Sunday, 10 June 2012

Question 74 - The Seven Days as a Whole

Why this Question Matters.

Aquinas has given us an account of the individual days of creation; all that remains for him to do in this question is to wrap up a number of issues that do not naturally fall into the account of any one particular day of creation. Here we get an account of the sufficiency of the days of creation and of the language used to describe the creation events. Also, we get a final examination of the account of St Augustine compared to what may be called the majority view of the other Fathers of the Church.

The Thread of the Argument

A1: The first article is dedicated to the question of whether seven days were sufficient for the creation of the world. In a structure unusual for the summa, a first group of objections are made for the seven days not being enough time followed by a second group of objections that suggest that seven days was far too long!

The first set of objections are all based on assertions that, frankly, God should have spent much longer on various components of creation because the time allotted to these components was unbalanced relative to the other things mentioned in the creation account. Against this position arguments are then put that some of the seven days were a bit superfluous.

In answer, Aquinas reiterates his description of the structure of the creation story. From an initial undifferentiated creation two groups of three days are identified wherein the basic structures of the world are formed and populated. Quoting Aristotle quoting the Pythagoreans, a perfect harmony is found in having a beginning, middle and end.

Augustine’s position on the creation in their causes of some elements of the world is revisited as well as his observation about the nature of the number six. (Six is a perfect number, being equal to the sum of its divisors).

A2: Aquinas has paid careful attention throughout this treatise to the differences between the interpretations of the Genesis account of creation according to St Augustine on the one hand and the majority of the Church Fathers on the other. This article is devoted specifically to a critical examination of Augustine’s position; are all the “days” referred to in the Genesis account really referring to temporal succession or are they rather a cipher for the structural organization of a world fully created in one instant?

In favour of instantaneous creation, Aquinas quotes a passage from Genesis immediately following the account of the seven days that appears to support such an interpretation: “These are the generations of the heaven and the earth, when they were created, in the day that the Lord God made the heaven and the earth: And every plant of the field before it sprung up in the earth, and every herb of the ground before it grew”. Here it appears that the preceding seven days are subsumed under “the day that the Lord God made the heaven and the earth”. Similarly, Ecclesiasticus 18:1 states that “He that lives forever, created all things together.” Another point in favour of instantaneous creation is the fact that the creation event on each “day” appears to be instantaneous: what purpose then would the rest of each day serve? There seems to be no point in God inserting any time between the creation events.

Against these objections, however, the sed contra points out that the text of Genesis appears to be very clear in establishing some sort of temporal succession in the events of creation.

Aquinas does not attempt to adjudicate between Augustine’s interpretation and that of the other Church Fathers. His intention appears to be to show that both interpretations are consistent with the literal meaning of the text; in so doing, he is content to give a brief exposition of these different approaches. According to Aquinas, Augustine interprets each of the “days” of the creation account as corresponding to some angelic knowledge. So, for example, the first “day” of creation corresponds to angelic knowledge of the (ontologically) first creation event. In this way, the seven days of creation correspond to seven “layers” of angelic knowledge about the structure of creation. The other Church Fathers, however, take the view that the Genesis account is relating a real succession in time of the events of creation.

Aquinas makes the following curious observation. He claims that when these two accounts are compared as interpretations of the text, they differ considerably from one another; but when they are interpreted according to the manner in which things were produced, there is no great difference between them. What he has in mind here appears to be that, although Augustine takes the Genesis account to be describing the structure of an instantaneous creation and the other Church Fathers take it to describe the temporal unfolding of that creation, what actually happens in the development of those things is the same. So, for Augustine, the Genesis account describes the forms of matter as a structural layer upon its unformed state and the creation of certain beings in their causes rather than actually; what will happen next (i.e. after the events related in Genesis) will be a development of this world that corresponds to the account given by the other Church Fathers.

Even with this attempt at a harmonization of the different accounts, Aquinas admits that there are differences between them that cannot be reconciled in this way. He is content to merely list those differences and to reply to the objections without prejudice to either account.

A3: The final article of this treatise is devoted to the way in which scripture expresses the work of the creation. Its structure is unusual in that it is composed of a number of objections to the language used in scripture together with their replies; there is no master’s determination of the answer. It gives the appearance of Aquinas tidying up a number of loose ends not previously dealt with. There are seven objections; most of them take the form of objections to things omitted (where is the creative Word of God so familiar from the opening of John’s Gospel, for example), or to expressions used.

The answers to these objections are mostly straightforward. We will only illustrate with the answer to the third objection: there appears to be no reason for omitting the refrain “God saw that it was good” from the work of the second day. The answer allows Aquinas to discuss the Trinitarian aspects of creation; although the Trinity is not explicitly mentioned in the Genesis account, Aquinas argues that strong hints are dropped. For example, the person of the Father is implied by God creating, the person of the Son is implied by the beginning in which He creation (remember the opening of John’s gospel); and the Holy Spirit is the spirit that moves over the face of the waters. “God saw that it was good” is omitted from the account of the second day because the work of differentiating the waters is completed on the third day; the refrain for that day should be taken as applying to the work of the second day too.

Handy Concepts

  • The description of the days of creation in the Genesis account are sufficient for what the author wished to communicate and show a fitting balance and coherence.
  • Six is a perfect number, being the sum of its divisors. In Aquinas’s text, an aliquot part of a number is a number that divides it leaving no remainder (i.e. an exact divisor).
  • In Augustine’s account, the days of creation correspond to layers of angelic knowledge about the structure of the world.
  • To a certain extent what will happen to the world after the events of the creation story (according to Augustine) will correspond to what happens during that story (according to the other Fathers of the Church).
  • Although the Trinity is not explicitly mention in the creation account, its Trinitarian structure is clear.


  • The second article appears to have four objections but five answers to objections. What is happening here is that Aquinas is not so much replying to objections as showing that the objections and their contraries are consistent with scripture. So the fifth reply to objections is actually a reply to the sed contra.
  • It may appear surprising that Aquinas is not willing to come to a decision about whether St Augustine is correct in his interpretation of Genesis. After all, we may be used to the idea of the scholastic approach as one that grinds out correct answers. This example is a good illustration that such a view is a parody. In like manner, the magisterium of the Church has always been loath to determine a particular meaning of individual scriptural passages; such teaching has been restricted to the exclusion of incorrect interpretations in times of doctrinal crisis.
  • Likewise, having set up a critical examination of St Augustine’s account, it seems that Aquinas doesn’t really go into the question to the depth it deserves. Perhaps his intention is to get his readers to read De Genesi ad litteram for themselves!
  • This last question of the treatise on the hexaemeron seems a bit of an anti-climax. Instead of a culminating survey of all creation we get a loose collection of issues not dealt with in the questions about the individual days of creation.

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.


  • 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.

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Question 72 - The Work of the Sixth Day

Why this Question Matters.

“And God said: Let the earth bring forth the living creature in its kind, cattle and creeping things, and beasts of the earth, according to their kinds. And it was so done. And God made the beasts of the earth according to their kinds, and cattle, and everything that creeps on the earth after its kind. And God saw that it was good.

And he said: Let us make man to our image and likeness: and let him have dominion over the fishes of the sea, and the fowls of the air, and the beasts, and the whole earth, and every creeping creature that moves upon the earth. And God created man to his own image: to the image of God he created him: male and female he created them. And God blessed them, saying: Increase and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it, and rule over the fishes of the sea, and the fowls of the air, and all living creatures that move upon the earth. And God said: Behold I have given you every herb bearing seed upon the earth, and all trees that have in themselves seed of their own kind, to be your meat: And to all beasts of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to all that move upon the earth, and wherein there is life, that they may have to feed upon. And it was so done.

And God saw all the things that he had made, and they were very good. And the evening and morning were the sixth day.”

As with Ia.q70 this question comprises only one article which asks whether the work of the sixth day has been adequately described in scripture. Perhaps the most noticeable thing about this article is that it omits any discussion of the creation of mankind. This, however, was quite conventional; accounts of the hexaemeron left out the creation of man so that it could be discussed in a separate treatise. In the case of the summa, this discussion will appear in Ia.q90-q102.

The Thread of the Argument

A1: The first four objections that criticize the adequacy of the account of the sixth day may strike one as extraordinarily pedantic. Only the fifth and sixth objections appear to contain any barbs. The fifth objection is founded on the fact that medieval science asserted the possibility of some animals arising from putrefying matter, which seems quite out of place in the primordial stages of creation. The sixth objection finds it strange that dangerous and poisonous animals, those that can be harmful to man, should arise before the entry of sin into the world.

Aquinas’s reply continues the pattern set by the answer to the last question: the account of the sixth day is perfectly apposite as it describes the third day of adornment paralleling the third day of diversification. Again, Augustine’s opinion is stated in contrast to the other Church Fathers: the animals created on the sixth day are created in their causes rather than actually.

Aquinas meets the fifth objection by agreeing with the objection that animals that are produced from the putrefaction of other animals could not have happened actually at this stage of creation; such animals would only have been created in their causes. However, animals produced from the putrefaction of lower created (inanimate objects or plants, for example) were produced at this stage of creation. The answer to the sixth objection is a largely made up from a delicious quotation from St Augustine: someone entering the workshop of an artisan would find many dangerous tools there; the artisan knows how to put them to their proper use even if the visitor does not. Aquinas adds that before sin came into the world man would have used the things of the world in an appropriate fashion and none of the dangerous animals would actually have posed a threat to him.

Handy Concepts

  • The sixth day corresponds to the third day of adornment which in turn is parallel to the third day of diversification.
  • Oddities in the creation account may sometimes be explained by our lack of comprehension of the purposes for which things were created.


  • The idea that some animals are produced from the putrefaction of other animals is not one retained in modern science. This knowledge would actually have made Aquinas’s task of commentary easier.

Question 71 - The Work of the Fifth Day

Why this Question Matters.

“And God created the great whales, and every living and moving creature, which the waters brought forth, according to their kinds, and every winged fowl according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. And he blessed them, saying: Increase and multiply, and fill the waters of the sea: and let the birds be multiplied upon the earth. And the evening and morning were the fifth day.”

This question and the next are unusual in that there is only one article in each of the questions. In this question the topic under consideration is whether the account of the fifth day given in Genesis is consistent with medieval science. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this question from a modern point of view is to see where the medieval understanding of the generation of life agrees with modern understanding and where it disagrees.

The Thread of the Argument

A1: The objections state the case that the account of the fifth day is inconsistent with the scientific understanding of life processes of the middle ages.

In his answer, Aquinas returns to the theme of the division of the structure of the Genesis account into a fundamental creation, the work of diversification and the work of adornment. Here he concentrates attention on the parallel accounts of the work of diversification and the work of adornment: for each day during the work of diversification in which the basic structures of the world came to take their final form there corresponds a day of adornment in which each of these structures receives its mobile contents. The fifth day is the second day of adornment, corresponding to the second day of diversification in which the waters came to take their final form. Therefore the Genesis account is quite consistent when taken in terms of what the author intended to communicate.

As a coda, Aquinas mentions that Augustine, having believed that the luminous heavenly bodies were actually created on the first day of adornment, returns to the idea that the creatures created on the second day of adornment were created in their causes rather than actually.

Turning his attention to the first of the objections, Aquinas points out that as far as nature is concerned, any generation involves the interaction of an active and a passive principle. The passive principle is matter and the active principle is either semen or the power of the sun (the latter in the case of spontaneous generation arising from putrefaction). However, the natural scientific understanding of the matter is, as far as the creation account is concerned, beside the point. In creation, the active power involved is the Word of God; it is the second Person of the Trinity that is bringing things to be by acts of supernatural creation. The rest of the objections are dealt with by careful attention to the possible meanings of the text of the creation account.

Handy Concepts

  • The account of creation in Genesis parallels the days of the work of diversification and the days of the work of adornment. The creation of animals on the second day of adornment parallels the second day of diversification in which the waters are given their final form.
  • Objections to the creation account of Genesis based on an understanding of natural science have to beware of the fact that the active principle in creation is the Word of God.

Question 70 - The Work of the Fourth Day


In the patristic and medieval understanding of the days of creation, the days that we’ve seen so far were considered as devoted to the creation of the basic structures of the universe. In this question and the next three we see an account of how those basic structures were filled out in the work of adornment, before the final questions of this section of the summa that consider the seventh day, God’s day of rest, and the six days of creation as a whole.

Why this Question Matters.

“And God said: Let there be lights made in the firmament of heaven, to divide the day and the night, and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days and years: to shine in the firmament of heaven, and to give light upon the earth. And it was so done. And God made two great lights: a greater light to rule the day; and a lesser light to rule the night: and the stars. And he set them in the firmament of heaven to shine upon the earth; and to rule the day and the night, and to divide the light and the darkness. And God saw that it was good. And the evening and morning were the fourth day.”

In this question Aquinas discusses the work of the fourth day of creation, the creation of the luminous heavenly bodies (that is, the sun the moon and the stars). As before, he argues that the place allotted to this act of creation in the general scheme is commensurate with that general scheme. He also discusses what these luminous heavenly bodies were created for and touches upon a medieval debate concerning whether they are animated.

The Thread of the Argument

A1: Following the pattern of earlier questions, Aquinas asks about the appropriateness of allotting the creation of the luminous heavenly bodies to the fourth day. The first four objections find arguments against this that are based on thinking about the general temporal order of what must have been produced before what. The fifth objection attacks the idea that the Sun and the Moon should be described as “two great lights”, on the grounds that medieval astronomers already considered other stars to be larger than the Sun and Moon.

Aquinas answers by giving a summary of the general structure of the account of creation given in Genesis. This structure is threefold: a work of creation in which an unfinished heaven and earth are produced; a work of distinction in which heaven and earth are completed in themselves; and a work of adornment in which things are put into heaven and earth. In particular, Aquinas identifies the second three day period of creation as describing the filling of the earth and heavens with moveable things. First among these moveable objects are the heavenly bodies that produce light: the sun, the moon and the stars. Aquinas pays special attention to the account of Augustine. In many ways Augustine’s account differs from the majority of the other Fathers of the Church; but here he is in accord with them. Augustine holds that the Sun, moon and stars are actually produced on the fourth day, not merely produced in their causes.

In answering the objections Aquinas identifies that in Augustine’s account the problems associated with temporal succession simply do not arise; Augustine considers the creation account as describing the natural structure of the world, not the temporal order of its coming to be. In the account of the other Church Fathers the objections are met by recognising the split between the work of creation and the work of distinction; things that might seem to be created too late in the Genesis account are actually created in inchoate form earlier on. Aquinas also makes mention of the teaching of John Chrysostom and of Basil the Great to the effect that some of the creation account takes into consideration the weakness of man in his propensity to fall into idolatry. If Moses had described certain things like the luminous heavenly bodies very early in the account of creation, this would have risked providing motivation for them to be considered as divine.

Finally, although other heavenly bodies might actually be larger than the sun and the moon, the sun and the moon have much greater influence on earthy things and they subtend a greater angle in the sky; it is quite appropriate for them to be described as the “two great lights”.

A2: What were the luminous heavenly bodies created for? The Genesis account gives a number of reasons for their creation, but the objections raise difficulties with each of these. Aquinas explains this passage by turning to a passage from Deuteronomy 4:19 where Moses warns of the danger of idolatry that may arise from an over-estimation of the role of these heavenly bodies. We recall from Ia.q65.a2 that there are four fundamental types of reason for any corporeal body: for its own proper activity; for the benefit of another creature; for the good of the cosmos as a whole; and for the glory of God. Aquinas explains that Moses only touches upon the benefits that accrue to the creature man from the luminous heavenly bodies in the Genesis passage, precisely to draw people away from the danger of idolatry.

When considered from the point of view of the benefit of humanity, the account given in Genesis is seen to be coherent. The heavenly bodies aid the sight of humans and guide their work; they drive the changing seasons; and they forecast favourable and unfavourable times for certain human occupations.

A3: The subject of the third article, whether the luminous heavenly bodies are animated, would seem to be fantastical to modern sensibilities. Why ever is Aquinas even asking this question? The reason for this question is that the idea that the heavenly bodies were in some sense alive or that they participated in some sort of world soul had a long history in platonic and neo-platonic thought; the reception of Arabic writings into the West renewed interest in the question.

Aquinas presents five objections that support the notion that the heavenly bodies are animated. The first three of these objections are based on various ways in which the heavenly bodies should be considered more noble than inanimate bodies: the luminous heavenly bodies adorn the heavens rather than the earth; the forms of the luminous heavenly bodies are clearly more noble than those of plants and animals; the sun and the moon are the causes of life on earth and a cause is more noble than its effects. This position in the hierarchy of nobility should be reflected by a corresponding position in the hierarchy of forms. The final two objections are based on the heavenly bodies as moving bodies: the movement of the heavenly bodies is a natural movement coming from within; they are in some sense self-moving. Therefore, as it is only living things that are self-moving, the heavenly bodies should be considered as associated with a living body.

After a very swift historical review of pre-Christian and Christian opinions on the matter, Aquinas attacks the thesis that the heavenly bodies are alive by analysing the reason for the union of soul with body in living things. The union of the soul with the body is for the benefit of the soul, not for that of the body in the same way that, more generally, form and matter unite for the benefit of form rather than matter. We must also recall that the nature of a soul is discovered through its activities; these are what it is for. The soul requires a body in order that the body may carry out some of the activities of the soul. So the nutritive soul requires a body to gain nourishment; a sensitive soul requires a body in order to sense. Similarly, a body provides the sensory images which lie at the foundation of intellective activity in the human being.

But these activities are simply not appropriate to a heavenly body. A heavenly body does not undergo growth through nourishment, so it makes no sense to claim that it has a nutritive soul. Similarly, there is no reason to associate a sensitive soul with a heavenly body (especially if, as Aquinas points out, it is formed from the fifth element that has nothing sensible in common with the earthly four elements). The only two operations of a soul that could be associated with a heavenly body are movement and understanding. Aquinas easily rules out the latter, so only the former, that of movement, is a possibility.

Having shown that movement is the only property of a soul that can be associated with the heavenly bodies, Aquinas argues that movement does not require the composition of a soul with a body. All that is required is some contact of power between an intellective soul and the heavenly body. What Aquinas is thinking here is that the heavenly bodies should be considered as the object of the prime mover; the unmoved first mover moves the heavenly bodies but there is no reason that these movements require that the first mover be united with the heavenly bodies as form is to matter. The apparent self-moving nature of the heavenly bodies should only be associated with the notion of a living body in an equivocal sense; Aquinas is willing to assert that the disagreements between those who assert that the heavenly bodies are living and those that do not is actually only a verbal disagreement due to this equivocation.

Handy Concepts

  • The work of creation is threefold: the creation of the universe leads to the completion of its basic structures in the work of diversification and this in turn is followed by the work of adornment in which the universe is filled with moveable things.
  • Augustine agrees with the other Fathers of the Church in that the luminous heavenly bodies are actually created on the fourth day rather than just being created in their causes.
  • Some of the features of the creation account in Genesis may be explained by the author’s wish to avoid accidentally leading his readers into idolatry.
  • The account of the creation of the luminous heavenly bodies in Genesis focusses on the benefits that accrue to mankind from them.
  • Aquinas rules out the animation of heavenly bodies by arguing that out of all the things that an animating soul is for, the heavenly bodies only display movement. Furthermore, movement does not require the union of a soul, as form, with matter, as movement can be explained by some contact of power.

Monday, 7 May 2012

Question 69 - The Work of the Third Day

Why this Question Matters.

“God also said: Let the waters that are under the heaven be gathered together into one place; and let the dry land appear. And it was so done. And God called the dry land, Earth; and the gathering together of the waters, he called Seas. And God saw that it was good. And he said: Let the earth bring forth the green herb, and such as may seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after its kind, which may have seed in itself upon the earth. And it was so done. And the earth brought forth the green herb, and such as yields seed according to its kind, and the tree that bears fruit, having seed each one according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. And the evening and the morning were the third day.”

The work of the third day sits at the boundary between the formation of the fundamental structures of the universe and the population of the universe with things. The two articles in this question address problems that might seem to arise from the text itself or from the interpretation of the text in the light of the scientific understanding of the time. However, one might better see this question as allowing Aquinas to give an extended description of the interpretation of the creation account due to St Augustine in the context of the majority interpretations of the other Church Fathers. St Augustine sees the creation account as an account of something that occurs instantaneously; the procession of events is a literary device that really refers to the internal structuring of reality. The other Church Fathers see the account as being temporal. These two interpretative threads offer different (and possibly complementary) ways of approaching the difficulties in the text.

The Thread of the Argument

A1: The work of the creation was conventionally divided into the work of diversification and the work of adornment. In the first, the universe came into being and its inchoate matter was formed into the basic parts of the world we know. In the second, the world is filled with content. The gathering of the waters described in this section of Genesis stands at the division of these two periods of creation; the question set in this article as to whether the scriptural account is a fitting description of the gathering of the waters reflects this division.

The objections to the scriptural account divide into two sorts: on the one hand there are two objections based on features of the text and on the other there are three objections based on medieval science. The first textual objection observes that up to now the work of creation has been described in terms of making whereas here we have a gathering of what has already been made. This appears to break the pattern set by the other works of diversification. Next, the earth is named as being made at the beginning of the creation account; but here we have it mentioned as resulting from the gathering of the waters.

In his answer, Aquinas distinguishes between two major exegetical approaches to the creation account. The first is the approach of St Augustine who saw the creation account of Genesis as describing an instantaneous creation of everything. In this account the succession of events described is not a temporal succession but an account of the ordering of nature from its most fundamental structures upwards. In such a hierarchical but non-temporal account, what is being described is the meaning and structure of creation. In this account the gathering of the waters is seen to refer to the distinction between the substantial forms of water and of earth in distinction to the inchoate form of matter in general that ontologically precedes these forms.

The other major approach to the Genesis account does see it as an account of the temporal succession of events. Here, matter is created in an inchoate form and exists as such for a time before it receives diversification into its particular forms. Particular pairings of words in scripture can be seen as specifying how different parts of primeval creation lacked their eventual forms: so heaven is paired with darkness; water is paired with deep; and earth is paired with invisible or void. In this approach the work of the third day is seen as an imposition of form on the inchoate earth and water, bringing them to a state where they can be distinguished.

Aquinas now turns to the objections, answering each from both the points of view of Augustine and of the other Church Fathers. That the term “gathering” is appropriately used here instead of “making” follows on the one account from the descent down the hierarchy of being from the more noble to the less and on the other account from the simple fact that the stuff involved has already been made by the third day. Likewise the double reference to the creation of the earth can be understood as referring to the creation of the inchoate earth and to its later (either in time or in meaning) specification or even as a type of equivocation.

Likewise, having put these clarifications in place, Aquinas can deal with the science based objections. For example, the fourth objection states that “gathering” involves a change of place that is natural to a substance like water; what need is there for a divine precept to get the waters to gather? Aquinas answers that it is by the divine precept that water comes to have its natural properties.

A2: Why is it that the creation of plants is allotted to the third day? After all, plants are not the only form of life and it might seem more appropriate to mention the most primitive forms first. Also one might have thought that mentioning basic structures of the earth such as stones and metals would take priority. Similarly, why mention the adornment of the earth by plants in a part of the creation account that is dedicated to diversification?

Aquinas distinguishes between two types of lack of form for the earth that are remedied on the third day of creation. The first type of lack corresponds to it being described as void or invisible and the second type corresponds to it being described as empty or shapeless. The first type of lack is remedied by the gathering of the waters that distinguishes between earth and water and the second type of lack is remedied by the creation of plants. So the account of the third day should be seen as a type of completion making up for a lack, rather than as part of the adornment of what is already complete in itself.

Here again, Aquinas distinguishes between the opinion of St Augustine and the opinions of the other Church Fathers. In St Augustine’s reading of Genesis as an account of the structure of nature as instantaneously created, the creation of plants on the third day is taken as referring to the powers to bring forth vegetative life that are given to nature. These powers are examples of what St Augustine calls seminal reasons in nature and which Aquinas describes here as examples of things that are formed in their causes.  Part of the structure of nature is such that it not only exists in itself but it has powers or causal potentials to evolve new forms, especially involving forms of life.

Other writers interpret the account of the third day as referring to the actual creation of concrete individual plants within species but that such creation does not involve the coming to be of all plants species. Within the plants that are created on the third day lies the power to create not only like from like but new species.

As for the objections, Aquinas argues that plants can be seen as a primitive form of life in that they do not have locomotion or sensation. Their fixedness within the earth makes it appropriate that they are described along with the creation of the earth. Similarly, Moses does not describe everything in the creation account, favouring those things obvious to the senses; rocks and minerals deep in the earth are occult and so are not described.

Handy Concepts

  • St Augustine explains the creation account as an account of the structure of nature from the foundations upwards. The majority of other Church Fathers read it as a temporal account of the coming to be of the universe. Aquinas leaves both options open.
  • Using St Augustine’s approach to the creation account, the gathering of the waters can be seen as identifying the structure of nature that distinguishes dry land from wet water.
  • Using the other account, the gathering of the waters can be seen as the imposition of a more specifying form on inchoate matter.
  • In St Augustine’s account the third day of creation is taken as referring to the seminal reasons within nature.
  • Other Church Fathers take the third day of creation as referring to the creation of actual plants; though not the complete range of plant species, some of which remain in potentiality within those that are created.


  • In the second article Aquinas alludes to the opening verses of Genesis describing the earth as “invisible or void” and “shapeless or empty”. The “invisible” and “shapeless” appear to be textual variants known to Aquinas.

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Question 68 - The Work of the Second Day

Why this Question Matters.

“And God said: Let there be a firmament made amidst the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters. And God made a firmament, and divided the waters that were under the firmament from those that were above the firmament. And it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and morning were the second day.

On the second day of creation God creates a firmament that divides the waters above from the waters below. But what is this firmament and what is the nature of the waters that it divides? Engaging with pre-Christian cosmology and patristic tradition, Aquinas sorts through various understandings of this passage, discarding some but leaving others open to consideration.

The Thread of the Argument

A1: The text of Genesis relating to the second day of creation is troubling. We are told that a firmament is created that divides the waters and that this firmament is called Heaven; but according to the opening verses of Genesis, Heaven was created before there were days at all. When was this firmament created, and what is a firmament anyway?

In preparing to answer this seeming contradiction Aquinas makes his own the two principles of Augustine on the interpretation of such questions. The first principle is that scripture is true; one cannot resolve such paradoxes simply by claiming error in the scriptural account. The second principle is that if there are a number of possible explanations for the scriptural passage, one should not maintain as definitive any that are patently falsifiable. Faith and reason are co-principles for the interpretation of obscure passages of scripture.

Having said this, Aquinas has cleared to the way for a discussion of some possible meanings for this passage. He divides the interpretations according to what they take the scientific explanation of the firmament to be. In the first case, the firmament is taken as referring to where the stars are located; in the second, to being the part of the atmosphere where clouds undergo condensation. The first set of possibilities is then further divided into interpretations that depend upon what the firmament is made of. Aquinas runs through these possibilities showing that some of them are consistent with the scriptural account whereas some are not. When he turns to the second group of interpretations, he is able to argue that these don’t suffer from the problems of the first group and that therefore they are preferable from the point of view of the harmony between faith and reason.

In answering the apparent contradiction between Heaven being created before the beginning of days and the firmament (called Heaven) on the second day, Aquinas turns to St John Chrysostom. The latter argued that opening of Genesis is a summary of what comes later; somewhat like “the builder built the house; he did this by digging the foundations and then building the walls…”

In addition to Chrysostom’s resolution of the contradiction, Aquinas recalls alternative explanations that differentiate between the Heaven of the opening verse of Genesis and that of the second day. In these explanations, Heaven is being used in an extensive sense, much as we are willing to describe the vista of the stars as “the heavens” whilst still calling the domain of the blessed “Heaven”.

A2: The waters appear to be divided into those below and those above the firmament. But how can there be waters above the firmament? Water is a liquid that has weight and would therefore tend to fall downwards; similarly as a liquid it would not be stable on the sphere of the firmament posited by medieval cosmology. What would the purpose of water be above the firmament? It would seem that water’s natural purpose is fulfilled here on Earth, below the firmament.

Aquinas reiterates Augustine: the placing of waters above the firmament may sound odd, but scripture has greater weight than human opinion. We cannot doubt that they are there; what we can inquire into is what they are.

Aquinas immediately rejects Origen’s opinion that the waters referred to here are purely spiritual substances; these waters are material. Exactly what material form they take can be the object of speculation that will depend upon the prior explanation of what the firmament is taken to be. Although Aquinas favours the opinion that the firmament is the place of the clouds over the opinion that it is the place of the stars, he still leaves those parts of that explanation consistent with the scriptural text open here. He offers various explanations of what the waters above the firmament are based on these accounts of the firmament. Turning to the idea that the firmament is the place of the clouds, he claims that the waters above the firmament are those that are evaporated from the Earth and taken up to be the source of rain.

The objections are met by a number of arguments relating to the different explanations of the nature of the waters above the firmament. Aquinas follows Augustine in rejecting miraculous explanations that would answer these objections. God has created Heaven and Earth such that their regular functioning flows from their natures; it is into these that we should inquire. Whatever the waters above the firmament are, we must admit the possibility that they exist in a form different from the waters below the firmament even if they are essentially the same sort of stuff. For example, the waters above the firmament may exist as vapour (and thus would not fall to Earth) or as ice (and thus could be crystalized around the sphere of the heavens). As for the purpose of the waters above the firmament, in the favoured view of the firmament they are there to provide rain; but there are corresponding explanations for the other views of the firmament too.

A3: Continuing the enquiry into what the firmament is and what it does, Aquinas asks about how the firmament can be said to separate the waters above and below. If we look at things from our point of view, it seems patently obvious that the waters do not stretch up to the firmament, whichever of the views one takes on the nature of the firmament. How then can we say that it is actually the firmament that divides?

The main concern in this article appears to be to banish certain ancient theories about what the waters are. Aquinas argues that the scriptural text has to be interpreted in the light of the ignorance of Moses’ original readers: Moses writes in terms of things directly perceptible to the senses, so that those readers could understand what was written (to a limited extent). Many false explanations of scripture have resulted from failing to take into account this principle. Whether we take the firmament to refer to the place of the stars or to the place of the clouds, and if we understand the term “water” to have some latitude (i.e. referring to unformed matter or any transparent body), then the scriptural text raises no problems and the objections melt away.

A4: In Ia.q66.a3 we have already seen that the word “heaven” is rather overloaded with different meanings. If we further consider the fact that the Latin word that Aquinas is using is “caelum” and the ambiguity of the words used in various languages to talk about the sky or the heavens, one soon sees there is ample scope for confusion. Asking whether there is only one heaven allows Aquinas to put some order into this chaos.

Aquinas identifies three different fundamental uses of the word “heaven” in scripture. The first usage corresponds to that already referred to in Ia.q66.a3: the heavens as understood through scientific cosmology. In this understanding the heavens are divided into the empyrean heaven, the aqueous (or crystalline) heaven and the sidereal heaven; we recall that some authors identify the empyrean heaven as the place of the blessed. The second usage associates heaven with some property of the heavenly bodies (something we still do when we use the word “heavenly”). The third usage is a metaphorical one where spiritual goods or even God Himself is referred to as heaven.

The answer to the question as to whether there is only one heaven then depends upon which of these uses is in view. Differentiating between different facets of heavenly creation leads to a multiplicity, but considering the created universe in its unity (as heaven and earth) leads to singularity.

Handy Concepts

  • Scripture must always be taken as true. However, interpretations of scripture that are patently falsifiable by means of reason should be rejected.
  • Aquinas identifies two main lines of interpretation for what the firmament is: on the one hand we have the firmament as the place of the stars, on the other the firmament as the place of the clouds. Aquinas favours the second without ruling out the possibility of the first.
  • In the same way that we might be flexible in our understanding of the firmament, we might also be flexible in understanding what the waters referred to by scripture might be.
  • In the answer of the second article Aquinas identifies the fundamental physical principle that “a natural body cannot be divided or rarefied without limit, but only up to a point”.
  • The author of scripture was writing for the unlearned and condescended to his audience by restricting his descriptions in the creation account to those things directly perceptible to the senses.
  • The word “heaven” has many meanings in scripture; care is needed to understand which is being used where.

Sunday, 29 April 2012

Question 67 – The Work of Differentiation in Itself

Why this Question Matters.

“And God said, ‘let there be light’ and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day.”

The work of the first day of creation involves the creation of light and the separation of light from darkness; in doing this, day and night come to be. But what is this light? Is the creation account here simply a pre-scientific account of the coming to be of photons? Is this an account of the coming to be of only the material world or are there spiritual aspects involved as well? If we recall from the previous question that it was commonly taken that the first four things to be created were the angelic nature, the empyrean heaven, unformed corporeal matter and time, how is light connected with these?

When we read the opening words of Genesis, we must be aware of the different meanings associated with light throughout the scriptures; one might at least turn to the Gospel of John, for example. Amongst the Church Fathers, the majority position was that the account of creation given here is an account of the creation of the material world. But St Augustine interpreted the account in a different way; as the creation of the spiritual natures. In this question, as it leads up to its conclusion in the final article, Aquinas gives equal account to these different approaches, without judging between them.

The Thread of the Argument

A1: If we recognize that the light referred to in the creation account of Genesis may mean more than simply material light, then the question that Aquinas addresses in the first article will seem apposite; can light properly be said to exist in spiritual things?

Aquinas recalls that in our use of language a term may have a primary meaning that is expanded in actual use. So a word such as “vision” primarily refers to an act of the sense of sight but has secondary usages that go way beyond this primary usage. Not only do we extend the use of the word to other senses (“see how hot this iron is”) but even to intellectual vision (“I see what you mean”) and to the beatific vision (“Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God”). This analysis applies to the term “light”; its primary meaning attaches to the illumination that facilitates the sense of sight, but its extended meanings apply to whatever provides the illumination for any type of knowing.

So, if “light” is taken in its primary meaning, applying it to spiritual creatures is a metaphor rather than a proper usage; but if we take it in its extended meaning, then it is properly applied to spiritual creatures.

A2: If we now restrict our attention to light considered in its primary meaning as that which facilitates the sense of sight, determining the nature of light is still a fascinating and enduring question. In an amusing parallel to the modern debates over the wave versus particulate nature of light, the objections and the sed contra of this article observe that in some ways light acts like a material body but in other ways it does not.

Aquinas argues that it is quite wrong to think of light as a body; and for this he gives three arguments. In the first place, material bodies occupy space and it is impossible for two material bodies to be superposed, whereas light can be superposed. Secondly, according to the physical understanding of the day, illumination occurs instantaneously and therefore light cannot be the translation of a material body. Finally, if air were a material body, a composite of matter and form, then we would have to think of the passing from light into darkness in terms of the corruption of the body of light into another substance. Why ever would light corrupt simply because of the absence of a source of light?

A3: If light is not a body in the sense of being a material substance, then what is it? Aquinas turns to the Aristotelian understanding of the modes of being laid out in the Categories and argues that light is a quality, one of the accidental categories of being. He makes the analogy between heat and light, observing that heat is a quality derived from the substantial form of fire; it is an accident that follows on necessarily from the being of fire. Likewise light is a quality that follows on from the substantial form of the sun (or from any other self-illuminating body).

In arriving at this conclusion, Aquinas considers and rejects a number of alternative explanations. Light cannot have a merely intentional being (that is, existing only in the mind), as intentional beings cannot cause physical changes in the way that light does. Light is not the substantial form of the sun, as substantial forms cannot be directly perceived in the way that light can be; nor could light then exist in air, as substantial forms make whatever they inform to be what they are.

A4: The first three articles have concluded that we may properly associate light with spiritual creatures, provided that we take the term light in its extended sense, and that if we restrict it to its primary meaning then we must consider light as a quality rather than as a body. However, when we turn to the text of scripture, this position would appear to imply some serious difficulties. If light is a quality, then it is an accident which has to be an accident inhering in some substance; but what is that substance? Scripture has not spoken of it. Similarly, a consideration of the next few days of creation suggests that placing the creation of physical light on the first day is incoherent. For example, light distinguishes day from night; but this is associated with the sun which is not created until the fourth day. Similarly, night and day would appear to be inextricably associated with the firmament, which was made on the second day. Even if one takes light as referring to the creation of spiritual creatures, there is still a problem: in the beginning there was no spiritual darkness to be separated from the light as all the spiritual creatures were created good.

In his answer, Aquinas alludes both to the singular approach of St Augustine to the book of Genesis, in which the opening verses are taken to refer to the creation of spiritual beings, as well as to the majority opinion in which these verses are taken as referring to the creation of the material world. In Augustine’s approach when scripture says that “God created heaven and earth”, this means that God created the spiritual creatures (heaven) and the material creatures (earth). The production of light on the first day then corresponds to the production of the spiritual light that illuminates the minds of the spiritual creatures. The fourth objection is answered by observing that Augustine does not take this sequence of events described in Genesis as a temporal sequence. All the events of the fall of the bad angels take place in the (temporal) instant of creation; the sequence of the narrative represents the ontological priority of the events and not any temporal priority.

To others of the Church Fathers, the account of Genesis omits description of the creation of spiritual creatures for a number of reasons. For them, the account of Genesis is an account of the creation of the material world. In that account, Aquinas argues that the creation of light is appropriate to the first day for two reasons. On the one hand, light is a quality that inheres in all bodies; in particular it must inhere in the primeval matter that comes to be in the first instant of creation. On the other hand, light is what makes manifest the work of creation and therefore it is fitting that such light be present at the beginning of creation.

In answering the first three objections that relate to the creation account as the creation of the material universe, Aquinas takes the position that the unformed matter created on the first day is not unformed in the technical hylomorphic sense. Rather it is created informed by primeval substantial forms that will be replaced by other, more organized, forms later in the days of creation. Therefore it is perfectly consistent to say that the light of creation is a quality of this primeval matter. Similarly, the light of creation can be taken to be the light of the pre-formed sun; the illumination from this is an illumination in a general sense rather than in the specific ways that the actual sun provides. Likewise, one may associate night and day in a specific way with the motion of the firmament but one can also associate it in a general way with the primeval forms that will later become the firmament.

Handy Concepts

  • Words have primary meanings and extended meanings. The word light in its primary meaning can only be applied metaphorically to spiritual creatures; but in its extended meaning it can be properly applied to them.
  • Aquinas, guided by the scientific understanding of the day, concludes that light is not a body but is a quality; the latter being one of the accidental categories of being.
  • Light was created on the first day as light inheres in all created bodies, including the primeval matter of the first day. Also it was fitting that light was present so early in creation in order to manifest the work of creation.
  • The association of light with various forms that were created later in the six days is anticipated by its association with the primeval matter of the first day.


  • The arguments of the second and third articles appear to fall apart in the light of modern physics. However, these two articles are really only used as preliminary lemmas leading up to the main result of this question in the fourth article. It would not appear too difficult to reconstruct the conclusion of the fourth article in the light of modern scientific understanding.

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.

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).

Friday, 9 March 2012

Spring Cleaning

When we started this escapade back in the dim distant days of 2009, it was not at all clear to us how to use the blog to support our activities. Stuff just got written and put up on the blog based on the materials that Steve and I prepared for our face-to-face sessions. As time went by, the sort of structure that we wanted and the amount and scope of the material appropriate emerged from just doing it. By about the time we got to Ia.q12 I was beginning to feel comfortable with what we were posting. However, I’ve been keenly aware for some time that the material for the first few questions in the summa is inadequate in comparison to the later stuff.

So, it’s time for a bit of a revision. Before proceeding on to the hexaemeron, I’ll be posting revisions of at least the first eleven questions (and maybe more). We’ll see how blogger copes with the revisions, but I’ll try not to lose any of the original comments!

If any of you out there reading this stuff want to suggest some revisions to these particular questions, now is the time to get your comments in!

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Question 64 - The Punishment of the Demons

Why this Question Matters.

After having discussed the fall of the bad angels, it would seem quite natural to ask what happens next. This final question in the so-called “Treatise on the Angels” deals with the condition of the fallen angels after the fall. Possibly the most important question asked here is whether the bad angels, having fallen, can repent; this is the subject of the second article.

The Thread of the Argument

A1: Are the fallen angels, or demons, deprived of all knowledge of the truth? It seems clear that the demons must be cut off from at least some aspects of supernatural knowledge in their refusal of grace, but does their isolation from the truth extend further; perhaps even to their natural knowledge?

Aquinas distinguishes between two forms of cognition of the truth. On the one hand he identifies natural knowledge, on the other knowledge attributable to grace. He further distinguishes two sub-types of the latter: speculative knowledge that concerns divine things revealed to someone; and affective knowledge which produces love for God. Aquinas claims that of these three types of knowledge, the first is undiminished in the demons, the second is diminished, and the third is entirely absent.

The demons’ natural knowledge is not diminished because, being simple spiritual forms, to take something away from their nature in the way that we might have a foot removed is impossible without changing their nature. To change their nature would be to make them something they are not. The second type of cognition is a gift of grace, so that it is not surprising that it is at least diminished in the demons; but why is it not taken away entirely? God may reveal to them whatever He wishes to reveal for His purposes. Of the third type, which pertains to charity and to wisdom, no trace is left in the demons.

A2: Having turned away from God, as described in Ia.q63, is it possible for a demon to “change its mind” and to turn back to God, or is it obstinate in its evil? The objections suggest a number of powerful reasons that would support the idea that the demons can turn back to God after their fall. For example, freedom of choice would appear to be fundamental to creatures with a rational nature and to deny them the ability to turn back to God would appear to contradict this. Similarly, God’s mercy is infinite; therefore it is within His power to turn a demon back to Him.

Aquinas begins his reply by referring to Origen who argued in concurrence with the first objection that, because of their free wills, the demons could turn back to God. But having done this Aquinas immediately states that such a position is incompatible with the catholic faith and that one must firmly hold that the will of the good angels is confirmed in the good and that of the demons is obstinate in evil. The reason for this lies in the nature of the angels. As immaterial beings they do not have to go through a process of deciding something and they can never learn anything new as they immediately know all that they can naturally know. Even their supernatural knowledge is immediately assimilated. John of Damascus put it succinctly: the fall is to the angels as death is to humans. Humans are able to repent during their earthly life but once death comes, there is no repentance. For the angels, their one moment of decision is decisive.

To the argument from the freedom of the will, Aquinas answers that the nature of this freedom differs according to the nature of the intellectual creature. A human’s free will is flexible with respect to opposites both before and after the act of choice; the angel’s free will is only flexible with respect to opposites before the act of choice. This line of thought also explains why God’s mercy will not extend to the fallen angels. God’s mercy is applied to those who repent; but the demons are incapable of repentance.

A3: Passions such as fear, sorrow and joy cannot exist in the angels in the same way that they exist in us because they are passions that are proper to the sentient appetite. So if one asks whether the demons are sorrowful for their condition, one has to be careful to define what this might mean. If we take sorrow as an example, then it is possible to give it a transferred meaning that applies to any will, human or angelic. One simply identifies it with that resistance of the will to situations that exist (and which the will wishes did not exist) and vice versa. With this analogous meaning, it is quite proper to attribute sorrow to the demons. They are deprived of the beatitude that they desire and their evil will is frustrated by the good in many things.

A4: The phrasing of the title of the final article in this question may raise eyebrows: is the air the place of punishment for the demons? Indeed, the body of the question refers to the aer caliginosus (“misty air” or “dark atmosphere”). The sense of this strange phrase is to ask whether the punishment of the demons is restricted to hell or whether it extends to earth. The demons are hidden from us in the normal course of events, so presumably they inhabit the parts of earth’s atmosphere hidden from us.

Aquinas answers by claiming that the good of lower creatures is mediated by higher creatures and this can come about in two ways. In the first way people are induced towards the good by the good angels. In the second way they are induced towards the good by resistance to temptation from the bad angels. Therefore there must be some bad angels on hand to tempt us! This situation will endure up until the last judgement, when all the demons will be consigned to hell. Until then, some demons will be punished in hell; others will serve their time on earth.

In the reply to the third objection Aquinas mentions the opinion that the punishment of the demons may be postponed until the last judgement. The argument against this position is one of symmetry: the good angels are able to minister to us here on earth without any diminution of their heavenly glory. By symmetry, the demons must be able to tempt us on earth with no diminution of their punishment.

Handy Concepts

  • The fallen angels are not deprived of their natural knowledge, but some elements of their supernatural knowledge are diminished and some are extinguished altogether.
  • The fall of the bad angels and the glory of the good angels are both irrevocable.
  • Although passions cannot exist in angels (good or bad) one can meaningfully talk of the bad angels being sad about their condition.
  • The good angels minister to us here on earth; likewise the bad angels tempt us. Therefore the punishment of the demons is both here on earth and in hell before the last judgement.
  • In the fourth article Aquinas argues that divine providence is mediated through the angels. It appears unclear from the text whether he means that all of providence is mediated through the angels, but the implication from the Doctor Angelicus is there. Aquinas will return to this topic at the end of the first part of the summa in Ia.qq103-119 when he discusses the Divine governance of creatures.


  • Although Aquinas does not mention the temptation of Job in the first article, perhaps this is an example of what he was thinking about when he argues that God may reveal to the demons what He wishes for His purposes.