The Almost Completely Unknown Difference that Makes All the Difference….

The Almost Completely Unknown Difference that Makes All the Difference…. December 17, 2012

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.

Our modern, American culture is imbued with nominalism. Listen to the maxims: “Beauty is only in the eye of the beholder;” “You have your truth and I have mine;” “The most important thing is be true to yourself,” etc., etc. For the most part, truth, beauty and goodness have been relativized and individualized. No wonder our society is in a mess!

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).

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  • Bev Mitchell

    Beautiful! It does seem to come down to power/control or love/freedom. The latter is surely messy, but real. The former may be neat and tidy but…… nominal.

    Your essay spurred me to see what the OED has on “nominal” . Of course, many quotes compare nominal and real. Vulgaria highlights the obvious diversity, Tyndale apparently saw the two approaches as still leaving their respective proponents with their own unsolved problems. But I like the Dunbar quote best for its great humour. It’s very good that God loves us all.

    1519 W. Horman Vulgaria viii. f. 93, The wey of the nomynallys and reals is dyuers.

    1528 Tyndale Obed. Christen Man f. xviijv, One is a reall, a nother a nominall. What wonderfull dreames have they of their predicamentes, vniversales, [etc.].

    1788 in E. D. Dunbar Soc. Life (1865) I. 392 Nominal prayers for the King are to be authoritatively introduced.

  • M. 85

    Brilliant article Dr. Olson!! I think you’ve put your finger on one of the major problems that plague evangelical christians: unthinking, conscience searing, stone hearted nominalism that people mistake for “faith”. The results of nominalism are always bad and can be seen very clearly in church history. But i think the biggest problem with nominalism is that one can’t be a true nominalist and worship and enjoy God in any real way (at least in this life) because one can’t appreciate goodness, love or beauty: there’s no connection between what we consider good, loving and beautiful and who God is in nominalism. For me nominalism seems to create a kind of gnostic dualism between the God who created us and who gave us our inner sense of what is good, loving and beautiful and the “God” of the New Testament who seems to go against that, whereas i believe Jesus Christ is the Creator God of Genesis chapters 1-2 .

  • John Mark

    Thank you for this post. I need to soak in it a while. [You write so simply most of the time that it is easy to forget what a fine mind you have.]

  • Rob

    Wouldn’t all Christians ultimately affirm realist positions when considering the heart of the gospel? Don’t we all believe that humanity as it is, as we find it, falls short of what it should be? There is no way to understand that without bringing in real natures or essences. To accept that we are fallen and that Christ perfects us is to accept that there is a real and robust human nature/telos.
    Of course, there are those Christians who tell a gospel story about “how a God without wrath welcomed a humanity without sin into a kingdom without judgment through a Christ without a cross”

    • rogereolson

      I like the way you changed “man” in the Niebuhr quote to “humanity.” I think most Christians who are nominalists are inconsistent. Is there such a thing as “human nature?” Or are there just “humans?” The latter view would seem to lead to a denial of original sin. But, of course, many liberal-leaning Christians deny original sin except as society’s negative influences on individuals. I think it’s very difficult to be a consistent nominalist, but my point is that nominalism, like a virus, infects and corrupts parts of culture and the churches. And it spreads and leads eventually to further declensions from classic Christianity.

  • Tim Reisdorf

    Hi Roger,
    I’m one who has not thought this through to the end and I don’t know all the consequences of my nominalistic tendencies, so I hope you have some patience with my questions?
    How can you call God monstrous if He always chooses the good – even if He is able to do otherwise? (Wasn’t Jesus’ temptation authentic?) Having a virtuous character is nothing ontological, it is all behavior IMO. One is good because one does good. In the same way, we can say that God is love because God acts in loving ways.
    Like you, I don’t like the idea that notions of goodness or truth are changeable at God’s whim, yet I also react against the idea that these are straightjackets that constrain an otherwise free God. How is it that we humans have more options for behavior in front of us to really choose, yet God’s path is determined by a standard outside Himself? Neither make sense to me.
    In what sense is Beauty (et al) ontological? It is not a thing, and it does not exist in a proper sense (like a rock or monkey or piece of cheese). It is an idea, maybe an idea that transcends other common ideas. But how is it that it was elevated to a status that God would be beholden to it? Did God create it or did it exist uncreated with God from eternity past (with wisdom)?

    • rogereolson

      In brief, lacking time to go into great depth about this, Augustine was right (and has been generally followed by realist Christians) that truth, beauty and goodness exist in the mind of God. They are patterns in God’s mind; not “things” that exist outside of God and bind him. Also, from a realist perspective, true freedom is not being able to do evil but being what one was meant to be. See my article on freedom in Christianity Today (I believe it was in the October issue).

      • Tim Reisdorf

        Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions, Roger. Yes, I did read the CT article that you wrote. Because of that, I intentionally avoided the term “freedom” and instead used “options” instead. I can understand how one would not like to think of Truth, Beauty (etc) being external to God and binding Him, but even if they are internal to him (patterns in His mind) I don’t understand how He would be bound any less. My question remains, Was the temptation of Jesus authentic or was nothing risked in the Incarnation? Was God instructed by the pattern in His mind to flood the world, then to later repent of the same act? How can God reveal Himself in a way that makes Himself unpredictable and seemingly open to any whim He might have (“I will be whom I will be”) and still be strictly governed by these principles?

        • rogereolson

          I don’t say God is “strictly governed” by truth, beauty and goodness. God isn’t a machine or even a computer. But God has character. There are many things he can do other than he does and still be acting out of his inner nature and character. They don’t control him except to cause him only to want to do (and actually do) things compatible with them.

  • I agree and disagree. First I have argued recently that the way that we avoid facing God’s solidarity with the people we have stepped on is to invent a God whose concerns are abstracted from human flourishing, who makes rules “because I said so” and not “because I love you.” I just wrote a piece wondering if God’s wrath should be viewed as solidarity rather than a response to the abstract violation of his honor: But the way I narrate the problem is through the “univocity of being” of Duns Scotus. When God becomes the “first creature” within our universe rather than the Creative foundation of our universe, then God’s concerns become abstracted from His love for creation.

    I’m not sure you’re being fair to write this: “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.'” Most Calvinists I know even with high voluntarist theologies are obsessed with God’s covenants. Wouldn’t the nominalist argue that under realism God has to submit to the rules of an abstract order and isn’t free to be as merciful as He wants to be to humanity? I’m very confused by the history of nominalism, but I could see someone adopting a nominalist position for the reasons that you advocate adopting a realist position.

    I’m really glad you’re bringing out these things into conversation and I recognize that the confusion is probably mine.

    • rogereolson

      A Christian realist (like Augustine or C. S. Lewis) doesn’t regard truth, beauty and goodness as “rules of an abstract order” but as aspects of God’s own being. God is goodness itself. It seems to me that a nominalist believer in God’s covenantal relationship with humanity would have to consider it possible for God to break his covenants. After all, there is nothing like an eternal character that governs what God can and cannot do. Only a realist view of God can believe confidently that God will keep his covenantal promises.

  • Prof. Olson, Thank you, thank you, and thank you. Finally, someone has clearly articulated the problem. I only know personally one person who moved away from extreme Calvinism, and it was because he realized the fatal flaw of the voluntarist presupposition. Hopefully, more people will read this important contribution of yours and be similarly changed. Merry Christmas and God bless you.

    • rogereolson

      And the same to you, Bruce. I would love to write a book about this issue (the infection of nominalism in church and society), but it is so highly abstract that I doubt anyone who needs to read it would read it. And the scholars would pounce on it because there is so much discussion and debate about the meanings of “nominalism.” I’m not particularly invested in the philosophical debates about the term or its history or whether (for example) Ockham was really a nominalist. But the reviewers would be. I keep trying to imagine such a book and I keep coming to obstacles. But I doubt there is any single issue I consider more important in terms of Christians and culture. This one underlies most of the others. I have come to conclude, after 30 years of teaching theology, that often the reason students have trouble understanding what I’m saying (about Christian doctrines) is because they are brainwashed to be nominalists and I resist it and strive to be consistently realist (about universals and the nature of God, the two natures of Christ, original sin, etc.). For example, I teach that “sin” is not part of the definition of “human.” But most students, until led to think otherwise, think it must be because all humans are sinners. Then I play the “Jesus card”: Jesus was human but not a sinner. Until they can begin to think as realists instead of nominalists they usually struggle with thinking Jesus was truly human.

      • “For example, I teach that ‘sin’ is not part of the definition of “human.” But most students, until led to think otherwise, think it must be because all humans are sinners. Then I play the ‘Jesus card’: Jesus was human but not a sinner. Until they can begin to think as realists instead of nominalists they usually struggle with thinking Jesus was truly human.” I wonder if this is why some kind of original sin doctrine is important to affirm: that sin is not innate even though it seems like a default. Of course, forensic original sin is abominable (it’s your fault what Adam did) and actually not at all what Augustine really teaches.

  • Good article. I little realized the grand scope of nominalism, realism, and idealism. I would be interested in a follow up to: Idealism. And on Postmodernism is relation to all three ideas.

    Different Subject, Same Idea: It seems to me that 2 forms of “relational theism” are in place. One that is the synthetic position between classic theism and process theism. To wit, relational theism’s response to CT would modify God’s otherness/transcedence to His relatedness/nearness to us. In response to PT, relational theism rejects all forms of panentheism. Plus, I think, relational theism wishes to speak more concretely of Jesus and not of a God who is simply thought of in process terms as a Spiritual Being on a pervasively religious scale to all the religions of the world. (Which in a sense is correct but then dilutes the gospel of God in Jesus).

    The other form of of “relational theism” is found in its more pedestrian form called “relational theology” that understands God (and ourselves) through relational terms. We understand truth, beauty, goodness b/c we are relational beings created in the image of a Relational Being. To deny these is to deny “relatedness” and its communion with God as well as each other. Consequently, relational theology seems to defeat nominalism, and restore the vagaries of nominalistic relativism back to its place of thought.

    Given this, is this an acceptable way to restore realism through “relational theism?” Is there a better, postmodern sense than this? Or is this a form of Idealism? Thanks!

    • rogereolson

      I heartily endorse what you are calling relational theism. I don’t see “realism” (as the alternative to nominalism) as an alternative idealism. “Realism” has several meanings in philosophy and theology. In sense I mean it, as belief that truth, beauty and goodness are ontological and not merely conventional, it is compatible with idealism (belief that mind is ontologically prior to matter or that thought and being are intrinsically related ontologically). But an idealist might also be a nominalist. So these words must be carefully defined.

  • Timothy

    I am way out of my depth here but I will try and ask sensible questions.
    Nominalism, according to Wikipedia, had its origins in the 11th century with Roscellinus. His philosophy was rejected and it does seem to have led to tritheism. To what extent is nominalism a one way street towards tritheism? Or was it just Roscellinus?
    MacIntyre, I think, traces the virus as it emerged in the West to William of Ockham, which might imply that the nominalism as we have it does not go back as far as Roscellinus. As you say, Biel was an influence on Luther and Ockham was certainly an influence on Biel.
    But where does Scotus fit into this? His voluntarism seems closer to the Calvinism you object to?
    As far as I can see, Ockham was opposed to Aquinas (or their followers were). Is a Thomist tradition more in line with what you would see as properly Christian? I have heard that Zwingli might be seen as the Reformed movement as it emerged from Thomism while Lutheranism as the Reformed movement as it emerged from Biel (and thus Ockham and nominalism). Yet you see Zwingli as as bad as Luther.

    Also the YRR movement might sometimes seem to be nominalist but would they not argue that it is not that God is capricious, that He acts independently of His character, but that His character is imperfectly known. Thus they would repudiate nominalism and actually espouse a kind of agnosticism.

    • rogereolson

      Those are many and deep questions. I think the roots of nominalism go back at least to Abelard, but I don’t think most people have been or are consistently nominalist. I think it would be extremely difficult to be that and believe in ethical absolutes. Scotus was a voluntarist with regard to the doctrine of God but not a thoroughgoing nominalist. It is possible to be a voluntarist in the doctrine of God without being a nominalist. But nominalism leads to voluntarism. You are no doubt right about many in the YRR movement, but, my experience is, many of them will appeal to “Whatever God does is automatically good and right” when pushed to explain in what sense God is “good” in light of the horrible decree.

  • K Gray

    From a layperson’s view: the logical steps I’m not getting are “nominalism leads to volunarism”; voluntarists don’t believe in God’s real and essential unchanging character; and whomever says “whatever God does is good and right” are often voluntarists. Those don’t all seem to follow….?Could it not be simpler that the statement of belief “whatever God does is good and right” mayevidence faith in God’s real, essential and unchanging goodness, and recognition that His ways are not fully revealed to us?

    • rogereolson

      True, it’s not easy to detect voluntarism without deeper questioning. There is no clear litmus test for it unless someone says right out “I do not believe God has an eternal, unchanging moral character; he does whatever he wants to without any internal moral guidance mechanism, and whatever he does is automatically ‘good’ and ‘right’ just because God does it.” I believe I have read some commenters here (all of the Calvinists defending the “goodness of God” in light of Calvin’s “horrible decree”) say pretty much that. I suspect that most Christians who say such things are not consistent all of the time; in another context, where they are not feeling pushed to defend God’s goodness in light of double predestination, they may actually say they believe in God’s eternal, unchanging moral character. But my problem (or another one) is when people say that God’s “goodness” is not fully revealed to us (to use your language). Who can say that in light of God’s personal presence in history in Jesus Christ? If Jesus isn’t the full revelation of God’s character, what is he?

  • I remember I first encountered this listening to R. C. Sproul, and though it was absolutely ludicrous. The idea that good is only good because God wanted it to be good means that good has no influence over God. There is literally nothing which prevents Him from being capricious. (I use the term ‘good’ here metanymously)

    And this is different than the idea that goodness is derived from God’s character. To say that we only truly understand goodness, or other qualities, when we look at the face of God is different than saying that good is whatever God says it is. With the former, goodness is defined by His nature; with the latter it is defined by His choice. A very different scenario.

  • Craig Wright

    This is fascinating and relevant, but I want to make sure I am understanding the concept. When I ask fellow church members if it is ever right to kill a baby, they usually say, “No.” Then when I ask if it was right for God to command the slaughter of babies in the OT, the reply is usually, “Well, it is right if God said it.”
    I would like to understand if this is nominalism, and also how do you deal with this predicament in the OT.

    • rogereolson

      I’ve discussed the “predicament” much here before and I can testify it’s dangerous ground to tread on among evangelicals! I won’t go further into that particular issue right now. Let me just recommend the book Show Them No Mercy: 4 Views on God and Canaanite Genocide (Zondervan) and especially the first chapter by C. S. Cowles. I suspect most Christians are inconsistently nominalist/voluntarist. That is, if you push one particular button (question) their answer is voluntarist; if you push a different one their answer is not (it is realist). I think even Calvin was inconsistent. Some of the time he seemed voluntaristic with respect to God and other times he seemed to operate as a realist. I’m pushing for Christians to be consistently anti-nominalist/voluntarist, that is, consistently realist in their understanding of God and whether God has an eternal, unchanging moral character that governs what he can and cannot do. The moment I say such things, however (pushing a particular button), most Christians (in my experience) will say “We must not limit God!” It’s like putting coins into a vending machine and pushing a button. How many of them have ever thought about what that means? It’s a cliche and often, I fear, an expression of latent nominalism/voluntarism. As soon as I say “Can God commit suicide?” they say “No, of course, not.” Are then, then, things God cannot do? “Yes, like that.” Then aren’t you limiting God? My point isn’t to be a nuisance (although they often think so) but to get them to think about sayings like “We must not limit God.” Of course, must not. In fact, we can’t! But is God not “limited” by his nature and character? Well, perhaps “limited” isn’t the right word. But isn’t God governed by his nature and character? I hope so. Otherwise, in my opinion, he is arbitrary.

      • Andy

        Another book for my Amazon Wish List. Thanks. And thank you for taking the time to write this website. I look forward to the new postings and comments and am amazed at your prolific writing.

  • Fred Karlson

    Great post! I especially like how you brought in the sense of justice between God and man, surely something Arminius was very aware of. If God chose the elect apart from anything in them and/or apart from the response of His creature made in His image, then this would not be just as determined by humans. Such a view of voluntarist God seems foreign! The entire balance of God’s unconditional love with a justice requiring a proper human response to that love must be part of what the psalmist had to say in Psalm 85:10 “Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.”

  • Mikael Stenhammar

    Thought provoking!
    Thanks for taking time to write and keep this blog. It is very helpful.

  • Bev Mitchell

    And in addition to love, goodness, truth etc., God is also holy. I guess nominalism/voluntarism would say holiness is up for grabs as well. And what about life? “Jesus answered, I am the way, the truth and the life.” John 14:6. Does this mean we don’t even really know what life is, or worse, that God can redefine it at any moment?

    The specific questions that this discussion has brought up are fascinating, and, as you warn, land mines in certain company. If we are not vigilant, we can drift in and out of nominalism – sort of like when you wake up some mornings but aren’t really awake. The lack of clarity in those moments can be quite startling.

    Thanks for the reminder to be vigilant and to think clearly and, above all, consistently.

  • Quartermaster

    Nominalism is something I noticed among Calvinists many years ago. I had no idea there was a term for it, so I felt around for something to call it. A very informative post.

  • Lee Majors

    A very good book for those new to this subject is, Good God The Theistic Foundations Of Morality by David Baggett and Jerry L. Walls

    • rogereolson

      I suspect I’ll enjoy reading anything by Jerry Walls.

  • John D

    Excellent! – thanks.

    Pope Benedict’s Regensburg Lecture “Faith, Reason and the University
    Memories and Reflections” is largely a criticism of Voluntarism. He even criticizes various Catholic saints who supported a voluntarist view of God.

    One footnote in that lecture, quoting an emperor who linked violence with Islam, resulted in some Muslims becoming lethally violent – a satirist could not have made that up!

    In that lecture, Pope Benedict also challenges the classical Islamic view of Allah, which is a voluntarist one – although not all Muslims take a voluntarist view. Benedict asks if a Muslim takes a voluntarist view of God then Allah could command idolatry and a Muslim would be morally required to do this.

    My personal argument against voluntarism is this. Suppose you thought that God was commanding you to kill all prostitutes in your town as the serial killer, Peter Sutcliffe, did. Repeated prayer etc. confirmed this apparent command. What should you do?

    I would like to think I would seek psychiatric help or even wonder if these were Satanic ‘revelations’. I could only seek medical or spiritual help IF I assumed that the command was not from God BECAUSE it was was objectively evil. A voluntarist view would compel me to become a serial killer.

  • gingoro

    This is from fatherstephen’s, an Eastern Orthodox priest, blog:

    The following quote is taken from a letter by Mother Thekla (sometime Abbess of the Monastery of the Assumption in Normanby, England) to a young man who was entering the Orthodox faith. Some of her comments drew my attention.
    Are you prepared, in all humility, to understand that you will never, in this life, know beyond Faith; that Faith means accepting the Truth without proof? Faith and knowledge are the ultimate contradiction –and the ultimate absorption into each other. Living Orthodoxy is based on paradox, which is carried on into worship – private or public. We know because we believe and we believe because we know.
    Above all, are you prepared to accept all things as from God?

    To me at least it sounds rather like the high deterministic Calvinists so maybe you should be criticizing them as well.

    • rogereolson

      Eastern Orthodoxy is another culture. I don’t claim to understand it. I’m fascinated by it. It’s kind of like vacationing in a foreign country. “I love to visit but I wouldn’t want to live there.” I might be more critical of it if I were in it. My criticism of Calvinism arises largely from it’s influential presence in my own context.

  • gingoro

    Not a comment on this post but something I would like to see you deal with sometime.

    Roger Although I do not hold the Arminian position I can quite well see how it is a valid alternative reading of scripture. In contrast as I see it the Pelagian reading of scripture is heretical although not strong heresy. You often criticize us Calvinists over the doctrine of irresistible grace as not showing God’s justice in a good light.

    Let me divide mankind into three groups:
    1) Christians
    2) Those who hear the Christian message and reject it (ignoring any issues of predestination or free will)
    3) Those who never hear the Christian message and thus are lost as far as we know.

    While one might think that Arminianism has a better answer to group 2 above it seems to me that Calvinism and Arminianism have the same or similar issues with group 3? Is there something that I don’t understand in the Arminian position that mitigates issues with group 3? Privately I think of this problem as the allness issue based upon Christ’s saying “and I if I am lifted up will draw all mankind to me”. I reject the interpretation that all means only all types, races… of mankind.

    • rogereolson

      It’s been a while since I dealt with this issue. I have affirmed inclusivism without claiming to know how God’s prevenient grace reaches those who never hear the gospel. Wesley and most of his followers have thought God is an equal opportunity Savior by making prevenient grace universal. I tend to lean in the direction of believing that God limited himself to using human means to spread the gospel. But I can’t be sure of that. All I can be sure of, because it’s scriptural, is that IF the unevangelized remain unevangelized it is our fault and not God’s.

  • B. P. Burnett

    Dr Olson, precisely everything you have said in this post I agree with. Theological voluntarism strikes me as incredibly blasphemous, and therefore I become extremely angry at any hint of it. Angry, Dr Olson! It makes me mad! To think that God almighty could do whatever he wanted to, such that whatever he says he will do he might not in fact do, and to think that is perfectly fine…? No. That is unacceptable. God is much too perfect for that kind of hollow ambiguity and fickleness.

    • Roger Olson

      I do believe that whatever God wants to do he can do. That’s not theological voluntarism. As a theological realist I believe God cannot even want to do what is inconsistent with his eternal character.

      • B. P. Burnett

        Oh I mean the same; I was just talking in the moral realm — that God could, say, promise, but not fulfil, and that be good.

  • Tea Pot

    “The carnal mind is enmity against God.” And the carnal mind thinks it knows what the word “omnipotent” means. But even the carnal mind can postulate the eminently reasonable question, “Can God make a rock so big that He cannot lift it?” And I think you’re arguing here that the answer is, This is precisely what He did. When (or before?) he made this world of polarities, He established Justice with it. He sent His Word .,, His Law … His Promises. He bound Himself with oaths. And I have a feeling the KJV had this mystery right in its translation of the controversial Psalm 138:2 : “I will worship toward thy
    holy temple, and praise thy name for thy lovingkindness and for thy
    truth: for thou hast magnified thy word above all thy name.”

    • Roger Olson

      Sorry. I don’t see how any of that helps rescue theological voluntarism from making God and all his laws and commands arbitrary (and God unknowable).

  • Tea Pot

    I came on this concept a month or two ago, just thinking and praying and reading, and like you, I had no idea there was a term, or a history of the idea’s insidious entrance into Christian thinking. But it hit me all at once, I felt from God … that this is the bitter root. I had thought about it a few years ago, before thinking about Calvinism, this question of “does God do things because they’re good, or are they good just because God does them”? At that time I saw no relation to Calvinism, and couldn’t make up my mind which of these two positions were better. It was lazy thinking, inasmuch as I dropped the question without pursuing it, although it may be the most important question we have in knowing His character and His heart! Thank you Lord for bringing me back to this question. Thank you Calvinism / determinism for making these contrasts stand out so starkly, and showing ugliness for it utter ugliness! And thank you Roger Olson for this very educational post.

  • hispanglican

    Hi Dr. Olson,
    In my studying of Classical Theism I came to understand the very point you draw out in this article. I realized that the undercurrent of Theological Voluntarism, that actually precedes the Reformation period, was to blame for much of the debates that arose in both Roman Catholic (Thomist/Molinist) and Protestant (Melancthonian/Armininan) traditions. The real issue can be restated as Theological Intellectualism VS Voluntarism. By not placing this point on the table we can spend an eternity arguing about whose definition of Soverignty “sounds” more “sovereign”. Many Arminian proposals regarding God, Forenowledge, and Election still verge on Voluntaristic reasoning about God without recognizing it. I am sympathetic with much of it as it aims to think about God in non-deterministic ways, but I am ultimately unconvinced by much of it as well. I am an Arminian who decidedly affirms Theological Intellectualism insofar as it is understood in the context of analogical reasoning and predication of God. I view Arminius’ strong affirmations of God’s sovereign relation to the world, cautious use of Middle Knowledge, and affirmation of moral freedom as the requisite of duty/culpability as indicative the something similar. Thanks for the great post Dr. Olson.