Creation is a Relation in Being Not a Temporal Event - Pt II Ch I - "Christian Philosophy of St. Thomas" by Etienne Gilson
By Stephen Alexander Beach
This is a chapter from the famous 20th century Thomist philosopher Etienne Gilson's work, The Christian Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas. This book represents a sort of summary of Gilson's mature thought on the philosophy of St. Thomas and laid out in a systematic way. Here I am looking at the notion of God's creation being understood as a metaphysical relation instead of a temporal event. This is something which many people struggle to wrap their minds around because it takes an understanding of the metaphysics of Aristotle. Yet, St. Thomas talks about it in the Summa Contra Gentiles Book I, Question 13. Creation does not imply time, as God could sustain existence indefinitely. What it does imply, though, is an adequate causal explanation which lies only in the ladder of ascent in being towards perfect actuality ... towards the Prime Reality which is the necessary support of all other existence. In many ways this connects with my post on Thomas' De Ente et Essentia, which you can read here. This post is not quite up to my current standard as I did this several years ago, but it will at least introduce you to some of these key fundamental concepts in Thomism, and hopefully encourage you to pick up Gilson's work.
Creation as Relation not Event
If we are looking at understanding creation from a philosophically coherent perspective, it is possible to say that the created world exists "eternally," though explanation is needed to unpack the specific meaning behind this. The world can exist eternally only in the sense that since God Himself is eternal, and, for God, every effect proceeds immediately from Him as cause, as there is no change or succession of events in God. Therefore, if God is one eternal moment, then creation, and everything that proceeds from God, necessarily, and by metaphysical dependence, proceeds from that one eternal act of himself. Creation, then, is more of an eternal relation than a temporal event. While time began, it began from all eternity as God’s action.
This doesn’t mean that God had to create because of his nature, it was still a free choice of God’s divine will. [Our language is imbued with temporality and we must strive to strip it away if we are to say anything of God. And so we could say that even though creation was necessary because God is necessary, it is also free because God is free.] Also, why God created this particular universe and not with other characteristics is also completely the divine will. But God gave a “definite quantity” to the dimensions/space of the universe and to its duration. Gilson claims that it is impossible to show that the universe cannot be infinitely old, but yet also impossible to deny that is not eternal and depends on God for its existence.
Distinctions in the Multiplicity of Creatures
Another question Gilson explores in Thomas' thought is why God would create a multiplicity of beings and not just one type of creature. Well, God cannot create something that expresses him fully without it actually being him and therefore being a contradiction, as the notion of ultimate being precludes multiplicity. Gilson, then, talks about how then a multiplicity of creatures can express different aspects of God. These creatures cannot have the unicity of God, as only that which is pure actuality has total unicity, therefore they must have duplicity or parts [at least form and essence for angels], and are therefore different from one another (The only exception to this is and that is the procession of the Word, the 2nd person of the Trinity, but its not really an exception because the Son is one with the Father in divinity.) “The reason, therefore, for the multiplicity and variety of created things is that such multiplicity and variety are necessary to express as perfectly as creatures can the likeness of God, the creator.” [Each different type of creature unveils some aspect of God's perfection, like turning a diamond around to its different facets.]
Multiplicity requires that things be different, and thus unequal, by different degrees of their existence. This means that the different creatures will be unequal in their existences, an in that multiplicity of things expressing the varied aspects of God. Thus, we see that the angelic and the material universe have a hierarchy of perfections of species. How do we distinguish this inequality though, one created thing from another created thing? There are two ways, by form and matter. “The true and principal distinction which we can observe in things is in their formal distinction.”
A different form creates different species. Gilson talks about how each angel gets its own unique form, and therefore is its own species. And, since angels can’t ever die, therefore it is “...itself sufficient to assure the conservation and differentiation of the species.” A distinction by matter though, makes them numerically different individuals within the same form/species [form, essence, and multiplicity (also known as matter)]. Matter only exists because of the form, so the form is main thing here still, but matter exists as another distinguishing factor between species [like angels and man], and also multiply the form into many individuals. This is good because, since material beings can generate and corrupt, there are several versions of a species to allow it to survive and preserve it. Form is essentially distinguished one from another by “different quantities of perfection.” “This is why we can say with Aristotle that the forms of things are like numbers whose species are changed by the addition or subtraction of a unit.”
Justifying the “Corruptibility” of Material Existence
Now is it bad that God created corruptible things, which are expressions of inequality, multiplicity, corruption, and therefore privation and non-existence (evil)? The answer is no. First because not everything can be of the highest levels of being, there has to be degrees. And second, because when creating, perfection is going less and less each time in the range of beings. “Creation is not only an exodus; it is also a descent: ‘No creature receives the whole fullness of divine goodness because perfections come from God to creatures by a kind of descent.’” This gap is going to be there no matter what because a jump is going from infinite being existing in itself to a finite being participating in being from another.
Also, evil here is talking about non-being, and non-being is necessary in limiting the essences of things to get the multiplicity of beings that exist. Each gets privation in being in its own amount, according to its species. So evil isn’t being or an existing thing, but rather a privation of a good that should belong to a particular species. “Evil is a pure negation within a substance. It is not an essence, not a reality.” So then for evil to exist, it requires the existence of the good, so that it can corrupt it. “...it must have a subject in which to subsist. Now the subject of evil is the good.”
Can God then be said to be the ultimate cause of ontological evil? The answer is no because it is not necessarily a bad thing that God has created the universe with a hierarchy of levels of being, some more and some less corruptible. And when things are corruptible, they can be changed and corrupted by other existing things, which are also good. Gilson calls this change “per accidens”. God though orders this corruptibility to a good end for the universe as part of his plan. Therefore, evil cannot be attributed to God as its cause. “...there is some good even in these beings of less perfection, corruptible creatures. If God has created them, it is because it was consonant with the divine perfection to form a more perfect image of Himself by expressing Himself in unequal creatures, some of which were corruptible, some incorruptible.” [Divine providence rules and perfects all things in the end. Every glass is full, regardless of the differing size of the glasses.]
1 - Gilson, Etienne. The Christian Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas. Part II, Ch I.