A Much Neglected Basic Choice in Theology

A Much Neglected Basic Choice in Theology December 26, 2010

Many evangelicals (and others) like to claim that their whole theology comes from the Bible, but there is at least one belief about God that every thinking person holds that is not at all directly addressed in Scripture.  And what one believes about this matters very much to much else in one’s thinking about God.  I sometimes wonder if this is really the underlying issue that gives rise to seemingly intractable debates about divine sovereignty.  It comes out clearly in Luther’s debate with Erasmus, but seems to be obscured in later debates between high Calvinists (and other deterministic versions of Reformed theology) and Arminians (and other synergists such as Anabaptists).

Recently someone posted a message here saying (I paraphrase) “God can do whatever he jolly well pleases.”  That’s a nice, colloquial expression of what philosophers of religion and theologians call “voluntarism.”  (Of course, like most good philosophical and theological words it has various meanings, but here I mean a particular one so hold–don’t assume anything yet.)  The roots and contours of philosophical-theological voluntarism are much debated by intellectual historians.  Some think it first appears in Christian intellectual history with Abelard; others date it back to William of Ockham and yet others think Duns Scotus is its first real formulator.  But there can be little doubt that Luther and Zwingli believed in it and simply assumed it as the correct view of God’s sovereignty.

Voluntarism is usually considered nominalism’s expression regarding God’s being and will.  Nominalism is a family of views that arose sometime during the Middle Ages in Europe.  Again, scholars trace it back to either Abelard or Ockham or Scotus.  It has many different expressions, but all have in common belief that universals such as “truth,” “beauty” and “goodness” are concepts or terms and have no ontological status.  The more traditional view, simply assumed by the medieval Catholic church, is usually labeled “realism.”  (Again, “realism” has many meanings and uses in intellectual history; here it is being used in this technical sense of the opposite of nominalism with regard to the status of universals.)  Realism says that universals are more than merely terms or concepts; they have some kind of ontological status–“beingness,” if you will.  They exist outside of any creatures’ mind.  (Whether they exist outside God’s mind is an argument among realists; strict Platonists would probably say they do while most Christians would agree with Augustine they do not.)

Voluntarism is the belief that God is not controlled or even guided in his decisions and actions by any eternal, structured nature.  Even God does not have a nature as such.  To a voluntarist, God is an eternal being of sheer power and freedom and is not limited by any eternal character.  (Most voluntarists would agree, however, that God is limited by logic.  Even Ockham thought so, although Luther did not seem to think so–at least in his debate with Erasmus.)

A non-voluntarist (theological realist) believes God has an eternal, immutable character that controls or at least guides his decisions and actions.  This was clearly assumed by (to the best of my knowledge) all the church fathers (including especially Augustine) and medieval theologians at least up to Abelard.  What Aquinas thought about this matter is much debated, but most scholars think he was a theological realist.

C. S. Lewis was a passionate advocate of theological realism who despised nominalism and voluntarism and traced most, if not all, maladies of modern thought (philosophical and theological) back to them.  His little book The Abolition of Man is a sustained polemic against nominalism.  Lewis put the litmus test question this way: Are things good because God says they are or does God say they are good because they are?”  A nominalist-voluntarist says things are good because God says they are.  A realist, non-voluntarist says God says things are good because they are.

Another way of putting the difference is this: a realist, non-voluntarist believes God has an eternal, immutable nature that is absolutely, purely good and even goodness itself and even God cannot violate that.  Even God cannot use his omnipotence and freedom of choice to do things that are evil (against his own goodness).  A nominalist-voluntarist says that God has no such limiting character and that whatever God decides to do is automatically good just because God decides to do it.

The clearest expression of nominalism-voluntarism that I have run across is Ulrich Zwingli who, in his book On Providence, argues again and again that whatever God does is good and that he cannot be held accountable to any law.  (And he clearly does not mean any merely human law; he means any law whatsoever.)  This can be found as well in Luther’s diatribe against Erasmus regarding freedom of the will.

In fact, when I read the Luther-Erasmus debate I have the feeling they are like two ships passing in the night.  They are not even communicating.  And the reason is that each one is assuming something totally different regarding God’s nature and sovereignty.  Erasmus, being a realist, non-voluntarist, believes God cannot do that which is evil.  And he believes that our best human ideas of good and evil are not totally incommensurable with God’s.  Luther, being a nominalist-voluntarist, believes God can do absolutely anything and that it is always wrong to say that “God cannot….”  (Whether Luther believed God can do that which is logically contradictory is not clear.)

When someone says “God can do whatever he jolly well pleases” I’m reminded of Luther and Zwingli.  Hearing that affirmed, they would be shouting “Amen!”  Erasmus and Arminius and others among both Catholics and Protestants would be shouting “No!”–meaning God can only do that which is consistent with his own nature (Barth).

Am I suggesting that all Calvinists have been and are nominalists-voluntarists?  Or that Arminians must be realists and non-voluntarists?  Not necessarily.  However, it seems to me that the debate between Calvinists and Arminians about God’s sovereignty often echoes older, more basic debates about whether God has an eternal, immutable nature or not.  Sometimes Calvin sounded like a voluntarist (like Zwingli) and other times he sounded like a non-voluntarist.  Scholars have lined up on both sides about whether he was one or the other.

Perhaps debates between Calvinists and Arminians could be clarified if the debaters would make clear their commitments about God’s nature.  I know I have much more in common and therefore more room for agreement and therefore meaningful discussion with a Calvinist who is clear about his or her realist/non-voluntarist commitments than with one who is either unclear about that or who is a committed nominalist/voluntarist.

This seems to me to be another one of those watershed issues in theology where the Bible isn’t as much help as we’d like it to be.  Perhaps the decision about being either a nominalist or realist takes place prior to interpretations of texts.  How, then, would one decide which to line up with?  Probably by considering the consequences of each and deciding with which set of consequences one can live.  For example, if God has no eternal, immutable character that controls or at least guides his decisions and if God can do absolutely anything without limit (except perhaps logic), why not believe that God could, and therefore might, renege on his promises?  Can such a God be trusted?

The fundamental issue, it seems to me, comes back to the meaningfulness of a statement like “God is a good God.”  Every Christian that I know affirms this.  But the statement would seem to mean something entirely different to a nominalist/voluntarist than to a realist/non-voluntarist.  To the former it can only mean either that absolute power such as God possesses is good or that whatever God does is automatically good or both.  To the latter it means that there exists in God himself a moral structure that prohibits even God from doing certain things–such as lying.

The issue of how we might know what “God’s goodness” means is a secondary issue to the primary one I’ve described above.  But a realist/non-voluntarist will argue that a nominalist/voluntarist cannot meaningfully know what it means except that whatever God does is good.  Then, of course, there is no connection between God’s goodness and the very best of goodness in our experience except God’s commands.  But God’s commands tell us nothing about God’s own being or nature.

I am often inclined to think that Calvinist-Arminian debates that get nowhere except a shouting match have much to do with this fundamental philosophical difference.  Of course, both sides think Scripture is on their side, but Scripture itself nowhere actually addresses the question as it is posed here.  Both nominalists and realists can read and interpret “God is love” as consistent with their view.  But when a Calvinist says that God’s “love” is different from our love and means qualitatively different and not merely quantitatively different I suspect he or she is showing nominalist-voluntarist colors whether he or she is aware of that or not.  Then I suspect we are using entirely different language games, so to speak.  I’m not sure, then, that we can even communicate meaningfully because while we are using the same words we don’t mean the same by them at all.

I am sometimes tempted to think that this is THE most basic difference between Christians–whether God has an eternal, immutable character that guides, if not controls, his decisions and actions or not.  C. S. Lewis thought it was the watershed issue in culture generally and attributed most, if not all, the ills of modern, Western culture (the “abolition of man”) to the influence of nominalism.

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