Is This the Normal Christian Life? Part 2

Last time, I explored how, biblically, God wants His people to live in a deep, intimate unity with His heart (“a hearing heart”) and mind, all in the life and power of His Spirit. This intimacy involves knowledge of truths God has revealed, which are vital. Yet, it seems we often focus primarily on getting such knowledge.

However, God also wants us to know Him in personal, experiential ways. Jesus said that this is enteral life (John 17:3). David heard God’s voice and guidance (e.g., 1 Sam 23:10-12), and he desired supremely to dwell in God’s presence, to behold His beauty (Ps 27:4).

These and other biblical passages create a heightened expectancy that God wants to be intimately personal with us. Yet, why are so many believers in the west not experiencing His promised power and presence? Many factors, and not just biblical ones, can shape our expectations. Some can be very individual; e.g., if someone has been abandoned by his or her father, that trauma easily can affect that person’s perception of God as Father, who could seem distant, or untrustworthy. Yet, other factors can be more pervasive in their influence on Christians. I will survey some such factors in this and other posts.

Though we are not to be conformed to this world (Rom 12:2), nonetheless we are shaped by the cultures in which we live and the ideas of the times. Some Christians have paved the way with shaping ideas, too. For instance, about 600 years ago, a seemingly small, but profound, shift took place. William of Ockham, a theologian, championed the move away from universals to nominalism. In the Middle Ages, under Catholicism, Aristotle’s paradigm had dominated theologically and philosophically. On it, people thought real, immaterial, essential natures exist that are shareable (i.e., they are universals). For instance, all humans are a unity of a human body and a common human nature. Each person’s essence is his or her soul. 

Moral virtues also are universal qualities all humans should have because their nature. As a universal and immaterial, courage would be one virtue. In addition, on Plato’s views, courage itself is not located in space and time. Yet, courage itself can be present in many people. So, a universal is a “one-in-many.”

However, nominalism suggests that things are what they are in name only. According to it, everything is concrete (exists in space and time) and particular, not universal. While nominalists might say people are courageous, or maybe their particular qualities seem to resemble each other, they literally do not share a common quality, courage.

What then makes a group of humans all human? It is not their having a common essence. Also, it seems hard to imagine how immaterial entities really have a place on nominalism, for what exists is located in space and time. Such things would seem to be material and empirically knowable.

Key philosophers who helped shape the Scientific Revolution (such as Pierre Gassendi and Thomas Hobbes) adopted nominalism. Accordingly, science would focus on what is empirically knowable and, most likely, material. But, this shift has vast implications. In Europe, Christian thought dominated religiously and philosophically, so the shift suggested reality should be understood in terms of two groups. On one hand, there would be the empirically knowable things. On the other, there could be immaterial things like God, souls, angels, virtues, and the like. However, if what is objectively real is what nominalism says, then these things seem to be just subjective or faith posits. This implication tended to undermine confidence in what Christianity taught is real.

Nominalism has other implications, too. Suppose we really are just material; how can God really have a personal relationship with us? If everything is particular, how can we have God’s intended meaning in Scripture in our minds? How can Jesus save us from our sins if He doesn’t literally have a common nature with us? These implications alone are serious and suggestive, but thinkers also combined nominalism with other views that would deeply shape our expectations for the Christian life. I will look at more of them in the next post.

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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