Is God Living Up to His Potential?

by Robert F. Fortuin

A few posts back in the comment section, Dr Alan Rhoda raised a very good concern and question: “The central problem I am concerned with is to understand how God relates to the specificity of creation, to the particulars and contingencies of creation … How does God specifically know, will, and relate to these particulars?”

It has often been claimed by those of the ‘open’ and ‘process’ persuasion that the unchangeableness of God maintained by classical theism (by which presumably is meant traditional, orthodox Christianity) denotes a divine inertia, the inability of God to relate to and to know the particularity of creation’s yet-to-be-determined possibilities. Divine unchangeableness is said to preclude the possibility of change in God’s knowledge and awareness in regards to creaturely possibilities that may or may not be actualized in this or that way. Cited as evidence of this lacuna is classical theism’s concept of divinity as purum actum, of God as pure actuality. Actus purus as a corollary of immutability, God’s complete plenitude of actuality, denotes absence of unrealized potential. Actualization denotes change and movement; therefore, it is claimed divine epistemic openness of future contingent ‘specificities’ is precluded by the unchangeable pure actuality of God. According to the open theist immutability is therefore fundamentally incompatible with the God of Scripture who interacts with, responds and relates to His handiwork. Hence ‘open’ or ‘process’ theism is offered as an alternative to the classical constructs of immutability, simplicity, perfection, and limitlessness of God. But is this really how classical theism itself understands the unchangeableness of God? Is unchangeableness per se incompatible with relation, knowledge and agency? This depends in what sense divine unchangeableness in understood. Aquinas is frequently used as evidence to support open theism’s charge of unchangeableness-as-divine-inertia-and-ignorance. It would be reasonable to expect to find incontrovertible support for open theism’s critique in the writing of Aquinas itself. So then the question is raised: does Aquinas signal, directly or by implication, that unchangeableness precludes divine knowledge of temporal contingencies? Can we find support for open theist’s critique in Aquinas? I suppose it depends how one reads him, but a key passage seems to suggest otherwise.

Aquinas, never shy to deal with difficult questions, directly addresses what movement and change (and thus unchangeableness) means for him by parsing intention from potentiality. In the Summa Theologiae Thomas is clear to make a distinction between movement (i.e. change) of intention and movement of potentiality:

… understanding and willing and loving are themselves movements. Thus, since God understands and loves Himself, they [Plato and Augustine] claimed accordingly that God moves Himself, but not in the sense in which movement and change belong to something that exists in potentiality—as we ourselves are now speaking of change and movement. (ST I.9.1.1)

When Aquinas speaks of the unchangeableness of God he is clear to restrict himself to denote the lack of change in potentiality. Change in potentiality, the move from potentiality to actuality (i.e. the process of achievement of actualization) is steadfastly denied in divinis here and elsewhere in the Summa. Aquinas is careful to qualify his position: he expressly excludes intentional change in his parsing of the unchangeableness of God. That is to say, divine movement of the will, of love, and understanding is thereby not signified in divine unchangeableness. Immutability according to Aquinas does not speak to divine intentional activity but merely to change in potentiality. Failure to make a distinction between movement of intentionality and potentiality is to gloss over the division of being between He-whose-existence-is-to-be (ipsum esse subsistens), and that of derivative potentiality-coming-to-be-existence. Aquinas’ distinction is a signifier that God is outside the reach of the creaturely statis-motion dialectic known to the creature alone. That is to say, change and unchangeableness do not mean the same thing for the Creator as it does for the creature. It should alert us to pay attention to the grammar of our theological discourse for the words we use cannot mean the same. The absence of unrealized potential does not signal for Aquinas an inert God without intentionality of love and understanding, who is thus bereft of the ability to relate. In another passage Thomas indicates that God’s pure actuality accommodates the span of time:

Just as God’s bringing things into being depends on His will, so too His conserving them in being depends on His will; for He conserves them in being precisely by perpetually giving them being. (I.9.2.1)

The unceasing-movement-in-time of God’s gift of life perpetually giving to the creature precludes notions of inertia and aloofness. The endless intentional activity of the ‘to-be’ of God’s actus purus fullness-of-actuality sustains temporal contingent existence during each of its moments. God perpetually gives being to each particular contingency and this is how God specifically knows, wills, and relates to these particulars in their coming-to-be. It is the never ceasing activity of the intentional will of God in each moment which constitutes the very ‘to-be’ of creation in its contingency of the not-yet in the unfolding of time. I have found in Aquinas no evidence that immutability implies ignorance or the inability to relate. On the contrary: the plenitude of actus purus is creation’s freedom to-be in relation to the perpetually active and everywhere present Creator. God’s illimitable mode of existence (i.e., actus purus, divine simplicity, immutability) is the very ‘pre-condition’ which ensures God’s illimitable relation to and knowledge of the contingencies that is his handiwork.

Copyright © 2016 Robert F. Fortuin. All rights reserved.

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Robert F. Fortuin is Adjunct Professor of Orthodox Theology at St Katherine College in San Diego, California. He holds an MLitt Divinity from the University of St Andrews, Scotland, and a BA in Religious Studies from Vanguard University. He is currently hacking away at the theology of Gregory of Nyssa for his PhD in Philosophical Theology at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland.

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38 Responses to Is God Living Up to His Potential?

  1. Interesting post and response to Alan. However, it seems to me you’ve not really dealt with his arguments, which go through whether or not God’s specifically intentional act of creation involves “movement” or “motion.”

    The current critique of Classical Theism is that it has no way of maintaining both that God is pure act, timeless, and changeless AND that he “could have” existed without the world. His relation to the world as cause, creator, father, etc. imply that he is somehow conditioned by his act of creation. Yet, if God’s essence is identical to his act – i.e. if all of God’s acts are one act, which is just his “to be God” – then God is essentially conditioned.

    In fact, it is interesting that so many quote Aquinas on this point, because he actually held that God is not really related to creation. Whether or not God created, became man, etc. literally would have made no difference to God. All changing and created things imply no relation or condition in God himself to the created order. This would make some of his attributes dependent on creation. Rather, all creation – and therefore all relations of the creature to God, which we specify with names like creator, lord, savior, etc. – all such predicates do not really describe God’s essence.

    What you have in this model is a situation where an effect is totally related to the cause, and yet the cause is not at all related to the effect. This sits perfectly well with Aristotelian metaphysics – for there God did not create the world or know it or interact with it (for he couldn’t.) But for a Christian metaphysics where God is free, is a creator, is a savior, knows the creation, became man, etc. this just won’t fly.

    The easiest way to point out Rhoda’s point I think is to think this through: If God’s existence is necessary, and if God’s act of knowing and willing are identical to his existence, then God’s knowing and willing are necessary. But, according to tradition, God need not know or will the universe. So how do you square this?

    Another point that closely follows from this is the idea of explaining how an actus purus, unconditioned being could know a contingent free choice. Does he know it by causing it? But then the act is not free by the agent. Or does he know it by observing it? But then he would be conditioned in his knowledge.

    Interestingly, although the may not have seen the damaging implications of this for actus purus, many classic theologians (Boethius comes to mind) actually held to some version of the second of these choices – that God knows by observing – rather than the opposite, in order to safeguard human freedom.

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    • Thomas says:

      “If God’s existence is necessary, and if God’s act of knowing and willing are identical to his existence, then God’s knowing and willing are necessary. But, according to tradition, God need not know or will the universe. So how do you square this?”

      Aquinas does just this in ST I.14 and 19, in SCG I.44ff, and in DV 2 and 23.

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      • Perhaps you could explain his reasoning in your own words?

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        • Thomas says:

          That’s not really possible to do in a comment to a blog. However, it may be helpful to be clear what Aquinas does not say.

          Most importantly, Aquinas does not think that God knows and wills in the same sense that we do. Any perfection present in creation is either analogically or metaphorically true of God. It is metaphorical if finitude is a constituent of the concept (e.g., anything that involves corporeality or change). It is analogical if finitude is not a constituent of its concept (e.g., the notion of life where one acts of oneself). The modern notion of truthmakers turns out to be helpful here.

          So, when Aquinas says that God wills the world, Aquinas does not mean that God has some discrete capacity which is actualized in making the world. Prior to writing this comment, I had the capacity to write a comment on Aquinas, and I chose to actualize it when I could have done something else. This is emphatically not what Aquinas means by saying that God wills the world.

          Or take the issue of God’s freedom. If freedom is taken to mean a capacity in a being that may be actualized in one way or another (as I might eat Mexican or Chinese food this evening, or choose not to eat at all), freedom is predicated only metaphorically of God. However, God can be said to be literally free in the sense that he may bring something about that he was not required to by his nature. From the fact that God is not determined by anything else, and the fact that the world exists, it follows that God created the world freely.

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          • Do you think God has only one act or more than just one? If one, is this act necessary or contingent? If contingent, it is possible God not exist. If necessary, Gods single act is identical to his causing the universe to exist, and therefore the universe is necessary.

            Further, if God contains no potential, but still may not have created the world, then how does God not have some properties which he may not have had, such as the property of knowing the contingent creation which may not have existed? Does God not know “I am creating the universe” and is that not a proposition that could have been otherwise? Therefore does God not contain the potential to exist without the universe, since he could have existed without it?

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          • Thomas says:

            If by act you refer to a real accident (analogous, for instance, to my speaking), Aquinas says that God has no such acts. God is act, pure act. And there is no real distinction, on Aquinas’ view, between the act by which God is what he is and by which he creates the world.

            There is a looser sense of act that does not entail any real inheritance of the act in the agent. We can say that some event is someone’s doing even after they are no longer alive. In the looser sense in which we call some event the act of someone who causes it, God can be said by Aquinas to have multiple acts, because it does not entail any real accident in God.

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          • You said “And there is no real distinction, on Aquinas’ view, between the act by which God is what he is and by which he creates the world.” Then, since there is no distinction, the existence of the universe is just as necessary as the existence of God.

            Never mind what Aquinas thinks. What do YOU think about this seeming contradiction? Do you a thing any rate see a tension?

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          • Thomas says:

            There is no tension, in my view. The only reason I can see that one would think there is any tension is if one assumes that God is a finite, composite being.

            If God “made decisions” after a period of indecision, or if God’s will belongs to the same species as our volition (a discrete capacity), or if God is a quite powerful but nevertheless finite Cartesian mind there would indeed be some problem. Fortunately, thinkers like Aquinas have given demonstrations that God is quite unlike that.

            If you think there is a contradiction, perhaps you coul spell it out. Contradictions can be articulated precisely with the tools of formal logic, and it would be illuminating to see where exactly you think the contradiction is.

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    • Robert Fortuin says:

      Hi Malcolm,

      I concur with Thomas and this point cannot be overstated – according to Aquinas God does not know, will, act, exist in the same sense (mode) that we do. You are reading Aquinas without taking this axiomatic theological principle into account. I strongly suggest David Burrell’s now classic ‘God and Action’ for a sound explication of Aquinas position on this and related matters.

      As to your question whether or not God’s intentional act of creation involves “movement” or “motion” – I did address this, but perhaps I wasn’t clear enough. Creation does not constitute divine movement as far as potentiality (i.e. a ‘becoming’ in God), but does not preclude it movement as far as intentionality, love, and knowledge. One will have to keep in mind the infinite dissimilarity between God’s mode of existence and the mode of existence of creation.

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      • Thanks for your response my friend. I do have a personal question. Do you feel *any tension at all* in Aquinas’ account of causality, and the equal affirmation of real contingency in the universe? Do you think there are ANY difficulties in Aquinas’ metaphysics?

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        • Robert Fortuin says:

          Hi Malcom,

          No tension or contradiction at all. I would say that divine causality makes possible and ontologically grounds the real contingency of creaturely existence. The clincher is, and I am echoing Thomas’ words above, there’s tension IF one assumes that God is a finite, composite being who participates in being as creatures do. But God does not participate in being, He is act of being is to-be; in more biblical wording, God is ‘He who is’.

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  2. I also found the article interesting. In reviewing the Systematic Theology of Pannenberg, I am wondering if his discussion of the self-actualization of the divine will is set aside by this understanding of classical theism?

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    • Robert Fortuin says:

      Hi George,

      Although loosely familiar with Pannenberg so I can’t claim expert insight into his take on ‘divine self-actualization,’ I would venture to answer your question in the affirmative. Self-actualization understood as an essential movement in God to obtain perfection from potentiality to actualization has been steadfastly denied by the church fathers over the centuries. Gregory of Nyssa waxes quite explicit about this as part of his argument against Eunomius.

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  3. Thomas says:

    I do not think that Aquinas is making the argument that God is mutable with respect to intentional being, but immutable with respect to real being. I’ve seen some writers who I respect a great deal–W. Norris Clarke, for instance–suggest options along the same lines. But I would suggest that it cannot be justified either by the textual evidence in Aquinas, or within the framework of his metaphysics.

    The quotation from the ST I.9.1 occurs in the course of answer the question: “Is God Altogether Immutable.” To which Aquinas answers, God is altogether immutable: “…Deum esse omnino immutabilem ….” Aquinas is clear in the course of answering the question that God is not changeable in any way: “Ex quo patet quod impossibile est Deum aliquo modo mutari.”

    The selection you quote is admittedly not as clear as it could be, but what Aquinas is saying is that God is said to be a self-mover metaphorically, because in us acts of understanding, knowing, willing, loving, etc. are in fact movements. Aquinas’ point is to deny that there is any real mutability in God by virtue of his willing and knowing. Aquinas is–or at least so it seems to me–quite clear that God does not have faculties distinct from his substance. Moreover, Aquinas is careful to craft his account of God’s knowledge and will so as to exclude regarding either as a discrete faculty or as something subject to change.

    So, for instance, Aquinas denies that creation is properly an object of God’s will, as the will is specified by its object. If God’s will were specified by the world (or objects in the world), then God’s will would be limited. As it is, Aquinas regards God’s will as only conceptually distinct from his essence, and so if God’s will were limited (i.e., by willing x rather than y), God himself would be finite.

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    • If creation is not an object of Gods will, how does he create it?

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    • Robert Fortuin says:

      Thomas,

      The lack of faculties from substance does not negate that ‘God moves Himself.’ The question which is set before us and which Aquinas addresses is in what sense can it be said that God moves and doesn’t move? The fact remains that Aquinas affirms divine movement.

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    • brian says:

      Burrell’s treatment of freedom and creation makes significant use of the metaphor of the artisan. I think his notion of divine inspiration allows for divine movement ad extra that arises from within the plenitude of God’s aseity. Balthasar further attempts to elucidate a TriUne fullness that is yet capable of surprise, gift, and novelty. Granted, this explodes our finite modes of understanding, but I surmise Clarke’s speculations provide a Thomistically inspired metaphysical base plausibly amenable to Balthasar’s speculations. In any event, that is how I understand Pure Act as both an affirmation of “classic theism” and capable of answering the objections of modern thinkers insofar as the latter are not simply false problems based on inadequate comprehension of traditional Christian metaphysics.

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  4. Tom says:

    Thank you Robert for this post. I appreciate you ability to be clear and challenging. I can’t say anything now (my last week at my present job, so I’m busy handing things off), but I hope to this weekend if the thread is still open for comments.

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  5. Tom says:

    Robert, Matthews Grant has a very interesting approach that I like (“Divine Simplicity, Contingent Truths, and Extrinsic Models of Divine KnowingFaith and Philosophy 29, 2012) that might bridge what seems to me to be worth saying on both sides of this debate while avoiding what both sides rightly want to avoid. I take it he’s Catholic (a Thomist, given his work) since he’s an associate editor of the American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly. He chairs the Phil Dept here in town at St. Thomas U. I don’t have academic access to all the online journals, but I do have a pdf of this article if you’re interested. Would I violate copyright laws if I uploaded it to Scribd?

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  6. Iain Lovejoy says:

    I have a question: is saying God is immutable the same thing as saying he us timeless / outside time, or are these different?

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    • Robert Fortuin says:

      Iain,

      Not necessarily, as timelessness can be understood in various ways.

      The main point here, and perhaps this answers your question indirectly, is that for the classic theist God is beyond the stasis/motion dialectic. But for the creature motion is an either/or proposition: either one stands still, or one moves – we cannot go beyond (without devolving into non-existince at any rate). But applied to divinity, we cannot subject it to the same constrains which our mode of existence denote.

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      • Iain Lovejoy says:

        Would that be to say then that saying God is changeless is not the same thing as saying he cannot be affected by what goes on in his creation? That is if all God’s interactions with creation take place (from God’s perspective) in his eternal “now” then he remains unchanging overall, but from our perspective in our own little slice of time he can still respond and react to us (at least so it appears to us) within time?

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        • Robert Fortuin says:

          Iain,

          Yes I would think that is an adequate summary provided we are careful not to unduly anthropomorphize by what is designated by ‘affected.’ Perhaps St Gregory of Nyssa can be of help, from Contra Eunomium:

          ‘the Divine Nature, being limited in no respect, but passing all limitations on every side in its infinity, is far removed from those marks which we find in creation. For that power which is without interval, without quantity, without circumscription, having in itself all the ages and all the creation that has taken place in them, and over-passing at all points, by virtue of the infinity of its own nature, the unmeasured extent of the ages, either has no mark which indicates its nature, or has one of an entirely different sort, and not that which the creation has.’

          God is without interval and without identification with creation – yet containing in itself all the ages.

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        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          Iain, here’s a quotation from McCann that I intended to include in my previous articles but forgot:

          Nor should we think that if all that is temporal is created in one act, God cannot be responsive to the deeds and prayers of his creatures. … If we are prepared to grant that he can know as creator what our deeds are, there is no reason why he cannot, in the very act in which he creates us, be responsive to all we do. Indeed, if it is correct that we and our actions are direct manifestations of God’s creative will, there is every reason to think he is as fully involved with us as he can be, and therefore completely caring and appreciative of our character and behavior. (Creation and the Sovereignty of God, p. 60)

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  7. Tom says:

    Robert,

    Had some free time to respond instead of waiting till the weekend.

    I’m very open to understanding Aquinas in a new light. I don’t really know him very well to begin with, and I’ve put off getting into him while I try to get to know the older/Greek Fathers (who won’t let me go to read anyone else!), and partly also because for every reading of Aquinas put forward by somebody there seems to be an equal and opposite counter-reading. Will the read Thomas Aquinas please stand up? But in all fairness, something like that seems to be the case with Origen, Cyril, and the Cappadocians too.

    I really like several things you said, Robert, in particular this:

    Change in potentiality, the move from potentiality to actuality (i.e. the process of achievement of actualization) is steadfastly denied ‘in divinis’… Aquinas…expressly excludes intentional change in his parsing of the unchangeableness of God. That is to say, divine movement of the will, of love, and understanding is thereby not signified in divine unchangeableness. Immutability according to Aquinas does not speak to divine intentional activity but merely to change in potentiality.

    This surprised me. I looks like you’re saying Aquinas argued that God was only unchangeable in some respects (his divinity [his self-constituting triune relations and beatitude?]) but not in other respects (his relation to and knowledge of non-self-constituting acts in creation). If this is so, count me in. I’m very interested in securing the immutability of God’s essential (intrinsic/self-constituting) relations (their plenitude and beatitude) while affirming the contingency of God’s willing and sustaining and knowing created actualities. But as your post unfolds, it doesn’t look like you make this kind of distinction in God (a distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic intending, willing, knowing, acting, etc). The reason I think you don’t really maintain the distinction is your earlier comment:

    ‘Contingent acts of knowing’ is meaningless if there’s no distinction between God’s act of knowing and His act of being. Divine knowing is divine essence. Or put another way, there’s nothing about God that is not essential.

    If ‘all God is’ is what God is essentially (intrinsically, necessarily/eternally), God’s knowledge of contingencies is God essentially. But that’s precisely what creates the problem for some people.

    I hope the Matthews Grant article is helpful. I feel like he appreciates the difficulty created within certain views of divine simplicity with regard to necessity/contingency in God. I’m still not sure how he’d cash the distinction between God’s ‘intrinsic’ and ‘extrinsic’ knowing. I should totally call him up and take him to lunch and find out. St. Thomas U is right here in town.

    I also wanted to clarify a couple things. I hope this isn’t nit-picking, but they’re distinctions I find important.

    (1) Open and Process theists aren’t the only ones objecting to what they perceive to be the ‘classical’ view of God as actus purus. There are more theists (admittedly Protestants) who object to the classical view who are not open or Process theists than who identify as one or the other. Open and Process folk are by far the minority raising the objection.

    (2) Open and Process theologies are different in essential ways. True, a classical theists will dismiss them both as making the same mistake (denying actus purus). Fair enough. But many Process theologians like open theism about as much as they like classical theism. And you can find open theists who, if they had to choose between classical and Process views of God, would go with the classical view because Process theism is simply too far removed from core, Christian beliefs.

    Tom

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    • Tom says:

      Typos. Grrrr.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Robert Fortuin says:

      Tom,

      I would not characterize divine willing, sustenance and knowledge of created contingencies as a contingency to God (which I understand you to mean with ‘while affirming the contingency of God’s willing and sustaining and knowing created actualities.’) This to me indicates a conflation of the modes of existence of God and creation, which is to say we must be clear to distinguish that God knows and wills not like we do over time, in part, by discovery. To fail to do so is to ascribe God to psychologisms subject to limitation of time and space. But with this I don’t mean to say that God does not know nor relate to our future and open contingencies. I will repeat St Gregory passage here, as it seems apropos here as well:

      ‘the Divine Nature, being limited in no respect, but passing all limitations on every side in its infinity, is far removed from those marks which we find in creation. For that power which is without interval, without quantity, without circumscription, having in itself all the ages and all the creation that has taken place in them, and over-passing at all points, by virtue of the infinity of its own nature, the unmeasured extent of the ages, either has no mark which indicates its nature, or has one of an entirely different sort, and not that which the creation has.’

      As to Open and Process theists, point well made, I was just sloppy lumping you guys altogether. 😉

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      • Robert Fortuin says:

        Tom,

        A follow up thought on Gregory’s quote.

        I should like to draw attention to the ‘unmeasured extent of the ages’ – a curious phrase by Gregory which seems to indicate an openness. But the question is: unmeasured to whom, open to whom? I would seem not to God, for He has ‘all the ages and all the creation that has taken place’ in all the ages, in himself. It would seem a stretch to suppose that God doesn’t know that which in himself, that something remains unmeasured and open to Him.

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        • Tom says:

          Thanks Robert.

          I do appreciate the fact that a view like mine (or Bulgakov’s – gotta include him!) is an obvious departure from the Fathers. For the record, I admit: No Father was an open theist nor thought that God had anything like a temporal/changing relation with the temporal/changing world. There are hundreds of passages from the Fathers that establish this point. I concede – any attribution to God of change (however qualified) in his knowledge of the changing world is going to be a departure from the Fathers. But appealing to Gregory as an authority on this point isn’t finally persuasive. I don’t feel it a violation of faith to disagree with them on this point, but I totally appreciate how others would see it differently. I guess, all I can say is – “Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”

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  8. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    At this point of my own limited reflection on divine actuality and plentitude, I understand divine immutability as excluding the kind of movement and change that would raise the question, “What caused God to change and move?” At that point God would cease to be the final and ultimate explanation of the universe and would become just one more thing that requires explanation.

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  9. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Robert, after reading through your article, the thought occurred to me that I should re-read chap. 3 of David Hart’s The Experience of God.

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  10. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Over at his blog, Chris Mullin has posted an article germane to our discussion: “Four Problems with Actus Purus.” Please take a look at it and share both here and there your thoughts about his arguments. Thanks.

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  11. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    To Chris Mullins (aka malcolmsnotes):

    Thank you for your article and your critical reflections on actus purus. I’d like to respond to the first section of your article regarding God’s relation to the world. You note that Aquinas believes that because God is the plenitude of being, and therefore immutable, lacking all passive potentiality, his relation to the world he has made from out of nothing cannot be described as a real relation, at least not from the side of God. You write: “the relations between God and creation do not really exist in God himself. Nor do they even exist as realities outside him. They only exist in our minds.” Hence “names like lord, savior, creator, lover, knower which all presuppose the existence of the creation do not really predicate anything true of God’s actual being.”

    I don’t think this gets matters right for Aquinas. The first thing that needs to be said is that from our point of view, i.e., the view of the creature, we exist in a real ontological relation with God. He is the source of our being and thus is properly addressed as “Creator” and “Lord”; he has united himself to our human nature, destroyed death, and risen from the grave and is thus properly addressed as “Savior” and “Lover.” All this is true and real. It’s not just in the mind. Creatures are the effect of God’s creative and redeeming action. To be a creature is to be in relation to its Creator: it is to gain the relational property of creaturehood.

    Where things get interesting is trying to look at this from the side of God. As you note, Aquinas states that whereas creatures are really related to God, God is only logically or notionally related to creatures. This seems an odd thing to say, yet perhaps not so odd when we think further upon the extraordinariness of the Creator/creature relationship, at least as understood by Aquinas. God cannot relate to creatures in the way that creatures relate to each other, because God does not exist in the world as a being. He does not stand alongside his creatures. He is their transcendent source and origin. We should not be surprised, therefore, if we find that God does not fit into our philosophical categories.

    At the day-to-day commonsense level, Aquinas apparently has no problem talking about God as being related to his creatures. Thus Brian Davies:

    If one reads him [Aquinas] in detail on the question of God’s relation to creatures, one will, in fact, find him endorsing all of the following propositions. (1) We can speak of God as related to his creatures in view of the purely formal point that if one thing can be said to be related to another, then the second thing can be said to be related to the first. (2) Since God can be compared to creatures, since he can be spoken of as being like them, he can be thought of as related to them. (3) Since God knows creatures, he can be said to be related to them. (4) Since God moves creatures, he can be said to be related to them. (5) Since God can be spoken of as ‘first’, ‘highest’, and so on, he can be said to be related to creatures since these terms are relational ones. (The Thought of Thomas Aquinas, p. 76)

    But philosophical accuracy demands, thinks Aquinas, that these commonsense ways of speaking about God need to be qualified by the insistence that when we speak of God making the world and its various inhabitants, we are actually referring to something that exists in creatures but not in God. Thus Herbert McCabe:

    Now consider the profoundly mysterious truth that God sustains Lady Thatcher in existence. This was not true of God ins, say, 1920 because in those far off happy times Lady Thatcher did not exist and so God could not have been sustaining her in existence. So God began to sustain her, he became the sustainer of Lady Thatcher. But, Aquinas says, this does not entail any change in God any more than becoming a great-uncle entails any change in me. Thus becoming the sustainer of Lady Thatcher is not a real happening to God, in our sense, although it becomes true of him. It is true of him not because of some new reality in him but because of some reality in Lady Thatcher—that she began to be alive. Of course that she is alive is due to a reality in God: his profoundly mysterious eternal will that she should come to exist at a certain date. But this eternal will is not something that comes about at a date, so this does not imply any real change in God.

    So when Lady Thatcher was conceived there was something going on in her, but on God’s side the change is merely verbal; we have a new thing to say about God, but it is not a new thing about God that we are saying. (God Still Matters, pp. 42-43)

    When God creates the world, therefore, he does not change intrinsically, for in the eternality and fullness of his being he transcends all intrinsic changes. But perhaps we may say, to invoke a modern category, that he gains a Cambridge property (at least that is how Eleonore Stump interprets him).

    I do not know if the above is the best way to speak of God and his relation to the world he creates ex nihilo, but I think we can at least see why Aquinas is forced to talk this way and why it is not nonsensical.

    You write:

    The problem with this view is twofold. 1) It is inconsistent with Christian teaching. God really is creator, lord, savior, knower, and lover of the world. If these words only exist in our minds, then it follows that God is not really these things and that, while we may predicate certain things about him, we are not really describing him but only ourselves and how we think about him. 2) It is contradictory to believe in creation ex nihilo and still believe that God is not really related to the world. For things in the world are not just referenced to God naturally. They are not existing “of themselves” nor are they naturally “of themselves” drawn towards God. Rather, they are brought into being by God. He is therefore their creator, maker, causer and conditioner. This denotes a real relation in him towards these things, for, if he lacked such a relation, the world would simply never be brought ex nihilo into being. For something that is not self-existent to be brought into being by God, God himself must do something. Namely, he must stand in a relation to it as cause. Otherwise it would not exist. But if God stands in such a relation, then he really is related to the world as that which causes it to come into being.

    I do not find this statement adequate. First, to claim that Aquinas’s teaching on divine immutability and the notional nature of God’s relationship to his creation is inconsistent with Christian teaching is, at the very least, a stretch, if not just wrong. Whose teaching are you talking about and what are their authority? I’m confident that one can find Church Fathers, for example, who speak of God as “becoming” Creator. This is a commonsensical way of speaking, once one has affirmed the creatio ex nihilo. It only becomes problematic once one seeks to clarify the eternity, simplicity, and transcendence of God. (The Byzantine Church found a different way to deal with these concerns by its formulation of the distinction between the divine essence and the divine energies.)

    Second, your criticism of Aquinas’s position assumes that we really know what we are talking about when we talk about divine creation. But we don’t! This is why Aquinas begins his discussion on the nature of God by insisting upon the unknowability of God and thus the need to first identity what God is not—he is not finite, he is not corporeal, he is not a complex compound, he is not changeable, etc., etc. He is not any of these things because if he were, he would in fact become a being that is in need of metaphysical explanation. Is God the creator of heaven and earth? Of course he is. But what this means is a mystery to us. Our words point to the mystery, but they cannot adequately describe it.

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