Metaphysics is that branch of philosophy that discusses matters of ultimate being or existence. Whereas science investigates the principles of the material world — the “how” and “what” of things that exist, have existed, or will exist — metaphysics investigates issues surrounding the idea that things exist at all. What is existence? What kind of things exist? These are some of the questions that metaphysics seeks to answer.
In the history of philosophy, the Greeks came up with several answers to the question of being. For example, Parmenides (5th century BC) posited that all reality can be summed up in unchanging Being. In his view, there is being and becoming — or stasis and change. True reality could never be explained by becoming because change is the process of being in flux; it is never constant, but always moving. Therefore, true reality can only be found in that which is, not is that which is not; and for Parmenides, that was ultimate Being.
A contemporary of Parmenides’ was Heraclitus (535 BC – 475 BC) took the opposite approach. He taught that true reality can be summed up in the phrase “everything flows.” In other words, there is no ultimate Being, there is only becoming. A quote of his found in one of Plato’s works reads, “All things move and nothing remains still.”
Both Parmenides and Heraclitus (as well as most of the Pre-Socratics) were monists. A monist is someone who holds that reality can be reduced to one thing or principle — for Parmenides it was unchanging Being, for Heraclitus, is was constant change or flux.
Along comes Plato (427 BC – 347 BC) who attempts to harmonize Parmenides and Heraclitus and solve the philosophical riddle between being and becoming. Plato offers a dualistic approach. He posited that true reality exists in the realm of unchanging forms and that things in the material world — the world of becoming — are “real” insofar as they participate in the unchanging world of forms. Plato’s theory of forms was his answer to not only the problem of being/becoming, but also to the problem of universals. For example, there are many instances of ‘chair’ in the world, how can all these particulars be called a ‘chair’? They can all be called ‘chair’ because all of these particulars participate in the universal form of CHAIR. The same can be said of all particulars. In other words, there is a perfect, unchanging form of CHAIR in with which each particular instance of ‘chair’ participates. The form of CHAIR is the ultimate reality and the particular ‘chairs’ are proximate realities.
Plato’s prize student, Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC), made yet another change in the history of metaphysics. He argued that the forms do not have a separate, eternal existence in some other realm, but that the forms exist in the substances in which they inhere. For example, there is no eternal form of CHAIR, but there is an abstract form — or idea — of chair that explains all of the particular instances of ‘chair’ that we see in the world. But the abstract form, or idea, of chair only exists because there are particular ‘chairs’ from which we can form the abstract concept. As can be seen, Plato’s metaphysics was much more suited to a rationalist perspective, whereas Aristotle’s was more suited to an empiricist perspective. The history of philosophy since Plato and Aristotle can be summed up as a series of departures from one of these two influential philosophers.
The question for us to consider is what is the Christian perspective on being? The Christian perspective on being can be summed up in what has come to be known as the Creator/creature distinction. Unlike either Plato or Aristotle — who believed that the universe is eternal — Christian metaphysics (for lack of a better term) teaches the truth of creatio ex nihilo — or creation out of nothing. The Christian metaphysics of reality is expressed in the opening verse of the bible:
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. (Genesis 1:1)
The phrase “in the beginning” denotes time. Before creation, there was no time. Time began with the creation. The next word, “God,” tells us that before there was anything at all, there was God. God eternally exists. There was never a time when God was not. “Created the heavens and the earth,” is a phrase that describes that all that we see in this universe was brought into existence — out of no pre-existing material — by the creative power of God. In fact, as we read later in the chapter, the universe was created by God speaking it into existence — God spoke, and it came to be.
By positing a Creator/creature distinction, what we are saying is that there is God and there is everything else. God is the source of all being and everything else owes its existence to the creative power of God. Furthermore, contrary to the adherents of Deism (the philosophy that posits a God that created everything and leaves it to its own course of action), Christianity teaches that God not only created everything that exists, but also upholds it by his sustaining power:
And [Christ] is before all things, and in him all things hold together. (Colossians 1:17)
All of creation is dependent — in the truest sense of the word — on God, not only for its existence, but for its continued existence.
So as far as the question of being is concerned, God is the ultimate Being; he is the One who possesses aseity, or “necessary existence.” All other beings enjoy a derivative existence, or a dependent existence. The created universe does not possess existence necessarily, but contingently through the creative and sustaining work of God.
What about the problem of universals? By positing God as the ultimate Being, are we being monistic and reducing everything to a single principle of reality? If so, how do we explain the great diversity that we see in the world? These questions are answered by reference to the Trinity. God is a Being that exists in three, distinct Persons — Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The problem of universals — or the problem of “the one and the many” — is solved in the Being of God himself. God is One and yet he is Three. He is one in Being, or substance, and three in Person, or subsistence. Because God is a Trinity, we see examples of unity and diversity in all of creation.
The history of philosophy is a story of the search for true wisdom and answers to the most important questions of life. Plato and Aristotle and those who followed them all sought answers to the question of existence. The answers vary from philosopher to philosopher, and the endeavor can be summed up as thus: “Always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 3:7). This is not to disparage philosophy or those who pursue the study of it. What it does depict is the utter futility of trying to find answers to the most important questions of life without seeking them in God and his revelation. Christianity has answers to the greatest questions of life and metaphysics.
For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. (1 Corinthians 1:25)