Aristotelian Accounts of God

Seung-Joo Lee
Friday, October 14th 2022

In The Christian’s Reasonable Service, Dutch theologian Wilhelmus à Brakel (1635–1711) provided simple yet profound accounts of the order between God and creation: “All change occurs either because the principle of change is inherent in us, or because our nature is such that someone else is capable of bringing about a change in us. God, however, is eternal, transcendent, and the original cause of all things.”[1] Centuries later, American theologian Louis Berkhof (1873–1957) made the similar point: “when the Absolute is defined as the First Cause of all existing things, or as the ultimate ground of all reality, or as the one self-existing Being, it can be considered as identical with the God of theology.”[2]

As far apart in time and context as these statements are, they share the language of Aristotelian philosophical categories. Richard A. Muller has demonstrated convincingly that Reformed theologians (and many others) in the early modern period did eclectically use various philosophical models, and yet, he argued, one can still discern “a continuous flow of fundamentally Aristotelian or Christian Aristotelian philosophical training from the fifteenth to the seventeenth century” (p. 306). This Aristotelian approach to theological issues is not merely of historical importance, however, as many modern theologians still appropriate it in their own works, as Berkhof, for one, would demonstrate well.

Therefore, to better make sense of the historic Reformed tradition, and to better evaluate its theological legacy, at least some initiation into Aristotelian philosophy would be helpful. In this regard Edward Feser’s Five Proofs of the Existence of Goddeserves commendation. This article will introduce some of the core Aristotelian concepts surrounding change, causation, and motion that Feser simplified in this book, but readers will find it helpful to pick up the book themselves and learn directly from the author’s own arguments. This article will focus on bringing to light some basic forms of thought and speech appropriated in the broader Reformed tradition.

Aristotelian Accounts of Change, Causation, and Motion

To begin with, the first important philosophical tenet in the Aristotelian tradition, as summarized by Feser, is that “change occurs”(p. 17). The created domain is full of changes—nobody is surprised by coffee growing cold if it is left unconsumed, by leaves falling to the ground during autumn seasons, and by emotions turning into disappointments, discouragements, and even depressions. The human body grows old too and eventually gets weakened. Rational argumentation itself entails some kind of movement from one point to another, and even this present article operates within the reality of change and upon the assumptions of progression. That change is part of creaturely activities is both an assumed and an argued point in the Aristotelian tradition, and there should be no genuine doubt about this recognition from any observant, attentive, and conscious people.

This then raises a question: what exactly is change? A tenet critically important in the Aristotelian tradition, and a point that Feser himself articulated, is that change is an “actualization of a potential” (p. 18). This is the second principle tightly argued in the Aristotelian account of metaphysics. Feser then illustrates the point by saying this: “while the coffee is still hot, the coldness of the coffee is not exactly nothing, since it is there potentially in the coffee in a way other qualities are not. But it is still there merely potentially and not actually, otherwise the coffee would be cold already, even while it is hot, which of course it isn’t” (p. 19). What this means is that your hot cappuccino has the possibility and power to be hot or cold by virtue of its existence as a mixture of liquid and coffee extracts, and when heat does not move such powers, the cappuccino will become cold; and when it does, it will be hot. Thus the change of temperature occurring in the cappuccino is a result of heat actualizing the power inherent in the substance of coffee, and it can be warmed or otherwise by its interaction with the surrounding or infused heat.

If this point can be grasped, then the third principle will make sense: “change requires a changer”(p. 19). More specifically, change requires an actualized changer. Feser writes: “Only what is actual can do anything. In particular, the potential coldness of the coffee cannot make itself actual. Only something already actual can do that—the coldness in the surrounding air, or perhaps some ice cubes you might drop into the coffee. In general, any mere potential can only be actualized by something that is already actual. In that sense, any change requires a changer of some sort or other” (p. 19).

The reason for this claim is that a thing’s potency is its power and possibility to receive certain actions from another, and when it does not receive any actualizing action from another, it merely remains as potency, possibility, or power—the way creaturely things operate in this world is to be moved by or to move other exiting things, and everything in creation has some potency to be actualized, or to actualize another. A cause that has power to actualize and move others is a cause that is already actualized and moved by some prior power, and this way of explaining the order of the world is precisely an insight that Aristotelian metaphysics provided to so many intellectuals in the Christian tradition at large.

At this point, you may think that such an account of “change” seems to attend only to a thing’s linear progression. That is, it seems to be limited to the movement of a thing from its state of possibility to actuality, or its movement from the left to the right on the horizontal scale. This dynamic between actuality and potency as described may look like a series of dominoes moving and influencing one another only sequentially, and hence Aristotelianism may be deemed as a model that provides only a one-direction explanation of the world. However, in the actual framework, an Aristotelian account of change does not merely employ a linear method, but it also employs a hierarchical method, the kind of method that considers the ontological priority in the series of changers, or that competently moves from the bottom up.

To go back to coffee, the actors of change may include the air conditioner installed on the wall generating cold wind, the temperature of the mug that contains the coffee, and even the air blown over the surface of the coffee by the mouth of the drinker. Then, to recognize the most important and foundational actor in the process of such change, and in order to identify the most important power involved in it, we can employ a hierarchical method of consideration and discover the one at the very top, not just one at the far left. If we approach the change in coffee from this angle, then we can realize that the cold air coming from an air conditioner may be the most powerful agent in actualizing the coldness of the coffee, as its power surpasses those of the chilled mug and the air blown by a human mouth. This is to say that all the aforementioned factors can act simultaneously to bring about that change in the coffee, such as air conditioner, mug, and blown air, but there is still the strongest actor among them all, as well as the most foundational condition on which all things depend, and that is the cold air from the air conditioner that most powerfully impacts the activities of other agents.

God as Unmoved Mover, Pure Act, and the First Cause

These three basic accounts of change, causation, and motion, with the twofold method of analysis as described, can help us better understand the nature of God articulated in the Reformed tradition. To simplify the point, in an Aristotelian framework, God is an unmoved mover, pure act, and the first cause of all things, and these terms can be understood in both linear and hierarchical ways.

First of all, God is an unmoved mover from the standpoint of time. There was nothing that moved God to come into existence and there was nothing that preceded his existence. But God is also an unmoved mover from the standpoint of authority, as there is nothing superior to him, or nothing higher than him. Nothing in creation has the potency to move, change, and alter the Creator, and God can then rightly be described as an unmoved mover in relation to all things both from linear and hierarchical perspectives. This contention should not be too controversial especially among Christians.

Also relevant is the statement that God is pure act. Franciscus Junius (1545–1602) stated that “God is a simple actuality on whom, as the universal principle, entirely all things depend.”[3] This aspect of God’s being can also be understood in both horizontal and vertical ways, in that he does not belong to the series of creaturely causes that make up the fabric of creaturely existence (i.e., linear), and that he is completely independent from creaturely things in actualizing his being, will, and decree (i.e., hierarchical). God is pure act, and there is no potency in him that has to be realized by something before or above him.

Lastly, God is the first cause, not merely in the sense of being the first cause of all things linearly, but also hierarchically, as he is not only at the far left in terms of being the first mover but also at the very top in terms of being the primary actor. To reiterate Berkhof: “when the Absolute is defined as the First Cause of all existing things, or as the ultimate ground of all reality, or as the one self-existing Being, it can be considered as identical with the God of theology.”[4]

Despite the complexity involved in this topic, these explanations amount to this: Reformed theologians have asserted these metaphysical claims in their expositions of God’s existence, and when they did, they accounted for God’s utter transcendence as well his deep immanence in philosophical ways. Of course, this alone does not prove their philosophical soundness. Yet, the process of evaluating their soundness should at least begin from recognizing the intent and pattern of their thoughts, and in this regard there is still much to learn even with all the discoveries about the past made in recent times. Hence, if there are any thoughtful Christians who are dissatisfied with such ways of speaking about God, then they may graciously provide their own alternatives to (at least) the three metaphysical claims above, and invite others to examine their ideas over against the scholastic pattern of thought. Then, Lord willing, we may be able to find better ways to describe God’s being with greater insight, with better words, and with wider implications. Until then, however, let us continue to listen to the past and learn from it, lest we miss something significant or profound.

Dr. Seung-Joo Lee (PhD, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam) is Pastoral Assistant at Knox Presbyterian Church of Eastern Australia and Adjunct Professor in Theology at Presbyterian Theological College, Melbourne.

[1]. Wilhelmus à Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, I.100.

[2]. Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 57.

[3]. Junius, The Mosaic Polity, 42.

[4]. Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 57.

Friday, October 14th 2022

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

J. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church