Aquinas and Divine Freedom: God Might Have Willed Otherwise

Finally we come to the contentious question driving this series on Aquinas: Is the divine act of creation truly free?

7) God wills the world freely and non-necessarily (SCG 81–83, 88).

While it may appear that if the metaphysically simple and eternal God necessarily wills himself as his end he must also necessarily will the creatures he brings into existence, St Thomas denies the inference. Divine creation is free because the cosmos is unnecessary to his well-being and happiness, nor does it add to his well-being and happiness:

For God wills other things as ordered to the end of His goodness. But the will is not directed to what is for the sake of the end if the end can be without it. For, on the basis of his intention to heal, a doctor does not necessarily have to give to a sick person the medicine without which the sick person can nevertheless be healed. Since, then, the divine goodness can be without other things, and, indeed, is in no way increased by other things, it is under no necessity to will other things from the fact of willing its own goodness. (SCG I.81.2; emphasis mine)

Clearly Thomas’s dual commitment to actus purus and the Christian dogma of gratuitous creation (as well as the doctrine of the Trinity) is informing his reflection at this point. One might question the aptness of Thomas’s illustration of doctor and medicine, as it does not highlight the absolute gratuity of divine creation, but I suppose that all creaturely analogies break down fairly quickly at this point. We typically think of freedom of choice as selecting one course of action from among many. A doctor may prescribe one of several available antibiotics or none at all, proposing instead a regimen of rest and good nutrition or perhaps nothing at all. Let nature take its course and all will be well (hopefully). But God is already and always well. He gains nothing by creation. This is his absolute freedom. As Thomas writes: “For it was shown above that God wills His own being and His own goodness as His principal object, which is for Him the reason for willing other things“ (SCG I.80).

As we saw in my articles “To let be or not let be” and “Transcending Freedom and Necessity,” Christian theologians have long suspected the Neoplatonic tradition as positing an impersonal and therefore necessary emanation of the cosmos from the One. In response they have asserted divine volition. As St John of Damascus declares: “But God, through the exercise of will alone, has brought all things into existence out of nothing” (De Fide Orthodoxa I.8). The Angelic Doctor agrees. Interestingly, he seems to be less concerned in the Summa Contra Gentiles to defend the non-necessity of creation, which he believes is easily demonstrated by reflection upon the divine attributes, than he is in defending God’s free choice to bring into being the present world, as opposed to another. Deity is not compelled, he tells us, to realize all possibilities: “Moreover, God, in willing His own goodness, wills things other than Himself to be in so far as they participate in His goodness. But, since the divine goodness is infinite, it can be participated in infinite ways, and in ways other than it is participated in by the creatures that now exist“ (I.81.4). Given that God has not realized all possibilities in his creative act, his freedom of choice is thereby confirmed. In this series, though, I am principally interested in the gratuity and nonnecessity of creation itself.

Why did God create the cosmos? Thomas gives the only possible answer: because it was fitting according to his goodness to do so:

Moreover, the communication of being and goodness arises from goodness. This is evident from the very nature and definition of the good. By nature, the good of each thing is its act and perfection. Now, each thing acts in so far as it is in act, and in acting it diffuses being and goodness to other things. Hence, it is a sign of a being’s perfection that it “can produce its like,” as may be seen from the Philosopher in Meteorologica IV. Now, the nature of the good comes from its being something appetible. This is the end, which also moves the agent to act. That is why it is said that the good is diffusive of itself and of being. But this diffusion befits God because, as we have shown above, being through Himself the necessary being, God is the cause of being for other things. God is, therefore, truly good. (I.37.5)

The language of diffusion evokes the writings of St Dionysius the Areopagite, of whom Aquinas was a keen reader. It is appropriate that the Good should communicate being and goodness to others. Whereas God’s relation to himself is necessary and natural—infinite Good inexorably wills infinite Good—his “relation to other things is according to a certain befittingness, not indeed necessary and natural, nor violent and unnatural, but voluntary; for the voluntary need be neither natural nor violent” (I.82.9). “To have free choice befits God” (I.88.2). Hence while God is absolutely free and could have done otherwise, it was, as Stratford Caldecott comments, most certainly ”fitting that God should create all things as an image of divine Wisdom, and God will always do what is fitting, though he is not constrained to do so.  If we deny this, we are implying that his acts are merely arbitrary or whimsical. No, things are beautiful, and they are created in order to reflect and participate in the beauty of God” (The Radiance of Being, p. 195).

Thomas distinguishes between absolute and suppositional necessity. The former is exemplified in God’s willing of his divine essence: because God is the Good and all-encompassing perfection, he cannot not will himself as the Good. God cannot be happy with anything less than God, and for the very same reason he need not have willed other things. Kathryn Tanner elaborates:

The will is required to will only what is necessary for its own happiness; anything without a necessary relation to that happiness is a matter of free choice, because one can be happy without it (ST 82.2). But God includes within God’s own nature the complete perfection of all goods; therefore God necessarily wills only himself. Nothing short of God is required for God’s happiness and therefore God’s decision to create any of that is free and not necessitated. God’s will is ‘necessarily related to his own goodness, which is its proper objective. Hence he wills his own good necessarily.’ ‘But since God’s goodness subsists and is complete independently of other things, and they add no fulfillment to him, there is no absolute need for him to will them’ (ST I.19.3). (“Creation,” in The Cambridge Companion to the Summa Theologiae, pp. 152-153)

Yet once having freely and voluntarily created the cosmos, we may say that he has created by a necessity of supposition. In contrast to absolute necessity, suppositional necessity starts with the postulation of a case: “if it is the case that … then necessarily it is the case that …” Boethius called this conditional necessity. Hester Gelber cites the popular example: “while it is not necessary that Socrates must sit, it is necessary that given that he is sitting, Socrates must necessarily sit while he sits” (It Could Have Been Otherwise, p. 122). The necessity is consequent on a prior condition.

This, I’m sure, is all very interesting to logicians and scholastic philosophers, yet its relevance to the topic of divine freedom and creation is not initially obvious—until, that is, we remember that the cosmos, with all of its particulars, is an expression of suppositional necessity. We may pose counterfactual questions like “Could God have not created the world?” or “Could God have created a different world?”—yet the fact remains that not only did the good God freely choose to create a world, but he freely chose to create and redeem this world and we along with it. The facts of the case, therefore, must govern our philosophical speculation. We cannot position ourselves outside the Creator-creature relation, so as to achieve some neutral, objective perspective. We stand inescapably within this relation; indeed, we are this relation. We are creatures made from nothing and do not possess existence as our own. Hence we cannot see and judge the matter as God does. We are constrained by our apophatic condition. We do not comprehend the divine essence. We cannot fathom divine simplicity. Thomas well understands this. Hence he does not begin his theology with an a priori construal of divinity, as we find in some analytic philosophers; he begins with the mystery of the world’s ontological insufficiency and thus its dependence upon a transcendent explanation. From this he deduces the attributes and perfections of divinity. Thus Rudi te Velde:

The starting point of our knowledge of reality does not coincide with the starting point of reality itself. In order to argue that all things in fact proceed from God as from their efficient cause, we must start from the indirect and negative understanding of God on the basis of his effects … It is not possible to take one’s starting point as God himself and then to argue from God that everything else depends on him. In identifying God with ‘self-subsistent being’, the existence of finite beings which depend on God is presupposed … We do not have knowledge about God independently of the causal relation between God and creatures. Affirming that there must be a first cause which is called ‘God’, is the same as saying that the things are, in fact, effects of this cause, that is creatures. (Aquinas on God, p. 129)

Given that “the divine will is immutable,” Thomas reasons, “assuming that it wills something, God must by supposition will this thing” (I.83.2). If God freely wills to create, the effect must follow; given that we exist, it is necessary that God has freely willed us to exist. He cannot unwill what he is now willing in a second volitional act. “It is therefore necessary by supposition that He willed whatever He willed, and also that He wills it; neither, however, is absolutely necessary, but, rather, possible” (I.83.4). This may seem like a trite distinction (if something has happened or is happening, it must be), but as James Brent points out, it hammers home the fundamental truths of God’s freedom and love:

Aquinas often repeats that God wills creatures as a means to an end. What Aquinas means is that God gives esse to creatures as his way of being God or as his way of living and delighting in being himself. For “the things that we love for their own sake we want multiplied as much as possible. And God wills and loves his own essence for its own sake” [SCG 1.75.3]. Therefore, God wills the multiplication of esse, that is, God gives a share in esse to other things. And to give a share in esse to other things is God’s way of being God. Furthermore, God need not have willed (given being to) things other than himself as his way of being God. He could have and would have been God, been goodness itself, known goodness itself, loved goodness itself, possessed goodness itself, and enjoyed goodness itself, and lacked nothing, simply by being himself—even if he had never given being to anything other than himself. So it is not absolutely necessary that God will (give being to) other things. But God in fact wills to be himself in this way: by giving a share in his esse to creatures. What is the modal status of this fact? From the point of view of merely logical possibilities, that God wills creatures is contingent. But from the point of view of “conditional possibility,” that God wills creatures is necessary. For God is immutable in every respect. Therefore, his will toward creatures could not have come into being in God and could not cease to be in God. Rather, God’s act of willing creatures simply is God. Given that God in facts wills creatures, God cannot do or be otherwise. In that sense, God’s willing of creatures is necessary. (“God’s Knowledge and Will,” in The Oxford Handbook of Aquinas, pp. 165-166)

Has Thomas violated the divine simplicity? He does not think so. Given that the divine willing is his essence, and given that he has willed the world, then his production of the world is only suppositionally necessary, “because the will of God does not have a necessary relation to this willed object” (I.83.3). As Matthew Levering puts it: “God could be God without creatures, and so his willing of creatures cannot have the absolute necessity that his willing of himself has” (Engaging the Doctrine of Creation, p. 103). That is the fact of the case, as it were. Granted the making of the world by a simple, immutable, and eternal Deity, we have no choice but to accept the apparent aporia:

Indeed, there is no ‘moment’ in God’s eternity in which he does not will all that he wills; there is no God ‘prior’ to God’s will to create. In this sense, God can be said to will necessarily everything that he wills. The potency or possibility stems not from God’s will, but from the contingent nature of the finite things willed; they do not and cannot determine the divine will. (Levering, p. 103)

We can notionally distinguish between the absolute and contingent dimensions in God’s single act of willing both himself and the cosmos, but we may not separate them nor posit a real distinction. The following consequence follows, as Tanner explains:

Because it is free in this way, God’s creation of the world becomes a loving act of unconstrained generosity for what is other than God. Without any intention of profiting himself, God freely chooses to give creatures a share in what God is (ST I.19.2). What God intends is for creatures to enjoy in the limited, imperfect ways appropriate to them the goodness of God’s own perfect being. The object of God’s action is God himself as something now sharable beyond God’s own existence and nature. God’s intent, when diffusing God’s own goodness in creating the world, is only to give and never to acquire (ST I.44.4). (p. 153)

It’s all grace. Thomas did not learn this truth through philosophical reasoning. He first heard it in the faith of the Church: “The fact of saying that God made all things by His Word excludes the error of those who say that God produced things by necessity. When we say that in Him there is a procession of love, we show that God produced creatures not because He needed them, nor because of any other extrinsic reason, but on account of the love of His own goodness” (ST I.32.1).

(Return to first article)

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53 Responses to Aquinas and Divine Freedom: God Might Have Willed Otherwise

  1. Matthew Hryniewicz says:

    I’m having a difficult time accepting the idea that creation does not add to God’s well-being and happiness. Given the relationship between infinite and finite, I can see how creation would not increase God in any way, but it seems that creating something good where once there was nothing must add to divine bliss.

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    • Robert Fortuin says:

      Matthew,

      Perhaps it is helpful to think not in terms of addition, but rather that the bliss of creation already and always is/was present to God. God’s perfect bliss already includes the joy of creation.

      Not that this solves the mystery, for this divine mode of existence is not known to us. But I do think it is coherent, as if we can imagine it from a distance far, far away.
      The alternatives – an imperfect God who becomes, who is acted upon, requires actualization, etc. – are utterly incoherent and frightful.

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      • Matthew Hryniewicz says:

        Would you say that some of this is tied to God’s relationship with time? It seems to me that the idea of adding to something necessarily involves a progression. Would it therefore be proper to think that this sort of arithmetic cannot apply to God because of the nature of divine eternity/timelessness? You seem to be implying that creation does not add to God because it is already enfolded within his eternal now. It’s still very difficult to see how the scenario in which God creates is not somehow more than the scenario in which he does not. After all, there is something in the former that is not in the latter.

        I don’t quite follow how saying that God can be added to without being increased, or acted upon without being changed makes for an incoherent notion. I feel like my younger self would be arguing with me right now, but I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that I cannot recall how I made sense of this in the past. I’m in a spot right now when I feel like I’m coming at God with a fresh (read re-confused) set of eyes.

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        • Robert Fortuin says:

          Matthew,

          Yes, to me it certainly has everything to do with the nature of created time and reality vs. the nature of divine timelessness. It follows that creation is already enfolded in the eternal timelessness of God – how else could it be if we hold to creatio ex nihilo? God did not need time or stuff to bring forth creation. The act of creation was not in a moment of time – and the fact is that God did create even though He did not have to – so it follows there was never a time creation was not known to God and thus to use your words creation is “enfolded within his eternal now”. I don’t see how God can be understood to be truly transcendent (and immanent for that matter) without divine eternal enfolding.

          To Chris’ suggestion: Bifurcating God’s existence (and knowledge, we make no distinction) into essential/non-essential is neither helpful nor coherent. I don’t believe God’s essence is a very special place which can be divided from the rest of God’s being. Neither is it some substance, some thing. God’s essence is rather what and who God is, the mode of His being, the act of subsistent existence which cannot be divided, added to, or changed.

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    • It is a difficult concept, Matthew.

      It is more helpful to orient one’s thought around the idea that whatever creatures have of goodness, already exists in God in a maximal way, and would exist in him exactly the same even if creatures never existed.

      To suppose something outside of God could increase God’s goodness would just be to say that God lacked goodness, or that his goodness was incomplete. But if God just *is* goodness, where would such a new good come from?

      This is not to say that creation is not good. In fact it is. But it is to realize that it is only good because it imitates the primal and uncreated goodness of God. Not because God somehow partakes of his own goodness by enjoying creation.

      Hence I would reword Robert’s phrase, which sounds as if God is enjoying the created universe essentially in himself.

      God’s beatitude does not involve his enjoying the created universe. It involves him enjoying himself. The created universe, when it comes to be, mimics and reflects the essential life of God – imperfectly, but truly, and this is a truly good created thing. But just because it is a created good, it cannot constitute the uncreated Goodness of God.

      The error comes from thinking that God in himself is somehow denominated by or referred to creation. This cannot be. Creation itself, and everything we say about God that has creation as a constituent or referent, is itself a created reality – something God need not have brought into being. Even predicates such as “omnipotence” and “omniscience,” if they refer to creatures or are defined in any way by referencing creatures, cannot be truly describing God as he exists in himself in (we believe) Triune bliss. If they did, that would mean that God is essentially defined by creation – by his “power” to make it or his “knowledge” of it. But this is precisely what cannot be the case if God is absolutely independent of the world, fully fulfilled in himself, and a se.

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      • Matthew Hryniewicz says:

        As a point of clarification, I wasn’t supposing that anything outside of God could increase his goodness, bliss, etc. I was thinking that creation could add to God without a change to God. Sort of like if you had an infinite set of puppies and your dog had another litter. You’ve added to the set without increasing it.

        I’m starting to see now how this is inadequate, but I’d be lying if I said I had a clear idea of what’s going on. I think that I’m realizing the importance of not imagining any divine attribute in isolation from the others, and of not pressing a single analogy too far. Also, as both you and Robert have pointed out, transcendence always needs to be accounted for.

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  2. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    I just added a quotation from Stratford Caldecott on the fittingness of creation. See above.

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  3. Tanner says, “What God intends is for creatures to enjoy in the limited, imperfect ways appropriate to them the goodness of God’s own perfect being.”

    I wonder how he squares this with the eternal damnation and suffering of creatures?

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I don’t recall Tanner talking about hell in her writings.

      Where do you see a problem, Chris?

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      • How can God “intend” “enjoyment” for beings if they suffer unimaginably for no remedial purpose?

        Either his intention has failed, or “enjoyment” as an end as regards creatures seems meaningless in the sentence.

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        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          Off the top of my head: I believe that Aquinas avails himself of the distinction between the antecedent and consequent will of God in order to explain damnation. God antecedently intends the salvation of all; but permits free creatures to alienate themselves from him by their mortal sinning.

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          • So God intends to save some creatures, but not all? Or does he intend to save some unconditionally, and others, on the condition that they do not do that which they cannot possibly do, unless he unconditionally intend to save them?

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          • Not accusing you of course Al. I know what Aquinas says, and don’t find it convincing. I think if he thought the Church taught universalism he would have made his metaphysics fit that conclusion as well.

            But then, if Aquinas’ metaphysics is consistent with any doctrine of eschatology, its not much good quoting it to prove one doctrine of eschatology over another.

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      • Or somehow hell is an “appropriate” end for creatures in the first place. But this contradicts the idea that creatures are made with their end in God, for a coherent telos, for their own perfection.

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        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          David B. Hart agrees with your objection to hell, precisely on this basis, as you know.

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          • An argument for Universalism based on your recent posts on God’s freedom:

            God does not create for his own goodness. He creates for the goodness of the created. But the goodness of the created lies in its heavenly perfection. Therefore, all that God makes shall attain its heavenly perfection, for this is the very reason God created it in the first place.

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  4. Pingback: Aquinas and Divine Freedom: God Might Have Willed Otherwise — Eclectic Orthodoxy | James' Ramblings

  5. Tom says:

    As always, great work!

    Quick thoughts—

    1) I like Matthew’s idea of an ‘adding’ that is not an ‘increase’ (via infinite sets). I’ve contemplated it for years. God isn’t just another ‘infinite set’, of course, but he isn’t just another instance of any of the analogies we use to aid contemplation. More recently though I forget what the distinction is supposed to explain.

    2) “‘But, since the divine goodness is infinite, it can be participated in infinite ways, and in ways other than it is participated in by the creatures that now exist’ (I.81.4). Given that God has not realized all possibilities in his creative act, his freedom of choice is thereby confirmed.”

    I agree – but I don’t see how to agree without also admitting ‘unrealized potential’ in God, and that’s precisely what Aquinas (and classical theism) denies. What unrealized potential? All those unrealized infinite possibilities God has not, and will not, realize. What’s it mean to affirm both that “there is no unrealized potential in God” (as DBH often reminds us) and also “there is unrealized potential in God” (as Fr Al here echoes from Aquinas). I suppose one could construe the Hartian denial to refer not to all the specific potentialities/possibilities (since God does not realize all possibilities he is capable of realizing) but only to the ‘category’ of creation per se. In this sense, all possibilities for all possible creations are in fact a single potential in God (the potential to create, i.e. create at all) and that, in God, is not unrealized. I’m not sure that works. I prefer to bite the bullet and simply say that not all potential in God is ‘self-constituting’ (which cannot go unrealized for a necessary being). Some is ‘self-expressive’, and given the infinite plenitude of God’s self-constituting perfections, it then MUST be the case that there is unrealized (creative) potential in God.

    3) “Why did God create the cosmos? Thomas gives the only possible answer: because it was ‘fitting’ according to his goodness to do so.”

    To my mind this doesn’t work at all because creating freely/gratuitously by definition entails the equivalent fittedness of not creating at all, and if it is as fitting that God create as it is that he not create (which we must concede if we’re proposing the absolute gratuity of creation grounded in God’s freedom), then fittedness cannot explain ‘why’ God does what he does. If that which explains what you do (viz., the ‘fittedness’ of some action to your character and nature) would also equally and in the same sense explain your not doing what you do, then fittedness is not explanation at all.

    I don’t think there’s any answer to the question because the question cannot but proceed from within a certain structure of finite cause and effect that fails in the case of God. With the question “Why did God create?” we confront the ‘gratuity’ itself, and there can never be an answer to ‘why’ gratuity does what it does. That’s why Hartshorne was right to reject the principle of sufficient reason as having any applicability to free acts. If you can nail down a ‘why’ (in terms of, say, a strong version of the principle of sufficient reason) you destroy freedom.

    But we can’t help ourselves! The closest I can get to a sense of ‘why’ God creates is the Hindu notion of creation being “Lila” (divine “playfulness”). I might be entirely misunderstanding the idea (in which case I’ll just create my own theory) but there is a sense in which “play” is both ‘intentional’ (fitted to and expressive of a fixed character and volition) and ‘random’ (in an aesthetic, not a computational, sense). When we “play” we are putting randomness to personal use and expression. Improvisation in art and music come to mind. There is randomness at work, yes, but under the control of a character that is immutably good, for self-expressive purposes, and thus not arbitrary or irrational. But this means welcoming talk of “randomness,” and classical theologians seem dogmatically opposed to such talk.

    Tom

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    • Matthew Hryniewicz says:

      I too am puzzled by the notion that God has no unrealized potentials despite having unexercised capabilities. It seems fair to say that God could create a world with flying unicorns, but that since he did/does not then his potential to create flying unicorns is unrealized. Perhaps we could say that it is creating per se that is at issue, not specifically creating this vs that. But then we’re left with the predicament of God needing to create in order to be God (assuming that creator is a divine attribute) which limits the freedom of the act. Alternatively, it would appear that if God is not necessarily the creator then he added that attribute to himself.

      I really like the idea of divine playfulness. It does seem to tie together intentionality and gratuity in a beautiful way. When people play or musicians improvise, there are always multiple fitting options often with no compelling reason to choose one thing over another. The decisions made are more or less spontaneous and represent a choice without a rejection. The parties involved may not be able to give an account of why, but they would say that they were acting in accordance with who they are.

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      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        The question of God’s knowledge of “possibles” is a puzzler. I’m going to have to go back some day and reread what David Burrell says about this. In the meantime, Matthew, you may want to take a look at the passage in the Summa where Aquinas discusses it: http://www.newadvent.org/summa/1014.htm#article9

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      • Iain Lovejoy says:

        Surely God could only create a world specifically with flying unicorns if creation was not free. We could perhaps have had flying unicorns if some branch of evolution had unfolded that way, but it didn’t (or hasn’t yet, or who knows, has done so on some far planet somewhere else) God has sacrificed flying unicorns for a free creation. Is God not creating at all, or creating an unfree creation, a “potential” of God? If God does not do a lesser thing which he could have done, but one which is logically incompatible with a greater thing God actually did do, is failing to do the lesser in order to do the greater an unexercised potential?

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        • Matthew Hryniewicz says:

          I’m not really sure what point you’re trying to make.

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          • Iain Lovejoy says:

            God cannot do two logically incompatible things – he must do one or the other, not both. If God does one and not the other, is the one he didn’t do an “unrealised potential”?

            Arguably, the most important thing God does is create creation with free will. It is logically incompatible with a “free will” creation that God should at the same time force into existence things which do not spring up through creation’s own free will (forcing into existence flying unicorns, for example, when they do not arise naturally out of creation’s natural processes).

            You talked about a musician improvising: a musician improvising does not start by considering all the possible tunes he could play and picking one, but simply starts playing and sees whee the tune will take him. All the potential tunes he could have played are unrealised, but he could not have played them and still produced an improvised piece. The same is true of any other possible ways the improvised tune could have gone, but didn’t. If the musician chooses to let the tune take the lead rather than picking another tune himself, the way he could have taken the tune instrad is an “unrealised potential” but one incompatible with continuing to improvise. The improvised tune (a free will creation) is the fullest realisation of God’s creative potential; talking about what else God could have done differently to my mind is incoherent, since following instead the other “coulds” would involve God removing creation’s free will to choose for itself, and thus failing to realise God’s full creative potential, rather than achieving a potential not otherwise achieved.

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          • Thomas says:

            No, the potential God actualizes in acting with respect the world is in a thing in the world, not himself.

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          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            “No, the potential God actualizes in acting with respect the world is in a thing in the world, not himself.”

            Thomas, this doesn’t sound quite right. Given that God creates from out of nothing, there is no potentiality for God to actualize in creating. Even prime matter (pure potency), says Aquinas, is created. Isn’t that right?

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          • Thomas says:

            Fr. Kimel:

            That is how I understand Aquinas. But I don’t think there’s a conflict here. When God creates, he is the cause of the act of being in things. Apart from an act of being, there is nothing. However, the act of being actualizes a potency: the essence of the thing. Combined with an act of being, an essence is a real potency. Without an act of being, there exist no essences at all.

            So when God acts in the world, the potentialities he actualizes are only because they are actualized. But they are still potentialities actualized by esse. What does not happen (on Aquinas’ view) is that God actualizes something in himself when he acts with respect to the world. His actions, like that of all agents, occur in the recipient of that action. And in the case of creation, the recipients only exist at all because they are recipients of God’s creative act.

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          • Matthew Hryniewicz says:

            I think that part of what has always confused me with regard to talk of act and potency here is the relationship between being and doing. There seems to be crucial differences between act = what a thing is / potency = what a thing could be, and act = what a thing is doing / potency = what a thing could do. I must admit here that I have never read Aquinas and the extent of what I think I know about philosophy comes from perusing blogs so I’m not likely to have a firm grasp of this stuff.

            Here’s what I’m thinking and I’d like to hear any correctives. A potential in one thing can only be actualized by something that is already actual. But the act of actualizing something seems itself to be an actualization of a potential with the thing doing the actualizing, e.g. the potential to do x to y. It would seem then that to do anything is to actualize a potential in both the self and the other. But now of course I’ve reasoned myself into a hole because on this analysis, in order for God to not have unactualized potential he would have to be doing everything that he can do. Someone throw me a rope!

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          • Robert Fortuin says:

            Matthew,

            You would only need a rope IF God were conceived of as a cause amidst the cosmic chain of causes and effects (even if conceived of as the first cause in such a chain). But such an onto-theology is denied – this denial can be expressed in different ways, such as the affirmation that God is what He does; that in God there is a perfect identity of God’s existence and essence (his nature is to be, the act of being); and that God has no real relation to creation. Now this is a terribly short summary, and each of these would need to be carefully unpacked. I think though each of these and related affirmations are fairly well explicated by Fr Aidan posts, the reference material, and in the comments as well. The traditional starting point is the uncreated/created division of being; the divine simplicity; divine perfection; and the analogy of being. Everything else follows from these.

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          • Matthew Hryniewicz says:

            Hi Robert,

            I guess that most of that has repeatedly gone right over my head. I’ve seen those terms enough times to trick myself into thinking that I know what they mean, but I couldn’t really explain any of them.

            Take for example, the claim that God is what he does. It’s natural for me to reason from here that anything God does not do, God is not. From there it seems to follow that if God could do something that he has not done, then God could be something that he is not. But this is obviously not going to fly. So I remind myself that any true positive affirmations we make about God are to be understood analogically because God transcends all of our creaturely categories, but then I’m immediately confronted with the fact that I do not know what that really means. I think I can see that it is more than metaphysical sleight of hand to get out of a conundrum, but it feels like stepping into a fog. I’d really like to be able to see the truth delineated with sharp, perceptible boundaries, yet clarity of vision is really about accurately perceiving what reaches the eyes regardless of whether it is cloudy or not. Something like that…

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          • Robert Fortuin says:

            Matthew,

            As you know these claims in one form or another and expressed in various ways have been affirmed from the early beginnings of Christianity, indeed by Christ himself (such as when he shocks with “before Abraham was, I am” Wait a minute, what??). These claims have been expressed to advert to us that this God is unlike any other; to jar our sensibilities, that we can and must think differently if we are to conceive truthfully this God who reveals himself as the ineffable I AM. We must depart from ordinary ways of thinking. But perhaps foremost these claims are symbolic “goal posts” – apophatic principles by which we know what God is like by affirming what He is not. Such ‘negative’ theology frustrates our quest for nailing down a precise formula of “how things are exactly” but on the other hand I believe a qualified apophaticism safeguards against creating God in our image. We must learn to live with this tension present in the analogy of likeness and unlikeness. But it is a good place, a place of awe and wonder, a place of worship, an infinite exploration and engagement, without end, into the mystery of love who beckons us to partake of his banquet laid out for all.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Robert Fortuin says:

            Kindred spirits here: https://youtu.be/1X2Buxlcv6g
            Gets especially good around minute 8:00.

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          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            Matthew, I wouldn’t worry that all this “metaphysics,” particularly Thomas’s notion of God as act, going over your head. You’re in good company! What is important is bringing negative theology into play at some point in your theological reflection. Thomas does it at the beginning of the Summa, right after demonstrating the existence of God; but there’s no reason why it cannot be employed at a later point. But if it’s never brought into play, I don’t know how one can ever glimpse–and all we can achieve is a glimpse–the radical transcendence of the Creator.

            If God as act (i.e., the impossibility of distinguishing between God’s essence and actuality) doesn’t work for you, then ponder on God’s infinity, as St Gregory of Nyssa did. That will bring you to the same place. Ditto for Anselm’s proposal that God is that “than which nothing greater can be thought.”

            Liked by 2 people

      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Tom, I do like your image of divine playfulness. Maybe it, along with the image of an artist, is the best we can come up with to explain what cannot be explained—namely, the gratuity of love.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Of interest here is David Burrell’s essay “Creation and Actualism.”

      Liked by 1 person

    • I agree with lots here – in particular with what Tom says regarding the unsatisfying (and self-refuting) explanation Aquinas gives as to why God created: i.e. because it was “fitting.”

      This “fitting reason” that causes creation is either something that compels God and necessitates his act, or not. If it does, then creation is not free. If it does not, then the reason itself cannot explain the act – for the reason can be present and the act not.

      In fact, if God creates freely, any supposed reason we give is not really anything in God – some internal state, some state of will or intention, some desire – for everything that is in God is identical to the divine essence and is therefore entailed by positing the existence of God. But then, if you posit the existence of God, and if you likewise posit some “reason” in him (motive, volition, desire, etc.) to create, and then creation becomes necessary on the simple supposition of God alone.

      As Tom says, if creation is truly free, positing a “reason” for its existence can go no further than simply a reference to the divine essence as a whole in itself. Why did God create? All we can is that he just did. Rather than point to some reason *in* him, all we can do is simply point to him as that which freely gives rise to the world.

      Now, a reason can certainly be in *the world.* That is, the world can still exist because it manifests the divine, or because it allows creatures to enjoy God. But this reason is nothing in God himself. Rather, it is a statement about the telos and ordering and relation in the world itself *to* God.

      Speaking of unrealized potentialities in God is I think incoherent. God as the infinite act of to be, cannot have potentialities, unrealized or realized. All possibilities which we conceive are really creations – either things that exist in our minds, or things which exist in the world. To say “God could have made another world” is only to say that another world could exist and could have been brought about by God. But, since we do not say that God creating the world involves any movement in him or change or increase or difference, to say he could create otherwise than he does is not to say that he has unrealized potential. It is to simply say something about the nature of the worlds that could have existed, but do not.

      The act of creation is simply the world qua dependent on God. That is, there is in reality only God – who is simply himself, the infinite act of being – and that which depends on him and is referred to him. God and the world are not inhabiting equal metaphysical space, nor does God need to internally do anything, say bring about some change in him, in order to create the world. All he need do is cause it to exist, which he does by freely causing it to depend on him. Since this creative action is free, then God himself is identical in either case: whether it exists or not. Therefore there can be no sense in which, had God not created, or had he created otherwise, he would somehow be different (containing then unrealized potencies).

      Liked by 1 person

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Given the prior foundation Aquinas has laid, I’m not sure if we should think of “unrealized possibilities,” which makes it sound as if God could have been, if he had so chosen but didn’t, to be an even greater God. More beings does not mean more being—at least not if God is indeed the infinite fullness of being. As E. L. Mascall put it (somewhere): “When God has created the world, there are plura entia but not plus entis, more beings but not more being.”

      Of course, it’s possible that God has indeed created an infinite number of universes, thus fulfilling the multiverse dreams of cosmological physicists. It would certainly be fitting, I would think, if he has done so. But if he hasn’t, that too is fitting.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Tom says:

        Fr Aidan: It would certainly be fitting, I would think, if he has done so. But if he hasn’t, that too is fitting.

        Tom: I agree – which is why a possibility’s being ‘fitting’ (say, God’s realizing a multiverse) cannot explain why it is actualized rather than some other equally fitting possibility (say, God’s creating our universe and not a multiverse).

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Tom, I think I disagree with you regarding fittingness as a reason for creation. You seem to come close to saying that the gratuitousness of creation requires indifference upon God’s part, something like flipping a coin; but that can’t be right. Once we know that God is goodness and love (and Thomas’s Christian faith cannot but be informing his reflection at this point), we can certainly see how it is fitting, appropriate, suitable for God to have created. Aquinas appeals explicitly to the divine goodness: “For it was shown above that God wills His own being and His own goodness as His principal object, which is for Him the reason for willing other things“ (SCG I.80). Not a necessary and coercive reason, perhaps, but a reason nonetheless.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. bosrac says:

    “Has Thomas violated the divine simplicity? … We can notionally distinguish between the absolute and contingent dimensions in God’s single act of willing both himself and the cosmos, but we may not separate them nor posit a real distinction.”

    Fr Nikolaos Loudovikos in his article, “Striving for Participation”, argues that Aquinas’ discussion of absolute / contingent Will is the moment at which Aquinas “suspends” his usual theological frame by a happy contradiction and emerges as Palamite: https://books.google.com/books?id=pJoABAAAQBAJ&pg=PA141.

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    • Thomas says:

      Aquinas is not making a real distinction here, only a distinction on our mode of thinking. Not being very familiar with Palamas, my impression has been that he makes a real distinction. The parallel between Palamas’ notion of energies and St. Thomas’ notion of operatio has occurred to me before. Perhaps if Palamas does not regard the distinction as a real one there is more common ground that I realized.

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  7. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Bill Vallicella has weighed in on this series on Aquinas: “God, Simplicity, Freedom.” Read his article and see if his critique touches Aquinas.

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    • Thomas says:

      Vallicella has several mistaken assumptions here.

      One is the significance of the statement:

      > “the contingent nature of the finite things willed” does not determine the divine will.

      The point here is not simply that “the finite things willed depend entirely on the divine will”. as Vallicella has it. The Thomist view strongly qualifies what it means to say “God wills the world”, by denying that God has an act of will with the world as its object. St. Thomas narrows down what he means by will quite strongly. It mostly means that God as the good, is that towards which any existent is in some way ordered. And St. Thomas offers the further qualification that the statement attributes no difference to God than if we were to will otherwise.

      Vallicella is raising a mostly separate issue with the issue of abstract objects. St. Thomas does not regard these as independent entities; they exist when concretely instantiated or thought about. The proposition “7 is prime” is necessarily true, but the proposition neither exists necessarily nor independently. Propositions or concepts about the number 7 exists in your mind when you think about them, separately in others minds when they think about them, in God’s mind (though not as really distinct from other ideas), and arguably in a set of seven things. But it is contingent in the sense that, as a formal intelligibility, it requires an act of existence to be. This is a pretty prominent feature of St. Thomas’ thought.

      St. Thomas’ demonstration that form and existence differ in all cases save one, and his explanation of how form receives existence (either intentionally or really) more or less solve the general drift of this objection. Even if we grant there is any merit to the possible worlds business.

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  8. If I am tracking with Aquinas here, I think that he might be explaining too much, and in so doing leave the door open for the kind of modal collapse Vallicella describes. Perhaps there are modes of logic that might preserve one from actual collapse, but I am no modal logician (like I’ve said before, I don’t speak math). I still find myself preferable to Dionysus on this account because I think he does a better job at leaving some mysteries to rest, because he names God as Creator, which entails necessity while still ascribing freedom through his appeal to the beyondness of Divine transcendence where created intellect breaks down into a kind of unknowing that is productive of true knowledge. The best analogy I can think of is the notion of singularities in physics (Big Bang, black holes, etc.), we know such things exist, but the laws of physics break down at these points, and no meaningful description can be offered over what is ‘happening’ in a singularity. Perhaps this is the same case in Divine simplicity, where we can in some sense name what is in the Simple, but we simply do not have a logic for the inner workings of the Divine and how this relates to creation. I could be accused to bowing to the mystery too easily here, or that I’m just not smart enough to track fully with the logic, but I am not sure that in untangling one knot we aren’t creating more down the line.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I’m with you on this, Jed. Analytic philosophers seem to come at all of this differently than folks like Aquinas. I’m still not sure why that is. I guess it’s tied into the univocity issue that our Brian periodically warns us about. One thing for sure, they don’t seem to get at all the vision of divine transcendence that one finds in folks like Hart, McCabe, Turner, or Burrell.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    I have fixed the links I provided in my comments above. For some reason, hyperlinks sometimes do not come out right when I am using my iPad. I have no idea why. I had to fix them using my Mac.

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  10. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Stay tuned, folks, for my series next week on Hugh McCann. He has an interesting solution to some of the problems identified above.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Over on Facebook, Robert Barry suggested that I take a look at ST I.19. As far as I can tell, nothing here contradicts anything I have written in this article, but please take a look and see what you think. Also here is a blog commentary on this question.

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  12. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    I have uploaded an interesting article by John Wippel criticizing Norman Kretzmann’s necessitarian interpretation of Aquinas. Some who have been following this thread may find it of interest.

    Liked by 1 person

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