Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Question 8 - God's Existence in Things

Why this Question Matters.

Aquinas has just shown, in Ia.q7, that God is limitless. As it “belongs to limitless things to exist everywhere in everything”, he now asks about God’s existence in things. The question culminates in showing that, in a certain sense, God is unique in existing in everything. This is an important element of Aquinas’s picture of the world where God is self subsistent existence, supplying being to all created things. He is closer to us than we are to ourselves.

The Thread of the Argument

A1: Aquinas shows that God is in everything; not as part of the essence of a thing nor as an accident but as an efficient cause of the being of the thing. We must recall especially the second of the five ways from Ia.q2.a3 and also that, following Aristotle, a cause must be in contact with its effects (as in modern physics, Aquinas will not allow for any notion of action at a distance). Since God is both the efficient cause of the being of things as well as the first cause of any motion in them we see that God must be intimately present in things.

A2: Having just shown that God is present in all things, Aquinas now generalizes this in asking about the sense in which we can say that God is everywhere. The thrust of the objections to this assertion is that it makes no sense to say that something like God can be in a place; or if it does, He cannot be in more than one place at a time.

Aquinas addresses these objections by acknowledging that we have to be careful about what we mean when we talk about God being in a place. We are quite correct in identifying that bodies fill places, and while they do, they exclude other bodies from those places. But when we come to consider what it means for God to be in a place we must recognize that His presence in that place is of a different order altogether. After all, we’ve seen in the previous article that He is present in things as the efficient cause of their being, So God being in a place does not exclude bodies from being there too; rather His presence makes them what they are. In fact we must recognize that God is in every place giving the place itself its existence and the power to be a place. God is in that place in a way that is analogical to the way in which bodies are in places. In fact, a closer analogy is in the way the soul exists everywhere in the human body.

The reply to the second objection makes a point that is vital to the way we understand how immaterial things relate to the material universe: indivisible things like God, the soul and angels are in causal contact with the continua that are space and time, but are not present in it by being part of it. It is entirely wrong to think of God as some sort of ghostly substance filling the universe.

A3: Aquinas has shown how God exists in things as efficient cause, but he now goes further in specifying how God is present to things: He is present everywhere by his essence, presence and power. Aquinas explains what this means by analogy with human affairs: a king exercises power throughout his realm, even though he is not present everywhere; all the things in my house are present to me, because they are within easy reach of my view, even though I am not everywhere in my house; something is essentially present where its substance is located.

So, although some have denied various aspects of this triple presence, we can say that God is present everywhere by His power (because everything is subject to this power), He is present everywhere (because everything is within His gaze) and He is essentially present everywhere (because He exists in everything as the efficient cause of each thing).

It’s important to notice that that there is another way in which God may be present to rational creatures: He is present in those rational creatures that love Him by grace. This is a topic that Aquinas will spend much time on later in the summa. Also, as a very special case of presence, we must recall the hypostatic union in Christ; again, a topic that Aquinas will discuss at the start of the third part of the summa.

A4: Aquinas finally claims that only God is omnipresent. The objections suggest other things that might be considered omnipresent. For example, numbers, universals and prime matter can be considered to exist everywhere. If we think about the whole world as a sort of unity then we might claim that it is everywhere present in itself.

Aquinas replies that there are senses in which one could rightly claim that other types of thing than God have a presence everywhere. However, God is unique in being everywhere primarily and essentially. The former term means that all of God exists everywhere, not just different parts of him in different places; the latter term means that He exists everywhere in all circumstances. So the examples given in the objections can be thought of as existing everywhere but they do not exist everywhere primarily and essentially; it is these that give uniqueness to God’s omnipresence.

Handy Concepts

  • God, as the efficient cause of the being of everything must be intimately present to all things.
  • Aquinas, following Aristotle, considers that causes must be in contact with their effects. This idea continues in modern science with the denial of any action at a distance; all of the fundamental forces are mediated by fields that are present throughout the domain of their effects.
  • God is omnipresent; He not only creates the being of material things, He also creates the being of the places where things are located.
  • Indivisible things like God, the soul and angels are in causal contact with space and time, but are not present in it by being part of it.
  • In the answer to the third objection to the second article, Aquinas makes the point that form and matter are parts of something composite, but they are parts in a different sense from the way that an extended body has different parts. It is wrong to think of form and matter as two substances that come together to make a new substance. Rather, form and matter are two principles that together make the substance what it is.
  • God is omnipresent in His essence, presence and power.
  • Although we may think of senses in which other things are omnipresent, only God is omnipresent primarily and essentially.


  • In the fourth article Aquinas claims that God is unique in existing everywhere primarily and essentially. However, he makes no attempt to prove this; that God is unique in this way is a bald assertion. One might attempt a proof by enumerating the possibilities (as the objections start to do), but important examples are passed over in silence. Proving that an angel, or even a separated soul, is not primarily and essentially omnipresent would appear to take some more work.

Revised 31/03/12

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