Ontology and the Importance of Philosophy

Ontology is an area in the study if theology that has a profound overlap with the study of philosophy. At the end of the day, however, it is a philosophical category. In this regard, it forms a case-study in showing the importance of the study of philosophy, along with theology, and to give careful consideration to the importance of philosophical thinking throughout the ages.

Ontology is the study of reality; the study of being. It seeks to answer some of the most important questions that we could ever ask: “What is reality? What is being?”. Without question, these are deeply intimidating ideas. Also, they might seem too high and lofty for our average down-to-earth lives. However, if we fail to wrestle with these ideas, at least at a basic level, it will harm our ability to have a cohesive worldview, not to mention a strong starting point for our understanding of God and theology.

One of my favourite books on Systematic Theology is written by Michael Horton, called “The Christian Faith” (he also wrote an excellent layman’s version called “Pilgrim Theology”). One of the reasons that it is among my favourite presentations of Christian doctrine is because of the way that he starts. He acknowledges the need to begin with ontology, and from that starting point, to build toward an epistemology (study/theory of knowing). We must start with the big questions: How do we understand God’s being? How do we understand our own being?

Think about the way that we sometimes browse backwards through photos on Facebook or Instagram; good memories from years ago. Aside appreciating the occasion itself, one of the things that often happens is that we notice how much we, or another person in the photograph has changed. And this is indeed, true. We have changed. The reality is that not only are we older than before, but we are not the same person that we were. This is true for everyone, all the time. This is in fact a profound ontological reality.

You never simply ‘are’. You are always ‘becoming’. Only God ‘is’. Indeed, this is nothing less than the ontological essence of his ‘God-ness’. To ‘be’, is to be God. While everything else is growing and changing and learning, God simply ‘is’. He was never ‘not’. He never learns anything new. He always has perfect knowledge. What a mind-blowing reality!

But it is not only theologians and philosophers that think these sorts of thoughts. It’s one of the first things that the most profound of philosophers — little children — ask their parents not very long after they enter into a state of consciousness. We all remember experiencing these questions ourselves; “Mommy, who made God?” The answer is that no one made God. God is uncreated. God ‘is’. He exists in a pure state of being. And unlike God, everyone and everything else is in a state of becoming.

In this we see a good example of the importance of the study of ontology, both in terms of philosophical and theological categories. A right understanding of ontology, or the nature of reality presents a wide-lense starting point for any truly Christian theology: a distinction of creator and creature. It’s not difficult to see that if this is not properly in place, and properly thought through, we will quickly go off course.

Imagine if we failed to define the God-ness of God in this way? We might be lead to think that God is growing or changing in the same way that we are, such as is often presented by teachers of open-willed theism. On the other hand you might be led to believe that man, given long enough, could himself become like God. These are dangerous ideas. And it is only through a study of this philosophical category that we will come to see the ways that these ideas not only misrepresent the Scripture, but also the very nature of reality itself.