A Little Philosophy: Nominalism, Voluntarism, and our Spiritual Life

The  Munkeliv Psalter

The Munkeliv Psalter

Today, a (very) short introduction to a major philosophical problem, and how it applies to our spiritual life. I hope I can make this simple and intelligible . . . .

Round about the 1300s, there arose a radically new way of thinking. It is probably the greatest earthquake in the history of thought, and creates a great chasm that separates moderns from the ancients. By ancients I mean Greek philosophy (Plato, Aristotle) but also the thought-world of the Bible, and everything up through Thomas Aquinas, who is partly so important because he was the last one to battle for the old way before the new way broke through. I’m no expert on Eastern philosophy, but I think Confucius stands with the “ancients” in this; Buddhism is probably more like the moderns.

In brief, the ancient way of thinking thought that the world basically made sense, even if we can’t figure it all out. And it believed that our minds basically have the ability to see some of that sense in the world, and to live accordingly.

The new way is summed up by the terms Nominalism and Voluntarism. “Nominalism” is from the Latin word for names. Nominalism says that we give “names” to things, but we don’t really know what they are. You call that thing and that thing “flowers” (or that thing and that thing “human”) but beyond imposing a name, you have no idea what they are.

“Voluntarism” is from the Latin word for will. Once the world doesn’t make sense, all we can do is make acts of blind will – and God is nothing more than a naked will.

The ancients saw us as basically in contact with the real world around us; life was about finding our place in Reality. Moderns sometimes impose ideas on the world, but they don’t think there is any Reality, any “nature,” to conform to.

The break has many, complicated causes, which probably include (a) the rise of powerful nation states (kings never want you to have ideas that can push against their own will), (b) a horrible fourteenth century, including the Black Plague, the Hundred Years’ War, and the Avignon Papacy, which all made the world seem pretty meaningless, and (c) the increasing challenges of philosophy, which made people want to give up.


What does this have to do with us? Three things:

Latin Bible, Malmesbury Abbey, Wiltshire, England

Latin Bible, Malmesbury Abbey, Wiltshire, England

First, nominalism-voluntarism makes us think about God in terms of his “will.” Modern Christians spend a lot of time trying to figure out what God “wants” them to do. (And they trust their feelings more than their minds to figure that out.) Pre-modern Christians tried to find God, and believed they could live accordingly. Think about heaven, they would say, and you’ll figure out what that means for earth.

Second, nominalism-voluntarism makes us “instrumentalize” reason. We think of our mind as a way to win arguments, but not a way to live life. Sometimes my theology students, for example, expect me to feed them apologetic arguments so they can prove people wrong. But just contemplating the mystery of Jesus? Boring! And pointless. They say, “we can’t really know anything about this stuff anyway, so why try?” (Thomas Aquinas says, the tiniest bit we can know about God is more joyful and wonderful than anything else in the world.)


Third, it cuts us off from the Bible. First, because we just aren’t in the Bible’s thought world. The Biblical authors, being ancients, didn’t think like moderns. We can deal with that two ways: by reorienting our way of thinking to match our faith – or by throwing out the Bible as irrelevant to modern life. Unfortunately, we mostly choose the latter option.

Part of the reason we throw out the Bible is because it doesn’t fit my items one and two above. The Bible doesn’t tell us what God’s will is for us here and now. Traditionally, Christians thought they could learn about Jesus, and then see with their own eyes (and minds) what that has to do with their lives. But a friend of mine recently told me he gave up on praying with the Bible because it isn’t practical enough. Yikes.

Many modern Christians who do read the Bible just look for ways to win arguments. But that’s not what it’s for. It’s for contemplating the Beauty of God. Because Jesus is not a naked will. He is Beauty, and Wisdom.

We don’t have to think like nominalists and voluntarists. That’s why the Church encourages us to return to the Bible and to the “perennial philosophy.”


How do nominalism and voluntarism sneak into your relationship with God?