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.
* * *
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.