philosophy

The Aquinas Papers: In God There Is No Passive Potency

Abstract: It has become common to apply some external and non-consequential change to God in order to make Him seem more relatable to His creation. These changes have been referred to as the addition of covenantal or accidental properties which accrue to God in a way so as to not affect His essence. In this paper, I show how this is logically impossible and that all assertions having to do with additions to God result in God having passive potency. I will also attempt to draw out Thomas Aquinas’ doctrine of God with respect to potency and how he might respond to such claims that God takes on other things external to himself, like properties.


Every orthodox Christian holds to the unchangeableness of God. But not every Christian is completely consistent with this conviction. Fundamental to our doctrine of God is that God does not become that which He was not before (He does not change). Yet, many within the contemporary theological-philosophical community are positing new ways in which God can change in one sense while in another sense remain the same yesterday, today, and forevermore. For example, Dr. K. Scott Oliphint says this:

God freely determined to take on attributes, characteristics, and properties that he did not have, and would not have, without creation. In taking on these characteristics, we understand as well that whatever characteristics or attributes he takes on, they cannot be of the essence of who he is, nor can they be necessary to his essential identity as God.[1]

This is a far cry from a more classical view, like what is argued by Thomas Aquinas when he says, “If God is eternal, of necessity there is no potency in Him.”[2] Now, on the basis of a prima facie understanding, one might argue that there is no conflict between these two statements by Oliphint on the one hand and Aquinas on the other. However, this is not true for several reasons. First, if there is no passive potency in God, that is, potential to be acted upon by another, then there is no sense in which God can take on anything in addition to what He already is. We know this for a fact since it is analytically true. If there is no potency in God, then God cannot move from a state of not taking-on to a state of taking-on. Second, if these properties are said to accrue to God, then it is true that God has, in some sense, the potency to become God+A. God goes from not having A to having A, at creation. But this is a predication of change concerning God, meaning that God has moved from one state to another. God cannot be the object of change.

If, however, it is said that A does not change God, then it cannot be said that God takes on A since, to take on A is to take on a new accident (effectively becoming God+A). Therefore, God does not take on A granted the fact there is no passive potency in Him. If A be creation, A may be said to come into existence without God taking on any kind of property. In fact, this must be the case if there is no passive potency in God. For example, if person B takes on a new attribute, property, relation, etc., then B had the potential to (1) take on something new; and (2) effectively become B with this or that thing X. So, the person is modified by the thing it takes on, being now B+X. If the person were not modified by the thing it takes on, then it would not, nor could not, take on any new thing.

Now, if God is pure act (actus purus), then has no passive potency to become that which S was not before (because S is pure Being). So, if creates C, it does not follow that S takes on a new relationship or set of properties just because S created C. Why? Because S is without passive potency. Thus, we must conclude that does not change, viz., taking on any new properties, but rather that C changes––being brought from non-being to being by a manifestation of Ss power. Because God exists through Himself, it follows that He is His power. If God were not His power, then power in God would be akin to an accidental property. And if God’s power is merely a property possessed by God, then God relies on a property to be God and so is not God, but a dependent thing. Yet, if God is His power, then His power is unchanging since God is unchanging.

Therefore, if God is unchanging, He must exist through Himself since that which does not exist through itself is changeable. Here is why: a thing that exists by virtue of a property or a set of properties could not exist in the event that it no longer has those properties, thus being contingent or dependent on its properties to be what it is. But it is impossible that God could not exist since He is necessary Being, that is, existent through Himself not by virtue of something else. Aquinas writes:

The being whose substance has an admixture of potency is liable not to be by as much as it has potency; for that which can be, can not-be. But, God, being everlasting, in His substance cannot not-be. In God, therefore, there is no potency to being.[3]

It follows that God exists in a different way than creatures exist. No created thing exists through itself but is caused to be by something else, and so is a mixture of potency and act. God, being His own existence, does not exist like creatures exist since He is pure act, not an admixture of potency/act. Because of this we can see how God’s power remains in act eternally, and how when God manifests an effect of His power (e.g. creation), His power is not changed in any way, because there is no passive potency in it. It cannot become because God is absolute being in pure act. There is simply no capacity in God allowing Him to change as a result of His creation being brought into existence since He does not exist in the same way creatures do. In SCG, Vol. 1, ch. 18, Aquinas writes, “Every composite, moreover, is subsequent to its components. The first being, therefore, which is God, has no components.”[4]

Yet, Oliphint, as has been mentioned in the above citation, would not say these accidental properties accrue to the divine essence. He says, “Thus, his condescension means that he is adding properties and characteristics, not to his essential being . . . but surely to himself.”[5] This appears to be blatantly contradictory upon final analysis. First, if not God’s essence, then to what do these properties accrue? Second, if God is His essence, then how do they accrue “surely to himself” yet not to His essence? It is as if Oliphint is claiming A takes on properties and A does not take on properties at the same time and in the same relationship [A · ~A]. But this is a violation of the formal law of noncontradiction [~(A · ~A)]. If God is His essence, then He cannot take on properties and not take on properties at the same time and in the same relationship.

One could simply dispel the charge of being illogical if they want to claim God is not His essence, which would be to say the essence and existence of God are distinct rather than one and the same. However, they would run into another logical contradiction. A self-existent Being cannot depend on an essence + existence to be what it is, for then it could not be self-existent. God must exist in Himself if He be necessary; but this would be to say God is His essence. If He wasn’t His essence, then He would exist in virtue of a certain quiddity. Moreover, He would be composed of both essence and existence and would be reliant upon the union of both essence and existence to be who He is. But this is to be a contingent being, not necessary Being itself.

Still, one could dispel this charge by denying God’s self-existence, but then their God could not be God. There would be something by which this “God” exists. By God we mean necessary Being, and by necessary Being we mean self-existent. God, therefore, is necessary and thus self-existent, by definition (analytically).

It ought to be noted that Dr. Oliphint is reordering his work, God With Us. This means we will eventually see a second edition of that volume with revisions to his doctrine. It will be a treat to read and interact with the updated version. However, it’s almost unimaginable to think that in the second edition he will completely jettison his model. We may, therefore, conclude that any assumption or taking on of attributes, properties, etc., is a violation of the classical doctrine of God and a violation of the most rudimentary principles of reasoning as has already been shown. There is simply no way to make it work in light of the necessity of divine Being.

Conclusion

Because God is self-existent, it impossible that He should take on or assume properties in any sense. This has been demonstrated above. If God is immutable, He does not have passive potency. Thus, what is brought into existence (i.e. creation) cannot result in a change in God. Further, if God is His essence, then He cannot assume anything that does not also accrue to the divine essence, which results in a change in the divine essence as it relates to the assumed properties. Moreover, if someone wants to dodge this obstacle by rejecting the notion of God being His essence, then God is contingently existent upon participation in an essence and is, therefore, not self-existent but dependently existent. Therefore, God does not take on covenantal properties, attributes or anything of the sort.


[1] Oliphint, K. Scott. God with Us: Divine Condescension and the Attributes of God. (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), 110.
[2] Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Contra Gentiles. Vol. 1, (University of Notre Dame Press, 1955), 100.
[3] Ibid., 100.
[4] Ibid., 103.
[5] Oliphint, K. Scott. God with Us: Divine Condescension and the Attributes of God. (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), 110.

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