But is God really, really, really related to the world?

Chris Mullen (aka malcolmsnotes) has recently targeted four alleged problems with the scholastic notion of actus purus, as articulated in the theology of St Thomas Aquinas. I’d like to respond to the first problem, i.e., the Thomist assertion that God does not exist in a real relation to the world he has made:

According to Aquinas, since God is pure unconditioned act, his essence is not—in fact cannot be—referred to or dependent upon anything outside itself. As he says “Now, these relations which refer to God’s effects cannot possibly exist in Him really.” (SCG Book 2 Ch.12) Now, the reason Aquinas holds this is because, since God is totally independent of creation and unconditioned, nothing can be said about his being which denotes a relation of dependence. Thus, 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. Rather, these words only tell us how our intellect is oriented towards God. Therefore, 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.

Thomas’ assertion that the divine Creator does not exist in a real relation with the world immediately strikes us non-scholastics as peculiar, if not egregiously erroneous. If God is actively sustaining the cosmos in being, how can he not be in a real relation to it? What’s more real than the conferral of existence? Let’s see if we can unpack the claim and make some sense of it.

In his Five Ways Thomas demonstrates that the world, in all of its contingency, finitude, and mutability, implies the necessary existence of a transcendent Creator. This Creator is the answer to the riddle of existence. Of every being and of the universe as a whole we may ask why? but of the One who is the answer to that question, why? may not be asked. It may not be asked because God can only be the answer if he lacks all the features of finite being that raises the question to begin with. And that, I think, is what actus purus effectively means. God is the infinite plenitude, fullness, and perfection of being and thus the ultimate and final explanation for why finite beings exist. He does not contain potentiality, because that potentiality would in turn evoke the metaphysical question. Potentiality requires the action of another agent to bring it to fulfillment. A rubber ball cannot realize its potency to bounce unless someone throws it against a wall; a stick of butter cannot realize its melting potential unless someone spreads it on a hot slice of toast. “Potency does not raise itself to act,” explains Thomas; “it must be raised to act by something that is in act” (SCG I.16.4). If God were not the infinite actualization of existence, then not only would we find ourselves wondering “Why does God exist instead of nothing?” but so would God! We might even imagine Deity as enduring an eternal existential crisis: “Why do I have all of this unfulfilled potential?” If we find ourselves asking who created God, we are thinking of a god, not of the transcendent ground of being. As David Bentley Hart writes:

The most venerable metaphysical claims about God do not simply shift priority from one kind of thing (say, a teacup or the universe) to another thing that just happens to be much bigger and come much earlier (some discrete, very large gentleman who preexists teacups and universes alike). These claims start, rather, from the fairly elementary observation that nothing contingent, composite, finite, temporal, complex, and mutable can account for its own existence, and that even an infinite series of such things can never be the source or ground of its own being, but must depend on some source of actuality beyond itself. Thus, abstracting from the universal conditions of contingency, one very well may (and perhaps must) conclude that all things are sustained in being by an absolute plenitude of actuality, whose very essence is being as such: not a “supreme being,” not another thing within or alongside the universe, but the infinite act of being itself, the one eternal and transcendent source of all existence and knowledge, in which all finite being participates.

Once we have grasped the significance of the actus purus, we can begin to appreciate why the Angelic Doctor insists that whereas creatures are really related to God, God is only logically 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. As ontological source and origin, God does not exist as a being in the world nor even stand alongside the world on the same metaphysical plane. He does not belong to any genus. When God creates the world, it’s not as if two or more entities now exist, whereas before that moment there had only been one. A logician would call this an illicit totality. To put it crudely, infinity plus one does not equal a number more than infinity. Given their radically different natures, God and the world cannot be added together. The sum total of existence, therefore, is not increased by the divine making of the universe. This is, admittedly, an odd and counter-intuitive way of thinking, but God is an odd sort of being (see “The Christian Distinction,” “Absolute Being,” and “To Be or Not to Be“). The relationship between self-existent Creator and dependent creature is metaphysically asymmetrical—and that is the metaphysical point.

In order to better explicate the matter, Thomas invokes the notion of a mixed relationship. A real relationship, thinks Thomas, is one in which two entities share a feature in common. John is larger than Mary, and Mary smaller than John, because of the differences in physical size. Similarly, Margaret is the mother of Barbara and Barbara the daughter of Margaret because of their shared DNA. In both cases the respective parties enjoy a mutual relationship based on a shared feature. But sometimes two entities may be related to each other on the basis of a feature possessed by only one. For example, John sees Mary walking down the street but Mary does not see him. John is now really related to Mary (he possesses a sense image of her walking down the street), but Mary is only logically related to John (“being seen” is not a feature that characterizes Mary). That John sees Mary is a fact about John but not about Mary. He enjoys a real relationship with her (lucky him!), but she only enjoys a logical relationship with him (lucky her!). Their association is mixed and asymmetrical. “John has seen Mary” and “Mary has been seen by John” are true statements, but not because of anything in Mary (see Frederick Christian Bauerschmidt, Thomas Aquinas, pp. 113-119).

The relationship between Creator and creature , suggests Thomas, is appropriately understood along these lines, though in a curious and analogical sort of way. To be created tells us something important about creatures, namely, that they have been brought into being from out of nothing and owe their continuing existence to their Creator; but it tells us nothing about the Creator. He remains as mysterious, incomprehensible, and unexplained as he ever was (see “Knowing the Unknowable God“). As Thomas stipulated early in his Summa Theologiae: “But we cannot know what God is, only what he is not” (ST I.3). To be created is a fact of creatures, not of God. Nor can it be a fact of God. When God created the world, he did not add a new intrinsic property. Such addition is impossible, given the infinite plenitude of the divine nature. Hence the language of mixed relation: the world enjoys a real relationship to God because of the fact of its derived existence; but God enjoys a logical relationship to the world because his creation of the world does not alter or impact the divine nature. Creation happens, as it were, not in God but in creatures. Bauerschmidt elaborates:

Because God’s essence is God’s existence, there can be no change or becoming in God. Within Thomas’s metaphysics of act and potency, to claim that God could undergo change would necessarily imply that there is some possibility—some potential—that is unrealized in God. God’s essence, however, is fully actual, and there is a sense in which nothing is true of God that is not eternally true of God. But, from the side of creatures, we can and must make statements about God that, in their grammatical structure (what Thomas calls their modus significandi), imply the opposite. (pp. 115-116)

On the other hand, it is certainly true that creatures exist because God has freely willed them into existence. We might even speak of God becoming Creator, yet this manner of speech cannot be literally true, as the creative act occurs outside of time. As Herbert McCabe puts it: “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, p. 43).

The real/logical distinction proves particularly helpful when speaking of God’s providential activity:

By the logic of mixed relations, a statement can become true of God at a particular point in time that is not true of God at another point in time, without God undergoing any change. For example, in 1000 BC the statement “God has rescued the Israelites from slavery in Egypt” is false, whereas in 100 BC it is true, but not because something–rescuing Israel—has happened to God. Rather, something has happened to the world: a people, the Israelites, have been rescued from slavery. And yet there is absolutely nothing false, nor even metaphorical, about the biblical statement “the Lord saved Israel that day from the hand of the Egyptians” (Exodus 14:30), any more than the statement “Mary was seen by John” is false or metaphorical. Any claim about the acts of God in history that is not merely a bit of mythology such as one might find in Homer depends for its coherence upon this analysis of mixed relations. (Bauerschmidt, p. 116)

At the commonsense level Thomas has no problem talking about God as being related to his creatures. In his Summa Contra Gentiles, for example, he lists six different relations properly predicated of divinity. But philosophical precision demands that our speech about God be qualified by the divine ineffability and the analogy of being. When God creates the world, therefore, he does not change internally, for in the fullness of his being he transcends all such changes; but perhaps we might say (to invoke a modern analytic category) that he gains an extrinsic, or Cambridge, property. “A change in x’s extrinsic properties,” Eleonore Stump explains, “can occur without a change in x, while a change in x’s intrinsic properties is as such a change in x. My belief that I am in Saint Louis is one of my intrinsic accidental properties; my being mentioned in this book is an extrinsic accidental property of mine. The intrinsic properties of numbers are all essential; numbers, like God, cannot have intrinsic accidental properties. But no entity, not even a mathematical or a divine entity, can be exempted from having extrinsic accidental properties” (Aquinas, p. 97; also see Edward Feser, “William Lane Craig on Divine Simplicity“).

The language of mixed relations belongs to the grammar of transcendent divinity. God is not an ordinary thing; he cannot be captured by our ordinary categories. When speaking of him and about him, we will inevitably find ourselves interpreting our language in odd and nonordinary ways. How odd indeed that the Creator enjoys a “non-real” relationship with the world he has made. But this is only an apophatic qualification. In no way does it intimate that God does not love the world or that he is uninvolved in the world or that he does not act in the world or that he has not died for the world. It simply describes how God exists.

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33 Responses to But is God really, really, really related to the world?

  1. Young and Reste says:

    Wow, that was surely a brain workout! I have a lot to ponder (plus a lot of links to follow) and feel like I may be finally getting a clearer grasp on what is meant when God is said to be actus purus. Thanks for posting!

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  2. Speaking of apophatic qualifications, the traditional apophatic way of approaching any God-concept can go a long way toward guaranteeing its consistency. A list of properties can be logically guaranteed to be conceptually compatible with each other precisely because of their negativity. So, coupled with our analogical God-talk, apophatic references can be very meaningful.

    For any interested, Christopher McHugh recast Hartshorne’s modal ontological argument using such negative properties:
    http://infidels.org/library/modern/doug_krueger/krueger-mchugh/mchugh1.html

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  3. Speaking again of apophatic qualifications, you mentioned Cambridge properties, which are external. Such would include energies, works, activities and relationships, all distinguished from substance and considered epinoetic. So, too, negative attributes, e.g. immutability, would be epinoiai.

    So, while one would not posit real distinctions in God, it seems like we could properly posit formal distinctions — not just in our human relating to God, but — among some of the attributes in God’s essence, itself, which remain inseparable?

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  4. Thanks for engaging with me Al. My four points against actus purus all sort of gain strength from each other, and, to be honest, the first one regarding God’s relation to the world is perhaps the least relevant. Nevertheless, I think if one really gets what I’m trying to say then the other three points follow. Let me try to articulate the problem this way.

    Do you think God’s knowledge is an essential “intrinsic” property (your and Stump’s language)? If so, then does this knowledge include knowledge of the creation, and knowledge of God’s own action as creator? If yes, then does this not mean that God is essentially and intrinsically related to creation? And if so, does that not mean that, since God could could have refrained from creating, that he could have lacked such an intrinsic property? But how can a thing that is actus purus lack an intrinsic property, and still remain what it is (in just as much act as it was before)? And how can a thing that is able to have different intrinsic properties not be in potential towards those properties? On the other hand if God’s knowledge of the creation and his knowledge of his own action of the creation is an extrinsic property of his (some Thomists hold this), then God is not really related to the world. Therefore God cannot intrinsically (i.e. really) know or love the world, etc. Of course, these Thomists are driven to say this because they know that if God really is related to the world he cannot be actus purus, for such a relation implies things going on in God “because of” the creation.

    The problem here is that if God really is related to the world, he must in some way be actualized by its existence. The problems I list in my post show this. God must either himself actualize some state of affairs, or must be actualized by some state of affairs. As one Thomist put it, with respect to creation God is either determined or determining (Garrigou-Lagrange.) Now if God positively actualizes all that exists, then he actualizes all particular free choices, as well as all acts of sin. But then what we do is up to God, not us, and God is the cause of sin. On the other hand, if our free choices depend on us alone (the specification of our free choice, not our mere freedom itself), and if God does not cause sin but rather creates a world in which sin is possible and occurs whenever a free will is used badly, then God’s knowledge of our choices and sin would themselves depend on the creation. And in such a case he would be actualized by the creation, and could not be actus purus.

    Now, if you want to hold that God is really related to the world, that’s fine (in fact I think you have to, or Christianity doesn’t make sense.) My point is simply that, if you in fact DO hold this, you can’t also hold to actus purus or timelessness. This is because God’s real relation (and a mixed relation is still a real relation – anything is a real relation except an unreal relation) — God’s real relation entails that the contingencies in the creation can actualize states of affairs in God. And if this is so God, prior to our so acting, is only in a state of potential regarding those states (he does not know THAT we sin UNTIL we sin, etc.) The reason timeless does not work here, even in the manner it was articulated by Boethius where God is “seeing” from a timeless present all of past, present, and future at once, is because such a idea makes God, far from a purely actual, eternal being, rather a being which is eternally RECEIVING information from the contingent world. Thus on Boethius’ model (and Aquinas had such a faulty metaphor too with the Watchtower analogy), far from being actus purus, God is determined by (or himself actualized by) what he sees.

    Of course, if you make the move like some of the newer analytic philosophers do (William Lane Craig, Alan Rhoda, even Swinburne) and hold that God was timeless prior to or apart from creation, and only became temporal since the moment of creation, then you could get around the difficulty of God being the first cause and yet also being actualized by the free creation. For now you have God himself in a state of process (a self-imposed process, by the way, which makes all the difference.) It seems to me this latter view is actually the logical outworking of several inconsistent thesis lain down by the ancient theologians, particularly Boethius and Aquinas, when they speak of God knowing future contingencies only because he presently “sees” them (implying passivity), in the eternal present. It’s just that they were so unquestionably committed to Aristotelianism that they did not think to question ITS presuppositions.

    Of course, if I’m wrong about a particular interpretation of a theologian, that wouldn’t do anything to detract from the metaphysical difficulties spelled out above and in my original post.

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    • Iain Lovejoy says:

      Is it me, or does your argument assume a mode of creation by God which proponents of the timelessness of God deny? You seem to assume God creates, stops, waits to see what happens and then acts again. The proponents of a timeless God consider creation to be single universal timeless act operating at all times and in all places simultaneously (or at least I think so).
      If I am getting this right, God’s creative act is not immutable as as it unwinds it interacts with what it creates as it creates, but God himself remains timeless and perceives the act always as a single eternal unchanging action.
      This may or may not be coherent, but you don’t seem to have actually addressed it.

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      • Thanks for the comment. My four points actually do in fact apply to the concept of a timeless God. It is the classic proponents of timelessness that have held that God “could do otherwise” or that he is not affected by creation. To understand my point, try to think about where or how God gets his knowledge of the free creation. Does he simply receive it by timelessly beholding creation in a single glance? But then how could he interact with what he sees, since what he sees is already eternally out there? On the other hand, if he sees it out there because he puts it out there exactly like so, how do we still have free will, and how does this not make him the cause of sin?

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        • Robert Fortuin says:

          I will re-post my reply here as it seems relevant to the discussion here.

          A few things to note which have a bearing on the ‘puzzle’ and understanding the analogous approach by which classical theism seeks to offer answers. First, ‘act’ is an inherently analogous term, characterized as all analogies do by likeness in an ever greater (indeed infinite) unlikeness. With this I mean to say that there remains in understanding God’s existence and actuality some reality, some aspect which makes creaturely definition of ‘act’ and ‘existence’ (and related terms such as being and creating) inherently and profoundly inappropriate. A very important caveat, then, which serves as a red flag warning: the subject under discussion is profoundly unlike ordinary subjects and we must proceed with caution ever ‘cognizant of a cognitive rupture’ (or a ‘knowing unknowing’ as some refer to it). Second, and this follows on the first note, it is therefore more accurate to say that God’s being is act, not an act. Or better yet, ‘God is in act.’ Third, following the analogical principle of likeness/unlikeness, that divine simplicity and the lack of composition is not understood to mean deficiency as it does in creatures. Another way of expressing this is to say that singularity in God does not denote absence but rather fullness. Divine existence is God in act: plenitude and unbounded actuality which is pure actuality without unrealized potentiality. Simplicity then signifies divine transcendence over the dialectics of the one/the many, stasis/motion, passivity/activity, necessity/contingency, potentiality/actuality. God transcends these notions as He whose way of being is not a mode of being because He is being itself. Which is all to say, and to answer one part of the puzzle, that God transcends all modalities. Fourth, following the implications of the analogous interval (the cognitive and ontological rupture), God does not create like creatures create – what this means for God ‘in act’ that the creative act of God does not require an additional act for God to be the cause of some ‘thing’ to create; at the same time, it denotes creation as completely gratuitous, without necessity as it would have to mean to creatures. God’s existence of as plentitude ‘in act’ does not require (nor could it) for creation to add to divine fullness of being (as such then it is understood that creation in God does not constitute a real change in God, which is not to say that it is not real to God). With this then I am attempting to put into words that God differs differently, and when we speak of divine creation, timelessness, interaction, knowledge of creation in timelessness, etc. – these have to take into account the infinite dissimilarity of God’s mode of existence from our mode of existence.

          ‘But then how could he interact with what he sees, since what he sees is already eternally out there? On the other hand, if he sees it out there because he puts it out there exactly like so, how do we still have free will, and how does this not make him the cause of sin?’

          This has been already addressed by others here and elsewhere. We have free will because God creates it, while God is not the creator of evil because He creates us with free will: a secondary, and truly free, causality.

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        • Iain Lovejoy says:

          Maybe I am being unclear (or this is all a bit over my head) but I think you are saying the same thing again. You are referring to God viewing his completed creation and beholding it in a single glance. From the perspective of a completed creation there obviously can be no free will because creation is complete: free will has already been exercised and the completed form of creation is the result.
          I think the proponents of actus purus maintain God’s knowledge of creation comes from the creative act itself, not a separate observation of the results.
          I myself am wary of (or perhaps don’t even fully understand) the absolutism about free creation and the unaffectedness of God: I am firstly not sure it matters terribly (gasp!) and secondly think it to an extent muddles God from the specific (as it were tactical) perspective of the active “God in creation” and from the outside time overall (strategic) perspective of “God the eternal Father”.
          Why I do however care more about the timelessness of God is that a God wholly in time either makes nonsense of the Bible or requires a denial of free will. The problem is one of prophesy and foreknowledge. If God is timeless he knows the future by observation, and free will is preserved, since what God observes is what we in fact decide and our decision is logically (if not temporally) prior to God’s knowledge of it.
          If God is not timeless his knowledge of the future would have to be by prediction, by extrapolating the future from the present: in order for that knowledge to be accurate, then, the future would have to be inevitably and mechanically derived from the present, free will an illusion and God the deliberate author of every specific evil that occurs.
          The alternative would be that God does not know the future at all, so that prophesy is guesswork, that Jesus wads part of a pre-ordained and prophesied plan of God a lie and all statements in the Bible about the future destiny of mankind and creation are little more than wishful thinking.

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          • Iain Lovejoy says:

            I had better correct the reference to “God the eternal Father” to “God the eternal Trinity” before someone accuses me of heresy.

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          • Timelessness – if it implies as you allude to that God knows by simply inspecting a future that is “out there” – is actually incompatible with prophecy. For if God eternally receives knowledge of all past present and future in a single eternal glance, then God can never use this knowledge to interact with the world. The moment he goes using the knowledge that he receives he destroys the totality of the picture of past-present-future that he is seeing. Thus, even if it were true that God knows the future by just seeing it all, it would not follow that this makes sense of prophecy. I’ve wrote a short article on this actually.

            https://notesonthefoothills.wordpress.com/2016/12/21/the-timeless-now-and-causal-loops/

            Also, I wouldn’t agree that timelessness is found in the Bible. Certainly one can pull the doctrine out of the text philosophically. But as far as explicit verses which say that God is timeless, I don’t know of any. Do you?

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  5. John Stamps says:

    What’s missing in the God-Creation discussion here is that the proper home for discussing “real” relations is how St Thomas describes the Trinity. God has three operations — will, knowledge, and power. The question is, where do we situate these operations and their respective processions?

    * If the operation and procession is internal to God, then its corresponding relation is “real” and belongs to God’s essence. St Thomas wants to argue — and I think rightly — that God only has “real” and necessary relations in Himself, within the divine essence, for example, between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

    * If the operation and procession is external to God, then its corresponding relation is “logical” and does not belong God’s essence. God’s power is an “external” operation which is logically related to everything that is not God. For all kinds of reasons, St Thomas thinks that it’s bad theology to include Creation within God’s essence.

    Otherwise. if Creation is an internal operation, Creation is included within God’s simple essence. The result is that Creation — the operation of power — then becomes as necessary to God as the operations of will (from which proceeds the Son) and the operation of knowledge (from which spirates the Holy Spirit).

    The necessity of Creation doesn’t seem theologically kosher for all kinds of reasons — for starters, God does not need creatures to be God. The Perfectly Simple Triune God is infinitely rich and inexhaustibly full in Himself. There was no internal nor external compulsion for God to create.
    * Triune God + Creation ≯ Triune God
    * Triune God – Creation ≮ Triune God
    Creation is God’s gracious operation.
    It’s startling and counter-intuitive for us voluntarists (unwitting or otherwise) to realize power (and therefore Creation) isn’t necessary to God’s essence.

    I’m trying to figure out St Thomas’s arguments here. This is the first time I have tried on my Thomist spurs, so I might have just gotten bucked off. Also, I’m plowing through D Stephen Long’s newest book — The Perfectly Simple Triune God — and I’m enjoying it immensely. https://www.amazon.com/Perfectly-Simple-Triune-God-Aquinas/dp/1451492391

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    • This is helpful. Thanks.

      Would it be fair to say that, while God’s relation to creation is not real, but logical, it is still real-ist? It implies no absolute causal disjunction, only that, for example, creation would be “an effect proper to no known cause.”

      As such, we could only ever aspire to successful references to, even while in principle precluded from providing successful descriptions of, G-d. Put differently, God’s logical relation is not without foundation and we can make true statements, both literally and analogically, about God. The literal statements, though, can only ever be predicated apophatically.

      In other words, the real vs logical distinction does not threaten God’s eminent intelligibility even though it preserves G-d’s utter incomprehensibility.

      After all, we have a rather robust phenomenology of creaturely participation in and partaking of divine operations, such as regarding the Incarnation, the Sacraments, pneumatological gifts, soteriological graces, theosis, eschatological and proleptic realizations, the miraculous, petitionary prayer and on and on. These Divine Presences in no way threaten Divine Simplicity even as they donatively gift us, transforming us from image to likeness.

      More succinctly, these Presences don’t differ essentially, only constitutively. Hence, we realize a Eucharistic Presence in the People Gathered, the Word Proclaimed, the Sacred Species, none substantially distinct, only tran-substantial. Theotic divine energies gift presence — not via distinct ousia, but — via met-ousia. Divine contingencies thus only ever refer to constitutive and not essential relations.

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      • John Stamps says:

        Oh paxamoretbonum, you would ask me a clarifying question if God’s relation to creation is “real-ist!!!”
        [N.B. The opposite of “real” is not “illusion” but “non-inherent,” which throws everybody off. Yes? No?]

        I respond thus, with my very best weasel response. St Thomas wants to successfully shoehorn everything that traditional Nicene Christians traditionally believe into his Perfectly Simple Triune God.

        * We want to affirm the Trinity yet preserve the oneness of God.
        * We want to affirm that God created the universe ex nihilo.
        * We want to affirm that the Father begets the Son and that the Spirit proceeds from the Father (and the Son if you’re RC) but we don’t want to confuse processions with God’s acts of creation.
        * We don’t want to turn the Son or the Holy Spirit into creatures.
        * We want to affirm our creaturely status.
        * We don’t want to confuse what God is with what we are.

        I think that’s why St Thomas uses the language of “real” (inherent) versus “logical” (non-inherent) relations to describe God and Creation. The relationship between the Triune God and Creation is non-reciprocal. We have a “real” essential relation with God, but God has a logical non-essential relation with us. That doesn’t mean, however, that our relations with God are false or illusory or remote or even “unreal.” It’s just that we’re not God.

        The only real relations that God has are those that are essential to His Deity — the Father begets the Son is an essential relation. the Father and the Son spirating the Holy Spirit (per the Filioque which Orthodox Christians don’t confess but we could easily transmogrify this into a suitably Eastern version methinks) is an essential relation. These inner-Trinitarian relations are inherent in Who God Is as God.

        But Creation isn’t essential and is non-inherent to God, hence God’s relation to us isn’t “real.” On the other hand, it is essential and inherent to creatures to be related to God, indeed to participate in God, therefore, our relation to God is indeed real.

        I’m getting ahead of myself here. But if we must concede that the universe is eternal (which St Thomas apparently thinks we cannot prove by reason), even so, God is still its Creator. The universe depends on a non-reciprocal relationship with God. The non-competitive causality we attribute to God creating the universe is not the same causality that applies among members inside the created universe itself.

        N.B. In 2017, I plan to read through and discuss the first 43 questions of the Summa Theologiae with a friend at church, basically 1 question per week. We cheated and discussed Question 1 today. Over a beer at Whole Foods, St Thomas provoked more lively discussion than you might think!

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  6. John Stamps: The opposite of “real” is not “illusion” but “non-inherent,” which throws everybody off. Yes? No? <<<<<

    Yes.

    So, as has been mused before, if the hypostases in no way threaten simplicity, why in the world should various non-inherent, extrinsic, constitutive, formal distinctions?:)

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  7. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    I raised the question about God’s knowledge of creation at the Facebook Thomism forum. Philosopher Rob Koons offered this brief answer

    One must make a distinction here. God’s omniscience is an intrinsic property of His, but His knowledge of this or that particular contingent fact is not intrinsic to Him. This is a consequence of the excellence of God’s cognition: in order for Him to know things, He does not have to have internal re-presentations of what is known (as we do). Instead, He knows them simply in virtue of their existing.

    Koon’s response reminded me of my recent article on divine omniscience: God knows the world in his timeless creating of the world, or as David Burrell puts it, “God knows what God does.”

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    • This is the sort of vague comment that lacks any real attempt to engage the problem at hand. When he says God “knows them simply in virtue of their existing” does this mean that God’s knowledge is the cause of things (as Aquinas thought) or that things cause God’s knowledge? If the former, how does this not lead to determinism? If the latter, how does this not lead to creatures actualizing states of affairs in God’s mind?

      To fail to address this particular problem is to fail to offer any real insight into the question to begin with.

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      • re: that things cause God’s knowledge? how does this not lead to creatures actualizing states of affairs in God’s mind? <<<<<

        Well put.

        The distinctions I've come across grew out of an exchange between Fr Clarke and Lewis Ford.

        God's inner being can indeed be affected, whether 1) both absolutely and relatively, such as in the divine hypostases, interpersonally 2) absolutely but not relatively, in the divine nature or 3) relatively but not absolutely, such as in knowledge of and love relations with creatures.

        How this squares with divine simplicity in Thomistic terms, I don't know. But, in my view, #3 above sounds like what Scotus would call a formal distinction, as it refers to constitutive but not essential dispositions. Whatever the case, I think this requires a qualifying of divine simplicty that, for some, would entail a narrower conception than relied on previously.

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    • That reminds me of Fr Norris Clarke’s approach, where God’s immutable in the absolute order, but mutable in the relative order. God’s extrinsic, constitutive relations don’t threaten the infinite perfection of divine personal being. This differs from Whitehead and Hartshorne’s accounts of Abstract/Primordial immutability and Concrete/Consequent mutability, where creation is needed to complete God. Clarke’s God doesn’t “need” the world.

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  8. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Malcolmsnotes writes:

    Do you think God’s knowledge is an essential “intrinsic” property (your and Stump’s language)? If so, then does this knowledge include knowledge of the creation, and knowledge of God’s own action as creator? If yes, then does this not mean that God is essentially and intrinsically related to creation? And if so, does that not mean that, since God could could have refrained from creating, that he could have lacked such an intrinsic property? But how can a thing that is actus purus lack an intrinsic property, and still remain what it is (in just as much act as it was before)? And how can a thing that is able to have different intrinsic properties not be in potential towards those properties? On the other hand if God’s knowledge of the creation and his knowledge of his own action of the creation is an extrinsic property of his (some Thomists hold this), then God is not really related to the world. Therefore God cannot intrinsically (i.e. really) know or love the world, etc. Of course, these Thomists are driven to say this because they know that if God really is related to the world he cannot be actus purus, for such a relation implies things going on in God “because of” the creation.

    That these conundrums can be raised makes me think that we are playing in two different ball fields. Robert Fortuin makes the critical observation above that God transcends the “dialectics of the one/the many, stasis/motion, passivity/activity, necessity/contingency, potentiality/actuality.” These opposites express our experience of finite reality, but God cannot be captured by them. We, of course, how no choice but to employ them when talking about God, but they all need to be analogically-apophatically qualified. So too, I think, when it comes to the language of properties. Properly speaking, God is not a being who has properties, at least not as we creatures do.

    Hence your conundrums do not arise. They are ruled out from the start. We are not trying to figure out the nature of God. We do not and cannot comprehend that nature. What we are doing, first and foremost, is excluding misleading ways of thinking about how God exists and how he relates to the world. It’s not unimportant that Aquinas begins his Summa Theologiae with negative theology. Even his now controversial understanding of divine simplicity is but an expression of negative theology. God is simply “out of this world,” which is why he can be so deeply and profoundly “in the world.”

    Analytic philosophers often depict Aquinas as a perfect being theologian. I think this is wrong. He is an apophatic theologian who, like all Christian apophaticists, also says a lot of positive things about God. But the similarities he identifies between Creator and creature are always qualified by the greater dissimilarities–hence Aquinas’s understanding of analogy and metaphor. God differs differently.

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    • I think this gets at some of the confusion between Aquinas and Scotus. Some say that Scotus (re univocity) was addressing semantical issues, while Aquinas (re analogy) was concerned with things. If so, then Scotus certainly doesn’t threaten the Thomistic analogy of being. Any Scotistic instantiation of infinity ultimately entails a qualitative difference. Furthermore, arguably, though he conceives infinity positively, it’s really another apophatic negation — not finite — like not mutable. Mostly, though, Aquinas’ analogy thus does not devolve into equivocity, as if our analogical predications could not make successful references to God. Instead, it protects us from the idolatry in imagining that we’ve ever made exhaustively successful descriptions of God. Not sure I said this very well. I guess that, consistent with Fr Clarke, we might say that any differences in God’s behaving vis a vis extrinsic, constitutive relations to creatures, would not entail differences in God’s being vis a vis intrinsic, essential aspects of the Trinity. Those extrinsic relations effect our becoming in likeness to God, but no divine becoming.

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    • You say God cannot be captured by our dialectics of passivity/activity. I have absolutely no problem with this. But how do you then go on to positively ascribe to God the idea of being actus purus (i.e. pure act, without any passivity)?

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      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Aquinas’ critical move, I think, is his recognition that the existence and essence of God are identical and must be identical, if God is to be the ultimate answer to “why?”

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        • I get that – but if God is beyond the categories of act/passion, then how can he also be only all act?

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          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            Isn’t that just what it means to call God Ipsum Esse Subsistens? Perhaps Robert Fortuin or Brian Moore can elucidate further.

            If David Hart hung around here, I’d ask him. 🙂 But since he doesn’t, I’ll just pass on this citation. I’m sure you are familiar with it, but perhaps others have not come across it before:

            “To speak of “God” properly—in a way, that is, consonant with the teachings of orthodox Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Sikhism, Vedantic and Bhaktic Hinduism, Bahá’í, much of antique paganism, and so forth—is to speak of the one infinite ground of all that is: eternal, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, uncreated, uncaused, perfectly transcendent of all things and for that very reason absolutely immanent to all things. God so understood is neither some particular thing posed over against the created universe, in addition to it, nor is he the universe itself. He is not a being, at least not in the way that a tree, a clock, or a god is; he is not one more object in the inventory of things that are. He is the infinite wellspring of all that is, in whom all things live and move and have their being. He may be said to be ‘beyond being,’ if by ‘being’ one means the totality of finite things, but also may be called ‘being itself,’ in that he is the inexhaustible source of all reality, the absolute upon which the contingent is always utterly dependent, the unity underlying all things.” (“Gods, Gods, and Fairies“)

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          • Robert Fortuin says:

            Chris — naming God as ‘all act’ is an analogically stretching of the normal meaning of those words, a stretching which always already signifies that God is utterly beyond (transcends) creaturely categories, concepts, discourse, dialectics. We are, in other words, engaging in a profound way of saying, ‘God is not like ____ (fill in whatever).’ God is all act, but not all act as creatures would be all act. The same analogical ‘signification of disproportion’ occurs when naming God Ipsum Esse Subsistens – ultimately we don’t know what that means (it is beyond us) and analogical discourse acknowledges this apophatic moment without falling into non-sense on account of an ontological ‘correspondence’ (appropriating Nyssa) of the Creator in the creature. So we can predicate ‘God is all act’ but it is done so analogically. Univocal predication (i.e. speech about God which does not acknowledge analogical dissimilarity) however gives rise to such problems as your question implies. Only a God who shares the same mode of existence as ourselves (a being univocal to ourselves – a being of which univocal predication is proper) cannot transcend the problematic which you raise. A creature cannot be beyond ‘act/passion’ and also be ‘all act.’ But our discourse is not about a creature, our discourse about God.

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  9. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Of particular interest to this discussion is the essay “Aquinas’ Theology of the God Who Is” by Michael A. Hoonhout.

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  10. Tom says:

    Forgive me for redirecting readers elsewhere, but it’s too much to repost the text here and too dangerous to summarize into a single paragraph. (Just some musings on this post.) Thank you Fr Aidan for always challenging me.

    Living, moving, and having being in God – Part 2
    https://anopenorthodoxy.wordpress.com/2016/12/22/living-moving-and-having-being-in-god-part-2/

    Tom

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Hi, Tom. Thanks for your article. I’ve read it a couple of times. Parts of it are over my head (which will not surprise you, I know). To help me better understand your position, let me ask you this question: What specifically about Thomas’ understanding of God as infinite actuality and the act of existence excludes that which you deem necessary to say about God?

      For example, you write:

      We can imagine the realization of unrealized potential in God which does not require that God, like created beings grounded in him, “be moved” by a power outside himself.

      Now I can imagine lots of things, but there are any number of things I don’t need to imagine of God. 😉 If I am reading your rightly (correct me if I’m wrong), you wish to imagine a kind of potentiality in God that does not require an actuality external to God for realization; in other words, you exclude from God the kind of passive potency that characterizes finite beings. Is that right? If yes, then you and Thomism are on the same page (I think). Thomists have no problem speaking of God as pure active potency. As Ed Feser has commented over at his blog:

      When it is said that God is pure actuality and devoid of potency, what that means is that He is devoid of any passive potency (the capacity to be affected by anything) whatsoever. But He is supreme in what is sometimes called active potency or power — the capacity to affect other things. (“Potency” is also a word for power, after all — as in “omnipotent.”) See Summa Theologiae I.25.1.

      So how does your understanding of divine potentiality depart from the Thomist notion of divine active potentiality?

      (I’m a blogger, dammit, not a metaphysician!)

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  11. Tom says:

    Thanks Fr Aidan. I’ll try to clarify.

    Tom: We can imagine the realization of unrealized potential in God which does not require that God, like created beings grounded in him, “be moved” by a power outside himself.

    Fr Aidan: If I am reading you rightly (correct me if I’m wrong), you wish to imagine a kind of potentiality in God that does not require an actuality external to God for realization…

    Tom: Yes. God’s free determination to create, for example. That’s what I had in mind.

    Fr Aidan: …in other words, you exclude from God the kind of passive potency that characterizes finite beings. Is that right?

    Tom: Well, it’s excluded with respect to God’s free determination to create. Obviously the determination to create can’t be a response God has to realities outside himself. But I wouldn’t exclude a kind of “passive potency” (see if I get close to it below) regarding God’s knowledge of an existing, free creation exercising powers of self-determination. God’s knowledge of the world then would not in some sense a response to the free exercise of these endowments. I want to use “response” carefully, because I don’t mean that God “waits” to know what creation freely does.

    Remember last year I asked DBH whether he was OK with the idea of the divine will terminating not in the final form of creaturely expression but in the range of creative possibilities offered to creatures to uniquely shape their expressive form? In other words, God doesn’t have a specific will for each and every thing we do. Rather, God wills a scope of options that we freely resolve. Hart didn’t have a problem with this (though I’m sure he’d disagree with what I think it means). He said he preferred to think that “healed, [the gnomic will] remains, and that it makes each soul’s reflection of and participation in divine beauty a unique inflection or modulation of the whole, which makes each individual indispensable, of course, to that glory.”

    Fr Aidan: How does your understanding of divine potentiality depart from the Thomist notion of divine active potentiality?

    Tom: I think it departs from Aquinas in that (a) mine involves temporal duration (though I hear you saying Feser denies that Thomism precludes a temporally enduring God), and in my view (b) God’s knowledge of the world is in an important and, hopefully, very guarded sense, “passive.” God’s never passive with respect to his essential, trinitarian fullness (his self-constituting act of being), but he can be passive with respect to his self-expressive acts within creation.

    Here’s my thing. It seems to me there has to be a sense in which God “let’s go” of creation for creation to be endowed with the power to resolve upon the transition of ‘possibility’ to ‘actuality’ among a scope of options God gives to creation. Obviously God can’t “let go” of creation in every sense. With respect to existence as such God has to be causally and explanatorily prior to us. It’s never true that creation is actually sustaining itself in being. Fine. But that God has to be prior to us in every sense? Here we disagree. There’s this ‘all or nothing’ posture to the classical view that’s reluctant to even explore the possibilities of its being true that God’s “letting go” of us in one sense (endowing us with powers the exercise of which cannot causally or explanatorily precede us) is compatible with God’s “not letting go of us” in another sense (i.e., God’s sustaining us in existence, which provision of being has to explanatorily precede us) such that God’s knowledge of our acts reflects the nature of these two senses. God would immutably know all created possibilities (because his ‘essence’ grounds and defines them), but God would come to know which created possibilities come to be as the created causes resolve those possibilities (because we define that resolution).

    If God’s will in sustaining creation as such embraces created improvisation on our part, then the divine will (viz., logoi) is given to us to improvise upon. The endless possibilities are God’s, their final arrangement is ours. But if this is God’s will, then it seems to me that God’s knowing creation would reflect what God wills for creation. God would know the improvisational form which divine logoi finally take in us as ‘apprehended’ or ‘received’ (i.e., passively – carefully intended) and not only as knowing what God actively ‘gives’.

    Fr Aidan: Thomists have no problem speaking of God as pure active potency. As Ed Feser has commented over at his blog…

    Tom: That’s news to me. So, you’re saying you don’t have any problem with temporal duration in God so long as the ways in which God changes over time are freely determined by God himself without reference to realities outside himself?

    In light of that, let me ask – what if all the possible ways God may freely relate to and manifest himself within the created, temporal order are themselves immutably known to God (because he immutably grounds them), are irreducibly and transcendentally grounded in the good, and are irresistibly teleological oriented towards God as our final end. Once God “lets go” of us within that what possible objection is there in saying God does in fact “receive” from, is “apprehended” by, creation as it freely resolves upon God-given options? As Bulgakov said, “Although creation cannot be absolutely unexpected and new for God in the ontological sense, nevertheless in empirical (“contingent”) being, it represents a new manifestation for God Himself, who is waiting to see whether man will open or not open the doors of his heart. God Himself will know this only when it happens.”

    Tom

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  12. Robert Fortuin says:

    Merry Christmas dear friends.

    Chris — naming God as ‘all act’ is an analogically stretching of the normal meaning of those words, a stretching which always already signifies that God is utterly beyond (transcends) creaturely categories, concepts, discourse, dialectics. We are, in other words, engaging in a profound way of saying, ‘God is not like ____ (fill in whatever).’ God is all act, but not all act as creatures would be all act. The same analogical ‘signification of disproportion’ occurs when naming God Ipsum Esse Subsistens – ultimately we don’t know what that means (it is beyond us) and analogical discourse acknowledges this apophatic moment without falling into non-sense on account of an ontological ‘correspondence’ (appropriating Nyssa) of the Creator in the creature. So we can predicate ‘God is all act’ but it is done so analogically. Univocal predication (i.e. speech about God which does not acknowledge analogical dissimilarity) however gives rise to such problems as your question implies. Only a God who shares the same mode of existence as ourselves (a being univocal to ourselves – a being of which univocal predication is proper) cannot transcend the problematic which you raise. A creature cannot be beyond ‘act/passion’ and also be ‘all act.’ But our discourse is not about a creature, our discourse about God.

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