Far from being mute on the subject of ontology, the Christian faith, following Scripture, makes some foundational ontological distinctions. The first of these is the distinction between God and his creation. Perhaps most importantly, we teach that God is ontologically simple (i.e. not composed of parts), whereas his creation is ontologically complex (i.e. composed of parts). From this initial distinction, numerous others follow necessarily. For example,
If God is simple, then he is not composed of parts.
If God is not composed of parts, then he lacks nothing.
If God lacks nothing, then he is pure actuality.
If God is pure actuality, then he is omnipotent, omnipresent, and omnipotent.
And so on.
So what is the doctrine of divine simplicity? James Dolezal explains —
The classical doctrine of simplicity, as espoused by both traditional Thomists and the Reformed scholastics, famously holds forth the maxim that there is nothing in God that is not God. if there were, that is, if God were not ontologically identical with all that is in him, then something other than God himself would be needed to account for his existence, essence, and attributes. But nothing that is not in God can sufficiently account for God. He exists in all his perfection entirely in and through himself.
[God Without Parts, Kindle Ed. loc. 127]
The TLDR version = God is ontologically identical with all that is in him. Put another way, theologians have asserted that God’s existence and attributes are identical. Whereas creatures derive everything they are, ultimately, from God, he derives nothing from any one. Every attribute of God is essential to his existence, such that if he were to cease to be, for instance, all-knowing, he would cease to exist. This is not the case where his creation is concerned.
Every Thing Has Essential Properties
Nevertheless, while creatures are not ontologically simple, they have certain essential properties/attributes without which they would cease to be. Here’s what I mean. If you saw an ad for a dining room table on Craigslist, and the price was so good you decided to throw all caution to the wind and meet up with the stranger supposedly selling this table you need, you would expect the table to be comprised of a rectangular, square, or circular slab of wood upheld by some kind of a “leg” base. Why is that?
Well, you would assume that the table has a leg base of some kind (either having a single leg with a round base/foot, two parallel-facing legs, or four such legs) because having a leg base is essential to the being of a table. So if you went to buy the table you found on Craigslist, and you found that it was just a slab of wood, you wouldn’t be too happy. The slab of wood may have been created for the express purpose of being a table top, or it may have formerly been a table top, but it isn’t a table. A slab of wood without a leg base is not a table – it’s a slab of wood.
The Cash Value of Ontology
It may be hard to see how thinking through ontology relates to apologetics, theology, and personal devotion. However, the value of such thinking is undeniable when we consider the following.
- The Nature of God’s Word: If all of God’s properties are essential to his being, then it follows that his inability to lie or err are likewise essential to his being. Consequently, the unbeliever’s assumption that the Scriptures could be in error is an implicit assumption that God does not exist. This makes his reasoning circular. It also implies that any claim that identifies the Scriptures as the source of one’s unbelief are, necessarily, false. One must first assume that God is not God, i.e. God is not truth and impeccable and omniscient, that God does not exist, in order to even suppose that God’s Word could be in error at any point.
- The Fate of Man: As we’ve seen, the essential properties of a thing are those properties without which a thing will cease to exist. The thing in question cannot receive the properties in question, for without these properties it would not be existent. Similarly, the thing in question cannot exist as a form of itself which has been deprived of those properties, for without those properties it does not exist. Consequently, if man can receive life, such that he becomes a living being (cf. Gen 2:7), then life cannot be an essential property of man’s being. And if life is not an essential property of man’s being, then the deprivation of man’s life cannot constitute a loss of his being. Similarly, if the organization of man’s bodily members can be lost without the man ceasing to exist, and this is most certainly the case, then if follows that neither does the disorganization of man’s bodily members constitute a loss of being. Being killed and being destroyed, in other words, cannot be made to mean “Being put out of existence,” for neither life nor the organization of one’s bodily members are essential properties of man’s being.
- The Necessity of Monergistic Regeneration: Under the first point, I mentioned that unbelief in God must precede any criticisms of his Word due to the fact that God’s being and attributes are one. This further implies that belief in God cannot come prior to a change in one’s nature. For if the questioning of God’s Word depends upon prior unbelief, and the process of attempting to prove God’s Word true is merely an outworking of one’s unbelief, one cannot come to believe by the process of accumulating truths about God. This is not only the case because God is truth and impeccable and omniscicent, but because “those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom 8:8). If a man can please God – e.g. by believing the Gospel, by seeking forgiveness for his transgressions of God’s law, by attempting to love his neighbor as himself – then that man is not carnal. Being unable to please God is essential to being carnal, in other words, and this implies that no carnal man can ever of himself come to saving faith in Christ. The work of being born again can only be the work of another, namely God the Holy Spirit.
To the above three points, I could add many others. But I think the point is clear: Every thing has essential properties, and what the essential properties of a thing are has profound implications for our theology, anthropology, and soteriology.