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The Error of Nominalism

Carl Olson
  • God could have redeemed us by becoming a donkey.
  • God justifies man, but man remains as sinful inwardly as before.
  • Words have no meaning but are merely text.

What do these statements have in common? Apparently little: The first was the belief of a fourteenth-century Franciscan theologian. The second captures the heart of classical Protestant soteriology. The last is the essential position of postmodern deconstructionists.

Yet the common intellectual source of the three statements is one of the most powerful ideas that nobody talks about. It is an idea that has had a deep influence on Western thought and has helped shape Christian theology and Western thought for six hundred years. That idea is nominalism. If there was ever a poster child for the remark that “ideas have consequences,” it is nominalism.

What are universals?

In 1948, Richard M. Weaver (1910–1963), a professor of English at the University of Chicago, published Ideas Have Consequences. Decrying the modern assault on language and objective truth, Weaver laid the blame for such attacks at the foot of William of Ockham (c. 1285–1347). The English Franciscan, Weaver wrote, “propounded the fateful doctrine of nominalism, which denies that universals have a real existence. His triumph tended to leave universal terms mere names serving our convenience.”

It may sound like a lot of ivory tower irrelevance, but the denial of universals has had deadly consequences in our society. So what are these “universals”?

Whereas St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–74) had taught that man can know the true, objective essence of things, Ockham denied it was possible. As Benjamin Wiker observed in Moral Darwinism (InterVarsity, 2002), Ockham believed that “when we use the word dog there is really no universal entity, essence, or dog-ness that we perceive. Dog is merely a name we apply to particular things that happen to look alike. Hence, the name of his system, nominalism, for the Latin nomen, ‘name.’”

In other words, nominalism is a philosophical system claiming that everything outside the mind is completely individual: Reality cannot be comprehended through the use of universal and abstract concepts but only through the empirical study of specific, individual objects. Historian and Benedictine monk David Knowles, in The Evolution of Medieval Thought, wrote that nominalism holds that “there is no such thing as a universal, and it is nonsense to speak of the thing known as present in an intelligible form in the mind of the knower.”

Yes, it’s a complex idea—but the consequences are very real. By denying that there is any basis in reality for universals that every human mind can g.asp, nominalism moved knowledge away from objectivity and toward subjectivity and prepared the way for further radical propositions in the realms of theology and morality.

It makes sense: If God’s acts do not possess a logical, objective nature—as Ockham and his disciples taught—then they are merely the result of a groundless divine will unconcerned with what humans call “reason” or “logic.” If that is the case, obviously man cannot use his reason or logic to determine what is just or unjust. Natural law, then, is simply nonsense.

Ockham went so far as to say that the Incarnation had value only to the extent God gave it value; God could have redeemed mankind just as easily by becoming a stone, tree, or donkey. If there is no common, or universal, human nature, the Incarnation was not so much about the Logos taking on human nature as it was about God working as he wishes, in a manner unrelated to any sort of logic or reason.

Because of the arbitrary nature of reality, man cannot know the essential nature of sin and grace. Thus, he has no way of knowing his state before God—outside of intuition and inner experience. Besides, nominalism insisted, God can declare sin and grace to exist within man at the same time, regardless of man’s worthiness.

Apparently, Ockham was motivated by what he thought was proper humility before God’s greatness. He viewed Thomistic realism (and its respect for Aristotelian logic) as an arrogant approach that claimed to understand God in a systematic and supercilious fashion. Unfortunately, however good his intentions were, Ockham set the foundation for some of the most powerful and mistaken ideas of the Protestant revolt.

Mystery destroyed

Heiko A. Oberman, a leading Luther scholar (and admirer), admitted in Luther: Man between God and the Devil that “Martin Luther was a nominalist; there is no doubt about that.” Rev. Louis Bouyer, a former Lutheran pastor and theologian, stated in The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism that this connection to Ockham’s nominalism is the key to the “negative elements” of the Reformation:

No phrase reveals so clearly the hidden evil that was to spoil the fruit of the Reformation than Luther’s saying that Ockham was the only scholastic who was any good. The truth is that Luther, brought up on his system, was never able to think outside the framework it imposed, while this, it is only too evident, makes the mystery that lies at the root of Christian teaching either inconceivable or absurd.

That “mystery” is divinization: the Catholic doctrine that God’s grace—his supernatural life—can infuse man and heal his wounded nature, especially through the sacraments. This belief was abhorrent to Luther, who believed such communion between God and man impossible, even b.asphemous. Justification, Luther taught, was not an inner change but a juridical or forensic reality, outward only and imputed by Christ. The justified man is still as sinful as before, but he is “cloaked” in Christ’s righteousness.

Total depravity

Neither Luther nor John Calvin could conceive of man as somehow sharing in God’s divine nature, because man, in their estimation, was totally depraved and incapable of any good. The nominalism of Ockham and his disciples congealed in the teachings of these Protestant fathers, resulting in a skewed understanding of God and his relationship with man.

“What, in fact, is the essential characteristic of Ockham’s thought, and of nominalism in general,” Bouyer asked, “but a radical empiricism, reducing all being to what is perceived, which empties out, with the idea of substance, all possibility of real relations between beings, as well as the stable subsistence of any of them, and ends by denying to the real any intelligibility, conceiving God himself only as a Protean figure impossible to apprehend?”

The nominalist fragmentation between substance and nature became the cornerstone for two principles of classical Protestant theology: total depravity and sola fide.

Man, being totally depraved, lacks any free will and the ability to know what is right. For Luther, looking through nominalist-colored lenses, grace was a quality external to man and therefore unknowable in any objective way. Grace is God’s divine favor and belongs to God alone. Luther believed that if God did infuse man with his divine life, then God would be joined to man and obligated to him in a manner incompatible with his sovereignty and omnipotence. Man can have no part in grace except in an outward manner—imputed righteousness—in which no real communication of the divine life occurs.

So sola fide—faith alone—became the means of salvation because faith, for the Protestant fathers, is an inner quality, knowable through experience and intuition; it is not a sharing in God’s divine life.

“Similarly, and as radically,” wrote Bouyer, “it follows that grace, to remain such, that is the pure gift of God—must always be absolutely extrinsic to us; also, faith, to remain ours, so as not to fall into that externalism that would deprive man of all that is real in religion, must remain shut up within us.”

Radical individualism

This prepared the way for the radical individualism—what French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain called “the advent of the self”—that became a distinguishing feature of Protestantism. In the moral realm this radical separation of faith and grace meant a severing of the moral act from its actual value. If God can impose any value he desires upon a moral act arbitrarily, then it follows that man’s actions cannot possess any objective value relating to grace or the meriting of eternal life. Protestant theologian Alister McGrath summarized the Reformers’ view in his volume on justification, Iustitia Dei(Cambridge University Press, 1998):

There is a fundamental discontinuity between the moral value of an act—i.e., the act, considered in itself—and the meritorious value of an act—i.e., the value that God chooses to impose upon the act. Moral virtue imposes no obligation upon God, and where such obligation may be conceded, it exists as the purely contingent outcome of a prior uncoerced divine decision.

Calvin systematized this discontinuity by basing his Institutes of the Christian Religion around the central theological theme of predestination. Calvin made it clear that God can be sovereign only if man is nothing, that is, totally depraved and lacking any free will.

It has been said that for the Protestant fathers justification was the article of faith upon which the Church either “stand or falls.” But their denial of free will is actually the key article of faith, as it informed their position on justification as well as that of Scripture, Church authority, and the sacraments. Without free will, man’s moral actions mean nothing, so justification becomes a legal fiction, not a lifetime of growth in God’s divine life.

The Reformer from Geneva also took up Ockham’s view of the Incarnation, as McGrath noted in A Life of John Calvin (Cambridge: Basil Blackwell, 1990). Calvin “makes it clear that the basis of Christ’s merit is not located in Christ’s offering of himself,” McGrath wrote, “but in the divine decision to accept such an offering as of sufficient merit for the redemption of mankind (which corresponds to the voluntarist [nominalist] approach). For Calvin, ‘apart from God’s good pleasure, Christ could not merit anything’ [Institutes, II.xvii.i-iv].” McGrath also noted that “Calvin’s continuity appears to be with the late medieval voluntarist tradition, deriving from Ockham of Ockham and Gregory of Rimini.”

The crucial break between each moral act (known by revelation) and its meritorious value (unknown and reliant on God’s arbitrary will) is evident. So Calvin taught a distinct break between justification and sanctification. The former is external, imputed, and eternal; the latter is internal and pertains to salvation as an evidence only shown by good works, a sign of perseverance, which the truly predestined saint will possess. Believers can know they are saved by the signs of their works, all the while knowing that those works possess little, if any, actual value in the eyes of God.

Seeds of skepticism

Like a stream growing as it flows from a mountain into a valley, nominalism has helped shape modernity’s view of God, man, and reality. Ockham’s focus on empirical knowledge played a vital role in Luther and Calvin looking inwardly in search of faith. But it was not long before Enlightenment thinkers would cast aside the tenuous reality of self-enclosed faith and begin searching for data and evidence in a new way.

Instead of looking to the detached and unknowable God of nominalism, intellectuals and theologians began looking to the immediate, concrete world around them. After all, if God does not want to have communion with man but only desires to show his sovereignty, what keeps man from turning his back on God and demonstrating his own power and autonomy? While God, for the Protestant fathers, is free from any obligation to man, in the Enlightenment era man became equally autonomous, free from any obligation to God and his natural law.

What the Protestant revolt and later modernity had in common was that a subjective, individualistic view of reality turned into the essential basis of knowledge. The difference was in the object of focus. The Reformers looked to God, relying on intuitive, subjective experience. Later thinkers, relying on their own intuitive experiences, concluded that man is autonomous and God is unnecessary. The former resulted in Lutheranism, Calvinism and a host of splintering groups. The latter resulted in all sorts of nasty “isms”: empiricism, positivism, moral relativism, and deconstructionism.

Summarized, the move toward subjective and intuitive knowledge, opposed to abstract and universal knowledge, led to increasingly radical philosophical propositions. G. W. F. Hegel, Immanuel Kant, and Karl Marx pushed the envelope of nominalist-indebted thought. German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) wrote, “There are no facts, only interpretations”—a sentiment echoed in the common contemporary refrain: “There is no truth, only opinions.”

In the twentieth century, Jacques Derrida’s work in deconstruction—which asserts that truth cannot be known and words lack real meaning—was a type of hyper-nominalism. Derrida’s famous statement that “there is nothing outside the text” was a denial that words refer to a reality beyond them.

Like a constantly mutating virus, nominalism lives on. Yes, ideas do have consequences. And bad ideas, no matter how well-intentioned, have bad consequences.

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