Tuesday, September 12, 2006

J.C. Ryle's Nominalism

I was reading recently from Heiko Oberman's work Forerunners of the Reformation: The Shape of Late Medieval Thought as I have been trying to get my mind around the many issues surrounding the Eucharistic controversy in the Church. This morning I visited Fr. Brian's blog to see his explanation of Ryle's issues and it was a reminder of how problematic Nominalism is to the life of the Church and her Sacramental ministry. Fr. Brian lists the following as the principles of Ryle:
“1. We protest against the modern practice of first personifying the Church, then deifying it, and finally idolising it.
2. We refuse to admit that Christian Ministers are in any sense sacrificing priests. We find that sacerdotalism or priestcraft has frequently been the curse of Christianity, and the ruin of true religion.
3. We refuse to admit that Christ’s Sacraments convey grace ex opere operato. We protest against the idea that in baptism the use of water, in the Name of the Trinity, is invariably and necessarily accompanied by regeneration. We protest against the theory that the Lord’s Supper is a sacrifice. Above all, we protest against the notion of any local presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Lord’s Supper, under the forms of bread and wine, as ‘idolatry to be abhorred of all faithful Christians’”. (Ryle, The Principles of Evangelical Religion, Online).

I could think of a protest to the protest. Oberman quotes Louis Bouyer commenting on the effects of nominalism prior to the Reformation in the writngs of such theologians as Occam, Holcot, d'Ailly and Biel and imputes to nominalism "what was without doubt most irreparably vitiationed and corrupt in Catholic thought at the end of the Middle Ages...the utter corruption of Christian thought as represented by nominialist theology." (246 Oberman). For an important dicussion of this whole issue and the theologian Cajetan, see Francis Clark's book Eucharistic Sacrifice and the Reformation.


Blogger Brian Douglas said...

He is pretty thorough in his nominalism isn't he. Ryle is still well read and his books are being regularly reprinted. In one of the large bookshops in Sydney (with an Evangelical bent) there is a large shelf of Ryle books.

I suppose Ryle is typical of that stream within Anglican eucharistic theology that I have termed 'nominalism'. Signs are separated from the signifed and the rational response of faith is emphasised. While I personally do not subscribe to his view, it is important to know that his view is a well accepted part of the Anglican eucharistic tradition. Here in Australia there are several well known individuals who would subscribe to his views within the Anglican Diocese of Sydney which is one of the largest (if not the largest) Evangelical diocese in the Anglican Communion. Anyone interested could read the following case studies on my web site

4.27 Robert Doyle
4.33 Peter Jensen
4.34 Broughton Knox
4.49 The Anglican Diocese of Sydney
and parts of the case study on Anglican eucharistic liturgies in the 20th century - 4.54.

This last case study in the material from the Diocese of Sydney known as 'Sunday Services' shows the way that nominalism has played out in a liturgical setting.

8:27 am  
Blogger Jeff said...

Fr. Brian

Thanks very much for this. I read Clark's book and remembered it as I was writing the quick piece and referenced it in the original post. I realise that this view is a part of the Anglican Tradition and is held to by many but I also believe that it creates a lot of problems pastorally.

Without getting into all the issues of nominalism and the limitations of the sacrifice of the Mass per Biel, I think a loss in the objective reality and 'realism' of the sacraments has dichotomised flesh and spirit and subjectivised the Christian faith to a radical individualism. If Sacramental Realism is understood and explained in the objective covenantal structure of our relationship with God, the issues of ex opere operato would not be so problematic. What I mean, is that because people walk away and reject the grace and the person of Christ offered in the Sacraments does not mean that Christ isn't present and truly and realy offered in them at the time of offering. This puts sacramental efficacy into the hands of the individual though I recognise and agree with the Church that faith is required as well as devotion. But the question will then become, how much faith, what depth of devotion and we fall right back into the nominalism that has so dichotomised our Sacramental theology. It seems to me that if we look at our Sacramental theology in an objective covenantal sense, many of these issues may be put to rest. It is only in that light that the difficult passages of scriputre such as those 'shipwrecking the faith' and 'denying the Master who bought them' and the warnings of Heb. 6 make any sense at all without getting into a Calvinistic and Arminian battle such as the early C17.

8:39 am  
Blogger Brian Douglas said...


I certainly agree that nominalism has separated flesh and spirit and that what this does really as you suggest is promote individualism. The question of faith is interesting. Ryle's view (and some nominalists) seem to start with the faith of the individual rather than the gift of grace which comes from God through the sacraments. As you rightly point out this puts the sacramental efficacy into the hands of the individual in the sense that the efficacy of the sacraments becomes dependent on the faith of the individual. I think it was Pusey who argued that the grace of God in the sacraments comes first and then faith is the response we make to the initiative of God. For him (and me) this seems to be the right order. Faith however is not something we produce but rather something that God gives in response to our 'yes'. I think if we look at it like this we can be prevented from slipping back into the individualism of nominalism while at the same preserving the objective and convenantal sense of sacramental theology. Whilst I am certainly within the moderate realist stream of Anglicanism I recognise for the purposes of dialogue that the nominalist stream is persistent. My diocese is just to the north of Sydney and I did spend 6 years in the Diocese of Sydney as a priest (swimming against the tide it must be said). I am only too aware of the power of that stream.

Thanks for the continuing interaction. I find it most useful.


9:04 am  
Blogger Jeff said...

Thanks Fr. Brian. I do as well and I too want to find ways of speaking to get us away from that individualism. This is why I find Andrewes' views to have the potential of being a catalyst for ecumenism, partiularly with the Catholic bodies of both East and West and if those of the ilk that you describe would listen we may be able to move beyond these C16 issues and embrace the sacramental sacrifice and community.

I find all of this very helpful as well. Let me know when you hear something from David.

10:18 am  
Anonymous Jason Loh said...

JC Ryle ... the low-church puritian evangelical no-nonsense *pastoral* churchman a nominalist??

Does the late Bp Ryle understand what nominalism is in the first place? Where does one find discussion of nominalism let alone philosophy anywhere in his writings??

1:09 pm  
Blogger Brian Douglas said...

Ryle himself does not use the term nominalism. I never suggested that he did. What I am arguing is that Ryle is an example of those Anglicans whose expression of eucharistic theology can be analysed using nominalism, that is a philosophical assumption where sign and signified are separated. Ryle does not link the sign with the signified in any realist manner such that the sign is the means of conveying the signified. For him the sign is merely a reminder of some past and completed event (i.e. the sacrifice of Christ) which cannot be instantiated in the present in the Eucharist.

My whole project has been an attempt to examine the philosophical assumptions underlying Anglican eucharistic theology. My examination of the Anglican eucharistic tradition by means of case study has led me to the conclusion that the fundamental distinction in philosophical assumptions in the Anglican eucharistic tradition is between those who adopt realist and nominalist assumptions. I have further distinguished this using the insights of contemporary philosophers into both moderate and immoderate versions of both realism and nominalism. Additional material addressing this is found on my web site (http://web.mac.com/brian.douglas) in the section called 'The Philosophy Pages' under the title of 'A Glossary of Terms'.

10:03 pm  
Blogger Brian Douglas said...

Jason, the other point I forgot to make was that nominalism is distinguished by its commitment to particulars and opposition to the idea of universals - that is something beyond the particular. Ryle's eucharistic theology was classified by me as nominalist (rightly or wrongly) since he deals only with particulars (says bread and wine on the one hand which is now in the Eucharist and Christ's body/blood/sacrifice which is in the past and not in any way instantiated in the present). For Ryle these particulars are not linked in any real way in the present. This is reason why Ryle denies any notion eucharistic sacrifice in either its moderate or immoderate form. He would not, as I read him, subscribe for example to the view that the nature of Christ is instantiated in the Eucharist in any real way. Hope this is further clarification.

Brian Douglas

10:20 pm  
Blogger the Vicar said...

We could go into how the Calvinists love Ryle, but we won't.

We could go into how Calvinism, especially Zwinglianism, is the "logical" end of nominalism, but we won't.

We could go into how Ryle's book on Holiness is rather superb if ripped out of the Calvinistic context though! :)


5:57 am  
Blogger KosmicEggburst said...

It is interesting to be able to actually see nominalism in real life, and just as well to identify it as being a thoroughly man-made and illusory system that raises itself up. It is plausible that Ryle, et al, thought they were actually advancing the kingdom as proponents of this view, it is entrenched as mentioned earlier, however the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty, and the eucharist is a most telling and appropriate instrumentality in this regard.

The challenges seem to be in finding creative ways to explore and exploit nominalism as the farce that it is, and ultimately that the disciplining of it is to somehow be done in love.

11:21 am  

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