“For Thomas Aquinas, God is not ‘separated’ from the world as a subsistent entity conceivable apart from his causal relationship to created beings”

Far from being a ‘supreme being’, a nameless deity beyond the world who is ultimately in charge of everything, God is maxime ens, who enjoys being in the highest possible degree. Such a reality must be thought to be utterly simple, but simple in the ‘concrete’ sense of perfection, including, in its simple being, the perfection of all things. And, as implied by his universal perfection, God is self-diffusive goodness, the abundant source of all the good gifts which creatures receive from him, among which the gift of ‘being’ occupies the first place. Consequent upon its simplicity, the reality of God must be thought to be infinite, but infinite in the sense of being most intimately present in each thing, causing it to be from within. And also, as implied by its simplicity, it must be thought to be absolutely unchangeable, but in the sense of being enduringly present to everything which changes over time. The mark of subsistence as qualifying the simplicity of the divine being appears here to be of crucial importance. It is not the subsistence of a supreme substance, conceived somehow as inert and static, enclosed in itself, prior to its creative activity with respect to the world of creatures; rather, the divine essence is the full and unrestricted actuality (actus purus) of being, which, by nature, tends to communicate its actuality to other things by letting them share in being.

There is something in Thomas’ conception of God as ipsum esse per se subsistens that does not fit very well into the picture of ‘classical theism’. Classical theism, as it is usually understood, tends to view God as an absolute entity existing independently of the world. The theistic God looks more like a being, a ‘self-contained substance’ above and apart from the world, than the pure actuality of subsistent being itself. From Thomas’ perspective, this would mean that the independence of God, as over against the world of finite beings, is conceived wrongly. It is as if the character of subsistence, attributed to a theistically conceived God, is a logical expression by means of which we think of God as separated from the world, as a distinct reality, while Thomas intends to express by subsistence that the being of God is separated through itself from all other beings. The difference is crucial. For Thomas, God is not ‘separated’ from the world as a subsistent entity conceivable apart from his causal relationship to created beings; it is as cause of all beings that God ‘separates’ himself from all his effects by distinguishing those effects from himself. In this sense the ‘concept’ of God is, in truth, the concept of the relationship of God and world, conceived as an ordered plurality of diverse beings, each of which receives its being from the divine source of being. For Thomas there is no way of thinking of God concretely outside the relationship. The independence, or absoluteness, of God characterizes the way He relates as cause to all other things; it is the independence of the perfect goodness of God, who is not under any obligation or necessity to fulfil himself by creating, but who acts out of his own goodness, establishing all other things in being by letting them share in his own perfection.

Rudi te Velde, Aquinas on God, pp. 84-85

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22 Responses to “For Thomas Aquinas, God is not ‘separated’ from the world as a subsistent entity conceivable apart from his causal relationship to created beings”

  1. Jonathan says:

    I guess I’m with Aquinas. He has to be right as far as cataphasis is concerned, anyway. Question for the room: what is the origin of the term “classical theism”?

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      More and more I’m beginning to think that “classical theism” was “invented” by philosophers & theologians as a response to Deism and Enlightenment critiques of Christian belief.

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      • Robert Fortuin says:

        It is confusing as it is used in different ways, sometimes to contrast it against modernity and analytics, sometimes to distinguish it from Aquinas, etc.

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  2. Ted says:

    It would be like saying the mother creates a child, but is she independently separate from the child? Of course not, and as such, we can assume God is in the world but not of it.

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  3. I think this view of God holds up well against certain formulations of the argument from evil, particularly deontological arguments from evil.

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  4. Robert Fortuin says:

    Fr Aidan pulling out all the Dutch heavy hitters!!

    The above passage is extremely problematic to reconcile with popular formulations of the Essence-Energy distinction. It seems to me to make the E/E distinction completely superfluous. Or worse, it obfuscates pertinent observations about the God-world relationship such that the God-world relationship has to be conceived along unsatisfactory lines (relation is by energy only, not by nature – what may this mean??)

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  5. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Reblogged this on James' Ramblings.

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  6. Pingback: Aquinas's Thoughts on God | Palamas Institute

  7. John H says:

    Robert, doesn’t the Palanite essence/energies distinction compromise divine simplicity as conceived by Aquinas? How can God be simple if he is composed of uncreated energies which may be manifest to his creatures plus an unknowable essence which no one may understand? Doesn’t the e/e distinction necessarily make God a compound, non-simple reality? If God’s essence is simply the pure act of existence itself, isn’t this enough to preserve his transcendent mystery Vis a Vis his creatures, thus rendering the e/e distinction beside the point?

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    • Robert Fortuin says:

      Yes. While the E/E distinction is necessary when used to clarify the nature of the economy of salvation (i.e. affirming the ascetic encounter of the Uncreated) as this was the practical concern which drove St Palamas, when used to speak of theology proper it is wholly inadequate. Unfortunately many Eastern Orthodox attempt to do the latter with theologically disastrous results. David Hart at one point refers to this as ‘pious non-sense’ and right he is. Maybe Fr Aidan has the reference to this DBH essay, as he has written in details about this controversy.

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  8. Denys Turner says:

    te Velde may want to say such things in propria persona, but to attribute the view to Aquinas that there can be no distinction that need concern us between God in godself and God as known to us though God’s effects is to fly in the face of Thomas’s clear distinction between id a quo nomen imponitur ad significandum and id quod nomen significat: the grounds on which we are entitled to say that God is good is indeed the created good that we know. What the word “good” means as of God is, in distinction, beyond our knowledge, for it is known only by God, indeed God and God’s self-knowledge are identical. This is no idle distinction to be brushed aside as te Velde does.

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    • Jonathan says:

      Help me out, properly trained folks:

      My reading of the two paragraphs quoted would suggest that te Velde is fully aware of the distinction in Aquinas to which Denys Turner is calling attention and which Robert Fortuin remarks on more obliquely in his comment about the Essence/Energies distinction. (As far as Aquinas goes, we are talking about the analogical interval, yes?) Te Velde says, “For Thomas there is no way of thinking of God concretely outside the relationship,” i.e. there is no way of conceptualizing God in godself. Am I missing something? This is not my forte, I admit, but I really thought te Velde was emphasizing precisely the analogical interval in Thomas over against a much more rigorous apophaticism in whatever he means by ‘classical theism.’ I have nothing like the necessary knowledge to know whether this is an accurate characterization of a classical theist position (I really don’t know what he means by that). But I took the main point to be that, for Thomas, God causally indwells his creation, the being of creation is the proper effect of God as actus purus, and therefore we can, through our knowledge of that creation, know something of the Creator: not the essence of the Creator in himself, but something truthful nonetheless. Te Velde is saying that Aquinas is saying we know God through his effects, not his energies. I don’t see te Velde asserting that Aquinas says we can know God in godself. Apologies if this sounds foolish, like I say it’s not my field, but I’m confused about where the conflict is supposed to lie.

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    • Robert Fortuin says:

      Denys, I am not sure te Velde means to say there is no distinction between God per se and God known through creation. But I can see the quoted pericope can be read as such. Perhaps in distancing himself from an ontotheology te Velde goes too far (or is unclear at any rate). For instance, one can take exception to his assertion that the ‘theistic God looks more like a being, a “‘self-contained substance” above and apart from the world, than the pure actuality of subsistent being itself.’ Does he mean to say for God existence is not ‘above and apart’ from creation? And that God is not an ‘entity conceivable apart from his causal relationship to created beings’ does this mean God is not an entity apart from creation, or is te Velde merely marking the limits of cataphatic theology (i.e. our ability to conceive of God beyond created effects?).

      As an aside, I do find the Palamas’ Essence/Energy distinction helpful here to frame the affirmation of the experience and encounter of God, the Unknowable uncreated energies – in contrast to a cataphatic knowledge of the Unknown. This is where, in my opinion, the usefulness of the Palamite distinction ends.

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  9. I’m curious, how does Orthodoxy deal with Thomistic simplicity with respect to actus purus? As this has been discussed in other comments, I’m sure this interacts with questions of the E/E distinction and the extension of the Divine act into creation. But, do Eastern accounts of simplicity speak to God as self-identical, pure act?

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      That’s a good question, Jedidiah. My impression is that medieval Byzantine theologians tend to think of God as infinite being rather than, as Thomas does, as pure actuality. As a result, they are more modest in their explication of divine simplicity. But I am open to correction here. As much as I have read on this topic, my brain simply cannot get a solid grasp of it.

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      • Aquinas can be accused of many things, but not modesty in explication! That said, I do think that it is possible to say that in God there is no distinction between act and being, because as Thomas explains there is no passive potency in God – he is always in the act of being himself in all of his fullness (if I understand Thomas rightly, and I’m not confident I do).
        I guess that where I get hung up when it comes to some Eastern accounts of simplicity is how the E/E distinction is articulated. If the distinction is simply an analogy that refers to the relation between the Divine essence and economy of divine action in creation, I have no objection whatsoever; but if it is ontological, I am not sure how it doesn’t contradict simplicity.

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    • Jonathan says:

      There’s a book called Orthodox Readings of Aquinas that’s supposed to be excellent.

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      • Robert Fortuin says:

        Yes Plested’s work is a worthwhile and important study, especially for those not familiar with the key issues and the internecine debate among the Eastern Orthodox on this subject.

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    • Robert Fortuin says:

      Jedidah, Eastern Orthodoxy does not have an official doctrinal position nor are all Orthodox of one mind in regards to actus purus. Most of those who I would call of the modern and neo-Palamite conviction (strong E/E distinction applied to theology proper) reject actus purus out-of-hand and without exception. The E/E distinction is understood to take priority and a non-negotiable and because in their reading actus purus is conflicts with E/E (i.e. God is act in His energies, but not in His essence), actus purus is thrown out as a western, scholastic invention. Some throw our simplicity as well. Such a reading, in my opinion, makes a royal mess out of theology proper, as the ‘reified’ E/E makes the distinction a real distinction in God a se. Fortunately this is a relatively recent development. In any case, other Orthodox like DBH, Fr Aidan and myself don’t read the E/E as a real distinction in God, but primarily belonging to St Palamas’ defense of the monastic encounter of the Uncreated (not an unimportant argument, BTW).

      A terribly short and hastily written summary and not doing justice to anyone I am afraid, so do read up on it, complex but important issues for sure.

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      • However hasty you think your response was, I found it quite helpful. Most of my interactions with Orthodox Christians leaves me highly confused on what they mean by simplicity if they are arguing for a strong E/E distinction in addition to it. Maybe this because my path to simplicity is via Reformed Scholasticism, which makes me highly sympathetic to Aquinas, especially on his articulation of pure act and the absence of passive potency in the Divine nature. My own metaphysics are probably less Thomistic these days, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think he was doing anything less than elaborating on the earlier shared traditions that spanned East and West on simplicity. So, this is all to say that to hear that there is diversity on this matter, or that Palamas has been understood differently than arguing for an ontological distinction (which seems to rule out simplicity prima facie) in the Divine nature vis-a-vis E/E helps me get a clearer sense of the contours of the debate. So, thank you.

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        • Robert Fortuin says:

          Jedidiah,

          You will find Marcus Plested’s Orthodox Readings of Aquinas quite worthwhile. He wrestles with exactly these issues that concern you. ‘In sharp contrast with the Byzantine reception of Aquinas, modern Orthodox readings have been resoundingly negative…..ranging from Sergius Bulgakov and Vladimir Lossky to John Romanides and Christos Yannaras. Such antipathy can only be understood within the context of the dichotomous approach to Orthodox theology developed by the Slavophiles in early nineteenth century Russia. This tendency towards Orthodox self-definition in opposition to the Western other has become virtually normative within modern Orthodox theology. Exceptions to this prevalent anti-Westernism are found in figures such as Georges Florovsky, Kallistos Ware, and Stelios Ramphos.’ An excerpt from the concluding chapter, ‘The aim of this study has been to open up a fresh set of perspectives on Aquinas, the Orthodox reception of Aquinas, and Orthodoxy itself. In imitation of an Orthodox icon, it has striven to operate at a level beyond the presentation of appearances and to inculcate a dynamic sense of the multifaceted reality of the centuries-long encounter between Orthodoxy and Aquinas, confounding or at least nuancing many of the stereotypes and assumptions that beset this field of study. Pre-eminent among those stereotypes ripe for rejection is the hoary assumption of theological dichotomy between Christian East and West’

          I should add to clarify that I do affirm with St Palamas the (possibility) of experiencing the Uncreated light of Tabor. This of course was/is a highly contested issue as a point of difference (as least it was cast this way) between East/West, with many in the West denying this affirmation. We are saddled with accidents of history our duty to unpack. Some will have to be sorted, others thrown out!

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