April 24, 2005


Is There a Biblical Metaphysic? (Edmond Lab. Cherbonnier, January 1959, Theology Today)

Is there such a thing as a Biblical metaphysic? It is sometimes held that the very phrase itself is a contradiction in terms, that the words "Biblical" and "metaphysics" are mutually exclusive The present article will attempt to dispel this notion, and to show how the development of a Biblical metaphysic could contribute to current theological and philosophical discussion.

The first step is to clarify the meaning of the term "metaphysics" It belongs to a family of words which are used in two distinct senses the one general (or formal), the other specific (or material). The general sense stands for a particular kind of inquiry, as "astronomy." for example, refers to the investigation of the stars. The specific meaning, however, denotes the results of the inquiry. In this sense, there are as many different "astronomies" as there are plausible answers to the astronomer's question, such as Ptolemaic, Copernican, or Aztec. Similarly, the inquiry called "physics" has received several alternative answers, each of which is itself a "physics," whether Aristotelian, Newtonian, or quantum.

Metaphysics, likewise, in its general sense, refers to a particular inquiry. The metaphysician asks: "What is true always and every where, regardless of time or place? And how is this truth related to the particular truths of determinate times and places?" Possible answers, from the atomic theory of Democritus to the idealism of Hegel, are also "metaphysics," in the specific sense. When this sense is intended, the word is often spelled "metaphysic," without the final s. The Biblical metaphysic is simply the systematic development of one possible answer to the metaphysician's question, based upon hints and latent assumptions within the Bible. [...]

Correctly perceiving that the Bible is not Platonic, Spinoza concludes that it therefore has no philosophic import at all.

Because a majority of theologians have tacitly concurred in his verdict, Christian thought has frequently been at war with itself. This inner conflict has finally come to a head in the present day, with the sharp division of Protestant theology into two camps. On the one hand, the philosophical theologian recognizes that if Christianity is to be rational, it must contain a metaphysic. He thereupon performs a tour de force which purports to reconcile the Bible with Plato, but which in fact simply obscures what the Bible is saying. He is easily convicted by his counterpart, the orthodox theologian, of violating the elementary canons of scientific exegesis.

The orthodox, however, in order to keep Plato out of the Bible, has felt obliged to repudiate all metaphysics whatever, and even to denounce rational theology as a kind of idolatry. Having forfeited human reason to his opponent, he can scarcely hope to win an argument, except by recourse to dubious methods. The theological ferment of recent years has thus issued in a stalemate. The philosophical party, despite its defense of reason, reads into the Bible a metaphysic which has no place there. The orthodox party, despite a more respectable exegesis, replaces argument with a mixture of dogmatism and poetry.


Actually the present stalemate is merely the logical outcome of the basic cleavage which haunts the entire history of Christian thought. Today's philosophical camp is the lineal descendant of men like Oriogen and Erigena, whose Platonism could scarcely accommodate the Bible, while the orthodox follow the example of Tertullian and Luther, who were prepared to sacrifice reason to Scripture. Despite their differences, these men all shared one prior assumption. Or rather, their differences were due to this assumption. Agreeing with Spinoza that the Bible carries no philosophic import, they were obliged either to subordinate revelation to reason, or vice versa. [...]

[T]he hegemony of Platonic metaphysics has been due in part to the absence of adequate competition. The following pages will suggest, in barest outline, how a respectable alternative might be derived from the philosophical implications of the Bible, and will also indicate some of its advantages over Plato.

The nature of God. At no point is the contrast between Biblical and Platonic metaphysics more obvious than in their respective conceptions of "god." The Platonist, in his search for what is true always and everywhere, concludes that nothing can fill the bill save what is itself non-temporal and non-spatial. Nothing can be universally true save that which is itself "a universal." Hence the famous formula, "the most universal is the most real." Impelled by this rubric, his "quest for ultimate reality" finally ends with the most universal of all concepts, known variously, and apparently without embarrassment, as either Being, or Non-Being, or both.

A "divinity" which excludes space, time, and matter is best described in terms which negate the everyday world. Its relation to the world is that of the Absolute to the relative, the Infinite to the finite, the Timeless to the temporal. None of these designations is compatible with the God of the Bible. The Biblical God is not a universal, but a particular-a Being, not Being-Itself. The incarnation of Christ is no paradox. To describe it as such is to betray a Platonic point of departure. What the Biblical conception of incarnation is shouting at the top of its lungs is that whatever the difference between God and man may be, it has nothing to do with space, time, or matter. It reaffirms the contention of the book of Genesis that the nature of God himself is not incompatible with the nature of man. That is, the difference between God and man is not primarily a metaphysical difference. Though he exists only at the pleasure of his Creator, a living man is quite as "real" as the living God. Any attempt to combine this God with Plato's in a single system" is destined, under the logician's scrutiny, to split in half. The two "theologies" are in competition with each other. In metaphysics, as in life, there is a battle of the gods.

In plain words, the Biblical alternative to Plato's "Being-Itself" is a bold anthropomorphism. There is no a priori reason why this metaphysical hypothesis should not receive the same consideration as any other. The present writer, however, has made a careful search for a single rational refutation of it. His findings are exhausted by a catalogue of phrases like "subjective," "projection," "wishful thinking," "narrow," " crude anthropomorphism," "primitive superstition," "beneath a philosopher's dignity," " a fog of absurd notions," and other similar epithets, none of which contributes a great deal to testing the Biblical answer to the metaphysician's question.

Not only is the conception of God as Someone remarkably free from legitimate metaphysical objection; it also possesses a positive strength of its own, a strength described in the following words by the British philosopher, W. H. V. Reade:

"When fear of anthropomorphism induces men to reject the idea of a personal God, they simply delude themselves. What they propose is just as anthropomorphic as what they reject, and the only evident result will be that they have provided an inferior substitute for God. Whether it be the "unmoved Mover" of Aristotle, the id quo maius nihil of Anselm, or any similar abstraction, no hypothesis of that kind will ever prove anything but the failure of logical ingenuity to establish the existence of any Being who can be worshipped as God. The reason is that personality, however indefinable, is the highest "category" that we possess. Whenever we are promised something supra-personal, we may be certain that something infra-personal is what we shall get. Between divine and human personality the distance is doubtless immeasurable, but to attempt to improve the situation by taking refuge in the impersonal is a counsel of despair. . . . The savage makes a debased idol because his notion of human personality is debased."

While the Platonist, in his search for what is true regardless of place or time, postulates a realm of being beyond space and time, the Bible's answer to the same question is the "Living God." As the participle "living" implies, timeless categories are far less applicable to such a God than frankly temporal words. He speaks," acts, judges, forgives, loves, creates, redeems-in short, lie engages in those purposive, intelligent activities which are distinctive of a free agent. The key words by which the Bible describes God are all verbs.

When the Christian theologian objects, as even Calvin did, that a God who "does things" cannot be "the infinite" or "the absolute," he is simply saying that if Plato's metaphysic is correct, then the Bible's is false. But he sometimes forgets to add, "and vice versa."

One may readily agree with Plato that "ultimate reality," whatever its nature, must provide the philosopher with a fixed point' of reference, a lodestar around which his system may be securely oriented. But where Plato concludes that these "eternal verities" can be found only outside the flux of time, the Biblical metaphysic is focused upon the person of God. It does not look beyond time, but focuses upon his steadfastness within time.

"He is the living God, and steadfast forever" (Dan. 6: 26).

. . . with whom there is no variableness, neither shadow of turning." (James 1: 17).

"For I am the Lord, I change not" (Mal. 3:6).

"Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and today, and forever" (Heb. 13:8).

This is the Bible's answer to the metaphysician's quest for a truth. which never fails. The difference between this answer and Plato's is the difference between that which, by definition, cannot change, and him who, de facto, does not change. Until anthropomorphism is found wanting on logical grounds, there is no reason of principle why the "quest for ultimate reality" should not lead the metaphysician to look for the kind of God who could say, "I am the Truth."

To object that terms like "the absolute" and "the infinite" are" necessary principles of thought" is really to beg the question. They are simply corollaries of the Platonist's prior premise that "the most universal is the most real." The adequacy of this premise is the point at issue: does it satisfy the criteria of Metaphysical inquiry? Its record is not unimpeachable. For thoroughgoing Platonism regularly obscures or denies the distinction between "being" and its opposite, "non-being," thereby violating the most important of all logical rules, the principle of consistency. And self-contradiction remains self-contradiction, whether marketed as "the courage to embrace tension" or "the humility to accept paradox." Prima facie evidence thus suggests that the Platonic, rather than the Biblical God, obliges its followers to contravene the principles of thought.


Faith and reason. The whole problem of "faith and reason" is radically recast within a Biblical context. Or rather, it ceases to be a problem at all. The problem only arises within a Platonic framework, where faith acquires either of two meanings. Either it is a kind of half-way house between doubt and certainty, and definitely subordinate to the latter, or it is equated with the extra-cognitive moment of mystical illumination, which allegedly transcends the distinction between subject and object. In either case, it has been reduced to a kind of apprehension, and in neither case can it be reconciled with reason.

Within the Biblical metaphysic, however, faith is not reducible to a mixture of certainty and doubt, or to any special mode of apprehension. Rather, it is a voluntary relation of absolute trust in him who alone holds the answers to Plato's questions. As Reade describes it:

"Faith is neither what Plato and Aristotle understood by 'knowledge,' nor what they meant by 'opinion'; neither the certitude of exact science, nor the state of uncertainty which prevails when science is lacking. . . . Faith . . . is not in essence an attitude or mental condition relative to any kind of impersonal facts, but rather a vivid consciousness of absolute trust in a Person."

In the Biblical world-view, the primary words all refer to those activities which distinguish persons from the impersonal, and especially to those which characterize relations between persons. The metaphysical priority is reserved for transactions between free agents: purpose, covenant, loyalty, promise, love, trust, forgiveness, repentance, gratitude, deception, betrayal, sin, and judgment.

Once this metaphysic is established, the "problem" of faith and reason disappears. The only question is whether God is in fact trustworthy. Once a person asks this question, he is prepared to receive the Biblical proof for the existence of God. It is neither the ontological argument nor any variation of the cosmological argument, both of which presuppose an un-Biblical conception of God. The Biblical God never asks men to believe without evidence, from the burning bush to doubting Thomas, but the evidence is of a kind appropriate to a Living God: the fulfillment of his promises. Hence, the very great significance which the Biblical writer attach to the fulfillment of prophecy:

"Let all the nations be gathered together, and let the people be assembled: who among them can declare this, and show us former things? Show the things that are to come hereafter, that we may know that ye are gods. . . .

"I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient time the things that are not yet done saying, My counsel shall stand, I will do all my pleasure. . . . I have purposed it, I will also do it" (Is. 43: 9, 41: 22; 46: 9-11).

God's existence is proved, not by the philosopher's ingenuity, but by God himself. The only problem is to persuade the philosopher to ask the right question.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 24, 2005 10:27 AM
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