Monday, 16 April 2012

Question 65 - The Creation of the Material Universe


Aquinas has already talked about creation in Ia.q44-q49. Here he returns to the subject but in the context of a commentary on the creation account contained in the opening pages of the book of Genesis. Such a commentary on the six days of creation, the latter usually designated as the hexaemeron, can be identified as a particular genre of biblical commentary. Aquinas was well aware of the patristic and medieval tradition of writing on the hexaemeron that preceded him, and his account follows the patterns of those who went before him. It’s quite noticeable that although Aquinas frames his account in the context of the philosophical controversies of the time between Neoplatonic and Aristotelian schools, the writing in this section of the summa is much more sharply focused on biblical and patristic exegesis that the sections around it.

One of the things that makes this section of the summa difficult for modern readers to assimilate is that is presupposes knowledge of much medieval science and cosmology. Since the modern scientific revolution has created a world view that is quite different from the medieval world view, it can be difficult to appreciate the force of what is being discussed because it appears obscured by outmoded thought. However, it is worth the effort, and not just for historians of thought, to persevere in the study of this commentary!

Why this Question Matters.

This first question in Aquinas’s treatment of the hexaemeron revisits some old material in new contexts; little that is covered here is not an immediate corollary of earlier teaching. Aquinas’s main concerns appear to be to start his commentary on the creation account in Genesis by looking at some of the most influential mistaken accounts of creation and of the relationship between God and His creatures. Aquinas’s theology is thoroughly rooted in biblical exegesis and he is able to dispose of some mistakes by simply dismissing them as inconsistent with scripture; others require enquiry into the metaphysical background behind the scriptural account.

The Thread of the Argument

A1: Aquinas asks whether material creatures come from God. For anyone who’s been paying attention so far, this must seem like a very odd question. We’ve already seen how God is the first efficient cause of the being of all things and we’ve had a whole “Treatise on Creation” in Ia.q.44-49. Aquinas’s concern here seems to be to set the stage for his account of the hexaemeron but also to explicitly deal with the ancient and tenacious heresy of dualism. There were (and are) many forms of expression of the dualistic heresy; but they all basically boil down to the belief that there are two opposing principles, good and evil, in reality. This is sometimes expressed as a belief in an evil creator God (or demiurge) and a good but distant transcendent God. Aquinas probably has the Manichaeans in sight here; and one must always recall that the young St Augustine was a Manichaean.

If the dualists are right then the creation of the material world is down to the demiurge; as the objections point out, scripture appears to talk of material things in term of corruption and of evil whereas all that (the transcendent) God creates is good.

In answer, Aquinas returns to his philosophy of being; existence is shared by all things that have being and there must be some common first efficient cause of this existence. Therefore one cannot divide off material creation from everything else as having its being from some other cause. God creates everything that has being and holds it in existence.

If one thinks about material things in terms of their corruptibility or of their being sources of evil, then one must remember that all things are good insofar as they exist and that their evils amount to privations of the goods that they are in potentiality to be. Material things do come into and go out of existence, but underlying them is the permanence of prime matter; substantial forms may come and go but prime matter endures underlying these changes.

A2: As with the subject of the first article, asking whether all material creatures were made in order to manifest God’s glory might seem to be going over old material. Indeed it is; but here the focus is on Origen’s teaching that the creation of material creatures was a punishment for the evil choices of spiritual creatures. This is a subject that was raised in Ia.q47.a2 in the context of the diversity of material things; here the context is God’s justice in creating things unequal. The context is set by the third objection: justice would seem to require that God must create every material thing equal unless there was some prior inequality that would justify unequal material creation. The only possible source of such inequality would be the free-will choices of spiritual creatures. Therefore we can conclude that God created material creatures as a result of justice applied to the free-will choices of spiritual creatures who had been created before the material; but not in order to manifest God’s goodness.

Aquinas replies by returning to the theme introduced in Ia.q47.a2. Creatures make up the universe in the way that parts make up a whole and there is an inherent teleology and ordering in the way it is all put together. Each part has its own function; less important parts function for the benefit of more important parts; individual parts function for the benefit of the whole; the whole created universe is ordered towards God; and rational creatures have a special ordering towards God through their knowledge and love. There is inequality amongst material creatures simply because that inequality is required for the orderly functioning of the whole; God’s goodness and mercy are prior to His justice. God’s goodness is what all things are ordered towards as parts of this whole. In his reply to the third objection, Aquinas points out a parallel with a builder making a house: all the parts of the house are ordered towards the end of the house; there is no injustice in the fact that different parts of the house play different functions in the house.

In the body of his answer, Aquinas addresses Origen’s position directly with two arguments. The first argument is simply that Origen’s account cannot be made commensurable with the account of creation in scripture. The second argues that the extreme diversity amongst things in material creation surely cannot correspond to the diversity of erroneous free-will choices made by spiritual creatures.

A3: If we grant that God created all material creatures we can still ask whether He did this directly or through some intermediaries. In particular we can ask whether He created material reality with the angels as intermediaries; either instrumentally or through their own proper powers. The position in view here is that of Neoplatonist systems; in such systems creation spreads out from God as through a hierarchy. God creates the top level of the hierarchy, which in turn creates the next level and so on. With this sort of system in mind it is quite natural to enquire as to the role of the angels in the creation of the material world, as they lie high up in the hierarchy of creation.

We must, of course, note that Aquinas has already dealt with the more general case of creation as a whole in Ia.q45.a5 and this question might be seen as a special case of that one. Here he reiterates the earlier argument; secondary causes certainly act to bring about new states of affairs and new beings but they have to have some something already pre-existing to act upon. As creation considered here is creation ex nihilo, there simply is nothing for any secondary cause to act upon and therefore the act of creation must be attributed to God.

Even though Aquinas rejects a creative role for the angels, either through their own proper powers or acting as instruments of God, he will allow for the fact that they play a central role in the mediation of God’s providence (Ia.q103.a6).

A4: All material bodies are composites of matter and form. The idea of prime matter, some sort of universal substrate underlying all actualized matter, doesn’t seem too foreign to us; indeed some have identified the idea with that of the mass-energy of Einstein’s theory of relativity. But the idea of form is stranger; what are these forms and where do they come from? As angels are forms that subsist in themselves without any matter, is it possible that the forms of material bodies come from them in some way?

Aquinas runs through a brief history of some of the approaches taken to forms throughout history. Platonic and Neoplatonic thought considers forms to be subsistent entities that exist in some realm of their own. For example, in some realm of the forms there is the form of horse that is the formal cause of all real horses; above this, there is the form of animal which is the formal cause of all animals; above this, there is the form of life which is the formal cause of all living things, and so on culminating in the form of existence itself, arguably to be identified with God. In these systems, material bodies participate in the forms in order to be in-formed as what they are.

On the other hand, various Arabic thinkers who attempted to reconcile Neoplatonic thought with that of Aristotle, maintained that the forms of material things exist in some mind or minds; in particular in the minds of the angels. Finally some “modern heretics” (a reference to the Albigensians) maintained that God created all things which were then informed by the devil.

The mistake common to the systems that Aquinas has listed is that they assume a separate existence for material forms. He takes an Aristotelian point of view; in a material body form and matter are not two separate things that come together to make the body, rather they are two principles of the body that always co-exist. You can never find the form of a material body in isolation from its matter; you can never find uninformed prime matter. When something material is created it is created as a composite of matter and form and if it undergoes substantial change it does so by being acted on by an agent that educes a new form from the potentiality of the old composite. The correct way of thinking of the role played by spiritual substances such as angels is that they act as agents that can act on already created material bodies.

Handy Concepts

  • The later Dominican translation of the summa has many very helpful footnotes and appendices that explore the history and set the context for Aquinas’s treatment of the hexaemeron.
  • In following Aquinas’s commentary on the hexaemeron, it can be useful to have a copy of the text of scripture that Aquinas would have followed. This was the Latin Vulgate version of the bible; the Douay-Rheims English version is translated from the Vulgate.
  • God is the first efficient cause of all things and in particular of material creation. Dualistic notions of a creator God subsidiary to a distant transcendent God are incorrect.
  • All God’s creatures, including material things, were made to show forth the glory of God. Inequality amongst God’s creatures can be traced to the different roles that each thing plays in creation as a whole, rather than to any injustice in God.
  • Creation ex nihilo is God’s immediate work; no intermediaries are involved.
  • Material bodies are directly created by God as composites of matter and form. Matter and form are two principles of material things, not things with separate existences that are brought together.


  • In the second article Aquinas argues that the diversity in material creation cannot be accounted for by the diversity amongst erroneous free-will decisions made by spiritual creatures. He argues that the same error would lead to identical material beings. In the light of the modern understanding of cosmology, his choice of the sun as an example is unfortunate. Aquinas considered heavenly bodies to unique in their kinds, so there could only be one sun, for example. Our modern knowledge might be seen to weaken this argument in that there are many examples of replication in the universe; but equally it might be seen to strengthen it because we are aware of much more diversity in material creation.
  • In the fourth article Aquinas rejects the Platonic idea of forms and variations upon it. In particular he rejects the idea that material things participate in their forms, where these forms exist in some separate realm. However, it’s important to remember that he retained some of these ideas and terminology in his own metaphysics. In particular he considered that God is self-subsistent existence and that all other things that exist derive their existence in a secondary way from Him. In this sense, all existing created things participate in God’s existence. Similarly, although he rejects the idea that the forms of material things exist in the minds of the angels, Aquinas does teach that all created things pre-exist in God creative knowledge (Ia.q14.a8).

No comments:

Post a Comment