The Myth of Protestant Nominalism, Pt. 5: Why Does It Matter?

Throughout this series of articles, we have, I think, ably defended the post-Reformation Protestant church against the charge leveled by the genealogists of modernity that its theology is foundationally nominalist. But the question remains: why does this matter? Why go through the trouble of refuting this claim in the first place? In this, our closing article in this series, I want to explain why these ideas are important, and why the genealogical criticisms of historic Protestantism demand refutation.

While wrong about a great deal, the genealogists of modernity are right that our modern age is fraught with deep philosophical problems. We live in times of nigh unprecedented decadence, ecological devastation, social upheaval, and lawlessness. The social fabric–especially in the United States–is wearing thin; trust in public officials and traditional institutions of authority are at an all time low; opioids are commonplace, even in traditionally healthy and stable communities; and historically reliable and natural facts such as the fixity af biological sex are coming under attack by ideological fanatics (I say fanatics, but these ideas have rapidly become mainstream, even standard, at least by the judgment of the progressive orthodoxy). Frankly, things are bad, and they look like they’re going to get worse before they get better.

If, God willing, these trends are going to reverse and life in the Western world improve, the Church will undoubtedly play an important role in this renovation. Only the Church can provide the transcendent source of meaning and value, moral vision, and the concrete disciplines, rituals, and practices necessary to heal the damage that has been done to the Christian West, and restore it to health and order. This task is already a daunting one, but if the Church is at odds with herself, if Christians insist on bickering and arguing with one another over obscure points of doctrine and metaphysics, this task will be made more difficult still. And this is why quarrels and debates over theological ideas–including debates over the role of Protestant theology in the development of modernity–are important: they directly impact the unity and cohesion of the Church, and, concomitantly, its capacity to accomplish its mission of spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ for the salvation of the world.

The inevitable riposte from so-called Christians who align themselves with the progressive Left against more traditional American Christians’ desire to revive the American Church and its influence in our culture and politics, is that such an aim, and the means for achieving it, amount to an exploitation of the Gospel for the advancement of empire. But the call to go out and baptize the nations, make disciples of all men, and transform individuals and society in a manner conformable to Christ’s lordship, is an integral part and practical imperative of the Gospel. Although this has at times been done poorly, the Church having abused its power, the imperative stands, as does our obligation as Christians. Furthermore, we should remain suspicious of those on the Left, who, while enjoying the vast majority of political and cultural power in society (i.e. control over the media, entertainment, higher education, the administrative state, etc.), would cast their political and cultural opponents as power hungry. At our present moment, anyone can see that the Left by far maintains and represents power and empire far more than the Right, and any attempt at arguing otherwise is itself an obvious power play.

Thankfully, God, in his divine providence, has over this last century guided his Church in her ecumenical endeavors, and blessed her with a practical (and in some cases formal) unity unheard of since the Reformation. The lifting of the reciprocal anathemas based on the filioque clause by the Roman and Eastern Churches, the World Council of Churches, GAFCON, and the ACNA-LCMS Joint Statement, amongst other ecumenical victories, are the happy, albeit imperfect fruit of these Spirit-guided ecclesial efforts. One of the most important of these victories was the Roman Church’s Second Vatican Council, which made Christian unity one of its principal concerns, and opened up the Roman Church to ecumenical dialogue unthinkable prior to its proceedings. This was an unprecedented victory for the ecumenical movement, and one to be celebrated.

These tremendous ecumenical advances make it all the more lamentable that so much of the more recent and vitriolic genealogies behind the Protestant-nominalist thesis are written by otherwise faithful and well-intended Roman Catholics. Alas, these works are often more polemical than scholarly, written in a tenor entirely at odds with the ecumenical spirit of Vatican II, even if ornamented with the usual academic niceties (Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation is a paradigmatic instance of the thinly veiled, increasingly vitriolic character of late genealogical literature). Indeed, they are reminiscent of a longstanding tradition of anti-Protestant polemics hailing back to Bishop Bossuet’s History of the Variations of the Protestant Churches and Jaime Balmes’ Protestantism and Catholicism, with respect to European Civilization, though with a metaphysical angle (Bossuet and Balmes focus on the alleged Protestant subordination of lawful and traditional authority to private judgment). Now, Bossuet and Balmes’ polemics were commonplace and more appropriate for their time, but that this sort of polemic has returned, and grown in influence, in our post-Vatican-II, ecumenical age, is, to put it lightly, unseemly, and ought to be repudiated by all thinking and feeling Christians as inimical to the Spirit’s movement in the direction of Christian unity, and the healing of the cosmos.

Now, to be clear, I’m not advocating a watered down, lowest common denominator scheme for Christian unity as a practical measure for saving the West. There are some religious groups bearing the name of Christ that justly warrant suspicion and criticism on the grounds that they presuppose, or have adopted, one or another flawed philosophy (nominalist, emotivist, Marxist, etc.) or outright heresy (Dispensationalism’s strange exaltation of the Israeli nation-state over the church catholic and implicit Gnosticism come to mind); but those communions and denominations with roots in the patristic and medieval traditions, who share the same basic theological language, and are anchored in the Church’s history, ought to be able to recognize one another and charitably work together in addressing the great challenges of our time. Anti-Protestant genealogies are inimical to this kind of recognition and charity, and to the Church’s mission of redeeming the world, and therefore require deconstruction. For the salvation of the West, our home, Jesus is the only and true savior of the world, and orthodox, Nicene Christianity the ordained means through which he applies and spreads that salvation.

So, to all my fellow Nicene Christians: let’s get our act together.

This is Part 5 of a series on the myth of Protestant nominalism.

Pt. 1: Flawed Genealogies of Modernity

Pt. 2: Created and Uncreated Being

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.


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