“Literal” Creationist and Nominalism (Voluntarism)? Scholasticism, the Matrix, and more from Osborn

Today I want to share with you what may be one of the most penetrating insights on offer from Osborn and his recent book (pictured right). What insight is that, you ask? Why, that “literalist” readings of the Genesis creation narratives, and the theological constellations that insist on them, inadvertently demand a nominalist conception of God.

“Nominalism” is a concept that can get thrown around carelessly in theological discourse, especially with reference to late medieval scholastic theology (think Scotus, Occam, etc.). It is hard in that context to pin down exactly what “nominalism” is, and it tends to be taken as a far more totalizing concept than I tend to think is warranted. And this expanded discourse occurs especially when the question of the Reformation arises, with some folks on both the Protestant and Catholic side interested in painting reformational theology as nominalist and others interested in refusing that designation.

In any case, the core of nominalism is “voluntarism,” which is best seen when paired with its technical opposite, namely, intellectualism. Broadly speaking, the antagonism here is a question of which mental faculty takes precedence in the mind of God. Is it God’s willing (voluntarism, as the conceptual core of nominalism), or is it God’s knowing (intellectualism)? I’ll speak now simply to the application in the doctrine of creation: a voluntarist / nominalist thinks that God created as God did just because, as an arbitrary exercise of will; an intellectualist thinks that God created in a way consistent with God’s self-knowledge, that is, in a way consistent with the sort of God that God is which, in this case, is not arbitrary but loving, etc. (fill in the blanks here with revelation). Of course, as is always the case in theology, decisions on these sorts of issues have far-reaching consequences . . .

So, with that background, we turn to Osborn. Bold is mine, italics are his:

Ronald E. Osborn, Death Before the Fall: Biblical Literalism and the Problem of Animal Suffering (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014).
The goddess Athena, according to the Greeks, sprang fully formed from the head of Zeus. Not to be outdone, young earth creationists have conceived a Creator who pulls fully formed rabbits and people from out of the soil on day six of creation. But while this would be an impressive feat, we must ask what sort of picture of God emerges from this vision. Is this not a strictly nominalist or voluntarist God whose ways may indeed be stupendous but whose creation – as an inscrutable performance of sheer will – must now also be seen as a kind of deception or sleight of hand? What should we make of a God who creates a universe, an earth, plants, animals and humans with the appearance but not the actuality of age? How many days old did Adam appear on the first day of his creation? Those who would say more than one are positing a basic incongruity between the reality disclosed in Scripture and the realities of the physical world that stare us . . . in the face. . . . Existence at a very fundamental level, in this way of thinking, cannot be believed or trusted. It is at bottom an artificial stage production. Reality has the ontological properties of unreality or surrealism and did so from the very start. (133)
Osborn now turns to how this picture of God and creation swings back around to shape thinking about what it means to be human, and especially what it means to be in relationship with God (i.e., what faith is all about):
What the nominalist Creator seems to require of us is not belief in the superabundance of divine love that opens the possibility of the miraculous as a revelation of what is in fact most natural and most real in God’s inbreaking kingdom – the kind of hyperreality that might even raise a man from the dead. Instead, what the nominalist deity demands of us is a performance of sheer will in turn: the will to believe; fideistic mental compliance to purely propositional assertions in the name of protecting the Bible’s internal coherence; unquestioning acceptance of a creation that now contains the arbitrary and surd elements of an unbelievable magic show (thousand-year-old trees that are really one second old, day-old humans without any memories who nevertheless know how to speak to one another in a fully evolved human language, apparently downloaded directly from the mind of God like preinstalled software).
If you’re like me, gentle readers, the thought that jumped into your mind when you finished the last sentence of the above quote is that “literalists” basically believe in the Matrix. Follow the white rabbit…

[Ed. note: Wow, from medieval scholasticism to the Matrix. This is a post for the DET record books.]

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Comments

Fascinating and insightful. Better buy the book :-)

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