The Myth of Protestant Nominalism, Pt. 4: Competitive Metaphysics

In addition to univocity and voluntarism, intellectual genealogists often claim that Protestant theology inherited from the nominalists a competitive construal of the relationship between Divine and non-divine (or, created) action. Put simply, a competitive divine/non-divine agential relationship entails that when God acts, creatures don’t, and vice versa. To use more distinctively theological and historically familiar terminology, when grace is active, creatures are passive, and, conversely, when creatures exercise their free will, God must passively stand aside, allowing the agential “space” for them to exercise that freedom. This is a necessary implication of metaphysical univocity: since God–being a discrete entity partaking of being in the same way that creatures do–exists and acts on the same ontological continuum as creatures, his acts in the world are mutually exclusive with respect to created acts. Let’s then look at some Protestant theologies of Divine and created action, and see if this is so.

Bishop John Davenant (1572-1641) is arguably the most eminent of the Jacobean Anglican divines. He was personally appointed by King James I to serve as the head of the British Delegation at the Synod of Dort, and was a celebrated Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge.[1] Davenant’s non-competitive praxeology comes out perhaps most clearly in his treatment of predestination in the Animadversions, written against the Arminian Anglican, Samuel Hoard. Against Hoard’s claim that absolute predestination and its concomitant theological determinism preclude free will, Davenant responds that God “infallibly brings into act events decreed according to the nature of the next causes or immediate agents: natural agents work naturally in producing decreed events; necessary agents work necessarily; and free agents, such as are angels and men, work freely”.[2] God’s action in determining events, then, does not preclude the freedom of secondary causes, but includes them as a particular causal mode for bringing about the effects of the decree. More specifically, free will is the means by which God actualizes predetermined ends: “the freedom of men” says Davenant, “is not vain, though the end be determined; because God has together with the end determined that by their free actions they will attain unto it”.[3] In fine, Davenant maintains free will as a real but subordinate power in human beings alongside divine sovereignty and action, which, of course, requires a non-competitive understanding of Divine/non-divine agency.

To consider a Lutheran theologian: Johannes Andreas Quenstedt (1617-1688) is the culminating and last great figure in the tradition of Lutheran Scholasticism. His Theologia Didactico-Polemica sive Systema Theologicum represents the apex of Lutheran systematic theology during the period of Orthodoxy for its nigh-mathematical precision and refinement. Indeed, as Preus tells us, this work was so lucid, complete, and precise, that it effectively ended the scholastic period of Lutheran theology, there being nothing more to say, nor any more elegant way of saying it, in that particular theological style.[4] Quenstedt says the following in the Theologia concerning Divine Providence:

God not only gives second causes the power to act, and preserves this, but immediately influences the action and effect of the creature, so that the same effect is produced not by God alone, nor by the creature alone, nor partly by God and partly by the creature, but at the same time by God and the creature, as one and the same totally efficiency, viz. by God as the universal and first cause, and by the creature as the particular and second cause.[5]

There could hardly be any clearer or more exact description of the simultaneous and non-competitive cooperation of God with the creature – I dare say not even in Aquinas. Indeed, Lutheran theologian Ian A. McFarland frequently refers to Quenstedt in his self-consciously non-competitive doctrine of creation as a paradigmatically non-competitive theologian, further showing just how great a distance spans the gap between Quenstedt’s theological praxeology and the nominalists’.[6]

Though we have alluded to Francis Turretin’s work in a previous article in this series, I think it worth appealing to his Institutes once more, given with what exquisite clarity and precision he expresses himself on this topic. When describing the relationship between the decree and secondary causes, Turretin, echoing Davenant, says this:

Hence it is evident that the necessity and immutability of the decree indeed takes away contingency with respect to the first cause. For since all things happen necessarily, nothing can take place contingently. But this does not take it away with respect to second causes because the same decree which predetermined also determined the mode of futurition, so that the things having necessary causes should happen necessarily and those having contingent causes, contingently. Therefore the effect may properly be called both necessary and contingent at the same time, but in different respects (kat’ allo kai allo): the former on the part of God and relative to the decree; the latter on the part of the thing and relative to second and proximate causes which might be disposed differently.[7]

Like Quenstedt on the topic of Divine Providence, Turretin could scarcely be more clear and forthright when it comes to the mutual compatibility of Divine and created action with respect to the divine decree. His explicit reference to the orders of primary and secondary causation, and his insistence that they remain intact and unimpaired in their interrelationship, all scream non-competitive agency, showing clearly that Turretin, and the Reformed tradition of which he is an archetypal representative, maintain a robustly non-competitive understanding of God and creatures’ activity.

And so, as in metaphysical univocity and voluntarism, our Protestant divines show no trace of nominalist thinking in their theology when it comes to the relationship between Divine and non-divine agency. All of our authors have a strong sense of the compatibility of God’s action in the world with that of creatures, whether on the subject of Divine Providence, predestination, the eternal decree, et al. This is all the more devastating for the genealogical critique, since it is the doctrine of justification and the alleged “passivity” of the creature in conversion–which, they claim, presuppose a competitive theological praxeology–where Protestant nominalism is supposed to show itself most overtly.[8]

This is Part 4 of a series on the myth of Protestant nominalism.

Pt. 1: Flawed Genealogies of Modernity

Pt. 2: Created and Uncreated Being

Pt. 3: Voluntarism

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 these and further details of Davenant’s life and accomplishments, see Joseph Morris Fuller, The Life, Letters and Writings of John Davenant D.D., 1572-1641, Lord Bishop of Salisbury (London: Methuen and Co., 1897).

  2. John Davenant, Animadversions upon a Treatise entitled ‘God’s Love to Mankind’ (Cambridge: Roger Daniel, 1641), p. 203.

  3. Davenant, Animadversions, p. 56.

  4. Robert D. Preus, The Theology of Post-Reformation Lutheranism (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1970), p. 62.

  5. Johannes Andreas Quenstedt, in Heinrich Schmid, The Doctrinal Theology of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Ithaca: Just and Sinner Publishing House, 2020), p. 195.

  6. See Ian A. McFarland, From Nothing: A Theology of Creation (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), pp. 137n7, 145, 150n26, 152n30.

  7. Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, vol. I (Phillipsburg: P & R Publishing, 1997), p. 321.

  8. Jennifer Herdt, for example, makes much of Protestant passivity in her declensionist ethical genealogy, Putting on Virtue: The Legacy of the Splendid Vices. And while Protestant divines do indeed use the language of passivity, it is merely another way of describing the Augustinian concept of operational grace.


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