Thomas on creation a skirmish with Gunton

Colin Gunton, in an extensive and influential theological output, has consistently offered a reading of Thomas on creation, exemplary of a very common and hostile theological evaluation, which it is an important purpose of this essay to contest. It therefore seems not to be in a merely ad hominem spirit to examine this reading in some detail. For example, in one of his last works,8 Gunton maintains that Thomas's account of creation is in error theologically, or is at least dangerously ambiguous, since it contains elements which others identify as onto-theological, though Gunton himself makes no use of this term. Moreover, he argues, here agreeing in principle with the Radical Orthodox view of the logical connections of thoughts (though not of course as a reading of Thomas), that this is demonstrated by his partiality for a natural theology.

Gunton writes of the 'Babylonian captivity' in which the doctrine of creation was confined by medieval theologians, but especially by Thomas (Gunton, p. 99); by which he appears to mean that Thomas fell into the error of 'natural theology'. This he is said to have done by offering a purely philosophical account of creation ex nihilo which owed nothing, or at least too little, to the explicitly trinitarian creationism of the great Greek patristic theological traditions as found, for example, in Athanasius and Basil. They at least, Gunton says, understood the act of creating as an act of the free personal agency of the second person of the Trinity and, on that account, they could deflect the tendencies inherent in so many of the pagan Greek Neoplatonic sources, on which much early Christian theology depended, of an 'emanationist', 'monist' and 'necessitarian' doctrine of creation. Even so, he says, this unambiguously trinitarian creationism of the East 'was never secure enough in the West

8 Colin Gunton, The Triune Creator: A Historical and Systematic Study, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1998. References hereafter to 'Gunton' in the text. Sadly, Colin Gunton has died since the completion of this discussion of his critique of Thomas.

to prevent outbreaks of virtual pantheism, so that some commentators [including, he adds, himself] have even noticed pantheist logic in the thought of Thomas Aquinas'. He explains in a remarkably expansive gesture of historical generalisation that 'the doctrine of the Creator God has always contained seeds of a kind of continuity between God and the world, with the result that a mind divided between Greek and Hebrew remains to this day' (ibid.).

Those 'seeds ofcontinuity' between God and the world, Gunton thinks, flourish in the soil of the doctrines of the hierarchy of being and of analogy, because in those residual elements of a Platonist ontology of scales of'reality', which remained unexpelled by his Aristotelianism from Thomas's thought, there remains necessarily connected with them the notion that there is some common scale extending from matter to God. Hence, he sees the doctrine of analogy in Thomas as a device of logic and metaphysics governing the stretch of language along the extent of that scale, thus permitting the description of God 'by analogy' from the things of creation. Although, as Gunton concedes, Thomas has an account of creation ex nihilo - a doctrine of radical discontinuity between God and creation which ought, of course, to subvert any Platonist tendencies to 'emana-tionism' - the Platonist and emanationist elements in Thomas's thought countervail with force sufficient to override those of discontinuity.

Gunton finds it therefore unsurprising that there are detectable in numerous structural features of Thomas's account of creation the 'symptoms' of this Platonist thinking, though some of these supposititious symptoms may very well surprise the reader familiar with Thomas's writ-ings.9 Such will not have anticipated being told that a symptom of this Platonist emanationism consists in Thomas's rejection of Peter Lombard's opinion that the act of creation can be 'delegated' to creatures (Gunton, p. 100). For in his famous Sentences Peter had considered the case against God's having communicated to human ministers the power of inner regeneration which is baptism, that, if God were able to communicate that power to creatures, then it would follow that God could communicate to creatures the power to create ex nihilo. But that is impossible,

9 Quite apart from the fact that Thomas explicitly affirms the theological opinions about creation and the Trinity which Gunton denies him: see, for example, ST 1a q45 a6 corp., where, having explained that creation belongs to God 'in respect of his esse' (secundum suum esse), which is common to all three Persons, he adds, 'and the Father has caused the creature through his Word, which is the Son; and through his Love, which is the Holy Spirit. On this account, it is the processions of the Persons which are the source-principles of the production of creatures in so far as they include the essential attributes of knowledge and will' - 'et Deus Pater operatus est creaturam per suum Verbum, quod est Filius; et per suum Amorem, qui est Spiritus Sanctus. Et secundum hoc processiones Personarum sunt rationes productionis creaturarum, inquantum includant essentialia attributa, quae sunt scientia et voluntas'.

the argument goes, for God can give to no one the power to be what he is, and since he cannot share his power of creation ex nihilo he cannot share his power of baptismal re-creation. Peter's response is to retain the objection's connection between the delegation of baptismal re-creation and creation ex nihilo, but to turn the argument on its head: as instrumental causes, humans can baptise. But if they can baptise as instrumental causes, then they can create as instrumental causes. For 'God can create things through another, not through another as their author, but by a ministry, with which and in which he works; just as in our good deeds both he and we act, not he alone, nor we alone, but he with us and in us'.10 And vice versa: if God can give creatures the instrumental power to create, then God can on the same ground communicate the power to baptise.

One might have supposed that Peter's view that creation can be thus ministerially 'delegated' is precisely what one would have expected of a Christian theologian who is overimpressed by Neoplatonist emanation-ism, and that the rejection of Peter's view, such as is found in Thomas, would indicate something less than enthusiasm for that 'emanationism'. At any rate it is Thomas's explicitly stated view that, contrary to Gunton's expectations of him, to allow the possibility of creation's being 'delegated' is necessarily 'emanationist'. The reason, Thomas says, that creation ex nihilo cannot be effected even instrumentally by any mediate cause is that mediations are processes enacted upon pre-existing matter, and, ex hypothesi, nothing is presupposed to creation ex nihilo. It could hardly be clearer from the texts of Thomas's case against Peter's view of 'delegated' or 'instrumental' creation that the primary purpose of Thomas's discussion is precisely to resist Peter's 'emanationist' tendencies - and this is clear enough even in his own Scriptum on Peter's Sentences, where Thomas is willing to concede what he can to Peter's view,11 never mind in the much later Summa Theologiae, where he takes no hostages at all on

10 'Posset Deus per aliquem creare aliqua, non per eum tamquam auctorem, sed per ministrum cum quo et in quo operaretur: sicut in bonis operibus nostris ipse operatur et nos, non ipse tantum, nec nos tantum, sed ipse nobiscum et in nobis.' Petri Lombardi IV Libri Sententiarum IV d1.

11 'Since it pertains to the meaning of creation that there be nothing pre-existing, at least in the order of nature . . . taken on the part of the Creator, that action is called creation which is not founded on the action of some preceding cause. In this way it is the action of the primary cause alone, because all action of the secondary cause is founded on the action of the primary cause. Hence, just as it cannot be given to any creature that it should be the primary cause, so it cannot be given to it that it should be the Creator.' Super Libros Sententiarum Petri Lombardi Scriptum 2d1q1a3 corp., ed. P. Mandonnet and M. F. Voos, Paris: Lethielleux, 1929-47. Translation by Steven E. Baldner and William E. Carroll, in Aquinas on Creation, Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1997, p. 80.

the matter.12 So it is difficult to know how Gunton can have understood a 'delegated' conception of creation otherwise than as entailing the very emanationism which he accuses Thomas of failing to avoid by rejecting it. For Thomas's part, it is crucial to resist the influence of that Platonis-ing tendency of 'hierarchicalist continuities' which could not be squared with an adequate understanding of the radical discontinuities between God and creation implied by creation ex nihilo. As Thomas says, the relation of creating can only be unmediated; to fail to see this is to fail to understand the meaning of the expression 'out of nothing'.

Next, Gunton notes Thomas's denial that, in creating the universe, God acts to achieve a purpose, and suggests that this amounts to the denial that God's creative act is free (Gunton, p. 101). It would seem to be Gunton's view that only acts calculated as means to achieve some end can be said to be free acts, though he nowhere tells us why we should be expected to accept this inference, since it is clearly not true even of human beings that only such calculative acts are free acts - unless one wished for some reason to rule out as unfree all acts of simple enjoyment or of aesthetic delight, and all acts of simple, uncalculating love - and one is at a loss to know what reason there could possibly be for doing so. On the contrary, it is just such acts which, for Thomas, are maximally free and nearest in character to the freedom of the divine creativity. It would be absurd, he says, to envisage the Creator God entertaining goals and purposes of maximum advantage to himself (acting propter suam util-itatem), and then calculating how best to achieve his ends. God, he says, in all he does acts out of pure goodness, by an act of will unconstrained by the necessities imposed either by nature13 or by given ends upon the

12 'The Master (of the Sentences) says that God can communicate the power of creating to a creature so as to create instrumentally, not on its own account. But this cannot be so . . . nothing can act in a dispositive and instrumental manner to this effect (of creating), for there is nothing presupposed to the creating to be "disposed" by the action of an instrumental cause.' - 'Magister [Sententiarum] dicit quod Deus potest creaturae communicare potentiam creandi ut creet per ministerium, non propria auctoritate. Sed hoc esse non potest . . . non potest aliquid operari dispositive et instrumentaliter ad hunc effectum, cum creatio non sit ex aliquo praesupposito, quod possit disponi per actionem instrumentalis agentis.' ST 1a q45 a5 corp.

13 'God must love his own goodness, but from this it does not follow necessarily that creatures must exist to express it, since God's goodness is perfect without that. So the coming to be of creatures, though it finds its first reason in God's goodness, nevertheless depends upon a simple act of God's will.' - 'Sic igitur quod Deus suam bonitatem amet, hoc necessarium est: sed hoc non necessario sequitur, quod per creaturas repraesentatur, cum sine hoc divina bonitas sit perfecta. Unde quod creaturae in esse producantur, etsi ex ratione divinae bonitatis originem habeat, tamen ex simplici Dei voluntate dependet.' Summa contra Gentiles 3.97, Opera Omnia XIV, Leonine edn, Rome, 1926. Aquinas: Selected Philosophical Writings, trans. Timothy McDermott, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993, p. 274 (hereafter cited as 'McDermott').

availability of the means.14 In any case and in principle, God cannot be construed as having to deliberate about whether or what to create. For deliberation is a kind of change or process which cannot be envisaged in God, because a process takes time, and time is itself a creature. There cannot be, he says, here echoing Augustine's famous discussion in Confessions book 11, any time 'before' creation, but only after: hence there can be no deliberation, which, in the nature of the case, has to precede action.15

It follows that the only way we have of characterising the divine creative act is as the utterly free act of an unconstrained will; hence, Thomas says, et ille est maxime liberalis, which we might translate as: '[God's] generosity is absolutely free-handed.'16 And once again, for Thomas, this absolute freedom of the divine creative causality follows directly and only from the conception of creation as being out of nothing. For, since it is 'out of nothing', absolutely nothing is presupposed to the act of creating which could constrain the choice to create. Which is why one can say that it is out of pure goodness that God creates; and the only other way of saying the same that I, or Thomas, can think of, is to say that God creates out of the pure love and joy of doing so - that is to say, in a paradigmatically free way, maxime liberalis.

Next, Gunton says that symptoms of hierarchical emanationism are exhibited by the fact that, for Thomas, creation is a relation of causality, conceived of not as a temporal relation between cause and effect, but as a vertical one of dependence (Gunton, p. 99). Ignoring as we may the much vexed philosophical question of whether causal relations have to be relations of temporal sequence, we cannot ignore the fact that even had Thomas supposed that they ordinarily are temporally bound,17 he would

14 'For all those agents which act for an end beyond their will, their will is guided by that end. Hence [such a will] wills to act at some times and not at others, according to those things that help or impede attaining the end. The will of God, however, did not give being to the universe for the sake of some end existing beyond his own will, just as He does not cause motion for some other end . . . because the more noble thing does not act for the sake of something less than itself. Therefore, the fact that God does not always cause an effect is not due to something persuading Him to act or preventing Him, but to the determination of His own will, which acts from a wisdom which is beyond our understanding.' Scriptum 2d1 q1 a5ad12 (Baldner and Carroll, Aquinas on Creation, p. 101).

15 Expositio in OctosLibrosPhysicorum Aristotelis 8.2, 990, ed. P. M. Maggiolo, Turin: Mari-etti, 1965.

16 'He alone is absolutely free-handed, because he does not act on consideration of some usefulness to himself, but out of his very goodness alone.' - 'Ipse solus est maxime liberalis: quia non agit propter suam utilitatem, sed solum propter suam bonitatem.' ST 1a q44 a4 ad1.

17 Thomas thinks that in most cases created causal sequences are temporarily bound, but not in all: 'as soon as there is light there is illumination', as Baldner and Carroll put it.

even then have been forced to conclude as he anyway does, namely that the sense in which God can be said to be the 'cause' of the universe cannot be any ordinary one: for causes ordinarily are processes whereby one thing acts on something else so as to produce an effect in it. Now creation, he says again, cannot be a 'process'; for processes take place in time. And since there is no time before creation, nothing can be said to 'happen' by way of a process of creative causality. In any case, thinking as he does of divine creative causality on an analogy with efficient causal dependence, the same conclusion follows. For created causality is effected in something given, out of which an effect is produced. 'Nothing', however, is given to the creative activity. Nor again should we be misled by the 'out of nothing' into supposing that 'nothing' is a sort of given, as if the 'nothing' in 'nothing is presupposed' named a curious sort of negative 'something presupposed'. The negation in ex nihilo does not function to designate a soupy undifferentiated blob of 'nothingness' out of which the universe is created; as Thomas observes, the negation in ex nihilo qualifies the 'ex', so as to mean: 'there is no "out of" here'.18 Hence, if there are reasons for describing the divine creative activity as 'causal' - and it is quite another matter why Thomas thinks that there are19 - there are equal reasons for denying that this causality can be construed in any ordinary sense.20 But then, Gunton appears to know nothing of the strictures Thomas imposed

So there are created analogies for the divine creative act. Thomas says: 'No cause that instantaneously produces its effect precedes its effect necessarily in duration. But God is a cause that produces His effect, not through motion, but instantaneously. Therefore, it is not necessary that he precede his effect in duration.' De aeternitate mundi contra murmurantes, Opera Omnia, Opuscula I, Rome: 1882, (Baldner and Carroll, Aquinas on Creation, p. 116).

18 'If the negation includes the preposition ex, then succession is denied, and the meaning is "made out of nothing", that is "not made out of anything" - just as to say, "he spoke of nothing" is to say that he did not speak of anything.' - 'Si . . . negatio includat praepositionem [ex], tunc ordo negatur, et est sensus, fit ex nihilo, id est, nonfit ex aliquo; sicut si dicatur, iste loquitur de nihilo, quia non loquitur de aliquo.' ST 1a q45 a1 ad3. See also DePotentia, q3 a1 ad7 (McDermott, pp. 255-6).

19 See pp. 248-54 below.

20 Part of the problem here is in any case with our notions of cause 'in any ordinary sense'. For since Hume it has become common to think of causes simply as events preceding other events ('effects') and linked by some statement of regularity. There is, in Thomas, a quite different conception of causality 'in the ordinary sense' as modelled on 'agent causation', roughly, as Kerr explains, 'on an analogy with a person's own experience of bringing things about' (Kerr, After Aquinas, p. 46). I do not know of my actions of bringing something about by observing the regularity connecting my action with the event it causes; I know of my causality 'without observation', just as (normally) I know where my head is 'without observation'. For sure, any reading of Thomas on the divine causality which construes God's actions as antecedent events linked to divine effects on some statement of regular succession is bound to construe God's creative causality in an entirely idolatrous fashion.

on theology by the via negativa - or, on the evidence of this account, of how Thomas thought the logic of analogy works.

Next, Gunton traces out, as one of the conclusions he expects to be able to draw from an excessively Platonist philosophical doctrine of creation, a corresponding underrating of the autonomy of the creature (Gunton, pp. 101-2). Of course, from the misreadings of Thomas already described, it is easy to see why Gunton would conclude that Thomas's account 'fails ... to give the creature space to be' as a creature. Suppose you maintain, as 'Proclan' forms of Neoplatonism do, that creation issues by necessity out of the divine nature; suppose you think that this creation issues forth, not ex nihilo, but, as it were, ex Deo, like a sort of laval flow progressively hardening into colder and more massy solidities as it descends further down the hierarchy of beings from the pure liquid fire of the divine source; suppose, then, that on such account, the energy and drive of your theology is all in the direction of continuities between God and creation, these continuities justifying a return direction of flow by which language, ascending upon the back of these continuities, can by analogy reach up to God; then, on these suppositions you might very well conclude that creation has not been given 'space to be' created. For creatures, on this account, will look much more like bits of degraded divinity than independently existing creatures which stand on their own account in their own relation to 'nothing'. What is more, if somehow you have managed to persuade yourself that Thomas's doctrine of creation is, in spite of some contraindications (as Gunton concedes), distorted by the influence of such thoughts and inferences, you might expect to find in Thomas some depreciation of 'the creature's value as creature'; for, as Gunton thinks, his residual Platonism entails 'a denial that creation puts a reality into a creature except as a relation', and this 'detract[s] from the proper substantiality of the creature'.21

This, however, is to miss the point of what Thomas means and wholly ignores the proper subtlety of his thought. For Thomas, it is precisely our freedom and autonomy as creatures which are 'given' to us by that relation of dependence; we are most self-subsistent in that dependence, and the more self-subsistent the more that relationship is one of dependence. Nor

21 Gunton, Triune Creator, p. 101. Thomas does indeed say, in Summa Theologiae la q45 a3 adl, that 'the relation of God to creatures is not real in God, but only a relation of reason. But the relation of creatures to God is a real relation' - 'relatio in Deo ad creaturam non est realis, sed secundum rationem tantum. Relatio vero creaturae ad Deum est relatio realis.' And in De Potentia q3 a3 corp. he says: 'creation is really nothing other than a relatedness to God consequent upon starting to be'. Quaestiones Disputatae de Potentia, q3 a3 corp., Turin: Marietti, 1953 (McDermott, p. 261).

is there any unresolvable paradox in this: by our participation in God's own being, we participate in, and come to possess for ourselves, that which belongs to the divine nature. For Thomas, we are, in a created way, all that God is as uncreated. Hence, even if, as Thomas says, our goodness as creatures is possessed by us only in virtue of the divine uncreated goodness, still, that created goodness is something inherent in us, and is properly ours, and we can name it so.22 Even if our created causality depends on the divine causality for its effectiveness, still we are causes in our own right, for creatures truly cause.23 And this is, above all, true of that which is most characteristic of the divine nature, which is self-subsistence. Precisely because we participate as creatures in all that the Creator is, we possess for ourselves all that we possess in our own measure of subsistence. As Thomas says, 'God's goodness ... in sharing itself out causes things not only to resemble him in existing but also to resemble him in being active.'24 Therefore, we are most ourselves - given the 'space to be' - precisely in that relation of created dependence.

Now if it were not for the fact that these misreadings of Thomas were driven by a more serious, more general and more plausible critique of Thomas's theology, it would not be to our purpose - easy as it is - to rebut them. But there is something more plausible in Gunton's critique, and it is a suspicion of Thomas's general theological strategy, of offering what appears to be a purely philosophical doctrine of God and of creation as some sort of prolegomenon to a more properly theological reflection on the faith of Christians.

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