In a previous post Transformed highlighted the upcoming 2016 Los Angeles Theology Conference (LATC). As a tip of the hat to the topic for this year, “The Voice of God in the Text of Scripture,” we will be running a number of posts of the doctrine of Scripture.
Today’s post is the first of a three part series looking at at how different perspectives on “being” impact our perception of the Bible.
Logically prior to exegesis, hermeneutics, and praxis is Scripture’s being: what the Bible is determines how to read, understand, and apply it. This notion of ‘being’ relates to what philosophers call ‘ontology’, which is a word that comes from the Greek words onto (being) and logia (study). My concern in this series is to think through the ways in which different ontological perspectives (ideas about being) have influenced how people approach the ‘being’ of the Bible.
The Greek Influence
At the outset, it is important to have some grasp of the Greek philosophical tradition that modern ontologies are grounded in. Although the study of ‘being’ did not start with them, the two most significant figures in the Greek tradition are Plato (428-348) and Aristotle (384-322).
Plato, in addressing the topic of being, suggested that there are two realms: (1) the experiential and material realm that is diverse and dynamic, and (2) the intelligible and immaterial realm of forms or ideas that is unifying and static. These two realms are linked: objects that we apprehend with our senses participate in those forms that they correspond to, although partially and imperfectly. These immaterial forms, which are arranged in a hierarchy, are more real than the material objects that exemplify them.
Plato’s student Aristotle adopted and modified his teacher’s insights. Instead of material objects participating in immaterial forms, Aristotle took forms to be imbedded in objects. In this way, he sought to unite what is real and our experience of it. With Aristotle, there are not two realms but one: the world we actually live in. Each thing in this world has two aspects: form (what-ness), and matter (this-ness).
For Aristotle, a particular thing or ‘substance’ is formed matter: matter provides the potential for a thing’s purpose, while form provides the shape that renders such possibility an actuality. The substances that make up the universe are purposefully ordered – each particular thing has a place. These substances are dynamic, not static – yet form is what changes, while matter remains the same. A form, over time, shapes matter, moving it from potentiality to actuality. Actuality, however, is logically prior to potentiality. Thus, particular substances truly become, over time, what they are.
The Medieval Synthesis (and its Dissolution)
With the emergence of the Christian tradition, Greek thought provided a conceptual framework. The work of Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) represents the apex of a synthesis between Greek philosophy and Christian theology. Modifying the Aristotelian notion that matter is actualized by form, Thomas posited that essence (form plus matter) is actualized by existence. The existence of all finite things is contingent, and represents potential – what a thing might be – rather than what it is.
On the other hand, God’s very essence is existence, and thus his being is necessary, and the source all being. The relationship between finite and divine being is analogical. God’s being cannot be included under some general category of ‘being’, but is rather the archetype for all creaturely approximations of being.
While Thomas exemplifies the marriage of philosophy and theology, the amicable union was not to last. The coming dissolution was engendered by the work of John Duns Scotus (c. 1266-1308), William of Ockham (1285-1349), and Johannes Eckhart (c. 1260-1327), respectively advancing voluntarism, nominalism, and mysticism. Each of these, in different ways, compromised the connection between reason and faith. In addition, Scotus’s ‘univocity of being’ ultimately was used to locate divinity within, rather than above, logical systems of being.
God’s being cannot be included under some general category of ‘being’, but is rather the archetype for all creaturely approximations of being.
Bridging scholasticism and modernity is the work of Francisco Suárez (1548-1617). In seeking to distinguish between essence and existence, Suárez offered three potential options: real (Thomas), formal (Scotus), and mental. While Suárez affirms this third option, he clarifies that our mental distinctions are not arbitrary, but actually grounded in reality. The impact of Suárez’s emphasis on the mind was not trivial. Indeed, it played into the formation of Descartes famous maxim: ‘I think, therefore I am’, and thus the onset of the Enlightenment.
The ‘Being’ of the Bible
As Greek philosophical conventions were adopted in the early church, the immaterial ‘forms’ in which material things participate were identified with heavenly realities, and, ultimately, the being of God. The Bible, then, was often viewed as a creaturely sign (signum) that participated in a divine reality (res). So understood, the Bible could be identified as the Word of God: not because it was confused with the second person of the Trinity, but rather as a divinely-ordained sign that participated in its corresponding reality. But Scripture was not just viewed a sign; it was also perceived to be a sure and authoritative source of knowing.
From Plato to Descartes, there had been an ongoing interplay between ontology (the study of being) and epistemology (the study of knowing). On one hand, what something is determines how we come to know it. On the other, we cannot know what something is without first coming to know that it is. In order to avoid infinite regress, philosophers sought to find a foundation upon which their knowledge of what truly is could be grounded.
This philosophical search for an epistemic ground relates to the identification of the Bible as a foundation to base one’s knowledge upon. In pre-modern treatments of Scripture, this function as an epistemic foundation was largely viewed as complementary to (rather than in competition with) accepted explanations of orthodox Christian doctrine. Furthermore, it was widely acknowledged that ecclesial community and evangelical confession were important components of the Bible’s proper interpretive context.
However, in the late medieval era, a modern ontology of the Bible began to take shape. In particular, through the bifurcation of faith and fact, and the positivistic notion that the mind is able reason toward reality apart from anything external to it, the Bible came to be seen as an independent ground of knowing apart from its ecclesial and confessional situation (we might call this solo rather than sola Scriptura). This would ultimately lead to the atrophication of Scripture’s theological use, and the proliferation of critical and secular approaches to the study of the Bible.
In Part 2 of this three-part series, Tim Harmon considers post-modern ontologies, and their influence on perceptions of the ‘being’ of the Bible.
Note that this series involves examining the intersection of philosophy and theology. For students who are interested in learning more about this area of study, Dr. Marc Cortez will be teaching a Th.M. seminar on Philosophy for Theologians during the Summer 2016 semester at Western Seminary.
 Much of the material for this series was originally presented in a paper I delivered at the 2015 Kingdom Theology Conference, Trinity Cheltenham, U.K.
About Tim Harmon
Timothy G. Harmon is Assistant Director of the Th.M. Program at Western Seminary, and lead pastor at Northeast Baptist Church in Portland, Oregon. He is a graduate of Western Seminary (M.A.B.T.S. and Th.M.), and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in systematic theology.