The Myth of Protestant Nominalism, Pt. 1: Flawed Genealogies of Modernity

Appeals to scholarship and learned opinion play a crucial role in academic discourse. Indeed, given the virtually endless and ever increasing amount of data available to us – scientific, humanistic, artistic, etc. – such appeals are indispensable if one is ever to advance an argument beyond endless prefacing. This is especially true of broad, multivalent intellectual projects involving multiple fields of study and interdisciplinary approaches. However, appeals to scholarly authority are far from infallible, and risk reinforcing and further propagating errors.

One multivalent, interdisciplinary project that has been particularly susceptible to the accumulation of handed down errors is the attempt at explaining the rise of modernity from the standpoint of the history of ideas, or, what is often called genealogies of modernity. Now, to be sure, accounting for massive paradigm shifts in Weltanschaung requires a fair amount of generalizing and shorthand; however, some of these generalizations can be problematic, false, or even harmful, and therefore demand a response. An especially pernicious generalization that has reached the point of platitudinous in genealogical literature is that Protestant theology is basically or essentially nominalist in its philosophical underpinnings. Nominalism, or, the via moderna, is the philosophical school or sensibility emerging from out of the thought of Duns Scotus (c.1265–1308), William of Ockham (c.1287–1347), Gabriel Biel (c.1420–1495), and other (mostly, but not exclusively, Franciscan) medieval and early modern Scholastic theologians. Nominalism is chiefly characterized by the denial of universal natures. For example, shared human nature, rather than having a real, extramental existence, is rather said to be a mental abstraction made by human beings. Natures, then, are not metaphysical realities, but simply a reflection of how man “names” things – hence the term “nominalism.” The school is also defined by an emphasis on the will over the intellect (i.e. voluntarism), and methodological reductionism (e.g. Ockham’s razor).[1] Nominalism had a profound influence on late medieval and early modern theology and philosophy, but in recent decades has played the role of boogeyman in narratives about Christendom’s decline and modernity’s ascendency, being the primary antagonist behind most, if not all, the evils of modernism (e.g. radical individualism, epistemological solipsism, ethical emotivism, etc.). According to the common genealogical narrative, Protestant theology is the natural and inevitable product of this deeply flawed philosophy, into which Luther, Calvin, and the early Reformers were indoctrinated during their university training; it was then effectively dyed into the fabric of Protestant theology, eventually leading to our impoverished modern worldview.

Theologian John Milbank, for example, claims that, by the time of the Reformation, philosophy had been more or less taken over by the nominalists, and that “the Reformation did nothing to disturb this situation… [rather], the Reformation was itself predetermined by it”.[2] In his account of Thomas Hobbes’ role in the rise of modernity, political scientist Michael Allen Gillespie likewise assumes that Protestant theology is basically nominalist in character: “His [Hobbes’] dark view of the world is the result of his acceptance of the basic tenets of nominalism, especially as it is received and transmuted by the Reformation”; again, “Hobbes like the nominalists and their followers in the Reformation denied that there is a natural or rational theology”.[3] Perhaps most scathing is historian Brad Gregory’s genealogical diatribe The Unintended Reformation.His opening chapter, in no uncertain terms, blames Protestant nominalism for the rise of scientism and atheism.[4] Examples could be multiplied ad nauseam, but these are, I think, sufficient to make the point that genealogists of modernity largely assume that Protestant theology is at its foundations philosophically nominalist.

Genealogists attribute a number of nominalist errors to Protestantism. Perhaps most prominent of these errors (especially in the Radical Orthodox narrative of Milbank and others) is the acceptance of metaphysical univocity, a linguistic and conceptual mistake which holds that ‘being’ is predicated univocally, that is, in the same sense, of both God and creatures. This error effectively places God and creatures on the same ontological continuum, which results in the further l error of viewing their activity or agency as being in competition with one another (i.e. if God acts, creatures don’t, and vice versa)–what some call a contrastive metaphysics of competition. This, in turn, leads to a reconceptualization of the absolute/ordained power distinction, the separation between nature and grace, and the quintessentially modern binary between faith and reason. The fact that, to a modern atheist, man’s increased scientific knowledge of “how things work” seems in any way a compelling argument against the need for belief in God is, so many say, the sour fruit of all this.

Suffice to say, there are a number of problems with this generalization. For instance, in characterizing Protestant theology, genealogists often focus on the theologies of Luther and Calvin to the exclusion of other divines who were comparatively significant for the shaping and development of Protestantism. No one denies that Luther and Calvin had a tremendous influence on Protestant doctrine, but Protestant doctrine is by no means reducible to their theologies, and there are other figures whose thought simply cannot, be ignored when fairly discussing the shape and character of Protestantism.

Another problem is that the tendency amongst intellectual genealogists to blame all of Protestantism’s supposed theological errors on bad philosophy rests on an overstated connection between philosophical and dogmatic theology. Philosophical worldview does indeed condition sacred doctrine, but rarely, if ever, does it rigidly determine it in the way intimated by the genealogical critique.

However, the most glaring problem with the Protestant-nominalist generalization, and the one with which I am chiefly concerned in this article, is that it is simply false. In a series of short articles, of which this is something of a prologue, I aim to defend classical Protestantism by demonstrating the falsehood of the genealogical critique as it pertains to Protestantism’s alleged nominalist philosophical underpinnings. I will do so by looking at certain nominalist tenets individually (e.g. univocity, voluntarism, etc.), and showing how representative theologians from across the magisterial Protestant traditions actually maintain very different, if not contrary philosophical positions (e.g. analogy, intellectualism, etc.).[5] My hope in doing so is to put to rest this false and harmful generalization, and, as a result, restore and secure the place of classical Protestant theology as a viable resource for engaging the modern world. After all, orthodox Christians of all stripes can agree that, in our modern world, we need all the resources we can get.

This post is Part 1 in a series on the myth of Protestant nominalism.
Pt. 2: Uncreated and Created Being

Fr. Seth Snyder is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA), serving at St. Mary the Virgin’s Anglican Mission in McConnelsville, OH, a military chaplain at RAF Lakenheath, U.K., and a doctoral candidate at the University of Cambridge, Corpus Christi College. He is the husband of a wonderful wife, and the father of two beautiful girls.

  1. See Heiko A. Oberman, The Harvest of Medieval Theology: Gabriel Biel and Late Medieval Nominalism (Ada: Baker Academic, 2012).

  2. John Milbank, “Knowledge: The Theological Critique of Philosophy in Hamann and Jacobi”, in Radical Orthodoxy: A New Theology (London: Routledge, 1998), 23-24.

  3. Michael Allen Gillespie, The Theological Origins of Modernity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 209, 248.

  4. Brad Gregory, The Unintended Reformation (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2015), ch. i.

  5. As to interlocutors, I will be choosing figures from the Post-Reformation period, since, as said above, there is an excessive focus on Luther and Calvin in genealogical critique, which artificially restricts the terms of the debate over Protestant philosophical theology. That being said, for those interested there is already an impressive body of literature dedicated to defending Luther and Calvin from some of these accusations made against Protestant theology by genealogists of modernity and other academics. See for example Carl E. Braaten and Robert Jenson’s Union with Christ: The New Finnish Interpretation of Luther for a defense of Luther, and J. Todd Billings’ Calvin, Participation and the Gift for Calvin.


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