February 8, 2009

Thomas Aquinas on Creation (Or How to Read Thomas Aquinas)
3. Creation and Intentionality

Filed under: — William Witt @ 11:21 pm

William G. Witt

AquinasAttempts to state the relation between God and the world are often caught in the dilemma of choosing between necessity and freedom. If one does not accept the Christian distinction between God and the world, it is possible to construe everything that exists as the inevitable and necessary consequence of the necessity of the divine existence (as in Ibn Sina’s emanationism). On the other hand, the recognition of the distinction between God and creatures entailed in the Christian doctrine of creation from nothing can lead to a sort of elation and exaggeration in which the formulation of the God-world relation is one of anti-naturalism rather than super-naturalism. This is especially a temptation if the relation between God and creatures is not understood in terms of analogy. A tendency to glorify the priority of God and his grace over all created structures can manifest itself in the assumption of the “equivocity” of being—the total unlikeness of God and creatures. Any motive or divine purpose in creation then becomes unintelligible and the existence of creatures becomes simply a result of the inscrutable divine fiat. The recognition of God’s freedom and self-sufficiency—his independence from external coercion and the fact that he needs nothing outside himself to complete his being—can lead to the assumption that God’s creation of the world is an essentially capricious act. The paradigm that comes to dominate is that of absolute will, understood (paradoxically) in a “univocal” manner. A notion of personal will, derived from natural experience, is placed over against nature as the model for the transcendent. The problem with this picture (as Eugene R. Fairweather has pointed out) is that it leads to incoherence: “The theology of sheer will is ultimately incapable of maintaining the transcendent reality of God, because its very concept of divine will, if an analogical interpretation of the divine-human relation is excluded, must be either surreptitiously univocal or totally contentless.” A univocal notion of personal will attached to the God who is “wholly other” becomes a “transcendent self-assertion minus a self,” a Cheshire grin without a cat. (1)

Whether any Christian theologian has ever actually maintained the doctrine of the arbitrary will of God, at least some have come close. In particular, many of the theologians associated with the late Medieval Augustinian tradition upheld a doctrine of the primacy of the will that bordered on capriciousness. John Duns Scotus (1265/66-1308) is sometimes associated with this position, but whether he was a voluntarist is debated. Scotus affirmed the priority of will over intellect, not only human beings, but also in God. Scotus did not understand creation to be an irrational act of God, and for that reason many scholars prefer not to speak of Scotus’s “voluntarism.” (2)

Still, it is arguable that Scotus’s theology has voluntarist tendencies. Against the Thomist/Aristotelian position that the will is moved by known goods, Scotus insisted that the will is an “unmoved mover,” and in his earlier views argued that the will willed simply because it was the will. (In his more developed views, he gave the intellect a more prominent role in free choice.) His doctrine of creation as God’s actualization by a simple act of divine will of one out of an infinite number of possibles known by God in his infinite intellect seems to blur the distinction between actual and mental realities, hearkening back to the earlier essentialismof Ibn Sina. In the area of morality, Scotus argued that while the first table of the Ten Commandments (the commands to love and worship God alone) reflected an unalterable moral order, God could freely dispense with the second table of the Ten Commandments (the commands that demand love of the neighbor as oneself). (3)

A theology that affirmed the primacy of God’s will and freedom as its central tenet and which came close to saying that God’s actions are capricious appeared in the writings of those late Medieval theologians (such as William of Ockham and Gabriel Biel) usually called “Nominalists.” The fundamental distinction in the nominalist doctrine of God is that between God’s absolute and ordained power (de potentia absoluta and de potentia ordinata). This distinction goes back to the eleventh century and was used by Aquinas and others. (4) Briefly stated, the distinction means, first, that God can do and has done certain things according to laws that he has freely established (de potentia ordinata). In God’s absolute power (de potentia absoluta), he can do anything that does not imply contradiction, whether he has decided to do these things de potentia ordinata or not, and there are thus many things that God has the ability to do that he does not do and never will do.

For Aquinas, Bonaventure, and others, this distinction was an affirmation of the freedom of God and his sovereignty in the realms of creation and grace, i.e., it was a way of affirming the Christian distinction between God and the world. William of Ockham (c. 1285-1349), however, wrested the distinction between God’s absolute and ordained power from its original context and began to use it frequently.

The key to Ockham’s use of the Absolute/Ordained Power distinction was his conception of human freedom—which he understood as radical contingency, total self-determination. According to Ockham, the will is an “unmoved mover.” Ockham projected this understanding of will as absolute contingency into the divine being and, as David W. Clark emphasizes, initiated “an unstable relationship between absolute possibility and ordained fact . . . According to Ockham, God’s creative activity is not merely autonomous, it is radically contingent. The difference between possibility and fact must be decided from moment to moment . . . Whatever is ontologically possible might be ordained tomorrow.” (5)

For Ockham, the idea of God’s absolute power was a means of preserving God’s direct intervention in events normally assigned to secondary causality, but it could also mean the creation of other or better worlds or the sudden alteration of the entire structure of natural causality. In the realm of nature, this meant that the known world was one of many that God could have created (short of violating the law of contradiction) and no reason could be given for God’s having created this present order except that his omnipotent will had decided to do so. Ockham refused to allow that the divine liberty is restrained by “eternal ideas,” or the “natural necessities” of “common natures.” (6)

Ockham claimed that in the moral realm, God’s absolute freedom has priority over any moral structures. God does not do something because it is just or right, but rather something is right because God has so willed it. William Courtenay concedes that Ockham “placed within the absolute power of God actions that seemingly contradicted God’s goodness. justice, or wisdom.” For instance, Ockham speculated that God could command acts of murder or theft, and that they would then be just, or that God could justly command a human being to hate God himself. (7)

In the realm of grace, Ockham held that the created human will was capable of its own volition and nature to produce meritoriously good actions without the infused grace of God de potentia absoluta. Heiko Obermen has noted that the theologies of both Ockham and his disciple Gabriel Biel were, at heart, Pelagian. (8)

Contemporary evaluations of Ockham’s utilization of the distinction between absolute and ordained power in God differ. William J. Courtenay (in an attempt to rehabilitate Ockham) notes the change in scholarly interpretation of Nominalism since the 1930’s and argues that Ockham’s position is generally in line with that of the thirteenth century and was not the doctrine of a capricious and arbitrary God. (9) David W. Clark, on the ether hand, argues persuasively that Ockham’s theology subverts Christian faith and has questionable pastoral value. (10)

At the least, it seems that Ockham’s position leads to an authoritarian fideism. If God’s unfathomable and absolutely unconditional will is the only explanation for the existence of the universe and the redemption of humans, and if that will acts completely without reason or motive (at least as far as we can discern), then the intelligibility of faith disappears. If the answer to all questions is “because God has so willed,” then the believer can only receive God’s revelation as it has been given (while secretly hoping that the Almighty will not change his mind) and ask no more questions.

It would be incorrect to say that Thomas Aquinas’s understanding of creation is simply opposed to that of William of Ockham. Any theologian who wishes to preserve the Christian distinction between God and creatures and who recognizes the radical contingency of creatures which that distinction presupposes must agree with Ockham that creation is the free act of God. Creation is in no sense necessary; it is entirely gratuitous, and God would not have been impoverished if he had not created anything at all.

Thomas incorporated this distinction between Creator and creature throughout his theological reworking of the philosophical heritage passed on to him by his predecessors. According to Aquinas, creation is God’s act as a free agent. Thomas’s understanding of that distinction was not, however, one of Absolute Will set over against a disposable universe. His use of “analogy,” “participation,” and “perfection” language points directly away from a too easy equivocal or univocal understanding of the relation between Creator and creature in terms of sheer will. Rather, the metaphor or image Thomas adopted to express that relation is one of creation as an intentional activity of knowing and loving. (11)

Aquinas’s use of intentionality as the metaphor to describe creation comes to the fore in his discussion of the divine operations (S.T. 1.14-25). Mention of the “divine operations” (as of “divine attributes”) is bound to be met with a suspicious lifting of the eyebrow by the theologian who has been schooled in the metaphysics of divine simplicity. Interpreters of Aquinas note that the “operations” of God are simply expressions of the one infinite simple and self-identical intellect-will. St. Thomas himself was careful to guard against any misunderstandings. Again and again he reminded his readers that intellect, will, essence and existence are identical in the divine simplicity. “Remember,” he said, “that all these, namely, intelligence, will, and power, are identical in God.” (1.19.5 reply obj 4). Specifically, intellect (or understanding) is intentionality ordered toward being as knowable (or true), while will (or love) is intentionality ordered toward being as desirable (or good). Since being insofar as it is, is also one, and all being converts with goodness, and goodness is inherently desirable, intellect and will are simply the two different ways in which intentionality orients toward the transcendental character of being: one, true, good, beautiful.

So St. Thomas, while continuing to affirm the divine simplicity, utilized without hesitation the distinction between intellect and will to affirm that creation is an intentional act of knowing and loving. If the priority of God’s will was a major theme in late Medieval theology, it is a theme that stands in contrast to Aquinas’s portrayal of the priority of the divine intellect. Thomas said, “There is will in God, as there is intellect; since will follows upon intellect.” (1.19.1) (12)

For Aquinas, creation is a kind of knowing. Unlike the Unmoved Mover of Aristotle, the God of Christian theology is not blissfully unaware of the existence of contingent things. According to St. Thomas, God’s knowledge is a logical corollary of his immateriality. In Thomas’s epistemology, a being is capable of knowing to the extent that it is immaterial, and “since God is immaterial in the highest degree . . . it follows that he has knowledge in the highest degree.” (1.14.1). Since God is the pure act of existing, his intellect is identical in every way with that which he knows and that which he is. He knows himself and everything else that exists through his own essence.

This “priority of the intellect,” i.e., Aquinas’s interpretation of creation and other divine action in terms of intentionality, is developed more fully in his discussion of the divine ideas. His purpose in speaking of the divine ideas was not to draw a map of the divine mind, nor to enable the human being to bridge the gap between finite and infinite, and he guarded against such misinterpretation. (For example, one does not find speculation in Aquinas about God’s knowledge of various possible worlds [as in Scotus], nor of God’s knowledge of what creatures would do under various circumstances if one such possible world would be actualized [as in Molinist “middle knowledge” scenarios].) Thomas argued that to speak of a plurality of ideas in God does not mean that the divine intellect is formed by a plurality of “species,” but that the divine intellect knows many things. Aquinas reminded his readers that the divine ideas are identical with the one simple divine essence—about which we can know only that it is, not what it is (1.15.2). Aquinas thus avoided the dangers of univocity.

In speaking of divine ideas, Aquinas intended to emphasize that the act of creation is neither necessary, nor arbitrary, but intentional, and therefore, intelligible. It was another way in which Thomas refused the options of either naturalism or anti-naturalism, and instead embraced a thoroughgoing super-naturalism. Robert Sokolowski expresses the point:

Through the doctrine of the divine ideas Aquinas avoids the alternative between natures arbitrarily constructed and natures determined independently of God. “What things are” retains its necessity because the essences of things are the ways esse can be determined; but esse subsists only in God, so the basis for the determination of things is not distinct from him; it is his own existence. (13)

The paradigm or metaphor that Thomas used to illustrate the doctrine of the divine ideas is that of an architect constructing a house. The plan of the house already exists in the mind of the architect before the house is made. In the case of all intentional agents, the “intelligible form” of anything produced exists in the mind prior to its actual production. For Aquinas, this is the best metaphor to use to illustrate divine causality. The relation between Creator and creatures is not to be understood as if it were a case of sheer will exercising infinite power over against nothingness or as the simple choice of one possible world rather than another, but along the lines of an artisan bringing something new into existence according to a pre-conceived plan.

Thomas said, “Now since the world is not made by chance, but is made by God’s acting as an intelligent agent . . . there must be in the divine mind a form, to the likeness of which the world is made, and that is what we mean by an idea.” (1.15.2). Since God knows his essence perfectly, he also knows all the ways in which its perfections can be imitated by creatures. According to Aquinas, “God, in knowing his essence as imitable in this particular way by this particular creature, knows his essence as the nature and Idea proper to that creature.” (1.15.2). As principles of the production of created things, the divine ideas are exemplars. As principles of the knowledge of those things that God is capable of bringing into existence, they are intelligible natures (1.15.3). The notion of participation, which was seen to play a central role in Aquinas’s understanding of a hierarchical and analogically ordered universe, resurfaces in his doctrine of the divine ideas.

This leads to Thomas’s affirmation (which at first seems perplexing) that God’s knowledge is the cause of the existence of those things he knows. The key to unraveling this paradoxical statement is to realize that God’s knowledge of created things is more properly construed as practical knowledge rather than speculative knowledge. God’s knowledge is more like knowing how to do such and such than like knowing that such and such is the case. The image of an architect already has been introduced. Thomas also used the metaphor of an artisan to describe God’s creative knowledge. As a craftsmaker’s or artist’s knowledge is the cause of his products, so is God’s knowledge the cause of his. The artist’s work is only a conception until she puts it on canvas or carves it in stone. Intellectual activity must be accompanied by volition to produce an effect. So the principle of God’s activity, like that of the artist, is God’s intellect, accompanied by his will. Aquinas said, “[I]t is clear that God causes things through his intellect, since his existence is his act of knowing. His knowledge, therefore, must be the cause of things when regarded in conjunction with his will.” (1.14.8)

This raises the perennial problem of the relation between divine knowledge and causality on the one hand, and human free will actions, on the other, and demands a bit of an excursus. Human artisans do not create fellow “intentional” beings. What they create is simply what it is. Even when we speak of a dramatist’s characters as having a “life of their own,” the expression is metaphorical. The characters do what the artist intended and no more (although the work of a good writer or poet will sometimes “say” or “mean” more than the artist intended). If God’s knowledge is the cause of things, is it also the cause of our free will actions, in which case, how can they truly be free? The strengths of the artisan model are also accompanied by weaknesses. It works well when discussing the existence of non-rational and non-living beings, but creates problems when discussing God’s knowledge as causative in relation to intentional beings.

St. Thomas did not conclude, as some have (e.g., Luther or Calvin, or those who have opted for divine “pre-motion” of human actions, i.e., Bañez), that divine knowledge determines human action. To do so would have been to pull the rug out from under his enterprise. If the controlling metaphor in Aquinas’s discussion of divine creativity is human intentionality, St. Thomas hardly could have safeguarded divine freedom in creating by denying human freedom. This would have meant sacrificing the paradigm of intentionality that was his starting point. Unlike Luther, who asked how human freedom could be compatible with divine foreknowledge, Aquinas asked the opposite question. He was so convinced of the reality of human freedom that he posed the question, “Does God know contingent future events?” (1.13.14).

Aquinas seems to have left the question of how God both knows and causes human free will acts a mystery. He used the language of concurrence (or dual causality) to describe this situation, but not to explain it. As the First Mover, God moves human wills to the universal object of will, the good. Without this concurrent movement the human being could will nothing. On the other hand, the human being determines him- or herself (through reason) to will a particular good (2-1.9.6). Modern interpreters of St. Thomas tend to respect this mystery for what it is, so as not to try to bridge the gap between finite and infinite causality in a univocal manner. It is more and more realized that later attempts to solve this dilemma have been marred by faulty methodology and conclusions. (14)

It should be kept in mind that any positive affirmations made by Aquinas about God and his relations to creatures are always accompanied by denials of the ability of the human creature to know the divine essence as it is in itself. In this connection distinctions must be maintained between analogy and metaphor. Perfection terms are predicated of God analogously. Images and models used by St. Thomas to illustrate a point are essentially metaphorical and cannot be pressed as literal descriptions. The artisan paradigm is precisely such a metaphor or model. It├íserves well to illustrate that creation is an intentional act and that God’s knowledge of created reality is practical, not speculative. The model serves less well to describe God’s knowledge of the contingent free actions of rational creatures.

Thomas seems to have been aware of the limitations of the artisan metaphor because he did not use it when discussing the problem of God’s “foreknowledge” of contingent events. Rather, Aquinas approached this problem by first making a distinction between eternity and time. Since God is not limited by temporality, he does not, properly speaking, “foreknow” anything. Contingent events are known by God in an “eternal present.” When Thomas proposed a model or metaphor to describe this state of affairs, he did not reintroduce the artisan paradigm (the picture of an intentional agent bringing an idea to production) but introduced a new metaphor, that of vision, “as,” St. Thomas said, “when I see Socrates sitting down.” Aquinas went on to say that “contingent events are known infallibly by God because they are the objects of the divine gaze in their presence to him.” (

It would seem that not enough has been made of Thomas’s employment of two metaphors to describe God’s knowledge of created reality: the image of an artisan when speaking of the divine knowledge as the cause of the very existence of things; the image of vision when describing God’s knowledge of contingent future events. If taken literally the models are probably mutually incompatible. Attempts to take the models literally tend to emphasize one over the other. Thus, theories of “middle knowledge” tend to focus on the metaphor of “vision” (as “speculative” rather than practical knowledge—God knows what any “possible creature” would do in any possible situation), while those theories of “pre-motion” to which they are opposed focus on divine knowledge as causative. If the models are taken literally as a key to decipher the workings of the divine mind, they are incomplete and misleading. Taken as metaphors, however, they are complementary. The artisan paradigm emphasizes the divine intentionality and freedom in creation as well as creaturely dependence on God. Its weakness is that (if pushed to its limits) it reduces “natural necessities” to the status of ruminations of the divine mind. The vision paradigm allows for divine knowledge of the intentional and free actions of creatures, while, at the same time, maintaining the integrity of these actions as contingent events without denying their autonomy. Its danger is that of omitting the divine concurrence, of overlooking the fact that, even in its autonomy, both the creature and its actions are totally dependent on divine creative causality for their very existence. The rational creature exists in freedom only because freely created. The freedom of the creature places neither an obstacle nor a limitation on divine freedom. Moreover, Aquinas’s own metaphor of knowledge of vision (in contrast to Molinist “middle knowledge” scenarios) focuses on God’s “vision” of free will actions as they are present to God in their very actuality as existing, not as speculations about what possible (and not existing) creatures “would do” in any possible world. Those creatures that God knows as presently existing are present to God precisely because God acts as agent in giving them existence. For Aquinas, practical knowledge and knowledge of vision are two sides of the same coin.

Once it is perceived that God’s knowledge is creative and the cause of those things that are, a distinction between divine and human knowledge becomes apparent. Divine knowledge is a priori and causative. Things exist because God knows them: “[T]hey are real because they are thought creatively, that is, they have been fashioned by thought.” (15) Human knowledge, however, is a posteriori. We know things because they exist and are fashioned by God. (The artisan, who provides the model for Aquinas’s model of intentional creative causality, is somewhat of an exception to this rule. The artist can, from pre-existing materials, bring into existence things that are not before he had conceived them. Dorothy Sayers and J. R..R. Tolkien called this ability of the artist, “sub-creation.” (16) It is one of the marks of being created in the divine image.) Natural created things, known by God in giving them existence, known by us in having been given existence by God, mediate between God’s knowledge and ours. As St. Thomas said:

Natural things stand between God’s knowledge and ours; for we get our knowledge from natural things, of which God is the cause through his knowledge. Hence, just as the knowable things of nature are prior to our knowledge, and are its measure, so God’s knowledge is prior to natural things and is their measure. (1.14.8).

According to Josef Pieper, this mediation is the foundation of St. Thomas’s epistemology. Things can be known by us because thought by God. As thought by God, they have their own natures, but also have a reality for us. They are essentially intelligible. On the other hand, this intelligibility can never be fathomed fully because the exemplary causes of the things known are hidden in the inaccessibility of the divine mind. As created effects they always reveal something of the perfection of the divine essence but are never able to exhaust its intelligibility and infinite capacity for imitation. (17)

It is only in the light of St. Thomas’s use of intentional activity as the paradigm of God’s creative efficient causality that Aquinas’s discussion of divine will and omnipotence—those foremost concerns or much late Medieval theology—is properly understood. To affirm that intellect and will are conjoined in the act of creation is to affirm two complementary things. First (and this cannot be overemphasized), it is to say that God creates freely and without compulsion. It is impossible to find a cause for the act of creation except God’s free choice. Thomas said: “We cannot but hold that God’s will is the cause of things and that he works through will, and not, as some have thought, through necessity of his nature.” (1.19.4).

Second, this affirmation means that the intentional act of creation is intelligible and purposeful. If there is no cause for the act of creation, there are reasons. According to Aquinas, God’s “will is necessarily related to his own goodness . . .” (1.19.3). God’s goodness is indeed self-sufficient, self-subsistent, and complete in itself, and God has no inherent need to create other things in order to fulfill something that might be lacking in his nature. This should not be interpreted to mean (as it is sometimes) that Thomas understood God to be “self-satisfied” or “smug” or “indifferent” to that which he has created. What it does mean is that God, as that Pure Act of fullness of existence which is identical with the goodness that is his nature, lacks nothing of that goodness that is essential to his being or happiness, and that the act of creation is, therefore, entirely gratuitous and beneficent. God creates entirely for the benefit and beatitude of the creature, not for his own fulfillment.

Aquinas held that it is a tendency of that which is good to share its goodness with others. A person of good will characteristically shares his or her goodness with other people. This is especially true of God, whose gifts of creation and grace are completely altruistic and without any taint of that element of self-seeking that invariably accompanies even the most generous of human actions. In contrast to those in the Augustinian tradition who have emphasized that God’s motive for creating the world was to manifest his sovereignty and glory by blowing his own horn, (18) Aquinas sided with others in the Greek patristic and Augustinian tradition who understood the act of creation to be an overflowing of divine love. In an uncoerced act of spontaneous love and self-giving, the divine will has effected what the divine intellect has conceived. In creation God has loved all existing things into existence from nothing and continues to love and preserve them in existence. And in loving everything into existence, God has made it good. “God loves all existing things,” said St. Thomas. God does not love things because they are good, however. Rather, “God’s love . . . pours out and creates the goodness in things.” (1.20.2).

The limits placed on the possibilities of divine activity by God’s goodness and intelligibility provide the framework for Aquinas’s discussion of divine omnipotence. According to Thomas, omnipotence does not mean that God can do literally anything. St. Thomas agreed with Ockham that God can do anything “that is consonant with the meaning of being real.” (1.25.5 ad 1). God cannot do anything that does not cohere with the possibilities of reality, however. Most obviously this means that God cannot do anything that would entail a self-contradiction—not because of a defect in God’s power, but because anything that both is and is not in the same manner and at the same time is not within the realm of possible things. As Thomas said, “it is better to say that such things cannot be done, than that God cannot do them.” (1.25.3).

In addition, Aquinas went on to draw the parameters of reality more narrowly than would Ockham. The law of non-contradiction does not provide the only limits to the possibilities of divine action. Thomas said that God’s power is not something really distinct from God’s knowledge and wisdom, i.e., omnipotence is understood intentionally. To speak of divine power and omnipotence is to make a notional distinction within the human mind. In other words, it is to say that God is capable of carrying out anything that his mind directs and his will commands (1.25.1 ad 4).

Aquinas was not enthralled with the sheer limitlessness of the possibilities of divine activity that so captivated the Nominalists’ attentions. Thomas admitted that God had countless possibilities before him in creation. God could have made other worlds or things than those that he actually has made. Thomas said that the “divine wisdom is not limited to one fixed system in such a manner that no other course of things could flow from it.” (1.25.5). So to speak of this as the “best of all possible worlds,” as Leibniz did later, would have seemed painfully absurd to Aquinas. It is meaningless to speak of a “best possible world” in a universe that is infinitely open to the myriad possibilities of God’s grace and love (1.25.6). Even so, Thomas did not share the enthusiasm of later Medieval theologians for a plethora of possible worlds. He specifically rejected the suggestion that God’s omnipotence is demonstrated in producing “other worlds” (1.25.3 ad 3).

For Aquinas, omnipotence is not demonstrated in God’s ability to do incomprehensible or unimaginable things, e.g., to make the past not to have been (1.25.4). On the contrary, God has done that which reveals his character. The context for deciphering the meaning of omnipotence is not the possibilities of human imagination, but the realities of the redemption made accessible through God’s covenant relationships with human beings. God’s omnipotence is made known in redemptive history. It is demonstrated not in bringing into existence worlds that have never been before, but in recreating that world which he has already made and which has fallen away from its original intention. God demonstrates the infinity of his power by drawing close to those who, through sin, have tried to distance themselves from him. As Thomas said,

Omnipotence is specially manifested in God’s sparing and having mercy, for that he forgives sins freely declares his supreme power . . . by sparing and having pity on men he brings them to share in the infinite good, which is the crowning effect of God’s power . . . the carrying out of divine mercy is at the root of all God’s works. . . . (1.25.3 ad 3). (19)

By placing the doctrine of divine omnipotence squarely within the context of a theology of God’s covenant love, Aquinas held together what Ockham would later separate. For Ockham, the absolute power of God with its infinite and inscrutable possibilities stood in stark contrast to and at the furthest remove from that ordained power which had narrowly channeled itself within the confines of covenant commitments. In Aquinas’s theology, on the contrary, the distinction between potentia absoluta and potentia ordinata served almost the opposite function—it established a unity between God’s nature in se and God’s actions as made known in his revelation. While asserting that God is capable of doing other things than those he has actually done or will do, Aquinas insisted that whatever God has done or could do is and must be a true revelation of his character. Thus, “nothing can be within divine power which is not held in the wisdom and justice of God’s mind and will.” (1.25.5). The distinction between absolute and ordained power illustrated this point. Aquinas put it this way:

We conceive of understanding and wisdom as directing, will as commanding and power as executing; as for that which lies within power as such, God is said to be able to do it by his absolute power (secundum potentian absolutan). As for what lies within his power as carrying out the command of his just will, he is said to be able to do it by his ordinate power (de potentia ordinata). (1.25.5 ad 1).

Thus the distinction that late Medieval voluntarist theologians used to paint the picture of a God whose powers bordered on the chaotic had been used earlier by Thomas Aquinas to emphasize that the act of creation (while free) was an intentional and intelligible act. According to St. Thomas, God is in himself who and what he is in his revelation.

1. See Eugene R. Fairweather, “Christianity and the Supernatural,” New Theology No. 1, ed. Martin Marty and Dean Peerman (New York: Macmillan, 1964), 241-244.

2. On Scotus, see Efrem Bettoni, O.F.M., Duns Scotus: The Basic Principles of his Philosophy, trans. Bernadine Bonansea, O.F.M. (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America, 1961); B. M. Bonansea, O.F.M., Man and his Approach to God in John Duns Scotus (Lanham NY London: University Press of America, 1983); Frederick C. Copleston, A History of Philosophy, Vol. 2, Mediaeval Philosophy, Part II, Albert the Great to Duns Scotus (NY: Image Books, Doubleday & Co., 1950, 1962); Richard Cross, Duns Scotus (New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999); Étienne Gilson, A History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages (NY: Random House, 1955); Gilson, Jean Duns Scot: Introduction à ses positions fondamentales (Paris: Vrin, 1952); Mary Elizabeth Ingham, Ethics and Freedom: An Historical-Critical Investigation of Scotist Ethical Thought (Lanham, New York, London: University Press of America, 1989); Douglas C. Langston, God’s Willing Knowledge: The Influence of Scotus’ Analysis of Omniscience (University Park & London: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1986); Patrick Lee, “The relation between intellect and will in free choice according to Aquinas and Scotus,” The Thomist, 49:3 (July 1985): 321-342; Allan B. Wolter, O.F.M., The Philosophical Theology of John Duns Scotus, ed. Marilyn McCord Adams (Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press, 1990). For a helpful selection of texts, see: Allan B. Wolter, O.F.M., trans. and ed., with Felix Alluntis, John Duns Scotus: God and Creatures, the Quodlibetal Questions (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975); Wolter, Duns Scotus on the Will and Morality (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America, 1986).

3. See Burrell, “Aquinas and Scotus”; Gilson, History of Christian Philosophy, Jean Duns Scot; Bonansea, Ingham, Langston, Lee, Wolter, for differing accounts of the degree of Scotus’s voluntarism.

4. William J. Courtenay, “Nominalism and Late Medieval Religion,” The Pursuit of Holiness in Late Medieval and Renaissance Religion, ed. Charles Trinkaus and Heiko Oberman (Leiden: Brill, 1974), 37-39; Gordon Leff, The Dissolution of the Medieval Outlook (New York: NYU Press, 1976), 63; Heiko Oberman, The Harvest of Medieval Theology: Gabriel Biel and Late Medieval Nominalism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1963), 30-47. The distinction is found in Thomas Aquinas in S.T. 1.25.5 and in William of Ockham in Quodlibeta 6,1.

5. Ockham, Sentences 4,13. See the discussion in David W. Clark, “Ockham on Human and Divine Freedom,” Franciscan Studies (St. Bonaventure, NY: Franciscan Institute) 38 (Annual 16) (1978): 132ff.

6. Clark, 151-152.

7. Ockham, Quodlibeta, 3,13; Courtenay, 42; Clark, 155.

8. Ockham, Sentences 1, 17, 2; Oberman, Harvest, 177.

9. Courtenay, 40-43.

10. “Conjectures about divine commands to commit murder or theft are not normal or entirely wholesome components of a Christian ethics. To preach that the diligent and obedient pursuit of salvation might end in annihilation rather than eternal life hardly inspires a congregation. At times, God’s freedoms paint a picture of chaos. Ockham released the specter of divine caprice without the philosophical or theological means to control its apparitions.” Clark, 159-160.

11. Burrell, Aquinas: God and Action, 120-175.

12. Translation of the Fathers of the English Dominican Province. The Blackfriars translation, “As there is mind in God, so there is will; the one involves the other,” is a less literal translation of “. . . voluntas enim intellectum consequitur.”

13. Sokolowski, 45.

14. Thomas Gornall, S.J., Summa Theologiae, Blackfriars Translation, Intro., xxvi; Bernard Lonergan, Grace and Freedom: Operative Grace in the Thought of St. Thomas Aquinas, ed. Frederick E. Crowe and Robert M. Doran, Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan: Vol. 1 (University of Toronto Press, 2000).

15. Pieper, Silence of St. Thomas , 51.

16. Dorothy Sayers, The Mind of the Maker (NY: Harcourt, Brace, 1941); J. R. R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” Poems and Stories (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1994), 115-177.

17. Pieper, Silence of St. Thomas, 57-70.

18. “It pleased God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, for the manifestation of the glory of his eternal power, wisdom, and goodness, in the beginning, to create and make of nothing the world.” Westminster Confession 4.1.

19. Aquinas here draws on the Church’s liturgy. Note the traditional collect in the Book of Common Prayer: “O God who declarest thy almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity; mercifully grant unto us such a measure of thy grace, that we, running the way of thy commandments, may obtain thy gracious promises and be made partakers of thy heavenly treasure; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”


  1. […] Thomas Aquinas on Creation (Or How to Read – Non Sermoni Res Get the RSS Feed August 7, 2011 at 12:42 pm by admin | Category: Uncategorized | […]

    Pingback by Scotus voluntarism | Zoofu — August 7, 2011 @ 6:44 pm

  2. St Thomas was a great Philosopher and the same time a Theologian.
    It was a blessing from God to his servant.

    Comment by Andreas — October 2, 2013 @ 2:54 am

  3. Bill, how did Aquinas address the question, Could God have not created the universe?

    Comment by Alvin Kimel — July 10, 2018 @ 8:50 pm

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