Nominally Saved

Reading a three-part Robin Phillips series on the question “Was Calvin a Nominalist?“, I came away from Part I with some reminders why I have not returned to Calvinism.

I suspect I never was a Nominalist, and at a subliminal level my Realism (for which I lacked a proper name) would have made Orthodoxy compelling eventually, had other things not caught my attention first.

All emphasis and hyperlinks are in the original; bracketed comments are mine.

 Virtue flows out of the bedrock structure of reality, namely God’s perfect nature which finds expression in a teleologically-ordered universe … God does not simply decide what is good [Nominalism], but recognizes what man needs to fulfill his nature and flourish. Hans Boersma explains about this in his excellent book Heavenly Participation,

“For Aquinas, we might say, divine decisions had always been in line with eternal truth [Realism]. For example, when God condemned theft or adultery, this was not an arbitrary divine decision, but it was in line with the truth of divine rationality. Or, to use another example, when God rewarded almsgiving, this was not because he arbitrarily decided that almsgiving was a commendable practice, but because it was in line with the very truth of God’s character.”

Given the congruence between the will of God and the eternal nature of things [Realism], it is possible to say that the virtuous life is a return to reality since it is to embrace what is most fitting according to the primal nature of things …

One scholar who has argued for the influence of Nominalism on the magisterial reformation is Hans Boersma … In his 2011 book Heavenly Participation, Boersma argued that in so far as the Protestant reformers urged that the relationship between the divine and the human is fundamentally defined in forensic or “nominal” categories, and only secondarily in participatory or ontological terms, they colluded with the general nominalist drift of the time. Here’s what Boersma writes,

“The nominalist impact on Lutheranism and Calvinism came to the fore particularly in the tendency to interpret the divine-human relationship in external or nominal – rather than in participatory or real – terms. The Reformation teaching on justification by faith alone (sola fide) exemplified a great deal of continuity with the nominalist tradition. This continuity centered on the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. The imputation—according to the Reformers, a forensic declaration—was external or nominal in nature. Luther’s notion that the believer was at the same time righteous and sinner (simul iustus et peccator) gave strong evidence of the nominal character of salvation. While believers were righteous in Christ, they remained sinners in themselves. One can well understand why Luther’s detractors asked this question: But doesn’t the grace of God change believers internally? When Luther likened the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to Boaz’s cloak covering Ruth and to a mother hen’s wings covering her chicks, these external metaphors did little to lessen the anxieties of his Catholic opponents. To be sure, Luther did know about the need for good works, and, especially later, he clearly confronted the reckless antinomianism of fellow Lutherans such as Johann Agricola. Nonetheless, it is fair to ask whether Luther’s own articulations of justification perhaps gave occasion for some of his followers to express their aberrant views. Calvin, much like Luther, was intent on keeping justification separate from human works. In order to do this, he, too, maintained that justification was a nominal or external judicial declaration rather than an internal transformation worked by the Holy Spirit. The underlying pattern of the Reformation doctrine, with its strong focus on imputation, would not have been possible without the nominalist developments of the late Middle Ages.” (Boersma, Heavenly Participation, 92–93.)

Boersma is suggesting that Protestant theology followed the tradition of late medieval Nominalism in seeing moral order having an extrinsic relation to nature, with the raw command of a law-giver imposing meaning from outside. Although this is clearly not the full picture of reformation theology, nevertheless we can still cautiously state that where this particular emphasis was dominant, it worked to shift the focus away from a teologically-oriented universe to one in which the connecting link in the ecosystem of meaning was the raw command of God … God’s declarations about a person’s spiritual state bears no organic relationship to the person’s actual spiritual state under the wedge some of the reformers drew between grace and nature. This is why the phrase “as if” was so important in the network of legal fictions drawn up by the Protestant reformers. For example, John Calvin stated in his Institutes that “we simply interpret justification, as the acceptance with which God receives us into his favor as if we were righteous; and we say that this justification consists in the forgiveness of sins and the imputation of the righteousness of Christ.” Elsewhere Calvin wrote that God justifies us “as if innocence were proved.” Speaking of Calvin’s doctrine, R.C. Sproul explained that

“…justification has to do with a legal or judicial matter involving some type of declaration. We can reduce its meaning to the concept of legal declaration…. When the Reformers spoke of forensic justification, they meant a legal declaration made by God that was based on the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer, not on Christ’s righteousness inherent in the believer.” [Faith Alone, p. 102]

The important thing for the reformers was first and foremost a change in status, not the healing of our nature … Tom Seraphim Hamilton’s comments about the Eastern Orthodox rejection of imputed righteousness are … relevant. Hamilton writes that

“For Orthodox Christians, imputed righteousness simply makes no sense. The problem isn’t that God is just unable to stand the presence of sin, and when He pretends we are righteous that is fixed. The problem is that we are unable to stand the presence and Glory of God, and this is fixed when God renews us after His own Image and lifts us to participation in His Glory. In an Orthodox mindset, God could impute righteousness all He wants, but this would be completely useless, because the problem has never been legal. The problem is that we are sick, and we need medication. Marking me as ‘well’ doesn’t make me well.’”

Saint John Chrysostom believed that this realist understanding of virtue gives men and women the tools they need for reframing their suffering. In his “Treatise to Prove That No One Can Harm the Man Who Does Not Injure Himself” Chrysostom discussed the prevailing notion that we are harmed by misfortune … Using penetrating logic, Chrysostom argues that we could only assert that such things actually injure a person if such misfortunes prevent the person from achieving “virtue”, which he defines as the goal/end/telos appropriate to our nature … Chrysostom argues, that we can only talk about misfortunes injuring a person if the misfortune prevents or retards the person from flourishing according to the virtue of human nature. As he says, “let us determine what is the virtue of man, and let us regard that alone as an injury, which is destructive to it.” Chrysostom’s next point is that since the virtue of man is to be united with Christ in true doctrine and uprightness of life, no amount of external affliction has the power to injure a person who does not injure himself:

“What then is the virtue of man? Not riches that you should fear poverty: nor health of body that you should dread sickness, nor the opinion of the public, that you should view an evil reputation with alarm, nor life simply for its own sake, that death should be terrible to you: nor liberty that you should avoid servitude: but carefulness in holding true doctrine, and rectitude in life….

“For since neither wealth nor freedom, nor life in our native land nor the other things which I have mentioned, but only right actions of the soul, constitute the virtue of man, naturally when the harm is directed against these things, human virtue itself is no wise harmed….

“For it is not stress of circumstances, nor variation of seasons, nor insults of men in power, nor intrigues besetting you like snow storms, nor a crowd of calamities, nor a promiscuous collection of all the ills to which mankind is subject, which can disturb even slightly the man who is brave, and temperate, and watchful…”

I included that Chrysostom quote as a sort of bookend: to emphasize the telos or virtue of humans.

Phillips, also a former Calvinist, charitably acknowledges that the Reformational idea of sanctification—which in theory follows (forensic, external) justification—does indeed involve making us well, does have ontological meaning. But, as I have put it, “salvation” these days in Protestanatism of the Reformed and Evangelical varieties typically consists of “justification” with nothing more (“this particular emphasis was dominant,” as Phillips puts it), nothing internal to the saved person, all external and forensic.

* * * * *

“No man hath a velvet cross.” (Samuel Rutherford, 17th century Scotland)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Where I glean stuff.

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