Natural law vs. nominalism

Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon, an Orthodox priest, gives a lucid explanation of the difference between “natural law” and “nominalism” when it comes to moral philosophy.  He does so in a way that makes it nearly impossible to believe that Luther was a nominalist, as he is often accused of being.  Fr. Reardon also goes on to criticize his fellow Orthodox who believe that since church weddings are sacramental, the world outside may conduct marriage any way it pleases.

From Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon, The Danger of Disregarding Natural Law in Orthodox Christian Theology | Preachers Institute.

Popular morality in current American culture is heavily in debt to both the Nominalism of the Late Middle Ages and the Voluntarism of the Enlightenment. Since I regard this debt as deplorable, it might be good to begin with a brief explanation of these terms.

According to the Nominalism of the Late Middle Ages, our concepts are the creations of our thought. Following this theory, we take information derived from our senses, and we use this data to give coherent form to those abstractions known as “ideas.” That is to say, “truth” is a creation of our thinking processes. We share the common “names” (nomina) of things, but not the very truth to which the names refer.

This theory of knowledge forms the basis of Enlightenment Voluntarism. According to this moral school, the human will (voluntas) creates moral norms, rather much as the human intellect creates abstract concepts. Moral reasoning serves a commitment of the will, and moral norms are validated by moral choices. The moral law is based on a moral decision.

Apart from this decision there is no moral law, just as there is no “truth” transcendent to human conceptions of it. The only “moral principle” is an act of decision. All ethics are chosen ethics. There are no abiding moral norms that are really—in re— “out there.” There is nothing “existent” that can dictate precepts to the conscience.

The thought of Kierkegaard comes to mind here. Although faith and morality are different things for Kierkegaard, both rest on personal choice, and neither is based on a rational perception.

Ethical theories of this sort are attractive to certain kinds of Christians. I am thinking of those believers for whom-in moral terms-the guiding principle is simply, “I have decided to follow Jesus.” My “following,” that is to say, depends utterly on my “deciding.” If I have made no decision with respect to Jesus, then there is no imperative for me to follow him. I am free as a bird.

Is there really—in rebus—no universal moral law, however? Are Christians so different from other people that they share no moral principles or moral perceptions?

[Keep reading. . . ]

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.


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