One and Many

Eternal Unity and Plurality
The difference between a Christian and a non-Christian philosophy will appear to be a basic difference so soon as we attempt to take the first step in answering the One-and-Many question from the Christian point of view. In answering this question of the One-and-Many we find it necessary to distinguish between the Eternal One-and-Many and the temporal one and many. Non-Christian philosophers on the other hand find it unnecessary to make this distinction. We find this necessary of course because our conception of God as the triune God stands at the center of our thinking. We may express this thought philosophically by saying that for us the eternal one and many form a self-complete unity. God is absolute personality and therefore absolute individuality. He exists necessarily. He has no non-being over against himself in comparison with which he defines himself; he is internally self-defined.

Using the language of the One-and-Many question we contend that in God the one and the many are equally ultimate. Unity in God is no more fundamental than diversity, and diversity in God is no more fundamental than unity. The persons of the Trinity are mutually exhaustive of one another. The Son and the Spirit are ontologically on par with the Father. It is a well-known fact that all heresies in the history of the church have in some form or other taught subordinationism. Similarly, we believe all “heresies” in apologetic methodology spring from some sort of subordinationism.

It may be profitable at this juncture to introduce the notion of a concrete universal. In seeking for an answer to the One-and-Many question, philosophers have admittedly experienced great difficulty. The many must be brought into contact with one another. But how do we know that they can be brought into contact with one another? How do we know that the many do not simply exist as unrelated particulars? The answer given is that in such a case we should know nothing of them; they would be abstracted from the body of knowledge that we have; they would be abstract particulars. On the other hand, how is it possible that we should obtain a unity that does not destroy the particulars? We seem to get our unity by generalizing, by abstracting from the particulars in order to include them into larger unities. If we keep up this process of generalization till we exclude all particulars, granted than can all be excluded, have we then not stripped these particulars of their particularity? Have we then obtained anything but an abstract universal?

As Christians we hold that there is no answer to these problems from a non-Christian point of view. We shall argue this point later; for the nonce we introduce this matter in order to set forth the meaning of the notion of the concrete universal. The notion of the concrete universal has been offered by idealist philosophers in order to escape the reductio ad absurdum of the abstract particular and the abstract universal. It is only in the Christian doctrine of the triune God, as we are bound to believe, that we really have a concrete universal. In God’s being there are no particulars not related to the universal and there is nothing universal that is not fully expressed in the particulars.

Temporal Unity and Plurality
It goes without saying that if we hold to the eternal one and many in the manner explained above we must hold the temporal one and many to be created by God. We said above that God needed no such thing as non-being against himself in order to define himself in comparison with it. Christianity takes non-being seriously. In discussing the question of non-being we hasten to distinguish between God’s relation to non-being and man’s relation to non-being. For God non-being is nothing in itself; for man non-being is the field of God’s possible operation. Since non-being is nothing in itself for God, God has to create, if he wished create at all “out of nothing.” It would perhaps be better to say that God created the universe into nothing. Creation, on Christian principles, must always mean fiat creation. If the creation doctrine is thus taken seriously, it follows that the various aspects of created reality must sustain such relations to one another as have been ordained between them by the Creator, as superiors, inferiors or equals. All aspects being equally created, no one aspect of reality may be regarded as more ultimate than another. Thus the created one and many may in this respect be said to be equal to one another; they are equally derived and equally dependent upon God who sustains them both. The particulars or facts of the universe do and must act in accord with universals or laws. Thus there is order in the created universe. On the other hand, the laws may not and can never reduce the particulars to abstract particulars or reduce their individuality in any manner. The laws are but generalizations of God’s method of working with the particulars. God may at any time take one fact and set it into a new relation to created law. That is, there is no inherent reason in the facts or laws themselves why this should not be done. It is this sort of conception of the relation of facts and laws, of the temporal one and many, imbedded as it is in that idea of God in which we profess to believe, that we need in order to make room for miracles. And miracles are at the heart of the Christian position.

Thus there is a basic equality between the created one and the created many, or between the various aspects of created reality. On the other hand, there is a relation of subordination between them as ordained by God. The “mechanical” laws are lower than the “teleological” laws. Of course, both the “mechanical” and the “teleological” laws are teleological in the sense that both obey God’s will. So also the facts of the physical aspect of the universe are lower than the facts of the will and intellect of man. It is this subordination of one fact and law to other facts and laws that is spoken of in Scripture as man’s government over nature. According to Scripture man was set as king over nature. He was to subdue it. Yet he was to subdue it for God. He was priest under God as well as king under God. In order to subdue it under God man had to interpret it; he was therefore prophet as well as priest and king under God.

The subordination of one fact and law under higher created facts and laws appears particularly in the notion of miracle. When Moses comanded the sea to stand aside so that Israel might go through dry-shod, the laws of the physical universe were set aside at the behest of the will of man. But the subordination of the laws of nature to the will of man was in order to the subordination of the will of man to God.

Using the current terminology of philosophy we may express what we have said about the subordination of one aspect of the created universe to other aspects of the created universe by saying that the lower universes of discourse anticipate the higher, and the higher uses of discourse look back to the lower uiverses of discourse. The mechanical universe of discourse is subject to and anticipates the organic, while the organic looks back to the mechanical. In turn the organic universe of discourse anticipates the intellectual and moral universes of discourse, while these look back to the organic.

(Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 26-28)

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