Science: The Concept of Nature in the Thought of John Philoponus

“We must now ask how this dynamic and relational way of thinking in his science, strictly in accordance with the nature or reality of things, affected Philoponos’ theology in giving it a dynamic form in the doctrine of God and of salvation.”

—Thomas F. Torrance in Theological and Natural Science, p. 6

This essay is an attempt to clarify the way that the great 6th Century Alexandrian Grammarian, John Philoponus, thought to employ his concept of nature both in his philosophical or scientific works and in his theological works. It is argued that, for Philoponus, there exists a real cognitive interface between the science of his theology and the science or philosophy of his physics and cosmology. It is further argued that, standing on the holy ground of this interface, we may seek to understand the contingent order of the Universe as it comes to us from the Word or Logos of the Almighty.

Take the concept associated with the term ‘Israel’. It means
different things to different people, even in the Biblical World. It signifies
differently to different peoples in various epochs in the history of the
Biblical World. At Fuller Theological Seminary, the Bible scholar William
Sanford LaSor, in his book entitled Israel, explored the meaning of this
term across the epochs of the Biblical history with some sense of its mystery
in its times and spaces in the history of the world. As a concept, the term
possessed various significations across different centuries in numbers of
diverse contexts, indicating a range of meanings with regard to the realities
to which such a concept belongs. The Bible reader if referred all of these
realities by this one term.[1] In
a similar way, the concept of Nature had meant different things to
different people in various times and different contexts in our efforts to read
the nature of the Universe. The great Quantum physicist, Paul Dirac,
could employ the term in his science with the assumption of the real solidity
of its significance for his physics.[2] Yet
only a few years later, the Cambridge physicist, Roger Penrose, in his
magisterial work entitled The Road to
, can write about the possibility of understanding the wholeness of
this Universe: “True—so they might argue—we have been fortunate enough to
stumble upon mathematical schemes that accord with Nature in remarkable ways,
but the unity of Nature as a whole with some mathematical scheme can be no more
than a ‘pipe-dream’. Others might take the view that the very notion of
‘physical reality’ with a truly objective nature, independent of how we might
choose to look at it, is itself a ‘pipe-dream’.”[3] In
contrast to the reserve of our more modern scientists about the concept of nature,
we find with our philosophers about science, like André Mercier, ample
attention to the concept along the lines of Dirac’s assumption.[4] What
has happened here?

Professor Penrose’s only reference to the term nature in his Table of Contents is made
with regard to the ‘holistic’ nature of
the wave function in the Quantum World.[5] However,
he has contributed to a study exploring the concept of nature where he
has distinguished SUPERB theories from USEFUL or TENTATIVE ones about the nature
of the physical world.[6].
Still there is no reference in his index to the term. No effort is made to
define the Universe as a whole.[7] We
will not find a discussion of nature as
a general principle or concept in his thought. It seems implicit in his many of
his explications of the various phenomena throughout this magisterial work,
whose science he attempts to show us, but the concept of nature as a
whole, it seems, remain something of a ‘pipe-dream’ for scientists today. Evidently,
we can speak about the nature of
various fields, with their continuums and their particles of energies, as we
speculate about the ways we might become able to integrate these fields and
particles in the future, yet knowledge of the Nature of the Universe as a whole must remain presently beyond our
grasp. Unlike the ancient philosophers, today’s physicists are reluctant to
conceive of the Nature of the whole
Cosmos or Universe, let alone the Nature of
God Himself.[8] Concepts
like ‘Israel’ then and nature, face
us with perplexing referencing power. They
belong to a realm of consciousness and conscience that confronts us with
on-going challenges as to the actual substance of their significance. I would
refer to them as ‘fluid axioms’ in the history of thought. We may employ them
without a final definition, even as we are free to seek to discover and
understand some real correspondence between them and the realities to which
they would refer us in our times. The history of our experience with these
axioms evidently requires an appreciation of our freedom to learn with our use
of them of realities we apprehend only with a deep appreciation for the

These problems that we face about some real correspondence
between theory and experience, the intelligible and the sensible, when we seek
to understand the whole and parts in any field of knowledge, is wondrously
evident throughout the works of Philoponus.[9] Evidently,
the use of terms and concepts associated with nature, their universal
and particular properties, their wholes and their parts, are to be variously
assessed in diverse fields of knowledge across the centuries of the development
of human thought. Our efforts to understand the fundamental realities that
belong to the vital correspondence between thought and experience in our
relations with nature is in fact at the very heart of the interface of
our concerns both then and now. In 6th century Alexandria, the
Grammarian, John Philoponus, sought to understand anew the nature of the
Creator and the nature of the physics of His Creation, the nature of
God and the nature of the Cosmos as it was conceived in his time. This
same problem has confronted the both ancient and modern philosophers in fact,
both modern researchers and ancient seekers of wisdom among the ages of
civilization. It remains fundamental to our progress for human thought and

In these efforts, wonder and knowledge, freedom and the
human imagination, are seen to resonate across centuries of civilized endeavor.
They mark with steady progress the miracles of our understanding, the blood,
sweat, and tears of human life and endeavor. We believe, with Philoponus, that
those who seek the fruits of such efforts in our Creator become Incarnate in
His Cosmos may find directions in their times that characterize the advance of
civilization. If we work for the joy and beauty of this understanding, we work
to obey His Command among the nations in our world. Perhaps in our time the
confrontation between the Biblical World and the Physical World is more vital
than ever for this progress. Perhaps it will take a new courage for
philosophers, scientists, and theologians alike to discover our obedience to
this Command. In any case, we may and we must seek still today for such
resolutions between these worlds that must belong to the real future of our
race upon this earth.[10]

Such challenges arise when we seek to understand the wholes
and the parts of our experience, the universal with its particulars, in
dynamical fields of knowledge that together make up the potential and actual
relations between the physical universe and human consciousness. These
challenges that Philoponus sought to face still face us today.[11]
It appears evident that both ancient and modern wisdoms are required for real
openness to the transcendent in the nature of the Truth with which we
have to do in our time. Einstein could refer to God in this sense as the ‘Old
One’.[12] The
changeless and the changeable in created time and created space belong to his
reason incarnate in existence. What is eternal and what is temporal in relationship
with one another give us pause always to meditate upon the question of the nature of space and time and motion and
energy and matter in this world. We will always need our philosophers and
scientists in this case. It seems incredible to me that some can think that the
theologian and the philosophers and scientists are free to view themselves as
enemies. It seems not at all impossible that we shall need to learn to think as
friends of those things for which John Philoponus loved to contemplate. Questions
at the interface between uncreated realities and created realities remain
fundamental for us today. They challenge all of us. To think that science and
theology are enemies is to think, I believe, with very old habits of thought
indeed. Who can conceive of the day when those who seek to possess knowledge of
the nature of the Universe will be
able to pretend that the nature of
God, of which the Bible speaks, remains silent in our efforts? I believe it is
evident that, when the universe speaks to us of its nature, it cries out
ever for an explanation that must come from beyond itself. God has always
answered this cry with His Word, with His Silence only in some fearsome
judgment upon us. His answer is what we talk about when we speak about a created
reality, made out of nothing, as an object made out of acts only the
Transcendent One, the Redeemer-Creator, can commit.[13]

Dr. Thomas Spear Torrance has gathered some of his father’s
later essays into a collection entitled
Natural and Theological Science
.[14] The
Right Reverend Professor Thomas F. Torrance has explored, explicitly and
implicitly, the concept of nature in
these essays. He argues that it is vital to grasp the cognitive interface that
must exist between our knowledge of God and our knowledge of the Universe. In
this collection of essays, Professor Torrance has continued to champion
rational contingency whose intelligibility is fundamental at this interface,
the contingency of a world as God’s Creation out of nothing is bound up with
the Church’s doctrines of creatio ex nihilo in the Beginning and the
Incarnation of the New Beginning. Among
these essays he refers again and again to John Philoponus and the Academy at
Alexandria in Justinian’s Empire where the Grammarian labored in the fields of
science and theology. Torrance seeks to bring to light the rational
substantiality of the concept of the nature of the contingency of the
world, against the abstract necessities and arbitrary subjectivities we may
employ in our seeking to understand the fundamentals of this created nature.
In this light, it is right that we discover a proper ground upon which we may
stand to apprehend the fundamentals of both physics and theology, the Cosmos
with its God, whose doctrines the Church seeks to articulate. Torrance seeks to
make both theologian and scientist aware of our need to stand on this ground,
where we may precisely embrace that interface between created and uncreated
realities where real progress may be made. I believe he points us to the Alexandrian
in the hope that we may face our futures with the grace and truth of this God
and Lord.[15]

In this essay, then, I would like to explore the concept of nature as it is found in the thought of
John Philoponus. The Grammarian wrestled hard with both Platonic claims and the
physics (nature) of Aristotelian forms of knowledge regarding the fundamentals
of space and time and matter and energy and motion in the Cosmos.[16] He
wrestled with some genius and great courage. He was perhaps the first Christian[17] to
take seriously for the physics of the world the Christian doctrines of
‘Creation out of nothing’ and ‘The Incarnation’ in its space and time, and the
fruit of this serious work has just begun to become apparent for us in our
time. With his Christian faith, he sought to give definition, meaning, and
significance to the concept of nature in the full light of the Lord’s Day, when
time itself would be seen to serve His purposes in the world.[18]
What appeared as a very new way of thinking about things had to fight
its way into the history of the world’s thought about them. The Neo-platonic
fashions of his day, championed by Simplicius, could read Philoponus as
something of maniac seeking some sort of fame among the ignorant. Simplicius
attacks upon Philoponus appear today the passions of a very mean spirited man,
in spite of his denial of any personal animosity against the Grammarian.[19] With
Professor Torrance, I believe Philoponus’ way of thinking about God and the
Universe could very well and significantly help our efforts in science and
theology in our time. We need a theological science and scientific theology if
we are to make any significant advance.[20]

Professor Torrance and I first met at Fuller Theological
Seminary in 1982. He had come that year to deliver the Peyton Lectures and,
because of it, I changed my Ph.D. dissertation topic from the Book of Isaiah to
a study of John Philoponus. My dissertation is published as ‘The Setting in
Life of “The Arbiter” by John Philoponus.’[21] Philoponus
had produced an Christological treatise on the Incarnation of the Word of God
for the Emperor Justinian aimed at the concerns of the 5th
Ecumenical Council of the Church at Constantinople (553 AD). Eventually, the
Church, East and West, Byzantine and Roman, condemned his efforts. I argued in
my dissertation that the Anathema was a tragic mistake of epoch making
proportions.[22] Philoponus
has only recently begun to receive the credit and attention that he deserves. Both
Professors Sorabji and Torrance have helped to end the way he has escaped the
attention in philosophy and theology. I have attempted, as steadily as
possible, to seek to penetrate into the significance of the Grammarian’s
thought at the interface even for the Church’s proclamation of the Gospel today.[23] I
believe that Torrance’s challenge at the interface between Faith and Reason,
Belief and Knowledge, Revelation and the Nature of Created Reality, is a call
for some real progress to be made in our time, a progress that will take us
quite beyond the many fashions prevailing in so much of our so-called
post-modern world. The direction in which Torrance has sought to send the
Church is, I believe, and imperative one.[24]

Along these lines, I would like then to analyze the use of
the concept of nature in the thought
of John Philoponus. I would seek to understand the way that the Alexandrian
employed the term in his interaction with Aristotle and the Neo-Platonism of
his time as well as with his contemporaries in seeking positive resolutions to
theological problems in the Church. His penetration into the nature of
the Creator, made known to him in the Incarnation,[25]
and his understanding of the nature of the Creation cannot be divorced from one another in the
development of his thought. I would hope to clarify the dynamical use he made
of his concept of nature in the light
of their relationships. I believe that
he was able, because of these relationships, to introduce a new way of
thinking and understanding the Church’s Christology, as well as a new grasp of
the physics of the Ptolemaic Cosmology with which he worked in his time. I
believe we need to begin with the development of his Christology as read in
‘The Arbiter’.[26] Then we
may hope to hear his thought resonate with understandings he is able to achieve
about the nature of the Cosmos.[27] The
dynamical and kinetic character of Philoponus’ definition, I would argue, when
viewed through Platonic or Aristotelian lenses can easily be misconstrued and
leads to his condemnation. But the concept of nature in the thought of Philoponus is mistakenly interpreted when
Neo-platonic categories are employed to comprehend the science of the
Alexandrian. Categories such as Eternity and Time and so forth, understood in
the Light of the Incarnation and the Creation out of Nothing in the Beginning
possess very different definitions and properties than those formed by Greek
philosophy, when it is not believed that anything can come out of nothing and
that the world must Eternal if God is to be our God.[28] Even
with his fellow Christians,[29]
Philoponus could be interpreted in just this manner, so as to become viewed as
a heretical Monophysite and Tritheist. When seen through such lenses,
antecedent conceptual systems conceived outside of the time of God
Self-Revelation as the Word of God and imposed upon the significance of the
Incarnation in the Creation, Philoponus could become condemned by both friend
and pagan, by both Byzantine and Roman authorities.[30] Yet
I believe that, properly understood, Philoponus’ concept of nature may be brought to bear fruitfully
upon the problem of correspondence even in our modern sciences, and that our
modern attempts to understand the nature of
the world with our experiences of it and its relationship to the nature of God can be helped by the thought
of the great Alexandrian scientist and theologian.[31]

The Creator-Redeemer, whose Word Philoponus believed he had
heard, could not rightly be conceived of except in the Light of the Lord that
He is of all space and time, energy and matter, belonging to the Cosmos. In
this way, the very Being of God Himself as the Father, Son, and Spirit of God’s
Eternity has been revealed as the Creator. Without the Incarnation’s Revelation
of this Triune Creator, no one is free to seek to apprehend nature with its powerful purpose, meaning,
and significance as the Universe of Man. The Triune Creator is thought to
exercise a personal power with the contingent rationality of the created orders
that cannot be understood without Him, potentially or actually. We may become
enabled to grasp the potential and actual cognitive interface between the nature of the Creator as the Blessed
Trinity and the nature of the
wholeness of a unique Universe that is His Creation. In this way, the
substantial and rational contingency of the world’s space and time, matter,
energies, and motions, experienced phenomenally by the human race upon the
earth, may be grasped as time as times being overridden by its
Redeemer-Creator. My belief is that, unless we are able to deal with the
dynamics of a physics at just such an interface, we will not to be free to seek
to understand, with our imaginations and very human wills, why this
Creator-Redeemer is in His relationship to the world is the One that He truly
is for us.[32]

Thus we cannot employ static necessary logical definitions
of the term nature when we seek to
grasp its real significance in time. If we look up ‘phusis’ or nature in
the Liddell-Scott Lexicon, where seven species of nature can be read, we cannot simply select one of them to serve
our purposes at the interface between the divine and the human natures in which we are interested.[33] For
instance, ‘The realm of nature for
Aristotle’, writes P.H. Wicksteed, ‘includes all things that move or change, or
that come and go, either in the sense of passing from ‘here’ to ‘there’, or in
the more extended sense of passing from ‘this’ to ‘that’, which latter phrase
is equivalent to ‘becoming something that is and was not’—a solid becoming a
liquid, or a hot thing becoming cold, for instance.’[34] Nature is thus a principle, and the
principle of change along with its relations to changeable things belongs to
what is permanent, to the Eternal. Nature
belongs to a principle that belongs to the imperishable as well as to the
imperishable. The translators point out, quite rightly, that his ‘Lectures on Nature’ are better read as ‘Principles
of Natural Philosophy’, since Aristotle seeks always to understand the
relationships between the particulars of change with their causes in
relationships with his eternal ‘logos’, a concept of order embedded in a Cosmos
defined by heavenly permanence and earthly change. As eternal principles, the
causes of changing belong in first place and inherently to the very Nature of Eternity, where there is no
becoming. It was not easy understanding the way these two realms belonged to
the one world. But in any case, for the Philosopher, Nature was
necessarily defined by an eternal principle whose rationality informed all
other rational existence. If it did not, then the phenomenal was merely
accidental and impermanent and irrational. The relationship between Change and
Eternity possessed a necessity the causality and logic of which was none other
than the ‘divine logos’ of the great
Demiurge of the world’s Eternity. Not to understand this ‘logos’ was to be more than stupid about God, Man, and the Cosmos. To
apprehend the nature of the principle
of this ‘logos’ meant the discovery
of all that was good and beautiful and true in the very power and passion of
the Divine embedded in this world. But for Philoponus, the 5th
sphere was no more divine than the four of the fire, air, water, and earth. Contingency
and contingent rationality and intelligibility meant the world was not eternal,
but created out of nothing.

It ought to be easy for us to see here the positing of a
necessity that possesses an abstract assertion about the nature of the contingency of the world. This necessity then acts
like a ‘Natural Theology’ in the form of an antecedent conceptual system
providing arbitrary definitions of the potentials and actualities that we seek
to understand about the Cosmos. We do not experience the motions of the world
against such an Eternal Sky. The God of this Sky and the Necessity with which
He reigned was named the Prime Mover. It was with this First Cause that the
experience of Mankind upon the earth was gripped. The ‘demiourgos’ of the elements of this Cosmos became known as the
Unmoved Mover, who overrides all our experience upon the earth of all change
beneath the heavens. It was this Necessity and this sort of ‘divine logos’ that John Philoponus with
his Christian beliefs worked against so strongly. For the cause of the Logos
who is and was and will be the Creator of the whole of the Cosmos, come as a
man among us for the sake of the Redemption of ‘All’, Philoponus worked
tirelessly and with some genius in the community of the Church. In his attack
upon the Eternity of the Word and Aristotle’s physics, the Alexandrian
championed a concept of the contingency that denied any necessity whatsoever
between God and the world and also any arbitrariness between them. Wisdom was
the God of the Bible in the Beginning. So Philoponus sought to grasp and
development his physics in the Light of the Creation as it belonged to the
Revelation of the Logos. The independence of the nature of the Cosmos was to be understood as rooted freely in and
freely depended upon the Divine Freedom of this Word, a freedom to be who He
truly is as the Creator and as the Redeemer of His Creation out of nothing of
the Beginning. It was with this same personal power that He could be depended
upon for His promise of the New Creation. It involved a concept of nature that was new and required a new
dynamical and integrated view of God and the world, a view we will seek to
understand as best that we can.[35]

Richard Sorabji’s team of translators appears to be mostly
interested in the interaction between the Alexandrian and Aristotle.[36] C.J.F.
Williams, while recognizing that the Grammarian sought to assert a new
conception of ‘prime matter’, deals mostly with the problems that exist between
understanding Aristotle’s ‘eternal world’ as the first cause of the ‘temporal’
and ever changing world of our experience. In nature, the ancients seek
for the harmony that exists between them. External and internal changes belong
differently to eternal causes. This holds the key to the problem with regard to
the whole that belongs to the eternal heavens and the parts of the temporality
we experience on earth everywhere below the moon? Aristotle’s famous ‘5th
substance’ among the elements, fire, air, water, earth, provided the basis upon
which we may seek to understand the connection between this ‘temporal’ world
and this ‘eternal’ world. To break with the logical-necessity inherent in their
connection to one another was simply blasphemous to the Master and then his
commentators in Greek Neo-Platonism. Mathematics and reality, infinity and
finiteness, the perishable and the imperishable present us with problems that demand
logical explanation if we are to understand the Divine Logos. What is the nature of the connection between those
divine heavens and this temporal earth? How do we understand the
intelligibility we understand of them and the sensible experience of our lives?
How may we grasp of the relationship between the wholeness of that eternal
world with the particular phenomena of this changing one? What is growth and
becoming mean to the imperishable and unchanging One? What is the relationship
between the infinite and the finite and the eternal? What happens between the
potential and the actual of the infinite in relations with finite processes?[37] To
read the works of these translators is to wrestle with some very fundamental
questions indeed. But nowhere in Williams do I find any substantial
appreciation of Philoponus’ concept of the contingency of created things and
his doctrine of Creation out of nothing at work.[38] Here
the world of Aristotle’s physics is assumed and employed to translate the
Grammarian’s thought. It is as if the dynamical nature and kinetic
energies of Philoponus’ arguments could not be understood except based upon the
supposition that the heavens were eternal and everything else below the moon
was temporal. But William Charlton’s translation of Philoponus on Aristotle
does wrestle with the role of contingency in the logical dialectics between
possibility, potentiality, and actuality in the Greek Cosmos.[39] He
translates the Greek endexomenos as contingence with much the same
thrust that we find in Torrance’s understanding of it.[40]
The concept of the contingent nature of the Creation still struggles
today for its real, rational, and substantial function in the dynamics and
kinetics of our modern physics. It can yet be thought of as impossibility for
the rational unity of the universe. With the Greeks, even for many today
nothing can come out of nothing and the something that is what it is must be
explained in necessary, logical terms. But for Philoponus, it is not impossible
that these things are what they are as created realities in our experience of
them—where both a perishable heaven and a perishable earth shape the context
in which we have our being, with a beginning and end—rationally and
substantially, and form the context in which we are to we work out our destiny
with the Almighty.

We may point, however, to Christian Wildberg’s translation
of Philoponus’ attack against Aristotle’s notion about the Eternity of the
World.[41] Here,
it is understood that, in place of the Necessity posited by the Greeks between
the Divine and the temporal of the Cosmos, split into the two realms of the
eternal heavens and the temporality of earthly processes of its elements, along
with ‘the 5th substance’, Philoponus invented his concept of the ‘3-Dimensional’,
whereby he was able to articulate his relational view of space and time. The
relationship between the place of matter in motion in the world and the space
of the world is conceived with the use of the 3-Dimensional in dynamic and
kinetic way that binds space to the places of matter in motion in the world
while maintaining, at least in thought, its independence of them. Space is
bodiless dimensionality that provides structure to the invisible aspects of the
visible world. Space is not to be thought as the identical with the place of
matter and motion, however much it is bound up with them in our experience of
them. We can think of the 3-dimensionality of a space free from containing any
matter and motion, even while we must experience it with that motion and
matter. The extended intervals of this free space are in dynamic and relational
kinetics with cosmic motions and matter. Space possesses in this way a bodiless
structure free from the place of matter and motion and free also to participate
with them in our experience of them. It is this 3-Dimensional concept that
provides the basis upon which we may understand the physics of the world and
not Aristotle’s divine ‘5th substance’ or Aether.[42] This
relational view of space and place very much reminds me of John Archibald
Wheeler’s saying about the ‘4-dimensionality’ of Einstein’s space-time: “Space
tells matter how to move; matter tells space how to curve.”[43]
Space and time and matter and energy are all bound up together with one another
dynamically and kinetically in an invariant objectivity that is pure diamond
for those who seek to understand and measure the physics of the
Universe. John Philoponos’ ‘3-Dimensionlity’ appears to function within the
Ptolemaic Cosmos appears in analogy with the 4-dimensionality of Einstein’s
Legacy and cosmos of his General Relativity Theory. But John Philoponus
understood the dimensionality of the invisible world as a contingent and
created intelligibility the rational sensibility of which was utterly dependent
upon the personal will and power of the Incarnate God, whose Creation out of
nothing in the Beginning and in the present was and is what it was and is by
His Word, sustaining very purposively the matter and energy, motion, space and
time of the Cosmos of light. Einstein simply considered a miracle that we can
understand such a Universe.

In any case, it was this way of thinking that drove
Simplicius, the adversary of Philoponus, to such distraction about the
Grammarian. Much of what is extant of Philoponus belongs to Simplicius’ dislike
of the Alexandrian’s physics. He could call Philoponus a maniac, a blasphemer,
nothing more than a man writer lengthy works to the ignorant as a fame seeker,
and despise him.[44] It was
not until the Copernican revolution, and then Galileo, and finally Newton that
the triumph of Philoponus’ impetus theory, based upon his concept of the
Beginning of the Creation, was put to fruitful us in the development of our
physics.[45] It was
not until Maxwell and Einstein then that his light theory as a bodiless energy
enfolding the whole of the Cosmos, a field theory that could explain sight as
well as the heavens, could win the imaginations of our race and make its
contribution to the experience of our scientific culture. What Simplicius’
called a ‘passing garden’ has proven in history to be a more solid and
permanent conception than the thought of his adversary.[46] Galileo
Galilee, in fact, used the name of Simplicius in his adversary in his
‘Dialogue’[47] and he
knew well the work of Philoponus and his impetus theory and its resonance with
his discoveries and his own understanding of the motion and matter in his new
world of physics. The new concept of a definition of nature, the goal
indeed of the great Alexandrian both in his theology and his science takes time
to take in. Viewed with condemnation by many of scientific colleagues,
condemned by the Church, it is tempting to contemplate what history would have
been like if the Anathema had not branded him with indifference and ignorance.[48]
If we study the history of science as the struggle for the substantial and
intelligible and positive grasp of the contingency of the world as it comes
from the power of the Creator and His interaction with us in His Creation, it
can readily be shown that His Purpose is fulfilled in His Incarnation of His
Word. I think then we may be able to gain some insight into this history and
what the Bible means when it accuses the peoples of the nations of making idols
against the supreme Majesty of His Truth.[49] Evidently,
it would indeed be helpful if could appreciate the substantial contingency of
the actuality of the world with its physics and its dependence, even in its
very real created independence of the nature of God, upon the Almighty
Creator for its nature. Would then we not be the more free to explore
with confidence and dignity the actual space-time, matter-energy, fields where
we have been given our lives by the Holy One or the Old One, as Einstein liked
to name Him?[50]

With Philoponus, we want to argue that we cannot divorce the
one from other, however imperative that it is to separate and distinguish them,
if we are to take hole of with our minds and bodies the real contingency and
contingent freedom and order that is His Creation, both with the invisible and
the visible worlds of the Cosmos or Universe. Fortunately, we can read today
both a full translation of The Arbiter and de Opificio Mundi in
English. We ought now to be able to penetrate more deeply into concept of nature
in the thought of John Philoponus. By hearing the resonance of the two
works with one another, we can hope to learn more about the way Philoponus’
concept of nature in both his theology and science were bound up with
one another.[51]

The Arbiter was written for the Emperor Justinian in
preparation for the 5th Ecumenical Council of the Church called to
Constantinople. The Emperor needed some resolution between the two parties of
the Church that could debate the nature of the Incarnation in such a way
that deep splits between them were fostered. Philoponus thought a resolution
was possible if only all concerned would be willing to consider the problems
afresh, in the light of the discipline the Truth itself brings to bear upon us
both in the Church and in the world. The crux of the arguments flared around
those who would confess the ‘one composite nature’ of Christ and those who
confessed ‘two natures’ of Him, even after the union that He was in the
Incarnation. Philoponus thought that a careful and cool analysis of the
problems, in the light of the way that science understood things in the Cosmos,
that a fresh understanding could be achieved and the parties certainly
reconciled. History would show him to have been wrong, at least up to the
present time. The Anathema has been on his work formally and officially since
680 AD.[52]

The reason Philoponus thought that he could be successful
was bound up with his understanding of 1) the homoousion of Nicea (325
AD) as foundational for apprehending the nature of who the Word and Son
of God is with His Father in the Spirit of God (the consubstantiality of the
Son with the Father in the Spirit of God
2) the hypostatic union, as
formulated by the fathers of the Church at Chalcedon (450 AD), which denied any
change or divorce in the ‘union’ of the natures, divine and human, as
the Person of the Lord Jesus Christ, against any form of adoptionism or
representationalism, Arian or Nestorian. The hypostatic union together
with the homoousion guarded against every docetic or Ebionite form of
thinking about the Incarnation and the Godhead of the Father, Son, and Spirit
3) it was not impossible to grasp in all of its depths the relational and
dynamical logic of the Person of God in such a way that, when piously employed,
would give all parties in the debates an agreement about the ‘Unity’ into which
the Church had been called in the Name of Christ. To articulate the logic of
this ‘Unity’ was certainly the goal and purpose of The Arbiter.

We investigate first the terms of this logic in The
.[53] Then we
will focus our attention on chapter seven of The Arbiter, the chapter
used to condemn its author.[54]

Philoponus had to integrate the significance of the terms we
translate as Logos (logos), Being (ousia), Hypostasis (hupostasis),
Nature (phusis), and Person (prosopon). Their integration as the
One Being and Three Persons of the Godhead was the challenge that the
Grammarian had to face in the controversies that flamed around the Church’s
thinking about the Incarnation. Philoponus warns his readers that it takes an
eye of a purified soul to see the Unity that results from a scientific
consideration of these terms common in the debates of his day.[55] The
debates about the ‘two natures’ confessed at Chalcedon and the ‘one nature
confessed by the same council meant to refer the Church the same reality of God
in Christ, but obviously how the two confessions might be thought to signify
the same Christ in God was, historically, a real problem that the Grammarian
would seek to resolve. How may the confession of the ‘two natures’ be
understood to agree with the one incarnate of God the Word or Son that
belonged to Cyril of Alexandria at Chalcedon? Philoponos assumed that Cyril’s
confession meant that there existed ‘one composite nature’ that Christ
is, after the union, to be understood, in line with Chalcedon, to be a union of
the ‘two natures’ without confusing or changing them and without
dividing or separating them. That is, the two natures were to be
understood as one nature in such a way that their integration pointed us
to the One Christ who was the Word and Son of the Father in the Spirit of God. It
was not impossible, thought John Philoponus, to achieve an understanding of
their Unity.[56] That is
what he set out to accomplish with his argument in The Arbiter.

In Chapter Seven, the chapter used to condemn the
Grammarian, Philoponus is ready to define for his argument the term nature.
He writes:

F. H. Chase’s translation:” Now, nature is considered
to be the common basis of those things which share in the same essence.”

U. Lang’s translation: “Thus it holds (the Church) that nature
is the intelligible content of being common to participants in the same

J.E. McKenna’s translation: “Nature is understood to
be the common basis (logos) upon which
exist those things that participate in the same being (ousia).[57]

Philoponos is interacting with the class-exclusion logic of
the Neo-Platonic way of carving up reality into genus and species of various
categories of existences. Each of the species of a kind or class will belong to
the same genus. The illustration given in the argument is the class of Man,
whose being is a genus possessing rational, mortal, life which all men have in
common with one another. Yet it is only experienced and knows as species whose
individual natures are understood as a Peter or Paul, or John and so
forth. Thus, the term nature refers to what Man holds in common as well
as to what he is an individual being. The dynamic of this definition assumes a
resolution of the problem of the whole and the parts of the class. The nature
of the whole obviously exists in our thought, but is only experienced by
our senses as particular individuals. Nature exists at once as the
common basis (logos) of Man apprehended on an abstract level of reality,
which allows us to distinguish Man from Horse and Tree, and so forth, but it
exists as such differently among the particular individuals of the species on
the level our sense experiences of one another, as Peter and Paul and so forth.
Nature exists in one way as the Logos of Man in distinction from Horse, and
so forth, and in another way as those individuals we know in our daily
experience of one another
. Theory and experience together are
dynamically implicated in this resolution of the whole and the parts. Explanation
of the nature of any being (essence, substance) in its class inherently
is bound up with this dynamic definition of things.

With this sort of resolution in mind, Philoponus can write:

F.H. Chases’s translation: “Consequently, each nature may
be taken as an essence not in one way along, but in two. (P. xxx)

U. Lang’s translation: “Therefore, each nature is
called, what it is, not in a single, but in a twofold manner.” (p. 191)

J.E. McKenna’s: “Consequently, each nature is not
thought to exist singly (as one thing merely) but doubly (on two levels of
existence at once—the common and the particular, cf., Volume 1 Number 33,
June, 1999, p. 3)

W.Böhm’s translation: “‘Natur von dem, was ist,’ besagt also
nicht immer dasselbe, sondern hat eine doppelte Bedeutung.’ (p. 417)

The comment I made in my article,
along with my attempts to translate his thought, sought to highlight the vital
significance of this dynamical character in Philoponus’ thought. The context in
which the sentence was written provides us with insight both into the Church’s
employment of the term and his scientific culture’s use of it.[58] Nature
must be able to refer its readers in the Church appropriately now to the ousia
or being
(essence, substance) of the reality of God and then to His hypostasis
or persons
that we meet in Christ. The One in the Three are both revealed
as the Triunity of God, Father, Son, and Spirit, in a dynamic unity that
belongs to the actuality of His Revelation as the Creator. One does find an
analogous manner speaking among the Schoolmen, who talk about the Essence (ousia)
of Individuals (atomo) as the genus and species of a certain
substantiated class of existence. This way of carving up reality, where the
whole is integrated dynamically in some way with its parts and the parts are
made to participate differentially with the whole in any class of genus and
species allows Philoponus to employ both his scientific knowledge as well as
his knowledge of God in some appropriate analogy with one another.[59] I
tried to make this point in a presentation on the concept of nature in
the thought of John Philoponus at the Pascal International Conference on
Science & Belief, August 11-15, 1992. I find myself trying here once again
to makes the same point.

The importance of apprehending this point is immense. It is
deeply rooted in the real Knowledge of God that the Alexandrian believed he
possessed. It is a dynamical point that allows him to employ as a scientist and
as a theologian a way to understand God in His relations with the Creation. Here
is the ground upon which the conversion of our thought occurs in the Light of
the Revelation of God.[60] This
concept of nature is rooted in the Freedom of His Holy Love as the Word
of God to create and occupy this ground, and here in such a way that the Church
is made to participate with the Great I-AM He is as the Revelation of the Lord
God in Christ He actually is. It is on this ground we may come to appreciate
that the individual Christ is with us is also the One who indeed is none other
than Very God, the True God (the homoousion of Nicea). Based upon this
concept, Philoponus can seek to analyze the concept in relationship to that nature which is referred to the genus and species of class exclusion
categories we read according to the Porphyrian Tree or Aristotelian logic. The nature that exists in all men as
Mankind, where no one differs from another (All men are created equal!), also
is found to exist in each particular or individual man, where individuality is
an acquired property differentiated from the common basis or ‘logos’ of the
class. In the first case, nature exists with the ousia (being, essence,
substance, logos) of the class and secondly as hypostases or prosopon of
the class. I believe that there is no sense trying to understand the
argument of The Arbiter without this point. To my mind, the dynamic
mediatory function of this concept in the debates between those of the ‘two natures
parties and those of the ‘one nature’ parties is definitive. It is this
dynamical nature that allows us to think of the way both poles of the
relationship are constituted with a reciprocity that is both asymmetrical and
symmetrical at the same time. No resolution is possible without this mediatory
function of the concept of nature in the thought of Philoponus. It is
with the dynamics of this concept that we may, indeed, relate the concepts of energies and properties between the common
and individual[61]
natures of any class
. But
we must understand that the great scientist’s discussion of this dynamical nature
is made ultimately in the Light of his belief in the Triunity of God. Reconciliation
of the parties must be based upon the Love of this One and not on
meta-metaphysical speculations. Without the Life and Love of Him who is our
Reconciler, any attempt at reconciliation is hopelessly conventional, because
it is not in actuality the Unity the Lord prayed to His Father for those who
would believe in Him (John 17).

As for the nature of
, then, it refers at once both to the ousia of the hypostasis of Christ, at once differentiated and integrated with the ousia of the Godhead, Father, Son, and
both at once differentiated
and integrated from and with one another. Christ’s divine nature exists as an ousia that belongs to the One Ousia the Father, Son, and Spirit is even as Three hypostases or persons. When the One refers to the
Godhead, it signifies a common nature.
When the One refers to a particular person, it signifies an individual nature, with properties acquired as
differentiated energies defining in particular the One Will of God for His
Creation. Neither the Father nor the Spirit has ever existed as the Incarnate
One. But they exist with and through the Son or Incarnate Word as the One the
Lord God is. Only the Son, as the Person of the Lord Jesus Christ,
became Incarnate and not the persons of the Father and the Spirit. Yet
each and all participate in the Incarnation with their natures and Nature.
Without grasping the dynamical functions of the concept of nature in the Church’s explication of the Triunity of God in this
way, Philoponus’ Christology will not become free from the condemnation of the

Let’s look more closely at the interaction of the dynamics
of this nature. We need to apprehend the significance of the concept of
the anhypostasis of the hypostatic union.
This intends to signify that the Word did not leave His Heaven somewhere and go
into a flesh that already existed outside of Himself. Verbs used in this action
ranged with such meanings as ‘assumed’, ‘snatched’, ‘took’, ‘got’, and so
forth. But no matter what verb we may employ, the vital thing to understand is
that the personal and divine power of the whole Trinity is to be thought and
understood as involved in the wholeness of the action of sending the Son of God
into the world. The flesh of the Word of God is from beginning to end His
Flesh, a man as no man before Him or no man after Him. As such, he belongs to a
class by Himself, a unique being not found on the Porphyrian Tree or the Logic
of the Greek Philosophers. His class or kind belongs to and is defined by the
Trinity of the I-AM that the Lord God is, who does not exist beside others of
his kind or class as a species of a genus. His is an ousia that exists absolutely off the map. His nature is both Divine Nature and human nature as this One Nature,
something absolutely new in the history of the world. It is this ousia whose nature is defined now with the hypostatic
of the divine and human natures
of the Eternal Son become the Incarnate Word and known as the Person of
Jesus Christ in the world. God the Son in His action as this man among men in a
world thus discloses the actual being of the Creator of this one Creation. There
exists outside of this action, outside of this ‘assuming’, ‘snatching’,
‘taking’, ‘getting’, no hypostasis of any
flesh into which the Son has
gone. The Word assumes a flesh that did not
exist before He assumed it. We say that He assumed it out of nothing. It is
this action that is in tune with His action in the Beginning. We say that the
New Beginning He has made with His Incarnation resonates with the beginning
that He made out of nothing in the Beginning. The two beginnings confirm and
affirm one another, each in their very own way bearing significance, for the
purpose that belongs to the fact that God wills to be known for who He truly is
as the Redeemer-Creator of His Creation.[63]

In this light, we ask about the significance of the anhypostasis of the hypostatic union. There
exists no hypostasis or person into which the Word went in His
Incarnation. There is, however, a divinely created and creative activity of
deliverance when the Word ‘assumed’ His Flesh. This concept keeps us from
forming any notion of ‘adoptionism’ with our understanding of His Person.
The Incarnation is a created reality bound up with the uncreated reality of God
Himself as an absolutely unique event in the history of His Creation. We must
learn to grasp it according to His Nature. We must not begin with
anything that man thinks he knows prior to the Incarnation. In order to grasp
what has happened with this man that is God’s Incarnation, we must seek to
understand on His own terms, according to His own Nature.

This ‘assuming’ or ‘snatching up’ is then an act of the
Grace, the Divine Nature of which at once means our deliverance in the
Light of the One the Creator is. It is an action that we say only the
‘Pantocrator’ can take. The mystery of the Incarnation is in this way to be
understood as even more profound than the mystery of God’s act in the Beginning
of the Creation. Here is more deeply hidden among the secrets of His Being that
which belongs to who the Great I-AM He has disclosed Himself to be with us. Delivered
in this way for Him, it is not impossible for us to know Him as the One Being
He truly is. It is not impossible for us to be given to know Him as the
incomprehensible One He truly is, in theory and in experience. We should not
consider merely as potential our knowledge of God. His Revelation is both
actual in theory and direct in sensible experience. What God in fact has done
and does with Himself in the history of a world that is His Creation, with the
history of a Mankind that is His Image in His Creation, must be considered as
solid knowledge, the facts of which are bound up with the true mystery of His
Being and majestic Nature. All who
think that it is impossible will need to reconsider their assumptions about the
nature of the Universe, the nature of Man, and the nature of this Divine Being with the being
of this Divine Nature
. (‘I am who I am!) For with the Divine Freedom
of His uncreated nature and being He has united Himself to our human
freedom in the form of Christ. He has in this way provided forgiveness even for
those who would employ their created freedom to oppose Him, and then to give us
to know Him as the One Redeemer-Creator that He truly is for us, Father, Son,
and Spirit of God.

Most often the thought experiments in Philoponus’ science
have this thrust about them—‘it is not
that such and such is’—as he challenges his contemporaries to
think anew throughout the volumes of his commentaries on Aristotelian physics
and Christian doctrines. ‘The Arbiter’, chapter 26, where ‘no-kenoma
translates anhypostasis, in the
context of an argument that intends to show that we see the humanity of Christ
right before our eyes, when our eyes are given to see as they ought to
see—the Union of this particular man with His Being and Nature in the Being
and Nature of God Himself. Thus, nature is a term that exists to signify
at once the whole and the parts of the Unity the Blessed Trinity is. The Syriac
verb employed for the action is from the root {nsb}, a Semitic term used prominently to signify the way the Lord
God delivered Israel from Egypt in the tradition of the Exodus read in the Old
Testament. The internal action with the Incarnation bears the significance of
this kind of free action and interaction. Christ come as a man among men, with
his own hypostasis and nature, different
from all other men, comes with a freedom rooted in the freedom of God to act in
this way for our sakes. In this way, it is not impossible that the singularity
He is, marked off from all other men with His own hypostasis or nature, also possesses a participation in the
Becoming of the One ousia or Being of God, Father, Son, and Spirit as
the Creator and Redeemer of the world.

Thus, some kind of complimentary must exist between the
concept of the anhypostasis in the hypostatic union and the enhypostasis of the humanity of the Word or Son that Christ is in the Union. Even
though the hypostasis of the Word did
not exist as a man and it is in Him that we are to conceive of the hypostasis of His humanity, yet the hypostasis of His humanity is no
less real that He is in His Eternity. It is only that the hypostasis of His flesh exists in some kind of complementary in
composition with the hypostasis of
His Word. The enhypostasis of the hypostatic union would in this way keep
us from thinking that Christ is anything less than fully Man as a man among
men. His person is as real as the Word of God is. His humanity is as
true as the Word and Son of God is. His existence as a man is thus the Word and
Son of God. His is a true hypostasis or individual existence as
this individual man of this One Word of God. The concept guards us against
forming any docetic or Gnostic notion about Jesus Christ. He is as real a man
as any man is real, even then more so. In any case, He is no phantom, no ghost,
no mere appearance, no passing image among the flood of images we might
conceive of the Logos or Word of God. He is not even a prophet, as in the Old
Testament, upon whom the Word has come. He is the Word of God Himself. He is
this one and only Word that there is of God as this Lord, more human than any
of us, because the nature of
His Being with His Father in the very Spirit is of this God Himself
this one particular, individual, rational, mortal, living creature among us. Thus,
the existence of the Savior is unique among us and He is not to be thought of
as a genus among genera or then a species among the species of men, Peter,
Paul, and John and so forth, as an individual man without the Word or Logos of

Together, the concepts of the anhypostasis and the enhypostasis
composed the hypostatic union whose nature is the Incarnation. The divine nature and hypostasis of the Word
united with the human nature and hypostasis
of this particular flesh, without transforming the one into the other and
without at the same time divorcing them in any way, shape the New Reality of
the New Man Christ is with His New Creation. With this New Beginning, the
Incarnation is the confirmation and affirmation of the First Reality of the
First Man. He is the justification and sanctification of the Beginning of the
Old Creation. It is in the Light of this New Man that the Church is has been
conceived and commanded to proclaim this New Creation of God, this coming
Kingdom of God for Mankind and His Creation. It was with the dynamics of this
‘not-impossible’ thought that Philoponus learned to perform his many thought
experiments and to question afresh the nature
of the world as God’s Creation and the nature
of Man within it as God’s Image. The Incarnation meant for the Alexandrian
a whole new concept of God, of the Cosmos, and of Man.[64]
The actuality of the Incarnation in the history of the world called for a new
physics and a new concept of its nature, one that would allow human thought
to seek by faith to find real correspondence between its experience in the
world and the world’s profound and mysterious nature. In times when we
seek for new mathematics, for new physics, for a new window onto the nature of the world, it seems to me that
we would be greatly helped by the kind of thought experiments Philoponus
utilized to bring theory and experience together in his Alexandria. We should
not allow them to escape our attention today. Such experiments are as necessary
as the LIGO and LISA experiments of our ‘post-modern’ world, when scientists
hope to detect the evidence of Gravitational Waves from a Big-Bang Beginning
passing by our space on and above the earth. It is not impossible that they
have something to offer us even now.

I believe the failure to
understand Philoponus at this point and his significance for theology and
science lies behind the struggles we have experienced across the centuries
between the Church and our cosmologies and physics. A few bad marriages can
lead people to think they are enemies. Yet one good one can persuade us that
they are more than allies. It is not impossible that Philoponus’ commitment to
grasping the Cosmos of the Creation made out of nothing in the Beginning, a
Creation with which God is free to act even to the extend of His Becoming the
Incarnate God, can help us find the new mathematics and physics we need in our
time. For the Alexandrian, nature signified both the abstract existence
of an invisible world that is to be apprehended only with a freedom of thought
and imagination while grasping with our sensibilities the solid facts of our
experience. He did this with a very dynamical mode of rationality that belongs
both to our senses in the visible world and to our apprehension of the
invisible world, where darkness and light participate in a motion that is
intrinsic to what the time and space of the Cosmos is. They are all bound up in
a created commonality and in created differences with the one nature the
created world where Mankind, male and female, has been given His place in the
Cosmos. Without the dynamics of this way of thinking under God, the Greeks
would be right—nothing can come out of nothing!

But for the Christian, it is not
impossible that species and genus, the individual and the common essences or
substances of Man even with the fundamental particles and the vast continuum of
space and time should participate in an harmony whose dynamics form by
integration and differentiation a symphony of music, when the invisible and
visible worlds are heard to be bound up together with one another in the Being
of the Creator. Thus, the basis of the contingency of all created reality finds
its meaning beyond itself in its dependence upon the Lord of all space and
time. They are, after all, the work of His Hands, His Word. For Philoponus, it
is this personal power that makes created reality what it is, space, time,
light, motion, energy, matter what they are. His uncreated Being and Nature possesses
the secret their origins. His Nature ultimately defines theirs, a
definition given by the actuality of the Risen Lord, the Person of Jesus
Christ. It is this principle or Logos that makes Philoponus seek to correct and
go beyond Aristotle. All truth and beauty and goodness and purpose that we
sense in this world does not come from Aristotle’s ‘logos’, but from
Philoponus’ Logos of God. Without such dynamical ways of thinking, we would all
still be thinking that we lived necessarily in an Eternity World that was
absolutely Divine. We would prefer an Idol to who He truly is in His Eternity![65]

Once Philoponus laid down this
understanding of the nature of nature and its function with the
integrations and differentiations appropriate for consistency with Christ in
the Triunity of God, he has little trouble sorting things as to their belonging
at once both to the ‘ousia’ or
essence (substance) that any class holds in common with itself and to the ‘hypostasis’ or ‘person’ as an individual species of its genus, which in the case of
Man we know as Peter, Paul, or John and so forth, each in possession
differently of the common genus of their class as rational, mortal, living
creatures. Nature means then at once both the abstract entity we
apprehend with our thought belonging to the common essence or substance of the
class of Man, grasped not only as a common genus but as that genus with each of
the species in the class, our minds and our senses may be satisfied with a
Truth that exists outside of our knowing of it. When the invisible world and
the visible world are thought together in this way, we may know we have laid
hold of a reality that has to do with God’s Truth. We may in this way of
thinking suppose to be able to integrate the individual human nature of
Christ with the nature He alone possesses in common with His Father and
the Spirit of God from God’s Eternity.

Thus, for Philoponus, the
definition of the ‘one composite nature’ is in no way at odds with his
definition as ‘two natures’ confessed at Chalcedon. That the two phrases
intend to point to the same reality that Christ is in His existence ought to be
evident to everyone who can think rightly and honestly about the Creator. It
should appear self-evident that the mystery of His Reality and the solid
concrete character of His Being or Nature cannot tear apart from one
another. In fact, the ‘one composite nature’ of Cyril’s confession is,
for Philoponus, following Cyril of Alexandria before him, the most positive
grasp of the ‘two natures’ posited by the fathers at Chalcedon, where it
was firmly understood that the natures formed a unity in fact that did
not transform or confuse the one with other nor divide and separate them. The
‘composite’ nature, according to the arguments, is no mere illumination
in analogy with the Old Testament prophets. It is not a third thing beside the
one nature of the two natures. No dualistic grasp of it can
understand its real nature. But without dividing or confusing the natures,
divine and human, the Person of the Lord Jesus Christ is the one ‘composite’ or
‘incarnate’ nature posited as the Word of God in a world that is His Creation. Cyril’s
one ‘incarnate’ nature and Philoponus’ one ‘composite’ nature intend
to refer to the one and the same Christ and Son and Word of God. But
Philoponus’ positive apprehending with the dynamics of his thought had to learn
to articulate a signification the reality of which was utterly new in the
world, with truly new dimensions posited between God and His Creation. It is
perhaps these new dimensions that made it so difficult for many of his
contemporaries to grasp was he was after in the way of to resolve the problem
of the Incarnation and its relation to His Creation. Perhaps it is fair to say
that, in the face of these new dimensions on the new ground of His interactions
with us, it was so hard, indeed impossible, for the Aristotelians to give up
their timeless and tested and habits of mind the necessities of which had point
them touch with the beauty and truth of the Eternal Passion embedded within the
Creation. Perhaps it is fair to say that we have found, with the contradictions
between necessary logical relations and contingent logical relations, the
reason that Philoponus argued for a different kind of correspondence than ever
posited by the Neo-Platonism of his times. His effort to integrate reason and
experience with one another in this world was of another class or kind utterly
than had ever been fundamentally place upon the Tree by Aristotle and his
followers. This is perhaps most important reason why the great Alexandrian
Scientist and Christian, John Philoponus, was so roundly condemned in his time
and ultimately anathematized.[66]

In any case, it is this concept of the ‘one composite nature’ employed throughout the Alexandrian’s
analysis of the Incarnation in ‘The Arbiter’ is to be found resonating
throughout his commentary on Moses’ confession if the Book of Genesis. L.S.B.
MacCoull is thoroughly aware of this resonance in her translation of de
Opificio Mundi
. She understands that the economy with which the one
‘composite’ nature has to do stretch from the dusts of which mankind is
made to his Salvation as the Creator of the Universe. The uniqueness of this nature
must not escape our attention, if we are to free ourselves from Philoponus’
Anathema.[67] It is
clear to this author that the ‘doubly’ significant concept of nature in
the thought of the Grammarian points us at once both to the Revelation of God
and to real apprehending of both human and created nature. If our reach
is anything less or more, then one would be forced to think that the
Alexandrian was indeed a heretical Monophysite, which he was not, and a
heretical Tritheist, which he was not.[68]

Philoponus’ comments about the Creation as a contingent
reality then, on some levels of understanding, remain satisfying. I like very
much his grasp of the motion of the sun, for instance, as the source for what
‘night’ and ‘day’ are in their differences and in their participation with the
sun’s nature, a wholeness that
includes light, heat, and motion around the earth. The darkness has been by
light turned into night and day, when the un-illuminated part of the Cosmos and
the motion of the sun is known to belong to time before created light God has
been spoken into existence out of the nothingness in the Beginning, when God
rendered the ‘void and without-limit’ of this Beginning with His Voice to be
objectified with created light. It is this light that, for Philoponus, the
created light of the uncreated Light of God’s Word, that forms the basic ground
for the resolution to the problems of the whole and the particulars the
Grammarian faces with his comments on the Creation. God’s Word is thus the
origin that makes in this light the order of all other created things, such as
the sun and the moon and the stars that we come to experience upon the earth. Just
as the sun’s motion is the one thing out of which night and day are made to
occur, light formed from after the Beginning out of nothing provides the basis
for sun, moon, and stars to appears, with their various and different
existences in participate with the nature
of created light and its origin in the speaking of the Creator. The nature of
light is then not the same as the natures the sun and moon and stars, but
their natures form a whole which
belongs to the nature of the
Creator’s light. In this dynamic way they are thought to belong to one another.
This dynamic way of thinking about the problem of the whole and the parts runs
throughout much of the Alexandrian’s analyses of the Creation out of nothing in
the Light of the Incarnation, so fundamental to Philoponus’ efforts in de Opificio Mundi.[69]

It is this dynamical character of his thought that we read
in his analysis of the 4 fundamental elements of the Cosmos, when at their
boundaries occur compositions of what each are in and of themselves. Water and
Fire can be found composed of one another to form Air out of the two. Heavens
and Earth can be found in compositions that form a diversity of particulars even
as one created reality, and so forth.[70] Philoponus’
replacing of Aristotle’s ‘5th Substance’ or ‘Aether’ with his
concept of a 3-dimensional structure to the invisible reality that belongs
without a body to the body of the visible world is a concept whose significance
we ought not to miss. It provides a dynamical relation between the structure of
space and the structure of matter in motion in space we cannot allow escape our
attention even today. Space and the places of matter in motion are dynamically
one, even though two with very different natures.[71]

In this way, John Philoponus ought to be given credit for
being in the early Church the first Christian theologian to take seriously for
the physics of the Cosmos the doctrines of the fathers, specifically the
doctrines of Athanasius, Cyril of Alexandria, and Severus of Antioch. Because
of his belief in the Creator, revealed in the Person of Jesus Christ, the Word
of God become incarnate as a man among men in the Creation out of nothing in
the Beginning, Philoponus has argued for new theories with the physics of the
space and time, energy and matter, and motion in the cosmos of the world with a
freedom we need to respect. Many of the most fundamental concepts found among
the Greek Philosophers, the Masters Aristotle and Plato, about the nature of this world are attacked by
this forerunner in the ancient world to our scientific advance. The dynamical
character of his thought is at the heart of what Torrance has called ‘the
relational view of space and time’ that belonged to the early Christian Fathers
of the Church and their rejection of the container notion found commonly among
the Aristotelians, and so forth.[72] Without
the contingent nature of this relational dynamics, found throughout the
analyses, we soon enough join Simplicius in our estimation of Philoponus. But
with the substantial rationality and intelligibility of created realty,
sustained and enlightened by the free will of the free Creator’s Wisdom, we are
with the Alexandrian, even when he seems most quaint in his belief in the
Ptolemaic Cosmology where the heavens are made up 5 or 55 spheres of celestial
motions, with mankind upon an earth that it at the center of things, bound to
be free to seek by faith the real nature of
God’s Creation. The Grammarian’s grasp of motion and matter and space and time
made out of nothing with their beginnings and endings, their perish-ability and
their ability to acquire properties with their nature, possesses a freedom to which we are bound even today. I find
today’s Big-Bang Cosmology and the deep problems we have thinking together its
continuum with its particulars in time demanding such freedom still. It seems
to me that theologian, philosopher, and scientist would benefit from
understanding the Alexandrian, without his condemnation.

In Book III. 17 of his commentary, Philoponus considers that
the whole of the heavens, formed with their firmament, are given to entail
waters above and below. In his discussion, he points out that simple things
must exist before composite things, but that composite things exist in the hypostases
of simple things. He admits that he only speaks of such things as best he
can, and others may very well come to be able to speak of them better or more
truly. But he insists that the origin of things has been provided a substrate
in which diverse things are found to exist. MacCoull rightly points out that
his discussion of the waters and the firmament is made with the problem of the
whole and the parts he faced in his analysis of the Incarnation. She writes: ‘There is a Christological dimension to this
language as well: writing about the union as a Monophysite, Philoponus was
acutely aware of the Nestorian manipulation of the term σύνθετον (composite) and its derivatives
.’[73] It
is precisely the nature of this kind
of resonance that allows us to consider the interface between Philoponus’
science and his theology. Just as the heavens and the earth form a whole as
parts, the divine and the human form a whole as parts. Just as the heavens and
the earth are a whole whose nature is independent of the nature of
the Creator, and yet are utterly dependent upon His Will for their existence
and subsistence and purpose, the soul and body of as the man He is dependent
upon the Word He is for its existence and subsistence and purpose. Yes, the
analogies are not of a necessity and a logic of being and nature that
exists before the Word of God. But, yes, even as broken analogies, they help to
shape a form and content of a rationality that belongs, indeed, whole and
parts, to the One God is. It is in this way that Philoponus can replace Cyril’s
‘one incarnate nature’ with his ‘one composite nature’ and
attempt to give us an understanding of the Incarnation that allows us to see
all the better God’s Creation out of nothing in the Beginning.[74]

In Books VI and VII of de
Opificio Mundi
, Philponus has a thorough discussion about the nature the Image of God in the Beginning
of the Creation.[75] Genesis
1:26 is read in the Light of John 1:14. The Image and Likeness that God made
Mankind in the Beginning belongs to the Divine Freedom of His Will to be the
Creator with His Creation in this way. His Will is particularly bound up with
the ‘Good’ that God has called or named His Creation, in relation to which His
Sabbath Rest is constituted. This ‘Good’ is understood as the ‘Beauty’ of the
world of His Mankind and His Cosmos as a home for His Image and Likeness in the
‘Very Good’ world. Philoponus can speak of their harmony with their Creator. We
cannot understand the wholeness of Man as body of soul and soul of body except
as this Man as His Image, and therefore we cannot understand the ‘Beauty’ and
‘Good’ of the confession except in the Light of the Resurrection of Christ, the
Man who has justified the Beginning. Here we see the Divine Freedom of God as
free to move outside of Himself and become this particular Man for the sake of
the entire Creation, and in this way restore Mankind to his place in the whole
of a Universe that is his home. Thus, we understand Christ as the Image and
Likeness of God in an affirmation and confirmation of the Beginning. The
‘composite’ nature of Man with the
Creation with all of its various species are made to possess their existences
in a wholeness that belongs to a harmony created by the Divine freedom of the
Will of the Word of God Himself.

We cannot be content with understanding Philoponus through
the lenses of Greek eyes. We cannot assign to God a nature we are able
to define with their eyes.[76]
We are called rather to enter into that positive grasp of God and the World
that the Alexandrian labored so strongly to articulate in the Love of God, both
in his theology and his science. From the concerns of a Grammarian in the Academy
at Alexandria to the passions of the Philoponoi¸[77]
after whom John took his name, we understand what is not impossible for us. It
is not impossible that much of what he had to say, from his impetus theory and
his kinetic theory of light as a force field in the Cosmos of the Creation,
with his three-dimensional concept of space, a theory that allowed Philoponus
to integrate the invisible and the visible worlds as one created reality,
should prove useful for our efforts today. I believe his thought could indeed
be of great help to both theologian and scientist in our time.

I began this essay with reference to Professor Thomas F.
Torrance’s concerns to understand John Philoponus along the lines that we can
trace in science from Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton, to Maxwell and Einstein
and so forth. Torrance believes that the ‘field’ theory implicated with the
thought of Philoponus keeps us in touch with the kind of epistemological poise
we must possess if we are to remain rightly open to the actual way that God
sustains and gives purpose to the Universe. This is inherent in what we mean
when we affirm that the Universe possess a Beginning and therefore and ending
as God’s Creation. When I first began working with Torrance’s books and papers,
and I tried to pass on what I found to read in them, a friend once tried to
soothe my pain because of all the resistance I was meeting. He said that it
would be a hundred years before we would be able to grasp what Torrance was
after. I recalled that, in the early part of the 20th century, it
was repeated ad nausea that simple people could never understand
Einstein’s physics. I do not really believe that there are any simple people,
however, but only ‘composite’ ones, whose complexities and simplicities must
learn to think relationally in their times in an open relationship with the
Only One who does in fact transcend them and their universes. Yes, we are free
to be successful without Him. Yes, we can enjoy the riches of our world without
knowing Him. Yet we are made, soul of body and body of soul as a wholeness that
must breath the air He has ordered for us upon the earth. The independence of
the wholeness of our being in the world ultimately belongs to the Wholeness of
our Lord and God as revealed with His Incarnation in His Creation. Thus, our
understanding of the Person of the Lord Jesus Christ is so vital. We are free,
but we are bound to Him. To conclude this essay then, let me quote Professor
Torrance again: ‘John Philoponus did not intrude his theology upon his
science or his science upon his theology. However, his theological grasp of
divine truth opened his eyes to a more realistic understanding of the
contingent nature (underlining mine) and its distinctive rational order
and exercised a regulative role in his choice and formation of scientific
concepts and theories and their explanatory development.
[78] I
hope it will not take a hundred years to make the thought experiment that can
find along these lines the movement of trajectories which shall come to know
that it is not impossible they way things ought to be in time. I hope we can
give up invoking His Name in vain.

My reference to the semantics of the term Israel in the
beginning of this essay, as parallel to the semantics of the term nature, may have appeared somewhat specious then. But given the
wholeness argument for the parts of the created world as bound up contingently
with the Lord God, does it seem too specious now?

Rev. John E. McKenna, Ph.D.

South Pasadena, California

I wish to thank Professor Richard Sorabji of King’s College,
London, and Wolfson College, Oxford, for reading my essay and offering helpful
suggestions for my argument. I also want to thank Dr. Thomas Spear Torrance of
Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, for his generous help and encouragement.


[1] W.S. LaSor, Israel,
(Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 1976)

[2] P.A.M. Dirac, Directions of Physics, (John
Wiley & Sons: New York, 1978.) “The argument of the variation of the
gravitational constant comes from a study of the constants of Nature. Nature
provides us with the various constants: the velocity of light, the charge
of the electron, the mass of the electron, and quantities like that.” (p. 72)

[3] R. Penrose, The
Road to Reality
, (A. Knopf: New York, 2005), p. 1027

[4] A. Mercier, God, World, and Time,
(Peter Lang: Berne, 1996). His index lists no less than 65 references to the
term nature. He quotes Pascal for the general idea: “Man isn’t but a
reed, the weakest, one in the whole of Nature; yet a thinking reed.” (p.
2-3) Also see, D.C. Lindberg and R. Numbers, God & Nature,
(University of California Press: 1986), especially pp. 38-39 for Philoponus.

[5] R. Penrose, op. cit., p. ix, where he writes ‘Wave
functions have a strongly non-local character; in this sense they are completely
holistic entities.’ The problem of ‘instantaneous communication’ is wondrous in
the relationship between the holistic wave and the particle in the theory (pp.

[6] Roger Penrose, ‘The Modern Physicist View of Nature’,
in John Torrance, ed., The Concept of Nature, Clarendon Press: 1992).
Chapter 5, pp. 117-166.

[7] Ibid, p. 363, ‘Mathematical elegance alone is not
enough to determine correspondence with physical laws.’

[8] See R. Sorabji, Time, Creation & The
, Cornell University Press: Ithaca: Yew York, 1983) for Philoponus
on the nature time, infinity, and creation out of nothing in the
Beginning (especially pp. 194-231). Sorabji sides with Philoponus against his
contemporaries, but up against modern developments of of concepts of infinity
he is not so compelling.

[9] See T.F. Torrance, Theological and Natural Science,
(Wipf & Stock: Eugene, Oregon, 2002), Chapter Six, where a full discussion
of the important terms in the debates that include the concept of nature in
Greek Science and Christian Theology with Philoponus. Also, throughout the
translation given us by L.S.B. MacCoull of de Opificio Mundi, (1995), a
work the author was kind enough to make available to me, we read the resonance
of the language in the Alexandrian’s science and theology. I hope it will be
published, as it throws much light onto the relationship of the Incarnation and
the Creation for the Grammarian.

[10] See Stanley Jaki, The
Road of Science and the Ways of God
, (University of Chicago Press, 1978)
pp. 203, 207, 239-41, 436 for the history of the problem among scientists and
theologians. See also Richard Sorabji, John
, (Cornell University Press: Ithaca, 1987) for the problem in the
ancient world and the early church, especially the contribution of the Alexandrian
schools, and its resolution. For the problem with modern physicists, see for
instance Henning Genz, Nothingness,
(Perseus Publishing: Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1999), who openly acknowledges
the some deep resonance between ancient and modern powers to conceive the
fundamentals of the problem. Henning sees the Biblical image of the world as a
universe of mankind as merely one among the many static images of this world,
produced likewise across the history of the Ancient Near East. I believe he
confuses the modern ‘Quantum Vacuum’ with Das
of Christian Theology. He is utterly unaware of Philoponus and the
Grammarian’s concern for the rational contingency and creatio ex nihilo
of the world, with its kinetics and dynamical nature. Consequently, his science appears to suffer from a
reductionism that suffocates us rather than allows us freely to breathe the
transcendent air associated with the Judeo-Christian tradition.

[11] Again and again, throughout The Arbiter and de
Opificio Mundi
, Philoponus seeks to penetrate into the objectivity of the
Truth, the intelligibility of which that exists outside anyone’s particular
knowing of it. It is this Truth that belongs to the Person of the Lord Jesus
Christ as the Revealer of the Trinity of God and the Creator of ‘All’, the
whole of created reality. It is this faith that allows Philoponus to conceive
of relationships between the Uncreated Reality of God and the created reality
of the Universe. He can remain ever humble in his seeking for this Truth, but
he can be quite adamant about what it is of this Truth that we have been given
to know. “Well then, I have talked about these things so far as I could,” he
writes, and then steadily makes us aware of what he has been given to
understand against all idol-makings and astrologers and unorthodox views of the
world and Christ. His may not be the last word on this Truth, but it is a good
word just the same, learned at the interface between his science and his

[12] I like to remember that, when Einstein applied for
his first job as a university professor, he left blank initially the question
asking him to designate his religion. The official sent the application back
saying they could not hire atheists. The great legend filled in the blank row
with, ‘The Religion of Moses’. He was perhaps more serious than he could at the
time. But one of his ‘logia’ is often quoted, ‘Science without religion is
lame; religion without science is blind.’ It was said at Princeton Theological
Seminary. No one has argued more forcefully at this interface for the necessity
of the Transcendent in our knowing and being than Michael Polanyi. See any one
of his books, Knowing and Being or The Tacit Dimension or Study of Man. See also T.F. Torrance,
‘Einstein and God’ in his Theological and
Natural Science
, op. cit., pp. 12-28.

[13] Epistemological experience must possess a dynamic nature open to learning correspondences
with the Wisdom of the Word of God’s Self-Revelation. The freedom of Man in the
Universe as God’s Creation is meant to grasp such harmonies between the various
natures involved so that our experience in space and time and our
thought about the objectivity of this space-time are brought into
correspondence with one another. Our efforts to apprehend God, the World, and
Man can hardly be possessed without appreciating the value of this kind of
epistemic poise in our ways of knowing and being. What the Incarnation does is
gives us forgiveness for the primordial sin of the human race against God, the
World, and Man. It provides us with the opportunity to relate our knowing and
being truly to that that transcends our knowing and being. This point is vital
for Philoponus’ thought. In the Light of the Incarnation, see the Creation.
Einstein’s assertions about epistemology and objectivity in the physical nature of the Universe remain solid
ones, fundamental to science, in spite of the perplexing problems that have
been raised between the world of the quantum and the world of gravity. If the
concept of ‘Universe’ as made out of nothing has meaning, we need to appreciate
the concerns of Philoponus rather than to condemn him.

[14] I have reviewed this book for the Metanexus
Institute, Metanexus Sophia, 2004.05.13.

[15] See Theological and Natural Science, op. cit.,
pp. 4-7.

[16] For a short summary of this interaction see A. E.
McGrath, Nature, A Scientific
Theology, Volume 1, (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 2001) pp. 95-98. For Philoponus, Nature, it is importand to note, is bound up with the Eternal Logos of
God’s Being and not any ‘logos’ embedded in the Cosmos. The Greek definition
was concerned with what nature does
in an imperishable Cosmos, with its divine principle, and not with the Being of
Life revealed in the Incarnation.

[17] It is a conceded that Philoponus had behind him as
his mentors the works of Athanasius, Basil of Caesarea, Cyril of Alexandria,
Severus of Antioch in his anticipation of Galileo, Newton, Maxwell, and

[18] ‘But neither God nor nature act without
purpose.’ (C. Wildberg, Philoponus Against Aristotle on the Eternity of the
, (CUP: NY, 1987), p. 121. New Creation is entailed by the Logos of

[19] Ibid, pp. 39-40.

[20] See also my article on John Philoponos at, Volume 5, Number 1,
January 2003.

[21] J. McKenna, The
Setting in Life of ‘The Arbiter’ by John Philoponos
, (Wipf and Stock: 1999)

[22] Ibid, pp. 9-33.

[23] I am happy to report that a Korean edition of
Torrance’s Preaching Christ Today, has been translated into Korean and
the Korean peoples will for the first time be able to read his concerns for the
Gospel and its relationship to our science today.

[24] We understand that Torrance has pursued this
direction with the blessing of his mentor, Karl Barth, (cf. Space, Time, and Resurrection, Eerdmans:
Grand Rapids, 1976, pp. ix-xiii). I have always found Torrance’s suggestion
that a helpful analogy is to be found between the way that Einstein took
Euclidean Geometry and transformed into its 4-dimensional Riemannian Geometry
as a part of the physics of the Universe and the way theologians need to take
the old ‘natural theology’ they may think to possess as an antecedent
conceptual system and transform it in the heart of Revelation into a real
servant of the Creator. Barth’s Nein is
even more compelling, when heard with Torrance’s Yes than the great
Swiss theologian could imagine, just as it was difficult for Einstein to
imagine the singularities that appeared in his gravitational equation as ‘Black
Holes’, actual physical objects, when the space-time of such infinities or
singularities turned out to exist as some pure form of gravity bound up with
the beginning of our cosmology today. I feel sure that Barth would be pleased
to affirm the direction in which Torrance has taken the great Swiss theologian.

[25] It is important to observe that Philoponus read
Genesis in the Light of the Incarnation.

[26] Henry Chadwick, in Sorabji’s John Philoponus, op. cit., chapter two, remains skeptical about the
Alexandrian’s Christology. His concept of nature
and his one composite nature
formula seems to want to make too concrete the mystery of Christ. He writes,
‘When the logician (Philoponus) is confronted, however, with Chalcedon’s
formula, one hypostasis and two natures, he shudders to a standstill,
wondering what the terms could mean.” (p. 46) Chadwick seems unable to
understand the syntheton (composition) as a real nature bound
up the mystery and space-time. He thinks that the Grammarian by created things
attempted to explain divine realities (p. 54), when I believe the opposite is
the case. The contingency of the nature of
space and time and its role in the Incarnation of the Trinity of God implies
that the two poles of the relationship must be thought at once together. A
resonance between Philoponus’ concept of nature and the nature of
space and time as contemplated by our scientists today out to be appreciated
(cf. The
Nature of Space and Time
(Princeton University Press: Princeton, New Jersey, 1996, where Penrose
is said to play the role of Einstein and Hawking the role of Bohr in the debate
that was begun the 1930’s about the nature of quantum events in
relationship with Einstein’s 4-dimensional space-time. Philoponus’
3-dimensional may not correspond identically with Einstein’s 4-dimensional

[27]Op. cit., MacCoull dates de Opficio Mundi after
The Arbiter, pp. xxvi-xxx.

[28] The bad blood spilt by Simplicius against Philoponus
against Aristotle and his new physics of the world’s forever and God’s
eternality is still spilt among us (See again C. Wildberg, Philoponus, Against Aristotle on the Eternity of the World, Cornell
University Press, Ithaca, New York, 1987, account of it. Continuity and
diversity in a contingent world that is God’s Creation out of nothing possess a
different nature than otherwise determined.

[29] MacCoull points out again and again in de Opficio
how Philoponos opposes steadily Kosmas Indicopleustes and
Nestorian Christianity.

[30] The Setting in Life, Op. cit., pp.16-19.

[31] Ibid, Chapter Three, ‘John Philoponos and the
Scientific Culture of Alexandria.’ Stoyan Tanev, a physicist and theologian,
has prepared an excellent comparison of my understanding of the term nature
in the Seventh Chapter of ‘The Arbiter’ with F.H. Chase’s and U. Lang’s for his
Master’s Degree in Orthodox Theology at the University of Sherbrooke, Quebec. He
writes, ‘It seems to us, however, that looking at John Philoponus’ work with
the filter of the philosopher’s eyes will not help in the understanding the
true nature and value of his contributions.’ (p. 24 of his essay entitled ‘The
Theology of John Philoponus’.) His e-mail address is

[32] See T.F. Torrance, Divine and Contingent Order, (T&T Clark: Edinburgh, 1998) for
an argument that seeks to assert our grasp of the positive dimensions in these
relationships as vital for the development of the physics of the Universe. We bow with our understanding to the nature of a world that cries out for
explanation from beyond itself. In this regard, Stanley Jaki has argued that a
great physicist like Niels Bohr could be inconsistent with his use of the term nature, when his quantum physics could
not pretend to grasp nature as a
whole (Ibid, p. 203). The struggle to understand the relationship between the
gravitational field of General Relativity Theory and the gravity of the Quantum
World marks our effort today. We need to take into consideration here the work
of Professor Robert Griffiths at Carnegie Mellon University, (Consistent
Quantum Theory
, Cambridge University Press, 2002). He has argued that the
measurement problem and the wave collapse associated with the uncertainty
principle are not fundamental for understanding quantum physics. Although his
consistent quantum theory overcomes the measurement and wave collapse problems,
making fundamental the indeterminism of the reality of the quantum world, the
objectivity fundamental to the implications of Einstein’s Legacy yet obtains. Reality
possesses an objectivity that exists outside of our knowing of it, as with the
unstable particles decaying at the center of the earth or in intergalactic
space (p. xiii). Professor Griffiths has not begun¸ however, to publish on the
relationship of his theory to General Relativity, but I find it hard to believe
he will not in the future make some attempts. The Black Holes of our modern Big
Bang Cosmology demand an integration of the quantum world with the relativistic
fields of gravity. So far as I am able to understand the problem, it seems that
we need to find some way of getting beyond this dualism and the dialectical paradoxes
inherent in the determinate-indeterminate debates and to find something more
subtle, as Einstein desired, going on in our physics, theoretical and
empirical, so that a new concept will be opened up to us onto the actual nature
of the Universe. ((cf. K. Thorne, Black Holes and Time Warps, Einstein’s
Outrageous Legacy
, (W.W. Norton: New York, 1994), where the author gives us
a magisterial look at the epistemological and historical significance of
Einstein’s contribution to the creative development of our scientific
culture.)) As with Penrose and Thorne, Griffiths does not list the term nature
in the indexes of his book. T. F. Torrance champions the rational
intelligibility of contingent reality as that which would move us beyond the
dialectic. It seems to me that we must find spacetime in which discrete
particles act lawfully within the new physics.

[33] H.G. Liddell-R. Scott, Lexicon, (Clarendon Press, 1966) pp. 1964-1965, 1) of origin 2) of
forms 3) of order 4) of originating power 5) of concrete creatures 6) of
species 7) of sex.

[34] P.H. Wicksteed and F.M. Concord, translators, Aristotle, Physics, Books I-IV, (Harvard
University Press, 1993), p. xv.

[35] T.F. Torrance has championed this concept of the
contingent order of the Creation in our time with many books and essays. He
would trace the epistemology of this struggle of human consciousness from the
early fathers of the Church down through the Middles Ages into our own times
with reference to John Philoponus and James Clerk Maxwell and then to Albert
Einstein. He can contrast this with developments associated with Augustine,
Boethius, St. Thomas Aquinas and the Newtonians in our time. There exists no
necessity in the relationship between God and the World. There is no
arbitrariness in this relationship. If there is a relationship between them, it
is a freely created and creative one that the Church understands as belonging
to the Grace of her Creator-Redeemer, the Word of God. See for instance, “Time,
Creation, And World-Order,” ed. Mogens Wegner, Acta Jutlandica LXXIV: 1,
Humanities Series 72, pp. 206-236.

[36] T.F. Torrance, Theological
and Natural Science
, op. cit., p. 4.

[37] C.J.F. Williams, Philoponus,
on Aristotle 1.1-1.5 and on Aristotle 1.6-2.9 (Cornell University Press, 1999)
translates the word for contingency as something ‘possible’ or ‘capable of
happening’, as do all of the translations. If it is not necessary, it is
accidental. If it is accidental, it is not rational and only temporary. It is
only potential and never actual. See R. Sorabji, John Philoponus, pp. 164-178, where Philoponus is thought to have
got the best of the ancients about these things, but perhaps his arguments
cannot best our modern concepts of infinity, infinities, and finiteness.

[38] Ibid, 99, 32; 100, 4; 108, 9. Nature as a
cause cannot cause its own destruction. Change belongs to the Eternal in
various ways, but the substantial rationality of contingency is not
apprehended. It belongs to the possible, what can happen, not to what actually
is, which belongs to the Eternal. The author does admit, however, that
Philoponus was after a new definition of nature and prime matters.

[39] See W. Charlton, Philoponus On Aristotle’s ‘On The
Soul 3.9-13’
, (Cornell University Press, New York, 2000), pp. 175-185.

[40] See T.F. Torrance, Divine Meaning, (T&T
Clark: Edinburgh, 1995), pp. 205-212, and the way that this contingency of nature
resonates with the work of Athanasius of Alexandria.

[41] C. Wildberg, Philoponus,
against Aristotle on the Eternity of the World (Cornell University Press,
1987) Sorabji has provided some excellent historical data in this edition, when
it is very clear that the God who ‘overrides’ the temporal is the Creator who
created out of nothing in the Beginning. Professor Sorabji has laid out very
clearly the way that Philoponus’ employed his infinity arguments against the
Greek notions about infinity and its relationship with the finite in a number
of his works.

[42] See D. Furley and C. Wildberg, Place, Void, and
, Cornell University Press: Ithaca, New York, 1991,) pp. 114-118.

[43] John Archibald Wheeler, A Journey into Gravity and
, (Scientific American Library: New York, 1999), p. 1, “In a
single simple sentence: Spacetime grips mass, Telling it how to move; And mass
grips spacetime, telling it how to curve,” and also pp. 67-107.

[44] Wildberg, Philoponus, op. cit., pp. 39-40.

[45] T.F. Torrance, Theological
and Natural Science
, op. cit., p. 7.

[46] Wildberg, op. cit., pp. 24-31.

[47] D. Sobel, Galileo’s Daughter, (Walker &
Company: New York, 1999), pp. 144-147, where it is Simplico who has become
known as ‘a pompous Aristotelian philosopher’.

[48] Again, see my Setting in Life, op. cit.,
Chapter Three, p. 105.

[49] We may keep in mind here Francis Bacon’s phantoms
seen as idols and idol-making in society. Idols of the mind are perhaps more
insidious than idols of silver and gold, or stone and wood, and we can heartily
sin against the Truth in our time with them.

[50] One of the first questions that I asked Tom Torrance
when I heard him teaching at Fuller Seminary was about the Holiness of the
Creator and the Holy Ground upon which theologians must stand to do their work
and the willingness of scientists to listen to such fundamental grounds. He
assured me that many great mathematicians and scientists have now come to know
that upon such ground they have also to stand if real scientific progress is to
be made, mathematical and physical.

[51] We have already indicated that de Opificio Mundi was
written after The Arbiter, and that Genesis is read in the Light of the
Incarnation and not the other way around. The analysis of K. Verrycken, ‘The
development of Philoponus’ thought and its chronology’, in R. Sorabji, ed., Aristotle Transformed, (Cornell
University Press, 1990) pp. 233-274) strains to find two people with
Philoponus, John 1 and John 2, the pagan and the Christian. I believe the
problem here is bound up with how we conceive the relationship between Eternity
and Time. I would suggest that ‘forever’ ought to be understood as caused and a
contingent reality, while Eternity is not caused and non-contingent. Philoponus’
thought develops in time in relationship with Christ, who was born again around
33 AD. Certainly, Al-Farabi’s argument that Philoponus was a Christian only
under the political pressures of the times is to be rejected.

[52] We are informed that the condemnation is presently in
the process of being removed from the Indexes of both Eastern and Western

[53] T.F. Torrance, Divine Meaning, pp. 206-213,
where the terms in the analysis with their particular natures are
defined in the Trinity of the One Being of God in His Acts with His Word or
Logos in the Light of the one nature that is the Lord Jesus Christ. See
also Th. Hermann, Johannes Philoponus als
, ZNTW 29, pp. 209-64, where the argument of The Arbiter is rehearsed. The particular
that exists as an individual and common nature
is thought to be bound up with, not a species of a particular genus, but in
a unity with God Himself, when theory and experience may not split apart in any
dualistic manner. In this case, only in the Light of the Word of God can we see
to define the nature of the natures of
Christ in God. The two are not another one beside themselves, but the one and
belong to a unity that is God Himself. Perhaps we may refer to the Gospel of
John, chapter 17, for the Biblical basis for this unity. John 1:14 certainly is
the text that is being explicated here.

[54] The Seventh Chapter of The Arbiter was
preserved in Greek because it was the text use against the Grammarian. I have
read U.M. Lang, John Philoponus and the
Controversies over Chalcedon in the Sixth Century
, (Leuven: Peters, 2001),
along with its Syriac text, with some real reservations about Lang’s
understanding of phusis (Greek) or khuyana (Syriac) or nature (English) in the mind of the
Alexandrian. I hope to make clear my reservations with this essay, especially
as these terms are found employed in L.S.B. MacCoull’s de Opificio Mundi,
where we can find a host of decisions about the whole and the parts problem.

[55] See The Arbiter, chapter one.

[56] Ibid, chapter two.

[57] Stoyan Tanev, op. cit., p. 11. I must emphasize at
this point that the concept of logos in
this definition allows Philoponus to understand it in Christology and in other
realities according to nature. It is
not to be understood as a ‘common basis’ outside of the actual nature of the Logos
of God. The Logos of the human nature of Christ acquires the Divine Nature of God Himself in the way the
Incarnation has been posited in the Cosmos. Without this point, one will judge
this subject by some other ‘logos’ and fail to understand.

[58] Chapters 21 and 22 refer together to chapter 4, where
Philoponus gives us his understanding of the various ways the whole and the
parts may be conceived as composed with one another. If this dynamical way of
thinking is properly appreciated, then the reader will readily grasp the reason
the Ousia or Being of the Nature of God cannot be mapped onto the
Porphyrian Tree or Aristotelian logical analyses common among Neo-Platonists at
the time.

[59] Stoyan Tanev, op. cit., p. 14. This involves a
dynamical transformation of definition of any class.

[60] See my ‘Setting in Life’, op. cit., chapter three,
especially pages 17-19, for my analysis of the Anathema and the
misunderstanding very possible at this interface. I referred to Ebied, R.Y.,
VanRoey, A., & Wickham, L.R., Peter of Callinicum (Department
Orientalisitck, Leuven, 1981) and a debate between Peter and Damian of
Alexandria, both of whom condemned Philoponus as a Tritheist but became enemies
about the persons or hypostases of the Trinity and the
Incarnation in any case. The problem involves the properties or individuals of
the hypostases in consubstantial being with God.

[61] Ian Torrance in his Christology After Chalcedon
(The Canterbury Press, 1988) has shown how the concept of ‘individuals’ is a
property belonging to the ‘hypostasis’ or ‘atomo’ of a species in the
Alexandrian science of Philoponus’ time.

[62] See K. Barth, CD I.1, pp. 348-383 for an
analysis of the Triunity of the ‘persons’ as one ‘being’ or nature.

[63] I think Walter Böhm has it right: “So kann man die
physikalischen Theorien, die er vorträgt, nicht isoliert betrachten, sondern
muß sie im Zusammenhung gesamten philosophischen Weltbilder und seiner
christlichen Weltanschauung sehen.” Op. cit., p. 31.

[64] Actually, the analogical relation of Man as body of
soul and soul of body is commonly employed to help Philoponus speak about the
divine and human natures of Christ as one ‘composite’ nature. The
triangulated proportions of Man:body:soul as one whole being helps the
Grammarian speak about the anhypostasis and the enhypostasis in
the nature of the hypostatic union as the God-Man Christ is. The
wholeness of the Man belongs to the Wholeness of the Godhead. Here we have to
respect the movement from image through imageless knowing to reality, where the
asymmetrical reciprocity implicated with the symmetry in the Union are both
vital for understanding its wholeness and its parts.

[65] See Karl Barth’s Man in His Time in CD III.2, pp. 437-640, where it is
understood that God’s possesses ‘uncreated time’ in His eternity. We understand
this ‘eternal time’ as the source of ‘created time’, time as it exists in the
universe where we have been our creaturely being in a created world. Will we be
able to turn into physics Barth’s concepts of pre-temporal, supra-temporal, and
post-temporal Eternity in relationship with time, times past, times present,
and times future?

[66] I have often thought that I hear a real resonance in
the epistemological problems in Christology with the problems we have today
while attempting to resolve the meaning of the General Relativity Theory with
the Quantum Mechanical or Quantum Gravity Theories. Is the Incarnation of the
Word significant for the physics of the macrocosm as well as the microcosm of
the Universe as Creation or not?

[67] Mac Coull, op. cit., pp. xxiii-xxvii. ‘The point
of Philoponus’ producing a Monophysite <not heretical> Genesis commentary
was above all to demonstrate that only this correct understanding of Christ
would provide the key to understanding the created universe
.’ The
understanding that de Opificio Mundi is
written after The Arbiter is
important for understanding his concept of nature.

[68] MacCoull refers to R.F. Hassing, ‘John Philoponus on
Aristotle’s definition of nature’, Ancient Philosophy, 8 (1988)
73-100. I attempted to address the confusion that leads to calling Philoponus a
‘tritheist’ and heretical ‘monophysite’ in my “Setting in Life of ‘The
Arbiter’”, op. cit., chapter one. The Grammarian appears thus to those who view
him while looking through the lens of the necessary and a priori logic
laid down by the Aristotelians.

[69] De Opificio Mundi, Books One and Two. Nature
is on the one hand a given created reality that comes into existence out of
nothing first as ‘void and unlimited’ and then as ‘light’ lighting up with
solid magnitude (finite extension) the deep darkness of the ‘nothingness’ of
the Creation.

[70] MacCoull points out again and again in her
translation how these ‘composite’ unities reflect the ‘composite’ nature Philoponus
employed to discuss the Incarnation. (cf. Book 1.6, p. 14) All the while he is
doing this, we should observe, Philoponus discusses the angels and demons of
the invisible dimensions of the created world which are mentioned only ‘tongue
in cheek’ by moderns scientists (cf. Maxwell’s demon, etc.) For Philoponus, the
invisible part of the visible world possesses dimensionality that definitely
belongs to the mystery of the world as God’s Creation.

[71] Ibid, p. 16. Thus, the way we are to think about the
soul of the body and the body of soul as mankind in the form and content of
individual men.

[72] T.F. Torrance, Divine Meaning, op. cit.,
Chapter 9.

[73] De Opificio Mundi, op. cit., Book III. 17, p.

[74] Cf. Lindsay Judson, chapter 10, in R. Sorabji, Philoponus,
op. cit, for an analysis of the logic in the substantial rationality of
contingency with regard to generability, perishability, and imperishability in
the Beginning. I would argue that the logic for Philoponus is none other than
the Incarnate One Himself, and this gives him a freedom not found in Plato and
Aristotle and Proclus.

[75] MacCoull, op. cit. pp. 199-276, where common and
particular natures, with all their
differentiated properties are dynamically thought to participate in the divine nature.

[76] See Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, IV. 1, where
the new nature of Christ, divine and human, is the Word of God that we
must learn to hear in our time. Only with this nature can we understand
man’s nature, the nature of
the world, and that which belongs to God for us with his secrets (Deuteronomy

[77] See E.Watts, Winning the Intracommunal Dialogues:
Zacharias Scholsticus’s Life of Severus, JECS, Winter, 2005, Vol. 13,
Num. 4, pp. 437-64, where Watts refers to P.J. Sijpesteijn, “New Light on the Philoponoi”,
Aeg 69 (1989): 95-99 and understand them as socially high-ranking laymen
serving as liaisons between bishops and congregations.

[78] Theological and Natural Science, op. cit., p.
77. Surely, we need fresh insights into Creation, Incarnation, and the Physics
of the Universe in our time.

Author: John E. McKenna


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