One of the more common canards against Protestantism is that the Reformation sprung out of the philosophical nominalism of the late Middle Ages. Mind you, this charge has weight only to people who have taken some classes in philosophy. The average Reformed layperson will probably laugh at its irrelevancy (and good for them). The problem with this charge, though, is that it is almost entirely false and rejected by the facts. Most of the Reformed scholastics adopted their model of theology (if rejecting the content) from Thomas Aquinas, who was a realist–whose model entailed philosophical realism. With the exception of maybe one Protestant Scholastic, all of them identified nominalism to reject it.
Ah, but they can say one thing, an objector might add, only to reject it with their actual beliefs. Fair enough. You are then obligated to demonstrate that. This is where it gets hard. Only one such possible example exists: the doctrine of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. One could say that it is nominalism because God is declaring something to be the case (we are righteous) when it is not the case (we are guilty). There are two responses to this:
- The proposition, “I am righteous because of Christ’s work” is a true proposition in the mind of God.
- Imputation is grounded in our union with Christ. I have a real relationship with Christ. I am united to him. His life flows into mine.
When the Anchorite says that we can’t know the Bible unless we read it in the light of the Fathers (still waiting on a good definition of the Patrum Consensus), we have to realize a few things:
- He is essentially saying, “We can’t know what a verse means unless we read it in the context of the Fathers.”
1a. The problem is that he has never given us the proper criteria for the “context of the Fathers.”
- What do we do when a bible verse says “Christ bore our sins in his body” which plainly suggests penal substitution, yet the Fathers reject that doctrine? Simply opting for the Fathers’ position is intellectually dishonest.
- Ultimately, it comes down to this proposition: The Bible means only what we say it means. This is no different from medieval nominalism. Things are what they are simply because we name them such. They have no real, independent meaning. That is nominalism.