Category Archives: Personhood

Aquinas’ conflicting account of God’s love and the reduction of personhood

Aquinas’ theodicy is one you don’t see argued for in the literature today. I don’t know if this is because it is fairly unknown or because it is disagreed with. (It suits best the Calvinistic view that some are damned for the glory of God.)

Here I want to expose what I think an inconsistency in Aquinas’ account of God’s love. This is related to theodicy and the existence of Hell because Aquinas held that the kind of universe God wanted to create requires the existence of the damned, for the universe requires the existence of corruption, failure, and punishment. I have argued elsewhere both a) for the truth that Aquinas did indeed hold this view; and b) its fundamental problem, which is that a “multiplicity of being” and in fact even corruption, failure, and punishment can exist in a universe that does not contain Hell. Indeed, Aquinas gives such an account of how this could be by describing the state of original righteousness of unfallen man, where he says,

“The cause of inequality could be on the part of God; not indeed that He would punish some and reward others, but that He would exalt some above others; so that the beauty of order would the more shine forth among men. Inequality might also arise on the part of nature as above described, without any defect of nature.” (ST I q. 96 a. 3 r. 3)

Anyone interested in a more thorough refutation of classical theology and the existence of Hell can see my post “Apokatastasis: The Only Eschatology Compatible with Classical Theism.”

I want right now, however, to point out another glaring inconsistency in Aquinas as I read him. I wish to argue that Aquinas gives a contradictory or unsatisfactory account of God’s love. And that this account ultimately entails a destruction of personhood.

In the chapter on God’s love (90) in Summa Contra Gentiles, Book 1, Thomas gives us a beautiful definition of what love is:

“For this belongs properly to the nature of love, that the lover will the good of the one he loves. Now, God wills His own good and that of others, as appears from what has been said. This means, therefore, that God loves Himself and other things. Again, for true love it is required that we will someone’s good as his good. For if we will someone’s good only in so far as it leads to the good of another, we love this someone by accident, just as he who wishes to store wine in order to drink it or loves a man so that this man may be useful or enjoyable to him, loves the wine or the man by accident, but essentially he loves himself.”

Now, notice here the idea of loving a thing for its own good, and, in opposition to that, loving a thing insofar as it conduces towards the good of something else. This difference crops up often in moral theology. For example, John Paul II argued that this difference is enough to show us when our actions involve us treating others as genuine people (which is the Christian virtue of love) and when they involve us treating them as objects (and therefore failing to demonstrate Christian love.) Insofar as we consider the good of the person as such we are treating him as a person, as something of infinite value, as a good in himself. Insofar as we consider the good of the person as it benefits us we are treating him as something of inconsequential value or a personless object. As JPII says “A person’s rightful due is to be treated as an object of love, not as an object for use.” (Love and Responsibility.)

At this point the question arises: if God creates some persons for the good of the perfection of the universe, and that perfection requires the punishment of hell, is God really loving the persons he creates for this end as persons?* It seems to me the answer to this is no.

Thomas tries to escape this conclusion by making a distinction in the act of love. The act of love can be considered a) in its vigor of action; and b) in the actual good which is willed for the one who is loved. Aquinas claims that a) describes an act of God, which is identical to his immutable nature and intellect and will, whereby he knows and causes all things. Further, the action of God is measured by his power, which is infinitely intense and unchangeable. Therefore, God’s act of love in this sense cannot be greater or less to any person and so God loves all persons in this way equally. The b) kind of love, however, can be variable according to Thomas. That is, the particular goods that God wills for people can be better or worse. For instance, he can will the gift of intelligence in X amount to person Y, but in X + 1 amount to person Z. And in this sense God can love some things more than others. Now, since God wills some goods more absolutely than others – such as the good of himself, represented by a multiplicity of good in the universe – he also wills the good of some persons more than others. And since God loves the good of the whole universe more than he loves any single person – since the good of the whole is better than the good of a part – God wills that some persons be damned for the perfection of the whole.**

Thomas finally links this logic of love up with the existence of Hell and punishment later on in question 96 when he says,

“However, God is said by similitude to hate some things, and this in a twofold way…The second way arises from the fact that God wills some greater good that cannot be without the loss of some lesser good. And thus He is said to hate, although this is rather to love. For thus, inasmuch as He wills the good of justice or of the order of the universe, which cannot exist without the punishment or corruption of some things, God is said to hate the things whose punishment or corruption He wills. In the words of Malachi (1:3): “I have hated Esau”; and the Psalms (5:7): “You hate all workers of iniquity: You destroy all who speak a lie. The bloody and the deceitful man the Lord will abhor.”

I think Aquinas has not thought carefully enough here, especially if he wants to use this reasoning to justify the existence of Hell. The first obvious thing is that it is not clear how God can be said to love the persons whom he gives these lesser goods to – goods which, actually, are the worst possible fate imaginable to a rational agent. But since I have addressed this trick of linguistics elsewhere (equating eternity in Hell as some sort of “good” that God grants), I will leave it alone for now. I want rather to focus on the following point.

It does not follow that, simply because God wills a greater particular good for one individual (call it good X), God wills that person a greater good absolutely (eternal beatitude, over and against damnation.) God could will different goods to each person, or even different combinations of goods, all of which result in the same metaphysical “amount” of good ultimately. For example, person Y may have good X, and person Z may have good W, and, although good X is greater in the sense that person Z lacks this good, still, person Z has good W, which person Y does not have. This distribution could result in an overall “equally blessed person.” To use a simple example, one person may have more intelligence, but another more beauty.  The person with more intelligence need not have more good absolutely than the person with more beauty. Rather, each has their share of the unlimited participated good of God himself, a good which in its entirety is unable to be communicated to a creature. And yet these participated goods need not be “better” or “worse” than each other.

Interestingly, Aquinas provides this very reasoning in his ST when answering whether God loves a repentant sinner more than an innocent who never sinned. It is worthwhile to read the whole article (ST I, q 20 a 4). However, what I want to highlight is only the following, where he says, “gifts of grace, equal in themselves, are more as conferred on the penitent, who deserved punishment, than as conferred on the innocent, to whom no punishment was due; just as a hundred pounds [marcoe] are a greater gift to a poor man than to a king.”

Notice how the grace given is equal. It is rather the modality of its reception on the creature that makes it appear different. We see here the inner workings of a system suggested above whereby finite goods are equal, yet different, and need not imply any absolute better or worseness.

Yet just in case this may lead someone to suppose that it is just as good to be a sinner as a saint, Aquinas also gives us another metaphysical tool to work with, which is this. We can consider gifts of God on persons as “better” or “worse” from the standpoint of time. That is, we can call one thing better than another by saying “at such and such a time it is better.” In the next reply he says,

“Since God’s will is the cause of goodness in things, the goodness of one who is loved by God is to be reckoned according to the time when some good is to be given to him by divine goodness. According therefore to the time, when there is to be given by the divine will to the predestined sinner a greater good, the sinner is better; although according to some other time he is the worse; because even according to some time he is neither good nor bad.”

Now, considering all the above, we have from Aquinas himself a way to synthesize the universal love of God, which respects the multiplicity of being (which he used to justify hell), but that does not necessarily imply hell’s existence. For God can a) give gifts of love that are neither better nor worse but simply different; or b) he can give better gifts at one time and lesser gifts at another, but he could still give, in the Eschaton, such a combination or summation or coalescing of goods to each person that was equally good.

It seems to me that precisely where Aquinas’ conception of God’s love goes wrong (which is the same place where his justification for Hell’s existence goes wrong) is that he does not conceive of a person as something of infinite value. He sees a person as a thing which can be objectified or destroyed or disregarded for the sake of something higher – some sort of order or gradation or symmetry.

Jacques Maritain, in his Aquinas lecture on the Problem of Evil, said the following.

“As for the universe of nature then, or the universe as a work of creative art we must say – according to the conception, rather pessimistic indeed but serenely so, which St. Thomas gives of nature – we must say that man and angel are parts of the created universe, as as parts of this universe it is normal, it is in the order of things that they are fallible; it is in the order of things that man be involved in sorrow, suffering and death, because by his very essence he is involved in nature which is corporeal, subjected to the change of production and destruction. But at the same time – and here we have the other aspect of the matter – man and angel are both persons, and in that light not parts but real wholes; for the person signifies in itself, wholeness… The sin of a man is the sin of a person, the disaster of a universe and a wounding of God (not as far as God’s being is concerned, but as concerns His love.) The suffering of a man is the suffering of a person, of a whole. Here he is considered no longer as part of the universe, but insofar as he is a person he is considered as a whole, a universe to himself; to suffer that pain as part of the universe in the perspective of nature or of the world taken as God’s work of art, does not do away with the fact that as far as the person is concerned it is an utter anomaly.”

I agree here with Maritain. I do not think that Aquinas dealt adequately with the value of a human person as such. I submit that if persons are wholes or things of infinite value, then Aquinas’ account of God’s love of persons is self-contradictory, as is his justification for the existence of Hell.

*(Thomas very infrequently calls humans “persons” – he is fond rather of the colder term “thing” or “man.”)

**As Aquinas says, “For in the order of effects, the better a thing is, so much the more is it prior in the intention of the agent. But the greatest good in things created is the perfection of the universe, consisting in the order of distinct things; for always the perfection of the whole has precedence of the perfection of the individual parts. Therefore, the diversity of things results from the original intention of the first agent, not from a diversity of merits. SCG II q 44

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