New answers to this question are revolutionizing our views of marriage, murder, abortion, law, and even athletic salaries.

Is all the paperwork and ceremony associated with marriage really necessary? What is so wrong with a live-in arrangement?

We bridle at such questions, but hot feeling is not enough when we are talking with an acquaintance who shares an apartment with his girlfriend. Just why do Christians see marriage as something more than a convenient relationship between two human beings? The reason seems to be rooted in a whole different way of looking at life.

The issue is not marriage itself, but our basic outlook on life, and especially on authority. We might face much the same problem in talking with that same acquaintance about murder, abortion, law, or athletic salaries.

Interlocking Universe

To understand the present-day division we need to take a quick look at the past. Greek philosophy from Plato’s time taught that the universe is ordered and structured, a System of interlocking systems. In a similar approach, Christian theology would say Scripture teaches about one Lord God who created the world, gave the moral law at Sinai, inspired the prophets of the Old Testament, redeemed the world through Christ, and is the consumator of all things. We can call creation, law, inspiration, holy history, salvation, and consumation systems within one System.

Western culture has been held together, in a sloppy way, by a profound belief that there was some kind of interlocking system, or else one Lord God. This basic viewpoint underlies the West’s political and economic thought, as well as its idea of ethics, value, and beauty. Leonardo da Vinci’s definition of a work of art as “a shadow of the divine perfection” is based on such convictions. Morality is not, on this view, a series of conventional maxims, but stems from the nature of the universe. Moral principles carry the “sanction of the universe.” They are part of the structure of reality. Human beings find peace, stability, order, contentment, and salvation to the degree that their personal lives are in harmony with the divine Order.

Marriage is also part of the System. It belongs to the “order of life,” which also entails the moral order. The sanction of marriage is to be found in this context, and is therefore much more than a relationship of convenience (among many possible ones); marriage is not to be reduced to the level of society’s customs.

No! Say The Nominalists

The opposite opinion to any such structured viewpoint carries the philosophical name of nominalism. In the history of human ideas it is associated with William Ockham, a philosopher-theologian of the Middle Ages. Ockham affirmed against the interlocking idea that the universe is composed only of particular items like sticks, stones, chairs, cats, dogs, trees, and so on. There is no inner structure of things, no cosmic glue, no world order. God is interpreted as the unique sovereign Particular who governs the world through arbitrarily chosen rules. The only guideline is that rules must be consistent with each other.

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Parenthetically, we must note that nominalists have objected to a concept of world order on the grounds that it supports wicked kings, corrupt dictators, and oppressive practices in business, employment, and social relationships. This may be the case in the philosophical versions, but not in the biblical one. In Scripture, the prophets were the inspired critics of the political, economic, and social order. In fact, established political criticism emerges in history for the first time in Israel. All aspects of the System or world order as they are concretely worked out in society are under the criticism of the prophetic word. Therefore, there is no order for the sake of order, or power for the sake of power, that can make an absolute appeal.

The cultural explosions of the Renaissance of the fourteenth century and the Enlightenment of the eighteenth did much to unravel the idea of a structural universe, including the biblical doctrine of the one God who is Lord of creation, history, morality, and redemption. However, since World War II the rate of attrition of such concepts has skyrocketed. It is all a very complicated story, and we are limiting ourselves to the central element and how it has so deeply disturbed the concept of authority. The solitary point we want to make is the eventual triumph of nominalism.

Contemporary people need not have a clear philosophy of nominalism in their minds to show the result of such thinking. Nor do we mean that this mentality is produced only by philosophical reflection. Rather, factors contributing to its formation include the development of the sciences, technology, educational systems, the growth of vast population centers, the nature of the business community, the anonymity of large cities, and perhaps even literature and the entertainment world. But whether nominalism is arrived at by reflection or the pragmatisms of life, the contours are the same.

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Effect On Marriage

As abstract as this discussion may appear, the consequences of the triumph of nominalism are enormous, affecting the character of Western culture and deeply eroding the concept of authority. The Golden Rule of nominalism is that there are only particulars. There is no cosmic glue, no System of systems, no overarching principles of justice, morality, beauty, or truth. There is no God who is Lord, Creator, Redeemer, Consummator.

If that is the case, then—to pick out one item among many—marriage is only a relationship of convenience. If marriage is only that, divorce is the remedy for a marriage that proves inconvenient. When deep in its bones (or subconsciousness) a population eventually interprets marriage and divorce in this purely nominalistic fashion, the divorce rate skyrockets.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth century there was still a strong feeling in America about a world order that included a moral order. At that time, it would have been unthinkable for a divorced person to be President of the United States. Yet our current President is such a person. This could happen only because the majority of Americans have accepted the nominalistic version of marriage and divorce.

If marriage is understood exclusively as a relationship, that and nothing more, then all the formal paperwork and ceremony associated with marriage are unnecessary. The so-called live-in marriage is now popular. And if the nominalistic concept of marriage is pressed even harder, any relationship between any two people is a valid form of marriage. Thus we have homosexual and lesbian marriages. Half a century ago the “back street arrangements” were kept as secret as possible, being immoral and scandalous. Nowadays, where nominalism rules, persons on television talk shows freely admit to live-in arrangements. Subconsciously they know that a population that has bought the nominalistic ethic will express no moral outrage.

Nominalism has a powerful effect on language. It takes the moral vocabulary of the past and destroys it. A young girl is no longer immoral, but sexually active. Homosexual relationships are now termed sexual preferences. Deviant behavior is called an alternative lifestyle. Pederasty is defined as intergenerational sexuality. Drug abuse is now known as the recreational use of controlled substances.

Nominalism And Killing

The unusual anthropologist Ernest Becker has observed that the more scientific and technological a society becomes, the less value it puts on human life. I would rephrase this: the more nominalistic a society becomes, the less it values human life. When a human being is viewed as part of the System of systems (as, for instance, when we say that “no man is an island”), then murder is a terrible crime. It is the total elimination of a self, a person, a piece of humanity. But if there are only particulars, then each human being is one more particular, no more, no less. So to kill a human being is to eliminate but one more particular from about four billion. Some primitive (sic!) tribes have fought each other until one person was seriously wounded or killed, and then they have stopped. Nominalistic man of the twentieth century has carried on wars that have killed millions. And now, according to the latest speculation, a nuclear war could well kill two billion people, and the more remote aftereffects could kill the remaining two billion.

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The geometric growth of the rate of abortions is another facet of nominalistic mentality. The notion that the circle of responsibility includes only the pregnant woman and her doctor is nominalistic. Of course, abortion can be justified in a number of situations because two lives are inextricably bound up in one fate, something not true of any other relationship. But under nominalistic assumptions, abortion has become a measure to avoid an inconvenience.

Nominalism And The Law

Another dire symptom of the triumph of nominalism is the proliferation of lawsuits and the enormous sums involved. If a person believes every other person is part of God’s great creation, and a participant in all the “creation orders,” as some theologians call them, then a relationship with another person has a sacred element to it. One can put no price on that relationship. The holy, the sacred, and the intimate carry no price tags. Under such assumptions a lawsuit is a rare thing, and the sums involved are modest.

Our nominalistic society, which has lost its vision of the sacred, now puts sums on human relationships and does not hesitate to create the serious moral rupture among the people such suits inevitably involve. Once human relationships can be reduced to sums, it is surprising who sues whom. There are cases of lesbian partners suing each other, of children suing parents, of parents suing school boards or educational systems. Live-ins sue live-ins, a rough calculation of one such suit putting the cash price of such a relationship at a thousand dollars a day. Nominalism does that sort of thing. It is no longer “Man is the measure of all things,” but “Money is the measure of all relationships.”

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The enormous impact of nominalism on legal theory is also apparent. Formerly, when a jurist believed in some version of a world order (philosophical or theological), he also believed that human law reflected—imperfectly—the justice of the world order. In the Old Testament, the laws of Israel were understood to be derived from the justice of Yahweh. Therefore, there is something sacred or holy about a code of law, a court of law, and a policeman who enforces the law. There was something above and beyond the human personalities of these legal people, and they were given an extra measure of respect for that reason.

Nominalism puts the picture together differently. Legal systems are only human arrangements, human conveniences, in order that matters of business and common life may proceed with a minimum of obstruction. Laws are functional and pragmatic, enabling millions of people to live together in relative harmony. Hence, there is nothing extra to legal codes, courts of law, judges, or policemen. They are reduced to people paid to do certain tasks.

Son, Sixteen

Is this gift, this loan

of tiny rose-faced son

with silken hint of hair

and sobs that soothed away

in shoulder nestled sleep

so soon sixteen and six feet tall?

When did his child-wide chatter

change to rhetoric, expounding

man-voice deep? And hands,

a daisy-span, outgrow my clasp?

And timid toddling feet begin to march

to inner beat, determined dreams?

When did fearless questioning

replace the trust

that earlier lit his eyes?

While babe to child to man unfolds,

does love, mother-young turn

love, mother-wise?

I step aside

and ponder his mysterious growth.

And mine. And time.

So little time to nurture left.

So much for him to teach me yet.

So much more

to lean on Love to learn

—Vivian Stewart

The sickness that nominalism brings to our legal system may be seen in the way lawyers toy with the system. Some of the worst scoundrels may hire the cleverest of lawyers. The law, set up to establish justice in the land, is now used against it. Every conceivable ploy within the law is used to frustrate justice. A lawyer with the historic view of the relationship of justice to the legal system would never engage in the willful manipulation of the system. But a lawyer whose mind is governed by nominalistic assumptions will see nothing wrong with it. Such a lawyer is governed by money, or fame for winning his case, or some sordid combination of both.

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Nominalism And Athletics

Another commentary on our nominalistic society is that of the enormous sums of money paid to professional athletes. Historically, certain criteria applied to athletic contests set them above the criteria of the market place. In such contests heroism, team play, physical dexterity, remarkable endurance, and the astonishing will to achieve were the gold coin of the realm and sufficient in themselves. But in a society governed by nominalistic assumptions, such virtues all become of secondary value. The same mentality that puts sums of money on personal relationships in lawsuits now places sums of money on the quality of athletic performances. And that performance is viewed by a crowd of spectators governed by similar nominalistic assumptions.

Nominalism And Catholic Authority

Nominalism means that the individual is the the ultimate point of reference for value, morality, or any other such decision. This spills directly over into theology, especially with reference to any authority granted to Scripture, tradition, or church.

A revelation of this mentality is to be found in Hans Küng’s book, Infallible? An Inquiry. Traditional Roman Catholic theology presents five infallible authorities: the pope, the ecumenical council, the universal consent of bishops, tradition, and Scripture.

In Küng’s books we see that the real issue concerns not the infallibility of these sources, but their authority. Nominalistic thinking has deeply penetrated the Roman Catholic church, and created a major crisis of obedience to authority. Hans Küng himself has refused to obey the orders given to him by the heirarchy of the church. It is now common knowledge that bishops, priests, and lay people disobey systematically and massively the authority of the church. The Roman Catholic church forbids all use of artificial methods of birth control, yet polls show that many millions of Roman Catholic laity use such methods. Such is the nominalistic erosion of authority in the Roman Catholic church.

Erosion Of Protestant Authority

The basic case is no different in Protestantism, where the nominalistic mentality also reigns. Historic creeds have only the authority a pastor wills subjectively to give them. Scripture fares no better. Its authority is exactly that of the subjective preferences of the theologian or pastor. The sola Scriptura (Scripture alone) of the Reformers is replaced by the subjective preferences of the individual conscience. Even those of us who maintain the historic sola Scriptura discover how deeply into our own bones the nominalistic cancer has penetrated. We too engage in a sorting-out practice on what binds us and what does not.

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Of course, it is an oversimplification to hang all our modern woes, secular and religious, on nominalism. In any cultural development many factors are at work. Our argument is that the most influential factor is nominalism, and that it has done the most to undermine the concept of authority in both the secular and theological realms.

I do not deny the truth in nominalism that all authority requires an element of subjective recognition. The Reformers knew this and expressed it in their great doctrine of the internal, secret witness of the Holy Spirit. It is that persuasion of the Spirit that enables the sinner to admit the authority of Scripture. And nominalism has a point in requiring that any proposed authority give an account of itself (“legitimization”). Sheer, uncritical acceptance of authority is irresponsible.

Although T. S. Eliot is commonly known as a poet and dramatist, he was recognized in his day as one of the sharpest critics of culture in Europe (based on 19 years of editing the journal The Criterion). He believed that unless Europe and America kept a firm hold on basic Christian values and morality, our civilization would repeat the Dark Ages. That may be the case, if nominalism continues to rule.

Authority And Grace

From the Christian perspective, authority is always established in the context of grace. There is the amazing paradox of the sovereign authority of God accepted within the boundaries of the immeasurable grace of God revealed in the gospel. The Reformers saw an intimate connection among the grace of God, the gospel, justification by faith, regeneration by the Holy Spirit, the lordship of Christ, and Scripture. Sola Scriptura exists within the context of grace and gospel. And wherever the gospel of the grace of God in Jesus Christ is preached, the authority of Scripture is established.

Whether Western culture will ever return to a healthier concept of authority is beyond our present knowledge. We do know that the more that nominalistic thinking prevails, the more ripped and frazzled will be our common life. But we can be assured that wherever the gospel is preached, those who receive it will seek to establish once again the authority of the Word of God in their lives—the sola Scriptura of the Reformers.

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