I would like to do something I’ve not done in some time: indulge in a bit of idle higher order metaphysical speculation, drawing from two books and theories I read a very long time ago. I would like to make a highly paradoxical argument that Platonism may share a common border with Nominalism, and then argue for why this would be the best “metaphysical” framework for reading the Bible. I have written on this in various posts here but I’ve decided to consolidate them all in this one blog post.
Not to get too bogged down with “what Plato/Aristotle really meant” debates, I’ll just do a simple handwaving and summarise the various -isms in these terms: Platonism is the thesis that among the various particulars in this world, things which you can refer to by demonstratives, there exists a universal which explains and makes all the particulars “be” of the same property. The standard example of there being a “redness” above and beyond the particular red balls, red houses, and red cars. Somehow or other, the red particulars “partake” of the universal of redness which they all “share” in. Nominalism on the other hand is the thesis that there exists only red balls, red houses, and red cars, and a common name, but no “universals” whereby they “partake” or whatever.
Historically Plato had quite a bit of trouble explaining what exactly this “partaking” consists of, or how the particulars “share” in the universal form. The famous cynic, Diogenes of Sinope, lampooned this black box by holding out a dish of olives to him and saying, “You may have a share in (μετεχειν) these.” When Plato reached out his hand and tried to take some, Diogenes snatched the dish away and said, “I said you could have a share in them, not that you could eat them all up.”
However, there are two recent books which suggests a way forward. Rodriguez-Pereyra’s work Resemblance Nominalism: A Solution to the Problem of Universals is a technical one which formulates and then defends a version of “resemblance nominalism”. According to him, there exists particulars, they resemble each other, and that’s it. That a particular resembles b particular, on his account, is just a primitive fact which cannot be explicated further, resemblance is a fundamental reality or fact which is simply “there”.
But we are at once dissatisfied, each particular would also resemble other particulars in aspects which wouldn’t capture the property we want. For example, red cars may resemble red houses but red cars also resemble blue cars. Bare resemblance, on this objection, seems insufficient to explain what makes all the red particulars resemble each other because every red particular would also resemble other particular things which are not red.
Rodriguez’s answer is that what makes all red particulars red is simply that all the red objects resemble each other, or as we say in set theory, the red resemblance of all red objects must be subject to transitive closure. (His work is a very technical one which employs a formidable amount of set theory.) Transitive closure is where if a is related to b and b is related to c, then a must be related to c. Thus, if “red resemblance” is a relation under transitive closure, that means that if red cars resembles red houses and red houses resembles red balls, then red cars must resemble red balls. On this account, blue cars are not in the network of red resemblances because even though red balls resemble red cars and red cars resemble blue cars, but red balls do not resemble blue cars, thus transitive closure fails with respect blue cars and blue cars are not part of the red resemblance relation.
What makes this account nominalistic is that even though it does posit the reality of resemblances as a primitive fact, it still does not invoke any universals over and on top of the various particulars. There are particulars, they resemble, they exist in various networks of resemblance, each network determines a property, and that’s it.
Rodriguez does however speculate with a version of his theory which would provide a bridge to Platonism. “Aristocratic nominalism” is where there is a certain “elite” or “aristocratic” set of “standard objects” which would serve a paradigm cases or models which all objects, which wants to count as X resemblance, must resemble. Thus, all red objects are red only if they resemble this or that paradigm red particulars. But if you reduce the set of “aristocratic” particulars to just *one paradigm particular*… you basically get Platonism or something very much like it. To be sure on resemblance nominalism the relationship between the particulars and this one paradigm particular is that of resemblance and not partaking or sharing or whatever, and resemblance is still a primitive black box, but resemblances is arguably more “intuitive” than mere partaking or sharing in “the Form”.
Thus, in an interesting irony, Platonism shares a common border with Nominalism in that the Platonic forms could be thought of a particular among particulars, but where the other particulars to be counted as falling under that property, must resemble. Rodriguez himself however rejects the Aristocratic version in favour of an Egalitarian version where there are no paradigm particulars to determine the X resemblance, they just need transitive closure of resemblance between equal particulars. For me, I don’t see why we need to pick between the two, in some cases the egalitarian version makes sense, red objects resemble each other, there is no paradigm red particulars (what would that even be?), and for an explanation for their resemblances we turn to science and physics. But what would be the cases where the aristocratic version would make sense?
God as the Form of the Infinite Good
I would now like to pivot towards Robert Adam’s Finite and Infinite Goods for an explicitly Theological-Platonic account of “the Good” to draw the connections to what has been described so far. In that book, Adams is trying to explain how many finite goods in this world are related to the “the Infinite Good”, that is, God. How does the “Infinite Good” makes all the finite goods “good” or “excellent”? His is a Platonic account to be sure in that there is a “Form of the Good” which makes all the finite creaturely goods “excellent”, but his account provides a twist in that instead of invoking participation or “sharing”, he invokes *resemblance*. His account is quite subtle and I think it would be useful to quote him at some length:
Does the excellence of x explain God’s love for x, or the other way around? Intuitively, as I’ve said, the excellence of x should have its grounds not simply in God’s attitude, but in something in x itself. Among the features of the role that I think ordinary understanding assigns to excellence, moreover, are not only that it is good to value the excellent, but also that the excellence of something provides a reason for admiring or loving it, and that it is good to admire or love the excellent for that reason. This suggests that the excellence of x should provide God with a reason for loving x, and that God should love x for that reason, which will presumably be grounded in whatever it is in x that grounds x’s excellence. These grounds, as I’ve suggested thus far, are constituted by x’s resemblance to God, or by whatever it is in x by virtue of which x resembles God. On this account it seems to be x’s excellence (or its grounds in x) that explains (or helps explain) God’s love for x.
It does not follow that we cannot have explanation running in the other direction too. I think we probably should, but we will have to move carefully to avoid a vicious circles. The previous paragraph gives us a clue for avoiding it in the idea that the connection between the excellence of finite things and God’s loving them runs through God’s reason for loving them. (By ‘God’s reasons’, in the present context, I mean simply whatever factors God counts in favor of loving them.) God’s loving is explained, at least in part, by God’s reasons; and thus that in the finite things, that contributes to God’s reasons for loving them contributes to the explanation of God’s loving them. My proposal is that it is their resemblance to God, which also constitutes their excellence, that thus helps explain God’s loving them. At the same time, we can have an explanation running in the other direction, too, if we suppose that the resemblance’s contributing in this way to God’s reasons is part of the explanation of its constituting excellence in the finite thing. Thus we will have explanations running in both directions, but without circularity, since the terms in the two explanations are significantly different. The fact that x resembles God helps explain God’s loving x; and (not God’s loving x, but) the resemblance’s contributing to God’s reasons for loving x helps explain (not the fact of resemblance, but) the resemblance’s constituting excellence.
Following this line of thought, there is something to be said for the hypothesis that [i] being excellent in the way that a finite thing can be consists in resembling God in a way that could serve God as a reason for loving the thing. [/i] On this hypothesis excellence is the intersection or conjunction of two types of feature. There are features by virtue of which things resemble God, and features that could serve as reasons for God’s love. It is features that have both qualifications that will constitute excellence.
We can allow that neither feature alone entails excellence.
This is quite a mouthful but here is my attempt at summarising it:
Many things resemble God, both “good” and “bad” things. Thus, mere resemblance to God is not a sufficient condition for being good, anymore than simply because blue cars resemble red cars make blue cars red. Adams argument here is that for good things to *be* excellent, their resemblance must be in such a way that God *counts as a reason for loving it*. Thus, only those Godlikeness or resemblances which God accepts or counts as a reason for loving it constitutes “excellence” or “good”. Thus, the excellence is not *merely* a divine fiat, God’s love has an objective basis, resemblances to Himself which are real and objective, but these objective resemblances are not determinative either, mere resemblances doesn’t make it good/excellence, it is only when those resemblances which God subjectively counts as a reason to love it which are Good or Excellent.
This account will also provide us with a way to distinguish God’s Agape love from God’s appreciative love. God can love wicked and evil men devoid of all “excellences”, enough to die for them, but his loving would not *define* wicked man into good man because God doesn’t love them for them resembling him, the wicked do not, rather, it is his agape love which will create in them new hearts and new minds to *become* an object of his appreciative love, whereby they would become more conformed to the true Image or Resemblance to God.
Thus, this Platonic account of “the Good” is a variant of the Aristocratic version of Resemblance Nominalism, there is *One* paradigm particular, God, which necessarily all other good things must resemble in order to be good. It has a voluntaristic twist however in that not mere resemblance but resemblance which God counts as a reason to love it, which constitutes its excellence or goodness.
The Biblical Framework for Likeness/Resemblances
Having developed the philosophical-theological account, we can now turn to the Bible and show why this framework is the most apt for explaining the Bible. Just think of the latest hilarity of a liberal saying that Christ himself is “not very Christlike” for calling the Gentiles dogs, when the *very particular historic Christ” *defines* what Christlikeness is. It is resemblances to HIM which is what defines Christlikeness, it is not a universal abstraction which we can bend at will.
Thus, we see in the Bible continued use of likeness and resemblances as the standard or criteria. Man himself is said to be made in the “image” and “likeness” of God (Genesis 1:26), us imaging or resembling God has become in Christian theology the very definition of what it means to be human. If there is a human nature or property of being human, that property seems to be grounded on the ontological priority of imaging or resembling. We are exhorted to “be perfect like your Heavenly Father”, again resemblance as the standard.
The Son of God’s very relation to fleshly or spiritual realities is described in the language of likeness rather than nature. When the New Testament describes how Christ participated in the human condition to the fullest extent, it speaks of him “made like his brothers in every respect” (Hebrews 2:17), sent “in the likeness of sinful flesh” (Romans 8:3), “born in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:7), etc. When it describes his relation to God he is the “image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15) and the “express image of [God’s] person” (Hebrews 1:3).
Our sanctification is also described in such terms too. We are predestinated “to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Romans 8:29), we are exhorted “ to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:24), to “put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him” (Colossians 3:10).
When we couple all these with the various condemnations of worshipping or giving respect to false images, we see that there is good reason to believe that the Bible considers imaging or resemblances to constitute a core ontological reality and the direct focus of divine attention and censure. Now it maybe the case that such talk of resemblances can be reduced to talk of natures or properties or universals. However I do not see why such a philosophical postulation needs to be made when we consider how Scriptural revelation is related to us.
Further, when we see how the Law and Prophets instruct us, they chose to use *cases* or paradigms rather than rules. (I’ve commented before that the Old Testament seems to lack “meta-rules”, rules about rules.) The Bible mostly consists of witnesses and records of particular events and occurrences within salvation history. There is very little in the way of an argument from first principles or deductions from grasping the universal rules. Even the Wisdom books are not rigorously or tightly defined universal principles to be deduced down to particular cases but are rough empirical generalisations from experience to be applied judiciously to other particular situations. The New Testament letters, where most of the arguments and exposition on principles take place, frequently serve as commentaries on particular situations or Old Testament cases. The bulk of the Bible however, from the Old Testament to the Gospels to the Book of Acts, consists of records of particular events and cases.
Thus the Bible instructs us through its accumulated records and narratives of past cases which resembles our present situations. These particular past cases serves as examples or paradigm cases for us to form a judgement on present circumstances, actions and issues.
Thus the very way the Scriptures works and instructs us presupposes heavily the metaphysical framework of resemblances and the ontological priority of the resembling relation. To be sure the Scriptures records God issuing general commandments but these commandments are not applied deductively to particular situations but which meaning and scope is determined through the wealth of materials and particular past cases recorded in the Scriptures. Of course even within the Bible itself we recognise that some figures do “overrule” other figures, e.g. Christ’s interpretation and employment of those cases over Mosaic cases. However the fundamental point still remains that particular past cases remains the primary source of divine instruction and guidance in the Bible.
It seems very clear as such, in both explicit terms and from the very structure of the biblical exposition, there is an ontological priority and prejudice for resemblances for paradigm cases and models. And our supreme model exemplar for “the Good” and the “Excellent” is not a wispy abstract Platonic Form or Aristotelian universal, it is the Triune God whose Son is made Flesh, and the Incarnate is our paradigm “Form” of the Human for us to imitate in love, it is a concrete particular. To end off with Philippians 4:8:
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is dignified, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, consider these things.