In its historical context it arose in philosophy from the time of Plato. The discussion arises when you try to determine if things in the mind, such as beauty and strength, have an objective existence. You can find plenty of information online for a more detailed discussion. My purpose here is to get you thinking about the church and its eventual politicization.
The Positivist philosophers, Hume, Mill, and Spencer, for example, and later Emmanual Kant, could not put the jigsaw puzzle of mind and matter together. For Kant, the noumenal realm (the mind) had no correlation to the phenomenal (external) world. There is no contact between the mental constructs of the mind with external things. And our postmodern world is primarily nominalist as a result — especially large portions of Protestant Christianity.
In Christian theology the symbols of baptism or the Lord’s Supper become questions of nominalism and realism (realism is the opposite to nominalism). Are they merely symbols? How you answer this question determines whether you accept the idea of baptismal regeneration (i.e. more than just a symbol) and the Real Presence in the Eucharist (i.e. more than just bread and wine).
But the church itself is subject to this issue as well. When St. Paul says we have become dead to the law “through the body of Christ” (Rom 7:4), what did he mean? This verse makes no sense unless there is some kind of reality behind the mental construct “body of Christ.” Elsewhere he declares that the breaking of bread is “the communion of the body of Christ” (I Cor. 10:16). Again, is there an objective reality to these words, or are they merely mental pictures? And if the words are real, what do they mean?
The historic church of the early centuries was not nominalist. It believed in the Real Presence, that baptism had an objective reality to it, and that the church really was the body of Christ in some real but mystical way. There was no necessary agreement on how, for example, the Real Presence was really present. But it was accepted dogma in the church, east and west. And that was the message of the church to a pagan world.
In this context, the idea of a politicized church is just a crazy idea. You cannot politicize the real body of Christ. And if the church is the real body of Christ on earth, then its politicization must be resisted. This is not the same as saying that politics and the church should not be tied together in the Faith. That is taken for granted.
But it does mean that if you expect the world to be saved, the political realm has no part to play outside of its limited role within the body of Christ — the church. Only Christ can save, and therefore salvation needs to be seen as a prerogative of the church alone. Neither politicians, economists, journalists nor health care professionals are capable of saving.
You are a citizen of the church before you are a citizen of your country. That needs to be your priority, and mine. And it needs to be the message taken to a fallen world.
Only the church saves because it is the body of Christ. Is that what you really believe? Or are you a nominalist, saying the body has no meaning or significance in objective reality?
God bless you this week.
Ian Hodge, Ph.D.