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.

How Precious to me are Your Thoughts, O God!

In the first chapter of Genesis, the name Elohim is used to speak of God. This serves to portray God in His relationship to the universe as the great Creator. But then, beginning at chapter 2:4b, the composite name of God (YHWH) occurs. This speaks more specifically of God in His relationship to mankind as the One who lovingly cares and provides for them.

God did not just wind up a big clock and then step back and let it go. He sustains all things by the Word of His power. Everything. All the time! As Spurgeon said,  “The omniscient Lord of providence tracks each molecule of matter, and knows its position and history as a shepherd knows his sheep;”.

This is an incredible thing. Any reflection on it throws me into worship. I want to try and begin everyday with that thought.  As the psalmist says,

“For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there were none of them. How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! If I would count them, they are more than the sand” (Psa 139:13-18).

 

 

The Creatio of the King

We read the famous words, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1). God’s immense sovereignty should be at the forefront of our minds. Arthur Pink says the following;

“In His sovereign majesty, God dwelt all alone. We refer to that far distant period before the heavens and the earth were created. There were then no angels to hymn God’s praises, no creatures to occupy His notice, no rebels to be brought to subjection…But even at that time, if time it could be called, God was sovereign. He might create or not create according to His own good pleasure. He might create this way or that way; He might create one world or one million worlds, and who was there to resist His will? …It was His sovereign right to create, on the one hand, the exalted seraphim to burn around his throne, and on the other hand, the tiny insect which dies the same hour that it is born. If the mighty God chose to have one vast gradation in His universe, from loftiest seraph to creeping reptile, from revolving worlds to floating atoms, from macrocosm to microcosm, instead of making everything uniform, who was there to question His sovereign pleasure? Behold then the exercise of divine sovereignty long before man ever saw the light.”

It is only with this properly in place, that we can start to process the account of creation. In fact, whenever we use the term ‘creation’, we typically use it to talk about something that we might have made (e.g., a painting, building, machinery etc). However, this is not the case when we refer to God’s creation. When speaking of God’s ‘creation’ in Genesis, we need to remember that none of it existed before! First, there was nothing – and then, there was… not a hand…or tools…but the royal decree of the King!

Any person who says something, causing it to ‘just happen’, gives the immediate impression of power and authority. When people obey a superior without any challenge, it shouts the concept of “sovereignty’. How much more when things that are not – are called into being by utterance – and made into the things that are! And what sort of analogy could we even use to describe the sovereignty of Him who not only created all things by His decree – but sustains every second of it, merely by His Word?

Behold the glory of our sovereign Lord – whom the authors of the NT identify as Jesus.

“He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Heb 1:3).

“He [Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by[6] him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities–all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent”. (Col 1:15-18)