This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.
In two previous articles I gave the historical background to nominalism, a school of thought that came to receive widespread acceptance in Europe on the eve of the Protestant reformation. In opposition to the Aristotelian/Thomistic synthesis, which asserted that God’s will for the world corresponds to the nature of how reality actually is, William of Ockham and other medieval nominalists asserted that there is no independent rational order guiding God’s decisions.
Ockham was not even comfortable acknowledging that God’s own character formed the basis of His will-acts. Indeed, for God to be totally ultimate, Ockham taught, His decisions must be unconstrained by any criteria whatsoever. Ockham’s God was thus capricious, arbitrary and unpredictable.
This nominalist revolution had a profound effect on how late-medieval Europeans perceived the world. The universe ceased to be conceived in the way we find in Dante—a harmony of patterns, fitting together in a glorious dance-like ecosystem—since nominalism implied that there are no inherent patterns to the world apart from those which emerge accidentally through the aggregate of God’s pedestrian will-acts. God’s commands are not based on what is best for a thing according to its nature, because things no longer possessed natures after Ockham’s razor shaved off universals. Nominalists thus evacuated all teleology from the universe, leaving only the names and concepts imposed on it from outside. (Teleology refers to an account of reality in which final causes exist in nature, so that just as human actions are performed with a purpose or final end in view, so things within nature have a final cause which defines the good of each particular thing.)
If you haven’t read my earlier articles on this subject, it would be good to do so before proceeding.
There is a sense in which the influence of nominalism in contemporary culture is ubiquitous, since the nominalist revolution greatly contributed to the advent of secular modernity. At least that is what many scholars, including those associated with the ‘radical orthodoxy’ movement, have convincingly argued. But my purpose in this series of articles is less ambitious than trying to offer an account of the origins of modern secularism. I simply wish to zero-in on a few practical areas where the thinking of contemporary Christians has been tinctured by the poison of nominalism.
In doing so, I am giving attention to we might call ‘implicit theology’ or ‘the social imaginary’—the background understandings by which we make sense of our world and which are not always explicitly articulated. That is, I am trying consider how non-Biblical presuppositions form a lens through which we imagine our world on an instinctive and unconscious level without even realizing it. Another way to make the same point would be to say that I am describing is a type of operational or functional nominalism that may tincture the thinking of those who have never heard of William of Ockham.
This article will look at how this implicit or functional nominalism influences contemporary approaches to sex, while a follow-up article will look at the effect of nominalism on food.
Nominalism and Sexual Order
Nominalism tinctures the unconscious assumptions of many contemporary Christians when it comes to sex. It does so to the extent that we see the sexual prohibitions given in the Bible as mere laws extrinsic to the right ordering of our nature as human beings, or even in opposition to what might otherwise be fitting for our lives as fulfilled people.
Think back to 1998 when President Clinton finally admitted to having a sexual relationship with his intern Monica Lewinsky. A true Pharisee, Clinton defended himself by saying that he had researched the subject in the Bible and came to the conclusion that oral sex was not adultery. Despite the fact that Clinton’s antinomian interpretation of scripture was technically false, what interested me was that this approach treated the Bible’s sexual ethics as mere prohibitions that must be kept to the letter of the law rather than commands which provide insight into the very nature of what it means to love and to function as a right-ordered human beings. For if we understand God’s laws in the latter and broader sense, then it is no longer a simply a question of learning how to navigate around the do’s and don’ts of scripture, but also a question of embracing the ends or goals for which those commands were originally given.
It was easy enough for the evangelical community to see through Clinton’s reductionistic approach to sexual ethics. What is not so easy is to recognize some of the ways his nominalist mentality tinctures our own thinking. For the nominalist, there can never be any question of a right-ordered nature that stands antecedent to, and the reason for, God’s commands; we simply need to know what the rules are and to keep them.
When this nominalist mentality has captured our thinking on a pre-cognitive level, then when we are tempted by lust or pornography, our imagination may instinctively feel that the object of these temptations is fitting for us according to our nature even though it is not morally permissible, or that it represents a laudable telos towards which we would like to strive if only it wasn’t sinful. All this can happen in a flash, and if the person is a Christian he will turn away from the object of temptation because of God’s commandment. Yet this turning away is made more difficult by the fact that, on a gut-level, he still believes that the thing he is turning away from is something that might have provided happiness if only it were allowable.
The important qualifier in the last sentence is the ‘if’ since a nominalist can always imagine that our ethical obligations might have been different to what they are. His heart can always have the last word since he can think, ‘there goes the life that might have been, there goes a happiness I might have pursued if it weren’t for the inconvenience of God’s commands.’ On an unconscious level, we may begin to feel like a pastor of a California church once said to me: “If God had wanted to, he could have made adultery a virtue and He could have made marital faithfulness a vice; He could have made stealing right and honesty wrong. But He simply chose not to.”
Realism and Sex
By contrast, a realist worldview acknowledges that God couldn’t have done things differently. According to the very nature of how reality simply is (based, ultimately, in the character of the Triune God), love could not look any different to how it looks in a world regulated by the sexual ethics of the Bible. While there are a range of things God could have done differently as He accommodates His commands to human sinfulness or to various times and places (for example, the application of sexual ethics of the Old Testament are not parallel to those in the New Testament even though the basic principles are the same), there are certain fixed moral boundaries that could not be otherwise in any possible world.
Just as God could not have created a world in which two plus two equals nine (assuming we are doing mathematics in base ten) since logic is an attribute of His eternal character, so He could not have created a world where actions like adultery, fornication and sexual exploitation are virtuous. This is not because there are standards outside of God to which He must conform; rather, it is because He is Himself is the standard from which Biblical ethics derive their normativity. Once we understand this, we can appreciate that Biblical ethics are not only virtuous, they are fitting and proper according to the ordering of reality.
The Devilish Imagination
Ever since the serpent tempted Eve in the garden, the devil has tried to entice us to reimagine our world different to how it is. In enticing us to feel that God’s commandments pull against the right ordering of our nature, the devil is able to infect us with the lie that our long-term happiness is somehow at odds with our short-term obligations. At some level, all sexual sin has its root in this devilish way of reimagining our world.
Nominalist presuppositions make it easier for the devil to tempt us with these false pictures since nominalism denies the inherent rationality and naturalness of God’s commands, reducing them to mere will-acts that might have been otherwise.
Once again, the sexual ethics of the Bible are not arbitrary will-acts on the part of God which end up preventing our happiness. God does not simply name lust, fornication and adultery to be disordered; rather, these things actually are disordered according to the necessary and inevitable nature of reality. This reality is antecedent to God’s commands and the reason for it, not the other way round.
One of the reasons we know this is true is because scripture frequently situates its discussion of sexual ethics in this broader context. Especially in the Book of Proverbs we see that God’s commands derive from what is fitting for us according to our nature. The Bible leaves no room for the type of reductionistic legalism towards which nominalism strives, since it shows that God’s laws are not mere arbitrary will-acts, but are anchored in the inbuilt telos of our nature.
Unmaking Human Nature
This perspective sheds a new light on the admonitions found throughout the Bible regarding sexual sin leading to destruction. It’s easy to think that the destruction promised to unrepentant sinners has an extrinsic relationship to the sin itself, as if God has simply determined that such people must go to hell. However, the reality is that the sexual sin has a more natural and organic connection to its consequences.
The natural end of a human being is to function as God’s image-bearer, and in so doing to glorify and enjoy Him forever. Because of this, when we turn away from the God in whose image we are made to follow sexual lusts, we simultaneously turn away from all that makes us truly human. In feeding off a wrongly ordered humanity, sexual sin is organically connected to our destruction in the way that tiredness is organically connected to staying up all night, or being thirsty comes as the natural consequence of going all day without a drink. Sexual sin leads to destruction because it unmakes our nature, just as a refusal to drink water leads to physical death because it unmakes our bodies.
Or think of it like this. The natural end of a seed is an adult plant, but if I repeatedly try to use a seed to function as a hammer, then the seed will be destroyed and will be prevented from realizing its proper telos. In the same way, because sexual sin turns us away from the patterns of how our humanity is rightly ordered, it ushers us into a condition of unreality, like someone trying to use a seed to bang nails into the wall. Because of how reality is, this can only bring destruction.
Abstraction from Teleology
I’d like to close by sharing an anecdote from earlier today which usefully illustrates the pervasiveness of nominalist presuppositions.
This morning a good Christian friend sent me an email asking me what I thought about husbands and wives incorporating “sodomite practices” into their sex lives. After a subsequent email clarified what kind of sex practices my friend had in mind, I told him that the basic problem was that he was thinking of sexuality in a way abstracted from teleology. In my friend’s thinking, the various possible ways of ordering our sex lives had become deliberate ordering, as if our job is to devise uses for our bodies rather than to simply submit to the patterns which God has already built into our nature.
The basic problem, once again, was that a subliminal nominalism had made a foothold. Within the nominalist template, the natural order of creation, as represented in the biological realities of our experience as men and women, counts for very little. Reality becomes infinitely malleable, and we are left without the categories to assert that natural sexual practices are even natural.