“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.
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!)