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.”
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 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’:
“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 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:
- 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.
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:
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- Was Calvin a Nominalist? Part 2: Surveying the Scholarship
- Was Calvin a Nominalist? Part 3: Voluntarism, Nominalism and the Theology of Calvin
- Do Ideas Have Historical Consequences? A Defense of The Benedict Option Chapter 2
- Colson Center Series on Nominalism
- Links to All My Articles on John Calvin or Calvinism
- “Was Calvin a Nominalist? Part 1: Historical and Theological Background“
- Was Calvin a Nominalist? Part 3: Voluntarism, Nominalism and the Theology of Calvin
- Why I Stopped Being a Calvinist (Part 1): Calvinism presents a dehistoricized Bible
- Why I Stopped Being a Calvinist (Part 2): Calvinism Destroys God’s Justice
- Why I Stopped Being a Calvinist (Part 3): Calvinism Dislocates God From our Experience of Him
- Why I Stopped Being a Calvinist (Part 4): The Heresy of Monergism
- Why I Stopped Being a Calvinist (Part 5): a Deformed Christology