I’ve been reading Roger Olson’s new book Counterfeit Christianity: The Persistence of Errors in the Church, a book about Christian heresies that is vastly superior to my own writing on them. Nonetheless, I thought this would be the perfect time to pull my ‘Top Ten Heresies‘ posts from 4 years ago out of the vault.
Heresy = Beliefs considered anathema by the ecumenical councils of the Christian Church
If Orthodoxy = ‘right praise’ then heresy = ‘wrong praise.’
*Leviticus 10: wrong praise = a very big deal
If Stanley Hauerwas is correct to assert that most Christians in America today are ‘functional atheists;’ that is, most Christians live in such a way that it makes no difference that God raised Jesus from the dead, then surely even more Christians today are inadvertent heretics, trodding paths of belief the ancient Church long ago labeled dangerous detours.
Today these ancient errors of the faith can be found wearing many different guises. For all you know, you might be wearing one too.
By pointing out what Christians DO NOT believe, we can get one step closer to what we do.
Heresy #1: Nominalism
What Is It?
In a nutshell:
God is free to do whatever God wants
As with anything in philosophy that assertion comes with a corollary:
I am free to do whatever I want, including lying to myself that that’s ‘freedom.’
Chances are, you’ve never heard of Nominalism.
But odds are even better that once you understand what is nominalism, you’ll discover it everywhere. On your lips, on the other end of your prayers. In your mind’s depiction of the ‘man upstairs.’ You’ll hear nominalism preached from pulpits and you’ll see politicos toting its logical baggage.
If money is the root of all evil, then trailing right behind it and just hitting stride is nominalism, the heresy at the root of all theological evil.
Like a parasite that feeds unnoticed until its host is left wasted, nominalist thinking preys unseen on believers and unbelievers alike, leaving the eviscera of Christian orthodoxy in its wake.
While it’s true nominalism is not a heresy in the sense of having been declared anathema by any of the ancient ecumenical councils, nominalism escaped such indictment only because its way of construing God and God’s works was thoroughly foreign to the ancient Christian mind.
Though it didn’t fall under Nicea’s ire, nominalism remains a ‘heresy’ in the strictest sense of the word: ‘choice.’ Nominalism is bad choice made in Christian belief, which begets many more bad choices and beliefs.
In ancient philosophy, nominalism refers generally to the metaphysical view that denies the existence of universals and abstract objects, that is, objects that exist outside of space and time.
For the layman, here’s a for instance:
According to nominalism, words such as ‘truth’ or ‘goodness’ are finite concepts that are determined by culture and language and history. They are words we apply to things in this world of space and time, but they do not correlate to any universal, eternal reality or ground of being.
In the Christian theological tradition, nominalism has been applied to construals of God’s Being and God’s Will. Actually, nominalism has confused God’s Being and God’s Will. Or rather, nominalism pits God’s Being and God’s Will in contradiction to each other.
If ‘truth’ and ‘goodness’ and ‘beauty’ are purely time-bound concepts and have no ontological status (no being-ness in and of themselves outside space and time), then truth, goodness and beauty do not correlate to any universal, eternal character or nature within God.
Truth, Beauty and Goodness are relative terms, to use the parlance of today.
Here’s where the matter gets, if not less theological at least more urgent.
If Truth, Beauty and Goodness do not correlate to any universal, eternal nature within God, then God is neither guided by nor controlled by (in a non-pejorative sense) his eternal nature.
Indeed it’s no longer clear, according to nominalism’s logic, that God even has an eternal, unchanging nature and character.
Instead God is a Being of absolute power and freedom.
Nominalism is the rival to the ancient Christian view known as ‘Realism.’
Realism holds that the categories we call Truth, Beauty or Goodness ‘really’ do exist outside of our minds, cultures and languages. They are not merely relative concepts or words we attach to things in this world with no reality beyond this world.
According to Realism Truth, Beauty and Goodness derive from the universal, eternal nature of God.
What we call ‘Goodness’ then derives from the eternal, unchanging nature of God, whose Being is Absolute Goodness.
And what we call ‘Love’ is but the finite manifestation of Absolute Love that is God’s eternal nature.
Now- pay attention- if God’s nature is so understood and God is Absolute, Perfect Goodness then God is immutable.
For, if God were to change this would imply a deficiency within God.
God, the church fathers believed, was immutable precisely because in God Perfect Love is actual not potential.
As 1 John 4 puts it with such a deceptive simplicity that it eludes most who read it: ‘God is love.’
With a capital, eternal-sized L.
This is where the s#$% hits the fan, in a good way:
If God is Perfect, Immutable Love then God cannot do something that is unloving.
If God is Perfect, Immutable Goodness then God cannot do something that is not good.
Not even God, the ancient Christians believed, can violate his eternal, unchanging nature. God cannot, say, use his omnipotence to will evil, for to do so would contradict God’s very nature.
For God to be free, then, is for God to act unhindered according to God’s nature. As creatures made in this God’s image, therefore, our freedom is necessarily freedom ‘for.’ We are free when we are unhindered and unconstrained from acting towards the ‘Goodness’ in which we all move and live and have our being.
In contradiction to the ancient tradition of realism, nominalism argues that God has no eternal nature which limits, controls or guides God’s actions.
God is free to do whatever God wants, and those wants are not determined by anything prior in God’s character.
If God wants to will the collapse of a bridge, God has the freedom to will the bridge’s demise, no matter how many cars may be passing over it.
If God wants to break his promise to a People, by all means. What’s to stop God?
If God wants to give someone cancer or, on a different day and in a different mood, something better then God can.
Thus enters the atheist’s familiar conundrum:
Is something good because God says or does it?
Or does God say/do that which is good?
A realist answers that it has to be the latter.
God is absolute goodness and God does only that which is good (all the time), and if it ever seems to us like God is not all the time good then the problem is with our perception of God not with God’s character and action.
According to nominalism, however, God can do whatever God wants and, by extension, whatever God does is ‘good’ simply because God does it.
It’s God’s actions in time and space that determine the ‘good’ not God’s eternal being.
Whereas ‘freedom’ in the realist mind refers to God acting in harmony with God’s eternal nature, ‘freedom’ for the nominalist refers to God’s ability to be pure, arbitrary will.
God’s will is supreme over God’s nature.
Freedom, for God, is the freedom to will.
And as creatures made in this God’s image, freedom, for us, is the freedom to will.
To want. To choose.
Independent of and disconnected from the Good we call God.
Freedom is for freedom’s sake alone.
Who Screwed Up First
Nominalism is a crime whose first commission has many possible suspects.
There’s William of Ockham, the English Franciscan whose nominalist renderings of God should make you less sure of the simple logic behind his Razor.
Then there’s Duns Scotus, a Christian philosopher from the High Middle Ages, whose arguments for the existence of God were every bit as brilliant as his defense of the Immaculate Conception was not. Ditto his nominalism.
Peter Abelard meanwhile was a 12th century French Medieval theologian, who infamously shared God’s incarnate love by getting carnal with the flesh of Héloïse d’Argenteuil.
Heloise’s family predictably got her to a nunnery and, for good measure, broke into Peter’s home in the middle of the night and cut off his peter.
His dating career thus ended, Abelard took up a monastic one and traded romanticizing for theologizing.
Unfortunately, his nominalist thought leaves Abelard with a God every bit as neutered and impotent as him.
While the lineup of suspects is long and who first committed the crime in the name of Christ unknown, the true damage was done by Martin Luther.
If you finger Martin Luther as the trigger man, then Ulrich Zwingli is an accessory after the fact.
In his debates with Erasmus, who, as a realist, believed God could not will that which is evil) Martin Luther countered that its verboten to ever say ‘God can’t…’
God, Luther fervently maintained, can do whatever God wants.
That’s what it means, Luther dumped into the previously clear stream of Christian belief, to call God ‘Sovereign.’
Of course, you can’t blame Luther too harshly.
Martin, after all, was a teacher of the Old Testament; he wasn’t a philosopher or a theologian. And so Luther probably could not deduce the logical consequences of his stress on Sovereignty as Will.
I’m sure Luther would’ve changed his tune had he foreseen how the God so conceived is not a God worth believing in.
No longer is God Being and Existence itself, the ground of Absolute Goodness and Love, who is beyond space and time but saturates every cranny of space and time at the same time.
Who always acts in accord with his eternal nature and whose creation, if mysteriously so, is a perfect expression of his eternal nature.
God- as Luther’s crude assertion ‘God can do whatever he wants’ makes clear- is instead just another being.
A god, a demiurge the Greeks called them, sitting upstairs throwing down lightening bolts or serving up magic genie blessings.
Not Being itself but a being believed to be the direct and efficient cause of everything under the sun.
A god so conceived is not even a god worth disbelieving, for the god it rejects is not the immutable God named by 1 John: ‘God is Love.’
But be easy on Luther.
I’m sure if you told him that his emphasis on God’s Sovereignty would lead 21st century Christians A) excuse, justify and rationalize morally repugnant prejuices in the name of Divine Sovereignty and B) to define their own freedom merely in terms of freedom for its own sake (choice, personal liberty), irrespective of the needs of the common good or the moral constraints of the Absolute Good…I’m sure Luther would’ve recanted.
After all, if our wants and wills are not directed to and participating in God, who is Goodness and Being, then they are literally nothing.
And I’m sure the last thing Luther would’ve wanted was for nominalism to lead, as it inevitably has, to nihilism.
How Do You Know If You’re a Heretic?
If you believe that God can break God’s word, his promise, and that the Church has now replaced Israel as God’s Chosen People, then you are a nominalist who should keep his fingers crossed God doesn’t up and decide to change his disposition towards you.
FYI: You’re probably a Marcionite too. Or an anti-semite.
If you leave the doctor’s office wondering ‘Why has God done this me?’ then you’re slipping into understandable but nonetheless nominalist thinking.
If you think God, who is Absolute Immutable Goodness and Love, requires the torture and death of an innocent person as a catharsis for his own Wrath then you are a nominalist.
Ditto to the Nth Degree if you explain how God’s Wrath is really the outworking of Love; you’re defining ‘good’ according to what you think God does rather than trusting that our concepts of ‘good’ correlate to the Absolute Goodness of God.
If you believe all moral categories are relative and thus its up to each person to define what’s moral for themselves, then most likely you think that makes logical sense (it doesn’t) and most definitely you’re a nominalist (it also doesn’t make logical sense).
If you think God is the direct cause behind every event, good, bad or tragic, in the world, then someone should lock you away wherever they stowed Heloise. Because your Christianity is too bad an advertisement to the rest of the world.
Likewise, if you’re an atheist because modern science tells you there’s no such thing as ‘God’ who is the direct, efficient cause behind everything in the world then you’re a particularly pathetic version of a nominalist, one who doesn’t realize the god you don’t believe in isn’t God.
If your politics absolutizes personal freedom (whether its demarcated with ‘freedom of choice’ or ‘personal liberty’) regardless of how the exercise of that freedom impacts another neighbor, born or not, or society at large or how it contributes to the Absolute Good, then your politics hangs on a nominalist understanding of the Almighty.
*Christians be warned, in this way most of the Bill of Rights depends upon a nominalist neutering of the concept of God.
If you consume and shop and purchase and earn, thinking that will make you happy, you’re the victim not only of Mammon and Madison Ave but nominalism’s lie that freedom is found in willing and wanting and choosing in and of itself.
If you mistakenly think it’s morally just to ___________ ‘in the name of freedom’ you, my friend, are a nominalist. Freedom, freedom worth having, is acting in harmony with the Absolute Goodness of God. For Christians, the End (God) alone determines whether means are good.
If you do not believe that God is like Jesus, has always been like Jesus and will always be so- and if you don’t see how this is logically necessary- then you’re a nominalist through and through.
Persons Most Likely to Commit This Heresy Today
The New Atheists
Wiccans et al
Most Contemporary Christian Songwriters
Read John 1.4, over and over.
Watch the news and practice repeating: ‘God didn’t do that.’
Watch Joel Osteen and practice repeating: ‘God won’t do that.’
Watch John Piper and practice repeating: ‘God isn’t like that.’
Read Richard Dawkins’ and rejoice: the god he doesn’t believe in doesn’t exist.