In Praise of Thomas
July 18, 2022

Gotta love ol’ Tommaso d’Aquino, a.k.a. Thomas Aquinas. The margins of my various copies of his works are full of notes of disagreement and question marks, but still: His toss-off arguments are usually deeper than the sustained arguments of lesser theologians. Here’s a pot pourri from the early part of the Summa theologiae (I, 2-11).

1. God is good, but He’s not the only good. Things are called good “by reference to the first thing,” that is, to God, since they “participate and resemble it, even if distantly and deficiently.”

Created goodness consists in the fact that creation mirrors the goodness of the Creator, “the pattern, source, and goal of all goodness” (exemplari, effective et finali). And this resemblance isn’t something added to the thing. Resemblance to God’s goodness “is inherent in the thing itself, belonging to it as a form” (I, 6, 4).

Form is what determines a thing as the thing it is. The “form of man” is what shapes the matter of me into a man. We might say that, for Thomas, the deepest reality of everything created thing is its symbolic character, its reflection of God.

Thomas was reading Through New Eyes shortly before he wrote that section, I suspect.

2. Speaking of God’s infinitude (I, 7, 2), Thomas recognizes that created things also have their forms of infinitude. They are infinite in this or that respect, though not, as God is, in every respect.

How are created things infinite? In created things, form determines and gives shape to matter; in that respect, created things are limited. Prime matter informed by the form of wood is wood and not metal.

Yet, once wood exists, it has potential to take on “many accidental forms” and thus can, in a certain sense, be called infinite: “Wood . . . limited by its form, is yet in a certain respect unlimited (infinitum secundum quid) inasmuch as it is capable of an unlimited number of shapes.”

You can use wood to make beds, bureaus, doors, chairs, chifferobes, sofas, walls, bookshelves, window frames and frames for painting, etc. etc. Since the supply of wood isn’t exhausted, since earth keeps giving us new wood, we can keep making individual beds, bureaus, doors, etc. till kingdom come, and perhaps afterwards.

Limited by its form, wood has powers that can be put to infinite uses. So do other created things. We're surrounded by a store of infinite treasures, gifts of the infinite God.

3. Is God in everything (I, 8, 3)? Yes, Thomas says, and offers a neat triperspectival explanation, borrowed from Gregory the Great: “God exists in everything by power inasmuch as everything is subject to his power, by presence inasmuch as everything is naked and open to his gaze, and by substance inasmuch as he exists in everything causing their existence.”

He was reading John Frame before writing that.

Earlier (I, 8, 1), he makes the point that God is the cause of every creature’s existence; and since the existence of a thing (or its “act of existence”) is more interior to the thing than any other feature, so God as the cause of existence “must exist and exist intimately (intime) in everything.”

God isn’t simply, as Augustine said, nearer to us than we are to ourselves. He’s nearer to everything than the thing is to itself. What’s that about Thomistic extrinicism?

To the objection that God isn’t near everyone but only near those who receive grace, Thomas answers, “Grace is the only perfection added to the substance of things which makes God exist in them as a known and loved object; grace alone then makes God exist in things in a unique way.”

Grace doesn’t enter godless space; grace enters the inner core of a person, but God is always already necessarily present in that very core. There is no Godless, Godforsaken space anywhere in creation, and thus no “pure nature.” What’s that you were saying about Thomistic nature-grace dualism?

4. Relatedly, Thomas asks whether God is in every place (I, 8, 2). Yes, by way of power: “he is in every place giving it existence and the power to be a place, just as he is in all things giving them existence, power and activity.”

I confess: I never thought places needed divine power to be places, but of course they do. The apparently empty expanse in which we live and move, the empty extension that gives us the freedom to move without crashing into other things, is a gift of God, maintained by His power.

Further, the existence of place is a sign of God’s humility (Thomas doesn’t use this word). He doesn’t fill all things as a body does, for bodies don’t “suffer” (compatitur) other bodies to occupy space with them. God does suffer other things to occupy the same place with Him: “God’s presence in a place does not exclude the presence there of other things.”

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