This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.
Do things in our world have an inherent purpose according to their nature, or is purpose purely the function of external will?
Do universals have a real existence independent of human perception, or is the world simply a jumble of particulars that achieve significance only as human beings arbitrarily define the raw materials of the world?
Did God create the world with built-in patterns that are consonant with His character, or is God’s ordering of the world purely nominal, deliberate and arbitrary?
These are some of the questions I have been exploring in my ongoing series of articles on nominalism. In these articles I have tried to show that an extreme nominalist approach to the world expels inherent teleology and purpose from the universe, relocating these categories in consciousness.
Throughout my articles I have tried to draw attention to some ways that nominalism has adversely influenced Christian thinking throughout the ages, including how we conceive God’s omnipotence and how we think about sex and Christian approaches to food.
For the nominalist, in order for God to be truly free and all-powerful, the categories by which our moral and material lives are ordered must be the result of God’s disposing will and not rooted in structures antecedent to His will (i.e., the fixities of God’s nature or the inherent patterns of creation). The nominalist will thus find it difficult to speak of things being “fitting” or “rightly ordered” in any sense more general than, or prior to, God’s pedestrian commands. By contrast, within the realist model that I have been defending, God’s commands flow out of the teleological directedness intrinsic to creation itself.
The present article seeks to add to this discussion by exploring some of the ways that Christian approaches to the ‘gay marriage’ have been tinctured by subtle nominalist assumptions.
Secular Marital Nominalism
In the ‘gay marriage’ debate it isn’t hard to see a type of secular nominalism at work in the thinking of those who wish to change the definition of marriage. In my article “The Meaning of Marriage (Part 3)” I demonstrated that much of the case for same-sex marriage rests on asserting that the meaning of marriage is purely arbitrary and therefore infinitely malleable by human will. On such a view, our most vital connections are products of the state’s naming activity and not something that has a realism prior to positive law.
The problems in this approach have not been hard for the Christian community to grasp and articulate. What is harder for Christians to detect, however, is the way the church has unconsciously adopted some of these same presuppositions, appropriating to their own thinking a more subtle type of marital nominalism.
The Realism of Marriages Outside the Church
One example of this is how Christians sometimes talk about the relationship between marriage and religion. It is often asserted that the traditional definition of marriage is religiously-derived; therefore, to insist that the state preserve the integrity of this definition is to ask the state to impose a religious orientation onto society.
From a Biblical perspective, marriage is a creation ordinance that precedes and exceeds the church even as it precedes and exceeds the state. The telos of marriage is rooted in the creation of the world and therefore it is not something that religions have a monopoly on, just as religions do not have a monopoly on the experience of the earth’s gravitational pull.
When our Blessed Lord was asked about marriage in Matthew 19:4-5, we are told that “He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, 5 and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’?” Jesus is recognizing a reality that is older than both the church and the state because it goes back to the earliest days of creation. It is an institution rooted in nature, in the way the world simply is according to God’s design. This means that when either civil society or the church recognizes marriage, they are recognizing something that precedes and exceeds itself. (I have developed this point further in my article ‘‘Why Gay Marriage is a Public Threat (part 1).’)
Many Christians will attempt to separate ecclesiastical marriage from civil marriage, to insulate what we as Christians mean by marriage from the contrivances of ungodly governments. This is attractive, since it means that as the state tampers with the meaning of civil marriage it is not touching the same reality that the Church deals with when it treats marriage as a sacrament. In its most extreme form, this notion finds expression in the idea that marriages outside the church are not real marriages at all. This myth persists in Mexico where couples will have an inexpensive civil wedding and then save up to later have an expensive church wedding; yet before the church wedding has a chance to occur, the man will often leave his wife on the grounds that “it was never a true marriage to begin with.”
Some pastors have similar ideas. A pastor recently said to me on Facebook, “until they are married in the Church, the two of them are living together, and having sex, while not married.” Or as Dr. David Dunn put it in a 2011 Huffington Post article, “Strictly speaking, our theology does not recognize the legitimacy of such marriages [marriages conducted outside the church].”
The majority of Christian thinkers do not go so far as to suggest that marriages initiated in a non-religious ceremony are not real marriages at all (though, of course, such marriage may be shorn of their sacramental significance). However, a surprising number of Christians do believe that there is little point of contact between religious and civil marriages, as if the two regulate non-overlapping magisteria. On this view, whatever a Christian might have to say about marriage is of little to no relevance to the debates raging about civil marriage because they are talking about different realities in completely different spheres.
The influence of nominalism should be easy to detect in this way of thinking. If we have been influenced (perhaps unconsciously) by a functional nominalism, then the objective meaning of marriage will be radically contingent on the consciousness of the participants. In such a scheme, it crucially matters whether a couple thinks of their marriage in religious or secular terms.
If we are realists, however, then we must recognize that believers and unbelievers share a common creation in which certain things and events (not least the event of marriage) possess an intrinsic telos and purposive direction to it. The reality, purpose and telos of marriage does not cease to exist merely because a couple did not get married in a church, though, of course, the couple may be missing out on some of the spiritual and sacramental dimensions of marriage. The reality of marriage exists independent to what two people happen to think about it. (I discuss this in more detail in my article ‘‘Can Ecclesiastical Marriage Be Separated From Civil Marriage?’ and ‘Why Gay Marriage is a Public Threat (part 1)’.
Recognizing that believers and unbelievers inhabit a common creation offers some hope of communication across what might otherwise seem to be a chasm of mutual incomprehension. But this will take some explaining.
Nominalism and the Problem of Communication
Unfortunately, the impasse of communication that persists in the ‘gay marriage’ debate has left some Christian thinkers suspecting that genuine dialogue with unbelievers about the meaning of marriage is impossible. The thinking tends to run something like this: if someone doesn’t share our Christian worldview, there isn’t much we can appeal to when defending traditional marriage. Moreover, why would it even make sense for the other side to listen to us given that they don’t share the worldview that gives rise to our understanding of marriage in the first place?
Peter Leithart reflected this attitude in his post earlier this year, ‘Gay Marriage and Christian Imagination.’ Musing on a debate that took place between Douglas Wilson and Andrew Sullivan, Leithart suggested that we need “a cultural revolution” before our arguments for traditional marriage can even to be heard. This is because appeals to “liberal polity…leaves biblically-grounded Christians with little to say.” All we can do is fall back on “The Bible says” and make “theologically rich, biblically founded arguments against gay marriage” that will probably not “make any sense to the public at large” but may have an aesthetic pull.
Although numerous thinkers, including myself, have shown that it is possible for Christian to make non-religious arguments to show how gay marriage is a public threat (see here and here and here), Leithart concedes that “it’s a hard case to make” that “gay marriage has harmed society.” In the end, Leithart wonders if we are trapped in our own interpretive communities unable to truly communicate with those outside: “Perhaps we have entered a phase in which God has closed ears, so that whatever we say sounds like so much gibberish….Because the only arguments we have are theological ones, and only people whose imaginations are formed by Scripture will find them cogent.”
The problem here is that Leithart’s approach only works if one begins by divorcing what we know of marriage from the order inherent in creation. If the Christian understanding of marriage arises from the raw command of an omnipotent God arbitrarily constituting the world in a certain way that might just of easily have been otherwise, then I agree that there is little we can say about the moral constitution of the world to those who do not share our theocentric worldview. On the other hand, if we are realists then we believe that God’s commands about sexual ethics flow out of the teleological directedness intrinsic to creation itself (a point I have developed in more detail in my article ‘Sex and the Ockhamist Revolution.’) Under the realist scheme of things, it becomes possible to appeal to unbelievers on the basis of that ordering without needing to invoke explicitly Biblical arguments.
This is exactly the line that Girgis, Anderson and George have taken in their book What is Marriage? These authors have received push-back from the Christian community for being content to construct purely secular and even non-moral arguments. However, the irony is that we actually have good Biblical reasons for making non-biblical arguments. It is clear from Genesis that believers and unbelievers alike share a common world, a common rationality and a common human nature. This remains constant even if an unbeliever’s worldview prevents him from given a consistent account of these things, just as gravity remains constant even for those whose worldview cannot give a coherent explanation for gravitation.
Christians generally understand this principle in other areas. For example, in mathematics we generally understand that even if the worldview of an unbeliever precludes him from being able to give a consistent account of mathematics, a Christian mathematician can still prove mathematical truths to the unbeliever on the basis of a shared creation without having to explicitly invoke the Bible. Now a Christian mathematician may want to invoke scripture for evangelistic purposes, or he may want to use reason to demonstrate that an atheistic worldview cannot consistently explain mathematics, but this is not strictly necessary before a believer and unbeliever can communicate meaningfully about numbers.
Similarly, in talking about the meaning of marriage it is possible to appeal to the realities of our shared creation without needing to invoke the Bible. We can point to the order of the world and the pushback that occurs when that order is flaunted. We can show that biologically, socially, psychologically, legally and historically, there are good reasons to be cautious about gay marriage, and we can make these points by appealing to creation itself. This is because unbelievers live in a world informed by moral truth just as they live in a world informed by scientific and numerical truth. When confronted with unbelievers who deny this fact and attempt to live as moral relativists, we should not shrink back from pointing to the many ways that our shared experiences in the world contradict moral relativism.
The Christian nominalist is not in the same position of being able to appeal to creation. This is because, for him, there can never be any question of a right-ordered nature that stands antecedent to, and the reason for, God’s commands: we simply need to know what the rules are and to keep them. All the ordering in our world becomes deliberate ordering, and creation becomes radically contingent. But this brings communication into atrophy, for then we can never make appeals to creation, and if someone with a different worldview disagrees with our morality, all we can do is to throw up our hands and say “Unless you accept the Bible, we really don’t have any basis to talk about this.”
(We see this same nominalist bent in numerous other areas, where Christian reluctance to appeal to the patterns of creation throws many upon the type of narrow Biblicism that erroneously equates any appeal to creation as either a concession to secular epistemology or an abandonment of scripture’s sufficiency. This error surfaces in theonomy, in certain forms of presuppositionalist apologetics, in neuthetic counselling, in Christian rejections of natural law theory, and in various modalities of Biblical worldviewism when applied to the liberal arts. Such ideas often begin by turning away from a rationality grounded in the patterns of creation and end by attempting to interpret the Bible in a void. The result is often the type of bastardized and non-historical approach to Sola Scriptura similar to what T.M. Moore addressed in his article, ‘Worldview: Biblical or Christian.
An Order Integral to Creation
Ironically, those who insist on only forming explicitly Biblical arguments against ‘gay marriage’ are the ones who have actually surrendered the high ground, for they have conceded any notion of a public order integral to creation. They have made what seems to be a concession that, from a perspective internal to creation, reality is up for debate and therefore the only leg we have to stand on is as is ecclesially mediated doctrine.
Those who have read any of Alastair Roberts writings on same-sex ‘marriage’ will recognize that I am following closely in the trial he cut earlier this year. In a response to Peter Leithart titled ‘Why Arguments Against Gay Marriage Are Usually Bad’, Roberts wrote:
My dismay at the claim that our only arguments are biblical and theological ones is due to its improper modesty. It involves a falling back from a stance upon creational order, an order established and ruled by God, an order that we all hold in common, irrespective of where we stand on such issues. In a willingness to admit our interlocutors’ claims that same-sex marriage can only be opposed on partisan and fideistic grounds, we have retreated to such an unassuming commitment, from which we are increasingly powerless to speak against their retreat from reality…. The conviction that there is an order integral to creation, an order that is public, an order that can be appealed to even in interaction with critics who deny or question the identity of its Author, is not really acted upon.
Roberts went on to point out that once we have yielded any sense of intrinsic teleology, all we are left with is a competition between wills: God says this but man says this. “Once we have surrendered claims to a natural order with a divinely established teleological directionality intrinsic to it, all we are left with is a competition between the wills of the gods and men regarding whose claims should prevail within a formless and malleable creation.” Under this framework, all we can do is to retreat from the public conversation, or else make nuisances of ourselves by trying to enter the public conversation armed with handfuls of scripture verses.
If the whole debate over ‘gay marriage’ did devolve into a competition between the wills of God vs. the will of man, then we should despair of trying to make our case in a way the other side can find persuasive. As Christians face the prospect of a godless world that is increasingly prepared to reconstruct reality to suit human ends, it is tempting to react by pressing a divine constructionism from the other side instead of claiming the high ground of creational order. But listen again to what Roberts has to say about this:
Unprepared to answer such constructivism by referring to and asserting a divinely established order intrinsic to the creation that resists it, they can only press a sort of divine constructivism against it….
The struggle between the Christian and secular constructivists over who has the right to sculpt the putty of reality is one between divine permission and will and human will. Such a framing of the theoretical opposition will tend to produce inattentiveness to the intrinsic ordering of creation and of social movements. Detached from the conception of created order, divine will begins to be conceived in a manner orthogonal to the creation, pressed down upon it from above, rather than operating through its channels from within. Such a conception of divine will leads almost inescapably to a philosophical neglect of deep reflection upon, and understanding of, the divinely established processes of the creation, and thus the ways in which cutting a new course for the flow of marriage might disrupt entire ecosystems of human relationality.
Its focus upon brute will imposed upon the present world will also lead those who adopt such a perspective to share same-sex marriage proponents’ dullness to the trajectories of ideological, sociological, and political development that their proposals lie upon, and to their possible destinations. As there remains little conception or inner understanding of a deep order of creation, and of how shifts in our practice of marriage might affect this, we can do little but surrender our society to the experiments of social scientists with naught but the most anaemic vision of human nature.
In the minds of our Christian brothers and sisters whose case against same-sex marriage rests solely upon divine will, if you surrender this divinely imposed will upon the creation, there is no order left to which to appeal, and so all positions become open possibilities. Our only arguments are theological, and our only hope the recovery of a Christian imagination. The all-or-nothing character of this position – either imposition of the revealed divine will upon reality or chaos of competing wills in a formless reality – hamstrings argument when that imposition of divine will is disputed.
The divine will does not just submissively knock on the doors of our reality and prove powerless when we turn it away. As long as we exist within the creation, we are besieged by God. The Christian thinker is called to press this divine advantage against all who would lamely flee from its presence. The Christian thinker should be a student of the consequences of particular actions in God’s creation and the ways in which the creation prosecutes the will of God against those who flout it. This is the sort of reasoning that the same-sex marriage debate requires from us. It is also the means by which we can draw the nerve and confidence to prevail.
Roberts is right that many godly thinkers are too quick to concur with the ungodly that marriage is merely a matter of definition. They may disagree on what that definition ought to be, but both see marriage as a function of external will imposed on a world where there are no a priori universals. By contrast, I have tried to show in this article that the Christian need not collapse the marriage debate into simply a question of whether or not to accept the Biblical definition of things, as if marriage were merely a matter of arbitrary naming.
When God proclaimed the union between a man and a woman to be good, He was not simply imposing His will onto the formless and malleable raw material of our world. Rather, the goodness of the sexually dimorphous marital union flowed from features God had built-in to the world itself (rooted, ultimately, in His own Trinitarian nature). The way the Bible orders marriage in terms of sexual complementarity is not an arbitrary law in opposition to what might otherwise be fitting for our lives as fulfilled people. Sexual dimorphism is normative because it is how we were designed to operate, and we would do well to reflect on the push-back that will occur in creation if we insist on flaunting that design.
Towards Mutual Dialogue
Adopting a realist posture towards marriage can help address the chasm of mutual incomprehensibility that currently characterizes our nation’s public discourse. For it is a perspective that allows us to appeal to creational realities that we share in common with unbelievers, so that instead of asserting that gay marriage is wrong simply because God names it to be wrong, we can show that it is actually contrary to the teleology embedded in creation itself. Since ultimately this teleology was embedded in our world by God, this can lead to an argument for a Creator, but that is not where we need to start, just as we do not need to convince an atheist to believe in God’s existence before we can teach him that five and seven make twelve. We can begin with what we have in common, and move from there to what we do not share in common.
This is the approach taken by Biblical writers, especially the blessed brother Paul, who was always keen to find areas of commonality that He could appeal to. When Paul was addressing the Greeks in Acts 17, he didn’t go up to them and say, “You know folks, your problem is that you just don’t understand the Old Testament.” But when he was writing to the Jewish believers in Galatia, that is exactly what he said. Conversely, Paul didn’t begin his epistle to the Galatians by talking about the unknown god, but tailored his message to the specific background of that audience and their background. Because of that, he was able to build bridges and navigate around potential mental roadblocks.
We should be following Paul’s example and trying to do the same in the ‘gay marriage’ debate. Because truth is “out there” in the world and not the domain of a Christian ghetto, and because God’s common grace reaches even the unregenerate, we have shared realities that we can appeal to when discussing controversial moral and political issues with unbelievers. Instead of thinking in totalizing us-versus-them categories which assume an unbridgeable chasm between believers and unbelievers, a realist orientation enables us to appeal to the intrinsic order of creation which all God’s creatures share in common.
For further reading on this subject, see Peter Escalante’s article ‘Who Are You Calling a Modernist?’ and Alastair Roberts article, ‘Why Arguments Against Gay Marriage Are Usually Bad’ and his follow-up peace ‘Can Arguments Against Gay Marriage Be Persaussive?’ Also read Robin’s recent series of articles on the meaning of marriage where he argued against ‘gay marriage’ based on truths that believers and unbelievers share in common. Finally, read Robin’s earlier articles in his series on nominalism.