Was Calvin a Nominalist? Part 2: Surveying the Scholarship

Was Calvin a Nominalist? Part 2: Surveying the Scholarship

A few weeks ago I got a text from a friend who wanted to know whether John Calvin had been influenced by medieval nominalism. He had been reading Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option (great book, by the way) which offers a declension narrative in the second chapter, tracing the factors leading to the present spiritual crisis facing the West. One of these factors, in Dreher’s reading of history, was the shift from philosophical Realism to Nominalism that occurred in late medieval Europe. Another factor Dreher points to is the Reformation. What Dreher doesn’t explain is how, if at all, these two developments might be related. That is, did the late medieval Nominalism associated with figures like William of Ockham (1285-1347) have a causal influence on key themes in the Reformation period? Was Calvin specifically influenced by Nominalism?

When I got my friend’s text message asking me these questions my immediate reaction was “Wow, how do you answer questions like that via text messaging?” I answered my friend’s text with an email, promising I would follow up with a blog post or two. This led to my writing the first article in this series, “Was Calvin a Nominalist? Part 1: Historical and Theological Background” introducing some key categories in the debate and offering some preliminary reflections about reformation theology in general. This present article seeks to build on that by looking at the scholarship on the question. Part 3 will offer a more detailed argument suggesting a nominalist pedigree to some key themes in Calvin’s theological corpus.

Before getting into the academic issues at stake, let me offer a disclaimer, I am not a Calvin specialist and I merely dabble in history as time permits. I am a jack of all trades but a master of none (I’m not afraid to admit it), so I depend on specialist academics to help keep me accountable. My real hope in writing this present series is that scholars more capable than I will take up the issue and critically interact with the points I make, even if that means pointing out areas where I may have oversimplified things or misread the historical data.

Let me begin by saying that Calvin’s relationship to Nominalism and Voluntarism is not a slam-dunk issue. While the connection between Luther and the tradition of late medieval Nominalism is well established in the historical literature (see Joshua Lim’s summary of the main evidences for a nominalist reading of Luther), the intellectual sources of John Calvin’s theology have remained open to dispute. Was Calvin a nominalist, a realist, or neither? How much was Calvin influenced by Voluntarism? If the historical data yields little evidence of historical causation, are there still grounds for positing theological correlation? These questions have invited a variety of perspectives.

Throughout the last century, a range of scholars argued that Calvin should be seen as a product of the nominalist milieu that characterized sixteenth-century Europe. For example, in 1963, François Wendel published a fascinating discussion of the origins of Calvin’s thought which squarely situated him within the context of philosophical nominalism. In 1966, Scottish theologian Thomas Torrance argued that the philosophy of William of Ockham and Duns Scotus culminated in the theology of John Calvin and his de-sacramentalized view of the world (Theology in Reconstruction, pp, 64-78). In 1967, Kilian McDonnell offered an informative summary of the arguments for and against Calvin’s dependency on the nominalist tradition, suggesting that there were important continuities and differences between Calvin and the medieval nominalists (John Calvin, the Church, and the Eucharist, pp. 8–22.) In 1981, Karl Reuter identified six parallels between Calvin’s theology and the Nominalism of John Mair. In 1988, Alister McGrath argued that Calvin was dependent on nominalist sources, particularly as regards his Voluntarism and the effect this had on his doctrine of atonement (Reformation Thought, pp. 92–94). McGrath followed up with a biography of Calvin in 1990, in which he developed a strong case that Calvin had been deeply influenced by Nominalism during his theological training in Paris. Building on this, a number of philosophical theologians connected with the “Radical Orthodoxy” movement have been arguing for nominalist and voluntarist readings of Calvin, although this can sometimes confuse the debate since their sweeping genealogies are often lacking in historical rigor. In 2002, Richard Muller surveyed the contemporary scholarship on this question and summarized the general consensus: “Actual sources have remained obscure, while, at the same time, a predominantly ‘Scotist-nominalist’ background to Calvin’s assumptions concerning divine transcendence and hiddenness has been identified alongside what can be called the ‘Thomistic’ trajectory of literal exegetes.” (The Unaccommodated Calvin: Studies in the Foundation of a Theological Tradition)

Since then, increasing number of scholars have gone further than Muller and are questioning whether any ‘Scotist-nominalist’ background can be found in Calvin’s views on divine transcendence. For example, in 2006, Stephen Grabill argued against a nominalist dependence in Calvin in his book Rediscovering the Natural Law in Reformed Theological Ethics. In 2007, Michael Horton stated that

“Calvin shows no evidence of being a voluntarist, much less a radical one. …if forced to choose, he prefers the Thomist approach. On all the relevant points that might mark Calvin as a nominalist, he is seen to adopt rather traditional prenominalist assumptions.” (Covenant and Salvation: Union with Christ, p. 161).

Despite this recent turn to repudiate any association between Calvin and the tradition of late medieval Nominalism, the question remains far from settled, as evidenced by the fact that there has been a continuous flow of publications from reputable scholars in the last 25 years offering nominalist and voluntarist readings of Calvin’s corpus or parts of it. This would includey Bernard Cottret’s biography of Calvin in 2000 (particularly his discussion of Calvin’s sacramental theology), some of Hans Boersma’s work (including but not limited to his 2006 publication Violence, Hospitality, and the Cross: Reappropriating the Atonement Tradition and his 2011 work Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry) and Leif Dixon’s 2014 publication Practical Predestinarians in England, C. 1590-1640, to name only a few. Susan Schreiner’s work has been invaluable to this ongoing debate, including her 1994 book Where Shall Wisdom Be Found?: Calvin’s Exegesis of Job from Medieval and Modern Perspectives and her 2011 publication Are You Alone Wise?: The Search for Certainty in the Early Modern Era. In her work for the journal Church History, Schreiner identified some “Scotist-nominalist categories” when Calvin “posits a God hidden outside of nature, history, and Christ.” (We will look further at the voluntarist background to Calvin’s work on Job in Part 3 of this series.)

Whatever we may think of such publications, it should caution us from prematurely treating the debate as settled. Interestingly, even Muller is now presenting a much more voluntarist Calvin than what he acknowledged in his 2001 The Unaccommodated Calvin. When discussing this issue with people, Muller’s work was sometimes referred to as the definitive treatment of the subject. Yet his 2008 work, Christ and the Decree: Christology and Predestination in Reformed Theology from Calvin to Perkins presents a more voluntarist Calvin, emphasizing the disjunction that existed in Calvin’s thought between will of God as revealed in Scripture vs. the secret will of God that remains hidden from us (a theme which, I will show in Part 3, resonated with voluntarist epistemology and metaphysics).

Given the continued scholarly debate surrounding Calvin’s relationship to Nominalism, it is surprising that in some quarters it is now routinely taken as settled that nominalist and voluntarist interpretations of Calvin’s thought have been completely discredited. For example, last year when my good friend Brad Littlejohn reviewed Dominic Erdozain’s book The Soul of Doubt, he off-handedly dismissed the contention that Calvin’s theology was rooted in Voluntarism and Nominalism by alleging that this contention involved “now-discredited claims.” Similarly, E.J. Hutchinson refers to the voluntarist reading of Calvin’s doctrine of God as simply a “caricature” without acknowledging that there is a body of legitimate scholarship on both sides of the question. This oversimplifying of the debate (including a denial that there even is a debate) is often perpetuated by reformed scholars who require a framework of metaphysical Realism to prop up a certain political philosophy and who need a Calvinist metaphysical Realism to give the project theological credibility. This may be one of the reasons that an entire industry is now developing around the notion that Calvin and his successors were, if not neo-Thomists, certainly situated within the tradition of philosophical Realism. Many of my friends associated with The Davenant Institute and The Calvinist International are veering strongly in this direction, although their actual interaction with recent scholarship on the question is limited and sometimes over-simplified.

The denial that there is even still a legitimate debate on the question of Calvin’s relationship with Nominalism and/or Voluntarism sometimes involves misrepresenting the secondary literature. For example, in Michael Horton’s 2007 work Covenant and Salvation: Union with Christ, he says in a footnote on page 160 that “In relation to Calvin especially, the historical link to Nominalism has been decisively refuted by Catholic historian Alexandre Ganoczy, in his The Young Calvin.” Horton then continues the footnote by listing a number of other secondary works, including Susan Schreiner’s 1994 book Where Shall Wisdom be Found? Calvin’s Exegesis of Job from Medieval and Modern Perspectives. The problem is that Schreiner’s 1994 book does not directly address the question of Calvin’s relationship to Nominalism. Moreover, Schreiner’s work does indirectly furnish a strong argument for a correlation between Calvin’s theology and Nominalism, particularly regarding Calvin’s views on divine justice. Schreiner shows that Calvin made the secret justice of God so far above human conceptions of justice that its coherence is ultimately hidden from view, leading to a “double justice” framework. This double justice framework was, of course, a key theme among many of the late medieval nominalists, as I will show in a follow-up post. Horton’s list of the secondary literature also includes David Steinmetz’s article ‘Calvin and the Absolute Power of God’ which appeared in the Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 18, no 1 in Spring 1988. This article discusses where Calvin stood in relation to the two powers doctrine that was a key feature of nominalist thought (indeed, Heiko Oberman considered the potentia absoluta-principle to be the hallmark of Nominalism). Steinmetz shows that Calvin’s denial of this doctrine is based on Calvin’s misunderstanding of it; moreover, had Calvin understood what Ockham really taught about divine transcendence, he would have seen that it was completely harmonious with his own teaching. Steinmetz concludes that “Calvin, in short, is not opposed to the points made by Scotus and Ockham about the freedom and transcendence of God and at times sounds more Scotistic than Scotus himself.” Yet Steinmetz article is cited by Horton in a list of references that begins by saying that the historical link to Nominalism has been decisively refuted!

I return to my original point, namely that it is overly simplistic to treat the Calvin-nominalist debate as settled. The literature on the subject is now daunting even for specialists, and that by itself should strongly caution us from prematurely foreclosing on the debate. In some cases, the attempt to bring premature closure to the question involves misrepresenting the secondary literature (i.e., Michael Horton’s footnote mentioned in the above paragraph). As I have tried to show, the secondary literature offers no consensus on this issue, and the continued output of scholarship on both sides of the question continues to be fairly evenly matched.

Many who take the position that Calvin was not influenced by Nominalism are also guilty of oversimplifying in another sense. Often they fail to sufficiently distinguish between three different senses in which we may talk about Calvin being influenced by nominalist and voluntarist themes. A falsification of one sense does not necessarily equate to a falsification of another sense. But what are these senses?

First, we may make the historical claim that during his lifetime Calvin’s theology was influenced by reading nominalist sources. This is the approach McGrath took in his biography of Calvin, in which he argued that Calvin’s exposure to Nominalism during his time in Paris had a formative influence on his theological development.

Secondly, while denying or being neutral on the question of a direct cause and effect relationship between nominalist sources and Calvin’s thought, we may take the position that he was influenced by the more general nominalist milieu of the time, including ubiquitous plausibility structures that hinged on an implicitly nominalist way of viewing the world and which enabled various reformed categories to achieve resonance. It is quite possible to argue for a nominalist dependence in this second sense without it implying nominalist dependence in the first sense.

Thirdly, we may leave questions of historical causation aside and argue that Calvin’s theology shows evidence of important correlations with nominalist and voluntarist ways of perceiving things. In this sense, Calvin may have been a nominalist without actually being influenced by Nominalism. Theological correlation is not the same as historical causation, and a refutation of the latter does not bring closure to questions about the former. Thus, when we make claims about Calvin being a nominalist, it is important to clarify in what sense we mean.

In the third post in this series on Calvin, I want to develop a tentative argument for the second of these options, and a strong argument for the third.

Further Reading