Aquinas: for then against Angelic Creation

It was over against the position of Peter Lombard that St. Thomas would in part stake out his own distinctive position on the question of angelic creation. According to James Collins in his study The Thomistic Philosophy of the Angels, St. Thomas’s response to the Neoplatonic supposition of mediated, angelic creation was largely determined by his Christian belief that creation is fundamentally an act of divine will and therefore not something God was compelled to do by any necessity imposed by the divine nature. If creation is a free act of God, then not only is God free to create or not to create in the first place, but he must also be free to create more than simply one single effect, meaning that God could be the direct and unmediated cause of the being of all things, contrary to the fundamental premise of much Neoplatonic philosophy.[1] Even after removing the machinery of Neoplatonic necessity, however, Thomas, in the early part of his career represented by his commentary on Lombard’s Book of Sentences, continued to allow that it was at least metaphysically possible for God to have used the help of angelic secondary agents in the act of creation, even if this was not how God did in fact choose to create.[2]

Later in his career, however, Thomas’s reflections on the nature of the creation act led him to the much narrower and exclusive conclusion that God not only does not but cannot use the help of secondary agents in the creative process;[3] that is to say, that it was within neither God’s absolute nor his ordained power to delegate the creative act to the intermediate agency of his creatures. Thus, in his treatment on creation in the Summa Theologiae, for example, Thomas already begins laying the foundation for this conclusion in his argument that God, as the most universal cause, must therefore be the source of the most universal effect, namely being, which means that God is the cause even of prime matter (ST 1.44.2). St. Thomas juxtaposes this view of creation with those “ancient philosophers” who took matter itself to be uncreated and the substantial forms of things to have been produced in matter by “certain universal causes, such as the oblique circle, according to Aristotle, or ideas, according to Plato.”[4] By acknowledging even matter to be created in this way, of course, Thomas at the same time allowed matter some dim participation in the intelligibility and goodness of God’s own being. As Robert Miner has put it, because God produces the creature in its whole being, including its matter, his knowledge “extends not only to forms, but also to matter,” meaning that “the knowledge of God must also extend to singular things. It cannot be confined to universals.”[5]

It is this understanding of creation as the universal cause of being as such that Thomas brings to bear on the question of “whether it pertains to God alone to create” (ST 1.45.5). Because being is the most universal effect, it must be brought about by the most universal cause, namely God, meaning that “creation is the proper act of God alone.”[6] Establishing that creation is the proper act of God is not to say, however, that it is an act exclusive to him, since something can act “instrumentally” by participating in the proper action of another.[7] Of those who applied this thinking to the act of creation, Thomas first cites Avicenna, who taught that God created a “first separate substance” through whose mediation the rest of creation was enacted, and secondly Peter Lombard who held that, whatever the fact of the matter may be, God at least “can communicate to a creature the power of creating, so that the latter can create ministerially, not by its own power.”[8] In the now mature view of Aquinas, however, the very nature of the creative act precludes this possibility. On Thomas’s Neoplatonic definition given in ST 1.45.1, creation is emanatio totius entis a causa universali quae est Deus, “the emanation of all being from the universal cause which is God.” Now in every “particular” emanation the thing emanated is not presupposed to the act of emanation.[9] Thomas gives the examples of how the “emanation” or generation of something white presupposes something that is first non-white, and the “emanation” of man presupposes what is first not man. Applying this same logic to creation, Thomas concludes that, as the emanation of the being of a thing in its entirety or universality, what creation presupposes is the opposite of what is emanated, namely non-being, which is to say, nothing.[10] Creation by definition, therefore, must be ex nihilo, “from nothing.”[11]

This is the context, finally, for Thomas’s critique of Avicenna’s and Lombard’s teaching concerning angelic creation in ST 1.45.5, where he contrasts the manner in which creation presupposes nothing with the manner in which secondary instrumental agents (including angels) always presuppose some already existing effect which the secondary cause then “works to dispose” towards the work of the primary cause.[12] Thomas gives the example of a saw, whose cutting action presupposes the existence of the wood it labors to “dispose” to receive the form of the bench communicated to it by the carpenter. Without the already existing wood, the saw’s activity as a secondary cause would have nothing to act upon, and hence would be otiose. Similarly, unless God first brought something into being in the first place through the act of creation, there would be no existing subject over or upon which any secondary instrumental cause, such as an angel, might extend its power. God’s own act of creation, therefore, must take place prior to, and is thus presupposed by, the agency of any secondary instrumental cause. In this way Thomas, beginning with his Neoplatonic definition of creation as the emanation of being from the universal first cause, arrives at a uniquely anti-Neoplatonic conclusion: the first cause, and the first cause alone, is the direct, unmediated Creator of all that is and all that can be.[13]

[1] Collins, The Thomistic Philosophy of the Angels, 262. According to Plotinus, by contrast, the One does not and cannot produce the entire lower orders of reality all at once, but is, in a sense, dependent upon the higher, intermediate orders to produce their respective lower orders: “If there is anything after the First, it must necessarily come from the First; it must either come from it directly or have its ascent back to it through the beings between, and there must be an order of seconds and thirds, the second going back to the first and the third to the second.” Plotinus, Enneads 5.4.1, trans. Armstrong. As for later Islamic Neoplatonists such as Avicenna and Al-Ghazali, Collins observes how they “were forced to assert that God created inferior beings by means of superior, because they believed that from the One only one being can proceed immediately, whereas a multitude must proceed from the One through the mediation of the first and subsequent effects.” Collins, The Thomistic Philosophy of the Angels, 262.

[2] Baldner and Carroll, “An Analysis of Aquinas’ Writings on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, Book 2, Distinction 1, Question 1,” 46-7.

[3] Ibid. See also Collins, The Thomistic Philosophy of the Angels, 268-9.

[4] “Ulterius vero procedentes, distinxerunt per intellectum inter formam substantialem et materiam, quam ponebant increatam; et perceperunt transmutationem fieri in corporibus secundum formas essentiales. Quarum transmutationum quasdam causas universaliores ponebant, ut obliquum circulum, secundum Aristotelem, vel ideas, secundum Platonem.” This passage has generated some debate amongst Thomist scholars as to whether Thomas here intended to deny that Aristotle and Plato ever taught a true doctrine of creation. In a much-discussed endnote in his Spirit of Medieval Philosophy (438-41n4), Étienne Gilson argued that in ST 1.44.2 Aquinas denies that Plato and Aristotle held to the doctrine of creation, a position Gilson was preceded in by Jacques Maritain and followed in by Anton Pegis (Pegis, “A Note on St. Thomas, Summa Theologica, I, 44, 1-2”) and more recently by Leo J. Elders (The Metaphysics of Being of St. Thomas Aquinas in a Historical Perspective, 182). Mark Johnson, however, has challenged this interpretation, arguing that the “ancient philosophers” Thomas criticizes in ST 1.44.2 for their defective causal account of the origin of being do not include Plato and Aristotle per se, but that Thomas must have had in mind those philosophers who were influenced by Plato and Aristotle, and that Aquinas did indeed attribute a doctrine of creation to Aristotle and later even to Plato. Johnson, “Did St. Thomas Attribute a Doctrine of Creation to Aristotle?” and “Aquinas’s Changing Evaluation of Plato on Creation.” Following Johnson in his reading of Aquinas and his critique of Gilson and Pegis is Lawrence Dewan (“Thomas Aquinas, Creation, and Two Historians”), Wayne Hankey (“Aquinas and the Platonists”), and Rudi te Velde (Aquinas on God: the ‘Divine Science’ of the “Summa Theologiae,124 and 142n4). Although disagreeing with Gilson, Velde does make the point that even in regard to Aristotle and Plato, Thomas “will never use the word creation when discussing the views of pagan philosophers about the origin of all things.” Ibid., 124.

[5] Miner, Truth in the Making, 3. On the intelligibility of matter in St. Thomas and its historical significance, see also Maurer, “Form and Essence in the Philosophy of St. Thomas.” Related to this is Catherine Pickstock’s interpretation of De Veritate 2.5 when she says that for Aquinas “God is much more of a country bumpkin (rusticus) capable of a brutal direct unreflective intuition of cloddish earth, bleared and smeared with toil… Because he can make matter, so also he can know it.” Pickstock, “Truth and Correspondence,” 14. Laurence Paul Hemming, however, has countered that what Pickstock overlooks is that for Aquinas “God knows in the manner of both rusticus and the astronomer. He says that ‘God knows all singulars, not only in their universal causes but also each in its proper and singular nature.’ This is preparatory to his dismissal of both ‘views’ as inadequate properly to describe God’s knowledge; the better and more informative example, he says, is to understand God’s knowledge by comparing to the knowledge a craftsperson or artificer has of what he or she crafts.” Hemming, “Quod Impossibile Est! Aquinas and Radical Orthodoxy,” 79.

[6] “[C]reatio est propria actio ipsius Dei.”

[7] “Contingit autem quod aliquid participet actionem propriam alicuius alterius, non virtute propria, sed instrumentaliter, inquantum agit in virtute alterius…”

[8] “Et secundum hunc etiam modum Magister dicit… quod Deus potest creaturae communicare potentiam creandi, ut creet per ministerium, non propria auctoritate.”

[9] “Quod autem procedit secundum emanationem particularem, non praesupponitur emanationi…”

[10] “[I]ta creatio, quae est emanatio totius esse, est ex non ente quod est nihil.”

[11] On the history and influence of the doctrine of creation from nothing, see May, Creatio Ex Nihilo: The Doctrine of “Creation Out of Nothing” in Early Christian Thought and Gunton, The Triune Creator: A Historical and Systematic Study, 65-96.

[12] “Quia causa secunda instrumentalis non participat actionem causae superioris, nisi inquantum per aliquid sibi proprium dispositive operature ad effectum principalis agentis.”

[13] As David Burrell has observed, Aquinas “insisted on employing the term ‘emanation’ for creation, even after removing and gutting the scheme of necessary emanation enthusiastically adopted by the Islamic thinkers al-Farabi and Ibn Sina…” Burrell, “Aquinas’s Appropriation of Liber de causis to Articulate the Creator as Cause-of-Being,” 76. This complexity in Thomas’s relationship to Neoplatonic emanationism has been missed by some of his critics. Colin Gunton, for example, whose criticisms of Aquinas Fergus Kerr describes as being “by no means unrepresentative” (Kerr, After Aquinas: Versions of Thomism, 40), faults Aquinas on the one hand for his Neoplatonic definition of creation in emanationist terms, while on the other hand finding a “disturbing symptom” of Thomas’s allegedly deficient doctrine of creation in the latter’s rejection of Peter Lombard’s “view that power to create can be delegated to a creature which works ministerially, in apparent neglect of the pattern displayed in Genesis 1, where God does precisely that—‘Let the earth bring forth’.” Gunton, Triune Creator, 100. Thus, the very thesis Aquinas defends in the interest of the Christian understanding of God as a personal, free Creator who brings the world into being from nothing, Gunton criticizes as being insufficiently Christian. As Kerr, however, states Thomas’ position vis-à-vis Lombard, “[t]he point Thomas makes, in rejecting the thesis that creating can be delegated, … is that, whatever Lombard says about creating as the action proper to God alone, he believed that this is perfectly compatible with the view that created causes might be able also to create as acting in the power of the First Cause. For Thomas, deeply imbued with Christian neo-Platonism as his theology obviously is, this is nevertheless an unacceptable form of hierarchically descending emanation ‘from above’. In the context of his time, he could only resist a doctrine of mediated creation which seemed inextricable from a picture of the cosmos as created by created intelligences (such as angels), delegated by, and suspiciously close to substituting for, the First Cause. Parting from Lombard’s view of the matter, Thomas wants to protect the singularity of divine creation: God alone creates in the proper sense.” Kerr, After Aquinas, 41. It is curious to note that when Gunton himself encounters what I will show in follow up posts to be the same Thomistic doctrine of unmediated creation present in Tolkien’s writings, he is unaccountably much more sympathetic. As Gunton observes in the case of Tolkien, “the artist is not so much creator as sub-creator. Such a distinction is essentially theological in content, for it suggests a belief that there is only one to whom we can ascribe the act of creation. The human artist can operate only at a secondary, lower level, by divine gift.” Gunton, “A Far-Off Gleam of the Gospel: Salvation in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings,” 129-30.


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