The divinity of Jesus Christ and the existence of God as the creator of all life on Earth may be viewed as debatable issues by an atheist, but for Catholics, these are cornerstones of their religion. For people of faith, the proof is unnecessary as their belief stems from hope and trust in the Divine. However, at the same time, the Church “is no stranger to this journey of discovery” and attempts to aid all people in discovering the answers to the great philosophical questions.1 This essay does not intend to prove the existence of or non-existence of God but instead aims to consider what He is not and is. The notion of divine simplicity will be examined, emphasizing the concept that God is not a body and there is no passive potency, matter, or composition in Him. Overall, this essay will discuss and examine the preambles of the Catholic faith, mutuality of faith and reason, and Saint Thomas Aquinas’s works on what God is not and is.
Fides et Ratio: Faith and Reason
Faith and reason are two integral attributes of humanity’s search for the truth. In his letter titled Fides et Ratio, Pope John Paul II illustrates that both faith and reason are interrelated and are in unity with one another by citing Saint Thomas Aquinas. However, before the words of Saint Thomas are delivered, he notes that Revelation “is charged with mystery” and that faith is, as the first dutiful response to God, is the acceptance of the truth.2 Although the mystery of Revelation cannot be fully revealed and understood, faith allows acceptance of the very fact that not everything that is divine must be provided with an extensive explanation. Although Divine Revelation is revealed through faith itself, it is also uncovered through the Preambles of Faith. Thus, reason and knowledge do not challenge faith but rather help interpret it and better understand the Divine.
Pope John Paul II frequently addresses the words of Saint Thomas Aquinas and his unique view on the mutuality of faith and reason in Fides et Ratio. According to Saint Thomas, there cannot be a contradiction between the two as “both the light of reason and the light of faith come from God.”3 He managed to synthesize the two notions that were previously often considered mutually exclusive. Furthermore, Saint Thomas also referred to as the Angelic Doctor, argued that faith and reason are not simply connected but complete each other in their pursuit of the truth. Faith can build on the foundations of reason, while the latter benefits from the trust in the Divine being free from sin and having “strength required to rise to the knowledge of the Triune God.”4 It is illogical to discuss one without the other as philosophy needs to be perfected by the Divine Revelation, and the latter needs to be expanded and completed by the ideas of metaphysics.
The letter also considers the relationship between philosophy and religion throughout the centuries. Pope John Paul II states that many contemporary philosophers are atheistic or agnostic and do not discuss God in their works.5 They refuse to discuss religion and what He is or is not because of the impossibility of proving the existence of God. Thus, they fully embrace the tenets of reason but reject the truths of faith. This is a stark departure from the complementary relationship of faith and reason praised by the Church. As the contemporary philosophers attempt to separate faith and reason, they fail to appreciate that by denying theology, they must address the Revelation strictly in terms of philosophy.6 Hence, the autonomy of philosophy is threatened due to the Magisterium authority over the representation of the word of God.7 Nevertheless, by completely refusing to address faith, philosophy rejects the thorough and all-encompassing discussion of one of the most fundamental theoretical questions. Overall, Fides et Ratio asks to view faith and reason as two related concepts that complete rather than deny each other and include the Preambles of the Faith into the vision of Revelation.
Summa Contra Gentiles: To Know God We Must Use the Way of Remotion
Numerous people of faith attempted to define what God is and is not, how to know Him and understand the Divine Revelation. Saint Thomas Aquinas dedicated many writings to the topic and explored what can be known of the Deity both by faith and reason in his collection of works titled the Summa Contra Gentiles. In chapter 14, Saint Thomas introduces the idea that to explore and determine His properties, one should employ remotion.8 He argues that the divine substance is by far more profound than any form that the human mind can comprehend.9 Thus, it is impossible to understand the Divine in its entirety and state what God is with absolute certainty. Nevertheless, Saint Thomas notes that logical reasoning could be applied to determine what God is not by negative comparisons to various phenomena and notions that humankind can comprehend.10 Hence, to know more about God and discover what He is, it is imperative to make one negation after another and compare Him to what is already known.
Although remotion allows one to understand what Deity is through the process of establishing what He is not, attempting to comprehend all aspects of the Divine is a gargantuan task. Discussing Saint Thomas’s work, Davies notes that “God is not understandable in the way that things in the world are.”11 For example, humans are capable of comprehending themselves and their bodies as well as the physical characteristics of other living beings and things. Davies observes that Saint Thomas writes of people being able to classify material things.12 However, God is not material and has no physical body. Thus, the first negation distinguishes the Deity from material substances. Overall, only when a series of negative statements separating God from other beings and objects in the world are made, what He is not can be illustrated, and what He is can be concluded.
Summa Contra Gentiles: That There is No Passive Potency in God
Saint Thomas Aquinas discusses many facets of what God is and is not and what potential characteristics He possesses. In chapter 16, the philosopher argues that there is no passive potency in God as He is eternal.13 It is crucial to address the meaning of passive potency in order to understand the afforded argument. According to Davies, it should be defined as “an ability or power to be acted on or changed by something else.”14 Hence, God is reasoned to be the unmovable mover as nothing can act upon or alter Him in any way. Saint Thomas argues that there can be no potency in God as any potent being is liable to passive potency and can be affected and transformed by an external force.15 The Deity is viewed as a necessary being, the first being, and the first cause, leading to the assumption that God is a “pure act” or pure actuality.16 As potency cannot arise by itself and is always preceded by act, He is act and has not potency and, by extension, no passive potency. Overall, He cannot be affected or changed by another being.
Assigning potency and active potency to God denies Him the characteristics of pure actuality and the eternity of His being. Saint Tomas asserts that the Deity is immutable, unchangeable, and eternal, lacking the beginning and end as He always is and always will be.17 In this, He differs from other beings, including humans, that have a beginning and an end of their material form. It can also be argued that people have potency and passive potency as they can affect and change others and be influenced and altered by them.
Failure to separate God from other beings and the tendency to assign to Him characteristics of those beings can result in denying the Deity His Divine Nature. For example, if modern theologies believe that God has infinite compassion for humankind and suffers through its trials with it, it can be asserted that He is affected by other beings and their emotions. Thus, if the Divine Nature is affected by the suffering of others, it can be altered, even if these changes are not as immediate as they are for humans. This negates His infinite nature and the notion of pure actuality, assigning passive potency to the Deity. However, if God is not immutable, He is not eternal, is finite, and has an end, as all beings. Therefore, this supposition is incorrect as it denies the Divine Nature of God.
Summa Contra Gentiles: That God is Not a Body
It is vital to learn about God through the process of remotion rather than positive declarations of His attributes. According to Saint Thomas Aquinas, the Devine Nature can be understood only through negative affirmations, and the statement that there is no passive potency in God is such an assertion.18 This declaration also allows Saint Thomas to make other negative affirmations to comprehend what the Deity is not and, ultimately, to know what He is. Thus, if He is eternal and cannot be altered by other beings, he must have no composition as in a composition “there must be act and potency.”19 Furthermore, Saint Thomas adds that there is nothing “violent or unnatural” in God, based on the affirmation that He cannot be changed.20 These claims lead to the conclusion that the Deity is simple and is not a body. In chapter 20 of The Summa Contra Gentiles, the philosopher notes that every body is a composition, and as the Deity is not composite and is eternal and immutable, He, therefore, is not a body.21 Overall, this affirmation also supports the concept that God is simple in His Divine Nature.
It also should be noted that Saint Thomas Aquinas reviews the proposition that God is not a body differently in his various works. For example, in the Summa Theologica, the philosopher concludes that He is not a body by addressing the objections to this affirmation.22 He notes that the concept of God having a physical body is impossible as all physical bodies have specific characteristics, such as they are three-dimensional.23 However, the Deity cannot possess these features if he is eternal and immutable. Thomas Aquinas states that the dimensions mentioned in the Holy Scripture and utilized as the basis of the argument God is a body address His spiritual qualities, not physical attributes.24 Furthermore, Saint Thomas notes that if God is everywhere, He must be an essence and does not have one, unlike human beings whose essence, their soul, is contained within their physical bodies.25 Overall, in the Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas quickly dismisses the idea that God is a body by arguing that He should not be assigned features characteristic of other beings.
In the Summa Contra Gentiles, Saint Thomas develops the idea that the Deity is not a body throughout several chapters, culminating in chapter 20. The philosopher is able to come to that conclusion by establishing that God exists, He is eternal, has no passive potency or composition. In the discussed section, the author argues that bodies have a continuum, and in that they are distinctive from eternity.26 Material substances are capable of being extended and have continuous parts, but they cannot be extended to infinity. For example, a child can grow, extending its physical body, and, similarly, a person can lose weight, reducing it. Thus, the body of a human being has the potency to become more and to become less. Overall, to be a body is to have both act and potency.
However, it is established by Saint Thomas through a process of remotion that God is pure act and has no potency or passive potency. Hence, the Deity cannot be body as he then would be both pure actuality and potency. As argued above, potency is correlated with passive potency. Thus, if God is a body, he is not absolute and can be changed and affected by other beings. If He possesses a physical body, that body is three-dimensional and finite, denying the eternity of His being. In addition, the concept of eternity of motion is applied to show that God, as the first mover, cannot be moved “either through Himself or by accident.”27 Thus, He cannot have a finite physical body as it is incompatible with everlasting motion. Overall, Saint Thomas states that God is not a body as He is eternal, immutable, unmovable, and is pure actuality.
In summary, Saint Thomas Aquinas argues that faith and reason are not mutually exclusive. The two complement each other as faith builds upon foundations of reason while the latter benefits from its boundaries being challenged by trust in the Divine. Furthermore, Saint Thomas addresses the necessity of emotion in discussing what God is not and is as His being is too immense for the human mind to comprehend without negative affirmations being made first. Two of such affirmations are that He has no passive potency and is not a body. Saint Thomas Aquinas reaches these conclusions, noting that to state that God can be influenced and changed by other beings and assign a physical body to Him is to negate His Divine Nature. Overall, God is the first being and the first cause, and He is a pure actuality, unchangeable, unmovable, and eternal.
Davies, Brian. Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Contra Gentiles, A Guide and Commentary. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2016.
John Paul II. Fides et ratio. Vatican City: Libreria editrice vaticana, 1998.
St Thomas Aquinas, SANCTI THOMAE AQUINATIS Opera Omnia iussu impensaque Leonis XIII P. M. edita, t. 13: Summa Contra Gentiles (Typis Riccardi Garroni, 1918), I, 14. Translated by Anton C. Pegis, F.R.S.C., Summa Contra Gentiles, New York: Hanover House, 1956.
St Thomas Aquinas, SANCTI THOMAE AQUINATIS Opera Omnia iussu impensaque Leonis XIII P. M. edita, t. 13: Summa Contra Gentiles (Typis Riccardi Garroni, 1918), I, 16. Translated by Anton C. Pegis, F.R.S.C., Summa Contra Gentiles, New York: Hanover House, 1956.
St Thomas Aquinas, SANCTI THOMAE AQUINATIS Opera Omnia iussu impensaque Leonis XIII P. M. edita, t. 13: Summa Contra Gentiles (Typis Riccardi Garroni, 1918), I, 20, 1-7. Translated by Anton C. Pegis, F.R.S.C., Summa Contra Gentiles, New York: Hanover House, 1956.
St Thomas Aquinas, SANCTI THOMAE AQUINATIS Opera Omnia iussu impensaque Leonis XIII P. M. edita, t. 4: Pars Prima Summae Theologiae (Ex Typographis Polyglotta S. C. de Propaganda Fide, Romae, 1889), I, q. 3, a. 1. Translated by the Fathers of the English Dominican Province, Summa Theologica, New York: Benziger Bros., 1947.
- 1 John Paul II, Fides et ratio (Vatican City: Libreria editrice vaticana, 1998), 2.
- 2 John Paul II, Fides et ratio, 13.
- 3 John Paul II, Fides et ratio, 43.
- 4 John Paul II, Fides et ratio, 43.
- 5 John Paul II, Fides et ratio, 76.
- 6 John Paul II, Fides et ratio, 77.
- 7 John Paul II, Fides et ratio, 77.
- 8 St Thomas Aquinas, SANCTI THOMAE AQUINATIS Opera Omnia iussu impensaque Leonis XIII P. M. edita, t. 13: Summa Contra Gentiles (Typis Riccardi Garroni, 1918), I, 14. Translated by Anton C. Pegis, F.R.S.C., Summa Contra Gentiles, New York: Hanover House, 1956, 96.
- 9 St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, 96.
- 10 St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, 97.
- 11 Brian Davies, Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Contra Gentiles, A Guide and Commentary New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2016, 56.
- 12 Brian Davies, Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Contra Gentiles, 56.
- 13 St Thomas Aquinas, SANCTI THOMAE AQUINATIS Opera Omnia iussu impensaque Leonis XIII P. M. edita, t. 13: Summa Contra Gentiles (Typis Riccardi Garroni, 1918), I, 16. Translated by Anton C. Pegis, F.R.S.C., Summa Contra Gentiles, New York: Hanover House, 1956, 100.
- 14 Brian Davies, Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Contra Gentiles, 57.
- 15 St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, 100.
- 16 Brian Davies, Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Contra Gentiles, 58.
- 17 St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, 98.
- 18 St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, 98.
- 19 St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, 103.
- 20 St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, 105.
- 21 St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, 106.
- 22 St Thomas Aquinas, SANCTI THOMAE AQUINATIS Opera Omnia iussu impensaque Leonis XIII P. M. edita, t. 4: Pars Prima Summae Theologiae (Ex Typographis Polyglotta S. C. de Propaganda Fide, Romae, 1889), I, q. 3, a. 1. Translated by the Fathers of the English Dominican Province, Summa Theologica, New York: Benziger Bros., 1947.
- 23 St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica.
- 24 St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica.
- 25 Brian Davies, Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Contra Gentiles, 59.
- 26 St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, 106.
- 27 St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, 107.