Introduction to Classical Christian Metaphysics – Part 1

Post Author: Bill Pratt

Most Christians don’t care anything about metaphysics, and truth be told, don’t even know what it is. I hope to entice you, the reader, with a reason to learn about it. One very important reason for learning Christian metaphysics is because any Christian ethical system must be grounded in metaphysics.

You can’t generate a robust ethics without a robust metaphysics lying underneath. Philosopher David Oderberg explains that it is “impossible to know how the world ought to go, more specifically how one ought to act (or what makes a state of affairs or action good, or worthwhile, praiseworthy, etc.) without prior knowledge of how the world is.”

A realist moral theory (one that claims that there are real, objective moral values) must define/identify the source of moral values before it can get off the ground.  Metaphysics is the discipline that does the work of identifying the source of moral values, because metaphysics is the study of being, of existence.  If moral values really exist, then metaphysics must identify them.

Obviously there are other reasons for learning Christian metaphysics, but I will approach this introduction with the goal of providing a foundation to Christian ethics. What follows is largely taken from three books which I cannot recommend enough for anyone who wants to understand these issues. They are The Last Superstition and Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide, both by Edward Feser, and An Elementary Christian Metaphysics by Joseph Owens.

Let’s begin with the metaphysical principles of act and potency. In order to explain the way change of any kind is possible, Aristotle introduced the metaphysical principles of act and potency.  Edward Feser illustrates:

Take any object of our experience: a red rubber ball, for example. Among its features are the ways it actually is: solid, round, red, and bouncy. These are different aspects of its ‘being.’ There are also the ways it is not; for example, it is not a dog, or a car, or a computer. The ball’s ‘dogginess’ and so on, since they don’t exist, are different kinds of ‘non-being.’ But in addition to these features, we can distinguish the various ways the ball potentially is: blue (if you paint it), soft and gooey (if you melt it), and so forth.

Thus the red rubber ball is in act by way of actually being solid, red, round, and bouncy.  It actually is those things.  The ball is in potency by way of potentially being blue, soft, and gooey.  It could potentially become those things.  Change occurs when a potency is brought into act, or when a potentiality for being is made actual.  There is a potential for blueness in the ball, but this potential will not become actual unless an external influence acts upon the ball.  Thus the classical Aristotelian principle emerges: whatever is changed is changed by another.

All finite beings are composites of actuality and potentiality.  However, Edward Feser notes that “while actuality and potentiality are fully intelligible only in relation to each other, there is an asymmetry between them, with actuality having metaphysical priority,” for potentiality cannot exist without actuality.  “It is incoherent to speak of something both existing and being purely potential, with no actuality whatsoever.” However, it is perfectly coherent for pure actuality to exist without any potentiality.

In part 2 we will look at the metaphysical principles of form and matter. Remember that we are building a metaphysical base for Christian ethics, but you won’t be able to see how all of these metaphysical principles work together until we get to the end, so stick with me!

  • sean

    An interesting take on reality. I am curious to see where it leads. I have one question. Does it matter that we use this terminology? For example, could I simply describe the ball by saying “the ball is,” and “the ball could be”? Do the words act and potency matter?

  • Act and potency are technical terms used by philosophers. The reason to use these words is that when you are reading philosophers of the Aristotelian-Thomistic school, you will know exactly what they are talking about.

  • Jake

    Very well-written and thorough explanations, I look forward to the next parts.

  • I’ve understood the importance of metaphysics very early on.

    Now, I’m trying to express my modest thoughts on such topics on my blog.

    You’d be most welcome to come and give me constructive criticism 😉

    Lovely greetings from Germany
    Liebe Grüße aus Deutschland

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

  • sean


  • Thanks, Jake. If you ever have any spare time from your school work, I think you would really enjoy Edward Feser’s The Last Superstition. It is very well written and packed full of information.

  • Thanks for the invitation, Lothar. I read your most recent post and it is right on the money. The only thing I would add is that I do not think the Euthyphro Dilemma is a real challenge to Christian theists. There is no dilemma when we understand the nature of God.

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