Mediaeval Views of Creation: St

Mediaeval Views of Creation: St. Albert, St. Bonaventure, and St. Thomas
Steven Baldner, St. Francis Xavier University
Given at Gonzaga University, 17 April 2007
Today I am going to compare the positions of three contemporaries who shared much in
common. They were all members of the new mendicant orders, they shared a
methodology that we today can call “scholastic”, they shared a philosophical outlook that
was broadly Aristotelian (each would have considered Aristotle to have been the best of
philosophers), they all received their intellectual formation from the same university and
at about the same time, and they were friends. It is true, of course, that Bonaventure was
a Franciscan, while Albert and Thomas were Dominicans, and it is also true that
Bonaventure was more influenced by Augustine than were Albert and Thomas.
Nevertheless, all three would have recognized that the fundamental terms and categories
in philosophy have been given definitively by Aristotle, and on our topic today, creation
and the temporal beginning of the world, they all thought that the supreme philosophical
authority was Aristotle. Should I also mention that all three belong to two rather
exclusive clubs? They were recognized by the Church to have lived lives of sanctity,
and, even more exclusive, they were recognized to be Doctors of the Church.
In spite of these similarities, and of others that I shall have occasion to mention,
my purpose in this lecture is to show how radically different was the position of Thomas
Aquinas from that of his Dominican mentor or that of his Franciscan colleague. Standing
apart from Albert and Bonaventure, and indeed apart from most scholastic thinkers, and
from just about everyone in the history of philosophy, Thomas held that the creation of
the world out of nothing was philosophically demonstrable and that in fact it had been
philosophically demonstrated by none other than Aristotle himself.1 By contrast, both
Bonaventure and Albert, and most in the great traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and
Islam, have regarded the doctrine of creation as exclusively theological.
Let us examine the teaching of Bonaventure, Albert, and Thomas by considering
two topics: first, the problem of the temporal beginning of the world and, second, the
problem of the very meaning of creation out of nothing.
The Temporal Beginning of the World
It is, of course, well known that the traditional meaning of the revealed doctrine of
creation is that God’s act of creation brought about a radical beginning to all creatures,
both material and spiritual. Time itself had a beginning “in the beginning”, and before
the instant of the creative act of God, there was absolutely nothing in existence other than
God Himself. Those of us who have grown up with Christian teaching tend to take this
tenet of faith as though it were something obvious, but it does not reflect necessarily the
way in which the mind would naturally think about the universe and its origins. The
ancient Greek philosophers did not think about the origins of the universe in this way,
and Aristotle famously, or infamously, argued that the entire universe was always in
existence. There are only two possibilities: either the universe in some form always
existed or it had a radical beginning. Both alternatives are, as Kant pointed out,
unimaginable and an affront to the intellect, but it might be the case that thinking of an
eternal past existence, rather than an absolute and abrupt beginning, is the mind’s default
See, for example, St. Thomas Aquinas, In 2 Sent., d. 1, q. 1, a. 5, ad 1 in contrarium; De potential Dei, q.
3, a. 5, Resp.; In 8 Physic., lec. 2, n. 5 (251a18-28); In 2 Metaph., lec. 2, n. 7 (993b27-30); De substantiis
separatis, c. 9.
The problem faced by the 13th century scholastic theologians was that of
reconciling the forceful teaching of Aristotle, which insisted on this default position, with
the recently defined Christian dogma, that the universe had a radical temporal beginning.
On this topic, Bonaventure, Albert, and Thomas were in almost complete agreement: on
the one hand, they rejected any claim that Aristotle or anybody had demonstrated the
eternity of the world and, on the other, they did not think that philosophical reason could
demonstrate the opposing position, that the world had a temporal beginning. Let us see
why they all thought that philosophical reason was unable by itself to settle the question
of the temporal origin of the universe.
Bonaventure, Albert, and Thomas all recognized that arguments that purport to
prove the eternity of the world, and derive from Aristotle, are of three different kinds. A
first kind of argument concerns the heavenly bodies or the existence of angels.2 If there
are now in existence some creatures that are incorruptible, so the argument goes, then
these creatures have the potency to exist always. But, whatever has the potency to exist
always in the future must always have had this potency, for what cannot be corrupted
cannot also be generated. Hence, at least some creatures must exist eternally, in the past
and in the future. Second, there are arguments from the nature of time or of motion.
Time is a continuous, flowing reality. The present moment is a kind of connector, always
connecting the past with the future. If time ever exists, then it must always exist, for any
instant of time must connect the past with the future. There must always, therefore, have
been a past to be connected to the future. Similarly, motion is only possible now because
something has moved in the past. We are all in this room because we walked into the
Examples of all three arguments can be found in the Commentary on the Sentences, that each of our
authors composed. St. Bonaventure, In 2 Sent., d. 1, p. 1, a. 1, q. 2.; St. Albert, In 2 Sent., d. 1, B, a. 10; St.
Thomas, In 2 Sent., d. 1, q. 1, a. 5.
room, but we only did so because some prior event took place, such as our reading the
notice advertising this lecture. But that notice could be read only because someone wrote
it before we could read it, and so on. Hence every present motion implies a previous
motion, and the existence of a previous motion always implies the eternal existence in the
past. Third, there are arguments based on the nature of God as the first cause of creation.
God Himself is eternally immutable: He does not change his mind, get new ideas, or go
from a state of inactivity to a state of activity. If God causes anything, He must cause it
eternally and unchangingly. Since God does cause the world in creating it, He must
necessarily create it eternally.
Bonaventure, Albert, and Thomas reject these arguments, and for similar reasons.
The argument about incorruptible creatures might at first strike us as quaint, because it
seems to depend upon a cosmology that we reject, for we do not today regard any of the
planets or stars as incorruptible beings, but we might think that matter itself – prime
matter – is incorruptible, and Christians would accept the incorruptibility of angels or of
the human soul. The point about this argument is that it depends upon the claim that
some creature has an incorruptible nature. The response to this argument is that the
power or potency for incorruptibility is a power or potency about the future. It does not
tell us about the past existence of any creature, but only that it will continue to exist
forever in the future. It is true that an incorruptible creature could not be generated by
natural means, but that fact does not mean that it could not have been created to have had
a temporal beginning. No creaturely, generative process could have brought them into
being, but the act of creation by God is not such a process at all.
The argument about time or motion, according to our three thinkers, is an
argument that begs the question. It is true that the present moment connects the past to
the future, but it is only true that the present moment always does this if one makes the
assumption that the world is eternal in the past – the very thing, of course, that we are
trying to prove. If one does not assume that the world is eternal in the past, then it simply
is not true that every present moment connects a past with the future, for the very first
instant of time would be the first instant of a future but not the last instant of any past.
Similarly, the argument about motion also begs the question. Every motion is preceded
by a prior motion, only if one makes the assumption that the world in which motions
occur has always existed. If, however, one assumes that the world had an absolute
temporal beginning, then some motions would exist that were not preceded by other
The third argument is the most subtle of the three. It is, of course, impossible to
imagine God’s creative act without imagining some sort of change in God. Bonaventure,
Albert, and Thomas, however, point out two things about this argument. First, it
presupposes a false conception of God as a necessarily acting being: whatever God does
He must necessarily and eternally do. This is false, however, because God operates
freely, from his will that is not bound by any necessity. Second, this argument confuses
the way in which a material being brings about some new event with the way in which
God operates. When we cause something that is new, we can only do so by changing in
some way: we were not acting but have now begun to act. In us, this is necessarily a
change. God, however, who is not a material being does not operate by going from some
potential condition to an actual condition; He is pure act, and as such does not bring
about any change in Himself whenever He acts. If He has determined from all eternity
that He will cause something to begin to be, such a determination of his will does not
imply any change in God Himself.
Aristotle’s philosophy was taken to be the best that human reason and science
could do to understand the world in which we live. It came as a shock to theologians to
learn that this authority regarded the world as necessarily eternal in the past. But it was a
shock that Bonaventure, Albert, and Thomas thought could be easily withstood with
some careful philosophical reasoning.
There were also seriously advanced arguments on the other side, arguments that
derive ultimately from the Kalam theologians. These arguments purported to prove that
an eternal past was impossible and that, therefore the world must have had a temporal
beginning. Of course, if you can prove that the world had an absolute temporal
beginning, you are also thereby proving that some cause must have produced the world.
Since such a cause could only have been God, the arguments, if sound, would be
powerful proofs for the existence of God. But, in fact, neither Bonaventure, nor Albert,
nor Thomas regarded these arguments as very effective.
There are a number of different kinds of arguments given to show that the world
must have had a temporal beginning, but let us look at only two of them, recognizing that
the first of the two has an important variant.3 The first argument is founded on the
premise that an actual infinity in physical, material, or natural things is impossible. It
may be a useful device to speak, mathematically, about sets containing an infinite number
of members or of lines or planes that are infinite in extension, but in the real, physical
world nothing is or can be infinite, either in number or in magnitude. If the universe had
These arguments can be found in the same texts cited in note 2.
existed eternally in the past, so the argument goes, the past itself would be something that
is actually infinite. There would be an infinite number of past days, an infinite number of
generations of plant or animal species, and an infinite number of any series of physical
events. But such a series could not be counted, added to, or traversed. Hence, the
universe could not have existed eternally in the past.
There is, of course, an intuitive appeal to such an argument. We cannot imagine,
count, or order an infinite series of anything, and if we suppose that the universe was
always in existence in the past, we must grant that such a past could not be counted or
ordered. Since we can only count or order that which is finite, an eternally existent
universe would be one that in principle was not amenable to chronological analysis. But
such a conclusion is hard to admit, for it means that the past was as a whole unknowable.
The conclusion is hard to admit, but does it involve some sort of contradiction or
philosophical impossibility? According to Bonaventure, Albert, and Thomas, the answer
is “no”: there is nothing contradictory about admitting that the universe was always in
existence. The reason for this has to do with the nature of time. Time is the number that
we apply to motion, and motion is a peculiar sort of actuality, for it is the actuality of that
which is in potency while it is in potency. This means that the only reality of motion, and
hence of time, is what is presently occurring: the past is no longer actual and the future is
not yet actual. This in turn means that neither the past as such nor the future as such can
be said to be actually anything, and if neither is actually anything, then neither can be an
actually infinite something. More simply put, the past, even if it has always existed,
cannot be an actual infinity for the simple reason that the past is not an actual entity.
Versions of the argument we are examining are sometimes expressed with a
graphic examples. If your were transported to a day infinitely in the past, for example,
you could not traverse the infinite number of days in order to arrive in the present; or, if
you were an eternally existing angel, you could not count all of the days that would have
existed. But images such as these involve fallacies. If it is impossible to traverse an
infinite series of days, then it is impossible to imagine going back to a day infinitely in
the past in order to suppose that we could not arrive in the present! And, if it is true that
no finite creature could count an infinite number of events, then it would be true that no
angel could remember or count all of past time. But it is fallacious to suppose an
uncountable series, and then to wonder why an angel cannot count it.
Bonaventure is often thought to have held that arguments of this first sort are
sound. Let me say, without pausing more, that there is no evidence for this claim.4 I
would be happy, if you like, to discuss the matter further during the question period.
There is, however, an interesting variant of this argument. Suppose that the
human species existed eternally in an eternally existing world. If we grant that the human
soul is immortal, then there would now have to be an actual infinity of human souls. This
argument is crucially different from the typical form of this argument, because it implies
the actual existence of an infinite number of entities, namely, human souls. For this
reason, this argument was thought by Bonaventure, Albert, and Thomas to have been a
stronger version of the argument we are considering. It, too, however, fails to be a
demonstration of the temporal beginning of the world because it presupposes certain
assumptions that are irrelevant: it supposes that on an eternal world the species man
See my full discussion of this: Steven Baldner, "St. Bonaventure and the Temporal Beginning of the
World," The New Scholasticism 63(1989) 206-228.
would have always existed, and it supposes that an infinite multitude of spiritual beings is
impossible. On this last point, it is worth pointing out that Thomas changed his mind.
Early in his teaching career he thought that it had not been shown that such a multitude
was impossible, but later he came to see that it was.5 The general point to retain about
such an argument is this: none of our thinkers thought that eternal past existence as such
implied some sort of contradiction or impossibility. They certainly held that it is false to
suppose that the world existed eternally in the past, but they did not think that such a false
claim was incoherent or self-contradictory.
A very different sort of argument to demonstrate the temporal beginning of the
world is the following. Some would argue that whatever has received its entire being
from a separate cause cannot have existed eternally in the past. That is, some believe that
the very fact that the world has been created out of nothing necessarily means that the
world has had a temporal beginning. If X has been created out of nothing, then X has had
a beginning in time. The world has been created. Therefore, the world has had a
beginning in time.
There are two difficulties with this argument. One concerns the premise, “The
world has been created,” and the other concerns the inference, “If X is created, then X
has had a temporal beginning.” And on these difficulties, our three thinkers divide into
two opposing positions. Bonaventure and Albert have no difficulty with the inference,
but they do not think that the premise asserting that the world is created can be known
philosophically. For them, the argument would be sound if we could prove the creation
of the world, but the fact of creation is itself a matter of faith. Thomas, on the other hand,
Compare the earlier text, In 2 Sent., d. 1, a. 1, a. 5, with the later text, Summa theologiae I, q. 7, a. 4.
thinks that we can philosophically prove the creation of the world, but he thinks that the
inference expressed in the first premise is false.
Let us consider the inference first, “if X is created, then X has had a temporal
beginning.” Both Bonaventure6 and Albert7 regard the act of creation as an act that
necessarily produces a change: in a radical way, the creature is different after the act of
creation. First it does not exist; then it exists. For these two, when we say that creation is
“out of nothing” (ex nihilo) we mean that the creature is temporally “after nothing” (post
nihil). The act of creation is the making of something radically new that did not exist in
any way before the act of creation. For Thomas, however, the act of creation is not an act
that changes the creature in any way.8 It was accepted as a fact by him that the creation
of the universe did have a radical beginning in time, but that fact is irrelevant to the basic
meaning of creation, that God is now and always (so long as the creature exists) giving
existence to the creature, making it to exist rather than not exist. But for God’s creative
act, according to Thomas, nothing would now exist; God is right now creating the entire
universe out of nothing, as He has been doing and as He (we hope!) will continue to do,
so long as the universe exists. The universe on its own does not have its own being such
that it can exist without a continual efficient cause. For this reason, Thomas rejects the
inference, but Bonaventure and Albert accept it.
On the other hand, neither Bonaventure nor Albert think that the second premise,
that the universe is created out of nothing, is something that can be known or proven
philosophically; Thomas does think that this fact can be proven. We shall spend some
time to see why this is so, but for the moment let me just point out that, for very different
St. Bonaventure, In 2 Sent., d. 1, p. 1, a. 3, a. 1.
St. Albert, Summa theologiae, II, tract. 1, q. 4, Quaestio incidens secunda.
St. Thomas, In 2 Sent., d. 1, a. 1, a. 2; Summa contra Gentiles, lib. 2, c. 17.
reasons, none of the three think that the argument about the creation of the world proves
that the world had a temporal beginning. Hence this argument, like the first, fails to
demonstrate the temporal beginning of the world. Although our three thinkers differ
fundamentally about the act of creation, they are in complete agreement that philosophy
or natural reason cannot prove the temporal beginning of the world. Let us turn now to
the problem of creation itself.
The Creation of the World
When Bonaventure discusses man’s natural or philosophical knowledge of God, he grants
that we can know that God is the cause of the world, but he does not specify this cause as
the creator ex nihilo.9 Whenever Bonaventure discusses the philosophers’ actual
contribution to the problem of creation, he points out that in fact they have failed to
understand this doctrine.10 Furthermore, when Bonaventure discusses the question of the
relation of faith to reason, he gives the doctrine of creation as an example of the sort of
thing for which faith is required and about which reason can tell us little.11 In spite of
such evidence, Bonaventure might yet think that in principle reason could demonstrate
creation, but in fact I think that Bonaventure’s doctrine could not admit of such a
Bonaventure’s position on creation and how it can be known seems to be this. It
is philosophically obvious that there is some one causal principle – God – for the whole
world. Many metaphysical principles point to this: the fact that order requires an
St. Bonaventure, In 2 Sent., d. 1, p. 1, a. 1, q. 1.
St. Bonaventure, In 2 Sent., d. 1, p. 1, a. 1, q. 2.
St. Bonaventure, In 3 Sent., d. 24, a. 2, a. 3.
ordering cause, the fact that multiplicity must be reduced to some principle of unity, the
dependency of creatures indicates a source upon which they are dependent, and so forth.
Good philosophy shows indubitably that in this general sense there is an efficient and
final cause of the world, and we know this cause to be God. To say, however, that God is
known to be the cause of the world in this general way is not to say that God is known to
be the creator of the world out of nothing. This latter fact involves a much more radical
claim. It means that there is no potency or material substrate out of which the creature is
made, it means that an infinite act of God’s power is required, and it means that there was
a time when the creature did not exist at all. We have just seen that Bonaventure does not
think that one can argue from the nature of past existence to the certain conclusion that
creatures began to exist from nothing. Here I want to explain that Bonaventure does not
think that one can argue from the present state of creatures to the conclusion that they are
produced out of nothing. Two reasons are relevant.
First, when Bonaventure discusses God’s causality of creatures in the present state
of things, he talks about what the mediaevals called “conservation” rather than creation.
God’s on-going causing of creatures is conserving them in being; it is not creating them
out of nothing.12 The difference between these two is that the conserving cause is a
partial cause of being, whereas the creating cause is a total cause of being. In other
words, God now conserves creatures in existence, and they would not exist without
God’s conserving act, but creatures also contribute to their own conservation. God is a
necessary but not sufficient cause of conservation, unlike creation in which God is both a
necessary and sufficient cause. The creature contributes to its own conservation through
its fundamental principles of form and matter. Each of these principles is incomplete, but
St. Bonaventure, In 2 Sent. D. 37, a. 1, q. 2.
together they compose a complete being that has a tendency to exist. Matter cannot exist
without form, and form cannot exist without matter, but the codependence of form and
matter does not indicate an absolute dependence on some outside cause.
Second, Bonaventure will talk about a kind of instability or “vertibility” in the
creature, but this lack in the creature is found not from its own principles but from an
extrinsic fact, namely, the fact that it was created out of nothing.13 Because the creature
was created by God out of nothing, the creature could be annihilated – but not because
there is some intrinsic lack in the creature. Nature in itself appears to be complete, but
the origin of creatures from nothing means that there is an external defect. This defect is
supplied, not by nature, but by grace: by a universal grace given to all creatures, God
conserves them in being. The point to notice is that God’s conserving of all beings is
considered by Bonaventure to be an act of grace, an act that helps nature to continue in
existence. Like other instances of grace, its effects are knowable but the grace itself is
not. There is nothing from nature, Bonaventure is saying, that indicates any instability or
tendency toward non-being, but because of the fact of creation, a universal grace is
required in order to keep creatures in existence.
A truism about the philosophy of Bonaventure is that the approach to God is
rather quick and easy. The truth that God exists is so vividly impressed on the human
mind, that the question for Bonaventure is the Anselmian one: how is it possible for us to
deny the existence of God? Bonaventure certainly thinks that God’s presence is obvious
to us through the created world, but he does not think that creation as such is something
that we can come to know by our unaided philosophical reason. The world requires God
St. Bonaventure, In 1 Sent. D. 8, p. 1, a. 2, q. 2.
for its sustaining cause, and this is so in large part because the world is a created world,
but the fact of creation itself is not something we can know apart from revelation.
Albert the Great
Albert makes it perfectly clear right from the start that philosophers cannot give any
demonstrations of the creation of the world.
Creation is properly a divine work. To us, moreover, it seems like something
miraculous, since we cannot attain it, for it is not subject to a demonstration of
reason. For this reason the philosophers have not understood it, unless by chance
someone might have gleaned something [about it] from the words of the prophets.
But no one has ever investigated it through demonstration. Some, of course, have
found a few probable arguments, but [such arguments] do not give sufficient
proof. … Indeed, my position is that [creation] appears as a miracle to us and as
something completely beyond our natural abilities.14
The reason for this we have already partially seen. Creation necessarily means a
temporal beginning, and we cannot demonstrate the temporal beginning of the world.15
There is, however, a further problem. Like Bonaventure, but for different
reasons, Albert does not think that there is anything about the very structure of created
being from which a demonstration of creation could be formulated. Physical things are
composed of matter and form, but each of these principles has a kind of independence.
Matter, according to Albert, is not a purely potential principle of change. In a number of
different ways, for example, when he is explaining the source of form in matter, the way
St. Albert, in 2 Sent., d. 1, B, q. 8., sol.
St. Albert, Summa theologiae II, tract. 1, q. 4, Quaestio incidens secunda.
in which elements can remain in compounds, and the matter of the heavens, Albert
asserts that there is a composition in matter itself apart from form. The result of this is
that, as Albert says in the Metaphysics, matter is in itself, before it is recognized to be a
subject of motion, something “given” (fundatum), “individuated” (individuatum), and
“subsistent in itself” (sustans in seipso).16 Matter, apart from form and just in itself, is a
quasi thing.
Form, on the other hand, is not of itself something that is grounded or
substantiated in matter.17 Rather, it is more truly form to the extent that it is separate
from matter. The forms of living things are more truly forms than are the forms of nonliving things, and the forms of higher animals are more truly forms than are those of
lower animals. The human form and the angelic form are forms in the truest senses. In
fact, the forms of mere elements and material compounds are only forms in some
derivative sense. Albert even thinks that he has an etymology of the word “form” to
justify his claim: forma is derived from foris manens. Notice how Albert ends his
comments on this. “Moreover, although form gives nothing of being to matter, because
matter all by itself has its own being, nevertheless form alone gives being to the
composite, from which matter receives being and is both distinguished and specified.”
Matter all by itself has being; form, which really is what it is apart from matter, makes
the composite exist and in so doing determines or specifies matter.
With such a metaphysical view, what can the philosopher say about the creation
of creatures that are composed of these two principles? According to Albert,18 we
recognize in some general way that any composed substance requires an explanation for
St. Albert, Metaphysica, lib. 3, tract. 3, c. 1.
St. Albert, Metaphysica, lib. 1, tract. 4, c. 9.
The following probable argument is taken from St. Albert, Physica, lib. 8, tract. 1, c. 13.
its composition. If a substance is composed of elements, something had to bring those
elements together, and even in the case of the elements themselves, something had to
cause the form and the matter of the elements to be united. There is always something
outside of any substance that explains why it is composed just as it is. The composition
of substances results in a diversity of substances: different compositions result in
different individuals and different kinds of substances. The problem, according to Albert,
is to account for the diversity. Why isn’t everything the same? The source of diversity
cannot be matter, because matter is distinguished by form, and not vice versa. The
question, then, is why are there different forms? This is particularly a problem if we
accept the Neo-Platonic stricture, as Albert seems to have done, that from the one can
come only one. If we do accept such a stricture and only that, we would find the
diversity of beings impossible to explain. Accordingly, says Albert, we must recognize
that the Neo-Platonic stricture applies only to necessary and natural productions. It might
apply to a doctrine of necessary emanation, but it does not apply to the act of a free,
intelligent, and infinitely powerful creator. Since we do live in a universe of manifold
diversity, and since the stricture is true in some sense, we have some reason to conclude
that the cause of our world is a free, intelligent, and infinite being, who is capable of
producing all things out of nothing. Such a being would have to be the source of forms,
and since form is not caused by matter, this being must have produced these forms, that
is, created them.
Such an argument, however, is not regarded by Albert as a demonstration of
creation. The Universal Doctor does not tell us why, but I think that we already have the
reason before us.19 Matter as such and as it is known by the philosophers already has its
own being; it does not have to be made to exist by form or by anything. A probable
argument, and no more, can be given to explain the creation of forms, but no argument at
all can be given to explain the existence of matter. Since matter is a philosophical
“given,” philosophy is powerless to inquire into its source, as it would have to do to
frame a demonstration of creation out of nothing. Albert, then, like Bonaventure, thinks
that the material world as it is regarded by the philosophers does not require a cause to
explain its very existence.
Thomas Aquinas
Things are very different, however, for Thomas Aquinas. Thomas claims that he
can philosophically demonstrate the creation of the world out of nothing. He makes such
a bold assertion because he recognizes, as his great contemporaries do not, the being or
existence of things – the famous doctrine of esse – as a fundamental metaphysical
principle. More precisely, he recognizes that in all finite beings existence is something
really distinct from essence. This means that the essence of no finite thing, that is, no
creature, contains within itself its own being or existence. Because existence is a real fact
about all finite things, it is something that must be explained. By nature or essence, no
finite thing has its own existence. How is it, then, that finite things do have existence?
They must have this existence from some outside cause, but if the cause itself needs a
cause of existence, then we must look for another cause. This process, however, cannot
I am indebted to Rev. Lawrence Dewan, O.P., for the fundamental insight on this problem in Albert: “St.
Albert, Creation, and the Philosophers,” Laval théologique et philosophique 40(1984) 295-307.
go on infinitely. Hence we must come to recognize that there is some cause of existence
that is itself uncaused. This uncaused cause of existence would be God.
The problem, then, is to know how it is that we know that existence and essence
are really distinct in all finite beings. It is sometimes argued, and there are Thomistic
texts that seem to support such a conclusion,20 that we come to know the real distinction
of existence from essence by means of an inspection of concepts. If we merely examine
the concept of any limited thing, we see right away that no such thing contains existence
in its very nature. If we think, for example, of the nature of a man or an angel or a
phoenix, we find that we can easily think of the non-existence of any such nature. If
none of these beings ever existed, that sad fact would not contradict what we know about
the essence of each kind. Such an examination of concepts seems to show that the
existence and essence of any finite being is distinct.
It may be that Thomas argues philosophically for the creation of the world with
something like the argument I have just given. If so, then the existence of God and the
creation of the world can be demonstrated by one, neat metaphysical argument. Once we
recognize that the being of creatures is something in need of causal, metaphysical
explanation, we are well on our way to recognizing that God exists and is the creator of
all things other than Himself. There are Thomistic interpreters who favor this sort of
reasoning, but Thomas’ actual practice, especially in his mature and major works, such as
the Summa contra Gentiles, the Summa theologiae, and the Aristotelian commentaries
was rather different. In these works, Thomas argued for the creation of the world in three
distinct stages.
St. Thomas Aquinas, De ente et essentia, c. 4.
First, Thomas demonstrates the existence of God.21 This he does, usually, by
using Aristotle’s argument from the Physics to prove that there is a first cause of motion.
Most of you are familiar with this argument, which is based on two premises: whatever
is moved is moved by something else, and there cannot be an infinite regress in movers
and things moved. If all moving things must be caused by something other than
themselves, and if, in the case in which any cause of motion is itself caused, there cannot
be an infinite number of actual causes of motion, there must be some cause of motion that
is itself uncaused. Such a cause, of course, would have to be completely unmoved. The
first step is to prove the existence of an unmoved mover or of an uncaused cause of the
Second, Thomas argues that this unmoved mover must be completely simple.22
This mover cannot be material, bodily, or potential in any way, for if it were, it would
have to be not an unmoved mover but a moved mover. But if this mover is not in any
state of potentiality, then it cannot be composed in any way, for composite substances are
in some state of potentiality. Not being composed means that it is not composed of form
and matter, not composed of its individuality and its essence, and not composed of
existence and essence. God, in other words, is simply pure actuality or pure being.
Third, Thomas argues that there can only be one instance of pure being.23 Just as
Plato had argued that the Forms-In-Themselves could only be one and that all derivative
instances of such Forms could only be composed or participated instances of the pure
Forms, so Thomas argues that there can only be one instance of pure being. All other
instances of being must be instances in which being is composed or received, for there is
St. Thomas, Summa contra Gentiles, lib. 1, c. 13.
St. Thomas, Summa contra Gentiles, lib. 1, cc. 15-27.
St. Thomas, Summa contra Gentiles, lib. 2, cc. 6-16.
no other way to explain the multiplication of beings. These derivative or composed
things are really composed of their essences or natures, on the one hand, and their being
or existence, on the other. That is to say, their essence is really distinct from their
existence, or, in other words, their being must be caused by a first cause of being.
Everything other than God is a creature and is made to exist entirely by God’s creative
This has been only a sketch of Thomas’ rather complicated chain of arguments
that is given to show that the universe is a created universe. The important point here is
that the reasoning for such a conclusion is entirely philosophical. This philosophical
conclusion is one that is possible for Thomas, but impossible for Albert or for
Bonaventure, because Thomas recognizes the crucial act of being (esse) as the
metaphysical principle in need of an explanation. For Thomas, the problem of creation is
fundamentally a philosophical problem, in a way that it can never be for Albert or for
Bonaventure, because Thomas’ philosophy is one founded in being (esse). To see the
importance of this philosophical insight on Thomas’ part is to see what sets his
philosophy apart from most of his contemporaries and from most other philosophers, as
well. It is what allows Thomas, and not Albert or Bonaventure, to understand the
doctrine of creation as a philosophical doctrine.
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