What is Metaphysics and What Use is it for Christians?

The word “metaphysics” has its origins in Aristotle’s corpus, meaning literally “after the physics.” In his treatise On Physics, Aristotle studied the natural world; his concern in On Metaphysics is the world beyond the natural, that is, the immaterial world. Aristotle considered metaphysics the first philosophy (prôtê philosophia) because it had as its object the first causes of things, and he considered it a theological science (theologikê) because it culminated in considerations of God’s existence and nature.

Metaphysics, however, is distinct from theology as a discipline, and the main difference is in their starting points. Theology starts with the authority of God revealed in Scripture and made manifest in the articles of faith. It is a revealed science, meaning that we cannot empirically prove theology’s starting principles such as the incarnation, the resurrection, or the ascension. We take these matters on faith.

Metaphysics takes as its starting point the sensible world, which is the same starting point as physics. The metaphysician studies things which can be empirically validated in the natural world and finds in this intelligible traces of that which is not natural and which cannot be empirically validated—God. It is on the study of God that theology and metaphysics converge while still remaining distinct as disciplines.

One may ask why metaphysics would be necessary at all for those who have faith. The idea behind this objection to the use of metaphysics is that we have the truth concerning God revealed to us in Scripture, and thus we need only study that to know God. This is not a new objection. Thomas Aquinas and his teacher Albert dealt with “some who in their complete ignorance want to oppose the use of philosophy. This is especially true among the Dominicans, where no one stands up to contradict them. Like brute animals they blaspheme against things they do not understand.”

Instead, Albert and Thomas shared a robust confidence in the use of reason to illuminate and deepen knowledge and understanding regarding matters of faith. They thought this possible because they saw faith and reason as two different approaches to the truth. So long as both kept the eternal and immutable truth as their subject, faith and reason could never be contradictory. Moreover, Thomas adamantly advanced the position that metaphysics could greatly supplement theology, and that those who “by bringing [philosophical arguments] into the service of faith, do not mix water with wine, but rather change water into wine.”

In a Quodlibet written near the end of his life, Aquinas distinguishes between two types of theological disputes. The first uses only revealed authority to make its arguments, a type of disputation that can only take place among those who accept the given source of authority. For example, Catholics and Protestants can debate about issues like the Incarnation and the Resurrection because both accept Scripture as an authority. However, Christians cannot debate on the same terms with atheists, because atheists do not accept Scripture as an authority. Instead, Christians must resort to the second type of disputation which uses rational philosophical arguments to lead the hearer to truth. As Aquinas says in the opening question of the Summa Theologica, “God is constantly at work in the mind, endowing it with its natural light and giving it direction.”

Although the mind is capable of coming to knowledge of the truth without faith, this knowledge is limited and partial. Metaphysics can tell us something about God—for example, that God is one, that God is eternal, or that God sets creation in motion—but it is the supernatural illumination of faith which strengthens and elevates the intellect so that it is capable to contemplate God face to face. As Aquinas says in the Summa Theologica I, Question 3, art. 1, human intellect may fail and be deceived, “but the light of faith, which is, as it were, a faint stamp of the First Truth in our mind, cannot fail, any more than God can be deceived or lie.”

For Christians in dialogue with Christians, metaphysical language provides a means of deepening our understanding of the tenants of our faith such as the relationship between the three Persons of the one God or the relationship between the two natures in the one Jesus Christ. The very first Christian Counsels relied on metaphysics to develop the creed that Roman Catholics and some branches of Protestants recite in church every week. Metaphysical reasoning can also illumine Scripture. When YHWH tells Moses “I AM who AM,” he is using metaphysical language. The Gospel of John is replete with metaphysics, and without metaphysics, the creation narrative in Genesis is just a myth.

But metaphysics is also indispensable if Christians have any desire at all to converse with their non-believing neighbors. The ability to talk of God as the Unmoved Mover, the first efficient cause, or the only necessary being among contingents (I will explain what these mean in a future blog) will ultimately yield more fruit in bringing the atheist or agnostic to at least acknowledging God as logical conclusion than will citing Scripture. Most importantly, the use of metaphysics will show non-believers and believers alike that theology is not an irrational science.

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2 comments so far

  1. richardcorke on

    Theology is not irrational, but it is nonrational at the point where one is asked to make the leap of faith that is required in order to be a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, and etc.

  2. gerry on

    Metaphysics must be the foundation itself of theology, because without metaphysics theology would be fanaticism.

    gerry


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