The Myth of Protestant Nominalism Pt. 2: Uncreated and Created Being

In a previous article, I outlined the critique of Protestant theology made by genealogists of modernity and their fellow travelers, enumerating briefly some of the main points of their criticism pertaining to Protestantism’s allegedly nominalist philosophical underpinnings. As promised, I will now delve more deeply into some of these points individually, and show how the genealogical critique fails to capture the depth, diversity, and, most important, predominantly non-nominalist character of Protestant theology. Again, I will do so by examining the philosophical theologies of representative theologians from the three magisterial Protestant traditions (i.e. Anglicanism, Lutheranism, and the Reformed) as they relate to common philosophico-theological topics treated by genealogists of modernity, beginning with the relationship between Uncreated and created being.

The question of the relationship between Uncreated and created being revolves around whether or not ‘being’ is a genus common to both God and creatures (genus being a taxonomic class or category that groups together various entities related by a common characteristic or set of characteristics). Historically, the Church has answered this question in the negative, arguing either that God’s being and essence are so radically transcendent that it bears no similitude whatsoever to that of creatures (i.e. God is “beyond” being or essence), which is the robustly apophatic position of Pseudo-Dionysius, Eriugena, Palamas, and others, or that the being of God, while transcendent, does bear some similitude to that of creatures, and so can be spoken of as in some way analogous to the being of creatures (i.e. the analogia entis, the ‘analogy of being’), which is the position of Aquinas. Others, following Scotus and the nominalists, have argued that being is a genus common to both God and creatures, which position has come to be known as metaphysical univocity (‘univocity’ meaning “one voice”, the point being that we can speak of God and creation in the same way with regard to ‘being’). This position is commonly attributed to Protestant divines as a leading cause of their alleged doctrinal innovations and the rise of modernism. Now, let’s look at how some of the chief theologians from the Protestant churches have addressed this topic, and see whether or not the allegations of Protestant univocity hold true.

Johann Gerhard (1582-1637), the “Arch-theologian” of the Lutheran church, is generally held to be the third most influential theologian in the Lutheran tradition behind Martin Chemnitz and Luther himself.[1] His Theological Commonplaces remains the gold standard for orthodox, confessional Lutheran dogmatics, addressing nearly every theological topic under discussion up to that time with unprecedented scope and precision. In the Commonplaces, when touching on the subject of whether or not God can be defined, Gerhard thoroughly rejects Scotus’ univocal account of the relation between Uncreated and created being. He does so for the reason that God lacks a proper genus, which is an essential part of a definition. For Gerhard, God cannot belong to a genus because, if such a genus were to exist, it would be stated univocally and essentially of both God and creatures, which is impossible, since God differs infinitely from creatures.[2] Now, while there is some dispute over Gerhard’s relationship to Aquinas’ theory of analogy, he cannot be any clearer in his rejection of the Scotist position on the relationship between Uncreated and created being, and so remains soundly in the non-nominalist camp on this topic.[3]

Among the 17th century Reformed Scholastics, Francis Turretin (1623-1687) stands as a giant and paradigmatic figure. A strident defender of orthodox Calvinism, Turretin’s Institutes of Elenctic Theology was the default textbook in Reformed systematics for close to two centuries (up until the publication of Charles Hodge’s Systematic Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary), and even now is enjoying renewed interest from a contemporary readership. While Turretin never addresses the topic of analogy and univocity directly, he does refer to them in his treatment of the communicable and incommunicable attributes of God. He identifies the idea of communication as twofold: 1) essential and formal, and 2) by resemblance and analogy.[4] On the former mode of communication, the divine attributes are strictly and necessarily incommunicable, but on the second, they are communicable, “since God produces in creatures… effects analogous to his own properties, such as goodness, justice, wisdom, etc.”[5] Here Turretin explicitly maintains the analogical relation between Uncreated and created being in the form of properties analogous between God and creatures. On the same question, Turretin also straightforwardly rejects both univocity and equivocity: “The communicable attributes are not predicated of God and creatures univocally… nor are they predicated equivocally”, arguing instead for the analogy both of similitude and attribution, à la Aquinas.[6] Thus, Turretin could hardly be clearer here in his basically Thomistic position on analogy, and his outright rejection of univocal metaphysics.[7]

Finally, Irish Anglican theologian and bishop of Cork and Ross Peter Browne (1665-1750), though by no means as influential or celebrated as Gerhard and Turretin in their respective traditions, is nevertheless a standard post-Laudian Anglican divine, and so represents the mind of the Church of England on this topic at the time. Writing against perceived deistical tendencies in Locke’s thought, Browne wrote the aptly titled book, Things Divine and Supernatural conceived by Analogy with Things Natural and Human, more briefly referred to as the Divine Analogy (1733), wherein he defends the Thomistic understanding of analogy as positing “an Actual Similitude and Real Correspondency between worldly and human, and supernatural and divine objects”, while dismissing the analogy of proportion: “for it is utterly impossible”, says Browne, “to conceive what particular degree or proportion of similitude and correspondency the properties of a finite creature bear to the perfections of an Infinite Creator”.[8] Throughout the Divine Analogy, Brown returns again and again to Aquinas (whom he affectionately refers to as “that great author”) as an ally and support for his position, which situates himself, and the Anglican Church of his day, firmly on Thomistic, non-nominalist ground with respect to the topic of Uncreated and created being.[9]

I think it clear, then, that the Protestant Churches, as represented by some of their seminal theologians, are far removed from the nominalist position on the relationship between Uncreated and created being, holding instead to Thomas’ analogia entis, or some position approximating it. This presents a serious problem for the genealogists’ nominalist characterization of Protestant theology, since Protestantism’s alleged nominalism on the question of the relationship between Uncreated and created being is one of the central pieces of the genealogical narrative, being the fountainhead, so to speak, of many of the other philosophico-theological errors commonly attributed to the tradition. With respect to this theological locus then, the idea of Protestant nominalism begins to to appear as something of a myth.

This is Part 2 of a series on the myth of Protestant nominalism.
Pt. 1: Flawed Genealogies of Modernity
Pt. 3: Voluntarism
Pt. 4: Competitive Metaphysics

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. Robert D. Preus, The Theology of Post-Reformation Lutheranism, vol. I (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1970), 52.

  2. Johann Gerhard, Theological Commonplaces: On the Nature of God and on the Trinity (St’ Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2017), 92.

  3. For an analysis of some of the issues surrounding Gerhard and analogy, see Jack Kilcrease, “Johann Gerhard’s Reception of Thomas Aquinas’ Analogia Entis” in Aquinas Among the Protestants, ed. Manfred Svensson and David VanDrunen (Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell, 2018), 109-128.

  4. Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, vol. I (Phillipsburg: P & R Publishing, 1997), 190

  5. Turretin, Institutes Vol. 1, 190.
  6. Turretin, Institutes Vol. 1, 190.

  7. Turretin is followed by the majority of the Reformed on this topic. For an extended argument to that effect, see Richard Muller, “Not Scotist: Understandings of Being, Univocity and Analogy in Early-Modern Reformed Thought” in Reformation and Renaissance Review, vol. 14 (2012), 127-150.

  8. Peter Brown, Things Divine and Supernatural conceived by Analogy with Things Natural and Human, more briefly referred to as the Divine Analogy (London: Innys and Manby, 1733), 7.

  9. Brown, Analogy, 459.


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