Andrew Fulford Archive Authors Philosophy

The Metaphysics of Scripture

Thinkers have sometimes stated that scripture is not metaphysical, or does not do metaphysics. This is obviously correct in one sense: the writings of the Bible are not generally characterized by philosophical jargon, but rather for the most part appear in everyday language. However, this statement is not true in another sense: the Bible does make statements that rule out some metaphysical ideas, and imply others. I want to briefly show how this is the case with a few Aristotelian concepts.

One reason why this elementary exercise is important is that it shows just how basic certain philosophical ideas and concepts are. Modern critics of using “philosophy”– or at least specific kinds of philosophy– in exegesis or theology almost always load the term with specific connotations. It is assumed that “philosophy” must be complicated, founded on many different and complex assumptions, and overly systematic. Yet when it comes to the basic elements of something like Aristotelian philosophy, this is not the case at all. It would be more accurate to say that “philosophy” is the intentional activity of defining terms and reflecting upon how concepts work, something that can be done by anyone at any time. As will be demonstrated, this can be quite simple.

Material Cause

Aristotle is famous for his so-called “four causes,” i.e., material, formal, efficient, and final. These four causes are affirmed as real within the first book of scripture, and continuously throughout the rest of scripture. The material cause of an object is the stuff out of which it is made, which makes a concrete object concrete. In Genesis 1:2 we see the statement: “The earth was without form and void… .” By saying that “the earth was,” Moses conveys that there was a concretely existing thing, the earth. There was not simply an abstract idea of an earth, but an actual material earth.

Formal Cause

The formal cause of an object is the pattern that makes it the type of thing it is. By virtue of having this same pattern of features, multiple individuals are considered “the same kind of thing”. The idea of a form appears in Genesis 1:21: “So God created the great sea creatures and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarm, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind.” There are multiple individual creatures of the same “kind,” or form.

Essential and Accidental Properties of Substances

Within this type of cause there’s another important distinction. In Genesis 4:15b, we read: “And the Lord put a mark on Cain, lest any who found him should attack him.” Genesis tells us Cain received a mark that he didn’t have previously. This implies that Cain could receive a “mark” of some kind without ceasing to be the same individual he was before. He could either have the mark or not have it, and still be Cain.

On the other hand, Genesis 6:17 says: “For behold, I will bring a flood of waters upon the earth to destroy all flesh in which is the breath of life under heaven.” Insofar as the flood is the agent of destruction in this story, the natural understanding of the text is that God kills (besides human beings) all animals by drowning them. This kind of death, however, does not immediately vapourize the body. What it does is cut off the capacity of the body to breathe, and thereby eventually stop the body from functioning as a living organism altogether. It is this cessation that Genesis describes as “destroying”, which is another way of saying “bringing an end of existence to something”. An animal can be wounded and continue to be the same animal; but an animal that ceases to be animated no longer exists.

What these two stories require us to say is that there are different kinds of features (a.k.a. “properties”) an individual thing (a.k.a. “substance”) can have, kinds that have been conventionally labeled “accidental” and “essential.” There are types of features a thing can have or not have and still be the same thing, and then there are types of features without which a thing would not exist at all. A person can have or not have “a mark”; but an animal cannot lose its life without as such being destroyed. For that organic functioning to come to an end, either by violence or otherwise, is to destroy it as the kind of thing it is.

It is important to note that the identity of a person or substance through a process of changes implies the existence of an essence, that is, of a substantial form. (For Aristotle, a substantial form that actually exists is a substance.) If there were no such distinction, and the identity of a thing required that it never changed properties or relations of any kind, then any change whatsoever would imply that one substance ceased to exist and another began to be in its place. It would not be possible to speak truly as human beings normally do, of people being born, growing up, doing various kinds of activities, acquiring and losing properties and features, or any such thing. But the Bible manifestly does speak in this common-sense manner.

One further point on this matter needs explicit emphasis. This is the distinction between substance and property. For Aristotle, a substance is a being that is capable of possessing properties, whereas a property is something that exists only in a substance. These categories basically correspond to the linguistic distinction between subject and predicate, and as such correspond to obvious truths of reality. Some things exist in themselves, others only exist as features of other things. For example, “whiteness,” a property possessed by many things (e.g., snow, robes), does not exist on its own, whereas an individual (e.g., a specific tree, a specific sword, King David) exists on its own rather than as a property of another thing.

Efficient Cause

The next cause is the “efficient cause,” which denotes what causes a change to occur. This appears in Genesis 1:1: God creates the heavens and the earth. It appears again in Genesis 5:14, where God commands Noah to make an ark. Later in Exodus 15:6, Moses speaks in his song “Your right hand, O Lord, glorious in power, your right hand, O Lord, shatters the enemy.” In all three texts, the author asserts that a being produced (or should produce) an effect of some kind.

Final Cause

The last cause is, appropriately, the “final cause,” which is the purpose or aim of something. According to Aristotle, this “aimed” aspect of reality is evident everywhere in the world, not simply in conscious human beings. Rather, even unconscious beings reflect being aimed at a certain end, when they continually behave the same way. They show they have an intrinsic tendency to act a certain way by regularly doing so. This phenomenon appears, for example, in Genesis 1:12: “The earth brought forth vegetation, plants yielding seed according to their own kinds, and trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind.” Of course, the narrator is giving an etiology of plants and trees, assuming our knowledge that plants and trees continue to behave this way. But that repeated reproductive behavior of vegetation displays “directedness,” that is, it displays an intrinsic tendency these things have to behave in a certain manner.

In the gospels, Jesus actually argued according to precisely this logic:

Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Therefore by their fruits you will know them. (Matt. 7:16b-20)

Act and Potency

Two more concepts are known for their Aristotelian provenance: act and potency. Act, or actuality, denotes the existence of things. Genesis affirms this in the first verse, when it tells us that God created the world. At that point in history, then, the world existed, or was actual. Potency is Aristotle’s term for the idea of possibility. That is, potency refers to the idea that some things (whether substances or properties) could exist that presently do not exist. Such an idea is implied in Genesis 1:28: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” Here God commands human beings to multiply. This denotes bringing further human beings into existence which did not exist at that point. It entails that such a state of affairs would be possible, though it wasn’t at that point actual. Which is (for Aristotle) just another way of saying, the first human couple had the potency of multiplying, though that potency had not yet been actualized.

The Principle of Causality

One last important philosophical principle deserves mention. Aristotle affirmed the basic idea that is now known as the principle of causality. This principle states that no potency can be made actual except by something already actual. This principle is assumed in various places in scripture, but two examples are present in the Gospel of John. In John 5:36 Jesus says, “But the testimony that I have is greater than that of John. For the works that the Father has given me to accomplish, the very works that I am doing, bear witness about me that the Father has sent me.” Jesus is teaching here that his works “bear witness,” and the way that they do this is by being effects that demand a divine cause as their only sufficient explanation. As Nicodemus says earlier in the Gospel (3:2), “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.”

This kind of reasoning would not be natural unless we assumed that every effect must have a cause, that every possibility that is made real (like a miraculous effect) must be made real by something already actual. Otherwise, e.g., people could come back to life from the dead for no reason at all, and no inference from any effect to any cause could be reliable, for it would always be equally possible that an effect was uncaused.

Why Bother?

A reader may now reply: “What was the point of showing that scripture assumes the obvious?” But that is the point. In large measure, Aristotle’s metaphysics is just that, the obvious truth about the world. It’s also common sense, because, in general, human beings grasp the obvious.1 Indeed, Aristotle intended to describe common sense, and to defend it against arguments like those of the Greek thinkers Parmenides and Heraclitus who had sought to argue that common sense beliefs about the world were mistaken. And it is as common sense, rather than as a doctrine originally thought up by Aristotle, that the writers of scripture teach the same things that the Philosopher did.

  1. Interestingly, Dr. Susan Gelman has argued that children have an innate tendency to think like little Aristotelians about metaphysics in her book The Essential Child: Origins of Essentialism in Everyday Thought.