On a recent post on the blog Cruising Down the Coast of the High Barbaree -- a blog I read with great delight -- the subject of Nominalism came up. It came up for me years ago when writing a dissertation on Boethius' concept musica, which is a good deal more than we generally mean by the English cognate music.
What's Nominalism? The theory that our words and terms in theology and philosophy do not refer to such objective reality as there may be, but are simply names -- hence Nominalism, from the plural nomines of the Latin word for name, nomen -- for our various theological and philosophical concepts, which may or may not correspond to anything that objectively exists, and that therefore we should not confuse our theological and philosophical statements about reality with reality itself.
Which isn't such a bad idea all by itself. One can, for example, borrow concepts from Plato and Aristotle to explain Christianity's beliefs, but the danger is one can confuse those explanations with what is believed in itself, and end up believing in Platonic or Aristotelian philosophy more than Christianity while seeing them as the same. One can, for example, borrow Aristotle's distinction between substance and accident to explain what happens in the Eucharist, but one may well go beyond that to think that the Eucharist IS a change in substance without a change it accidents (accidents not being falling off your bike but what there is about something that can change without changing what it is, like appearance) and that this IS what Christ meant when he said This is My Body and This is My Blood. Substance and Accident are not realities, but names for concepts that may be useful in sorting out our experience. Therefore we ought to assume as few of these as possible in trying to sort out our experience.
This theory is often stated in the Latin maxim entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem, which translates entities should not be multiplied beyond what is necessary, or if you will, don't assume more stuff than you have to in explaining things. This is called Occam's Razor, after William of Occam (or Ockham), a 14th Century English Franciscan friar (we'll leave what distinguishes a friar from a monk to another time!) who didn't actually write the maxim but it does express the idea of shaving off, hence the razor, what you don't really need. It isn't literally a theory, but more a way of choosing among theories, which are models to explain a phenomenon.
The problem is, one can start to think that Reality is then basically unknowable, heck, maybe doesn't exist, or if it does what we think we know about it is just word shuffling and we're kind of left on our own. When it comes to God, rather than removing all the theological and philosophical shop talk, it can seem to make God more distant and unknowable than ever, who for all we know or can say may be something altogether different or may become so. Kind of hard to preach simple concrete truths taken to be revealed when they come in verbal concepts that may or may not really express what they are meant to.
The idea was a blockbuster, throwing the established theology and philosophy of the universities (called schools, or scholae in Latin, hence the name Scholasticism) steeped in Plato and Aristotle into a tizzy. Which in turn doesn't help a young fellow in seminary needing some certainty to calm his turmoil of soul and finding professors who were by and large raging Occamists. Kind of like turning up at a church university in a turmoil of soul and being given all kinds of tomes from the Rhine on historical-critical method. (The former happened to Martin Luther, the latter happened to me.)
The problem further is, this kind of thinking extends not just to scientific and philosophical theories and models, but to pretty much anything put into language. You're just reading words, language, not an explanation or description of reality but simply an exercise in the use of words or language be it scientific/philosophical or literary. And this seems to me to be also the message of an influential recent school of "post-modern" (roughly, since existentialism and structuralism, maybe we'll get to that along with friars and monks) thought called deconstructionism, whose best known proponent is the late Jacques Derrida. The idea being that our texts really don't tell us anything except that under certain conditions language functions in certain ways.
Now if this were only a matter of scientific or philosophical methodology, affecting academic researchers and leavng the rest of us alone, that would be one thing. Long before Ocaam, Thomas of Aquinas said (toward the beginning of contra gentiles) that theological supports or arguments for what we believe should be used only if they are helpful to people who already believe what we believe, and not to convince others of our beliefs lest they think our beliefs rest on such flimsy support . He said the only way to convince an opponent of divine truth is from the authority of Scripture, because what is beyond our ability to grasp can only be believed because God has revealed it, and only after that can theology help or not as the case may be. Yeah, he said that. Book One, Chapter Nine, summa contra gentiles. Thomists as a rule tend to blow right past that, but that's Thomists, not Thomas.
But suppose we avoid the Thomist in particular and theological in general trap and do what he says. Is Scripture then not a statement of what God has revealed, or even if it is it doesn't matter, since either way it's a text, and like all texts really only shows that under certain conditions language functions in a certain way? Just words, terms, names, nomines, quite distinct from any reality to which they may attempt to refer?
That's our problem. There is no retreat into Scripture if it has the same limitations, being language, as theology or philosophy. There seems to be three responses to this. One is, get all historical-critical and attempt to show precisely how language is functioning under just what circumstances -- not recommended unless you either don't have to work for a living or have decided to do that for a living. Another is, forget the whole thing and focus on your experience, what you feel and do -- deeds not creeds, everything validated out of your own personal piety, for which not just the historical movement but all this sort of thing should be called Pietism.
And there's another. In Scripture, a book, Jesus didn't promise to send more books, but the Spirit of God, and that Spirit would be a Helper and Guide. Faith is a gift of this Spirit. He told us to read the book and not avoid gathering to-gether. So read the book and attend a confessional Lutheran church, and as with any gift, don't take action to try to pry if from the hands of the giver like a little kid when Christmas presents are handed out, but let the giver give it in the only way he does, in his Word as read in Scripture and preached from a confessional pulpit by one called to do it, and if you have professed your belief, been baptised and are in the fellowship of the church, in Sacrament. Faith is a gift of the Holy Spirit. He can handle it. And he will.
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