Morgendämmerung, oder, Wie man mit dem Hammer theologirt.
Nescire autem quid ante quam natus sis acciderit id es semper esse puerum.
Orandum est ut sit mens sana in corpore sano.
Homo sum humani nihil a me alienum puto.
Semper idem sed non eodem modo.


Verbum domini manet in aeternum. The word of the Lord endures forever.
1 Peter 1:24-25, quoting Isaiah 40:6,8. Motto of the Lutheran Reformation.

Fayth onely justifieth before God. Robert Barnes, DD The Supplication, fourth essay. London: Daye, 1572.

Lord if Thou straightly mark our iniquity, who is able to abide Thy judgement? Wherefore I trust in no work that I ever did, but only in the death of Jesus Christ. I do not doubt, but through Him to inherit the kingdom of heaven. Robert Barnes, DD, before he was burnt alive for "heresy", 30 July 1540.

What is Luther? The doctrine is not mine, nor have I been crucified for anyone. Martin Luther, Dr. theol. (1522)

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09 September 2007

William Derrida, Jacques of Occam

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.


Mr. & Mrs. Traylor said...

I've done some reading online about " Classic Christian Education " and was on the STURM Yahoo Group with other Lutherans in this field a few years ago. At the level I'm at I've found that Aesop and the Grimms Brothers have had a more profound effect on our present form of communication than needed. For example the Fable The Lion and the Mouse was used in a Lutheran Sermon I heard a few years ago and we are told in the Bible not to have itching ears or to use fables because they serve to confuse us. Wow with the book stores full of talking Animal and Vegetables like Clifford and Veggie Tales God has shown me what to read young children and what not to read to them at an early age.
Happy Grandparents Day !

Past Elder said...

Thank you for commenting!

I am sympathetic to "classical" education. My dissertation ended up being not just about musica but the whole Seven Liberal Arts curriculum as a system for present use in organising and teaching our present knowledge.

However, there are two things to note.

One: Liberal in Liberal Arts comes from liber, free. The free is this -- this was the knowledge of the free class, who because there was a slave class, did not have to work and would have the leisure to devote to knowledge. Our culture even at its best has almost deified work, yet the classic liberal arts depend upon leisure and freedom from the need to work, and how a system like that can be integrated into a culture like ours remains not understood by me, the two arising from opposite values.

Two: classic education is a pre-Christian, non-Christian format, so I would expect that if one has some reservation about using the good in this or that pagan story one should have even greater reservation about using the good in a pagan entire system of knowledge!

Andrew said...

Enjoyed the post once again, Past Elder. I can't keep down that pedantic urge, however. The plural of nomen is nomina. Nomen is a neuter noun.

And one comment on the Liberal Arts. Doesn't the "liberal" in liberal arts also refer to the fact that there are certain kinds of knowledge which are pursued for the sake of themselves? In other words, they're not ordered to, or don't serve, any particular use; whereas others are pursued with a particular use in mind. And these are called artes serviles, or "servile arts". Carpentry, for example, exists specifically for the purpose of making things out of wood.

Past Elder said...

Andrew, you are quite correct, and Sister Colleen would hand me my head on a platter, or at least my text with big red marks! It's good that you are reading, because my high school Latin was mid 1960s!

Sister would probably have suggested the genetive nominis (I think, correct me if wrong) as the form to use closest to the English Nominalism.

As to your other though, yes, the idea that the liberal arts are pursued for their own sake rather than the sake of a particular use is a part of it -- a part that is hand and glove with the idea of one class that does not have to worry about making a living with the skills of particular uses, so to speak, like carpentry, and another than does and therefore has not the leisure to pursue these things.

Both aspects are part of a single concept that culture derives from leisure, not work.

Eric said...

Great post. I also just enjoyed your comments on Cruising Down the Coast of the High Barbaree blog.

BTW, would you be interested in adding your conversion story from RC to LCMS on the very new Word & Sacrament Network? (

If so, send me and email.

In Christ,


Augustinian Successor said...

Dear Brother,

I got here from Josh S's blog ... got to know that you swam the Tiber FROM Rome, and now in the LCMS. Just wanna say, GREAT to know that!

Keep up the good! And may our Good Lord continue to bless you, your family and ministry in the truth.