Is it possible for God to create from out of nothing? This is the question that St Thomas Aquinas explores in his second article on creation in his commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard. He answers in the affirmative. Because God is pure actuality and the plenitude of being, “He is able to produce a thing in its entirety, that is, the whole substance of a thing” (II Sent. 1.1.2; Aquinas on Creation, p. 74). The assumption here (I think) is that if God were a composite of actuality and potentiality, i.e., if he were capable of becoming and thus capable of change, then he would only be capable of producing a thing partially, “namely, by bringing form into matter” (II Sent. 1.1.2; p. 73). In other words, he would need pre-existent stuff to work on.
Parenthesis. I have just now invoked two philosophical concepts which are decisive for Aquinas but with which most of us are unfamiliar: actuality/potency and form/matter. The translators provide a short explanation of both in their glossary:
act, actual, or actuality; potency, potential, or potentiality
That which is, is “actual.” That which can be, but is not, is “potential.” For example, the boiling water is actually hot, but is potentially cold. … All things that we experience in this material world are both actual and potential: they actually are whatever they are, but they are potentially something else, for they may change. The fact that all such things are both actual and potential means that all things are composed of two different principles: form, the principle of actuality, and matter, the principle of potentiality. (p. 133)
form and matter
All physical things, or all things in the material world, are composed of two principles, form and matter. This is so because all things have two fundamental ways of being. On the one hand, things are actual and intelligible. What makes the thing actual and intelligible is its form. We know, for example, a bee by knowing its form. On the other hand, things are potentially other than they are, and they are unique individuals that resist our understanding, since understanding, properly speaking, concerns universals. … That a thing is real or actual, and that a thing can be understood, classified, and analyzed—this is all caused by its form. That a thing is potentially changed, that it is different from all others, that it is incomprehensible—all this is from its matter. All physical things have both sorts of characteristics, both those that derive from the form and those that derive from the matter, and hence all things physical things must be composites of form and matter. (p. 138)
I’m sure that clears up all confusion (cough, cough). End Parenthesis
Returning to the commentary. Aquinas’s argument makes a measure of sense to me, though I admit I do not yet see its full force. Part of the problem is that Aquinas believes that divine creation, which by ecclesial definition signifies creatio ex nihilo, is rationally demonstrable. I’m dubious. Perhaps he is relying on arguments presented earlier in his treatise, or perhaps he is presupposing that his readers simply know this stuff (quite likely). In any case, what comes to mind is the maxim “water doesn’t rise higher than its source.” If God is a composite being, then he only has the power to make similar kinds of beings. The translators offer this interpretation: “The philosophical sense [of creation] simply means that God, with no material cause, makes all things to exist as entities that are radically different from His own being, yet completely dependent upon his causality” (p. 42). Did Aquinas learn this from Aristotle or the Church? Anyway, I’m hoping somebody can clarify this for me.
Creatio ex nihilo, Aquinas states, includes two things:
First, it presupposes nothing in the entity that he creates—neither matter nor potentiality nor actuality. Nada. Divine creating, therefore, is radically different from any kind of creaturely making or generation. In creaturely making, an ontological subject of some sort is presupposed. A painter needs pigment and canvas; a carpenter needs wood, nails, and hammer. In Thomistic language, created making requires “form, which is brought from potency into actuality” (II Sent. 1.1.2; p. 74). But when God creates, he does not require anything: “The causality of the Creator … extends to everything that is in the thing. And, therefore, creation is said to be out of nothing, because nothing uncreated pre-exists creation” (II Sent. 1.1.2; p. 74).
Second, non-being is logically prior in everything that God creates from out of nothing. Aquinas is thinking in ontological not temporal terms. He calls it a “priority of nature.” If the entity were “left to itself,” he writes, “it would not exist, because it only has its being from the causality of the higher cause” (II Sent. 1.1.2; pp. 74-75). It is completely dependent upon its Creator for its existence, both at the beginning of its duration and throughout its duration. “The creature is always of itself literally nothing,” the translators explain, “and therefore in constant need of being created out of nothing” (pp. 42-43). Unlike St Bonaventure, Aquinas does not distinguish between creation and conservation, as if the initial bestowal of being lies in the past, thus necessitating a separate act of ontological preservation. There is simply the eternal fiat—“Let it be.” Brian Davies puts it this way: “For [Aquinas] God creates by making things to exist, period. And God, so he thinks, is doing this for as long as things exist, which is why he maintains that it is God alone who creates. For only God, that which is pure existence itself, can make the difference between there being nothing at all and there being something” (Aquinas, p. 93).
What is a creature in itself apart from what it has received? Absolutely nothing! What is God in himself? Absolutely everything!
One thing more. Divine creation is not change. Change is something that happens to beings within the world. When human beings make something, for example, we change one thing into another thing. We need material upon which to work, objects with the potential to be altered and become something else. But when God creates ex nihilo, he does not work upon any thing and therefore no thing is changed: “Creation is not the sort of making that is properly speaking a change, but is rather a certain receiving of being. Hence it need have no essential relation except to the giver of being, and in this way it is not ‘out of’ non-being, except insofar as it is after non-being, as night is ‘out of’ day” (II Sent. 1.1.2; p. 76). The receiving of being does not make a difference to the creature; it makes it possible for the creature to make a difference and be made a difference.