Monday, 23 April 2012

Question 66 - The Ordering of Creation to Diversification

Why this Question Matters.

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void…” The opening words of the book of Genesis relate the very first instants of the creation of the universe. But what was created in that first instant that would be ordered by God into the diverse parts of the universe? This is a question of perennial interest to theist and atheist alike, although the former would probably not turn to a commentary by Aquinas on the words of scripture to find the answer! Aquinas’s commitment to hylomorphism means that he will not admit the initial creation to be of something entirely formless, in the technical sense; a striking parallel with modern physical theories in which real matter with form exists from the first instant of creation. Aquinas has more to comment upon than physics though; he considers the traditional Christian understanding of all that came to be in the first instants of creation.  

The Thread of the Argument  

A1: The opening words of the book of Genesis portray God creating heaven and earth. We are told that “the earth was void and empty” (according to the Vulgate) or “the earth was without form and void” (RSV). This passage has always been taken as meaning that that matter was initially created in some sort of formless state and we see God giving form to creation over the next few days of creation. However, when we say that the earth was formless, should this be understood in terms of the hylomorphic composition of form and prime matter? In other words, did God first create prime matter and subsequently give it the form that we know? This is obviously troubling from a metaphysical point of view, but after all in the Eucharist God can hold accidents in being without an underlying subject. (Aquinas will discuss this much later in the summa at IIIa.q77.a1). Why then cannot He create prime matter and hold it in being with no form?

Aquinas’s concern in this article is not only to give an exegesis of the sacred text but also to engage with the differing opinions of the Church Fathers over this passage. Hence this question takes a form slightly unusual in the summa of having two points sed contra instead of the usual one; the range of opinions on this matter is to be given full expression. Likewise, although Aquinas presents a scriptural exegesis consistent with the accounts of the Church Fathers he makes no attempt to adjudicate between answers that are consistent with the sacred text; rather he simply rules out the impossible.

The formless creation of matter can be taken in many ways. Aquinas identifies Augustine as claiming that prime matter was created without form but only in the sense of ontological priority rather than temporal priority. In other words, Augustine does not claim that prime matter existed without form for some time before being in-formed but only that the order of nature is such that prime matter is in some sense prior to the imposition of form. Another position that Aquinas identifies as that of the ancient Greek naturalists was that the first thing created was some sort of proto-element that was later formed into what we see around us now. The problem with this position is that it would reduce all substantial change down to being accidental change. The imposition of a later form would only change the underlying element in a certain way, in contrast to the way a substantial form makes prime matter to exist outright as a being. Aquinas identifies other Church Fathers as taking formlessness in an informal way; that is, as not having attained its final form as described later in the creation account. He goes on to give an exegesis of the scriptural text that shows the way in which the initially created earth lacked its future perfections. Hence Augustine’s position is partly consistent with the other Fathers. (Aquinas will return to this theme in Ia.q69.a1 and Ia.q74.a2).

As Aquinas observes, the parallel with the existence of accidents in the Eucharist is a poor one. As an accident is a form and therefore a kind of actuality, holding them to exist without an underlying subject is exceptional, but does not involve a contradiction. On the other hand, prime matter is pure potentiality without any actuality. Claiming that prime matter can exist without any form is simply a contradiction; God’s power does not extend to the logically impossible.

 A2: So far, when we’ve talked about prime matter we’ve assumed that there is only one type of prime matter. However, medieval science identified the celestial bodies (such as the sun and the planets) as not being convertible with earthly bodies. Indeed, earthly bodies were considered to be combinations of the four elements fire, earth, air and water whereas the celestial bodies were considered to be made out of a fifth element or quintessence; the stuff of celestial bodies could not be transformed into earthly matter or vice versa. Therefore it seems quite reasonable to posit different types of prime matter underlying earthly and celestial bodies.

Surprisingly to the modern mind, Aquinas opts to support the idea that there are two different types of prime matter. In coming to his conclusion he follows Aristotle in identifying that celestial bodies are incorruptible whereas earthly bodies are corruptible. This conclusion is claimed to follow from the empirical observation that the natural movements (i.e. not externally imposed movements) of the celestial bodies involve no contrariety (i.e. movements that oppose each other) whereas those of earthly bodies do. As contrariety and corruptibility are intimately connected, the conclusion follows. Now, if we remember that prime matter is in potentiality to everything that it can be then we will realize that positing only one type of prime matter is going to be troublesome. If prime matter is formed into something incorruptible, then it can never corrupt and become something corruptible; therefore prime matter informed to be incorruptible is not in potentiality to be corruptible things, which is a contradiction. Therefore corruptible and incorruptible things must be formed out of their own respective types of prime matter.

 Aquinas considers and rejects two alternatives: that incorruptible things are in fact in potentiality to corruptible things by reason of the possession of a superior form that contains lesser forms in a virtual fashion that are not actualized; and that the celestial bodies are the matter of heaven informed by a separated substance (such as an angel).  

A3: The fourth article will recall the common teaching that the first four things to be created were the angelic nature, the empyrean heaven, unformed corporeal matter and time. As the angels have already received a lengthy treatment in the summa and the creation of matter has been discussed in the first article, it remains to discuss the empyrean heaven (this article) and time (the next article).

In medieval times the universe was thought of in a way much different to how we consider it to be structured now. Earth was placed physically at the centre of the universe, although one must remember that this central physical position was not considered to make it the most important part of the universe. Medieval people saw themselves as minor players placed in a minor part of the cosmos looking out towards the more important celestial and heavenly places. Amongst these celestial places were the sidereal heaven which was believed to contain the fixed stars and the aqueous heaven which was considered to contain the waters above the firmament. Beyond these was the empyrean heaven, which was considered to be the heaven beyond the fixed stars. Among certain authoritative authors, the empyrean heaven was considered to be the place of the blessed.

When was the empyrean heaven created? As there is only a little scriptural data that might be interpreted as applying to the empyrean heaven, and its interpretation is open to argument, much of this article is taken up in discussing these arguments. However, Aquinas’s solution is disarmingly simple. The state of glory is twofold, spiritual and corporeal; we know that spiritual glory first occurred at the beginning of the world with the choice of the good angels. It seems a fitting symmetry that there also be corporeal glory from the beginning too. If the empyrean heaven is the place of the blessed, then it must then have existed from the beginning of creation.  

A4: Asking when time was created involves some rather crass circularity; but still, we can ask whether time was co-created with the matter of the universe. Indeed, in view of modern cosmological theories, it seem eminently reasonable to assert that matter together with time and space (the latter two being seen as aspects of some underlying unified space-time) were co-created.

We’ve seen (in Ia.q10) that Aquinas takes time as being the measure of change; without some subject changing there can be no time and without time there can be no intelligibility to the notion of change. Aquinas considers time to be something that exists, but only in the sense that the now that we are currently experiencing exists; the past no longer exists, the future is yet to be. So asking about the origin of time is to ask about when we consider that now started to be in the universe.

Aquinas reiterates the traditional teaching that time was co-created with the angelic nature, the empyrean heaven and corporeal matter, adopting this as his own position. The coming to be of the universe involves the coming to be of changing things; there is no initial period of complete stasis. He refers to Augustine’s teaching that the first things to be created were simply angelic nature and unformed matter, omitting time from the list. The explanation of this position is that one can argue that the notion of time is derivative upon that of change and that, even if they must co-exist, one should take the changing subject as ontologically prior to the time that measures change.  

Handy Concepts

  • For a lucid and beautiful description of the way that medieval people thought of the structure of the universe, refer to The Discarded Image by C.S. Lewis. 
  • Although the exegesis of the opening verses of Genesis are amenable to alternative explanations amongst the Fathers of the Church, one can rule out the idea that God initially created prime matter as existing in itself prior to giving the universe final form. 
  • Aquinas argues that because the celestial bodies are incorruptible and earthly bodies corruptible, convertibility is not possible between them and therefore they must be made from different types of prime matter. 
  • The celestial bodies are incorruptible because their natural motions contain no contrariety. Corruptibility of a body requires there to be the possibility of contrary natural motions that tend to oppose one another leading to the corruption of the body. 
  • The empyrean heaven, the place of the blessed beyond the sphere of the fixed stars, was co-created with the angelic nature, unformed corporeal matter and time. 
  • One might identify an ontological amongst the first things to be created, but this priority cannot extend to a priority in time. 


  • In coming to the conclusion, in the second article, that there are two types of prime matter, Aquinas bases his reasoning on the science of his age. In our modern understanding of the cosmos we identify that celestial bodies are made of the same sort of stuff as earthly bodies and thus the argument given by Aquinas collapses. However, leaving the issues of contingent empirical fact aside, it seems a bit surprising that Aquinas does not attempt to meet some of the obvious metaphysical arguments against his position and that the objections stated in the article are a bit insipid.

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