Aquinas on God’s Relation to the World And Evil – Fr. Robin Ryan CP

October 31, 2011

"The Temptation in the Wilderness" by John St John Long (1824)

In a famous and much-discussed article of the Summa Theologiae, Aquinas argues that when we speak of God as related to the world (as the Bible often does) we do so only within our limited understanding. Such a relation is not real in God. Aquinas says, “Now since God is altogether outside the order of creatures, since they are ordered to him but not he to them, it is clear that being related to God is a reality in creatures, but being related to creatures is not a reality in God, we say it about him because of the real relations in creatures” (Summa Theologiae 1, 13, 7). To illustrate this point Aquinas uses the example of the person standing on the right side of a pillar and then moving to the left of the pillar. The change in relation is not because of any alteration in the pillar but simply because the person has changed places. The relation is real in the person but not in the pillar. Just so, Aquinas concludes, “God’s temporal relations to creatures are in him only because of our way of thinking about him, but the opposite relations of creatures to him are realities in creatures” (Summa Theologiae 1, 13, 7, ad 4). This teaching, which was not unique to Aquinas in the thirteenth century, has evoked a reaction of puzzlement from many readers. Among other things, it seems to be foreign to the covenantal language of the scriptures. What does Aquinas mean when he argues that a relation to creatures is not real in God?

First of all, since relation is one of Aristotle’s nine accidents, Aquinas cannot attribute it to God, since there are no accidents in God. An accident is a way of being that is not attributed to a subject necessarily but contingently or incidentally.” Divine simplicity excludes the attribution of anything contingent or incidental to God. More important, Aquinas thinks that if you posited a real relation to creatures in God it would mean that you had made God dependent upon creatures and had reduced God to the ontological order of creatures. This principle should not be understood in a psychological sense, but in its metaphysical meaning. It simply means that God is outside of the whole order of created things. “He [God] gives creation its constancy, but the opposite is not true. The relation is necessarily asymmetrical.” Fergus Kerr connects this teaching on real relation with a concern that he thinks is central to the thinking of Aquinas, that is, his determination not to depict God as ontologically dependent on creatures for God’s fulfillment and happiness. Aquinas was passionately concerned “to stop Christians from thinking of God as being under some compulsion or obligation to create the world in order to complete his life.”’

Despite this teaching about God having no real relation to creatures, Aquinas insists that God knows and loves the world. We have already seen that in his teaching about divine immanence Aquinas asserts that God is intimately present to every creature. “At the heart of every creature is the source of esse, making it to be and to act.” He also maintains that God has complete knowledge of the world in that God knows other things through knowing Godself (Summa Theologiae 1, 14, 5). And God knows creatures not just in a general manner but in all of their particularity. “We must therefore say that he knows things other than himself in what is proper to each; not only in what they have in common as beings, but in the ways in which they are different from one another” (Summa Theologiae I, 14, 6).

God’s love for creatures, according to Aquinas, is also complete. Because God has will, and will for Aquinas means being drawn to the good that is perceived, God loves the creatures God has made. Aquinas calls love a “binding force” and attributes this even to God. Love joins the lover to the beloved (Summa Theologiae 1, 20, 2, ad 3). Aquinas distinguishes between love of desire and love of friendship. In love of desire one is drawn to the other for the fulfillment of one’s own needs. Love of friendship, however, is a benevolent love in which the lover is focused on the good of the beloved (Summa Theologiae I, 20, 2). It is this second kind of love that is superior and that is characteristic of God’s love for creatures. “To act from need is the mark only of an agent which is unfulfilled and made to be both acting on and acted upon. But this is not the case with God. He alone is supremely generous, because he does not act for his own benefit but simply to give of his goodness” (Summa Theologiae 1, 44, 4, ad 1).

Aquinas emphasizes that God loves all existing things, each of which, insofar as it is real, is good. “God therefore wills some good to each existing thing, and since loving is no other than willing good to someone, it is clear that God loves everything” (Summa Theologiae I, 20, 2). It is not just that God loves creatures because they are good. For Aquinas, God’s love creates the goodness in things. Torrell observes, “Like a sun that could make a flower bloom even without seed or water, so God’s love makes being arise from nothingness—at every instant.” Herbert McCabe draws the connection between Aquinas’ account of God’s love for creation and his teaching that God does not have a real relation to creatures:

The point about the lack of real relation on God’s part is simply that being creator adds nothing to God, all the difference it makes is all the difference to the creature…. But it makes no difference to God. ..because he gains nothing by creating. We could call it sheerly altruistic, except that the goodness God wills for his creatures is not a separate and distinct goodness from his own goodness. The essential point that Aquinas, surely rightly, wants to make is that creation fulfills no need of God’s. God has no needs.

This view of God and God’s relation to creatures influences Aquinas’ discussion of divine compassion. He maintains that mercy (misericordia) belongs properly to God and is the source of all God’s works.” For Aquinas God does not have “compassion” in the literal sense of “suffering with” another because God cannot suffer in Godself. In his discussion of divine mercy he writes, “Above all mercy is to be attributed to God, nevertheless in its effect, not in the affect of feeling” (Summa Theologiae 1, 21, 4). Convinced of divine immutability and impassibility, Aquinas does not want to attribute passion to God.

Thus God’s mercy does not entail a feeling of sadness about the misery of another because sadness, as a form of passion, does not befit God. God is merciful in that God acts out of love to dispel the misery that afflicts creatures. Aquinas argues that mercy “involves giving from one’s abundance to others, and, what is more, relieving their needs” (Summa Theologiae II-II, 30, 4). This is exactly what God does in being merciful toward us — giving from the fullness of God’s being in order to relieve the misery of beloved creatures, not out of any need of God’s own, but purely for our benefit.

Some thinkers argue that this view of divine mercy is deficient. They wish to ascribe compassion, in the sense of suffering with another, to God. They view this attribute as a perfection, not a deficiency, in God. Several modern scholars of Aquinas have defended his treatment of divine compassion and mercy. They argue that to speak of God as suffering with us would be to detract from the divine transcendence and to introduce need into God. This would make God’s love less than purely benevolent and, thus, less than perfect. They maintain that compassion is a form of finite love on the part of human beings who are limited in their efforts to dispel the affliction of others.

Michael Dodds asserts that a suffering God “will inevitably seek his own perfection and try to overcome his own deficiency. Only an entirely perfect being, subject to no defect and lacking in nothing, is able to love with a fully gratuitous love.”‘ William Hill, summarizing this topic, points out that “genuine compassion… characterizes love as finite, not love as such. The core reality of love as such is the affective union with another or others, [shown as] a willing of good to that person for the other’s own sake.” God in his omnipotent divine love ranges himself against all forms of evil and suffering on behalf of humanity. Because “God does not and cannot suffer in himself,” God can love unfathomably and altruistically — love that the New Testament calls agape.”

Evil in the Universe
Aquinas addresses the topic of evil in the First Part of the Summa Theologiae, immediately after treating the doctrine of creation. Here Aquinas gives only “a preliminary assessment of the problem as it stands for a Christian view of the universe” or “a grammar of thought to aid an approach to the mystery of sin and its resolution in the Passion of Christ, to be meditated on later at length.”” The fuller extent of Aquinas’ view of evil and the divine remedy for evil is found in his treatment of sin and grace.

Aquinas rejects the notion of an absolute principle of evil in the universe. He insists that “the sovereign good is the cause of the whole of being.” Being as such is the good gift of the Creator. There is no contrasting principle that is the source of evil (Summa Theologiae I, 49, 3). He adopts the Neoplatonic and Augustinian view that evil has no nature or essence. It is, rather, the privation of being; it is the absence of something that ought to be present for the integrity of a thing. “Like night from day you learn one opposite from the other. So you take good in order to grasp what evil means…. Consequently we are left to infer that it signifies a certain absence of a good” (Summa Theologiae 1, 48, 1).

The first and last word about the universe is goodness, since everything that exists has its source in the Creator who is supreme goodness. He asserts that “evil belongs neither to the integrity of the universe nor serves its development, except incidentally because of an accompanying good” (ST I, 48, 1, ad 5).

In this general discussion, Aquinas distinguishes between two kinds of evil: malum poenae and malurn culpae. These terms can be translated as “pain” and “fault” or as “evil suffered” and “evil done.” Each of these kinds of evil is the result of a privation of the good. Malum poenae is evil consisting of the loss of a form or part required for a thing’s integrity. It is what is sometimes called “natural evil” or “physical evil,” such as illness or the death of a creature. Aquinas views this loss of form in a creature as the result of something else achieving its good. One can say that God wills this kind of evil indirectly for the sake of the overall good of the universe:

God’s principal purpose in created things is clearly that form of good which consists in the order of the universe. This requires, as we have noticed, that there should be some things that can, and sometimes do fall away. So then, in causing the common good of the ordered universe, he causes loss in particular things as a consequence and, as it were, indirectly, according to the words, “The Lord kills and brings to life.” But we read also, “God has not made death,” and the meaning is that he does not will death for its own sake. (Summa Theologiae 1, 49, 2)

Aquinas assigns God an indirect role in the origin of natural evil. In creating a dynamic universe in which things flourish and then decay, God is willing the good of the universe as a whole. This is a universe that includes a rich diversity in grades of being. God creates “a world in which natural evil is always a matter of there being nothing but good derived from God.”  Aquinas speaks of God causing evil suffered in the lives of human beings for the sake either of correction or of justice. Thus, he likens God to a surgeon who amputates a limb in order to save a person’s body. Just so, “divine wisdom inflicts pain to prevent fault” (Summa Theologiae I, 48, 6). And he argues that God’s punishment of sinners contributes to the justice that characterizes the order of creation: The course of justice, which belongs to the universal order, requires that punishment be visited on sinners. On this count God is the author of the evil which is called penalty, but not of that which is fault” (Summa Theologiae I, 49, 2).

Evil done is equivalent to what is usually called “moral evil” or “fault.” It refers to people acting in a way that is wrong or failing to do what is right. Aquinas describes it as “the evil of withdrawal in activity that is due, either by its omission or by its malfunctioning according to manner and measure” (Summa Theologiae 1, 48, 5). Moral evil results from a person not acting in accord with right reason. “With voluntary causes, the deficient action proceeds from an actually deficient will, that is a will not submitted to its rule or measure” (Summa Theologiae I, 49, 1, ad 3). In distinction from evil suffered, with evil done there is no concomitant good.’° It is nothing but a case of privation or defect. Davies explains, “For him, moral evil is even more a privation than ‘evil suffered,’ for unlike ‘evil suffered’ it is not the obverse of some good.”

In committing moral evil, it is not only that I inflict harm on others; for Aquinas, I also harm myself. He argues that the quality of evil is stronger in evil done than in evil suffered since “a person becomes bad because of fault” (Summa Theologiae 1, 48, 6). When I act in a way that is morally wrong, I become diminished as a human being. I become less human.

Aquinas stresses that evil done arises completely from the human side. Its origin is not to be traced to God in any sense. “Hence the evil which lies in defective activity or which is caused by a defective agent does not flow from God as its cause” (Summa Theologiae 1, 49, 2). God can be termed the cause of moral evil only to the extent that God creates people, preserves them in being, and empowers them to act. But the failure in such action — the defect — derives solely from the creature, not the Creator. God permits such evil but does not directly cause it. O’Meara observes,

“Nothing is clearer than that before the principles of Aquinas’ theology God could not be directly involved in evil, for whatever is bad is the opposite of the supreme Good, the wisest Plan, the most loving Source.” Sin, an evil act that flows from a free, intelligent creature, is a deliberate bad action. Having bestowed individual freedom, “God permits men and women to commit their own personal sins.” Grace may try to dissuade from evil, but human will prevails. God has chosen not to interfere with this freedom: “Human responsibility perdures.”

While recognizing the presence and power of evil, Aquinas argues that evil can never destroy the good entirely. Likening goodness to the light from the sun, he compares evil to a series of screens set up between the sun and the atmosphere. Though the light would be indefinitely diminished, it would never be completely lost. He proceeds to state that, even if sin were piled on sin, weakening the soul’s capacity to receive grace, the readiness (habilitas) for grace would still be present because it follows from the very nature of the soul (Summa Theologiae 1, 48, 5).

Once again, for Aquinas the foundation of reality is goodness since existence is the good gift of a good Creator. He is convinced that “the first source of good things is the supreme and perfect good anticipating all goodness within itself” (Summa Theologiae 1, 49, 3). Therefore, “even though evil may indefinitely diminish good it can never entirely consume it, and so, while good remains, there cannot be anything wholly and completely evil” (Summa Theologiae I, 49, 3).

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  1. the last part of the last paragraph… really, it seems such a facile trivialization of evil and its effects. Perhaps St. Thomas, in some other section of the Summa Theologica, addresses the experienced realities of evil, which, in terms of meaningful realities to me as a Christian, far outweigh any “distanced” interest in whether or not anything can be wholly evil.

    A merely partial evil is quite capable of desecrating humanity and the rest of creation, without any need for totalization. Evil is bad enough as it is.

    I think of the Shoah; examples can be multiplied almost infinitely, of real harms directly attributable to existential evil, which the Catholic Church certainly recognizes as a genuine reality, not only or always human-based, but, in fact, existing as a independent force, roaming the world in search of souls to devour. This is not just metaphorical talk.

    I’m reminded of something Pope Benedict XVI said; that “God is how He shows himself to be.” Christ is said to have come to destroy the works of the devil; there’s no implication that those works need only be destroyed if they become “totally and completely evil.” There’s no evidence at all that all evils are of human origin, though a case might be made that all evil requires a human interaction. Unfortunately, that case will not fly, either; ask Fr. Amorth, the Catholic exorcist.

    I suppose, given the scope of the work, the Summa Theologica is a difficult text to give a “digest” version of; scooping out individual lines of text as evidences of position may actually constitute a sort of sophistic project.

    Josef Pieper seems to go to a much real-er place vis-a-vis Aquinas and his relationship to us.

    • Hi Ed,
      Thank you so much for your thoughtful reply. I always hesitate to address the topic of evil, especially from the perspective of a Catholic thinker like Aquinas, because it is always so open (rife) to misunderstanding. If you would like to see the theologians misunderstanding and falling over each other on St. Thomas’ comments on the nature of evil, I suggest you start with David Bentley Hart’s seminal essay on the occasion of the tsunami that devastated the South Asian coastline in December 2004.

      Follow that up with an exchange (once again derived from that same essay which by that time Hart had morphed into a book on the topic). That is all contained in a post titled “A Discussion On the Meaning of Suffering.”

      I think your trouble is rooted in a conflation of evil vs good and why St. Thomas insists on evil not existing in any entirety on its own but as something incomplete and a privation of goodness. His whole theology of good and evil holds together on that understanding. To say that nothing is completely evil is NOT, however, to pooh-pooh the reality or our experiences of it if we happen to be misfortunate enough to fall into its way. So I don’t think your conclusions above are especially fair.

      So there are two very separate issues there and one is not supposed to impinge on the other. In other words, you can’t take the one and draw any conclusions about the other. But read those two posts and you will see countless examples of people twisting Hart’s views.

      Thanks again.



      • Hi DJ,

        Pardon the delay in responding to your advisements on my comment. I realized quite quickly that, as you say, my “conclusions… are not especially fair.” You are right about that; I do apologize and thank you for responding to my knee-jerk reactions so graciously.

        The more I reflected on my energy about your initial post, especially in light of your recommended readings—where I found so many of my own concerns shared and addressed by others—and also especially as I worked through the “arguments” with Hart, something kept nagging at me in the background, something about the terms or presuppositions in play, like some fundamental recognition was at work but unnamed in the argument. It’s a sense I’ve often had when reading theology; the sense that the wrong question is being asked or answered.

        Thinking, then, about what you said about “people twisting Hart’s views,” and about theological argument in general, what I decided to do, as much as a penance for “corking-off” about your post as for any other certain reason, was to read Henri de Lubac’s “The Mystery of the Supernatural;” as thrilling an exposition of theological conflagration as I could hope to find.

        Having read a couple of other works by de Lubac—“Catholicism,” a marvelous and challenging hymn to genuine Christian unity, and “The Discovery of God,” which surprised me in how sympathetic he seemed to be toward people who find their religious bearings in life by questioning, I was left with a personal sense that I really like Henri de Lubac. I like the way he thinks, I like his writing style and sense of humor, but mostly I like that he is a fighter. He’s not afraid to do theology with a truncheon, if necessary, in going after ground that I found, on reading him, that I also hold, but thought no one else did, ground that seemed to have somehow disappeared off the charts of modern theology and Catholic consensus. De Lubac gave me hope; a kindred spirit, however vastly superior in intellect and learning.

        So, as I read “The Mystery of the Supernatural,” (which will take at least a couple of more goes to start to really take it in,) I was often struck by his mention that terribly misleading conclusions have been drawn from the work of Aquinas, because the commentators were answering a question, in St. Thomas’ name, that he had asked in a very different context, or had simply misread him in light of conclusions that they already had in mind. One sort of general remark that comes to mind of de Lubac with a night-stick in his hand is offered in a quote of “Père A. Motte, [who] has written: ‘One could dream of no more categorical reverse inflicted by commentators on the idea of the Master’.”

        As then-Père de Lubac lays out a centuries-long story of confusions and outright fabrications—by learned commentators of high repute—on the work of St. Thomas, and how those misrepresentations affected the misunderstandings of generations of inquirers, I began to see how reasonable a thing it could be that I was confused about my religion, and about what it’s really trying to tell me, and, incidentally, my reading list lengthened exponentially.

        But, as relates to your post, my comment, and your response, and seemingly to the hearts of the combatants in the Hart debacle, and to all of us whose hearts are stunned by catastrophe—how we can’t understand but are driven to try to understand—I hit a point toward the end of “The Mystery of the Supernatural” that seemed, finally, to capture what I feel about it all:

        People frequently reason as though all the mystery were on God’s side, and there was nothing in man that eludes the grasp of common experience or natural reasoning. Our whole nature should, in theory at least, be comprehensible to us, and we have the key to understanding all its manifestations. But this is somewhat illusory. I do not think that anyone who really thought about it could maintain anything so clearcut. …

        Man, the Fathers tell us, is “in the image of God,” not merely because of his intellect, his free will, his immortality, not even because of the power he has received to rule over nature: beyond and above all this, he is so ultimately because there is something incomprehensible in his depths. …

        “For my part,” adds Gregory of Nyssa, “I also ask: Who has known his own mind? Those who think themselves capable of grasping the nature of God would do well to consider whether they have looked into themselves…Our mind bears the imprint of the incomprehensible nature through the mystery that it is to itself.” …

        So great is the “deep” that answers to the deep of God himself.

        (209-210. Crossroad Publ..2011).

        Could it be enough, then, in terms of evil and “ our experiences of it if we happen to be misfortunate enough to fall into its way,” to recognize that we all have fallen into its way? That that reality is fundamental to our Catholic faith, and that this fact, though we hope for deliverance, is unacceptable to us? That somewhere in our own incomprehensible depths we know that it should not be so?

        For me, that does seem to be enough, for now. I don’t think I know any such thing “by nature,” though I wouldn’t say “God told me so,” either. The whole question, for me, about the “meaning” of suffering, is in the way of a wrong question. All we can do is respond to suffering, and that can hurt too much, but it’s still all we can do, and we have to do it. I realize that other inquiries and inquirerers may see that differently, but de Lubac quoting Jean Giorno in the introduction of Catholicism, says it all for me:

        “When I am beset by affliction, I cannot find peace in the blandishments of genius. My joy will not be lasting unless it is the joy of all. I will not pass through the battlefields with a rose in my hand.”

        I’m thinking of “De Malo,” as a first-foray into Aquinas, along with Gilson for support, and de Lubac to beat off the commentators. Any recommendations on particular editions? I’ve read that translators can wreak havoc, as well.

        And thanks for your blog. It is a real help.


      • Ed Feser’s Aquinas is the best volume for beginners I have encountered. Also Josef Pieper’s series of lectures in the late fifties (early sixties?) is timeless and invaluable. It was repackaged under the title Guide To Thomas Aquinas. The Ignatius site as an electronic download for it as well which, come to think of it, I’m sure Amazon does too.

        And you are spot on for the wrong question being asked about suffering. There’s a great deal of information one can gain from the various theocidies theologists and philosophers offer on the topic of suffering but the best answer on how we respond to it as Catholics is I think here.

        Thank you for your post: deeply thoughtful, well written, you’ve given me a lot.


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