Pondering A Philosophical Idea: Nominalism and Christian Thought

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*Upfront, I should disclose that I am not a philosopher. What I’m doing in this post is wrestling with some ideas that I’m busy trying to research as I write a dissertation. In order to learn, I write. And I write as I learn. If you persevere through a few paragraphs, I try to make this relevant. So, here is an attempt to flesh some thoughts on “on paper.”

In order to understand the history of Christian thought, it seems a basic grasp of certain philosophical ideas is necessary. Plato, Aristotle, and others had a significant impact on how Christians theologized throughout history. During the Medieval era, Aristotelian philosophy had a significant influence on Christian thought. When one considers a few specific Catholic theologians post-Aquinas, the rise of nominalism impacts the development of doctrine in important ways. To understand the stream of Catholic theology to which those like Luther would respond, we need some introduction to nominalist ideas. Towards that end, what follows is an overview of nominalism.

First, a definition is in order. Meyrick H. Carré writes, “General ideas, universals, are merely names, nomina, and even noises, flatus vocis. The common nature which they assert is wholly subjective.”[1]  Contrast this with realism, “The universal resides in the nature governing the individual.”[2] To state the matter plainly, nominalism leads to the view that there are no universal ideas that exist. Instead, ideas are given mere names (i.e. nomina) that have culturally conditioned meaning. Roger Olson writes, “In other words, there are no real transcendental ideals; truth, beauty, and goodness are only cultural creations and ultimately labels for individual perceptions.”[3]

William of Ockham (1300–1349) is often associated with the rise of nominalism in Medieval Catholicism. Ockham is famous for “Ockham’s Razor,” the idea that the simplest explanation is most likely correct. In terms of nominalism, Ockham was pushing back against the idea of Platonic forms or Aristotelian universals. James Mannion explains.

There is a physical reality of concrete things, both animate and inanimate. They exist in and of themselves. Any significance or importance that humans assign them comes solely from the human mind. Any knowledge to be acquired from man would be from direct sensory experiences and certain logical conclusions, like the instinctual sense not to step off a cliff or stick your hand in a fire. This philosophy was a form of nominalism. Nominalism means that things like Universals and Forms are names that man gives things after the fact. They are not pre-existing entities.[4]

Consider the concepts of maleness and femaleness. Is there universal maleness and femaleness or are these constructs merely conditioned by culture? A nominalist would assert that there is no universal maleness or femaleness. That is, they are only names assigned to ideas. In contrast, I would posit the existence of universal maleness and femaleness, transcending certain cultures. When it comes to manhood and womanhood, Kevin DeYoung has recently made this point for a popular audience. He writes,

In other words, we are not philosophical nominalists who deny universals and believe only in particulars. We don’t just have males and females; there also exists maleness and femaleness. God did not create androgynous human beings, and he does not redeem us to become androgynous Christians. God made us male and female, and he sanctifies us by the Spirit so that we might follow Christ as men and follow Christ as women.[5]

Thus, there are not only particulars but universals in Aristotelian thought (or a world of forms in the mind of Plato). Nominalists generally reject universals and hold to particulars.

The practical payoff of this thought experiment is noted in what I have already mentioned. Return to the concepts of male and female. What does it mean to be a male or female? If your son or daughter asked you what it meant to live as a man or woman, would you talk to them in ways that suggest the ideas are merely culturally conditioned? Or, rather, would you assert that there exist ideas of manhood and womanhood that transcend time and space (i.e. geography)? If you are operating from a Christian worldview, you would (should) argue the latter, noting that in the beginning, God created men and women, boys and girls (Gen 1–2). Furthermore, God has revealed to us in nature and Scripture what it means to live as men and women. Thus, there is a category for biblical manhood and womanhood that is universally applicable.

If you speak and think in a way that holds to universals, you are not operating as a nominalist.

Anyone have any pushback or sharpening input on nominalism? I’m happy to hear!

[1] Meyrick H. Carré, Realists and Nominalists (Oxford University Press, 1946), 41.

 [2] Ibid.

[3] Roger Olson, “The Catastrophe of Nominalism,” Roger Olson: My Evangelical Arminian Theological Musings, Patheos, Nov 11, 2015 (https://www.patheos.com/blogs/rogereolson/2015/11/the-catastrophe-of-nominalism/).

[4] James Mannion, Essentials of Philosophy: The Basic Concepts of the World’s Greatest Thinkers (New York, NY: Fall River Press, 2011), 50–51.

[5] Kevin DeYoung, “Four Clarifying (I Hope) Thoughts on the Complementarianism Conversation,” The Gospel Coalition, May 7, 2020 (https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevin-deyoung/four-clarifying-i-hope-thoughts-on-the-complementarian-conversation/).

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