Christians & Diversity – Part 4: A Hidden Factor That Makes All the Difference

Ideas have consequences, and a crucial one was made in the 14th century. Today, its implications affect us deeply, yet virtually no church member I know (except trained theologians and philosophers) is even aware of it.

It is called nominalism, as opposed to realism. On realism, there exist real, universal qualities that can be present in many particular instances (like, the one and the same color orange that is present in many oranges, or the same human nature that exists in each human), and these qualities have an essence to them. In contrast, nominalism (or, “name-ism”) is the view that only particular things exist; literally, there are no common qualities. Rather, our minds group some resembling things together, due to how we conceive of them, or the name we give to them. Today, many nominalists think we group these things together by our words, which are particular to each group.

Nominalism became entrenched with the Franciscan William of Ockham’s views. But, it has been embraced as a crucial part of the Scientific Revolution, Darwinian theory, and now as part of most every academic discipline.  

To be consistent, nominalists should hold that every particular thing is “simple” – that is, it is just one thing, and not a combination of two or more things. Now, nominalists often treat things like humans as human1, human 2, human 3, etc., to stress their particularity. But, notice that this seems to involve two things – human (as a quality), and an “individuator” (the numeral). Since on nominalism these are simple, there really can exist only thing, and not two. Now, suppose we do away with either the quality or the individuator. If we do away with the numeral, we have human – but that seems to be a general, abstract quality, something nominalists cannot accept as real. Or, suppose we eliminate the quality (human) – then we have just an individuator; but, of what? So, on nominalism, the qualities of things can be eliminated without real loss, which leaves us without any qualities in the real world whatsoever.

Nominalism is very attractive, for it seduces us to think that we are free from any constraints, whether moral, biological, cultural, religious, etc., for we are able to define reality according to our desires. We see this played out in many ways; e.g., since there are no essential morals, we do not have intrinsic worth. But, we live and presuppose by our actions and choices that we do indeed have intrinsic value. So, dignity is something we can (and must) construct for ourselves, including one’s gender or the “nature” of marriage. Still, as God’s image bearers, we realize deep down that humans should be treated as moral equals and with justice. However, there are no such things on nominalism except how someone (or group) defines it for them. But, if we ponder that, it means our value is very fragile, and so we will tend to demand that others affirm our choices, lest we be without worth.

People also will tend to question or dismiss historically orthodox, core Christian doctrines as tools of oppression, for there are no actual truths due to how the world is in itself. There are only “truths” to the extent that people (individuals or groups) construct them by their use of words and their power. Yet, even then, there cannot be any facts about that, for nominalism takes them all away.

Nominalism also tragically undermines valid cries against real injustices, for on it there is no justice either. Nominalism also destroys any real goodness or evil – yet, consistently, when confronted with mass shootings, authorities declare (rightly) that that action was pure evil. Last, nominalism undermines any intrinsic meaning to Scripture, leaving us to think we can construct its meaning for us.

Nominalism is seductive and plays to our sinful bent to be powerful over God by defining reality, just like the serpent said in Gen 3:5. I think nominalism is a major factor behind what we are seeing in western societies, and Christians are affected by it too. Yet, eventually, it will help destroy us and society.

Scott Smith is keenly interested in our abilities to have knowledge of reality, particularly in the areas of ethics and religion. He also is very interested in the needed ontology to have knowledge. He addresses “constructivism,” the fact-value split, and issues with our being able to have knowledge on the basis of naturalism, postmodernism and nominalism. He also has written on the emergent church, as well as a knowledge argument and the moral argument for God’s existence. Currently, he is working on exposing and addressing the many, even subtle, influences of naturalism on western churches. He also serves as secretary-treasurer for the Evangelical Philosophical Society. Scott Smith has earned a Ph.D. from University of Southern California, M.A., University of Southern California, M.A., Talbot Theological Seminary and a B.A. from California State University, Hayward.

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