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.

 

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