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Nominalism: The view that only particulars are real and that universals are but observable likeness among the particulars of sense experience and thus only created names.

Nominalism found its name in the Middle Ages when it was contrasted with realism. Popular to empirical philosophy and materialist. Also an idea embraced by Franciscan theologian William of Ockham.

In relation to theology, the nominalist view goes something like this:
In speaking of the variously defined and described attributes of God, theologians are in fact only using different words to speak of the one and same thing. Again, for clarification – whereas the followers of hyper-realism had transformed the attribute of goodness from a subsistence existing in the mind of God to a substance existing autonomously of it, the nominalists went to the opposite extreme and denied the reality of goodness at all – whether as subsistence or as substance. The logic of nominalism declares a God with no attributes, and thus one with no nature.

But a God with no nature is essentially unknowable, for there can be no characteristics expressed or revealed. Yet the nominalist must then also argue that our experience of God"s seeming multiplicity of attributes is merely a subjectivist illusion, describing not God as he is in himself but only our own experiences as finite creatures. Thus nominalism offers us an unknowable God to whom we respond on the basis of feelings and intuitions.

Ronald Nash provides a good outline of the basic nominalist argument, as follows:

  1. Universals (i.e., 'goodness') do not exist.
  2. Therefore, properties (a species of universals) do not exist.
  3. Therefore, God does not have any properties; God has no nature.
  4. Therefore, words that apparently refer to divine attributes cannot possibly denote distinguishable properties within the divine essence. There are no properties of God to which they can refer.
  5. Since words referring to divine attributes all have the same referent (nothing), all of God"s attribute-words mean the same thing.
  6. Thus, absolutely no differences exist between the various attributes of God.
  7. Thus, God"s omniscience is identical with his omnipotence, which is identical with his goodness, and so on.

With regard to nominalism, Charles Hodge notes that Lutheran and Reformed theologians have traditionally leaned heavily in that direction, to the effect that they have tended to emphasize, say, the logical precedence of the unity and simplicity of the divine essence over all other criteria of multiplicity. Hodge points out that the illustration which they usually employed to explain this view was drawn from the sun, by which God"s "ray, by one and the same power (as was then assumed) illuminates, warms, and produces chemical changes, not from any diversity in it, but from diversity in the nature of the objects in which it operates. The force is the same; the effects are different." But he then goes on to point out the dangers of such a leaning, writing that "to say, as the schoolmen, and even as so many Protestant theologians, ancient and modern, were accustomed to say, that the divine attributes differ only in name, or in our conceptions, or in their effects, is to destroy all true knowledge of God."

Nowadays, many theologians see nominalism as a path that leads directly to subjectivism, and to the replacement of Scripture-based theology with existentially oriented emotional responses to an unknown God.

Nom"i*nal*ism (?), n.

The principles or philosophy of the Nominalists.


© Webster 1913.

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