Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Question 45 - The Mode of Emanation of Creatures from the First Principle

Why this Question Matters.

Christian theology has always considered the account of creation given in the book of Genesis as a description of creation ex nihilo, from absolutely nothing at all. This immediately poses serious philosophical problems; not the least of which is the fact that all “acts of creation” that we see in nature are actually changes. Put in the Aristotelian terms that Aquinas would use, in natural creation an already existing subject is reduced to actuality from its potentiality to be the new entity. If we’re trying to give a metaphysical account of creation ex nihilo, then we are faced with the fact that there simply isn’t a subject that can be the subject of change! Therefore, God’s act of creation is both unique and different from natural change. In this question, Aquinas faces up to the philosophical challenges posed by this doctrine.

The Thread of the Argument

A1: The very idea of creation itself needs some thought. We are quite used to the idea that we can make something out of something else, and we sometimes say that we create something out of something else. However, Aquinas wants to reserve the word “create” for the act of making something out of nothing; an act clearly alluded to in the opening words of the book of Genesis. With an allusion back to Ia.q44.a2, Aquinas claims the idea of creation for the coming forth of the totality of an entity from the first cause rather than for the more restricted notion of a particular effect emanating from a cause (which is what we have when we consider making something from something else).

In thinking about the coming to be of things in the created order, we are used to the idea of something (like a man) coming forth from something else (not a man, but the fusion of sperm and ovum, for example); in thinking about creation, we have to generalize this to consider the idea of some being coming forth from non-being. The third objection argues that this makes no sense; when we try to say that something is made out of nothing we are trying to say that “nothing” stands in some relation to that which is made, in the same way that we say that something is, for example, made out of bronze. Aquinas answers this objection by observing that “out of” is used in a different sense when we speak of “creation out of nothing” (ex nihilo, in Latin); what is in view here is not a relation to a material cause but an ordering. In addition, one may simply take “out of nothing” as being a denial of “out of something”.

A2: Having established that we are to take “creation” as referring to the making of something out of nothing, Aquinas turns to the philosophical difficulties facing this idea. Each of the objections is built on the fundamental idea that God is only capable of things that are not impossible; Aquinas takes the law of contradiction as not only being an epistemological fact (that we cannot know contradictories) but also an ontological fact (contradictories cannot be). So, the first objection repeats the claims of the ancient philosophers that nothing can come out of nothing and that this fact is a fundamental law of being; to hold otherwise would be to posit a contradiction. The second objection builds on a theme touched upon in the first article: every example of something being made that we know of is an example of something being made from something else. Therefore creation must be considered to be a change and therefore a change in some subject; but nothing cannot be a subject, therefore creation from nothing makes no sense. Similarly, as the third objection points out, if something has been made, then at some stage it must have been being made before it finally existed. What is being made is not the same entity as what is made, therefore what is being made precedes what is made and must be the subject of the change that occurs when something is made. Therefore when something is made, there must be a pre-existing subject of change, which is impossible under the hypothesis of being made out of nothing.

Aquinas’s answer reprises what he wrote in q44.a1-2. that everything to do with an entity must be considered to have its being from God. If God is considered only as acting to change what already is, then what already is would be left as an uncreated element of creation; a clear contradiction. The answer to the first objection is immediate; the ancient philosophers in issuing this opinion were only considering what happens within creation, not what occurs in the emanation of things from the first cause.

One might think that the second objection would be despatched with equal alacrity; however, Aquinas takes the opportunity to discuss at length how we talk about creation. His main assertion is that creation can be considered to be a change only insofar as we understand it that way by analogy with what goes on in creation. Change itself involves one thing being different now from the way it was: either it is the same being in potentiality as when the substance of the being has changed (but the prime matter underlying it is the same) or it is the same being in actuality as when its accidents have changed. Creation is different: there is not one being that is now one way and then another. Our minds may find it easier to conceive of something before it exists and then it existing, but this is not a change in a subject.

The third objection is dealt with swiftly by pointing out that the objection fails to consider the case of instantaneous creation. If there is no motion or change in creation, as has been shown by the replies to the previous objections, then we are left with the conclusion that something being created is simultaneous with it having been created.

A3: The question asked in this article may seem puzzling: is the act of creation a real entity that exists in the creature? The point here is that the act of creation creates the creature and in doing so sets up a relation in the created to the creator; there is a “pointing toward” to creator inherent in the created being. The relation is real in the creature but only conceptual in God Himself, as we saw in Ia.q13.a7. In affirming this real relation in the creature, Aquinas has to deal with some technical objections. For example, if the act of creation is a real entity in the creature, then it would seem that this real entity itself would need an act of creation; the spectre of infinite regress looms large! A similar objection came up in Ia.q42.a1 and the same answer is given here; the reality of a relation is in its pointing to something and does not require a further relation to define that reality.

The third objection comes back to the difficulty of dealing with the idea of creating something out of nothing. If the act of creation is a relation in the thing created then it would be an accident in the thing created and would presuppose the thing as a subject in which to be an accident. The act of creation would therefore seem to be ontologically posterior to the thing created, which seems very strange. In his reply to the objection, Aquinas insists on the ontological priority of the thing created but admits of a certain type of priority for the act of creation inasmuch as it is the principle of the thing created.

A4: One might be tempted to think that creation is restricted in some way to those things that have no structure (like prime matter), because composite entities are composites of more basic entities and we might wish to distinguish between the creation of the basic entities that they are composed of and the causal processes that bring the basic entities together in the composite. Against this, the creation narrative in Genesis does not restrict creation in this way, but speaks of the creation of composite things. Aquinas maintains this latter position. He argues that being created is ordered to the being of the thing created; therefore creation is associated with things to which being belongs properly. When we think of the basic components, like form and prime matter, out of which composite things are made we are not thinking of beings but of things which are the principles of being. They are real entities, but we should not imagine that they have any proper existence other than instantiated in composites. Aquinas introduces the terminology that such basic components of composite things are co-existent rather than existent and that they are co-created with the created things they comprise.

A5: Given that we sometimes say that human beings, especially in the act of conception, “take part in creation”, it seem wise to ask whether creation belongs exclusively to God or whether there is some sense in which we can say that creatures themselves create. Aquinas denies this, maintaining that God alone creates in the sense that we have been discussing in this question (that is, creation ex nihilo, in which being absolutely speaking is given to creatures). In his answer, Aquinas pays particular attention to the possibility that created entities may participate in creation by acting as instruments of God’s act of creation. He rejects this on the grounds that acting instrumentally involves some proper effect of the instrument in the act. For example, a saw is an instrument that a craftsman uses in cutting something. The act of cutting is proper to the saw itself and therefore it is correct to consider the saw as an instrument of the craftsman. In the case of creation, though, there is no instrument that has the proper action of giving being absolutely speaking; any created instrument pre-supposes something already created to act upon.

This point of view is amplified in the reply to the first objection. This objection is founded on an observation of Aristotle that that which is perfect can make something similar to itself. Immaterial creatures are more perfect than material creatures that (for example, in the case of a human procreating a human) make things similar to themselves. Therefore immaterial creatures must be able to make things similar to themselves and this must be through an act of creation, as immaterial creatures have no matter upon which to act. Aquinas counters by observing that the argument founders because the “making something similar to itself” does not apply to producing its own nature absolutely speaking but rather by applying that nature to something. In the case of human procreation, a human is the cause of human nature coming to exist in some particular determinate matter, but not in coming to exist absolutely speaking.

A6: The Nicene Creed states that the Father is “the creator of all things, visible and invisible” and that “through Him [the Son] all things were made” and that the Spirit is “the Lord, the giver of life”, so it would seem that creation can in some way be attributed to the persons of the Trinity. Aquinas constructs an answer that allows us to see the way that we might attribute creation to the essence of God whilst also maintaining the role of the persons. Remembering that effect resemble their causes, we see that creation (which is the giving of being) corresponds to the being of God and hence is to be attributed to God’s essence, common to the three persons of the Trinity. Hence we cannot claim that creation is proper to any of the persons but rather is common to the whole Trinity. However, God is a cause of things through His intellect and will and so, insofar as the processions of the divine persons include these attributes of the essence, they are causes of the production of creatures.

A7: We saw in Ia.q32.a1 that we cannot ascend from knowledge of creation to knowledge of the divine persons of the Trinity. This would seem to imply that no vestige of the Trinity is left in creatures as a result of the act of creation. What then motivates St. Augustine to say that “a vestige of the Trinity is evident in creatures”?

Aquinas answers that all effects represent their causes in some way and we must determine the way in which the cause of being is represented in the creature and we must also understand what it means to be a “vestige”. So to start with, we can differentiate between effects that resemble the causality of their causes in a vestigial way (smoke from fire, for example) from effects that resemble their cause by being like it in form (fire from fire, for example). We recall (Ia.q27) that the Son proceeds as the Word of God’s intellect and the Holy Spirit proceeds as the love of God’s will. Therefore, inasmuch as rational creatures possess intellect and will, we can say that there is a representation of the Trinity as an image. However, we can say more than this by tracing back certain things in creatures to their causes.

In the first place, a creature subsists in its own being and represents in some way its cause and principle; this points to the person of the Father, principle-not-from-a-principle. Secondly, a creature has a form which determines it to a species; this fact points to the Word in the sense that form comes from the craftsman’s conception. Thirdly, each creature is ordered to its end; this fact points to the Holy Spirit inasmuch as the ordering to the end comes from the creator’s will.

A8: Every time something is made in the created order by natural processes a new form comes to be. But a form does not come to be from anything else, so it must be created. Hence we can claim that creation is involved in all works of nature. Aquinas demolishes this neat little argument by pointing out the way that people are liable to misunderstand what a form is and what it means for a form to exist. The natural form of a body does not itself subsist; it is not a thing. Rather it is that by which something exists; it is a principle of the existence of that thing (as prime matter is also a principle of the thing). Being made and being created properly only apply to subsistent things (composites of form and matter) and not to their principles. As Aquinas pointed out in article 4, these principles, such as form and matter, can only be said to be co-created with the subsistent thing. Therefore, form begins to exist when the composite is made. When a composite is made by natural processes, it is made from the matter; so creation is not involved in the natural process but is presupposed by it.

Handy Concepts

  • In Christian theology, creation is considered in the sense of creation ex nihilo, out of nothing. Creation ex nihilo involves the creation of the total being of the entity.
  • Creation can only be thought of in terms of change by analogy with coming to be in the natural world. However, in creation there is not change in some subject, rather the coming to be of the subject itself.
  • Something created bears a real relation to God the creator; the relation of God to the created is not a real relation but a conceptual relation.
  • Creation involves the coming to be of the whole entity, not simply the parts or components of the entity or the principles of the entity. Matter and form, though they are real entities, are not subsistent and do not come to be independent of their composite.
  • Created entities do not take part in creation even as instrumental causes.
  • Creation is proper to the Trinity as a whole, being attributed to God’s essence. However, the persons of the Trinity can be considered as causes of creatures insofar as the processions of the divine persons include the attributes of the essence corresponding to intellect and will.
  • Rational creatures can be said to contain an image of the Trinity; moreover, creatures in general can be said to contain a vestige of the Trinity.
  • Forms cannot be said to be created; rather they are co-created with the composite of which they comprise one of the principles.


  • The reader may find the answer that Aquinas gives to the third objection in article 3 rather lacking. Indeed, we must point out that this answer has been the subject of some controversy over the centuries. For details, see the footnotes to this passage in the recent Blackfriars translation.
  • In article 8 Aquinas ponders the question of where substantial forms come from. Although his answer tells us of a number of positions that are false his positive answer (that they are co-created but not created at the creation of the composite) is hardly helpful.

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