Evangelizing Metaphysics

Evangelizing Metaphysics May 6, 2015

Key terms of ancient philosophy are rare or entirely absent in the New Testament. Aristotle considered the study of causes (aitia) and principles (archai) to be the subject matter of first philosophy (Metaphysics A.1,981b28), and he defines metaphysics as the study “of the things which are qua being” (delon de oti e onta; Metaphysics 6.1025b), that is, the study of things specifically in their reality as things that are. Elsewhere, he says that metaphysics examines causes and principles of ousiai, substances (Metaphysics 3.995b). 

Little of this terminology or conceptual apparatus appear in the New Testament. Ousia occurs only twice, referring to material wealth (Luke 15:12-13). In Romans 4:17, Paul expresses the power of the Creator who calls non-existents into being (kalountos ta me onta hoe onta), but the New Testament shows little interest in being qua being.

For Aristotle, hypostasis meant the individual thing that persists through accidental changes. It was an important term in Neoplatonism and later became crucial in Trinitarian formulations, but it occurs only a handful of times in the New Testament. Twice it means “confidence” (2 Cor 9:4; 11:17), and in two of the passages in Hebrews that use the word it has a similar sense (3:14; 11:10). 

In one passage of Hebrews, it verges toward a metaphysical sense. In a strong precursor to Cappadocian Trinitarianism, the writer says that the Son who has now appeared is the character tes hupostaseos of God (Heb 1:3), which may mean that the Son is the expression and representation of the inner essence and nature of God. Eikon is far more common, but only once does it bear something close to the sense of a Platonic idea (cf. Heb 10:1), while eidos is used exclusively in its everyday etymological sense to mean appearance or shape. Arche has a temporal meaning, though once it is a Christological title that comes close to identifying Jesus with the metaphysical “beginning” (Col 1:18). 

Logos famously opens John’s gospel, but John’s primary source of Genesis 1, and the Word that became flesh is creative word of the Creator (Gen 1:1), now appearing to create again. The primary sense and referent come from Genesis, though no doubt John’s choices are inflected philosophically.

Despite the relative rarity of these terms, the terminological overlap tantalizingly suggest that the New Testament’s authors revise metaphysical concepts by filling philosophical terms with evangelical and ecclesial content.

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