An Introduction to Universals

Philosophy for Theologians opens up the subject of universals by discussing the basic approaches to reality found in thinkers such as Plato and Aristotle. After laying an introductory foundation, the panel discusses Bavinck’s approach to the subject and his views of how theology relates to disciplines.

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Philosophy for Theologians aims to look critically at the problems of philosophy by considering everything in light of God's revelation. The program not only wants to address philosophical questions but also to equip you with a way to think about these questions. Browse more episodes from this program or subscribe to the podcast feed.

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9 years ago

Good program – keep them coming when u can.
Van Til noted that “the only alternative to thinking of God as the ultimate source of unity in human experience as it is furnished by laws or universals is to think that the unity rests in a void. Every object of knowledge must, therefore, be thought of as being surrounded by ultimate irrationality” (SCE).

Mo Se Jun

9 years ago

“Every object of knowledge must, therefore, be thought of as being surrounded by ultimate irrationality.”
I think Cornelius Van Til was a genius…

matt crotts

9 years ago

fantstic talk!

by the way, it’s a michelangelo painting – not a da vinci!


9 years ago

C’mon, guys–can’t we all just love Jesus?

Actually, it’s Raphael’s The School of Athens.

matt crotts

9 years ago

Ouch! Actually it is Raphael. My framed BFA just fell off the wall and shattered at the horror of my mistake.

I’m thankful that this talk got sidetracked into the last debate’s unresolved hermeneutical tensions. I’m a ‘LaRoccist’ on this matter and I just want Jared to appreciate the internal validity of Bob’s argument (valid even if he thinks it isn’t true), so at very least it will no longer have to be a frustration point in future discussions (especially when Bob talks on subjects in which he’s interested).

‘You know who treats the Bible as Theology? Karl Barth.’ A gut-punch to Reformed Forum if I ever heard one! Man I love you guys.

Maybe a future talk will lead to a better consensus.

matt crotts

9 years ago

… Though I will say that this provided the best argument against LaRocca’s thesis. Much closer than the last podcast.

LaRocca still stands, I believe. In my opinion.


9 years ago

I’m trying to see if i followed correctly the earlier half of the conversation correctly…

Was Bavinck saying the same thing that Thomas was saying, that before creation God knew creation only because he thought of creation? In other words, God only knew me (Doug) before creation as a thought and now knows me as Doug the created being but didn’t know me that way prior to creation? And are you guys saying that Van Til saw this as wrong, that God did know me as me and not just as a thought before creation?

Bob L.

9 years ago


Aquinas and Bavinck both say that God knows creation as exemplar ideas before creating the beings that correspond to those ideas. Even in back of those exemplar ideas are many divine ideas of beings which he will never create (“the possibles”). So God knew you (Doug) before creation as an idea, as an exemplar, and as a created being, even before creation. For Aquinas and Bavinck, God’s act of creation does not produce new divine knowledge (“contingent knowledge,” or whathaveyou). As far as I know, Van Til retains this formula – only, unlike Bavinck, he will try his darndest to strip away the thomistic terminology. So, Aquinas, Bavinck, and (I think) Van Til would each hold that God knew you as a divine idea, an exemplar, and as a specific created being before creation, from all eternity. (I must qualify, though, that it is much more difficult to discover exactly what Van Til has to say on these issues).



9 years ago

Not that I think my agreement carries much weight around here (opposite more likely), but it appears to me that Bob was correct on yet another ‘nuts and bolts’ distinction…

Brett C Schut

9 years ago

Bob is correct in the distinctions and definitions he makes with regards to theology. Richard Muller’s work is very clear on this subject and should be consulted to vindicate the claims made by Bob: Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics (volume 1), After Calvin, and the Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms. Dr. Carl Trueman could also be consulted to clarify any further issues although I firmly believe that he would agree with Bob’s comments and point of view. Thanks for the great program.

Mark G

8 years ago

Good program, but I thought there was a little talking past one another near the end regarding the relationship between scripture and theology. For example, one side was arguing we can view Paul as theologian whereas the other was saying the Bible is not theology. I didn’t hear anyone arguing the Bible is a theology book. I am an amateur so cut me some slack here. So, when Paul interprets Jesus is he not in some sense doing theology? When Jesus explained the OT to the disciples was he not doing theology? Granted, the Biblical authors explaining, synthesizing, or interpreting scripture do so authoratively, which we do not do, but they seem to be doing theology nonetheless. It goes without saying that Paul never wrote a theology book. However, he certainly must have held to THE Biblical system of theology which informed his preaching and the arguments presented in his letters. Are we saying Ridderbos wrong headed to write Paul: An Outline of HIS THEOLOGY?


8 years ago

How does Plotinus’ One differ from your simple Deity?

At 28-30 minute mark Bob LaRocca touches on universals and exposits what it means for a universal to be in an individual. This is not to be understood as a spatial “in”. Right at the 29 min. mark he denies that the universal is an an “ethereal realm” but in a thing. Next he says (29:40) that the universal of humanity “is every human taken as a whole”. In the context of the whole discussion this means that the universal is simply a collection of particulars. This is nonsense. Then it is not a universal!

He mentions nothing of Philo Judaeus’ construction of the Universals in the mind of God. He mentions Augustine held to this though. At 38:20 ish he admits that God has ideas of universal humanity in his mind.
He says it again at 46:20. First, how can he deny that the universal is anywhere else but in the individual and then turn around and assert it is in the mind of God? Second, How is positing the universal in the mind of God Plotinian? Plotinus denied ideas and thinking to the One.

At 51:35ish it is asserted by Bavinck that the universal is not in some independent realm but in the thing. Not by innate ideas. Then we do a 180 and he asserts Universal Ideas in God’s mind at 54:20-30. I was like, stop the train! Did we not just establish that the Van Tilian and Scholastic idea of universals is only in individual things?

The most erroneous point that I find in this while forum is the idea that Neoplatonism teaches that the ultimate principle has universal Ideas. In an exposition of Plotinus’ One Clark says,

“These Ideas, however, this Divine Mind, is still not the highest principle of all. For in this realm duality remains. Since the Ideas are distinct from each other, there is multiplicity. In knowledge there is always a subject and a predicate, a knower and an object known, and hence duality. But duality is secondary to unity. Therefore it still remains to climb the steep ascent of heaven to the source, the One. The climbing of the ascent and the resting of the summit, let it be noted, are not the same thing. The rational process of philosophic dialectic demonstrate the necessary existence of the One. He who has felt the urge to unity can never rest in plurality, and is forced to posit a source superior to all diversity. But if we are to know that source and not just infer it, we must experience the One in mystic trance…the ordinary conditions of consciousness are suspended and, having become oblivious of self and the world, the soul sees the One alone. The soul no longer knows whether it has a body, and cannot tell whether it is a man, or a living being, or anything real at all. …The vision is a direct contact with the One, a divine illumination. All knowledge is rather like our sight of sense objects on a cloudy day; in the vision we see the Source of the light which made knowledge possible, and we see it directly in all its brilliance. ..This experience is not abnormal, it is but the exercise of a faculty which all have though few use…The experience itself cannot be written down, it can only be experienced ”[Truth as Encounter]. pg. 229-230 Clark, Gordon Hellenistic Philosophy (Appleton-Century-Crofts: New York, 1940)

Following this the other embarrassing point that is being made here is that God is simple and at the same times thinks ideas. The whole reason why Plotinus rejected thinking to his One is because thinking requires distinctions and his Monad was completely simple.

The way a Scripturalist says we know universals is by our being made in God’s image. Innate forms. To supplement, participation is simply saying that the particular man is patterned after the idea. Here is how Clark described the universal of humanity: The Biblical Doctrine of Man (The Trinity Foundation: Jefferson, Maryland, 1984),

“Realism of course asserts the real existence of the human genus. This is an idea in God’s mind and it is a real object of knowledge. But it is hard to imagine and Realist identifying the perfect eternal idea with a temporal and imperfect individual. The relationship of Adam to the Idea is precisely the same as the relationship of any other individual man to the Idea. The individuals ‘participate’ in or are all ‘patterned after’ the Idea; but the notion that one individual is ‘physically and numerically one’ with the Idea, or that any other individual is ‘physically and numerically one’ with Adam is enough to send poor Plato to his grave in despair. This misunderstanding of Realism vitiates much of Hodge’s argumentation.” (pg. 49)

Isn’t that simple and easy to understand? The universal is in the mind of God. The particular is patterned after the Universal. End of Discussion. These guys were so tangled up around each other in this discussion it ended up being pretty heated and no one could agree if universals are even a part of scriptural teaching. What a joke!

Reformed Forum’s “An Introduction to Universals” Refuted « Eternal Propositions

8 years ago

[…] can listen to this hour long puff of smoke here. The Reformed Forum guys who think they are Thomists tried to vindicate the use […]

Bob LaRocca

8 years ago

Dear Mr. Drake,

I’m glad you take a philosophical position on the subject of universals. You might be interested to read Gregory Doolan’s “Aquinas on the divine ideas as exemplar causes.” I think it was reviewed on Reformed Forum somewhere. Also, Bavinck’s second volume and Richard Muller’s third are great sources for the classic reformed position. It is uncanny how Bavinck’s doctrine and Muller’s historical account mirror Doolan’s exposition of Aquinas. In regards to your views on participation, Gilson’s book on “The Christian Philosophy of St. Augustine,” might shed some light on how such an essentialist metaphysic works itself out.

Anyways, as far as I have read them, it seems that Aquinas and Bavinck can hold that God has ideas of universals and particulars and at the same time that universals are in particulars amongst created things is due to their mutually held doctrine of creation. It’s all right there, if you are interested, in Bavinck’s second volume and Doolan’s account of Aquinas. Neither Aquinas nor Bavinck are embarrassed to hold to divine simplicity and divine ideas, and I think for good reason.

The point of the episode was to introduce how Plato and Aristotle have influenced Christian thought. Would you say that your views on universals is more influenced by Plato?



8 years ago

Bob, I have already read this material and it has convinced me more that Reformed people don’t know philosophy. You did not answer an inch of what I requested of you. Plotinus was very consistent to deny a mind to his One precisely because it was simple. You guys just stubbornly assert it like forcing a square peg through a round hole. Answer what i have already put before you and then we can further the conversation.

Jonathan Brack

8 years ago

Consistency is not ultimately based on “philosophy” Drake. Also, there is no such thing as the monolithic term “Philosophy”. There are only philosophies. So what/which philosophies do Reformed people fail to understand? Plotinus? Sorry, but Christians have been commanded to have a “philosophy” rooted in Christ (1 Cor.) not Plotinus’ pagan notion of God. Plato/Aristotle/Plotinus’ god is no God at all.


8 years ago


“Sorry, but Christians have been commanded to have a “philosophy” rooted in Christ (1 Cor.) not Plotinus’ pagan notion of God.”

Exactly. Exactly my point. Where then do Reformed people get the idea of Divine Simplicity? There is not a drop of scripture that says movement towards unity= perfection where movement toward distinction=imperfection but that is what you guys believe, whether you get it or not. It dominates your whole religion.

Turretin Volume 1. 3rd Topic. Q 7
“Proof that God is perfectly simple.

IV. This proved to be a property of God: (1) from his independence, because composition is of the formal reason of a being originated and dependent (since nothing can be composed by itself , but whatever is composed must necessarily be composed by another; now God is the first and independent being, recognizing no other prior to himself) ; (2) from his unity, because he who is absolutely one, is also absolutely simple and therefore can neither be dived nor composed; (3) from his perfection, because composition implies ***********IMPERFECTION******************* inasmuch as it supposes passive power, dependency and mutability. ”

Institutes of Elenctic Theology Volume 1 (P & R Publishing: Phillipsburg, NJ, 1992), pg. 191

Plotinus’ Monad is your God John. That’s my point. I am a Scripturalist and see that the Bible teaches that God has a mind, which in itself requires distinctions, ergo God cannot be an absolute Monad.

John Strong

8 years ago

Uh, I kept looking for a point of substantive disagreement, but you guys never persuaded me that you understood what Bob LaRocca was saying. Do they teach you how to write enscripturated theology at Westminster, like Paul wrote? If so, I was wondering: do they have cooking classes that show you how to turn water into wine? You see, I’m not interested *non*-*biblical* cooking. That’s for pagans. 🙂

In any case, I am a grateful admirer of your marvelous website.. .



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