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by Ken Myers

Sound thinking

The rise of God as capricious and willful

Jean Bethke Elshtain on the effects of nominalism on the Western understanding of divine (and human) sovereignty

by Ken Myers

by Ken Myers

The rise of God as capricious and willful

In 2005, Jean Bethke Elshtain gave the Gifford Lectures in Edinburgh. The series of lectures were titled “Sovereign God, Sovereign State, Sovereign Self.” As the title of the series suggests, Elshtain — who died in 2013 after a distinguished career in social and political ethics — was concerned with explaining how the idea of sovereignty in the West migrated from an attribute of God to a characteristic of the state and finally to the proud possession of the self.

Elshtain’s lectures were published in 2008 by Basic Books under the title Sovereignty: God, State, and Self. The first chapter describes how, in the high Middle Ages, God — the sovereign God of the Bible — came to be understood less in terms of Logos and more in terms of sheer willing. The second chapter, titled “Sovereign God: Bound or Unbound,” continues the narrative from chapter one with an analysis of the influence of William of Ockham on thinking about the nature of God’s sovereignty.

“To oversimplify, what came to be known as Ockhamism marks the shift from God as love and reason to God as command. Natural law, in the hands of Thomas and within orthodox Thomism, appealed to reason, not primarily to authority. By driving things back to Biblical texts and stripping away authoritative interpretations, Ockham spurred a resort to revelation and authority, paradoxically enough, given that it is papal power and the presumption of monistic authority that he denounces! As many have avowed, Ockham reveres and lifts up God’s sovereignty. . . but his version exacts a fairly substantial price. As God becomes more remote, it is more difficult for human beings to reason about God and to analogize aspects of their own experience — as Augustine had done so brilliantly — in order to reach conclusions about God’s divinity.

“If creation is primarily an act of will rather than reason and love, the implication is that God’s contingent will selected a particular course of action. This means that God may (or may not, depending on the thinker) have subjected himself to the laws he created. One way or the other, however, these are contingent laws. God does everything through his infallible will. Matters get very dense at this point: What, then, is within the purview of a sovereign power? If God acts outside his laws, can an earthly sovereign act outside the established laws of a polity? Yes, say the nominalists, rulers may suspend the laws if the need arises.

“This leads the great medievalist Etienne Gilson to lament that nominalism undermines the intelligibility of the world and offers a God who is cruel because he can, if he wills, damn the innocent and save the guilty. This point is disputed insofar as Gilson attributes it to Ockham, but it can fairly be said that a version of ‘Ockhamism’ comes to this conclusion. Important for future consideration is the fact that analogies are drawn between divine power and human sovereignty. In the canon-law mode, absolute power is not thought of as a realm of sheer possibility but is construed as a sphere of action within an established order. Ockham, however, insists that absolute and ordained powers are one. God can act to alter things and exercise thereby his absolute power. But God could as well do many things he doesn’t wish to do — this is the contingent feature of the created order. Absolute power remains in the realm of possibility — haunting temptation if the analogy is drawn to earthly power. The dialectic of potentia absoluta and potentia ordinata grows ever more important. Potentia absoluta is the domain of God’s unlimited freedom abstracted, finally, from his commitment to de potentia ordinata. The rejection of realist metaphysics and ontology, though a seemingly arid and arcane debate, bore strange fruit over time. It also scared the wits out of lots of people, Martin Luther among them, as we shall see.

“If God’s sovereignty is cast voluntaristically, so, too, is political authority: A command-obedience theory of secular rule takes hold. This involves a profound rearrangement of the furniture of moral and political argumentation. Ockham’s individualist ontology, combined with the divine-command argument, expands and magnifies a vision of God’s awesome power. But God’s reason takes something of a nosedive. Here competing and contrasting views on nature and natural law are critical. Aquinas, remember, holds that human beings possess a form of natural knowledge and can arrive at certain truths — natural laws — through the use of reason. This natural law involves the participation in eternal law by God’s rational creatures. 

“Eternal law is not subject to the vagaries of time; rather, it refers to God’s rational ordering of things. Looking ahead for a moment, what Thomas Hobbes, the greatest of the postmedieval nominalists, does with the lex naturalis is to set forth as primary a drive toward self-preservation that is essentially individualistic for we are all monads — so many billiard balls careening out of control — until such time as our lives are ordered by a masterful leviathan. Having rejected the Aristotelianized Christianity of scholasticism, Hobbes goes for a nominalist construal with gusto. He is a canny reductionist, as we shall see. The point for now is that the use of the word nature or natural doesn’t mean a thinker is using those terms in the same way as classical natural-law philosophers and theologians.

“When nominalists talk about natural law, they mean something different from the Thomists. Although Ockham may be no innovator where a distinction between absolute and ordained power is concerned, he is an innovator in breaking up unities that natural law and nature represented. When Ockham appeals to nature and natural law, he means a law imposed on human beings and the universe by divine fiat — an outside coercive and impositional command: the primacy of will over reason. This may overstate — still, it is difficult to see how one can affirm certain dictates — for example, ‘Thou shalt not kill [commit murder]’ — and make these intelligible to human beings save as an act of obedience if we see only individuals or particulars, i.e., a series, not a community and the moral norms necessary for community to persist over time.

“It becomes more difficult for us to link such dicta as ‘Thou shalt not murder’ to well-being of a wider human community, its animating reason having been downgraded in the overall scheme of things. Medieval historian [Francis] Oakley puts it thus: ‘The order of the created world (both the moral order governing human behavior and the natural order governing the behavior of irrational beings) came with the nominalists to be understood no longer as a participation in a divine reason that is in some measure transparent to human reason, but as the deliverance of an inscrutable divine will.’ Suffice to say that with the consolidation of medieval nominalist theology, we are dealing with a voluntarist God who may bind his power via his will . . . or not, Ockham ‘being among the first that maintained . . . that there is no act evil but as it is prohibited by God, and which cannot be made good if it be commanded by God . . . this doctrine hath been since chiefly promoted and advanced by such as thinking nothing so essential to the Deity as uncontrollable power and arbitrary will,’ in the words of a Platonist alarmed by this direction of thought.”

In a footnote, Elshtain attributes this quote to Ralph Cudworth (1617–1688), a Cambridge Platonist cited in Francis Oakley’s Omnipotence, Covenant and Order (Cornell University Press, 1984).