Ontology 101

Ontology is “the study of being,” or, “the study of existence.” Things that exist share the quality of “existing,” and ontology studies what it means to say that a thing “exists.” The term “ontology” comes from the Greek words ontos (being) and logos (the study of). Ontology answers questions like these:

  • Why is there something rather than nothing?
  • What is a “something” in the first place?
  • What kinds of “somethings” exist?
  • How can we organize, or classify, the kinds of “somethings” into groups so we can better understand them?
  • What happens to a “something” when it experiences a change? How much can you take away from or change “something” before it becomes “something else”?

A being is just a thing that exists. You are a being, I am a being, cars are beings, houses are beings, tables and chairs and pencils and footballs are beings, and so forth. Anything that exists is a being. Some beings exist outside of your mind (such as other people). Other beings exist only in your mind (such as unicorns and other products of your imagination).

What about God? God exists, right? Doesn’t that mean that God is a being? Actually, Christians think of God as being in a different class than all the things mentioned above. God is not a being. Rather, He is Being. What does that mean? To answer that question, we first need to discuss a few more terms that are used in ontology.

  • Immanent BeingTo say that a being is “immanent” means that that being exists inside the world. Immanent means “inside of.”
  • Transcendent BeingTo say that a being is “transcendent” means that that being exists outside of the world. Transcendent means “outside of.”
  • Finite BeingA finite being is a being that has limitations, such as size, weight, color, abilities, lifespan, and so forth. Another term for finite being is contingent being, which means a being that was made to exist by something else.
  • Infinite BeingAn infinite being is a being that has no limitations.

What does all of this mean? Why is it important? What relation does it have to how we as Christians think about God?

A great many books outside of the Bible that you read as part of literature classes were written by pagans. (A pagan is someone who believes in many gods rather than just one God.) In pagan religions, the gods and goddesses are beings who exist inside the world. They are immanent beings, not transcendent beings. The only real difference between the gods and human beings in pagan religions are that the gods are a lot more powerful than the human beings. Otherwise, like human beings, they are limited, finite beings.

The God of Christianity is very different from all pagan gods. The God of Christianity is infinite, not finite. Unlike the pagan gods, our God is both transcendent and immanent. Because He made the world, He exists outside the world (Genesis 1; Psalm 90:2; Ephesians 1:4). Yet He also exists inside the world (Psalm 139:7-10; Jeremiah 23:23-24).

What these things mean is that the Christian God is not just a being. He is not like all the other things that we call beings. He is not like you and me and houses and cars and tables and chairs and pencils and footballs. Nor is he like beings of your imagination, like unicorns. And He is utterly unlike all the beings that pagans called “gods.”

According to classical Christian thinkers, God is not just a being. Rather, God is Being. All other things that exist exist imperfectly and with limitations. God exists, but unlike all other things that exist He exists perfectly and without any limitations. All other things that exist have being, but God is Being. This means that all other beings are dependent on God. In classical Christian literature, particularly philosophical works, there is a whole class of arguments for the existence of God known as ontological arguments because they focus on this issue of being.

In Genesis 1, the Bible tells us that “In the beginning, God made the heavens and the earth. And the earth was formless and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep.” By itself, this verse does not prove that nothing existed before God created the world. But when we add to it John 1:3, we find that “Through Him [Jesus Christ] all things were made, and without Him nothing was made that was made.”

The Apostle Paul writes, “In Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Hebrews 11:3 tells us that “By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that the things which are seen were not made of things which are visible.” God made everything out of nothing (see the doctrine of creation ex nihilo in Chapter 20). Thus, everything that exists is dependent (or contingent) upon him.

Ontology is a very important part of any worldview. What a worldview says about ontology affects what it says about all kinds of other issues, including how human beings know things and what is the destiny of all things. Some worldviews do not emphasize it much, but at the bottom of any claim that they make about the world is some kind of ontological assumption.