If God is eternal, immutable, and incomposite, how is it that his creation of the cosmos is not a necessary, and thus unfree and fettered, act? We have raised this question in two earlier postings on St Dionysius: “Transcending Freedom and Necessity” and “Divine Knowledge, Creation, and Modal Collapse.” The Areopagite does not directly address the question, and some readers have found unconvincing my attempts to formulate a Dionysian response. (Not to worry: I’m only convinced on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays—it’s hard to be totally convinced about anything when traveling beyond the dimensions of beingly being.) But St Thomas Aquinas addresses the question head-on in several of his writings. We shall explore his answer in this blog-series, with particular focus on the Summa Contra Gentiles.
In The Divine Names Dionysius asserts that God knows beings by knowing himself as the transcendent cause of reality: “God knows beings by a knowledge of God, and not by a knowledge of beings” (DN VII.2). Thomas develops this argument by demonstrating and elaborating the intelligence of God (SCG I.44-71) and then reworks it in terms of divine volition and free creation (I.72-96). His argument proceeds along the following distilled lines.
1) God is intelligent (SCG I.44).
How could he not be? In that God is the metaphysical explanation for the movement from potentiality to actuality—in other words, the explanation for the phenomenon of change—he is properly described as the “first self-moving being” and “absolutely unmoved mover.” This self-movement implies the ability to apprehend the Good. Thomas advances several arguments in support of his thesis. If you still doubt that God is intelligent (and if you do, why are you reading this blog?), check out this chapter of the Summa.
2) The divine intelligence is identical to his essence (SCG I.44-48).
This thesis is not surprising, given Thomas’s understanding of the divine simplicity. As Brian Davies explains: “Aquinas holds that all that is in God is God, that there is no distinction between the individual God is and the nature that God has, and that there is no distinction between God’s essence (essentia) and existence (esse). Such a position seems to entail that if God has knowledge, that knowledge is not an attribute that God has but is nothing other than the being or essence of God” (Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Contra Gentiles, p. 104). We cannot, of course, understand how this can be; but we can see that it logically must be. If God is intelligent, then he is his intelligence:
To understand is the act of one understanding, residing in him, not proceeding to something as heating proceeds to the heated thing. For, by being understood, the intelligible suffers nothing; rather, the one understood is perfected. Now, whatever is in God is the divine essence. God’s act of understanding, therefore, is His essence, it is the divine being, God himself. For God is His essence and His being. (I.45.2)
As the infinite plenitude and actuality of Being, God does not need beings external to himself to exercise intelligence; otherwise, he would be a composite of potentiality and actuality and thus a being. “Primarily and essentially,” Thomas writes, “God knows only himself … that by which God understands is nothing other than His essence. Therefore, the primary and essential object of His intellect is nothing other than Himself” (I.48.1-2). God knows himself.
3) In knowing himself God knows the beings he brings into existence (SCG I.49).
This is a key move. We tend to think of God as knowing beings analogous to the way we know beings—by observing them. But, says Aquinas, God’s knowledge of beings is unique: he knows them by knowing his essence; in this self-knowing he knows himself as their efficient cause and causing:
But God Himself is through His essence the cause of being for other things. Since He has a most full knowledge of His essence, we must posit that God also knows other things. (I.49.2)
Again, whoever knows perfectly a given thing knows whatever can be truly said of it and whatever befits it according to its nature. But it befits God according to His nature to be the cause of other things. Since, then, God knows Himself perfectly, He knows Himself to be a cause. This cannot be unless He somehow knows what He causes. This is other than He, since nothing is the cause of itself. Therefore, God knows things other than Himself. (I.49.4)
We may describe this unique mode of knowing as causal. God is not a passive observer of finite beings. His knowledge of others is neither dependent upon nor changed by their active self-presencing. If he were, he would be a composite of actuality and potentiality. God is causative of what is known. He is the ultimate quantum mechanic.
For us, beings enjoy subsistence independent of our cognitive act. The tree is there and I perceive it in its thereness. Philosophers will debate precisely what this means and how it is possible for us to know other beings (Thomas has his own thoughts about this); but the critical point is that the existence of the other is logically prior to our knowing of the other. The tree does not suddenly spring into being by my sensible and intellectual apprehension of it. It exists without my permission. But this cannot be true for God. God and creatures are distinct, yet distinct differently than the way beings are distinct from one another. Simon Oliver lucidly describes the difference:
There is only one focus of being, only one true existent, namely God. Creation, in itself, is nothing. It exists by sharing in or borrowing God’s existence according to its own finite mode of being. Creation is not outside or alongside God as an alternative focus of being, as if God and creation were separate things. In an important sense, creation is ‘in’ God and yet radically distinct because God, who is being itself, is the only source of what Aquinas calls esse commune—‘being in common’ or ‘created being’. To put the matter succinctly, God and creation do not share an abstract thing called ‘being’ in common. Creation has a participation in God’s being. Whereas God’s being is simple and one, it is received in creation in many and divided ways. This is the basis of what later became known as the analogy of being or the analogia entis. Creation exists by analogy to God who exists eternally in himself. (Creation, p. 72)
While creation is really distinct from God, the difference between God and creation is not like the difference between creatures. Why not? Take the example of the desk at which I sit. The difference between the desk and me belongs to both the desk and me. Our material natures—the wood of the desk and my body—constitute us an individual creature standing alongside each other. The difference between the desk and me is symmetrical: the desk constitutes itself as this desk and I constitute myself as this human person. The difference between God and creation, however, is not symmetrical. Creation does not establish itself as other than God in the way that the desk establishes itself as other than me. Why not? Because that would imply that creation has a self-standing, autonomous existence outside its relation to God. Rather, the source of creation’s difference from God is God’s creative act. It is God who holds creation as other than himself. In other words, unlike the desk’s difference from me, the difference that creation has from God is not properly creation’s own; it is given by God. It is ‘improper’ in the sense that it does not belong to creation to be other than God except insofar as God grants that otherness. Rather than picturing creation as standing alongside God and then receiving his gracious gifts, we are better to think even of the capacity to be a recipient of God’s gifts, including the gift of existence, as itself a gift of God. There is nothing in the relation of creation to God that lies outside God’s infinite gratuity. It is God who holds creation as other than himself so that creation can receive a participation in his likeness. If we follow the implications of creation ex nihilo faithfully, we cannot ground the difference between God and creation anywhere except in the gratuity of God’s act of creation, for outside that divine gratuity there is nothing. We can say that creation has its own existence and integrity, but it is an existence and integrity that is received from God’s gratuity. (pp. 73-74)
God is not a being but the transcendent act of being—Ipsum Esse Subsistens. God knows himself and in this self-knowing grasps himself as the doing of the world, both in its totality and particulars. Aquinas insists that we think together God’s knowledge of the divine essence and his knowledge of creatures. In one eternal, simple, and comprehensive act of self-knowing, God knows what he does and does what he knows. In Thomas’s words: “God knows Himself as primarily and essentially known, whereas He knows other things as seen in His essence” (I.49.5). God does not know beings by observing or perceiving them. He knows them by creating them, by bringing them into existence and thus granting them to participate in the existence that he is. His knowledge, therefore, extends to everything that exists: “Moreover, in knowing His essence, God knows other things in the same way as an effect is known through a knowledge of the cause. By knowing His essence, therefore, God knows all things to which His causality extends” (I.68.3).
There are several more steps to Thomas’s argument, but this much should suffice to get the discussion rolling. Stay tuned for the rest of the story.