[With the author's permission; from Theology Today, XV, No. 4 (1959)]
IS THERE A BIBLICAL METAPHYSIC?
BY EDMOND LA B. CHERBONNIER
Is there such a thing as a Biblical metaphysic? It is sometimes held that the very phrase itself is a contradiction in terms, that the words “Biblical” and “metaphysics” are mutually exclusive. The present article will attempt to dispel this notion, and to show how the development of a Biblical metaphysic could contribute to current theological and philosophical discussion.
The first step is to clarify the meaning of the term “metaphysics.” It belongs to a family of words which are used in two distinct senses, the one general (or formal), the other specific (or material). The general sense stands for a particular kind of inquiry, as “astronomy,” for example, refers to the investigation of the stars. The specific meaning, however, denotes the results of the inquiry. In this sense, there are as many different “astronomies” as there are plausible answers to the astronomer’s question, such as Ptolemaic, Copernican, or Aztec. Similarly, the inquiry called “physics” has received several alternative answers, each of which is itself a “physics,” whether Aristotelian, Newtonian, or quantum.
Metaphysics, likewise, in its general sense, refers to a particular inquiry. The metaphysician asks: “What is true always and everywhere, regardless of time or place? And how is this truth related to the particular truths of determinate tunes and places?” Possible answers, from the atomic theory of Democritus to the idealism of Hegel, are also “metaphysics,” in the specific sense. When this sense is intended, the word is often spelled “metaphysic,” without the final s. The Biblical metaphysic is simply the systematic development of one possible answer to the metaphysician’s question, based upon hints and latent assumptions within the Bible.
Once the two meanings of “metaphysics” have been distinguished, it becomes absurd to raise objections of principle against such an enterprise. Though any proposed metaphysic may, under critical scrutiny, prove to be erroneous, none is ruled out in advance. All are eligible to compete, and to be accepted or rejected on their merits;
that is, after they have been tested by the special criteria of the discipline.
If objections of principle are nevertheless raised against the Biblical metaphysic, the explanation probably lies in the fact that one particular metaphysic (in the specific sense) has historically dominated the field. Its supremacy has been so complete that not only its advocates, but even its opponents, have often confused this proposed answer with the metaphysical enterprise as such. When they hear the word “metaphysics,” they automatically respond, “Plato.”
This premature assumption that all metaphysics is necessarily Platonic is perfectly illustrated by the following remarks of Spinoza:
“Scriptural doctrine contain no lofty speculations nor philosophic reasoning, but only very simple matters such as could be understood by the slowest intelligence . . . . I should be surprised if I found them [the prophets] teaching any new speculative doctrine which was not a commonplace to . . . Gentile philosophers . . . . It therefore follows that we must by no means go to the prophets for knowledge, either of natural or spiritual phenomena.”1
Correctly perceiving that the Bible is not Platonic, Spinoza concludes that it therefore has no philosophic import at all.
Because a majority of theologians have tacitly concurred in his verdict, Christian thought has frequently been at war with itself. This inner conflict has finally has finally come to a head in the present day, with the sharp division of Protestant theology into two camps. On the one hand, the philosophical theologian recognizes that if Christianity is to be rational, it must contain a metaphysic. He thereupon performs a tour de force which purports to reconcile the Bible with Plato, but which in fact simply obscures what the Bible is saying. He is easily convicted by his counterpart, the orthodox theologian, of violating the elementary canons of scientific exegesis.
The orthodox, however, in order to keep Plato out of the Bible, has felt obliged to repudiate all metaphysics whatever, and even to denounce rational theology as a kind of idolatry. Having forfeited human reason to his opponent, he can scarcely hope to win an argument, except by recourse to dubious methods. The theological ferment of recent years has thus issued in a stalemate. The philosophical party, despite its defense of reason, reads into the Bible a metaphysic which has no place there.
The orthodox party, despite
1Abraham J. Heschel, God in Search of Man (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Cudahy, 1955), p. 321.
a more respectable exegesis, replaces argument with a mixture of dogmatism and poetry.
Actually the present stalemate is merely the logical outcome of the basic cleavage which haunts the entire history of Christian thought. Today’s philosophical camp is the lineal descendant of men like Origen and Erigena, whose Platonism could scarcely accommodate the Bible, while the orthodox follow the example of Tertullian and Luther, who were prepared to sacrifice reason to Scripture. Despite their differences, these men all shared one prior assumption. Or rather, their differences were due to this assumption. Agreeing with Spinoza. that the Bible carries no philosophic import, they were obliged either to subordinate revelation to reason, or vice versa.
If the conflict between these two camps was less evident in the past than it is today, the reason is that the greatest theologians, like Augustine or Aquinas, tried to mediate it. The most promising method would have been to infer from the Bible a genuine philosophia Christiana -- and indeed, some bold suggestions of this kind can be found in their writings. However, these hopeful beginnings were not consistently developed. Instead, the great systems of Christian theology tried to endorse both schools at once, and to reconcile them by means of subtle dialectic.
The attempt to combine logical contraries in a single system, however, does more credit to the theologian’s heart than to his head. Its net effect is questionable on two counts. First, it has delayed a solution to theology’s basic problem by sweeping it under the rug. And second, it scarcely encourages the disinterested critic to hold Christian thought in high regard. He has only to lift up the rug to discover in even the greatest theologies a measure of double‑talk. Such an expose, sympathetic but rigorous, has been made by Arthur 0. Lovejoy in The Great Chain of Being. The following summary of his conclusions happens to refer not to Plato but to Aristotle. Where the concept of God is concerned, however, Aristotle is, in Whitehead’s phrase, simply a footnote to Plato:
“The most extraordinary triumph of self‑contradiction, among many such triumphs in the history of human thought, was the fusion of this conception of a self‑absorbed and self‑contained Perfection ‑ that Eternal Introvert who is the God of Aristotle‑at once with the Jewish
conception of a temporal Creator and busy interposing Power making for righteousness in the hurlyburly of history, and with primitive Christianity’s conception of a God whose essence is forthgoing love and who shares in the grief of His creatures . . . . Most of the religious thought of the West has thus been profoundly at variance with itself.”2
That is, the doctrine of the double truth runs through the great bulk of Christian thought. Either it is made explicit, by men like Ockham, or it is concealed by dialectical subtleties, as in the great Summas.
Theology can he expected to remain in this dilemma as long as all parties share the same primary premise; that is, as long as all assume that metaphysics, by definition, is Platonic. And conversely, the way out would appear to lie in the development of a theology which would be philosophical, though not Platonic, and Biblical, though not illogical. In short, a Biblical metaphysic.
Contributions to this enterprise have come from men of diverse backgrounds and interests. Most are Biblical scholars; such as C. H. Dodd, H. Wheeler Robinson, G. E. Wright, Sir Edwyn Hoskins, John W. Bowman, Oscar Cullmann, and James Muilenburg; some are historical scholars, like Gregory Dix and Brooks Otis; and some are philosophers, such as Abraham Heschel, who has worked out a philosophy of Judaism, W. H. V. Reade, who states most of the crucial issues in The Christian Challenge to Philosophy, and Claude Tresmontant whose two books, Essay on Hebraic Thought and Studies in Biblical Metaphysics, contain a systematic confrontation of Platonic with Biblical philosophy.
These men represent not only a variety of specialized disciplines, but also of religious traditions. They run the gamut from Jewish to Anglican, Roman Catholic to Methodist. The remarkable thing . about their work thus far is that, from such divergent starting points, and often completely unknown to one another, they have converged toward a common conclusion. On re‑examining the Bible for its own metaphysical implications, they are confident that Spinoza, and many Christians with him, have pre‑judged the case. Tresmontant speaks for them all when he says:
“Certain metaphysical requirements are implied, organically presupposed, by the [Biblical] revelation. They provide the meta-
2Arthur O. Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being (Cambridge: The Harvard University Press, 1948), pp. 157, vii.
physical substructure appropriate to the theological message of the Holy Scriptures. This theological message may not be expressed in any metaphysic whatsoever, it cannot be embodied indifferently in any structure of thought whatever. Platonism, for example, was radically unable to receive and transmit the Biblical theology of creation, Incarnation, and real presence . . . . The various aspects of Hebraic thought do not comprise a rhapsody of contingent elements, fortuitously thrown together . . . rather, they comprise the organically related parts of a coherent, systematic whole, a logically consistent structure of thought . . . . Consequently, conversion to Christianity or Judaism requires a metaphysical conversion which abandons the pantheistic metaphysics of paganism in exchange for the Biblical metaphysic.”3
In other words, the hegemony of Platonic metaphysics has been due in part to the absence of adequate competition. The following pages will suggest, in barest outline, how a respectable alternative might be derived from the philosophical implications of the Bible, and will also indicate some of its advantages over Plato.
The nature of God. At no point is the contrast between Biblical and Platonic metaphysics more obvious than in their respective conceptions of “god.” The Platonist, in his search for what is true always and everywhere, concludes that nothing can fill the bill save what is itself non‑temporal and non‑spatial. Nothing can be universally true save that which is itself “a universal.” Hence the famous formula, “the most universal is the most real.” Impelled by this rubric, his “quest for ultimate reality” finally ends with the most universal of all concepts, known variously, and apparently without embarrassment, as either Being, or Non‑Being, or both.
A “divinity” which excludes space, time, and matter is best described in terms which negate the everyday world. Its relation to the world is that of the Absolute to the relative, the Infinite to the finite, the Timeless to tile temporal. None of these designations is compatible with the God of the Bible. The Biblical God is not a universal, but a particular ‑ a Being, not Being‑Itself. The incarnation of Christ is no paradox. To describe it as such is to betray a Platonic point of departure. What the Biblical conception of incarnation is shouting at the top of its lungs is that whatever the difference
3Claude Tresmontant, Études de Métaphysique Biblique (Paris: J. Gabalda, 1955), pp. 7, 215 (referred to below as EMB). ‑ My translation throughout.
between God and man may be, it has nothing to do with space, time, or matter. It reaffirms the contention of the book of Genesis that the nature of God himself is not incompatible with the nature of man. That is, the difference between God and man is not primarily a metaphysical difference. Though he exists only at the pleasure of his Creator, a living man is quite as “real” as the living God. Any attempt to combine this God with Plato’s in a single “system” is destined, under the logician’s scrutiny, to split in half. The two “theologies” are ill competition with each other. In metaphysics, as in life, there is a battle of the gods.
In plain words, the Biblical alternative to Plato’s “Being‑Itself” is a bold anthropomorphism. There is no a priori reason why this metaphysical hypothesis should not receive the same consideration as any other. The present writer, however, has made a careful search for a single rational refutation of it. His findings are exhausted by a catalogue of phrases like “subjective,” “projection,” “wishful thinking,” “narrow,” “crude anthropomorphism,” “primitive superstition,” “beneath a philosopher’s dignity,” “a fog of absurd notions,” and other similar epithets, none of which contributes a great deal to testing the Biblical answer to the metaphysician’s question.
Not only is the conception of God as Someone remarkably free from legitimate metaphysical objection; it also possesses a positive strength of its own, a strength described in the following words by the British philosopher, W. H. V. Reade:
“When fear of anthropomorphism induces men to reject the idea of a personal God, they simply delude themselves. What they propose is just as anthropomorphic as what they reject, and the only evident result will be that they have provided an inferior substitute for God. Whether it be the “unmoved Mover” of Aristotle, the id quo maius nihil of Anselm, or any similar abstraction, no hypothesis of that kind will ever prove anything but the failure of logical ingenuity to establish the existence of any Being who can be worshipped as God. The reason is that personality, however indefinable, is the highest “category” that we possess. Whenever we are promised something infra-personal, we may be certain that something infra‑personal is what we shall get. Between divine and human personality the distance is doubtless immeasurable, but to attempt to improve the situation by taking refuge in the impersonal is a counsel of despair . . . . The savage makes a debased idol because his notion of human personality is debased.”4
4W.H. V. Reade, The Christian Challenge to Philosophy (London: SPCK, 1951), p. 67.
While the Platonist, in his search for what is true regardless of place or time, postulates a realm of being beyond space and time, the Bible’s answer to the same question is the “Living God.” As the participle “living” implies, timeless categories are far less applicable to such a God than frankly temporal words. He speaks, acts, judges, forgives, loves, creates, redeems -- in short, he engages in those purposive, intelligent. activities which are distinctive of a free agent. The key words by which the Bible describes God are all verbs.
When the Christian theologian objects, as even Calvin did, that a God who “does things” cannot be “the infinite” or “the absolute,” he is simply saying that if Plato’s metaphysic is correct, then the Bible’s is false. But he sometimes forgets to add,” ‑ and vice versa.”
One may readily agree with Plato that “ultimate reality,” whatever its nature, must provide the philosopher with a fixed point of reference, a lodestar around which his system may be securely oriented. But where Plato concludes that these “eternal verities” can be found only outside the flux of time, the Biblical metaphysic is focused upon the person of God. It does not look beyond time, but focuses upon his steadfastness within time.
“He is the living God, and stedfast forever” (Dan. 6: 26).
“. . .with whom there is no variableness, neither shadow of turning” (James 1: 17).
“For I am the Lord, I change not” (Mat. 3: 6).
“Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and today, and forever” (Heb. 13;8)
This is the Bible’s answer to the metaphysician’s quest for a truth which never fails. The difference between this answer and Plato’s is the difference between that which, by definition, cannot change, and him who, de facto, does not change. Until anthropomorphism is found wanting on logical grounds, there is no reason of principle why the “quest for ultimate reality” should not lead the metaphysician to look for the kind of God who could say, “I am the Truth.”
To object that terms like “the absolute” and “the infinite” are, “necessary principles of thought” is really to beg the question.; They are simply corollaries of the Platonist’s prior premise that “the’ most universal is the most real.” The adequacy of this premise is
the point at issue: does it satisfy the criteria of metaphysical inquiry? Its record is not unimpeachable. For thoroughgoing Platonism regularly obscures or denies the distinction between “being” and its opposite, “non‑being,” thereby violating the most important of all logical rules, the principle of consistency. And self‑contradiction remains self‑contradiction, whether marketed as “the courage to embrace tension” or “the humility to accept paradox.” Prima facie evidence thus suggests that the Platonic, rather than the Biblical Cod, obliges its followers to contravene the principles of thought.
Faith and reason. The whole problem of “faith and reason” is radically recast within a Biblical context. Or rather, it ceases to be a problem at all. The problem only arises within a Platonic framework, where faith acquires either of two meanings. Either it is a kind of half‑way house between doubt and certainty, and definitely subordinate to the latter, or it is equated with the extra‑cognitive moment of mystical illumination, which allegedly transcends the distinction between subject and object. In either case, it has been reduced to a kind of apprehension, and in neither case can it be reconciled with reason.
Within the Biblical metaphysic, however, faith is not reducible to a mixture of certainty and doubt, or to any special mode of apprehension. Rather, it is a voluntary relation of absolute trust in him who alone holds the answers to Plato’s questions. As Reade describes it:
“Faith is neither what Plato and Aristotle understood by ‘knowledge,’ nor what they meant by ‘opinion’; neither the certitude of exact science, nor the state of uncertainty which prevails when science is lacking . . . . Faith . . . is not in essence an attitude or mental condition relative to any kind of impersonal facts, but rather a vivid consciousness of absolute trust in a Person.”5
In the Biblical world‑view, the primary words all refer to those activities which distinguish persons from the impersonal, and especially to those which characterize relations between persons. The metaphysical priority is reserved for transactions between free agents: purpose, covenant, loyalty, promise, love, trust. forgiveness, repentance, gratitude, deception, betrayal, sin, and judgment.
5Reade, op. cit., pp. 64, 106.
Once this metaphysic is established, the “problem” of faith and reason disappears. The only question is whether God is in fact trustworthy. Once a person asks this question, he is prepared to receive the Biblical proof for the existence of God. It is neither the ontological argument nor any variation of the cosmological argument, both of which presuppose an un‑Biblical conception of God. The Biblical God never asks men to believe without evidence, from the burning bush to doubting Thomas, but the evidence is of a kind appropriate to a Living God: the fulfillment of his promises. Hence, the very great significance which the Biblical writers attach to the fulfillment of prophecy:
“Let all the nations be gathered together, and let the people be assembled: who among them can declare this, and show us former things? Show the things that are to come hereafter, that we may know that ye are gods . . . .
“I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient time the things that are not yet done, saying. My counsel shall stand, I will do all my pleasure . . . . I have purposed it, I will also do it” (Is. 43: 9, 41: 22; 46: 9‑11).
God’s existence is proved, not by the philosopher’s ingenuity, but by God himself. The only problem is to persuade the philosopher to ask the right question.
The one and the many. The Achilles heel of all philosophy of Platonic stamp, whether Oriental or Western, is the impossibility of explaining the relation of the one to the many, the timeless to the temporal., the infinite to the finite, the absolute to the relative. All attempted explanations amount in the end to what Kierkegaard calls “solution by superscription”; that is, while they purport to solve the problem, they really only state it in other terms, such as “reflection,” “participation,” “emanation,” and the like.
For the Bible, the relation of God to the world is that of Creator to creation. That is, he is related to the world as an agent is related to his act. Because his act is free, you can never deduce it from the “essence” of the agent (which is possibly one reason why this solution has not occurred to the Platonist). But once the act is given, it is perfectly reasonable to account for it as an expression of the agent’s will. The famous problem of “the one and the many” is thus only
a problem for a metaphysic from which free agents are excluded. In the Biblical metaphysic, for which free agents are central, the Creator is related to his creation by an act of will. Moreover, the Bible is not obliged, as Platonism is, to disparage the created world as in some sense a distortion and contradiction of we reality. On the contrary, it can be the best possible medium for the self‑expression of God. Far from being “unreal” or “impregnated with the stigma of non‑being,” it is the object of his keen concern (“not a sparrow falls to the ground . . .”). As such, it enjoys the highest possible claim to importance in the eyes of men. The Biblical God, alone among candidates for his title, can create a world which is not the negation of himself.
Moreover, human beings, whom he has endowed with a somewhat similar creative capacity, stand in the same relation to their own acts as God to his. The consequence is that every human word and deed is fraught with metaphysical significance. It either enhances or impedes the over‑all purpose of God. In the words of Jesus, “Every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment. For by thy words shalt thou be justified, and by thy words shalt thou be condemned” (Matt. 12: 36, 37). The small decisions and casual interchanges of daily life are thus transmuted from a hum‑drum round of tedium and trivia into a dimension of unlimited opportunity, from Plato’s meaningless shadow play into the frontier of the Kingdom of God.
Religious language. The problem of specifically “religious” language, currently receiving such solicitous attention, disappears within the Biblical metaphysic. In Platonism, the language of the everyday world, since it is characterized by the “subject‑object structure,” cannot apply to the “divine”. At best, it can be used only suggestively, to stir up in the hearer a hint of what can never be said but only intuitively felt. Within such a metaphysic, one is bound to conclude that “religion is the poetry men live by.” And one is also saddled with the insoluble problem of which poetry is “more true.”
The Biblical doctrines of creation and incarnation, however, imply exactly the opposite. They imply a continuity between the language of the spatio‑temporal world and the language appropriate to God himself. As Tresmontant vividly puts it:
“The advantage of the Hebraic method of metaphysical communication . . . consists in its being universally comprehensible. [It]
takes departure from what is most concrete and common, from the universally human. It is not allied with any particular culture; with all the contingencies which accompany it, nor with a particular system of abstractions generally reserved for a privileged class . . . . The Biblical parable is equally intelligible to the Galilean peasant, to the Corinthian docker at the time of St. Paul, and to the contemporary worker in the factories of Paris. One must add, especially to them. The sense of the meaningfulness of manual labor, the love for the concrete, which characterize the parables, are looked upon as a deficiency by the Platonic mentality.”6
In the Bible, there is no technical vocabulary, and hence no problem. of relating “religious language” to ordinary speech.
Epistemology. Consistently with this position, the Biblical metaphysic contains no special “problem of religious knowledge.” It makes no appeal to “mystical intuition” or “religious insight” or any other special faculty beyond the range of ordinary human experience.
What it does do is to dethrone that kind of knowledge which has been so highly exalted by scientist and philosopher alike, the knowledge of general principles. Plato, for example, would hold that the universal is logically prior to the particular (“the most universal is the most real”), and that knowledge of universals is therefore of greater consequence than knowledge of particulars. The Bible maintains the exact opposite. As Reade puts it:
“He [Plato] thinks of doxa (be it opinion, “belief” or “faith”) as a mental condition determined by and relative to a class of objects [i.e., particulars] which, because they are not perfectly real, can never be perfectly known . . . . Whereas in Plato’s estimation, the objects of opinion [particulars] are inferior to the objects of science because, they are too concrete, in Christian estimation, on the contrary, the objects of science are inferior to the objects of faith because they are too abstract. . . Abstract thinking, in fact, yields the maximum of certainty and the minimum of truth.”7
The rationale for this inversion of the Platonic hierarchy of knowledge is quite simple. The Biblical metaphysic recognizes that even, the most all‑embracing principle of science or philosophy is still the product of someone’s mind. The individual thinker is therefore
6Claude Tresmontant, Essai sur la Pensée Hébraïque (Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 1953). pp. 66, 67 (referred to below as EPH). ‑ My translation throughout.
7Reade, op. cit., pp. 64, 106, 145.
logically prior to his thoughts, rather than vice versa. To reverse this priority, as the Platonist does, is like saying that a book is logically prior to its writer. It amounts in the end to believing in a sort of disembodied “thought,” apart from any thinker (“thought and being are one and the same”).
The Bible is not so credulous as that. While it might agree with Plato in measuring the significance of a thing in terms of logical priority, it finds this priority not in abstract universals but in the concrete individual who creates them. In Biblical philosophy, the free agent is father to the thought. The knowledge of universals, though of very great usefulness to men, is thus subordinated to the knowledge of persons.
Knowledge of persons, of course, can never be attained by the methods of science and philosophy alone. In fact, if the person chooses to “clam up,” it can be attained by no method at all. It is always dependent upon his own initiative. And this is all that is meant by revelation: one free agent voluntarily discloses something of himself to another by his words and his deeds; that is, through particular, historical events. To say that the Bible is the revelation of God is simply to say that it records the words and mighty acts by which he made himself known to a particular people at times and places of his own choosing. To a Platonist, the notion that ultimate reality can best be known through particular, spatio‑temporal occurrences is a contradiction in terms. Within the Biblical metaphysic, on the contrary. this is simply the normal way, indeed the only way, in which to become acquainted with a free agent. Particularity, far from being a “scandal,” has the highest metaphysical credentials, for God himself is a “particular.”
It follows, of course, that knowledge of God, like the knowledge of any free agent is radically a posteriori. His character could not possibly be inferred by means of the general principles of science and philosophy. Authoritative pronouncements on the subject - such as the familiar claim that “God cannot be a being besides other beings” ‑ are simply indirect ways of saying that the theologian can read God’s mind. The way to preserve the mystery of God is to acknowledge his freedom. One is then less inclined to legislate for him than to wait and see what new thing God will do ‑ to see whether he has in fact chosen to create other beings besides himself.
Could anything be more obvious than that he has in fact done so?
Nevertheless, the Bible understands perfectly that seeing is not believing. It is one long chronicle of men’s refusal to believe in spite of what they saw and heard. This is precisely the point of the parable of the sower, as also of the prophetic words, “Neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead” (Lk. 16: 31).
This view contradicts the common (and ultimately Platonic) notion that Christian “faith” is simply an interpretation of events, as though these same events could be interpreted equally well from a number of different perspectives. According to the Bible, only one interpretation can do justice to all the facts. Other interpretations, when subjected to critical scrutiny, will be found wanting. Moreover, the correct interpretation is usually quite obvious. The Bible therefore draws its line of distinction, not between those who see events “from the standpoint of faith” and those who do not, but between those who believe what they see and hear, and those who do not. The latter can be refuted by objective evidence, even though this by no means suffices to change their minds. Because Biblical theology does acknowledge objective standards of verification, both logical and factual, it is perfectly equipped for the enterprise of apologetics. It is not obliged to oscillate between moral indignation and righteous relativism.
Correlation of truth and goodness. By showing that specific knowledge of God can only be obtained a posteriori, through his concrete words and deeds, the Biblical metaphysic sets limits for itself. It uses a priori reasoning to discover the limits of a priori reasoning. Knowledge so obtained, though indispensable to the rational quest for God, is formal only. It can correct mistaken conceptions of God, it can tell the philosopher where to look for him, and even how to recognize him. But specific knowledge d persons, and consequently of God, no metaphysic could ever provide.
In short, the function of metaphysics is to lead the philosophic horse to water. No amount of philosophizing, however, can take him further. Metaphysics can help a man to think, but cannot make him drink. Whether he does so depends not merely upon what he thinks, but also upon what he wills. At this point, Biblical epistemology passes over into ethics.
This analysis inverts, another of Plato’s most cherished assumptions. Where he so stoutly maintained that goodness is a consequence of knowledge, the Bible reverses this order. The most important kind of knowledge, the knowledge of persons, depends upon !he orientation of the will and the heart. It is quite possible to be an expert scientist, an expert Platonist, or even an expert Biblical metaphysician, regardless of one’s ethics. But knowledge of persons presupposes a certain emotional and volitional relationship. Where this is lacking, knowledge is impossible. Hence the prophecy: “Ye shall hear, but not understand; and ye shall see, but not perceive. For the heart of this people is waxed gross” (Acts 28 :26 27). Hence also the words of Jesus to his disciples: “Perceive ye not, neither understand? Have ye your heart yet hardened?”(Mk. 8: 17). The plain inference is that knowledge of God depends upon the quality of one’s will, that hardness of heart produces hardness of head.
Conversely, the prerequisite to knowledge of God, as to knowledge any other person, is a positive orientation of the heart. This explains the frequency of such Biblical phrases as “being in the truth.” They assume that before the ultimate truth can be known, one must be the right relation with him who is the Truth. This right relation as the Bible conceives it, is loyalty culminating in love. Hence this strong correlation between fidelity and truth, a correlation perfectly expressed by the phrase “to be true”; that is, true to someone. And hence also the equally strong correlation between falsehood and fidelity or deceit. “Through deceit they refuse to know me, saith the Lord” (Jer. 9:6). To be false is to remain in ignorance.
In the Biblical metaphysic, however, the verb “to be” is generally used metaphorically. To “be false” is shorthand for “to behave falsely,” to “play the harlot.” The “state of being,” such as ignorance, is always dependent upon a prior act of betrayal. The verse is expressed in the common Biblical phrase, “doing the truth.” The following citations are representative of the several contemporary authors who have begun to develop this most unplatonic conception:
“We have to love in order to know. . . . Right living is a way to right thinking.”8
8Abraham J. Heschel, op. cit., pp. 281, 283.
“For the Church . . . the two tasks, the doctrinal and the practical, are inseparable; on Christian truth depends Christian practice, while conversely, without the practice the truth cannot be discerned.”9
“Knowledge and life comprise one whole . . . . Intelligence is not separated from life . . . [nor] from action, [but] is an act which involves the whole man. It proceeds from the heart of man, as an act of his freedom. It is dependent upon this primordial, original act of choice.”10
These passages are simply variations on a theme of Hosea:
“There is no truth, nor mercy, nor knowledge of God in the land. By swearing and lying, and killing, and stealing, and committing adultery, they break out . . .” (Hos. 4: 1, 2).
This close correlation of goodness with knowledge, and evil with ignorance constitutes a direct challenge to that kind of theology which would make a virtue of agnosticism.
Conclusion. Merely to state a position, of course, is a far cry from validating it. Yet until it does receive explicit statement, it can scarcely be critically evaluated. Owing to the widespread assumption that all metaphysics is Platonic, however, the Biblical metaphysic has sometimes been denied a fair hearing. Its critics, both orthodox and philosophic, have assumed that any deviation from Plato must either end in irrationalism or else be swallowed up in an omnivorous ontological trap. The present article, by sketching briefly some of the points at which Platonic philosophy is contradicted by Biblical, has tried to show that such criticism reflects a prejudice, and thereby to remove one of the principal obstacles to the further development of the Biblical metaphysic.
Though it has yet to undergo the full rigors of logical analysis, at some points this metaphysic does appear to enjoy a philosophic advantage over Plato. If it should successfully challenge his long preeminence, it could also provide the basis for a theology which would be truly ecumenical. By satisfying the demands of both reason and Scripture a could heal the breach which has for so long bedeviled; Christian thought.
One of the principal architects of the Biblical metaphysic is sufficiently confident of the outcome to exclaim:
9Reade, op. cit., p. 191.
10Tresmontant, EPH, pp. 125 f.
“Lift up your head, O Jerusalem, and see those who have been oppressing you, endlessly reproaching you with having transgressed the rights of reason and introduced irrational myths into Hellenic order. What remains of the arguments with which they have been wearying you? Behold, thou who hast preserved the faith: the real Himself shown that you were right!”11
Christian and Jew need scarcely be surprised at these sanguine words. For what could be more characteristic of the Creator‑God than to vindicate the Bible with the philosopher’s own weapons, to silence Spinoza at the bar of reason itself?
11 Tresmontant, EMB, p. 34.