Bad Ideas Have Bad Consequences

The first reference to nominalism I ever read — or at least noted — was in Richard Weaver’s book “Ideas Have Consequences,” first published in 1948.

Weaver (1910-1963), a professor of English at the University of Chicago, was not an orthodox Christian, but he was a strong defender of the classical Western tradition. Writing about the philosopher William of Ockham (c. 1285-1347), Weaver said the English Franciscan had “propounded the fateful doctrine of nominalism, which denies that universals have a real existence. His triumph tended to leave universal terms mere names serving our convenience.” Ockham’s view was in direct contradiction to that of St. Thomas Aquinas (1215-1274), who taught that man can really know the true, objective essence of things. In nominalism, there is no universal entity or essence for a “dog,” a “table” or “love.” Rather, such names can only be applied to specific, individual objects examined through scientific, empirical means. Hence the name “nominalism,” derived from the Latin word (nomen) for “name.” Complicated? Yes, very! But Weaver was right: ideas can have huge consequences.

In 2006, Pope Benedict XVI gave his famous and controversial Regensburg address. While much of the response focused on comments made about Islam, the pontiff focused on how faulty notions of the nature of God can lead to serious problems. He pointed out that voluntarism (another named for nominalism) can “lead to the image of a capricious God, who is not even bound to truth and goodness.” This means that God’s freedom is such that “he could have done the opposite of everything he has actually done.” So, if God revealed last week that murder is sinful, he is free to reveal today that murder is acceptable. Faith, in this understanding, is not in true accord with reason. On the contrary, faith and reason are severed from one another.

If God’s acts do not possess a logical, objective nature, they must result from a groundless divine will unconcerned with what we call “reason.” Among other things, this means natural law is ultimately of little or no value. And since the nature of reality becomes arbitrary, man cannot know the essential nature of sin, grace and much more. The only way for man to know his relationship with God is to rely on intuition, personal experience and subjective desire.

Ockham and his disciples, as it turned out, influenced the thinking of both Martin Luther and John Calvin, the most influential thinkers among the first Protestants. Nominalism shaped how both viewed faith and also affected how they understood divine revelation and Scripture. Put simply, early Protestantism insisted that the sole sufficiency of Scripture must be accepted on faith — a faith divorced from the authority of the Church and the Magisterium. The Benedictine monk and historian David Knowles (1896-1974), in “The Evolution of Medieval Thought” (1962), pointed out that since classical Protestantism regarded “revelation as something arbitrary, to be accepted with unreasonable submission and left without comment or explanation, nominalism, under the guise of a devout humility, left the door open for agnosticism or incredulity as well as for a fideistic acceptance of religious teaching.” This resulted in a severing from the history and tradition of the Church, and required an appeal to “sola scriptura.” As time moved on, Knowles noted, “the void left by the disappearance of rational arguments was filled by a recourse to mystical certainty.” And when that certainty slipped away, skepticism grew, which in turn nurtured agnosticism and then overt atheism.

The long and short of it is that a Christian who insists that the Bible alone is God’s true and authentic word and the skeptic who rejects the Bible as a book full of nonsense are not as far removed from one another as it might seem. Not because their beliefs are similar — they aren’t — but because both reject the authority of the Catholic Church, whether they know it or not. As the history of Protestantism has shown, the absence of Tradition and the Magisterium is like trying to sit on a three-legged stool that is missing two legs: it is precarious, at best. Ideas, even old and obscure ones, have serious consequences.

Carl E. Olson is the editor of Ignatius Insight (www.ignatiusinsight.com). He and his family live in Eugene, Ore.