Limitation of Act by Potency

Limitation of Act by Potency

The following article is an engagement paper originally submitted to IRBS in fulfillment of an assignment for Dr. James Dolezal’s Foundations of Philosophical Theology class.

Contemporary Thomistic studies largely assumes the origins for Thomas’s doctrine “limitation of act by potency” is to be properly and neatly located in Aristotle’s corpus. According to W. Norris Clarke, however, such an assumption is misguided on account of needful language nevertheless absent from Aristotle’s own body of work. If indeed Thomas received limitation of act by potency from Aristotle, one would expect to find such a doctrine in Aristotle’s own words. More significant, perhaps, is the fact that very little substantial change actually took place from the time of the pre-Socratics to the time of Aristotle in the relevant areas according to Clarke.

Norris Clarke’s Brief Observation Concerning Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange’s Assumption

Republished by contemporary scholars, such as Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, is the common assumption that Thomas received Aristotle’s conception of limitation of act by potency. Yet, to the contrary, Clarke asserts the following, “it is noteworthy that, despite the categorical assertion of Father Garrigou-Lagrange in the above quotation, neither here nor anywhere else in his numerous writings on this doctrine does he ever quote or refer to any precise text where Aristotle himself affirms the limiting role of potency with regard to act.”[1] Contrary to the common assumption mentioned above, the doctrine of limitation of act by potency does not appear in Aristotle. In point of fact, the post-Socratic philosophers appear to conceive of act as limited by its very nature, whilst potency is that which is infinite, or unlimited.

Speaking to Thomas’ own work, Clarke writes, “What is even more decisive, to my mind—and surprising, though I have never seen it reported anywhere—is the fact that throughout the entire extent of St. Thomas’s own commentaries on Aristotle, not excepting that on Book IX of Metaphysics, which deals exclusively with act and potency, there is not a single mention of potency as limiting act nor is there any occurrence of the classic formulas expressing the limitation principle which abound in his independent works.”[2] In other words, though the language of act and potency as categories find a comfortable seat in the Aristotelian corpus, the particular conception of act and potency wherein potency serves as the limiting principle of act is virtually non-existent in spite of Garrigou-Lagrange’s own thesis that, “Aristotle already taught this doctrine.”

Finitude and Infinitude in Anaximander

According to Clarke, “The term infinite (apeiron) first appears in Greek philosophy with the Pre-Socratic Anaximander, who identified it with the primal principle of all things: (1) The Non-Limited is the original material of existing things; further, the source from which existing things derive their existence is also that to which they return at their destruction, according to necessity… (3) This [the Non-Limited] is immortal and indestructible.”[3] Already, the careful reader may catch the identification of the material with the infinite (apeiron). This would appear to imply a like identification of what would eventually come to be known as the “principle of potency” with infinity (since matter must receive form as potency to act).

If it is the case that matter, and thus potency, just are “the infinite,” then conversely, act would necessarily entail limitation. This is why Clarke goes on to say, “[The problem] ‘What is the first principle out of which all things are formed?’ gradually led them—if not Anaximander, at least his successors—to identify the infinite with the indeterminate, formless substratum or raw material of the universe, the primeval chaos of matter in itself, as yet unperfected by the limit of form.”[4] The indeterminate is unlimited because, according to the mind of Anaximander, to determine something is to place limitations upon it. That which is infinite cannot be determined, and that which cannot be determined cannot be perfect. Clark continues, “According to this conception the infinity is identified with the formless, the indeterminate, the unintelligible—in a word, with matter and multiplicity, the principles and imperfection—whereas the finite or limited is identified with the fully formed, the determinate, and there the intelligible—in a word, with number, form, and idea, the principles of perfection.”[5] The infinite, so it is thought, is mutually opposed to perfection, completion, etc.


Plato further develops upon the pre-Socratics by conceiving of what are now termed act and potency as “principles” termed “the limit” and “the unlimited.” Clarke observes the relationship of these two principles in Plato as follows, “According to the Platonic metaphysics, all realities below the supreme idea of the Good (or the One) are a ‘mixture’ of two opposing principles, the limit and the unlimited, which reappear with analogical similarity on all the levels of reality from the world of ideas to the half-real world of sensible things.”[6] Thus, the limit and the unlimited “exist” idealistically and phenomenally, that is, in the world of forms and in the world of “sensible things.” Plato, then, moves the classico-philosophical world toward a more nuanced doctrine of what would eventually come to be known as act and potency. Nevertheless—and this is no surprise, but worth mentioning—the limitation of act by potency doesn’t appear in Plato’s work.

Plato goes on to identify the indeterminate with the “material cause,” or “pure matter.” Clarke observes, “The principle of illumination, on the other hand, is identified with the formlessness and indeterminacy of pure matter and multiplicity as such, and therefore with ‘otherness’ or non-being, as the source of unintelligibility and imperfection.” For Plato, “pure matter” does not appear to serve any sort of limiting purpose at all. To the contrary, that which is indeterminate apparently cannot limit since that which is indeterminate must be infinite, and thus limitless. Therefore, for both the pre-Socratics and Socrates’s greatest student, potency seems to be the least likely candidate in terms of finding a principle of limitation and thus individuation.


Aristotle continues the trend. For this reason, Aristotle cannot rightly be thought of as the progenitor of the Thomistic doctrine of limitation of act by potency. Characterizing Aristotle’s understanding, Clarke points out that, “No complete substance, therefore, can exist as actually infinite. The terms are mutually exclusive. For the perfect, which is but a synonym for the complete or finished, is precisely that which had an end, and the end, he says, is a limit.”[8] Being, then, cannot have an infinite “to be.” For that which is infinite cannot be circumscribed to the parameters of “being” since, if such were the case, the infinite would be determined—a sure and certain absurdity in the eyes of Aristotle.

Summing up his view, Clark recapitulates Aristotle’s own summary, “Nature flees from the infinite, for the infinite is unending or imperfect, and nature ever seeks an end.”[9] Following in the footsteps of Anaximander and Plato, Aristotle does not view what is now called “potency” as a limiting principle. For Aristotle, formless matter (potency) is infinite and thus diametrically opposed to limitation. Nevertheless, according to Clarke, Thomas is still able to appropriate Aristotle along with a major qualification. He writes, “St. Thomas takes over intact this perspective into his own system. But he adds to it another dimension, so to speak, in which the relations are reversed and matter also appears as limiting form.”[10] Whereas Aristotle and his predecessors view matter/potency as the infinite, boundless, and thus, unlimited, Thomas makes matter/potency the “limiting form.”

Further developing his observation of Thomas’s conception, Clarke continues by saying, “Whatever is capable of change of any kind—and only that—must have within it in addition to its present act a principle of potency, or capacity to receive a further act… Act, on the other hand, is always identified with the fully complete, the actually present. Pure act, therefore, is simply a correlative of the immutable, i.e., of pure actualized form, complete in all that is proper to is and incorruptible.”[11] Potency is capacity—a want or lack within a thing—which nevertheless represents what that thing could be. Potency, then, is the limiting principle. Act, contrary to the pre-Socratics, Plato, and Aristotle, is identified with that which is complete or perfect. The only question remaining is, What bridges the gap between Aristotle and Thomas? Is there some other source which may have helped Thomas develop this doctrine of limitation of act by potency?

The Neoplatonism of Plotinus

The Neoplatonism of Plotinus would introduce and apply the metaphysics of the “One” in the baffling equation of infinity and limitation. The “One” would virtually function as a synonym for God, “a synonym for infinite: uncircumscribed (agerigraphos).”[12] Not of little importance, Clarke notes, “The first Christian texts calling God infinite do not appear till the fourth century, and precisely in those circles which are known to have been influenced by Neoplatonism.”[13] 

Neoplatonism casts the discussion of infinite and limited in terms of a higher metaphysic that looks above the formal object of the natural sciences, i.e. the material world. God, the infinite, now stands over and above the created essences, such that, “the old Platonic order or limited, intelligible essences, composed of form as perfecting limit imposed on the infinity of sensible or ‘intelligible’ matter, is still preserved. But their relation to the supreme One by emanation introduces a new dimension of function of the limiting principle, that of limiting what is above it as well as what is below it.”[14] Clarke clarifies thereafter, saying, “In this perspective all the intelligible essences below the One now appear as limited and hence imperfect participations of this supremely perfect and absolutely simple first principle, which somehow embraces within itself the perfection of all the lower determinate essences but is none of them in particular.”[15]

Therefore, with Neoplatonism came the philosophical precursors to a doctrine of limitation of act by potency to an extent not seen in Aristotle or those who came before him. If the “One” is infinite, and if all things below it are finite or limited, yet are by virtue of their imitation or participation in the “One,” that which is (act) is necessarily limited by that which is not but could possibly be (potency).

Concluding with Thomas Aquinas

In light of the above, Thomas reaches his monumental conclusion, “Act is not limited except by reception in a distinct potency.”[16] Such a conclusion, of course, while perhaps influenced negatively by Aristotle and his predecessors, is positively developed in light of the preceding, and more relatively recent, Neoplatonism. Act just is and is limited only by potency. But we must observe with Clarke that this language, however influenced by both Aristotelianism and Neoplatonism, is actually neither properly so called. As Clarke puts it, “The final result of the fusion of the two theories into a single coherent synthesis can thus properly be called neither Aristotelianism nor Neoplatonism. It is something decisively new, which can only be styled, ‘Thomism.’”[17]

The pre-Socratics, Plato, and Aristotle identified what amounts to act with determinacy and finitude. For them, “act” was mutually exclusive to “potency,” as limitation is mutually exclusive to infinity. Neoplatonism, however, saw the “One” as the infinite, created essences being limited and finite. This new relation paved the way for understanding the finite and the infinite in a more coherent way. Thomas understood God to be the infinite, or pure act, creation being composed of act limited by potency.


[1] Clarke, Norris W., Explorations In Metaphysics, (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1994), 67.

[2] Clarke, Explorations In Metaphysics, 68.

[3] Clarke, Explorations In Metaphysics, 69.

[4] Clarke, Explorations In Metaphysics, 69.

[5] Clarke, Explorations In Metaphysics,70.

[6] Clarke, Explorations In Metaphysics, 71.

[7] Clarke, Explorations In Metaphysics, 71.

[8] Clarke, Explorations In Metaphysics, 73.

[9] Clarke, Explorations In Metaphysics, 73.

[10] Clarke, Explorations In Metaphysics, 73.

[11] Clarke, Explorations In Metaphysics, 74.

[12] Clarke, Explorations In Metaphysics, 76.

[13] Clarke, Explorations In Metaphysics, 76.

[14] Clarke, Explorations In Metaphysics, 76. Emphasis added.

[15] Clarke, Explorations In Metaphysics, 76-77.

[16] Clarke, Explorations In Metaphysics, 80.

[17] Clarke, Explorations In Metaphysics, 81.

When Scripture Becomes A Wax Nose

When Scripture Becomes A Wax Nose

With the contemporary skeptical approach to natural theology has come an influx of Trinitarian and Christological errors. Why is this? Probably because a rejection of the natural truths God reveals about Himself through nature will inevitably lead to a rejection of those same truths even as they come through Scripture—or at least there will be a drastic reinterpretation of them. Immutability, simplicity, self-existence—all three may be known about God through natural revelation. This is what Thomas demonstrates in his Summa Theologiae, and it is what was understood to be the case in the first generation Reformers onward (cf. John Calvin’s Institutes, Book I).

What happens when the data of natural revelation falls by the wayside? The same data perfectly and perspicuously presented in the Scriptures is interpreted on the supposition of some other metaphysical or epistemological standard (admittedly or not). This other standard is what fills the vacuum left by the first principles given through nature. We are then left with the problem of biblicism. But with biblicism, one is not allowed to carry a natural understanding of God into the interpretive task in any measure. Scripture becomes the soul witness to immutability, simplicity, and self-existence. This is not in itself a problem, since Scripture ought to be received because it is from God—the highest Authority. But when the individual Bible-reader rejects the testimony of nature, Scripture becomes a wax nose formable to whatever philosophy he uncritically and unwittingly imbibes.

When Turretin says that natural theology functions as “a subjective condition in man for the admission of the light of grace because God does not appeal to brutes and stocks, but to rational creatures,”[1] he means that man, as imago Dei, possesses a natural intellect providentially direct by God to appropriate Scriptural data. God’s Scriptural appeal is made to rational creatures. And when, by grace, a rational creature is made to accept and trust in the truth of Scripture, his rational appetites are not extinguished but improved. 

Biblicism rejects the reality of the light of reason before and after regeneration. It’s not that the biblicist doesn’t use the light of reason; it’s that he uses it unacknowledged. And rather than critically examine his own philosophical assumptions using the light of reason, keeping the good ones while exiling the bad ones, he refuses to acknowledge he has any philosophical assumptions at all even though he does. This unexamined life then leads to an always-shifting understanding of biblical meaning. 

If a person’s philosophical assumptions change, so will their interpretational approach to Scripture. Just observe the historical-causal connection between the Enlightenment of the 18th century and the church’s interpretational method before and after that period of time. Or, if you like, look at the theological changes that took place from the pre-modern era into the modern era. If philosophical assumptions are never given a voice, they’ll always be changing. A person can only consciously hold their position in place if they are conscious of it.

There is no approaching Scripture as a tabula rasa (blank slate), even after regeneration. A person is going to approach Scripture with some kind of a philosophical precommitment. Classical theism offers a transparent, commonsensical philosophy. Simply put, the light of nature prepares for the introduction of the light of Scripture. The light of nature informs our understanding of Scripture, and Scripture turns us back to nature so that we can understand it to a greater and more perfect extent. And thus, the classical theist may employ natural theology in service to specially revealed theology derived from the Scriptures. Those who reject classical theism cannot see how natural theology may be used in service to supernatural theology.

As a result, they not only remain happily ignorant of the sophisticated expression of the faith, found in the terminology of the creeds and confessions, they actively combat it. It is one thing to remain in ignorance, it is quite another to be confronted with further truths and react by recalcitrantly rejecting those truths. While one may permissibly be ignorant of the more articulate expression of the Christian faith, they do not have permission to reject that articulate expression of the Christian faith should it be true.


[1] Turretin, Francis, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Vol. I, (Phillipsburg: P & R Publishing, 1992), 10.

Philosophy & Preambles of Faith

Philosophy & Preambles of Faith

The following article is an engagement paper originally submitted to IRBS in fulfillment of an assignment for Dr. James Dolezal’s Foundations of Philosophical Theology class.

The distinction between the preambles of faith and the articles of faith refer to that which may be demonstrated through reason and that which is apprehended by faith, respectively. Furthermore, it might even be said that the preambles of faith and the articles of faith respect two distinct formal objects of two distinct sciences—philosophy and theology.

Philosophy, as a science, has as its formal object metaphysics, or being qua being, which is principle to and presupposed by any science considering being under a certain specification, e.g. the natural sciences. Whereas the science of theology regards God and all things in relation to God, philosophy facilitates the study of preambulatory ontology allowing the theologian to properly conceive of God and things as they relate to Him.

In sum, therefore, the preambles of faith are those things which may be apprehended through reason, given through general revelation. While the articles of faith are those things which must be apprehended by faith in the subject, given by special revelation. Articles of faith, strictly speaking, cannot be demonstrated through sensory observation of the natural world, nor can they be deduced through reason. They must be revealed by God through Scripture, which is the source of redemptive knowledge. The preambles of faith are revealed in nature and may be known by reason, yet they are also presupposed and thus revealed in Scripture. These preambles of faith are sometimes called “mixed articles” since they are revealed in both nature and Scripture, while articles of faith are sometimes called “pure articles” because they must be received by faith from Scripture alone as their source.

Philosophy, then, is assigned to inquiry concerning the preambles of faith. And theology is assigned to inquiry concerning the articles of faith revealed through Scripture. The former is a lower science that cannot attain to the latter, higher science of theology apart from special revelation and faith in the subject. While it is true this lower science of philosophy can attain to a natural theology, the use of the term “theology” used above and throughout this article regards the science whose formal object is the articles of faith communicated through special revelation alone.

Engaging Preambles of Faith & Articles of Faith

According to John Wippel, Thomas Aquinas makes this same distinction in his commentary on Boethius’ De Trinitate, “Thomas uses the terms ‘preamble’ and ‘preambulatory’ in somewhat different but related senses, that is, to refer to other sciences as preparatory sciences (in scientiis praembulis) for metaphysics, and to refer to the many praembula required to reach knowledge of divine things. But common to all of these usages is the notion that a preamble is something that is in some way presupposed for something else.”[1] Preambles, as in “preambles of faith,” are presupposed by the articles of faith, as nature is presupposed by grace (since grace does not obliterate, but is given for nature’s improvement; cf. Rom. 8:18-30). An example might be the incarnation of Christ. The incarnation of Christ is not a doctrine revealed and thus known through nature but only through Scripture. Nevertheless, the incarnation assumes nature in that the Son took to Himself the fullness of a human nature—a true body and a reasonable soul.[2] The grace of the gospel, though known only by a faith informed by special revelation, presupposes nature because nature is the very object upon which that grace terminates. Without nature, there would be nothing for grace to redeem.

Though something of the relationship between preambles of faith and articles of faith can be seen above, there is more to observe. Wippel states, “As regards preambles of faith, here Thomas has indicated that they are certain truths that faith presupposes and that philosophy demonstrates… there can be no doubt that Thomas Aquinas holds that natural reason can demonstrate such preambles of faith, beginning with the existence of God.”[3] Wippel finds (12) preambles of faith in the work of Thomas Aquinas, though he leaves room for an extension of that number upon further considerations. These preambula include God’s existence, that God is one, that God is infinite, and that God is a creative principle. Admittedly, Wippel did not discuss divine providence in his total because he addresses it elsewhere, though it should be included as well.[4] That the existence of God is made a preamble in the thought of Thomas is undeniable, and most certainly seems necessary upon the hypothesis of the constitution of the natural world.

That God may be demonstratively known through what has been made has drawn some criticism because of the difficulty of such a task. However, it is important to understand that Thomas did not hang the entire weight of divine knowability on a person’s aptitude to demonstrate God’s existence. While articles of faith are sourced by Scripture and not accessible through nature, preambles of faith are often sourced by both nature and Scripture. Wippel expresses Thomas’ thought well, “Since natural knowledge of God will be acquired only late in life, and since our entire lives should be guided throughout by our knowledge of God, it is necessary that those truths that are naturally knowable about God should be held by faith from the beginning of our lives insofar as they are presupposed for faith and are not yet known naturally by us.”[5] In other words, the preambles of faith, while demonstrable through nature (leading to natural knowledge) can also be apprehended by faith since the articles of faith presuppose them. For example, a person may not have proven God’s existence through the argument from motion, but he has come to believe the first statement in Scripture, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth (Gen. 1:1).” Therefore, those who are unable to prove God’s existence through nature, e.g. young children, invalids, those with lower aptitude, etc., may apprehend God’s existence by faith (per accidens) even though it falls among the preambula rather than the articles of faith per se.

Something must now be said concerning the practical relationship between preambles of faith and articles of faith as the former is used to inform our understanding of the latter and vice versa. While demonstration of preambles is not necessary to one’s personal faith, since all the preambles requisite to faith are presupposed by the articles of faith, e.g. the Trinity (an article of faith) presupposes the existence of God, it (demonstration) can be profitable in the development of a person’s understanding of God and also in the defense of the articles of faith from faulty philosophical objections. Wippel writes, “if someone succeeds in demonstrating [God’s existence], one will have deepened one’s understanding of God and will have advanced in the pursuit of wisdom; but such a person will not in any way have reached scientific knowledge of the article of faith itself.”[6] It is fitting one should work through the proofs because it benefits the knower. However, no matter how sound the proof is, it will never attain redemptive knowledge of God. Demonstration of God leading to a natural knowledge of God will not yield knowledge of that which must be apprehended by faith. That God is one in three, the incarnation, penal substitutionary atonement, etc., must be received by faith from Scripture. Only then is the “scientific knowledge of the article of faith itself” reached.

This brings us to the question of foundations. Are preambles of faith foundational to articles of faith?

If they are, in what sense must such a dynamic be understood? Quoting Thomas, Wippel notes, “But among those things that are to be considered about God in himself, one must put before everything else as the necessary foundation for the entire work the consideration by which it is demonstrated that God exists. Without this, every consideration about divine things is necessarily undermined.”[7] In terms of the individual, we have seen that Thomas does not believe he must necessarily begin with a demonstration of the preambles in his own thinking. In fact, as Thomas admits, this is a difficult task and if anyone does succeed at it, it will be later in life. Yet, in terms of a “work” on theology, such as the Summa Theologiae or the Summa contra Gentiles, where the task becomes systematization, the preambles must come first. Without the existence of God, there is no further elaboration upon the doctrine of the Trinity. Apart from the existence of God, the incarnation of the Son of God means very little if anything at all. In this sense, therefore, the preambles of the faith are preparatory to the articles of faith (in scientiis praembulis) and thus may be referred to as “foundational.”[8] However, as Wippel made clear elsewhere, demonstration of the preambles are by no means necessary to the redemption of the individual. While it is prudent to demonstrate God’s existence, such demonstration is by no means a condition lying between the sinner and the gates of glory.


According to Wippel, then, Thomas distinguished between the preambles of faith and the articles of faith. The preambles of faith may be known by the light of reason, and demonstrated through what has been made. The articles of faith may be known only by the light of special revelation, the source of which is the Holy Scriptures. The articles of faith are not demonstrable by reason, but lie beyond that which reason may attain by itself. However, the preambles of faith are related to the articles of faith in that the articles of faith presuppose the preambles. Since this is the case, the preambles of faith can help us better understand the articles of faith. The unity of the Godhead (a preamble of faith), for example, is not only helpful but necessary in an orthodox conception of the Holy Trinity, i.e. one God subsisting in three subsistences or relations—Father, Son, and Spirit. To understand something of metaphysics is incredibly useful in distinguishing Person and nature. These are natural concepts not exclusively revealed through Scripture. Yet, they are helpful in understanding that which is exclusively revealed through Scripture—the incarnate Son of God.


[1] Wippel, John F., The Science of Being as Being, (Washington D. C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2012), 199.

[2] The Baptist Catechism, Q. 25.

[3] Wippel, The Science of Being as Being, 198.

[4] Ibid., 220.

[5] Ibid., 202.

[6] Ibid., 203.

[7] Ibid., 212.

[8] Ibid., 199.

Jeff Johnson, Moved Movers, & Ghostly Paradoxes

Jeff Johnson, Moved Movers, & Ghostly Paradoxes

In his counter to Ed Feser’s article written in response to The Failure of Natural Theology, Jeff Johnson writes, “Aquinas accepted Aristotle’s foundation that God is the unmoved mover, but Aquinas did not embrace Aristotle’s logical conclusion that God could not have been the moving cause of the universe.” In other words, it is irrational to assert, on the one hand, God’s immobility while yet understanding Him to be the “moving cause” of the universe. He goes on to explain—

By holding Aristotle’s starting point and rejecting Aristotle’s conclusion, Aquinas’ philosophical theology was filled with all kinds of irresolvable tensions. As I explain in my book, Aquinas was unable to show how God could be Pure Act (unmoved mover) and, at the same time, the moving cause (effectual cause) of a world that was made out of nothing. How can Pure Act do something that is not essential to his own pure actuality? How can Pure Act do anything that is not necessary? Aquinas never gave any good answers to these questions. Aristotle sure didn’t think Pure Act could be the moving cause of the universe.

Johnson seems to believe there is an apparent contradiction in need of explanation. There is, as it were, a paradox in need of resolution. But, as we shall see, there is no such paradox unless the doctrine of pure actuality is approached through materialist and, might I say, Newtonian assumptions. Beyond a ghostly apparition, lacking all substance, this apparent contradiction is nonexistent. 

Thomas’ Flow of Thought

Johnson alleges Thomas fails to explain the “tension” between God as a pure act on the one hand and the temporal reality of His effects on the other. If God produces effects, it is assumed, He must undergo some kind of motion in order to bring them about. Thus, to say God is immobile while attributing the work of temporal, mobile creation to Him appears to be a contradiction in terms in need of serious philosophical and theological explanation.

Thomas, however, did not sense such a burden. For Thomas, God’s effects were and are to be interpreted in light of who God is. Rather than utilizing the finite characteristics of creation as an interpretive grid for the doctrine of God, there are fundamental things which cannot be true of God, e.g. contingency, finitude, change. We should understand God, as unchanging, necessary Being, as that which conditions creation rather than understanding creation as that which conditions or limits God—which it would do if God required motion (the actualization of a potential) in order to create. Such a divine priority is set forth in what Thomas writes here:

From what precedes, it is shown that God is altogether immutable. First, because it was shown above that there is some first being, whom we call God; and that this first being must be pure act, without the admixture of any potentiality, for the reason that, absolutely, potentiality is posterior to act. Now everything which is in any way changed, is in some way in potentiality. Hence it is evident that it is impossible for God to be in any way changeable (ST, I, Q. 9, Art. 1).

Why is God altogether immutable? “Because it was shown earlier,” he says, “that there is some first being, whom we call God; and that this first being must be pure act…” In other words, Thomas does not argue as thus: “Creation came into being. Coming into being entails motion. Therefore, there must be a ‘first motion’ in God.” Such an order would be wrong-headed to a medieval scholastic like Thomas because it imposes what is proper only of composed, contingent being upon God—who is altogether simple and therefore necessary.

Does Creation Necessarily Imply a “First Motion” in God?

Johnson asks, “How can Pure Act do something that is not essential to his own pure actuality? How can Pure Act do anything that is not necessary?” If pure act is already “done,” so to speak, how can it “do” any more? To do that which He has not yet done, e.g. to create, would seem to imply some movement from “not doing” to “doing” in God. But to assume God must undergo motion Himself in order to produce motion in another is to place Him squarely within the order of contingency. Most obviously because God would depend on movement in order to bring about His effects. More subtly, however, is the sneaking suggestion that God, like His creatures, would theoretically take on all the marks of what is termed a subordinate cause. Johnson seems to think God is the “moved mover,” which Bernard Wuellner defines as “a cause of motion in another which is itself also moved by another while imparting motion.”[1]

To suggest motion in God as requisite to motion in the creature has three main (read: fatal) implications:

1) God is an admixture of act and potency. He is in act, that is, He exists. But there is some potential or capacity in God to be actualized prior to and for the purpose of creation. This means God is dependent upon two parts or principles to be what He is—act and potency.

2) God is conditioned by motion. If God wants to create, He is required to move from one state of being, “not-Creator,” to another state of being, “Creator.” In other words, given motion in God, (1) comes back to haunt us, that God is composed of act and potency. Motion, after all, is but the actualization of a potential.

3) God is conditioned by His creation. For God to bring about creation, He must undergo motion, and this implies creation determines or conditions God similar to how a builder is conditioned by His building project. His building project determines him while likewise he determines his building project. Just as the builder and his project have a give-and-take causal relationship, God is assumed to have a similar relationship to the world at large. If God would not undergo “creative motion” prior to creation, then creation is at least partially responsible for the actualization of the potential to create in God. If this is so, God would depend on His creation and would thus not be self-existent or a se.

All of this cashes out in a contingent or dependent god who relies upon that which is not God to be God. He would be composed of act and potency, two principles which make him to be what he is. He would be reliant upon motion itself as a requisite to the fulfillment of his goal. And he would be reliant on creation since, in order to create, he must meet certain conditions, i.e. motion. Creation determines, defines, or conditions him, thereby decimating the doctrine of self-existence (cf. Ex. 3:14).

On these grounds, any kind of coherent theism would be impossible. And, if I might employ the help of Anselm’s ontological argument: If there is something greater than a being conditioned to create through act/potency, the actualization of a potential (movement), etc., then that Being is God, and not the one conditioned by motion and creatures. I can conceive of a God that does not require motion in order to create, that is, a God that is actus purus. Thus, the moving, conditioned god is not God. The unconditioned Conditioner is God.


The issues raised by Johnson are not really issues at all. His problems with classical theism assume a certain order of dogmatic theology classical theists would consider incoherent. God, as pure act, cannot be subjugated to categories and properties proper only to contingency and finitude. If God is pure act, unchangeable, and infinite, it follows that He is the unconditioned Conditioner of all that is not God. While creation is a means by which we derive creaturely or ectypal knowledge of God, it itself is not the measure of God. Subordinate causation, i.e. moved movers, a feature of contingency, should not be projected upon God simply due to the profound and inescapable experience creatures have with them. Instead, features proper to contingency ought to be unquestioningly removed from the divine essence so that we do not erroneously promote the “creationalization” of God.

Much of the above, admittedly, addresses a confusion, the likes of which result from rhetoric more so than real disagreement on technicalia. I believe there is some real terminological confusion occurring in this conversation and a severe case of an overcommitment to thesis. Much of this could be resolved if Johnson and others were more amicable to the idea of two-way communication, dialogue, and debate on the issue. For my part, this offer will always stand.


[1] Bernard Wuellner, Dictionary of Scholastic Philosophy, (Fitzwilliam: Loreto Publications, 2012), 78.

An Elementary Essay Contra Modal Collapse

An Elementary Essay Contra Modal Collapse

If God is simple, it follows He isn’t made up of anything more basic than Himself to be what He is. In other words, God is non-composed. All that is in God is God. An apparent difficulty arises, however, when we consider God’s will as it relates to the created world. If God is simple, it follows that the divine essence is identical to divine will. There is no real distinction between essence and existence, nor is there any real distinction between essence and attributes. The apparent trouble comes whenever the studious mind considers God’s will to create and creation itself. 

Modal Collapse

If God and God’s will to create are one and the same, creation would apparently be necessary rather than contingent since it would necessarily flow from a will that could not be otherwise. He and His will to create the world are one and the same thing. This means the created world is just as necessary as He is, or so it is assumed. This breakdown or reduction of God’s essential nature into the creation, and the creation into God’s essential nature, is referred to as a modal collapse. According to modal collapse, divine simplicity entails the eradication of modality, or the reduction of real ontological distinction between Creator and creature.

In order to escape this problem, theologians and philosophers have opted for a theology proper exclusionary of divine simplicity. There are real faculties, attributes, and mental realities in God that are not identified with God’s essence. If, for example, we distinguish between God’s essence and God’s will, it would seem we have room to maintain the necessity of the essence while separating such necessity from an act of will (since essence and will would be really distinct from one another). While this may seem to open up some room for an escape from the modal collapse problem mentioned above, it really only kicks the can up the road. For example, how does making a real distinction between essence and will genuinely resist a modal collapse? It would seem that if the essence is necessary, the will following from it would be necessary. And if the will following from the divine essence is necessary, the creation it wills is necessary also. Therefore, the problem of modal collapse seems to remain. No matter how many dominoes we add, they will all fall just the same.

Two Species of Necessity

However, this brief essay is not a critique of the modal collapse objection, per se. Instead, I want to show how the modal collapse problem falls short in presenting a real problem for divine simplicity on grounds of a categorical misunderstanding related to the concept of necessity. Modal collapse, in other words, is only an apparent problem. The concern of modal collapse, and those who reject simplicity in light of it, is misplaced. The failure to distinguish between two key species of necessity has led to the assumption that necessity must always be absolute. Absolute necessity applies to that which has its existence through itself rather than another, or that which must exist given some antecedent. But there is another species of necessity which entails contingency upon an antecedent condition. A necessity of consequent or supposition applies to an effect which necessarily follows from some cause by reason of the cause itself. In the expression, “If (X), therefore, (Z),” (Z) is contingent in that it depends upon the prior condition (X). However, given (X), (Z) necessarily follows.

God is metaphysically necessary, and creation might be said to be a necessity of consequent following from the nature of God. Given the nature of God, creation both is, and is a certain way. Some would say this eradicates divine freedom. However, divine freedom must be defined according to divine nature. Freedom is not the ability to work apart from nature, but in accord with nature. Given that God’s nature is that which none greater can be conceived, it just is archetypal freedom. This particular creation is that which follows from God’s boundless divine freedom. If one were to ask, “Could God have not created the world, or could He have created a different kind of world?” We can still answer, “Yes.” God, who is power itself, could have created any number of worlds, or no world at all. But because this power is also love, knowledge, wisdom, etc., this particular creation is the creation God decreed. And because this creation is an effect of God, it is, by definition, not absolutely necessary—it doesn’t exist through itself, nor was God bound to create it by some other reason. But it is a necessity of consequent following from the antecedent condition of God’s good, wise, and glorious essence.

Thomas Aquinas on the Two Kinds of Necessity

Thomas Aquinas conceives of two basic kinds of necessity along the same lines we’ve drawn above. “There are two ways in which a thing is said to be necessary, namely, absolutely, and by supposition.”[1] According to Aquinas, God wills some things absolutely in that He ordains certain created means which are necessary unto the end. But He wills some things suppositionally in that what He does will, He cannot not will, “Yet it can be necessary by supposition, for supposing that He wills a thing, then He is unable not to will it, as His will cannot change.”[2] That which is willed, i.e. from eternity past, may not be necessarily requisite to some end (absolute), but it is willed by God and therefore cannot be unwilled since God’s will does not change, per the doctrine of divine immutability.

Francis Turretin on the Two Kinds of Necessity

 Francis Turretin receives this same understanding of necessity when he writes:

On the state of the question observe: (1) that necessity is twofold; one absolute, which simply and by itself and its own nature cannot be otherwise, as that God is good, just, etc. The other hypothetical, which is not so of itself and simply such but that it could be otherwise, but yet on the positing of something it necessarily follows and could not be otherwise; as for example, if you posit that God predestinates Jacob to salvation, it is necessary that Jacob should be saved, namely on the hypothesis of the decree.[3]

The concern of modal collapse fails to distinguish properly between the above two modes of necessity cited by both Aquinas and Turretin. If the only possible conception of necessity was that of absolute necessity, modal collapse objections may succeed at presenting a legitimate problem for divine simplicity which would imply patheistic undertones. If God essence and will are identical, meaning God’s will is eternal and immutable, it follows that creation is necessary but only by reason of supposition. Creation is necessary in that God has willed it from eternity and what God’s will is is—apart from  any variation or shadow of turning (Jas. 1:17). Thus, part of the modal collapse concern is readily granted by the classical theist, albeit not without qualification.

How Is Creation Distinct From the Divine Essence?

Creation continues to be distinct from the divine essence, and it also continues to be finite in duration (it began to exist). It is contingently reliant upon God and His will. Creation, therefore, exists necessarily but only conditionally, hypothetically, or suppositionally. Creation, as a work, is not itself representative of a change, but is the primary production of change itself. Agreeing once more with Aquinas, Turretin writes, “Now although creation is not formally a divine volition, still on that account there is no change made in God by it… It is made without any motion and proceeds from his eternal efficacious and omnipotent will.”[4] Thus, it isn’t necessary to opine some change in the being or will of God in light of His creative work. Nor can any change or motion of will be introduced within the divine essence apart from logically implying some contingency or dependency in God. Thus, the divine essence and the creation remain distinct upon the sufficient reason of the conditionality and contingency of the creation as its creation and being depends entirely upon divine will and power. But whereas the divine will and power are necessary, immutable, and unchangeable (being one with the divine essence), the creation—by a suppositional necessity—follows from it.


No matter the position one takes, the modal collapse problem largely fails to consider the various historical understandings of necessity. There is indeed another way to conceive of God, necessity, and creation apart from the assumed model usually taken for granted in modern theology proper. God is necessary Being—He exists through Himself, not through another. Moreover, some things God wills are absolutely necessary, e.g. God necessarily wills His own good. But as we consider creation, that which is other than God, we must understand it as necessary by reason of supposition. It is a “contingent necessity”; contingent in that it depends upon an antecedent cause; necessary in that it follows from that cause which is unchangeable and eternal, i.e. the will of God.


[1] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, vol. 1, (Notre Dame, IN: Christian Classics, 1981), 104.

[2] Ibid., 105.

[3] Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, vol. 1, (Phillipsburg: P & R Publishing, 1992), 218-19.

[4] Ibid., 433.

The Decline of Natural Theology

The Decline of Natural Theology

There isn’t a single place upon the timeline of history to which we might point in an attempt make an historical demonstration of natural theology’s demise. History is like this. The causes of things are just that, causes. Rarely is it possible to locate a singular cause for why this or that philosophy or tradition eventually fell out of vogue (or came into vogue for that matter). Usually these things occur through process. Ideas have consequences, but sometimes those consequences hide themselves from the general population for decades behind the doors of the ivory tower. This essay is in the service of defending and thereby promoting the idea that natural theology is indeed valid, that is, it is a legitimate species of knowledge available to both unregenerate and regenerate persons. But before such a defense can be made, a brief survey must be undertaken of the ideas and criticisms leading to the erosion of confidence in natural theology. Yet, as noted above, this survey will struggle to locate the demise of natural theology in any one place upon the historical timeline. Such an overview, therefore, is more like observing a mere piece of tapestry woven through with complex details and countless colors that we can neither observe nor display in full.

The 17th century will serve as a key historical point of entry. René Descartes was a French philosopher born in 1596. Political and theological reformation continued to hang heavy in the continental European air. In his brief volume, Meditations on First Philosophy, Descartes undercuts the entire pre-modern project of natural theology. He writes:

Several years have now elapsed since I first became aware that I had accepted, even from my youth, many false opinions for true, and that consequently what I afterward based on such principles was highly doubtful; and from that time I was convinced of the necessity of undertaking once in my life to rid myself of all the opinions I had adopted, and of commencing anew the work of building from the foundation, if I desired to establish a firm and abiding superstructure in the sciences.[1]

The would-be demise of natural theology resides in Descartes’ conception of a “foundation,” that is, it was epistemological and thus ideological in nature. He does not here have in mind an ontological or metaphysical basis that would be external to himself and thus true notwithstanding his idea of it, nor is he referring to axioms common to all men which themselves may be said to be self-evident and thus mind-independent. 

Instead, Descartes wants to have a foundational idea from which he can deduce other ideas, and this process is supposed to result in a proper collection of opinions or beliefs about the world. Frederick Wilhelmsen describes Destartes’ epistemological commitment as follows, “Intuition furnishes the mind with a set of ideas whose objectivity cannot be doubted. Deduction is the tool whereby the mind expands its knowledge by moving rationally from the ideas to every truth implicitly contained within them.”[2] From Descartes’ foundational cogito ergo sum he would seek to intuitively and deductively construct a valid system of knowledge with as few assumptions or false opinions as possible. This would only set the stage for the later David Hume’s skepticism and Immanuel Kant’s subsequent idealism which included an epistemology committed to central ideas inclusive of the infinite whole of reality. Simply put—a worldview.

Situating Knowledge Within the Historical Picture

Prior to Descartes, in medieval, Reformed, and post-Reformation thinkers, reality itself was understood as the source of knowledge. Knowledge was not so much understood to be a collection of ideas which hopefully approximate the context of the subject. Knowledge was seen as the apprehension or abstraction of the real essences of things in the world. Creation was understood as something that inevitably informed the intellect of the rational soul. As Peter Martyr Virmigli writes concerning the creature’s knowledge of God:

For by the workmanship of this world, they knew God to be most mightie. Further, they knew by the beautie, shew, & distinction of all things, that so great a power was administered by a most high providence and wisdom. Also the commoditie and profit of things created taught them the Maiestie of God, which consisteth chieflie in this, that he dooth good unto all things.[3]

Though such words are in direct reference to theistic proof, the assumption of how one comes to knowledge is apparent. Objects or things serve as the medium through which knowledge comes. He further states, “And these knowledges of God being naturallie ingrafted in us by God, are every daie more and more confirmed and made perfect by the observation of things created.”[4] But for Descartes, knowledge of the world must begin within the self, that is, idealistically. From the Cartesian conception of knowledge would eventually come historical worldview theory. A person’s knowledge of the world begins with a single concept which must account for the whole. The difference between the pre-modern and modern epistemologies, represented by Virmigly and Descartes respectively, could not be more different. For Virmigly, human knowledge entails having something of the objective world in the intellect. Knowledge, thought Vermigli, originates in the things to be known rather than in the knower.

Worldview theory made its official debut in the thought of Immanuel Kant. The approach of worldview theory is summed up well by Dr. J. V. Fesko, “The rise of philosophical idealism was one of the reasons why the book of nature was largely set aside, namely the idea that one must have a comprehensive view of life and the world that has a solitary starting point unfolding into a holistic system of thought.”[5] Such an approach is incompatible with the classical notion of natural theology since natural theology takes for granted common notions. Thomas Aquinas notes, “the truth is not known to all as regards the conclusions, but only as regards the principles which are called common notions.”[6] Common notions are principles common to all men in that they are not conclusions but principles that cannot be demonstrated, e.g. the laws of logic, principle of causality, etc. On the contrary, however, Greg Bahnsen, quoting Cornelius Van Til who followed Kant on this point, writes:

The absolute contrast between the Christian and the non-Christian in the field of knowledge is said to be that of principle. Full recognition is made of the fact that in spite of this absolute contrast of principle, there is relative good in those who are evil… So far as men self-consciously work from this principle they have no notion in common with the believer…[7]

The difference is decisive. On the one hand, Aquinas, who is in favor of natural theology, asserts common notions. On the other hand, Van Til, who would come to be known as an important Christian proponent of worldview thinking in the 20th century, rejected common notions on the basis of worldview theory. If he granted common notions at all, such were understood to be contingent upon and defined by an epistemological state rather than the objective world.


Following the consummation of Descartes’ approach in the Enlightenment thinkers of the 18th century, and more relevantly, as those assumptions were absorbed into Christian thought, common notions, and thus natural theology, are now generally assumed to be invalid. As the reader will hopefully see, this has been largely taken for granted rather than demonstrated. And if a demonstration contra natural theology has occurred, it has usually occurred upon the basis of some misunderstanding of the principles involved (cf. John Stewart Mill’s mis-definition of the principle of causality and Bertrand Russell’s appropriation of it in, Why I Am Not A Christian). Most criticisms of natural theology and the arguments for God’s existence commonly marshalled within natural theology are criticisms which inadvertently domesticate the proofs thereby removing them from their context within Christian prolegomena. As a result, criticisms of the proofs usually proceed on the false and unexamined assumption that they are inherently rationalistic. Moreover, it is often thought that David Hume produced a valid and sound refutation of causal reasoning which, if true, would render the proofs entirely invalid. Thus, the domestication of natural theology and the validation of skepticism are two major reasons for the cultural demise of natural theology, especially within the Christian domain.


[1] René Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, (p. 12). E-Bookarama. Kindle Edition.

[2] Frederick Wilhelmsen, Man’s Knowledge of Reality, (Brooklyn: Angelico Press, 2021), 10.

[3] Peter Martyr Virmigli, Common Places, vol. I, (Coppell: Reformation Classic, 2021), 24.

[4] Ibid., 26.

[5] Fesko, J. V., Reforming Apologetics (p. 6). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[6] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Part I-II, Q. 94, Art. 4, (Claremont: Coyote Canyon Press, 2010).

[7] Greg Bahnsen, Always Ready: Directions for Defending the Faith, Kindle Edition. Loc. 608.