Saturday, May 17, 2014

On the Perfection of God


1. Having completed his discussion of God’s simplicity, both in himself and in relation to other things, Thomas turns to the perfection of God.  He began (Q. 1) by asking whether there should be a science of God and what it ought to be like, proceeded to ask whether such a science has a real object, and then inquired into the unity of that object in itself.  Having established that God exists, and that God is, in his own essence, utterly undivided, he next asks about the quality of God’s being.  To what extent IS God?  Is his being in any way defective?

2. His consideration of the perfection of God is divided into three questions: first, of God’s perfection as such; second, on the nature of “goodness”; third, of the goodness of God.

3. The first question, of perfection in itself, is divided into three articles.  In the first article he asks whether God should be called “perfect”.  Against this appellation he raises three objections.

4. First, he points out that the word perfect means, in its roots “fully made” (per- = thoroughly, factum = made).  Since God is not made, the name is unfitting.

5. Second, he observes that since God is the first principle of things, he must be imperfect in himself, since what stands as the beginning (e.g. a seed) remains to be perfected in what flows from it.

6. Third, he argues from the identity of God’s essence and his act of existing.  The act of existing is the most imperfect, because it receives every particular act and addition into itself.  So if God is the act of being, then he must be imperfect.

7. For his Sed Contra, he cites the words of Christ in the Sermon on the Mount, where he calls our heavenly Father perfect.

8. In the Corpus he mentions the views of certain ancient (pre-socratic) philosophers who thought of the first principle as a merely material principle (and therefore essentially imperfect, since it belongs to matter to receive forms which add to its being and perfect it, as discussed above).  However, as has already been demonstrated, God is not the material principle of any composite (1.3.8), but only the efficient cause.

9. Setting aside these views, Thomas demonstrates that God is the most perfect being.  His principle in this demonstration is that matter, inasmuch as it is matter, is in potency, and form, inasmuch as it is form, is in act.  This follows from the fact that something is “matter” only to the extent that it can receive a form, and is “form” only to the extent that is presently IS in such and such a way. Since God is the first efficient cause, he is informed by none other, but is the source of the forms of everything else.  Therefore he must be in act to the greatest extent, above all creatures, and since a thing is said to be “perfect” insofar as it is in act, God is the most perfect being.  “For a thing is called perfect, which lacks nothing according to the mode of its perfection.” God, of course, lacks nothing according to the mode of his own perfection, because he has no potency in him at all (as demonstrated in the previous question).  But neither can he lack anything according to the mode of anything else, because he gives actuality, and therefore perfection, to every other thing.

10. In response to the first objection, St. Thomas offers one of those reductions to the intelligible order characteristic of his thought.  We know the excellence of things by experience, and in experience we encounter only those things which are made, so that our notion of excellence is tied to the fulness of a thing’s development, its perfection.  From this we take the term “perfect” and elevate it, so that it refers not only to the extent of a thing’s development according to the mode of its own excellence, but also the extent to which a thing lacks nothing in that mode.

11. In response to the second objection, he distinguishes the development of a thing from its material principle from the extrinsic source of the material principle’s development or generation.  A plant grows from a seed, and in this sense the seed is the source of the tree, but the seed is, in a way, matter for the tree, because as a seed it lacks the perfection of form of the tree, which unfolds in it through growth and nourishment.  But the form unfolding in the seed it received from a tree which had the perfections which it presently lacks.  In the same way God is the source of all things, not as the seed which develops into them, but as the generator of all forms, who sets them in motion and determines the course of their development.

12. To the third objection, he responds by rejecting the claim that being receives all perfections into itself.  Rather, being subsisting in itself (“ipsum esse”, i.e. God) is the most perfect of all things.  Existence is what gives actuality to all things, since without it, nothing is.  So, being as a form should not be thought of as a kind of formless matter which receives accidents, but as that by which things are what they are. The key distinction here is between “ens”, i.e. the individual being or supposit, and “esse”, i.e. the act of existing which the supposit possesses and which is added to it in every accidental transformation and perfection.  God is not “ens commune” or “being in general”, but “ipsum esse”, i.e. being itself subsisting in itself, and therefore is not that which receives perfection, but rather the source of all perfections, which gives them to everything perfected.


– God is not made.
– The source of a thing is perfected through development, and is therefore imperfect in itself.
– God is being, and being is what receives perfection, so he must be imperfect.

– God, as prime efficient cause, is the source of every form, and the perfecter of every thing, and therefore is more actual, and more perfect, than anything else.

– The term “perfect” is used analogically, based on the fact that in our experience what is fully made has all the perfections due to it according to its nature.
– God is the source of all things, not as a seed, but as a parent: he is not that from which things develop, but that which supplies the forms into which they grow.
– God is not universal being, but is existence subsisting in itself.  He does not receive perfections, but is the subsistent form of all perfection.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.