Thursday, July 06, 2006

The Failures of Protestantism

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In attempting to think deeply about the Eucharist and to get a real sense of what is going on, I cannot help but see how Nominalism--often the heart of Protestantism--shapes and continues to shape the present crisis and unraveling of Protestantism that we see around the world today. I particularly think about the philosophy of ideas without consequences or actions that lack any moral value in and of themselves--issues directly facing the Church today. Looking at some articles on the Internet on Nominalism and Realism, I came across the article below that really has me seeing some of the underlying failing of Protestant philosophy that shapes so much of Reformed theology. What really stuck out to me was the lack of the theology of divinisation that we find in the early Fathers that is absent from much of Reformed thinking. Internal transformation and infusion of the divine life of God is often treated as a 'legal fiction' and something that completely transcends us but has little value for us. Something to think about as we ponder what impact this has for how we think about such things as the Sacrifice of the Mass and the Sacrifice of Calvary being one and the same sacrifice. What does this say about the value of the Mass and the value of Calvary being one and the same? I leave it for you to ponder as well. The complete article can be found here.
Mystery destroyed
Heiko A. Oberman, a leading Luther scholar (and admirer), admitted in Luther: Man between God and the Devil that "Martin Luther was a nominalist; there is no doubt about that." Rev. Louis Bouyer, a former Lutheran pastor and theologian, stated in The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism that this connection to Ockham’s nominalism is the key to the "negative elements" of the Reformation:
No phrase reveals so clearly the hidden evil that was to spoil the fruit of the Reformation than Luther’s saying that Ockham was the only scholastic who was any good. The truth is that Luther, brought up on his system, was never able to think outside the framework it imposed, while this, it is only too evident, makes the mystery that lies at the root of Christian teaching either inconceivable or absurd.
That "mystery" is divinization: the Catholic doctrine that God’s grace—his supernatural life—can infuse man and heal his wounded nature, especially through the sacraments. This belief was abhorrent to Luther, who believed such communion between God and man impossible, even blasphemous. Justification, Luther taught, was not an inner change but a juridical or forensic reality, outward only and imputed by Christ. The justified man is still as sinful as before, but he is "cloaked" in Christ’s righteousness.

Total depravity

Neither Luther nor John Calvin could conceive of man as somehow sharing in God’s divine nature, because man, in their estimation, was totally depraved and incapable of any good. The nominalism of Ockham and his disciples congealed in the teachings of these Protestant fathers, resulting in a skewed understanding of God and his relationship with man.

"What, in fact, is the essential characteristic of Ockham’s thought, and of nominalism in general," Bouyer asked, "but a radical empiricism, reducing all being to what is perceived, which empties out, with the idea of substance, all possibility of real relations between beings, as well as the stable subsistence of any of them, and ends by denying to the real any intelligibility, conceiving God himself only as a Protean figure impossible to apprehend?"

The nominalist fragmentation between substance and nature became the cornerstone for two principles of classical Protestant theology: total depravity and sola fide.

Man, being totally depraved, lacks any free will and the ability to know what is right. For Luther, looking through nominalist-colored lenses, grace was a quality external to man and therefore unknowable in any objective way. Grace is God’s divine favor and belongs to God alone. Luther believed that if God did infuse man with his divine life, then God would be joined to man and obligated to him in a manner incompatible with his sovereignty and omnipotence. Man can have no part in grace except in an outward manner—imputed righteousness—in which no real communication of the divine life occurs.

So sola fide—faith alone—became the means of salvation because faith, for the Protestant fathers, is an inner quality, knowable through experience and intuition; it is not a sharing in God’s divine life.

"Similarly, and as radically," wrote Bouyer, "it follows that grace, to remain such, that is the pure gift of God—must always be absolutely extrinsic to us; also, faith, to remain ours, so as not to fall into that externalism that would deprive man of all that is real in religion, must remain shut up within us."

Radical individualism

This prepared the way for the radical individualism—what French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain called "the advent of the self"—that became a distinguishing feature of Protestantism. In the moral realm this radical separation of faith and grace meant a severing of the moral act from its actual value. If God can impose any value he desires upon a moral act arbitrarily, then it follows that man’s actions cannot possess any objective value relating to grace or the meriting of eternal life. Protestant theologian Alister McGrath summarized the Reformers’ view in his volume on justification, Iustitia Dei (Cambridge University Press, 1998):
There is a fundamental discontinuity between the moral value of an act—i.e., the act, considered in itself—and the meritorious value of an act—i.e., the value that God chooses to impose upon the act. Moral virtue imposes no obligation upon God, and where such obligation may be conceded, it exists as the purely contingent outcome of a prior uncoerced divine decision.
Calvin systematized this discontinuity by basing his Institutes of the Christian Religion around the central theological theme of predestination. Calvin made it clear that God can be sovereign only if man is nothing, that is, totally depraved and lacking any free will.

It has been said that for the Protestant fathers justification was the article of faith upon which the Church either "stand or falls." But their denial of free will is actually the key article of faith, as it informed their position on justification as well as that of Scripture, Church authority, and the sacraments. Without free will, man’s moral actions mean nothing, so justification becomes a legal fiction, not a lifetime of growth in God’s divine life.

The Reformer from Geneva also took up Ockham’s view of the Incarnation, as McGrath noted in A Life of John Calvin (Cambridge: Basil Blackwell, 1990). Calvin "makes it clear that the basis of Christ’s merit is not located in Christ’s offering of himself," McGrath wrote, "but in the divine decision to accept such an offering as of sufficient merit for the redemption of mankind (which corresponds to the voluntarist [nominalist] approach). For Calvin, ‘apart from God’s good pleasure, Christ could not merit anything’ [Institutes, II.xvii.i-iv]." McGrath also noted that "Calvin’s continuity appears to be with the late medieval voluntarist tradition, deriving from Ockham of Ockham and Gregory of Rimini."

The crucial break between each moral act (known by revelation) and its meritorious value (unknown and reliant on God’s arbitrary will) is evident. So Calvin taught a distinct break between justification and sanctification. The former is external, imputed, and eternal; the latter is internal and pertains to salvation as an evidence only shown by good works, a sign of perseverance, which the truly predestined saint will possess. Believers can know they are saved by the signs of their works, all the while knowing that those works possess little, if any, actual value in the eyes of God.

Seeds of skepticism

Like a stream growing as it flows from a mountain into a valley, nominalism has helped shape modernity’s view of God, man, and reality. Ockham’s focus on empirical knowledge played a vital role in Luther and Calvin looking inwardly in search of faith. But it was not long before Enlightenment thinkers would cast aside the tenuous reality of self-enclosed faith and begin searching for data and evidence in a new way.

Instead of looking to the detached and unknowable God of nominalism, intellectuals and theologians began looking to the immediate, concrete world around them. After all, if God does not want to have communion with man but only desires to show his sovereignty, what keeps man from turning his back on God and demonstrating his own power and autonomy? While God, for the Protestant fathers, is free from any obligation to man, in the Enlightenment era man became equally autonomous, free from any obligation to God and his natural law.

What the Protestant revolt and later modernity had in common was that a subjective, individualistic view of reality turned into the essential basis of knowledge. The difference was in the object of focus. The Reformers looked to God, relying on intuitive, subjective experience. Later thinkers, relying on their own intuitive experiences, concluded that man is autonomous and God is unnecessary. The former resulted in Lutheranism, Calvinism and a host of splintering groups. The latter resulted in all sorts of nasty "isms": empiricism, positivism, moral relativism, and deconstructionism.

Summarized, the move toward subjective and intuitive knowledge, opposed to abstract and universal knowledge, led to increasingly radical philosophical propositions. G. W. F. Hegel, Immanuel Kant, and Karl Marx pushed the envelope of nominalist-indebted thought. German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) wrote, "There are no facts, only interpretations"—a sentiment echoed in the common contemporary refrain: "There is no truth, only opinions."

In the twentieth century, Jacques Derrida’s work in deconstruction—which asserts that truth cannot be known and words lack real meaning—was a type of hyper-nominalism. Derrida’s famous statement that "there is nothing outside the text" was a denial that words refer to a reality beyond them.

Like a constantly mutating virus, nominalism lives on. Yes, ideas do have consequences. And bad ideas, no matter how well-intentioned, have bad consequences.


Blogger J. Gordon Anderson said...

It's so funny that you bring this up. I told one of my most hardcore Reformed friends from college once that he was nothing but a Nominalist, and he instantly agreed with me! But then he tried to retract his agreement, which I didn't and still don't buy.

2:12 pm  
Anonymous Joey said...


Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Joey Carter. After reading your current post, I have mixed reactions to it. On the one hand, Olson is right to point out a particular, yet MAJOR, failure of Protestant life and thought--rampant individualism. This is even still promulgated to some degree in Reformed circles, and I find that distasteful.

However, on the other hand, Olson's artcile seems to be nothing more than a classic polemic against two largely misunderstood Reformers, though they are ironically the most popular and "influential". I know little on Luther, so I won't comment; however, my research entails the life and thought of Calvin (I do appreciate him atleast citing a great source such as Dr. McGrath's book).

Though it would indeed take me a long appraisal, I will say that (1)Cavin was a pastor then a theologian; his theology is pastoral, not necessarily systematic. Calvin is not to be read ad hoc the Institutes, but rather read within the deeper context of his letters and sermons, especially his positive interactions with the Colloquy of Regensburg of 1541 (which by the way Luther rejected). This leads to (2) the fact that the Institutes is NOT focused and mediated through a predestinarian ideal; rather it is thoroughly Christological. Then (3) by Calvin being so Christological, his center piece of salvation is UNION with Christ-- unia mystica. I believe Calvin is trying to still address a REAL ontological participation in the life and being of Christ while still maintaining proper distinctions of Being and being--contra Osiander in Book II. 16. Calvin's distinctions between justification and sanctification are just that-- distinctions.

Anyway, I don't intend to go on and on (which I could =) ), but I think Olson neglected to read more carefully in Calvin's thought. His other incites such as Individualism are well placed though and I think Protestants have alot to learn especially from the Orthodox. But I think you would find this article by a Luther scholar (retired) from Concordia Seminary interesting.


God bless!


4:41 pm  
Blogger Jeff said...

Thanks Joey! Welcome and always know that your comments are welcome here. I appreciate the spirit in which they are offered and if I had more time right now I would love to engage with this. Being that I am over my head in some Latin translation and busy trying to get another chapter put together before September, I am mostly just posting stuff this summer. Keep the comments coming though as I may find a late night moment to jump in. Thanks for the ref. to the article too!

all the very best with your studies!


5:45 pm  
Anonymous Jason Loh said...

Hello Jeff,

I don't you'd remember me, but a while back I did express interest in pursuing Anglican studies and research at Durham, engaging particularly on the Caroline divines vis-a-vis their soteriology. I won't be making it to Durham this time, lack of funds being one reason.

As for nominalism and the Reformed faith: even if there Reformed folks out there who are "nominalists", there many more who aren't. I'm a sola fideist and double-predestinarian (supra) and deny common grace. But I am realist.

And then, as a former Presbyterian yourself, you would know that though the Reformed faith doesn't speak of "divinisation", it speaks of "sanctification" and "glorification" which follow "justification".

As Hooker puts it, there are 2 types of righteousness (read: justification); 1) external and perfect; 2) internal and imperfect.

12:54 pm  
Anonymous Joel W said...

Interestingly Calvin was never ordained to anything.

2:05 pm  

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