Causality: Five Metaphysical Distinctions

causality five metaphysical distinctions

Metaphysics is the philosophical knowledge concerned with the fundamental nature of knowing and being. Since God is the creator of all things, it is important that we understand the natural world around us and His revelation to us in Scripture in a precise and logical manner. The metaphysical distinctions of causality are crucial in understanding Reformed Theology. Keep in mind that when we use the language of “cause” today, we primarily mean “efficient cause“, and have largely dropped the idea of causality in regard to the other types of causes embraced in the past. “The all-too-frequent response of theologians and historians [to causal language] has been simply to dismiss the language as a symptom of excessive Aristotelianism or, in the case of the Reformed orthodox, to claim it as evidence of a metaphysical, predestinarian, and even deterministic interest” (Richard Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 2, pg. 231). But such dismissal robs us of valuable tools to help us rightly divide the Word of truth (2 Tim. 2:15).

This is a basic introduction to five distinctions of causality that one will commonly come across in reading Reformed Theology. These five distinctions will greatly assist in one’s understanding of theological concepts. We will define these five causes and then give common examples of them. It is important to note that sometimes a fourfold schema of causality is used (efficient, material, formal, final), and at other times a threefold schema of causality is used (formal, efficient, instrumental). It is important to be able to understand these distinctions so that we can better understand what God would have us believe about Him, and what duty He requires of us, as written in the Word of God (WLC Q. 5).

Five Distinctions of Causality

Causa: cause; that which brings about motion or mutation. Following Aristotle, the medieval scholastics, the Reformers, and the Protestant scholastics held a basic fourfold schema of causality:

(1) the causa efficiens, the efficient cause, or productive, effective cause, which is the agent productive of the motion or mutation in any sequence of causes and effects.

(2) the causa materialis, or material cause, which is the substantial basis of the motion or mutation, the materia on which the causa efficiens operates.

(3) the causa formalis, or formal cause, which is the essentia [essence; that which makes a thing what it is] or quidditas [“whatness”] of the thing, and which is determinative of what the thing caused is to be.

(4) the causa finalis, or final cause, which is the ultimate purpose for which a thing is made or an act is performed.

Richard Muller,  Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms, pg. 61.

Additionally, the Reformed scholastics used the concept of the causa instrumentalis, or instrumental cause: “the instrumentality through which an end, or goal, is accomplished” (Muller, 187); “in the realm of second causes, the means used to bring about a desired effect, distinct from the material and formal causes as a tool is distinct from both the material upon which it is used and from the form that determines what the material is or will be” (Muller, 62). “It is characteristic of means that they are passive in the order of causes and are utilized by the efficient cause. The value, positive or negative, of means derives, therefore, from the end achieved, the means in themselves being neutral.” (Muller, 187).

The common Aristotelian example of how these concepts work together is that of a sculpture. The efficient cause is the sculptor himself, the material cause is the marble he is carving out of, the instrumental cause is the chisel he uses to carve with, the formal cause is the finished statue, and the final cause is the purpose for which the statue was made.

Examples of this schema of causality


“In the creation of the world God is the efficient cause; materia prima [i.e. the first material, “the earth was without form, and void” Gen. 1:2], the material cause; the forma substantialis, or substantial form, which determines the kind of substance drawn out of materia prima, is the formal cause; and the glory of God the final cause” (Muller, pg. 61).


“Similarly, the Reformed will apply the fourfold causality to the election of believers to salvation, varying occasionally the material and formal causes. Here the efficient cause is the good pleasure of God (beneplacitum); the material cause is Christ; the formal cause is the preaching of the gospel; and the final cause is the praise and glory of God” (Muller, pg. 61). The Arminians err in making foreseen faith the efficient cause of election (c.f. Canons of Dort, Articles 9 & 10).


“In the logic of causality, or ordination of a causal sequence, the final cause takes precedence over the material and formal causes; i.e., the ordination of the end (finis or telos) must precede the selection of means requisite to the achievement of that end. This logic of causality was used by the supralapsarians among the Reformed to argue the correctness of their teaching over the infralapsarian position; i.e., election and reprobation, considered as ends manifesting the final glory of God, stand prior in the order of the decrees (ordo rerum decretarum) to the establishment of creation and fall as means to those ends” (Muller, pg. 61).


The Holy Spirit is the efficient cause of the inspiration of Scripture, the human authors are the instrumental causes who “spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost” (2 Peter 1:21). The formal cause of inspiration being the Word of God means that mere human beings cannot impart a divine quality to Scripture, therefore Scripture is not a mixture of the human and the divine, it is 100% God’s Word in its essence, yet with accidents of human personality and style (see here for more).

“God alone is to be accounted the Author [of Scripture], who inspired the Hearts of those Holy Men, whom he chose to be his Secretaries; who are to be held only the Instrumental Causes thereof. (2 Peter 1:20-21.)”

James Ussher, Body of Divinity, p. 5.

William Whitaker provides an example for us how the Reformed Orthodox used the concepts of efficient cause and final cause in their interpretation of 2 Timothy 3:16-17 “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.

“The apostle does not argue from the universal to the particular, but from the efficient and the final cause. From the efficient thus: All scripture is divinely inspired; therefore do thou read the scriptures from which thou mayst learn divine wisdom. From the end, thus: Scripture is profitable for many purposes; therefore do thou read the scriptures, that thou mayst derive these many and great advantages from the study of them.”

Disputations on Holy Scripture, pg. 634.

Our belief that the Scriptures are the Word of God

Q. 4. How doth it appear that the Scriptures are the Word of God?
A. The Scriptures manifest themselves to be the Word of God, by their majesty and purity; by the consent of all the parts, and the scope of the whole, which is to give all glory to God; by their light and power to convince and convert sinners, to comfort and build up believers unto salvation: but the Spirit of God bearing witness by and with the Scriptures in the heart of man, is alone able fully to persuade it that they are the very Word of God (Hos. 8:12; 1 Cor. 2:6-7, 13; Ps. 119:18, 129; Ps. 12:6; Ps. 119:140; Acts 10:43; Acts 26:22; Rom. 3:19, 27; Acts 18:28; Heb. 4:12; Jas. 1:18; Ps. 19:7-9; Rom. 15:4; Acts 20:32; John 16:13-14; 1 John 2:20, 27; John 20:31).” (WLC Q. 4).

The Scripture itself is the formal cause of our knowledge about what books and what passages are truly the Word of God, the Holy Spirit is the efficient causebearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts” (WLC Q. 4; WCF 1:5), and the universal Church is the instrumental cause through which we come to believe that the Scriptures are the Word of God.

“So if it is asked why or on account of what I believe Scripture to be of divine quality, I will reply that this happens through Scripture itself which proves itself to be such by its marks. If it is asked how or by what it happens that I believe, I will reply, by the Holy Spirit, who produces this faith within me. Finally, if it is asked by what means or organ I believe this, I will reply, through the church, which God uses in giving me Scripture”

Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology,

Rationalists err in thinking that reason and evidence is the efficient cause of our knowledge that Scripture is the Word of God. Charismatics err in making supernatural experiences the instrumental cause of recognizing the Word of God. The papists err in thinking that the Church is the formal cause of our knowledge that the Scriptures are the Word of God, and this is explicitly denied in our confession, “The authority of the holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man or church, but wholly upon God (who is truth itself), the Author thereof; and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God (1 Thes 2:13; 2 Tim 3:16; 2 Pet 1:19, 21; 1 John 5:9)” (WCF 1:4).

Or, in a fourfold schema, “the efficient cause of Scripture is ‘God the Father, in the Son, by the Spirit’…The ‘material cause‘ of Scripture is the divine substance or material that has been ‘revealed for our salvation,’ delivered ‘according to our capacity, and registered in the canon.'” (Muller, PRRD, vol. 2, sect. 4.1).

“The formal cause of holy Scripture is twofold, inward and outward: by the former Scripture is proportionate both to divine truth and with each of its parts; by the latter, the exquisite language of holy Scripture, all things that are written in it have a style suitable to the dignity of the speaker, to the nature of the word spoken, and to the condition of those to whom it is spoken.”

Lucas Trelcatius, Schol. meth., I.ii (pp. 23–24); cited in Muller, PRRD, vol. 2, sect. 4.1.

“Finally, considered as to its finis or telos, Scripture has a twofold purpose: the glory of God and the salvation of the elect. The church’s present well-being and salvation leading to the final blessedness of God’s servants is the secondary or subordinate goal, while the glory of God as manifest in the salvation of the elect is the primary and ultimate goal” (Muller, PRRD, vol. 2, sect. 4.1).

Difference Between Church and State

See how George Gillespie uses a fourfold schema of causality (efficient, material, formal, final) in his first four points of difference between Church and State: Ten Agreements and Ten Differences Between Church and State.


Many more examples could be given, but these give us a good idea about how these metaphysical distinctions of causality are rightly used in theology. Lord willing, these distinctions will help us better understand and articulate biblical doctrine.



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