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.


mike said...

I wish your posts weren't so packed with all kinds of goodies. It would take me forever to respond to everything. So alas, I will choose only a couple of things.

As far as nominalism, I hate black and white; yes or no theological questions, so I appreciate holding in tension Barth and a more traditional Roman Catholic view. I love Barth but I love how Rahner talks about the Church as sacramental incarnation. I think you can have both. The Divine symbol (church) does call out to the world (witness) as well as serve as a physical conduit of divine presence.

As far as individualism in the church, to offer redemption without including the necessity of being in a community of faith, is like getting married without a bride. impossible. But the church is made up of the 'called out ones'. Aren't we connected through mission? Wasn't the NT church an eschatological missionary community?

As the believer is transformed individually he/she is also divinely grafted into this beautiful tapestry called the church. The individual cannot be separated from the body. The church breathes as each of it's living stones breathe.

I enjoyed the inclusion of quantum physics and chaos theory into theology. I love that stuff.

Great post!

Anonymous said...

Thanks Mike!

Regarding nominalism and holding it all in tension, there is a reason why I am so anti-nominalist:

I just think that any metaphysics which denies the reality of universals or essences is ultimately very harmful to human life. The denial of universals / essences, leads by logical steps to:

- Nominalism (universals are just names appended to classes or categories of particulars organized by knowers)
- Rationalism (nominalism that believes all particulars are governed by human reason)
- Empiricism (nominalism that does not recognize non-tangible particulars as real)
- Idealism (what we call reality is a construction of the mind, which organizes particulars)
- Subjectivism (particulars are organized by personal experience, not reason)
- Relativism (all views of morality are particular to individual knowers, and cannot be universalized)
- Deconstruction (All particulars are to be dis-assembled, there is no universal "metanarrative" that holds reality together, and even the particular we call "self" is a non-entity to be deconstructed)
- Nihilism (Reality of anything is phantasmal and ultimately void. There is no meaning, only experience. There is no morality, only the will to power.)
- Consumerism (All particulars are marketed to be consumed by those who have the will and power to market these items. Even humans, their experiences, their desires, and their dreams, become quantified and sold to the highest bidder. Nothing is outside of the loop of consuming and being consumed.)

I think nominalism is the first step on a long road to consumerism, and what CS Lewis calls "The Abolition of Man". When we deny universals, it is but a step away to denying that there is a God who is universally in control. When we deny God, we are but a step away from denying that we have souls which unify our own being. When we deny our own souls, we become just a thing to be bought, sold, consumed, and then thrown away. The only thing that stopped us from getting here faster were the various forms of nationalism and collectivism that formed a potent antidote to individualism for the last two centuries.

Communism didn't do very many good things, but one of them was to remind us that we are not just autonomous consuming machines. We are at least a collective. Nationalism may lead to some bad things, but at least it teaches us that we are not in it alone. We owe something to our country.

But now, all of this is being abolished. There is no longer any potent cultural force in the United States that is bringing people together as community (other than marketing that creates false community for the purpose of selling more product). The result? Consumerism is creating the ultimate nominalist society, in which there is no more "society" but rather a geographic collection of individuals who are de-constructed into pieces of demographic information (age, race, sex, income, dependents, etc.) so they can consume and be consumed by the most efficient consumer machine ever developed.

I think there is only one entity that can effectively wage resistance against the massive onslaught of consumerism, and that is the Church. We will need all of the spiritual, intellectual, and communal resources we can muster to fight this onslaught, or else we will be assimilated like the borg assimilate whole planets in Star Trek.

mike said...

A discussion in metaphysics is dabbling in an area I do not feel as confident in but here we go.

In your list of 'isms' I probably find myself flirting with idealism more than anything (maybe it's the undergrad in psychology).

I think that often times the constructs in our mind (or perceptions) are false; but feel as though they are reality and so we react to them as though they are real. Many "universals" are probably nothing more than self-constructed perceptions (intellectual, emotional, et al.). The story we are a part of is being written by a community. But the part we tell is written by our interpretation of things. Our part of the narrative goes through the filter of our past, present and future (memories, experiences, intellect, dreams, hopes, desires, emotions etc)

The imagination is powerful and is meant to be used by the Spirit. (George McDonald writes a great piece on the divine imagination).

Any universal "meta-narrative" must be divine. There must be a way to know what is divine revelation and what is mental construct.

I agree with the cultural Borg which is assimilating the church. Revelation calls this ecclesial-cultural adultery the great whore of Babylon but I like the Borg. Is resistance futile?

Community/connectedness, are vital to the believer. It is in community that our stories are edited. What should that community look like?...that is a question as old as the church.

Anonymous said...

Actually, I guess I substantially agree with you on Idealism. I think that even bad ideas have some truth in them, because if they were obviously and undeniably false, no one would be able to understand them or accept them.

Ok, someone would accept them (because someone will accept anything), but they would not be widespread.

Ok, Ok, a whole lot of people would accept it uncritically and create entire societies based off of it.

Like extreme forms of reality-denying postmodern thought that says everything is merely a social construct. Or extreme forms of behaviorism (cf. BF Skinner) that deny that distinct personalities really exist. I guess people will believe anything, and this belief will completely shape how they experience reality... and so we are back at your affirmation of Idealism (cf. George Berkeley).

Idealism is part of the truth, so long as we affirm that things really do exist apart from our thinking about them. The problem with Humanistic Idealism is that it makes all of reality into the projection of individual knowers without any underlying order or reason or metanarrative that binds reality together. The problem with Theistic Idealism is that it makes everything merely a projection of the Divine Mind (i.e. Berkeley's thought), so that there is no enduring essence of anything He has created. We are ultimately illusions, and if we get to the bottom of our reality, we are actually God.

This degenerates into a Pantheism in which matter is no longer real, and is ultimately illusory. The real-ness of the created order becomes a mirage and God becomes guilty of upholding illusion. Furthermore, God can appear in Creation as Jesus Christ, but only as a character in His own dream. It is not the real incarnation that we think about in Christian theology. In such a Pantheistic / Idealist creation, Jesus functions only as a Guru leading us out of illusion, not as someone who does something objective to reconcile the objective reality of creation with the objective reality of God.

Granted, this version of Christianity would be a great step up from some of the modernist "demythologized" versions of Christianity out there, but it does not live up to the Christianity preached by the Apostles, Martyrs, Fathers, and Mothers of the Church.

YET, the Divine Mind does shape (as Logos: John 1.1-3) and uphold (cf. Col 1:17-20) creation at all times, so that if God were to "withdraw His Spirit" all of creation would perish (cf. Psa 139; Job 34:13-15). Furthermore, as people created in God's image He has given us the ability to imagine. We can image something in our mind, and shape reality to fit that image, just as God did. So, imagination and ideas do shape reality and determine how we experience it.

I guess the way out of Idealism is simply to remember that God does bestow an enduring separate objective existence on certain types of things, so that creation is not merely a dream in God's mind, but an actual entity outside of Godself that God can relate to. Furthermore, we must remember that this reality is real outside of ourselves, and that we are the creations, not the Creator, of this reality.

I would probably go as far as saying that the created beings that have separate objective existence are persons, so that the "self" or the "soul" has been created immortal. All other non-personal things may perish and cease to exist, but not the "self".

Does this mean that the physical world functions only as an environment for God and selves to relate to each other? Possibly, as long as we realize it is a necessary environment. It is not a mere dream, or something that could have been otherwise. God made selves to be embodied and function in an environment so that they could share themselves sacramentally through the medium of personal expression. This "medium" happens to be what we call matter and energy, but which on closer examination becomes "superstrings" of interwoven relationality.

Sorry about how long this is. You got me thinking it all out...

So, I guess I would affirm three things against Idealism:

1. God is a Reality which is distinct from other reality, even though God upholds all reality at all times.

2. Our selves are realities distinct from God, which have been brought into being by God, but which were given the gift to exist independently of God (i.e. if God stopped thinking of us, we would not cease to be)

3. Yet, our selves relate to other selves through the God-upheld medium of matter-energy-dimensionality. The environment does not exist independently of God, and will cease to exist when God stops thinking it into existence.

I guess the ramifications of this are that if we abuse the gift of freedom that God gives us, and continue in rebellion, God will take away our medium of self expression (the body, the world), and leave us utterly alone (which is hell). But in order to redeem us from disembodied existence, God reached out to us through His full embodiment in Christ, and continues to reach out to us through Christ's embodiment in the Church. In Christ, God took the natural consequences of sin into Himself, and descended into hell (that is to say, total disembodiment and separation). Then He defeated sin and hell by re-creation and re-imagination in the resurrection. All selves to whom this victory is mediated (through acceptance, repentance, and connection with His Body) will also participate in His victory.

Finally, I would have to say that Idealism must hold a central position for the reality of embodiment if it is to be coherent with Christianity. Embodiment is the key concept that accounts for the unification of spirit and body, matter and energy, mind and expression, God and man. Without a high doctrine of embodiment, there simply cannot be Christianity (or Christ) as we know it.

mike said...

This is reminding me of some of the Matrix discussions I had while in seminary. reality, perception relativism etc.

"Does this mean that the physical world functions only as an environment for God and selves to relate to each other?"

I think it might. Especially if we think of this physical world as a canvas upon which we paint our perception of the story. At the incarnation, God bursts through this canvas making it 3-dimensional. This new dimension is but a shadow of what our existence in heaven will be like. The church continues this incarnational shattering of two-dimensional existence by 'being' on the earth. I would want to be careful of dualism here and be clear that I don't see the earth as simply some piece of trash the pneumatikoi shed when they become divine. The earth is real and a physical reality that must exist until we are glorified and can paint on more than 3 dimension. We do not yet know what we will be until we see him return.

As far as discerning between reality and perception, I can't help but to borrow from Wesley's quadrilateral and tweak it a little. Everything that we know about God (from whom everything else is given) can be judged within these 4 walls (perhaps 5 walls with the 5th being as yet undefined-just because I hate putting anything in a box) 1 - Scripture, 2 - Church Tradition, 3 - Community, 4 - Personal Revelation. These four would balance and counter-balance each other so that the perception of the individual could be discerned. Central in this is the role of the Spirit and the community which helps to interpret scripture and tradition.

We were created in God's image so it is in our nature to imagine and create. Our imperfections allow us to create things outside of God's design. False reality is the root of selfishness. Depression, pride, insecurity are all rooted in false perceptions of self or others. As our nature's are being reunited with God's are ability to perceive in the Spirit grows. God is reality. He is truth and a physcial marker upon which to judge our own perceptions.

Is sacrament those moments in which God interupts the canvas again? Physical moments in which the common becomes sacred. Moments in which God interrupts our reality and corrects it with his own? If we pair the sacramental with the ecclesial then the church is the necessary presence of God that corrects or guides or overwhelms any false perception. Of course it can't be perfect now and so the church can still make misinterpretations of divine revelation. But there will come a time when the bride and all things are made perfect.

Just babbling.

Anonymous said...

Alas my friend! That's some good stuff!

God as artist, creation as tapestry... hmmm... Some good narrative theology possibilities going on there!

I think I would say that all persons are three dimensional on the canvas. The transcendence of self necessarily gives us the ability to think outside of the canvas that we are painted on... and imagine how we may paint it differently!

The Tempter is constantly trying to make us think that we are just two-dimensional, and make us fade into the background of the canvas. But the Artist is always beckoning us to become an artist like Himself!

Say, this could make a good children's book or a fairy tale of some sort, couldn't it?

I like your ideas man... We gotta do lunch sometime!

mike said...

Yeah I like the imagery of the artist there, calling us to paint as he does.

I do want to grab lunch. Things have just been crazy because of the holidays. After Christmas we need to do it.


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