Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Question 73 - The Work of the Seventh Day


Why this Question Matters.

“So the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the furniture of them. And on the seventh day God ended his work which he had made: and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had done. And he blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it: because in it he had rested from all his work which God created and made.”

The events of the seventh day of creation were always considered something of an enigma in the commentaries. Did God really just give everything a blessing, sit back and take it easy? Such a picture is too anthropomorphic, of course. St Augustine famously differed from the other Church Fathers in his account of the seven days of creation, but some aspects of his thought – the creation of things in their causes, for example – did enter the common tradition. If we think of the last day of creation as the first day of the unfolding of the potentiality of the newly created world, we will get closer to how the medieval commentators saw the meaning of this day. Aquinas’s task in this question, therefore, is to explain the function of the last day of the Genesis creation account keeping close to the letter of the text whilst avoiding anything too simple minded.


The Thread of the Argument

A1: How are we to understand the claim that the universe was complete by the end of the Genesis creation account? Aquinas points out that completion of something can be interpreted in a number of ways. In particular, one can talk about the initial completion of something wherein it is brought to be what it is. But one can also talk about its final completion insofar as it achieves its final end. One might talk about completing a house after one has finished building it; but equally one might prefer to consider it complete after it has served its function as the home for many generations of families. This second form of completion is, in a sense, caused by the first because it is in the first that the thing concerned receives its form; this latter is what gives it the power to be what it is.

When considering the universe as a whole, its ultimate completion lies in the perfect beatitude of the blessed at the very end of the world; however, its initial completion was realized on the seventh day. Perfect beatitude requires both nature and grace; the initial completion of nature occurred on the seventh day and the initial completion of grace lay in the incarnation of Christ. The consummation of nature and grace at the end of the world pre-existed causally in these two events.

One might object to the account of the seventh day given in Genesis because it is unclear in that account that God actually does anything; after all, He simply stops and rests! But Aquinas claims that although God did not create any new things after the sixth day, He set the completed creation on its course with its proper operations. The work of the final day of creation is to set the world on its course towards its final completion. This also accounts for the fact that God did not cease creating thing after the seven days of creation; for example, He creates new souls daily. Those things that are made by God after the seven days of creation are not so new that they do not in some sense pre-exist in the work of the seven days. As Augustine observed, many things are created in their causes and we can also observe that many things pre-exist materially in the sense that they come to be naturally out of the matter created in the first seven days. The creation of new souls may seem an exception to this pattern, but Aquinas argues that they are not new as a kind of thing. Similarly, the incarnation is rightly seen as a unique event but the components out of which it comes to be already exist either in God Himself or in the work of the sixth day.

A2: In what sense can it be said that God rested on the seventh day? After all, God is not a corporeal body capable of hard labour in the ways that humans or animals are. Aquinas identifies rest as the opposite of movement; but we still have to identify what movement means in the context of a spiritual being such as God. The word movement can be applied in a transferred sense to spiritual beings in two ways: on the one hand it can refer to any sort of operation; on the other it can refer to the tendency towards the fulfilment of a desire. So rest refers to either the cessation of operation or to the fulfilment of a desire.

Both of these two possibilities can be applied to God’s resting on the seventh day. The operation of creating new beings has ceased by the seventh day; in addition, God has completed what He willed the creation to be.

Aquinas also makes the important point that God has no need for creation, being complete in and of Himself. This is the reason, he claims, for the text reading that “He rested from them” rather than “He rested in them”; God gains nothing from creation and therefore would be wrong to visualize Him resting amongst what He has created deriving pleasure from it.

A3: As we have seen in the second article, God’s rest on the second day can be taken in two senses: ceasing to create new things; and in having completed what He willed. Corresponding to these two modes of resting there are two ways in which God’s blessing of creation on the seventh day can be taken. Reference to Genesis 1:22 suggests that the blessing is associated with their governance whereby they “increase and multiply”. On the seventh day God is turning to the governance of what He has created in the first six days; therefore we can understand the blessing of the seventh day in the sense of this governance. The second sense of blessing can be seen when we consider that the things created by God themselves rest in God; to bless is to make holy which is precisely to be dedicated to God, to rest in Him.

The objections to the idea that this blessing is appropriate to the seventh day suggest that in creating each thing God is already diffusing His goodness and that the act of creation in itself provides an individual blessing on each created thing. The seventh day seems to be a time when nothing like this should be done, as it has already been done. Aquinas’s answer has indicated the ways in which the blessing of the seventh day should be understood. From this answer it is clear that the blessing of the seventh day is associated with the divine providence whereby things that are either created, or created in their causes, unfold their being.


Handy Concepts

  • The work of creation is complete by the seventh day in the sense that all the components that make the world what it is are in place. This does not exclude the evolution of the universe or the addition of new things later on; nothing radically new, however, is added to the world after its initial creation.
  • God’s resting on the seventh day can be understood in two ways: God has ceased his operation of creating new beings by the seventh day; in addition, God has completed what He willed the creation to be.
  • God’s blessing of creation on the seventh day can be understood in two ways: His blessing is expressed through His governance whereby things increase and multiply; and those things created by Him rest in Him.


Difficulties

  • Aquinas makes no effort in the third article to connect God resting on the last day of creation with the requirement that man should rest on the seventh day. This seems a little odd, but he returns to this theme in IIaIIae.q122.a4.

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