The Myth of Protestant Nominalism, Pt. 3: Voluntarism

Having addressed the issue of the difference between God’s being and ours in our previous article, we will now shift our attention to the doctrine of man–that is, theological anthropology, and the genealogists’ accusation that Protestants follow the nominalists in their voluntaristic understanding of human nature. Broadly conceived, voluntarism is any philosophical or psychological system that holds the will as primary or superordinate over the intellect. It is usually paired against intellectualism, which, as you might have guessed, emphasizes the intellect over the will. Scotus and Ockham are famous (or rather infamous, by the standards of genealogists of modernity) voluntarists during the medieval period, and Luther, Calvin, and their theological progeny, the genealogists tell us, appropriated their voluntarism in their own thought. But let’s see how this hypothesis pans out with some of the major Protestant divines in their treatment of human nature and action, focusing specifically on the doctrine of free choice.

Beginning with Anglicanism, John Bramhall (1594-1663), Archbishop of Armagh following James Ussher, Primate of all Ireland, and one of William Laud’s inner circle of churchmen, is one of the most celebrated of the Caroline divines. He was a seminal figure in the Laudinization of the Irish Church, and was a frequent source of authority and inspiration for the early Tractarians.[1] Today, Bramhall is probably most well known for his debate with Thomas Hobbes over liberty and necessity. Hobbes, the prototypical early-modern voluntarist, argued that the will, or, desire, determines the agent to his/her act. Against this view, Bramhall argued for the centrality of reason in human agency and freedom. “Reason is the root, the fountain, the original of true liberty”, he says, “[for] liberty of election… is an act of judgment and understanding”.[2] The chief reason for the intellect’s primacy in human action for Bramhall is its capacity to represent to the will the Good, and to move the will (morally, not efficiently) thereto: “Reason is the root of liberty in representing the good”.[3] The intellect, then, gives to human nature its moral dimension, without which, Bramhall argues, freedom and responsibility, and therefore being human, would be impossible. Thus, Bramhall, with his aggressive rejection of Hobbes’ voluntarism, and his insistence on the central role of reason in human action, is, I think it safe to say, far from being a nominalist in his theological anthropology.

Peter Van Mastricht (1630-1706) is one of the most prominent Reformed systematicians from the period of High Reformed Orthodoxy, his colossal, seven-volume magnus opus, the Theoretico-practica theologica, being the largest and most comprehensive work in that style. Compared to others, he was one of the more centering, ecumenical figures within the broader Reformed Scholastic tradition.[4] He says of free will, or, the liberum arbitrium, that it is “the faculty of the mind and will, by which we do what we please, after counsel and judgment, in such a way that we are not determined by any other created cause”.[5] “It belongs to the mind and the will”, he continues, “so that the mind judges and indicates what is to be done, while the will commands what has been indicated and decided upon, and thereby radically it looks to the mind, but formally to the will”.[6] Here Mastricht evinces a holistic theological anthropology, according to which free will, or, more properly, free choice, is a compound faculty. However, though working cooperatively, the judgment of the reason determines the will in its election, so that the intellect is not only superordinate over the will morally (i.e. inclining the will, as in Bramhall), but determinatively, which places Mastricht firmly amongst the intellectualists as an intellectual determinist.

As I mentioned in my previous article on Uncreated and created being, Martin Chemnitz (1522-1586) is usually considered the second most influential Lutheran theologian behind Luther and in front of Gerhard.[7] His Loci Theologica is the second major installment of the Loci genre in Lutheran dogmatics (following Melanchthon’s), and the place where he gives us the fullest account of his philosophy of free choice and human agency. Though Chemnitz almost always addresses the topic of free choice in the context of conversion and the powers of the human person with respect to spiritual good, one can extract from his treatment of these topics his basic conception of human agency. Chemnitz defines a free choice as one in which “the mind and the will are joined together, so that by a judgment of the mind the will either obeys or rejects”.[8] Thus, as in Mastricht, Chemnitz views free choice as a composite act involving both the mind and will. And though the will is indeterminate with respect to the intellect in Chemnitz’ thought (“the will either obeys or rejects”), the intellect gives to it its moral and rational content, and so remains an essential component in free choice, for “when our nature seeks certain good things by which it flees from evils without any mental deliberation or choice, by natural instinct, these… do not pertain to free choice”.[9] Thus, though not an intellectual determinist on the order of Mastricht, Chemnitz maintains a high view of the intellect as essential to free, meaningful human action, and so does not fall into Scotus’ anti-eudaoministic voluntarism, according to which the will is unhinged from the moral good as apprehended by the intellect.

Again, as in the question of being, none of our Protestant divines can be justly charged with nominalism. Though differing in some respects, each of our thinkers maintains a generally intellectualist theological anthropology, removed from the excesses of Scotistic libertarianism. Therefore, having argued that Protestants are not nominalists when it comes to the doctrine of God and the doctrine of man, I will in my next article show how they are also not nominalists in the case of divine and created agency and their interrelationship.

This is Part 3 of a series on the myth of Protestant nominalism.

Pt. 1: Flawed Genealogies of Modernity
Pt. 2: Created and Uncreated Being
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. For a helpful overview of Bramhall’s theology, his importance to Anglicanism, and his influence on the development of Anglo-Catholic thought in particular, see the sections on Bramhall in Jack Cunningham, James Ussher and John Bramhall: The Theology and Politics of two Irish Ecclesiastics of the Seventeenth Century (London: Routledge Press, 2007).

  2. John Bramhall and Thomas Hobbes, The Works of the Most Reverend Father in God, John Bramhall, D.D., Sometime Lord Archbishop of Armagh, Primate and Metropolitan of all Ireland, vol. IV (Oxford: John Henry Parker, 1844), pp. 28, 37.

  3. Works, p. 414.

  4. See Todd M. Rester’s introduction in Petrus Van Mastricht, The Best Method of Preaching: The Use of Theoretical-Practical Theology (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2013), Pp. 5-6

  5. Peter Van Mastricht in Heinrich Heppe, Reformed Dogmatics (Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2007), p. 241.

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

  8. Martin Chemnitz, Loci Theologici, Vol. I. (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2008), p. 410.

  9. Chemnitz, Loci, p. 415.


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