Substance metaphysics has been a topic of engagement here at The Evangelical Calvinist as long as its existence as a blog; indeed, it is a metaphysic that I have characterized as oppositional and anti-thetical to the aims of what I believe a genuinely Christian theology should offer—particularly when we talk about God. But what in fact is substance metaphysics? Tom McCall in his recently published book An Invitation to Analytic Christian Theology pushes back against those of us who “maybe” haphazardly (as he might think) throw the language of substance metaphysics
around too casually. For the remainder of this post we will engage with McCall’s push back on the language of substance metaphysics, and then I will offer an example for how I have thought of substance metaphysics based upon its intellectual past in church history.
McCall writes of substance metaphysics,
analytic theology is sometimes criticized and rejected for its reliance on “substance metaphysics.” Unfortunately, exactly what critical theologians have in their crosshairs when they talk about substance metaphysics is often unclear and not closely defined. But very often the complaint is closely tied to a rejection of doctrines associated with “classical theism”; immutability, impassibility, timelessness and other doctrines are taken to be untenable, and, since they are tied to substance metaphysics, so much the worse for substance metaphysics. William P. Alston deftly analyzes this complaint, and he argues that substance metaphysics are really beside the point. What he says about substance metaphysics in discussions of the doctrine of the Trinity applies more broadly: “once we get straight as to what is and is not necessarily included in the metaphysics of substance, we will see that most twentieth-century objections to the use of substance metaphysics … are based on features of such formulations that are not required by substance metaphysics as such.” Perhaps there is something inherently wrong the use of substance metaphysics in theology, and maybe this counts against analytic theology. But before such a judgment can be made, we need more than the all-too-common generalizations and assertions. For before we can conclude that analytic theology is fatally flawed due to a dependence on substance metaphysics, we need to know exactly what is meant by substance metaphysics, we need to be shown just what is wrong (either philosophically or theologically) with substance metaphysics and we need to see that analytic theology really is (or must be) committed to this kind of metaphysics. Without the kind of careful analysis and rigorous argumentation, it is hard to see anything here that might count as a forceful objection to analytic theology.
McCall is being careful, even suggestive at points, in pushing back at those who are critical of substance metaphysics in particular, and analytic theology in general; but, he believes the case, or at least the clarification is yet to be made in regard to what in fact substance metaphysics entails, and what in fact is the problem.
I am someone who has been critical of substance metaphysics, as I mentioned to start this post, and I remain critical. One thing that I am not sure about, particularly in light of McCall’s invitation for further clarification from critical theologians on what substance metaphysics entails, is what in fact McCall et al. analytic theologians believes substance metaphysics entails. So I think the burden of clarification actually goes back more towards the analytical theologian rather than the critical theologian, in regard to what they mean, respectively, when they refer to substance metaphysics. The reason I say this, is because there really is no shortage of what substance metaphysics means in the history of ideas in the mind of the church; e.g. someone like Thomas F. Torrance offers critique of substance metaphysics in his critique of the Latin heresy, among other things.
But my first exposure to substance metaphysics, and a critique of it, came not from Thomas Torrance, but instead by way of historical theology; in particular, through a critique made by my former professor and mentor in seminary, Ron Frost. His was a critique of a Thomist classical theism, but beyond that even, of the impact that Stoicism has had upon the development of Western theology in general. We will have to leave the point of Stoicism to the side for now; but what I would like to offer is some of the flavoring of the type of substance metaphysics that not only Frost finds objectionable, but so do I. The window into this will not be how substance metaphysics impacts an understanding of God, in particular, but instead how substance metaphysics impacts the way God relates to the world in salvation.
Ron Frost’s main way of developing his critique was to look at Thomas Aquinas’s appropriation of Aristotelian metaphysics and synthesis of that with Christian theology. We will jump into Frost’s development of this, mid-stream, as he is beginning his critique of Aquinas’s version of Aristotelian substance metaphysics, and how that impacts the way Thomas conceives of grace and a theological anthropology within a soteriological frame. Frost writes (en extenso):
Aquinas assimilated Aristotle’s ethical assumptions but struggled to formulate them in terms suited to Augustinianism. Luther believed that he failed in the effort. Oberman points to the main target of Luther’s criticism: Aquinas and most medieval theologians assumed that a gap exists between the presence of grace or love in a soul—the iustitia Christi—and a demand for full righteousness when that soul is examined on judgment day—the iustitia Dei. According to Aquinas Christians move from one status to the other over their lifetime by supplying a faith formed by love—fides caritate formata. Love in this arrangement is a responsibility or obligation to be met rather than the reciprocal of response to God’s love. The soul must continue to grow in love through ongoing choices.
Aquinas, then, presumed love to be a function of the will—a self-generated event—and as an act of the will it carries a moral benefit. By Aristotelian standards it is a good and therefore meritorious: the one who loves is good for having made a good choice. As reconfigured by Aquinas love is a mitigated good because all who choose to love supply that love as a capacity of the will that God himself first supplied as an infused grace. God nevertheless crowns such grace-enabled efforts with merit.
Luther dismissed such reasoning. He insisted instead that new believer possesses both the iustitia Christi and the iustitia Dei by faith—so there is no need for a human effort to progress from one status to the other over time. Luther based this on the legal principle of shared marital ownership of goods, a principle made applicable to believers by marriage to Christ.
Luther’s basis for salvation differed from the Thomistic portrayal of grace as a quality infused in the soul and the difference was [sic] critical feature for the Protestant reformer. Oberman’s discussion also sheds more light on Aquinas’ perception of love. He treated love as a human effort able to achieve greater spiritual benefits. In the Summa Theologiae, addressing the new law (lex nova), Aquinas portrayed faith working through love—fide per dilectionem operante—as a property of grace. The grace is delivered through the effective power of the sacraments and by an instinct of inward grace. The benefit of the new law, as against the old, is its relative freedom (lex liberatatis) from specific demands.
When Aquinas placed this in the Aristotelian moral framework to either do well or badly in the act of choosing—with an associated merit—he adopted the philosopher’s premise that a soul requires freedom in order to be a true moral agent. Aquinas anchored this point by citing Aristotle directly: “the free man is one who is his own cause”. In sum Aquinas thought he needed and found the volitional space for free choices, as enabled by grace, to accomplish good. Yet all this was only a limited autonomy—limited because it exists only by divine permission within the realm of God’s greater will. And also because the soul relies on the Spirit for the enabling grace needed to produce a decision of love.
This was a crucial point in building his version of salvation. God creates grace but the grace is a separate entity from God. This was a hypostatic version of grace: something brought into being by God. The alternative portrayal of grace was to see it as God’s love being expressed to a soul by the presence of the Spirit himself. In his favor Aquinas knew that for ages grace had been treated as a distinct entity in the Eucharist—with the elements graciously transformed into Christ’s body and blood. This set up a free-standing grace: “Since therefore the grace of the Holy Spirit is a kind of interior disposition infused into us which inclines us to act rightly, it makes us do freely whatever is in accordance with grace, and avoid whatever is contrary to it.” The shorthand designation for this dispositional grace was a “habit”—or habitus.
The notion of habitus, a key to Aristotle’s anthropology and psychology, is examined more closely in later chapters. Here it is useful to be alerted to its significance: habitus is the principle meeting point of nature and grace and grace in Aquinas’ spirituality, the gift of grace that supernaturally enhances nature to bear the duties of faith (aliquid inditum homini quasi natura superadditum per gratiae donum). Thus Aquinas’ view of grace combined an anthropocentric responsibility with theocentric enablement: a cooperative model of faith.
Love, here, must be part of the will in order to be crowned with merit, rather than an affection. If, by contrast, love is an affective response—something God stirs in the soul—it would be non-meritorious to the person who loves. But this is not the case for Aquinas: his theology turned on a disaffected version of love. With love seen as a choice, even though enabled by a God-given habitus, his premise that salvation comes through a faith formed by love set up a progressive model of justification.
Cornelius Ernst rightly identified this cooperative model as semi-Pelagian. Aquinas held, with Pelagius, that human culpability requires that moral decisions be made freely. But, like Augustine, and against Pelagius, he held that original sin destroys any human ability to choose well. Restoration comes only by God’s grace. This led to the conundrum that morality requires free will, but original sin precludes it. Semi-Pelagians offered a solution: God provides an assisting grace that enables but does not compel the will to choose the good. Culpability is then based on the failure to apply God’s gracious enablement.
Personally, I don’t think what I just shared directly answers McCall’s question; but indirectly, and for my purposes I think it does. Like I intimated earlier, I am not exactly sure what McCall has in mind in his own quote, and when he refers to Alston; knowing that would help promote further and more fruitful discussion. But from my perspective, what I just shared illustrates what I have always meant by substance metaphysics. Even though what I shared is an application of this metaphysic within the realm of salvation and anthropology, it can be extrapolated back to God’s being in his inner life (in se), at which point we start thinking of God as pure being (which McCall, in his book, does address at some length). Or we might think of God as a monad, and then, as Aquinas did, attempt to evangelize this concept of God with Christian categories such as Trinity, Persons, Relations; we may attempt to personalize the monad, but the monad in itself, definitionally, remains impersonal and a thing.
Ron Frost got me started on my thinking in regard to the problem of substance metaphysics, but guys like Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance, and their actualism—being in becoming—have taken things deeper in regard to thinking of God, salvation, so on and so forth in terms that are fully personalized rather than in terms that are impersonalized and qualitized. This is what I think substance metaphysics does to Christian theology; I think it de-emphasizes and depersonalizes what is presented and revealed as fully personal in the Self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ. I have written much more on this theme, and used both Barth and Torrance to help un-pack this further, elsewhere (here on the blog).
As far as providing the type of response that I believe McCall is asking for, this might be problematic; particularly because of the disparate nature between the analytical approach to theology versus the non-analytical. That’s not to say that a cogent and clear definition of substance metaphysics cannot be supplied, I’m just not sure, though, that whatever that might look like, that it will actually meet the standards that McCall, Alston, et al. are looking for. I think there are other pressures involved in trying to understand what in fact critical theologians mean by substance metaphysics, and I’m hopeful that my little post illustrates how that might be.
While we have covered something that is quite academic and technical in nature, it isn’t that for me. What we have looked at, very briefly in this post, has consequences for very important and fundamental things; particularly towards how we think of God, and His relation to us, His creation, and salvation. All of this has impact towards Christian spirituality, whether we realize that or not. If we approach God as a substance, at a first order level, then that will impact the way we conceive of God, and thus how we engage His world.
 Someone I consider a friend, and someone I like. He, in fact, personally sent his book on Analytic Theology, the one we are engaging with in this particular post.
 Thomas H. McCall, An Invitation to Analytic Christian Theology (DownersGrove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2015), 31-2.
 RN Frost, Richard Sibbes: God’s Spreading Goodness (Vancouver, Washington: Cor Deo Press, 2012), 74-7.