JP Moreland (Universals)

  1. Attribute-Agreement
    1. Thesis: In what manner do two entities possess the same attribute?  If Socrates is white and Plato is white, how are they both “white?” (see 1.3.1).  Moreland writes, “Qualities are universals and not particulars and quality instances–like red are complex entities with at least three constituents in them–a universal, an individuator, and a tie of predication” (Moreland 192).
      1. Nominalism:  acknowledges the existence of qualities but denies they are universals.  Will use terms like trope, abstract particulars, perfect particulars, property-instances, etc.  
      2. realism: when an attribute-agreement obtains, it does so by universals.
    2. Nature of universals
      1. Kinds are universals to which instances belong.  They are similar to sets in that examples of a kind are members of a kind.
      2. intension: distributive unity (something each member of the universal has)
      3. extension:
    3. The relationship between redness and the abstract particular red:
      1. Realism: both the universality and particularity of an abstract entity must be given an ontological ground (Moreland 12; see 1.1)
      2. Nominalism: the relation between red and redness is the ∊ of set membership.
    4. An assay of the abstract particular
      1. trope: a simple entity that has no other constituent outside the infimae species that grounds its exact similarities with other tropes in the same set.
        1. it grounds exact similarity with other tropes.
        2. individuates them.
  2. Tropes
    1. Individuation of concrete particulars
      1. Identity of indiscernibles
        (Ф) (Фa    Фb ) (a=b)
        Ф ranges over pure properties, not impure ones
    2. A problem for the realist: how can Socrates’ redness and Plato’s redness be the same if they are in different locations, or if one is round and the other square.  The tropist assumes that phrases referring to the qualities-of-things must refer to the 
      1. Realist response:  we can hold that the “f-of-a” is a state of affairs.  This is the having of a quality by a particular.  It is a particular and a universal standing in a relation of exemplification.
      2. The universal is different from the having the universal.  
  3. Tropes and Individuation
    1. How do you account for grounding numerical differences between two entities that share all their pure properties in common?  What is it that grounds the “thisness” of Socrates and the “thatness” of Plato? If red₁ and red₂ are two exactly similar tropes, then how are they not the same thing?
    2. Suarez and Distinciton of Reason
      1. real distinction: two entities, A and B, are not the same thing and can be separated.
      2. distinction of reason (distictiones rationes): purely mental distinction.  God’s being and is simple, so we make a mental distinction between his mercy and justice.
      3. If A and B are distinguished by a distinguished by a distinction of reason, then A is identical to B.  
      4. modal distinction: obtains between quantity and inherence of quantity in a substance.  There is a distinction between six inches and the inherence of six inches in a pen.
    3. Hume’s distinction of reason
      1. shape and color of an impression are actually identical and are distinguished by a distinction of reason.
    4. Summary: trope view cannot account for individuation because its criterion of existence is independent existence. It makes the trope’s nature identical to a place. We have nothing then but bare particulars.
  4. The trope view and abstract reference
    Thesis: most people grant that certain sentences are true that appear to refer to universals (85).  “Red is a color.” This sentence accurately describes a state of affairs that obtains in this world. 

    1. a trope nominalist would say “the set composed of red” matches the set composed of color at instance a. 
      1. However, membership in a set of tropes is arbitrary (see previous chapter).
      2. Universal qualities are not sets.  Sets do not resemble the way colors resemble.
  5. The trope view and exact similarity
    argument:  trope nominalists use the argument of “exact similarity” to avoid the realist construction.  By contrast, the realist argues that cases of exact similarity (ES) are grounded in universals (110).

    1. Trope account of ES
      1. Two red balls (A and B) resemble each other because they have red₁ and red₂ constituents.
      2. The copula “is” in question is neither of predication or identity, but set membership.
      3. Rejoinder:  why red and not green?  Red tropes resemble each other in a different way than green tropes?  Why?
    2. If two tropes, Red and Sweet, are in the same location, how are they not identical on the Trope Nominalist view.
    3. Three Infinite Regress arguments
      1. The trope nominalist will try to avoid the universal red by introducing the universal “exact similarity.”  It is a relational universal that holds between all pairs of red tropes.
        1. potential infinite: something that can increase indefinitely but is always at every point finite in number.
        2. actual infinite: unattained, indefinite goal of a potential infinite.
          symbolized . It is a set such that each of its members can be put in a one to one correspondence with one of its parts.  
      2. If one accepts the existence of an actual infinite, certain paradoxes arise:
        1. “Imagine a library with an infinite number of books. Each book has a different natural number.  Further, there are an infinite number of red books and an infinite number of black books such that each even number is on a red book and each odd number is on a black book. 
          Problem: there could be no red or black book added to the library because there would be no natural number for its cover.  Further, if one took away all the red books, one would diminish the library by an actual number of infinite books. Yet one would still have the same number of books in the library.
      3. Medieval regresses
        1. per se regress: a causal regress like a’s being moved by b, and b’s being moved by c, and so on, cannot go on to infinity. The second cause depends on the first cause, the third on the second, and so on, precisely in its act of causation
          A causal series is per se iff it is of this form: w’s being F causes x to be G, x’s being G causes y to be H, and so on. 
          The relations between the members of a per se regress are transitive.  If x moves y, and y moves z, then x moves z.
        2. per accidens:  if x begets y, and y begets z, then x does not necessarily beget z.
  6. Realism and Quality Instances
    1. Wolterstorff: universals as kinds
      1. universals are kinds or types with examples or tokens as their instances.
      2. cases as simples: 
      3. Socrates is an exemplification of wisdom and the case “Socrates’ wisdom is an instance of wisdom.
  7. Seven Theses
    1. Universals are multiply exemplifiable entities.  They are ones-in-many (194). They are numerically identical constituents in non-identical entities.  Universals exist and the qualities of objects are universals.
  8. Concluding notes:
    1. Nominalists hold to a bundle-theory (Hume?).
  9. Terminology
    1. entity: any existent whatsoever (17).
    2. existent: anything that has properties or can be a property of another thing
    3. predication: primitive, intransitive, non-linguistic relation that obtains in cases like Socrates’ being white.
    4. universal: an entity that is capable of multiple exemplification.
    5. Third man argument (Plato): Let’s say that A, B, and C, partake of Largeness (L₁).  By self predication L₁ is also large. There is now a new plurality: A, B, C, and L₁.  Given the One-over-many principle, there is a form of largeness in which all of the above partake.  We will call it L₂.  
    6. impure property:  makes essential reference to a particular
    7. Pure property: makes no such reference
  10. Critique of Hume: 
    1. Hume sought to reduce the universal to an abstract idea. 
    2. Hume failed to note that words and ideas manifest type/token phenomena
      1. a type is a general sort of thing.  A type is close to a universal.
      2. a token is a particular instance

Harvest of Medieval Theology

Narrowly speaking, this is a work on the theology of Gabriel Biel. As it is, one must be careful extrapolating Biel’s thought onto the canvas of late medieval theology. On the other hand, Oberman conclusively argues that Biel’s nominalism is not the stark break from an earlier Pristine Thomism that one often thinks.

Indeed, as one narrative has it (Pickstock, After Writing) in the beginning there was Thomism. Instead of a serpent, we have Duns Scotus. Instead of Cain, the Reformation. While this narrative has been refuted, it holds sway among certain circles. Oberman’s thesis has the merit (no pun intended) that “nominalism” had many varieties, and rather than ruining a pure medievalism, faithfully developed many points and anticipated Trent on others. Now, on to Gabriel Biel.

Biel’s theology can be structured around a dialectic: ordained power and absolute power.

The potentia ordinata and absoluta should not be seen as two different ways of divine acting, since all of God’s works ad extra are united (Oberman 37). God does things according to the laws he has established, potentia ordinata. However, he can do everything that does not imply a contradiction, potentia absoluta.

de potentia ordinata: necessity of the consequence; relates to the contingent order. Since this is not a logical absolute, this means humans cannot predict what predestination per the contingent order will do, since it is contingent (this is a huge point in later Reformed Scholastics).

de potentia absoluta: this does not mean that God can do anything he wants. It means he can do anything that doesn’t imply a logical contradiction. This distinction allowed scholastics to speak of miracles in the created order without the later Humean charge of a violation of natural law.

These categories allow Oberman to move from prolegomena (natural knowledge of God) to epistemology proper to man’s created state to justification and beyond. What makes this book so exciting is that everything is interconnected.

Facere quod in se est, Deus non denegat gratiam

Do what is in you–this line summarizes Biel’s thought. It forces him to rework sacramental theology, justification, anthropology and even Mariology around it. And Biel knows all of this. Per creation and the Fall, original sin is simply an “outgrowth of natural difficulties” already present (129). Grace, therefore, “means the infusion by which man is made a friend of God and acceptable for final beatification” (136). This leads Oberman to conclude: “grace is not the root but the fruit of the preparatory good work” (141).

Biel’s conclusions are not surprising. If his maxim holds, then whenever he comes across something that seems to imply divine power “closing the gap,” so to speak, then it needs to be refocused.

Habitus and Justification

The pre-act of Justification: “the dignitas of an act is its bonitas with respect to its heavenly reward…The habit of grace is the necessary bridge between bonitas and dignitas which gives the viator a de condigno claim on his eternal salvation” (161). And consistent with Biel’s de potentia ordinata God must grant the reward to once the conditions have been met (168).

habitus: disposition necessary before man is beatified. Parenthetically, Oberman notes Biel’s concern over a problem–another area where Biel paints himself into a corner: how can one talk about free will if one has a habit of grace? Aren’t people enslaved to their habits, whether good or bad?

Three stages of Justification
Acquire the habit of grace. “The sinner can reach the demarcation line” between the state of sin and the state of grace; he does what he is able to do (175).
meritum de congruo: semi-merit that is a spontaneous act and worthy of its reward. This creates an initial problem, since no human act is worthy of heaven. That’s okay, though, if we remember the above dialectic (absoluta/ordinata). God has committed himself de potentia ordinata to reward meritum de congruo.

Are There Reformed Antecedents?

It is commonly charged that the Reformation nominalized the pristine beauty of earlier theology. But can we really say that Reformed theology is nominalistic? Not really, or not without heavy argumentation. Oberman notes concerning justification, “Biel explicitly rejects the position which later was to be characterized as Protestant” (183).


Again, Biel’s dialectic appears and governs his thought. The potentia absoluta is God’s mercy. What causes predestination? We must first ask what is meant by cause. Biel will eventually define cause as order of priority (189). Not surprisingly, Biel will soften predestination for the most part (and this is certainly a move away from Anselm and Aquinas).


Keith Mathison took a lot of heat because Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox for his categories Tradition I and Tradition II, except that Mathison didn’t invent these categories; Oberman did. Oberman points out that the church has long differed over whether “Tradition” is an independent stream alongside Scripture. What is important for Oberman’s argument is that the nominalists who opposed the Pope for the Council all agreed that Tradition (II) was an independent stream. Thus, any charge that nominalism is the antecedent to the Reformation is clearl false.


This book deserves highest possible praise and widest possible dissemination.

Possible Worlds Semantics

Loux gives a great discussion on the topic of “possible worlds.”  This might seem irrelevant and arcane, but it is a powerful tool that helps us in discussions on the problem of evil, ontological argument, God’s foreknowledge, and human nature.  And it helps us understand Plantinga.

Modal notions: notions of necessity, possible, impossible, and contingent.

The empirical and nominalist traditions view modalities with suspicion (177).

  1. Leibnizian idea of possible worlds.
    1. To say that a proposition is true is to say that it is true in that possible world that is the actual world (181).
    2. Possible World (PW): the way the world might have been.
      1. De dicto: necessity or possibility applied to a proposition taken as a whole. A proposition has a certain property, the property of being necessarily true.
      2. De re: modal exemplification.  It is not talking about propositions, but about a property’s modal status (184).
      3. As propositions can be true or false in possible worlds, so can objects exist or fail to exist.
      4. To say that an object, x, has a property, P, necessarily or essentially is to
  2. Possible Worlds Nominalism
    1. David Lewis. Other possible worlds are “more things of that sort.”
      1. They are just further concrete objeccts.
      2. No causal relations tying objects from distinct worlds.  Hence, no transworld individuals.
      3. World-indexed property: a property a thing has just in case it has some other property in a particular possible world.
        1. Only world-bound individuals.
        2. It’s nonsensical to say, “That could have been me, had this happened” (as usual, nominalism goes against all prephilosophical notions).
  3. Possible Worlds Actualism: Alvin Plantinga
    1. A PW is part of the network of modal concepts and it can be understood only in terms of that network.
    2. We need concepts like de re and de dicto.
      1. Propositions are the subjects of de dicto modality.
    3. We must distinguish the existence of a property from its being exemplified.  We must distinguish the existence of a state of affairs from its obtaining (203).
      1. PWs are just states of affairs (SoA) of a certain kind.
      2. All SoA are necessary beings, so the PWs for them actually exist.  Not all of the PWs, however, obtain.
    4. A PW is a very comprehensive–maximally comprehensive SoA.
      1. One SoA may include or preclude another.
      2. PWs are SoA with a maximality property.
        1. The various PWs are abstract entities.
        2. It could have failed to obtain, but not failed to exist.
    5. Propositions have a property that no SoA does–that of being true of false (206).
      1. To say that a thing exists in a PW is not to say that it is physically contained or literally present in the world.  
      2. It is merely to make the counterfactual claim that had the world been actual, the thing would have existed.
    6. All of this is just another way of saying, “Things could have gone otherwise.”
    7. Leibnizian Essentialism: there are individual essences.
      1. A thing’s essence: the property such that the thing has it essentially and necessarily that nothing other than the thing has it.

Some brief notes on nominalism

Nominalism seeks the simplest explanation in ontology.  One of their confusions regarding realism, though, is that they think universals have spatial location.  But as B. Russell pointed out, the universal “being north of” is not spatial.

The austere nominalist is committed to just one ontological category, particulars.  Austere nominalism runs into problems when it gets to the category of abstract particulars, such as “courage is a virtue.”

Metalinguistic Nominalism

Not universals; just linguistic expressions about nonlinguistic objects.  One of the difficulties, though, is it is forced to rely on type/token distinctions, which start to look like universals. It’s not hard to see connections with postmodernism.

Trope Theory

By far the most interesting.  Concrete particulars have colors, etc., but those attributes are just particulars.  So, if two objects have the color “red,” does that mean they share the universal “redness”?  Not necessarily.  Rather, they have the set of resembling trope red.  But isn’t a set a universal?  Not exactly.  Sets have clear-cut identity conditions.  Universals do not.  Sets are identical just in case all members are identical.  Set, α, is identical with set ,β , when the members of each set are identical with one another.

So this appears to give the trope nominalist an edge over the realist, except for one problem.  Take the referents

“Being a unicorn”


“Being a griffin.”

Since there are no such things as unicorns or griffins, they must belong to the set, null.  As Loux points out, “given the identity conditions for sets, there is just one null set,” which would mean both propositions are in fact identical.  But this is clearly false (91-92), as any schoolchild knows.

Other problems with trope nominalism (cf Moreland):

  • membership in a set of tropes is arbitrary (Moreland doesn’t expound)
  • Two red balls (A and B) resemble each other because they have red₁ and red₂ constituents.
    • The copula “is” in question is neither of predication or identity, but set membership.
    • Rejoinder:  why red and not green?  Red tropes resemble each other in a different way than green tropes?  Why?
  • If two tropes, Red and Sweet, are in the same location, how are they not identical on the Trope Nominalist view.

Analytical Outline Geisler’s Ethics, pt 1

Begins with a survey of different ethical options, briefly noting their shortcomings (Geisler 17-22).

Christian View of Ethics

  1. Based on God’s Will
  2. Is absolute
  3. Based on God’s revelation
  4. Is prescriptive
  5. Is Deontological


Not simply that there are no norms.  Also includes that norms aren’t real, but just in the mind.

Nominalism is a form of antinomianism.  If applied to ethics, it’s hard to see how there can be a concept of justice independent of the human knower.


The situationist has the one law of love, the many general principles of wisdom, and the moment of decision (Geisler 45).  Fletcher repeatedly asserts that the rule of Christian ethics is “love.”  So what do I do in a specific situation?  The “what and why” are absolute and the how is relative.

Geisler does note a number of legitimate strengths of situationism, but nonetheless there are gaping inadequacies.  

  1. One norm is too general (57).  
    1. Unless there is advanced cognitive content to what “love” is, then one doesn’t really know what I am commanded to do!
  2. There can be many universal norms.
    1. Fletcher hasn’t given any substantial reason on why axioms deduced from other axioms can’t be universal.
  3. A different universal norm is possible.  
    1. Why do we privilege Christian love and not Buddhist compassion?
    2. On what basis do we choose one single norm as binding?



Greatest good for greatest number.

Problems and ambiguities:

  1. who gets to determine what “good” means?
  2. Offers no protection to minority viewpoint, since by definition they will never been in the “greater” number.
  3. The definition of “end” is unclear.  Do we mean a few years? Lifetime? Eternity?  In that case, only God could be a utilitarian and he is not (77).

Unqualified Absolutism

premise:  all moral conflicts are only apparent; they are not real (79).  Held by Augustine, Kant, Charles Hodge, John Murray, and others.

hypothetical problem:  Lie to the Nazis at the door?

Augustine: cannot gain eternal life by temporal evil.

John Murray: Sanctity of Truth and Truth is the essence of God. However, he does not believe every intentional deception is a lie (e.g., a general’s movements in war).  

Negative Aspects

Disputed premises:

  1. Are sins of the soul necessarily worse? Perhaps, but the Platonic premise here should at least by acknowledged.  On this view, a “white lie” is worse than rape.
  2. Can the lie to save lives be separated from mercy?  “God blessed the mercy but not the lie.”  But is this really coherent?
  3. Will God always save us from moral dilemmas?   1 Cor. 10:13 only promises victory from temptation, not deliverance from moral dilemmas.  In fact, the very fact of martyrdom means the martyr isn’t delivered from at least one bad consequence.

Fatal qualifications

  1. Even one exception to this rule kills Unqualified Absolutism–and Augustine allows for exceptions in the case of Abraham and Isaac/Jepthath and his daughter.
  2. John Murray doesn’t believe we should be truthful in all circumstances (Murray 145).

“Punting to Providence”

  1. God does not always spare his children from moral dilemmas.  In fact, obedience often puts the believer in dilemmas!

“Third Alternatives are not always available.”

  1. Tubal pregnancies


  1. We leave our lights on when we aren’t home to trick robbers.
  2. The unqualified absolutist often commits unmerciful acts.
  3. Tendency to legalism (e.g., Puritanboard).

Conflicting Absolutism

Premise: (1) Real moral conflicts do occur in this fallen world.

(1.1) Yet when faced with this conflict, man is morally accountable to both principles. In other words, sucks to be you.

(1.2) Yet, sin is conquerable through the cross.

Popularized as “Lesser-evil” approach.  Best seen in Lutheran Two-Kingdoms.  Also, Lutherans will (correctly) praise Bonhoeffer’s attempt to kill Hitler but also say it did violate a norm.  


As Geisler notes, this position is basically saying “we have moral duty to sin,” which is absurd (Geisler 103).  Another problem, whatever God commands is ipso facto good, so it can’t be a “lesser evil.”

Graded Absolutism (This is Geisler’s and my view)


  1. There are higher and lower moral laws.  
  2. There are unavoidable moral conflicts
  3. No guilt is imputed for the unavoidable.


  1. Love for God is more important than love for man.
  2. Obey God over Government
  3. Mercy over veracity (Nazis at the door).