12 August 2002

Once again the summer X-Games are in Philadelphia! They feature of host of great sports: BMX, moto x, skateboarding, in-line skating, bicycle stunt, and the like.

This afternoon wakeboarding was the event, taking place on the Schuylkill River just a few miles downstream from here. So, I hopped on my old cruiser (i.e., rusty, faded 1-speed with back-pedal brakes) and coasted on down to watch. Good crowd. Lots of fun.

I've been reading The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth (2000), edited by John Webster (professor of divinity and canon of Christ Church, Oxford). Contributors include Trevor Hart, Alan Torrance, Colin Gunton, George Husinger, and Graham Ward among others. It's a very helpful introduction and survey of the theological thought of one of the 20th century's most important and productive theologians.

Well, my wife Laurel is supposedly due to give birth to our child sometime this week. She's finally begun her maternity leave and it will be really very nice having her home with me during my August break. Hopefully we'll both have a brief chance to kick back together and relax a bit before our lives take a very different turn for the next 18 years or so--a turn I am very much looking forward to, mind you.

09 August 2002

Both Wayne W. and Valerie have blogged about their history of church membership over the years, both of which were interesting. Many people I've known have had quite a diverse experience of various denominations and congregations. I wonder if this kind of rampant inter-denominational cross-pollination can lead to more cooperation between churches and help break down barriers?

My own personal church background is actually quite boring. I'll start at the present and work backwards.

Currently, I'm a member of Tenth Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I've been there, more or less, since 1988 when I was in college, except for a brief hiatus when I was in graduate school in New York state at Syracuse University. While in Syracuse I was part of Syracuse Reformed Presbyterian Church (RPCNA). Before that, I grew up in and was a member of Calvary Presbyterian Church (PCA, formerly RPCES), in Willow Grove, a nearby suburb of Philadelphia, where I was baptized as an infant. That's about it.

I guess I could go into family background.

My mother was raised Presbyterian in the Presbyterian Church of Coatesville, Pennsylvania (which no longer exists, though the building is occupied by some kind of Bible church). Previous generations on my mother's side, of Scots-Irish descent, were mostly members of Forks of the Brandywine Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) since around 1800, shortly after her ancestors had first come to America. Prior to that, going back to the time of the Reformation, they were Presbyterians in Northern Ireland and Scotland. My mother's German ancestors were largely German Reformed, as far as we can gather.

On my father's side, things are considerably more diverse, at least in recent decades. He was raised in the United Methodist Church of Downingtown, Pennsylvania. Going back further, however, his Scots-Irish and German ancestors appear to have been largely Presbyterian, German Reformed, or Episcopalian. But our family records are considerably more spotty on his side of the family.

Before the Reformation, we were all Catholics, of course. And before that we were pagan Celts and Goths. And that's about it.

08 August 2002

Back to the nominalism thread. Having explained Thomas in some detail, the rest of the story is easier since it can be described in terms of deviations from Thomas’ original schema which had been built upon the thought of earlier Christian thinkers, particularly Augustine and Pseudo-Dionysius. Let us turn then to the thought of John Duns Scotus (1266-1308).

There are several important shifts that Duns Scotus (and later, nominalism) introduced into wider questions as they had been explicated by Thomas. The major Scotist shift was a denial of the analogy of being and, with it, the analogical use of language. Scotus maintained that it is possible to consider “being” or “existence” in abstraction from the question of created or uncreated being, the absolute distinction between Creator and creature. In doing this, however, Scotus established the separation of philosophy (ontology and epistemology) from theology since it, on his view, it would be possible to construct a philosophical ontology that is unconstrained by and transcendentally prior to theology itself, philosophy thereby being permitted to set the conditions for theology. Other separations and dichotomies (nature/grace, nature/supernature, faith/reason) flow from this basic shift.

Since for Scotus language functions univocally, God and creation can be set univocally within one undifferentiated chain of being. This, however, introduces serious difficulties into language and its ability to refer since “being” can now refer univocally to two different realities—created and uncreated—and thus language, and our ideas and concepts expressed in language, become a mask over reality rather than a medium by which reality is able to reveal itself to us in the context of the event of knowing. This in turn begins to shift epistemology into a direction in which the subject and object of knowledge become increasingly related extrinsically and externally, rather than maintaining the kind of interior intentional connection that was found in earlier thought.

With regard to nature and supernature (and its concomitant, nature and grace), the Scotist picture involves a twofold separation and fission between God and the creation (even if Scotus’ intent in this separation was to safeguard the gratuity of grace). First, since God and creation are both situated within one univocal extension called “being” (which simultaneously blurs the proper distinction between Creator and creature), it is possible to explain and think about the world in relation to existence in general without reference to God in particular. Thus the world becomes the self-enclosed system of “nature,” a material reality that remains complete in itself and at our disposal, not inherently opening towards and revelatory of God.

Second, God’s relation to the creation within this single extension of “being” must be theorized simply in terms of God’s degree of existence (quantity), rather than in a truly analogous possession of existence in an entirely different way (quality). For Scotus, God simply is to a greater degree than created things, rather than having an entirely different mode of existence. In this way, God becomes reduced to a being who is univocally like us, but more powerful in every respect, possessing our attributes to a maximal degree of empowerment. This thereby, in effect, identifies God’s essence with the omnipotent divine will. This provides the foundation for later divine “voluntarism” (which Luther and Calvin in some respects inherited), by which God’s absolute will is unconstrained by other aspects of his nature, raising questions such as “can God make 2 + 2 = 5 ?” and the spectre of an arbitrary divine will is raised.

Moreover, given this conceptualization of God’s relationship to the world, the operation of grace must be seen as an extrinsic operation that is super-added from outside of the creation—one self-enclosed being acting upon another within the wider realm of being, divine causality being simply a more powerful, but univocal parallel to created efficient causality. Creation is no longer, as for Thomas, in itself ordered to grace as a necessary condition for its eschatological completion and yet as something that can only be received as a sheer gift.

Since, on the Scotistic picture, grace becomes external to the order of nature, on an individual experiential level, the operation of grace becomes unknowable and undetectable except by a sheer act of faith. Moreover, grace tends to be reified into another layer of reality that must be super-added to nature as a further kind of “stuff” and which operates upon the individual soul as an external cause. Religion, thus, begins to be pushed to the margins of what is distinctively human and natural, a development that will have significant implications for the Renaissance isolation of the “secular” as a particular space of human existence, under the sole scrutiny of human reason.

In terms of faith and reason, then, for Scotus these are no longer two coordinate ways of knowing that mutually presuppose one another, but are extrinsically related, separate modes of knowledge. Reason can only know the world through ideas and language which are rendered problematic by the way in which they potentially mask reality and, therefore, they must be secured by an act of the divine will (as later happens in Descartes’ Meditations).

Faith, on the other hand, works on the level of grace and the supernatural and must only deal with discrete, revealed punctiliar entities—either revealed facts or grace-given experiences that are incommensurate with human experience as a whole. In terms of theological facts, special revelation becomes a wholly unique mode of divine disclosure, discontinuous with natural revelation, enshrined, on some models, in the revelation of individual propositional truths proposed to faith (on some views of Scripture) or through externally imposed authority (on some views of the magisterium).

In terms of human experience, the salvation becomes something that remains outside of our conscious personal life. Rather, in order to be saved (i.e. attain one's supernatural end through grace), a person must strive to receive grace by doing those things specifically revealed as granting grace (sacraments, spiritual and corporal works of mercy, etc.) and avoiding things revealed as destroying grace (mortal sin). This, in turn, easily falls into those “mechanized” or “magical” views of sacramental causality that were criticized by both the Reformers and later Catholic theologians.

Of course, most of these developments are not to be found in Scotus himself in any explicit form, but awaited their unfolding in the later thought of various theologians (e.g., Ockham, Biel) and the ways in which these trends trickled down into popular piety and, still later, even into Enlightenment philosophy (e.g., Descartes). In my next post I’ll try to set out some of these further shifts and turns.

06 August 2002

I've been having some e-mail problems. If anyone has tried to e-mail me within the past 48 hours or so, please try it again, but use my Yahoo account: garvers1@yahoo.com.

04 August 2002

Psalm 56

A Be gracious to me, O God,
for people trample on me
     All day long oppressing me.

B My enemies trample on me all day long
     For many fight against me.

C O Most High, when I am afraid
     I put my trust in you.

D Refrain:In God whose word I praise
     In God I trust, I am not afraid,
          What can flesh do to me?

E All day long they seek to twist my words
     All their thoughts are against me for evil.

F They stir up strife, they lurk
     They watch my steps, hoping to take my life.

G Because of wickedness, cast them forth
     In wrath cast down the peoples, O God!

F' You have kept count of my wanderings,
put my tears in your wineskin,
     Are they not in your record?

E' Thus my enemies will turn back
in the day that I call;
     This I know because God is for me.

D' Refrain: In God whose word I praise,
     In Yahweh whose word I praise,
          In God I trust, I am not afraid,
               What can a mortal do to me?

C' My vows to you I must perform, O God,
     I will present thank offerings to you.

B' For you have delivered my soul from death,
     And my feet from falling.

A' So that I may walk before God
     In the life-giving light.

The bold-face letters at the beginning of each bit are there to highlight the overall structure, which appears to me to be chiastic. A "chiasm" is a literary structure, quite common in ancient literature, where the literary flow is inward to a turning point and then back outwards again, in a form roughly like this:


In this example, sections A and A' would be parallel, and B and B', and so on, while D would serve as the pivot of the structure. It is called a "chiasm" after the Greek letter "chi" which is an X shape.

Psalm 56 follows such a pattern fairly evidently, though the refrain is the first clue. In sections A - C David pleads his cause and asks for deliverance, culminating in trust. In the parallel sections A' - C' David praises God for having delivered him, vindicating his cause, beginning in sacrificial worship.

The two refrains, D and D', are evidently parallel, the latter one expanding and intensifying the basic thought: that God's word can be trusted and so David has nothing to fear from mere human beings.

The middle section, between the refrains, begins by listing David's enemies' specific actions against him and ends by his recounting his own record of suffering before God, with confidence that God will vindicate his cause. The very center is the turning point of the Psalm in which David cries out to God to cast down his enemies.

With that background, here is my little homily on Psalm 56.

Judging from the superscription, the context of the Psalm is apparently 1 Samuel 21, when David, fleeing from king Saul, found himself in Gath (Goliath's hometown) and had to feign madness in order to escape. While the background is somewhat illuminating, the narrative sequence of the Psalm is still quite evident on its own.

David, the Lord's anointed, is being pursued by enemies who twist his words, stalk him, stir up strife against him, and seek to take his life. In the midst of this, David expresses absolute trust in the word of God, the promise of blessing held forth to him by God in both the Torah and in David's own status as the anointed successor to Saul. David is confident that, in the eyes of the divine court, he will find favor. God will see his righteous suffering and vindicate him, bringing him back from the very brink of the grave, into a new life in the divine presence. As an expression of his confidence in God, David has vowed that he will respond to God's certain deliverance by offering up thank offerings, a particular kind of peace offering, made in God's presence at the Tabernacle altar.

The Christian typology is clear. Jesus is the Messiah, the Lord's anointed (the Christ), the true son of David, who was trampled down by enemies on every side, whose words were twisted against him, who was followed by those who sought to kill him, and who stirred up strife against him at every turn. Yet, in the midst of all of this, Jesus turned to his Father in absolute trust. He knew not only the word of the Torah, but also the promise of God held forth in the prophets and even in this very Psalm. If God had delivered his forefather David in light of his righteous sufferings, he would surely deliver the one whom he had called his "beloved son" in the anointing of his baptism in the Jordan.

And we know that God did deliver Jesus from the grave, returning him to the light of life. Jesus was vindicated before his heavenly Father and his divine court when, after his enemies had done their worst, God raised him from the dead. And we know that, like his father David, Jesus passed through suffering, pouring out his tears into God's wineskin, as the way to that vindication. But when Jesus was raised, he kept his vow to his God, ascending before him as a thank-offering, offering himself up before God's presence as a sacrifice of peace and reconciliation.

As Christians, we too are caught up into this sacred history because we share in the very anointing of Jesus as the Christ, an anointing we receive in baptism. We know that, baptized into Christ, his deliverance is already ours for we already are raised with him, having the new life that belongs to those whose case has been vindicated before the divine throne, having Jesus himself as our thank-offering and sacrifice of peace. But the present sign of this vindication is that we too continue to wander along the way that David and Jesus walked, the way of suffering, the way of tears, the way of the cross. May God grant us the grace to enter more fully into that way, in solidarity with those who are oppressed by enemies, whose words are twisted and remain unheard.

We find we lack the strength often to continue on that way, but this Psalm can help us in our weakness.

First, it is a word to us that we can trust. We belong to the God who remembered David's wanderings and noted Jesus' tears. We belong to the God who delivered David and vindicated Jesus: the God whose word we praise. In that God we can trust, we need not be afraid, for what can any mere mortal do to us in Christ?

Second, in Christ we have an offering by which we can enter more fully into the life-giving presence of God. And that offering is called "eucharist," that is, a thank-offering. By coming to the table of the Lord, and sharing in what he offers us there, we enter into the very self-offering of Jesus Christ before his Father in heaven. And there we learn to walk in the presence of God and receive the life-giving flesh of Jesus himself to strengthen us as we complete our wanderings and as God continues to gather the tears of his people.

God grant us mercy to recall his word to us in this Psalm when we feel trampled by our enemies, both in the world and in our own flesh.

Recently I've heard a series of sermons on selected Psalms, which has led to my own reflections on those Psalms.

One thing that has impressed me is how helpful the literary structure and liturgical context of the Psalms are for understanding them. I have also been very much interested by how the Psalms can be interpreted christologically. Thus, as I am able, I plan on offering some brief summaries of my thoughts on these Psalms, along with my own translations and outlines of their poetic organization.

I'm taking a break from Thomas Aquinas and nominalism today. Instead, I'll post a few comments about the much misunderstood Calvinist doctrine of "limited atonement." This post is not designed primarily as a defense of the doctrine, but is merely an attempt to communicate precisely what that doctrine is.

The doctrine of "limited atonement" is best understood in light of several other doctrines: that Christ's work is infinitely sufficient, that God is omniscient and sovereign (including the doctrine of election), and that not all are finally saved. Together these doctrines pose a difficulty to which "limited atonement" is constructed as a resolution.

The "limit" on Christ's atoning work is not one of sufficiency. Sometimes some Calvinistic persons speak popularly as if the very quality and/or quantity of Christ's sufferings are somehow almost ecomonically limited so that, if God were to have chosen to elect more persons to salvation, the quality and/or quantity of Christ's sufferings would have to commensurately increase. But this is false and not the position any reputable Reformed theologian, who all maintain the infinite sufficiency of Christ's atoning work. As A.A. Hodge writes in his classic work, The Atonement:All Calvinists agree in maintaining earnestly that Christ's obedience and sufferings were of inifinite intrinsic value in the eye of law, and that there was no need for him to obey or suffer an iota more nor a moment longer in order to secure, if God so willed, the salvation of every man, woman, and child that ever lived...We unite with all other Christians in glorying in the infinite sufficiency of the satisfaction of Christ to reach and to save all men who have been or who will be created or creatable. (356)Christ's work is not limited in itself but in the omnisciently known and sovereignly ordained benefits that it was intended to effect. Thus the "limit" on Christ's atoning work, in Reformed thought, is one of divine intent. Christ's work, while infinitely sufficient and thereby providing a foundation for his genuinely offering grace to all, only accomplishes, in the end, precisely what God knew, ordained, and therefore intended for it to accomplish.

This does not mean, however, that Christ's atoning work accomplishes nothing within the intention of God for those who are not finally saved. In mainstream Reformed views, Christ's work accomplishes everything that God intends for it to accomplish, including a great many benefits for those who do not benefit from that work unto final and eternal salvation. Thus John Murray (formerly of Westminster Theological Seminary) writes in his essay, "The Free Offer of the Gospel," that "...all the good dispensed to this world is dispensed within the mediatorial dominion of Christ...he is given this dominion as the reward of his obedience unto death (cf. Phil. 2:8, 9), and his obedience unto death is but one way of characterizing what we mean by the atonement" (63-4).

Given this fact, there is a sense in which a Calvinist can truly affirm that Christ died for all people, even those who are not elect. Thus Murray writes, "even the non-elect are embraced in the design of atonement in respect of those blessings falling short of salvation which they enjoy in this life...it would not be improper to say that, in respect of what is entailed for the non-elect, Christ died for them" (64). This too, then, falls within what God intended Christ's atoning work to accomplish.

Given biblical texts such as Hebrews 10:29 (which speaks of a "sanctification" experienced by those who come to faith only for a time), there are even benefits of Christ's work included within the intent of the atonement that are analogous to those same benefits that the elect experience unto final salvation. Again, Murray writes:Whatever may be the particular complexion of the sanctification in view [in Hebrews 10:29], there can be no question but that it is derived from the blood of Christ and, if so, it was designed to accrue from the blood of Christ. The benefit was only temporary and greater guilt devolves upon the person from the fact that he participated in it and then came to count the blood by which it was conveyed an unholy thing. But, nevertheless, it was a benefit of the blood of Christ procured, and procured for him. We must say that, to that extent Jesus shed his blood for his benefit. (64-5)Nonetheless, Reformed theologians are reticent to describe these benefits experienced by the non-elect in terms of "salvation," at least most strictly speaking, with reference to complete and final salvation. So, Murray writes:...the fruits of the atonement enjoyed by some non-elect persons are defined in very lofty terms..In this sense, therefore, we may say that Christ died for non-elect persons. It must, however, be marked with equal emphasis that these fruits or benefits all fall short of salvation, even though in some cases the terms used to characterize them are such as could properly be used to describe a true state of salvation. These non-elect persons, however reforming may have been the influences exerted upon them and however uplifting their experiences, come short of the benefits accruing from the atonement, which the truly and finally saved enjoy. (68)This is where the "limit" in "limited atonement" emerges, in terms of the final efficacy of the atoning work of Christ for salvation. Thus Murray goes on to qualify his remarks, adding that "the non-elect do not participate in the benefits of the atonement and the elect do...non-elect enjoy many benefits that accrue from the atonement but they do not partake of the atonement" (69). The atonement, threfore, "was designed for, and for those only, who are ultimately the beneficiaries of what it is in its proper connotation..." and in that strictly defined sense Christ "did not 'die for' the non-elect" (69).

Thus, clearly "limited atonement" is a theological term of art, with the term "atonement" being used in a specialized way. But as with many systematic-theological concepts, we cannot simply assume that the way it functions within a dogmatic system exactly maps onto how the same term functions within particular biblical authors. Nonetheless, the underlying truth that the doctrine is designed to protect is clear: God is ominscient and sovereign and what he accomplishes through the infinitely sufficient work of Christ happens in accordance with his intent in election, which is not thwarted by the freedom of the creature (though that freedom is not violated either).

Though I've quoted John Murray at length, similar teaching can easily be found in A.A. Hodge, Ussher, Witsius, Turretin, and other Reformed theologians, representing, therefore, the mainstream of Reformed thinking on the topic.

03 August 2002

I’ve been expositing some of Thomas Aquinas’ theological thought in order to provide a backdrop for the shifts that were introduced by later philosophers, particularly nominalism and the effects for modern thought. In this post I will continue by explaining some of the implications of what we’ve already considered for how Thomas thinks about language, knowledge, and related matters.

In terms of epistemology and language, given Thomas' overall perspective, language itself must also obviously be analogical and thus intrinsically involves a metaphysical component, assuming analogical relations among things. Knowledge, moreover, arises in the reception of and action upon the real, mediated through language, in which what is real reveals itself to us and any illusion can be unmasked as such within such interaction. Indeed for Thomas, part of the potentiality of things is to be knowable and thus, e.g., our coming to know a chair is as much an event in the life of the chair unveiling itself to us as it is an event within us. In knowing the chair, there is a real sense in which the chair itself is within me. Therefore, for Thomas, there is no subject-object dichotomy nor the spectre of brute factuality; since all facts are interpreted, event-mediated facts.

Since the meaning of creation is its constitution as a loving gift from God directed to a further graciously given end, this same order is present within the creation, for instance, in knowledge, which requires the loving and receptive perception of the knower in order for the real to be truly known as it gives itself over to the knower. This is the very antithesis of a Cartestian model of knowledge, which presupposes a distance and rupture between subject and object that simultaneously reduces the world to a set of externally related, atomistic, and mechanized objects (contrary to Thomas’ doctrine of creation) and theorizes our knowledge of those objects primarily in terms of control. Moreover, the question of whether or not I might be massively deceived about what I think I know cannot arise for Thomas as it does for Descartes since the metaphysical foundations of their theories of knowledge are different. For Thomas, "seeing a paper on my desk" where that "seeing" is a hallucination or dream is not even univocal with actual "seeing" any more than a drawing of an eye is an actual eye, though both may be called such. Where Thomas' epistemology is supported by a basic trust borne in love, Descartes' is built upon suspicion.

It further follows that, on Thomas’ doctrine, all of created being thereby (in light of the previous paragraphs and posts) symbolically discloses the divine, pointing to transcendent reality, not just as some undifferentiated “God of the Philosophers” but as the Triune God of Scripture. This is the case, in part, because all of the perfections of God (truth, being, goodness,
beauty, etc.) are only manifest in the generation of the Logos in the Spirit. Thus our knowledge of God, ourselves, and the world is an analogous manifestation in us of God’s own Trinitarian knowledge of these things and thereby, as it were, our thinking God’s thoughts after him. Part of our participation in God, then, is our incorporation into the very inner life of the Trinity, which we have and grow in by grace.

Thus Thomas’ theories of truth and knowledge are thoroughly Trinitarian. So, for example, in De Veritate (q 4, art 4, resp) Thomas writes, “…for the divine Word to be perfect, it must express whatever is contained in that from which it had its origin…Consequently, whatever is contained in the Father’s knowledge is necessarily and entirely expressed by his only Word and in the very same manner in which all things are contained in his knowledge…Through his knowledge, moreover, the Father knowledge himself, and by knowing himself, he knows all other things. Hence his Word chiefly expresses the Father and, as a result, all other things which the Father knows by knowing himself. Therefore, because the Son is a word that perfectly expresses the Father, the Son expresses all creatures.” (Incidentally, it easily follows from this and the overall contours of Thomas’ epistemology that he would readily agree that the “presupposition of the ontological Trinity is the only basis for predication.”)

Thomas writes earlier in De Veritate (Q 1, art 4) that “...a thing is said to be true principally because of its order to the truth of the divine intellect [as that trinitarian divine intellect is explained above] rather than because of its relation to the truth of a human intellect.” Indeed Thomas goes on to insist that all knowledge ultimately comes from God, De Veritate (Q 1, art 8): “All [truth and knowledge] is entirely from God, because both [a] the very form of a thing, through which it is conformed, is from God, and [b] the truth itself insofar as it is the good of the intellect [is from God]...Hence, since every good and every form is from God, one must say, without any qualification, that every truth is from God.” This is not merely to say that “all truth is God’s truth” in some superficial sense, but that truth itself is only constituted and understood in relation to God and, indeed, as Thomas says elsewhere, “In every act of thought and will, God is also thought and willed implicitly” (De Veritate Q 12, art 2, ad 1).

Therefore, for Thomas, theology and ontology, faith and reason, grace and nature, are coordinate ways of knowing and participation in the mind of God. There can be no philosophy independent of theology, for Thomas, since we can’t even raise the most basic of philosophical question—talk about “Being,” basic ontology—without raising the question of created or uncreated being and the ratio and participation between them. Even Thomas’ famous “Five Ways” (as I noted previously in a post on Fergus Kerr), function in a thoroughly theological context, not as neutral “proofs” of God’s existence, but presupposing various theological concepts: divine simplicity, that God’s essence cannot be known in itself, the nature of divine causation, and so on. Moreover, even when Thomas comes to Trinitarian doctrine, which for him is a matter of revelation more than reason, he begins by noting various "traces" of the Trinity that are apparent even to reason within the created order.

Faith and reason, therefore, cannot be seen in Thomas as strictly distinct, but are coordinate ways of knowing that represent different degrees of intensity of participation in the single reality of divine illumination in which all rational creatures participate. They are not utterly incommensurate kinds of understaning. Reason, moreover, requires faith because the use of reason is always-already graced by God and faith needs reason as its discursive explication.

Thus, contrary to many popular presentations, Thomas is no advocate of “natural theology.” On the other hand, he is does not push the sufficiency of Scripture beyond its proper sphere in such a way so as to entirely negate the role of reason. Nevertheless, revelatio for Thomas is not radically discontinuous with other human knowing, but is simply a higher form of that same illumination that enlightens all men, intrinsically and inseparably conjoined with a created event that symbolically discloses the truth of God in a new and even unexpected and startling way, though it is also true that every created event always-already points to that truth. Thus “revelation” for Thomas (as it later became for Catholics like Suarez and much of Protestantism) is not merely some kind of depositing of propositional content into the world with certain externally imposed guarantees of infallibility. Rather a true analogy exists between the knowledge granted in revelation and all other human knowing so that the two are mutually interpretive, even if a certain priority is given to revelation due to its greater participation in and manifestation of the Spirit’s illumination.

This completes, then, my basic presentation of the contours of Thomas Aquinas’ thought. By no means should these posts be taken to provide a complete sketch of his thought (e.g., ethics is largely ignored). Rather they are an overview that focuses upon those aspects of Thomas that are most relevant to such later developments that grew into nominalism. And so, in future posts, I will finally get around to talking about nominalist thought and its (often ill) effects upon subsequent theology.

02 August 2002

Here's one of these things:

1. Saddest movie you've seen: Wit would have to be somewhere near the top of the list, though I always find Edward Scissorhands strangely touching.

2. Funniest movie you've seen: Hmm...that's difficult to say. I've always laughed at '80s John Hughes films, with Ferris Bueller's Day Off at the top of the list. But I also like Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, and Monty Python. So there's no accounting for taste.

3. Irrational fears you had as a child: I used to think there was a "snow monster" who lived in our basement and that he would attack me and carry me off into another dimension if I went down there after dark. I'm also still terrified of spiders to an absolutely irrational degree (i.e., involving jumping on top of furniture and screaming like a girl).

4. Was there a book you had as a child that you were scared to read because the pictures were scary? No. I like scary pictures. Except ones of spiders. They make me scream and throw the book across the room. I did always dread coming to the end of the Narnia Chronicles because everyone went further up and further in and I couldn't go with them and I would miss them terribly (and then there was poor Susan who had fallen away).

5. If you could have one talent in the world, it would be... The ability to skateboard like Tony Hawk (or do moto x like Travis Pastrana).

6. Language I'd most like to master in my lifetime: Latin. I'm partway there.

7. What is your favorite city? Philly, of course. Duh.

8. What is your favorite memory about the city in #7? The bicentenial was pretty cool. Other than that, all the times my folks took me to museums, plays, concerts, galleries, historic sites, and so on growing up.

9. Do you root for the favorite or the underdog? The underdog. I like to see the little guy kick butt.

10. Left-handed people are: The best and brightest people in the world. Right-handers have no idea how impoverished their world really is.

11. Animal you'd most like to see on the endangered species list: To protect or get rid of? To protect: lemurs. To get rid of: scorpions.

12. Milk chocolate or dark chocolate? Dark. The darker the better, though not quite to the point of make-your-mouth-seize-up and nearly pass out with the bitterness. But dark nonetheless.

13. Movie with worst casting decision: AI. Steven Spielberg should never have been cast as the director.

14. Most interesting foreign accent: I like Scottish accents from the really seedy, poor parts of urban Glasgow or Edinburgh because, even though it's English, you can't tell.

15. Rare, medium rare, medium, medium well, well, or just plain tartare? Medium rare.

16. Have you ever had fondue? Yes. Fruit with melted chocolate. Mmmmm.

17. Something interesting you've learned listening to NPR: There's so much I can't remember since I feel like a learn something new every day on NPR. I do like learning about quirky things, however, like the odd things in people's lives you hear about on "This American Life."

The following is a continuation of my reflections on Thomas Aquinas and his theology, as a means by which the later deviations of nominalism can be better undersood.

For Thomas the created order, according to the analogy of being, really, in some sense, participates in God by analogy. Now this language of “participation” can confuse some people, as if Thomas (and other theologians) were somehow saying that mere creatures can become God or share in God’s own essence or the like. But that is not at all what Thomas has in mind.

First, he means that God, in himself, always-already contains the plenitude of being, and thus every possible thing already pre-exists in God—in his reflexive self-knowledge (through the Son in the Spirit) by which he knows every kind of possible thing he could make. Thomas also suggests that God is “in things” (and they in him) in the way that a thing known by us is in us, that is, it makes itself present to us through some operation of our existence. So, God is in us in the way the tree I see outside my window is in me, in that it makes itself present to my experience, as also God does.

God is known as the cause of all things, however, only through his effects (and thus God’s “substance is present to all things as the cause of their being”). Yet, the nature of God’s causing things to be is as their formal-efficient-final cause, the cause of not only their coming to be, but their coming to be out of nothing and directed towards God as their goal. Given this kind of divine causation of things and given their pre-existence in God, God is the cause of all things in a still deeper way since God is the Truth, Goodness, Beauty and all other perfections of things.

So, for instance, God is not merely Good in himself and the cause of goodness in created things, but the very Goodness that is in God is analogically the goodness of created things which they never can, in themselves, possess except in relation to God. This is, in part, because the notion of a “good” is a set of analogically related concepts. For instance, when we ask what a pen is “good for,” we are asking its purpose: to write with. When we ask what a “good pen” is, we are asking when a pen is a good pen: when it writes well (i.e., fulfills its purpose with excellence). The good of things can be considered merely in relation to other created things within the order of the world, but the ultimate Good of all things is their life together in and with God as Goodness itself and which things enjoy in virtue of their existence from God (and so existence itself is a good), in their divinely-appointed relations with other things, and in their final goal within God’s purposes. Thomas’ doctrine of analogy comes in here when we speak of things as being “good” which, in one sense they are in themselves, but ultimately only are so in relation to God as “Good.” Similar analyses would hold true for other perfections such as truth, knowledge, beauty, and so on.

Another corollary of Thomas’ teaching on analogy is that the creation itself has its own integrity as a created whole so that creation itself explains further things within it. God effectively wills all that happens to happen as it does, but not in such a way that that the true secondary causation among creatures and free choices of intelligent beings are in any way compromised (how that precisely works out is another matter to be addressed elsewhere). Thus, while it is true that in one sense “God causes the change of seasons” it is more accurate to say that “God causes the world, with its changing seasons, to be,” allowing thereby for the full participation of all the created powers, secondary causes, and potentialities of the created order their proper role. While all things exist and continue to exist by the direct power of God, they are caused to exist with all the qualities that they exhibit and exercise in such a way that it is truly those things that do what they do and not that God makes them do what they do by a power that is extrinsic and external to them.

Moreover, in Thomas' metaphysics things share real natures, their "formal" constitution (as a discussed before), by which they stand in a real and ordered relationships with one another as part of the created whole. Thus they are analogically related to one another, for instance, that both humans, dogs, and dolphins are "animals" where the term "animal" is being used analogically with reference to real similarities between the various creatures (e.g., they all have senses and desires), despite how those commonalities are differently articulated (e.g., we do not hear in the same way as dogs or dolphins, not only in terms of the subjective experience of hearing but in the nature of the symbolic content that hearing communicates). Individuals and kinds of things are never merely isolated and atomistic objects standing in no essential relationships with other things, but are internally and intrinsically connected to them within a single ordered whole.

In the next installment, I’ll go on to consider some of the implications of this for knowledge, faith and reason, and our doctrine of revelation.

31 July 2002

I’m going to return now to the discussion of nominalism that I began earlier, but I’m going to have to break it up into a series of shorter posts for it to be manageable. Eventually I hope to write this up as some kind of essay, but I’m not there yet. I’m going to continue here at present by means of a double detour through Reformed theology and Thomas Aquinas.

There are certain varieties of Reformed apologetics and philosophy that identify themselves as “presuppositionalist” in character, thereby distinguishing themselves from “classical” or “evidentialist” approaches, particularly various attempts at constructing “natural theology” (for a broader explanation of what so-called presuppositionalism is all about, I have "A Primer on Presuppositionalism" that might be helpful).

One could explain these differences in approach (between presuppositionalism and evidentialism) theoretically or practically, but I would prefer to do so historically. Far too often, I think, Reformed thought of various stripes fails to take itself as historically situated, embedded within the larger narrative of western (Christian) thought. But if we are truly presuppositional in our outlook, then it will be necessary to explore fully our own presuppositions and their genealogy.

My basic contention is that “presuppositionalism” only makes sense against the background of a certain kind of Enlightenment rationalism and the natural theology that was associated with it (Paley comes to mind, but the roots go much further back). When presuppositionalism inveighs against “classical” or “evidentialist” apologetics, it is that historically specific kind of apologetics that was fully complicit with the “modern” with its commitment to foundationalism, universal reason, scientific models of knowledge, and the like. That modernism, in turn, is indebted to certain trends that already were in place, for example, in the thought of John Duns Scotus (1265-1308) and then the later nominalists.

To trace this history I must begin with the views of St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). You may detect that I read Thomas as himself something of a “presuppositionalist,” rather than as a “classical” or “evidentialist” theologian (I’ve argued here before for this kind of interpretation of Thomas). And I think this can be fairly well substantiated from the last century or so of Thomas scholarship. Nonetheless, the typical presuppositionalist reading of Thomas (a reading which you find not only in Cornelius van Til, but equally in Herman Dooyeweerd and even Francis Schaeffer) is certainly mistaken, on at least two counts:[a] it views Thomas Aquinas through the lens of a latter “thomism” (particularly the 19th and 20th century neo-scholasticism that found its last champions in Mercier and Garrigou-Lagrange) and this thomism is more indebted to Cajetan, Bellarmine, and Suarez than to Thomas himself;

[b] it anachronistically reads back into Thomas a kind of evidentialism that, in fact, did not come into its own for at least 400 years after Thomas' death (though that kind of evidentialism arguably had its roots in early 17th century Catholic theologians like Lessius; see, e.g., Michael Buckley's At the Origins of Modern Atheism).
The story of how we get from Thomas Aquinas to the later nominalism and evidentialism that is often identified with “classical apologetics” goes something like the following.

We need to begin here with the (modernist) notion of “nature” as that is understood in distinction over against “grace” and various concomitant distinctions such as reason and faith, nature and supernature, sacred and secular, and so on. It is, after all, only within a system that makes such distinctions that we can even have a sphere of what is purely natural or impartially rational, a neutral secular “reason” which can claim to arbitrate the claims of the Christian faith or a fully "natural theology." And only on that presupposition can the typical description of classical apologetics make any sense.

But when we turn back to Thomas Aquinas we find that he draws no such sharp distinctions and does not isolate a particular area of human life as somehow neutrally free from the claims of faith or the influence of grace. For Thomas the “natural” is not the self-contained world of manipulable matter that is the opposite of “artificial” (as it became in later thought) and so the “supernatural” is not some second story of “stuff” that is somehow added to a more basic nature.

On the contrary, for Thomas “natura” has to do with kinds of things, their origins and ends, and what they do (including making “artificial” things), as they are organized in relation to one another in a single whole. All things within their fundamental relations to other things within this whole are “natural.” Those very same things, however, are “supernatural” in terms of their absolute origins since all creation is ultimately pure gift (i.e., grace) and they aim at God as their end since life within God is the graciously given goal of all creation. “Natural” and “supernatural” for Thomas, therefore, are adjectival or adverbial and have no reference to a distinction in substance. Nature is always-already “graced” (de Lubac speaks here of a single "double-gift" of creation and grace; see my essay "Rahner and de Lubac on Nature and Grace").

Since the creation is from God, is directed towards God, and stands in relation to God, it is like God and revelatory of God. Nevertheless, this revelatory likeness is only analogous—thus the notion of an analogia entis or “analogy of being.” Analogy implies both likeness and unlikeness. Since everything is created by God it images him (supremely human beings, individually and corporately); but since everything is created by God it images him only within the greater and absolute divide between Creator and creature. The Fourth Lateran Council (1215) had formulated this in the following way: for every similarity between God and the creature there is an even greater dissimilarity (maior dissimulitudo in tanta similitudine).

Contrary to the contentions of some presuppositionalists, this is decidedly not “chain of being” thinking, but a sophisticated account of the absolute distinction between Creator and creator and the all-encompassing Lordship of God over his creation. As we shall see, it is in fact the later developments in Scotus and nominalism that move in the direction of a “chain of being.”

In any case, part of the upshot of this is the fact that, according to Thomas, when we say “God exists” and “creatures exist” we are using the term “exists” analogously, not purely univocally (and not equivocally either, since a real likeness is there). To use terms univocally is to use them with precisely the same meaning, for instance, the way the term "dog" functions in the sentence, "My dog is bigger than your dog." To use terms equivocally is to use them in significantly different senses, for instance, the way the term "chair" is used in the sentences, "The chair of my department is retiring" and "The [desk] chair has a broken leg." To use terms analogically is to use them in a way that assumes real similarity and connection, but within difference, for instance, when we say that a person is "healthy" and that certain foods are "healthy."

Applying this theologically, Thomas would say that for God to “exist” is to exist non-derivatively, independently, originally, a se, etc. For us to “exist” is to exist derivatively, dependently, createdly, in deus, etc. In God, existence and essence are co-terminous and identical. In the creature, there is a real distinction between existence and essence (we don’t have to exist) that gives primacy of act over form as the concrete and particular subsistence of things. Nevertheless, for Thomas, there are real analogies between the divine existence and creaturely existence, founded upon the doctrine of creation.

Precisely what this means and how it works out in metaphysics, epistemology, language, and the like—and how nominalism undermines this basic picture—will have to await a further post.

30 July 2002

Most people don't know that I occasionally write poetry. It's not great poetry, but I sometimes like to tinker around with words, their ambiguities and varying shades of meaning, how sounds come together and play off of one another. Philosophy and poetry are probably not all that different. In fact, I recently commented to Aaron Belz that I suspected that all good philosophy is really a kind of poetry--after he had just turned my comments on "fiveness" below into a poem.

In any case, here's a poem I wrote a couple of years ago and of which I was reminded while getting a quick bite in a local diner earlier today:Fix

no sooner
than the half-empty
bottomless cup again
returns to the ringed counter,
do my 3am eyes
trace her tightly
uniformed curves
reflected within formica--
and the burnt stale
odor steams up
once more

I sip caffeine to stall
that stabbing ache
that's never really gone
and glance up around
the all-night diner--
stainless steel retro
like adam west
back in some kitschy
neon eden

the dingy busboy
somehow can show teeth,
a smiling minister
to filthy flatware,
even as that patron
eyes him with a
crucifying gaze

on her cigarette break
leaves of the
unread Times
fall from my lap
and I swill down to the
bitter grounds
as I perceive faintly,
"Take that, sir?"
and offer him
the emptiness of my cup

28 July 2002

I do still plan to get back to my views on late medieval theology and "the modern," but Allen asked a while ago in the comments about my views on "postmodernism" and its relationship to Christian faith. As some of you who read this blog regularly probably already suspect, I do have some deeply postmodern sympathies, whatever that may mean.

This is part of the problem: "postmodernism", everyone seems to agree, remains a terribly difficult notion to define precisely. And there are various strands of postmodern thought, some of which seem to me more congenial to Christian faith than others. One thing all strands of postmodernism seem to share, however, is a purported rejection of what has come to be seen as characteristic of "the modern" (of course, by that definition, Giambattista Vico and Nicolas of Cusa might qualify as postmodernists).

The further questions, then, include: [a] how a particular brand of postmodernism diagnoses the problems with the modern, [b] what it proposes as a solution to those problems, and [c] how it stands in relationship with the pre-modern. At each of these levels, there are places where I find myself in some agreement with certain postmodern perspectives, and places where I would significantly diverge.

With regard to the first question, the difficulties of the modern that are typically diagnosed from the standpoint of postmodernism include the following:
  • construction of false dichotomies such as:

    faith vs. reason,
    individual vs. corporate,
    subject vs. object,
    citizen vs. the state,
    sacred vs. secular,
    mind vs. body, and so on;

  • embracing unworkable forms of epistemological foundationalism;

  • setting up false notions of subjective "interiority";

  • strategically displacing metaphysics with epistemology in such a way that the metaphysical foundations of the modern become maximally hidden;

  • creation of grand metanarratives in which the Enlightenment turns out to be the goal of history;

  • mystifying politics in such a way that individual freedom is seen conditioned upon more intrusive disciplinary technologies and/or foreign imperialism;

  • projecting a false economics whether capitalist or socialist;

  • tending toward logical positivism and other forms of hyper-empiricism
Further diagnoses that move beyond this list of symptoms toward deeper difficulties suggest, for instance, that there is a dispersed and anonymous field of power relations involved in the construction of what is taken to be knowledge within the modernist program. Others point to the way in which language tends to arrange itself along lines of difference that construct and perpetuate these peculiarly modern difficulties. Still others make analyses from the standpoints of phenomenology, neo-marxism, feminism, queer theory, ecology, or the like.

I am largely (though not entirely) in agreement with the basic diagnosis of modernist symptoms and would probably add some of my own (e.g. privatization of religion, valorization of religious "inwardness" apart from external signs and means, the nelgect of formal and final causality, etc.). And I would also be sympathetic with certain analyses of the underlying problems, especially those which critique "onto-theology," question metanarrative schemas, and attempt to uncover underlying violence--broadly speaking, those analysis of the broadly deconstructionist and phenomenological variety. As Merold Westphal notes, figures like Nietzsche can be read as perceptive theologians of original sin. Nonetheless, I would, naturally, give a more theological diagnosis of the disease underlying the modernist symtoms, pointing especially to shifts in the late medieval era that I have associated before with nominalism.

As for the second question--a solution to these modern difficulties--proposals range from varieties of anarchist micropolitics and deconstructionist interventions to political movements and a multiplied diversity of competing narratives. While some of these proposals have much in them that is commendable, again, my proposal would be more theological, focusing upon the Christian biblical narrative, the centrality of liturgical and sacramental action, and a return to the pre-modern Christian synthesis in order to move forward into the postmodern, finding perhaps a number of counter-modern fellow travellers along the way (Vico, Luther, Jacobi, de Lubac, etc.).

This last bit leads to the third question concerning the relationship between the pre- and postmodern. In some postmodern authors there is a seeming return, not to patristic and medieval Christian sources, but further back to ancient Greek and Roman paganisms. This is seen already in Nietzsche and has various continuing echoes in authors ranging from Michel Foucault to Martha Nussbaum. From a Christian perspective, however, this return to the dynamics of late antiquity can be read instead as the culmination of modernism itself (rather than as a true rejection of it) necessitating a re-narration of modernism akin to Augustine's narration of the ancient in City of God. Such a reading of the modern/postmodern would be a subversive task attempting to show a fundamental continuity in its ontological assumptions as embodying a primordial violence that remains analogous to that upon which ancient city states were founded from Athens to Rome. Such assumptions can be questioned and shown to be unsubstantiated from the standpoint of the Christian narrative with its own trinitarian ontology and ethic. This is the kind of project that thinkers such as René Girard and John Milbank have begun.

In the end, then, I do think that postmodernism provides a great opportunity for us as Christians, theologically speaking. For several centuries now Christian faith has vested too much of its interest in the modern project, giving rise, arguably, to trends ranging from theological liberalism to evangelical revivalism. And there is much value in a critique of this investment. Moreover, the demise of the modern also means the demise of the "secular" and all the ways in which it has been constructed in order to insulate us from religious claims and the demands of the divine presence. Finally, the return to pre-modern authors, re-reading them now no longer through the lens of modernist, provides us with new prospects for retrieving earlier Christian reflection and thought with which to move forward. All of this is fraught with dangers, not the least from non-Christian postmodernists who have another story to tell. But the opportunties granted are ones we cannot afford to miss.

Over on her blog, my wife Laurel has welcomed guesses for when our baby will be born. One doctor gave us August 13 as a due date. Another, August 17. Since "Claire" is one of our top name choices, I suggested that maybe the kid will come as early August 11, the date upon which St. Clare of Assisi is commemorated. But, of course, births have a way a being unpredictable.

Still, feel free to weigh in with your own attempt at fortune-telling. There will be a prize for a correct guess.

Since I'm still placing well on Craig's "Leaderboard", I've become curious how many actual hits I get on this thing. So I added a hit counter (all the way down at the very bottom).

23 July 2002

I'll get back to nominalism one of these days. In the meantime, I'll take up an earlier question: what five books do I think everyone really should read (other than the Bible, of course)?

There's no one right answer to this question, I suppose. I even doubt there are five books that everyone should read since different people have different inclinations, interests, callings, and gifts. Still, I assume there are some books that are more deserving of wide attention than others. Though I'd probably say something different next week, here are my five suggestions:

[1] Aurelius Augustine, City of God (with Confessions a close second). Not only do you get a comprehensive Christian philosophy and theology, you also get a philosophy of history that does for cultural psychology what the Confessions did for Augustine's personal psychology, summarizing and critiquing the ancients along the way. It's "History of World, part one" from the standpoint of Christian faith.

[2] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae. The pinnacle of medieval philosophy and theology, a great synthesis of the church Fathers, Scripture, philosophy, and theological reflection by the greatest theologian of the middle ages. Towards the end of his life Thomas said, "all I have written now appears to be of little value," but the acheivement is, nonetheless, remarkable.

[3] René Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy (or possibly Discourse on Method). At our present stage in history it is still important to understand the shape of the "modern" that has so profoundly affected us, from the Enlightenment onwards. Descartes' Meditations provide a brief synopsis of the modernist ethos and contain all its subsequent problems in seed form.

[4] The Book of Common Prayer, 1662 edition. Though I prefer many of the more modern revisions of the prayerbook, the 1662 edition sets a high standard and provides a sound basis for devotion, liturgy, and spirituality. It is Protestant and Reformational and provides a way through the modern, beyond Descartes, carrying us through on prayer rooted in ancient patterns.

[5] Georges Bernanos, Diary of a Country Priest. This is my favorite novel and, many respects, I think, gives us the ultimate response to modernism in the form of a narrative that breathes and transmits what has always been central to the Christian faith and tradition. The narrative form, moreover, provides a way in which that faith can be appropriated within a post-modern world.

19 July 2002

Peter Leithart has an intriguing new essay on the biblical doctrine of justification over on the Theologia website entitled, "'Judge Me, O God': Biblical Perspectives on Justification."

In an e-mail, however, someone asked me whether the article was compromising the Protestant doctrine that justification is "synthetic" rather than "analytic." I think the right answer, in terms of that particular question, is "no." Still, I'm curious how the distinction between analytic and synthetic--with its roots in Hume, its fuller expression in Kant, and its importance in logical positivism--came to be used in the exposition of Protestant dogmatics. Does anyone have any insight on that?

I also think its only fair to point that the whole philosophical distinction between analytic and synthetic has been under fire for more than a century, first in Hegel, but also in Wittgenstein and Quine (see particularly Quine's essay, "Two Dogmas of Empiricism"). Despite my fondness for all things philosophical, I'm not sure we should hang our doctrine of justification on a distinction that is under suspicion and considered by many to be somewhat dubious. I also wonder, given that dispute in philosophy, what implications it might have for how we formulate doctrine? Do the reasons that strike against the distinction shed any light on how we should best think about justification?

Food for thought.

Just a couple words more about universals. In Aristotle's language, universals are the "forms" of things that exist in the things themselves and generally inseparable from some kind of physical instantiation, though Aristotle's theory of forms itself was woefully incomplete and developed in very different directions by later thinkers such as Aquinas.

Generally, "forms" are real, active, dynamic structures within things that explain the distinctive behavior and various latent potentialities of the thing given the material of which the thing is composed. Forms are what cause the thing to be the kind of thing it is, constituting it as that kind of thing, and they do so in such a way that this causation is everywhere simultaneously present within the thing (e.g., as the structure of a wave is everywhere simultaneously present throughout the water through which it moves, explaining the behavior of the water even though the wave-form itself is not made of water since it is moving through it). Forms can have a multiplicity of physical instances and even be realized within various kinds of matter (e.g., the principle of an arch, whether made or brick or stone or concrete block). They can be intelligently apprehended in the thing, conceived, and often defined or described, even mathematically.

Forms account for the replication of things whether an animal species, a song, a genetic code, a book, or a computer program. They account for the scientific behavior of things in a law-like way. They also explain how certain structures can be transmitted or replicated without being fully realized and manifest during transmission or replication (e.g., the color of a thing does not color the atmosphere between the object and you, a program isn't running as it is being downloaded from the internet). Scientific descriptions that describe the behavior of things and predict outcomes are not generally explanatory in the way forms are, but simply are reflecting the regularities that forms produce. But forms go beyond mere regularity to embrace purpose and design.

That, at least, is roughly what I understand forms to be. Hopefully this is suggestive enough so that one can grasp the concept of a universal and how they may be both really in things and shared by them.

18 July 2002

A couple of folks asked me to say something about nominalism--that is, the late medieval philosophical and theological perspective that goes by the title "nominalism" and is associated with thinkers such as William of Ockham and Gabriel Biel.

It seems to me that the best way to deal with this is in several posts, first briefly defining "nominalism", second explaing the philosophical and theological context in which it arose, and finally explaining what I take to be some of its disastrous results.

The term "nominalism" arises in the context of medieval discussions of universals and nominalists were opposed to realists with regard to universals. "Universals" are, roughly speaking, those aspects of reality that things share in common and are able to be understood by the human mind, abstracted from the particularities of the concrete, individual things themselves.

So, for instance, consider what it means for there to be "five" things in a group: five chairs, five glasses of water, five things to do before breakfast, five math equations in one's mind. Each of these groups has the quality of "fiveness" in terms of its membership and thus it is something that all of these groups share in common. A realist about universals would say that there really is such a thing as "fiveness" that each of these groups has. We can think about it, talk about it, and abstract it from the particular things. We can grasp this "fiveness" is such a way that, in the future when we come into contact with a completely new group of five things, we will recognize it as having this "fiveness" as well. When we apply the term "five" to these various groups, we are truly saying something about the reality of those groups, even if, given the differences between the groups, the term "five" is being used analogously (i.e., expressing similarity within difference).

Realists about universals may disagree about whether or not a universal like "fiveness" can exist apart from actual groups of five things, but they are all agreed that this quality of "fiveness" is something that really exists in the groups of things and is shared by them. Plato was a realist of one sort, Aristotle of another. So were Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas.

Nominalists, on the other hand, deny the real existence of universals. For them things in themselves have no real commonalities at all, but are isolated individuals that are each unique. Thus when we attribute "fiveness" to various groups of things, we are using the term equivocally (i.e., expressing a completely different meaning) in terms of reference since there is no one thing that all these groups really have in common. Thus "fiveness" is really just a word, a name (nomina, thus "nominalism") that functions as a kind of mental "place-holder" through which we groups things for the purpose of convenience or function. The name taken in itself, indeed, is completely univocal (i.e., expressing one simple, undifferentiated meaning) and does little to communicate the reality of the individual things to which that name is applied.

This view had some earlier medieval precursors in Roscelin and Peter Abelard and was developed more fully in the later middle ages through the thinking of Henry of Ghent, John Duns Scotus, and especially William of Ockham.

From Russ, a quotation from Pierre Jurieu (1637-1713), a French Reformed theologian who taught theology at the Academy of Sedan, which was opposed to the Academy of Saumur where Amyraut taught (edited slightly for clarity):God ordinarily confers His grace at the time in which He represents it: the elect infants of those in covenant are, previous to their Baptism, children of wrath; they are not loved by God with the love of complacency till they are baptized and washed from those stains, with which we are all born.

By Baptism the liability arising from original sin is so removed: [a] that none who are baptized are condemned on account of original sin, [b] that infants legitimately baptized and dying in infancy are certainly saved and that this baptism is an indubitable proof of their election, [c] that baptism is as necessary to salvation as food to life or medicine to healing, [d] that God can and does save some infants without baptism—but this is done in an extraordinary way.
Something tells me Reformed theologians today would be far less keen to say something of that sort.

Various books have arrived.

The first is Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett (HarperCollins 2001), a novel we are reading for one book club I'm in. I have no idea what it is about, except what I can glean from the back cover.

Then there is Richard Hays's The Moral Vision of the New Testament: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics (HarperCollins 1996). This is for another book club I belong too, one that meets more sporadically, consists mostly of academics, and has been reading theological works.

I also picked up a copy of Soul Survivor: How My Faith Survived the Church by Philip Yancey (Doubleday 2001). It was recommended to me by some friends and sounded intriguing.

Finally, I obtained copies of The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology by Oliver O'Donovan (Cambridge 1996) and (in the recommendation of Russ) 'A Faire and Easie Way to Heaven': Covenant Theology and Antinomianism in Early Massachusetts (Wesleyan 1978). The former is one of the best books on the Christian faith and politics that I've ever read, packed full of history, theology, philosophy, exegesis, and insight. The latter takes me back to my college senior thesis on the early American Puritans, supporting and deepening some of what I had argued then about the deficiencies of Perry Miller's interpretation (though I'm still a fan of Sacvan Bercovitch).