Category Archives: Actus Purus

The Problem of a Necessary Being Causing a Contingent World

There seems to be the following contradiction (or, at least, puzzle) in saying that a necessary being explains the contingent world. Consider.

It is normally assumed that a necessary being (NB) can explain the contingent world (CW) by some causal action taking place in the NB. However, this seems viciously circular. For the causal action that gives rise to the CW cannot be in the CW, since it accounts for it. But if the action is in the NB, then it is an item either itself necessary, or contingent. If contingent, then we must account for it by some further contingency, etc, until we get to some causal action that is necessary. But then, this action must necessarily be in the NB. In which case, the action which gives rise to the CW is necessary. For given the NB, it’s causal action will necessarily be present in it, and the CW will necessarily exist.

Thus, if a NB causally accounts for a CW, the CW is likewise necessary.

Another way to put the problem is like this. What explains the CW? Such a cause is either contingent, or necessary. If necessary, then, it must necessarily be what it is and cannot be otherwise. For any contingency in the cause must be explained by some prior necessity. But then, when we reach this necessary cause, its action must be necessary: it must necessarily do what it does. But what it does is cause the CW.  But then, the CW is no longer contingent, but necessary.

Now, this appears to only be a contradiction on Thomistic metaphysics. For if God is temporal or everlasting it seems a NB could cause a CW by a spontaneous act of freedom. This may be mysterious or even incomprehensible – but it also may avoid the contradiction above.


The Contingent and the Necessary As Not Mutually Exclusive

There is a worry that if God is both necessary and contingent (in certain respects) he cannot be simple, since this would entail he is either composed (of a necessary “part” and contingent “part”) or that there are accidents in him (something can “accrue” to him that need not be there, such as his knowledge of the contingent creation.) This has led some thinkers to deny that any contingent properties exist in God. Hence they are driven to say things like God’s knowledge with respect to creation is something that exists outside of or “extrinsic” to God (Matthews Grant is one such thinker.)

But I’m not convinced we have to say this. Anyone who has ever held the doctrine of simplicity has also held the doctrine of analogy: i.e. that what we predicate of God, even if the predicates are different from our perspective, nevertheless point to some single reality in God too big for our single predicate to comprehend. This is how we can say that all the divine attributes point to a single being or substance. Now, this normally poses no problems because although all such attributes are different (wisdom, power, love, etc.) they are nevertheless not contradictory. For if that were the case either one or the other would not be able to be predicated, but both couldn’t be (e.g. God cannot be all knowing and not all knowing.) Thus the problem with reconciling contingency and necessity in God is that these properties are mutually exclusive, and therefore they cannot both be said of God, even in his singular, simple being.

But ARE they mutually exclusive?

The more I think about it the less sure I am. One example sticks out quite shockingly. Our free choices themselves are both necessary and contingent, insofar as we necessarily will our own happiness (it is impossible not to will it) and insofar as we will it either this way or that way (eating this dessert or that dessert).

Now, if we can possess both contingent and necessary aspects of being/will/choice, why can’t God? In fact if God just is the supreme instance of purely personal act, then would he not essentially just be an instance of necessarily willing his own good AND ALSO freely willing it in whatever way he chose?

Does God’s Contingent Action Imply He Has Accidents (and Conflict with Simplicity?)

“As in God “what is” and “whereby it is” are the same, so likewise in Him “what acts” and “whereby it acts” are the same, since everything acts, inasmuch as it is a being. Hence the Divine Nature is both that whereby God acts, and the very God Who acts.” Aquinas, ST III q. 3 a. 2

It seems to me the question of God’s knowledge of creation is similar to the question of the second person assuming a human nature. In each case, something is true of God that need not necessarily be true of him – i.e. he has this particular knowledge of creation or he assumes this particular created nature. Presumably God could have different knowledge or could have assumed a different nature.

Open theists say this means God cannot be simple, since such things appear accidental to God. And if a thing is accidental to something else, it can be added to it. But if something can be added to God, he is temporal and composed, and can at one time have “this” property and at another “that.”

But what if we think about it like this. God is the same across all possible worlds because in all possible worlds God knows his one act, which is his existing and his doing. But this means that we can only arrive at a sort of analogical predication of God, insofar as in every possible world we say that God has both a necessary existence (willing his own goodness) and a contingent existence (willing it in this way – say with a creation – rather than that way – say without one.)

Is God the same in a world that is different than this one? Yes, just like we would be the same person even if we did otherwise. For in any possible world God is still knowing his own existence and his own action. That action is different in terms of how it terminates (he actualizes this creature rather than that, or he even fails to actualize any creature at all.) But the action, in terms of the way it is performed, is the same (a necessary end attained through a contingent means.) In other words, God is the same in all possible worlds because God justin st is an instance of free act. In any world that could exist, God would be freely acting to bring it about. That is, he would always know the extent of his own free action. Therefore, God’s action would not be essentially different in any possible world even if the world was different, or if no world existed at all (God would know that he is freely actualizing his own goodness without bringing about a world, for instance.)

Interestingly in the question in the ST that asks whether God’s will is the cause of things Aquinas says “the divine being is undetermined.” And he also says in the previous question that the divine will “determines itself” to things which it has no necessary connection to. These thoughts lead me to believe that we can attribute both necessary and contingent existence, analogously, to God’s single act of being. We can consider these attributes under certain respects: God’s necessity in terms of him wiling his own goodness and his contingency in terms of the way in which he wills that goodness. This saves us from having to say that God’s knowledge (and will) are things “outside” or “extrinsic” to God himself, but still allows us to speak truly about God’s necessary existence.

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.


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!)

An Argument Against Actus Purus

Here is an argument against Actus Purus.

  1. If God is actus purus then he can contain no potentiality at all.
  2. The Christian God knows the free choices of creatures.
  3. Free choices can be other than they are.
  4. Therefore God’s knowledge contains potential to be other than it is.
  5. Ergo God contains potentiality, and so cannot be pure act.

If God ever experiences something in his being “because” of what creation does, then he cannot pure act. This is because, by responding to what we do God is actualizing some state of affairs that would not have come about but for our action, and this means that God, apart from our so acting, or supposing we were to act differently, would not have actualized the state of affairs that he in fact did actualize.

Consider, for example, the Incarnation. If we had not sinned, Christ would not have been crucified. Thus, the fact that God assumed human flesh and was crucified – which was certainly an act of God – proves that God had the potential to become human and be crucified supposing we sin. The important point here is this “supposing.” For it means that something about God’s very being came to be which would not have come to be if we had not sinned. And if we are free then it was certainly possible for us to have not sinned.

Consider another example. If God has knowledge of our free actions, he either knows these things because we do them, or we do them because he knows them. However, if God’s knowledge is the cause of our actions, then we are not free to do other than God’s pre-conceived knowledge of what we will do. But if God knows what we do because we do it (which is what all free will theists believe) then God is conditioned and has potentiality with regard to his knowledge. For, supposing we do or act otherwise, God’s knowledge would be different than it is.

Both these arguments, by the way, work just the same if God is eternal and existing in a simultaneous now. For even if you reduce all times to a present, God still has knowledge of the present either because the present exists and so imposes knowledge onto God, or because God’s knowledge itself imposes form and structure onto the present. In other words God is either eternally and presently receiving knowledge of the free creation (which implies him being in an eternal state of potentiality), or he eternally and presently causes what the free creation will be. (Since this causing entails determinism and makes God the author of evil, contradicts our existential experience, and robs us of all moral responsibility, it seems we should not hold it.)

I can well imagine a sort of immovable, changeless substance that is the same in all possible worlds; and I can well imagine us being asymmetrically related to that substance differently based on what we do. When one steps from standing in the sunlight to standing in the shade the sun itself doesn’t change, even though the warmth it gives to our bodies does. But I cannot imagine that such a substance could be a personal being. The Biblical God – manifested in Christ – wills and knows things about his creation. But if this is really true, what God wills and knows is therefore in some way dependent upon beings outside his own self act. If knowledge is an essential part of God’s being (which it must be if he is a person) and if God knows us contingent creatures, then how can God be the actus purus described by Aquinas? For that being is totally unconditioned by the creation – indeed he literally cannot be conditioned by anything outside himself, since that would imply passivity. If God is actus purus then none of his inner being can have reference or relation to things outside his own self, since by virtue of the fact that these “non-God” things would draw forth such states from God and would cause him to be conditioned. On such a view, how could God create, since that would require him to stand in his own being as a CREATOR in relation to what he has made?

It is too little mentioned that Aristotle’s God could neither know the world nor create it. Aristotle saw that the logic of his doctrine of acutus purus entailed these as necessary consequences. But Aristotle was not a Christian. He did not believe God was Father, nor that God’s Son became man, nor that God made the universe ex nihilo. So while perhaps he can be forgiven for such a impersonal conception of the divine, can we Christians? If we believe that God is some metaphysical force, some pure actuality, some abstract notion of being itself, how is it logically possible to believe he also created the universe, knows its contingencies, and entered into it as man?

On the Problem with a Temporal God

“Further, why should there always be becoming, and what is the cause of becoming?-this no one tells us.” Aristotle Metaphysics Book 12

It seems to me the ultimate objection to a temporal God is that it reduces God himself to a process – one more species of becoming. But becoming as such is conditioned. The process is a particular process that does this rather than that. As such it demands an explanation for why it goes the way it does. If God’s being is essentially becoming it cannot be such an explanation. Thus the process as a whole – just like Aquinas’ argument for an infinite series of contingent causes – exists inexplicably. Therefore there is no reason why it should exist rather than not. But it does exist. Therefore there must needs be some further back reality that itself is not one more species of becoming, but rather grounds it – an ultimate conditioner that gives rise to all conditioned processes. Thus we come to actus purus, etc.

I suppose one could ask if God’s “relation”to the world, or his conscious states, or his experiences, could themselves be species of becoming which he has determined so to be. Like saying “God is naturally actus purus, but wills to subject himself to a process of becoming.” But this to me is impossible. For what a thing essentially is, it must be, or else it is not itself but something else. Thus if we are led by argument to say that there must be a being who is itself Being and not just a process of becoming, it could not become other than Being, or else it would cease being itself. What one could say I think is that the particular relations in the created things come to be and pass away in a process of becoming. This is what led Aquinas to say things like the change (i.e. becoming) is not in God but only in the creature, and therefore God is “logically” related to the creature rather than “really” related to it as if the two existed in some common medium.

God cannot “become” a process because he is essentially not a process. Were he to undergo such becoming he would cease to be God – in fact he never would have been God, since in order to become anything one must first be able to be moved in some sense. And this implies some lack of being somewhere. It is not that movement or change are necessarily good or bad. This is the error of Process theology, which thinks that Classical theology believes that God is actus purus because it holds that all change must be either for the better or the worse. No. The insight of Classical theology is not that all change must be for the better or worse, but that all change implies a state of incompletion or lack of fullness. A thing takes on some new reality which it did not in the past have. But then the thing must have been in some way incomplete and able to be more and other than it was. It must have had some limitation such that it could not “be” unless it were subject to some process of sequential becoming. But who or what imposed such a metaphysical law? As Aristotle asked, “what is the cause of such becoming?” In short, change implies not necessarily good or bad (though it may). Rather, it implies a limit, which in the change is either now assumed, or now done away with, which the changing thing conforms to and is conditioned by. But then God would have some existing metaphysical limit or law imposed on him from outside himself, and where would that come from? So in either case we come up against some purely unmoved mover, some unconditioned conditioner, itself changeless which gives rise to changing things.

I will end by mentioning briefly in passing the straw man – or rather the misunderstanding – that often attends the idea that God is outside of time and becoming. I mean the idea that if he is so he is “frozen” or “inert.” Such words are merely abstractions from our sensual experience of what a “still” or “motionless” thing is like. But if God is actus purus, then in fact nothing can be further from the truth. Far from being lifeless or stagnant, God is literally pure act, supremely active and dynamic. He literally could not be more intimately involved, more connected, more careful about the world he has made. So let us not be misled by a mere metaphor when we are wondering about if God is outside of time.

On Modality

“I suspect it is really a meaningless question. The difference between Freedom & Necessity is fairly clear on the bodily level: we know the difference between making our teeth chatter on purpose & just finding them chattering with cold… When we carry it up to relations between God & Man, has the distinction perhaps become nonsensical?” CSL Letters, Vol 3

Modality is an abstract and scary word. There is, however, no reason to be intimidated by it. I take it simply to mean “the modes of being which are either contingent or necessary.” In other words, there is this distinction in things between what we think could have been otherwise and with what we think could not have been otherwise. For instance, it is contingent that Obama is president; and it is necessary that 1+1=2. In the first case there is a fact that is possibly different. In the second there is a fact that could not be otherwise. Thus we have two examples of contingent and necessary things. But notice that contingent and necessary things presuppose the Contingent and Necessary as such. Now, insofar as we are talking about the Contingent and Necessary as such, we are talking about modality. And this modality will be the subject of this post.

For reasons I have stated elsewhere, it seems to me reasonable to say that these terms – Contingent and Necessary – do not actually apply to God’s action. For to suppose they do is to imagine God as a temporal object who is “faced” with a set of possible worlds over and against himself. But for God there can be no possible worlds – no possibilities at all – which do not spring from his own creative mind and nature. How could God be faced with a reality that he did not create? In other words, things are only possible insofar as God has first made them possible. Therefore (to horribly condense the argument), it is God’s very creative action itself which imparts possibility to the things themselves, rather than vice versa.

What this amounts to is that it is meaningless to talk about God’s action using Contingent and Necessary language. We can rightly describe what God makes in these terms; but God’s very act in making them is not either contingent or necessary. It simply is what it is, and that’s all there is to say about it.

This may sound like an abstract and unnecessary point, but to me it is crucial, for two reasons. First, without this in place God’s sovereignty and creativity are limited. For insofar as God is faced with these metaphysical laws of the necessary and the contingent “out there” apart from his own creative will, he must therefore work with and around them. But again, if God is the First Cause and source of all being whatsoever, there can exist no such laws or limits of reality independent of his creative action. Second of all, with this distinction in mind (that the necessary and contingent do not apply to God’s creative act or essence itself), we can better explain how God knows future free (i.e. contingent) acts. If God himself has created the free acts or if he will create them in their very contingency, then he can know them simply on the basis of his knowledge of his own will to create them. However, if God himself is, as it were, subject in his very being and knowledge to the contingencies of the free acts themselves “out there”, then his being and his knowledge would be determined by the contingencies themselves which exist independently of his will. They would exist outside God and so therefore determine him. Since they are over and against him his knowledge would become what it was based on their own reality. Thus, he could not know  contingent free choices until they came to pass and determined his knowledge.

In light of these issues it seems to me best to view modality as such as part of the conceptual realm only: i.e. to view the difference in the Necessary and Contingent to be basically equivalent to the “unimaginable” and the “imaginable.” We say it is “necessary” that 1+1=2, but that is only because it is unimaginable to us that it could be otherwise. We don’t mean that, as considered in God’s changeless and immutable act of Pure Existence, which itself encompasses everything that exists (since he eternally causes all that exists) – we don’t imagine that viewed from this angle it makes sense to say 1+1=2 “could not have been otherwise.” There is no “otherwise” to speak of: there is nothing outside the Everything that is both God and his eternal action with which to compare things to. There is really only one universe and one history and future. There is nothing else to set it against. For “anything else” could only exist were God to will it to exist, in which case it would itself be part of the Everything that we are now talking about, which God has always and eternally caused to be.

Now, the conclusion that modality does not apply to God’s essence does not imply that God was fated to create nor that he spontaneously created for no reason. Both conceptions really just smuggle in the idea of modality and attach it to God’s own action, rather than the things which God’s action produces. To say that God “had to” create is meaningless. And to say that God “could have refrained” from creating is also meaningless. The truth is, God simply IS and DOES; and what he IS is a creator and what he DOES is create. Period.

God’s freedom need not be thought of as his “ability to do otherwise.” Why not simply construe his freedom as the fact that all God’s act come from himself, without movement or dependence from some prior cause? Why is it so essential to think that God “could have” done other than he did, if the opposite – that God “had to” create – is also false?