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Not a Cistern, but a Fountain

Tertullian’s famous quip, “What hath Athens to do with Jerusalem?” is misleading. While he, like the apostle Paul before him, was right to raise concern over certain vain philosophies perpetuated by the Greeks, even he had to acknowledge the unavoidable task of interpreting the fundamental nature of reality. This quest for understanding has captivated the minds of philosophers since Thales first raised questions concerning the nature of being. The desire to speak honestly concerning the things of the earth culminates in the central question: what does it mean to be? The answer to this question undoubtedly bears on all things which are, which raises the stakes on incorrect conclusions. If one rightly understands reality, his metaphysical convictions will serve as a guide on the path of truth. If one misunderstands reality, however, these incorrect metaphysical convictions will lead him off the path of reality and into chaos.

The question of being was not lost on Moses and the Israelites. In Exodus 3:14, God revealed himself to Moses by saying, “I am who I am.” As the one who simply is being itself, God identified Himself to Israel as the self-sufficient creator and sustainer of all that is becoming. While Moses did not flesh out all the metaphysical implications at the burning bush, the seeds of Christian metaphysics were indeed sown on that holy ground.

As the one who simply is being itself, God identified Himself to Israel as the self-sufficient creator and sustainer of all that is becoming. Click To Tweet John Kenney points out, “God is, in consequence, unbegotten, unchangeable, and incorruptible. This fusion of the Platonic conception of being itself with the God of Exodus 3:14, who identified himself as the one who is, will henceforth become the linchpin of Christian metaphysics.”[1] As the ensuing chapters of Exodus demonstrate, Egypt’s gods were no match for the eternal and unchanging God who does not derive His existence from another.

The seeds of classical Christian metaphysics that God planted in the desert were watered by the New Testament authors and further cultivated by the Fathers, Medieval Scholastics, and Reformed Orthodox, resulting in a set of commonly held assumptions about the nature of reality. More importantly, these shared assumptions resulted in the confession of common doctrinal truths concerning the nature of God. At the fount of this stream was the concept of God as actus purus, or pure act.

Pure Act and Perfection

Actus purus asserts that God is perfect and lacks nothing. Since God is pure actuality, there is no passive potentiality within God that is waiting to be actualized. As actus purus, God is fully in act and is thus eternally actuating his active potential. Put simply, God’s pure actuality guarantees his eternal perfection and self-satisfaction.

The seeds of classical Christian metaphysics that God planted in the desert were watered by the New Testament authors and further cultivated by the Fathers, Medieval Scholastics, and Reformed Orthodox. Click To Tweet In arguing his five ways for proving God’s existence, Thomas Aquinas demonstrates that everything currently in motion must be actualized by something other than itself.[2] Nothing can be in motion without prior actualization because objects cannot actualize themselves. Based on this reasoning, Thomas makes a critical move. Though temporally speaking, potentiality is prior to actuality, logically speaking, actuality must precede potentiality because nothing can actualize itself. Thus, for all actualized movers to exist, behind them must be an unactualized first mover. Thomas concludes that the first mover “must be pure act, without admixture of any potentiality…Everything which is in any way changed, is in some way in potentiality. Hence it is evident that it is impossible for God to be in any way changeable.”[3] Herein lies the metaphysical connection between God’s pure actuality and the fullness, or perfection, of His divine attributes.

Pure Act and Simplicity

Aquinas sees this perfection in relation to the simplicity of God, meaning that God is not composed of parts. According to Aquinas, God is not a composite being made up of potentiality and actuality but rather is pure actuality itself. This means that God is not a being that changes or becomes something else, but rather, God is the ground of all being and the source of all change. Aquinas further demonstrates that all other beings are composed of potentiality and actuality. Humans, he explains, have the potential to become more virtuous or more knowledgeable, but we are not purely actual beings like God.

Etienne Gilson also demonstrates the connection between pure actuality and divine simplicity. He writes, “To say that God is absolutely simple, since He is the pure act of existing, is not to have a concept of such an act, but to deny Him… any composition whatsoever.”[4] As Moses learned in the desert, God simply is. Simplicity can be construed negatively and positively. Negatively, God is not composed of parts. Positively, God is pure existence.

Ed Feser explains, “Pure active potency or power unmixed with any passive potency or potentiality is just pure actuality and identified by the Scholastics with God; in everything other than God active potency is mixed with passive potency.”[5] God is pure being, and thus, He is never becoming, which is why the Scholastics found no trouble equating the God of the philosophers with the Triune God of the Scriptures.

Negatively, God is never in a state of becoming because any change necessitates that God is either changing for the better or for the worse. Both options prove perilous for upholding the absolute perfection of the God of the Bible. Positively, God is pure actuality, always being and never becoming. Thus, all of God’s metaphysical attributes come together to affirm that God is the one, simple, eternal, infinite, immutable, omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent, first cause of all that exists who has life in himself.

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Lance English

Lance English is an editor for Credo Magazine and a Ph.D. student in Systematic Theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He serves as a pastor at Trinity Church in Kansas City and is married to Brielle.

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