Four Problems with Actus Purus

“Hence I think that nothing marks off Pagan theism from Christianity so sharply as Aristotle’s doctrine that God moves the universe, Himself unmoving, as the Beloved moves a lover. But for Christendom “Herein is love, not that we loved God but that He loved us”. CSL The Problem of Pain

Over at Eclectic Orthodoxy Thomas and I engaged in some debate about the problems of conceiving God as actus purus. He there asked me to spell out my difficulties more clearly. This post is my attempt to do that. Below I lay out what I take to be four (fatal) problems with the doctrine of actus purus.

1) God’s relation to the world.

According to Aquinas, since God is pure unconditioned act, his essence is not – in fact cannot be – referred to or dependent upon anything outside itself. As he says “Now, these relations which refer to God’s effects cannot possibly exist in Him really.” (SCG Book 2 Ch.12) Now, the reason Aquinas holds this is because, since God is totally independent of creation and unconditioned, nothing can be said about his being which denotes a relation of dependence. Thus, names like lord, savior, creator, lover, knower which all presuppose the existence of the creation do not really predicate anything true of God’s actual being. Rather, these words only tell us how our intellect is oriented towards God. Therefore, the relations between God and creation do not really exist in God himself. Nor do they even exist as realities outside him. They only exist in our minds.

The problem with this view is twofold. 1) It is inconsistent with Christian teaching. God really is creator, lord, savior, knower, and lover of the world. If these words only exist in our minds, then it follows that God is not really these things and that, while we may predicate certain things about him, we are not really describing him but only ourselves and how we think about him. 2) It is contradictory to believe in creation ex nihilo and still believe that God is not really related to the world. For things in the world are not just referenced to God naturally. They are not existing “of themselves” nor are they naturally “of themselves” drawn towards God. Rather, they are brought into being by God. He is therefore their creator, maker, causer and conditioner. This denotes a real relation in him towards these things, for, if he lacked such a relation, the world would simply never be brought ex nihilo into being. For something that is not self-existent to be brought into being by God, God himself must do something. Namely, he must stand in a relation to it as cause. Otherwise it would not exist. But if God stands in such a relation, then he really is related to the world as that which causes it to come into being.

In Aristotle’s metaphysics God moves the world like a magnet moves pieces of lead. All things are directed to him, but he, being immobile, is entirely unaffected by this fact. Instead he is totally absorbed in his own thinking and being. Hence, in Aristotle’s metaphysics, God cannot know or create the world. Why? Because such things imply a relation between God and the world.

If actus purus is taken to its logical conclusion – as Aquinas inconsistently tries to do – then what you end up having to say is that somehow God creates the world, and yet that this creation is nothing else than the mere dependence of the world on God. But the problem is that this fact, this very dependence, is due to the free and creative activity of God. Things don’t just happen to be drawn and related towards God on their own. God has made them to be this way. Thus to say that the creation is really related to God by way of dependence while also denying that God’s being really has “cause of the world” as an essential constituent is contradictory. If God creates the world, he must really be a creator. Aristotle was not burdened with this contradiction because for him the world was not created but was eternally old. But per Christianity, God is the one who is causing the dependence of the world on him. The “thing moved” is only moved because God is actively causing it to be moved. Therefore, we must be able to say of God’s very being (and not just some “extrinsic” feature of his that does not touch on his essence) that he is creator and related to the world.

In sum, per Aquinas’ view of relations, God cannot think “I am creator” or “I love the world” since these very thoughts denote the fact that God’s being has reference to something other than himself. However, to say that God cannot have self-reference to creation is incompatible with Christianity, which holds that God really is lord, savior, cause, father, lover, knower,and creator of the world.

2) God’s knowledge of free choices.

If God is actus purus, it follows that he cannot be conditioned by anything outside of or other than himself. Thus, Aquinas and thinkers who have held this also taught that God’s knowledge is the cause of things. God therefore does not know things because they happen – for that would make him conditioned – rather, things happen because God knows them. (Interestingly, Boethius, who came before Aquinas, held that God knew things precisely because he saw them happening. Not the other way around.)

Now, if God’s knowledge causes things, then this means that God’s knowledge causes free willed choices. But if free willed choices are cause by God, then the agent has no power regarding whether or not a choice is made. Therefore, the agent is not free to make the choice or not. Therefore libertarian free will is impossible.

On the other hand, if an agent does have the power regarding whether or not a choice is made, and if it is really up to the agent whether or not it does one thing or the other, then God’s knowledge itself would be in a state of potential, insofar as it could be – depending on the creature, rather than God’s own will – knowledge of one thing or the other. But if God’s knowledge can potentially be otherwise then actus purus is false.

In other words, if God knows that a creature does some action (say, sin) only because it freely does that action, then God’s knowledge is in light of that reduced to a particular concrete state from a previous state of potentiality. But if God is pure act he cannot be so reduced. Therefore, God’s knowledge either cannot be otherwise, in which case creatures cannot do otherwise, or God’s knowledge can be otherwise, and actus purus is false

3) God’s causing of sin

Furthermore, since on actus purus the existence of every contingency is reduced to God’s knowledge as cause, then each contingency is only contingent because God so chooses it to be. Therefore, since the divine will causes all things exactly as they are, and since things as they are have no power of themselves to be other than the divine will, all things reduce to the divine will. Hence, God wills absolutely all things that occur. This would include sin. Therefore, God wills sin.

Nor is it possible to say that God is the cause of the “being” of the sin and that the creature alone – independent of God – is the cause of the “defect.” For all that creatures have, since nothing in the created order has the power to be otherwise than how God has made it, they have because God has made them to have it. If therefore they have “defects” it is only because God has so made them to have defects.

Per actus purus nothing can happen other than what God wills to happen. Even if contingency were really possible, it would only be possible in the divine will – not in the created order. For if contingency were truly possible in the created order, it would be possible that God’s knowledge could be other than it is and that something could happen other than what God willed. But this would mean that God is in potentiality. It would also contradict the idea that the only reason each thing is the way it is is because God has so made it to be exactly how it is.

Thus it makes no sense to say, as Aquinas does, “The effect of the deficient secondary cause is reduced to the first non-deficient cause as regards what it has of being and perfection, but not as regards what it has of defect” For just why is the thing deficient, rather than non-deficient? You cannot stop with “because of the creature” for God made the creature to be exactly how it is. If there is a “limp” in the leg, it is not there independently of God’s willing it to be there.

Nor does it work to say that sin is a sheer privation, if this means the absence of some act. Insofar as an act is bad, it is sinful. But this presupposes there is some act in the first place in sin. Sin is not just “the absence of good” but rather the twisting or perversion of some good. And this requires an act of will. But all acts are exactly as they are because of God’s motion – a motion which entails that the agent being acted on has no power of itself to be otherwise than it is. Therefore, when actus purus is taken to its logical extreme, it makes God the cause of the act of sin.

If evil really were a total lack of being, then it would literally make no sense to call an “act” a sin. For acts denote being. Further, “non-being” can have no effects, for it does not in any way exist. But sin certainly has effects – according to Christianity death and the crucifixion. Therefore, since sin is an act, and since all acts reduce to God, cause causes sin on the actus purus model.

4) The gratuity and non-necessity of the world – or, the modal collapse

According to actus purus God’s act of being, which is his existence, is identical with his will. Further, God’s existence is necessary. Thus it follows that his will is necessary, since it is identical with his act of existing. However, if God’s will involves the willing of the world, the world’s existence is necessary too. But this is contrary to traditional Christian teaching.

If the world is truly contingent, it was possible that God not create it. But then it was possible for God to exist without the world, in which case he would be different than he is supposing the world exists and that he creates it. But if God can either be creator or non-creator, then God’s ad intra existence, apart from creation, contains potential. But what is pure act can contain no potential. Therefore God cannot be pure act.

What you have here is a modal collapse. Actus purus tries to predicate contradictory statements of God, insofar as it holds that a) God’s act of creation is unnecessary; b) God’s act of existence is necessary; and c) God’s act of being is a single act. These points contradict each other. If God’s act of being is one act, then it is either necessary or contingent. If it is necessary, then the world’s existence is also necessary, since his act of existing includes the creation of the world. On the other hand, if God’s act is contingent, then God is not a necessary being, since his existence is contingent. And, finally, if God’s act of being is not single, then actus purus collapses, as does simplicity, since you have two distinct acts on God’s part.

Conclusion)

It seems to me all the difficulties of actus purus reduce to the fact that Aristotlean metaphysics is not equipped to accommodate the claim that God created the world freely, that he interacts with it, or that he is personal. The Aristotlean view of God, which is in itself consistent, posits God as more of a force, an object that eternally causes all things to change, completely absorbed in itself with no real relation to the world. Thus this model must presuppose the eternity of the world: there is no room for a creation ex nihilo. Nor is there room for any relationship between such a being and the creation. I don’t think such a metaphysics – while it is eloquent and forceful – is compatible with Christianity. It is much more compatible with Naturalism, it seems to me.

(And I didn’t even touch on the problems of actus purus and the incarnation!)

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13 thoughts on “Four Problems with Actus Purus

  1. Tom

    I’m just now into Matthews Grant’s article on Divine Identity and Aquinas. I thin Grant appreciates the problem. I still can’t nail him down. Emailed him a few days ago looking for clarity. Looks like he’s open to chatting about it. I’ll chat with Grant here. You cover Weinandy on your end!

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    1. malcolmsnotes Post author

      Haha, will do! If you get a chance, ask him if he thinks that God’s willing and knowing the creation is something outside God, and if so, whether this means God cannot know “I am willing and knowing the creation” in himself, in his inner being.

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  2. Fr Aidan Kimel

    Hello, Chris. Thank you for your article and your critical reflections on actus purus. I’d like to respond to the first section of your article regarding God’s relation to the world. You note that Aquinas believes that because God is the plenitude of being, and therefore immutable, lacking all passive potentiality, his relation to the world he has made from out of nothing cannot be described as a real relation, at least not from the side of God. You write: “the relations between God and creation do not really exist in God himself. Nor do they even exist as realities outside him. They only exist in our minds.” Hence “names like lord, savior, creator, lover, knower which all presuppose the existence of the creation do not really predicate anything true of God’s actual being.”

    I don’t think this gets matters right for Aquinas. The first thing that needs to be said is that from our point of view, i.e., the view of the creature, we exist in a real ontological relation with God. He is the source of our being and thus is properly addressed as “Creator” and “Lord”; he has united himself to our human nature, destroyed death, and risen from the grave and is thus properly addressed as “Savior” and “Lover.” All this is true and real. It’s not just in the mind. Creatures are the effect of God’s creative and redeeming action. To be a creature is to be in relation to its Creator: it is to gain the relational property of creaturehood.

    Where things get interesting is trying to look at this from the side of God. As you note, Aquinas states that whereas creatures are really related to God, God is only logically or notionally related to creatures. This seems an odd thing to say, yet perhaps not so odd when we think further upon the extraordinariness of the Creator/creature relationship, at least as understood by Aquinas. God cannot relate to creatures in the way that creatures relate to each other, because God does not exist in the world as a being. He does not stand alongside his creatures. He is their transcendent source and origin. We should not be surprised, therefore, if we find that God does not fit into our philosophical categories.

    At the day-to-day commonsense level, Aquinas apparently has no problem talking about God as being related to his creatures. Thus Brian Davies:

    If one reads him [Aquinas] in detail on the question of God’s relation to creatures, one will, in fact, find him endorsing all of the following propositions. (1) We can speak of God as related to his creatures in view of the purely formal point that if one thing can be said to be related to another, then the second thing can be said to be related to the first. (2) Since God can be compared to creatures, since he can be spoken of as being like them, he can be thought of as related to them. (3) Since God knows creatures, he can be said to be related to them. (4) Since God moves creatures, he can be said to be related to them. (5) Since God can be spoken of as ‘first’, ‘highest’, and so on, he can be said to be related to creatures since these terms are relational ones. (The Thought of Thomas Aquinas, p. 76)

    But philosophical accuracy demands, thinks Aquinas, that these commonsense ways of speaking about God need to be qualified by the insistence that when we speak of God making the world and its various inhabitants, we are actually referring to something that exists in creatures but not in God. Thus Herbert McCabe:

    Now consider the profoundly mysterious truth that God sustains Lady Thatcher in existence. This was not true of God ins, say, 1920 because in those far off happy times Lady Thatcher did not exist and so God could not have been sustaining her in existence. So God began to sustain her, he became the sustainer of Lady Thatcher. But, Aquinas says, this does not entail any change in God any more than becoming a great-uncle entails any change in me. Thus becoming the sustainer of Lady Thatcher is not a real happening to God, in our sense, although it becomes true of him. It is true of him not because of some new reality in him but because of some reality in Lady Thatcher—that she began to be alive. Of course that she is alive is due to a reality in God: his profoundly mysterious eternal will that she should come to exist at a certain date. But this eternal will is not something that comes about at a date, so this does not imply any real change in God.

    So when Lady Thatcher was conceived there was something going on in her, but on God’s side the change is merely verbal; we have a new thing to say about God, but it is not a new thing about God that we are saying. (God Still Matters, pp. 42-43)

    When God creates the world, therefore, he does not change intrinsically, for in the eternality and fullness of his being he transcends all intrinsic changes. But perhaps we may say, to invoke a modern category, that he gains a Cambridge property (at least that is how Eleonore Stump interprets him).

    I do not know if the above is the best way to speak of God and his relation to the world he creates ex nihilo, but I think we can at least see why Aquinas is forced to talk this way and why it is not nonsensical.

    You write:

    The problem with this view is twofold. 1) It is inconsistent with Christian teaching. God really is creator, lord, savior, knower, and lover of the world. If these words only exist in our minds, then it follows that God is not really these things and that, while we may predicate certain things about him, we are not really describing him but only ourselves and how we think about him. 2) It is contradictory to believe in creation ex nihilo and still believe that God is not really related to the world. For things in the world are not just referenced to God naturally. They are not existing “of themselves” nor are they naturally “of themselves” drawn towards God. Rather, they are brought into being by God. He is therefore their creator, maker, causer and conditioner. This denotes a real relation in him towards these things, for, if he lacked such a relation, the world would simply never be brought ex nihilo into being. For something that is not self-existent to be brought into being by God, God himself must do something. Namely, he must stand in a relation to it as cause. Otherwise it would not exist. But if God stands in such a relation, then he really is related to the world as that which causes it to come into being.

    I do not find this statement adequate. First, to claim that Aquinas’s teaching on divine immutability and the notional nature of God’s relationship to his creation is inconsistent with Christian teaching is, at the very least, a stretch, if not just wrong. Whose teaching are you talking about and what are their authority? I’m confident that one can find Church Fathers, for example, who speak of God as “becoming” Creator. This is a commonsensical way of speaking, once one has affirmed the creatio ex nihilo. It only becomes problematic once one seeks to clarify the eternity, simplicity, and transcendence of God. (The Byzantine Church found a different way to deal with these concerns by its formulation of the distinction between the divine essence and the divine energies.)

    Second, your criticism of Aquinas’s position assumes that we really know what we are talking about when we talk about divine creation. But we don’t! This is why Aquinas begins his discussion on the nature of God by insisting upon the unknowability of God and thus the need to first identity what God is not—he is not finite, he is not corporeal, he is not a complex compound, he is not changeable, etc., etc. He is not any of these things because if he were, he would in fact become a being that is in need of metaphysical explanation. Is God the creator of heaven and earth? Of course he is. But what this means is a mystery to us. Our words point to the mystery, but they cannot adequately describe it.

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  3. Thomas

    My response to most of this would simply be that it mistakes what Aquinas actually says.

    For instance, this is simply incorrect: “Therefore, the relations between God and creation do not really exist in God himself. Nor do they even exist as realities outside him. They only exist in our minds.”

    What Aquinas actually says is this: “Therefore there is no real relation in God to the creature; whereas in creatures there is a real relation to God; because creatures are contained under the divine order, and their very nature entails dependence on God.” The relation between God and creatures is one of cause and effect.

    The other objections similarly rest on misapprehensions of Aquinas. God’s knowledge is not modeled on ours; we know by being informed by things (by the reception of species into the passive intellect), God’s knowledge is had in the active granting of the divine ideas to things (in which things are the receivers).

    This claim not only fails to reflect Aquinas’ view, it is a non-sequitor: “[E]ach contingency is only contingent because God so chooses it to be. Therefore, since the divine will causes all things exactly as they are, and since things as they are have no power of themselves to be other than the divine will, all things reduce to the divine will.”

    To say that God wills a thing contingently is to say that it is not necessary. I may give my three-year-old a choice between picking up his toys or an early bedtime. I cause him to choose, but I do not specify the outcome. In the case of God, not only does God cause us to choose freely, he does so by–on Aquinas’ account–granting us a share in a certain infinitude that grounds our freedom. Quite the opposite of denying creatures the power to freely choose, he actively grants this power to them.

    As to objections 3) and 4), Aquinas directly considers and answers them in the Summa Theologiae.

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    1. malcolmsnotes Post author

      Aquinas consistently states that the relation between the Creator and the creature is “not really in God, but only in our understanding” (ST, I, 13, 7). See also III, 2, 7 ad 1; SCG II, 13, 4; De Veritate 3, 2, ad. 8; De Potentia 7, 8-11.

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      1. Thomas

        Malcolm:

        You claimed that Aquinas denies “any” relation between God and creature except those “in our minds.” And then when you quoted Aquinas, you have (I hope not intentionally) omitted his words where they contradicted your claim. That passage says “it is clear that creatures are really related to God himself, but in God there is not any real relation of himself to creatures, but only according to reason.” ST I, 13, 7c.

        The reason that you’ve mistaken what Aquinas says is that you’ve not accounted for what he means by real (as opposed to notional) relations. A real relation is one in which a subject gains an accident. In a real relation, the subject is actualized in a new way, namely, as directed in some way to something else (the term). To put it differently, a real relation is a real property, as opposed to a mere Cambridge property.

        But the term does not necessarily gain a new accident. This is clear enough: if I come to know what Mount Everest is, I gain accidental being (namely, knowledge about Mount Everest), but Mount Everest itself is not really changed.

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  4. Pingback: But is God really, really, really related to the world? | Eclectic Orthodoxy

  5. malcolmsnotes Post author

    This could quickly turn into a debate about what Aquinas believed rather than the metaphysics of the argument (which would do neither of us good.) The last I’ll say about Aquinas in particular is this. I’ve read him deeply, and it seems to me he handles the idea of God’s relation to the world inconsistently (as he does several other issues, like Christ’s earthly beatific vision, God’s causing of sin, and God’s knowledge of future contingents.) Whether or not I am interpreting him correctly (i.e. whether he really believed what I think he did) is not really an issue I’m concerned about. I care more about getting at what’s going on between God and us. I’ll leave it to Aquinas scholars to debate whether or not he held a *particular* view (you do know, don’t you, that many Thomists HAVE in fact held that Aquinas thought God was not really related to the world?)

    With that said, I don’t see how anything you’ve said has really engaged any of my four points of concern in depth. When you say that God causes us to choose, but does not specify the outcome of our choice, what do you make of the specific outcome of our choice with regards to God’s knowledge of it? Does the outcome determine God’s knowledge? And if so, how then is God pure act? And if not, how does he not in fact specify the outcome?

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  6. Thomas

    The issue about what Aquinas believes was raised in your original post as that in which you were identifying problems. If you wish now to say that you are simply setting forth a doctrine, assigning to it the name “actus purus” and not making any claims about whether anyone actually held that doctrine, then my objections are limited to things like the non-sequitor I identified above.

    In other words, if you wish to criticize a position without regard to whether anyone actually held it–and in this case, no major figure did–that is fine as far as it goes. But it is not a discussion relevant to the Thomist tradition.

    I would be interested to see any citations to Thomist scholars who hold that Aquinas asserted God’s real relation to the world.

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    1. malcolmsnotes Post author

      Thomas Weinandy holds that Aquinas held that God was really related to the world. See his books Does God Change or Does God Suffer. Though he holds also that Aquinas did not fully understand – or at least that he failed to adequately synthesize – the Aristotelian notion of relation with the Christian doctrine of creation.

      Further, I’m not changing anything that I’ve said before Thomas, nor am I shifting my point. This whole post is about incoherent consequences of actus purus. Thus I really care about implications of the arguments. Not who or who did not hold them (though, for the record, I do think I’m correct to say that Aquinas contradicts himself in his own account.)

      My real question to you is, would you like to actually engage in the substance of my criticism of actus purus? If not, then that’s fine – though one wonders why you would care more about what some ancient thinker believed than what is actually rational or possibly true.

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      1. Thomas

        I don’t have either of the books from Weinandy that you cite. However, works I do have access to cite a passage from Weinandy’s “Does God suffer” in which he defines a “mixed relation” as one in which one member is, and the other is not, really related to the other, and he say such is the case with God. In other words, Weinandy holds the position on Aquinas I have been advancing, and that you have been denying. That discussion is on pages 130-131, if you’d care to post it here.

        You claim that “whether or not I am interpreting [Aquinas] correctly (i.e. whether he really believed what I think he did) is not really an issue I’m concerned about.” I, for one, am not concerned to defend the claim that neither the world nor God are really related to each other. The world is really related to God, while God is not really related to the world, and this is grounded in God’s bestowal of being to creatures. That is my claim (and Aquinas’ claim). Since you haven’t actually criticized this claim, there is no need for me to defend it.

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  7. Robert Fortuin

    malcolmsnotes,

    One has to understand what Aquinas denotes by ‘real’. Does a change in value of a dollar bill in your wallet constitute a real change to the dollar bill itself? No. When a man becomes an uncle does this constitute a real change in that man? No. Likewise in creating the world, no real change constituted in God.

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