unable to point to the normativity of Christian moral order, or the fittingness of God’s commands within any scheme larger than, and antecedent to, mere will. A result of this functional nominalism is that Christian contributions to the public discourse can become largely unintelligible to those in different ideological communities. Worse still, such unintelligibility is seen to be inevitable and unavoidable, thus disincentivizing Christians from exploring new and creative ways to communicate.

We saw this repeatedly in the 2013 debates about gay marriage, as Christian pastors, lay people and public figures alike tended to shrink from appeals to the intrinsic telos and purposive direction in creation, as if the traditional understanding of marriage arose merely from the raw command of an omnipotent God arbitrarily constituting the world in a certain way that might just of easily have been otherwise. Any sense of teleology becomes posterior to the particularities of the revealed moral law rather than prior. What is lost is the notion, articulated so well by Oliver O’Donovan, that “The way the universe is determines how man ought to behave himself in it…”

Voluntarism and the Spiritually Neutral Universe

Once the world is bereft of intrinsic ordering, the category of divine will becomes a mechanism for reinvesting the world with moral order. Under such a scheme, the will of God comes to have an extrinsic relationship to the world, which is rendered passive, neutral and dead (read: mechanical) in itself. It is through pious choices that meaning is brought to bear on the raw material of the world. But this means that order is ultimately derived voluntaristically rather than being inherent to creation by virtue of its original design.

In the mid to late twentieth-century there was a significant rejection of a spiritually neutral conception of creation through the recapitulation of a Kuyperian understanding of ‘worldview.’ Yet without a fully sacramental understanding of integration, this emphasis on worldview often amounts to little more than the imposition of ‘the Christian perspective’ on what is still conceived as the neutral and formless raw material of the world. Under such a scheme, in order for a topic of study or an area of life to fall under ‘the Christian perspective’, we must place something alien onto it rather than uncover the divine order already present.

In education this mentality often manifests itself in an instrumentalizing of the liberal arts, so that subjects of study are implicitly conceived to be ‘neutral’ in themselves and only become Christian to the degree that they foster pious choices or can be rendered useful in the attainment of pragmatic ends outside themselves. (See my article ‘More than Schooling: The Perils of Pragmatism in Christian Attitudes Toward the Liberal Arts.’)

Neutrality and the Problem of the Culture Wars

The spiritually neutral conception of the universe bequeathed to us by theological voluntarism is at the heart of the confusion Christians face when engaging in the, so called “culture wars.”

In 2002, David Schindler published an essay in Pro Ecclesia titled “Religion and Secularity in a Culture of Abstraction: On the Integrity of Space, Time, Matter and Motion.” In this outstanding essay Schindler pointed out that much of America’s “culture wars” hinge on precisely this view of nature as spiritually neutral in its primary condition. Both the Christian right and liberal secularism see the relation between God and the saeculum, or between the world and the cosmos, as an extrinsic relation, an addition to what nature already is in its first condition. The disagreement that constitutes the, so called, “culture wars” is simply whether such a relation is good or bad. What is almost entirely overlooked is the way both polarities hinge on what Schindler identified as “a secularity that has been given its original meaning in abstraction from God already [which] in principle conceives any relation to God as an arbitrary addition to itself.”

Schindler observed that the partitioning of the Creator from the world created the conceptual space for secularism to arise within the bosom of the church. Within Christian thought there emerged an implicitly nominalist orientation which shared in common with secularism “an abstraction from God in one’s original understanding of the cosmos.” Such an abstraction creates erroneous dichotomies “between will and intelligence and between God and the world—or between the monotheistic God of ‘natural’ reason and the Trinitarian God of faith—in our original understanding of the world.” There is thus “an intrinsic connection between a religion originally reduced by its dualistic reading of the relation between God and the secular and a secularity that is thereby itself originally reduced by virtue of the same dualism.” In this regard “religion and secularism in American, in their original ‘logic,’ grow from the same soil.” Schindler continued:

“This original secularizing’…remains hidden and appears harmless so long as a relation to God continues to be—arbitrarily—added to the secular, an addition which has been readily forthcoming throughout most of America’s history….

“However significant their differences in assessing our current cultural situation—and these differences are significant—religionists and secularists alike begin by accepting, albeit from different directions and however tacitly and unwittingly, the separation, or extrinsic relation, between God and the saeculum—the world or cosmos—that is a hallmark of American religion’s (Protestant and Catholic) original, and dominant, self-understanding. …what is most peculiar about America is the way in which its religion—and its liberal tradition—have from the beginning dissociated questions of will and morality from questions of intelligence and cosmic-ontological order; the way in which, accordingly, America’s moralized-voluntarized religion has persisted coincident with a secularized cosmic-intelligent order….

“Thus, regarding Americans’ proclivity for relating their secular or ‘worldly’ lives to God: the giving away of the orders of space and time and matter and motion to which I refer does not mean that Christians do not still see these realities as subject to a proper use: see them, that is, as instruments in and through which the will of God is to be faithfully executed. The relevant point, rather, is that his appeal to a (putative) moral or faithful use of things, in its conventional understanding, typically begs the set of questions we mean to be raising. It presupposes and reinforces just the voluntaristic piety we are insisting is the nub of the issue. A cosmos originally understood as “neutral” or “dead” stuff, hence as essentially blind and dumb until appropriated as an instrument of moral or pious choices, is a cosmos that is originally indifferent to God. And such a cosmos itself already and as a matter of principle manoeuvres piety—the pious use of the cosmos—into what now becomes mostly a moralistic—because precisely arbitrary—imposition on the cosmos. The point, in short, is that an appeal to the moral or pious use of the world, as conventionally understood in America, expresses just the defective conception of both holiness and secularity that… lies at the root of current difficulties….

 

 

Moral Order, and Wisdom (Nominalism 6)

This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.


Could God Have Been Incarnated As a Donkey?

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, Saint John declared in the opening of his Gospel. So far so good, but have you ever wondered if the Word could have become a donkey and dwelt among us? Or could the Word have been incarnate as a man and as a donkey at the same time?

This question is not as far-fetched as it sounds. In Stanley Grenz’s book The Named God and the Question of Being: A Trinitarian Theo-ontology, Grenz tells how the philosopher William of Ockham (1288-1347) declared that God might have come to earth an ox or donkey. Other medieval philosophers disagreed with Ockham, and the matter became one of intense dispute. According to accounts left to us by Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536), by the fifteenth-century scholastic theologians had moved on to trying to work out more subtle details such as whether God could have been nailed on the cross and sacrificed for our sins if he had been incarnated as a donkey.

This wasn’t just an abstract question for medieval philosophers with too much time on their hands. Rather, it was a question that penetrated to the heart of an entire way of understanding the world and God’s relation to it. For William of Ockham, it was important to emphasize that God has no attributes apart from His freedom to be free from all attributes. Concerned—not without some warrant—that the dominant scholasticism of his day was domesticating God, turning Him into a civilized Aristotelian, Ockham asserted that God’s saving will-acts must be unconditioned by any factors outside the Divine fiat, including the past history of God’s works. Indeed, Ockham insisted that God could even produce in human beings knowledge of a non-existent past if He wanted to, although he never went as far as some of his contemporaries (particularly John of Mirecourt, Gregory of Rimini, and Pierre d’Ailly) in suggesting that God could actually undo the past.

Ockham hoped to combat stagnant views of God’s freedom, yet as Timothy Nonne pointed out in his article on Ockham in A Companion to Philosophy in the Middle Ages, “in several texts in his Sentences commentaries, Ockham allows that God could command the opposite of practically any act currently contained under his ordered power. Ockham’s reasoning on such occasions is that God cannot be disallowed from doing what seems to involve no contradiction.”

Is Reality Radically Contingent?

What was lost within the framework of Ockhamist nominalism was any sense of a moral order rooted in the teleological directedness of creation. The raw command of God—unconditioned by any factors outside itself—becomes the only mechanism by which we can assert a static moral order, however arbitrary that order might ultimately be.

This understanding doesn’t exactly leave us with a random world in which anything might happen, where vices might become virtues and virtues might become vices, since Ockham made clear that once God had freely exercised the Absolute Power to create the world in a certain way, He will continue to act consistently in that way. However, this system did imply a world in which the moral and teleological order that we find in creation is radically contingent, derived only from God’s will acts. Accordingly, if God had wanted to, He could have commanded that adultery, theft and murder to be right, while He could have ordered kindness, self-sacrifice and love to be sinful.

The Normativity of God’s Nature

In the first article of this series I offered an alternative to this radically contingent view of reality. Following the realist vision articulated by Alister McGrath in his Scientific Theology: Volume 2: Reality and by Oliver O’Donovan in his Resurrection and Moral Order, I have suggested that God’s will is not the ultimate source of moral values; rather, the ultimate source of moral values is the nature of how reality is.

The obvious objection to this realist conception is that it seems to push God to the margins by giving us a standard more ultimate than God Himself. This objection fails when we recognize that God’s own eternal character is the source from which this rational ecosystem derives its meaning and legitimacy. Thus, when we recognize that falsehood is disordered according to the nature and final end of speech, this is because reality has its source in a God whose very nature is truth itself (John 14:6). The reason God could not have made adultery virtuous is because God’s will, like reality itself, is rooted in the unchanging constants of His Holy character.

If we were to express the problem in terms of the classic Euthyphro dilemma, we could say that it is false that an action is good purely because God wills it, while it is also false that God wills an action because it is good, at least where goodness is conceived as something external to God himself. This is because neither the goodness of an action nor the will of God are related to each other as efficient cause and effect: rather both are effects of the same common cause: God’s own nature. John Frame articulated this in his essay ‘Euthyphro, Hume, and the Biblical God’:

“God’s nature is righteous and therefore normative. God loves goodness because he is good, and therefore he commands goodness in his revelation to man. Therefore in one sense, God loves the good because it is good; the concept is not arbitrary. Yet he does not need to look outside himself for a standard of goodness. That standard is his own character….

Because God’s commands are supremely normative, the self-expression of God’s supremely normative nature, they entail normative conclusions….

Some commands in Scripture could have been otherwise; indeed, some are changed in the history of redemption, such as the command to bring animal sacrifices to the Lord. But the fundamental requirements of the law (what the Westminster Standards call ‘the moral law’) are as unchangeable as God Himself.”


Wisdom and the Is-ness of Creation

In the Apocryphal text The Wisdom of Solomon we read that “the whole creation in its kind was fashioned again from above to serve Your commands…” (19:6). Think about that for a minute: all of creation serves God’s commands. Whatever else this may mean, it points to a basic congruence between God’s commands and how creation is.

Moral order flows out of the is-ness of creation, not the arbitrary command of God. This order of creation, in turn, is rooted in the is-ness of God’s eternal character which remains prior to, and the basis of, God’s will-acts. Since creation is an expression of God’s nature, there is a natural ordering to reality that we can observe and make appeals to. The world is an ecosystem of teleological and moral order, and that order is deeper than merely the sub-total of all God’s commands in the aggregate.

Only with this understanding is it possible to fully appreciate the structural dimensions of sin. Sin is not simply an abandonment of isolated commandments; rather, sin as disorder; a turning away from the intrinsic telos of our human nature.

Of course, one has to be careful when making appeals to the natural ordering of reality. Because we are fallen, our reason and our senses are not always ordered towards their true ends. God’s revelation is indispensable in our moral reasoning, and the danger of a natural law approach is that one can begin to think that Biblical revelation is irrelevant or an optional add-on. But in fact, it is only through scripture that we know that reality is ordered towards the Trinitarian God in the first place, and it is through scripture that we are given full insight on the ends towards which the world is ordered.

Precisely because of this, the task to those who would grow wise is to meditate on God’s commands and discern the order to them, rather than just memorizing lists of rules. Indeed, throughout the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament, we are told that the wise man is one who meditates on God’s laws long enough to discern their internal logic, the patterns by which reality is ordered, the principles which undergird and interconnect God’s various commands. This is a central precondition to being able to fully delight in God’s laws (Ps. 1:2; 119:97) since without this deeper understanding we are unable to fully appreciate the fittingness of God’s laws within the context of creational order.

Getting God’s Commandments under the Skin

An analogy should make my meaning clear. When I was doing my undergraduate studies in music, I had a professor who could sit down at the piano and improvise in the style of any composer we might name. My classmates and I would shout “play Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary [or some other familiar tune] in the style of Bach” and he would proceed do it without even thinking. After a minute or two, we would say “switch to a Beethoven style” and he would effortlessly switch to sounding like Beethoven. We could continue through all the composers and each time he would improvise flawlessly in the appropriate style. There were two things that made this so amazing. The first was that this professor had never played these tunes before in that style: he was completely making it up on the spot. The second amazing thing was that he actually sounded just like the composer whose style he was imitating. How was he able to do this? The answer is simple: by becoming so thoroughly familiar with each composer’s music, he could sit down at the piano and almost ‘become’ them.

If we consider how a person develops this skill, it provides an analogy for how wisdom works. Suppose my goal is to be able to sit down at the piano and “think” like Chopin, to be able to take contemporary songs and improvise on them in Chopin’s style like my professor did. In order to reach this goal, I need to do more than simply memorize all of Chopin’s works, although that would certainly be a start. I would also need to meditate on Chopin’s works, to analyse the patterns within them, to listen to them constantly, to continually practice adapting Chopin’s style to new melodic contexts. If I did that long enough, eventually I would start to notice the internal grammar by which Chopin organized his musical ideas. By being cognisant in Chopin’s unique musical logic, I could then apply it to new contexts and take songs on the radio and arrange them—perhaps without even thinking—to sound like Chopin.

In a similar way, to grow in wisdom involves more than just memorizing raw commandments: we need to meditate on God’s commandments long enough to notice their internal grammar, their fittingness for this world, the principles that undergird and interconnect the vast array of commandments. We must allow God’s commandments to get “under our skin”, so to speak, in a way that can only be achieved through the application of those commandments in our lives (i.e., holy living). Only in such a way are we fully equipped to apply God-like thinking to new situations not directly covered by explicit commandments, even as my professor could take the style of Bach and apply it to new situations never touched upon by Bach himself.

When the author of Psalm 119 declares that God’s commandments have made him wiser than his enemies, and that by making God’s testimonies His meditations he has gained more understanding than all his teachers (119: 98-99), he means more than simply that he could win a game of trivial pursuit about God’s laws. He means that God’s laws have become part of his whole system of thought so that he begins to see the world through the lens of God’s commands. He has hidden God’s word in his heart (Psalm 119:11) like the musician in my example took Chopin’s music into his heart.

How to be a True Theologian

To be a theologian one must give extended loving reflection to God’s laws, like a musician aiming to know a certain composer’s music inside and out. But to achieve that type of depth of knowledge, the theologian must make God’s laws part of himself on every level: head, heart, hands and body. Hence, a true theologian must also be a mystic. The true theologian is the man whose life is devoted to contemplation, prayer and ascetic disciplines like fasting, almsgiving, prayer vigils and sacrificial love. In short, the true theologian is one whose life is devoted so completely to loving the Lord that the workings of his intellect proceed out of an entire life of spiritual devotion. That is why Saint Thomas Aquinas’s ‘16 Precepts for Acquiring Knowledge’  are almost entirely concerned with practical external matters, and only secondarily with what we might think of us intellectual concerns.

One of the benefits of prayerfully meditating on God’s commands within the context of a life of obedience, is that we begin to see the fittingness of His laws instead of viewing them as arbitrary impositions on a neutral world understood separately from the Trinitarian God revealed in Jesus Christ. We begin to appreciate how God’s laws are the natural correlates to the is-ness of Christian. As a consequence, we are better able to take what the Bible says in one area, and apply the principles to other areas not directly addressed in scripture. This is because we are no longer simply looking at raw commands, but appreciating the moral order reflected in God’s commandments. This is essentially the task of wisdom as it has been practiced by saints and Christian mystics throughout history.

Aquinas argued that there is a reciprocal relationship between knowing and loving. If you really love someone you want to know them, but the only way to really know someone is to love them. In this regard, it is no coincidence that scripture describes the nuptial union between husband and wife in terms of “knowing.” Similarly, to truly know God, one must love Him – not in the sentimental feeling-based way that we have come to associate with the word ‘love’, but the type of love expressed in doing what God has commanded.

To summarize, the true theologian is a student of how reality is, and the eternal patterns disclosed in the teleological and moral order of creation. However, in order to truly discern these patterns, the theologian must allow God’s commandments to soak into every fiber of his being through living out the reciprocal relationship that exists between Being, Loving, Knowing and Doing.

Food and Teleology (Nominalism IV)

This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I do is me: for that I came.

Í say móre: the just man justices;
Kéeps gráce: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—
Chríst—for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

The above poem is a masterful example of the way English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–1889) was able to write poetry which sounds like the things he is describing. (This is especially true if the poem is read out loud and properly accented.). In the poem Hopkins explored how each thing behaves according the nature it was given by God. Dwelling ‘indoors’ of each mortal thing is its essence that gives the thing an identity distinguished from other things.

The notion that there is a natural ordering to the stuff of our world has been the theme of this present series of Changepoint articles on nominalism vs. realism. In a previous article I explored the implication that the debate between realism and nominalism has for our understanding of human sexuality. In this article I would like to extend the discussion into the area of food.

Nominalism and Food

Since food is something that has always interested me, I wrote a series of articles last year about the theology of healthy eating. Although I was careful to frame my discussion in terms of wisdom, cultural reformation and aesthetics, predictably I had friends who interpreted my articles as a call for culinary Phariseeism, or who thought I was saying that being unhealthy is sinful. It reminded me of another conversation I once had where I had been arguing that diatonic music best reflects the nature of the Trinitarian God, and a friend thought I was saying that listening to pentatonic music must therefore be sinful.

Those two interchanges alerted me to an important point, which is that many Christians do not even have the categories to address questions about the right-ordering of nature independent to questions of sin. Because we are legalists at heart, we are quick to reduce everything to a moral issue before we know how to think about it. However, consider a question that a friend of mine will often bring up to his students. Is it sinful to put a cow in a chicken coup? Well, no. But is wise? Is it rightly ordered? Is it respecting the nature and inherent telos of a cow? No, no and no. God did not create cows to do chicken-type things, just as He did not create chickens to do the types of things that bees do.

You see, there is a whole realm inquiry that is prior to questions of sin, namely questions about what is most fitting according to the nature of a thing. To understand the nature of a thing, we must appreciate what is the end, or telos for which it was created, and then respect that end unless it interferes with the telos of something more important.

One of the reasons why it is hard for Christians to embrace a theology of food is because our nominalist presuppositions rob us of the categories with which to meaningfully talk about the telos of a thing (whether it be an animal or a human being), independent to questions about right and wrong. Thus, the only objective criteria many Christians recognize for making decisions in the area of food is sin-avoidance, and since sin is not a category that applies to food in the New Testament era, it is assumed that the only criteria we should recognize is personal subjective choice.

However, both producers and consumers of food would benefit from a strong dose of realist metaphysics. According to the right ordering of our nature as human beings, is it more fitting to eat stuff that was grown in the ground or produced in a laboratory? According to the right ordering of a cow, is it more fitting for a farmer to feed his cows grass or recycled animal products? According to the right ordering of a chicken, is it more fitting to treat them like bees and cram tens of thousands of them together in a barn?

Deferring to Nature

Farmers who wish to respect the natural order will defer to this inbuilt ordering wherever possible. They will not treat their chickens like bees just as they will not treat their bees like chickens. As the Christian farmer Joel Salatin has put it, we must respect the chicken-ness of the chicken, the cow-ness of the cow, the pig-ness of the pig, etc. Consumers who wish to respect the natural order of the world will attempt to factor in these considerations to their purchasing choices.

None of this means we are sinning to purchase factory farmed poultry or eggs, because these considerations are on a whole different plane than question of sin. Instead, it is about exercising wisdom in respecting nature and submitting to how the bodies of humans and animals were designed to operate. However, this is nonsense for nominalists, who do not even recognize that things have distinct natures.

For the nominalist, nature becomes what it is by virtue of the categories imposed on it from without. There is therefore no intrinsic teleology to food, and if someday scientists could make beef burgers out of petroleum which taste exactly the same, that would be just as fitting as making burgers from beef. This is actually a state of affairs that Douglas Wilson longs to see as a result of the gospel advancing throughout the earth. (See my article, Jesus and Junk Food: A Response to Douglas Wilson.’) After all (thinks the nominalist) what is food other than the arrangement and re-arrangement of chemicals and organic compounds which are infinitely malleable?

Recovering Right-Ordered Patterns

Nominalism has deep affinities with the postmodern moment, in which it is increasingly assumed that the essence of our nature is the freedom to redefine ourselves, and that the only fixity of our world is its potential for endless adaptability. However, reality is not infinitely malleable but exists in fixed forms and patterns. If we do violence to those patterns, we end up destroying ourselves and our world in either a spiritual or a physical sense, if not both.

Some of these fixed patterns, such as those which underlie Biblical sexual ethics, are necessarily rooted in God’s eternal character and therefore could not be different to what they are. Other patterns, such as those which make certain foods objectively better than others, emerge contingently from the imaginative way God chose to create the world. In both cases, however, there is a natural order rooted in the inherent telos of things.

As food and health have been increasingly abstracted from teleology, the result is that health has become a matter of negation in popular discourse. It is associated with what we can’t do, with the prohibitions, dieting and legalism. This has shifted the emphasis of health away from its more historical context as wholeness. As Wendell Berry pointed out in a section of his book The Unsettling at America: Culture and Agriculture,

“The concept of health is rooted in the concept of wholeness. To be healthy is to be whole. The word health belongs to a family of words, a listing of which will suggest how far the consideration of health must carry us: heal, whole, wholesome, hale, hallow, holy. And so it is possible to give a definition to health that is positive and far more elaborate than that given to it by most medical doctors and the officers of public health. . . .”

Of course, the concept of wholeness presupposes that there are fixed goals towards which our bodies may strive—goals rooted in the right ordering of nature. As simple as this seems, it is a point I have had to debate more than once when having discussions with Christians who were uncomfortable operating within teleological categories. When we consider the pervasive influence of nominalism, however, this discomfort should come as no surprise. For a nominalist, the natural order of creation, as represented in the biological realities of our experience as embodied beings, counts for very little. Reality becomes infinitely malleable, and we are left without the categories to assert that wholesome eating habits, like wholesome farming habits, should even be normative. More devastatingly, however, we cannot even understand man’s place in the universe. This was impressed upon me in 2009 when my friend Brad Littlejohn shared a quotation from Oliver O’Donovan’s book Resurrection and Moral Order. O’Donovan explains how the nominalist abstraction from teleology creates dangerous misunderstandings about man’s place in the world. Since O’Donovan explains things much more eloquently than I ever could, I will end with his wonderful words:

Abstraction from teleology creates a dangerous misunderstanding of the place of man in the universe. For it supposes that the observing mind encounters an inert creation–not, that is, a creation without movement, but a creation without a point to its movement. Thus the mind credits to its own conceptual creativity that teleological order which is, despite everything, necessary to life. All ordering becomes deliberative ordering, and scientific observation, failing as it does to report the given teleological order within nature, becomes the servant of techne. Of course, man continues to eat vegetables; but he no longer knows that he does so because vegetables are food, and comes to imagine that he has devised a use for them as food. And so he looks for other uses for them, which will seem to him to have as much validity as that one which was, if he could only have remembered it, given in nature. That vegetables exist as food for other animals than himself will not impress him–unless, of course, the continued existence of other animals too falls within his deliberative purposes for the world, in which case both vegetation and animal life will continue to hold their value as a feoff from himself. Thus arises the irony of our own days, in which the very protection of nature has to be argued in terms of man’s ‘interest’ in preserving his ‘environment’. Such a philosophy offers no stable protection against the exploitation of nature by man, since he can discern nothing in the relations of things to command his respect. And, of course, this unprincipled domination must extend itself to include his own psychosomatic nature, all that is not itself the devising mind, so that humanity itself dissolves in the polarization of the technological will and its raw material. Man’s monarchy over nature can be healthy only if he recognizes it as something itself given in the nature of things, and therefore limited by the nature of things. For if it were true that he imposed his rule upon nature from without, then there would be no limit to it. It would have been from the beginning a crude struggle to stamp an inert and formless nature with the insignia of his will. Such has been the philosophy bred by a scientism liberated from the discipline of Christian metaphysics. It is not what the Psalmist meant by the dominion of man, which was a worshipping and respectful sovereignty, a glad responsibility for the natural order which he both discerned and loved.

For further insight into this topic read Robin’s earlier articles in this series on nominalism. Also consider purchasing Oliver O’Donovan’s book Resurrection and Moral Order from our online store. Finally, be sure to check out Robin’s series of articles ‘A Theology of Health.’

Sex and the Ockhamist Revolution (Nominalism III)

This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.

In two previous articles I gave the historical background to nominalism, a school of thought that came to receive widespread acceptance in Europe on the eve of the Protestant reformation. In opposition to the Aristotelian/Thomistic synthesis, which asserted that God’s will for the world corresponds to the nature of how reality actually is, William of Ockham and other medieval nominalists asserted that there is no independent rational order guiding God’s decisions.

Ockham was not even comfortable acknowledging that God’s own character formed the basis of His will-acts. Indeed, for God to be totally ultimate, Ockham taught, His decisions must be unconstrained by any criteria whatsoever. Ockham’s God was thus capricious, arbitrary and unpredictable.

This nominalist revolution had a profound effect on how late-medieval Europeans perceived the world. The universe ceased to be conceived in the way we find in Dante—a harmony of patterns, fitting together in a glorious dance-like ecosystem—since nominalism implied that there are no inherent patterns to the world apart from those which emerge accidentally through the aggregate of God’s pedestrian will-acts. God’s commands are not based on what is best for a thing according to its nature, because things no longer possessed natures after Ockham’s razor shaved off universals. Nominalists thus evacuated all teleology from the universe, leaving only the names and concepts imposed on it from outside. (Teleology refers to an account of reality in which final causes exist in nature, so that just as human actions are performed with a purpose or final end in view, so things within nature have a final cause which defines the good of each particular thing.)

If you haven’t read my earlier articles on this subject, it would be good to do so before proceeding.

Nominalism Today

There is a sense in which the influence of nominalism in contemporary culture is ubiquitous, since the nominalist revolution greatly contributed to the advent of secular modernity. At least that is what many scholars, including those associated with the ‘radical orthodoxy’ movement, have convincingly argued. But my purpose in this series of articles is less ambitious than trying to offer an account of the origins of modern secularism. I simply wish to zero-in on a few practical areas where the thinking of contemporary Christians has been tinctured by the poison of nominalism.

In doing so, I am giving attention to we might call ‘implicit theology’ or ‘the social imaginary’—the background understandings by which we make sense of our world and which are not always explicitly articulated. That is, I am trying consider how non-Biblical presuppositions form a lens through which we imagine our world on an instinctive and unconscious level without even realizing it. Another way to make the same point would be to say that I am describing is a type of operational or functional nominalism that may tincture the thinking of those who have never heard of William of Ockham.

This article will look at how this implicit or functional nominalism influences contemporary approaches to sex, while a follow-up article will look at the effect of nominalism on food.

Nominalism and Sexual Order

Nominalism tinctures the unconscious assumptions of many contemporary Christians when it comes to sex. It does so to the extent that we see the sexual prohibitions given in the Bible as mere laws extrinsic to the right ordering of our nature as human beings, or even in opposition to what might otherwise be fitting for our lives as fulfilled people.

Think back to 1998 when President Clinton finally admitted to having a sexual relationship with his intern Monica Lewinsky. A true Pharisee, Clinton defended himself by saying that he had researched the subject in the Bible and came to the conclusion that oral sex was not adultery. Despite the fact that Clinton’s antinomian interpretation of scripture was technically false, what interested me was that this approach treated the Bible’s sexual ethics as mere prohibitions that must be kept to the letter of the law rather than commands which provide insight into the very nature of what it means to love and to function as a right-ordered human beings. For if we understand God’s laws in the latter and broader sense, then it is no longer a simply a question of learning how to navigate around the do’s and don’ts of scripture, but also a question of embracing the ends or goals for which those commands were originally given.

It was easy enough for the evangelical community to see through Clinton’s reductionistic approach to sexual ethics. What is not so easy is to recognize some of the ways his nominalist mentality tinctures our own thinking. For the nominalist, there can never be any question of a right-ordered nature that stands antecedent to, and the reason for, God’s commands; we simply need to know what the rules are and to keep them.

When this nominalist mentality has captured our thinking on a pre-cognitive level, then when we are tempted by lust or pornography, our imagination may instinctively feel that the object of these temptations is fitting for us according to our nature even though it is not morally permissible, or that it represents a laudable telos towards which we would like to strive if only it wasn’t sinful. All this can happen in a flash, and if the person is a Christian he will turn away from the object of temptation because of God’s commandment. Yet this turning away is made more difficult by the fact that, on a gut-level, he still believes that the thing he is turning away from is something that might have provided happiness if only it were allowable.

The important qualifier in the last sentence is the ‘if’ since a nominalist can always imagine that our ethical obligations might have been different to what they are. His heart can always have the last word since he can think, ‘there goes the life that might have been, there goes a happiness I might have pursued if it weren’t for the inconvenience of God’s commands.’ On an unconscious level, we may begin to feel like a pastor of a California church once said to me: “If God had wanted to, he could have made adultery a virtue and He could have made marital faithfulness a vice; He could have made stealing right and honesty wrong. But He simply chose not to.”

Realism and Sex

By contrast, a realist worldview acknowledges that God couldn’t have done things differently. According to the very nature of how reality simply is (based, ultimately, in the character of the Triune God), love could not look any different to how it looks in a world regulated by the sexual ethics of the Bible. While there are a range of things God could have done differently as He accommodates His commands to human sinfulness or to various times and places (for example, the application of sexual ethics of the Old Testament are not parallel to those in the New Testament even though the basic principles are the same), there are certain fixed moral boundaries that could not be otherwise in any possible world.

Just as God could not have created a world in which two plus two equals nine (assuming we are doing mathematics in base ten) since logic is an attribute of His eternal character, so He could not have created a world where actions like adultery, fornication and sexual exploitation are virtuous. This is not because there are standards outside of God to which He must conform; rather, it is because He is Himself is the standard from which Biblical ethics derive their normativity. Once we understand this, we can appreciate that Biblical ethics are not only virtuous, they are fitting and proper according to the ordering of reality.

The Devilish Imagination

Ever since the serpent tempted Eve in the garden, the devil has tried to entice us to reimagine our world different to how it is. In enticing us to feel that God’s commandments pull against the right ordering of our nature, the devil is able to infect us with the lie that our long-term happiness is somehow at odds with our short-term obligations. At some level, all sexual sin has its root in this devilish way of reimagining our world.

Nominalist presuppositions make it easier for the devil to tempt us with these false pictures since nominalism denies the inherent rationality and naturalness of God’s commands, reducing them to mere will-acts that might have been otherwise.

Once again, the sexual ethics of the Bible are not arbitrary will-acts on the part of God which end up preventing our happiness. God does not simply name lust, fornication and adultery to be disordered; rather, these things actually are disordered according to the necessary and inevitable nature of reality. This reality is antecedent to God’s commands and the reason for it, not the other way round.

One of the reasons we know this is true is because scripture frequently situates its discussion of sexual ethics in this broader context. Especially in the Book of Proverbs we see that God’s commands derive from what is fitting for us according to our nature. The Bible leaves no room for the type of reductionistic legalism towards which nominalism strives, since it shows that God’s laws are not mere arbitrary will-acts, but are anchored in the inbuilt telos of our nature.

Unmaking Human Nature

This perspective sheds a new light on the admonitions found throughout the Bible regarding sexual sin leading to destruction. It’s easy to think that the destruction promised to unrepentant sinners has an extrinsic relationship to the sin itself, as if God has simply determined that such people must go to hell. However, the reality is that the sexual sin has a more natural and organic connection to its consequences.

The natural end of a human being is to function as God’s image-bearer, and in so doing to glorify and enjoy Him forever. Because of this, when we turn away from the God in whose image we are made to follow sexual lusts, we simultaneously turn away from all that makes us truly human. In feeding off a wrongly ordered humanity, sexual sin is organically connected to our destruction in the way that tiredness is organically connected to staying up all night, or being thirsty comes as the natural consequence of going all day without a drink. Sexual sin leads to destruction because it unmakes our nature, just as a refusal to drink water leads to physical death because it unmakes our bodies.

Or think of it like this. The natural end of a seed is an adult plant, but if I repeatedly try to use a seed to function as a hammer, then the seed will be destroyed and will be prevented from realizing its proper telos. In the same way, because sexual sin turns us away from the patterns of how our humanity is rightly ordered, it ushers us into a condition of unreality, like someone trying to use a seed to bang nails into the wall. Because of how reality is, this can only bring destruction.

Abstraction from Teleology

I’d like to close by sharing an anecdote from earlier today which usefully illustrates the pervasiveness of nominalist presuppositions.

This morning a good Christian friend sent me an email asking me what I thought about husbands and wives incorporating “sodomite practices” into their sex lives. After a subsequent email clarified what kind of sex practices my friend had in mind, I told him that the basic problem was that he was thinking of sexuality in a way abstracted from teleology. In my friend’s thinking, the various possible ways of ordering our sex lives had become deliberate ordering, as if our job is to devise uses for our bodies rather than to simply submit to the patterns which God has already built into our nature.

The basic problem, once again, was that a subliminal nominalism had made a foothold. Within the nominalist template, the natural order of creation, as represented in the biological realities of our experience as men and women, counts for very little. Reality becomes infinitely malleable, and we are left without the categories to assert that natural sexual practices are even natural.

For further insight into this topic read Robin’s earlier articles in this series, ‘Aquinas, Ockham and the Power of Ideas (Nominalism 1)’ and ‘The Ockham Revolution (Nominalism 2).’ Also read John Frame’s ethical insights in his article ‘Euthyphro, Hume, and the Biblical God.