St Thomas Aquinas: Creatures are nothing but Nothing

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.

(Go to “Is God Making it Snow?”)

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10 Responses to St Thomas Aquinas: Creatures are nothing but Nothing

  1. “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.”
    I’m wondering what this would state in regard to evolution and the creative act. Is there any contradiction between creatio ex nihilo and the theory of evolution?

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  2. Steven Baldner says:

    I would like to express my deep appreciation to Fr. Kimel for this excellent explanation of Thomas on creation. His explanations are lucid and accurate. I am very pleased that the translation and study done by me and William Carroll almost 20 years ago is useful here. I have two comments.

    First, Thomas does think that arguments can be given to show that God is the first cause of being — that is, that He is the creator in the sense Fr. Kimel has so well explained. From the text Fr. Kimel is using, the Commentary on the Sentences (II Sent., d. 1, q.1), the arguments are given in Article One (pp. 63-68 of our translation — Fr. Kimel has been explaining Article Two). In Article one, Thomas gives three different arguments, three “ways” of proving a first cause of being, and these are versions, really, of three of the famous “Five Ways” from the Summa theologiae, I, q. 2, a. 3. The fact of creation, in the sense defined, is philosophically accessible, and Thomas gives us the relevant arguments.

    Second, Fr. Kimel nicely and forcefully makes the point that, apart from God’s constant causality, creatures would utterly cease to exist. In that sense, they are nothing of themselves. We tried to make the point, however, in the introductory analysis, that Thomas also wishes to say that God really bestows being to the creatures so that the creatures do really have their own being. That is, creatures do not have a sort of tendency toward non-being, as Bonaventure had argued. (See pp. 48-49 of Aquinas on Creation.) It is true that creatures would cease to exist without God’s continued causing of being, but, given that causing, creatures really do have their own existence and goodness. God is a generous giver. Thanks, again, to Fr. Kimel for his excellent work.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Dr Baldner, thank you for visiting Eclectic Orthodoxy and for leaving this comment!

      P.S.For those who do not recognize his name, Dr Baldner is the co-translator of the text I am presently blogging on.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Dr Baldner, I was hopping you might be able to address one question I have at this point. Aquinas, as you point out, believes that the existence of God as the source of the being of the world can be rationally demonstrated. But do Aquinas’s proofs prove the creatio ex nihilo, or might they also be compatible with some kind of Platonic emanationism, such as might find in Albinus or Plotinus (here I am throwing out the names of two ancient philosophers I have not read)?

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      • Steven Baldner says:

        Fr. Kimel has asked whether Thomas’ proofs are intended to prove creatio ex nihilo or whether they might be intended to accomplish something less, perhaps establishing only that God is the source of emanation or motion. Thomas intends most of his proofs for the existence of God to prove creatio ex nihilo. The proofs are about God as the cause of being (esse), and that means making things to exist rather than not. When Thomas adopts arguments that have come from Neoplatonic authors who hold a doctrine of emanation, he interprets these as demonstrations of God as the immediate cause of being. The problem with emanation, as Thomas saw it, is that it wrongly supposes that creatures can be intermediate causes of being. Early in his career — in the text you are reading (Article Three) — Thomas allowed that the emanationist position is philosophically possible but just wrong in fact. Later, in the Summa theologiae (ST I, q. 45, a. 5) and elsewhere, Thomas argues that it is simply impossible for any creature to be an instrument in the action of creating being out of nothing. Creatures cannot give what they do not have by essence, and hence they cannot be intermediate instruments in the creating of being.

        Some of Thomas’ arguments (for example the First Way in the Summa theologiae, I, q. 2, a. 3) do not explicitly prove the existence of a first cause of being, but only of a first cause of motion.

        To sum up: whenever Thomas is demonstrating that God is the first cause of being (as in the three arguments in II Sent., d. 1, q. 1, a. 1), he means that God is shown to be the immediate creator ex nihilo, and never that God produces being through intermediate causes (emanation). In the argument from motion, Thomas is proving only that God is the first cause of motion — not yet that this same God is the first cause of being. I hope that this will be helpful.

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      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Dr Baldner, thank you for this comment. May I avail of your generosity one more time. Let me put my cards on the table. Years ago Robert Sokolowski persuaded me of the Christian Distinction: viz., what distinguishes the Christian understanding of divinity from pagan understandings (including the philosophical) is the creatio ex nihilo. It is the creatio ex nihilo that decisively breaks the continuum of being. There is God (Creator) and there is everything else (creatures). Period. There are no semi-divine beings, of whatever degree. Hence I have (rightly or wrongly) understood Hellenistic construals of divinity as emmanationist and monistic.

        Would you agree or disagree with this?

        Given this background, when I read St Thomas’s “proofs” for God in article 1, combined with his description of the creatio ex nihilo in article 2, I found myself thinking to myself: St Thomas so lives in a Christian worldview that the Hellenistic pagan construal of divinity, along the lines of a continuum or hierarchy of being, is completely foreign to him. When he proves the existence of a Creator, the only Creator available to him is the One who creates from out of nothing.

        Am I totally off-base here? Where have I gone wrong? Thank you.

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  3. luca says:

    Great piece and great discussion.
    We might define creation ex nihilo as the radical dependency from God of everything which is not God. If there is something not created from nothing, then this thing is not fully dependend from God. Is God still God, if there is something not dependend from him (ie is God still the absolute being) ?

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  4. There is only one Eternal Being, who created Everything ex nihlo, by His creative powers of His Word, Wisdom, Mind; and by the power of His Omnipotent, Omniscent, Omnipresent Holy Spirit. In creating rational creatures–Angels and mankind, He created them in His own image and gave them there own distinctive wills. In fleshly creatures, and even vegetative creation, God created a genetic structure that can be subject to change or microevolution. All this came from God’s Eternal Creative Mind. We must believe that God, who even gave angels and men rationality and ingenuity, had perfect foreknowledge of everything created. He is even called the Father of the Ages in Isaiah. If God, the only eternal entity, and the Eternal cause of everything created didn’t foreknow and plan everything, there would be nothing but chaos in the Universe. Even His gift of a limited free will to His rational creation doesn’t forbid His foreknowledge of what His rational creatures would choose to do with their free wills. Finally, the intricacy and complexity of evertyhing observed in the universe proves design, and such intricate design REQUIRES a Divine Architect and Designer! I’ve observed over the years, that only those people (no matter how high their IQ is), who are hard-core atheists or agnostics only refuse to believe in our Eternal Designer God, because they WANT to try to disprove that there is a Supreme Being/ God. Some have and do spend there whole lives trying to prove that there is is no way that one can prove that there is a God. Some like Mr. Dawkins of England are so deceived in this that they go on speaking tours and debates to try to prove their foolish unbelief. I love what the Apostle Paul said about such philosophers, “Professing themselves to be wise, they make themselves fools”. Or King David in one of his Psalms, “Only the fool has said in his heart, that there is no God”.

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  5. Fr. Kimel:

    In my view, Fr. Sokolowski is correct. It does not, however, follow that St. Thomas’ arguments against emanationism are good; some have thought he assumes too much. Thus you wrote:

    Given this background, when I read St Thomas’s “proofs” for God in article 1, combined with his description of the creatio ex nihilo in article 2, I found myself thinking to myself: St Thomas so lives in a Christian worldview that the Hellenistic pagan construal of divinity, along the lines of a continuum or hierarchy of being, is completely foreign to him. When he proves the existence of a Creator, the only Creator available to him is the One who creates from out of nothing.

    Am I totally off-base here? Where have I gone wrong? Thank you.

    I don’t think St. Thomas rejects the idea of the “continuum” or “hierarchy” of being. He just locates that continuum or hierarchy strictly within the world. As infinite while creatures are finite, God is not like the capstone of a pyramid, with the highest creatures just below him and the lowest creatures at the bottom. As Being itself (ipsum esse subsistens), God is incommensurable with creatures, who have being only because God gives it to them. God is being; creatures have being.

    That said, it’s undeniable that, for St. Thomas, God causes creatures to cause other creatures to become, and to be what they are. The Angelic Doctor often says as much, and the his cosmology is similar to, without being identical with, Aristotle’s. What must be kept in mind, however, is that such creatures are always working on other, pre-existing creatures, not bestowing being in the radical and unique way that only God does. But you recognize that.

    Best,
    Mike

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