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.


Summa Theologiae 1.16

Short Essay: Thomas’s doctrine of “theological truth” or the “truth of things.”[1]

In the Summa, after his discussion of the divine ideas, the very next question entertained by St. Thomas concerns the subject of truth, with the very first article asking “whether truth is only in the intellect?” (ST 1.16.1). Thomas’s reply is that, although truth is principally in, being first and foremost a property of, the intellect, because truth establishes a relation between the intellect and the thing known—“the true [existing] in the intellect in so far as it is conformed to the thing understood”—there is an important sense in which “the aspect of the true must pass from the intellect to the thing understood, so that also the thing understood is said to be true in so far as it has some relation to the intellect.”[2] In other words, when an intellect becomes truthfully related to a thing, the thing itself is not left unaffected, but reciprocates by likewise entering into a truthful relationship with the knowing intellect.[3] And even when a thing is not actively being known by any intellect, it still exists in a state of potentiality for being known, a potentiality that is no mere accidental feature of, but is constitutive of, the thing in its very being. As Josef Pieper has aptly described Thomas’s teaching concerning truth’s status as a “transcendental” property of all being,

[e]very being, as being, stands in relation to a knowing mind. This relational orientation toward a knowing mind represents the same ontological reality as the very being of a thing…. With all “being” thus related to a knowing mind, we further state that this relationship is actualized in the process of mental perception or intellection. “The mind’s act of intellection itself constitutes and completes that relation of ‘conformity’ which is the nature of truth.”[4]

Although a thing always exists in this state of “relational orientation toward a knowing mind,” or rather precisely on account of it, there is a very real sense in which it is only by being known that a thing is finally allowed to reach its completion or perfection. By knowing things and thus realizing their potential for being known, the human intellect gives things the opportunity to be what they truly are, providing them, so to speak, with the stage upon which they might enact their foreordained part. As Catherine Pickstock has observed, there is thus an almost redemptive dimension to the intellect’s role in actualizing the truth potential of things, their innate capacity, that is, for being known:

one must think of knowing-a-thing as an act of generosity, or salvific compensation for the exclusivity and discreteness of things. … It is a corrective or remedy, according to Aquinas in De Veritate, for the isolation of substantive beings… [T]he very notion of a “thing itself” is radically otherwise, for it is only “itself” in its being conformed to the intellect of the knower… The thing-itself is only itself by being assimilated to the knower, and by its form entering into the mind of the knower.[5]

Here Maritain is also worth mentioning again, as he connects this Thomistic sense of the radical co-belongingness of the human mind and things with the reason why human beings can have an aesthetic experience of the natural world: “Take the objects of aesthetic delight which are the most completely remote from any impact of humanity… Everywhere in reality, man is there, under cover. Man’s measure is present, though hidden. All these nonhuman things return to man a quality of the human mind which is concealed in them…”[6]

Yet the primary basis for Thomas for both the knowing intellect’s truthful orientation towards things, and the truthful orientation of things towards the knowing intellect, is that each are ultimately oriented towards the divine intellect in which both intellect and things have their origin. Because all things owe their existence to the divine intellect, making them “essentially” related to it, Thomas concludes that “[i]n the same way natural things are said to be true in so far as they express the likeness of the species that are in the divine mind. For a stone is called true, because it expresses the nature proper to a stone, according to the preconception in the divine intellect” (ST 1.16.1).[7] In short, because things have been created and patterned after their corresponding idea or exemplar in the divine mind, things exist in this state of continuous conformity to that mind, the consequence of which is that things are by nature not alien or indifferent to, but fundamentally akin and so intelligible to the knowing mind. As Pieper again elaborates on this relationship, “things can be known by us because God has creatively thought them; as creatively thought by God, things have not only their own nature (‘for themselves alone’); but as creatively thought by God, things have also a reality ‘for us.’”[8]

[1] For a history of the doctrine of the “truth of things,” see Pieper, The Truth of All Things. Pieper traces the doctrine as far back as the pre-Socratic philosopher Pythagoras, through Aquinas, and forward to its dissolution in modernity. On Thomas’s doctrine of the truth of things in particular, see also Phelan, “Verum Sequitur Esse Rerum” and Pickstock, “Truth and Correspondence.”

[2] “[I]ta, cum verum sit in intellectu secundum quod conformatur rei intellectae, necesse est quod ratio veri ab intellectu ad rem intellectam derivetur, ut res etiam intellecta vera dicatur, secundum quod habet aliquem ordinem ad intellectum.”

[3] As Catherine Pickstock explains the dynamic reciprocity involved in Thomas’s theory of truth, the intellectual apprehension of truth “is not an indifferent speculation; it is rather a beautiful ratio which is instantiated between things and the mind which leaves neither things nor mind unchanged.… If, for example, one were to know a willow tree overhanging the Cherwell, our knowing of it would be just as much an event in the life of the form ‘tree’ as the tree in its willowness and in its growing.” Pickstock, “Truth and Correspondence,” 9.

[4] Pieper, The Truth of All Things, 35, citing St. Thomas’s commentary on Peter Lombard’s Book of Sentences: “In ipsa operatione intellectus … completur relatio adaequationis, in qua consistit ratio veritatis” (Sent.

[5] Pickstock, “Truth and Correspondence,” 9 (emphasis original). As Maritain has similarly written, “object and objectivity are the very life and salvation of the intellect.” Maritain, Existence and the Existent, 23.

[6] Maritain, Creative Intuition, 6.

[7] “Et similiter res naturales dicuntur esse verae, secundum quod assequuntur similitudinem specierum quae sunt in mente divina: dicitur enim verus lapis, qui assequitur propriam lapidis naturam, secundum praeconceptionem intellectus divini.”

[8] Pieper, The Silence of St. Thomas, 55.


Summa Theologiae 1.15

Short Essay: St. Thomas on the Divine Ideas

The Augustinian doctrine of the “divine ideas” has its origins in Plato. In the creation-myth of his Timaeus dialogue, for example, Plato represents the benevolent but not omnipotent creator-god, the world-craftsman or “demiurge,” as fashioning the existing universe by first looking outside of himself to the “eternal model” of the forms, and then imposing that form, beauty, and order onto an otherwise chaotic array of unformed, pre-existing matter. Assuming that the demiurge must have had a model in mind when he fashioned the world, Timaeus, the eponymous spokesman of the dialogue, asks whether the model the demiurge looked to was “the one that does not change and stays the same,” i.e., the eternal, unchanging model of the forms, “or the one that has come to be,” i.e., the changing realm of becoming grasped not by a “reasoned account” but by mere “opinion” and “unreasoning sense perception.” Because the physical cosmos “is the most beautiful, and of causes the craftsman is the most excellent,” Timaeus concludes that it must have been the eternal model that the demiurge looked to in crafting the world. Although St. Augustine, following in the train of the middle and later Neoplatonist schools, internalized the divine ideas within the mind of God himself, like Plato he also emphasized their role in accounting for the intelligibility, beauty, and general order of the created universe. As Augustine inquires in one place, who would dare to say that God has created all things without a rational plan? But if one cannot rightly say or believe this, it remains that all things are created on a rational plan, and man not by the same rational plan as a horse, for it is absurd to think this. Therefore individual things are created in accord with reasons unique to them. As for these reasons, they must be thought to exist nowhere but in the very mind of the Creator. It is in reference to the Augustinian-Platonic theme of the fundamental intelligibility of creation, finally, that St. Thomas Aquinas first introduces his discussion of the divine ideas in the Summa Theologiae. Thomas’s opening article on the subject asks if there are in fact any ideas in God, to which he replies that, “[a]s then the world was not made by chance, but by God acting by His intellect…, there must exist in the divine mind a form to the likeness of which the world was made. And in this the notion of an idea consists” (ST 1.15.1). One of the issues Augustine did not directly address, but which became a point of contention in later scholastic discussions of the subject (to say nothing of recent debates over how St. Thomas is best to be interpreted on the matter), involves the problem of reconciling a multiplicity of divine ideas within the divine intellect with the simplicity of the divine essence. We will consider in particular Ockham’s drastic reformulation of the traditional doctrine of divine ideas for the sake of the divine simplicity in our later discussion of divine omnipotence. For the present we observe that, like Augustine, Aquinas also affirmed a multiplicity of ideas in the mind of God, though he clarifies that what gives the ideas their multiplicity is the role they play in God’s own self-knowledge. As Thomas explains: Since God knows His own essence perfectly, He knows it according to every mode in which it can be known. Now it can be known not only as it is in itself, but as it can be participated in by creatures according to some degree of likeness. But every creature has its own proper species, according to which it participates in some degree in likeness to the divine essence. So far, therefore, as God knows His essence as capable of such imitation by any creature, He knows it as the particular type and idea of that creature; and in like manner as regards other creatures. So it is clear that God understands many particular types of many things, and these are many ideas. (ST 1.15.2) The divine ideas after which God patterns his creatures are the result of God’s knowledge of himself in his own essence. In knowing himself, God invariably knows the infinite number of ways in which his essence might be “imitated” by or participated in by his creatures, and it is this knowledge which comprises the divine ideas. It is precisely because God is supremely one, without limit, and hence infinite and capable of infinite imitation on the part of his finite creatures, that God must have an infinite number of ideas by which he grasps his own essence as infinitely imitable by his possible creatures. For Aquinas, then, following Augustine and Plato, the doctrine of divine ideas is important for understanding the nature of divine artistry or craftsmanship: when God creates the world, he does so not arbitrarily or irrationally, but beautifully and orderly through the intelligible exemplars which he intellectually conceives beforehand, indeed, from all eternity. According to Martin Heidegger’s influential critique of the last century, however, such traditional, exemplarist theories of God and reality, far from circumventing the kind of technological approach to nature, instead unwittingly enfranchised the technological outlook at the deepest metaphysical and theological level. In his influential essay “The Question Concerning Technology,” Heidegger makes the case that the commonplace definition of technology in terms of an instrumental alignment of causes and effects or means and ends, fails to get at the essence of technology, inasmuch as causal thinking itself has presupposed since ancient Greek times the technological or instrumental paradigm of techne. Yet it is precisely in terms of this technological, causal framework which theology has traditionally articulated God’s relation to creation, with the result that, according to Heidegger, “even God can, for representational thinking, lose all that is exalted and holy, the mysteriousness of his distance. In the light of causality, God can sink to the level of a cause, of causa efficiens. He then becomes, even in theology, the god of the philosophers, namely, of those who define the unconcealed and the concealed in terms of the causality of making, without ever considering the essential origin of this causality.” While Heidegger in his essay is resigned to the inevitability of technological thinking, he hopes modern man might nonetheless find his “saving power” by “confronting” and “questioning” the technological paradigm through the cultivation of an alternative mode of thinking and “revealing,” namely that of poeisis or art. Recently, however, it has been countered that, properly understood, Thomas’s doctrine of creation, and in particular, the role the divine ideas play within that doctrine, far from exemplifying the kind of technical thinking and making criticized by Heidegger, in fact provide us with the only true alternative to them. As Robert Miner has stated the problem in his study of creative knowledge in later medieval and early modern philosophy and theology, what is basically at issue here is the “relation between knowing and making.” Following the analysis of R.G. Collingwood, Miner distinguishes on the one hand the “paradigm of craft” or “technical making,” which “involves a distinction between planning and execution, where ‘planning’ means precise foreknowledge of what is to be made, before the making is executed.” In craft or technical making, in other words, the relation between knowing and making “is one of dependence: making (understood as the execution of the means through the transformation of matter) depends upon an antecedent knowledge of the form. The activity of making does not provide knowledge of the formal cause of the artifact, but presupposes this knowledge.” On the craft model, consequently, instead of the produced artifact providing a new or authentic avenue for being to reveal itself (the task Heidegger had assigned to true poiesis), the produced artifact represents merely a “mimetic” and hence superfluous or redundant overflow from a prior act of knowing or speculative vision. An alternative form of making to the craft model, accordingly, would be one in which “the activity of making does not merely devise means for the sake of giving material embodiment to what is already known, but actually contributes to our knowledge…” Contrary to the suggestion, finally, that the exemplarism of Thomas’s doctrine of divine ideas makes God into a kind of demiurgic “super-technician,” Miner argues that it in fact gives us a true basis for thinking alternatively about human making. To be sure, as Miner points out, God’s knowledge of the divine ideas for Thomas “in the first instance, is a speculative knowledge,” that is to say, a knowledge of God’s essence in itself and without reference to his doing anything with that knowledge. Yet this knowledge is not a “sterile” knowledge, as it immediately gives rise to, and is implicative of, the divine practical knowledge, or God’s knowledge as directed to operation, in this case, the operation of creation. As we noted earlier, in knowing his own essence God at the same time knows his essence as imitable by his creatures, so that while God’s practical knowledge of the divine ideas is conceptually distinct from his speculative knowledge of his essence, the two are nevertheless inseparable from each other. As Miner explains: Thus God’s knowledge of ideas may be either entirely speculative, or both speculative and practical. When they are known speculatively, as principles of knowledge, they are “types” (rationes). When they are not only known speculatively, but also directed to the making of something, they attain the status of an exemplar, that is, the “principle of the making of things” (principium factionis rerum). A distinction between speculative and practical knowledge of ideas is necessary, because Aquinas allows that God knows some types of created things but chooses not to actualize them. But he does not sever practical knowledge of exemplars from speculative self-knowledge. “In speculative knowledge of Himself, He possesses both speculative and practical knowledge of all others things,” Aquinas concludes the final article of Question 14. Thus God’s knowledge of exemplars is essentially different from the craftsman’s knowledge of forms, because the former is a function of perfect self-knowledge, and the latter is not… For Aquinas, then, while God’s speculative knowledge may precede and so be distinguishable from God’s practical knowledge in a logical sense, his speculative knowledge nevertheless always involves his practical knowledge. There is no craft-like process or series of stages, therefore, which God goes through in which he is first a seer or knower and only afterward a doer or maker, for in the very act of knowing himself, God knows himself as maker, or at least as a potential or possible maker, which is another way of saying that only in knowing himself as a (possible) maker does God know himself as God. Corroborating this account is the almost creativity or artistry which Aquinas attributes to the otherwise speculative act whereby God knows the divine ideas in the first place. In his argument for a plurality of divine ideas in his Disputed Questions on Truth, for example, Thomas writes: “The one first form to which all things are reduced is the divine essence, considered in itself. Reflecting upon this essence, the divine intellect devises—if I may use such an expression—different ways in which it can be imitated. The plurality of ideas comes from these different ways.” According to Aquinas’s divine psychology, God’s ideas are the result of his first understanding his own essence, and consequent (logically) to that, understanding all the ways in which his essence may be imitated by created being. The act by which God knows the divine ideas, however, Thomas again depicts not merely in terms of a passive, speculative, and hence “technological” gaze at his own essence in order to understand the possible ways of it being imitated, but more than that, in terms of an active process of “devising” those ways in which his essence might be imitable. The word Thomas uses here is adinvenit, which W. Norris Clarke interprets as an act of divine “invention.” On Clarke’s reading, the divine ideas are the result of God’s “infinitely fecund, artistically inventive activity, which does not find them somehow ready-made in His essence (what could that possibly mean ontologically?) but literally ‘invents,’ ‘excogitates’ them, using the infinitely simple plenitude of Esse that is His essence as supreme analogical model or norm…” In a similar vein, John F. Wippel writes how, for Aquinas, “in knowing his own essence, [God] also knows (or ‘discovers’) the many ways in which it is imitable and, therefore, the divine ideas and the possibles.” On this understanding, the divine ideas emerge as a form of divine self-interpretation: they are not merely God’s knowledge, but his interpretation of himself as imitable by his creatures. What all of this suggests is that God is not merely an artist in his ad extra act of creation, but more radically, for St. Thomas God is like an artist as he knows and therefore relates to his own self. God is an artist essentially. The place where this point is perhaps made the most perspicuously is in Thomas’s distinctively and, over the course of his career, increasingly Trinitarian approach to the question of divine ideas. As Miner again points out, [t]he conception of principles of production is not a work of divine imagination or will, but part of God’s self-knowledge that occurs within the life of the Trinitarian Persons, through the utterance of His Verbum. This utterance cannot be reduced to the technical paradigm: it is neither creation nor technical making, but generation…. The ideas generated within the Verbum are not distinct from the generator (as any factum is distinct from its factor), but co-equal with him, one in substance. The divine ideas by which God knows himself as imitable by his creatures take place within the Divine Idea, namely the eternal Word and Son of God who is consubstantial with the Father. As the eternal Word of the Father, the Son is at once the knowledge and the only-begotten of God, suggesting that God is as much a knower on account of his being—if not exactly a “maker,” then what is more—a “begetter,” as he is a begetter on account of his being a knower. Thus, there is a sense in which even God’s “speculative” knowledge of himself which is the Son, far from involving a passive, static beholding which is afterward banally repeated, albeit on a finite scale, in the act of creation, is profoundly “productive” or rather poetic in the sense that it is constituted by nothing less than the Son’s eternal procession from the Father. As Aquinas quotes Augustine in his discussion of the Son’s “appropriation” of all the essential attributes of the godhead, “as the perfect Word” of God, who is also the receptacle of the divine ideas, the Son is at once the “art of the omnipotent God” (ST 1.39.8). It is this divine pattern of poetic procession within the godhead which comprises the divine essence, finally, that, mutatis mutandi, provides Aquinas with his basic framework for understanding the “emanation” from the divine essence that comprises the act of creation. In a passage found in Thomas’s treatise on creation, Thomas draws the following analogy between the way in which the human craftsman makes a thing through an act of intellect and will with the way in which the Father creates through his Son and Spirit: Now the craftsman works through the word conceived in his intellect, and through the love of his will regarding some object. Hence also God the Father made the creature through His Word, which is His Son, and through His Love, which is the Holy Ghost. And so the processions of the Persons are the types of the productions of creatures in so far as they include the essential attributes, which are knowledge, and will. (ST 1.45.6) In an essay below on Thomas’s doctrine of the Trinity, I discuss how it was through his Trinitarian ontology that Thomas helped secured real significance or value for human thinking of creaturely difference or “otherness”; here the suggestion is that it is through this same Trinitarian ontology that St. Thomas likewise secures for human making real meaning or significance. As Miner aptly summarizes the matter, “Aquinas’s model of generation and creation—interior conception of exemplars via processual self-knowledge accompanied by the production of being from no raw material—is a decisive moment in the articulation of a concept of making that is not technical making.” In developing just how Thomas’s Trinitarian conception of creation makes possible an alternative way of thinking about human making, Miner turns to the thought of Jacques Maritain, whose Thomistic theory of art influenced many lay Catholic artists and writers in the early to mid-twentieth century, including possibly Tolkien. As Miner notes, while God’s knowledge of his creative exemplars through an act of perfect self-knowledge must remain essentially different from a human maker’s knowledge of the forms he makes, according to Maritain, the “creative intuition” of the poet, like God’s knowledge of the exemplars but unlike the form apprehended by the mere craftsman, does involve a kind of “obscure grasping of his own Self and of things in a knowledge through union or through connaturality which is born in the spiritual conscious, and which fructifies only in the work.” Thus, there is a kind of “free creativity of the spirit” on the part of the poet which makes him like a god, albeit a “‘poor god’ because he does not know himself,” and, of course, because his creative insight “depends on the external world,” whereas “God’s creative Idea, from the very fact that it is creative, does not receive anything from things…” As to how the poet first comes by this knowledge of the artistic form, for the medieval Schoolmen, at least, it could not have been by mere abstraction since, in Maritain’s words, the form in question is “in no way a concept, for it is neither cognitive nor representative.” Instead, the “creative idea is an intellectual form, or a spiritual matrix, containing implicitly, in its complex unity, the thing which, perhaps for the first time, will be brought into actual existence.” The result is that for neither God nor man is the Thomist exemplar a mere “ideal model sitting for the artist in his own brain, the work supposedly being a copy or portrait of it. This would make of art a cemetery of imitations.” Rather, “the work is an original, not a copy.” Miner finds particular support for this reading of Thomas in question 44, article 3 of the Summa in which the angelic doctor illustrates his point concerning God’s exemplar causality of all things with the example of the human craftsman who “produces a determinate form in matter by reason of the exemplar before him, whether it is the exemplar beheld externally, or the exemplar interiorly conceived in the mind.” In Thomas’s notion of a human artificer producing form in matter through an “exemplar interiorly conceived in the mind,” Miner sees the suggestion of an analogy between a particular kind of human making on the one hand and the act of generation within the divine mind on the other: The conception of an exemplar in the mind is like the utterance of an inner word, a verbum which proceeds from the mind, but is not distinct from the mind. Maritain notes the importance of the verbum mentis doctrine for Aquinas’s account of making: “before the work of art passes from art into the matter, by a transitive action, the very conception of the art has had to emerge from within the soul, by an immanent and vital action, like the emergence of the mental word.” He quotes a pertinent text from Aquinas’s commentary on the Sentences: “the procession of art is twofold, that is, from the soul of the artificer to his art, and from his art to his artifacts.” In summary, then, in Thomas’s divine psychology, including his doctrine of divine ideas and his theory of creation as determined by that doctrine, Thomas makes possible an alternative way of thinking about human making which rescues it from the banal nihilism towards which the technological model has been alleged to lead, by dignifying it with real metaphysical significance in its participation in and mirroring of the profundity of God’s own Triune life.

Summa Theologiae 1.3

Q. 3 “Of the Simplicity of God”

As it is, Thomas thinks that his five proofs for God’s existence have hardly proven much. They have shown that God is (1) an unmoved mover, (2) an uncaused first cause, (3) a necessary being, (4) a perfect being, and (5) an intelligent, ordering being. Should you feel that this isn’t much to go on, let it be known that Thomas is in complete agreement. (Compare Augustine in the Confessions: saturated with a knowledge of who God is, he struggles to arrive at a philosophically satisfactory understanding of what God is.) So far we have only shown that God exists; we still don’t have a clue as to what, much less who, he is. Nor, as it turns out, does Thomas even think that we can know what God is in this life. As Thomas writes in the prologue of the very next question, question three on God’s simplicity, “because we cannot know what God is, but rather what he is not, we have no means for considering how God is, but rather how he is not.” Don’t let all the philosophical proofs in the Summa fool you: after proving (by philosophical reason) that God, understood as some super-nebulous, powerful thing, does in fact exist, Thomas basically goes agnostic. What this means is that the rest of Thomas’s treatise on God, with its otherwise philosophical treatment of such traditional divine attributes as divine simplicity, goodness, unity, eternality, infinity, immutability, and so forth, is put forward by St. Thomas as a lengthy exercise, not of using reason to determine what God is, but precisely of what God is not. This is negative theology, Thomistic style: if you say what God isn’t a sufficient number of even times, it turns out to be something positive. The role of Thomas’s natural theology, accordingly, at least as he understands it, far from making God comprehensible and perspicuous to the finite human intellect, is rather to persuade the human mind of the utter mystery and transcendence of God. Natural theology is always negative theology: to know what God is by the natural light of human reason is only ever to know what God is not. Again, if you want to know God, you’re going to need revelation.

The third question of the Summa asks whether God is simple, by which Thomas means whether God is not complex or composed of parts (again, we see God’s attributes being defined negatively). Thus, turning to the first article of the third question on divine simplicity, we find Thomas asking if God is a body, the answer to which is that he is not (bodies are always composed of, and thus are divisible into, smaller parts). In article two he asks if God is composed of form and matter, the answer to which is that he is not. In article three, however, things become a little more difficult, as Thomas asks if God is identical with his own essence or nature. The essence or nature of a thing identifies what kind of thing a particular being is. As a consequence, you might say that a thing’s essence is something that transcends the thing itself and hence determines the kind of thing that it is. The essence of dogness, for example, transcends (not literally, as in the fashion of Plato’s forms) any individual dog, which is to say that the idea or reality of dogness is always something greater than any individual dog: no particular dog is able to exhaust what it means to be a dog, or put in more Thomistic terms, no dog is identical to the essence of dog, otherwise there would be no “room,” so to speak, for other dogs to exercise their dogness. This cannot be the case for God, however, who isn’t God because he merely happens to “fall into” a more overarching, encompassing category of “godness.” For Aquinas, not only is it the case that there are no other gods besides the one true God, but there can’t be any gods besides him either. The reason for this is because the “category” of god, if you will, isn’t something other than God himself: God is not only God, but he is also what it means to be God. He not only is what he is, but he also defines what he is: he is one with his definition. Nothing stands outside God measuring, defining, or otherwise determining him. And Thomas’s way of saying this is to say that God is one with or identical with his essence.

However, according to Aquinas God is not the only being who is identical with his essence, for he believes this is true of the angels as well: no angel is identical in essence or species to any other angel, making every angel radically unique and sui generis. It is thus in the following fourth article of the third question that Thomas makes one of his most radical, famous, and difficult of claims. Granted that God, like the angels, is identical with and not distinct from his own essence, can it be further said that God, unlike the angels, is also identical with his own act of existence? Or as Thomas himself puts the question, are “essence and existence the same in God?” This is where Thomas’s true metaphysical revolution takes place, where he gets real metaphysical “lift off.” In the first three articles, after all, Thomas says nothing all that new. Here, however, he makes the jump to light speed. If you can get a handle on what Thomas does here, and why it is important, you will have understood what is perhaps the most important thought that Thomas felt he ever had.

One way to get our minds around this claim is to see Thomas as trying to synthesize not only Christianity with Aristotle, but indeed, even Plato with Aristotle. (This reminds us of the oversimplification involved in pitting Christian theology over against “pagan philosophy,” monolithically conceived, for as the case of St. Thomas would indicate, it is only through the lens of Christian theology, that great reconciler of men, that pagan philosophy can even be made to agree with itself.) On Plato’s ontology, we recall, the physical world is composed of corporeal, sensible objects which participate for their being in a transcendent, separated, intelligible realm of the forms. Aristotle, by contrast, while retaining Plato’s form-matter distinction, nevertheless revised Plato’s ontology by making the forms integral to and immanent within, rather than extrinsic to the things themselves. According to Aristotle, therefore, individual substances are composed of form and matter. It is the differing degree to which the matter in a thing is assimilated or conformed to its form, moreover, that determines where a thing is in the great hierarchy of being. The more a given form, in other words, determines, organizes, or “gathers up” the matter in a thing, the more being that thing will have. Thus, a rock, for example, that retains its “form of rockness” is more of a rock than one that easily crumbles into pieces (its “potentiality” for being a rock is more “actualized”). The same thing is true when we compare different species with each other. No matter how good a given rock is at being a rock, as a rock it’s never going to have as much form (which is to say, as much actuality, dynamism, order, and therefore being) as may be found in even the simplest plant (the more complex a thing, the more “form” or actuality it has—the more it has “going for it,” metaphysically speaking). Above both inanimate objects and vegetable life, however, are animals with the power of sensation, which demonstrates overall an even greater purchase power of form over matter, of actuality over potentiality. (Think about it: although physical sight, for example, is just as much a material process as one rock crashing into another, the level of sophistication and subtlety—which is to say, of form—of the former is far, far greater. Indeed, for Aristotle, in physical sight you have form taking hold over and utterly transforming matter to such a degree that, even more than the other four senses, it is the closest thing in the material realm that you have to a purely spiritual and hence immaterial process and phenomenon.) Above sensible animals in this process of form’s domination over matter are human beings, who exercise the power of intelligence and reason, powers which in fact make use of no physical organ whatsoever but are purely immaterial and incorporeal activities (and who, incidentally, use their powers of intelligence and reason to transform their environment in a way far exceeding that found in any lower beings). Finally, above man further still are, for Aristotle, the gods, who having no matter at all, have no unactualized potentiality whatsoever, but are pure form, pure essence. Aristotle thus describes the Unmoved Mover as “self-thinking thought”: as pure form, pure thought, it thinks only that which is itself pure form or thought, namely itself.

In review, then, it is the dialectical interplay between form and matter, potentiality and actuality, that defines Aristotle’s universe: the more matter/potentiality a thing has, the lower it is in the hierarchy of being; the more form/actuality it has, the higher it will be. And St. Thomas, it should be said, agrees entirely with this analysis: this is how God, he believes, has made the world. But in making this latter observation, one has effectively introduced a distinction between Aristotle and St. Thomas as important as anything they held in common: Thomas’s world is created and Aristotle’s is not, and this leads St. Thomas to ask questions that Aristotle never thought to ask, and indeed, to apply Aristotle’s own potentiality/actuality distinction in ways Aristotle never thought to apply it. For consider this: once you have posited Aristotle’s hierarchy of substances, ranging from the inanimate stone to the transcendent self-thinking thought of the unmoved mover, and all differing from each other according to their proportion of actuality to potentiality, despite the radical differences measured by this scale, what can you nevertheless say that everything on Aristotle’s hierarchy still has in common? They may all exist in different ways, but they all exist. Being is something they all “have,” something they all “share.” Now, because Aristotle believed the universe, including his hierarchy, to be eternal, he ended up taking this seemingly obvious point for granted. Sure, to account for a thing you must identify the matter it’s made out of (material cause), what kind of thing it is (its form), the agent(s) responsible for this matter coming to have this form (efficient cause), and the purpose or goal that the thing is existing for (final cause). What Aristotle failed to include in his reckoning, however, was the sheer fact of existence itself. And this is where we can see Thomas, under the influence of the Christian doctrine of creation, attempting to bring Plato back into the picture. You see, the problem with Aristotle is that in tracing the form/matter distinction all the way up the hierarchy of being until it reached its upper threshold in man, Aristotle thought he had also exhausted the actuality/potentiality distinction. Once we reach a level of being, namely the gods, in which there is no matter, we no longer have any potentiality either, right? Wrong. What Aquinas saw (and here the Christian doctrine of creation was not only crucial, but also the Christian doctrine of the angels) was that you could have a completely immaterial being (in Thomas’s case, an angel) that nevertheless was not pure actuality, but still had some remaining potentiality, namely its potentiality, if for nothing else, then at least for existence itself. In such a being, even if there was no distinction between form and matter (since there is no matter in angels, according to Aquinas), one could nevertheless distinguish between its form and its actual existence, between what a thing is and that a thing is. What this means is that the actuality/potentiality distinction of Aristotle doesn’t quite run out or reach the end of its tether when the form/matter distinction does, but in fact can be traced all the way up Aristotle’s hierarchy, even to the level of the gods (the fact that Aristotle was unsure how many gods there were is indication in itself that, even if it is necessary that at least one or more gods exist, no one of these gods is necessary as such). The actuality/potentiality distinction, therefore, is not coextensive or coterminous with the form/matter distinction. Thus, even in the case of Aristotle’s gods we can ask what efficient cause is responsible for giving existence itself to his gods. More generally still, even after we have let Aristotle have his say in terms of analyzing all the explanatory causes that are immanent, intrinsic, or integral to a bodily substance, we still have to step back and give an account of the cause of existence itself. Using the participation language of Plato, therefore, Thomas argues (in article four of question 3) that things exist by virtue of participating in that which is Existence Itself (ipsum esse se subsistens), and that Existence Itself is God.

As for God himself, Thomas’s argument is not simply that God has being, as though God were one thing and his being or existence something else, but that God simply is being. God is being essentially, whereas all other entities have being only by “participation,” by participating, that is, in God who is the “form” of being, if you will. God is Being, existence itself, divine esse. As one might recall from the Confessions, Augustine also said this, and what he primarily meant by it was that God was unchanging. For Thomas, God is being, which means he is pure, undiluted, unadulterated, unlimited or unconstrained act, actuality, actualization, activation. He is the act of all acts, he is the act behind all acts, he is the one who gives actuality its actuality; he is not simply perfection, he is the perfection of all perfections. He is the one who makes perfection to be perfect. This is what it means when Thomas says that God’s essence is his existence.

Having proven that God is existence itself, self-subsisting being (ipsum esse se subsistens), Thomas spends the next several questions teasing out what that exactly means (cp. Anselm’s Proslogion, which deduces the attributes of God from his being “that which nothing greater can be thought”).


Summa Theologiae 1.2.3

Article 3: “Whether God exists?”

Having shown that God’s existence isn’t self-evident (article one), and that it in principle can be demonstrated (article two), Thomas at last shows us some of the different ways it has been demonstrated. Here Thomas gives us his famous five ways for proving God’s existence (though none of these were unique to Thomas in his day). Note that these are five ways of proving God’s existence, not the proofs themselves. He is effectively saying, “If you are going to prove God’s existence, here is how you might go about doing it.”

A summary of the five ways (Peter Kreeft gives a nice analysis of these in his notes in his Summa of the Summa):

  1. First way is from motion: very Aristotelian.
    1. Thomas calls this the “most manifest” way; notice that he begins with the senses.
    2. Summary: Things are in motion; things are set in motion only by a mover which itself must have been set in motion; this can’t go on to infinity, therefore there must be some first mover.
    3. Conclusion: God is the Prime Mover.
  2. Second way is from efficient causality.
    1. Again, Thomas appeals to the “world of sense.”
    2. Summary: We find an order of efficient causes which can’t go on to infinity, therefore there must be a first cause.
    3. Conclusion: God is the Uncaused First Cause.
  3. Third way is from the question of possibility and necessity.
    1. Again, “We find in nature things…”
    2. Summary: What we find in nature are possible things, which is to say, contingent things, things which don’t have to but merely happen to be; if this were the case for everything, however, then there would have been a moment in eternity past when nothing was. But nothing can follow from nothing, and so there must always have been some being, which is to say, a necessary being and this is God.
    3. Conclusion: God is the one Necessary Being.
  4. Fourth way is from gradations of being: very Platonic
    1. gradation is “found in things”
    2. Summary: Things admit of a more and a less, but this requires that there be something which is best and most in being. This is God.
    3. conclusion: God is perfect, complete Being.
  5. Fifth way is from ordered governance (more Stoic—see Balbus’s discourse in Cicero’s On the Nature of the Gods)
    1. Summary: all things, including those which lack intelligence, nevertheless normally act so as to obtain the best result. There must therefore be something guiding things in this way, and this is God.
    2. conclusion: God is an intelligent, ordering Mind.

Summa Theologiae 1.2.2

Article 2: “Whether it can be demonstrated that God exists?”

If we are to know that God exists (and not just believe it as a matter of faith), a demonstration must be provided. This of course doesn’t necessarily mean, however, that there is a demonstration for God’s existence. It could turn out to be the case that God’s existence is simply a matter of faith. Reasoning from the Apostle’s Paul’s claim in Romans 1 that God is clearly seen in the things that he has made, Thomas concludes that we can know by the power of human reason that God exists. Notice Thomas has cited biblical authority in defense of reason’s authority. The Bible itself testifies to reason’s basic reliability and legitimacy.

In the body of the article Thomas distinguishes two ways in which you can prove something:

i.      a priori demonstration: proving an effect through its cause.

a posteriori demonstration: proving a cause through its effect. It’s in this sense that we prove God’s existence, by looking at his effects and inferring from them what kind of cause would be necessary to produce these effects.


Summa Theologiae 1.2.1

Article 1: “Whether the existence of God is self-evident?”

Here in the first article Thomas rejects the position of St. Anselm according to whom God’s existence is self-evidently known from the mere meaning of the name of God as “that which nothing greater can be thought.” Thomas argues, on the contrary, that because we don’t and can’t know in this life the essence of God, we can’t know intuitively or self-evidentially that his existence is entailed in his essence. Now, as we will see, Thomas does believe that God’s existence is entailed in his essence (indeed, his existence turns out to be nothing other than his essence). The point Thomas is making here, however, is that this fact is not self-evidently true for us, even if it is self-evidently true in itself. This is very important: we must not confuse the order in the way things really are with the order in the way in which we happen to know or experience them, or the order of being with the order of knowledge. Sometimes the order is the same, but not necessarily.

So, as human beings, we don’t ever have the opportunity or ability, at least in this life, to simply look at God and not only say, “well, there he is!” but more than this, to even say, “ah, if that is what God is, then of course he must exist.” Given our creaturely limitations, therefore, the way, that is, God made us to know as humans, to know that God exists, it needs to be demonstrated from those things which we can look at, namely his created effects. Thus, if you look carefully at each of Thomas’s famous “five ways” for proving God’s existence, you’ll notice that they each begin on a characteristic theme. In his argument from motion, Thomas begins by saying that “it is certain, and evident to our senses, that in this world some things are in motion.” Or his argument from efficient causality, which begins this way: “In the world of sense we find there is an order of efficient causes…” Or his third way from the nature of possible being: “We find in nature things that are possible to be and not to be…” Or Thomas’s fourth way, which “is taken from the gradation to be found in things.” Each of the five ways, and any other argument that would aspire to be a true argument for God’s existence (for Thomas, there are other arguments, these are just his faves), must begin in the sensible realm of nature, with things that we can see, touch, taste, smell, or hear. As Thomas further explains, this is not a limitation on God’s part, but rather a limitation on our part, on how God himself has chosen to make us. If we were angels, who are able to know things in an intuitive or non-discursive way, we might not have this problem. (Anselm’s ontological argument: the apologetic of the angels!) What we need, therefore, are arguments that will condescend to and meet our minds where they are at.

This latter point is worth dwelling on briefly here, for it has often been objected by some from within the Reformed apologetic school of thought known as Presuppositionalism that Thomas’s insistence that God’s existence needs to be demonstrated effectively enshrines things like reason, nature, causality, the rules of inference and evidence, and the like, with an autonomous and therefore idolatrous authority which even God is then required to bow down and submit to (if God is to exist, these are the “offices” with which he must register his existence). As Thomas himself might see the matter, however, it is precisely his “presupposition,” if you will, of how God has in fact made the world and the way in which man has been made to know the world, that moves St. Thomas to argue for God’s existence in the way that he does. For St. Thomas, we must begin our arguments for God’s existence with those things that are nearer and clearer to us (though there is an important sense for St. Thomas in which things only ever become “near and clear” to us in light of their relationship to God), and from them work our way to the kind of cause that must exist to produce such glorious effects, because this is the way that God himself has made us to reason about him. To deny the validity of this apologetic method, therefore, is in fact to deny, after a fashion, the very God who authorized it; it is certainly to deny the unique way in which St. Thomas believes God to have made us to know, and exchange it for a way in which he has not made us to know. (It is for this reason, incidentally, that Thomists in the twentieth-century accused the father of modern philosophy, René Descartes, in his resurrection of Anselm’s ontological argument, of being guilty of the sin of “angelism,” of substituting, that is, a properly human psychology and epistemology which depends on the senses and the physical world for the mediation of all its knowledge, for an angelic, if not in fact a divine psychology and epistemology, which does not.)

Now, it is true that traditionalist approaches to St. Thomas have attributed to him a natural theology still very much conceived along the rationalist, foundationalist lines of secular philosophy. However, if Thomas does not exactly take for granted God’s existence at the beginning of the Summa in a fideistic fashion, neither should it be said that he tries to prove God’s existence from some kind of neutral, external standpoint of “pure reason.”[1] For Aquinas, it should be clear, there is and of course can be no external, theologically-neutral standpoint from which the question of God’s existence can be measured or compared to reality itself. How could there be? He is arguing for God’s existence as a Christian, and thus as someone who sees the world as a Christian sees it, and is attempting to elucidate from that vantage point the intelligibility of theistic belief. Thomas is not trying to lay the foundation for a rational, natural theology “from the outside,” one upon which he might then later build his edifice of revealed theology. As was mentioned above (in the short essay on faith and reason in St. Thomas), it is best to see him as approaching the Christian faith as a coherent, integrated worldview comprised of both a natural and a revealed theology, of both a way of faith and a way of reason, which are to be taken together and whose coherence or intelligibility must be appreciated not from some supposed outside, “objective” perspective, but from the inside. In this way, the natural theology of Thomas’s Summa, while not written specifically for the unbeliever, nevertheless has an important application for him. It makes a rational claim upon the non-believer, in other words, without on that account making a concession to the purported autonomy of his rationality.

[1] My remarks here are influenced by an essay by Aquinas scholar Rudi te Velde, “Understanding the Scientia of Faith: Reason and Faith in Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae.” Chap. 3 in Fergus Kerr, ed., Contemplating Aquinas: On the Varieties of Interpretation (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2003), 55-74.


Summa Theologiae 1.2

Q. 2 “The Existence of God”

Theology, then, is the knowledge of God and of everything else insofar as it is ordered towards him (and that includes everything: to exist for St. Thomas simply is to be ordered towards God). The first main “treatise” of the Summa, accordingly, contains St. Thomas’s doctrine of God. Perhaps the first thing we might observe about Thomas’s doctrine of God is that it is very rational or philosophical. Not until Thomas reaches his discussion of the Trinity in question 27 does Thomas believe that his theology for the first time becomes overtly or formally indebted to revelation (except, as we have seen, insofar as he believes revelation helps keep one’s otherwise purely philosophical understanding of God from falling into error). What this means is that God’s existence and attributes such as the divine simplicity, immutability, omniscience, omnipotence, infinitude, and so forth, are all provable by (an admittedly theologically purged) reason, according to St. Thomas.

But we must begin at the beginning: theology is the knowledge of God, and so the first thing in the order of our knowledge of God is the knowledge of his existence. How do we know God is even there? But note: Thomas’s purpose in this question is not to convince the atheist per se. His goal, rather, is to analyze and arrange according to its proper order our knowledge of God, and our knowledge of God’s existence is at least logically prior to our knowledge of any of his attributes.


Short essay: Faith and Reason in St. Thomas

The interrelation and integration of faith and reason was at the heart of medieval intellectual life in general and of the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas in particular,[1] and indeed, it was St. Thomas’s statement on the relationship between faith and reason that Pope Leo XIII made virtually the official position of the Roman Catholic Church in his 1879 encyclical Aeterni Patris (which you can read here). One of the things Pope Leo particularly commended in St. Thomas was his “clearly distinguishing, as is fitting, reason from faith, while happily associating the one with the other,” and thus “both preserved the rights and had regard for the dignity of each…”[2] Some of Thomas’s more familiar statements along these lines appear in the opening articles of the Summa, in which he emphasizes the distinct spheres in which faith and reason have their proper operation. In the very first article of the Summa (“Whether, besides philosophy, any further doctrine is required”), for example, Thomas explains how Scripture, which is believed on by faith and which forms the basis of sacred doctrine or theology, “is no part of the philosophical sciences, which have been built up by human reason” (ST 1.1.1 sed contra).[3] The need for sacred doctrine lies both in man’s need for salvation and in the fact that man is by nature directed towards God as to an end that surpasses the grasp of his reason. In the second article of the second question (“Whether it can be demonstrated that God exists”), Thomas further writes: “[t]he existence of God and other like truths about God which can be known by natural reason, are not articles of faith, but are preambles to the articles. For faith presupposes natural knowledge, even as grace presupposes nature…” (ST 1.2.2 ad 1).[4] Not only are faith and reason distinct modes of knowing, and therefore theology and philosophy distinct sciences or bodies of knowledge, there is a sense in which reason and philosophy even exercise a certain epistemic priority or at least immediacy over faith and theology, insofar as the latter “presuppose,” build upon, and to that extent may be said to depend upon the former. For Pope Leo and the tradition of Leonine Thomism stemming from him, accordingly, much of the virtue of St. Thomas’s position lay in his giving both faith and reason their due and his acute sense for distinguishing and not confusing the distinct domains or spheres in which these two have their proper operation.

What resulted from Pope Leo’s encyclical, however, was not so much a revival of Thomism as a revival of Thomisms, a fact that has suggested to some that Thomas’s distinction between faith and reason may not be quite as clear-cut or straightforward as has sometimes been assumed, and Aquinas scholar Rudi te Velde has gone so far as to state that “[t]he subtle balance and interplay between reason and faith, philosophy and theology, in the Summa undoubtedly constitutes one of the main challenges for any serious interpretation of Aquinas’s thought.”[5] As Velde summarizes, whereas traditional approaches to Thomas attributed to him a natural theology still very much conceived along the rationalist, foundationalist lines of secular philosophy, more recent approaches to Aquinas have gone to the opposite extreme in depicting him “with distinctively Wittgensteinian traits in repudiating philosophical proof and rational foundations,” so that even his famous five ways have been reconceived as not so much objective proofs for God’s existence as insular (and somewhat insipid) “ways of thinking about God from the perspective of the Christian belief in God.”[6] What both of these positions hold in common, despite their differences, Velde contends, is a shared, unquestioned faith-reason dualism according to which philosophical reason “aim[s] at a universal objectivity of rational justified truth, which requires a suspension of the ‘subjective’ claims of a particular historical revelation.”[7]

Other interpreters of Aquinas have sought to re-read Aquinas in a way that overcomes or avoids the imputation of faith-reason and related dualisms to Aquinas’s texts, and to challenge the idea of an autonomous or independent “secular” reason which might be pitted over against faith and divine revelation.[8] Velde in particular has countered that the divine revelation of faith for Aquinas consists in something far more than a mere positivist, factual claim that “escapes any verification by reason,” but constitutes instead an entire body of truth invested with its own intrinsic, intelligible meaning,[9] a point illustrated, for example, in Thomas’s insistence that, while sacred doctrine does not depend upon the philosophical sciences to prove any of its principles, it can and does “take from the philosophical sciences… in order to make its teaching clearer” (ST 1.1.5 ad 2).[10] Theology and faith are thus capable of and receive a “manifestatio through philosophy,” that is to say, “a rational clarification of a truth of revelation by means of philosophical arguments.”[11] Velde summarizes Thomas’s purpose in the opening passages of the Summa in these words:

The truth of Christian doctrine is not simply taken for granted, but neither does he attempt to prove its divine origin and, consequently, its truth from the external standpoint of reason… [F]or Aquinas, there is no such external standpoint from which the way reality is pictured in the Christian tradition might be compared to reality itself. Aquinas places himself within the particular tradition of Christian faith, not simply by identifying himself with the particularity of its “truth,” but by arguing for the intelligibility of the Christian self-understanding. In this way he opens a universal perspective of truth, from within the particular tradition of Christianity, in so far as he aims to show that the notion of revelation has an intelligible sense.[12]

According to Velde, then, we do wrong to think of Thomas as assuming an autonomous, neutral rationality from which a “pure” natural theology might be constructed, even if it should leave room for, and even need completing by, a later revealed theology supernaturally added by grace. Rather, for Thomas, Christianity represents a coherent, integrated worldview comprised of both a natural and a revealed theology, of both a way of faith and a way of reason, which are to be taken together and whose coherence or intelligibility must be appreciated not from some supposed outside, “objective” perspective, but “from the inside,” as it were. In this way, as we shall see more fully later, the natural theology of Thomas’s Summa, while not written specifically for the unbeliever, nevertheless has application for him.[13] It makes a rational claim upon the non-believer, in other words, without on that account making a concession to the purported autonomy of his rationality.

To consider further some of the ways in which Thomas challenges the faith-reason dualism endemic in much modern thought, I want to examine in greater detail one of Thomas’s much earlier discussions of faith and reason from his commentary on the sixth-century Boethius’s De Trinitate. In this work, dating from the beginning of his first regency at the University of Paris,[14] Thomas accords a more prominent place to St. Augustine’s famous theory of “divine illumination” in the act of knowing than he characteristically does in later works such as the Summa. According to St. Augustine, all human knowledge, including that of sense-particulars, is made possible by the mind’s being directly and supernaturally illumined from above by God. As Augustine writes in his Literal Meaning of Genesis, just as “air has not been given its own luminosity, but it becomes luminous” through the action of light, “[i]n a similar way, man is illuminated when God is present to him, but when God is absent, darkness is immediately upon him…”[15] In the Summa, as is well known, Aquinas associates Augustine’s doctrine with its Platonic antecedent, contrasting, on the one hand, Augustine’s and Plato’s position that “intellectual knowledge is not brought about by sensible things affecting the intellect, but by separate intelligible forms being participated by the intellect,” with Aristotle’s theory of abstraction (favored by Thomas), on the other hand, according to which it is the agent intellect, immanent within and natural to the individual perceiver, that sheds the intelligible light by which sensible things are known (ST 1.84.6).[16] In his commentary on Boethius’s De Trinitate, however, Thomas appears more openly Augustinian, presenting as he does the natural light of the agent intellect, not in contrast with Augustine’s divine illumination, but more in terms of a naturalized form of that illumination. Thus, in an article defending the integrity of the natural powers of human reason to know truth, Thomas states that “the human mind is divinely illumined by a natural light” (EBT 1.1).[17] Thomas further emphasizes that the divine gift of the natural light of the intellect is not a one-time, once-for-all donation, as though after positing the intellect in its existence God then leaves it to itself. Instead, as Thomas comments on the above passage from Augustine’s Literal Meaning of Genesis,

just as air is illuminated by the presence of light, which in its absence leaves air in continual darkness, so also the mind is illuminated by God. God is always the cause of the soul’s natural light—not different lights but one and the same. He is the cause not only of its coming into existence but of its existence itself. In this way, therefore, God is constantly at work in the mind, endowing it with its natural light and giving it direction. So the mind, as it goes about its work, does not lack the activity of the first cause. (EBT 1.1 ad 6)[18]

Here we have the epistemological application of Thomas’s more general metaphysical doctrine of divine concurrence: the natural powers of the human mind are not set over against or separated from God’s own power and operation, but are rather viewed as a particular, regular, integral, dependable, and natural form of that power and operation. Natural knowledge, in short, is already in a sense “supernatural,” thus guaranteeing its mutual compatibility and support with the divine light of faith.

More than their mere compatibility, however, and the Summa’s later claim that “faith presupposes natural knowledge” notwithstanding, Thomas further suggests in his commentary on Boethius that there is a sense in which reason in fact must presuppose faith. Having shown that a “new,” supernatural illumination is not necessary for the human mind to know truth by its own power, Thomas comes back in a later article to ask in what sense faith nevertheless might be “necessary for the human race” (EBT 3.1). One of his arguments here points to a profound irony and tension in the order of human knowledge: although we only come to know what is most knowable in itself (namely the uncreated “divine and necessary realities”) through a consideration of what is known “first for us” (i.e., those created, sensible objects of nature), it is only in their relation to what is known last (i.e., God) that what is known first (i.e., creatures) is given its ultimate ground of intelligibility or truth. Thus, unless some knowledge of these divine and necessary realities is given and intuited from the outset, no such intellectual ascent could ever properly get underway. Thomas states the problem and its solution in these words:

But what we first know is known on the strength of what we eventually come to know; so from the very beginning we must have some knowledge of those things which are more knowable in themselves, and this is possible only by faith. The sequence of the sciences makes this clear, for the science that concerns the highest causes, namely metaphysics, comes last in human knowledge, and yet the sciences that precede it must presuppose certain truths that are more fully elucidated in that science. As a result, every science has presuppositions which the learner must believe. Consequently, since the goal of human life is perfect happiness, which consists in the full knowledge of divine realities, the direction of human life from the very beginning requires faith in the divine, the complete knowledge of which we look forward to in our final state of perfection. (EBT 3.1, emphasis added)[19]

If faith presupposes reason in the opening of the Summa, there is another sense, at least for the Thomas of the commentary on Boethius, in which reason at the same time, and perhaps even more deeply, presupposes faith.

In summary, then, the picture of the relationship between faith and reason that emerges is not that of two divergent modes of knowing which are isolatable into distinct, compartmentalized, and mutually-exclusive noetic intervals. Rather, what they represent are two coordinate rays of “light,” simultaneously radiating from a shared, divine source, each of which serves in its own way to illuminate the human intellect, and in doing so serving to illuminate and support the other. Faith thus not only completes reason by offering the promise and guarantee of that which reason desires but cannot on its own attain, namely the vision of God in his essence, but is also what sets reason on the right path in the first place by providing it with its initial impetus and orienting trajectory towards the divine.[20] At the same time, it is this faith-informed reason which first enlightens man as to his natural limits and consequent need for something beyond reason, and afterward helps explicate the inner intelligibility of faith once faith has arrived. Faith and reason thus continually key-off of and give traction to each other as the intellect makes its incremental ascent along the path towards its final end of the beatific vision of God, when both faith and reason are at last superseded by the unmediated, intuitive experience of God in his essence. For this reason John Milbank has suggested that, for Aquinas, “beneath the distinction of fides and ratio along our temporal ways, lies the much more fundamental contrast between in patria and in via” in which “both faith and reason are dim anticipations of the final vision of glory.”[21]

[1] Garcia, “Philosophy in the Middle Ages,” 3-5.

[2] Leo XIII, Aeterni Patris.

[3] “Scriptura autem divinitus inspirata non pertinent ad philosophicas disciplinas, quae sunt secundum rationem humanam inventae.”

[4] “Deum esse, et alia huiusmodi quae per rationem naturalem nota possunt esse de Deo… non sunt articuli fidei, sed praeambula ad articulos: sic enim fides praesupponit cognitionem naturalem, sicut gratia naturam…”

[5] Velde, “Understanding the Scientia of Faith,” 53.

[6] Ibid., 56-7. For a brief history of the interpretation of Thomas’s five ways, see Kerr, “Ways of Reading the Five Ways” in After Aquinas.

[7] Velde, “Understanding the Scientia of Faith,” 58.

[8] See, for example, Milbank, “Truth and Vision.”

[9] Velde, “Understanding the Scientia of Faith,” 59.

[10] “[H]aec scientia accipere potest aliquid a philosophicis disciplinis, non quod ex necessitate eis indigeat, sed ad maiorem manifestationem eorum quae in hac scientia traduntur.”

[11] Velde, “Understanding the Scientia of Faith,” 71.

[12] Ibid., 60. As Velde explains this interpretation as it applies to Thomas’s five proofs for God’s existence, “[w]hat [Thomas] is saying is this: although there are several objections against the existence of God, which should be taken seriously, we Christians affirm, by the authority of Scripture itself, that God exists. Assuming that this is true, as we believe it is, let us try to show, through reason, how this truth that God exists can be made understandable to us.” Ibid., 71.

[13] As Victor White observes, the Summa is “for Catholics. It is not immediately intended for the unbeliever or the atheist. Truly…, it must for that very reason be concerned to show how unbelievers are to be taught, that is to say…, led from what they do know to what they do not… It in no way substitutes a ‘natural theology’ for revelation, nor does it appeal to reason for what only revelation can impart. But it is part of its own task to teach those who acknowledge no revelation at all…” White, “Prelude to the Five Ways,” 26, 32.

[14] Torrell, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Volume 1: The Person and His Work, 67. All quotations from Thomas’s Expositio super librum Boethii De trinitate (EBT for short) are taken from Thomas Aquinas, Faith, Reason, and Theology: Questions I-IV of his Commentary on the “De Trinitate” of Boethius, trans. Maurer.

[15] Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis 8.12.26.

[16] As Gareth B. Matthews observes, “the chief ancient rival to the doctrine of illumination is the Aristotelian idea of abstraction.” Matthews, “Knowledge and Illumination,” 181.

[17] As John Milbank has aptly described the process, the “Augustinian and Neoplatonic construal of truth as inner illuminatio” hasn’t been so much replaced by Aquinas as rerouted through an “Aristotelian detour through the truth embodied in finite creatures and conveyed to us only via the senses.” Milbank, “Truth and Vision,” 23.

[18] “[S]icut dicit Augustinus VIII super Genesim, sicut aer illuminatur a lumine praesente, quod si fuerit absens continuo tenebratur, ita et mens illuminatur a Deo. Et ideo etiam lumen naturale in anima semper Deus causat, non aliud et aliud, sed idem; non enim est causa fieri eius solum, sed etiam esse illius. In hoc ergo continue Deus operatur in mente, quod in ipsa lumen naturale causat et ipsum dirigit, et sic mens non sine operatione causae primae in operationem suam procedit.”

[19] “Sed quia ex vi illorum, quae ultimo cognoscimus, sunt nota illa quae primo cognoscimus, oportet etiam a principio aliquam nos habere notitiam de illis quae sunt per se magis nota; quod fieri non potest nisi credendo. Et etiam hoc patet in ordine scientiarum, quia scientia quae est de causis altissimis, scilicet metaphysica, ultimo occurrit homini ad cognoscendum, et tamen in scientiis praeambulis oportet quod supponantur quaedam quae in illa plenius innotescunt; unde quaelibet scientia habet suppositiones, quibus oportet addiscentem credere. Cum ergo finis humanae vitae sit beatitudo, quae consistit in plena cognitione divinorum, necessarium est ad humanam vitam in beatitudinem dirigendam statim a principio habere fidem divinorum, quae plene cognoscenda exspectantur in ultima perfectione humana.”

[20] As Velde writes, “without a sort of revelation by which the ultimate goal of human life is disclosed in the manner of a promise, thus as beyond what is humanly attainable, the infinite aspiration, which underlies the process of humanization, would always be frustrated. Revelation is necessary in so far as it offers human life in this world a concrete orientation to the transcendent horizon of the good and the true.” Velde, “Understanding the Scientia of Faith,” 62.

[21] Milbank, “Truth and Vision,” 36. 

Summa Theologiae 1.1.8

Article 8: “Whether Sacred Doctrine is a matter of argument?”

In the eighth article Thomas makes the explicit case for something he has already implied, which is that sacred doctrine is a matter of argument, by which he means that it is demonstrative in the Aristotelian sense: it logically proves its conclusions from the first principles revealed in sacred scripture. What this further means is that Sacred Doctrine uses reason. As Thomas puts it, “sacred doctrine makes use even of human reason, not indeed, to prove faith… but to make clear other things that are put forward in this doctrine.” We use reason, in other words, to make inferences about what is logically entailed in the teaching of Sacred Scripture. Reason is also valuable in its role of providing a manifestatio, or rational clarification or illumination of the inherent reasonableness or intelligibility of the faith. A good example of this role of reason within theology occurs in St. Thomas’s discussion of the Trinity: we can’t know by reason that God is a Trinity of persons, yet reason is effective in elucidating the coherence of this doctrine.

To summarize the first question of the Summa, then, what makes theology to be theology for St. Thomas? In good Aristotelian fashion, we can distinguish the following “four causes” of theology:[1]

  1. theology’s material cause: Scripture is its data, its material cause; it is that “out of which” theology is made.
  2. theology’s efficient cause: this is God’s act of revealing himself through Scripture; if God doesn’t reveal himself, there can be no sacred doctrine.
  3. theology’s formal cause: what is the form or species of sacred doctrine? What kind of thing is it? What is its essence? It is a science, which is to say, an ordered body of knowledge of causes. What is theology? It is thinking causally (from premises to conclusions) about the articles of faith, asking how this doctrine logically causes or entails that doctrine. This is how theology proceeds; this is the theological method of the Aristotelian Christianity of the Scholastic Middle Ages.
  4. theology’s final cause: what’s the goal of sacred doctrine? At a speculative level it is simply the knowledge and truth of God; at the practical level, the goal is human salvation.

[1] Peter Kreeft, Summa of the Summa.


Summa Theologiae 1.1.4

Article 4: “Whether Sacred Doctrine is One Science?”

The fourth article takes us deeper still, asking what kind of science is sacred doctrine, to which Aquinas answers that it is first and foremost speculative, contemplative, or theoretical rather than practical. Again, this is more Greek than Hebraic. On the other hand, Thomas reveals something of his own perspectivalism or ability to see something in multiple ways at once when he says that sacred doctrine is nevertheless concerned with human action, but that it is concerned with human actions “inasmuch as man is ordained by them to the perfect knowledge of God.” What Thomas is saying is that there are two different ways of looking at human action, just as there are really two ways of looking at anything. One way is to look at human action as it exists in itself, as an effort that human beings undertake to realize or achieve some immediately desired end. On the other hand, we can look at human actions insofar as they are ultimately oriented towards the realization of human nature as such, which is the knowledge of and union with God. It is in this latter sense that Thomas says sacred doctrine concerns itself with human action. Here we get a particularly good example of how Thomas’s mind works: there are always a number of different ways in which you can look at the same problem, and what differentiates a good from a bad thinker is one’s ability to keep these different ways distinct and not to confuse them, but also to hold them together without exclusion. This, moreover, is where many of the objections Thomas responds to in each of these articles go astray: they will latch onto some valid insight into something and then misapply it, failing to make a crucial distinction. Think of Thomas as a good conceptual butcher: he’s always trying to cut and carve between the “joints” of reality that God has placed there.

Summa Theologiae 1.1.2

Article 2: “Whether Sacred Doctrine is a Science?”

Having demonstrated the necessity of sacred doctrine, it remains for Aquinas to tell us what kind of thing sacred doctrine is. The first thing he says, in the second article of the first question, is that it is a science, by which he means an ordered body of knowledge of causes. Sacred scripture provides us with the first principles or premises of our science, and the job of sacred doctrine, accordingly, is to provide the conclusions which may be demonstrated or deductively inferred from these principles. This is to do theology as though it were geometry—very Aristotelian in methodology (see Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics). These premises taught in sacred scripture, however, are unique in that they have to be taken on faith—Thomas calls them the “articles of faith” —yet these premises are actually demonstrated or taken from an even higher science, which he calls the “science of God and the blessed.” To have this kind of knowledge, however, you need to be either God or one of the blessed dead.


Summa Theologiae 1.1.1

Question 1, Article 1: “Whether, besides Philosophy, Any Further Doctrine is Required?”

When we open the Summa, the first question we come to concerns “the Nature and Extent” of theology, or what St. Thomas refers to as sacra doctrina, sacred doctrine or “holy teaching.” The goal of the opening question of the Summa, accordingly, is to define the task of theology, to explain its method, its subject matter, its scope, its material, its limits, and so forth. The first article of the first question, however, begins on a striking and very important note. What does it ask? “Whether, besides philosophy, any further doctrine is required?” The first thing we might note is that the question is essentially asking what the necessity or need of theology is. What is it for? Why is it required? The second thing we observe is how St. Thomas poses the question of the need for theology in comparison to something besides theology, namely what? Philosophy! We might restate Thomas’s question this way: “Given that we already have reason and philosophy, what need do we have for faith and theology?” Why is theology not superfluous? So notice that there is a certain burden of proof already implied at the outset of the study of theology: Christian theology has been around for almost 1300 years now, and it’s still having to justify its own existence.

But let us put the question in its proper context. First time readers of St. Thomas’s Summa have sometimes been dismayed by the prologue in which Thomas explains how this amazingly long, dense, and difficult work is actually intended for the “instruction of beginners.” By “beginners,” however, what Thomas means is those who are beginning their instruction in theology: he is talking not about first-graders, but something approximating our first year seminarians, students who, as St. Thomas did when he began his formal theological training, might already have had a thorough education in the liberal arts, including some training in philosophy.[1] Thus, in one sense the question Thomas poses at the beginning of the Summa is a simple curricular one: once we’ve taken our courses in philosophy, what is it that theology promises to add to our learning? (An analogous question would be, “After spending four years studying liberal arts, why might I want to continue my studies in theology at the graduate level?”) We can also put the question in its broader, historical context, however: the pagans, after all, had reason and philosophy long before the Christian faith came along, which naturally gives rise to the question: “if we already have philosophy, and philosophy covers everything that exists, including God, what do we need Christian theology for?” Put this way, it is possible to see Thomas as posing, and then answering, the same question that was put to St. Paul by the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers on the Areopagus in Athens: “May we know what this new doctrine, whereof thou speakest, is?” (Acts 17:19). Thus, part of the reason, I suggest, that St. Thomas begins his own discussion of theology with the question of “whether, besides philosophy, any further doctrine is required,” is because after thirteen centuries the newness of this “new doctrine” of Jesus Christ hadn’t become any older for St. Thomas than it had been for the Apostle Paul.

  1. The objections.
    1. The first objection to sacra doctrina essentially says: philosophy is modest; it reserves itself to what man can know by his own power of reason. Theology, by contrast, is too high for man: it’s an act of hubris, therefore, to pursue those divine things that are above man.
    2. Thomas’s reply: Things which are above man have been revealed by God: it would be hubris, therefore, not to pursue them, even if they can only be grasped by faith.
    3. Second objection: The things of God are already covered in metaphysics, which studies all being, including God as the first principle. Theology is therefore superfluous or redundant.
    4. Thomas’s reply: different sciences can overlap in their subject matter. Both metaphysics and theology consider God, but theology considers God not according to reason alone, but also insofar as he is revealed. So similar subject matter with differing methodologies make for differing sciences of God.

As for St. Thomas’s answer to the question itself concerning the need for theology, he writes this famous passage: “It was necessary for man’s salvation that there should be a knowledge revealed by God, besides philosophical science built up by human reason.” Now, this statement might seem questionable on the grounds that it implies that man’s need for salvation can be separated from his philosophical reason; in other words, it seems to say that there is one sphere of man’s existence in which he is a rational and even philosophical creature, but there is apparently this other, distinct, fallen, and thus sinful area of his existence in which he needs to be saved and yet which the rational, philosophical part is incapable of saving. However this may be, it is important to note, on the other hand, what Thomas immediately goes on to say: “Firstly, indeed, because man is directed to God, as to an end that surpasses the grasp of his reason.” Man’s need for revelation, in other words, is not merely soteriological, that is to say, not merely a consequence of the Fall, but is in fact natural to man. What Aquinas is saying, in short, is that man has a natural need and desire for the supernatural, or for that which transcends and therefore cannot be fulfilled within nature. This is an important qualification to those accounts of St. Thomas which would impute to him a radical grace-nature dualism, according to which nature is a putatively semi-autonomous realm that operates according to the principles articulated by Aristotle and therefore discoverable by natural, human reason. According to Aristotle, moreover, nature never does anything in vain, but always leaves open a way for her children to achieve their ends and to realize their own natures by their own means. Nature is thus a completely closed system, so that far from nature being open to the divine or supernatural, for Aristotle the divine or supernatural, namely the unmoved mover who in its perfect self-contemplation keeps the physical world eternally running along its natural course, is precisely the stamp that allows nature to be kept sealed shut.

What Aquinas is saying here, by contrast, is that in the case of man, at least, what we see is nature being constitutionally oriented towards the divine in such a way that it is only through the divine that man’s own nature can be completed. In this one sentence, therefore, namely that “It was necessary for man’s salvation that there should be a knowledge revealed by God, besides philosophical science built up by human reason,” Aquinas has actually managed to say perhaps the most un-Aristotelian thing you can say. In the first of many examples of the kind, Aquinas is using Aristotle to help him say the kinds of things Aristotle never, ever would have said.

So man is naturally directed to God as an end that surpasses the grasp of his reason, which means that all of our thoughts and actions are ultimately bent towards that which, on our own, we can’t know. As Thomas further expresses the paradox: “But the end must first be known by men who are to direct their thoughts and actions to the end.” The dilemma, then, is this: man’s whole end, goal, purpose, or objective is to know God and be united with him, yet unless man already is in possession of some initial, provisional knowledge of God from the outset, his thoughts and actions won’t be successfully directed to that end (you have to know your ultimate destination if you’re going to start out for it in the right direction). The thing which man needs to get to, namely the knowledge of God, needs to be had at the beginning (the end, paradoxically, has to come first). In some ways this is a Christian version of the problem Plato posed in his dialogues, namely the problem that one doesn’t seem to be capable of acquiring true knowledge unless one in some sense is already in possession of that knowledge. In the Phaedo, for example, Socrates argued that you could never have gotten the idea or form of the “equal itself” simply from examining so-called equal things, for the things of our experience are never perfectly equal, so whence comes this idea of perfect equality? Plato’s answer, of course, was his doctrine of anamnesis or recollection: we never truly “learn” the forms; rather, they preexist in the intelligent soul, so that our subsequent experience help “jog” the soul’s memory, as it were, by helping it remember what it already knew. Well, Thomas seems to view sacred doctrine and its apprehension by faith as serving an analogous role: although man has a certain “confused” or indefinite knowledge of God acquired by nature (as we shall see in question two), what sacred doctrine gives us is a necessary, preliminary, and orienting knowledge of God, obtained in advance (a sort of “preview of coming attractions”), which can then serve to guide us through this life until we arrive at that true knowledge of God which constitutes our ultimate destiny and salvation. So sacred doctrine is necessary in advance to tell us what our true end is so that it can then guide all of our thoughts and actions and so ensure that we do indeed ultimately arrive at that end. What reason is powerless to reach up and grasp by itself, therefore, revelation must condescend and meet from above. It is this revelation, finally, that Sacred Doctrine or theology teaches.

More than this, however, is that even if we focus on what reason and philosophy by themselves can know, Aquinas says that “the truth about God… would only be known by a few, and that after a long time, and with the admixture of many errors.” From these remarks we can thus distinguish what I refer to as the three levels of philosophy’s incompetence:

  1. Whatever man’s original, natural condition, man has fallen from it, and philosophy is powerless to restore man to his pre-fall condition.
  2. Even apart from the Fall, philosophy would be powerless on its own to fulfill man’s nature, since man’s nature is to know God which surpasses the power of reason. So even philosophizing in the Garden of Eden wouldn’t have cut it.

Even in its own proper sphere of knowing God as far as reason does allow, philosophy will often simply get things wrong. Philosophizing correctly is hard work, and even the best don’t always get it right. Theology helps correct against this. When the philosopher sits down to take the philosophy exam, theology provides him with a kind of “cheat sheet.”

[1] On the original, primary intended audience for whom Thomas wrote the Summa, see Leonard A. Boyd, “The Setting of the Summa Theologiae,” in Brian Davies, ed., Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae (Rowman and Littlefield, 2006). Boyd argues that the Summa was originally intended for those beginning their formal theological training in Dominican priories (and not, therefore, for those studying theology at the universities).


St. Thomas’s “Cathedral”: A Table Outline of the Summa Theologiae

The file below is an incomplete table outline of the Summa Theologiae, adapted from a handout I received in grad school which was taken from an old textbook on Aquinas. It gives a nice visual representation (hence “cathedral”) of the structure and “layers” of Thomas’s magnum opus.

St. Thomas’s Cathedral