Calvin’s Fragile Doctrine of Divine Sovereignty

King’s College London

When I started my doctoral work at King’s College London, I was a Calvinist. When I finished my doctoral work, I was not. My transition away from Calvinism was largely a result of reading the primary sources, looking at what Calvin himself wrote as opposed to simply reading the writings of Calvinists. Since contemporary reformed thinkers tend to present a sanitized version of Calvin’s thought, it can be a real eye-opener to spend some time in his own writings.

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Was Calvin a Nominalist? Part 3: Voluntarism, Nominalism and the Theology of Calvin

Was Calvin a Nominalist? Part 3: Voluntarism, Nominalism and the Theology of Calvin

This is the third article in a series on Calvin and Nominalism. To read the earlier articles in the series, click on the following links:

The first half of this article consists in laying out the background to medieval Nominalism, expanding on the historical material presented in Part 1. To skip ahead to the section where I begin discussing Calvin specifically, click here.

I ended my previous article, ‘Was Calvin a Nominalist? Part 2: Surveying the Scholarship’ by suggesting that there were three separate ways in which a person might talk about John Calvin being a Nominalist. (If you are unfamiliar with what I mean by Nominalism and why this question is important, then I recommend the first article in the present series as well as the series I wrote for the Colson Center.) Firstly, a person might argue that Calvin was influenced by reading of nominalist sources, perhaps during his theological training in Paris. Second, a person might argue that Calvin’s theology bears the marks of the more general nominalist milieu of the time, including ubiquitous plausibility structures that hinged on an implicitly nominalist way of viewing the world. Thirdly, a person might argue that Calvin’s theology shows evidence of correlations with nominalist and voluntarist ways of perceiving things, even aside from questions of historical causation.

A problem occurs when scholars argue against the third of these senses by presenting arguments against the second, or when they argue against the second or third by presenting arguments against the first. For my part, I am comfortable being neutral on the first question, while presenting a tentative argument for the second and a strong argument for the third.

But what do I mean by “plausibility structures” within the context of the second of these options?

Plausibility Structures and Implicit Theology

The phrase “plausibility structures” was coined by sociologist Peter L. Berger to refer to the conditions in a society that make certain beliefs appear reasonable or unreasonable. Why is it that a proposition which, in one time and place, might seem completely self-evident and requiring little or no argument, will seem totally absurd in another era? Questions like this force us to be attentive to more than merely what people believe, but why certain beliefs might feel normal. To focus on plausibility structures is to be attentive to the broader sociocultural context in which our understandings of the world (including understandings which may be unconscious) make sense to us in the first place.

This is related to concepts such as the “social imaginary” and “implicit theology” which I discussed in my earlier article ‘Do Ideas Have Historical Consequences? A Defense of The Benedict Option Chapter 2.’ In that article I pointed out the “social imaginary” is a way of talking about the network of background understandings by which people perceive the world; the unconscious lens by which they interpret life and their experiences. While the social imaginary may exist in a symbiotic relationship with the explicit tenets of a person’s belief system, the former is not ultimately dependent on the latter, though dependence in the other direction is inescapable given that, to cite Charles Taylor, “all beliefs are held within a context or framework of the taken-for-granted, which usually remains tacit, and may even be as yet unacknowledged by the agent, because never formulated.” The social imaginary, like plausibility structures, is the type of lived condition which exists prior to explicit theological or philosophical reflection.

If we are to understand the potency that the philosophy of Nominalism had on the eve of the Reformation, we have to understand it in these terms: as part of the taken-for-granted background to how many Europeans perceived the world, often without even realizing it. This is central to understanding Calvin’s relationship to Nominalism. Contemporary scholarship has made significant strides in understanding Calvin’s relationship to medieval theology, yet it has tended to revolve around narrow analyses of the specific influences on his thought, together with particular tenets within his theological system that reflect a nominalist dependence. A neglected aspect in the debate is whether Calvin was influenced by the more ubiquitous nominalist concerns that contributed to plausibility structures affecting how sixteenth-century Europeans perceived the world and their place in it. If it was the case that Calvin worked within the broad plausibility structures bequeathed by theological Nominalism, then it becomes possible that nominalist concerns may have been seminal to his thought even when a more direct dependence may not be detectable and even if, in some cases, explicit doctrines of his theology veer in a more realist direction.

The Nominalist Revolution

Long before Nominalism had influenced the taken-for-granted background of how many Europeans perceived the world, it had been a minority philosophical movement. The movement is usually associated with the English Franciscan friar, William of Ockham, who was born in England sometime in the early to mid-1280’s. In point of fact, however, Ockham represented only one very radical strand of philosophical and theological Nominalism. (For a discussion of the differences between nominalism per se and Ockhamism, see Heiko A. Oberman, “Some Notes on the Theology of Nominalism: With Attention to Its Relation to the Renaissance,” from The Harvard Theological Review 53, no. 1.) Ockham’s Nominalism is often treated as an adjunct to the doctrine of univocity associated with Duns Scotus (1265–1308), although Scotus had actually been a moderate philosophical realist. (On the Realism of Duns Scotus, see Martin M Tweedale, “Duns Scotus’s Doctrine on Universals and the Aphrodisian Tradition,” American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly 67, no. 1 (1993): 77–93.)

The real significance of Ockham’s system was that it posed a formidable challenge to the type of scholasticism that reached its pinnacle in Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), who synthesized Christian theology with the insights of Aristotelianism.

A key aspect of Aquinas’ thought had been the understanding that created things have an inherent purpose or end according to their nature. Using Aristotle’s nomenclature of causality, he argued that the end for which a thing exists (its telos) is the final cause of that thing, or that for the sake of which it exists. For instance, with respect to creative ends we might say that the end or purpose of a hammer is to bang nails into wood, while with respect to natural ends, the purpose of a seed is to be an adult plant. In her essay contained in the volume Humanism and Early Modern Philosophy, Margaret Osler explained that depending on the nature of a thing, “the end may be the actualization of a form, or it may be the deliberate goal of an intelligent agent, in which case it is imposed on something from outside.” On this understanding, in order to fully understand the world, the thinker must penetrate to the why-ness of things.

Within the Thomistic-Aristotelian synthesis, a teleological understanding of the world was necessary for perceiving God’s design of, and relationship to, the natural and anthropological realms, since God’s will for a thing corresponds to what the nature of that thing already is. Thus, those within this tradition were able to assert a rational and ordered universe in which everything had its own natural perfection. It was what Alasdair Macintyre called a “view of the world as an integrated order, in which the temporal mirrors the eternal. Every particular item has its due place in the order of things.” In an important sense, this limited the range of options available to omnipotence, since God’s will was seen as conforming to a thing’s natural perfection. As Charles Taylor remarked in A Secular Age, “The Aristotelian notion of nature seems to define for each thing its natural perfection, its proper good. This would be independent of God’s will, except that he it is who has created the thing thus. But once created, it would appear that God cannot further redefine what the good is for the thing.”

The idea that God cannot redefine the nature of things was central to the realism of the Thomistic approach and had profound implications in the field of ethics. Just as God cannot redefine a thing’s natural perfection, neither is He able to change the continuum of virtues and vices. Indeed, when God wills something or issues a command, He is not arbitrarily assigning ethical valuations to particular actions or states of being that might equally have been given an alternative valuation. Rather, the divine will is an expression of the divine intellect, while both the divine intellect and the divine will are expressions of God’s perfectly good nature. (That said, Aquinas taught that the divine intellect and the divine will are two different powers only in a virtual and not an actual sense. According to our complex way of understanding we must speak of God knowing through His intellect and acting through His will, and we must refer to the former being prior to the latter. However, because God is absolutely simple, there is no fundamental difference between His essence and His existence. However, Aquinas’ teaching on the divine simplicity was not without a number of inconsistencies, which David Bradshaw has discussed in his penetrating critique, Aristotle East and West: Metaphysics and the Division of Christendom, pp. 243–257.)

In the third article of his treatise on the will of God, Aquinas discussed the context of God’s will-acts as follows. Again, the context of the divine will is the goodness of God’s nature:

“…the divine will has a necessary relation to the divine goodness, since that is its proper object. …God wills things apart from Himself in so far as they are ordered to His own goodness as their end. …He wills all things in His goodness.”

It follows that God cannot act contrary to His perfect nature. Significantly, Aquinas devoted a section of the first part of the Summa to discussing that which God cannot do. He acknowledged that “when one says that God can do all things, there can be uncertainty about what is included under that distribution…” and he catalogues various things which “God is said to be unable to do even though he is omnipotent…” That which God cannot do includes any type of imperfection or logical contradiction. As Hans Boersma observed,

“For Aquinas, we might say, divine decisions had always been in line with eternal truth. For example, when God condemned theft or adultery, this was not an arbitrary divine decision, but it was in line with the truth of divine rationality. Or, to use another example, when God rewarded almsgiving, this was not because he arbitrarily decided that almsgiving was a commendable practice, but because it was in line with the very truth of God’s character.” (Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry, p. 76)

There were a variety of reasons behind the gradual rejection of Aquinas’s teleological vision, but these can be broadly distinguished by three stages. The first was the conservative resistance to Aristotelian intellectualism, aimed primarily at the Latin Averroists and to a lesser degree at Aquinas himself. This rejection culminated in the Condemnations of 1277. The second factor was the moderate voluntarism of Scotus, combined with his moderate realism about universals. Thirdly, there was the influence of the more radical voluntarism-cum-nominalism of Ockham which directly challenged the Aristotelian-Thomistic synthesis. It is this third point that requires further attention.

To William of Ockham, the world was void of imminent rationality and existed as a collection of disconnected particulars. For him, even final causality was, as Stanley Grenz put it, “simply a metaphorical way of speaking about things that are acting uniformly by natural necessity.”

“If I accepted no authority,” Ockham once declared, “I would claim that it cannot be proved either from statements known in themselves or from experience that every effect has a final cause…. Someone who is just following natural reason would claim that the question ‘why?’ is inappropriate in the case of natural actions. For he would maintain that it is no real question to ask something like, ‘For what reason is fire generated?’” Behind Ockham’s drive to divest the world of imminent rationality was the theological concern that if everything in the world possesses an inherent telos detectable to reason, and if God created the world to function according to this rational ecosystem of natures, then the natural realm possesses an autonomy that seems to push God to the margins. The Thomistic position was actually immune to this objection since it affirmed that God’s own eternal character is the source from which this rational ecosystem derives its meaning and legitimacy. For Aquinas, 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. The reason God did not, and could not, make adultery virtuous is because God’s will determines reality itself, flows from His ineffably pure and perfectly ordered nature. The divine nature, in turn, expresses itself in the order of how the world is. Within the nominalist calculus, however, God could not be completely ultimate if there are inbuilt limits to what His will is able to declare good. Thus, for nominalists like Ockham, to assert that God’s will for a thing necessarily corresponds to what the thing’s nature already defines as its good, is to place a limit on the divine sovereignty. As Charles Taylor expressed it, “Late medieval nominalism defended the sovereignty of God as incompatible with there being an order in nature which by itself defined good and bad. For that would be to tie God’s hands, to infringe on his sovereign right of decision about what was good.”

For the nominalists, God’s absolute power must always be free to determine what is good unconstrained by all other factors, including the divine nature. This led to a voluntarism that sought to ground the meritorious value of an act in the extrinsic dimension of God’s will. Accordingly, many nominalists held that the proper distinction between God and the world could only be preserved through a God that possessed an unchecked voluntarism and what Blumenberg called a “groundless will.” For Ockham, actions are not good or bad in themselves, but become good or bad only by a lawgiver. Driven by a desire to purge Christian theology from all traces of Greek necessitarianism, God’s freedom became an autonomous freedom, no longer anchored in nature (including His own). This effectively reduced the divine commandments to arbitrary edicts requiring a nonrational obedience.

This conception of the divine freedom entailed numerous consequences. One result was that grace would come to eclipse nature when Ockham’s extreme notions about God’s sovereign will led to a near denial of secondary or instrumental causation. Ockham was at pains to let everyone know that in order for God to be truly sovereign, He must be able to work independent of all means. As Ockham wrote. “Whatever God produces by means of secondary causes, he can immediately produce and conserve without them.”

Behind Ockham’s concern to preserve the divine freedom was a particular way of understanding God’s relationship to the world in which nature existed in an inverse relationship with God’s sovereignty, so that whatever fixity or autonomy is granted to the former results in that much less left for the latter. This “zero-sum” dialectic between God and the world drove Ockham to deny that things in the world shared a universal nature. Under his principle of parsimony, intermediate ideas needed to be shaved off, leading to the denial of universals. (The denial of the objective basis for universals was not unique to Ockham, even though it is most commonly associated with him. On Ockahm’s “nominalist” predecessors, see Grenz, The Named God and the Question of Being, p. 60; on the philosophy of universals prior to Ockham, see Timothy B. Noone’s entry “William of Ockham” in A Companion to Philosophy in the Middle Ages.)

For Ockham, the assertion of universal realities (res universales) over individual things was the worst mistake philosophy had ever made. All things that exist are disconnected individual things: praeter illas partes absolutas nulla res est (“outside of those absolute parts, there is not anything”). As Amos Funkenstein summarized this outlook in Theology and the Scientific Imagination from the Middle Ages to the Seventeenth Century, “Only discrete entities, singulars, exist and they do not need the mediation of universals either for their existence or for their immediate, ‘intuitive’ cognition.” In rejecting universals, Ockham asserted that objects that look alike, and therefore appear to share a common nature, do so by virtue of the mental concepts we impose on those objects and not because of any intrinsic property within the things themselves. The reality of universals is limited to a merely conceptual existence. Universals were thus reduced to mere constructs the human mind creates to make sense of reality even though such constructs are without any real basis in the things themselves. Since there are no universals, it followed that there was no way to speak of a certain class of things having an inherent telos or goal which defines the natural perfection of that thing. Instead, the perfection of a thing came to be defined externally by God’s will, without reference to inherent nature as the context for the divine will.

Michael Gillespie explained how this led to a world that was radically contingent to the core:

“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 species 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…. Everything is therefore radically individual… God thus cannot create universals without contradicting himself, that is, without limiting himself in a way incompatible with his omnipotence… Divine omnipotence, properly understood, thus entails radical individualism. …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. (Nihilism Before Nietzsche, p. 17 & 21.)

Two other related notions must be discussed to complete the picture I am trying to paint regarding the background to the Reformation: theological Voluntarism and univocity of being.

Theological Voluntarism

Divesting the world of universals and teleological purpose enabled Ockham to amplify divine sovereignty, while his radical views on divine freedom allowed him to avoid the specter of a God characterized by sterile changelessness. For the divine will to be truly sovereign and free, God’s Absolute Power must be autonomous, unaffected by any criteria whatsoever, saving only the law of non-contradiction. But Ockham also taught that God had an Ordained Power, by which, once He had freely exercised the Absolute Power to create the world in a certain way, He would continue to act consistently in that way. God’s Ordained Power was a mechanism that enabled the nominalists to assert a static moral order, however arbitrary the basis of that order might ultimately be. (On the background to God’s two powers, and how they functioned in Ockham’s thought, see Maurer’s The Philosophy of William of Ockham, 254 ff.)

In Divine Command Morality: Historical and Contemporary Readings, Janine Marie Idziak cites Duns Scotus commenting that killing could become meritorious “if God should revoke this precept, do not kill’.” Ockham followed this line of thought to produce an elaborate proof to demonstrate that, if God had so desired, He could reward murderers with heaven and reward charity with hell. As he put it in his commentary on The Sentences, “the hatred of God, theft, adultery, and actions similar to these…can even be performed meritoriously by an earthly pilgrim if they should come under a divine precept, just as now the opposite of these in fact fall under a divine command.” Or again, with respect to God’s absolute power, Ockham contended that God could have created the moral law to require rather than forbid murder; He even could have made it virtuous for men and women to hate Him. Some nominalists were so keen to preserve the divine freedom that they saw it as an act of piety to point out that with regard to His absolute power, God could have become incarnate as a donkey, but with respect to His ordained power He simply chose to incarnate Himself as a man.

Contemporary philosophers working in the divine command theory of ethics and/or theological voluntarism have generally tended to repudiate the disassociation of the divine will from the divine nature, emphasizing instead that because divine agency flows from the divine nature, the commands uttered by God are consequently necessary conditions of moral obligation but not sufficient conditions; the remaining sufficient conditions involve certain attributes of God’s nature. Thus, for these philosophers the meaning of “good” is grounded in God’s nature. (This was discussed in Jeremy Evans’ PhD dissertation.) It would be a mistake, however, to associate Ockham with this more nuanced school of thought: for him, even the notion that God’s will conforms to His own nature was deeply problematic and forced him to highly qualify the sense in which God is love:

“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. What is, is only because he wills it…. 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.” . (Nihilism Before Nietzsche, p. 16–17.)

This distinction between God’s Absolute Power and Ordained Power was not unique to Ockham and goes back to the eleventh century. The distinction also features in Aquinas’ thought. However, the concept remained marginal to theological debate until Scotus and Ockham widened the range of options available to God’s absolute power. In Aquinas’ intellectualist framework, the divine will was firmly situated within the context of divine intellect, as Francisco J. Contreras Peláez showed in The Threads of Natural Law: Unravelling a Philosophical Tradition. In Ockham’s theology, by contrast, the dissolution of the divine will from the divine intellect meant that God had no attributes apart from His freedom to be free from all attributes. Concerned—not without some warrant—that the dominant scholasticism 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. Under this voluntarist scheme, raw omnipotence was decontextualized from its moorings in the divine nature. This led Ockham to insist that God could even produce in human beings knowledge of a non-existent past if He wanted to, though he never went so far as some medieval thinkers (e.g. John of Mirecourt, Gregory of Rimini, Peter of Ailly, Thomas Bradwardine and Lorenzo Valla) in suggesting that God could actually undo the past. Ockham hoped to combat stagnant views of God’s freedom, yet the result was that God’s behavior became arbitrary. As Timothy Noone observed in his entry “William of 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 was that God cannot be disallowed from doing what seems to involve no contradiction.”

Univocity of Being

Historians often associate Medieval Nominalism with the notion of univocity of being, a metaphysical concept which arose in the thirteenth-century as an alternative to the metaphysical ontology espoused by Aquinas. Drawing on Aristotle’s claim that being is not a univocal predicate, Aquinas had asserted that God’s being is not simply different to the being of created things in degree, but also in essence. Because the being of God is qualitatively different from the being of humankind, God is fundamentally mysterious and the only way to talk about Him is by way of analogy. Consequently, “to-be,” in reference to God and creatures, must be analogical, with God as primary analogue and created things as secondary. Precisely because God’s being is qualitatively more real than the being of created things, the latter must participate in the former in order to achieve its full realization. (With regard to his doctrine of participation at least, Aquinas remained a committed Platonist, as has been demonstrated here and here.) Aquinas’ young contemporary, Duns Scotus challenged this when he reacted to the views of Henry of Ghent (1240-1293) by asserting that there is only one order of being shared by both God and His creation.

Scotus’s metaphysical ontology echoed theories going back to the Muslim philosopher Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna; 980-1037), who had taught that the category of being precedes both God and creatures. By simply existing, Scotus contended, God necessarily belongs to an order of reality that encompasses both Himself and the creatures He has made. On this account, being was reduced to a neutral, objective and univocal category, one which overarches both the human and the divine. As Robert Barron put it, “Though God is infinite and therefore quantitatively superior to any creature or collectivity of creatures, there is nevertheless no qualitative difference, in the metaphysical sense, between the supreme being, God, and finite beings.” For Scotus, this point was fundamental if science and metaphysics were even to be intelligible; unless the most basic principle to all reality (esse) was unambiguous, the scientific endeavor was doomed. Scotus thus hoped that univocity would help sustain the possibility of natural knowledge of God.

Even though Scotus was a philosophical realist, notions of univocity are often associated with nominalism because of their appropriation by William of Ockham, who insisted on unequivocal terminology even more strongly than Scotus.

The common thread between Ockham’s Nominalism and his insistence on Univocity was a dialectic between God and the world in which the two were related like different sides of a zero-sum transaction. In a sense, God and creation became rivals. To quote again from Barron,

“…God and creatures are set side by side, joined only through a convention of logic that assigns them to the category of ‘beings.’ A consequence of this conception is that God and finite things have to be rivals, since their individualities are contrastive and mutually exclusive. Just as a chair is itself precisely in the measure that it is no other creature thing, so God is himself only inasmuch as he stands over and against the world he has made, and vice versa. Whereas in Aquinas’s participation metaphysics the created universe is constituted by its rapport with God, on Occam’s reading it must realize itself through disassociation from a competitive supreme being.” (Barron, The Priority of Christ, p. 14.)


Nominalism and Desacralization

Nominalism came to fruition in a world rich with sacramental significance and symbolic meaning. Carlos Eire summarized the medieval vision when he noted that, “The sacred was diffused in the profane, the spiritual in the material. Divine power, embodied in the Church and its sacraments, reached down through innumerable points of contact to make itself felt.” Andrew Greeley captured this same sacramental vision when he spoke of “an enchanted world” in which “we find our houses and our world haunted by a sense that the objects, events, and persons of daily life are revelations of grace…. The workings of this imagination are most obvious in the Church’s seven sacraments, but the seven are both a result and a reinforcement of a much broader Catholic view of reality.” According to this vision, the physical and the spiritual were seen to intersect mysteriously, as under the right conditions the earthly can participate in the heavenly.

Nominalism did not directly challenge this sacramental tapestry, although it did destabilize the basis for it. Some scholars have rightly pointed out that the nominalist dialectic between God and the world created the conditions for a desacralizing tendency since it reduced any properties intrinsic within the natural world to mere names or conceptual impositions. “If creation depends on the inscrutable decision of a God who totally surpasses the law of human reason,” wrote Dupré in Religion and the Rise of Modern Culture, then “nature loses its intrinsic intelligibility. Grace also becomes a blind result of a divine decree, randomly dispensed to an unprepared human nature. The stress upon a divine omnipotence unrestricted by rationality results in a ‘supernatural order’ separated from nature’s immanent rationality.”

Nominalism entailed a new way of imagining the world and navigating the relationship between the human and the divine, and by extension between the spiritual and the material. Those things which are sacred achieve that status purely by the divine will, while the divine will itself is guided by no antecedent principles, including the divine nature. As C. Scott Pryor put it in a 2006 journal article,

“…nominalism broke the connection of intellectual participation between human beings and God…. Voluntarism emphasized the independence of God’s will from any cause, including his being, nature, or knowledge. The nominalists did not deny that there was a natural law; however, the natural law bound as law only because God’s will imposed it on a created humanity. The intrinsic correlation of the orders of the divine mind, nature, and the human mind was severed.’ C. Scott Pryor, “God’s Bridle: John Calvin’s Application of Natural Law,” Journal of Law and Religion 22, no. 1 (January 1, 2006): 236.

Under Nominalism, the overlapping of heaven and earth that lay at the heart of the sacramental vision ceased to be a consequence of how the world is (or can be under the right conditions) according to the nature of things, since nature had been evacuated of intrinsic ordering. An example of this was how Gabriel Biel labored in his work Exposition of the Canon of the Mass to show that there was nothing sacred and good in created things themselves; rather, things only become sacred and good in so far as God imputed goodness to things through an arbitrary will-act. Goodness, rationality and spiritual potency creased to have an organic relationship to how the world is, but retained coherence only in reference to God’s external will and arbitrary naming activity. Robert Barron captured the nature of this dynamic when he observed that under the voluntarism wrought by Ockhamist Nominalism, “God’s relation with his rational creatures has been attenuated, any connection between the divine and the nondivine has to be through will. God’s relation with his rational creatures is therefore primarily legalistic and arbitrary.”

Crucially, under this more legalistic and arbitrary understanding of will, sacramentalism lost an element of mystery while becoming increasingly mechanistic. In its most perverse form, new emphases came to rest on the actions humans can perform to manipulate the divine fiat. (Diarmaid MacCulloch gives some examples in The Reformation: A history). The ecosystem of superstitious rituals that would attract so much censure from the renaissance humanists, and later the sixteenth-century reformers, arose partly as a result of this new emphasis on grace detached from nature. The indulgence controversy was the most startling example of this radically nominalist posturing: given the right conditions, God can declare a sinner forgiven through a sheer volitional fiat independent of an actual change of nature. Grace came to often be perceived as a created thing, even as a buffer between God and humankind that could be conjured up with the right formula. What was lost was the more natural and organic integration of the earthly with the heavenly that had been characteristic of Western theology roughly from the time of the Cappadocian Fathers through to the thirteenth-century. The type of participatory ontology that had previously arisen as the corollary to a sacramental way of ordering the world began to be eclipsed by the via moderna of the nominalist revolution. Even where the integration of the physical and the spiritual seemed to be preserved—for example, in the obsession with relics and places of pilgrimage—we begin to glimpse a gnostic-like inability to value the things of material creation for their own sake.

Similar observations can be made concerning Univocity of Being. Various authors have recently been focusing on how notions of univocity contributed towards the domestication of God’s transcendence. We might say that ideas of univocity, in concert with the natural trajectory of Ockhamist Nominalism, worked to flatten out the cosmos, divesting it of spiritual potency. At first the doctrine of univocity seems to elevate the material creation since it means that the universe has the same type of being as God Himself. Within the older tradition stretching back to the Cappadocian fathers, however, there had been a constant need for the being of humans and the world to participate in the greater and more substantial being of God. (See David Bradshaw’s discussion of participation in the thought of St. Basil in Aristotle East and West, 172 ff.) The template for this participation had been the Eucharist. This participatory ontology upgraded the importance that the earthly and the heavenly constantly interconnect; creation was seen to be an icon of the transcendent, one that achieved its full realization only through participation. By contrast, under the lens of theological univocity, earthly participation in the heavenly was no longer crucial for the former to realize its full potential. As Robert Barron observed,

“…creatures are no longer seen as participating in the divine to-be; instead, God and creatures are appreciated as existing side by side, as being of varying types and degrees of intensity. Furthermore, unanchored from their shared participation in God, no longer grounded in a common source, creatures lose their essential connectedness to one another.”

Univocity, in concert with Nominalism, bequeathed to Europeans the possibility that the material realm could unfold autonomously, while the separation of the physical from the spiritual became possible, at least in principle. Hans Boersma at Regent College has done a lot of work to explore the anti-sacramental implications of these developments. In his book Heavenly Participation he wrote that

‘With Scotus, we might say, it became possible to deny the sacramentality of the relationship between earthly objects and the Logos as their eternal archetype. No longer did earthly objects (as sacramenta) receive the reality (res) of their being from God’s own being. Rather, earthly objects possessed their own being. No longer was there a mysterious reality hiding within what could be observed by the senses. The full reality of created objects could be seen, heard, touched, smelled, and tasted. The loss of analogy meant the loss of sacramentality.”


Introductory Remarks on Calvin and Nominalism

Having sketched this historical background, I am now ready to look more closely at Calvin. My argument will run something like this. In the metaphysical dialectic of the late medieval nominalists, God must be protected from creation through ensuring that both moral rationality and teleology derive entirely from God’s arbitrary will and not from structures implanted within the economy of creation, nor from verities intrinsic to the divine nature. To oversimplify the matter, but only slightly, we might say that whatever is evacuated from creation is all the more left over to be available for God, as if a pie of fixed size were being divided out between the creation and the creator. I will be suggesting that in the theological imagination of Calvin, the dialectic between God and humanity maps over to an increasing range of concerns, from agency to sacred space. The dread fear of idolatry that would compel Calvin to strip spaces of worship of material accoutrements in order for God’s glory to fully shine, together with the dread fear of autonomy that would compel him to strip human nature of meaningful agency in order for God’s providence to fully operate, both hinge on an impulse he held in common with early modern Nominalism. The impulse was to conceive the relationship between creation and creator as essentially a zero-sum game where the gains of one side are correlated to losses of the other side. This impulse was sometimes explicit, but usually functioned as a background understanding. On this scheme of things, Providence competes with nature for the same ontological space, so that whatever is granted to the latter is that much less left over for the former. In the case of his doctrine of salvation, this meant that freedom and nature must negotiate with Providence for the same space, requiring that any synergy between these realms must either be highly qualified or non-existent.

Cleaning Up the World

Through a long-term and variegated process that worked in concert with numerous other developments, Nominalism played a role in priming Europeans for the kind of thinking popularized by the reform movements of Geneva and Zurich. It did so by introducing a certain mythos into late medieval Europe. (I am using “myth” in the sense articulated by Allen Verhey as being those inescapable networks of meaning which help us to map our world and our place in it. “They serve to orient us, to locate us; they enable us to interpret and to see the significance of the things and events around us.”) What Nominalism had brought to Europeans was a new world-picture in which meaning no longer resided in things themselves but was imposed from outside, principally through will-acts. This type of nominalist logic was at work in the sixteenth-century in the reformed tendency to expel the sacred from particular spaces and times and to relocate it in states of consciousness. The connection between desacralization and Nominalism will become clear if we consider some of the reforms John Calvin brought to Geneva and what he wrote in defense of those reforms.

Under the impulse of Calvin’s hyper-spiritualized liturgical schema, he set about trying to purify worship through emptying it of any and all concessions to materiality. In Calvin’s The Necessity of Reforming the Church he continually contrasted spiritual worship with “external forms”, the latter being mere “subterfuges.” The context to this was Calvin’s commitment to preserve the reality of God’s supreme otherness—a reality threatened by the inappropriate mixing of the divine and the human, the spiritual and the material, the inner and the outer. Only after the church was evacuated and whitewashed could it be properly filled with the Word of God. Thus, St. Peter’s in Geneva was emptied of everything except the pulpit and the table, while the latter was set up only on communion Sundays. Bruce Gordon gives us a glimpse into just how revolutionary these transformations were:

“In 1543 Saint-Pierre had a new pulpit built in the body of the church as the walls were whitewashed, covering all remaining images…. Adults in Geneva in the 1540s would have had memories of a very different world of worship…. During the celebration of the mass the people would have heard the bells, smelt the candles and incense, and responded to the familiar chants of the priests…. The churches were filled with art, their walls painted with scenes from the Bible and the lives of saints and side altars would have been used for intercessory masses…. It was a religion that engaged the senses. The whitewashed churches of the Reformed churches offered an arresting contrast…. The simplicity of the churches was designed to concentrate the eye and mind of worshippers on the service. The whitewashed walls rejected any material mediation of the divine and emphasized its immanence.”

William Dyrness, professor of theology at Fuller Seminary, discussed how Calvin’s emphasis on the event of worship involved a corresponding de-emphasis on the place of worship. In his book Reformed Theology and Visual Culture, Dyrness made the follow observation:

“These reforms made possible a new way of experiencing both worship and the broader world. In Calvin’s Geneva the instruction in the catechism, the prayers even the singing, all were a dramatic elaboration of the preached word (which itself rested on the structure outlined in the Institutes)…. While there is great beauty in St. Peter’s church [where Calvin preached], which is visible to this day, the space and environment of worship did not play a major role in the thinking of Calvin.”

No longer considered sacred space, the church building and its furnishings were reduced to a purely functional capacity, even as the pragmatic Calvin allowed only ceremonies that “display manifest usefulness…” As Calvin himself wrote in his Institutes, “Further, we must strive with the greatest diligence to prevent error from creeping in, either to corrupt or to obscure this pure use. This end will be attained if all observances, whatever they shall be, display manifest usefulness, and if very few are allowed…”

The empty spaces of worship that emerged in Calvin’s wake hinged upon a nominalist dialectic in which transcendence and imminence were inversely related. God’s majesty was guarded precisely by evacuating the created sphere of any particularized sacredness. This move towards desacralization echoed the same concern that lay behind the nominalist discomfort with universals, namely the perception that God and the world exist in an inverse relationship, so that whatever fixity or inherent ordering is acknowledged to exist in the latter must necessarily come out of the portion allowed for the former.

Recall that a theological corollary of Ockhamist metaphysics had been that God and the world compete for the same ontological space. In what we might call a “zero-sum theology,” God’s absolute freedom came to depend on Him not being controlled by the stuff of the natural world; the tendency was, as Oakley put it, “to set God over against the world.” When this implicit dialectic entered into the theological imaginations of the reformers, it found expression in the notion that the problem with objects, places and feast days being “charged” with an extraordinary spiritual potency is that they seem to bind God, to contain His sovereignty within the stuff of materiality. As Charles Taylor observed, summarizing the thinking o the time,

“Treating anything as a charged object, even the sacrament, and even if its purpose is to make me more holy, and not to protect against disease or crop failure, is in principle wrong. God’s power can’t be contained like this, controlled as it were, through its confinement in things, and thus ‘aimed’ by us in one direction or another.”

The concern behind this desacralization was the preservation of God’s ultimate sovereignty and His transcendence from the natural world, yet the operative presupposition was the nominalist antinomy between grace and nature, between Providence and creation.

As the sanctuary came to lack a sense of intrinsic spiritual worth or significance, its value for the life of the worshiping community became entirely instrumentalized rooted in its functional value as a place where people could be protected from the elements. Consistent with this new drive, Calvin urged that places of worship be locked during the week to prevent them being used as places of prayer. As he stipulated, “If anyone be found making any particular devotion inside or nearby, he is to be admonished; if it appears to be a superstition which he will not amend, he is to be chastised.” Commenting on this stipulation, Dyrness remarked that for Calvin, the church

“was the stage on which the performance of worship was played out, and when that was finished, the place had no further role to play…. Worship was everywhere, but it was nowhere in particular. The space of worship was in practice abolished. …This emptiness is the reverse side of the positive impetus to see one’s Christian vocation, and the glory of God, diffused throughout all of life, as Calvin liked to say….

 

“Objects and actions inevitably did come to fill Protestant spaces. Pews, pulpits, and tables—all these could become beautiful objects, but they had no intrinsic religious significance and the space they occupied had a strictly utilitarian function….”

The implicit theology here is one that can be called “univocity of glory” since it hinged on the assumption that God and creation must negotiate for the same glory; whatever is granted to the one will be less available for the other. Calvin had reflected this univocal concept of glory when he objected to the cult of saints on the grounds that it divided up God’s power, allowing saints to “claim some part of it for themselves.” God and creation thus came to be related like two sides in a zero-sum economic transaction.

In Calvin’s systematic theology, the same zero-sum impulse manifested itself in the notion that God’s majesty is correlative to man’s misery, leading Calvin to argue in Book III of The Institutes that God had to orchestrate the damnation of large numbers of humankind so that “the glory of his name is duly revealed.” (sec. 3.23.8.) In Calvin’s liturgics, the same dialectic manifested itself in the notion that material elements must be removed in order to create space for God’s greatness. In this zero-sum theological game, God and creation compete for the same space, and it seems axiomatic that God must always win.

This zero-sum impulse has a clear ideological correlation with Nominalism. Behind the nominalist discomfort with universals was the perception that God and the world exist in an inverse relationship, so that whatever fixity or inherent order is acknowledged to exist in the latter, must necessarily come directly out of God’s portion of glory. Nowhere is this false dilemma more evident than in Calvin’s tendency to pit the material and the spiritual against each other. By drawing on a wide range of primary sources from the reformation, Carlos Eire has convincingly demonstrated that an antithesis between the spiritual and the material was the central focus of reformed theology in the sixteenth-century. Moreover, he has shown that this dualism between the spiritual and the material allows us to appreciate the interdependence of principles that scholars have most frequently posited as being the foundational first principles of Calvin’s theory of worship, namely Soli Deo Gloria (“to God alone be the glory”) and finitum non est capax infiniti (“the finite cannot contain the infinite”). Although the latter phrase does not actually appear within Calvin’s work, the idea is prevalent throughout; moreover, in Calvin’s mind, the latter principle was dependent on the former, since any attempt to encapsulate God’s majesty within material creation inevitable steals from Him the glory to which He is entitled and is a species of inappropriate “mixing.” For example, Calvin’s contention with late medieval piety was not simply that it allegedly institutionalized systematic transgressions of the Second Commandment, but that it attempted to give immanent realization to what is necessarily transcendent and wholly beyond the reaches of the terrestrial realm. The important qualifier in Soli Deo Gloria thus takes on a double meaning: it means not merely that there are no other proper recipients of that glory, but that God’s glory is truly alone in the sense of not being mediated through material existence.

“Calvin’s primary concern in his struggle against catholic piety was to defend the glory of the God who is ‘entirely other,’ who transcends all materiality, who is ‘as different from flesh as fire is from water,’ and whose reality is inaccessible…. Calvin forcefully asserted God’s transcendence through the principle and finitum not est capax infiniti and His omnipotence through soli Deo Gloria. To make others aware of this dual realization, Calvin systematically juxtaposed the divine and the human, contrasted the spiritual and the material, and placed the transcendent and omnipotent solus of God above the contingent multiple of man and the created world. Calvin’s attack on Roman catholic ‘idolatry’ is a condemnation of the improper mixing of spiritual and material worship – an affirmation of the principle finitum not est capax infiniti. It is also an indictment of man’s attempt to domesticate God and to rob him of his glory—an affirmation of the principle soli Deo Gloria.” (Eire, War Against the Idols, 197–198.)

The sense in which God and the world compete for the same space entailed Calvin to continually situate his theology within a series of dualisms: God vs. world, spiritual vs. material, inner vs. outer. I have suggested that this correlated with the underlying impulse of Nominalism, namely the assumption that God and the world compete for the same space in a type of zero-sum relationship. The specific contours of Calvin’s relationship to medieval Nominalism can be characterized along the same lines that Muller identifies regarding Calvin’s dependence on scholastic discussions of intellect and will: while receiving “little explicit attention in Calvin’s theology”, these categories “[hover] in the background of Calvin’s thought as a necessary presupposition of major doctrinal formulations.” This will become even clearer as we explore the key differences between Calvin’s theology and that of Luther.

God and Creation in Competition

Theology is never disembodied but inevitably affects what we conceive piety to be. Calvin’s antithesis between the material and the spiritual, together with his restless attempts to sweep the world clean of sacred particularity, resulted in an antithesis between God and creation that began to change the shape of piety. This becomes clear when we contrast the practical realities of worship in Lutheran lands vs. those lands that fell under Calvin’s sway. Luther’s own crisis of faith had led to an experience of divine favor that would propel him to always emphasize the immediacy of God’s supernatural grace. For Luther, God’s presence could be mediated in physical objects used in religious piety no less than the natural world, while the keen interest he took in music meant that art would always retain a special place in mediating to man something of God’s beauty, majesty and awe. By contrast, Calvin tended to emphasize God’s absolute transcendence, majesty and otherness, resulting in modes of worship that eschewed Lutheran physicality, avoided creativity wherever possible, and denied the mediating function of material objects. As François Wendel observed,

“From the beginning of his work [the Institutes], Calvin places all his theology under the sign of what was one of the essential principles of the Reform: the absolute transcendence of God and his total ‘otherness’ in relation to man. No theology is Christian and in conformity with the Scriptures but in the degree to which it respects the infinite distance separating God from his creature and gives up all confusion, all ‘mixing’, that might tend to efface the radical distinction between the Divine and the human.”

Though Calvin did not go as far as Zwingli in banning all music from the church service, he allowed only unaccompanied Psalm singing and simple melodies sung in unison and developed theological arguments to try to prove that musical instruments in worship were among the shadows that were dispelled “when the clear light of the gospel has dissipated.” Richard Arnold noted that even “Calvin’s enthusiasm for singing was subject to a crucial qualification: he restricted what was to be sung exclusively to the Psalms – these were, he writes in 1543, the songs provided by God and dictated by His Holy Spirit, and it would be presumptuous and sacrilegious for humankind to sing any words or arrangements of his or her own devising.” Calvin’s hostility to using objects of human creation in worship led to stunted creativity in the lands that fell under Calvin’s sway, especially with regard to music, as has been observed by Paul Lang and Evelyn Underhill and Richard Arnold and William Dyrness.

Behind this liturgical minimalism seems to have been a discomfort with mediation and an attempt to realize spiritual immediacy. The evacuation of inherent meaning and order from the realm of things gave rise to an almost gnostic-like discomfort in worshiping God through the stuff of creation. For Luther, finding God’s presence through physical objects used in religious piety was at least adiaphora, while the keen interest he took in music meant that art would always retain a special place in mediating to humans something of God’s beauty, majesty and awe. By contrast, the dispassionate and logical Calvin tended to emphasize God’s absolute transcendence, majesty and otherness, resulting in modes of worship that eschewed physical gestures such as kneeling (see Gordon’s Calvin, p. 136), avoided creativity wherever possible, denied the mediating function of material objects (see Dyrness, pp. 192-196), and strove to tether both belief and piety to those things which could be formulated in purely didactic terms. Consistent with this urge, he insisted that ceremonies must decrease so that doctrines can increase, declaring that “Since Jesus Christ has been manifested in the flesh, doctrine having been much more clearly delivered, ceremonies (figures) have diminished.” Calvin did, however, permit what he called “some outward exercises of godliness” because “our weakness renders [it] necessary”.

If for Luther the fundamental dichotomy at the heart of reality is that between faith and works, and if for Zwingli it was the dualism between the visible and the invisible, for Calvin the fundamental tension was between the material and the immaterial. This dichotomy was correlative to an implicit anthropology in which the body is not only subservient to the mind, but exists as its natural competitor. Calvin showed no hesitation invoking the distinctly Platonic idea that the body is a prison, writing that “when Christ commended his spirit to the Father and Stephen his to Christ they meant only that when the soul is freed from the prison house of the body, God is its perpetual guardian.” In the same section he wrote, “It is of course true that while men are tied to earth more than they should be they grow dull…” This devaluing of earthly experience is likely what lay behind Calvin’s insistence that it is the invisible soul, not the physical body, in which the image of God properly resides.

Calvin’s ecclesiology likewise veered toward a preference for the invisible body of Christ over the visible, as evidenced by the fact that he was very willing to acknowledge that for whole periods of history the church had existed without any visible manifestation at all. Calvin believed that the Catholic church of his day was not only lacking in the essential marks of the church, but represented Babylon and the system of the anti-Christ. Thus, when his friend Gérard Roussel chose to serve as a Catholic bishop despite being convinced of evangelical theology, Calvin wrote to him, “you are a soldier in the army of the antichrist….Think what you want about yourself: I, at the very least, will never consider you a Christian, or a good man.” But while Calvin believed that God’s church could not be identified with the Roman communion, he denied that prior to the Reformation the church had ceased existing, although he did urge that the church had ceased existing in its visible manifestation. As he wrote in the introduction to the Institutes, “We, on the contrary, affirm that the church can exist without any visible appearance, and that its appearance is not contained within that outward magnificence which they foolishly admire.” (Preface, Section 6.) But if the Church can exist without any visible appearance, then where is it? In his essay ‘Revising the Reform: What Calvin Learned from Dialogue with the Roman Catholic’ in the volume John Calvin and Roman Catholicism: Critique and Engagement, Then and Now, Randall Zachman showed that Calvin’s answer to the question “Where is the church?” is that the church consists as the aggregate of individuals who, by virtue of the pure preaching of the Word and the lawful administration of the sacraments, comprise the true remnant of the church, even if it remains hidden from view. Thus, while Calvin believed that the Roman communion could not be considered a legitimate church, he taught that it contained within itself the true church hidden from view. Similar notions can be found in both Luther and Zwingli, as well as the second generation Protestant reformers. The basic idea was that while it is preferable for the church to have a visible and institutional grounding, the predicate of visibility is not strictly necessary for the church to be the church. Calvin was quite comfortable saying that the material aspect of Christ’s body, the church, could completely disappear from history since the church is not a visible institution to begin with. As Bruce Gordon observed,

“The true Church is not the visible institution… This Church, according to Calvin, can at times be invisible, hence its apparent disappearance from history, but it is never entirely lost. God knows the chosen: ‘let us therefore leave to him the fact that he sometimes removes from men’s sight the external notion of his Church.’”

In his ecclesiology, as in his liturgics, it was the abstract and invisible that chiefly mattered to the rationalistic Calvin. Consistent with the nominalist concern not to mix God’s glory with the stuff of creation, Calvin’s theology tended to eclipse both instrumental and final causality with a primary causation resting solely on God’s direct volition. Sometimes he did this by trivializing the true causative nature of the instruments God employs: for example, in his discussion of salvation in Book II of the Institutes, Calvin was at pains to make clear that the sacrifice of Christ had no intrinsic efficacy, but was meritorious only because the First Cause had decreed that Christ’s mediatory work would be effective (Institutes, 2.17.1.) Having been pressed by Laelius Socinus on the relation between salvation as literally merited vs. salvation as graciously bestowed, Calvin responded that Christ’s merit procured salvation only through God’s ordination. Christ’s righteousness is wholly dependent on the Father’s decree and does not relate to anything within Christ Himself. In this regard, Calvin echoed the moderate voluntarism of Scotus, who had argued that the merits of Christ’s passion had their value conferred extrinsically by God, in much the same way that God could transform an act of attrition into an act of contrition under the circumstances of confession. (On Scotus’ doctrine of attrition, see Richard Cross, Duns Scotus.) It is true that, in theory, Calvin had no difficulty acknowledging that God worked through means, acknowledging that His providence “sometimes…works through an intermediary, sometimes without an intermediary, sometimes contrary to every intermediary.” (Institutes, 2.17.1) Yet in practice Calvin’s preference seems to have always been towards primary causality: it was better for God to always act directly rather than through things. As William Bouwsma writes,

“A major consequence of Calvin’s concern to protect God’s power was his tendency to minimize ‘secondary causes.’ He did not reject the fact that God works through them, but, again less concerned with truth than consequences, he discouraged attention to the regularities of nature as likely to reduce the sense of God’s power…. Calvin attacked natural philosophy, therefore, for its preoccupation with secondary causes. His attack on secondary causes was paralleled by his tendency to minimize uniformities and continuities in both nature and human affairs; he was uneasy that human beings might try to subordinate the infinite possibilities latent in God’s will to human expectations based on generalizations about the nature of things. The notion of dependable regularity in nature seemed to him to imply some limit on the inventiveness of the Deity.”

Other scholars who have echoes Bouwsma’s observations include:

The exception to the general hesitancy about secondary causation that these scholars have observed in Calvin’s corpus, was Calvin’s approach to theodicy. Within the context of theodicy, the category of secondary causation would be a convenient mechanism for asserting that God is the cause of evil without being the author of evil. (See Mary Potter Engel’s discussion of this in John Calvin’s Perspectival Anthropology, p. 135.) The operational eclipse of instrumentation within Calvin’s theological schema fed on the implicit (and often merely operational) idea that Providence competes with nature for the same ontological space. As in early modern Nominalism, God’s otherness became correlative to rigid qualifications of divine immanence that aimed to assure us that God is not bound by creation. As Jeremy Begbie observed, “Calvin seems especially anxious about anything that might compromise God’s utter otherness. He is certainly very wary about granting any human activity too great a role, anything that would diminish God’s lordship or suggest that God is not free, that he is somehow at our beck and call.” In one sense, Calvin’s stress on God’s otherness seems to increase the divine transcendence since, to quote again from McDonnell, “The flight from secondary causality is seen as a return to transcendence.” At the same time, however, the emphasis on God’s otherness increased the need for new models of understanding divine immanence. A fresh sense of God’s active power was unleashed upon the world; God’s providence was seen to be what Calvin himself described as “a watchful, effective, active sort, engaged in ceaseless activity.” (Institutes, 1.16.3.) Leif Dixon’s scholarship has shown that this fresh sense of God’s power was necessary in order to reinvest the natural world with meaning following the desacralizing trajectory that arose from the Reformation’s appropriation of Nominalism. Such an appropriation entailed new ways of navigating the matrix of transcendence and immanence, leaving Europeans with a further bifurcation between grace and nature, while continuing to expel the more organic sacramental ontology that had been the chief casualty of early modern Nominalism.

Calvin’s Dismembered Sacramentalism

Calvin was born into a world characterized by a sacramental integration of the spiritual and the material, the human and the divine. However, Nominalism and Voluntarism had rendered the basis for this sacramental integration less clear.

Calvin is sometimes said to have instituted a sacramental recovery, while his thought is increasingly being pointed to as offering what Alister-McGrath described as a “strongly world-affirming theology.” Calvin’s constricted and dismembered sacramentalism has provided a rich oasis to modern evangelicals whose anti-sacramental backgrounds have left them starved for catholicity and Eucharistic order. Not familiar with anything else, they will frequently make herculean efforts to represent Calvin as a genuinely sacramental thinker. However, the process of representing Calvin as the great defender of incarnational religion, theologians and historians can easily overlooked those aspects of Calvin’s approach to the physical realm that was suffused by a Nominalist, and even a quasi-gnostic, orientation towards the material world.

It is true that Calvin defended the instrumentality of the sacraments, in addition to advocating a type of Real Presence. Indeed, Calvin’s views on Real Presence led Bullinger to claim that Calvin’s sacramental teaching differed little from the teaching of the papists, and led Charles Hodge to claim that Calvin’s doctrine of the Supper was a perilous intrusion into Reformed theology. Nevertheless, to the extent that Calvin’s doctrine of the Eucharist was not situated within the architecture of a more general sacramental ordering of things, it could never rise above the status of being God’s concession to our materiality. As Calvin himself would write, “since we are creatures who always creep on the ground, cleave to flesh, and, do not think about or even conceive of anything spiritual, he condescends to lead us to himself even by these earthly elements, and to set before us in the flesh a mirror of spiritual blessings.” (Institutes, IV.XIV.III) Philip Lee, who tried his best to separate Calvin from the individualistic and gnostic approaches that would follow in his wake, was forced to admit that Calvin’s word-centred approach “left the Eucharist dangling, an inadequately attached appendage to his system.” Lee was echoed by Dyrness who noted that “The objects of the sacraments have no intrinsic importance, either aesthetically or theologically – these aspects have been stripped away. Rather the performance of the preached word enacted in the sacraments becomes a unique mediation of grace, and it is the theological center of Calvin’s cultural-aesthetic identity.” Though there remain a variety of views concerning Calvin’s doctrine of the supper, it seems hard to deny that the communion elements become simply adjuncts to the word, a necessity given the inability of physical beings to “conceive of anything spiritual.” “…throughout [Calvin’s] teaching he insisted upon the secondary and supplementary character of the sacraments, whereas the Gospel could be sufficient of itself in case of need, and ought normally to be so, were it not for our weakness which makes us dependent upon cruder kinds of assistance.” (Wendel, Calvin: the Origins and Development of his Religious Thought, p. 312.)

Even Calvin’s notion that the world is a theatre of God’s glory eventually collapsed under the weight of his hyper-spiritualized approach to liturgics. Throughout his commentaries Calvin was always quick to remind his reader that the reason images of God are inadmissible is because they were made out of what he called “dead material’ like trees, silver, gold and stone.” Things made from these “dead materials” could never approach the infinite, incomprehensible majesty of God. Yet when Calvin moved from the realm of sub-creation to creation, he was quite willing to concede that physical materials like trees could convey something of God’s character and that such objects, like the universe itself, could be living images of the goodness and liberality of the Creator. In fact, Calvin’s notion of the world as a theatre of God’s glory served as a platform from which he argued that creating images is futile. Similarly, when Calvin emptied the church of all concessions to materiality, he was keen to emphasize that this is because human beings themselves, not inanimate objects, are the ultimate image of the Creator. However, to the extent that these living icons are visible, a consistent application of Calvin’s argument against inanimate images would exclude even human beings from being able to represent God in any meaningful way. For example, Calvin’s statement in his Exodus commentary that “It is wrong for men to seek the presence of God in any visible image, because he cannot be represented to our eyes”, seems to dampen the prospect of the congregation of living saints being able to image God in any meaningful way. This problem is partially resolved by Calvin’s insistence that it is the invisible soul, not the visible body, in which the image of God properly resides. By thus qualifying the doctrine of the image of God in this way, Calvin was able to bracket off the material body from playing any significant role in imaging the creator, and to preserve God’s essential invisibility and incomprehensibility in the process.

Randall Zachman suggested that one of the reasons why the theme of manifestation has been neglected in Calvin scholarship is precisely because it has been overshadowed by the reformer’s repeated appeal to the incomprehensible essence of God. Zachman tried to resolve this tension by suggesting that Calvin had been attempting “to maintain the dialectical relationship between the visibility and invisibility of God.” A more likely explanation is that Calvin’s inconsistency resulted from the polemical and historical context of his theology, as well as from the operational Nominalism that colored his philosophy of the world. With regard to the former, it should not be overlooked that a web of political priorities lay behind the theoretical constructions of reformation theology, chief of which was the concern to avoid the alleged errors of Roman Catholic idolatry and the network of superstitions that had developed in the world of late medieval piety. This concern seems to have driven Calvin to develop an approach to worship that existed in tension to the broader outlines of his systematic thought.

The polemical and political context of Calvin’s ideas about worship may also account for why the reformer never felt inclined to offer a serious attempt at repairing the sacramental tapestry that had begun to be ripped apart by developments in the late Middle Ages. The participation of the earthly in the divine lost something of its organic character, becoming increasingly a matter of manipulating spiritual forces through the right formulae. Calvin could have attacked this system by appealing to an older and more organic sacramentalism. He had a wealth of sacramental theology available to him from Augustine, whom he quotes in the Institutes more than any other non-scriptural authority. Yet Calvin tended to focus on Augustine’s commentaries and his theology of grace, stripped from the metaphysics of participation in which Augustine’s views were originally situated. Calvin’s concern for idolatry, together with the momentum generated by the politics of the reform movement, ensured that he would neglect this aspect of Augustine’s thought. Instead Calvin assumed the world-picture of Nominalism in which things themselves were divested of inherent order, meaning and purpose. The result was that Calvin’s sacramental theology, though strong in itself, remained isolated from his larger theological project.

Even within his own theology Calvin had the resources for a more integrated sacramental understanding. For example, at the center of Calvin’s doctrine of the Eucharistic was his teaching about union with Christ: by participating in the body and blood of Christ men and women come to share in the divine life that is communicated to Christ’s human nature. This theology could have provided a template for recovering a non-nominalist, integralist doctrine of grace and nature as applied to the entire world. Yet Calvin never pushed his sacramentalism that far: his sacramentalism is not integral to his theory of nature, and indeed the latter can stand without any support from the former. Had he advocated a Zwinglian memorial view of the Supper, it is hard to envision what adjustment would have been required to his teaching that the universe is a theatre of the divine glory. Indeed, as Hans Boersma observed, Calvin’s theory of manifestation “doesn’t require participation or sacramentality” and can easily be sustained without any theory of presence. Calvin could hold the natural world in high regard, but only as an important pedagogical tool. The foundation of Calvin’s sacramentalism is the concept of manifestation rather than participation, and significantly, the former is driven by the doctrine of creation rather than the doctrine of incarnation. Ultimately, this is why attempts to show that Calvin was a sacramental thinker must concern themselves merely with a narrow analysis of his doctrine of the Eucharist itself while ignoring the broader scope of his theological corpus.

Despite his qualified doctrine of Real Presence, Calvin’s theology of manifestation acted as a substitute for the theology of presence, so that the physical became merely a signpost for the heavenly realm instead of sacramentally participating in it. (On the difference between signs and sacraments, see the helpful discussion, in Boersma’s Heavenly Participation, 22–24.) For Calvin, the universe spoke to humankind of the divine, but it was not suffused with supernatural presence; it was a theatre of a higher reality, but fell short of being sacramentally charged in the way we find in Augustine. Because the kind of sacramentalism that Calvin did offer was anchored in the doctrine of creation rather than the doctrine of incarnation, the result was a loss in the organic interdependence between the material and the spiritual, the earthly and the heavenly.

Whether or not it can be established that Calvin’s thought was explicitly motivated by his reading of nominalist sources, his approach to the sacred clearly worked within the template of the nominalist assumptions that permeated the intellectual plausibility structures of his time. Behind the explicit doctrines formulated by Calvin lay an implicit way of re-imagining the world, one which hinged on the nominalist tendency to inversely relate grace and nature. Seen as such, the division between the material and the spiritual that remained a key feature of Calvin’s operational theology emerged as merely one dualism within a wider matrix of competing disjunctions bequeathed to him from his nominalist predecessors.

His failure to recover an earlier sacramentalism had enormous implications in his understanding of time and place. A desacralizing tendency was let loose in the world as the sacred became ubiquitous. The church became locked, not because the building was no longer considered a sacred location for prayer, but because everywhere was seen to be a location for devotional piety. However, what was ostensibly a quantitative enlargement of the sacred was also a qualitative transformation of it. Indeed, the move from sacred particularity became a move towards disenchantment, as definite times and places could no longer function as avenues for a more specific integration of the physical and the spiritual.

If conflating the distinction between the sacred and the profane meant that everything could become sacred, in another sense it meant that nothing could any longer be considered sacred. This resulted in two instincts that seem mutually exclusive but which both emerged organically from the narrative of Sola Dei Gloria. One instinct was to glorify God by seeing the finite charged with the infinite, while the other was to preserve God’s glory by making sure the infinite and the finite are never mixed. If the former seemed to result in a new valuation of the world and humankind’s experience living within the theatre of God’s glory, the latter involved a principled commitment to the non-integration of the physical with the spiritual.

At the heart of this new world-picture is not so much Calvin’s teaching as a theological system, but his way of imagining the world as we see it expressed in the social realities of Calvinist piety. Calvin never explicitly stated that grace and nature are inversely related, yet the idea runs like a subterranean stream throughout the Institutes in general and his discussion of images in particular. This may go a long way towards explaining the curious absence of the doctrine of incarnation from Calvin’s discussion of images in Book 1, chapter 11 of the Institutes. Here Calvin itemizes the various times that God appeared in material form: he reflected on the time He appeared in the cloud, the smoke, the flame, and when the Holy Spirit appeared under the form of a dove. Rather curiously, however, Calvin omitted to mention the incarnation among these examples, though he does say that some of these events were anticipations of the revelation of God in Christ. The crucial question he overlooked is whether the Second Person of the Trinity counts as one of these instances of God appearing in visible form; for if a divine person did assume human nature, then it becomes impossible to sustain Calvin’s oft-repeated claim that “God…is incomprehensible, to our sense perceptions,” (Institutes) and that “it is inconsistent with the nature of God to be represented… by any kind of likeness” (Commentary on 1st Corinthians), and that “God’s glory is corrupted by an impious falsehood whenever any form is attached to him”, (Institutes) and that “He cannot be represented to our eyes…His truth corrupted by the lie, whenever He is set before our eyes in a visible form….” (Commentary on Exodus). If taken literally, all such statements force us to downgrade the significance of the incarnation; after all, if a visible image of God is insulting to His majesty, then the physical body of Christ would have been insulting since Christ was a visible image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15) and the “form of God” (Philippians 2:6-7). Significantly, Colossians 1:15 only appears twice in the Institutes, and both appearances are in Book 2 rather than in the discussion of the knowledge of God in Book 1. James Payton has drawn attention to this in his fascinating critique of Calvin’s deficient treatment of the Seventh Ecumenical Council. Payton shows that by choosing to situate his lengthy discussion of the second commandment in Book 1 instead of in his discussion of the Decalogue in Book 2 (where it had been placed in the 1536 edition), Calvin was able to completely bypass the Christological focus that lay behind the Seventh Ecumenical Council’s vindication of icons.

“Since idols convey false information about the divine – God cannot be visibly portrayed – it is possible that rhetorical considerations regarding the treatment of the knowledge of God might well have warranted dealing with the second commandment in Book 1. As just noted, though, the fathers of Nicea II rejected with as much vehemence as Calvin both idolatry and the notion that the invisible God could be visibly portrayed. Nevertheless, they also argued for the legitimacy of icons of Christ who is, according to St. Paul, ‘the image of the invisible God.’ From their perspective it was possible to reject idolatry connected with images and on the basis of the incarnation affirm a proper understanding of images and their use. Therefore to deal fairly with their presentations would have required Calvin to interact with both positions. With the treatment of the second commandment firmly anchored in Book 1, however, any consideration of the incarnation of Christ would have been logically and rhetorically out of place – and, indeed, none is to be found. St. Paul’s statement is found only twice in the 1559 Institutes, and both times appear in Book 2; neither citation occurs in the discussion of the person of Christ or addresses the possible relationship of that doctrine to the question if icons. Indeed, it is startling to realize that neither in Book 1 (the discussion of the second commandment) nor in Book 2 (the treatment of the person of Christ) did Calvin deal with the question if icons of Christ, or the specific question of their legitimacy. In any event, it is undeniable that Calvin’s location of the discussion of the second commandment in Book 1 ends up being prejudicial against the decision of Nicea II, and that his treatment of the person of Christ in Book 2 bypasses the issue. Calvin’s definitive 1559 edition of the Institutes, thus, allowed early Reformed iconoclasm to go unchallenged by the seventh ecumenical council.” James Payton R., ‘Calvin and the Legitimation of Icons: His Treatment of the Seventh Ecumenical Council,’ Archiv Für Reformationsgeschichte 84 (1993): 239–240.)

By ignoring the full ramifications of the incarnation, Calvin was able to construct a minimalist liturgical scheme which betrays his preference for incorporeality. This was part of a new way of navigating the spiritual and the physical in which these realms became quantitatively divisible rather than merely qualitatively distinguishable. The corollary to this seems to be a tacit assumption that if too much is afforded to the material realm then there is that much less left over to give the spiritual, as if the two exist in an inverse relationship to each other. It is as if what belongs to God and what belongs to creation must be rationed out of the same “univocal” category, as we might divide up the pieces of a pie.

The twentieth-century Scottish theologian, Thomas Torrance, saw Calvin’s anti-sacramental and desacralizing tendencies as wonderful developments, since the Reformation’s separation of grace and nature was supposedly a necessary move to “guard the Godness of God” and preserve “the naturalness of nature.” Significantly, Torrance acknowledged that in order to achieve this, the reformers needed to first overthrow the Augustinian understanding of the universe “as a sacramental macrocosm in which the physical and visible were held to be the counterpart in time to eternal and heavenly patterns.” In Torrance’s mind, this “new outlook involving the primacy of grace’ released Europeans from the shackles of needing ‘to find [the world’s] meaning in its participation in the divine.” This non-participatory way of relating grace and nature “bore immense fruit, for it at once disenchanted the world”, a process Torrance saw as reaching its pinnacle in Francis Bacon’s separation of grace and nature and his elimination of all final causation from the world. Torrance rightly situated this shift in Duns Scotus and William of Ockham’s challenge to the Christian-Platonic synthesis that had dominated “for more than a thousand years…” The corollary of this older outlook, Torrance contended, had been “the notion of a sacramental universe…” Since Torrance considered the idea of a sacramental universe to be appalling, his heroes were Scotus and Ockham. By undermining the foundation of a sacralised world, these heroes of modernity created the context in which Calvin could finish the process of worldly disenchantment, at the same time as modifying Ockhamist epistemology (at least, according to Torrance). The basic assumption behind the disenchantment Torrance praised is that nature is a competitor from which God must be guarded. Only by overthrowing Augustine’s sacramental universe, and only by separating grace and nature, was Torrance satisfied that the reformers had succeeded in “guard[ing] the Godness of God.”

Calvin and the Hidden God of Voluntarism

By the late Middle Ages, the philosophy of Nominalism had achieved a measure of dominance. It was actually the counter-reformation that assured Aquinas the prominent place he came to enjoy in Roman Catholic theology ever since. Despite the strong influence of Aquinas on the medieval schoolmen, by the mid fourteenth-century, many of Europe’s top universities were using Nominalism, not Thomism, as the principal framework for teaching natural and moral philosophy. This was partly propelled by Renaissance humanism, with which had many points of affinity with Nominalism. Some authors who have discussed this include:

William of Ockham’s fifteenth-century disciple, Gabriel Biel (1420-1495), expressed the nominalist groundswell that was engulfing Europe when he declared that the divine will was purely arbitrary, ungrounded in any context of order:

“God can do something which is not just for God to do; yet if he were to do it, it would be just that this be done. Wherefore the divine will alone is the first rule of all justice, and because he wills something to be done, it is just that it be done, and because he wills something not to be done, it is not just that it be done. …the will of God is the rule of its own self; and therefore it cannot fail to be righteous. …it is not the case that God wills it because it is right; on the contrary, because He wills it, it is therefore right.”

By the time of the sixteenth-century, the real significance of Nominalism was not merely that it was the reigning orthodoxy in most of the schools, but that it had created a substratum of assumptions which tinctured how Europeans ‘imagined’ their place in the world. The theology articulated by many of the reformers worked within the general template of the nominalist via moderna. For many of them, God’s will-acts took on a new importance as the connecting link within the ecosystem of meaning. Grace became exclusively the domain of God’s will-acts without such acts having any organic connection to prior occurrences in the realm of nature. The Reformation would thus see the emergence of new juridical models of soteriology that hinged on the nominalist antinomy between grace and nature. Perhaps the clearest example of the new juridical soteriology is the way reformers like Calvin and Luther would painstakingly work to keep the nominal or federal aspects of justification separate from the ontological or actual aspects. I discussed this in ‘Was Calvin a Nominalist? Part 1: Historical and Theological Background’, so I will not repeat myself here; however, it will be worthwhile to look closer at Calvin’s contributions to Protestant Voluntarism.

Calvin does not seem to have been a Voluntarist in a self-conscious and explicit sense; however, there are clear ideological correlations with Voluntarism that function as a point of integration for much of his system. Calvin was especially concerned to protect God’s freedom from the perceived threat of man’s will through grounding both ethics and salvation in the extrinsic dimension of raw will. His assumption that nature is a competitor from which God must be guarded was concomitant with the type of monergistic soteriological models that dominated Book III of the Institutes and which achieved even greater primacy in the writings of his successors.

Within the context of Calvin’s monergistic soteriology, freedom and nature must negotiate with Providence for the same space, and because it is the latter that must always win out, any synergy between the two must be left to die the death of a thousand qualifications. By setting the ‘Godness’ of God up at the expense of creation, monergistic soteriology becomes not merely true, but true necessarily, for on this scheme of things it is no more possible for God to create a non-monergistic universe while remaining fully sovereign than it is possible for Him to cease being God. As such, Calvin’s monergistic soteriology followed the theological deposit left by Augustine who, wanting to liberate the divine will from all bondage to a priori necessity, ended up merely substituting another form of necessitarianism. As David Bradshaw explained,

“…the Augustinian interpretation of predestination is not only true but is necessarily true, since God could not create creatures who are capable in any way of affecting His judgments regarding salvation and damnation….Yet the Augustinian position began precisely as the attempt to exalt the divine will over all necessity.” David Bradshaw, “The Concept of the Divine Energies,” Philosophy and Theology 18, no. 1 (2006): 117–18.

Within Calvin’s theological metaphysics, God’s sovereignty becomes acutely fragile, threatened by anything that might undermine the creational and soteriological monergism on which it precariously hinged. The result is that instead of God and nature being related analogically, there is a univocal freedom and a univocal glory that must be partitioned out between God and creatures. A concomitant of this nominalist dialectic is that meaning and teleology no longer reside in things themselves but are imposed from outside in ways that involve explicit incongruities. The incongruities arise at the point in which the divine will-acts, now broken down into separate modes, offer a competing teleology to the same object simultaneously. For example, the distinction between God’s revealed will and His hidden will forced Calvin to set in opposition the teleology that is normative for an object with the teleology that God ultimately wills for the same object. With respect to God’s revealed will, the telos of each and every individual includes eternal union with Him, but with respect to God’s hidden will, the telos of certain individuals includes eternal disunion with Him. (And by the way, this dual-telos is a necessary consequence of Calvin’s system regardless of whether one maintains he was a supralapsarian or an infralapsarian, and regardless of whether one holds that Calvin believed in single predestination or double predestination.) However, since God reveals Himself to humankind in terms of the first mode while relating to humankind in terms of the second, a radical discontinuity is set up between God as He is and God as human beings experience Him, between appearance and reality. Accordingly, the telos that is universally normative for all persons (i.e., that the final end of all men is to be united with Him) achieves its normativity purely through God naming it to be such, even though this naming-activity remains dislocated from the actual telos of God’s hidden will (i.e. that it is not the final end of all persons, but only some, to be united with Him). However, since Calvin could not completely abandon the quest for teleological unity, the hidden generally takes precedent over the revealed will, with the latter being reduced to mere accommodatio. (I have discussed the existential and devotional problems that this dual teleology creates in my article ‘Why I Stopped Being a Calvinist (Part 3): Calvinism Dislocates God From our Experience of Him.’)

It is undisputed that for men like Theodore Beza God’s hidden will takes precedent over His revealed will. However, Hans Boersma convincingly demonstrated that even in Calvin, the overarching emphasis remains fixed on God’s hidden will, with His revealed will being in some sense subordinate. The reduction of revealed truths to divine accommodation creates more than merely a quantitative distinction between appearance and reality, but throws into question any qualitative connection between divine revelation and ultimate reality. Any qualitative connection between grace and nature is also severed: divine grace proceeds out of the hidden will (the perspective of God), which remains distinct from, and in some cases at complete odds with, the revealed will by which God accommodates Himself to humankind in the realm of nature (the perspective of humankind). Further information about this dual-perspective can be found in Mary P. Engel’s John Calvin’s Perspectival Anthropology. The end result of dislocating God as He is with God as He is revealed to us, is essentially a hidden God. Under the influence of what Susan Schreiner identified as “Scotist-nominalist categories”, Calvin essentially “posits a God hidden outside of nature, history, and Christ.” Boersma summarizes the basic problem that emerged:

“Whereas God’s revealed will is communal (with God wanting everyone to follow his law), his hidden will concerns the outcomes of the lives of specific individuals. Whereas the external preaching of the Word extends to many (though not all), the inward working of the Spirit is limited to those who have been chosen from eternity. Whereas the outward call merely leads to a general adoption and thus remains impersonal, adopting through the gift of faith means an intimate and mystical union with Christ. Finally, whereas the preaching of God’s revealed will is always accompanied by the demand of faith, God’s electing will is unconditional and absolutely certain, so that all who have been granted the special grace of God’s Spirit will persevere till the end.”

Calvin’s constant dichotomizing between the hidden will and the revealed will, between the outward and the inward, between the external and the internal, between the visible and the invisible, between the communal and the individual, between appearance and reality, left him without the categories for an organic integration between grace and nature, and rendered him unable to affirm any qualitative connection between God as He is versus God as men and women experience Him. A consistent corollary to Calvin’s dislocation of reality and appearance is that the world yields no insight into God as He really is; as such, the world becomes fundamentally mysterious. All that human beings have access to is the results of God’s will, which often disguises rather than reveals the true contours of divine intentionality.

By ordering the world according to a web of rigid dichotomies, Calvin was forced to deny that God’s interactions with the world actually yielded significant insight into His nature. The Ockhamists had been committed to a similar denial as a result of a voluntarism which objected to God’s will-acts having any antecedents; for Calvin, this denial arose as a corollary to the opposition he set up between God’s revealed will and His hidden will. In both cases there is a particular dialectic between God and creation in which the latter becomes detached from any intrinsic ordering. Order is derived from isolated will acts which themselves suggest no antecedent normative structures. Calvin made this explicit in his Institutes, where he reserved some of his harshest language for those who would suggest causes to the will of God. Indeed, the only way Calvin could be assured that God’s sovereignty remained intact was by removing the divine will from the province of rationality and appealing to a raw fideism. As Calvin wrote,

“…it is very wicked merely to investigate the causes of God’s will. For his will is, and rightly ought to be, the cause of all things that are…. For God’s will is so much the highest rule of righteousness that whatever he wills, by the very fact that he wills it, must be considered righteous. When, therefore, one asks why God has so done, we must reply: because he has willed it. But if you proceed further to ask why he so willed, you are seeking something greater and higher than God’s will, which cannot be found.” (Institutes, 3.32.2).

In making God’s will-acts the final standard of justice, Calvin severely limited any sense in which one may speak of God’s choices flowing out of His nature. God’s will, not God’s nature, is what Calvin called “the necessity of all things.” But if the divine nature does not create the context for the divine will, then it is hard to avoid the conclusion that God’s will is purely arbitrary. Hans Boersma suggested that nominalist moves like this were made necessary once Calvin moved divine violence out of the realm of history and located it in the heart of God’s character. The concept of hidden justice, which is closely situated within the nominalist dialectic, functioned as a mechanism for precluding objections among those who might find it difficult to worship such a God. This contrasts sharply with Calvin’s arch-nemesis, Aquinas, who had posited a congruence between human and divine understandings of ethics. By recognizing no standard outside the divine will, Calvin precludes objections from those who might find it difficult to worship such a God. “God appears to will things not because they are just,” observed Boersma about Calvin’s God, “but they are just because God wills them. It is difficult to escape the idea that god stands outside the law (ex lex).” As grace comes to be associated with God’s hidden will, while nature remains the province of the divine accommodatio, there ceases to be the categories for any organic integration between grace and nature, or between appearance and existence.

In Book III of The Institutes Calvin used the concept of hidden justice as a moral antiseptic to clean up any ethical contamination that might have been left by his teaching on double predestination. Having argued that “eternal life is foreordained for some, eternal damnation for others” and “as any man has been created to one or the other of these ends, we speak of him as predestined to life or to death” and “God not only foresaw the fall of the first man, and in him the ruin of his descendants, but also meted it out in accordance with his own decision”, and “the Lord has created those whom he unquestionably foreknew would go to destruction…because he so willed”, Calvin then proceeded to argue that the justice of this plan is completely secret:

“we must always at last return to the sole decision of God”s will, the cause of which is hidden in him…. For if predestination is nothing but the meting out of divine justice—secret, indeed, but blameless—because it is certain that they were not unworthy to be predestined to this condition, it is equally certain that the destruction they undergo by predestination is also most just…. The reprobate wish to be considered excusable in sinning, on the ground that they cannot avoid the necessity of sinning, especially since this sort of necessity is cast upon them by God’s ordaining. But we deny that they are duly excused, because the ordinance of God, by which they complain that they are destined to destruction, has its own equity—unknown, indeed, to us but very sure.” Institutes 3.21.5–3.23.9.

Calvin did not go to the same lengths as his medieval predecessors in itemizing all the horrendous actions God might have performed while still remaining good, but he did argue, in his sermons on Job, that God might have condemned even the unfallen angels and this would be just purely because He is God. In suggesting that it would be just for God to give the unfallen angels a share of common creaturely justice, Calvin appealed to the great gulf between the finite and the infinite. In Calvin’s thinking, the fact that angels are not God was itself sufficient grounds for their just condemnation. In the process of developing this argument, Calvin made the secret justice of God so far above human conceptions of justice that its coherence is ultimately hidden from view. As Susan Schreiner observed,

“In Job’s story, Calvin sees a God who holds sovereign sway over nature, history, and Satan. He revels in descriptions of creation and exhorts his congregation to contemplate the divine glory evident everywhere in the cosmos. But he also finds confessions that the wisdom, providence, goodness, and justice of God are often inscrutable and far beyond the distorted perception of fallen human beings. In Job’s story, Calvin finds a God who ‘hides his face.’ …Calvin is speaking…of a hiddenness that darkens history, threatens faith, and tempts one to despair. As he progresses through his line-by-line exposition of the text, Calvin struggles more and more intensely with the hidden and darker side of the divine nature.”

Calvin buffered himself against the startling implications of this position (namely, that God might be unpredictable, unreliable, untrustworthy and unknowable) by appealing to a pact between God and creation by which God agreed to bring His hidden justice into alignment with the creaturely justice revealed in the law. But Calvin left his followers with no guarantee of any ultimate congruence between God’s revelation in the law, on the one hand, and God’s hidden justice, on the other. As Calvin explained, in an insight he attributed to Job:

“The Law is not so perfect or exquisite as is that infinite justice [iustice infinie] of God…according to which he could find iniquity in his angels and the sun would be unclean before him. See, then, how there is a justice more perfect than the Law. If one accomplished everything in the Law, he could still be condemned if God wanted to use this justice. True, the Lord does not wish to use it since he accommodates himself to us and receives and accepts that justice which he has commanded.”

It is true that Calvin repudiated the idea of “absolute might”, adding shortly after the passage already quoted from Institutes 3.32.2 that “we do not advocate the fiction of ‘absolute might’; because this is profane, it ought rightly to be hateful to us. We fancy no lawless God who is a law unto himself. …the will of God is not only free of all fault but is the highest rule of perfection, and even the law of all laws.” (3.23.3.) Calvin seemed to have been concerned that affirming God’s “absolute power” would render Him unreliable in His relation to the world, while undermining the pact between God and creation. However, this concern simply shows that Calvin misunderstood the medieval distinction between absolute power and ordained power, since the latter functioned precisely as a mechanism for preserving consistency in God’s relation to the world. Some scholars who argue that Calvin misunderstood the scholastic distinction between the two powers, include:

David Steinmetz summarizes the matter succinctly:

“in treating the scholastic distinction between the absolute and the ordained power of God, Calvin misstated what the scholastics meant by the use of this distinction, restated what he regarded as the correct answer (which was, more or less, what the scholastics taught when they drew the distinction), and concluded, quite wrongly, that he and the scholastics were worlds apart.”

One of the reasons Calvin may have tried to distance himself from scholastic Nominalism is because of his aversion to the hypothetical questions associated with the “absolute power” school of thought. The scholastic notion that God’s omnipotence included the ability to do all things that are logically possible had led to a series of speculations on what was logically possible for God to do (e.g. was it logically possible for God to incarnate Himself as a woman or a donkey but not logically possible for Him to undo the past?). Calvin’s horror of metaphysical speculation together with his deep distaste for too much creaturely inquisitiveness meant that such abstractions could only be “profane” and “hateful” to him. In his sermons on Job, Calvin used even stronger language when speaking against absolute power, in the context of warning against those who would separate God’s power from His attributes: ‘What the Sorbonne doctors say, that God has an absolute power, is a diabolical blasphemy which has been invented in Hell.” Given what Calvin took to be the absolute power position, for God to use “absolute power” would be to act in a disordered fashion as an arbitrary tyrant, thus violating the lower justice by which Calvin’s God accommodated Himself to the world. But this lower justice was still conceived in essentially voluntarist terms, as Anna Case-Winters explained:

“It is the divine will that determines what is possible, not metaphysical necessitates. Calvin was unwilling to admit metaphysical limitations to divine power. God’s personal will defines God’s power… He rejected the idea of “absolute power” because it was an abstraction. One could not speak of divine power apart from divine willing. For Calvin, God’s power is coterminous with God’s will…. It is the divine will that determines what is possible, not metaphysical necessities. Calvin is unwilling to admit any metaphysical limitation to the exercise of divine power.”

Calvin replaced the network of metaphysical abstractions associated with the absolute power position with a personalism that liberated God from all necessity, locating the divine sovereignty entirely in the divine will. As Calvin put it, citing Augustine, “the will of God is the necessity of things”. (sec. 3.23.8.) This voluntarist understanding is essentially what Scotus had also espoused. (On the similarities between Duns Scotus and John Calvin, see HERE and HERE and HERE and HERE and HERE.) In urging that “God’s will is so much the highest rule of righteousness” so that “whatever he wills, by the very fact that he wills it, must be considered righteous” (Institutes, 3.32.2) Calvin could almost be said to be quoting Scotus, who had also asserted that

“The divine will…is the first rule of all works and of all acts, and the activity of the divine will, of which the first rule consists, is the first principle of righteousness. For from the fact that something is suitable to the divine will, it is right, and whatever action God could perform, is right absolutely.”

For Calvin, this voluntarist posture seemed to amplify God’s freedom and sovereignty precisely by unloosing Him from the physical world, thus preserving His supreme otherness. God became so far removed from the world that the integration of the physical and the spiritual became highly qualified if not completely untenable. The partition Calvin drew between God as He is and God as human beings experience Him left God hidden from view, thus raising questions about the ultimate reliability of God’s revelation to humankind. When Calvin’s God revealed Himself to mankind, His self-descriptions were true only in a nominal sense, since predicates such as “good” and “loving” were mere names through which the Almighty chose to reveal himself and not necessarily substantive descriptions of His actual nature.

Final Thoughts

Ockham’s elimination of universals had been birthed out of a desire to prop up the divine sovereignty, but this occurred at the expense of nature’s inherent ordering. The highest reality, Ockham taught, are God’s arbitrary will-acts, and it is from these that nature derives her meaning. Calvin echoed these same concerns, for we have seen that his system unfolded on the axis of an inverse relationship between nature and God’s glory, as if these are two sides of a zero-sum transaction. The univocity of glory that must be rationed out between God and creation led to a quest for unmediated piety that found expression in Calvin’s discomfort with sacred space. If this created an empty church, it also created an empty world: God’s majesty had to be guarded precisely by evacuating nature of any particularized sacredness and organizing schema that might be prior to, or the reason for, God’s will-acts.

Similarly, in his views on freedom, holiness, salvation and the glory of God, we have seen that Calvin worked within the context of this same nominalist dialectic. In the world-picture that pervaded the Institutes, the freedom of God requires the extrusion of teleology from key areas of the created realm lest God’s ability to define and redefine the world be marginalized. This entailed a kind of moral order that emerged entirely from the divine fiat which itself can no longer be contextualized in terms of how the world is. Indeed, when Calvin reworked the Euthyphro dilemma by declaring that we cannot proceed further than God’s will in discovering the source of an action’s goodness, since “God’s will is so much the highest rule of righteousness that whatever he wills, by the very fact that he wills it,” he was working within a context of understanding that had resonance precisely because of the pervasive influence of philosophical nominalism in sixteenth-century thought. The influence was so pervasive that, ironically, it was often when Calvin tried to distance himself from the scholastic Nominalists (i.e., Institutes 3.32) that he was most indebted to their ubiquitous plausibility structures. Nominalism was part of the very air Calvin breathed, without him even realizing it.

We recall that Ockham’s elimination of universals was birthed out of a desire to prop up the divine sovereignty, but this occurred at the expense of any inherent ordering in nature. The highest reality, he taught, are God’s will-acts, and it is from these acts that nature derives her order, not vice versa. Calvin echoed these same concerns. His system unfolded on the axis of an inverse relationship between nature and God’s glory, as if they are two sides of a zero-sum transaction. This led to a quest for unmediated piety that found expression in Calvin’s discomfort with sacred space. God’s majesty is guarded precisely by evacuating nature of any particularized sacredness as well as any organizing schema that might be prior to, or the reason for, God’s will-acts. For Calvin and his followers, this promises to amplify God’s freedom and sovereignty precisely by unloosing Him from the physical world, thus preserving His supreme otherness within the matrix of the zero-sum dialectic. In one sense, this move seemed to increase God’s transcendence since, as McDonnel perceptively observed, “The flight from secondary causality is seen as a return to transcendence.” At the same time, however, it seems to also increase the sense of divine imminence. Calvin, for example, could speak of God being “vigilant, efficacious, busy, engaged in constant activity…” This sense of divine busyness is necessary in order to reinvest the natural world with holiness after it has been evacuated of the sacred. However, this new way of navigating the matrix of transcendence and imminence left Europeans with a further bifurcation between grace and nature as well as the continued loss of the organic sacramental ordering that had been the chief casualty of Nominalism.

Further Reading

Was Calvin a Nominalist? Part 1: Historical and Theological Background

Was Calvin a Nominalist? Part 1: Historical and Theological Background

Last month I got a text from a friend who had been thinking a lot about Realism vs. Nominalism ever since reading Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option. In my friend’s text message he asked a simple question: “Was Calvin a Nominalist?”

The question was too complicated to answer in a simple text message, so I told my friend I would email him. When I finally got round to jotting some thoughts down in an email, my friend found it so helpful that he encouraged me to publish it. The present three-part series is based on that original email.

The present article offers some historical and theological background to the question, especially for those who may be unfamiliar with some of the philosophical categories behind the Nominalism vs. Realism debate. I will also be offering some observations on why these questions are important for us as Christians living in the contemporary world. I will also be making some preliminary reflections on Calvin’s relationship to the tradition of late-medieval Nominalism, in anticipation for the more comprehensive argument I will be presenting later.

Part Two of the series will seek to explore the landscape of contemporary scholarship on the question of Calvin’s relationship to Nominalism, interacting with those who have oversimplified the issue on the not-a-nominalist side.

Part Three will go deeper into Calvin’s own writing as I argue that his theology shows key evidence of a nominalist and voluntarist pedigree.

The Is-Ought Problem

A couple years ago, the philosopher Justin P. McBrayer wrote a piece for one of the New York Times blogs in which he lamented about the way Common Core had been teaching students that there is no such thing as moral facts.

On visiting his son’s second grade open house, McBrayer saw a sign hanging over the school bulletin board that sharply distinguished facts from opinions. While facts were defined as “something that is true about a subject and can be tested or proven”, an opinion was defined as “what someone thinks, feels, or believes.”

These definitions are obviously problematic – for example, how do we classify something that falls into both categories, as when a person believes something that can also be tested? But what really bothered McBrayer was when he learned that schools using Common Core curriculum are classifying moral statements as opinions.

While reviewing online lesson plans and worksheets, Professor McBrayer found the following statements classified as opinions rather than facts:

  • Copying homework assignments is wrong.
  • Cursing in school is inappropriate behavior.
  • All men are created equal.
  • It is worth sacrificing some personal liberties to protect our country from terrorism.
  • Drug dealers belong in prison.

Commenting on this, McBrayer observed that

“The explanation on offer is that each of these claims is a value claim and value claims are not facts. This is repeated ad nauseum: any claim with good, right, wrong, etc. is not a fact. In summary, our public schools teach students that all claims are either facts or opinions and that all value and moral claims fall into the latter camp. The punchline: there are no moral facts. And if there are no moral facts, then there are no moral truths.”

David Hume

The basic idea that factual claims (what we might call is statements) belong to an entirely different genus than moral claims (what we might call ought statements) is nothing new. The Enlightenment philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) is often credited with having “discovered” that it is fallacious to move from an is to an ought. Put another way, Hume recognized that one cannot infer conclusions about right and wrong from premises about how the world is, any more than one can infer information about mars from examining the moon. A Wikipedia article about Hume’s “discovery” informs us that

“Hume found that there seems to be a significant difference between descriptive statements (about what is) and prescriptive or normative statements (about what ought to be), and that it is not obvious how one can coherently move from descriptive statements to prescriptive ones.”

The idea that there is no logical link between is-statements and ought-statements has become part of the very air we breathe. I can’t begin to recall the number of discussions I’ve been involved in where a friend would look over at me and patiently point out that it just will not do any more to draw conclusions about virtue and vice from empirical observations about how the world is (a move that is sometimes referred to as the “naturalistic fallacy”). The same idea was embedded in Common Core in its assumption that statements about ethics cannot at the same time be facts.

But did Hume really discover something that everyone else in the history of the world had somehow missed? In order to answer this question, it is necessary to look at virtue from an historical perspective. This will set the context for my discussion of the realist dimension of Biblical ethics and my preliminary remarks on John Calvin. In the process I will be arguing that the contemporary wedge separating Is from Ought arises out of a complex pedigree in which ethics has been progressively detached from anthropological teleology. (Please don’t be scared by the academic terminology – I will be explaining all my terms as I move along.) Ultimately, I will suggest that the classical Christian tradition gives us the resources for reintegrating what is descriptively true with what is ethically normative through situating ethics within the context of human flourishing, in contrast to conceptual schemes in which our ethical obligations arise as raw commands disengaged from nature’s eminent rationality.

An Historical Perspective on Hume’s ‘Discovery’

Let’s return for a moment to that stoical Scotsman Hume. Did David Hume really discover something that everyone else in the history of the world had somehow missed, namely that one cannot make logical inferences moving from is-statements to ought-statements?

To even ask this question is already to assume many of the categories that Hume simply took for granted. This becomes clear when we reflect that throughout the ancient world—and even in the Western world until comparatively recently—there wasn’t even the vocabulary for making a sharp demarcation between ethics (ought-statements) and empirical observations about the rest of life (is-statements). For us moderns, ethics has come to be one sub-discipline of philosophy, or a branch of various professional fields (law, veterinary science, medicine, business, psychology, etc) that undergraduates are required to study before they can move on to the core units of their degree. But past societies did not have the categories for even talking about ethics in a way that partitioned it off from the rest of life.

In After Virtue, MacIntyre observed that in both Latin and Greek there was no word that correctly translates to what we mean by the word “moral” (although our word moral is often translated back into Latin). MacIntyre showed that the idea of morality as we know it today only arose in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries around the time when people started trying to find an independent rational justification for morality. “In that period ‘morality’ became the name for that particular sphere in which rules of conduct which are neither theological nor legal nor aesthetic are allowed a cultural space of their own.” (After Virtue, p. 39) Separating morality from the rest of life saw a rise in the attempts to provide a rational justification for it, and hence the emergence of the, so called, is-ought problem.

This doesn’t mean that pre-Enlightenment thinkers didn’t have a concept of virtue, only that the virtues were sufficiently connected to the facts of social life to make it anachronistic to talk about the former in a way disengaged from the latter. This will become clearer if we jump into some specific examples of how ethics functioned in the ancient world.

Ethical Realism in the Ancient World

In many pre-modern traditional societies, a person only needed to identify his connection to a variety of social groups (household, village, tribe, nation) to know what his obligations were and what his goals ought to be. I have already used the work of Homer to illustrate this in my earlier discussion of virtue in pre-classical Greece, so I will not repeat the discussion here. Suffice to say that in the world of Homer (and Homer can be taken as broadly representative for much of the ancient world in this regard), to be a good man was to live according to an end that was already pre-packaged in and defined by one’s particular station in life. Though this could create a network of overlapping and competing obligations, as when Odysseus’ duties as a warrior took him away from his obligations as a husband and father, such tensions were only possible in a world where obligation was seen to be embedded in one’s role in life, which was itself defined by the expectations and assumptions of the wider cultural landscape.

Thus, in the ancient world, to identify one’s role in the social sphere was simultaneously to identify one’s ethical obligations. For example, my role as kinsman of a murdered victim might define what my ethical obligations were with respect to avenging myself on my kinsman’s killer. In such a case, to be virtuous would be to embrace my job and not turn away with fear and cowardice. If you were a ship-builder, then virtue would be to build good ships and not ships that will leak once they put out to sea. If your role was that of a wife, then society defined what virtue looked like for you, which was to bear offspring for your husband and remain faithful to him. In dynastic societies, a “good wife” would bear as many children as possible, whereas in mobile hunter-gatherer societies, a wife was “good” when her children were sufficiently spaced so as not to slow down the tribe’s movements and seasonal migrations.

Despite the huge degree of variation among different societies concerning the content of ethical obligations, the common element in the ancient world was that the network of obligations constituting the virtuous life arose immediately from one’s vocation which, in turn, was socially handed down.

Whenever we generalize about “ancient traditional societies”, we are at the risk of oversimplification. Nevertheless, we can still cautiously state that for ancient peoples to identify a person’s role in the world was already to know what that person’s duty would be. We can call this “ethical realism” in so far as the structure of reality (in this case, social reality) constituted the contours of virtue.

A corollary to this ethical realism is that to be good meant to be good at something, progressing towards an end that was already fixed by the given structures of reality. The virtues were thus closely aligned with the notion of excellence and skill. Alasdair MacIntyre makes the interesting observation that “The word aretê, which later comes to be translated as ‘virtue’, is in the Homeric poems used for excellence of any kind…” Although associating virtue with excellence may strike modern readers as odd, it made perfect sense within a world where virtue was rooted in the faithful execution of one’s vocation. In being good at what one does, a man or woman was able to better realize his or her goal in life, and thus to flourish as a human being. To quote again from MacIntyre, “Individuals inherit a particular space within an interlocking set of social relationships… It is to find oneself placed on a journey with set goals; to move through life is to make progress—or to fail to make progress—towards a given end.”

As this suggests, not only did ethics flow from the structure of reality (ought-ness emerged from is-ness), but virtue was seen to have a teleological orientation. But here I am introducing a term that requires some careful defining and explanation.

The Teleological-Orientation of Virtue in Homer and the Ancient World

The final cause or telos of a hammer is to bang things

The telos of a thing is the end, goal or purpose for which a thing exists. For example, we might say that the telos of a hammer is to bang nails into wood, or that the telos of a seed is to grow into an adult plant. Another way of making the same point would be to use Aristotle’s category of final causation. The final cause of a thing is the purpose for which the thing exists. To borrow an example from one of Elder Joachim Parr’s videos, the purpose of a flower pot is to contain flowers while the purpose of a car is to drive. If we turn a car into a flower pot, as an acquaintance of Elder Joachim’s tried to do, then we can no longer talk about the car being “a good car”, just as if we attached wheels and a motor to a flower pot and tried to drive it away, we could no longer talk about the flower pot realizing its proper purpose of being “a good flower pot” (and presumably it would also not be a very good car).

This is simply to say that things in the world (both natural things and objects of human creation) have final ends that define the purpose of those things. The purpose or telos or “final end” (for our purposes, the terms all mean basically the same thing) of an acorn is to grow into an oak tree not a spruce tree, while the purpose of a hammer is to bang things and not to function as a flotation device. Accordingly, we talk about something being “good” for a car (or a hammer, flower pot or oak tree) when it enables the object in question to realize its proper end. For example, a certain degree of heaviness is good in a hammer, seeing that a hammer that is too light will be prevented from realizing its proper end and will consequently be a bad hammer. By contrast, lightness and airiness are good for a flotation device, seeing that a flotation device that is too heavy will sink and will thus fail to realize its proper end. We use the same categories when talking about natural things: we say that bees are good for the flower garden in a way that weeds are not, in so far as the former and not the latter enables the garden to flourish and reach its proper end. Thus, when talking about the objects of everyday life, we normally use the words “good” and “bad” in this teleological sense.

Now when we talk about virtue being “teleological”, what we mean is that virtue for humans is also structured towards certain final ends in the same way that things in our world (oak trees, hammers, flower-pots, chairs, etc.) are structured towards final ends. Accordingly, what is good for a person is what will enable that person to realize his or her proper end and therefore to flourish.

This teleological approach to virtue (what we might call “ethical realism”) was pervasive throughout the ancient world, as I explained in my earlier blog post ‘A Teleological Odyssey: Homer’s Ethical Realism and Odysseus’ Emotional Labors’:

Odysseus

“In the type of society Homer describes, a person only needed to identify his connection to a variety of social groups (household, village, tribe, nation) to know what his obligations and goals were. To be virtuous in this context simply means to live according to the end constituted by one’s station.

“In this way of conceiving things, what is good for a thing is what will enable that thing to realize its proper end or telos. The proper end of each person, in turn, is constituted by their particular role within Homeric society. This notion of a person realizing the telos proper to his or her station and vocation (the concepts of station and vocation are pretty much synonymous within ancient societies) is related to what we might call the ‘heroic ideal’, the system of values in which the notion of kleos (“what people say of you”) is central. Within the Homeric system, people speak well of a person who exhibits excellence in discharging the tasks appropriate to his or her vocation….

“…in Homer (and there is good reason to take Homer is paradigmatic of the ancient world in general, at least on this point) ethics do not exist as an isolated moral code, an alien duty imposed on us independently to considerations of human flourishing. Rather, the virtuous life is the life of flourishing, even when it leads to suffering and hardship. Odysseus could have avoided much pain by staying with Kalypso, and the text even suggests that he could have been happy with her. However, to do so would have been for Odysseus to abandon the teleology attached to his various vocations (King of Ithaca, husband of Penelope, and father of Telemachus). Human flourishing is not associated with happiness so much as with meaning (the distinction has been explored in depth by Viktor Frankl and maps over easily to the world of Homer), while meaning is derived from the faithful execution of one’s purpose.

“The entire Odyssey of Homer hinges on these types of vocation-based virtues.

Against this backdrop it should become clear that the modern tendency to separate facts (is-statements) from values or “moral opinions” (ought-statements), can only exist to the degree that we have moved beyond two features of virtue as it was anciently conceived. The first of these features is what I have called Ethical Realism. This refers to the way the obligations constituting virtue were seen to be organically related to the way the world is. Ethics did not occupy an ontological space separate from the cultural realities that defined one’s empirical existence in general, and one’s role in society in particular. The second feature of virtue in the ancient world was its teleological orientation. This refers to the way virtue was structured towards the final ends appropriate to one’s vocation in life. To be virtuous would simply be to flourish in one’s vocation. We still use teleological language when we talk about natural and created things (cars, gardens, flower pots, etc.) being “good” or “bad.” When these two frameworks (ethical realism and ethical teleology) are in place, there is no conceptual space for the, so called, is-ought problem.

Aristotle and the Old Testament

The Philosopher

The teleological dimension of ethics was systematized by Aristotle. In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle made explicit what was merely implicit in Homer, namely the grounding of virtue in an ethical realism and a strong sense of teleological purpose. But Aristotle went further and recognized how man happens to be is often at odds with how man could be if he realized the end appropriate to his nature. The purpose of philosophy, according to Aristotle, is to close this gap between man as he is and man as he could be. In his book After Virtue, MacIntyre does a helpful job of summarizing the three-fold scheme of Aristotle’s ethics:

“Within that teleological scheme there is a fundamental contrast between man-as-he-happens-to-be and man-as-he-could-be-if-he-realized-his-essential-nature. Ethics is the science which is to enable men to understand how they make the transition from the former state to the latter….

“We thus have a threefold scheme in which human-nature-as-it-happens-to-be (human nature in its untutored state) is initially discrepant and discordant with the precepts of ethics and needs to be transformed by the instruction of practical reason and experience into human-nature-as-it-could-be-if-it-realized-its-telos. Each of the three elements of the scheme—the conception of untutored human nature, the conception of the precepts of rational ethics and the conception of human-nature-as-it-could-be-if-it-realized-its-telos—requires reference to the other two if its status and function are to be intelligible.” (After Virtue, p. 52-53)

Centuries before Aristotle, the Psalms had already presented a concept of virtue that was strongly teleological. Virtue comes from following what the Psalmists call “the law of God,” but this law was not presented as an isolated moral code independent to considerations of human flourishing. Rather, the law of God enables us to move to the third stage in Aristotle’s three-fold progression, namely human-nature-as-it-could-be-if-it-realized-its-telos. In the Psalms, God’s commands are presented as medicine for making men and women flourish in their fundamental vocation as God’s image-bearers. This is particularly apparent throughout Psalm 119 but it is a theme that also permeates much of the Jewish Wisdom Literature. For example, the book of Proverbs spends considerable space demonstrating that to live by the virtues is to flourish as a human being—to be obedient to the law of God is to live the good life and to prosper, whereas to be disobedient to the law of God is to be defined by death even while still alive. The Poetry and the Wisdom Literature in the Jewish Scriptures make constant appeals to human flourishing that can almost sound selfish to those of us who have imbibed the assumption that spiritual ethics is somehow antithetical to the Good Life.

The Psalms and the Jewish Wisdom Literature also share in common with the ancient world an ethical realism whereby a person’s duty is contextualized by their station or vocation in life. But unlike in Homeric society where one’s vocation was socially constructed based on birth and/or achievements, in the Psalms we find that one’s vocation is spiritually constructed by creation itself. The narrative backdrop to the Psalms is, of course, the Genesis creation narrative, which presents a vision in which all men and women share in the single vocation to be God’s image-bearers. Since vocation is organically related to being human itself (i.e., to be human is to be the Imago Dei), there comes to be an organic link between vocation-based virtue and human flourishing. To be virtuous is to become more fully human, while the turn away from God is correlate to becoming sub-human, and ultimately being defined by death. This connection between vice and death finds particularly emphasis in the opening chapters of Proverbs.

Thus, within the Jewish ethical tradition, the virtues are intimately connected to the very fabric of how reality is ordered; ethics is not something arbitrarily imposed on top of, and extrinsic to, the structure of reality. This aligns closely to what we find in both Homer and Aristotle in so far as a person’s telos is rooted in their nature, but instead of one’s primary nature being a king or a slave or a craftsman or a wife, the Jewish scriptures teach that one’s primary nature (and therefore vocation) is defined by being an image-bearer of the creator God.

The vocation to be God’s image-bearers enables one to understand the duties associated with whatever subsidiary vocations one is called to execute in life. Thus, being the image of God as a father will entail a different set of obligations to being the image of God as a wife; being the image of God as a sailor, artist or craftsman will entail a different set of obligations than being the image of God as a daughter, carpenter, warrior or king. But in each case, it is the primary calling to function as the Imago Dei that ultimately shapes what virtue will look like within the context of the subsidiary vocations in which men and women find themselves engaged. The point of reference for a life of flourishing is thus extended beyond the parameters of visible social roles (as it was in Homer and throughout the ancient world) and is ultimately a matter of loving the God in whose image humankind was created. This significantly expands the concept of virtue in the ancient world while still being firmly situated within a teleological context.

Within this framework, the law of God given in the Torah is “good” in the same sense that having soil in a flower pot is good, or having a fuel injection system is good for an engine. Just as soil enables a flower pot to realize the telos appropriate to its function, so the law of God enables human beings to fulfill the function of their nature and flourish as God’s images. As such, the law of God is to human nature like a fuel injection system is to a car: something that enables it to go where it needs to go and thus to flourish, rather than an arbitrary code that might have been different. The Old Testament vision thus corresponds with the basic notions that Aristotle would later systematize with the three-fold schema already mentioned in the MacIntyre quote above:

  1. man-as-he-happens-to-be
  2. man-as-he-could-be-if-he-realized-his-telos
  3. a science enabling men to understand how they make the transition from the former state to the latter.

For Aristotle, the science enabling man to transition from how-he-is to how-he-could-be-if-he-realized-his-end was philosophy: as man became tutored by the canons of philosophical wisdom, he moved into a fuller realization of his telos. For the writers of the Jewish Scriptures, it was the law of God that enabled mankind to realize his telos (principally the law commanding men and women to love the God of Israel, from which the others laws were seen to flow). Indeed, throughout the Jewish Poetry and Wisdom Literature (as well as much of the Major and Minor Prophets) we can detect a very strong teleological dimension in which virtue is contextualized with reference to final causation. Accordingly, the law of God was never presented as an arbitrary ethical code arising from a whimsical deity that might just have easily commanded the opposite; rather, it was a revelation that, by offering insight into the very fabric of reality, showed men and women how to flourish as human beings as they aligned themselves to the verities of God’s revealed law. There is a basic congruence between God’s commands and how creation is, which is a point I developed at length in my Colson Center article ‘Moral Order and Wisdom.’

Summary and Theological Interlude

At this point I would like to pause and summarize the ground I have covered thus far. I suggested that in much of the ancient world, one’s ethical obligation was pre-packaged into one’s station in life. To be a good warrior or a good craftsman or a good wife meant being able to achieve the ends appropriate to that vocation. In this sense, virtue was teleological in so far as it was structured towards final ends. I suggested that the Poetry and Wisdom Literature of the Jewish Scriptures presented a similar picture, although for the Jews the teleological context of virtue is our vocation to be God’s image-bearers. The Imago Dei, not one’s station in life, gives the ultimate context for what it means to flourish as a human being. I further suggested that within the Jewish Scriptures, the law of God is presented as the means to enable men and women to realize their nature and flourish as human beings.

As humankind fell away from God, men and women ceased to be defined by the life of God but by the principle of death.

Picking up on that last point, it is only one side of the story to say that men and women are able to flourish in so far as they fulfil their vocation as the Imago Dei. The other part of the biblical narrative was that sin and death hampered the success of this project. Human beings remain the image of God, but they are a cracked or broken image. As humankind fell away from God, men and women came to be defined not by the life of God but by the principle of death. The death principle works to orient human beings towards new notions of human flourishing that compete with the vocation to be God’s image-bearers. Specifically, this means that human beings become prone to putting the body to the service of disordered ends. Instead of moving towards the telos appropriate to our nature as the Imago Dei, we become like a car that is turned into a flower pot, or a flower pot that is turned into a car.

Thus, to say that human beings have “a fallen nature” refers to more than simply each individual’s inability to stop sinning; rather, it refers to the way human beings are oriented towards disordered affections that present substitute notions of what it means to flourish. These substitute notions of human flourishing compete with the God-given vocation originally bestowed upon mankind by the Creator God. Thus, the curse of Adam and Eve after they disobeyed God was not a purely juridical act that might have been otherwise – rather, being cursed with death was a natural and organic correlate to cutting oneself off from the ultimate Source of life. To use an analogy from Wright’s book The Day the Revolution Happened, the death and judgment that follows sin is like having an accident from driving around a corner too quickly rather than getting a speeding ticket (the latter is arbitrary, whereas the former is organically related to the offense itself). As human beings pursue substitute notions of human flourishing that are separate from the Source of life, human beings move away from everything that gives health to our souls. The result is that we become progressively subhuman.

Jesus and Christian Anthropology

I have suggested that the Old Testament presents the law of God as a means for enabling man to reconnect with God and realize his telos. But throughout the Old Testament, particularly in the prophetic corpus, the insufficiency of the law is repeatedly emphasized. This was a theme that was put into sharp relief in the first century when Jesus Christ burst in on the scene. A key aspect of Christ’s ethical teaching was that the law of God is insufficient to heal man’s fallen nature. Since the essence of sin is the disordered affection of the soul, what is needed is not more commands, but the actual healing of the soul. Throughout the Gospel of John especially, but also in the synoptic tradition, Jesus teaches that what is needed is for the divine life to personally unite with human nature. Only in this way can human nature actually be healed (“saved”) and begin realizing its proper telos. Jesus taught that this is exactly what was happening in and through His own ministry.

Through descending down into death, the God-man was able to lift out of death those who were perishing. The most obvious manifestation of this was the way in which Christ’s life-giving death was able to give life to those in the graves (Matthew 27:52-53, Ephesians 4:8-10, 1 Peter 3:19). But Jesus also defeats the death-principle through actually reuniting human nature to God. This is a theme that would later be developed through the writings of church fathers such as Athanasius of Alexandria. Even in the New Testament writers we find the recurring idea that through the cycle of Incarnation, Crucifixion and Resurrection, the life of heaven became injected into human nature, making it possible for humanity to begin realizing its telos.

Within this context, to say Jesus “saves” mankind refers to much more than simply that Jesus made it possible for believers to go to heaven when they die. Rather, Jesus saves humanity in the sense that He reunites human nature to the life of God. Instead of mankind being defined by death, man can now be defined by life. As such, death ceases to be the enemy because, even in the midst of death, it is the life of God that defines those who are united to Christ. Thus, as an instrument of death the cross also becomes a powerful symbol of life. In the teaching of Jesus and the apostles, the uniting of man with God that began at the incarnation continues as the life of God is mediated to mankind through the sacramental life of the Church. The ministry of the Church thus becomes the means for men and women to experience salvation, in the aforementioned sense of being reunited with the divine life. As such, salvation is as much medicinal as it is juridical. The incarnation of Christ—made present to men and women through the sacramental life of the Church—is the medicine of immortality through which the human soul is healed and able to move towards flourishing.

This theological context creates the background for a proper understanding of the role of virtue in the Christian era. The directives throughout the New Testament that define appropriate Christian behavior are not simply arbitrary commands that might just have easily been otherwise, but the means towards the soul’s actual healing. The rules for right behavior that constitute Christian virtue are like the instructions for how to operate a car. If you put orange juice instead of engine oil into a car’s engine, it will break down; similarly, sin isn’t simply a list of things God thought up for man not to do; rather, sin are those things which cause the human soul to break down and become less and less human. Conversely, the practice of Christian virtue—when pursued within the sacramental life of the Church—enables the soul to flourish and realize the end appropriate to our nature as the Imago Dei.

The Christian Philosophy of Aristotle in the Middle Ages

Given what I sketched above, it should come as no surprise that the Church Fathers understood virtue in a way that was strongly teleological. For them, virtue didn’t simply refer to keeping God’s rules, but being well-ordered people who were moving towards the final ends appropriate to our nature as human beings. In this sense, Christian thinkers could talk about a human beings having virtue in the same way that they could talk about hammers, horses and vineyards having virtue. Saint John Chrysostom (c. 349 – 407) explained about the teleological nature of virtue in his outstanding work A Treatise to Prove That No One Can Harm the Man Who Does Not Injure Himself.’ Saint John suggested that by understanding human virtue in the same way that we talk about virtue in ordinary things, it becomes clear that virtue is simply that which enables men and women to flourish, while that which is contrary to virtue is that which injures us in the sense of hindering us from realizing the final causes appropriate to our nature. Early on in the treatise Saint John writes as follows about the teleological-orientation of virtue:

St. John Chrysostom

“What then is the virtue of a horse? Is it to have a bridle studded with gold and girths to match, and a band of silken threads to fasten the housing, and clothes wrought in various colours and gold tissue, and head gear studded with jewels, and locks of hair plaited with gold cord? Or is it to be swift and strong in its legs, and even in its paces, and to have hoofs suitable to a well bred horse, and courage fitted for long journies and warfare, and to be able to behave with calmness in the battle field, and if a rout takes place to save its rider? Is it not manifest that these are the things which constitute the virtue of the horse, not the others? Again, what should you say was the virtue of asses and mules? Is it not the power of carrying burdens with contentment, and accomplishing journies with ease, and having hoofs like rock? Shall we say that their outside trappings contribute anything to their own proper virtue? By no means. And what kind of vine shall we admire? One which abounds in leaves and branches, or one which is laden with fruit? Or what kind of virtue do we predicate of an olive? Is it to have large boughs, and great luxuriance of leaves, or to exhibit an abundance of its proper fruit dispersed over all parts of the tree? Well, let us act in the same way in the case of human beings also: let us determine what is the virtue of man, and let us regard that alone as an injury, which is destructive to it.

Saint John Chrysostom then went on to demonstrate from Scripture that a virtuous human life is achieved, not by the outward conditions that assail us, but from the inner condition of the soul as it grows into closer union with Christ and thereby realizes its telos. As he put it, “only right actions of the soul, constitute the virtue of man.”

Saint John reached these views, not from studying Aristotle (he maintained a low opinion of Greek philosophy, as Coleman-Norton has demonstrated) but from being saturated in the teleological vision of Scripture’s ethical teachings. But later Christian thinkers, particularly in the West, would come to rely more explicitly on Aristotelian categories, following Aristotle’s works being translated into Latin in the early second millennium.

Thomas Aquinas

The theological appropriation of Aristotle reached its pinnacle in the theology of Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). Under Aquinas, Aristotle’s philosophy was sanitized and made respectable for Christian use. Using categories borrowed from “The Philosopher” (as they called him during the Middle Ages), Aquinas taught that the end for which a thing exists (its telos) is the final cause of that thing, or that for the sake of which it exists. Accordingly, in order to fully understand the world, the thinker must penetrate to the why-ness of things. Those within the Thomistic tradition were able to assert a rational and ordered universe in which everything had its own natural perfection, what Alasdair Macintyre calls a “view of the world as an integrated order, in which the temporal mirrors the eternal. Every particular item has its due place in the order of things.” In an important sense, this limited the range of options available to omnipotence, since God’s will was seen as conforming to a thing’s natural perfection. As Charles Taylor remarked in his book A Secular Age, “The Aristotelian notion of nature seems to define for each thing its natural perfection, its proper good. This would be independent of God’s will, except that he it is who has created the thing thus. But once created, it would appear that God cannot further redefine what the good is for the thing.”

The idea that God cannot redefine the nature of things was central to the ethical realism of the Thomistic approach and had profound implications in the field of ethics. Just as God cannot redefine a thing’s natural perfection, neither is He able to change the continuum of virtues and vices. Indeed, when God wills something or issues a command, He is not arbitrarily assigning ethical valuations to particular actions or states of being that might equally have been given an alternative valuation. Rather, the divine will is an expression of the divine intellect, while both the divine intellect and the divine will are expressions of God’s perfectly good nature.

On this scheme of things, what is the case creates the context for what ought to be the case. Virtue flows out of the bedrock structure of reality, namely God’s perfect nature which finds expression in a teleologically-ordered universe. Precisely because of this (if I can be permitted to use an analogy that would never have occurred to Aquinas), the rules given to man in the Holy Scriptures are like the software to properly operate a computer and could not be otherwise. God does not simply decide what is good, but recognizes what man needs to fulfill his nature and flourish. Hans Boersma explains about this in his excellent book Heavenly Participation,

“For Aquinas, we might say, divine decisions had always been in line with eternal truth. For example, when God condemned theft or adultery, this was not an arbitrary divine decision, but it was in line with the truth of divine rationality. Or, to use another example, when God rewarded almsgiving, this was not because he arbitrarily decided that almsgiving was a commendable practice, but because it was in line with the very truth of God’s character.”

Given the congruence between the will of God and the eternal nature of things, it is possible to say that the virtuous life is a return to reality since it is to embrace what is most fitting according to the primal nature of things. Within the Thomistic-Aristotelian synthesis, ethics does not stand outside of nature, but is integral to it. To be virtuous is to grow into what is rightly ordered according to our nature and the nature of how the world is as an expression of the divine nature. For instance, 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. Or again, the reason God did not make adultery virtuous is because God’s will, which is determined by reality itself, flows from His ineffably pure and perfectly ordered nature. The divine nature, in turn, expresses itself in the order of how the world is.

Theological Consequences for the Rejection of Aristotle

The teleological vision of the Aristotelian-Thomistic synthesis had many challengers right from the beginning. The gradual rejection of Aquinas’s teleological vision can be broadly distinguished by three stages. The first was the conservative resistance to Aristotelian intellectualism, aimed primarily at the Latin Averroists and to a lesser degree aimed at Aquinas himself. This rejection culminated in the Condemnations of 1277. The second factor was the moderate voluntarism of Duns Scotus, combined with his merely moderate realism about universals. Thirdly, there was the influence of the more radical voluntarism-cum-nominalism of Ockham which directly challenged the Aristotelian-Thomistic synthesis. This third point warrants further attention.

William of Ockham

The English Franciscan friar William of Ockham was born in England sometime in the early to mid 1280’s. In his reductionist metaphysical schema, William of Ockham shaved off all universals and, with it, any sense of teleology that could be attached to orders of things. William of Ockham contended that final causality was simply a metaphorical way of speaking about things that are acting uniformly by natural necessity.

Behind Okcham’s rejection of final causality was the concern that if everything in the world possesses an inherent telos, and if God created the world to function according to this rational ecosystem of natures, then the natural world possesses an autonomy that seems to push God to the margins. The Thomistic position was actually immune to this objection since it affirmed that God’s own eternal character is the source from which this rational ecosystem derives its meaning and legitimacy. But this was not so within the nominalist calculus. For them, God could not be completely ultimate if there are inbuilt limits to what His will is able to declare good. Thus, for nominalists like Ockham, to assert that God’s will for a thing necessarily corresponds to what the thing’s nature already defines as its good, is to place a limit on the divine sovereignty. As Charles Taylor explained, “Late medieval nominalism defended the sovereignty of God as incompatible with there being an order in nature which by itself defined good and bad. For that would be to tie God’s hands, to infringe on his sovereign right of decision about what was good.”

For the nominalists, God’s absolute power had to always be free to determine what is good unconstrained by all other factors, including the divine essence. This led to a voluntarism that sought to ground the meritorious value of an act in the extrinsic dimension of God’s will. The proper distinction between God and the world can only be preserved through a God that possessed a groundless will and an unchecked voluntarism. For Ockham, actions are not good or bad in themselves, but become good or bad only by a lawgiver. Driven by a desire to purge Christian theology and philosophy of all traces of Greek necessitarianism, God’s freedom came to be seen as an autonomous freedom, no longer anchored in nature (including His own). This effectively reduced the divine commandments to arbitrary edicts requiring a nonrational obedience.

Under the philosophical nominalism of the late Middle Ages, virtue ceased to have an intrinsic relation to the nature of how the world is, as man became freed from nature itself. Against the perceived threat of an autonomous natural realm governed by the canons of Aristotelian wisdom, Ockhamist nominalism insisted that the world’s order is not inherent to nature itself, but derived extrinsically through the decrees of God. Accordingly, nominalists were committed to asserting that the world and God’s relationship to it are radically contingent; it is not even possible to infer the existence of any one thing from another thing since, as Grant summarized it, “necessary connections cannot be assumed between contingent things, which, apart from God, are the only kinds of existents.” Everything in the world thus came to be perceived as radically contingent.

The expulsion of teleology and purpose internal to creation left a gulf between nature and super-nature through the concomitant notion that God’s design of the world left no discernible imprint in creational order. Teleological and moral order became matters of potential disorder since utterly dependent on the inscrutable absolute power of God. Under such a scheme, God’s will-acts tell us only about the effect around us and not about the cause; observation of creation cannot yield insight into the divine character, with the result that Ockham could see no justification for inferences from experience to what transcends experience. Questions of why-ness started to become subservient to questions of what-ness, as immanent final causes began to lose their central importance for understanding the world.

Divesting the world of universals and teleological purpose enabled Ockham to amplify divine sovereignty, while his radical views on divine freedom allowed him to avoid the specter of a God characterized by sterile changelessness. For the divine will to be truly sovereign and free, God’s Absolute Power must be autonomous, unaffected by any criteria whatsoever, saving only the law of non-contradiction. But Ockham also taught that God has an Ordained Power, by which, once He had freely exercised the Absolute Power to create the world in a certain way, He will continue to act consistently in that way. God’s Ordained Power was a mechanism that enabled the nominalists to assert a static moral order, however arbitrary that order might ultimately be. Some nominalists pointed out that with regard to His absolute power, God could have become incarnate as a donkey, but with respect to His ordained power, He chose to incarnate Himself as a man. Following Duns Scotus, who taught that killing could become meritorious “if God should revoke this precept, do not kill”, Ockham produced an elaborate proof to establish that, if God wanted to, He could reward murders with heaven and reward charity with hell. As Ockham put it in his Commentary on the Sentences, “the hatred of God, theft, adultery, and actions similar to these…can even be performed meritoriously by an earthly pilgrim if they should come under a divine precept, just as now the opposite of these in fact fall under a divine command.” Or again, with respect to God’s absolute power, He could have created the moral law to require rather than forbid murder; He even could have made it virtuous for men and women to hate Him.

By making the entire ethical code into something arbitrary, nominalism divested Christian virtue of its teleological orientation. Raw omnipotence was thus decontextualized from its moorings in the divine nature and in the structure of reality. Moral order still exists, but has an extrinsic rather than an intrinsic relation to nature.

Despite the strong influence of Aquinas on the medieval schoolmen, theological voluntarism gradually achieved dominance along with philosophical nominalism. Aquinas was not the primary scholastic theologian of the mid to late Middle Ages, and it was actually the counter-reformation of the sixteenth-century that assured Aquinas the prominent place he came to enjoy in Roman Catholic theology. By the mid fourteenth-century, many of Europe’s top universities were using Nominalism, not Thomism, as the principal framework for teaching natural and moral philosophy. Despite the resurgence of interest in Thomism in the fifteenth-century, by the time of the sixteenth-century Reformation, Nominalism (propelled in part by the skepticism of scholastic Aristotelianism that was an aspect of Renaissance humanism), with which it actually shared many points of affinity) had become the dominant orthodoxy. William of Ockham’s fifteenth-century disciple, Gabriel Biel (1420-1495), expressed the nominalist consensus when he declared that the divine will was purely arbitrary, ungrounded in any context of order:

“God can do something which is not just for God to do; yet if he were to do it, it would be just that this be done. Wherefore the divine will alone is the first rule of all justice, and because he wills something to be done, it is just that it be done, and because he wills something not to be done, it is not just that it be done. …the will of God is the rule of its own self; and therefore it cannot fail to be righteous. …it is not the case that God wills it because it is right; on the contrary, because He wills it, it is therefore right.”

Crucially, under this more legalistic and arbitrary understanding of will, sacramentalism came to be conceived in more mechanistic terms. At the most perverse, the emphasis came to rest on the actions humans can perform to manipulate the divine fiat. The ecosystem of superstitious rituals that would attract so much censure from the renaissance humanists, and later the sixteenth-century reformers, arose partly as a result of this new emphasis on grace detached from nature. The indulgence controversy was the most startling example of this radically nominalist posturing: given the right conditions, God can declare a sinner forgiven through a sheer volitional fiat independent of an actual change of nature.

Nominalism came to fruition in a world rich with sacramental significance and symbolic meaning, yet gradually and almost imperceptibly Nominalism chipped away at the theological foundations of this sacramental world. Carlos Eire summarized the medieval vision when he noted that, “The sacred was diffused in the profane, the spiritual in the material. Divine power, embodied in the Church and its sacraments, reached down through innumerable points of contact to make itself felt.” Andrew Greeley captured this same sacramental vision when he spoke of “an enchanted world” in which “we find our houses and our world haunted by a sense that the objects, events, and persons of daily life are revelations of grace…. The workings of this imagination are most obvious in the Church’s seven sacraments, but the seven are both a result and a reinforcement of a much broader Catholic view of reality.” According to this vision, the physical and the spiritual were seen to intersect mysteriously, as under the right conditions the earthly can participate in the heavenly. Nominalism did not directly challenge this sacramental tapestry, although it did destabilize the basis for it. Some scholars have rightly pointed out that the nominalist dialectic between God and the world created the conditions for a desacralizing tendency since it reduced any properties intrinsic within the natural world to mere names or conceptual impositions. “If creation depends on the inscrutable decision of a God who totally surpasses the law of human reason,” wrote Dupré in Religion and the Rise of Modern Culture, then “nature loses its intrinsic intelligibility. Grace also becomes a blind result of a divine decree, randomly dispensed to an unprepared human nature. The stress upon a divine omnipotence unrestricted by rationality results in a ‘supernatural order’ separated from nature’s immanent rationality.”

Nominalism entailed a new way of imagining the world and navigating the relationship between the human and the divine, and by extension between the spiritual and the material. Those things which are sacred achieve that status purely by the divine will, while the divine will itself is guided by no antecedent principles, including the divine nature. Under Nominalism, the overlapping of heaven and earth that lay at the heart of the sacramental vision ceased to be a consequence of how the world is (or can be under the right conditions) according to the nature of things, since nature had been evacuated of intrinsic ordering. An example of this was how Gabriel Biel laboured in his work Exposition of the Canon of the Mass to show that there was nothing sacred and good in created things themselves; rather, things only become sacred and good in so far as God imputed goodness to things through an arbitrary will-act. Nature also became divested of any inherent goodness; the created realm was good simply because God willed it to be so. Order was imposed on nature and human events extrinsically through divine decree through God’s naming activity; goodness, rationality and spiritual potency were divested from the world to retained coherence only in reference to God’s external will. As Robert Barron put it, under the voluntarism wrought by Ockhamist Nominalism, “God’s relation with his rational creatures has been attenuated, any connection between the divine and the nondivine has to be through will. God’s relation with his rational creatures is therefore primarily legalistic and arbitrary.” Crucially, under this more legalistic and arbitrary understanding of will, sacramentalism lost an element of mystery while becoming increasingly mechanistic. Grace came to take on the properties of a created thing, even as a buffer between God and humankind that could be conjured up with the right formula. What was lost was the more natural and organic integration of the earthly with the heavenly that had been characteristic of Western theology roughly from the time of the Cappadocian Fathers through to the thirteenth-century. The type of participatory ontology that had previously arisen as the corollary to a sacramental way of ordering the world began to be eclipsed by the via moderna of the nominalist revolution. Even where the integration of the physical and the spiritual seemed to be preserved—for example, in the obsession with relics and places of pilgrimage—we begin to glimpse a gnostic-like inability to value the things of material creation for their own sake. This manipulative and arbitrary view of sacramental grace is very different to what would later be the Zwinglian notion of the sacraments being simply symbolic, but had in common the severing of any organic or intrinsic link between grace and nature.

Ironically, as Aquinas’s star was declining in the West, due to the rise of Nominalism, his theology was gaining traction among Eastern Orthodox theologians in the Byzantine empire. Indeed, from 1354 to 1453, many Byzantine theologians—including those working within the Palamite tradition—saw Aquinas as a theological ally. As Andrew Louth put it, summarizing the scholarship of Marcus Plested,

“The interest in Aquinas in the Byzantine East in the last century of the Byzantine Empire was not paralleled in the West, where Thomas’s star was already declining in the face of attacks by Duns Scotus and William of Ockham, the rise of nominalism in philosophy, and the dissolution of his rational metaphysics by the ‘two powers’ doctrine in theology. It was only with Pope Leo XIII’s bull Aeterni Patris (1879) that Thomas’s role as the Catholic theologian, the doctor communis, became assured.… Enthusiasm for Thomas was felt throughout the intellectual world of late Byzantium… Despite the recent tendency in Orthodox circles to oppose Aquinas and Gregory Palamas, Hesychasm’s main theological defender, there is little sense of this in the fourteenth century. Prominent supporters of Palamas, such as Nicholas Cabasilas and Theophanes of Nicaea, made enthusiastic use of elements of Aquinas’s theology….

“The astonishing receptivity to Aquinas among Orthodox thinkers seemed to falter in the last century. Aquinas became a cipher for the alleged failures of the West: a narrow, juridical rationalism, an overweening confidence in human understanding of God.” (Read more about the Byzantine reception of Aquinas in my blog post ‘Light from the Christian West: Aquinas and Eastern Orthodoxy’)


Nominalism and the Protestant Reformation

I return now to the question that my friend texted me last month: “Was Calvin a Nominalist?” I could just say “Yes, Calvin was influenced by Nominalism,” but we will never understand the full counters of that influence if we don’t have a sense for the complicated intellectual world of late medieval Europe.

“Virtually the entire Ethics of Aristotle is the worst enemy of grace.”

It is uncontroversial that Martin Luther’s theology carried on the trajectory of medieval Nominalism. The historical reasons for a strong nominalist dependence in Luther have been summarized by Joshua Lim in his excellent blog post ‘Post Tenebras Lux?: Nominalism and Luther’s Reformation.’

Luther is said to have created a gigantic bonfire to incinerate the works of Aquinas. His antipathy to Aquinas was matched only by his hatred of Aristotle (his hatred of the syllogism came a close third). In Luther’s Disputations Against Scholastic Theology, he declared that “no one can become a theologian unless he becomes one without Aristotle” because “the whole Aristotle is to theology as darkness is to light.” Aristotle’s teaching on virtue was particularly to be rejected: “Virtually the entire Ethics of Aristotle is the worst enemy of grace.”

What is up for debate among scholars is the extent to which we may also detect a nominalist orientation in the magisterial reformation in general and John Calvin in particular. One scholar who has argued for the influence of Nominalism on the magisterial reformation is Hans Boersma, who holds the J. I. Packer Chair at Regent College in Vancouver, where he teaches doctrinal theology and history of doctrine. In his 2011 book Heavenly Participation, Boersma argued that in so far as the Protestant reformers urged that the relationship between the divine and the human is fundamentally defined in forensic or “nominal” categories, and only secondarily in participatory or ontological terms, they colluded with the general nominalist drift of the time. Here’s what Boersma writes,

“The nominalist impact on Lutheranism and Calvinism came to the fore particularly in the tendency to interpret the divine-human relationship in external or nominal – rather than in participatory or real – terms. The Reformation teaching on justification by faith alone (sola fide) exemplified a great deal of continuity with the nominalist tradition. This continuity centered on the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. The imputation—according to the Reformers, a forensic declaration—was external or nominal in nature. Luther’s notion that the believer was at the same time righteous and sinner (simul iustus et peccator) gave strong evidence of the nominal character of salvation. While believers were righteous in Christ, they remained sinners in themselves. One can well understand why Luther’s detractors asked this question: But doesn’t the grace of God change believers internally? When Luther likened the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to Boaz’s cloak covering Ruth and to a mother hen’s wings covering her chicks, these external metaphors did little to lessen the anxieties of his Catholic opponents. To be sure, Luther did know about the need for good works, and, especially later, he clearly confronted the reckless antinomianism of fellow Lutherans such as Johann Agricola. Nonetheless, it is fair to ask whether Luther’s own articulations of justification perhaps gave occasion for some of his followers to express their aberrant views. Calvin, much like Luther, was intent on keeping justification separate from human works. In order to do this, he, too, maintained that justification was a nominal or external judicial declaration rather than an internal transformation worked by the Holy Spirit. The underlying pattern of the Reformation doctrine, with its strong focus on imputation, would not have been possible without the nominalist developments of the late Middle Ages.” (Boersma, Heavenly Participation, 92–93.)

Boersma is suggesting that Protestant theology followed the tradition of late medieval Nominalism in seeing moral order having an extrinsic relation to nature, with the raw command of a law-giver imposing meaning from outside. Although this is clearly not the full picture of reformation theology, nevertheless we can still cautiously state that where this particular emphasis was dominant, it worked to shift the focus away from a teologically-oriented universe to one in which the connecting link in the ecosystem of meaning was the raw command of God. This will become clearer in Part 3 of this series where I look at specific texts from Calvin’s corpus, but even taking a bird’s eye view of key reformation doctrines—doctrines like imputed righteousness, forensic justification, soteriological “legal fictions”—we see them hinging on this same nominalist-cum-legalistic orientation in which meaning is detached from nature. God’s declarations about a person’s spiritual state bears no organic relationship to the person’s actual spiritual state under the wedge some of the reformers drew between grace and nature. This is why the phrase “as if” was so important in the network of legal fictions drawn up by the Protestant reformers. For example, John Calvin stated in his Institutes that “we simply interpret justification, as the acceptance with which God receives us into his favor as if we were righteous; and we say that this justification consists in the forgiveness of sins and the imputation of the righteousness of Christ.” Elsewhere Calvin wrote that God justifies us “as if innocence were proved.” Speaking of Calvin’s doctrine, R.C. Sproul explained that

“…justification has to do with a legal or judicial matter involving some type of declaration. We can reduce its meaning to the concept of legal declaration…. When the Reformers spoke of forensic justification, they meant a legal declaration made by God that was based on the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer, not on Christ’s righteousness inherent in the believer.” [Faith Alone, p. 102]

The important thing for the reformers was first and foremost a change in status, not the healing of our nature. Though the healing of nature does feature in reformed discussions of sanctification, and although the latter is believed to necessarily follow from the former, it was often eclipsed from being the locus of either salvation or redemption. Accordingly, reformation theology has included a strong tradition of seeing the fall in primarily legal rather than ontological terms, as R.C. Sproul shows in Faith Alone: The Evangelical Doctrine of Justification. Under the influence of reformation categories, countless Protestants now think of death as a judicial punishment that God chose to dispense on Adam and Eve as a consequence of their disobedience like a ticket given to a speeding motorist. But when Adam and Eve sinned, death was actually the organic and natural outworking of cutting themselves off from the Life Source through pursuing a teleology that competed with God. In order for human beings to be plugged back into the source of life, what is needed is not a legal change of legal status, but the healing of nature. That is why Tom Seraphim Hamilton’s comments about the Eastern Orthodox rejection of imputed righteousness are so relevant. Hamilton writes that

“For Orthodox Christians, imputed righteousness simply makes no sense. The problem isn’t that God is just unable to stand the presence of sin, and when He pretends we are righteous that is fixed. The problem is that we are unable to stand the presence and Glory of God, and this is fixed when God renews us after His own Image and lifts us to participation in His Glory. In an Orthodox mindset, God could impute righteousness all He wants, but this would be completely useless, because the problem has never been legal. The problem is that we are sick, and we need medication. Marking me as ‘well’ doesn’t make me well.’”

Of course, in classic Protestant theology, being “marked as well” is necessarily followed by being “made well” (justification first, sanctification second), but on a popular level the role of having one’s nature healed ontologically is often eclipsed by the pervasive focus on a purely legal righteousness. This was confirmed when I had an interesting conversation with one of the pastors from our previous church (which I have written about here). Animated by a phobia of works-righteousness, this teacher told me that Christians will never have any practical, actual, ontological righteousness until they have their new bodies. Under such a scheme, the healing of our nature remains wholly eschatological, disconnected from our ethical obligations in the present. Although this is a distortion of actual Protestant teaching (which is perhaps why the elder later retracted the statement), it is the type of error that you can understand a good Protestant to make, and here’s why. Just as the phrase “as if” was important within reformation theology, so was the phrase alien, which they used for talking about a spiritual status that was extrinsic. Luther called the righteousness we have through Christ an “alien righteousness”, indicating that it was outside ourselves. R.C. Sproul writes that “the righteousness by which we are justified is an iustitia extra nos, a ‘righteousness outside of or apart from us,’ imputed to us.” (From Faith Alone, p. 107) In his later life, Luther became so concerned about actual righteousness competing with God’s glory, that he came to deemphasize the positive role that charity can play in the believer’s experience, as Dominic Erdozain showed in his 2015 book The Soul of Doubt.

I realize I haven’t addressed the question ‘Was Calvin a Nominalist?’ too closely, and that is partly because I have wanted to use this post to offer an overview of the topic, as well as to address some larger themes in reformation theology. With these categories in place, we will be in a better position to look more closely at Calvin’s writings in Part 3 of this series. Before closing, however, I would like to offer a few general observations about why a framework of realism is important for us as Christians living in the contemporary world.

Practical Ramifications

In the holistic understanding of virtue that was characteristic of Biblical and Patristic teaching, the answer to the question “Why should I obey God?” is not simply that we have an obligation to obey God because He is the boss, or because whatever God commands is always right. Such answers play an important part of the picture, to be sure, but the deeper context establishing our obligations is that virtue enables us to realize the telos of our nature, to become more fully human as we were created to be. Thus, what is the case creates the necessary context for what ought to be the case.

Saint John Chrysostom believed that this realist understanding of virtue gives men and women the tools they need for reframing their suffering. In his “Treatise to Prove That No One Can Harm the Man Who Does Not Injure Himself” Chrysostom discussed the prevailing notion that we are harmed by misfortune. The idea – prevalent in his day as well as our own – is that we are injured by things like poverty, assault, ill health, humiliating treatment from others, loneliness, slander, depression, and any other type of discomfort or suffering. Using penetrating logic, Chrysostom argues that we could only assert that such things actually injure a person if such misfortunes prevent the person from achieving “virtue”, which he defines as the goal/end/telos appropriate to our nature. As we saw when I quoted from this treatise earlier, Chrysostom suggests that the virtue of a horse is to be swift, the virtue of a mule is to be strong, the virtue of an olive tree is to bear fruit, and so forth. Accordingly, we can say that something harms an object only to the degree that it prevents that object from realizing the virtue appropriate to its nature. It follows, Chrysostom argues, that we can only talk about misfortunes injuring a person if the misfortune prevents or retards the person from flourishing according to the virtue of human nature. As he says, “let us determine what is the virtue of man, and let us regard that alone as an injury, which is destructive to it.” Chrysostom’s next point is that since the virtue of man is to be united with Christ in true doctrine and uprightness of life, no amount of external affliction has the power to injure a person who does not injure himself:

“What then is the virtue of man? Not riches that you should fear poverty: nor health of body that you should dread sickness, nor the opinion of the public, that you should view an evil reputation with alarm, nor life simply for its own sake, that death should be terrible to you: nor liberty that you should avoid servitude: but carefulness in holding true doctrine, and rectitude in life….

“For since neither wealth nor freedom, nor life in our native land nor the other things which I have mentioned, but only right actions of the soul, constitute the virtue of man, naturally when the harm is directed against these things, human virtue itself is no wise harmed….

“For it is not stress of circumstances, nor variation of seasons, nor insults of men in power, nor intrigues besetting you like snow storms, nor a crowd of calamities, nor a promiscuous collection of all the ills to which mankind is subject, which can disturb even slightly the man who is brave, and temperate, and watchful…”

Having established the point that no person or circumstance can ever injure a person who does not injure himself, Chrysostom pushes his argument one step further. Using examples from Scripture, he suggests that suffering often advances the victim towards greater flourishing:

“Do you see how the discourse has demonstrated even more than it promised? For not only has it disclosed the fact that no one is injured by anybody, but also that they who take heed to themselves derive the greater gain (from such assaults)….

“When then neither loss of money, nor slander, nor railing, nor banishment, nor diseases, nor tortures, nor that which seems more formidable than all, namely death, harms those who suffer them, but rather adds to their profit, whence can you prove to me that any one is injured when he is not injured at all from any of these things?”

The treatise is worth reading in full. I sometimes find myself wondering what our lives would be like if we truly believed no amount of suffering – whether poverty, slander, cancer, loneliness, physical pain, death itself – can harm the person who does not harm himself. Even when we recognize this intellectually, it is hard to really believe it in our gut. Part of the reason for this is that virtue is often reduced to simply “being good”, detached from considerations of flourishing. Even among Christians, the criteria to determine human flourishing are often influenced by worldly assumptions.

Without understanding the relationship between virtue and flourishing, we inevitably misunderstand Scripture’s ethical teaching. All too often the Bible’s ethical teachings are viewed as mere prohibitions hanging over us that may even be antithetical to human flourishing rather than seen as commands which provide insight into the very nature of what it means to love and function as right-ordered human beings. When 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. God’s commands are given so that we can flourish as God’s images in the way we were originally created to do, both in this life and in eternity. Accordingly, we need to see ethics as psychotherapy since it is through virtue that the soul is healed and brought back into proper union with the Life-Source.

This has ramifications for how we address our children. When we address issues like as sexual morality, self-control, modesty, music, temperance, etc, we can either address the questions legalistically (“you should avoid this behavior because God says it is wrong”), or we can address such questions ontologically (“this behavior draws you away from human flourishing”). Although the legalistic approach forms a necessary part of our emphasis when the children are young, if it is not balanced with ontological considerations rooted in what is most fitting for human nature, then we are following Hume in disengaging disengaged is from ought and we are failing to present virtue in its necessary context.

Put another way, Christian virtue is not just the right way to behave, but points us to the content and context of how reality actually is. This offers a larger framework in which to understand the Biblical admonition to meditate on God’s laws. As I pointed out in my Colson Center article ‘Moral Order and Wisdom‘, we meditate on God’s commands in order to discern the order to them and not simply to memorize 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 underpin 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. By meditating on God’s commands long enough for them to get “under our skin”, we can begin to notice their internal grammar, their fittingness for this world. But this process is not simply, or even primarily, an intellectual one since it 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.

To achieve this type of wisdom, 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 spiritual devotion. That is why Saint Thomas Aquinas’ “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. 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. To truly know God, one must love Him–not in the sentimental feeling-based way that is often mistaken for “love”, but the type of love expressed in doing what God has commanded–until the spiritual logic behind God’s laws become sedimented into every aspect of who we are as people.

Further Reading

Links to all my Articles on John Calvin or Calvinism

Was Calvin a Nominalist? Part 2: Surveying the Scholarship

Was Calvin a Nominalist? Part 2: Surveying the Scholarship

A few weeks ago I got a text from a friend who wanted to know whether John Calvin had been influenced by medieval nominalism. He had been reading Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option (great book, by the way) which offers a declension narrative in the second chapter, tracing the factors leading to the present spiritual crisis facing the West. One of these factors, in Dreher’s reading of history, was the shift from philosophical Realism to Nominalism that occurred in late medieval Europe. Another factor Dreher points to is the Reformation. What Dreher doesn’t explain is how, if at all, these two developments might be related. That is, did the late medieval Nominalism associated with figures like William of Ockham (1285-1347) have a causal influence on key themes in the Reformation period? Was Calvin specifically influenced by Nominalism?

When I got my friend’s text message asking me these questions my immediate reaction was “Wow, how do you answer questions like that via text messaging?” I answered my friend’s text with an email, promising I would follow up with a blog post or two. This led to my writing the first article in this series, “Was Calvin a Nominalist? Part 1: Historical and Theological Background” introducing some key categories in the debate and offering some preliminary reflections about reformation theology in general. This present article seeks to build on that by looking at the scholarship on the question. Part 3 will offer a more detailed argument suggesting a nominalist pedigree to some key themes in Calvin’s theological corpus.

Before getting into the academic issues at stake, let me offer a disclaimer, I am not a Calvin specialist and I merely dabble in history as time permits. I am a jack of all trades but a master of none (I’m not afraid to admit it), so I depend on specialist academics to help keep me accountable. My real hope in writing this present series is that scholars more capable than I will take up the issue and critically interact with the points I make, even if that means pointing out areas where I may have oversimplified things or misread the historical data.

Let me begin by saying that Calvin’s relationship to Nominalism and Voluntarism is not a slam-dunk issue. While the connection between Luther and the tradition of late medieval Nominalism is well established in the historical literature (see Joshua Lim’s summary of the main evidences for a nominalist reading of Luther), the intellectual sources of John Calvin’s theology have remained open to dispute. Was Calvin a nominalist, a realist, or neither? How much was Calvin influenced by Voluntarism? If the historical data yields little evidence of historical causation, are there still grounds for positing theological correlation? These questions have invited a variety of perspectives.

Throughout the last century, a range of scholars argued that Calvin should be seen as a product of the nominalist milieu that characterized sixteenth-century Europe. For example, in 1963, François Wendel published a fascinating discussion of the origins of Calvin’s thought which squarely situated him within the context of philosophical nominalism. In 1966, Scottish theologian Thomas Torrance argued that the philosophy of William of Ockham and Duns Scotus culminated in the theology of John Calvin and his de-sacramentalized view of the world (Theology in Reconstruction, pp, 64-78). In 1967, Kilian McDonnell offered an informative summary of the arguments for and against Calvin’s dependency on the nominalist tradition, suggesting that there were important continuities and differences between Calvin and the medieval nominalists (John Calvin, the Church, and the Eucharist, pp. 8–22.) In 1981, Karl Reuter identified six parallels between Calvin’s theology and the Nominalism of John Mair. In 1988, Alister McGrath argued that Calvin was dependent on nominalist sources, particularly as regards his Voluntarism and the effect this had on his doctrine of atonement (Reformation Thought, pp. 92–94). McGrath followed up with a biography of Calvin in 1990, in which he developed a strong case that Calvin had been deeply influenced by Nominalism during his theological training in Paris. Building on this, a number of philosophical theologians connected with the “Radical Orthodoxy” movement have been arguing for nominalist and voluntarist readings of Calvin, although this can sometimes confuse the debate since their sweeping genealogies are often lacking in historical rigor. In 2002, Richard Muller surveyed the contemporary scholarship on this question and summarized the general consensus: “Actual sources have remained obscure, while, at the same time, a predominantly ‘Scotist-nominalist’ background to Calvin’s assumptions concerning divine transcendence and hiddenness has been identified alongside what can be called the ‘Thomistic’ trajectory of literal exegetes.” (The Unaccommodated Calvin: Studies in the Foundation of a Theological Tradition)

Since then, increasing number of scholars have gone further than Muller and are questioning whether any ‘Scotist-nominalist’ background can be found in Calvin’s views on divine transcendence. For example, in 2006, Stephen Grabill argued against a nominalist dependence in Calvin in his book Rediscovering the Natural Law in Reformed Theological Ethics. In 2007, Michael Horton stated that

“Calvin shows no evidence of being a voluntarist, much less a radical one. …if forced to choose, he prefers the Thomist approach. On all the relevant points that might mark Calvin as a nominalist, he is seen to adopt rather traditional prenominalist assumptions.” (Covenant and Salvation: Union with Christ, p. 161).

Despite this recent turn to repudiate any association between Calvin and the tradition of late medieval Nominalism, the question remains far from settled, as evidenced by the fact that there has been a continuous flow of publications from reputable scholars in the last 25 years offering nominalist and voluntarist readings of Calvin’s corpus or parts of it. This would includey Bernard Cottret’s biography of Calvin in 2000 (particularly his discussion of Calvin’s sacramental theology), some of Hans Boersma’s work (including but not limited to his 2006 publication Violence, Hospitality, and the Cross: Reappropriating the Atonement Tradition and his 2011 work Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry) and Leif Dixon’s 2014 publication Practical Predestinarians in England, C. 1590-1640, to name only a few. Susan Schreiner’s work has been invaluable to this ongoing debate, including her 1994 book Where Shall Wisdom Be Found?: Calvin’s Exegesis of Job from Medieval and Modern Perspectives and her 2011 publication Are You Alone Wise?: The Search for Certainty in the Early Modern Era. In her work for the journal Church History, Schreiner identified some “Scotist-nominalist categories” when Calvin “posits a God hidden outside of nature, history, and Christ.” (We will look further at the voluntarist background to Calvin’s work on Job in Part 3 of this series.)

Whatever we may think of such publications, it should caution us from prematurely treating the debate as settled. Interestingly, even Muller is now presenting a much more voluntarist Calvin than what he acknowledged in his 2001 The Unaccommodated Calvin. When discussing this issue with people, Muller’s work was sometimes referred to as the definitive treatment of the subject. Yet his 2008 work, Christ and the Decree: Christology and Predestination in Reformed Theology from Calvin to Perkins presents a more voluntarist Calvin, emphasizing the disjunction that existed in Calvin’s thought between will of God as revealed in Scripture vs. the secret will of God that remains hidden from us (a theme which, I will show in Part 3, resonated with voluntarist epistemology and metaphysics).

Given the continued scholarly debate surrounding Calvin’s relationship to Nominalism, it is surprising that in some quarters it is now routinely taken as settled that nominalist and voluntarist interpretations of Calvin’s thought have been completely discredited. For example, last year when my good friend Brad Littlejohn reviewed Dominic Erdozain’s book The Soul of Doubt, he off-handedly dismissed the contention that Calvin’s theology was rooted in Voluntarism and Nominalism by alleging that this contention involved “now-discredited claims.” Similarly, E.J. Hutchinson refers to the voluntarist reading of Calvin’s doctrine of God as simply a “caricature” without acknowledging that there is a body of legitimate scholarship on both sides of the question. This oversimplifying of the debate (including a denial that there even is a debate) is often perpetuated by reformed scholars who require a framework of metaphysical Realism to prop up a certain political philosophy and who need a Calvinist metaphysical Realism to give the project theological credibility. This may be one of the reasons that an entire industry is now developing around the notion that Calvin and his successors were, if not neo-Thomists, certainly situated within the tradition of philosophical Realism. Many of my friends associated with The Davenant Institute and The Calvinist International are veering strongly in this direction, although their actual interaction with recent scholarship on the question is limited and sometimes over-simplified.

The denial that there is even still a legitimate debate on the question of Calvin’s relationship with Nominalism and/or Voluntarism sometimes involves misrepresenting the secondary literature. For example, in Michael Horton’s 2007 work Covenant and Salvation: Union with Christ, he says in a footnote on page 160 that “In relation to Calvin especially, the historical link to Nominalism has been decisively refuted by Catholic historian Alexandre Ganoczy, in his The Young Calvin.” Horton then continues the footnote by listing a number of other secondary works, including Susan Schreiner’s 1994 book Where Shall Wisdom be Found? Calvin’s Exegesis of Job from Medieval and Modern Perspectives. The problem is that Schreiner’s 1994 book does not directly address the question of Calvin’s relationship to Nominalism. Moreover, Schreiner’s work does indirectly furnish a strong argument for a correlation between Calvin’s theology and Nominalism, particularly regarding Calvin’s views on divine justice. Schreiner shows that Calvin made the secret justice of God so far above human conceptions of justice that its coherence is ultimately hidden from view, leading to a “double justice” framework. This double justice framework was, of course, a key theme among many of the late medieval nominalists, as I will show in a follow-up post. Horton’s list of the secondary literature also includes David Steinmetz’s article ‘Calvin and the Absolute Power of God’ which appeared in the Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 18, no 1 in Spring 1988. This article discusses where Calvin stood in relation to the two powers doctrine that was a key feature of nominalist thought (indeed, Heiko Oberman considered the potentia absoluta-principle to be the hallmark of Nominalism). Steinmetz shows that Calvin’s denial of this doctrine is based on Calvin’s misunderstanding of it; moreover, had Calvin understood what Ockham really taught about divine transcendence, he would have seen that it was completely harmonious with his own teaching. Steinmetz concludes that “Calvin, in short, is not opposed to the points made by Scotus and Ockham about the freedom and transcendence of God and at times sounds more Scotistic than Scotus himself.” Yet Steinmetz article is cited by Horton in a list of references that begins by saying that the historical link to Nominalism has been decisively refuted!

I return to my original point, namely that it is overly simplistic to treat the Calvin-nominalist debate as settled. The literature on the subject is now daunting even for specialists, and that by itself should strongly caution us from prematurely foreclosing on the debate. In some cases, the attempt to bring premature closure to the question involves misrepresenting the secondary literature (i.e., Michael Horton’s footnote mentioned in the above paragraph). As I have tried to show, the secondary literature offers no consensus on this issue, and the continued output of scholarship on both sides of the question continues to be fairly evenly matched.

Many who take the position that Calvin was not influenced by Nominalism are also guilty of oversimplifying in another sense. Often they fail to sufficiently distinguish between three different senses in which we may talk about Calvin being influenced by nominalist and voluntarist themes. A falsification of one sense does not necessarily equate to a falsification of another sense. But what are these senses?

First, we may make the historical claim that during his lifetime Calvin’s theology was influenced by reading nominalist sources. This is the approach McGrath took in his biography of Calvin, in which he argued that Calvin’s exposure to Nominalism during his time in Paris had a formative influence on his theological development.

Secondly, while denying or being neutral on the question of a direct cause and effect relationship between nominalist sources and Calvin’s thought, we may take the position that he was influenced by the more general nominalist milieu of the time, including ubiquitous plausibility structures that hinged on an implicitly nominalist way of viewing the world and which enabled various reformed categories to achieve resonance. It is quite possible to argue for a nominalist dependence in this second sense without it implying nominalist dependence in the first sense.

Thirdly, we may leave questions of historical causation aside and argue that Calvin’s theology shows evidence of important correlations with nominalist and voluntarist ways of perceiving things. In this sense, Calvin may have been a nominalist without actually being influenced by Nominalism. Theological correlation is not the same as historical causation, and a refutation of the latter does not bring closure to questions about the former. Thus, when we make claims about Calvin being a nominalist, it is important to clarify in what sense we mean.

In the third post in this series on Calvin, I want to develop a tentative argument for the second of these options, and a strong argument for the third.

Further Reading