02 August 2002

The following is a continuation of my reflections on Thomas Aquinas and his theology, as a means by which the later deviations of nominalism can be better undersood.

For Thomas the created order, according to the analogy of being, really, in some sense, participates in God by analogy. Now this language of “participation” can confuse some people, as if Thomas (and other theologians) were somehow saying that mere creatures can become God or share in God’s own essence or the like. But that is not at all what Thomas has in mind.

First, he means that God, in himself, always-already contains the plenitude of being, and thus every possible thing already pre-exists in God—in his reflexive self-knowledge (through the Son in the Spirit) by which he knows every kind of possible thing he could make. Thomas also suggests that God is “in things” (and they in him) in the way that a thing known by us is in us, that is, it makes itself present to us through some operation of our existence. So, God is in us in the way the tree I see outside my window is in me, in that it makes itself present to my experience, as also God does.

God is known as the cause of all things, however, only through his effects (and thus God’s “substance is present to all things as the cause of their being”). Yet, the nature of God’s causing things to be is as their formal-efficient-final cause, the cause of not only their coming to be, but their coming to be out of nothing and directed towards God as their goal. Given this kind of divine causation of things and given their pre-existence in God, God is the cause of all things in a still deeper way since God is the Truth, Goodness, Beauty and all other perfections of things.

So, for instance, God is not merely Good in himself and the cause of goodness in created things, but the very Goodness that is in God is analogically the goodness of created things which they never can, in themselves, possess except in relation to God. This is, in part, because the notion of a “good” is a set of analogically related concepts. For instance, when we ask what a pen is “good for,” we are asking its purpose: to write with. When we ask what a “good pen” is, we are asking when a pen is a good pen: when it writes well (i.e., fulfills its purpose with excellence). The good of things can be considered merely in relation to other created things within the order of the world, but the ultimate Good of all things is their life together in and with God as Goodness itself and which things enjoy in virtue of their existence from God (and so existence itself is a good), in their divinely-appointed relations with other things, and in their final goal within God’s purposes. Thomas’ doctrine of analogy comes in here when we speak of things as being “good” which, in one sense they are in themselves, but ultimately only are so in relation to God as “Good.” Similar analyses would hold true for other perfections such as truth, knowledge, beauty, and so on.

Another corollary of Thomas’ teaching on analogy is that the creation itself has its own integrity as a created whole so that creation itself explains further things within it. God effectively wills all that happens to happen as it does, but not in such a way that that the true secondary causation among creatures and free choices of intelligent beings are in any way compromised (how that precisely works out is another matter to be addressed elsewhere). Thus, while it is true that in one sense “God causes the change of seasons” it is more accurate to say that “God causes the world, with its changing seasons, to be,” allowing thereby for the full participation of all the created powers, secondary causes, and potentialities of the created order their proper role. While all things exist and continue to exist by the direct power of God, they are caused to exist with all the qualities that they exhibit and exercise in such a way that it is truly those things that do what they do and not that God makes them do what they do by a power that is extrinsic and external to them.

Moreover, in Thomas' metaphysics things share real natures, their "formal" constitution (as a discussed before), by which they stand in a real and ordered relationships with one another as part of the created whole. Thus they are analogically related to one another, for instance, that both humans, dogs, and dolphins are "animals" where the term "animal" is being used analogically with reference to real similarities between the various creatures (e.g., they all have senses and desires), despite how those commonalities are differently articulated (e.g., we do not hear in the same way as dogs or dolphins, not only in terms of the subjective experience of hearing but in the nature of the symbolic content that hearing communicates). Individuals and kinds of things are never merely isolated and atomistic objects standing in no essential relationships with other things, but are internally and intrinsically connected to them within a single ordered whole.

In the next installment, I’ll go on to consider some of the implications of this for knowledge, faith and reason, and our doctrine of revelation.