Thomas: God is simple. The divine operation is not something added to the divine essence or being, although we speak as if it were, since human thought and language are limited. Nor is the divine operation something added to the divine power. God simply is the divine operation, just as he is the divine being and essence and power.
Gregory: So on your view, the divine operation ad intra—the necessary, immanent operation of God (in and through the divine persons)—is really identical to the divine essence.
Thomas: Correct. But I also deny any real distinction in God between the divine essence on one hand, and the divine operations ad extra on the other hand. The act of God creating, the act of God revealing himself, the act of God redeeming, the act of God sanctifying (and so on) are all really identical to the one divine Act, and this one Act is the divine essence.
Gregory: How does that work? The divine essence is necessary, but the transitive actions of God—the operations ad extra—are all contingent. God might have refrained from all eternity from creating anything at all, and he might have created a different set of creatures. God might not have revealed himself to any creature, and he might have revealed himself in a different way. To be sure, on the supposition that God ordained, from all eternity, to create, it is impossible for God not to create. The same is true in respect to God’s revealing himself. For the divine will is unwavering.
Thomas: The divine essence is absolutely necessary, as is the divine operation ad intra. I agree with you too about the transitive divine actions: their necessity is suppositional, not absolute. They are all contingent, not just the act of creating. That is to say: for each and every transitive action of God A the non-occurrence of A is absolutely possible. Supposing that God refrains from creating anything, it follows that God does not create or redeem or sanctify or glorify anything—and so on with every possible instance and mode of transitive divine action. Now whatever follows from something absolutely possible is itself absolutely possible. But it is absolutely possible for God to refrain from creating anything. Therefore it is absolutely possible for God not to perform any transitive action whatsoever. So far we are in agreement. What is your objection?
Gregory: You say that the divine operation ad intra is absolutely necessary. You say that the divine operations ad extra (= the transitive actions) are all contingent. And you say that the divine operations ad extra are really identical to the divine operation ad intra. But those three claims together imply something impossible, namely, that one and the same operation is absolutely necessary and also contingent.
Thomas: I was expecting that objection.
Gregory: Actually there is a second objection. Let’s deal with this second one first. We agree that the transitive actions are all contingent. Now suppose that the transitive actions are constitutive of the divine essence, either wholly or partially. From this hypothesis it follows that the divine essence could have been otherwise. The essence would have been different than it actually is if God had ordained not to perform any transitive actions (indeed, the divine essence would have been different than it actually is if God had ordained to act outwardly but with a different set of transitive actions). But this is impossible, for God is who he is by absolute necessity. This proves that the hypothesis is false (by modus tollens). From the same hypothesis it also follows that God is who he is on account of creating (or redeeming or sanctifying). But this contradicts the self-sufficiency of the divine being. This proves again that the hypothesis is false (by modus tollens).
Thomas: You are right. There simply cannot be a transitive action which is formally included in the divine essence (“formally included” in reality, not in our definition, since we can have no definition of the divine essence). God would still be God, and God would still be perfectly fulfilled as God, even if he had never performed a single ad extra operation. It must be said, therefore, that these operations or actions presuppose the fullness of divine being. They are a certain gratuitous overflowing of the divine plenitude. In no sense is it true that God is God (or more perfectly God or more fully God) on account of creating or redeeming or sanctifying (and so on).
Gregory: So on your view, the divine essence already is what it is naturally prior to any reference to creation. God is immediately, absolutely and self-sufficiently himself. The transitive actions are formally extraneous to—they are not formally included in—the divine essence per se.
Gregory: And on your view, the divine essence is formally included in the divine essence?
Thomas: Are you asking whether the divine essence is an intrinsic principle of the divine essence?
Thomas: Then I agree. Remove the divine essence (per impossibile) from the divine essence, and the divine essence would not be what it is. For the divine essence simply is that by which it is. To be clear, the divine essence is not a formal component of itself. Nothing can be a component of itself, properly speaking—and in any case, there are no components in God.
Gregory: Good. Now suppose A is formally extraneous to B. Could A also be formally included in B?
Thomas: This much is certain. If A is referred to under the same aspect and B is referred to under the same aspect, then A cannot be formally extraneous to B and also formally included in B. This is because “formally included in” and “formally extraneous to” are contraries by definition.
Gregory: Can you give an example where A or B are not “referred to under the same aspect”?
Thomas: One could argue that the wisdom of Socrates is both formally extraneous to Socrates and formally included in Socrates. But that would only be tenable if “Socrates” signifies differently, or if “wisdom” signifies differently, or both. Thus “Socrates” in the first case might signify Socrates as a first substance in relation to which the wisdom in question is accidental; in the second case it might signify Socrates as a personally constructed identity or vocational ideal which the antecedent individual substance must actively realise. Alternatively, one might say that actual wisdom is formally extraneous to Socrates-the-individual-substance but that potential wisdom is formally included in Socrates-the-individual-substance. (Aquinas would reject the latter proposition about potential wisdom. On his view, the capacity for wisdom is a proper accident of the human being. But that is beside the point here.)
Gregory: Would you agree to the following, then?
(T1) If X is formally extraneous to the divine essence per se and Y is formally included in the divine essence per se, then it is absolutely impossible for X and Y to be really identical.
Thomas: I’m confident that “divine essence” would never be signified differently following that rule, since you’ve qualified it with “per se” in both cases. But what if X is signified differently or Y is signified differently?
Gregory: Let it be understood that X—I mean, whatever X is a placeholder for—is signified in the same way in both instances in T1, and likewise with Y.
Thomas: In that case T1 is certainly true.
Gregory: Then here is my objection. You admitted that
(T2) For any transitive divine action A, A is formally extraneous to the divine essence per se.
You also admitted that
(T3) The divine essence is formally included in the divine essence per se.
From T1, T2 and T3 it follows that
(T4) It is absolutely impossible for a transitive divine action A and the divine essence to be really identical.
More precisely, T4 follows if the following two condition are met. First, the transitive action A is signified in the same way when we compare its signification in T2 and in T4. Second, the divine essence is signified in the same way in when we compare its signification in T3 (on the left hand side) and in T4.
Thomas: Well, if that argument proves anything, it only proves that
(T5) For any transitive divine action A, insofar as A is really identical to the divine essence it is not formally extraneous to the divine essence, and insofar as A is formally extraneous to the divine essence, it is not really identical to the divine essence.
Gregory: If I’ve understood your correctly, what you mean is this. For any transitive divine action A, these two propositions are compatible--
(T6) A is really identical to the divine essence;
(T7) A is formally extraneous to the divine essence
—but only if A is signified differently across the two propositions.
Thomas: Correct. Now I would argue that one is able to affirm both of those propositions without contradiction because the transitive operation can be taken in different ways. Let me explain. Consider that transitive action has two aspects. First, there is the ontological foundation or principle (principium quo) by which the agent acts. In the case of transitive divine action, this is really identical to both (i) the divine essence and (ii) the immanent divine operation. But second, there is also the efficient causation itself—the work that the agent does on the patient (or produced term, in the case of creation ex nihilo). This is the agent’s making-actual-the-transitive-effect, the agent’s effectively-making-a-difference somewhere in the created world. In a word, there is (1) the power of the agent and (2) the being-at-work of the agent on or in some patient (or produced term).
Thomas: Now consider Aristotle’s teaching that action (to move something else) and passion (to be moved by something else) are one and the same movement. We embrace this teaching here, expanding it to accommodate the situation where God does not move a pre-existing patient but creates something out of nothing. Thus it can be said that that God’s being-at-work (on a creature) and the creature’s being-worked-on (by God) are two aspects of one and the same “movement” or “causal event”. It is not that there is first God’s effecting something and then the being-effected of the effect. The agent’s production of the product does not come before the being-produced of the product, either in nature or in time. The efficacy of the agent has the actuality of the effect—either the actuality of some movement-toward-completion, or some completed actuality in the case of instantaneous production—as its necessary (but not anterior) condition. What this means is that the being-at-work of God in some creature C first comes to be actual with the divinely effected movement, or divinely upheld being, of C.
Gregory: Doesn’t that imply that God himself becomes actual in a new way as the new effect arises on the side of creation?
Thomas: No. All that has changed is that God now has a logical relation to some creature C on account of the newly actualised effect in C. In the creature C there is now a real relation of causal dependence on God. Correspondingly there is “in” God a relation of causal “action” or “emanation” directed to C. But this relation is not real; it is merely a way in which God may be considered.
Gregory: So what you are saying is this: (1) God is already a transitive agent “in first act”—he already has the power to operate outwardly—just by virtue of having the divine essence/power. (2) God is not a transitive agent “in second act”—God is not actually at work anywhere in creation—until some effect of his divine essence/power arises on the side of creation. (3) Yet the “transition” of God from being a transitive agent in “first act” to being a transitive agent in “second act” does not involve the introduction of some new actuality on the side of God. The “second act” in question is extrinsically denominated. When the divine essence/power has an effect in the world, that essence/power is not perfected further. Nothing real is added in God; no secondary act accrues to the divine subject itself.
Thomas: You have understood me well. It makes no intrinsic difference to the divine essence—not even an accidental or modal intrinsic difference—whether it is actually at work as an efficient cause in creation or not. To summarise my view:
(T8) The created effects of the divine essence are all formally extraneous to the divine essence;
(T9) For any created effect, the efficacy (being-at-work) of God with respect to that effect is formally extraneous to the divine essence;
(T10) The divine essence itself is not formally extraneous to the divine essence.
When I say that the transitive actions are identical to the essence, what I mean, more precisely, is that the essence is the uncreated Act by which, and out of which, God produces created acts. But if we take a transitive divine action A in its full ratio—if we include the transitivity of A when we consider A—then A has its actuality (qua transitive) in the created act, and not prior to it or independently of it. For the transitive action, when understood thus, is God actualising-something-else on the side of creation; this actualisation-of-something-else occurs in the creature which is being actualised or kept in act.
Gregory: So you reduce the principle of the transitive action to the divine essence. But you do not reduce the transitive action in its entirety to the divine essence, since this cannot be separated from the created effect.
Thomas: That’s right.
Gregory: And all transitive divine actions, when taken in the complete sense—that is, in their full ratio—are formally extraneous to the divine essence per se. But all transitive divine actions, when taken in the minimal sense, are identical to the divine essence.
Gregory: I believe you have answered my objection then. It turns out that what you actually mean when you say that “all transitive divine actions are really identical to the essence” is that “all transitive divine actions are really identical to the essence once the properly transitive aspect of those actions are set aside and we are left with nothing but the essence itself as the principium quo of those operations.” However, in the next moment you turn from that minimal (and rather unnatural) use of “transitive divine action” and adopt the maximal sense of the term. When you say that “the transitive divine actions are all formally extraneous to the essence,” what you mean is that they are all formally extraneous to the essence once the properly transitive aspect of those actions are accounted for.” You signify transitive divine action differently at different times.
Gregory: In future, perhaps you should refrain from saying that “The act of God creating, the act of God revealing himself, the act of God redeeming, the act of God sanctifying (and so on) are all really identical to the one divine Act, and this one Act is the divine essence.” For this is misleading. Such a proposition can only be maintained if these “acts” are understood minimally—you admitted this yourself. But in the next moment you draw on the Aristotelian view of transitive action, which requires a different, maximal understanding of these same acts!
Thomas: A fair point. I would add here that it is important to distinguish between
(T11) All transitive divine actions are really identical to the divine essence/being
(T12) There is no real distinction in God between divine essence/being and transitive divine action.
The first claim is true (for a Thomist) when “transitive divine action” is taken in the minimal sense, but not when “transitive divine action” is taken in the complete sense. The second claim is true (for a Thomist) even when we take “transitive divine action” in the complete sense.
Gregory: Yes, the distinction between T11 and T12 is important. But I am led to ask, why even fall back on that minimal sense of “transitive divine action” in the first place? When the transitive actions are understood minimally, there is no meaningful distinction between a transitive action that is merely possible—say, God’s sustaining some alternative universe—and one that is actual—say, God’s sustaining this universe. Once we strip the latter action back to its “minimal” being in God—which being is (as you say) nothing more than the principle by which God can act transitively (in the complete sense)—it has no more actuality than the former action, the one which never occurs (when taken in the complete sense). By virtue of his essence, God has the (absolute) power to sustain a genuinely possible alternative universe just as much as he has the (absolute) power to sustain this universe. But surely, when we refer to the transitive actions of God, our intention is to refer to them as actual—by which I mean, efficacious on the side of creation—and not merely as possible. We want to be able to make a meaningful distinction between a transitive action which God does and a transitive action which God does not do. From now on, then, I suggest we use “transitive action” only in the straight-forward sense—the “complete” or “maximal” sense.
 The first proof assumes that the transitive divine actions are all contingent. The second proof does not. To affirm that God is self-sufficient is not yet to affirm that the transitive actions of God are all contingent.
 “Not formally included in” should not be confused with “formally excluded from”.
© Brendan Triffett 2018-2019
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All rights reserved.