Sunday, 11 July 2010

Question 21 - God's Justice & Mercy

Why this Question Matters.

In Question 20 Aquinas introduced the idea of love in God. In treating of the topic, it became clear that the most important consideration was to understand the way in which we attribute love to God. We have to be careful with the meaning of terms applied to God and to man, understanding the analogies and dis-analogies in their uses. In this question Aquinas turns to the ideas of justice and mercy in God. In scripture and in the liturgy, these are terms that are sometimes applied to God in the same breath in which love is attributed to God, so it is not surprising that Aquinas follows the same strategy in this question as he did in the last. In asking whether there is justice and/or mercy in God, the answer is clear “yes”, but the substance of the question is really to understand what it means to attribute justice and mercy to God.

The Thread of the Argument

A1: As indicated above, Aquinas’s first task is to not really to answer the question “Is God just?” but rather to understand the way in which the term “justice” may be attributed to God. The objections focus on meanings and properties of the notion of justice that would seem to be incompatible with being an attribute of God. For example, justice is a part of the virtue of temperance (which is to do with the passions); justice would seem to circumscribe free action; justice is to do with rendering what is due to individuals. Each of these is prima facie incompatible with some property of God already described by Aquinas. In his answer, Aquinas identifies two types of justice: “commutative justice”, which is to do with agreements between people; and “distributive justice”, that deals with the distribution of what is due to people on the basis of merit (in its widest sense). We cannot attribute commutative justice to God (as there can be no proportion between God and man) but God’s justice is paradigmatically distributive justice, as “God bestows on everything what is proper to each”. In answer to the objections, Aquinas identified that some of the moral virtues are associated with the passions (and for these we must attribute such virtues to God only metaphorically) but others are associated with the will and these can be attributed (carefully) to God. Also, although justice might seem to circumscribe free action for humans, when we consider God it is better to consider His free action as willing what is just by definition. The objection that justice is about rendering what is due is based on the argument that God is a debtor to no creature. Aquinas identifies that God orders creation to Himself and that in doing so He gives to creatures what they need in order to fulfil their place in that order. In this sense, these things are due to creatures so that they can fulfil their natural function. However, we might also note that in giving creatures what they need in order to fulfil their natural order, God is honouring His own ordering of creation. In a sense, God is giving what is due to God rather than simply what is due to creatures.

A2: Aquinas now inquires into the relationship between truth and God’s justice. He recalls that truth is a matching between mind and reality (Question 16, Article 1) and observes that when the mind concerned is creative, the mind is the rule by which reality is judged but that when the mind is not creative the reverse holds. So for us, truth consists of a matching of our minds to things; for God, truth consists in things matching His mind. God’s justice orders things according to His wisdom and therefore we can consider God’s justice to be truth.

A3: Having dealt with justice, Aquinas now inquires into the nature of God’s mercy. Mercy might be seen as being an emotional response; it might also be seen as a relaxing (and therefore a falling short from) justice. These would suggest that God cannot be merciful. Aquinas answers that the “sadness” that we feel when we act mercifully is a result of the compassion that motivates mercy. God, of course, feels no sadness but He acts to drive away imperfections in creatures by the perfection of their goodness. In doing so when it might appear that such gifts are not due to people, God is not acting contrary to justice but acting beyond and above justice. If one pays back a debt, it is not unjust to add a gift to the repayment.

A4: Are justice and mercy simultaneously present in all of God’s works? Scripture might seem to provide examples where only one of these is present in specific circumstances. Similarly, suffering in this world may seem to give an example of injustice in God’s works. Aquinas answers that since God can do nothing that conflicts with His wisdom and goodness and that all that He does is in proportion to what he has ordered, everything He does, He does with justice. He also observes that everything that is due to a creature can be traced back ultimately to God’s will and, foundationally, God’s goodness maintains everything in existence. Therefore God’s mercy is present in all of His works insofar as He provides their very source by His goodness. If scripture sometimes speaks of a work of God as being simply a work of His justice, it is due to the fact that His justice is sometimes more evident in such works. For example, even in the damnation of the reprobate their punishment is sometimes softened by His mercy. Suffering in this world might appear unjust, but can still be seen to exhibit God’s justice and mercy insofar as through suffering people may be lifted closer to God.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Question 20 - God's Love

Why this Question Matters.

Love is fundamental and we know from scripture that God loves, that “God is love” even. However, given the picture of God that Aquinas has built up for us over the preceding questions, it is not entirely obvious what this means. In this question, Aquinas introduces the notion of love in God, relating it to God’s will.

The Thread of the Argument

A1: St John tells us that “God is love” so that asking, as this article does, whether God loves would seem rather strange. But as always, when we use terms about God the meaning of which we have derived from created reality, we must be careful about what is meant. The objections point out that love is a passion involving the capacity to be moved by another; but this makes no sense for God, who is unchanging. Similarly, we understand the attribution of grief or anger to God as being metaphors; why should we not simply consider love metaphorically of God? Aquinas answers that God must love simply because God has will! For any appetite (such as will) love is the first movement of that appetite towards the perceived good. Love is ordered to the good in general and is thus prior to all other movements of the will; such movements presuppose love. In humans, the rational appetite (the will) acts through sensitive appetites, therefore any act of the will is accompanied by corresponding bodily changes (e.g. the heart beats faster; adrenalin prepares the body for physical action). Because of these bodily changes we call movements of the sense appetites “passions”, but we do not apply this term to the movements of the will itself. Since God loves only through movement of the will, God loves without passion. We can speak of God’s love being passionate in a metaphorical way if we wish to, but used in the sense of the movement of the will we should speak of God’s love literally. Similarly, we think of love between humans as associated with each wanting the good for the other; in the case of God’s love for us we can still think in these terms if we remember that the good that God wills is nothing other than Himself. We are present to God in His knowledge; our being is because of His willing the good for us, in Him. Finally, we must note that God loves inasmuch as His will is creative, therefore God’s love extends to all of creation, not just to rational creatures.

A2: God wills some good to all existing things. Since loving something is the same as willing good to that thing, we see that God must love everything. But God’s love is not the same as our love because God’s will is creative. When we love someone, we are reacting to the goodness in that person and we are willing good for that person; but our love is not the direct cause of the good in that person. In contrast, God’s love “pours out and creates the goodness of things”. Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite taught that love carries lovers outside themselves and transports them to their beloved. Clearly God is not transported outside Himself, but we can in some way say that He is in ecstasy (from the Greek ek-stasis; “standing outside”) in His creative love inasmuch as His love flows out to things. Love and hate for one object can co-exist insofar as the thing is loved in one respect and hated in another. So God loves sinners insofar as they are created things; but as sinners they are deficient and lack being in some way, and in that respect, God hates them.

A3: God loves everything, but does He love everything equally? Aquinas makes a distinction: The act of willing itself can admit degrees of intensity; the good which is willed can be for a greater or lesser good. Aquinas argues that in the first sense God’s love extends equally to all things; God loves everything by one simple act of will. However, in the second sense, God wills a greater good for some things than for others. In this sense, we can say that God loves some things more than others.

A4: Having shown that there is a sense in which God can be said to love some things more than others, Aquinas now passes to the question of whether he loves good things more than bad things. Given the preparation done so far, the answer to this question is almost immediate: God’s loving something more is nothing other than His willing more good upon that thing, therefore he loves good things more. The objections to this article list a number of instances, mostly scriptural, where it would seem that God has a “preferential option for the bad”. Aquinas’s answers to these objections show where each objection has missed certain key elements to arrive at misconception. The interesting exception to this pattern is the example of SS. Peter & John given in objection 3: it appears that St. Peter is better than St. John but equally it appears that Jesus loves St John more than St Peter. In his reply, Aquinas lists all the standard answers to this objection but then says that he thinks it to be “presumptuous to pronounce on all this” and that “the Lord is the weigher of spirits”. Aquinas appears to believe that here the interpretation of scripture is beyond human certainty.


  • According to Aquinas, love is a movement of the will towards the good and its existence appears to be simply a corollary of the existence of will. When he talks about love in God, Aquinas can apply this notion of love to the movement of God’s will, neatly sidestepping some of the obvious problems that a na├»ve understanding of love applied to God would throw up. According to Aquinas, “God loves without passion”. This may be a challenge to many people! But here we have to remember how different God is to us and that we understand God through analogy with His creation. Inevitably some of the things we associate with love will not survive the analogy.
  • In Article 2 Aquinas is willing to assert that there is sense in which God hates sinners (and in this he follows a distinct line of witness in scripture). We are very used to the slogan “Hate the sin but love the sinner” (somewhat akin to a saying of St. Augustine: “with love for mankind and hatred of sins”), so Aquinas may seem harsh here. But his approach recognizes a more sophisticated approach to love and hate in which they can co-exist under different aspects. A quick search around the web will reveal how much controversy the simple slogan arouses!