A Nominal Question

cosmic liturgy imageI was asked recently about how a nominalist would interpret the verse in St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (chapter 15) “As in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.” On the face of it, this seemingly asserts a substantial link between Adam and the whole of our race, and also between Christ and the whole of our race (the Christian tradition has always asserted that even the resurrection of the damned is predicated on the humanity of Christ). A nominalist would assert that this is indeed the case. For the nominalist, it is not that there are no such thing as substances, but that there are no necessary substances. God only is necessary. Because creation is unnecessary, there can be no necessary substances within it. However, God as creator does create natures and forms, but they have no necessary link to the eternal. This is why Calvin would assert that even the righteousness of Christ has no necessary hold on God: God is not obligated to honor the works of Christ as if the works of the Redeemer were inherently righteous, and thus binding on God. Why then does the Father accept the Son’s works on our behalf? Because he chose to. This is part of the intellectual schizophrenia in Calvin that left me so flummoxed, e.g., if grace precedes faith, why is faith necessary to make the Eucharist efficacious? Further, on the one hand he would employ Aristotle’s notion of the four causes in explaining redemption (very much the anti-nominalist way), and also link knowledge of the self with knowledge of God (again, the basic classical, and even Augustinian theological psychology of knowledge), but on the other hand posit that there was no created link between righteousness and virtue between the creator and creature. Likewise Luther, who saw the righteousness of God as something far removed from him, and could not be obtained within his nature, and that his nature was only under the just judgement of God, was nonetheless made righteous by the righteousness of Christ (we can already see the Eucharistic divisions between the two reformers emerging even in this). Some of Luther’s assertions in On the Freedom of the Christian seemingly give great weight to the Finnish interpretation of Luther that what Christ gives us and makes us is indeed his own righteousness (i.e., deification), but Luther had already cut away the ground any such interpretations would stand on, by his rejection of Aristotle’s doctrine of the agent intellect (that what resides in the senses is known for what it truly is, for it resides first in the soul). You can find a direct reference to this in a 1514 sermon, but also in his Dictata on the Psalms. Because “things” are external realities, they cannot affect other natures, and intrinsic natures (here the intrinsic self) cannot be other than what they are unless altered by God. This is a further reason why I would reject the Finnish school, for Luther would argue just this in his Eucharistic theology, that the divinized flesh of the Incarnate Christ, the creature altered by the creator, does not in turn alter us by participation of this deified flesh in the Eucharist. If Luther held to any sort of Patristic doctrine of deification (what the Finns assert) his Eucharistic theology would have approximated that of the Fathers. But only in respect to the real presence does his theology do so; and even here, where does Luther go to get his Eucharistic thought? From the late fourteenth-, early fifteenth-century nominalist theologian, and cardinal bishop of Cambrai, Pierre d’Ailly. D’Ailly’s doctrine, sometimes termed impanation, asserts no changing of substances of the bread and wine, but instead a coherence of two substances together, what is sometimes labeled consubstantiation. So, while Luther on the one hand argued for the deification of the human body of the resurrected Christ, he did not argue for a changing of the elements of bread and wine into this nature, and thus never makes the next step that the elements of the Eucharist alter our nature.

And this is where I believe the nominalism of the Reformers brings them up against the Fathers. They may or may not have been aware of how the Fathers understood the realtionship of the microcasm and macrocasm, or how they read texts, by which I mean, they may have known that the Fathers held to the ancients’ doctrine of the agent intellect (just think about Augustine’s doctrine of the Trinity mapping onto the faculties of the soul), but this makes no impression on how they looked at reality, thought about texts, and organized their theology. In effect, the Reformers and a good bit of late Latin theology, is severed from the Fathers by the interposition of Peter Abelard, though also of St. Anselm. Again, think of St. Augustine’s views on the Trinity as seen in the soul: he did not, like St. Anselm, think it necessary to argue that what exists outside the intellect was greater than what existed within. In fact, for St. Augustine, the two are inseparable. The image of God for the Fathers was the Word of God, and we are made after this image, and in this likeness. This is why Christ is both Creator and Redeemer. As the human as human has its significance from the Divine Word, there is an inseparable link the one with the other, even were Adam never to have fallen. The process of our union with God is effected by the Incarnate Christ himself, in His Person mediating the divine life of God to us, made after His Image and Likeness. If the Word of God is the basis of our existence as humans, and He is the basis of our new life within His Body the Church, then it follows that we were created or ordered by the pattern of the eternal Word unto life in God. Now, unless we are going to say that the Holy Trinity is not eternal, and the very eternal mode of God’s existence (and we certainly aren’t going to say that: We’re Orthodox!!), we have no room for nominalism.

About Cyril Jenkins

Professor of History
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5 Responses to A Nominal Question

  1. Billy Jenkins says:

    I believe the author of Hebrews also contended that the Image of God was the Word of God. Given that the Word of God gives humanity its significance and they are inseparably linked, as you contend, wouldn’t it be impossible to logically hold to a limited atonement and unconditional election? Since the Incarnation would have been for all that the Word had created. Further, isn’t Abelard’s theory of the atonement the only logical outworking of Nominalism? How could you ever argue for the efficacy of the Incarnation if there is not an inseparable link between Christ and created man?

  2. Darlene says:

    Cyril, it would have been especially helpful if you had cited your sources (bibliography). There is so much that you make reference to that I think it could have been broken up into several posts.

  3. Billy Jenkins says:

    While I’m not apt to believe everything America’s “finer” universities teach, the Stanford online encyclopedia seems to identify Abelard fairly strongly with Nominalism. Can you explain why you say he isn’t one? Maybe my confusion on this issue stems from assuming that Abelard was nominalistic.

  4. Cyril Jenkins says:

    Darlene, I shall try to do this tomorrow, after I finish my morning coffee with Fr. Andrew, my Christmas shopping for my wife, and my run to the yard waste dump (classes are over, but things other than the blog summon).


  5. Symeon says:

    Someday i want to understand this problem. the few times i have tried to grasp it i always find the nominalist arguments compelling. We participate in the divine life by grace, not by nature. The image of God is freedom not a form. Right? Who should i be reading?.

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