What is a Metaphysic? And Do I as a “Barthian” or “Torrancean” Have One?

I just attended the regional meeting of the Pacific Northwest’s Evangelical Theological Society. I was able to meet up with a friend of mine there, Tim, a great brother in Christ who is currently working on his PhD in Systematic Theology under, now, the supervision of Katherine Sonderegger (previously it was under John Webster, before his “untimely” death). We had a chance to attend a couple of papers together, and after one of them, a paper on Thomas Aquinas’s Hylomorphism, Tim asked me a question about my own metaphysical commitments. Tim asked me if I even have a “metaphysic” given my tutelage by guys like Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance. Tim understands how I disdain substance metaphysics, which was all the more elevated, and reinforced once again by sitting in on this paper on hylomorphism. It’s a good and fair question.

I struggled a bit in responding to Tim, I’ve never really had anyone ask me point blank what my metaphysics actually are. This begs the question in some ways though, what is a metaphysic? Peter van Inwagen over at the Stanford Dictionary of Philosophy helps us answer this:

The Word ‘Metaphysics’ and the Concept of Metaphysics

The word ‘metaphysics’ is notoriously hard to define. Twentieth-century coinages like ‘meta-language’ and ‘metaphilosophy’ encourage the impression that metaphysics is a study that somehow “goes beyond” physics, a study devoted to matters that transcend the mundane concerns of Newton and Einstein and Heisenberg. This impression is mistaken. The word ‘metaphysics’ is derived from a collective title of the fourteen books by Aristotle that we currently think of as making up Aristotle’s Metaphysics. Aristotle himself did not know the word. (He had four names for the branch of philosophy that is the subject-matter of Metaphysics: ‘first philosophy’, ‘first science’, ‘wisdom’, and ‘theology’.) At least one hundred years after Aristotle’s death, an editor of his works (in all probability, Andronicus of Rhodes) titled those fourteen books “Ta meta ta phusika”—“the after the physicals” or “the ones after the physical ones”—the “physical ones” being the books contained in what we now call Aristotle’s Physics. The title was probably meant to warn students of Aristotle’s philosophy that they should attempt Metaphysics only after they had mastered “the physical ones”, the books about nature or the natural world—that is to say, about change, for change is the defining feature of the natural world.

This is the probable meaning of the title because Metaphysics is about things that do not change. In one place, Aristotle identifies the subject-matter of first philosophy as “being as such”, and, in another as “first causes”. It is a nice—and vexed—question what the connection between these two definitions is. Perhaps this is the answer: The unchanging first causes have nothing but being in common with the mutable things they cause. Like us and the objects of our experience—they are, and there the resemblance ceases. (For a detailed and informative recent guide to Aristotle’s Metaphysics, see Politis 2004.)

Should we assume that ‘metaphysics’ is a name for that “science” which is the subject-matter of Aristotle’s Metaphysics? If we assume this, we should be committed to something in the neighborhood of the following theses:

  • The subject-matter of metaphysics is “being as such”
  • The subject-matter of metaphysics is the first causes of things
  • The subject-matter of metaphysics is that which does not change[1]

At least we can quickly realize that I am not alone in struggling to not only define what a metaphysic actually is, but also, in light of that, why it would be hard, personally, for me to answer that question about myself and my own commitments. But it is still a good and fair question, particularly since I so often “critique” what has come to be called substance metaphysics (we will have to explore, at a later date, what in fact that all entails particularly).

The thing that makes it very hard for me to answer this question is that I claim to be, and I am committed to revelational theology; a “discipline” that in many ways is at least two steps removed from the definition we have before us, in regard to “metaphysics”, offered up by van Inwagen. 1) I only start my thinking after Deus dixit, ‘God has spoken’; 2) I don’t attempt to think about ‘being’ or ousia in the philosophical ways that Aristotle has ostensibly “discovered” as he supposedly penetrated the meta-physical through the powers of his intellect and wit. Now, as we observe the definition by van Inwagen it becomes exceedingly tempting to quickly correlate what Aristotle was talking about with what is revealed about the Christian God; i.e. as an UnMoved Mover, or even more minimally as the First-causer of every other subsequent and thus contingent cause in the created order.

But this isn’t who I think about, or talk to in the heavenlies, instead I think about and talk to the God who has always already and eternally been Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The God I know as a Christian is strictly based, not on his discoverability by human reflection on physical and metaphysical nature, but instead upon the Self-revelation of the only living God in Jesus Christ. As Emil Brunner has pointed out the type of ‘being’ Aristotle speaks of could never nor would ever ‘reveal’ himself because that type of autonomous being needs no, nor desires any type of ‘personal’ interaction; since by definition this ‘being’ is impersonal and turned in on itself as a singularity and monad (that’s a very rough paraphrase of Brunner).[2] Even so, Christians since the beginning have felt compelled to search for a grammar to attempt to articulate God in intelligible and communicative ways. They have even looked to the Greeks to help supply that grammar, but they did so critically, and as Peter Leithart has noted somewhere[3], in a way that we might say they “evangelized metaphysics.” Myk Habets, my evangelical Calvinist colleague-in-arms wrote this in the past, something quite instructive for or purposes here (in extenso):

… When medieval theology adopted Aristotelian philosophy the Greek notion of God as impassible and immutable was also adopted. In this way Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover became associated with the God of the Scriptures. However, in Patristic theology immutability and impassibility, as applied to God, were not associated with these philosophical ideas but were actually a challenge to it. It is true that God is not moved by, and is not changed by, anything outside himself, and that he is not affected by anything or does not suffer from anything beyond himself. But this simply affirms the biblical fact that God is transcendent and the one who created ex nihilo. What the Fathers did not mean is that God does not move himself and is incapable of imparting motion to what he has made. It does not mean that God is devoid of passion, of love, mercy and wrath, and that he is impassibly and immutably related to our world of space and time in such a way that it is thrown back upon itself as a closed continuum of cause and effect.

I grant that patristic theology was tempted constantly by the thrust of Greek thought to change the concepts of impassibility and immutability in this direction, but it remained entrenched within the orbit of the Judeo-Christian doctrine of the living God who moves himself, who through his free love created the universe, imparting to its dynamic order, and who through the outgoing of his love moves outside of himself in the incarnation.

This is the God who was not always Creator but became Creator. This implies the notion that even in the life of God there is change. Nor was God eternally incarnate, for in Jesus Christ he became what he was not without ceasing to be what he was. This teaching altered the whole concept of God, of his Being and Act, in the early centuries of our era. T.F. Torrance sees this doctrine being clearly articulated first by Athanasius and then in our own day by Karl Barth in his account of the Being of God in his Act, and of the Act of God in his Being, inseparably bound up with the transcendent freedom of God in his love. In fact, this principle that God is revealed in his Being and Act and Act and Being is one of the principle tenets of both Barth and Torrance’s theological work.[4]

So there is an appeal to the “language” of the Philosophers, even when it comes to ‘being,’ but that appeal and deployment in the end becomes transposed by the pressures of God’s Self-revelation to such an extent that its appeal, it can be said, is in a non-correlationist way. In other words, it is not the “philosophy” of Aristotle nor any others that is being given pride of place, but simply the language of ‘being’ so on and so forth that they developed which the Patristics saw as a fitting vehicle for helping to “grammarize” genuinely Christian discourse about God. Was the temptation always present to fall off the wagon and apostatize, as it were, back to the wells of the Philosopher’s philosophy about ‘being’? Yes. But along with Torrance, Barth, and Habets I believe it is possible, as illustrated by Nicaea-Constantinople and the councils they hosted in the 4th century, respectively, to use the language of the Philosopher’s and to do so in the non-correlationist way I have alluded to.[5]

So how does this lengthy exercise (for a blog post) help respond to my friend, Tim’s question which he put to me about metaphysics? In a strict sense I wouldn’t say that I actually do have a “metaphysic” per se? Metaphysics, if we follow van Inwagen’s detailing, definitionally applies to a necessarily philosophical engagement with ‘being’ and ‘first-causes.’ Someone might want to argue that the medieval theologians, in particular, simply extended out what the Patristics attempted to do in their ‘pillaging’ of the Greeks; that they simply were further attempting to re-text the Philosopher’s (particularly Aristotle’s) language and conceptuality under the pressures provided by God’s Self-revelation in Christ. But this is where this all becomes a serious judgment call, and requires some level of discernment. I contend that the medieval theologians, and the Post Reformed orthodox theologians after them, failed at “evangelizing metaphysics,” that instead they allowed the concept of God “discovered” by Aristotle and some of the other Greeks to take privileged place over God’s Self-revelation. As a result, I think we could actually say that the medievals and Post Reformed orthodox actually do have a proper metaphysical approach to God whereas what is offered by Barth, Torrance, and the Patristics more successfully “evangelized metaphysics” to the point that Jesus Christ truly is regulative for all things relative to knowledge of God and ourselves in Christ and Christ in us. That’s my thesis, and it is one I work and live from.

We would be naïve not to mention though that how metaphysics have come to be understood in the modern period is a study unto itself. But in principle, and insofar as Christian theology is concerned, if we are going to use the traditional understanding of “metaphysics” I would have to tell Tim that I don’t really have one; not in the proper philosophical sense, anyway. This may or may not be satisfactory for Tim, but I am positive it won’t be satisfactory for many a Christian philosopher or various classical theistic theologians (such as is instantiated by many contemporary classical Reformed and Arminian theologians). But here I stand in all my secondary naïveté; to appeal to a Barthianism.


[1] Peter van Inwagen, Stanford Dictionary of Philosophy, accessed 03-07-17.

[2] Emil Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of God (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1949).

[3] His book on Athanasius.

[4] Myk Habets, Originally Posted at My Blog.

[5] Here is a long comment on what correlational and non-correlational entails (this comes from a blog post written by a guy named Troy that I came across and interacted with about ten years or so ago). This is going to be long, but I want to share it in full; the last paragraph is the clincher towards what I’m after in my own point about ‘non-correlation’. Here is Troy (a student, also, of John Webster back in the day):

“Last week, Prof. Webster led the systematic theology students in a discussion of the key terms and concepts of Systematic Theology. Dr. Webster had previously given us a copy of his essay, “Introduction to Systematic Theology” from the Oxford Handbook to Systematic Theology, in order that we might use it as the launching pad for discussion in our seminar. Throughout our time together, we developed more than a few questions concerning the task and method of the systematic theologian, but it was the issue of correlation that perked my interest.

Any systematic treatment of a given theology will undoubtedly lean toward either an internal or external orientation. One will either attempt to answer questions set forth by something or someone outside of the church, or one will attempt to positively profess what the church believes concerning God and the world. No one would doubt that Pannenberg’s Systematics are categorically different from Barth’s Dogmatics. It is my opinion that two principles concerning this division must be explained and concretized in order to fully expose the relationship between these two modes of Systematic Theology: 1) The division is helpful because both orientations are necessary, and 2) the division is gray, for the assumed separation of church and world that is presupposed underneath the dichotomy is fundamentally structured by a certain theological assumption.

First, I will address the positive aspect of the division between correlational and non-correlational theologies. In one sense, the split is obvious. Tillich clearly saw the difference between his own theological endeavors and those of Barth. It is fairly obvious that the rejection of liberal Protestantism by Barth and other post-liberals is precisely a rejection of (at least a specific kind of) correlationism. It is impossible to make sense of this historical movement without such a division. In this way, it is helpful to demarcate between two opposing sides of theology when each has a very different theological telos in view.

In addition, it is also noteworthy that not all correlational theologies fall under the Barthian critique (or the Feuerbachian critique, to be more precise). I do not think it is fair to judge every engagement with systematic theology based upon a self-same principle. It is, in fact, possible for different theologies to have distinctive traits that are geared for a unique purpose. For instance, to argue that Jenson’s Systematics are fundamentally lacking in utility for the church because of their speculative and creative character is to neglect the illocutionary challenge to the church’s lukewarm, de-radicalized view of God that is part of Jenson’s work. Likewise, to dismiss Pannenberg as a “correlationist”, or a “modernist”, similarly neglects its own telos: namely, to bring every area of human thought under the discipline of Christ. A churchly dogmatics (like Prof. Webster’s own) should be judged on the merits of how well it informs and leads the church theologically; a speculative theology should be judged on the merits of how well it challenges the blind spots of the church with the radicality of the gospel; and an apologetical theology should be judged on the merits of how well it engages with the world’s discourse without compromising the content of the gospel. To disregard this charge is to miss the church’s (and theology’s) holistic mission.

In contrast to the utility of Tillich’s dichotomy, I tend to think that the bifurcation between correlational and non-correlational theologies breaks down upon closer scrutiny. It is my opinion that no theology is truly “non-correlational”, no matter how much it wishes to be so. It is simply a MacIntyrean question of “whose correlation?” A critical reading of any theological text will expose the philosophical underpinnings of its claims.”

 My response to Troy at his blog back then was this:

“This is a great post, thank you Troy! So it’s really Christians pillaging the “Barbarians” for grammatical symbols which then are framed by sacred conceptual trajectory? But wouldn’t this then, in the end, truly be non-correlationist . . . and rather “positive,” internal to the Christian self-referential? In other words, if we “take” (like Constantinople did) grammar from one “context,” and “pretext” it within a Christian conceptuality, so that this becomes the new context . . . isn’t the disjunction between the original context, and the new so great that there really isn’t “correlation?”

Troy in the end actually ended up agreeing with me about ‘non-correlation.’


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