Saturday, June 21, 2014

God in All Things


1.  Having discussed God’s infinity in the previous question, St. Thomas next examines one of the features that seems to follow from infinity: ubiquity, or presence in every place and every thing.  The first article asks whether God is present in all things.  This article is, with those of QQ. 2 and 7, one of the most difficult yet. (Cajetan’s commentary spans two and a half folio pages, which is as long as that of any article yet covered.)

2.  Against the presence of God in all things, Thomas proposes four objections.  The first is from Psalm 112 (113), which says that God is above all things.  Second, from the principle that what is in something is contained by it.  Third, because God’s power enables him to act on things that are far from him, so that he need not be present in all things.  Fourth, because God is not present in the demons.

3.  His Sed Contra is from the principle that a thing is present wherever it works.  And since Isaiah says that God has wrought all our works in us (“omnia opera nostra operatus es”), God must be in all things.

4.  In the Corpus, he explains that God is in all things neither in their essences nor as an accidental feature of them, but by his agency.  In order to understand his demonstration, we need to work through some points regarding the nature of created being.  

5.  Thomas compares the existence of creatures to the illumination of air by the sun: the air does not have light by its own essence, but receives it accidentally, only insofar as it is continually illuminated.  Being in creatures is an accidental perfection superadded to their essences, similar to the addition of light to air.  What does this mean?  Every essence considered in itself without the act of being is mere potency, non-existing.  By themselves, things do not exist, because they cannot give themselves being.  It is clear from this, then, that it belongs to created being to be received.  But Thomas compounds this claim with another: that created being is not only received initially, but is continually sustained by another, just as the brightness of the air ceases as soon as the illuminating power of the sun is removed from it.

6.  In order to understand Thomas’s claim about the conservation of creatures in being, we need to further examine the nature of accidents.  Recall from earlier that an accident is a form received by thing which does not remove its substantial form (i.e. the form that makes it a unity and gives it its species) but adds to it a particular quality or feature not specified in its essence.  Accidents are of various kinds.  We can divide them into the latter nine of Aristotle’s Categories (Quantity, Quality, Relation, Place, Time, Position, Habit, Action, Passion), but we can also divide accidents based on their relation to the essence of their subject.  For example, it belongs to physical bodies to have a particular place.  If the chair is placed in the corner, it has received a particular accident by virtue of that placement.  The accident is not part of its essence, but is merely a specification of what was already in the essence indeterminately: to be a chair is to have some place, though it doesn’t belong to the essence to specify which place.  

7.  But while some accidents are mere determinations of the essential attributes of their subjects, (as quantity is an essential attribute of matter, which we discussed in the previous question), other accidents do not belong to the essences of their subjects at all.  For example, acceleration does not belong to inert bodies, but is always caused in them by the intervention of some force, and ceases when the force ceases.  Luminosity is not a feature of air, except when the air receives the energy necessary to excite it into a luminous state.  When the influx of energy ceases, the luminosity ceases as well, because it does not belong to air to be luminous, except as the expression of the power of another.  Where on the one hand accidents like the position of a body are essential intrinsic potencies of the subjects in which they inhere, these non-essential accidents are relative potencies, which are in things only to the extent that they enter into a real relation with another.

8.  Once we have made this distinction, it is clear that the being of creatures belongs to the latter genus of accident, because to be a creature is to be created, and to be created is to receive not just the determination of one’s being as to kind or degree, but to be determined as to one’s existence altogether.  Existence in creatures is a relative potency, a potency only with reference to another.  But once we accept this, the question becomes whether that relative potency is actualized by mediation or directly.

9.  Here we need to pause again and note the difference between the accidental existence of creatures and other accidents possessed by them.  Where all other accidents are specifications of a thing’s being with respect to quantity, quality, relation, place, time, position, habit, action, or passion, and exist in a subject, in the sense that they are dependent on it for their being, existence itself is an accident only insofar as it is separable from that which exists, and does not belong to its essence.  Esse is not a property of things, and does not exist in them, nor is it, properly speaking, “received” by them, since without it there is nothing to do the receiving.  This is important for determining whether it would be possible to give a thing existence by the mediation of another.

10.  St. Thomas answers that the act of God by which he gives all things beings is direct and interior, without any mediation.  His demonstration is based on the claim that created existence is an effect proper to God, thus excluding the possibility of any intermediate cause.  This is because it belongs to God alone to exist by his own essence, so that he is being itself, subsisting in itself (ipsum esse per se subsistens).  But if created existence is a relative potency in things, accidental to what they are, then each thing’s existence must be due to another.  Since all being is traceable ultimately to God, who is being itself, God is one cause of the existence of creatures.  But since without the act of being, a thing would not exist at all, this kind of effect cannot be produced with the cooperation of an instrumental cause, since the act of being is not made (as from matter) out of the existence of another, but out of nothing.  

11.  This puts us in a position to provide a summary argument for the conclusion of the article.  The existence of things is a relative potency of their essences, which is actualized only by the direct and continuous intervention of an extrinsic cause.  But since existence is not a quality or form added to something pre-existing, but is the first form, by which all other forms come to be and in which they inhere, the existence of one thing cannot be matter for the creation of another.  Therefore the act of existing is caused and conserved in creatures solely by God, without whose direct agency they would cease to be altogether.  And since, as Aristotle says in Book VII of the physics, an agent is always present (by its power) in that in which it acts immediately, God is present in all existing things, not just in their possession of non-essential qualities, or in their substantial forms, but in their very existence, which is primary and fundamental in them.  Therefore he is not only present, but present with the greatest degree of interiority.

12.  Further elaboration on these points is provided later on in the Prima Pars (cf. QQ.44-45, 103-104).

13.  He answers the objections as follows.  The first is clear: God exceeds all things by the excellence of his nature, but he is present in them by his agency.  

14.  In the second reply he distinguishes the way corporeal things are in each other from the way spiritual things are in each other.  In bodily things, “being in” is the same as “being contained by”, but in spiritual things “being in” implies the existence of a thing’s effect or the presence of a thing’s power.  Spiritual things, rather than being contained by what they are in, contain them, so that God, rather than being contained by creatures, contains them all by his power.

15.  To the third he answers that nothing acts at a distance except through some medium.  Since God acts in things immediately, they are not distant from him.  Instead, we say things are distant from him because he is above them by his excellence, or because of some defect in them on the part of nature or grace, which enhances their dissimilitude to him.

16.  To the fourth he says that insofar as they they are things (inquantum sunt res), God is in the demons, but insofar as their natures are deformed (i.e. by sin), God is not in them, since God is not the principle or the cause of sin.  For things without any deformity of nature, God can be said to be in them without qualification.


- God is not in things, but is above them.
- God is not contained by anything.
- More powerful things can act at a greater distance.
- God is not in the demons.

- An agent is always conjoined with that in which it acts immediately.
- Created existence is a proper effect of God.
- Thus God creates and sustains everything in existence immediately.
- A thing’s existence is innermost to it.
- Therefore God is present in all things most profoundly, not as a part or accidental feature, but by his agency.

- God is above things by his excellence, but in them by his agency.
- Spiritual things, unlike bodily things, contain what they are in, rather than the opposite.
- Every cause that acts at a distance acts through a medium, but God is the immediate cause of existence.
- God is in the demons insofar as they are, but not insofar as they are deformed by sin.

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