Summa Theologiae 1.49

Short essay: St. Thomas, evil, and creation

In many respects St. Thomas’s ponerology (i.e., doctrine of evil, from the Greek poneros, meaning evil) is quite conventional in its Neoplatonism. Thomas’s discussion of evil in question 48 of the Summa, for example, begins familiarly enough with his denial in the first article that evil is a nature, since every nature has its attendant perfection and goodness, whereas “by the name of evil is signified a certain absence of good” (ST 1.48.1).[1] Thomas goes on to explain in the second and third articles how evil exists in those things that have been corrupted from or fail to attain their intended goodness: the “subject” of evil is some good thing of which the evil constitutes a privation or absence of form that the subject is supposed to have (ST 1.48.3).[2] In the fourth article, Thomas argues that, because evil only exists in a subject that is otherwise good, no evil is or can be completely successful in corrupting the whole good (ST 1.48.4).[3]

Where Thomas does finally depart from or at least improvise upon the traditional Augustinian reckoning of evil, according to Carlos Steel his innovations are more Aristotelian (and therefore still Socratic and Greek, in Steel’s view) than they are distinctly Christian. To resolve the perplexity left open by Augustine and earlier Neoplatonists as to how evil actions are caused, Thomas in question 49 of the Summa applies the Aristotelian distinction between per se and accidental causality.[4] In contrast to classical Neoplatonism’s typical denial that evil has an efficient cause, Thomas begins the corpus of his first article with an emphatic affirmation that “every evil in some way has a cause” (ST 1.49.1).[5] As the “absence of the good which is natural and due to a thing,” there must be a cause to explain why anything should “fail” or be “drawn out” from its “natural and due disposition.”[6] Thomas nevertheless agrees with the Neoplatonic premise that “only good can be a cause, because nothing can be a cause except in so far as it is a being, and every being, as such, is good.”[7] The question, then, is how something good can cause evil. Thomas’s answer is that what is good is able to cause evil, not insofar as it is good in itself (per se causality), but only accidentally. An accidental cause of an effect is a cause that produces an effect not intentionally, but by producing some second, intended effect with which the first, unintended effect is somehow accidentally connected. As we will see later, it is this Aristotelian distinction between per se and per accidens causality that Aquinas applies to the question of how the rational will is ever able to do or choose evil while intending something good.

Although Aristotle’s causal distinction enabled Thomas to answer the question of how evil may be caused by the good, Thomas’s solution came with its own set of difficulties. The problem, in short, is one of reconciling Thomas’s claim that evil “has no direct cause, but only an accidental cause” (ST 1.49.1 ad 4) with the reality of malicious or “radical” evil—instances, that is,  of evil actions appear being deliberately perpetrated by their agent for evil’s own sake. A classic example of such deliberate evil is Augustine’s famous story of the pear-theft recounted in his Confessions. Initially Augustine attempts to attribute his desire to steal and destroy the pears (he had no desire to eat them) to the influence of his friends, friendship and community being themselves good and therefore a possible source of action, even wrong action. Later on, however, Augustine puzzlingly suggests that in stealing the pears the evilness of the action itself was the cause: “I became evil for no reason. I had no motive for my wickedness except wickedness itself. It was foul, and I loved it… the self-destruction… my fall, not the object for which I had fallen but my fall itself… I was seeking not to gain anything by shameful means, but shame for its own sake.”[8] Although Thomas refers to this very passage in his only work devoted exclusively to the subject of evil, De malo 3.12, the fact that Augustine’s extreme remarks appear, at least to the modern reader, to challenge directly the basic premise of his philosophy of action—namely that evil cannot be desired or pursued for its own sake—does not seem to have occurred to him.[9] Steel accordingly concludes his study by drawing a contrast between Thomas’s Socratic optimism on the one hand, which Steel sees as ultimately rationalizing and reducing all evil to a matter of mere “hamartia, to miss the mark, to fail in one’s purpose, to go wrong, to make a mistake, to err, a shortcoming, a defect, a privation,” and on the other hand Søren Kierkegaard’s arguably more biblical and (in this respect, at least) more Augustinian thesis that evil involves an inexplicable yet deliberate, knowing intention and “positive choice” to do evil for evil’s own sake.[10]

A related contrast is one that has been drawn recently by Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart. Against what he perceives to be the optimistic, totalizing, evil-is-necessary-for-the-greater-good theodicies common to both Reformed Protestant theology (e.g., Calvin) and Enlightenment rationalist philosophy (e.g., Leibniz), Hart posits what he finds in the New Testament to be “a kind of ‘provisional’ cosmic dualism,” according to which this “present evil world” is a realm

ruled by spiritual and terrestrial ‘thrones, dominions, principalities, and powers’ (Col. 1:16; cf. 1 Cor. 2:8; Eph. 1:21; 3:10), by ‘the elements (stoicheia) of the world’ (Gal. 4:3), and by ‘the prince of the power of the air’ (Eph. 2:2), who—while they cannot ultimately separate us from God’s love (Rom. 8:38)—nevertheless contend against us…[11]

In some ways, incidentally, this is basically the two positions Shippey finds juxtaposed and ultimately unreconciled in Tolkien’s fiction: an optimistic monism reducing all evil to a form of relative non-being existing within an all-encompassing cosmic order on the one hand, and a dualism granting evil its own alien, irreducible ontological status on the other (though Hart sees this dualism as only “provisional” and therefore temporary and not absolute, a qualification that, as we shall see, likewise has important applications for understanding Tolkien).[12] (While this tension is indeed present within Tolkien’s writings, as stated the problem fails to appreciate what I argue elsewhere to be Tolkien’s own profound scholastic subtlety in exploiting the conceptual possibilities within an otherwise Thomistic metaphysics of creation and evil to overcome this antithesis in an even more original synthesis.)

To this end, consequently, it is well that we consider for a moment (Steel’s above critique notwithstanding) the extent to which Thomas’s own theory of evil is in fact indebted to his Christian metaphysics of creation. According to Brian Davies, who has written at length on Thomas’s theory of evil,[13] Thomas’s Christianity is in fact of central importance to his ponerology. Thomas, it may be recalled here, was a deeply committed friar of the Dominican order which had been founded earlier in the thirteenth century partly in response to the Manichaeism of the Albigensian or Catharist heresy.[14] Thomas’s own preoccupation with the Manichaean heresy, however, was both personal and profound, as came to be famously and humorously illustrated in his legendary outburst at the banquet hall of King Louis of France. Apparently lost in his thoughts and oblivious to his surroundings, Thomas stunned his host and fellow guests when he brought his fist crashing down on the table and triumphantly shouted, “And that will settle the Manichees!”[15] Testifying to Thomas’s interest in the question of evil in particular, moreover, is the fact that he convened an entire disputatio on the subject and had its lengthy proceedings published under the succinct title De malo, “On Evil.” Commenting on the significance of this work, Bonnie Kent observes: “Later medieval thinkers, as a rule, did not write treatises or conduct disputations dedicated to a topic so diffuse as evil. There is, however, one notable exception: Aquinas’s disputed questions De Malo (On Evil)…”[16]

As for his general orientation regarding the question of evil, Davies writes how for St. Thomas

the world is created and governed by a perfectly good God who is also omnipotent and omniscient. And he writes about evil in the light of this belief. In the De malo he is not concerned with scientific descriptions and scientific accounts of the causes of particular instances of evil (though he has things to say about them). Rather, he is out to focus on badness or evil in general. And he seeks to understand it as part of a world made by God. Hence, for example, he asks if God can be thought of as causing evil. And his account of human wrongdoing treats it chiefly as sin and as fallings short with respect to God. Hence, too, he touches on specifically Christian notions such as the doctrine of original sin.

In other words, the De malo is very much a work of Christian theology.[17]

Further indication of the fundamentally Christian and creational perspective of Thomas’s ponerology may be found in the less occasional, more systematic (if less comprehensive) treatment of evil Thomas provides in the Summa Theologiae, where he broaches the topic of evil within the context of his broader address on the subject of creation (ST 1.48-9). When approaching evil in the context of the system of Christian doctrine as a whole, in other words, Thomas views it first and foremost as a distinction within creation, reinforcing the point that the being of which evil is a privation is not some bland, theologically neutral concept of being, much less the necessary, mediated, and impersonal emanation of the Neoplatonic One who is “beyond being,” but the voluntary, personal, and immediate gift shared by the One who is Being himself.[18] Evil, in sum, is first and foremost a privation of created being.

[1] “Relinquitur ergo quod nomine mali significetur quaedam absentia boni.” See also On Evil 1.1.

[2] See also On Evil 1.2.

[3] Thomas does not make this same point explicitly in his On Evil, though it is implied in article 2 of question 1, “Whether Evil is Something.”

[4] Steel, “Does Evil Have a Cause?”, 259. Thomas finds the distinction, for example, implied in chapter two of book five of Aristotle’s Metaphysics and applies it to the problem of the causality of evil. Aquinas, Commentary on the Metaphysics of Aristotle 5.3.781 and 789. (See also On Evil 1.3. Aristotle also distinguishes between per se and accidental causality in his discussion of chance in Physics 2.5.) Steel, however, implies that the application of Aristotle’s distinction between per se and accidental causality to the problem of the causality of evil was actually original with Aquinas, whereas Denis O’Brien points out that Plotinus also used the distinction to explain how the soul becomes evil through its contact with matter: “The soul becomes evil, when she does so, only ‘accidentally’, and, even then, only through the presence of matter.” O’Brien, “Plotinus on Matter and Evil,” 184, citing Plotinus, Enneads 1.8.12 and 14. As John Milbank also observes (“Evil: Silence and Darkness,” 21), preceding Aquinas in his notion of the accidental causality of evil is Pseudo-Dionysius, who writes that “evil exists as an accident. It is there by means of something else. Its source does not lie within itself. Hence something we do for the sake of the Good looks right and yet is not really so when we consider to be good what is actually not so.” Pseudo-Dionysius, The Divine Names 4.32.

[5] “[O]mne malum aliqualiter causam habeat.”

[6] “Quod autem aliquid deficiat a sua naturali et debita dispositione, non potest provenire nisi ex aliqua causa trahente rem extra suam dispositionem…”

[7] “Esse autem causam non potest convenire nisi bono: quia nihil potest esse causa nisi inquantum est ens, omne autem ens, inquantum huiusmodi, bonum est.”

[8] Augustine, Confessions 2.9, trans. Chadwick (emphasis added).

[9] Steel, “Does Evil Have a Cause?” 268.

[10] Steel, “Does Evil Have a Cause?” 267-73. On this, compare Lee Oser’s similar opposition, noted earlier, between Aquinas’s “orthodox Augustinian teaching that positive evil does not exist” and Tolkien’s allegedly Kierkegaardian “strong intuition of positive evil, verging on dualism.” Oser, The Return of Christian Humanism, 118.

[11] Hart, The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? 62-5. Oddly, Hart seems to view his own critique of the evil-as-necessary-for-the-greater-good defense as fully in line with the thought of St. Thomas, despite both what we have just seen of Thomas’s own Socratic rationalism and what we will see later of Thomas’s justification of evil for the sake of the greater good. I also have questions as to how successful Hart himself is in avoiding altogether this traditional kind of theodicy, as Hart no less seems to “legitimize” a place for evil in the world when he says, for example, that “one is confronted with only this bare choice: either one embraces the mystery of created freedom and accepts that the union of free spiritual creatures with the God of love is a thing so wonderful that the power of creation to enslave itself to death must be permitted by God; or one judges that not even such rational freedom is worth the risk of a cosmic fall and the terrible injustice of the consequences that follow from it.” Ibid., 69.

[12] John Seland, for example, discovers the same kind of “provisional dualism” of the New Testament discussed by Hart in both Dante and Tolkien: “Both of them also take with utmost seriousness the ideas expressed in Ephesians (6:12), 1 Peter 5:8, and the Book of Revelation (12:1-17) that evil is a cosmic power roaming the world to devour and destroy what is good. However, Tolkien stresses the power of this force much more than Dante…” Seland, “Dante and Tolkien: Their Ideas about Evil,” 150.

[13] See, for example, Davies, The Reality of God and the Problem of Evil, which treats the problem of evil from a Thomistic perspective.

[14] Lambert, The Cathars, 1.

[15] Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas: “The Dumb Ox,” 100-1.

[16] Kent, “Evil in Later Medieval Philosophy,” 182.

[17] Davies, “Introduction,” in Aquinas, On Evil, trans. Regan, 14-15.

[18] Davies indicates a further Christian dimension to Thomas’s theory of evil, especially vis-à-vis the comparatively more Neoplatonic, Arabic, emanationist, and necessitarian views of some of his contemporary intellectual opponents. Explaining Thomas’s belabored attempt in the sixth question of De malo to show that people do in fact act freely and not from necessity, Davies speculates that the angelic doctor’s purpose here “might possibly have been designed as an attempt to defend the position adopted by Stephen Tempier, bishop of Paris, who in 1270 condemned a number of propositions thought to be assented to by certain Parisian Aristotelians. Tempier denied that people act of necessity, and most of De malo’s Question VI is devoted to arguing at length that people do, indeed, act freely and not from necessity.” Davies, “Introduction,” 13. As we saw in the last chapter, for both Thomas and Tolkien, the reason human beings can act freely (and by implication, can thus be guilty of committing evil or rewarded for resisting it) is ultimately owing to the fact that the Creator himself gives or “guarantees” being freely to the will of finite agents.

Summa Theologiae 1.29

Q. 29 “The Divine Persons”

Why “persons”? The answer is that it seems to do best what the previous two analogies of procession and relation do yet more adequately. Aquinas writes:

Thus it is true to say that the name person signifies relation directly, and the essence indirectly; not, however, the relation as such, but as expressed by way of hypostasis. So likewise it signifies directly the essence, and indirectly the relation, since the essence is the same as the hypostasis; but in God the hypostasis is expressed as distinct by the relation, and thus relation, as such, enters into the notion of the person indirectly. (ST 1.29.4)

In short, the word person best expresses at once the unity of the three persons in substance and their distinctness as individuals.

“The individual is what is in itself is undivided, but is distinct from others. Therefore person in any nature signifies what is distinct in that nature… a divine person signifies as relation as subsisting.”

“And this is to signify relation by way of substance, and such a relation is a hypostasis subsisting in the divine nature, although that which subsists in the divine nature is the divine nature itself.” This is a bit like an egg the nest in which the egg is resting is the egg itself.


Summa Theologiae 1.28

Q. 28 “The Divine Relations”

As I mentioned earlier, however, one danger of emphasizing the status of the divine persons as divine processions is that, in doing so, one might overstress their distinctness at the expense of their unity. Thus, in the following question, question 28, we get what I am calling Thomas’s “second” wave in his explication of the doctrine of the Trinity, in which he moves to a consideration of the three persons as three distinct “relations.” And as I said earlier, here the inspiration is more directly Aristotelian (via Boethius’s De Trinitate), but similar to what we saw happen in the case of Neoplatonism in the previous question, here too Aristotle must undergo a transformation or, if you prefer, a conversion, before he can be made useful to Christ. Having explained the fact that there are processions within the godhead, the question remains for St. Thomas as to what precisely these things are which the processions have produced. The background to this discussion is Aristotle’s ten categories of being:

  1. substance
  2. quantity
  3. quality
  4. relation
  5. place
  6. time
  7. position
  8. state
  9. action
  10. affection

Beginning with Aristotle’s ten categories, therefore, the question, then, is this: granted that the three persons each share a common, divine substance, in which of these other categories (if any) does their distinction or difference lie? Thomas’s answer, going all the way back to Boethius, is that they represent distinct relations.

Now, from an Aristotelian standpoint this is all extraordinarily paradoxical (and indeed absurd), for it says that the terminus of the divine procession, or that which the procession produces, is nothing other than the processual relationship itself. So what’s going on here? Philipp Rosemann states the matter well:

While in creatures, relations inhere as accidents in some substantial subject…, in God, in whom there is nothing accidental, relations must be understood as being subsistent, and as coinciding with the divine essence… Furthermore, whereas in the creaturely realm relations are founded upon a link between one substantial being and another which is exterior to the first…, in God the two poles of a relation are not defined in reference to substances exterior to each other; rather, the opposite poles are constituted by the subsistent relation itself…. the Father is not a substance existing ‘before’ or apart from its relationship to the Son; the Father is fatherhood. Likewise, the Son is no being that could be conceived of independently of its relationship to the Father: the Son is sonship. ‘The Persons are the subsistent relations themselves’… At the summit of Being, substance and relation … lose their contradictory character.[1]

Concluding overview: In using the classical, philosophical vocabulary and concepts of Aristotle and Neoplatonism to articulate the mysteries of the Christian faith, St. Thomas is plundering the Egyptians. But the result is the proverbial one of new wine and old wine skins.

Thomas writes that “the divine Persons are distinguished from each other according to the relations of origin…” The divine persons are identical in their substance, essence, or being. How then can they possibly be distinguished from one another? They differ from each other in their unique relations, specifically, in their unique “relations of origin.” The origins of this distinction is in Boethius’s treatise on the Trinity, in which he applies Aristotle’s categories to the question of the Trinity and answering the objection of how God’s being at once one and three is not a contradiction. The answer is that God is one in substance while three in his relations.

As it will turn out, the persons of the godhead not only differ in their relations of origin, but are in fact nothing other than their relations of origin. The Son, in other words, does not simply differ from the Father in that he is proceeds from or is generated by the Father, but he is nothing other than the very paternity (i.e, relation of paternity) of the Father. The Father is the Father by virtue of his paternal relationship to the Son, but the paternal relationship that differentiates the Father from the Son is nothing other than the Son himself: it is by the Son that the Father is differentiated from the Son. This makes the Son the difference of the Father: the Son is what makes the Father different.[2] The Son is the Father’s paternity, making him the Father. It is therefore in and by the Son that the Father is the Father: the Father gets his fatherhood from the Son.

[1] Philipp W. Rosemann, Omne Agens Agit Sibi Simile

[2] For more on this, see Conor Cunningham, Genealogy of Nihilism, and “The Difference of Theology and Some Philosophies of Nothing,” Modern Theology 17, no. 3 (July 2001): 289-312.

Summa Theologiae 1.27

Q. 27 “The Procession of the Divine Persons”

Thomas begins his “Treatise on the Trinity” with a prologue in which he says that, “Having considered what pertains to the unity of the divine essence, it remains to treat of what pertains to the Trinity of the persons in God.” So first comes unity, then plurality. Why? The answer has to do with the differences between faith and reason: for St. Thomas, God’s unity is a matter of rational demonstration—by natural reason alone man can determine the necessity of God’s absolute unity. The divine plurality, by contrast, is ultimately an article of faith: it is only because the doctrine of the Trinity has been revealed to man that we know the divine essence to subsist in a plurality of three persons. What this also means, however, is that plurality has a rational burden of proof that unity does not have. In the order of being, according to Aquinas, the unity of the divine essence is no more ultimate than the plurality of the individual persons, and yet it does seem to enjoy a certain priority in the order of reason, knowledge, or demonstrative explanation. But does this make sense?

What prompts Thomas’s discussion of the divine processions, accordingly, is not any rational consideration, but scripture itself, specifically, Jesus’s statement in the gospel of John that he “proceeded” from the Father. So it is a historically contingent revelation that informs us of the possibility of their being a procession within God, and hence which raises the present question. The first objection Thomas entertains in the first article to the position that there might be a procession in God is that the word procession signifies an “outward movement” (as we find, for example, in the case of Neoplatonic emanation theory); but in God, by contrast, there can be neither movement nor can there be something which is at once in him while being outside him. Thomas’s response to the objection, however, is rather remarkable, for it requires that the reader drastically rethink what is or at least can be meant by procession. To think of procession merely as an “outward movement,” after all, is fundamentally to think physically about procession: it is to think of procession, as Thomas puts it, “in the sense of local motion, or of an action tending to external matter, or to an exterior effect.” Now Thomas would admit that it is perfectly natural for one to think about procession in such physical terms, for as Thomas himself maintains, physical objects of our everyday sense-experience are what our minds know first and best. But natural human reason must make allowances for faith, for natural human reason by itself is limited by what is proper for the human mind to know, whereas the doctrine of the Trinity, for example, requires us to transcend  our usual ways of thinking about things. Thus, while the processions we are familiar with are exactly the kind of “outward movements” spoken of by Thomas’s objection, in the Trinity, by contrast, we seem to be confronted with an entirely new and different kind of processional possibility, a possibility, as we shall see, not fully grasped or exploited by Neoplatonic emanation theory; a procession in short, in which the act of procession terminates not outside of its source, but stays forever within its source.

Thus, what Thomas in fact confronts us with are not one but two different models for thinking about procession. But what exactly is meant by an “inward” procession? What analogies do we have for thinking about such a thing? In answer to this question, St. Thomas introduces Augustine’s famous psychological analogy for the Trinity. Just as in the human soul we find our concepts “proceeding” or “emanating” from the intellect, all the while remaining within the intellect, so the Son, as the Word of God, proceeds from the Father, all the while indwelling within him. Likewise, similar to human love which proceeds as a result of the soul intellectually grasping something as desirable, so the divine love of the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. The whole point of Aquinas’s use of Augustine’s psychological analogy, in summary then, is to provide a model for thinking about how Jesus can be correct in saying that he proceeded from the Father all the while leaving God one in his being.

Now, one of the things that is interesting to note about Thomas’s argument is how, in the very process of using the Neoplatonic concept of procession to explain the Trinity, Thomas ends up completely transforming Neoplatonism itself. As Thomas explains in his reply to the second objection,

“Whatever proceeds by way of outward procession is necessarily distinct from the source from which it proceeds, whereas whatever proceeds within by an intelligible procession is not necessarily distinct; indeed, the more perfectly it proceeds, the more closely it is one with the source from which it proceeds.” (ST 1.27.1 ad 2)

What Thomas is saying, in other words, is that because the thing which proceeds by means of an internal procession is more nearly like and united to the thing it proceeds from, internal procession is in fact a “more perfect” or higher form of procession than external processions. If we apply this same principle to Neoplatonism itself, however, we realize that the Neoplatonic hierarchy of being, by placing the external procession by which the One emanates into the divine mind above the internal procession whereby the divine mind is able to thinks itself, is in fact guilty of committing a grave metaphysical error: it privileges a lower form of emanation above the higher (in Christian terms, it is equivalent to saying that God’s outward act of creation is somehow prior to the inward act of the Father’s generation of the Son). In this way, by beginning with revelation, and yet using Neoplatonic concepts and rationality to help elucidate revealed teaching, Aquinas in the process effectively introduces a correction to Neoplatonism, and in a sense frees it to be more true to its own internal principles and logic.

A brief meditation on the two models of procession illustrated above. It is worth noting that the first, “physicalist” model also illustrates what, according to St. Thomas, is the human mind’s fundamental orientation in the act of knowledge: it is outward oriented. In order to understand the Trinity, however, or at least insofar as Thomas believes we can understand it, the human mind is in fact going to have to undertake the same kind of self-reflexive process or process of reversion that Thomas believes to be fundamentally involved in the processions of the divine Trinity. What this means, in other words, is that if the human mind is to come up with some analogy for thinking about how there can be a procession in God that nevertheless terminates within God, the human mind is going to have to refrain from doing exactly that which the doctrine of the Trinity denies of God’s own processions: namely, it is going to have to deny reaching for examples outside itself, and instead turn within itself. In this way the “procession” by which the human mind thinks about the Trinity comes to imitate or recapitulate the very procession within God that it seeks to understand.

Summa Theologiae 1.23-29

The goal here is to understand something of how St. Thomas thinks and talks about the Trinity, as well as to understand some of the implications his doctrine of the Trinity holds for how we might think about Creation at large. What I want to do here is to work through some of Thomas’s arguments, but what I’m ultimately interested in at present is less the particulars of his treatment than with the specific scholastic spirit with which he handles the doctrine of the Trinity. What I am also particularly interested in is how Thomas uses classical philosophical concepts to articulate Christian truth, but in doing so ends up radically transforming what these concepts mean, and so ends up raising his classical philosophical inheritance to previously unattained intellectual heights.

Of the seventeen questions contained in the Summa’s “Treatise on the Trinity,” I will be focusing only on the first three.

q. 27 “The Processions of the Divine Persons”

q. 28 “The Divine Relations”

q. 29 “The Divine Persons”

What I want to suggest is that you think of these as three distinct yet related “waves,” by means of which Thomas approaches the doctrine of the Trinity: there is a lot of overlap between each of these questions, but like successive waves in a rising tide, each question makes it a little further up the shore. (This isn’t a bad metaphor, incidentally, for thinking about the progression of the Summa as a whole.)

Furthermore, I want to suggest that there is a sort of intellectual “ascent” that St. Thomas’s discussion undergoes in these questions. Thomas begins with a discussion of the divine persons as “processions.” Although Thomas derives the idea of procession in the godhead from Scripture, the idea is also central to the whole philosophy of Neoplatonism, according to which the entire structure of reality is organized around a series of processions or “emanations” from a higher order of reality to a lower order of reality. One way of viewing question 27, accordingly, is to see St. Thomas as appropriating the Neoplatonic logic of emanation or procession in an attempt to understand or at least clarify the doctrine of the Trinity. (The concept of procession was also central to Bonaventure’s and the Franciscan tradition’s understanding of that which constituted the persons of the godhead as distinct persons. As we see here, the concept of procession is where St. Thomas begins his account of the persons of the Trinity, but as I am suggesting, he moves beyond this to what he and the Dominican tradition of Trinitarian theology more generally regard as the more central and determinative property distinguishing the persons of the Trinity as persons, namely the personal property of relation. Parallel to this difference, incidentally, is the fact that the Franciscan Bonaventure, for example, was far more Augustinian and Platonic in his thinking or sensibilities than the comparatively more Aristotelian Aquinas. Hence Bonaventure’s emphasis of procession or emanation over against Aquinas’s emphasis on the Aristotelian and Boethian concept of relation.[1])

Thus, while the concept of procession is a good place to start the discussion of the persons of the Trinity, Thomas does not want to leave us there. Why might that be? First, Thomas recognizes that the opportunities for misunderstanding the processions in God are abundant, and it may seem, moreover, that the idea of procession makes the persons of the godhead too independent of or extrinsic to each other. After all, as Thomas argues in his later “treatise on creation,” creation too is a “procession” or “emanation” from God, yet one that is entirely distinct from him. But surely this is not how we are to understand the processions of the divine persons. And so in the next question Thomas seeks to clarify that these processions from God are only so many relations within God. This brings Thomas to the next question, question 28, in which he tries Aristotle’s concept of relation on for size in an attempt to elucidate the Trinity.

But what might be the potential problem in thinking of the persons of the godhead in terms of relations? Just as the paradigm of emanation or procession, viewed from one perspective, threatened to make the persons of the godhead too independent of each other, without further qualification the concept of relation might seem to threaten to undermine their individuality and subsisting character. And so in the third question Thomas may be seen to push in the opposite direction: the processions which are also relations are also three distinct or individual persons. If procession is a characteristically Neoplatonic idea, and relation is an Aristotelian one, perhaps we might say that the concept of person is of more Hebraic or Christian extraction.

What we see in these three questions, accordingly, is Thomas drawing from different philosophical and theological traditions and sources in an attempt to render intelligible the Christian affirmation of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, who are nevertheless not three gods but one. We also see here a pattern that is very typical of how St. Thomas thinks and argues in general: his thought moves back and forth, back and forth, one article or question pushing in one direction, the next article or question balancing the discussion out by pushing in the other direction. This rhythm I like to refer to as “Aquinas’s pendulum”: tick-tock goes the Thomistic clock.

[1] The opposition between Aristotelian relation and Neoplatonic procession, it should be noted, can only be taken so far, for as Thomas Friedman observes, one way of viewing the whole difference between the Dominican from the Franciscan Trinitarian theologies is their choice to privilege one of Aristotle’s ten categories over another: where the Dominicans privileged relation, the Franciscans privileged act or action. Friedman, Medieval Trinitarian Thought from Aquinas to Ockham, 5.


Summa Theologiae 1.25

Short Essay: St. Thomas and William of Ockham on Divine Possibility

After divine knowledge and will, the third of the three divine operations distinguished by St. Thomas in his treatment of God in the Summa is that of divine power or omnipotence, an important subject in the history of philosophical theology. In the later medieval era, a debate among schoolmen such as St. Thomas and William of Ockham waged over not whether God had the freedom and power to create or not to create, but over the extent of God’s freedom and power to create things or worlds other than what he has created, a debate, moreover, that had enormous repercussions for the future development of theology and, indeed, for the advent of the modern era itself.[1] However, it has only been in the last half-century that historians have begun to realize the important role that the question of divine omnipotence, and in particular, the scholastic distinction between God’s theoretical power absolutely considered (potentia absoluta) and God’s power as it is actually manifested in the created order (potentia ordinata), played in the development of late medieval thought. Although Augustine as early as the fifth century introduced the conceptual distinction between divine capacity and volition, or between what God wills to do and what he can do (potuit, sed noluit), the question of divine power did not begin to gain the status of a distinct theological locus for another six hundred years, when in 1067 Cardinal Desiderius and Peter Damian fatefully debated the subject one night over dinner.[2] Even so, according to William Courtenay, it was not until around the year 1245 that the distinction between God’s absolute and ordained powers received the classical formulation that would be adopted by thinkers as otherwise opposed to each other as Aquinas and Ockham.[3] And although the distinction was certainly emphasized more in the thought of Ockham and later nominalists (according to Courtenay, it shows up in fully a third of the questions in Ockham’s Sentences commentary),[4] Thomas’s own interest in the subject of divine power is indicated in his having convened an entire disputatio on the topic, the proceedings of which were published in his Disputed Questions on Power. As for the distinction of powers itself, Courtenay observes that Thomas used it “far more than has been realized, both the actual language of potentia absoltua/ordinata and more frequently the concept that lies behind it.”[5]

As has been further observed by historian Heiko Oberman, the distinction of powers originally functioned as a dialectical apparatus allowing theologians to consider simultaneously the divine omnipotence that infinitely transcends the created order, and God’s commitment and loyalty to that order.[6] The distinction, in other words, was a conceptual device designed for balancing a consideration of the radical contingency of creation with a recognition of its stability and dependability. Because of the dialectical character of the distinction of powers, it has been pointed out, neither the “ordained” nor the “absolute” pole of the distinction was ever intended to be taken and applied in isolation from its dialectical counterpart.[7]

Thomas’s own statement of the distinction of powers in the Summa appears in his response to the question of article five, question 25, as to “whether God can do what he does not.” In his reply to the first objection, Aquinas reasons that,

because power is considered as executing, the will as commanding, and the intellect and wisdom as directing, what is attributed to His power considered in itself, God is said to be able to do in accordance with His absolute power. Of such a kind is everything which has the nature of being, as was said above. What is, however, attributed to the divine power according as it carries into execution the command of a just will, God is said to be able to do by His power as ordained. In this manner, we must say that God can do other things by His absolute power than those He has foreknown and preordained Himself to do. (ST 1.25.5 ad 1)[8]

By God’s “absolute power,” Aquinas means “His power considered in itself,” or his power in abstraction from or without consideration of how God actually does exercise his power in the created order. On this traditional understanding of potentia absoluta, the latter represents an admittedly human way of regarding or thinking about God’s power, and is not to be understood as a particular kind or avenue or exercise of divine power. Rather, potentia absoluta refers only to those hypothetical and therefore non-actualized possibilities that theoretically lie open to God but which he nevertheless does not choose to implement. In fact, it might be less misleading to describe divine potentia absoluta as a kind of divine inactivity, to a way in which God can but does not act and will not act. God’s potentia ordinata, by contrast, Aquinas identifies here as that power of God as it actually finds itself exercised by the divine will in the world. Potentia absoluta, in short, refers to what God can but does not and will not do; potentia ordinata refers to what God wills to and in fact does do.

Granted, then, that for Thomas God’s ordained power does not exhaust his absolute power, the question remains as to what kinds of things, beyond those which he has in fact already created, God’s power actually does or might extend. What, in short, are the parameters of divine possibility? For starters, for the entire tradition which took up the question of divine omnipotence, one of the fundamental “limits” on God’s absolute power is the law of non-contradiction. Thomas writes:

Now nothing is opposed to the notion of being except non-being. Therefore that which implies being and non-being at the same time is incompatible with the notion of an absolutely possible thing, within the scope of the divine omnipotence. For such cannot come under the divine omnipotence, not because of any defect in the power of God, but because it has not the nature of a feasible or possible thing. Therefore, everything that does not imply a contradiction is numbered amongst those possible things, in respect of which God is called omnipotent; but whatever implies contradiction does not come within the scope of divine omnipotence, because it cannot have the aspect of possibility. (ST 1.25.3)[9]

God cannot create or do anything that would involve a logical contradiction. Yet the thing to note here is how St. Thomas defines logical contradiction in terms of ontological contradiction, that is to say, in terms of “that which implies being and non-being at the same time,” thereby rendering it “incompatible with the notion of an absolutely possible thing…” Of such a kind is “everything which has the nature of being.” Possibility in its first instance is more than a mere modality of thought: it is a modality of being, a point Thomas makes in a statement immediately preceding the above passage in which he says that “whatever can have the nature of being is numbered among the absolutely possible things in respect of which God is called omnipotent.”[10] But as Aquinas explains even earlier in the same article, what has “the nature of being” is determined by the divine being itself, which “is infinite, and is not limited to any genus of being but possesses beforehand within itself the perfection of all being.”[11] Thus, just as the logically possible is reducible to the ontologically possible, so the ontologically possible turns out to be reducible to the theologically possible, meaning that the answer to the question of what God can do is a function of what God is.[12] To fault such a response for its evident circularity is to fail to reckon with the utter primacy and supremacy of the God who is being itself.

However, if Thomas’s answer to the question of divine possibility is ultimately circular, it is not on that account a vacuous or vicious circle. For a thing to be creatable by God, it must be possible in the most absolute or furthest reaching sense of the word: for it to be possible is for it to be able to have being, and because God himself is the infinite perfection and measure of being, for a thing to be able to have being is simply for it to be capable of bearing some finite likeness to God’s own self. And this brings us back to Thomas’s doctrine of divine ideas discussed earlier, inasmuch as the divine ideas are God’s knowledge of himself as imitable by his creatures. For a thing to be possible, therefore, is for God to know that thing as imitable of his own self, as capable of bearing some likeness to himself. As Thomas himself puts it, “it is in the knowledge of God not that [things] are, but that they are possible” (ST 1.14.9 ad 3).[13] The resulting relation between Thomas’s doctrine of divine ideas and his theory of possibility is concisely stated in a statement by Wippel that “from the ontological standpoint a divine idea and a possible are really one and the same.”[14] To be possible and therefore creatable by God is to be capable of imitating, sharing in, or otherwise revealing the divine being.

Filling out Thomas’s account of divine possibility even further is his point that, because God is not only being itself but also goodness and wisdom itself, “God can do nothing that is not in accord with His wisdom and goodness,” and therefore “whatever is done by Him in created things, is done according to a fitting order and proportion, in which consists the notion of justice. Thus justice must exist in all God’s works” (ST 1.21.4).[15] Because what is possible for God to do or create is reducible to that which is capable of imitating his own being, and because God’s being simply is his wisdom and justice, it follows that what is possible for God to do or create must likewise be characterized by the “fitting order and proportion” that is his wisdom and justice.[16] This condition of a “fitting order and proportion” required by justice is important as it implies an aesthetic dimension to Aquinas’s whole approach to the question of divine omnipotence not often recognized in discussions of the subject. As Aquinas argues earlier on in the Summa, the notion of proportionality is an essential aspect of beauty:

Beauty and good in a subject are the same, for they are based upon the same thing, namely, the form; and consequently good is praised as beauty. But they differ logically, for good properly relates to the appetite (good being what all things desire), and therefore it has the aspect of an end (for the appetite is a kind of movement towards a thing). On the other hand, beauty relates to the knowing power, for beautiful things are those which please when seen. Hence beauty consists in due proportion, for the senses delight in things duly proportioned, as in what is after their own kind… (ST 1.5.4 ad 1)[17]

Although Thomas never expressly identifies beauty as one of the transcendental attributes of being, its intrinsic relationship to the good (which is a transcendental property of being) means that where there is being, there is also beauty.[18] This suggests in turn that what is possible for divine omnipotence to do or make is that which has the nature of the beautiful. God can do what is beautiful, and only what is beautiful, because only the beautiful has the nature of being, and hence of possibility.

The aesthetic dimension to Thomas’s requirement that divine omnipotence be conformed to the “fitting order and proportion” of divine justice is further indicated in that this is also one of the choice places where Thomas likens God to an artist. In response to the question, “Whether the justice of God is truth?”, Thomas writes:

But when the intellect is the rule or measure of things, truth consists in the squaring of the thing to the intellect; just as an artist is said to make a true work when it is in accordance with his art.

Now as artificial things are related to the art, so are works of justice related to the law with which they accord. Therefore God’s justice, which establishes things in the order conformable to the rule of His wisdom, which is His law, is suitably called truth. Thus we also in human affairs speak of the truth of justice. (ST 1.21.2)[19]

Divine justice means that God always does what he does in conformity to a rule or law, even if that rule or law is ultimately derived from the perfection of his own being. And although the exact order and law we find in this world would not necessarily apply in any alternative, possible world that God might have created, it is nevertheless the case that some order and law, one presumably analogous to our own, would have to apply there. To put this in terms of the distinction of powers, what God is capable of doing by his potentia absoluta, and therefore capable of doing outside of the potentia ordinata of this world, would nevertheless still have to be consistent with the ordained power established or determined for the alternative, possible world under conjecture. To put it differently still, what it means to say that God could do or create x, de potentia absoluta, is to say that there is a possible order such that it would fall within the divine potentia ordinata proper to that order for God to do x. (Another way of putting this is to say that God’s potentia absoluta consists in an infinite set of potentia ordinatas.) And this means that any hypothesis as to what God is capable of doing or creating de potentia absoluta must also presuppose an order in which the actualization of that hypothesis would be rendered something just and wise for God to do; that is to say, it must presuppose a rule or law to which the actualization of that hypothesis on the part of God may be seen to conform. As one can see, for Aquinas God’s potentia ordinata or his power as it is actually exercised in this world, while clearly not exhaustive of, is nevertheless an important indication of the nature of God’s potentia absoluta, or unactualized power. One way in which this has been put in some of the literature on the subject is to say that, for Aquinas, actuality or actual existence is the measure of possibility or possible existence.[20] As for this order according to which the divine wisdom does all things, as Alice Ramos has helpfully pointed out, it is not merely “the static order of coordination, that is, the right arrangement of parts making a systematic whole or a universe, but also as a dynamic order of subordination whereby there is a right arrangement of means to the end. Order in the dynamic sense refers to the return of all things to their initial principle, that is, to the unity from whence the multiplicity or diversity of beings proceeded.”[21] This is another way of saying that what is possible and therefore creatable by God is anything which has God as its final end, goal, or fulfillment. As we found Thomas putting it in his discussion of the divine will, it is necessary that what God wills (and hence what is possible) should be “ordered to His own goodness as [its] end.”

For Aquinas, then, divine possibility and the divine ideas are ultimately one and the same: what it means for something to be possible is for God to have an idea of it, which is for him to know the thing as finitely imitable of some aspect of his own infinite perfection, actuality, or being. In short, God’s own self is the measure of what God can make or do, and therefore the measure of what is intrinsically or absolutely possible. In the generation of thinkers immediately following Aquinas, however, discussions of the possibles and God’s ideas grew increasingly more subtle and complex as theologians labored in particular to reconcile conceptually the multiplicity of divine ideas required by creation with the fact of divine simplicity.[22] The debate finally reached a point of crisis in the mid-fourteenth century in the thought of William of Ockham, whose radically revised account of the divine ideas and divine possibility, regarded by many historians as a critical development in the advent of modern thought, will provide us with a better sense of what precisely is at stake theologically and metaphysically in St. Thomas’s own understanding of these matters.[23]

Ockham’s most significant consideration of the question of divine ideas appears in his commentary on Peter Lombard’s Sentences, part 1, d. 35, q. 5.[24] Ockham begins his discussion with Henry of Ghent’s statement of the traditional views that “the divine essence itself is the ground and exemplary form of creatures,” and that a divine idea, “formally considered, is nothing else than an aspect of imitability in the divine essence itself, in so far as it is considered by the intellect.”[25] Against this traditional position, however, Ockham goes on to argue that, given the utter simplicity of the divine essence on the one hand and the admitted multiplicity of the divine ideas on the other, the divine ideas cannot in fact be identical with the divine essence as had been traditionally held to be the case. Thus, while Ockham grants with Augustine that God must create according to some intelligible exemplar if the act of creation is to avoid being “irrational,” he breaks both with Augustine (though without drawing attention to the fact) and the entire tradition based on him when he says that the exemplary role provided by the divine ideas “is not applicable to the divine essence itself, nor to any aspect of reason, but to the created thing itself.[26] In other words, the divine ideas to which God looks in the act of creation and after which creation is patterned are in fact not truly divine at all, but are rather themselves created entities. Or rather, the ideas to which God looks in producing creatures are nothing other than the creatures themselves as known or foreknown by God in their producible aspect: as Ockham himself puts it, “the created thing itself is the idea… Therefore, [God] really looks to the creature and by looking to it He can produce.”[27] However, because the number of things which God can produce are infinite and known by him from all eternity, it follows for Ockham that God’s otherwise created ideas are themselves infinite in number and eternal in duration.[28] Not only are God’s ideas not identical with his essence, neither do his ideas even have any kind of imitative ground in his essence, as may be seen when Ockham approvingly cites the view “according to some” that “the created things existed from eternity in the potentiality of God but not in His nature, so that in their view the created things existed and did not exist.”[29]

For Ockham, then, God’s ideas of what he can create are to be understood in reference not to the divine nature, but to the divine power, not to divine essence, but to divine omnipotence, a fact that has far-reaching ramifications for the kind of thing Ockham allows to be possible for God to do or to make, as we shall see. As was the case for Aquinas, for Ockham the “divine” ideas are an exhaustive register or index of divine possibility: in a word, the ideas are the “possibles.” This means, however, that in exporting the ideas outside the mind of God by identifying them with his creatures, either potential or actual, Ockham also effectively locates the ground of divine possibility in a source external to God as well. Like Aquinas, Ockham affirms the law of non-contradiction as a negative limit on divine power, yet whereas Aquinas, as we saw, articulates logical possibility in terms of its determining ground within an ontological and ultimately theological possibility, Ockham by contrast roots possibility not in terms of the divine but in terms of the creature’s own being.[30] Thus, according to Allan Wolter, what is logically possible for God to do or to make in Ockham’s view is “not something that a creature has by reason of some relation to an active potency in God. It is something which the creature has of itself.”[31] In other words, the logical possibility of a creature is not something determined by its relationship to God’s own power, much less to God’s own being, but is rather a property or principle intrinsic to the creature and therefore apart from any intrinsic reference to God. In short, it is only by first being intrinsically and logically possible on its own terms that a possible being is afterwards to be related to God, yet not necessarily in terms of his own essence or nature, as we have seen, but rather simply in terms of his power to bring that possible into being. This is not to say, however, that the possibles themselves have some kind of being or existence independent of God, for while the possibility of the possibles is determined independently of God, the possibles are, by themselves, literally a “nothing” (nihil), inasmuch as they have their being only as objects thought by God. Were God to “cease” thinking them, they would not exist at all.[32] Thus, possibility belongs to things themselves which in themselves are nothing. To summarize, then, instead of God’s power and (what for Aquinas was identical with it) God’s essence being the determining ground of the possible, for Ockham God’s power is measurable by an extrinsically determined logical possibility. In exchange for the “actualism” of Aquinas, according to which the goodness, wisdom, justice, and beauty of God’s potentia ordinata as manifest in actual existence provides the rule or “law” for the endless possibilities of God’s potentia absoluta, the “possibilism” of Ockham involves an abstract logical possibility which is the measure of God’s potentia absoluta, and which in its turn is the measure of the actuality of God’s potentia ordinata.[33]

The practical import of Ockham’s having thus denuded logical possibility of what had been for Aquinas its ontological and theological content, is that it allowed him far more latitude to indulge in the kind of outrageous counterfactual speculation for which he is known, as when he suggests that God, for example, could have saved the human race through an ass, or have caused the moral law to require rather than forbid murder, or have eternally accepted an individual who was entirely lacking in the habit of grace, or even have made it meritorious for an individual to hate God, and so on. Behind each of these hypotheses, moreover, and intimately related to his rejection of divine exemplar causality, is Ockham’s further denial, again, contrary to Aquinas, of any necessary final causality within the created order: not having its originating, exemplary cause in the divine being or essence, it follows for Ockham that neither does creation necessarily have its destinating, final cause in the divine being or essence either.[34]

We conclude with an effort to take stock of a series of ironies that seem to emerge from Ockham’s revolutionary reworking of the traditional view of God’s ideas and power. As we saw in our preceding discussion of Aquinas, if the divine ideas may be seen as somehow fragmenting the divine essence, by identifying God’s essence with his ideas of creatures as imitable of that essence, Aquinas at least would seem to preserve a sense of the unity or identity between God’s essence and his power, with the result that what God can do is nothing other than what God is. The paradox to which Ockham’s position seems to commit him, by contrast, is that by denying the identity of the divine ideas with the divine essence precisely in the interest of divine simplicity, Ockham effectively reintroduces an arguably even more problematic multiplicity into the divine being, namely a duality of divine power and divine essence. As we found Ockham distinguishing matters earlier, “the created things existed from eternity in the potentiality of God but not in His nature…” Yet whereas Aquinas’s multiplicity of divine ideas had the virtue of being moderated by, and, over the course of his career, even being increasingly assimilated into, a principle of divine multiplicity which even Ockham recognized, namely the multiplicity of divine persons, Ockham by contrast offers no such Trinitarian reconciliation between his dualism of divine power and essence.[35]

A related irony, and apropos my earlier discussion of St. Thomas on the divine ideas, concerns the account of divine and human making—whether it is merely a knowing that leads to making or a knowing which occurs through the making—implied in Ockham’s philosophical theology. On the one hand, it might seem that in holding the divine ideas by which God creates to be themselves created entities, along with his general emphasis of the role of divine will in the act of creation over the divine intellect, Ockham privileges a more purely productive account of creation over the comparatively speculative and therefore allegedly “technological” account given by Aquinas. However, as we saw, although God’s ideas for Aquinas are uncreated and identical with his essence, there is a sort of creative or at least generative analog in the way God knows or rather “devises” his own ideas through the Father’s filiation of the Son. For Ockham, by contrast, while the ideas by which God creates are said to be themselves created, on the other hand they are simply “there” in the brute factuality of a pure but now empty logical possibility, a possibility which things have from themselves and not from God and which thus are able to function as an external limit or measure of God’s power. (Here we have yet another profound irony inherent in Ockham’s system, which is that it turns out to be the theologian of divine power himself who has arguably gone the furthest in subordinating divine power to an external principle.) Thus, when God creates for Ockham, he looks to ideas which he has supposedly created but the possibility of whose content has in fact already been predetermined for him, and which he is consequently obliged to take in passively as an extrinsic measure of his own infinite power. The result, accordingly, is the same back-door, “contorted form of necessitarianism” which Cunningham finds in the voluntarism of Duns Scotus: “The aprioricity generated by a conception of the possible as not anchored in the essence of God will perforce insist on the necessity of that which is thought.”[36] To put it differently still, in his effort to free the Christian God from the Platonic fetters by which the traditional doctrine of divine ideas was seen to have constrained him, Ockham after a fashion initiates an even more thoroughgoing, even if more complex, Platonic necessitarianism, exemplarism, and emanationism, inasmuch as God is now reconceived as creating the world according to eternal ideas which he also created but whose possibility at once was found to lie outside of himself and yet which possibility he could not help but know.[37] In this respect Ockham would seem to steer the doctrine of creation, and thus any account of human making that might be based upon it, back towards the “craft” or “technological” paradigm of divine making represented in Plato’s Timaeus. For Ockham, after all, it is not by a dynamic, generative, Trinitarian self-knowledge by which God knows his ideas, but as he stresses in one place, it is by a comparatively static, speculative “foreknowledge [by] which the one knowing can rationally produce… without the foreknowledge of which… he cannot rationally produce.”[38] In Ockham, in summary, creation ceases to be the divine art and self-expression and ground for a true human knowing-through-making, as it had been for Aquinas, and becomes a banal, technological foreknowing-then-making.

[1] For a recent study on the theological origins of modernity in changing views on divine freedom and power in the late medieval period, see Gillespie, The Theological Origins of Modernity.

[2] Courtenay, Capacity and Volition: A History of the Distinction of Absolute and Ordained Power, 25. In addition to Courtenay’s fine study on the history of the scholastic distinction of powers, see also Moonan, Divine Power: The Medieval Power Distinction up to its Adoption by Albert, Bonaventure, and Aquinas. For an introduction to the history of the distinction from the medieval to the early modern period, see Oakley, Omnipotence and Promise: The Legacy of the Scholastic Distinction of Powers.

[3] Courtenay, Capacity and Volition, 74. According to Courtenay, Ockham held to the traditional interpretation of God’s potentia absoluta as a “non-operationalized” or non-actualized but hypothetical power only, over against Scotus, Scotus’s disciples, and even some of Ockham’s own followers, according to whom God’s potentia absoluta included not only all the ways in which God can act, but also includes God’s absolutist, supernatural power according to which he sometimes does act, as in the case of miracles. Ibid., 90, 119-23. Corroborating Courtenay’s interpretation of Ockham as a traditionalist where the question of God’s potentia absoluta is concerned is a passage from Ockham’s Summa Logicae (3.4.6) cited by Marilyn McCord Adams in which he differentiates the erroneous from the proper sense of absolute power: “Again, the proposition ‘God, by His absolute power, can accept someone without grace, but not by His ordered power’ is multiplex. One sense is that God, by one power that is absolute and not ordered can accept someone without grace and by another power that is ordered and not absolute cannot accept it—as if there were two powers in God, by one of which He could [do] this and not by the other. And this sense is false. Otherwise, it can be taken improperly for the expression ‘God can accept someone without grace inhering in [him], since this does not include a contradiction, and nevertheless He ordained that this will never be done’. And this sense is true.” William of Ockham, cited in Adams, William Ockham, vol. 2, 1199. Yet as Conor Cunningham observes, “[t]he exact nature of Ockham’s idea of divine Omnipotence is controversial. People such as Courtenay argue that it was a traditional version, in that it did not, in articulating the dichotomy of potentia ordinate/potentia absoluta, employ the latter as a form of action. But it appears that, for Ockham, this capacity is itself active, as everything in the Ockhamian world comes under its constant activity. In this sense potentia absoluta is an axiomatic active capacity.” Cunningham, Genealogy of Nihilism, 38n119. Supporting Cunningham’s claim is a passage from Ockham’s Quodlibetal Questions in which Ockham draws an analogy between God’s absolute power and the power exercized by the pope, and in much the same, absolutist terms that medieval canonists began to use in their own operationalized understanding of potentia absoluta. As Ockham writes there: “In the same way, there are some things that the Pope is unable to do in accordance with the laws established by him, and yet he is able to do those things absolutely.” Ockham, Quodlibetal Questions 6.1, trans. Freddoso.

[4] Courtenay, Capacity and Volition, 120.

[5] Ibid., 88.

[6] Oberman, The Harvest of Medieval Theology: Gabriel Biel and Late Medieval Nominalism, 30-56.

[7] Oakley, Omnipotence and Promise, 13.

[8] “Et quia potentia intelligitur ut exequens, voluntas autem ut imperans, et intellectus et sapientia ut dirigens, quod attribuitur potentiae secundum se consideratae, dicitur Deus posse secundum potentiam absolutam. Et huius modi est omne illud in quo potest salvari ratio entis, ut supra dictum est. Quod autem attribuitur potentiae divinae secundum quod exequitur imperium voluntatis iustae, hoc dicitur Deus posse facere de potentia ordinata. Secundum hoc ergo, dicendum est quod Deus potest alia facere, de potentia absoluta, quam quae praescivit et praeordinavit se facturum…”

[9] “Nihil autem opponitur rationi entis, nisi non ens. Hoc igitur repugnant rationi possibilis absoluti, quod subditur divinae omnipotentiae, quod implicat in se esse et non esse simul. Hoc enim omnipotentiae non subditur, non propter defectum divinae potentiae; set quia non potest habere rationem factibilis neque possibilis. Quaecumque igitur contradictionem non implicant, sub illis possibilibus continentur, respectu quorum dicitur Deus omnipotens. Ea vero quae contradictionem implicant sub divina omnipotentia non continentur: quia non possunt habere possibilium rationem.”

[10] “Unde quidquid potest habere rationem entis, continetur sub possibilibus absolutis, respectu quorum Deus dicitur omnipotens.”

[11] “Esse autem divinum super quod ratio divinae potentiae fundatur, est esse infinitum, non limitatum ad aliquod genus entis, sed praehabens in se totius esse perfectionem.”

[12] Or as Wippel has put it, “the possibility in question is not merely linguistic, nor merely logical, but ontological. Like the principle of noncontradiction itself, for Thomas possibility in its most fundamental sense is grounded in being, in this case in the divine being.” Wippel, “The Reality of Non-existing Possibles,” 168.

[13] In order for a thing to be actual rather than merely possible, of course, God must not only know it as possible but must also will that it should become actual, and the divine freedom to create other worlds consists in the fact that what God knows as possible—because imitable of himself—infinitely outpaces what he wills to be actual in finite creation. As Étienne Gilson aptly puts it, “God knows essences, but he says existences, and He does not say all that He knows.” Gilson, Being and Some Philosophers, 177.

[14] Wippel, “The Reality of Non-Existing Possibles,” 168. (For a critique of Wippel’s identification of the possibles with the divine ideas, however, see Ross, “Aquinas’s Exemplarism; Aquinas’s Voluntarism.”)

[15] “Non enim potest facere aliquid Deus, quod non sit conveniens sapientiae et bonitati ipsius… Similiter etiam quidquid in rebus creatis facit, secundum convenientem ordinem et proportionem facit; in quo consistit ratio iustitiae. Et sic oportet in omni opera Dei esse iustitiam.”

[16] Far from such absolute conditions imposing an undue constraint upon divine power, for Thomas the situation is quite the reverse, as when he argues from the premise of divine wisdom to the conclusion of divine omnipotence. Thomas thus concludes his fifth article on divine power, “Whether God can do what he does not?” with the following, telling inference: “And so the divine wisdom is not so restricted to any particular order that no other course of events could happen. Therefore we must simply say that God can do other things than those He has done” (ST 1.25.5). Not only does wisdom mark all of God’s actual deeds, but because what God actually does do cannot possibly exhaust his wisdom, this infinite surplus of wisdom guarantees that God can always do more, infinitely more, than what he does do. For Thomas, the divine wisdom, characterized in terms of divine action that is always “according to a fitting order and proportion,” not only does not infringe upon divine power, but is in fact what positively guarantees that power.

[17] “[P]ulchrum et bonum in subiecto quidem sunt idem, quia super eandem rem fundantur, scilicet super formam: et propter hoc, bonum laudatur ut pulchrum. Sed ratione differunt. Nam bonum proprie respicit appetitum: est enim bonum quod omnia appetunt. Et ideo habet rationem finis: nam appetitus est quasi quidam motus ad rem. Pulchrum autem respicit vim cognoscitivam: pulchra enim dicuntur quae visa placent. Unde pulchrum in debita proportione consistit: quia sensus delectatur in rebus debite proportionatis, sicut in sibi similibus…”

[18] On Thomas’s doctrine of the transcendental, including an argument for the non-transcendental status of beauty, see Aertsen, Medieval Philosophy and the Transcendentals: The Case of Thomas Aquinas.

[19] “Sed quando intellectus est regula vel mensura rerum, veritas consistit in hoc, quod res adaequantur intellectui: sicut dicitur artifex facere verum opus, quando concordat arti. Sicut autem se habent artificiata ad artem, ita se habent opera iusta ad legem cui concordant. Iustitia igitur Dei, quae constituit ordinem in rebus conformem rationi sapientiae suae, quae est lex eius, convenienter veritas nominator. Et sic etiam dicitur in nobis veritas iustitiae.”

[20] John Milbank, for example, writes: “for Aquinas logical possibility is only a faint version of real substantive actuality. It is designed to ‘intend’ this actuality, and guaranteed only by this actuality.” Milbank, “Truth and Vision,” 45.

[21] Ramos, “Ockham and Aquinas on Exemplary Causality,” 208.

[22] On the development of the doctrine of divine ideas and possibility between Aquinas and Ockham, in which history Henry of Ghent and Duns Scotus are the most important figures, see Wippel, “The Reality of Non-existing Possibles”; Adams, William Ockham, vol. 2, 1037-43, 1068-76; and Cunningham, Genealogy of Nihilism: Philosophies of Nothing and the Difference of Theology, 13-17.

[23] On Ockham’s doctrine of divine ideas and omnipotence, see Pegis, “Concerning William of Ockham”; Wolter, “Ockham and the Textbooks: On the Origin of Possibility”; Adams, William Ockham, vol. 2, 1033-83; Klocker, William of Ockham and the Divine Freedom, 77-89; Ramos, “Ockham and Aquinas on Exemplary Causality”; Maurer, The Philosophy of William of Ockham in the Light of its First Principles, 205-65, 295-337; and Cunningham, Genealogy of Nihilism, 17-26.

[24] Ramos, “Ockham and Aquinas on Exemplary Causality,” 200. The following quotations from Ockham’s Commentary on the Sentences 1.35.5 are taken from Stephen Chak Tornay’s translation of the passage in Tornay, Ockham: Studies and Selections, 137-64. The Latin text is from Ockham’s Scriptum in Librum Primum Sententiarum Ordinatio, Distinctiones XIX-XLVIII, vol. 4 in his Opera Philosophica et Theologica: Opera Theologica.

[25] “[U]t ipsa essentia est ratio et forma exemplaris eorum, et ut forma et causa et principium formale exemplatorum… idea nihil aliud est de ratione sua formali quam respectus imitabilitatis ex consideratione intellectus in ipsa divina essentia.”

[26] “[I]sta descriptio non convenit ipsi divinae essentiae, nec alicui respectui rationis, sed ipsimet creaturae.” Ockham’s use of Augustine throughout this passage is as ingenious as it is arguably ingenuous: it as at any rate unarguably selective. For example, after quoting Augustine’s statement, “Where shall we think these grounds are but in the very mind of the Creator, for He does not look to anything existing outside of Himself to bring about the things that He created” (Eighty-three Different Questions q. 43), Ockham piously observes: “From this authority it is manifest that the ideas are known by the divine mind… [Augustine’s] authority manifestly intends to intimate that God looks at the ideas in order to create, that is, bring things into existence according to those ideas.” In other words, Ockham takes Augustine’s statement which expressly locates the exemplars of creation within the mind of God and, contrary to Ockham’s own position, as we shall see, expressly denies these exemplars any existence outside the mind of God, and interprets it instead to be a mere affirmation that when God creates, he creates through divine ideas, irrespective of where those ideas are to be found.

[27] “[I]psa creatura est idea… Ergo ipsam creaturam producibilem vere aspicit et ipsam aspiciendo potest eam producere.”

[28] On the infinitude of God’s ideas Ockham writes, “it follows that God has an infinite number of ideas, as there are infinitely many things which can be produced by Him,” and on the eternality of the ideas he says that “the ideas are eternal in the divine mind; that is, they are eternally and unchangeably understood by [God].”

[29] “Unde dicunt aliqui quod creaturae fuerunt ab aeterno in Dei potentia, et non erant in sui natura. Et dicunt quod erant et non erant.”

[30] On the law of non-contradiction as a limit on divine power, Ockham writes that, in contrast to his ordained power, God’s absolute power “is taken as ‘power to do anything such that its being done does not involve a contradiction’, regardless of whether or not God has ordained that he will do it.” Ockham, Quodlibetal Questions 6.1, trans. Freddoso.

[31] Wolter, “Ockham and the Textbooks,” 262. Armand Maurer makes this same point when he writes that, on Ockham’s view, “[w]e should not say that possible being belongs to a creature, but that the creature is possible, not because of anything pertaining to it, but because it can exist in the real world… ‘to be possible’ does not belong to a creature from God, but from itself.” Maurer, The Philosophy of Ockham in Light of its Principles, 254.

[32] “Hence, from eternity God saw all the things that were able to be created, and yet at that time they were nothing.” Ockham, Quodlibetal Questions 6.6, trans. Freddoso. On Ockham’s curious doctrine that the possibles, are, in themselves, nothing, see Adams, William Ockham, 1059-1061; Maurer, The Philosophy of William of Ockham, 219-28; Ramos, “Ockham and Aquinas on Exemplary Causality,” 203; and Cunningham, Genealogy of Nihilism, 19-20.

[33] As Cunningham writes, for Ockham “[t]he possible is no longer defined by the actual, but is now more defined than the actual. This is the ascendancy of the law of non-contradiction.” Cunningham, Genealogy of Nihilism, 24.

[34] As Ramos points out, because for Ockham “it cannot be proved that God knows all effects and their operations, and that he has in his wisdom ordered them to an end,… [i]n the non-rational universe Ockham explains order simply by referring to the intrinsic determinism of nature, which does not point to anything outside of itself… We have then in Ockham the disappearance of the idea of natural inclination, of the Aristotelian doctrine which is taken by St. Thomas of the tendency of nature toward the good; this tendency is for Ockham a faith proposition.” Ramos, “Ockham and Aquinas on Exemplary Causality,” 209.

[35] Thus, Colin E. Gunton, while praising Ockham for allegedly being “far more interested than Aquinas in the doctrine of creation out of nothing and the distinctive conception of contingency it generates, one very much derived from a stress on the free willing of the creator,” is obliged to fault Ockham for his “entirely non-trinitarian treatment of creation, perhaps best exemplified in the fact that he can refer even to the opening verses of the Gospel of John without noting the part played in its conception of creation by the mediation of the Word. The danger is a monism of a particular God conceived in simple juxtaposition to a particular world, again without christological mediation.” Gunton, The Triune Creator: A Historical and Systematic Study, 124. On the inadequacy of Gunton’s criticism of Aquinas’s doctrine of creation for being insufficiently Trinitarian, see the short essay on Aquinas’s doctrine of the Trinity.

[36] Cunningham, Genealogy of Nihilism, 23. Adams suggests that Ockham’s later rejection of his objective-existence theory of concepts in favor of his mental-act theory would have led him to reject the thesis that, because “possibles are necessarily possible, it would follow that possibles have this ‘occult’ status eternally and necessarily and independently of both the divine will and the divine intellect. Confronted with this difficulty, Ockham would have probably opted for a Soft-Actualism that reduced unactualized possibles to the really existent divine act of thinking of them.” Adams, William Ockham, 1060-1. Adams, however, argues that such a solution is ultimately unsuccessful as it “fails to show how God’s single act of thought could be at once an act of thinking of every actual and possible creature distinctly, as well as of Himself,” as Ockham’s critique of earlier accounts of the divine simplicity would seem to require.

[37] It is interesting to note here that Ockham himself appeals directly to Plato to support his view that the ideas by which God creates are something he has to “look” to, are therefore something other than God’s own being, and thus, as Ockham further infers (over against Plato), are something “created”: “The intention of Plato, then, was not to say that the divine essence is the idea, but that there are certain other things known by God which are exemplars and to which God looks in producing. But what else among all the things known could the theologian accept for the idea more conveniently than the created thing itself.” Ockham, Commentary on the Sentences 1.35.5. As Anton Pegis aptly puts it, “Ockhamism is fundamentally Platonism minus the Ideas.” Pegis, “Concerning William of Ockham,” 479. Cunningham, however, suggests that this “absence” of Plato’s ideas in Ockham became “more determinate than any Platonic idea ever did.” Cunningham, Genealogy of Nihilism, 20. On a related but slightly different note is the natural alliance some scholars, including Étienne Gilson, have suggested to exist “between Ockhamist philosophy, which denied direct rational knowledge of God, and Neoplatonic mysticism, popular in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, which sought God in transrational and even arrational experience.” Steven Ozment, The Age of Reform (1250-1550): An Intellectual and Religious History of Late Medieval and Reformation Europe, 15. In a related fashion, Erwin Panofsky has observed a certain convergence of late medieval Neoplatonic mysticism and nominalism, notably in their separation of faith and reason, “in the Late Gothic hall church. Its barnlike shell encloses an often wildly pictorial and always apparently boundless interior and thus creates a space determinate and impenetrable from without but indeterminate and penetrable from within.” Panofsky, Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism, 43.

[38] Ockham, Commentary on the Sentences 1.35.5.


Summa Theologiae 1.19

Short Essay: Divine freedom in St. Thomas

After the divine knowledge, the next operation of God addressed by St. Thomas in the Summa concerns the divine will. The major position at issue here is the necessitarianism of classic Platonic or Neoplatonic thought. As Leroy Howe has observed,

[a] first statement of the doctrine that the world is necessitated by the divine nature is to be found in Timaeus, 29b: “He was good; and in the good no jealousy in any matter can arise. So, being without jealousy, he desired that all things should come as near as possible to being like himself” … Plato’s suggestion is that cosmos is brought out of what otherwise would have been chaos through an inner prompting within the divine being to replicate his own goodness wherever possible; the craftsman is constrained to share his own goodness by imposing it upon everything else qua order and harmony in those things.[1]

Nor is the necessity of creation in the Timaeus limited to the demiurge’s own “inner prompting,” for as Howe further notes, the act of creation is also “provoked from without, upon his determining that what stands over against him lacks his own inner goodness: given a chaos needing ordering, it is fitting that the craftsman does what he does…”[2] For later Neoplatonists such as Plotinus, this extrinsic necessity is absorbed within the One, who alone exists “in the beginning,” so to speak, and from which all else proceeds. For Plotinus, while there is a limited sense in which the One is free, inasmuch as there is no higher, equal, or co-eternal cause or principle which might impinge upon it and determine its creative action, it is clear that the One’s act of emanation is something entirely necessary. In its transcendence, the One does not depend upon Divine Mind for its being, but rather the reverse, yet all the same, the One would not and could not be what it is if it did not generate the Divine Mind. As Plotinus specifies of Divine Mind’s relationship to the One, “when the parent is the highest good, the offspring is necessarily with him and separate from him only in otherness.”[3]

Against the Platonist and Neoplatonist view of creation or emanation as an inexorable process prompted by the divine being’s own internal necessity, the orthodox Christian position has emphatically asserted the complete freedom and consequent gratuity of the creative act. This is yet another instance, for example, where we find St. Augustine tacitly departing from Neoplatonism all the while appropriating many of its insights. Thus, in the concluding book of his Confessions, in the midst of making an otherwise Plotinian point about how creation is a function of God’s abundant fullness and goodness, Augustine mentions how “even if the creation had either never come into existence or remained formless, nothing could be lacking to the good which you are to yourself,”[4] a hypothetical situation that would have been unimaginable or unintelligible to Plotinus but whose possibility is simply taken for granted by Augustine.

As for St. Thomas, he likewise found it necessary in his writings to stress the complete freedom of God’s creative act, especially in response to the insurgent forces of Greek and Arabic necessitarianism that were in the ascendancy in the thirteenth century. Looking at the third and fourth articles of the Summa’s question on divine will, for example, one notices that, in the main, the objections against the divine will considered are all variations on the principle, prevalent in classical and Arabic Neoplatonism, that the act of creation or “emanation” is either not willed by God or else willed by him necessarily, that is, as a matter of his own inescapable essence or nature (ST 1.19.3-4). In response to the claim advanced in the objections of article three that, because God’s will is identical with his essence and therefore whatever he wills he must will essentially, Thomas carefully distinguishes between two kinds of necessity in God’s willing. His willing of his own existence and goodness is indeed absolutely necessary, whereas his willing of creaturely existence and goodness is necessary only “by supposition.” In other words, it is not necessary that God should will anything besides himself, but if he should in fact freely will something besides himself, then and only then is it in fact necessary that he should will it, and what is more, that he should will that it be “ordered to His own goodness as [its] end” (ST 1.19.3).[5] As for the objections in the fourth article demanding that God, as the first cause of all things, must always act according to his nature and essence and therefore never cause things by his will, here we find Thomas arguing that the same, infinite, yet simple perfection that we found in question 15 to necessitate a plurality of ideas in God, also necessitates that the creation act be entirely voluntary. Being perfect and undetermined within himself, God cannot have any need to produce something outside of himself, and so God’s “determined effects” of creation must “proceed from His own infinite perfection according to the determination of His will and intellect” (ST 1.19.4).[6]

[1] Howe, “The Necessity of Creation,” 97.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Plotinus, Enneads 5.1.7, trans. Armstrong. For Plotinus’s discussion of the role of the will in the One, see Enneads 6.8. On the role of necessity in Plotinus’s doctrine of emanation from the One, see Bussanich, “Plotinus’s Metaphysics of the One.”

[4] Augustine, Confessions 13.4.5, trans. Chadwick.

[5] “Alia autem a se Deus vult, inquantum ordinantur ad suam bonitatem ut in finem.”

[6] “Non igitur agit per necessitatem naturae; sed effectus determinati ab infinita ipsius perfectione procedunt, secundum determinationem voluntatis et intellectus ipsius.” Later in the Summa’s discussion of creation proper, we get what is perhaps the most famous application of Thomas’ own theological voluntarism, where, in the first two articles of question 46, Thomas refers to the divine will some fifteen times in arguing his dual thesis that, because creation is an act of divine will, neither the eternality nor the temporal beginning of the world can be philosophically demonstrated. Since creation is free, God could have created the world either way, and so the truth of the matter is something that can only be known by divine revelation.