The valuable EH Looney – an orthospherean through and through, let it be noted, and so our ally and friend (witly or not), whose site I visit daily – has in a recent short post subtly erred, in three different and interesting ways. An Orthodox Christian who admires Rome with fervent intelligence, he nevertheless writes with eyes open:
The problem with Rome isn’t papal supremacy, or even the filioque, it’s that the Roman church is the cradle of nominalism. That sickness should have been condemned immediately rather than being allowed to fester long enough to create Luther and the Protestant deformation.
Also Anselm’s theory of the atonement almost totally obscures the existential nature of the paschal mystery into a legalism of the worst possible sort.
Now, there is some truth to each of these statements. Some truth; not all.
First, while nominalism is a perennial temptation to the sophomoric intellect, first proposed to man by Lucifer at Eden, nevertheless its most potent and perdurant formal manifestation to date did arise in the Latin West, with Roscellinus and Ockham.
But then, the Church is the religion of Adam, so that all cults whatever originate in it, and have diverged from it errantly. Rome insists that the Church is the cradle of everything: Islam, Communism, Mazdakism, Mormonism, atheism, Pharisaism, paganism, shamanism, Shinto: you name it. Eastern Orthodoxy agrees, of course. And both East and West agree that they are both the Church. The two lungs of the Church, that is to say, both agree that they are the two lungs of the Church. They agree therefore also that all other cults diverge from their joint and – when push comes ultimately to shove – agreeable witness.
The cradle of nominalism, and of all other doctrinal errors, is truth. No truth, then no possibility of error in respect thereto. That men err nowise impeaches truth.
Second, it is true that nominalism was specifically repudiated only at the Council of Trent, at which point the horse was already out of the barn.
Nevertheless it was in fact repudiated by the Church, early on. Roscellinus was condemned for his nominalism, and recanted it. Ockham was excommunicated, and his nominalism prohibited. And, of course, Aquinas – archon, paragon and archetype of the philosophia antiqua – is the preeminent theologian and the Angelic Doctor of the Church, and his realism the crown and summation of Western theology. The Church’s resounding magisterial affirmation of Thomism (in Aeterni Patris, ex cathedra Leo XIII) is an effectual repudiation of Ockhamism – and of all other doctrines that cannot be reconciled with Thomism.
The affirmation of truth is an effectual repudiation of all errors, whether or not those errors are anywhere explicitly catalogued. If I say that 2 + 2 = 4, it follows that 2 + 2 ≠ ¬ 4 without my specifying that this is so; to say that 2 + 2 = 4 *just is* to say that 2 + 2 ≠ ¬ 4.
Third, it is certainly possible to lose oneself in the formal thickets of Scholasticism, and so lose sight of the concrete mysteries to which the Schoolmen devoted their lives, and pointed their work.
But this can be accomplished only by a misprision of that work; by a sort of ideolatry. It was to the temptations of such error that the first of the Latin Fathers, the firebrand Tertullian, referred in asking the Greek Fathers what Athens might have to do with Jerusalem.
The Schoolmen themselves – even the errant among them, such as Ockham – did not usually fall into that sort of thing. In the first place, they were well trained. In the second, they were almost all besotted by Christ, utterly consumed in humble contemplation of holy mysteries.
Anselm developed his theory of the Atonement as an apologetical answer to the skeptic’s question, cur deus homo – why did God become man? Why, that is, did not Omnipotence simply repair the Fall by his own mere whim? Why go to the trouble of the Incarnation, and especially the Passion? It’s rather a tricky question. And it can arise only in minds alive to the philosophical puzzles that must attend any doctrine of an interaction between ultimacy and any sort of penultimacy. It is an inherently philosophical question, calling for a philosophical answer. Only having enjoyed the satisfaction of an adequate philosophical answer might a philosophical skeptic find himself able to proceed to worship in peace of heart and mind so as to open a way to mystical contemplation of the tremendous and mysterious fact of the Atonement that his philosophical satisfaction has enabled him to recognize as such.
Anselm’s answer was therefore a formal philosophical analysis, not a mystical treatise (if you want a mystical treatise from the Latins, better to turn to such as Eckhart, John of the Cross, the Cloude of Unknowyng, et alii). Nevertheless it was borne of Anselm’s own profound mystical contemplation – the man was renowned for his intense spirituality. He was not sainted on account of his philosophy.
The analysis in his Cur Deus Homo is often characterized as legal, for Anselm treats sin as man’s partial default on his legal debt to God, that he must somehow repay, but that – being ontologically deficient on account of the wound of his sinful deficit – he cannot possibly repay from his own finite resources, of which absolutely all are in any case also already owed to God. God becomes man then, uniting divine ultimacy with human penultimacy in one person, so that a man might redeem human debt from his very own infinite divine store of ontological wealth.
Now, insofar as a debt is a legal instrument, this is indeed a legal analysis. But notice that debt instruments are formalizations of concrete economic, thus moral, and so ontological relations (so are all legal instruments; as laws, trusts, agreements, verdicts, sentences, proclamations, declarations, regulations, and so forth). Legal instruments are to the concrete moral, economic and ontological relations to which they refer as words are to the ideas, facts and intentions they denote.
If I borrow $1,000 from you under a note payable, my debt is not a legal or financial fiction. It is not reduced to the instrument of the note. The debt would not vanish with the destruction of the note that records it. On the contrary, my debt to you is a real aspect of our concrete relations: a portion of my substance is properly yours, to the measure of $1,000, and this property of yours is recorded in the note.
That Anselm treats the Atonement under the terms of finance no more empties it of mystery or concreteness than a detailed topo map of Grand Canyon vitiates the Canyon’s numinous majesty. Nor does it even obscure the Canyon, except insofar as one uses it as a blindfold; as, i.e., one misuses it, qua map.
In closing, an ironic note.
One of Ockham’s main motivating ideas was the conviction that, as infinite, God is utterly impenetrable to the finite creaturely intellect, so that natural theology is simply impossible, and all our knowledge of him comes only from revelation. It is obvious that this cannot have been a delivery of Ockham’s own intellect; for on that basis it would be self-refuting: if we cannot reason about God, then we can’t reason that we can’t reason about God; so that when we think we are reasoning about God, in fact we are doing no such thing. It must therefore rather have been for Ockham a pre-rational hunch. On that hunch hangs his whole opus, one way or another. His nominalism, in particular, follows smoothly from his conviction of God’s impenetrability. If God is thoroughly unintelligible, then so are his works, such as the creation. The creation does not have a true order that we can understand. Our names for things, our categories of thought, then, do not truly pertain to reality. They are names only. They refer to nothing real.
I have not read enough of Ockham to know whether it occurred to him that revelation too is a handiwork of God, so that if God is unintelligible to the finite natural intellect, immured inescapably in its nominalist cell, then so likewise must his revelation, too, be completely unintelligible.
Ockham set himself against all the metaphysical realists, East and West – including Anselm – all of whom had agreed with Paul’s assessment that while we now see but through a glass, and darkly, nevertheless we do see, well enough indeed that we can tell how cloudy and dark our sight yet is. He set himself against philosophy as such; which is to say, against thought, against knowledge, against truth.
Ockham set himself, in fact – in moral, theological, and spiritual fact, aye and in legal and political fact, too – against the Church and the Pope. He was a disobedient friar.
The realists on the other hand, by their careful formal philosophical analyses of what they took to be a thoroughly intelligible reality, did not err in the opposite direction. They did not by any means reject revelation. On the contrary, they took its priority for granted. None of them would have entertained for a moment the notion that the finite intellect could comprehend God, much less analyze him adequately. Most of them, after all, were *professional mystics.* So none of them would have confused their maps of the Canyon with the Great Abyss itself.
Ironic, then, that they are so often chided for doing just that.