The Almost Completely Unknown Difference that Makes All the Difference (between Christians and Culture and between Christians and Christians)
We talk endlessly about differences among Christians: Catholic versus Protestant, Calvinist versus Arminian, liberal versus conservative, neo-fundamentalist versus postconservative, premillennial versus amillennial, pedobaptist versus credobaptist—to name just a few of our favorite divisions.
But over the past few years I have become convinced there’s one deeper difference that is largely unrecognized and runs deeper than all those others. Yet, to the best of my knowledge, among Protestants, at least, it is rarely spoken about. We certainly don’t divide over it. Yet it does divide us without our knowing it. We don’t know it because it’s so seemingly subtle, it sounds esoteric. Whenever I bring it up eyes glaze over and people act as if it’s a drug that immediately causes mental confusion. Yet, it’s not really all that difficult to understand.
Before the dawn of modernity nominalism was hardly known or ever discussed except in the most rarified circles of scholastic philosophy and theology. Only as it became more widely discussed did people begin to realize Christians had always been something else—“realists.” Now, suddenly, beginning sometime in the high middle ages but increasingly with modernity, there was an alternative.
Luther adopted it, probably because, to him, anyway, it seemed like an antidote to Catholic scholastic theology with its emphasis on natural, rational theology which he deemed inimical to faith. If the nominalist philosophers (such as his own teacher Gabriel Biel) were right, we are thrown completely upon faith for knowing God truly. For Luther, nominalism kept God transcendent and human reason in its rightful place—incapable of reaching God and making him its prisoner.
Lutheran theology, however, did not soak in Luther’s nominalism. Rather, nominalism crept into culture mostly through the Enlightenment. And it was sucked up and taken into its DNA by America—as by no other culture or society. Inconsistently, of course, because “Americanism” is believed by most Americans to be an essence, a universal, which hardly fits with nominalism!
American nominalism is, of course, vulgarized nominalism. Classical, philosophical nominalism is bad enough. American nominalism is downright poisonous to truth, beauty and goodness and therefore to culture and religion.
Nominalism, of course, is the belief that truth, beauty and goodness are nothing more than concepts, conventional ideas, constructs. They have no ontological reality. They are not eternal essences or universals; such do not exist. Taken to theology, then, one gets voluntarism in the doctrine of God. God does not have an eternal nature of character; he is pure power and will. God is whatever God decides to be. The result is that the “good” is whatever God commands and God does not command anything because it is good. It is good only because God commands it.
Voluntarism, in the form of the “deus absconditus” (hidden God), was a metaphysical compliment Luther paid to God. He thought this protected God’s deity. This idea was taken up by certain Reformed theologians and appears throughout post-Reformation history when some Calvinists (and others) claim that “Whatever God does is automatically good and right just because God does it.”
This makes God truly monstrous because God, then, has no virtuous character. “Good” becomes whatever God decides and does and, ultimately, becomes meaningless because it has no essential connection with anything we know as “the good.”
So far I’ve blamed Luther for injecting nominalism/voluntarism into Protestant theology (while acknowledging that Lutheran theology is not per se nominalist). But just as guilty is Zwingli who adamantly asserted that God can do whatever he wills and there is no reason for what he wills other than he wills it.
This is the underlying problem in the “young, restless, Reformed” movement. It isn’t just their Calvinism; it’s their nominalistic voluntarism in their doctrine of God. This God could simply change his mind and decide that salvation is by works and not by grace. His faithfulness becomes a thin thread of moment-by-moment decision to stand by his promises, but nothing internal to God governs him so that faithfulness is what he is.
The word “trust” in “trust God,” then takes on two very radically different meanings. To the nominalist/voluntarist it means “hope God decides to keep his promises.” Nothing makes that certain. God has no eternal character that keeps him from breaking his promises. If he decided to, then that would be good because “good” is whatever God decides and does. To the realist “trust” means “confidence that God cannot break his promises” because God is goodness itself and cannot lie or contradict himself or go against his word.
But I fear that this nominalism has soaked into our theological DNA as well as our cultural one. It shows up in so many different ways. Radical individualism in churches. Churchless Christianity. Christianity made up to fit individuals’ “needs.”
Conservative Calvinist Christians are particularly good at pointing out the symptoms of nominalism in secular society and in churches (although they don’t always recognize the disease causing them). But they’re not always as good at recognizing nominalism in their own thinking.
To be sure, not all Calvinists are nominalists, but my experience is that many of them suddenly become nominalists/voluntarists when pushed to explain in what sense God is good in light of his decree to NOT save many people he COULD save because salvation is totally his own decision and accomplishment apart from any cooperation by creatures. The answer is usually “Well, whatever God does is good just because God does it.” That’s sheer nominalism/voluntarism and it empties God of any stable, enduring, eternal character such that he could, if he chose to, change his mind and decide not to save anyone. And it empties the word “good” of any meaning. It is simply whatever God does, period.
Nominalism is, in my opinion, the ultimate theological error. I won’t call it heresy (although the Catholic Church does and for good reasons). But I will say it goes against the grain of Christian thought about God and reality for nearly fifteen hundred years (before nominalism appeared and came to prominence in European philosophy and then in the Reformation and Enlightenment). It may not be heresy, but it leads to an emptying out of meaning in key Christian concepts. Of course, not everyone follows the logic of nominalism to its conclusions. But, over time, nominalism is like a disease that spreads out and kills culture and Christianity. Not immediately, not even soon, but eventually. Most Christians under its influence simply choose, inconsistently, not to follow its logic all the way. But it still has its pernicious effects here and there in their thinking.
The only way to avoid sheer relativism in a nominalistic cultural atmosphere is with divine command ethics. “Evil is what God says no to.” But the question remains and lingers and inquiring minds want to know “Why?” Why does God say no to, say, lying? Is there something instrinsically wrong, bad, harmful about lying or does God just not like it for whatever reason or none at all?
Logos theology says that there is a link, an intrinsic connection between God’s character and right and wrong in the world. And between God’s truth and ours. “All truth is God’s truth.” Reason, healed by grace, reaches upwards to God by the light of revelation and faith, and is capable of grasping, to some extent, the truth, beauty and goodness of God embedded in creation. Sure, because of our finitude and fallenness, we will never, at least in this world, have a full or perfect grasp of them. And our grasp of them will never be autonomous. We need revelation and faith, the “light of the mind” that Augustine talked about, illumination and wisdom from God. But there’s no arbitrariness in truth, beauty and goodness, not even in God himself. They are embedded in him, his eternal nature, and shine forth into his creation. Christian philosophy seeks them out and, by God’s grace, can grasp them at least partially.
We are all, I fear, to some extent, brainwashed by nominalism. It is so much a part of American cultural DNA that we can only resist it by recognizing it and struggling against it. That is, I think, one of the primary purposes of good Christian education—Christian schools of every kind and at every level. To un-brainwash Christian young people from nominalistic influences that flood their minds from the media and folk culture. It’s not about learning a set of rules to reason by. It’s about seeing reality differently—the way premoderns saw it—as flooded with the grandeur of God’s truth, beauty and goodness. And it is about seeing ourselves differently—the way premoderns saw themselves—as creatures made in God’s own image capable by the light of God’s grace of knowing universals and discovering truth, beauty and goodness (not creating them as in so much modern culture).