First published in
Dialogue: A Canadian Philosophical Review, Vol. 6, 1967, pp. 74-88;
anthologized in Aquinas: A Collection of Critical Essays, Anthony
Kenny, ed., Notre Dame University Press, 1976, pp. 237-254.
John N. Deck decomposes Thomistic "composition" unanswerably in his 1967 essay,
"St. Thomas and the Language of Total Dependence." William Vallicella
thinks otherwise, I reply, and he (and others) rebut. (See links after Deck's article.)
Deck followed up his line of reasoning in
In-Another Pattern and Total Dependence”
elsewhere on this site.
St. Thomas Aquinas
and the Language of
John N. Deck
What are the implications of total dependence? What is
involved in saying that one thing depends entirely upon another? What can
be said in respect to cases of total dependence, and what can not be said?
Before these questions there is a prior one: Is
there any total dependence, as a matter of fact? We readily observe that
in the world one thing depends, or at least seems to depend, upon
another. But total dependence, dependence such that everything that the
dependent in any way is, is due to that upon which it depends—this is not
Historically, total dependence has been “seen” almost
exclusively in the relation of other things to a first cause, of creatures
to God. The relation of other things to a First has been described in
this way by Plotinus and St. Thomas Aquinas, among many. Now if God does
not exist, of if he exists in such a way that creatures do not totally
depend on him there is, perhaps, no actual case of total dependence.
Nevertheless, it seems interesting to work out the implications of total
dependence, not only because it is the core of a persistently influential
view of creatures and God, but because it is at least the limiting case,
the abstract pole, of dependence, an inescapable feature of the
world of which philosophy must take account.
I take total dependence to entail (1) that B is dependent
upon A, but that A is independent of B (that there is no reciprocity, no
reciprocal action), (2) that B is dependent on nothing else than A, and
(3) that there nothing in B which is independent of A.
Total dependence entails non-reciprocity. Some
philosophers and theologians have regarded and do regard the relation
between God and creatures as one in which there is given-and-take, perhaps
“dialogue.” Creatures are dependent upon God, but God is also—probably
in another way—dependent on creatures. The fact that only dependence,
and in some cases interdependence—never total dependence is—prima
facie observable is an invitation to conceive the creature-God
relation as reciprocal. Such treatments, whatever they may have to
recommend them, cannot directly concern a discussion of the theoretical
implications of total dependence. If, however, such accounts of creature
and God proved to be true, they would be strong indications that the
consideration of total dependence has no actual application.
dependence entails non-reciprocity, but not vice versa. Thus in
Aristotle’s philosophy, according to a plausible interpretation, the
“first causes,” the prime movents, cause material things to be in motion
but are not themselves acted upon by material things—but
the material things are based on a “matter” which is not due to the
causality of the prime movents. That is to say, requirement (1) is
satisfied here but not (2) and not (3).
At first glance, it might seem easy to speak the language
of total dependence. If B is to be regarded as totally dependent on A, B
can (it would appear) be described in a way that will satisfy the three
requirements stated above. But in significant historical instances, I
believe it can be shown that thinkers who “meant” to portray things as
entirely dependent on a First were not ultimately successful. In Plotinus,
for example, there is no reciprocity between the One and the
Intelligence. The One is the father, the maker, of the Intelligence.
There is not, according to Plotinus’ apparent intention, any other cause
for the Intelligence but the One. And yet I believe it can be found that
there is something in the Intelligence which does not depend on the One.
paper I will concentrate upon St. Thomas Aquinas, taking his treatment of
creatures as a paramount case of the attempt to speak the language of
total dependence. For him, “Everything that in any way is, is from God.”1
For him, creatures are related to God, God is not related to creatures.
Everything is dependent upon God, and upon nothing else, as an originative
source of existence. But does St. Thomas, after all, have something in
the creature which is independent of God? The discussion of this last,
specific point will lead us into the technicalities of his doctrine, and
into a criticism which can remain largely within the texture of his
philosophic vocabulary (Part I). The investigation of St. Thomas’s
doctrine will reveal, I believe, something that can not be said if
one wishes to speak the language of total dependence, and this will be
developed more generally, and in a less specific idiom, in Part II.
Thomas, creation can be taken to mean the “present” dependence of all
other things upon God, without reference to a possible temporal beginning
of the world. That is to say, it can be taken to mean the simple causal
dependence of the creature upon the Creator. (This is the sense in which
I will use the word in this paper.) The creature is dependent on God in
the sense that the creature is receptive of existence from God. The
creature is thus a recipient of existence, and in this way St. Thomas sees
a “composition” within the creature in reference to its dependence upon
God. The creature, or the substance or essence of the creature is a
recipient, a potency; the existence of the creature is an act. This
composition, the composition of essence and existence, is in the creature
itself, and not only in someone’s thought about the creature. The latter
point is often expressed by saying that for St. Thomas there is a “real
distinction” between existence and essence in a creature.2
The creature’s existence is a received existence, received from the
creator who is unreceived existence, pure existence. This is expressed by
saying that in God existence and essence are the same, “not distinct.”
What I am interested in is the “picture” presented in St.
Thomas’s work: God as Existence, creatures as totally dependent on God and
dual because of this dependence: composed of existence and essence.
The method by which one can hope to sees what is “right” or “wrong” with
this picture cannot be the method which St. Thomas himself uses to present
his doctrine. St. Thomas’s statements about the identity of
existence and essence in God, and their composition in creatures, occur in
many contexts. It will be necessary to attend sufficiently to the
context of a statement to ensure that no purely verbal mistake is made
about the meaning of the statement. But then it may be necessary to
take––not to “wrench”––the statement out of its context, subject it to
philosophic analysis, see what it can or must imply, and confront it with
other statements from other contexts and their implications. A less
radical technique will yield something that is basically only a
transcription of the doctrine—a collation of mutually supporting and
reciprocally clarifying texts which may give the illusion of a basic
consistency not actually present.
More specifically, St. Thomas’s statement about existence
and essence occur in proofs. The internal order of these proofs, what is
being concluded to in them, or their interconnection are not necessarily
of concern. The proofs will not necessarily be treated as proofs.
Individual statements and at times connected statements in them will be
taken as manifestations of St. Thomas’s view of creatures vis-à-vis God.
Certain central texts in two of St. Thomas’s major works,
the Summa Theologiae and the Summa Contra Gentiles, bear
upon the composition of existence and essence (substance) in creatures.
In these texts there are statements and arguments which treat the
existence-essence composition of creatures in function of the causing
of creatures by God. The exegesis of such statements will lead
directly to a confrontation between the existence-essence composition and
Thomas’s texts, these statements and arguments bearing on the causal
relation of creatures to God are mingled freely with statements and
arguments which treat the existence-essence composition as involved in the
“diversification” or “limitation” of being. Although St. Thomas seems to
see no difference between the two types of statement, the
diversification-limitation perspective is considerably different from the
causal. If essence is said to “diversify”3
or to “limit”4
existence it would appear that existence is being taken as a logical
universal. The relation of essence to existence becomes analogous to the
“diversification” and “restriction” of a generic term, such as “animal” by
a specific difference, such as “rational,” in classical logic.)
Because of the theological nature of the two Summas,
the existence-essence distinction in creatures occurs first in each of
them as something to which allusion is made while treating explicitly the
identity of existence and essence in God.
In the Contra Gentiles (I, 22, 6), St. Thomas states
that if the existence of God is not identical with his essence, it cannot
be a part of his essence either, since the divine essence is simple. So
if it were not identical with his essence, it would have to be in addition
to his essence. But “Everything which is not of the essence of something,
and yet belongs to that thing, belongs to it through some cause.” On this
basis he argues that if God’s existence were caused by his essence, then,
since it is substantial existence which is in question, this would mean
that God would be the cause of his own existence, while if his existence
were caused by some other cause, God would not be the first cause.
“Everything which is not of the essence of something, and
yet belongs to that thing, belongs to it through some cause.” Does this
statement reveal anything of St. Thomas’s view of the essence-existence
situation in creatures? It is true that that focus here is upon God. It
is granted that both God’s existence and his essence are uncaused. It is
granted that God’s existence “belongs” to his essence. The reasoning, in
brief, is that what belongs to an essence but is in addition to that
essence is caused: God’s existence is not caused; God’s existence is not
in addition to his essence.
But in the context, St. Thomas does not seem to have in
mind only the theoretical possibility of existence belonging to something
and yet not being of its essence, but the actual state of creatures––as he
envisages them. “For those things which are not per se one, if
they are joined, are necessarily united through some cause. Existence
therefore belongs to that essence through some cause . . . Therefore, that
essence which acquires existence from another, is not the essence of
God.” Apparently he refers here to creatures, to which existence belongs
through their cause.
Is anything implied about the essence of a creature? The
existence, which is not of the essence, belongs to the creature through
some cause. What of that which is of the essence? Does that belong to
the creature through some cause, or is it causeless?
It is obvious that to say that what is not of the essence
is caused does not imply logically that what is of the essence is
uncaused. But why single out that which is not of the essence and say
precisely that it is caused existence and that which is of the
essence, which is just “there,” so to speak, uncaused? There appears to
be a contrast between what belongs to a thing through a cause and what
just belongs—without a cause. Can there be anything causeless in
parallel passage in the Summa Theologiae (I, 3, 4c), the
preliminaries are omitted; a statement that “. . . whatever is in anything
in addition to the essence, must be caused . . .” is placed at the head of
This is used to show that “It is necessary that that, the existence of
which is other than its essence, have existence caused by another.” To
possess caused existence and to possess existence in addition to essence,
then, go together––and this is the metaphysical situation of a creature.
The existence must be caused when it is in addition to the essence.
Again, is that which is not in addition to the essence, but rather is
the essence, uncaused?6
A caused existence for an uncaused essence? In C.G.
II, 52, 6, we read:
The substance of anything is to it through
itself and not through something else; whence to be lucid in act is not of
the substance of air, because it is to it through something else. But the
existence of any created thing is to it through something else, otherwise
it would not be caused. Therefore the existence of no created thing is
substance of anything is to it through itself and not through something
else.” The meaning here is unmistakable. A created, caused thing has its
existence through something else (its cause), but its substance is to it
“To it through itself” contrasts with “to it through
something else.” Although in the latter expression the “through”
expresses causality, St. Thomas probably does not mean that the substance,
which is “through” the created thing, is caused by the created thing. The
statement is intended to mean, rather, that a created thing “just has” or
“just is” its substance.
And yet the whole force of the argument derives from the
contrast between “through itself” and “through something else.” If there
is no distinction intended between the “through itself” and the “through
something else,” the argument could not begin to prove a distinction
between substance and existence. The “through itself” expresses something
about the substance which renders substance different from existence in
terms of what substance is “through”––which means in terms of cause.
Substance is “through” nothing else––that is the point of the contrast.
Thus the uncausedness (or self-causedness!) of substance is not just a
manner of speaking, but is functional in the argument.
might be urged that to say that the substance of a created thing is from
itself, which phrase would safeguard the thing as an entity distinct from
its Creator, need not mean that its substance is uncaused. Perhaps the
substance “of itself” is not such that it can be caused or uncaused, since
“of itself” a created substance is nothing.8
But to say that a created substance is in or of itself nothing has,
ultimately one of two meanings: (1) that some “nothing” enters into the
composition of created things. This view is indefensible and, once one
has moved above the level of imagination, incomprehensible; or (2) that
there is no created substance which is not caused. This latter is an
obverted way of saying that the created substance is caused, which, in
turn, contradicts the statement that the substance of a created thing is
“to it through itself.”
St. Thomas’s account of the creature is thus inconsistent.
For the substance or essence of a created thing to be “to it through
itself” is incompatible with the total dependence of the creature upon the
Creator. The essence-existence composition must be taken, in the light of
the three texts discussed, as a composition of the causeless with the
caused. As such, it cannot be the composition of a creature, which is
meant to be entirely, totally caused.
even in the face of “the substance of anything to it through itself and
not through something else,” it may be objected that St. Thomas’s position
has nothing to do with causeless essences. Does he not repudiate the
notion that there are eternal possibles, possible essences, to some of
which God gives existence, enabling them fully to be?9
Is it not his position that the essence is nothing before it receives
existence, that the essence “is” in any sense whatever only while it is
In the case of essence and existence there is no receptor prior to the
Existence actuates now a substance distinct from existence.
It should be noted that the mere removal of the notion of a
temporal priority for essence does not remove the difficulty. The essence
might not be “just there” when it is not receiving existence, and still be
“just there” “to it through itself” when it is receiving existence.
But is it not plain that the reception of existence is
exactly the causing of essence? Does not existence, incoming from
the cause, constitute its own receptor for itself? Can a doctrine, in
which the reception of existence is necessary for an essence to be
in any sense, justly be charged with involving a notion of causeless
existence? Is not Thomas’s meaning that the very essentially of essence
is due to existence? As he says himself “. . . all other substances have
existence from the first agent: and through this the substances themselves
are caused, because they have existence from another.” (C.G. II,
53, 3). This statement cannot stand with “the substance of anything is to
it through itself” (from the immediately preceding chapter in the
Contra Gentiles!). But is it not closer to what St. Thomas “really
What is basic here is the belief that the existence of
creatures is “received” by the creatures. God creates creatures;
creatures receive existence from God. Since the existence of created
things is received, it is received by or into some receptor. The
creatures “in themselves,” then, seem to be recipients of existence. The
essence or substance of the creature is a receptor of existence.
Put in the form that “possibles wait for existence,” the
fundamental belief is crudely expressed. Perhaps the phrase “The
substance of a created thing is from itself; its existence is from its
creator” is less crude. To say that the existence projects its own
receptor appears sophisticated. But in each case the necessity for a
receptor is recognized.
notion is the fundamental metaphysical error in St. Thomas’ account.
Quite possibly the fact that the instances of causation with which we are
familiar are, in St. Thomas’s language, cases of a cause acting upon a
potential principle whether a substance or matter, encourages one to
construe creation after the same fashion. But if to create is to cause
that is, with no matter
upon which the cause works, why is something strictly analogous to matter,
a potential principle receptive of existence, being posited? If it is
seen to be absurd that a creator should work upon a pre-“existent” matter,
why is it not seen as absurd that there should be a potency present to
receive existence when existence is being given?
If the creature, or the essence or the substance of the
creature, is considered as a receptor of existence, a semi-independent
term of the creature-Creator relation has been posited. The creature, or
its essence or substance, is being considered as something which has some
shade of being in its own right and receives existence from the Creator.
Notice that it makes little difference whether we say “and then
receives” or “concurrently receives.” The assertion that it is
constituted as a receptor only by receiving does not negate the
semi-independence of its receptivity.
Therefore, for the same reason that a creator cannot act on
a pre-“existent” matter, he cannot act upon any “matter,” upon any
potential principle. If there is creation, it must be without
qualification ex nihilo.
St. Thomas holds, however, that the act from the agent—even
when this agent is the Creator—must be received into a potency:
is in anything from the agent, must be act: for it is the role of the
agent to make something (to be) in act. But it was shown above that all
other substances have existence from the first agent: and through this
the substances themselves are caused, because they have existence from
another. Existence itself, therefore, is in caused substances as a
certain act of theirs. That however which act is in, is potency:
for act, insofar as it is act, if referred to potency. Therefore in any
created substance whatever there is potency and act. (C.G. II,
argument the initial phrase “what is in anything from the agent”
predetermines the result. At the outset a distinction has been
presupposed between “anything” and “what is in it from the agent.” The
effect of the agent is already being viewed as in something—a
recipient, a subject, a “matter,” and in this Aristotelian atmosphere it
is no surprise that, as the effect of the agent is act, that which it is
“in” is potency. Now when the agent in question is the first agent, the
total cause, is it proper to say that the effect of this agent is in
anything? The effect of the total cause must be the total caused.
How is the total caused in anything?
still it might seem that, according to the text just quoted, God is
the total cause and the creature totally caused. “. . . all other
substances have existence from the first agent: and through this the
substances themselves are caused, because they have existence from
another.” Is he not saying clearly that all that is in the creature
is caused by the Creator, since the act (existence) is from the agent (the
Creator) and the potency (essence) is caused through the act? This
appears also to be in line with a text in which St. Thomas says explicitly
that the essence is created:
Argument: Since therefore
the essence of the thing is in addition to its existence, it seems that
the essence of the thing is not from God. Reply: It must be said that
from the fact that existence is attributed to the essence, not only
existence but the essence is said to be created: because before it has
existence, it is nothing. . . (De Pot. III, 5, arg. 2).
This notion of the essence as the recipient of existence is
close to the surface here: this text accords perfectly with the picture
of the essence as the recipient of the creative influx. Thus, while it
affirms that the essence is created, it involves the notion that the
essence, as the recipient of the creative influx, is simultaneously
constituted by the influx it receives. In effect, this text affirms that
the essence is both a recipient and is created.
This is all very well, but it hardly answers the question
whether there can be any recipient at all—even a created recipient—of the
creative influx. According to what was quoted just above from C.G.
II, 53, the act, existence, is what is in the creature from the creator.
The potency, essence, is the recipient of what “comes” from the agent,
that is, of the effect of the agent. Now if the total effect of
the agent is the act, and the potency through the act, how can the
potency receive the effect—the total effect—of the agent?
If, on the other hand, the potency is not included in the
effect of the agent, the essence is not included in the effect of God,
then the essence must be uncaused, uncreated.
In short, it is inconsistent to hold that there is a
created recipient of what is in creatures from God. If there must be a
recipient, it would have to be the “substance” which is “to the creature
through itself and not through another.” But this view, in turn, as we
have amply shown is inconsistent with creation altogether. There cannot
be a recipient—if we are to have creation, there cannot be an essence in
creatures receiving existence from God.
In a widely different context, St. Thomas says something
which tends to show that he himself recognizes that the creature cannot be
a recipient subject:
It must be said that not
everything which is accepted, is received in some subject, otherwise it
could not be said that the entire substance of a created thing is accepted
from God, since there is no receptive subject of the entire substance. (S.T.
I, 27, 2 ad 3)14
Exactly. The entire substance of the creature is the
effect of the first agent. For the effect of this agent, “there is no
receptive subject.” Therefore (what is not said here, certainly), the
creature can be, or have, no essence––since essence has been
called, exactly, a receptive subject. Or––to save something at this
point––the creature cannot be, or have, an essence distinct from its
existence. There can be no essence-existence composition in the creature.
In one noteworthy instance, the composed creature has
come to grief. If he is composed of essence and existence as St. Thomas
explains them, he cannot be totally dependent. I should like to suggest
that if he is “composed” at all––if there is any duality in him with
respect to his relation to his Creator, he cannot be totally dependent.
A total-dependence theory of creature and God must make
some sense of “God creates the creature.” Now this phrase presents
at once two terms, God and creature, and invites the notion that the
creature is somehow “there,” being acted upon by God, receiving
something from him. What the creature is said to receive from the
Creator—form, order, goodness, unity, existence—does not matter.
“The creature receives X from the Creator”––this very phrase suggests a
creature standing over against the Creator, receiving something from
him, being acted upon by him. In this fashion the patent
grammatical duality in the expression “God creates the creature,” has
become metamorphosed into a duality in the creature. The duality
of God and Creature has become reflected into the creature itself.
Two “parts” have now shown up in the creature: One part is “his”
or “him,” the other part is “from the creator.” By moves such as
these (a) “God creates the creature” has not been explicated at all:
the creature-God relation has been simply reproduced within the creature
and (b) the presence, within the creature, of the “him” or “his” in
contrast to the “from God” has compromised the total dependence of the
can be made of “the creature is related to the Creator” if the relation
is total dependence? It cannot be that the creature is one and his
relation to the Creator a second. If the creature is to be totally
dependent, there can be nothing in him other than his relation to the
Creator. Perhaps one should say that the creature cannot be a term of
the relation (for then, cut it as you will, he will be in some fashion
independent), he must be the relation15
If the notion of relation is relevant here, it would seem that “total
dependence” cannot be said in any other way.
Those who wish to say that the creature is totally
dependent must take account of “otherness.” If the dependent is not
other than that on which it depends, dependence itself disappears. So
it might appear that the creature is composed of otherness and
dependence. But, once again, dualizing the creature hurts rather than
helps. The otherness between the creature and God, by being “explained”
in this way, merely reappears at once as the contrast between two parts
in the creature. Meanwhile, one part, the “otherness from God,” by
being contrasted to dependence, begins to escape from dependence.
The otherness of the dependent cannot be different from
the dependence of the dependent. There can be no dependent which is not
other. Conversely, otherness for a creature is itself totally
dependent. Thus, for a creature, otherness and dependence cannot be two
distinct parts or the cause, or effect, of two distinct parts.
In general, a two-part structuring of the dependent (for
convenience, “the creature”) is incompatible with total dependence.
The two parts will be rendering some internal difference within the
dependence of the creature upon the Creator. It would be pointless
to regard the creature as double if the two parts are considered on a
par, and no one in fact has done this. This would too obviously be
a multiplication without necessity. If the two parts are unequal,
what can make them unequal? Only their connections with the
Creator. Perhaps one is “closer” to the Creator—another more
remote? Is it a partial eluding, an escaping however humble from
the Creator’s agency? Or is the more remote a radically deficient
being that “really needs” a boost from the Creator? Then what
about the more proximate part? Can this, in this respect, be any
If the creature is taken as dual, there will be an uneasy
shuffling between these two positions: the more remote part needs the
Creator more, or the more remote part needs the Creator less. If it
needs him more, the more proximate part needs him less––and here there
will be a tendency to take the more proximate part of the creature as
part of the Creator, to the detriment of the whole notion of creature.
If the more remote part of the creature needs the Creator less, this can
mean only that it has a trace of independence.
In short, a totally-dependent creature cannot be dual.
If the creature as a creature is composed of two unequal parts
(act-potency; form-matter; existence-essence; dependence-otherness; the
“from God” and the “its own”), one part must escape from the divine
causality and so from dependence. If there is any total dependence
anywhere, either of creature upon God or of anything upon anything else,
the dependent must be a one in respect to that upon which it
Theologiae I, 44, 1c.; Contra Gentiles II, 15. (Summa
Theologiae will be abbreviated hereafter as S.T.; Contra
Gentiles as C.G.)
The doctrine of a real
distinction between essence and existence in creatures is commonly
held to be the kernel of St. Thomas’s metaphysics. E.g.: Gilson
speaks of “the central place of this thesis in Thomistic
metaphysics.” The Christian Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas,
(New York) 1956, p. 11; “This doctrine, whose place in Thomism is
central . . .”, ibid., p. 34. For Maritain, the “real
distinction between essence and existence in all that is not God” is
“The most fundamental and most characteristic metaphysical thesis of
Aristotelianism as re-thought by Thomas Aquinas.” Existence and
the Existent, (New York) c. 1948, p. 35.
As in C.G.
II, 52, 2: “But existence, insofar as it is existence, cannot be
diverse: but it can be diversified through something which is in
addition to existence; as the existence of a stone is other than the
existence of a man.”
As in De
Potentia I, 1, 3c: “The existence of man is limited to the
species of man, because it is received in the nature of the species of
man, and the same is the case with the existence of horse, or of any
creature at all. But the existence of God, since it is not received
in anything, is not limited to any mode of the perfection of existing
but has all existence in itself, and so, just as existence taken
universally can extend to an infinite number of things so the divine
existence is infinite . . . “ Cf. S.T. I, 50, 2 ad 4; C.G.
I, 43, 8.
Note that here the word “essence” is used directly, enabling us to
avoid the cumbersome circumlocutions needed in dealing with the
argument the Contra Gentiles, in which the phrase “that which
is of the essence” has been employed.
Against the suspicion that a
causeless essence, or a causeless what-is-of-the-essence is involved
here, it may be objected that St. Thomas’s doctrine is that, for
caused things, the existence makes the essence to be: the causing of
the essence and of what-is-of-the-essence is precisely the causing of
existence to accrue to the essence. It must be pointed out that this
explanation assumes some basis for an essence-existence
distinction (perhaps potency-act) while it destroys the basis implied
in noting that the existence, precisely, belongs to the thing through
Cf. the following expressions in another argument from this same
chapter: “Existence itself pertains to all other things from the first
agent by a certain participation. But that which pertains to
something through participation, is not the substance of that thing.”
(C.G. II, 52, 9).
“Each and every created thing, just as it does not have existence,
except from another, and considered in itself is nothing, in
the same way needs to be conserved in the good appropriate to its
nature by another.” S.T. I-II, 109, 2, ad 2. (Italics mine)
Cf. S.T. I, 9, 2c; S.T. I, 46, 1, ad 1.
De Potentia III, 5, ad 2: “. . . before it the quiddity, the
essence has existence, it is nothing.” It should be noted that such
statements may tend to give the imaginational picture of a “nothing”
which receives existence and so becomes a “something.” The notion
here would probably be better expressed by saying “there is no essence
before it has existence.”
“Simultaneously with giving existence, God produces that which
receives existence.” De Pot. III, 1, ad 17.
According to S.T. I, 45, 1 ad 3, “ex nihilo” can have two
legitimate meanings when applied to creation. It can refer to the
order of creation: there is no existence of creatures preceding
creation. Or it can mean that there is no matter upon which the
creator works, no “material cause”: “Something is made from nothing,
that is, it is not made from something.” Our concern is with the
latter meaning. “. . . creation is the production of some thing
according to its entire substance, presupposing nothing which is
either uncreated or created by anything.” S.T. I, 65, 3c.
“First agent” does not mean first
in time, but first in order. God is called the first agent because
there is no agent in order above him. He is the agent who does not
have an agent acting upon him. The expression is equivalent to
“first cause,” which means “uncaused cause.”
The quoted passage occurs in an article in which St. Thomas is arguing
that in the Blessed Trinity the Son is “generated” by the Father.
Encountering the objection that the existence of anything generated is
received existence, he answers that the existence of the Son is not
received in a subject, but is “accepted” from the Generator.
For St. Thomas,
characteristically, there is a duality here also: the creature cannot
be the relation: “. . . according as creation is truly a
relation, the creature is its subject, and is before it in existence,
as a subject to an accident. But it has a certain ratio of
priority on the part of the object towards which it is said, which
object is the source of the creature.” (S.T. I, 45, 3 ad 3.)
Total Dependence and the Essence/Existence
[Bill Vallicella revised the October 20, 2004 essay, previously linked
here, and sent me the link to the revised blog posting on June 21,
attempts to answer what I found "unanswerable."
October 20, 2004
Onto-Theological Personalism Avoid Pantheism? A
Record of My Incomprehension of William Vallicella's "Total Dependence
and Essence/Existence Composition"
November 4, 2004
Aquinas vs. Plotinus
post from the philosopher Anthony Flood more or less critiquing Bill
Vallicella's view of creation ex nihilo. The basic argument is
the creation ex nihilo ends up being incoherent or leads one
naturally to a kind of pantheism. Of course it ends up being more of a
neoPlatonic critique of the late ancient and medieval Christian
revampings of the neoPlatonic conception of creation."
Clark, November 5,
On Flood's Reply to Vallicella
"It's always possible
that I'm missing something key in the movement here; but the moves
seem to be far too quick. And when one looks more closely at them,
it's difficult to find any good reason for those moves, or, at least,
I find it difficult."
Brandon, November 6,
Pancreationism, Accomodation, and creation ex nihilo
"I was recently
reading a post by the . . William F. Vallicella . . . His essay
attempts to argue that Aquinas' view of creation ex nihilo is
unproblematic. Near the end, he says, "God creates ex nihilo in this
precise sense: God creates, but not out of something distinct from
himself. . . .Vallicella's essay that I linked to was critiqued by
Creation: Ex Nihilo or Ex Deo?
Preliminary Response to Flood
". . . Flood is
wrong in his radical thesis in which he ‘out-Decks Deck’ by
maintaining that total dependence of A on B entails identity of A with
B. Deck didn’t go that far. His point was merely that total dependence
of A on B is incompatible with essence/existence composition in A."
November 11, 2004
Creatio Ex Deo
". . . One
question prompted by Anthony Flood's critique of my post on
essence/existence composition is this: Does my construal of
creatio ex nihilo in terms of creatio ex Deo commit me
to pantheism? If so, how does that comport with my avowed
onto-theological personalism? . . . , I cannot, pace Flood,
see that I am committed to pantheism in any of the three senses lately
November 18, 2004
Preliminary Response to Deck
"John Deck's thesis
... is that any composition in a
creature is completely incompatible with
a creature's total dependence on God;
i.e. one or the other can be true, but not both. This claim is more
than idle hair splitting: almost nothing of St. Thomas's natural
theology could survive the success of this critique. This is not to
say that all of St. Thomas's language would disappear, or all his
proofs fall into ruin, but many, if not most of them would either have
to be redefined, or be placed in the service of very different
conclusions." Shulamite, a Thomist, comes to the Angelic Doctor's
defense. December 11