A Christian Ontology

Updated: Aug 2

The three main branches of philosophy are ontology, epistemology and ethics. Today we focus on ontology.

As a first approximation, ontology is the study of what there is... Many classical philosophical problems are problems in ontology: the question whether or not there is a god, or the problem of the existence of universals, etc. But ontology is usually also taken to encompass problems about the most general features and relations of the entities which do exist... We have at least two parts to the overall philosophical project of ontology, on our preliminary understanding of it: first, say what there is, what exists, what the stuff is reality is made out of, secondly, say what the most general features and relations of these things are.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy



The above definition of ontology might be a tad bit difficult to understand, but I'll try my best to explain it in everyday terms.


Ontology has to do what things that exist. So questions like "what is real", "what exists" are questions in the realm of ontology. But more than this, ontology also ecompases questions like "what is reality made of", and "what are the relations of the features of reality". The problem of the one and the many therefore falls under the ontology heading. We'll talk more about this fascinating problem later.

The Creator-creation distinction

In the Christian worldview, the triune God of Scripture is ultimate reality. Ultimate reality is something that is the supreme, final, and fundamental power in all reality.


Everything that exists can be divided into two categories:

  1. Creator

  2. Creation

Important is the fact that the Creator is totally or wholly other. The term "wholly other" is used in Christian theology to describe the difference between God and everything else.  God, the Christian God, is completely different than all other things that exist.  God can be described by essential properties such as holiness, immutability, etc.  But we have to ask how we, as finite creatures, can relate to the infinite God.  It is difficult when he is "wholly other" than we are.  It means that we must relate to him by his self-revelation in the person of Christ Jesus, and through the Bible.


Since God is totally other, all analogies that attempt to describe His nature fall short. This is part of the reason we cannot describe the trinity by analogy, as there is no correspondence or partial similarity to creation.

The Christian, however, will not talk about being in general, as if somehow all reality is on the same scale of being, and only afterwards, make a distinction between God and the universe. The Christian denies the ontological correlativity between Creator and creation. This is because fundamental to the Christian theory of reality is the Creator–creature distinction. God is Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable. His name is “I AM THAT I AM.” He is in no sense dependent for anything upon His created universe (Ps. 50:10–12; Acts 17:25). The universe and man, to the contrary, are created, finite, continually dependent upon God’s “upholding” powers (Heb. 1:3). Therefore, properly to conceive of reality, the Christian thinks in terms of God’s uncreated being and then the created being of all other things.

Dr. Robert Reymond, The Justification of Knowledge, p. 27ff.


Van Til was famous for drawing two circles to explain the Christian view on ontology contrasted with other worldviews (we draw inspiration from these graphs from the great website at Van Til Diagrammed):



For the Christian, the Creator is ultimate reality and creates creation, imposes order and rationality on it and actively reveals Himself to it. It is also on this statement that we will build later on, but it summarises the Christian position quite well.


For the non-Christian there is no Creator-creation distinction. There is no ultimate reality outside the human mind as humans give their own lives meaning and purpose. There is nothing outside them that does it for them.


We can expand some more on the above graph by specifically talking about human reason. Human reason in the Christian worldview finds its ultimate origin in the Creator who is Himself ultimately rational. For the non-Christian, however, reason finds its origin in the single sphere of reality which is ultimately irrational and chaotic.



From the above we can start to see two kinds of circles developing which will be important when we reach the epistemological question in the next article. For now it's important to see that human reason for the non-Christian emerges from the universe itself, but there's nothing outside of reality to which it can appeal that can assure it's validity: There is no autonomous Absolute Mind (only billions of autonomous minds), only chance, of which human reason is a result.  Thus any rational structure in the world is imposed by the individual human minds. There's no foundation. In the non-Christian worldview, reason is autonomous whereas in the Christian worldview, it's not. This will play an incredibly important role in the article on epistemology. [1]


So recap, the Christian view of ontology so far:

  • Ultimate reality: The Triune God of Scripture

  • Everything that is can be divided into two mutually exclusive categories: Creator and creation.

  • The Creator actively reveals things to Creation.


The Christian view of God


We already alluded to this in the above section. For the Christian, God is not in creation itself like the Greek gods, rather God is transcendent above the Creation and if it were not for God's revelation to us, we would never have been able know Him.


God also reveals Himself to us in both nature and in Scripture, and from this revelation we come know God as being triune. God is one being, and three persons. Within the one being that is God, there exist three co-equal, co-eternal person, each fully God. These three persons have been revealed to us as the Father, the Son and Holy Spirit. We'll get a bit more into the trinity when we get to the problem of the one and the many.


As a side note, cults (like the Jehovah's Witnesses) usually cite the utter incomprehensibility of the trinity as an argument against it, and from there they try to argue that God is one being and one person as that makes more sense (as we are one being and one person). But this line of argument ignores the Creator-creation distinction. We cannot liken the nature of God to anything in creation (e.g. an egg, shell, white and yellow) as God is distinct from Creation. We would expect God to totally different from something in creation. This is part of the wonder of God!


Moreover, in Christianity, the attributes of God play an incredibly important role (in particular for the other spheres of philosophy we hope to discuss soon):


  1. Eternality (God has always existed and will always exist)

  2. Mercy (We will speak more of this in the following section)

  3. Goodness (God is not good because it is attractive for Him to be so, nor does He follow after some sort of standard for goodness. God is actually so good that He is the source of goodness He alone is the rule and measure of what we truly know to be good.)

  4. Omnipotence (God has the quality of having unlimited power. Can can accomplish anything that He pleases.)

  5. Grace

  6. Omnipresence (God is everywhere present in the fullness of His being. This allows Him to interact in any places at any times, even in multiple places simultaneously).

  7. Holiness (Holiness is synonymous with God's total purity and separation from the rest of creation. Holiness is a moral purity, and different from Adam's holiness, God's is eternally incorruptible.)

  8. Omniscience (God knows everything)

  9. Immanence (Immanence describes a God who is at hand, working through the minutiae of the lives of His creation to produce a love for and enjoyment of His Word, His Gospel, and Himself.)

  10. Righteousness

  11. Immutability (The fact that God does not change his mind, his characteristics, his plan, or anything else is a security better than any earthly insurance for it guarantees His quality of character and gives security to the believer that if He has saved one of us, that saved person WILL persevere to the end for God has chosen him and will not change his mind and let that man slip through His fingers into the breach of hell.)

  12. Self-Existence

  13. Justice

  14. Sovereignty

  15. Love

  16. Transcendence (Transcendence refers to the fact that God is unlike any other being in our experience and so no analogy or comparison can come close to perfectly describing Him)

  17. Ultimately rational (God doesn't abide by laws of thought, rather, the laws of thought are grounded in God Himself. When God thinks, God thinks rationally. God's thoughts and speech are standard for rationality.)

The incarnation

Another important part of the Christian view of God is captured in the incarnation. Critical to the Christian view of God is the fact that God Himself entered into creation. John writes the following in John 1:14:

The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us.

Jesus, the second person of the trinity entered into creation, lived a perfect life as the law requires (was without blemish), and suffered the wrath of God for our sins on the cross at calvary Hill, died, and rose again on the third day.


The incarnation is significant for a Christian ontology because of what we learn in John 1. Oliphint writes in Covenantal Apologetics:

[Kant] is right that we cannot move from the finite to the infinite, but he has not considered that the infinite has moved to the finite. In the light, Kant hasn't even broached the most basic truths of the Christian God.

If it were not for what Oliphint calls the "divine condescension", we would not have been able to know God. Therefore, the Christian God is unique because He reveals Himself to us through the written Word, and especially through Jesus. God entered creation and hence we are guaranteed to have true and certain knowledge of Him. The Christian God is not far, but near, and has revealed and is revealing Himself to all men everywhere. Contrast this with the Muslim doctrine of tanzih, which states that Allah is so transcendent that no human language (derived from changing experience) can positively and appropriate describe Allah. We'll touch more on this in the epistemology article.

No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father's side, he has made him known.

John 1:18, ESV


Laws of Logic

The laws of logic summarised by the three laws of thought are universal, abstract, immaterial and unchanging. The laws of logic reflect the way God thinks.


The God who created the universe and our minds is also “the author of all truth, wisdom, and knowledge (Proverbs 1:7; 9:10; Colossians 2:3)”, as stated by Bahnsen. This provides an objective and unchanging foundation for logic which is consistent in all places and at all times.


The laws of logic are not standards outside of God, or standards which he created, but instead are a reflection of his eternal, consistent nature. As Bahnsen states,

The laws of logic reflect the nature of God, for in Him we find perfect coherence.

Greg Bahnsen, Pushing the Antithesis


For the Christian, the laws of logic are not conventions, nor are they physical objects in creation nor are they chemical reactions in the minds of humans. Because God is both eternal and not dependent on anything else, logic has a firm foundation in him. People are created in God’s image, and so they reflect that in their ability to think logically. This also coincides with the rational order of the universe, which is not surprising because the same God created both mankind and the rest of the universe.


The Christian view of man

In Christianity, man is not just another animal like the Darwinists believe. Man is created in the image of God as male and female. Because man is created in the image of God, each and every one of us has been bestowed with great value. Human life is precious and should not be taken or dishonored by any means. The image of God sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom, and means that we were created with the goal of having a close fellowship with God (among other things, but this can be an entirely different article).


Humans have been appointed as rulers over creation by God but went astray. We sought to be our own gods. As a result of the sin of the first Adam acting as our federal head, all men everywhere is by nature sinful and is in need of a saviour otherwise they will suffer under the righteous justice of God. If it were not for the work of the second Adam (Jesus Christ) on the cross, all men would deserve God's justice against the sins they've committed against Him.


Any person living, lives in a covenant with God. This is an incredibly important point for a proper application of Christian apologetics: Either a person is in Adam and destined for destruction as a rebel, or a person is in Christ and justified in the eyes of God by the atoning work of Christ on the cross. The natural man who is in Adam hates God, and does not seek Him. The saved man who is in Christ loves God, seeks Him and has been transformed to want to be like Christ and be Holy.


Moreover all men have an a priori knowledge of the God who made them, and are without excuse for denying the existence of the one true God.


The Christian therefore views man as:

  1. Made in the image of God

  2. Immensely valuable

  3. Rational and logical

  4. Knowing God, their creator

  5. Having Fallen nature and loves sin by default

  6. Hating God and does not seek Him

  7. Having no fear of God and hence cannot have any true knowledge

  8. Needing to be regenerated by the work of the Holy Spirit

  9. Needing to accept the atoning work of Jesus Christ to inherit eternal life.


The Christian view of the rest of creation

The rest of creation was created to be "good". After every day of creation God looked at what He created and explicitly said that it is good.


Creation suffers together with man due to the effects of the fall. One particular effect of the fall is the entrance of death. Death is not good and natural, it's an effect of Adam's sin.


God imposed order on creation when He created, and all the facts of creation are what they are because God has created them in such a way. Consider that when God created light, He simply spoke "Let there be light", and there was light. Light is what it is because God created it as it is. This applies to all of creation. Because of the way God created, the Christian can have confidence in certain characteristics of nature:


Uniformity of Nature

Nature is uniform, and this uniformity is expected to continue in the future. This is because God has created in an orderly fashion and has promised to continue to uphold the uniformity in the future.


For the Christian, there is therefore no problem of induction: We can extrapolate to instances from which we had no experience (e.g. the future) from instances we have experienced on the basis that nature is uniform and created in an orderly manner.

Because there is such regularity in the universe, there are many instances where scientists are able to make successful predictions about the future. For example, astronomers can successfully compute the positions of the planets, moons, and asteroids far into the future. Without uniformity in nature, such predictions would be impossible, and science could not exist. The problem for evolutionism is that such regularity only makes sense in a biblical creation worldview.

Jason Lisle, Evolution: The Anti-Science


The Problem of the one and the many

One of the most basic and continuing problems of man's history is the question of the one and the many and their relationship. The problem of the one and the many is something that I personally found hard to grasp, so I'll do my best here to make it as accessible as possible to an everyday reader.


Before we can describe what the problem if the one and the many is, we need first to define the one and the many:

The one refers not to a number but to unity and oneness; in metaphysics, it has usually meant the absolute, the supreme Idea for Plato, the universe for Parmenides, Being as Such for Plotinus, and so on.  The one can be a separate whole, or it can be the sum of things in their analytic or synthetic wholeness; that is, it can be a transcendent one, which is the ground of all being, or it can be an immanent one.  The many refers to the particularity or individuality of things.

Rousas John Rushdoony, One and the Many: Studies in the Philosophy of Order and Ultimacy


Defined as such, it would seem that the terms universals and unity can be used interchangeably with the one, while the terms particulars is interchangeable with the many. [3].


One: groups of things giving them unity, e.g. animals which can be divided into different kinds of animals.


Many: the different animals that form part of the one animal-kind.

Think of a cloud—just one cloud, and around it a clear blue sky. Seen from the ground, the cloud may seem to have a sharp boundary. Not so. The cloud is a swarm of water droplets. At the outskirts of the cloud, the density of the droplets falls off. Eventually they are so few and far between that we may hesitate to say that the outlying droplets are still part of the cloud at all; perhaps we might better say only that they are near the cloud. But the transition is gradual. Many surfaces are equally good candidates to be the boundary of the cloud.
Therefore many aggregates of droplets, some more inclusive and some less inclusive (and some inclusive in different ways than others), are equally good candidates to be the cloud. Since they have equal claim, how can we say that the cloud is one of these aggregates rather than another? But if all of them count as clouds, then we have many clouds rather than one. And if none of them count, each one being ruled out because of the competition from the others, then we have no cloud. How is it, then, that we have just one cloud? And yet we do.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy



Vern Poythress also tackles this problem in his 'Logic' book:

The one general pattern, “All Bs are As, etc.” shows the unity in many instances. The many instances, including “All dogs are animals, etc.” show the diversity of instances. Second, we confront the issue of unity and diversity within any one category, such as the category of animals. Any one animal, whether a collie or a cat, is a particular instance; it is one among many. The general category “animal” shows the unity among the many instances of animals... The general category has to be understood as potentially allowing many instances. What is the relation between the one, namely, the general category of “animal,” and the many, namely Fido the dog, Felix the cat, and many other animals? The relation of the one and the many is related to the status of “universals,” that is, general categories like animal or humanity.

Vern Poythress, Logic: A God-Centered Approach to the Foundation of Western Thought


Let me attempt to bring the above two quotations together:


The basic idea is that knowledge consists in predication [predication is typically viewed as a special link that connects a property (red) to a thing (apple) in a way that gives rise to a proposition (the apple is red)]. To know something involves relating different concepts. For example, to know what a dog or a cat is (Poythress' example), I need to have some knowledge what an animal is as opposed to inorganic matter. But then, I would also need to know what matter is. But then, I would also need to know what time and space are. We find ourselves quickly climbing to the class of all things in the universe.


In ladder form:

  1. Dog or cat

  2. Animal

  3. Organic matter

  4. Matter

  5. Time and Space

Of course, the inverse is also true. If you want to know about the universe, you need to know something about its parts (e.g. galaxies, planets). To know that, you'd need familiarity with the plenitude of items in the universe distinguishable as individuals (e.g. Earth, Mars, Jupiter) from collections of them (planets) and facts about collections of them (consists of matter in space). To bring this back to the example of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy example, to know what a cloud is we need to know something of the makeup of a cloud (e.g. individual H20 molecules), and to know what an H20 molecule is we need to know something about Hydrogen and Oxygen, and to know what that is we need to know something about atoms and electrons.

  1. Universe

  2. Parts of universe

  3. Planets

  4. Earth, Mars etc.

Or another example:

  1. Cloud

  2. H20

  3. Hydrogen and Oxygen

  4. Atoms and electrons

So it seems our intellectual framework depends upon relating universals (like animals) and particulars (frog [which is a type of animal]) to succeed. The idea is that predication is putting together universals and particulars, and knowledge is predication (the frog is an animal). And so, the question arises how it is that reality can be so perfectly interrelated that we can put disparities together (group individuals) and individuate commonalities (distinguish items that fall in a universal category) as we do when we come to possess knowledge.


It is here where we can introduce nominalism and realism. Nominalists deny the existence of universals (e.g. general categories like animals) and that all we have is the particulares (e.g. Fido the dog and Felix the cat). Humans then invent the name "cat" or "dog" to label these particulars, but Poythress then rightfully asks: But how then does the unity in the label horse come about, if all we start with is an absolute diversity? Is the unity an illusion or a convenient fiction?”


Secondly we have the realists (the earliest of which would be Plato and his forms), who believed that universal concepts like "duckness" or "the beautiful" exists in addition to actual ducks and beautiful things. So how do individual horses come to be, and how do we differentiate them if they all "participate" in the same universal?

The Trinity

Remember that we already stated that for the Christian ultimate reality it the Triune God of Scripture. You can almost feel the trinity will come into play when we mention "one and many", as discussed previously, part of a Christian ontology will be the existence of the Triune God: Within the one being that is God, there exist three co-equal, co-eternal person, each fully God. So in the Triune God, the one and the many are equally ultimate [2]. The one (universal) does not take precedence over the many (three persons), nor are the three persons prior to the one being (think of God's immutability and His eternity): God is eternal and unchanging. The one being of God cannot be reduced to the three persons, and neither can the three persons be reduced to the one being.


Poythress makes the following application of the Trinity to the problem of the one and the many:

Now what about the issue of one and many among creatures? God in speaking through his Word creates the universe with its own created unity and diversity. Both unity and diversity owe their reality to God’s speech, which expresses his character. God himself is one and many. He then expresses his inner unity and diversity in his speech. God the Father functions as speaker, God the Son as the Word, and God the Spirit as the breath of God’s speech.
Let us become more specific by considering what happens with horses. We have already observed that there are many horses, but they belong together because they are all horses. They belong to the same species. They share common characteristics. How does this one and many come about? God has planned to create a universe with horses. The universe includes many horses in their diversity, and each particular horse in all its particularity comes into being according to God’s plan. Likewise, God planned a universe in which the distinct horses are united in belonging to one species, the species of horse. They have common characteristics because God planned their commonality. Their commonality or unity is no more ultimate than their diversity, because God’s plan includes both unity and diversity. His speech articulating his plan includes unity and diversity.

Vern Poythress, Logic: A God-Centered Approach to the Foundation of Western Thought

Now, let's try to capture the above section on the one and the many visually:



The golden circle represents unity, and the coloured dots represent the particulars (e.g. a cat or a dog or anything that is.)


For the Christian, the one and the many are grounded in the creator with God who in speaking through his Word creates the universe with its own created unity and diversity. God's plan intends both unity and diversity. Greg Bahnsen writes the following in Always Ready:

The living and true God gives the distinguishable unity or common natures to things, categorising things by placing His interpretation on them. It is He who also makes things differ from each other. Similarity and distinction, then, result from His creative and providential work.

Greg Bahnsen, Always Ready, p 179


Bahnsen justifies his above statements by references to Genesis 1, where God after creating the fish in the sea or the animals on the land clearly states that they were created according to their kind. In Genesis 1:5 we find an explicit example of God categorising things like night and day. He also quotes 1 Corinthians 4:7 as an example of God making things differ from each other.


For the non-Christian, he or she assumes that unity and diversity are originally independent of each other.  The universe furnishes the diversity, and the mind furnishes the unity (e.g. Plato's rationalism). But each apart from the other cannot be an object of knowledge, they amount to chaos (particulars with no unity (e.g. animals with no way to categorise or know what they are [see how we cannot even describe animals without categorizing them]) and a blank / nothing (unity with no diversity).


Drawing back the cloud example, if there is no way to bring the diverse H20 molecules into one cloud (diversity more ultimate than unity) then each molecule stands on its own, hence, we end up with no cloud (no unity in the particulars). We can deconstruct every object in this manner leaving us with chaos. And further if there is only unity, there can never be anything other than that unity as unity cannot account for diversity (e.g. only one cloud).


So the non-Christians who cannot appeal to the triune God of Scripture cannot justify predication as they have no accounting for unity in diversity or stated differently a solution for the problem of the one and the many.


Van Til hammers the point home:

It may be said that for the human mind to know any fact truly, it must presuppose the existence of God and his plan for the universe. If we wish to know the facts of this world, we must relate these facts to laws. That is, in every knowledge transaction, we must bring the particulars of our experience into relation with universals. So, for instance, we speak of the phenomena of physics as acting in accordance with the laws of gravitation. We may speak of this law of gravitation as a universal. In a similar way, if we study history instead of nature, that is, if we study the particulars of this world as they are related to one another in time as well as in space, we observe certain historical laws. But the most comprehensive interpretation that we can give of the facts by connecting the particulars and the universals that together constitute the universe leaves our knowledge at loose ends, unless we may presuppose God back of this world.
As Christians, we hold that in this universe we deal with a derivative one and many, which can be brought into fruitful relation with one another because, back of both, we have in God the original One and Many. If we are to have coherence in our experience, there must be a correspondence of our experience to the eternally coherent experience of God. Human knowledge ultimately rests upon the internal coherence within the Godhead; our knowledge rests upon the ontological Trinity as its presupposition.

An Introduction to Systematic Theology , pp. 22-23.


A scientific method not based on the presupposition of the truth of the Christian story is like an effort to string an infinite number of beads, no two of which have holes in them, by means of a string of infinite length, neither end of which can be found.

The Protestant Doctrine of Scripture, p. 2.


Supporting Texts

This section touches a bit on the following article on epistemology, as it is a practical application of Christian epistemology! Now that we outlined the Christian ontology, we can rightfully ask "How do we know this?". Apart from supporting arguments given in the article itself, I hope the following texts can shed some more light on the issue. The rest of the topics where justified in the text itself.


Creator-creature distinction

Know that the Lord, he is God! It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.

Psalm 100:3, ESV


These things you have done, and I have been silent; you thought that I was one like yourself. But now I rebuke you and lay the charge before you.

Psalm 50:21, ESV


The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man.

Acts 17:24, ESV


Triunity of God

Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit ...

Matthew 28:19, ESV


But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land?  While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to man but to God."

Acts 5:3-4, ESV


In the beginning was the Word, andthe Word was with God, andthe Word was God.

John 1:1, ESV


For a greater understanding of the trinity, see James White's book 'The Forgotten Trinity'. You can click on the book below and should you choose to purchase it from there, we will receive a small commission.


Nature of man

None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God.

Romans 3:10-11, ESV


Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.

Genesis 1:26, ESV


References


[1] Van Til Diagrammed. 2020. Van Til Diagrammed. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.christianciv.com/VT_Diagrammed.html. [Accessed 28 June 2020].


[2] Poythress, V., 2013.Logic : A God-Centered Approach to the Foundation of Western Thought. 1st ed. Wheaton, IL, United States: Crossway.


[3] The Domain for Truth. 2020. VAN TILLIAN TRINITARIAN THEOLOGY: IT’S ORTHODOX STATUS AND APPLICATION TO THE ONE AND THE MANY | The Domain for Truth. [ONLINE] Available at :https://veritasdomain.wordpress.com/2013/07/06/van-tillian-trinitarian-theology-its-orthodox-status-and-application-to-the-one-and-the-many/. [Accessed 07 July 2020].

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