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Religion Library: Protestantism


Written by: Ted Vial

Nominalism was a strand of medieval philosophy in the tradition of (but also critical of) the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas and his scholastic contemporaries had taught that one could perceive essences in individual objects. A chair, for example, was a chair by virtue of the fact that it possessed "Chairness." Unlike Aquinas, nominalists did not believe that one could perceive essences in individual objects. The most famous nominalist was William Ockham. His principle, known as "Ockham's razor," was that, all things being equal, the simplest explanation was the best explanation. So, human minds create the category of "chair" by lumping together similar objects and giving them a label (this is why it is called "nominalism"). Ockham can account for the knowledge of chairs with two things, humans minds and individual objects, and not a third thing, the essence of Chairness.

One major consequence of nominalism was that Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin did not think that one could know anything about God by looking at the world. Although God created the world, human minds did not have access to divine essences in the world that would teach them about God. The only genuine knowledge of God came from what God chose to reveal in scripture. Scripture tells humans that they were created by God, had become sinners and thus alienated from God, and could be reconciled through God's forgiveness. The combination of humanism and nominalism created an environment in which many in Europe were ready to follow the reformers when they claimed that the sole authority for Church belief and practice was the Bible.

Study Questions:
1.     Describe the relationship between technology and Protestantism.
2.     Who were Wycliffe and Hus? How did they influence Luther?
3.     What is Renaissance Humanism? How did it help to reshape theological authority?
4.     How did Humanism combine with Nominalism? What was the end result?


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