Thomas Aquinas and the Eternity of the World:

An Exercise of Faith and Reason

The eternity-of-the-world controversy which raged in Europe`s universities during the thirteenth century provided Saint Thomas Aquinas with one of his most dramatic opportunities to assert his view of the harmonious relationship between faith and reason.

In applying and developing his faith-reason synthesis to this particular question, Thomas found himself fighting against the new radical Aristotelian thinkers of his generation as well as a multitude of conservative theologians, contemporary and past.

To a greater extent than anyone else in the thirteenth century, Thomas upheld the authority of both the pagan philosophy of the Greco-Arabic corpus as well as the infallible Revelation of the Christian Church, in a way that was rationally coherent to a great extent. This was the Thomistic synthesis of reason and revelation.

Although this dual and integrated allegiance produced a profoundly creative impulse in the work of Thomas which achieved an unprecedented harmony between pagan philosophy and the Catholic faith, it also set Thomas up for an occasional inconsistency, an example of which we will examine in Thomas` arguments against the rational necessity of the world`s beginning.

I will trace the development of Thomas` position concerning the eternity of the world, both with respect to the radical Aristotelian contention for the necessary eternalness of the world and also with respect to the conservative theologian`s case for the rational necessity of the world`s beginning. Before pursuing this analysis, however, I will review Thomas` celebrated position on the relationship between faith and reason in order that I may show how zealously he applied this position to the explosive arguments surrounding the issue of the eternity or finitude of the world. Furthermore, when reviewing Thomas` writings on the eternity-of-the-world question (ca. 1256 – ca. 1271), I will highlight those arguments which impinge upon the study of natural philosophy in the late Middle Ages. (A set of events to keep in the background while reading this essay is collectively known as the “Condemnations of 1277” despite an earlier occurrence in 1270. What relationship did Aquinas have to this set of events which helped to breakdown some of the stronghold of Aristotelian thinking in theology and science).

Thirteenth-century schoolmen were forced to come to terms with the vast legacy of Greek and Islamic philosophy that had been newly translated into Latin during the previous century. One of the more significant pieces of historical data to support this generalization is the March 9, 1255 statute of the Paris arts faculty which placed all the known writings of Aristotle on the lecture program. We may infer from this that even before 1255, Aristotle`s writings were increasingly lectured upon and that the statute only legitimized an already-growing trend. In fact, by the time of Aquinas, the seven liberal arts were largely reduced to Aristotelian logic and philosophy. That Thomas received most of his training in the arts outside the university (he was trained by his own Dominican order after a short time at the University of Naples), is evidence that even the mendicant orders were caught up in the mass-appropriation of Aristotle which produced not only creative speculation, but also dangerously heterodox attitudes toward theology.

Not long after the famous 1255 Paris arts statute, a new group of philosophers emerged who pursued pagan philosophy to its heterodox conclusions without attempting to reconcile their philosophy with the faith. These philosophers are referred to as Latin Averroists, radical Aristotelians, or heterodox Aristotelians. A number of these philosophical radicals were probably sincere Christians, including the prominent Siger of Brabant and Boethius of Dacia. These Latin Averroists lived with the tension of holding a vast network of rational demonstrations which could not be absolutely true because they did not harmonize with the sacred Scriptures. Still other Latin Averroists did not encounter this problem since they had rejected the Christian faith altogether.

Near the other end of the thirteenth-century intellectual spectrum, a large group of conservative theologians, Augustinian in outlook, bravely, and sometimes inadequately, defended the faith by bringing forth rational demonstrations to prove the statements of divine revelation. One of the most prominent conservative attempts to rationally demonstrate an item of faith was the set of arguments which were claimed as proof that the world necessarily had a beginning. Saint Bonaventure and John Pecham were two outstanding representatives of this bold attempt. Saint Thomas most likely had one or both of these thinkers in mind when he composed his various rebuttals of the conservative position on the eternity of the world.

For the purposes of understanding Thomas` application of his faith-reason synthesis to the question of the eternity of the world, we may characterize Thomas as a moderate Aristotelian. He rejected the alleged rational necessity of both the world`s eternity (the radical Aristotelian view) and its finitude (the conservative theological position). His concept of faith and reason and his three categories of human knowledge helped prepare Thomas to embrace a moderate and agnostic position on the issue of the world`s eternity. To have faith, for Thomas, is to assent to something because it has been revealed by God. To have science (rational knowledge), on the other hand, is to assent to something because we perceive it as true in the natural light of reason. These two different kinds of assent are mutually exclusive although the objects of their content overlap considerably. For example, many people have faith in a revealed proposition like the existence of God which can also be rationally demonstrated by those thinkers who have the time and capacity to do so. Hence, the masses assent to God`s existence by faith, whereas a number of philosophers assent to the same proposition, but by an entirely different means–reason. Once a thinker works through a rational demonstration for the existence of God, he can no longer hold to that proposition by faith since his rational assent entirely displaces assent by means of faith.

The Thomistic synthesis contains three classes of knowledge based on how that knowledge may potentially command assent. First, we have articles of faith properly said. This kind of knowledge can be attained only through faith in the propositions revealed by God and thus are entirely beyond scope of rational demonstration. As we shall see, Thomas put the world`s beginning into this category along with doctrines of the Trinity, Incarnation, and Redemption. Then, there is that class of knowledge which, although revealed by God, is also potentially known by means of rational demonstration. Members of this class include God`s existence, his essential attributes, the existence of the human soul as well as the soul`s immortality. Although Thomas conceived of these as necessary presuppositions to matters of faith, he denied that they were articles of faith properly said. As alluded to earlier, any given person assents to the knowledge of this category either by faith or by reason and never by both simultaneously. The final class of knowledge consists of propositions which can only be known by rational demonstration since divine revelation makes no truth claims concerning such knowledge. Although Etienne Gilson does not explicate this third class of knowledge in his presentation of the Thomistic synthesis in Reason and Revelation in the Middle Ages (1938), its existence in Thomas` system is evident from the following statement Thomas made in the Summa Theologica: “. . . those things were said to be seen which of themselves move the intellect or the senses to knowledge of them. Therefore it is evident that neither faith nor opinion can be of things seen either by the sense or by the intellect.”

Before the advent of Neoplatonism, the Greeks did not conceive of a universal cause of the totality of existence, but instead remained at the level of thought governed by the Presocratic dictum that “nothing can come from what is not.” The world was considered eternal because it is uncaused. The work of Plotinus (ca. 205-270) changed all of this. He introduced the idea of metaphysical causality for the first time in his doctrine of emanation. According to this doctrine, the world is eternal because it necessarily emanates from the One in an eternal dependency relationship. Because Avicenna and Averroes–the two greatest thinkers of Islam–perpetuated the emanation view of the world along with its eternalist stance, it was inevitable that the scholars of the Latin West would have to take note of the Greek and Islamic consensus on the eternity of the world. In fact, Siger of Brabant unhesitatingly accepted the world`s eternity at the beginning of his teaching career before 1270.

Saint Thomas contributed to scholarly dialogue on the eternity of the world throughout his career. In addition to the special polemical treatise De aeternitate mundi (ca. 1270), Thomas dealt with the issue at length in six other works: Scriptum super IV libros Sententiarium magistri Petri Lombardi, II, dist. 1, q. 1, a. 5 (ca. 1256); Summa contra Gentiles, II, cc. 31-38 (ca. 1262); De Potentia Dei (1265,66), q. 3, aa. 14, 17; Summa theologica, Ia, q. 46 (ca. 1265); Quodlibetum III, q. 14 (ca. 1270); and the Compendium theologica, cc. 98, 99 (ca. 1271). The Sententiarium, Summa contra Gentiles, and Summa theologica attack both the radical Aristotelian and conservative theologian positions; De Potentia and Compendium theologica confront only the radical Aristotelians; and only one work, De aeternitate, is exclusively devoted to refuting the conservative theologians (and probably John Pecham in particular).

Near the beginning of his theological career, in commenting on the second book of the Sentences (ca. 1256), Thomas refuted the eternalist arguments but also maintained (in response to St. Bonaventure who commented on the Sentences a few years before Thomas) that the notion of an eternal creation is not contradictory and that no arguments for the world`s beginning are truly demonstrable. Thomas placed the world`s finitude, to which in fact he did assent, into the class of knowledge that is composed of articles of faith properly said, that is revealed knowledge which is beyond rational demonstration. Thomas repeated this same basic strategy six years later in the Summa contra Gentiles (ca. 1262), although this time around he devoted most of his attention to refuting the radical Aristotelians who had burst forth in full activity during the 1260s.

Chapters 31-38 of the Summa contra Gentiles address the eternity-of-the-world debate. In the first of these chapters Thomas shows that the alleged necessary existence of creatures rests either on the creature itself or on some other being. The first option is false because earlier he had demonstrated that being only proceeds from the first Being. Or, as Thomas expressed himself later in the Summa theologica, “There is nothing that is not from Deo, qui est cause universalis totius esse (God, who is the universal cause of the totality of being).” If creatures did exist necessarily, then the cause of this necessity (both efficient and final) would have to be God. But since God`s will is not dictated by any necessity, creatures themselves do not exist necessarily. Hence creatures have not necessarily existed eternally.

Chapters 32, 33, and 34 present, respectively, the arguments for the eternity of the world from the standpoint of God, from the consideration of creatures, and from the consideration of the creative action itself. Thomas refutes every point in the three chapters that follow. I will now summarize the prominent arguments and rebuttals, most of which are repeated in a more concise form in the Summa theologica. A perfect will achieves its desire immediately. Since such is the case with God, he must have always created the world. Thomas reminds us here that God`s will determined not only the existence of its effect (the world), but also its duration of existence. However, the radical Aristotelians would reply, God would have no reason to create the world at one moment rather than another and so would have to always or never create the world. Here, Thomas argues that no duration exists outside the created universe and so God would never encounter the problem just proposed. With the creation of the world, time itself came into existence. In elaborating this point, Thomas draws a parallel between time and place that touches on foundational issues in natural philosophy. To ask why God created the world in its present place rather than in another place is meaningless since beyond our universe there can be no place because “the entire place for all things was produced along with [the world].” Similarly, outside the created universe no time exists since time itself was created with the universe. In the responsio of De potentia Thomas states more boldly that the quantity of the duration and dimensions of the universe depend exclusively on God`s will. Thomas also stresses that both time and place are extraneous to things.

The topic of motion, likewise important in medieval natural philosophy, also entered into discussions about the world`s eternity. Thomas argued that every motion must either be eternal or must have some other motion preceding it. Since God is immovable, creatures must have always existed. Implicit here is the routine pre-modern assumption that motion requires an efficient cause in the form of a constantly and directly-applied mover. Thomas responds by stating that God can cause a new and temporal thing that has motion and yet not undergo any change himself. When considering the nature of the creative action itself, Thomas notes that ordinarily when something comes from something motion is involved. But in the ex nihilo creation of something, no motion or change of any kind takes place, except in a metaphorical sense.

The incorruptibility of the heavens, an essential part of the Aristotle`s cosmology, played a role in the eternity controversy. In one of Thomas` academic disputations in Rome, De potentia (1265, 66), the incorruptibility of the heavens was linked to their power of eternal existence. The power of existing (or acting), Thomas argues, pertains to the present or future and not to the past. The power of incorruptibility which the heavens now possess thus had no necessary effect on the past history of the heavens. It appears that since the radical Aristotelians used the incorruptibility of the heavens to support their eternalist position, the conservative theologians argued for a peculiar notion of corruptibility to bolster their own convictions. Thomas reports the dialogue on this issue and includes the corruptibility argument which invokes the sustaining power of God which could be removed to cause the heavens to collapse into nothingness. The radical Aristotelian`s response to this argument was that the corruptibility of the heavens should not be judged possible on the grounds that the heavens could be destroyed by the removal of some consequent fact which in this case was God`s sustaining power (this argument is not very clear). At this point Thomas steps in to arbitrate and largely sides with the conservative theologian`s position by maintaining that the divine will would have to be supposed to have unchangeably decreed the preservation of the heavens in order to maintain their absolute incorruptibility. Although none of the parties fully departed from the incorruptibility feature of the Aristotelian cosmos, we see here the beginnings of fresh non-Aristotelian departures. God`s will and power are called upon to at least question the incorruptibility dogma. The Condemnations of 1270 and 1277 helped to accelerate this kind of hypothetical thinking (secundum imaginationum) which has contributed greatly to the development of science in the Western tradition.

Thus far we have examined the main arguments for the eternity of the world and the systematic rejection offered by Thomas. At the end of the rebuttals of the radical Aristotelian`s arguments in each of the works mentioned above, Thomas provides a few summary remarks that tie each discourse back into the faith-reason synthesis. In the Summa contra Gentiles Thomas concludes that those who claim rational demonstration of the world`s eternity contradict the Catholic faith which reserves for God alone the status of eternity. However, Thomas` confidence in the harmony of reason and revelation still holds as he finally concludes that “nothing prevents us from maintaining that the world has not always existed. And this is what the Catholic faith teaches: `In the beginning God created heaven and earth.`” In the De potentia Thomas states even more strongly that we must hold that the world is not eternal in order to accord with the faith. He then states that “this truth cannot be effectively attacked by any demonstration based on physics.” God`s unlimited power and will guarantee that nothing in the world is necessary except logical consistency.” (But one could also argue that logic itself is dependent upon God for its character and compelling status–I don`t thing Thomas advances this point). Finally, in the Summa theologica we discover that absolutely speaking, God need not will anything except himself. So, it is not necessary for God to have eternally created the universe. It is possible (i.e. philosophically, but not according to actual revelation) that the world is eternal, but only if God so willed it. Hence, no demonstrative proof is possible for the eternity of the world.

If no demonstration is possible, how then did Thomas reconcile this with the great respect that he had for the authority of Aristotle? Thomas articulates his finest defense of Aristotle in the Summa theologica where he enumerates three reasons for the non-demonstrative status of Aristotle`s comments on the world`s eternity. First, it is clear that Aristotle is only arguing as a correction to his predecessors in that he directly opposes his statement to the arguments of thinkers like Anaxagoras, Empedocles, and Plato. Also, his technique of reporting the testimony of Plato and the Presocratics is in concert with a probabilistic mode of discourse, not a demonstrative one. (Of course, modern philosophy of science has shown that all science falls short of an idealistic demonstrative form and thus all science is probabilistic or tentative in character). Finally, Aristotle explicitly states in Book I of the Topics that one of the unsolvable dialectical problems is whether the world is eternal. Thomas, the moderate Aristotelian, seems to have been only moderately successful in saving Aristotle from his pagan and eternalist context. Here, we at least see the invigorating effect that the Christian Revelation had on the minds of the philosophically astute of the thirteenth century.

Up to this stage in our discussion of the texts of Thomas Aquinas we have limited ourselves to the arguments for the eternity of the world, the corresponding rebuttals offered by Thomas, and the integration of all this into the Thomistic faith-reason synthesis. Next, we will turn to the conservative theologian`s case for the rational necessity of the world`s beginnings as reported by Thomas and the series of rebuttals which attempt to negate this position. To do this I will focus upon the special polemical treatise, De aeternitate, which Thomas wrote in order to thoroughly refute the claim that one can demonstrate that the world necessarily had a beginning. On the whole, as I shall show, Thomas was less convincing on this side of the eternity question which constituted a debate among the orthodox, than on the other side, the encounter with the heterodox.

The first clue that the De aeternitate is addressed to an orthodox and conservative audience comes from the opening sentence: “If we suppose, in accord with Catholic faith, that the world has not existed from eternity but had a beginning of its duration, the question arises whether it could have existed forever.” If the answer is yes, the world could have always existed, then this constitutes the negation of the conservative theologian`s contention that the world must have had a beginning. Thomas` strategy, then, is to show that neither the world`s eternity nor its finitude can be rationally demonstrated and then to invoke faith in revelation as the only means for knowing the world`s temporal boundaries.

Thomas begins by defending his own orthodoxy in questioning the world`s beginning. To ask whether the world could have existed forever is not contrary to the faith, Thomas maintains, but to ask whether something could exist forever totally independent of God is “an abominable error against the faith.” In other words, to question the world`s beginning is within the bounds of orthodoxy, but to question its createdness is clearly heretical. I find it interesting that Thomas employs an implicit hierarchy of revealed truths in which the world`s createdness ranks in a class higher than that of the world`s beginning and that orthodox thinkers may legitimately debate a second-class revealed truth, but not a first-class one.

Next, Thomas presents us with the core of his argument in De aeternitate: Are the following two concepts logically incompatible? 1. The createdness of the world. 2. The possible eternalness of the world. Even more penetrating is the statement Thomas makes in anticipation of his alleged victory over the conservative theologians: “Since God`s omnipotence surpasses all understanding and power, anyone who asserts that something which is intelligible among creatures cannot be made by God, openly disparages God`s omnipotence.” We see here a foreshadowing of Thomas` conclusion, namely that the logical compatibility of the eternity and createdness of the world can be clearly established and therefore it is certainly true that God could have created the world eternally had he so willed. To claim otherwise would degrade the absolute power and free will of God (this kind of use of the Christian doctrine of God`s absolute power and free will was bolstered by the Condemnations of 1270 and 1277). Thomas` annoyance toward his conservative opponents surfaces as he turns the tables of the debate so as to make his opponents appear more deviant from orthodoxy than himself.

According to Thomas the possible eternity of the world and its creation would be contradictory if an efficient cause must precede its effect in duration or if non-existence must precede existence in duration. In answer to the first possible occasion for contradiction, Thomas notes that an efficient cause which instantaneously produces its effect does not necessarily precede its effect in duration. God is that kind of cause. Furthermore, God, the efficient cause of the world, can be distinguished from natural causes which produce their effects by way of motion. Causes that entail motion must precede their effects in duration. Hence, God, the instantaneous and motionless creator, could have created the world without preceding it in duration. In other words, an eternally-created world is a possible world.

To overcome the second possible contradiction, that non-existence must precede existence in duration, Thomas marshals the support of Saint Anselm. Creation ex nihilo (out of nothing) can also be equated with creation not out of something, Saint Anselm once remarked. Accordingly, the world was not necessarily nothing before it was something. Instead we must say that the world would be nothing if it were left to itself. If effect, Thomas brings out the possibility of reducing the creating and sustaining operations of God into one homogeneous and eternal operation of God`s will and power. The result: “Thus it is evident that the statement that something was made by God and nevertheless was never without existence, does not involve any logical contradiction.”

If the non-contradictory status of an eternal creation is so evident, why did so many theologians up through the time of Thomas not recognized this? Thomas claims that the finest theologians and philosophers have either agreed with him or have at least have failed to point out any definite contradiction. Saint Augustine, Thomas argues, fits into the second category. Thomas quotes Augustine`s De civitate Dei (Book XI, chapter 4):

They who admit that the world was made by God, yet do not wish it to have a beginning in time but only a beginning of its creation, so that it was always made in some sense that is scarcely intelligible, indeed say something.

Because Thomas had an extraordinary confidence in the durability of his own views as well as an assurance of the inadequacy of the views of his conservative opponents, he could poke fun at his theological contemporaries. For example, he stated that those who allegedly find evident contradictions in the notion of an eternal creation “with their hawk-like vision are the only rational beings, and wisdom was born with them!”

Near the end of the De aeternitate, Thomas resumes his defense of the orthodoxy of his own position by assuring the reader that although it is possible for the world to have been without a beginning this would not mean that it is co-eternal with God. The strict sense of eternity entails the attribute of immutability which God alone possesses.

Finally, Thomas mentions an argument commonly made in the thirteenth-century discussions on the eternity of the world which invokes the impossibility of God producing an actually infinite multitude (see Craig). If the world is eternal then an infinite number of immortal souls would exist which constitutes an actually infinite multitude. Such a condition was impossible according to the conventional wisdom of the day. Thomas objects initially by asserting the possibility of God creating man in time rather than from eternity. The last response Thomas offers to this “fairly difficult” problem simply indicates that no one has yet demonstrated that God cannot produce a multitude that is actually infinite. Hence, Thomas ends this special treatise on the eternity of the world by reaffirming and bolstering his philosophically agnostic position on the question while retaining his assent to the answer provided by the Catholic faith.

Although De aeternitate constitutes Thomas` most complete challenge to the conservative theologian`s position on the eternity-of-the-world debate, a few important features on this side of the debate are found only in earlier works, the Summa contra Gentiles and the Summa theologica. In particular the following argument is found in these two earlier works but is curiously omitted in Thomas` definitive polemical treatise: If the world is eternal then an infinite number of days (or solar revolutions) would have occurred by now and regular additions to this infinite number would continue to take place. Since it is impossible to traverse an actual infinite series, the world cannot be eternal. In the Summa contra Gentiles Thomas responds by claiming that it is possible for an infinite series to exist successively although not all at once. If an infinite series is understood as existing successively, then we have reduced a formerly infinite entity into a series of finite ones. A similarly weak response is offered in the Summa theologica:

Passage is always understood as proceeding from one term to another. No matter what past day may be designated, a finite number of days has elapsed between it and the present day, and these days can be traversed. The objection is based on the supposition that infinite intervals lie between given extremes.

Several scholars have noted the unsatisfactory status of this reply. Thomas establishes an arbitrary point of departure to talk about successive existence, but to solve this philosophical problem one must refrain from assigning an initial day since this is precisely the point being questioned. Fernand Van Steenberghen maintains that while Thomas glossed over the contradictions of an realized infinite series of events when disputing the eternity-of-the-world question, he more candidly voiced the inherent contradictions at issue here in question 7 of the Summa theologica. Question 7 deals with the eternity of God and article 4 of this question proves the impossibility of an actually infinite multitude, whether absolute or accidental. Only a potentially infinite multitude is possible which results from indefinitely dividing a finite magnitude or by indefinitely adding to a finite multitude. Van Steenberghen reproaches Thomas for abandoning the sound argument of the question 7 of Summa theologica in his response to the conservative theologians` argument for the world`s necessary beginning. Only in the context of the eternity-of-the-world debate did Thomas shift to the inadequate Aristotelian argument that an infinite succession is really an infinite in potency and thus possible. The towering authoritative presence of Aristotle in the mind of Thomas seems to have caused Thomas to refrain from consistently applying his own precepts on the contradictions of an actually infinite multitude and an infinite series of past events. (Does Thomas follow Aristotle in elevating human logic above God himself, which is idolatry?)

Up through the thirteenth century virtually all of the great doctors of the Church firmly maintained that the world`s temporal beginning was susceptible to rational demonstration. As the foremost European philosopher-theologian since Augustine, Thomas helped to alter this climate of opinion. Thomas established the fact that creation primarily means a dependence in being so that an eternally created world would not entail a logical contradiction. Thomas was most polemical in his confrontation with conservative theologians, mainly because he perceived himself as protecting the Catholic faith from the possible occasion for “unbelievers to laugh, and to think that such are the grounds on which we believe things that are of faith.” Etienne Gilson quotes the above portion of the Summa theologica as well as a similar statement from the Summa contra Gentiles to establish Thomas` over-arching teaching that mere rational probability cannot form the basis for Christian faith since “when something is rationally probable, its contrary also is rationally probable.” What Gilson does not mention is that one of the most important occasions that Thomas had to voice his general teachings on faith and reason was the debate over the possibility of an eternal creation (monopsychism was probably of similar, but slightly less importance). Even so, both passages Gilson cites in Reason and Revelation in the Middle Ages to illustrate Thomas` teaching on the faith-reason synthesis come from sections in Thomas` writings that deal with the world`s possible eternity (contra the conservative theologians).

Finally, we may note that on both sides of the eternity-of-the-world debate–the radical Aristotelian and conservative theologian sides–Thomas maintained a philosophically agnostic position that was bolstered by a repeated usage of the absolute power and free will of God. In De aeternitate Thomas even attempted to negate the impossibility of an actually infinite multitude by invoking God`s absolute power. Thomas had confidence that once the philosophical landscape was cleared of all its clutter of inadequate demonstrations, the higher ground of divine revelation could be grasped with a faith that does not conflict with reason. Hence, Thomas used the debate over the world`s eternity to showcase his vision of the harmony of faith and reason.



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