Saturday, 7 May 2011

Question 44 - The Procession of Creatures from God


Having finished his consideration of the divine persons of the Trinity, Aquinas comes now to the treatment of a different sort of procession, that of creatures from God. The traditional (convenient, but somewhat artificial) division of the summa labels this new section (qq. 44-49) the Treatise on Creation. Aquinas himself indicates a somewhat different, threefold, division in the work: qq. 44-46 deal with the production of creatures; qq. 47-102 deal with the different types of creatures; and qq. 103-119 deal with conservation in existence and governance of creatures. One should note that qq. 47-48 continue the important discussion of the nature of evil and of its causes in creation.

Why this Question Matters.

God as the first cause of all creation has been dealt with in a number of places in the “Treatise on the One God” but it is now time for Aquinas to return to this theme in the context of the treatment of the Trinitarian procession that he has developed in the “Treatise on the Trinity”. The subjects covered in this question (God as efficient, exemplary and final cause of creatures and as creator of prime matter) allow him to reiterate a number of themes that have already been dealt with earlier in the summa whilst at the same time elaborating on his metaphysical approach to creation.

The Thread of the Argument

A1: Is it true that everything that has being is necessarily created by God by means of efficient causality? This might seem a strange question to ask in the light of all that Aquinas has already covered concerning the radical dependence of creation on God. But the start of this new section of the summa allows Aquinas to reiterate this profound message, and to emphasize the necessity of this relation, by meeting the apparent difficulties posed by a trio of metaphysical objections to the thesis. In the first place it might seem that the relation of a caused being to its cause is not a part of the definition of that being and is therefore not necessary for its being. Secondly, one might observe that there are examples of so-called necessary beings, those that are unable not to exist. Here, Aquinas is thinking of such things as mathematical entities or of spiritual substances which contain within themselves no principle of dissolution. Therefore, depending on precisely what sort of necessity is involved, God is either not needed in order to create them or to keep them in being once they have being. Finally, what of mathematical entities in particular, that do not seem to come about through efficient causation?

Aquinas argues that any feature that is found in anything by participation must be caused by that thing which has the feature by essence (recalling something of the argument of the fourth way in Ia q.2). As there can only be one subsisting esse, (in the same way that there can only be one subsisting whiteness), all things other than God must participate in being rather than having self subsisting being and their being must be caused by God.

Turning his attention to the objections, Aquinas admits that being caused does not belong to the definition of being, absolutely speaking, but that the relation to a cause follows from those things that do belong to the definition for anything that exists. Here Aquinas is alluding to his argument that created beings are compositions of essence and existence (which we first saw in his rejection of Anselm’s ontological argument in Ia q.2 ad 2). Although we must not think of essence and existence as being two distinct things-in-themselves, we must consider them as two principles composed in any being. Therefore the definition of a thing simply cannot include its own existence, but we can deduce from the existence of a thing (and therefore of the things pertaining to its definition) that there is a composition of essence and existence which is caused by God.

To the objection that necessary beings need not be caused by anything, Aquinas turns to Aristotle to argue that one has to explain the nature and cause of their necessity; the relation between cause and effect may be necessary but it still requires the cause to exist for the effect to exist. Finally, Aquinas argues that mathematical entities exist in the reason as abstracted from created things that do have efficient causes for their beings. So, although the objects studied by mathematics do have efficient causes, it is correct to say that they are not studied by mathematicians under the aspect of efficient causation.

A2: In the metaphysical theory of hylomorphism, beings are considered to be a composition of matter and form. For anything that actually exists its matter is informed by some form; uninformed matter does not exist, in the same way that pure potentiality does not exist. However, it is still possible to consider matter and form as conceptually separable principles that are actually combined in all created beings. Matter considered in this way as completely uninformed by form is called prime matter and can be thought of as the potentiality in any thing that is reduced to actuality by form.

Does it make sense to say that prime matter is created by God? The major problem facing an affirmative answer is that it hardly seems coherent to talk about the creation of something that doesn’t exist! Aquinas addresses this challenge immediately with a brief tour through the history of philosophy (borrowed from Aristotle’s Metaphysics), pointing out that our understanding of being has developed from a thoroughly naïve view to something much more sophisticated. The objection that we cannot say that prime matter exists arises from the naïve view of being.

However, if we go so far as to consider being simply as being, we realize that we must not restrict ourselves to thinking of these-beings or such-beings but we must enquire into being-in-general. In particular, we must think not only of causes in the sense of causing something to be such-a-being (through accidental form) or this-being (through substantial form), but also in the sense of what causes everything pertaining to their being in any way at all. It’s in this sense that we should think in terms of form and prime matter which can be considered principles of being even though they might lack independent existence. When we do this, it makes perfect sense to consider prime matter, as a principle of being, as created by God.

A3: In the third article, Aquinas asks whether God is the exemplar cause of creatures. Having got used to the idea of Aquinas adopting Aristotle’s system of four causes (material, formal, efficient and final), we might be surprised to see the introduction of another type of cause. One has to recall the way in which medieval philosophers and theologians received the authoritative texts of their predecessors; with a spirit of charity and with a wish to reconcile apparent differences within and between them. After all, the premier medieval textbook, The Sentences of Peter Lombard, provided the source material for exactly this sort of reconciliation. In this case, the idea of an exemplar cause provides a way of reconciling the differences between the approaches of Plato and Aristotle to the notion of forms. For Plato, forms have their own separate existence apart from their exemplars in their own third realm. For Aristotle, forms exist only as exemplified by their exemplars. If we recall Ia qq. 14-15 (and especially Ia q.14 a.8), we get a big hint about how this reconciliation goes: forms exist as ideas in the mind of God, so they don’t quite have their own realm of existence but neither do they completely fail to exist when not exemplified. Like the plan of a building that exists in the mind of the architect before it is built, a form exists as an exemplar cause in the mind of God.

Aquinas simply has to recall the discussion of Ia qq.14-15 to affirm that God is the exemplar cause of all created things. Now one might follow the objections in claiming that the exemplar causes of created things are really the species within which things fall. In reply to this, Aquinas affirms that although we can speak of one created thing as being an exemplar of another by analogy, we should be careful of claiming per se existence for something like a species which is really an intellectual construct. Our agent intellect abstract universals from particulars, but such universals do not subsist other than in the particulars that their exemplars. Therefore we can’t really consider them as exemplar causes.

A4: Answering the last question of whether “God is the final cause of all things” allows Aquinas to dispel some misconceptions that may prevent some from accepting the obvious answer. He observes that when an agent and a patient interact causally, the agent acting for an end gives the patient the same end but in a different way. He also notes that some agents, which he calls imperfect agents, not only give to the patient but also receive something from the patient in acting on the patient. One has to be very careful when attempting to apply this analysis to the first cause, God, because He does not act to acquire any sort of thing at all; he is a perfect agent, and all the giving is one-way only.

So, to object that God in supplying ends to created things must be acting for the sake of an end is to make an incorrect analogy; God does not act for ends as He is pure actuality. The best we can say is that He acts just for the sake of His own goodness.

On another tack, one might object that if God is the end of all things, then all things must desire Him. But then one simply observes that not all things desire God. But this approach is to ignore the fact that nothing has the nature of the God except insofar as it participates in a likeness of God. Therefore things desire God (whether that desire be intellective, sentient or natural) insofar as they desire the Good.

Handy Concepts

  • God is the efficient, exemplar and final cause of all created things.
  • We noted above the introduction into medieval philosophy of the notion of exemplar causes. We should also note that the idea of instrumental causes (those things that act as instruments of other causes) had become common by this time and were used extensively in the theology of the sacraments. Reference to the extensive list of causes of justification given in the Decree on Justification of the Council of Trent gives an indication of how this process of expanding the notion of causality continued through the Middle Ages.
  • Prime matter is one of the principles of the being of things that represents the pure potentiality that is reduced to actuality by the inherence of a form.
  • We must be careful when thinking of God as final cause of things not to misapply the analogy of created things supplying the ends for other created things.
  • The reply to the third objection of article 3 is relevant to the modern debate on the nature of the supernatural.


  • Aquinas seems to leave the answer to the third objection to the first article hanging in the air. Mathematical objects, even though they are not studied under the aspect of efficient causes by mathematicians, are abstracted from things that do have efficient causes. Should he not continue the argument at this point by considering the efficient causation of the process of abstraction?