Luther, Nominalism, and the Nature of the Church

This is an odd post, because it addresses a couple of issues raised by an email from a friend (Steve) in which he asked about some recent posts. Regarding my recent post on Martin Luther and Reformation Day, Steve asked "How can you not like and respect someone that said 'Whenever the devil harasses you, seek the company of men and drink more.....Sometimes we must drink more...and even sin a little to spite the devil....'".  Point taken Steve... I will address this below.

Also, Steve said that he is "very much leaning against the view that the Church somehow is the possessor and distributor of grace" (such as the Catholic view).  He is "much more now seeing that we are called to only be a Proclaimer, and especially a WITNESS as the Church... Anything else seems to me at present to somehow almost "interfere" with the work Christ". He also said that he is re-thinking the sacraments, and is very influenced by some views of Karl Barth regarding the Church and the sacraments.

So, I actually find all of these issues to be related.  In the following post I want to deal with Luther, then Karl Barth, and then the idea of whether or not the Church is a "Witness" to Christ (as Proclaimers), or the continuing "Incarnation" of Christ (as the Body of Christ).  


To start with, I have much love for Luther!  I think in many ways he is an incredible theologian and powerful prophet for God's people.  The core of his message needed to be spoken to the Church of that age (and in all ages!).  There are two things I do not like about Luther: His nominalism (a theological mistake) and the fact that his movement split the Church (a practical mistake).  On one hand, I think his splitting the Church was partly the result of political factors that were beyond his control.  To put it bluntly, I think he was used as a pawn of Kings and Barons who resented paying Papal taxes and were looking for an excuse to buck the system.

On the other hand, I think his twin mistakes of nominalism and splitting the Church are intimately related.  Nominalism stands in direct opposition to Platonism, in that it denies universal essences and states that there is no underlying reality that upholds or gives "form" to members of a class or category.  Rather, universals are merely "names" (Latin "nominus", hence "nominalism") that we label things that have similar attributes.  Ultimately, there are no universals, just the subjective impressions of observers who label classes of things by universal names.  The only thing that stops medieval nominalists from being non-theistic empiricists is that they believed there were spiritual "things" beyond sense perception, whereas empiricists reject the idea that there are any real things that are non-material.

If then, someone (like Luther) is a nominalist, then there is no universal "essence" underlying the word "Church".  The Church can no longer be a singular entity (a Body or organic unity) that shares a common essence. The Church becomes merely a conglomeration of people who have a certain set of characteristics, namely faith in Christ and the experience of baptism. The mission of the Church is no longer to BE the presence of Christ in the world, but to be merely a transmitter of information about Christ.  People are no longer organically connected to each other and reliant on each other in Christ, but the Church is a sort of voluntary self-help society for the faithful.

If one holds nominalism, it leads by a series of logical inferences to the idea that the Church is non-necessary.  It leads to an individualistic conception of Christian faith and life.  It makes it much easier to break up the unity of the Church, because the Church is not in reality a single entity.  It is merely a name assigned to a collection of individuals.  So, breaking the unity of the Church is merely allowing the actual reality of things to be shown, because there is no organic unity in the first place. Breaking the unity of the Church becomes no real loss, and thus 20,000 denominations of individualistic Protestants becomes something imaginable and tolerable.

Luther called the Church to a real and living faith in Christ and a non-mechanical understanding of God's grace.  This was necessary to restore the true Gospel that connected one to the underlying reality of the Church.  The lack of faith had disconnected people from a relationship with God  The mechanical understanding of God's grace functioning through the sacraments had made Christ into something like a pipeline of water that was released by the faucet of the Church.  This had to be changed, and I congratulate Luther for doing this.  Yet, I think his nominalism and his connections with political power led him to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

The one major flaw I find in Barth's theology (which, ironically, is pointed out by the Presbyterian Francis Schaeffer) is that he is an inheritor of nominalism.  He separates the spiritual and the physical and does not seem to believe that universals are real entities.  Thus, Barth is going to necessarily have a low doctrine of the organic unity of the Church.  The Church, for him, is still not a universal, but merely a collection of individuals united in a central purpose: Witness.


I say that we need to redeem a healthy concept of universals, through the interconnectedness of all of reality that we find in particle physics and chaos theory.  Everything is united and interdependent.  There really is a universal entity called "Reality", and a universal, organically united entity called "Church".  The difference between premodern "universals" and postmodern "universals" I think would be found in the idea of substance.  Premoderns thought of universals as shared substances that were distinct at a very basic level.  Physics has shown us that (at least in the empirical world) there ultimately are no distinct enduring "substances".  

Instead, energy converts into matter, and matter into energy.  Time and space form a unity that can be distorted like a piece of fabric.  Subatomic particles are not actually particles at all, but something like strings or membranes that exist in 11 to 27 dimensions and constantly "dance" together to create the reality we know.  The truly enduring elements we find in physics are completely non-substantial.  Instead, they are relationships, proportions, and logical interactions which create what we call the "laws of physics".  For instance, E=MC2 is a constant relation.  The way gravity works in proportion to the mass of objects is a constant relation.  The way that subatomic particles combine and separate to form chemical and nuclear reactions are constant relations governed by unchanging "laws".

In fact, the enduing "universal" that unites all of reality does not turn out to be a substance at all, but a Logic, a Purpose, a Logos (John 1:1-3).  The underlying Universal Essence that gives rise to this Logos is the eternal inter-relationship of the Trinity.  The common "substance" of the Trinity (i.e. the common "ousia" in the Nicene Creed) is not a "substance" at all in the sense that "substance" is normally used.  Rather the common substance of the Trinity that the Father, Son, and Spirit share in is an Eternal Relation: the relation of Love!  Love is the substance, the ousia, of the Trinity.

This unchanging, self-giving relation of Love is also the underlying "universal" that holds the Church together.  We are not merely a collection of individuals who share in a task of Witnessing to Christ.  We are a Body that shares in one common essence: the Love of God.  This Love binds us directly to the Body of Him who died and rose again so that we really become extensions of that Body.  We become that Body.

So, to bring us back to point is this: We need to deny nominalism and all of her children, and recover the reality of Universals.  Yet, we must not return to the idea that Universals are some kind of enduring substance that things share in.  Rather, we come to an idea that Universals are an enduring relation or connectedness that things share in.  If we do this, we may just lay the foundation for Church reunification, just as (I believe) nominalism formed the foundation for Church self-destruction.


Actually, I do not believe the Church as Witness and the Church as Incarnation are contradictory positions, but rather complementary.  My problem with theologies of Redemption as put forward by most evangelicals is that they have a no necessary place for the Church in them.  In their theology Christ can (and does) redeem those in hell without the cooperation of his redeemed people.  I think this is both a Biblical and a tactical mistake.  If Christ does it all without us, then why put forward any effort?

Yet, if it is made clear that Christ will not accomplish the redemption of the world without the co-operation of His redeemed, then it gives us a clear sense of mission.  You see, it is not enough for God to convert us to Love Him alone.  God converts us so that we Love others and become "mini-Christs" to those who are still outside the embrace of God's Love.  This is because those in the Church share in the essence of God, and really are embodiments of His Love to the world.

The Church really is the extended Body of Christ in time and space, joined with Christ who is the head of the body.  All are potentially elect in and through the Body of Christ, but it is precisely the outreach of this Body that makes the potential a living actuality.  Thus, the Church is the Sacrament of continuing Incarnation, and to receive those in the Church is to "receive Him who sent us" (cf. Mat 10:40).  The sacraments that are celebrated in the Church are "medicine for the soul", given for the sharing of God's Love, the impartation of Christ's presence, and the empowering of the Holy Spirit.

To say the Church is JUST Witness and NOT Incarnation seems to me to fall into a couple of problems: First, it seems to fall into an implicitly Gnostic idea of the Church and the sacraments that denies that God really uses physical means to share His presence with others.  The Church is not just a dispenser of spiritual information to get people to God (witness), but is also a source of real spiritual participation in which we share in the presence of Christ through fellowship, worship, and sacrament (incarnation).  Second, to limit the role of Church to mere dispenser of information is to subtly "buy into" a consumerist version of the Church in which the job of the Church is to give disembodied information about Christ for spiritual consumers to purchase (through time, money, and attention) so they can go individually and appropriate information for themselves.  Rather, to encounter true fellowship in the Church is to encounter Christ.  To be in the Church to is be in the Family of God.  The Gospel is not a disembodied message, but an embodied reality.  The epicenter of this embodiment is the physical body of Christ (now present in Heaven), and His reality radiates out, through His Spirit, in the physical and relational means He has promised to work through.

Therefore, I would highly recommend holding Witness and Incarnation in creative tension and seeing the Church as both-and, instead of either-or.  I would also say that any theology of redemption that implicitly or explicitly denies the necessity of the Church in God's plan for restoring the world is highly deficient at best.  God could have chosen to redeem everything without any human involvement, but He did not.  He has chosen humans and human means to be the primary conduits of His presence in the world.  Even the great miracles of Scripture have been done in response to human request, including, let us not forget, the ransom for the world in the physical person of Christ.  This insight- that God really works through His Family- is crucial to understanding how God works in election, redemption, ecclesiology, sacramentology, missiology, and eschatology.
Post a Comment
This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.