Athens Comes to Greet Jerusalem: Substantial Change and Material Creation

creation, creator, creature, genesis

creation, creator, creature, genesis

As Catholics, we believe that God revealed himself gradually to his chosen people, the Jews, and completed this Divine revelation in the Jewish Messiah, the Christ our Lord. We believe that Jesus Christ established the Catholic Church to transmit that revelation to all people through all generations. The revelation was not only knowledge but also grace through the Mass and the Sacraments.

Divine revelation as knowledge, by its very nature, is inerrant. Its author is God, who cannot deceive nor be deceived. Further, in receiving the gift of faith, the individual has a greater certitude of its truth than the truths of disciplines of solely human endeavor (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church § 157). Nevertheless, revelation as knowledge is given to us through words and sentences, which do not differ in form from the communication of any other intellectual discipline (cf. St. John Paul II, Fides et Ratio § 13.4).

One characteristic of truth in an intellectual discipline is self-consistency. A second characteristic is an inter-disciplinary consistency in those points where disciplines impinge upon one another. These characteristics of consistency are those of divine revelation as they are of all true intellectual knowledge possessed by humans.

In this essay, I intend to consider Aristotle’s elucidation of what he called the process of substantial change of material things and then identify a principle of substantial change along with two of its implications. The philosophical principle and its two implications impinge upon divine revelation regarding material creation.


As a prelude, consider the intellectual harmony of God’s revelation to his chosen people, its completion in Jesus, the Christ, along with God’s providence in preparing the Gentiles for the revelation of Christ, in whom all peoples are blessed.

Pope Benedict XVI saw in the development of Greek philosophy divine providence at work in preparing Europe for the reception of the Faith. “The encounter between the Biblical message and Greek thought did not happen by chance. The vision of Saint Paul, who saw the roads to Asia barred and in a dream saw a Macedonian man plead with him: ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us!’ [cf. Acts 16:6-10] — this vision can be interpreted as a ‘distillation’ of the intrinsic necessity of a rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek inquiry” (Lecture, “Faith, Reason and the University — Memories and Reflections”, University of Regensburg, 12 September 2006; para. 5).

In reference to the providential preparation of the world for the incarnation of the Word of God, the Catechism cites Galatians 4:4, “When the fullness of time had come, God sent his son …” (CCC § 702). In divine providence, this “fullness of time” encompasses not only the completion of revelation to the Jews and to Greek philosophy but to the infrastructure and peace of Roman civilization, which was essential to the rapid spread of the Gospel. Providence not only had prepared the mind of man but material reality as well, to receiving and spreading the Gospel once the Good News was opened to the Gentiles.

One Providential Development: Aristotle’s Elucidation of Substantial Change

Aristotle (384-322 BC) distinguished two types of material change, substantial and accidental. A substance is what a material entity is. Its accidents are its properties, which include size and shape, but also its relationship to other material things by place and motion.

Substantial change occurs when a material entity ceases to be in a process in which a new material entity arises. One example would be the formation of water from hydrogen and oxygen; another, the digestion of a plant by an animal. In accidental change, the properties of a material entity change but the entity itself persists. An example would be the change of water among its three states of gas (water vapor), liquid (water) and solid (ice).

After the combustion of hydrogen in air, hydrogen, and oxygen no longer exist as hydrogen and oxygen. What exists is water. Similarly, after assimilation of a plant by an animal through the digestive process, the plant no longer exists as a plant. What was a plant or, what was a portion thereof, becomes an integral portion of the animal, e.g. as part of its musculature. Now, it is the substance, animal, which informs the matter. That matter was previously informed by the substance, plant.

Aristotle explained substantial change as a transition from potency to act, not as annihilation and creation. The substantial form of the plant ceases to be in act, while the same matter comes into act in a new form, e.g. as an animal’s muscle. That which persists through substantial change is matter. Matter is a principle of potency, which is limited in its potency by its present substantial form. Due to the limitations of the pure potential of matter by its existing form, the animal can digest plant material but not sand to produce muscle.

What is common to all material things is matter, the principle of potency. Material things are a composite of matter and substantial form.

A Fundamental Principle of Aristotle’s Elucidation

Matter is neither created nor destroyed.

We can see that (1) Aristotle’s explanation of change in substantial form, with the underlying persistence of matter, and (2) the principle that matter is neither created nor destroyed are mutually implicit in one another. For the purpose of this essay, two further implications are important.

  • That matter is neither created nor destroyed must hold during the span of human existence.
  • If material creation were a staged program, it ceased with the creation of man.

Why Is Material Creation Concurrent with Human Existence an Incompatibility?

Material reality is harmonious. An animal can know material reality through sense knowledge and respond to it instinctively. A human can know and react similarly, but he also has intellectual knowledge of material reality and can act freely upon that knowledge.

If a sheep senses a coyote twenty-five yards away, it will react instinctively. It is simply a case of stimulus and response. There is no need for the sheep to have any further explanation of the stimulus. The stimulus could have been created then and there out of nothing and thereby be completely compatible with the sheep’s mode of knowledge.

The shepherd will also react to the stimulus of the coyote. Perhaps he had selected the particular grazing pasture because of the rarity of coyotes there. He might be intellectually surprised to see the coyote. If, however, the coyote were created only when the shepherd detected him, the shepherd would be completely bewildered. If a coyote can be created twenty-five yards away, it could be created beside the sheep. The shepherd’s intellectual knowledge of material reality would be subverted. There would be a lack of consistency in material reality, which consistency is the basis of self-consistency within every human intellectual discipline. Literally, there would be no discipline. There would be insufficient order in the material world for the human intellect to grasp.

Human intellectual knowledge is of material reality as it exists. This includes knowledge of its potency to exist otherwise; i.e., to what it can become through substantial and accidental change. In contrast, material creation, by definition, is inexplicable in terms of material reality as it exists.

Could not material creation occur only when the shepherd wasn’t looking? It is a question of principle, not of circumstance. What would be the point in performing a laboratory experiment if the results only applied to that experiment?

Two Implications of the Conservation of Matter

That matter is neither created nor destroyed by natural forces is an axiom stemming from Aristotle’s exposition of substantial change.

One implication is that material creation is not concurrent with the span of human existence. This must be true for human intellectual knowledge to be possible. Aristotle’s elucidation of substantial change is in accord with the possibility of human intellectual knowledge.

A second implication is that, if material creation had a beginning and progressed through stages, it would cease with the creation of man.

Concurrence of Revelation with These Two Implications

The Catechism confirms these two implications.

Creation of material things is the act of their having been called into existence out of nothing (cf. CCC § 318).

Material creatures form a hierarchy of perfection in existence in accord with the order of their creation over six days or stages (cf. CCC § 342).

Material creation ceased after the sixth day upon which man was created. On the seventh day, God rested, having ended the work of material creation in the six days or stages (CCC § 345). In other words, material creation is not concurrent with the span of human existence.

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