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.