Well over a decade ago, I asked Fr Augustine Dinoia (now Archbishop Dinoia) the best way for me to begin reading St Thomas Aquinas. He recommended Timothy McDermott’s concise translation of the Summa Theologiæ. I began reading the book, making my way through a large part of the doctrine of God. Although intended for beginners like myself, I found it hard sledding. I have little training in ancient and scholastic philosophy. Circumstances eventually compelled me to put the book aside, but always with the intent to return to Aquinas at a later date. That time is now. Rather than returning to the concise Summa, this time I thought I would read the little book Aquinas on Creation, which contains the six articles devoted to creation from Aquinas’s Writings on the “Sentences” of Peter Lombard. This, too, I have found hard sledding; but the sledding has been made easier by the introduction and analysis provided by the two translators. In this short blog series, I will discuss those points that I have found particularly interesting. I welcome instruction and correction.
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To be Creator is to give being. Nothing extraordinary here. This is a fundamental Christian claim. But Aquinas gives it a particular twist, grounded in the apprehension that in God existence and essence are identical. When we consider the existence of our fellow creatures, as well as ourselves, we observe a clear distinction between their natures and their existence. They do not have to be. There is nothing about them, nothing in their natures, that require that they exist. The essence of every entity raises the question, why? The opposite, however, is true for God: God necessarily exists, must exist. If we were able to comprehend his nature, we would know that not only that he exists but that it is his very nature to exist; his non-existence would be unthinkable. God is his own explanation, his own act of existing. And so Aquinas defined divinity as actus essendi, the act and doing of being. Thus the Angelic Doctor:
The nature of being is found in all things, in some more nobly, in others less nobly, such that the natures of the things themselves are not the very being which they have. Otherwise, being would belong to the concept of the quiddity [nature] of any thing, which is false, since the quiddity of any thing can be understood without understanding whether the thing exists. Natures must, therefore, have being from something [else], and there must be ultimately a nature which is its own being, otherwise there would be an infinite regress. And this it is which gives being to all, and there can only be one [such being], since the nature of being is of the same meaning in all, according to analogy. (II Sent. 1.1.1; p. 66)
If there is a divine Creator, which Aquinas clearly believes there must be, then he is his own existence; he does not receive it from another. As the translators explain: “Being (existence) is essential to that which needs no cause of being” (p. 39).