God: The 4 Aristotelian Causes

Aristotle had a distinct understanding of causality. He sees cause as what brings about change. All things, including humans, have an essence of what they are, but also change without losing that essence. What shapes what we are, and moves us towards what we are becoming, are four causes. These are the formal cause, material cause, efficient cause, and the final cause.

For Aristotle, these causes and his unmoved mover never became more than an impersonal force. But if we look with soft eyes, we see that there are correlations between these causes and the work of God in creation! This common grace understanding of God as these causes is what I want to point out and share here.

Formal Cause

A formal cause is "that which determines what a thing is". Aristotle uses the analogy of a sculptor who has an idea or a plan for a sculpture. It is the person or artist with the creative idea before any work is done. When we look at the Bible, it talks about God as the formal cause as well. Before the foundations of earth were laid, He had a plan for the creation of the universe and more particularly, of man.

He predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with His pleasure and will- Ephesians 1:5

In the very act of creation He says it more subtly by saying "Let us make man in our own likeness and image". God as the formal cause of man had determined what man would be- His son that reflected Him in image.

Material Cause

The material cause is defined by Aristotle as "that out of which a thing is made". He is making a move to say there are foundational parts that make a thing what it is. The substance of a thing is the material cause. In the analogy of the sculpture, it is a block of marble or clay that are its material cause.

In understanding mans material cause we should look to what substances God used to make man. Two things can be noted-

  1. God used the ground of the earth
  2. God breathed of His own Spirit into man

God made man to be dual in his substance. He desired that man would have a physical body by which to interact with the earth but also wanted to place in him the immaterial, spiritual element which is man's soul and spirit with which he could connect to the spiritual world with.

And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul. -Genesis 2:7

Efficient Cause

Moving towards the third cause, Aristotle explains that an efficient cause is 'that by which a thing is made'. In todays age, a formal cause of a product might be a person while the efficient cause is a machine in a warehouse. Even looking back to the example of a sculpture, sometimes a sculptor is hired to fulfill the idea of another person.

However God did not leave His idea of creation to be acted out by another. In the first creation, God Himself formed man. In the second, when man is born again, the Holy Spirit springs up the eternal life in us. So for both the first and second creation, it was God Himself who did the work of making man and the new man. He is the efficient cause.

Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things have become new.- 2 Corinthians 5:17

Final Cause

The last of the four causes is said to be "that for which a thing is made." The last cause is about why a thing was made, its purpose of existence. A sculpture might be made to decorate a house or garden. Maybe its final purpose is for public consumption in a museum. God is a purposeful God meaning that all things that He makes has a purpose. And for man, it was to rule over creation and be His co-laborer, friend, and son.

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” Genesis 1:28

When we look at man in the garden, God tells Him to be fruitful and multiply, to tend the garden God had made, and to talk and walk with him as a son would with his father. All of this points to how God purposefully made man, which is re-emphasized by Jesus Himself when He said:

"For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of Him who sent me."- John 6:38


God is the 4 causes for man and creation. Creation obviously serves to glorify God, but it was also made to be of help to man.  This shows the infinite knowledge and beauty of God's creation. And when we see the uniqueness of every human, there's a revelation of the diversity of ways we rule and look like Him. Our final causes are decided by Him to be special. As it is written:

For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be glory forever. Amen. Romans 11:36