Thomas Aquinas on Divine Causality

This is my second post on the importance of understanding the influence of Thomas Aquinas on our interpretation of Scripture and way of doing theology. In my first post
(which you can access here), I sketched the view of God espoused by Aquinas that is frequently called ‘classical theism’, and I offered some thoughts on how it is actually a very non-Christian understanding of God due to its partial grounding in natural theology and Greek thomas_aquinas_03fmphilosophy rather than in God’s self-revelation in Christ as attested by Scripture. In this post, I intend to delve a bit deeper into this topic by explaining, through Aquinas’ own words, how classical theism tends to entail a particular view of divine causality that undergirds many of the historical and contemporary debates over issues like predestination, the extent of the atonement, the efficacy of grace, and God’s sovereignty vs. human freedom. As with my first post on Aquinas, this one will be considerably longer than normal, but it is necessarily so due to the nature and complexity of the topic. I will quote from the beginning sections of Aquinas’magnum opus the Summa Theologica (taken from the book Aquinas on Nature and Grace: Selections from the Summa Theologica, Westminster John Knox Press, 1954) where he expounds the first part of his doctrine of God, and then I will intersperse some comments of my own to highlight the important points and to clarify their relevance to us in the present day. So much for introduction; here we go:

Summa Theologica, Question 2, Article 3

God’s existence can be proved in five ways. The first and clearest proof is the argument from motion. It is certain, and in accordance with sense experience, that some things in this world are moved. Now everything that is moved is moved by something else, since nothing is moved unless it is potentially that to which it is moved, whereas that which moves is actual. To move is nothing other than to bring something from potentiality to actuality, and a thing can be brought from potentiality to actuality only by something which is actual. Thus a fire, which is actually hot, makes wood, which is potentially hot, to be actually hot, so moving and altering it. Now it is impossible for the same thing to be both actual and potential in the same respect, although it may be so in different respects. What is actually hot cannot at the same time be potentially hot, although it is potentially cold. It is therefore impossible that, in the same respect and in the same way, anything should be both mover and moved, or that it should move itself. Whatever is moved must therefore be moved by something else. If, then, that by which it is moved is itself moved, this also must be moved by something else, and this in turn by something else again. But this cannot go on for ever, since there would then be no first mover, and consequently no other mover, because secondary movers cannot move unless moved by a first mover, as a staff cannot move unless it is moved by the hand. We are therefore bound to arrive at a first mover which is not moved by anything, and all men understand that this is God.

The second way is from the nature of an efficient cause. We find that there is a sequence of efficient causes in sensible things. But we do not find that anything is the efficient cause of itself. Nor is this possible, for the thing would then be prior to itself, which is impossible. But neither can the sequence of efficient causes be infinite, for in every sequence the first efficient cause is the cause of an intermediate cause, and an intermediate cause is the cause of the ultimate cause, whether the intermediate causes be many, or only. Now if a cause is removed, its effect is removed. Hence if there were no first efficient cause, there would be no ultimate cause, and no intermediate cause. But if the regress of efficient causes were infinite, there would be no first efficient cause. There would consequently be no ultimate effect, and no intermediate causes. But this is plainly false. We are therefore bound to suppose that there is a first efficient cause. And all men call this God.

Comments: Here we see the first two of Aquinas’ famous proofs of the existence of God. Notice how Aquinas begins his discussion on the knowledge of God in the Summa: after demonstrating that the existence of God can be demonstrated from his effects, Aquinas conceives God first and foremost in an Aristotelian manner as the unmoved Mover to which all other created actualities owe their origin. By reasoning from the motion in the universe that is perceptible by the human senses, Aquinas believes that it is possible to think in reverse along the causal chain that connects moving objects to their antecedent movers ultimately to the Being who, in order to preempt the absurdity of an infinite regress, must be the unmoved originator of all motion. The second proof is similar, except that this time Aquinas argues explicitly in term of cause and effect, once again using categories of causality proposed by Aristotle. As with his first proof, Aquinas understands all effects that can be perceived by human sense to be embedded within a “sequence of efficient causes” which can be logically backtraced to an uncaused Cause ultimately responsible for the entire sequence. This uncaused Cause is that which Aquinas denotes as God. Very well, let’s return to Aquinas:

Summa Theologica, Question 4, Article 2-3

First, any perfection which occurs in an effect must occur in its efficient cause, either in the same mode if the agent be univocal, as in the case of a man who begets a man, or in a more eminent way if the agent be equivocal, as in the case of the sun which contains the likenesses of the things generated by its power. For it is plain that an effect virtually pre-exists in its active cause. But whereas a thing pre-exists in a less perfect way in the potentiality of its material cause, since matter as such is imperfect, it pre-exists in its active cause in a more perfect way, not in a less perfect way, since an agent, as such, is perfect. Now God is the first efficient cause of all things. The perfections of all things must therefore pre-exist in God in a more eminent way…

Our natural knowledge begins from sense. It can therefore extend so far as it can be led by sensible things. But our intellect cannot in this way attain insight into the divine essence. Sensible things are indeed effects of God, but they are not proportionate to the power of their cause, and for this reason the whole power of God cannot be known from them. Neither, consequently, can his essence be seen. But since effects depend on their cause sensible things can lead us to know that God exists, and to know what is bound to be attributable to him as the first cause of all things, and as transcending all his effects.

Comments: These quotations taken from Aquinas’ discussion of the perfection of God build on what he previously argued in his proofs of God’s existence. Here Aquinas takes a step further, contending that while it is necessary to make certain qualifications, it is possible to affirm that the effects of God’s causal activity in some sense pre-exist in God. In other words, while Aquinas is careful to say that the phenomena that human beings can perceive with their senses “are not proportionate to the power of their cause” and therefore cannot be simply projected back onto God, nevertheless the sequences of causes and effects existing throughout creation (with causes being variously understood and related to their effects in both necessary and continent ways) are so inextricably linked together that it is possible to know, by a process of logical reasoning that proceeds from observable effects back along these sequences to their causal origin, “that God exists” and also “what is bound to be attributable to him as the first cause of all things.” Let’s call this type of thinking ‘logico-causal’, and let’s keep it mind as we jump ahead in the Summa to Aquinas’ discussion of the love of God:

Summa Theologica, Question 20, Articles 1-2

Accordingly, in so far as love, joy, and delight signify actions of the sensitive appetite, they are passion. But in so far as they signify actions of the intellectual appetite, they are not passions. Now they signify the latter when referred to God. That is why the philosopher says: “God rejoices by one, simple operation” (7 Ethics, text ult.). God also loves in the same manner, without passion. On the second point: we must pay attention to the material element in the passions of the sensitive appetite, namely to the bodily change, and also to the formal aspect of an appetite. The material element in anger is the increase of blood around the heart, or something of the kind, while formally it is the desire for revenge. Further, the formal aspect of some passions involves a certain imperfection. Desire, for example, involves an unattained good. Sadness involves an evil which is endured, as does anger also, since it presupposes sadness. Other passions, however, such as love and joy, involve no imperfection. Now none of these can be attributed to God in respect of their material element, as we argued above. Nor can we attribute to God any passion which even formally involves imperfection, except in the metaphorical manner permissible in view o fat likeness borne by an effect…But those which do not involve imperfection, such as love and joy, are rightly attributed to God, yet as without passion, as we have said. On the third point: an act of love is always directed to two things. It is directed to two things. It is directed to the good which one wills for someone, and also to the person for whom one wills it. To love someone is in fact to will good for him…

Now we proved in Q.19, Art. 4, that God is the cause of all things. A thing must therefore be, and be good, to the extent which God wills. It follows that God wills some good to each thing that is. Now to love is just to will good for something. Clearly, then, God loves all things that are. But God does not love as we love. Our will is not the cause of the goodness in things,  but is moved by their goodness as its object. Consequently, the love by which we will good for anyone is not the cause of his goodness…God’s love, on the other hand, creates and infuses the goodness in things.

Comments: As Aquinas begins his discussion on the love of God, we notice how he careful he is to define the divine love in a way that coheres with his earlier conception of God as the unmoved Mover. In order for God to truly be the cause of all motion, he himself must be unmoved by anything outside of himself. If God were able to moved by something outside of himself, then he would not be the first mover of all things. Rather, something else would be the first mover, and thus that thing would logically be God. Moreover, being moved involves change, but for Aquinas change can only be for the better or for the worse. Thus, if God could experience change, then he would not be a perfect being. Therefore, God must be entirely self-moved, and this must mean in turn that he is impassible, for as the unmoved Mover he cannot be subject to the influence of passions that respond to external stimuli or evidence some kind of lack of perfection. Thus, Aquinas reasons that God cannot be subject to desire, for this would imply that God has a longing for something that he has not yet attained; but since this would be an imperfection in God, it is therefore impossible.

The upshot of this is that Aquinas believes that God does indeed love, but he does so “without passion.” If we are puzzled as to what this could mean, Aquinas explains that in contrast to human love that is compelled by the goodness of the object loved, God’s love operates in reverse. God is not moved to love that which is inherently good, for this would violate his impassibility. Rather, God’s love is itself the cause of goodness in things. In this sense, God’s love becomes an operation of the divine will whereby he decides to bestow goodness on the object of his love. It is in this way that Aquinas believes God can love without passion: his love is properly understood as the self-movement of his will to impart goodness to things outside of himself. This notion, combined with Aquinas’ understanding of divine causality, means that the goodness observable in created things is the effect of God’s willing those things to be good. If you are still with me, we just have one more step to make that will tie all of these concepts together. Here is Aquinas one last time:

Summa Theologica, Question 20, Articles 3-4

[S]ince to love is to will good for something, there are two ways in which one thing may be loved more or less than another. First, the act of the will may be more or less intense. God does not love some things more than others in this sense, because he loves all things by the same simple act of will, which is always of the same degree. Secondly, the good which is willed for something may be more or less. We are said to love one thing more than another when we will a greater good for it, even if the will is not more intense. Now we are bound to say that God loves some things more than others in this latter sense. For we said in the preceding article that his love is the cause of the goodness in things, and hence one thing would not be better than another, if God did not love one thing more than another…

We said that in Arts. 2 and 3 that for God to love something more just means that he wills a greater good for it, and also that God’s will is the cause of the goodness in things. It is therefore because God wills a greater good for them that some things are better. It follows that God has a greater love for things which are better.

Comments: This is the point at which we see all of the lines of Aquinas’ reasoning converge. In these articles, Aquinas wants to prove that while God loves all things in one sense, he loves some things more than others. How does Aquinas demonstrate this? If we have followed his thought up until this point, it should not be difficult to understand. Following his Aristotelian methodology of reasoning from sense data, Aquinas begins from what appears to be a self-evident fact that some things (to be a bit more specific, let’s focus on human beings) are better than others. There are some people that are more good than other people. What is to account for this? Combining his definition of divine love based on God’s impassibility with his view of all effects being embedded in logico-causal sequences originating ultimately in God, Aquinas is able to assert that some people are better than others because God loves them more, that is to say, he has willed to create and infuse more goodness in them. For Aquinas, it is evident that God loves some people more than others, not because he is moved to love them due to their inherent superior goodness, but rather because their superior goodness is ultimately the effect of God’s prior willing to bestow on them a greater good. Stated somewhat crudely, it is possible to discern the objects of God’s greater love (the cause) by the fact that they evince a greater goodness (the effect).

Conclusion: I would like to suggest that this kind of logico-causal reasoning employed by Aquinas (rooted largely in Aristotelian metaphysics) serves as the overarching framework within which many historic and contemporary debates concerning God’s sovereignty vis-à-vis human freedom take place. Yet it is precisely this framework that often remains hidden, for the defenders of the various positions just assume that they are reading Scripture at face value when their reading is actually indebted to a Aristotelian/Thomist view of causality.

Let’s take for example the classic Calvinist vs. Arminian disagreement over the extent of the atonement. While on the surface they seem diametrically opposed to each other, on a deeper level they are funded by the same Aristotelian, logico-causal metaphysics that we see similarly articulated by Aquinas. Classic Calvinists want to limit in some sense the full efficacy of the atonement to a limited number of human beings unconditionally elected before creation by God. Arminians, on the other hand, want to extend the possibility of the atonement’s efficacy to all humanity without qualification, making its efficacy conditional on personal faith. For all their differences, however, both positions hold in common a logico-causal framework. Classic Calvinists feel the need to limit the full efficacy of the atonement to the elect because they believe that if Christ died not only sufficiently but also efficiently for all humanity with the intention of saving them all, then this would logically and causally entail a universal salvation (remember the God of Aquinas cannot have unfulfilled desires!). Arminians would generally begin with this very same presupposition, evidenced by the fact that they tend to speak of the atonement in terms of creating the possibility of a salvation that only becomes efficacious on the condition of faith. Since Arminians want to affirm the universal extent of Christ’s work, they feel the need to speak only of the possibility that the atonement provides for humans to either accept or reject it (for once again, an absolutely efficient atonement for all would logically and causally entail universal salvation).

At the risk of overgeneralization, it could be said that whereas classic Calvinists limit the atonement’s universal extent for the sake of preserving its full efficacy, Arminians limit the atonement’s full efficacy for the sake of preserving its universal extent. What neither position seems able to do is affirm both the full efficacy and the universal extent of the atonement. Why not? Because both operate with a fundamentally logico-causal framework that, in a way reminiscent of Aquinas, reads the ultimate effect (the actual number of people finally saved) as logically indicative of the efficient cause (the extent, efficacy, and intention of the atonement). Since typically neither position wants to fall prey to universalism, neither position can affirm an atonement that is fully and universally efficacious by divine intent. Just as Aquinas believed it possible, by reasoning through logico-causal sequences, to identify the objects to which God wills to bestow greater good (the cause) on the basis of the superior goodness that they actually manifest (the effect), so also both classic Calvinists and Arminians think that the atonement cannot be both fully efficacious and universal in extent and intent (the cause) because only a limited number of people will ultimately be saved (the effect). In other words, both Calvinists and Arminians assume a sequence of logico-causal relations according to which the cause (in this case the extent/efficacy/intent of the atonement) can be determined by reasoning in reverse from the final effect (the fact that a limited number of people will actually be saved).

The moral of the story: Unless there is a way to set the Calvinist/Arminian debate on a completely new foundation, this historic impasse will probably never be resolved. Defenders on each side will continue to read Scripture as though the biblical witness clearly and decisively favors their own position, all the while unaware that they are all in reality reading Scripture through an Aristotelian/Thomist lens that leads them to understand Scripture in a logico-causal fashion. The seemingly insurmountable differences between Calvinism and Arminianism on the atonement can, in one sense, simply be reduced to the divergent ways in which each position construes the outworking of these logico-causal relations.

(Special thanks to Bobby Grow for helping me to make the connection between Thomas and classic Calvinism/Arminianism)


5 thoughts on “Thomas Aquinas on Divine Causality

  1. Alex the Less 23 July 2016 / 20:17

    Hi Reformedmissio,

    Could you describe what you mean by”God’s self-revelation in Christ as attested by Scripture” for me?

    What I am trying to say: If you mean how Christ came at the first advent, the scope would be too small. The second advent will show a different side of the same Jesus I would contend. So, when Jesus said: “he who has seen me has seen the Father,” it was true but, of course, it was not meant to be a comprehensive picture. Jesus did not claim to be giving an exhaustive picture of the nature of God when he made this statement, at least according to how I view it.


    • The Reformissionary 23 July 2016 / 22:05

      Hi Alex the Less,

      Thanks for asking for clarification. Hopefully I can make my meaning a bit more plain. Let me address the two main points that you bring up. First, I would not want to drive a wedge between Christ’s first and second advents. The Christ who will come again is the same who was born to Joseph and Mary. I understand what you are getting at, but since I typically insist on not separating Christ’s person (who he is) from his work (what he does), I would maintain that to posit a disjunction between what occurred at Christ’s first advent and what will occur at his second coming runs the risk of introducing a rupture into the person of Christ himself in a way that would contradict Hebrews 13:8: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” I would also not want to divide, à la Karl Barth, Jesus final coming, or ‘parousia’, into parts. As Barth argued, his final parousia actually began at the resurrection, continued in his sending of his Spirit, and will be consummated at the ‘second coming.’ Understood in this way, the revelation of Christ as the “Son of God in power” at the resurrection (Rom. 1:4) is simply the exact same form that will be revealed at the consummation of his parousia. Make sense?

      Second, I would disagree about Jesus’ revelation of the Father. I think there is some ambiguity with the words “comprehensive” or “exhaustive” so perhaps I have not understood you exactly. As your comment stands, however, I would demur because of the fact that Jesus’ statement in John 14:9 must be, in my opinion, interpreted precisely as a full and complete revelation of the Father without distortion or remainder. Not only is this required by the prologue of John in 1:1-18, but even in context Jesus is responding to Philip’s request that Jesus reveal the Father to the disciples. The intent behind the question, and subsequently in Jesus’ response, is that Philip thought that there was, so to speak, something of the Father that remained hidden behind the back of Jesus. Philip’s request seems motivated by his notion that Jesus had not, in fact, fully revealed the Father, to which Jesus responds simply that there is nothing to know of the Father that cannot be seen and known in him. I would only add that this is one of the main implications of the Nicene creed’s assertion that Jesus Christ is “consubstantial” or “of the same substance” as the Father. One of the errors that Athanasius and the other pro-Nicene theologians were trying to correct was the idea, promoted by Arius who denied the full deity of the Son, that Jesus did not nor could not fully reveal the Father to humanity. To counter this, the Nicene assertion of Jesus’ consubstantiality with the Father was intended to safeguard the biblical truth that how God acts toward us in Christ is a full and complete revelation of who is he antecedently and eternally in himself. As Athanasius argued, since Jesus and the Father are one, then to see and know Jesus is, quite simply, to see and know the Father.


      • Alex the Less 23 July 2016 / 23:35

        Thank you very much for your helpful and detailed reply. I will think on these things you said.

        How do you view the transfiguration and how do you fit it in with the other (untransfigured) revelation of Jesus?


      • The Reformissionary 24 July 2016 / 00:46

        You are very welcome! With regard to the transfiguration, my short answer would simply be that it is part of the composite picture that the gospels present of the person and work of Christ. It should neither be isolated nor neglected in our understanding of how God has revealed himself in Christ. In terms of understanding the account of the transfiguration itself, it’s important to keep the context in mind (coming immediately after Jesus’ declaration that the disciples would see the kingdom coming in glory) as well as the multiple allusions to Old Testament narratives (the appearance of Moses and Elijah, the significance of the mount of transfiguration vis-à-vis Sinai and the audible voice of God, etc.).


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