The Robin & Boom Show #14 – Interview with William Kabasenche on Virtue Ethics

Robin interviews Dr. William Kabasenche, professor of philosophy at Washington State University. They discussed virtue ethics, and how this differs from other common approaches to ethical decision-making. In this podcast you will learn why the ethical life should not start with questions like, “What should you do?”, but instead should seek to ask questions such as “what type of person do I want to become?” Dr. Kabasenche explained how this approach lends insight into questions of genetic screening and end of life issues.


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The Robin & Boom Show #03 – Discussion with Keith Pimental on Transmitting Values to Next Generation

What happens when parents and politicians settle for intermediate goals without giving attention to the long-term end of human flourishing? What is the culture-wide impact of relativism? What happens when we neglect the importance of history and eternity? And what is “methodological Machiavellianism”? These are just some of the questions that Robin and Jason discuss in this episode with their guest from Portugal, Keith Pimental. 

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The Robin & Boom Show #02 – Politics in America and Europe

Jason Van Boom and Robin Phillips discuss the political climate in America and Europe, including areas of difference and cross-fertilization. During this conversation they explore the importance of symbols, metanarratives, tribalism, and operational philosophical assumptions that animate contemporary public discourse.

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The Robin & Boom Show #00 – Test Episode

Robin Phillips and Jason Van Boom have some fun while discussing their plans to launch a podcast. They also discuss the continued relevance of philosophical debates that occurred during the Middle Age. 

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James Matthew Wilson in the Mars Hill Audio Journal

Last year someone asked me what were my favorite podcasts. Without a second thought I referred my friend to the Mars Hill Audio Journal. Since 1993, Ken Myers has been using this audio journal to encourage conversations about faith, faithfulness, and culture, exploring the various factors that have given modern Western culture its distinctive character. Over the years this has involved Myers conducting interviews with a wide-variety of scholars on subjects that include art, technology, history, music, theology, philosophy, politics, film, poetry and almost anything else you could imagine.

I was struck with my debt of gratitude to the Mars Hill Audio Journal today when listening to an interview from the most recent issue, Volume 141, in which Ken Myers has a conversation with James Matthew Wilson on the role of beauty, truth and goodness in cultivating “intellectual vision.” Here’s a few nuggets from this interview:

“that desire, however deformed, to perceive, to encounter being, is the very foundation of the possibility of falling in love with wisdom.

…to remind ourselves that the world is beautiful tells us something about ourselves, that we can stand in contemplation before the world and not have to think ‘what are we learning this for?’ We’re learning it for the joy of it’s being beautiful. And also it tells us something about the world: that the world is itself, even in its most minute particulars, a kind of mystery, where even the crudest material thing conceals depths within itself….

The way Aristotle begins the Metaphysics…has always seemed to me one of the most beautiful few lines in our tradition. It, of course, begins, ‘all philosophy begins in wonder because human beings would practically rather see than do anything else.’ And what he’s proposing to us is that the world itself is wonderful; that is to say, the world itself is a mystery whose existence stirs us to wonder about it. And to wonder about it means both to desire and to know–to desire to know the truth. And so the world, just by its fact of its existence, inspires us to enter into that world with both our active will and our capacity to love and our capacity to know, our reason. So the world is a mystery that seems as if it was put there just to make us start thinking about it and contemplate it.

Ongoing Series on Nominalism vs. Realism

I’ve been publishing some articles with the Colson Centre dealing with the debates between the medieval nominalists and realists, looking at the relevance these debates have for issues in contemporary culture.

Throughout this series I hope to show that these seemingly archaic philosophical distinctions are actually of profound practical significance for how we understand our world today, in everything from sex to food. To read these articles, click on the following links:

Also see my series on Nominalism and John Calvin:

And finally, here are some misc articles on other subjects that address issues of Nominalism vs. Realism:

John Milbank and the Life of Pi: Why ‘Radical Orthodoxy’ is Neither Radical nor Orthodox

My teenage son and I sometimes get together with friends to watch movies and then analyze the worldview behind it. The last time we did this we watched Life of Pi, a movie based on Yann Martel’s book by the same title. The award-winning 2012 production is a beautiful drama full of stunning visual sequences which takes the viewer to the edge of fantasy while exploring important spiritual themes.

Directed by Ang Lee, the movie opens with a man named Pi telling a writer of his perilous journey from India to the coast of Mexico following a disaster at sea. As Pi narrates his epic adventure, we watch his survival with an unlikely travel companion: a fearsome Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.
Continue reading

Moral Order, and Wisdom (Nominalism 6)

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.

Could God Have Been Incarnated As a Donkey?

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, Saint John declared in the opening of his Gospel. So far so good, but have you ever wondered if the Word could have become a donkey and dwelt among us? Or could the Word have been incarnate as a man and as a donkey at the same time?

This question is not as far-fetched as it sounds. In Stanley Grenz’s book The Named God and the Question of Being: A Trinitarian Theo-ontology, Grenz tells how the philosopher William of Ockham (1288-1347) declared that God might have come to earth an ox or donkey. Other medieval philosophers disagreed with Ockham, and the matter became one of intense dispute. According to accounts left to us by Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536), by the fifteenth-century scholastic theologians had moved on to trying to work out more subtle details such as whether God could have been nailed on the cross and sacrificed for our sins if he had been incarnated as a donkey.

This wasn’t just an abstract question for medieval philosophers with too much time on their hands. Rather, it was a question that penetrated to the heart of an entire way of understanding the world and God’s relation to it. For William of Ockham, it was important to emphasize that God has no attributes apart from His freedom to be free from all attributes. Concerned—not without some warrant—that the dominant scholasticism of his day was domesticating God, turning Him into a civilized Aristotelian, Ockham asserted that God’s saving will-acts must be unconditioned by any factors outside the Divine fiat, including the past history of God’s works. Indeed, Ockham insisted that God could even produce in human beings knowledge of a non-existent past if He wanted to, although he never went as far as some of his contemporaries (particularly John of Mirecourt, Gregory of Rimini, and Pierre d’Ailly) in suggesting that God could actually undo the past.

Ockham hoped to combat stagnant views of God’s freedom, yet as Timothy Nonne pointed out in his article on Ockham in A Companion to Philosophy in the Middle Ages, “in several texts in his Sentences commentaries, Ockham allows that God could command the opposite of practically any act currently contained under his ordered power. Ockham’s reasoning on such occasions is that God cannot be disallowed from doing what seems to involve no contradiction.”

Is Reality Radically Contingent?

What was lost within the framework of Ockhamist nominalism was any sense of a moral order rooted in the teleological directedness of creation. The raw command of God—unconditioned by any factors outside itself—becomes the only mechanism by which we can assert a static moral order, however arbitrary that order might ultimately be.

This understanding doesn’t exactly leave us with a random world in which anything might happen, where vices might become virtues and virtues might become vices, since Ockham made clear that once God had freely exercised the Absolute Power to create the world in a certain way, He will continue to act consistently in that way. However, this system did imply a world in which the moral and teleological order that we find in creation is radically contingent, derived only from God’s will acts. Accordingly, if God had wanted to, He could have commanded that adultery, theft and murder to be right, while He could have ordered kindness, self-sacrifice and love to be sinful.

The Normativity of God’s Nature

In the first article of this series I offered an alternative to this radically contingent view of reality. Following the realist vision articulated by Alister McGrath in his Scientific Theology: Volume 2: Reality and by Oliver O’Donovan in his Resurrection and Moral Order, I have suggested that God’s will is not the ultimate source of moral values; rather, the ultimate source of moral values is the nature of how reality is.

The obvious objection to this realist conception is that it seems to push God to the margins by giving us a standard more ultimate than God Himself. This objection fails when we recognize that God’s own eternal character is the source from which this rational ecosystem derives its meaning and legitimacy. Thus, when we recognize that falsehood is disordered according to the nature and final end of speech, this is because reality has its source in a God whose very nature is truth itself (John 14:6). The reason God could not have made adultery virtuous is because God’s will, like reality itself, is rooted in the unchanging constants of His Holy character.

If we were to express the problem in terms of the classic Euthyphro dilemma, we could say that it is false that an action is good purely because God wills it, while it is also false that God wills an action because it is good, at least where goodness is conceived as something external to God himself. This is because neither the goodness of an action nor the will of God are related to each other as efficient cause and effect: rather both are effects of the same common cause: God’s own nature. John Frame articulated this in his essay ‘Euthyphro, Hume, and the Biblical God’:

“God’s nature is righteous and therefore normative. God loves goodness because he is good, and therefore he commands goodness in his revelation to man. Therefore in one sense, God loves the good because it is good; the concept is not arbitrary. Yet he does not need to look outside himself for a standard of goodness. That standard is his own character….

Because God’s commands are supremely normative, the self-expression of God’s supremely normative nature, they entail normative conclusions….

Some commands in Scripture could have been otherwise; indeed, some are changed in the history of redemption, such as the command to bring animal sacrifices to the Lord. But the fundamental requirements of the law (what the Westminster Standards call ‘the moral law’) are as unchangeable as God Himself.”

Wisdom and the Is-ness of Creation

In the Apocryphal text The Wisdom of Solomon we read that “the whole creation in its kind was fashioned again from above to serve Your commands…” (19:6). Think about that for a minute: all of creation serves God’s commands. Whatever else this may mean, it points to a basic congruence between God’s commands and how creation is.

Moral order flows out of the is-ness of creation, not the arbitrary command of God. This order of creation, in turn, is rooted in the is-ness of God’s eternal character which remains prior to, and the basis of, God’s will-acts. Since creation is an expression of God’s nature, there is a natural ordering to reality that we can observe and make appeals to. The world is an ecosystem of teleological and moral order, and that order is deeper than merely the sub-total of all God’s commands in the aggregate.

Only with this understanding is it possible to fully appreciate the structural dimensions of sin. Sin is not simply an abandonment of isolated commandments; rather, sin as disorder; a turning away from the intrinsic telos of our human nature.

Of course, one has to be careful when making appeals to the natural ordering of reality. Because we are fallen, our reason and our senses are not always ordered towards their true ends. God’s revelation is indispensable in our moral reasoning, and the danger of a natural law approach is that one can begin to think that Biblical revelation is irrelevant or an optional add-on. But in fact, it is only through scripture that we know that reality is ordered towards the Trinitarian God in the first place, and it is through scripture that we are given full insight on the ends towards which the world is ordered.

Precisely because of this, the task to those who would grow wise is to meditate on God’s commands and discern the order to them, rather than just memorizing lists of rules. Indeed, throughout the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament, we are told that the wise man is one who meditates on God’s laws long enough to discern their internal logic, the patterns by which reality is ordered, the principles which undergird and interconnect God’s various commands. This is a central precondition to being able to fully delight in God’s laws (Ps. 1:2; 119:97) since without this deeper understanding we are unable to fully appreciate the fittingness of God’s laws within the context of creational order.

Getting God’s Commandments under the Skin

An analogy should make my meaning clear. When I was doing my undergraduate studies in music, I had a professor who could sit down at the piano and improvise in the style of any composer we might name. My classmates and I would shout “play Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary [or some other familiar tune] in the style of Bach” and he would proceed do it without even thinking. After a minute or two, we would say “switch to a Beethoven style” and he would effortlessly switch to sounding like Beethoven. We could continue through all the composers and each time he would improvise flawlessly in the appropriate style. There were two things that made this so amazing. The first was that this professor had never played these tunes before in that style: he was completely making it up on the spot. The second amazing thing was that he actually sounded just like the composer whose style he was imitating. How was he able to do this? The answer is simple: by becoming so thoroughly familiar with each composer’s music, he could sit down at the piano and almost ‘become’ them.

If we consider how a person develops this skill, it provides an analogy for how wisdom works. Suppose my goal is to be able to sit down at the piano and “think” like Chopin, to be able to take contemporary songs and improvise on them in Chopin’s style like my professor did. In order to reach this goal, I need to do more than simply memorize all of Chopin’s works, although that would certainly be a start. I would also need to meditate on Chopin’s works, to analyse the patterns within them, to listen to them constantly, to continually practice adapting Chopin’s style to new melodic contexts. If I did that long enough, eventually I would start to notice the internal grammar by which Chopin organized his musical ideas. By being cognisant in Chopin’s unique musical logic, I could then apply it to new contexts and take songs on the radio and arrange them—perhaps without even thinking—to sound like Chopin.

In a similar way, to grow in wisdom involves more than just memorizing raw commandments: we need to meditate on God’s commandments long enough to notice their internal grammar, their fittingness for this world, the principles that undergird and interconnect the vast array of commandments. We must allow God’s commandments to get “under our skin”, so to speak, in a way that can only be achieved through the application of those commandments in our lives (i.e., holy living). Only in such a way are we fully equipped to apply God-like thinking to new situations not directly covered by explicit commandments, even as my professor could take the style of Bach and apply it to new situations never touched upon by Bach himself.

When the author of Psalm 119 declares that God’s commandments have made him wiser than his enemies, and that by making God’s testimonies His meditations he has gained more understanding than all his teachers (119: 98-99), he means more than simply that he could win a game of trivial pursuit about God’s laws. He means that God’s laws have become part of his whole system of thought so that he begins to see the world through the lens of God’s commands. He has hidden God’s word in his heart (Psalm 119:11) like the musician in my example took Chopin’s music into his heart.

How to be a True Theologian

To be a theologian one must give extended loving reflection to God’s laws, like a musician aiming to know a certain composer’s music inside and out. But to achieve that type of depth of knowledge, the theologian must make God’s laws part of himself on every level: head, heart, hands and body. Hence, a true theologian must also be a mystic. The true theologian is the man whose life is devoted to contemplation, prayer and ascetic disciplines like fasting, almsgiving, prayer vigils and sacrificial love. In short, the true theologian is one whose life is devoted so completely to loving the Lord that the workings of his intellect proceed out of an entire life of spiritual devotion. That is why Saint Thomas Aquinas’s ‘16 Precepts for Acquiring Knowledge’  are almost entirely concerned with practical external matters, and only secondarily with what we might think of us intellectual concerns.

One of the benefits of prayerfully meditating on God’s commands within the context of a life of obedience, is that we begin to see the fittingness of His laws instead of viewing them as arbitrary impositions on a neutral world understood separately from the Trinitarian God revealed in Jesus Christ. We begin to appreciate how God’s laws are the natural correlates to the is-ness of Christian. As a consequence, we are better able to take what the Bible says in one area, and apply the principles to other areas not directly addressed in scripture. This is because we are no longer simply looking at raw commands, but appreciating the moral order reflected in God’s commandments. This is essentially the task of wisdom as it has been practiced by saints and Christian mystics throughout history.

Aquinas argued that there is a reciprocal relationship between knowing and loving. If you really love someone you want to know them, but the only way to really know someone is to love them. In this regard, it is no coincidence that scripture describes the nuptial union between husband and wife in terms of “knowing.” Similarly, to truly know God, one must love Him – not in the sentimental feeling-based way that we have come to associate with the word ‘love’, but the type of love expressed in doing what God has commanded.

To summarize, the true theologian is a student of how reality is, and the eternal patterns disclosed in the teleological and moral order of creation. However, in order to truly discern these patterns, the theologian must allow God’s commandments to soak into every fiber of his being through living out the reciprocal relationship that exists between Being, Loving, Knowing and Doing.

Further Reading

Sex and the Ockhamist Revolution (Nominalism III)

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.

Nominalism Today

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.

Further Reading

The Ockham Revolution (Nominalism 2)

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 the first article of this series, I briefly mentioned about the English Friar, William of Ockham. Building on the work of Aquinas’s contemporary Duns Scotus (1250–1308) and his own contemporary Petrus Aureolus (1280 –1322), Ockham helped to pioneer a school of thought to rival the realism of men like Aquinas.

Review of Realism

Realists like Aquinas had asserted that things have an inherent purpose according to their nature. Channeling Aristotle, they suggested that everything which exists has an end or telos which defines the natural perfection of that thing. The example I gave in the first article of this series was that the end or purpose of a hammer is to bang things while the end or purpose of a seed is an adult plant. Of course, this assumed the real existence of universals, so that we can make meaningful generalizations about classes of things like hammers, seeds, lions, etc.

The realist vision was part of a cosmos in which everything portended ultimate significance and in which our images of things were posterior to how things really were in actuality. Thomas Howard summed this vision up in his Chance or the Dance? The medieval vision, he suggests,

“read vast significance into everything. Nature and politics and animals and sex—these were all exhibitions in their own way of the way things are. This mind fancied that everything meant everything, and that it all rushed up finally to heaven. We have an idea of royalty, this mind said, which we observe in our politics and which we attribute to lions and eagles, and we have this idea because there is a great King at the top of things, and he has set things thus so that our fancies will be drawn toward his royal Person, and we will recognize the hard realities of which the stuff of our world has been a poor shadow when we stumble into his royal court…. This mind saw things as images because it saw correspondences running in all directions among things. That is, the world was not a random tumble of things all appearing separately, jostling one another and struggling helter-skelter for a place in the sun. On the contrary, one thing signaled another.”

A Tumble of Particulars

Ockham and his fellow nominalists challenged this ecosystem of symbols and denied the existence of universals. For them the world essentially became a random tumble of particulars, all appearing separately.

Though we can look back and see in nominalism the roots of modern materialism, the original nominalists saw themselves as magnifying God. They believed that the realist approach meant that God was not completely ultimate since there are inbuilt limits to what He is able to declare good. To say that God’s will for a thing necessarily corresponds to what that thing’s nature already defines as its good, is to place a limit on the divine sovereignty, or so they thought. Thus, for nominalists like Ockham, God must always be free to determine what is good unconstrained by any other factors.

God’s freedom thus became an autonomous freedom, no longer anchored in nature (including His own). Even Duns Scotus, whose teaching Ockham relied heavily upon, had admitted that the will of God was determined by his love. For Ockham, however, God’s will is determined by nothing. When we say that something is ‘good’, all we mean is that God happened to will it. In this way, Ockham sought to free God from the compulsion he believed to be inherent in realism.

Critics of nominalism, on the other hand, allege that this makes good and evil arbitrary even as it makes God’s will capricious. As Servaes Pinckaers observed in The Sources of Christian Ethics,

“For [Ockham], the divine will was totally free… Determined in the establishment of good and evil by nothing other than itself, the divine will could at any instant change what we considered to be permitted or forbidden according to the commandments, notably the Decalogue. God could even change the first commandment, and, for example, pushing it to the limit, command a person to hate him, in such a way that this act of hatred would become good…. Similarly, hatred of our neighbor, theft, and adultery could become meritorious if God commanded them. Ockham did not recognize in human nature any law or oder whatsoever that might determine the divine freedom and omnipotence.

A Zero-Sum Game

Behind their concern to preserve the divine freedom was a particular way of understanding God’s relationship to the world which we might describe as being a ‘zero-sum game.’ A zero-sum transaction is one in which the gains of one party are directly correlative to the losses of another party. The Nominalists seemed to think that nature existed in an inverse relationship with God’s sovereignty, so that whatever fixity or autonomy is granted to the former is that much less left over for the latter. Since God must have all the pieces of the pie, nature must have none.

Consistent with this impulse, Ockham went so far as to deny that things even shared a universal nature, while he found the notion of God working through means to be deeply problematic. As Hans Boersma writes, summarizing William of Ockham’s thought-process:

“Sure, human beings do look alike, and so do cats and dogs; but there is an easier way to explain this similarity than by way of the odd assumption that universals have real existence. The principle of ‘Ockham’s razor’ is that one should explain observations by making as few assumptions as possible; one should use one’s razor to shave off all unnecessary assumptions. And by putting his razor to work, Ockham pretty nearly shaved the universals right off. The tradition that followed Ockham insisted that universals were simply names (nomina) that we apply to individual objects that happen to look alike. Hence the term ‘nominalism’ for the philosophical position that universals do not have real existence in the mind of God but simply names that we assign to particular objects.”

This may sound very complex, but it is really quite simple. Ockham taught that objects which look alike, and therefore appear to share a common nature, do so by virtue of the mental concepts we impose on them and not because of any intrinsic property within the object itself. Belief in the real existence of universals, nominalists taught, was simply the unfortunate residue of Platonism. Ultimately, they argued, the rationality of a thing is dependent on how God chooses to categorize reality. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy puts it in the entry on William of Ockham, “For Ockham the nominalist, the only real universals are universal concepts in the mind and, derivatively, universal spoken or written terms expressing those concepts.”

Free From Nature Itself

The practical ramifications of Ockham’s ideas were huge. If there are no universals, then there is no way to speak of a certain class of things (whether human beings, plants or hammers) having an inherent telos or goal which defines the natural perfection of that thing. The perfection of a thing is defined externally by God’s will, with no reference to the inherent nature of the thing itself. The way to understand a thing is by looking to see how God has categorized it, not by inquiring into its intrinsic nature.

For Ockham this was a way of amplifying the importance of God’s will, and therefore His supreme sovereignty. For God to be truly sovereign and free, His will must be autonomous. Unlike the realist tradition which taught that God’s will is constrained by His nature, Ockham taught that the divine will is unaffected by any criteria whatsoever, saving only the law of non-contradiction. This led to the philosophy of voluntarism which separated will-acts from intellect and character, in anticipation of the modern existentialist movement. It also did violence to the divine nature and forced Ockham to highly qualify the sense in which God’s nature is that of love. As Michael Gillespie put it in Nihilism Before Nietzsche:

“Omnipotence also means that everything is or occurs only as the result of God’s disposing will and that there is no reason for creation except his will…. Omnipotence means an utterly unconditioned will. Indeed, while [Ockham] does not deny that God is a God of love, he does assert that God’s love for man is only a passage back to his love for himself, that ultimately God’s love is only self-love. …Every order is simply the result of God’s absolute will and can be disrupted or reconstituted at any moment. Indeed, Ockham even maintains that God can change the past if he so desires. …The world to its very core is contingent and governed only by the necessity that God momentarily imparts to it. There thus are no universals, no or genera. There are likewise no intrinsic ends for individuals that arise out of and correspond to the essence of their species. Indeed, there is no difference between essence and existence. …Ockham, however, goes beyond Scotus in opening up this realm of freedom not merely by rejecting the scholastic notion of final causes, but also by rejecting the application of efficient causality to men. For Ockham, man in principle is thus free from nature itself.”

 Nominalism Becomes the New Orthodoxy

Despite the abiding influence of Aquinas on the medieval schoolmen, the nominalists were incredibly influential. We tend to think of Aquinas as the principal medieval scholastic, although it was actually the counter-reformation of the 16th century that assured his eminence. The Middle Ages were hardly characterized by a Thomistic consensus. In fact, by the mid fourteenth century, many of Europe’s top universities had rejected Aquinas’s realism and used nominalism as the principal framework for teaching natural and moral philosophy. By the time of the reformation various forms of nominalism had become the dominant view, though many still clung tenaciously to the older realist philosophy.


Although I consider nominalism to have been one of the great disasters of Western philosophy, the alternative realist tradition also came with its own share of unbiblical baggage. Indeed, the scholastic emphasis on abstract essences brought with it theological liabilities that would become more pronounced as time wore on. Moreover, the fusion of Aristotelian and Christian categories, though it could be helpful in certain contexts, often came with disastrous results.

Despite these qualifications, it does seem to me that the realist tradition gets closest to the truth. One of the reasons I think this is because of the testimony of scripture. Does the Bible presents a God whose will is anchored in the constants of His unchanging character, or does it portray a Being who is capricious, unpredictable and whose personality is simply the aggregate of His will-acts? A read through the Psalms and Minor Prophets should be sufficient to answer that question.

This is not to say that there is no truth at all in nominalism. Ever since the Garden of Eden human beings have been taking dominion through naming things, and it is clear that some of the arrangements and configurations that we take for granted are not fixed in nature but emerge out of our voluntary naming activities. Where nominalism goes wrong is that it takes what is true under particular conditions and tries to absolutizes it, doing violence to God’s character in the process.

Another reason I think realism is more compelling is because of observing the unintended ramifications of nominalism as it has played out in the centuries following William of Ockham. Many philosophers and historians now see nominalism as being seminal in the dualism between nature and super-nature, immanence and transcendence, heaven and earth, which lies at the heart of secular modernity. Space prohibits me from connecting all of these dots, and I can only recommend the fascinating discussions of these questions in Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, James K.A. Smith’s Introducing Radical Orthodoxy, Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation, Servaes Pinckaers’ The Sources of Christian Ethics, Michael Gillespie’s Nihilism Before Nietzsche, Mark Noll’s Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind and (my favourite book of all), Hans Boersma’s Heavenly Participation: the Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry.

While leaving these and other scholars to show how nominalism contributed to the advent of secular modernity, I would like to zero-in to a few practical areas where the canopy of nominalism still exerts a profound influence on our understanding of the world. But that will be the topic of some follow-up articles.

Further Reading