"The good of the grace of one soul is greater than the good of the nature of the whole universe"
- St Thomas Aquinas Ia IIa, q.24, a. 3, ad 2

 
REALITY—A Synthesis Of Thomistic Thought

by Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O. P.

CH12: OMNIPOTENCE

Omnipotence is the immediate source of God's external works. God's productive action cannot, properly speaking, be transitive, since that would imply imperfection, would imply that God's action is an accident, something emanating from God and received into a creature. Speaking properly, God's action is immanent, is identified with the very being of God. But it is virtually transitive, since it produces an effect distinct from God.

God's active power is infinite because, the more perfect a being is, the more perfect is its power of acting. Hence God, who is pure act, who is actuality itself, has a power which is boundless, which can give existence to whatever is not self-contradictory. [461] This infinite power is seen, first in creation, secondly in preservation, thirdly in divine motion. Hence the three articles which now follow.

1. Creation

According to revelation, God freely created heaven and earth, not from eternity, but in time, at the origin of time. Here we have three truths.

a) God created the universe ex nihilo.
b) God created the universe freely.
c) God did not create the universe ab aeterno.

The first two truths are demonstrable by reason, hence belong to the preambles of faith. The third, so St. Thomas, is indemonstrable, is an article of faith. [462] Let us look more closely at each of these three truths.

a) Creation ex Nihilo.

Creation from nothing means a productive act where there is no material cause, no subject matter to work on, so that the entire being of created things comes from their creative cause. Before creation, nothing of the created thing existed, not even its matter, however unformed you may suppose it. This production of the entire created being [463] has indeed an efficient cause and a final cause and an exemplary cause (the divine idea): but no material cause.

St. Thomas [464] shows that the distance is infinite between creation from nothing and production, however masterly, of something from preexisting matter. The sculptor makes the statue, not from nothing, but from pre-existing marble or clay. The father begets the son from the pre-existing germ. The thinker builds a system from pre-existing facts and principles. Our will produces a free act from its own pre-existing power to act. The teacher fashions, he does not create, his pupil's intelligence. No finite agent can create, properly speaking, it can but transform what pre-exists. Creative power, says St. Thomas, [465] cannot, even by miracle, be communicated to any creature. This conclusion, he says, follows from the distinction between God and the world. Since in God alone are essence and existence identified, God alone who is essential existence can bring forth from nothing participated existence, a being composed of essence and existence. Though that creature be merely a particle of dust, God alone can create it. Those who, like Suarez, [466] follow notably different principles regarding essence and existence, are much less clear and affirmative in their doctrine on creation.

Between Aristotle and St. Thomas there is also at this point a great distance. Plato and Aristotle, though they admitted an eternal creation, did not rise to the explicit notion of creation from nothing. [467] They did indeed see the dependence of the world on God, but were unable to make precise the mode of that dependence. Nor did they see that the creative act is free, sovereignly free. The world seemed to them a necessary radiation from God, like the rays from the sun. This double truth, free creation and creation from nothing, accessible to reason under the influence of revelation, is of capital importance in Christian philosophy, and signalizes immense progress beyond Aristotle.

Yet in attaining this truth St. Thomas employs Aristotle's [468] own principle: "The most universal effect comes from the most universal cause." St. Thomas argues from this principle as follows: "Being as being is the most universal of effects. Hence the production of being as such, of the whole being (even of the tiniest thing): must come from the supreme cause, which is the most universal of causes. As only fire heats, as only light shines, so that cause alone which is being itself, existence itself, can produce the whole being of its effect. The adequate object of omnipotence is being, the whole being, and no created power can have an object so universal."

From this vantage point new light falls on Aristotle's very definition of metaphysics, which is: Knowledge of things through their supreme cause, knowledge of being as such. Why? Aristotle did not give the explicit reason, but St. Thomas did: In every finite thing being as such is the proper and exclusive effect of the supreme cause.

This immense progress, though attained under the light of revelation, is nevertheless a truth of reason, reached by philosophic demonstration. The traditional doctrine of potency and act, adolescent still in Aristotle, reaches maturity in Aquinas. Revelation did indeed facilitate the demonstration, by pointing out its goal, but did not furnish the principle of that demonstration. In the Christian milieu, the doctrine of potency and act can produce new fruits, which rise from this principle, though Aristotle himself did not see those fruits.

St. Thomas [469] adds a confirmation of this truth: "The poorer is the matter to be transformed, i. e.: the more imperfect is passive power, the greater must be the active power. Hence, when passive power is simply nothing, active power must be infinite. Hence no creature can create." [470].

b) Creation a Free Act

The doctrine of free creation is not less important than that of creation from nothing. Why must creation be a free act of God? We gave the reason above. God, possessing infinite goodness and infinite joy, has no need of creatures. The act of creation itself adds no new perfection to God. God, says Bossuet, [471] is none the greater by having created the universe. He was not less perfect before creation, and He would not have been less perfect had He never created. Revelation, indeed, shows us the infinite fecundity of the divine nature, in the generation of the Word and in the spiration of the Holy Spirit. But divine goodness, thus necessarily self-communicative within (ad intra): is just as freely self-communicative without (ad extra).

The chief opponents of St. Thomas on the liberty of the creative act were the Averroists. Against them he speaks frequently. Let us listen to a few sentences: [472] "God can do all things." "Neither the divine intellect nor the divine will is limited to determined finite effects." "God can act beyond the order of nature."

The reasons laid down in these articles are equally valid against the pantheistic determinism of Spinoza and of numerous modern philosophers, and also against the moral necessity of creation taught by Leibnitz, [473] who maintained an absolute optimism, according to which, he says: "Supreme wisdom was obliged to create, and could not fail to choose the best of possible worlds."

This position of Leibnitz was refuted beforehand by St. Thomas. Here are the saint's words: "The plan in fact realized by infinite wisdom is not adequate to the ideals and inventive power of that wisdom. A wise man chooses means proportionate to his purpose. If the end is proportioned to the means, then those means are imposed by necessity. But divine goodness, which is the purpose of the universe, surpasses infinitely all things created (and creatable): and is beyond all proportion to them. Hence divine wisdom is not limited to the present order of things, and can conceive another." [474].

Leibnitz treated this problem as a mathematical problem: "While God calculates, the world comes into being." [475] He forgot that, whereas in a mathematical problem all elements stand in mutual and limited proportion, finite things have no such proportion to the infinite goodness which they manifest.

To the objection of Leibnitz that infinite wisdom could not fail to choose the best, St. Thomas had already replied: "The proposition, 'God can do something better than what He actually does,' has two meanings. If the term 'better' is understood as modifying 'something,’ the proposition is true, because God can ameliorate all existing things and can make things which are better than those things He has made. [476] But if the term 'better' is understood adverbially, as modifying 'do,' then the proposition is false, because God always acts with infinite wisdom and goodness." [477].

The actual world, so we conclude, is a masterpiece, but a better masterpiece is possible. Thus, to illustrate: the plant's organism is wonderfully adapted to its purpose, but the animal's organism is still more perfect. Any symphony of Beethoven is a masterpiece, but does not exhaust his genius.

Thus are solved the difficulties which seem to have held Aristotle from affirming divine liberty and divine providence.

c) Creation in Time

Revelation teaches that God created the universe in time, at the origin of time, not from eternity. This truth, says St. Thomas, [478] since it cannot be demonstrated by reason, is an article of faith.

Why? Because creation depends on divine freedom, which could have created millions of ages earlier, and even beyond that still earlier, in such wise that the world would be without beginning, but not without origin, since by nature and causality it would be eternally dependent on God, just as, to illustrate, the footprint on the sand presupposes the foot that makes it, so that if the foot were from eternity on the sand, the footprint too would be without beginning. Further, since, as revelation teaches, spiritual creatures will never cease to exist, and even men's bodies, after the general resurrection, will live on without end, so likewise could the world exist, without beginning, created from eternity and forever preserved by God. [479].

On the other hand, as the saint [480] shows against the Averroists, it is not necessary that the world must have been created from eternity. The creative action in God, yes, that is eternal, since it is, properly speaking, immanent, and only virtually transitive, but since it is free, it can make its effect commence in time, at the instant chosen from eternity. Thus there would be "a new divine effect without new divine action." [481].

Article Two: Divine Preservation

The doctrine of creation, well understood, has as consequence the doctrine of preservation. [482] If God, even for an instant, ceased to preserve creatures, they would instantly be annihilated, just as, if luminous bodies were no more, light too would cease to be. The reason is that the very being of creatures, composed as they are of essence and existence, is being by participation, which always and necessarily depend on Him who is essential being, in whom alone essence is identified with existence. [483].

God, in fact, is the cause, not only of the creature's coming into existence, but also, and directly, of its continued being. The human father who begets a son is the direct cause only of the son's coming into existence, and hence the son can continue to exist after the death of his father. But, even in creatures, there are causes on which depends the continued existence of their effects. Without atmospheric pressure and solar heat, even the most vigorous animal will not delay in dying. Light without its source is no more. Sensation without its sense object disappears. In the intellectual order, he who forgets principle can no longer grasp conclusion, and he who no longer wills the end can have no desire of means.

Where cause and effect belong both to the same specific level of being, there cause is cause only of the effect's coming into being. The continued being of that effect cannot depend directly on that cause, since the cause, equally with the effect, has participated existence, which each must receive from a cause higher than both.

It is characteristic, on the contrary, of a cause which is of a higher order than its effects, to be the direct cause both of becoming and of continuing to be. Principles, in relation to consequences, and ends in relation to means, are such causes. Now God, the supreme cause, is subsistent being itself, whereas His effects are beings by participation, beings composed of essence and existence. Hence each and every creature must be preserved by God if it is to continue in existence. And this preservative action, outside and above movement and time, is simply continued creative action, somewhat illustrated by the continued influence of the sun on light. [484] God, the Preserver, who thus without medium preserves the very existence of His creatures, is more intimately inexistent in creatures than are creatures themselves. [485].

Article Three: Divine Motion

Scripture speaks often of God working in us: "Thou hast wrought all our works in us." [486] "In Him we live and move and are." [487] "He works all things in all." [488] On texts like these is based the doctrine that God moves to their operations all second causes. [489].

We are not to imitate the occasionalists, who understand this doctrine to mean that God is the sole cause, that fire, for instance, does not warm us, but that, by the occasion of fire, God alone warms us. But neither are we to go to the opposite extreme and maintain that the second cause can act without previous divine motion, and that consequently the second cause is rather coordinated than subordinated to the first cause, like a second man who aids a first man to draw a boat.

Here again the position of St. Thomas is a higher synthesis, which marches between these two mutually opposed conceptions. Causality follows being, and the mode of causality follows the mode of being. Hence, only the causality of God, who is existence itself, is self-initiated, whereas the creature, existing by participation, in dependence on God, must also in its causality be dependent on previous divine motion.

Let us listen to the saint: "God not only gives to creatures the form which is their nature, but also preserves them in existence and moves them to act, and is the purpose of their actions." [490].

Were it not so, if the creature, without divine motion, could pass from potency to act, then the more would come from the less, the principle of causality would fail, and the proofs of God's existence, proofs based on motion and created causality, would lose their validity. [491].

Here is another text, still more explicit: "God is the cause of every created action, both by giving the power of acting and by preserving that power, and by moving it to act, so that by His power every other power acts." [492] Then he adds: "A natural created thing cannot be raised so as to act without divine operation." [493] Thomists have never said anything more explicit. [494].

Here Molina [495] objects. He cannot see, he says, what that motion should be, that application to act in second causes, of which St. Thomas speaks. Molina himself maintains that God's act of concurring with the second cause does not move that cause to act, but influences immediately the effect of that cause, as when two men draw a boat. [496] Suarez [497] retains this manner of speech.

Thomists reply thus: Then the second cause is, in its causality, coordinated with, not subordinated to, the first cause. Its passage from potency to act is inexplicable. We must say, on the contrary, that the created cause is necessarily subordinated to the first, and in such manner that the effect is entirely from God as first cause, and entirely from the creature as second cause, just as, to illustrate, the fruit comes entirely from the tree as its radical principle, and from the branch as proximate principle. And just as God, the first cause, actualizes the vital function of plant and animal, so also He illuminates our intelligence and actualizes our freedom of will without violence. [498].

The De Deo uno concludes with a short treatise on God's beatitude, which rests on His infinite knowledge and love of Himself, whereas the knowledge and love which even beatified creatures have of God remain forever finite.

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Footnotes

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