Omni-instrumentality 1: Cooperation

Divine providence is about God’s direction of all history in accordance with his plans, without thereby frustrating human freedom or undermining nature. Long-time readers will know that I was once a Molinist, but I have not said much on the topic since changing my views. I would describe the view I now hold as the Thomistic view, but others views go by that description and I have little interest in an exegetical defense. For the sake of clarity, then, we will use the name “omni-instrumentality”, since this view is built around the notion that all of nature is a divine instrument.1 My aim in this series of posts is to outline omni-instrumentality in as accessible a way as I can manage, without requiring the reader have a significant familiarity with Thomistic metaphysics. Nevertheless, if you happen to be familiar with Thomistic metaphysics you should recognize many of the things we cover.

Divine concurrence is about God’s cooperation with the actions of creatures. Views on divine providence differ in the role they assign to divine concurrence, but at the heart of omni-instrumentality is an account of divine concurrence as essential cooperation with nature. Our approach to unpacking the view, then, will start with this and gradually work our way outwards. In this first post, we will give an analysis of cooperation, its modes and its characteristics. In the second post, we will expand this into an account of divine concurrence by introducing nature and the relevant conceptual tools to bridge our everyday experience of cooperation with God’s special cooperation with us. Thus, by the end of the second post we will have a robust understanding of essential cooperation with nature. In the third, we will flesh out the details surrounding divine concurrence, and thereby fill in the rest of the picture of divine providence. In the fourth and final post, we will compare omni-instrumentality to other views commonly held or discussed today.

Components of cooperation

Two things cooperate when they work together to bring about some final product. Here, we use the term “thing” very broadly, such that it could be a substance, aggregate, property, state of affairs, or process. Insofar as one thing brings about some other thing we call it a “cause”, and any distinct thing that is brought about by one or more causes we call a “product”. The final product is the thing caused by the cooperation as a whole. When we call a product “distinct” we mean that it is something beyond the causes and their influences, although not necessarily distinct from the cooperation as a whole. For instance, when the cooperation involves making a chair then the final product (the chair itself) is distinct from the cooperation (the making), but when the cooperation is a musical performance the final product is the same as the cooperation. Finally, insofar as something depends in a particular way on a cause we speak of a cause “causing”, or “influencing”, or “contributing to the cooperation”.

We could depict all of this as a directed graph made up of nodes and edges: things are nodes, causes are nodes with edges coming out of them, products are nodes with edges coming into them, and causal influences are the edges themselves. The final product would be the product that has no edges coming out of it at all, that is the product that is not also a cause.

cooperation-basic
Example diagram of cooperation. A and B are causes, C is a cause and product, and D is the final product of whole cooperation.

None of this so far is meant to be controversial. We’ve simply given names to the various moving parts involved in any cooperation so that our discussion can proceed with slightly more precision. Our primary goal in this post is to discuss, at the broadest level, the different ways two things can cooperate with one another.

The most distinctive aspect of cooperation is that the causes work together, and so any analysis of cooperation should help us break this down into more basic components. One component of working together is combination. This occurs between two things when a product arises directly from the influence of both of them, which is to say that there are no intermediate products between the causes and their mutual product. Another component of working together is dependence. This occurs when one cause is enabled to exert its causal influence by virtue of another cause first exerting causal influence on it. In this case, the product of the independent cause will be something in the dependent cause.

Using these two components we can enumerate the different modes of cooperation that arise from how they can be logically composed: (1) combination without dependence, (2) dependence without combination, and (3) combination with dependence. If two things have neither combination nor dependence it is difficult to see that as cooperation in any sense, and so we will leave that option to one side.

Modes of cooperation

A straightforward example of combination without dependence would be that of two people pulling a car or lifting a box. Neither of the two people depends on the other in order to be able to pull, but when they pull together their combined force is enough to pull the car. We call this “coordinate cooperation”2, and it has the structure of two influences and one product.

Once we recognize this category and its structure, we can see that it applies to other cases that we might not have instinctively described as cooperation. For example, when two teams engage in tug-of-war this is also coordinate cooperation, since they do not depend on one another to exert their influence on the rope, but the resultant tension in the rope is a product of the combination of each of their influences. Of course, at another level this cooperation is a competition, which we’ll discuss more below. Other examples of coordinate cooperation include two sticks standing upright against one another, two sports teams playing a match against each other, and an orchestra performing a piece of music.

cooperation-coordinate
Diagram of coordinate cooperation. Both A and B influence C directly and independently of one another.

Next we turn to dependence without combination, an example of which is when a person throws a brick through a window. In this case the brick depends on the person to impart to it a certain velocity by which it can go through the window, but the breaking of the window is only directly caused by the brick. We can call this “accidental cooperation”3, and it has the structure of two influences and two products. In the person-and-brick example, the first influence is of the person on the brick, the first product is the brick’s velocity, the second influence is of the brick on the window, and the second (final) product is the window’s breaking.

Again, there are cases of accidental cooperation which fit the definition and go beyond our motivating example. For instance, a grandparent and a parent accidentally cooperate to beget a grandchild, since the parent depends on the grandparent for their existence (and therefore their ability to procreate) but the grandparent does not directly contribute to the begetting of the grandchild. Indeed, cases of accidental cooperation needn’t even involve temporally separate events. For example, imagine Alice holds Bob up because he is too short to grab an item off the shelf by himself. In this case Alice accidentally cooperates with Bob, because her activity enables him to do his activity (dependence) but they do not both directly grab the item off the shelf (without combination). Another example of simultaneous accidental cooperation is when the sun shines on the moon, which in turn reflects this onto the earth. This case is noteworthy, because though the moon is radically dependent upon the sun, this dependence does not occur in such a way that the rays of the sun must combine with the reflected rays of the moon in order for the moon to illuminate the earth.4

cooperation-accidental
Diagram of accidental cooperation. A influences B, and B influences CB is an intermediate product, and C is the final product.

The last mode of cooperation, combination with dependence, is by far the trickiest to grasp. An example of this is when Alice uses a stick to push a stone by means of directed motion. Similarly, it occurs between Bob and a piece of chalk as he uses it to write on a blackboard. We can call this “essential cooperation”, and its trickiness becomes clear when we attempt to describe its structure. The key thing to realize is that in essential cooperation the combination and the dependence are not two distinct acts, but rather two aspects of one and the same act. Thus, we could equally describe it as “dependent combination” or “combinatory dependence”. If this weren’t the case, then instead of essential cooperation we would really only have coordinate cooperation (combination without dependence) coinciding with accidental cooperation (dependence without combination).

To underscore this irreducibility, we can consider variations of the Alice-and-stick scenario which do not amount to essential cooperation. If Alice merely threw the stick at the stone, then we would have accidental cooperation rather than essential cooperation. If she merely pushed the stone with her hand at the same time as the stick hit the stone, then we would have coordinate cooperation rather essential cooperation. Even if she threw the stick and managed to then push the stone with her hand at the same time, we still would not have essential cooperation, but rather a coincidence of accidental and coordinate cooperations. Furthermore, if Alice were to let go of the stick after using it to move the stone, it might continue moving without her, in virtue of the velocity it had when she let go, but the essential cooperation between Alice and the stick ceases upon her letting go. This manifests itself in the fact that the motion the stick is no longer directed in the way it was before. Once she’s let go, the cooperation between the two is only accidental.

When Alice essentially cooperates with the stick, she not only moves the stick (dependence) but also moves the stick to move the stone by means of directing it (combination). It’s because the stick is not capable of directed motion in itself that Alice needs to keep acting through it to move the stone. And with this we see the structure of essential cooperation emerging: Alice not only influences the stick (by moving it), but also influences the stick’s influencing the stone (by moving the stone with the stick). Thus, in total we have three influences and two products, because Alice influencing the stick’s influence does not produce some distinct thing.

cooperation-essential
Diagram of essential cooperation. A both causes B and causes B’s causing C, and this is done in the same act, indicated by the both of these arising from the same line.

We can summarize everything we’ve said here with the following table:

Mode Components Structure
Coordinate dependence without combination 2 influences, 1 product
Accidental combination without dependence 2 influences, 2 products
Essential combination with dependence 3 influences, 2 products

Having outlined these three modes of cooperation, the rest of this post will discuss what we might call the “characteristics” of cooperation. These apply in some sense to every mode of cooperation, even if the specific details differ in each case.

Through-causing and instrumentation

When one cause acts through another we call it “through-causing”. In any case of through-causing there are three components to consider: the cause, the passage, and the effect. In terms of the vocabulary we introduced above, these would correspond to the first cause, the second cause, and the final product respectively. Using these components we can unpack the differences in how through-causing applies to each of the modes of cooperation as outlined above.

Of the three modes, essential cooperation involves through-causing in the truest sense, since the first cause acts through the second by causing it to cause the final product. In this case the second cause acts only insofar as the first cause acts through it, which is to say that the second cause propagates the causal influence that originates with the first. When Alice pushes the stone with the stick, the stick propagates Alice’s causal influence to the stone.

The Alice-and-stick example also shows us something that we might be tempted to forget: propagation doesn’t mean that the second cause does nothing, as if things would be the same without it. The stick modifies Alice’s causal influence according to its nature, and thereby enables her to push a stone that otherwise might be out of reach due to distance or obstacles. We’ll return to this point in the next section. For now, the upshot is that the origination-propagation language gives us another perspective on how dependence and combination work together in essential cooperation: there is dependence because the second cause does not originate the causal influence, and there is combination because the second cause propagates this influence rather than the first cause bringing about the product by itself. If the second cause weren’t making some kind of contribution, then the final product wouldn’t occur in the same way or even at all.

The two other modes of cooperation can make sense of through-causing, but only by considering it in a looser sense. In a case of accidental cooperation the order of first and second cause is given by the dependence of the second cause on the first, but because the first cause doesn’t directly influence the final product it can only be said to “cause” it in a loose sense. In other words, accidental cooperation gives a natural sense of through-causing, but requires a looser sense of through-causing.5

In a case of coordinate cooperation both causes directly influence the final product, but there is no dependence to give an objective ordering between them. So, any ordering between the causes must be supplied by us, in terms of how we consider them. For instance, if Alice and Bob are pulling a rope from either end, then we could take either to be the first cause, the other to be the second cause, and the final product to be the tension in the rope. Alice acts “through” Bob not because Bob propagates Alice’s influence or because Bob depends on Alice for his acting, but simply because Bob modifies the result of Alice’s contribution in some way. Thus, we might say that coordinate cooperation gives us a natural sense of through-causing, but requires a looser sense of through-causing.

The notion of through-causing is closely linked to the notion of instrumentation. An agent works through an instrument by applying it to an end. In the strictest sense, an instrument is something that has the capacity for producing its effect within itself, but which is incapable of realizing this capacity by itself. Thus, the instrument produces the effect only so long as the agent applies it to this end. To give an example, the stick is capable of moving in any number of directions (capacity), but cannot direct itself to move the stone (incapable of realization), and therefore requires Alice to continually apply it to this end. Connecting this with what we’ve been saying, an instrument in the strictest sense is what an agent causes through in the truest sense. And just as accidental and coordinate cooperation involve looser sense of through-causing, so too do they involve looser senses of instrumentation. Thus, we can say, in a looser sense, that the sun uses the moon as an instrument to illuminate the earth, and the Alice uses Bob as an instrument to produce tension in the rope.

Because essential cooperation captures the truest senses of these notions, unless otherwise specified we will use them exclusively for cases of this mode of cooperation.

Impositions

We’ve touched on the notion of causes “modifying” each other’s influence, and it’s worth spending some time making this more precise. Whenever one cause modifies another’s influence in some way, we’ll say that it “imposes upon” that cause. Accordingly, we will refer to this characteristic of cooperation as “imposition”. There are two components that determine the kind of imposition in view: (1) how it imposes, and (2) what it results in.

Regarding the how, an imposition can be active or passive. Alice actively imposes upon Bob when she pulls the rope in the opposite direction to him in a game of tug-of-war, but the stick passively imposes upon Alice when it enables her to act through it in accordance with its structure and strength. Active impositions arise from how one thing’s casual influence impacts another’s, while passive impositions arise from how one thing receives the causal influence of another. Of the two, active impositions are the ones we more intuitively grasp, so much so that we might be tempted to think that passive impositions are not really impositions at all. But this would be a mistake, as the Alice-and-stick example should make clear. Among other things, the stick could modify Alice’s causal influence by extending it by its length or limiting its force by its fragility.

This brings us to the results of impositions, which involve either helping or hindering. An imposition helps when it supports or amplifies, and it hinders when it frustrates or limits. In the tug-of-war Bob and Alice mutually hinder one another, but when they pick up a box together they help one another. Both of these examples are of active impositions, but passive impositions can also be hindering and helpful. Returning to the Alice-and-stick example, if the stick is fragile or bent then it might hinder the causal influence it receives from Alice, while its weight and shape might help her use it for the purpose of pushing the stone. Similarly, it’s because a brick is a certain size and weight that it can be used to break a window by throwing it, unlike a bunch of feathers or a piece of cloth.

So an imposition can be active or passive, and it can hinder or help. This gives us four options for the nature of a particular imposition, to which we give names in the following table:

Hindering Helping
Active violence elevation
Passive limitation facilitation

We hasten to add that the sense of these names is very broad. In our everyday language we restrict “violence” to situations in which someone actively hinders the safety of another. Our technical sense here includes this, but is not exhausted by it. If I’ve asked you not to play a certain kind of music and you persist in playing it, then you’re imposing violence against my will without necessarily hindering my safety. But it gets broader even than this: if one rock knocks another off-course then this is also violence, since it hinders its movement along its original trajectory. The same point of generality applies to limitation, elevation, and facilitation.

Active impositions can be bi-directional, in the sense that two things can actively impose upon each other in the same act of cooperation. In the tug-of-war, for example, both sides of the war impose violence upon by the other. And when two people pick up a box together they impose elevation upon each other. This is possible, because the nature of active impositions allows for there to be a form of symmetry between the two causes. By contrast, passive impositions are by nature asymmetric, and so there is no comparable bi-directionality.

Levels of cooperation

Sometimes a cooperation occurs by means of a lower-level cooperation. Return once more to the Alice-and-stick example. We’ve said that Alice essentially cooperates with the stick, and this is correct, but this essential cooperation is made possible by various lower-level cooperations governed by the laws of physics. For instance, it is because the stick has a certain structural integrity that it doesn’t simply buckle when pushed by Alice into the stone. So, one of these lower-level cooperations is the coordinate cooperation between Alice and the stick which produces the internal stress within the stick. If such cooperation did not occur, then Alice wouldn’t be able to push anything with the stick, since it would simply crumble or her hand would move through it.

This is actually the second time we’ve seen multiple cooperations coincide with one another. Earlier we saw it when we were introducing essential cooperation, and noting that it is not equivalent to the coincidence of accidental and coordinate cooperations. In that case the two cooperations occurred at the same level, but here they occur at different levels.

Given that cooperations can coincide in various ways, it is necessary that we be able to distinguish between them somehow. Sometimes we can distinguish them by reference to their final products, but this is not always enough: in our earlier example, of Alice throwing the stick and pushing the stone at the same time the stick hits it, the two cooperations have the same final product, namely the motion of the stone. In such cases, if we want to distinguish between the cooperations it is necessary to qualify how we consider each of the causes. When considering the accidental cooperation between Alice and the stick when she throws it, we are considering Alice-as-thrower cooperating with the stick-as-projectile. But when considering the coordinate cooperation between Alice and the stick when they move the stone, we are considering Alice-as-pusher cooperating with stick-as-pusher.

An important thing to notice is that when two cooperations coincide they needn’t involve the same impositions. At one level the tug-of-war game is cooperative and at another level it is competitive. At the lower level, both teams cooperate with each other in playing the game in accordance with the rules. At the higher level, they also cooperate with one another in the technical sense we’ve been discussing, but in this instance they mutually impose violence on the other in an attempt to claim victory. Healthy competition just is this sort of mutually violent cooperation at a higher level built upon a non-violent cooperation at a lower level.

For a particularly interesting example of this, imagine Alice pushing a stone using Bob’s hand against his will. Here we can distinguish at least two different cooperations, each at a different level. First there’s the higher-level essential cooperation between Alice-as-agent and Bob’s-arm-as-instrument, and second there’s the lower-level coordinate cooperation between Alice-as-wanting-to-push-Bob’s-arm and Bob-as-not-wanting-his-arm-pushed. If we ask whether Alice imposes violence upon Bob, then we will get a different answer depending on which of the cooperations we’re considering. In the essential cooperation, Alice’s action is what makes and sustains Bob’s-arm-as-instrument, and therefore cannot be said to be violent against it. In the coordinate cooperation, by contrast, Alice’s actions go against Bob’s will for his arm and are therefore violent against Bob. In fact, this is a general feature of essential cooperation: because the influence of the first cause is what establishes and sustains the influence of the second, the first can never impose violence or elevation upon the second at the level of the cooperation. But this imposition could still exist at a lower level, as this example shows.

Conclusion

With this we have covered the necessary groundwork of cooperation: the modes of cooperation, through-causing and instrumentation, impositions, and levels of cooperation. All of these will serve us in our account of divine concurrence and comparison of different views.


  1. Alternatively, we could call it the “Lonergan-McArthur model,” since it arises from the discussions by Bernard Lonergan in his book Grace and Freedom and Ronald McArthur in his paper “Universal in praedicando, universal in causando”. Both of these works are excellent, and if you are somewhat familiar with Thomistic metaphysics I highly recommend them.↩︎
  2. The names for these first two modes are given by Lonergan in his Grace and Freedom. We differ from his naming for the third mode: he calls it “serial cooperation” but I think “essential cooperation” is more appropriate given the Thomistic source of the discussion.↩︎
  3. For those unfamiliar with Scholastic jargon this may sound like a bit of strange name. After all, the person needn’t throw the brick by accident for there to be cooperation. But this is not the sense in which the word is used here. An accident, in this sense, is a feature not contained within the definition of something. In the current example, the person imparts the accident of a certain velocity to the brick, which enables it to go through the window.↩︎
  4. For Thomists, the lesson here is even more noteworthy. As Lonergan notes, the moon in this case is a moved mover that is not properly speaking an instrument (section 4.1 of his Gratia Operans, which is included in Volume One of his Collected Works). This has consequences for how we should conceive of essentially-ordered causal series, which are chains of essentially (not accidentally) cooperating causes.↩︎
  5. In English there’s an unfortunate ambiguity in the word “through,” which makes it applicable to essential or accidental cooperation: Alice causes the stone’s motion through the stick (essential), and she breaks the window through the momentum of the brick (accidental). We have attempted to get around this by emphasizing both the “through” and the “causing” components. Alternatively, there is a similar ambiguity in the word “with,” which makes it applicable to essential and coordinate cooperation: Alice moves the stone with the stick, and plays a tennis match with Bob. Another way to think about what we’re getting at with through-causing, then, is to consider that sense of “through” that would make it interchangeable with “with.”↩︎

Form vs structure, and what it means for virtual existence

A common but mistaken tendency when trying to understand hylomorphism is to equate form and structure and matter with the elements in that structure.1 This tendency is unsurprising, since modern science has taught us how to think about reality in terms of its physical and biological structure, but it is still a mistake. When Aristotle introduces form in the Physics, his preferred example is a person who changes from being uneducated to being educated. In this case, the forms are the uneducatedness or educatedness, while the matter is the person that persists through the change. Surely he does not intend for us to think of the person as an element, that their [un]educatedness somehow structures — this would stretch these words so much as to empty them of meaning.

A better way of thinking about form and matter is as two mutually intelligible notions that work together in the constitution of material things.2 Matter is a substratum that of itself is indeterminate between various alternatives, while form is the determination of that substratum to one of those alternatives. So, the matter and form of a thing do not exist separately from one another, but each exists indirectly through the existence of the thing they compose. The form and matter of a human exist where I am, for example, because I am a human composed of form and matter. In Aristotle’s example, when we consider a person apart from whether they are educated or not, we have something that is indeterminate between different levels of being educated, that is we have matter. And adding in the educatedness determines this matter to one of these various alternatives. Or consider another case of form and matter that doesn’t involve structure. Imagine Alice’s hand is moving into Bob’s face. By itself, this motion is indeterminate between (a) Alice attacking Bob and (b) her clumsily hitting him by mistake in the course of reaching to something near him. The form that determines which of these is the case is her intention. Together the motion (as matter) and the intention (as form) constitute her action.

So, form is not structure. But neither are the two entirely separate: if some T exists at least partially by virtue of an underlying structure, then a form determining matter to be a T will need to include that structure. Take as an example a simple wooden table with four legs and a tabletop. The structure places the tabletop above the four legs, each of which is standing upright. And the form and matter? The matter could be the wood itself, in which case the form would be everything that makes the wood a table, including the division of it into pieces, the structuring of these pieces, and the collective intentions we have that make something a table rather than something else like a chair or mug.

Let’s use a water molecule as a case study. Structurally, it arises from a bond between two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom, the bond being the structure and the atoms being the elements. In terms of form and matter, things are more complicated. Assuming the water molecule is a substance,3 we’re primarily interested in substantial form and prime matter. Prime matter underlies all material substances and is completely indeterminate, while substantial form determines this matter to being a particular kind of material substance. Mapping this onto language about structure, it is clear that the hydrogen and oxygen atoms are not primary matter, for they are also made up of structured elements: a hydrogen atom, for instance, is made up of a proton and an electron. And these are also made up of structured element: a proton, for instance, is made up of an up quark and a down quark. Since structure is a kind of determination, the prime matter of the water molecule must underly all of these things. Accordingly, the substantial form of the water molecule must include all of these structures at different levels as part of its determination of the prime matter. I have illustrated how these different components all fit together in the following diagram:

form-vs-configuration

What may have initially seemed like a subtle distinction has now snowballed in two clearly different accounts of something as simple as a water molecule. And, moreover, this difference sheds some light on a puzzling claim in Thomistic metaphysics, that the hydrogen and oxygen atoms exist virtually within the water molecule. Only if the water molecule were to be destroyed, leaving free hydrogen and oxygen atoms, then they would really exist. Understandably, someone not familiar with these terms would find this all a little perplexing: the molecules have the same structure both when inside the water and when free, so why say that they only virtually exist in the one case?

For starters, we must note that by calling something “virtual” we are not denying that it has some measure of existence in reality. This might what we colloquially mean by “virtual”, but in Thomism both “real” and “virtual” afford some kind of existence in reality. If we wanted to say that something had no existence in reality, then we’d say that its existence was purely logical.4

Furthermore, when Thomists speak about the way a thing exists, we primarily have in mind its form and matter rather than simply the structures that underly it. And we think that every substance has exactly one substantial form, since a material substance is the determination of matter, not a pre-existing material substance.

Now, while there may be no structural difference between a bound hydrogen atom and a free one, in terms of form and matter there is a substantial difference (pun intended). The bound hydrogen atom exists and is structured as part of the water molecule’s form, whereas the free hydrogen atom exists and is structured by its own form. The free hydrogen atom’s form excludes all sorts of things that are included by the water molecule’s form, not least of which are the structures of the oxygen atoms . Of course, the two are not completely unrelated, since the form of the water molecule in some sense “contains” the form of the hydrogen atom. This is what we’re getting at when we say that the hydrogen exists virtually within the water — even though the water molecule has only one substantial form, its form is multi-faceted.5 It’s because of this that if we destroyed the molecule properly, we could recover the three atoms which until then would have existed virtually within it.


  1. By “structure” I mean a static or dynamic specification of the quantitative relationships between a collection of elements. In my post on the threefold whole I used the word “configuration” instead, but I think “structure” is more familiar to people and so have used it here.
  2. By “things” I include material composites in general, such as substances, accidents, actions, states of affairs, and aggregates.
  3. See Eleonore Stump’s paper “Emergence, Causal Powers, and Aristotelianism in Metaphysics” in Powers and Capacities in Philosophy: The New Aristotelianism. There is a more general question about whether we should consider each individual molecule as a substance, or whether bodies of water are better candidates. This is hugely relevant to us here, and we use the molecule because it’s easier to talk about.
  4. See my post on the real distinction for a discussion on real, virtual, and purely logical in the context of distinctions, which bears some resemblance to how they work in the context of existence.
  5. In order to better understand the multi-faceted nature of forms, we need to consider them as potential wholes. I have discussed these in my post on the threefold whole.

Summary of the book of Job

Below is a summary of the dialogue in Job that I put together as part of working through the book. The book is long, and the purpose of this was to capture the gist of what each person was saying so that I could get a handle on what they were arguing.

The story starts with Job having everything taken away from him and being stricken by disease despite his being a righteous person. He is greatly distressed by this, and as a result wishes that his life would just end so that he need not have to continue struggling through this unwarranted treatment from God. Throughout the dialogue he maintains that he is righteous and that this suffering cannot be the punishment for his wickedness, leading him to question why God would inflict it upon him.

His three friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar try to comfort him by explaining why God would have brought such calamity to him, but their attempts all presume too simplistic a model of how God governs the world. Towards the end, Elihu comes and rebukes the three friends for being incapable of upholding the righteousness of God in the face of Job’s complaints. Unlike the other three, Job does not respond to Elihu and God does not reprimand him (42:7–9). This suggests that he is on the right track.

Eliphaz believes that God blesses the pious, and so urges Job to stop wishing his life away and to praise God rather than blame him, so that he can reap blessing. As the dialogue progresses it becomes apparent that he does assume Job has done something wrong, but his primary concern is with what Job does next in order to become blessed.

Bildad believes that God judges the wicked and rewards the righteous, and so urges Job to turn to God in righteousness rather than wish the fate of the wicked upon himself. From his point of view, Job’s family must have been judged for their wickedness and Job is doing himself no favor by wishing this same fate upon himself. He does not think Job is necessarily being judged, but that he should definitely stop asking for it.

Zophar believes that God only judges us because of our wickedness, and that since Job is being judged he must be keeping some sin of his secret. He urges Job to confess and move on, so that he can be right with God again and be done with his punishment.

Elihu believes that God works in ways that we might not expect because he is not a mere human. He judges the wicked and blesses the righteous, sure, but he could also bring calamity to the righteous in order to keep them from falling into wickedness. It’s not like God owes it to us to give us blessing all the time, and ultimately whether we’re righteous or wicked depends on how we respond to suffering. So he criticizes Job for having become a scoffer in response to his suffering, the exact opposite of what he should have done.


(1–2) Job is righteous and God is proud of him. One of the members of the divine court challenge him, saying that Job is only righteous because God has blessed him, and that were Job to suffer he would reject God. God permits him to cause suffering to Job, so long as he doesn’t kill him.

Job (3): I wish I’d never been born, and am amazed that life is given to someone in such misery.

Eliphaz (4–5): You, who comforted others, do you not see that God will bring prosperity to the innocent? Only the evil will perish in their ways, so wishing this upon yourself is wrongheaded. Accept your troubles, and look to God for relief rather than wishing death upon yourself.

Job (6–7): My complaint stands! I have sought God and yet gotten punished severely. Therefore I will continue to despise my troubles.

Bildad (8): How long will you speak like this? God judges the wicked and the righteous according to their deeds. If your children died because of their sin do not join them in cursing God because of it. Rather, be righteous and find prosperity!

Job (9–10): How might I plead my case to this God, who wounds me in spite of my perfection? If in putting off my sorrows I get punished anyway, then what point is there in doing so? As it is, I’m afraid of him and don’t think he’ll stop judging me even if I repent. There is no mediator between us, who can hold his rod back. All I want is for this God, who takes pleasure in punishing his creation, to give me relief for the short time before I fade into nothingness.

Zophar (11): It will do you no good to hide things from God, for he knows all. Repent without holding on to sin secretly and your ailment will be remedied.

Job (12:1–13:12): Am I inferior to you so that I don’t know these things as well? I have seen that God brings both good and evil, and you lie when you say it is otherwise. Would you lie in defense of God? I know that I am righteous, so I will continue in my complaint. If there were someone to show me wrong, then I’d happily admit defeat.

Job to God (13:13–14:22): So then, I ask two things. Withdraw your hand from me that I might not fear to come near, and tell me of my sin. You know that man is limited, and that unlike the tree he has no hope. The tree will sprout again after its death, but not so for man. He remains dead until the end of the heavens. Please, kill me and hide me in Sheol, that I might be hidden from this scourge of life. Oh that the day would come when you honor your creation, but as it is you wear him down and destroy his hope.

Eliphaz (15): We are not to be ignored, for we have the wisdom of our fathers from long ago. You turn away from devotion to God to your own demise. How can you speak of righteousness when not even his heavens are righteous? The man who acts arrogantly toward God is to be afraid of him, and it is better for him not to trust in himself! Do not describe yourself in these terms.

Job (16–17): So much for being my friends! You have given me no comfort in my day of difficulty. God has smitten me and broken me into pieces, and everyone has turned against me. Not only this, but he has made my friends incapable of understanding what is happening. My life is over and my hope is dashed. If I have already turned to desire Sheol then what hope is there left for me to hope in?

Bildad (18): Do not treat us like idiots. Consider this, and then we can talk: surely you are wishing the outcome of the wicked upon yourself[, you who say you are righteous].

Job (19): How long will you attack me with your words, by disgracing me [who is righteous]? God has already disgraced me in every way, and more I my intimate friends have turned on me. Have mercy on me, for God has already stricken me. Know that you who attack me will reap judgement for it, from God my redeemer.

Zophar (20): Why do you insult us with your harsh criticism (censure)? You know from old that the exaltation of the wicked is short-lived. For the evil he holds on to destroys himself, and his insatiable desire is finally fulfilled by God’s judgement upon him. Then the heavens will reveal his iniquity.

Job (21): Hear me out, and then you can continue mocking me. Look at me — am I not appalling to you? Now look at the wicked. They live long and prosper, they are glad and rejoice, they scoff at God and the die peacefully. Clearly I am not being led by them! How often are they really punished, as you say? Are living under a rock?! Who can teach God? He judges everyone. And we see the same overcome the prosperous and the poor. Now I know that you scene against me, because you ask me to reveal to my sin, but have you looked around? The wicked prosper, and others follow them[, quite unlike my situation, so you must be picking on me]! Your words are nothing.

Eliphaz (22): Is it any gain to God if you are blameless? Is he judging you for fearing him? Surely not, it’s because you are wicked. You have done evil, and so God punishes you. You mock God, saying that he’s too far away to know how to run the world[, letting the wicked prosper]. Turn back to God and He will establish you. Lift your face to him, and he will deliver even the one who is not innocent.

Job (23–24): If I stood before God and pleaded my case, then he would judge me righteous. But I cannot find him to do so. I have kept his ways but there is no way for me to change what he has planned for me, and so I dread him. Why doesn’t God judge the wicked on schedule? They do so much evil — worse than what you claim I’ve done — and their victims have nothing, they tread the winepresses but suffer thirst. You say the wicked are judged quickly, yet it seems to me that God prolongs their lives. Please, prove me wrong!

Bildad (25): Listen, God is above all and has armies beyond measure. How could any man be right before him? Even the stars are dim in his eyes, man is a but maggot to him.

Job (26): Wow, so helpful! God is too big to be put into such a simple box!

Job (27): With God as my witness I will not lie by agreeing with all of you. I am righteous and will not make myself wicked by deceit. For what hope is there for the wicked? He does not die quickly, but eventually he or his children reap what he has sown.

Job (28): In searching out gold and silver man has gone places that beasts could not discover, but he has not found wisdom there. Nor can he buy it with gold or silver he made. The birds above have not seen it, nor can anything in the land of the living. Even Death and Abaddon have heard only rumors of it. God however, has seen it and understands the ways to it. For he looks to the ends of the earth and sees everything under the heavens. He’s told man that’s it the fear of God which is wisdom.

Job (29–31): I’ve walked the way of the righteous, for those near me and for strangers. People honored me and thought me a friend of God. But now they laugh at me and turn against me. Didn’t I help the oppressed? But now that I’m oppressed there is no help for me. If I have done any evil then let God cast me down. But I’m righteous! Tell me what my fault is, let my adversary write down the indictment.

Elihu (32): I am young and so I’ve been waiting for wisdom to be revealed by my elders. But behold, you have found no answer to Job! Surely it is not age that gives wisdom but the spirit God gives us, thus I can no longer hold in my opinion on the matter, and flatter my fellow humans by listening to them.

Elihu (33): Job, listen to me, your fellow human who has heard what you’ve been saying. You have said that God is unjustly against you, but you are wrong to complain at him, claiming that he does not hear your cries. God is no mere man like you and I, and he speaks to us in ways that we might at first not notice. In a dream, perhaps, he might terrify us in order to turn us away from pride. In our pain he might rebuke us, that we might be saved from a path leading to death. He does all sorts of things that we may know that he is the source of life.

Elihu (34): You men of understanding, Job has complained about God doing him injustice and thereby numbered himself among the scoffers. Far be it from God, the Judge of everything, that he should do wickedness — no-one has given him this role [that he might fail in it]. Quite the opposite: he calls kings nothing and noblemen wicked! Furthermore, he knows all and does not need anyone to being their case before him. He judges all according to how it really is, and Job has made himself wicked by presuming otherwise [in response to his suffering].

Elihu (35): Job, do you really think you righteousness entitles you to anything before God [so that he couldn’t use affliction for more than judgement]? If you sin, do you affect him? And likewise if you do right? These things only affect your fellow humans. When people cry to God out of selfish ambition rather than awe for God, their cries are empty and God does not answer. So too, Job, your cries are empty because you speak without understanding.

Elihu (36–37): Let me speak of the righteousness of God, with knowledge that is [apparently] far from this place. God does not despise anyone: he helps the afflicted and destroys the wicked. The godless hold onto their anger when faced with difficulty, but for others learn from their affliction and grow from it. You must not be so quick to turn to wrath, which then becomes scoffing. God is a great and powerful teacher, and you must remember to extol his work [rather than fall into resentment]. Just look at all the complex ways in which nature works — that’s him! We know not how he orchestrates anything, for he is so high and mighty, something it would be good for you to keep in mind. “Therefore men fear him; he does not regard any who are wise in their own conceit.”

God (38:1–40:2): Who is speaking without knowledge, confusing the matter? Get ready Job, because I’m going to question you now [as you asked]. Tell me, where were you when I built everything you see? Have you been to the gates of death itself? Do you order the sea, the clouds, light and darkness? Who is it that gives wisdom and takes it away? Is it by your understanding that all animals move and live? You who wish to argue with God, give me an answer.

Job (40:3–5): How can I answer? I am nothing [compared to you]. I have spoken, but I dare not say any more.

God (40:6–41:34): Well, get ready, because I will question you further. Will you condemn me in order to establish yourself in the right? Do you think you are more fit to be the Judge? If so, then in your anger go — destroy all the wicked, let’s see you do it. On the day you do it I will acknowledge that you don’t need me. [But you can’t!] Consider the Behemoth and the Leviathan: even these beasts cause you to tremble, and I made them!

Job (42:1–6): I see that you are above all things. I was rash to dean your present so that I could tell you off, but I see now that I did so out of ignorance. I had only heard about you before, but now I see you with my eyes, and “therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.”

(42:7–17) Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar are reprimanded by God: “My anger burns against [you three] for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” (42:7) God commands them to offer burnt offerings, and ask Job to pray for them, that God might forgive them. Then God restores Job’s fortunes and eventually “Job died, an old man, and full of days.” (42:17)

Through the law I died to the law

I was recently listening to a sermon on Galatians, and the following statement by Paul caught my eye:

For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. (2:19)

This got me thinking that the law might have a more important role in salvation history than I had previously considered. To see what I mean, consider the ways that the law is related to sin. First, the law teaches us about sin, helping us to understand it for what it is. Second, the law condemns sin as disobedience against God. We see both of these, for instance, in what Paul says elsewhere:

Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. (Rom 3:19–20)

This statement from Galatians suggested to me that we should consider adding a third item to this list: what if the law also provides the means by which sin and death could be escaped? I don’t mean this in the sense that by living under the law we could somehow escape sin and death — we know that this is only possible through Christ. What I’m suggesting is that the law provided the mechanism that Christ leveraged in order to rescue us from sin and death.

The law as a means of escape from sin

In order to see how this works, we need to briefly remind ourselves of the story of sin, death, and the law. This is most clearly unpacked in Romans 5–7, but it also underlies the much shorter treatment in Galatians 3. In Romans 5, Paul introduces the story like this:

Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned — for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come. (Rom 5:12–14)

As he begins comparing Adam and Jesus, Paul interrupts himself to make sure we’re all on the same page. “Sin was in the world, you understand, long before the law was given, but it not was reckoned to anyone before there was a law. And yet, even though people were not sinning in ways reckoned by a law (as with Adam, who had been given an explicit command) they were nevertheless dying.” Sin and death reign even though sin is not being counted by the law, which is a huge problem. Counted or not, sin is contrary to God’s created order — it corrupts us and goes against our flourishing (Rom 3:23), and it produces death in us (Rom 2:12–16). But without some kind of reckoning, this corruption is nebulous and intractable: it’s not a “thing” that we can contain (or count), but just an indiscernible corrosive power within God’s good creation. How do you begin to address sin when it’s concealed like this? How could you forgive it without it first being reckoned? How do you cleanse it without it first being counted?

You can’t. Using different imagery, without some reckoning sin was free to roam around in the darkness and wreak devastation without any way to handle it. So, God introduced a law that covered all of sin, rather than just the single command given to Adam. How does this help? Paul gives us two answers, one in Romans and one in Galatians. In Romans, he notes that a law is escapable through death:

Or do you not know, brothers — for I am speaking to those who know the law — that the law is binding on a person only as long as he lives? For a married woman is bound by law to her husband while he lives, but if her husband dies she is released from the law of marriage. Accordingly, she will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law, and if she marries another man she is not an adulteress. (Rom 7:1–3)

And as he had argued earlier, we who trust in Christ have died with him (Rom 6:1–14), and are therefore released from the law:

Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God. For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code. (Rom 7:4–6)

So, before the law sin was an intractable corruption, but once sin is covered by a law we have a means by which to escape it, namely death. Put another way, before the law death was just a consequence of sin, but with the law it becomes the means of escaping it. Of course, it’s not a means for us to take hold of ourselves. Instead, the law makes Christ’s death, in which we share, capable of releasing us from sin.

In Galatians, Paul uses the notion of a curse to explain the same thing. On this account, the law curses anyone who does not obey it, and Christ became a curse for us so that we might be redeemed from the law, and the sin that it condemned:

For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us — for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree” — so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith. (Gal 3:10–14)

So, the law curses our sinfulness, allowing Christ to become a curse for us and thereby redeem us.

In both cases, then, we might say that the law introduces the “middle term” that connects our sin to Christ’s redeeming work, such that that which was nebulous and inescapable becomes concrete and escapable — granted, of course, that we have Christ to achieve this escape for us. The law circumscribes sin and provides the means of escaping it, so that through the law I may die to the law and thereby escape sin. Again, we must underscore the fact that this is not achieved by me directly, but in my sharing in Christ’s death. The law does not provide a means by which I can release myself from sin, but a means by which Christ can redeem me and secure my escape from sin.

Comparing this to some other things Paul says

Having outlined this third relationship between sin and the law, it would be good to comment briefly on two other things Paul has to say, one in Romans and one in Galatians.

In Romans, Paul says that sin produces death in us through the law (7:13), but I’ve said that death was a consequence of sin before the law. Well, in fact it is not I who said this, but Paul himself. He is clear that even without the law we will die and be judged (Rom 2:12–16), and that before there was a law to count it people died because of their sin (5:12–14). Paul’s statement in Rom 7:13 appears in the context of a train of thought that began earlier with these words:

… if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” (Rom 7:7)

Even though sin can produce death in us without the law, it is only that sin that can be known as such from creation (Rom 1:18–32). There will be other sin that cannot be known in this way — Paul uses the example of coveting — so that when the law comes and condemns all sin it includes these sins as well. It seems that in Rom 7 Paul is talking with reference to these, or at least with reference to the increased responsibility that comes with the disclosure of the law.

Turning to Galatians, Paul says that the law “was added because of transgressions” (Gal 3:19), and then goes on to say the following:

Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. (Gal 3:23–26)

Now, I think these statements can be coherently interpreted in terms of the first two ways the law relates to sin (making it known, and condemning it), but the third way we’ve considered in this post develops this picture nicely. As we’ve been saying, the law was added in order to circumscribe sin in anticipation of the day when Christ would come and open up the way to escape it through his death under the law.

God, matter, and necessary existence

Reader Ante asks the following question in the comments of my response to his previous question:

The issue I have is with regards to God’s necessary existence. Since God’s essence and existence are identical, He exists necessarily. But the same thing could be said of matter as well, as it seems to me. Why could it not be the case that some fundamental layer of physical reality necessarily exists aka that it cannot fail to exist? Suppose that we are dealing with some form of “atomism”. How do we know that some kind of physical particles or fields don’t have necessary existence? Existence could be a PART of particles/fields or some other kind of fundamental physical reality. Then, what it means to be a particle/field ENTAILS, among other things, that this particle/field EXISTS.

In fact, there are three related questions in here. Here we’ll try to disentangle them from one another, and give a brief answer to each.

Q1. Does matter have necessary existence?

Without trying to sound facetious, it depends on what you mean by “matter,” “necessary,” and “existence.”

Starting with matter, there are at least three senses that it can have. In contemporary usage, matter refers to the “stuff” that underlies physical reality — atoms, electrons, quarks, bosons, and so on. Then there is matter in the Aristotelian sense, which comes in two varieties, namely primary and secondary matter. Unlike the contemporary “physical” matter, the Aristotelian “metaphysical” matter is never a thing of itself, but is always a constitutive principle of things. It composes with form to, well, form composite things, such as animals, people, actions, and aggregates.

In general, this composition works as follows: matter is a substratum that of itself is indeterminate between various alternatives, while form is the determination of that substratum to one of those alternatives. So, the matter and form of a thing do not exist separately from one another, but each exists indirectly through the existence of the thing they compose. The form and matter of a human exist where I am, for example, because I am a human composed of form and matter. When a thing changes it switches one form for another, but retains the same underlying matter. When a thing changes without being destroyed, like me standing up or changing clothes, then we’re talking about secondary matter composed with accidental form. But when the change brings about the destruction of one thing and the beginning of another thing, as when I die and become a corpse, then we’re talking about primary matter and substantial form. Primary matter is therefore more fundamental than secondary matter, and in some sense it persists across all change, even though whenever it exists it does so indirectly through the things it composes.

With necessary existence there is also a distinction between contemporary usage and classical usage. In contemporary metaphysics, “necessary” and “contingent” are cashed out in terms of possible worlds: a thing has necessary existence if it exists in every possible world, and has contingent existence if it fails to exist in some possible worlds. Since possible worlds capture what could have been the case, a thing exists necessarily if it could not have been the case that it failed to exist, while it exists contingently if it could have been the case that it failed to exist.

When Aquinas refers to things as necessary and contingent, however, he has something quite different in mind. He is not talking about whether things may or may not exist in other possible worlds, but whether things are corruptible or not — whether they go in and out of existence — in this possible world. For him, the corruptibility of something is a consequence of its nature: material things are made up of these two principles which need not be composed (form and matter), and therefore they are corruptible. Angels and God, on the other hand, are incorruptible. For the sake of clarity, then, we will refer to the necessary existence of Aquinas as “incorruptibility” and the necessary existence of contemporary metaphysics as “metaphysical necessity.”

In order to understand how a Thomist would approach the question of metaphysical necessity, we can compare it to a position defended by some in contemporary metaphysics, called “modal essentialism.” Broadly speaking, modal essentialists seek to analyze the notion of “essence” in terms of facts about possible worlds: the essence of a thing is the collection of its essential properties, and a property of a thing is essential if that thing has that property in every possible world it exists. Thomists, by contrast, hold to a position that has been called “real essentialism,” where essences are fundamental to things, and the truths about possible worlds are grounded in them rather than the other way around.1 Thus, from our point of view, modal essentialism gets things backwards.

An important consequence of real essentialism is that it allows essences to govern whether something is metaphysically necessary or not. For the Thomist, the essence of every thing apart from God is really distinct from its existence, with the former being a potential of some kind and the latter being its continued actualization. Now, every potential depends on another actuality for its continued actualization, and every chain of actualized potentials eventually leads back to God. Furthermore, since God is a free agent, it is metaphysically contingent whether he chooses to actualize any potentials at all, and therefore it is a metaphysically contingent fact that anything other than himself exists from moment to moment. God is the only exemption from this, because he does not exist through the actualization of a potential — he is pure actuality, his essence is his existence. Thus, God is metaphysically necessary while everything else is metaphysically contingent.

Returning to the two kinds of matter, every material thing exists through the actualization of a potential. Since contemporary matter is a material thing it is therefore metaphysically contingent along with every other material thing. Aristotelian matter, as we have said, exists at any moment indirectly through the existence of the material thing it makes up, and therefore will also be metaphysically contingent.

But they are not in the same boat when it comes to corruptibility. Contemporary matter is corruptible, since like any material thing it comes in and goes out of existence. Likewise, Aristotelian secondary matter comes in and goes out of existence along with the substances to which it belongs. But since Aristotelian primary matter persists through all generation and corruption, it is in some sense never generated or corrupted itself, and is therefore in that sense incorruptible. Of course, it is incorruptible in the thinnest sense. Even though it always exists, at any given moment it only exists indirectly through the substances it composes. And so, it would go out of existence the moment God stopped sustaining all material things in existence.

Indeed, primary matter might be the first incorruptible thing arrived at in Aquinas’s Third Way. At a crucial point in the argument, which has generated much discussion, he says, “if everything is corruptible, then at one time there could have been nothing in existence.” On the face of it, this sounds like he’s committing the quantifier shift fallacy. And this might be the case if he was only quantifying over substances, but if he was quantifying over substances and their principles then this shift is quite reasonable. If primary matter is also corruptible, then it also wouldn’t have existed at some time in the past. But since, for Aquinas, generation depends on pre-existing matter, it would follow that nothing could have subsequently been generated, which is contrary to experience. This leads him to posit the first incorruptible thing in his chain of incorruptible things, namely primary matter, from which point he traces the chain all the way back to God, the only incorruptible thing that is also metaphysically necessary.

So, does matter have necessary existence? In some sense yes, but mostly no:

Contemporary matter Primary matter Secondary matter
Metaphysically necessary No No No
Incorruptible No Yes No

Q2. What if atomism were true?

Would our answer change if some form of atomism were true? In this case, there would presumably be a bunch of fundamental physical things called “atoms,” which would not come in or go out of existence. This would certainly make them incorruptible, like Aristotelian primary matter, but would it make them metaphysically necessary?

It’s tempting to reach for our earlier answer about primary matter and apply it to these atoms, but that would be a mistake. For that answer, it was crucial that primary matter is a principle of things rather than a thing of itself. Because of this, its existence at any moment is in some sense parasitic on the composite thing to which it belongs, and if God simply stopped sustaining all composite things in existence, then primary matter would disappear along with them. By contrast, these atoms are not principles, but things in their own right, so the same line of argumentation won’t work.

A better analogy would be the angels. They are incorruptible, since they are not made out of matter at all, but their essence is nevertheless really distinct from their existence, which means they exist through the continued actualization of a potential, and therefore depend on God for their continued existence. So, what reason could there be for thinking that these atoms would need to likewise exist through the continued actualization of potentials?

For one thing, they are material, and therefore exist through the actualization of potentials of primary matter like any other material thing. What makes them different from other material things is not that this doesn’t apply to them, but rather that this applies to them without them being generated or corrupted.

For another thing, we saw earlier that anything whose essence is not identical to its existence is metaphysically contingent, and there can be only one being whose essence is identical with their existence. I covered this in a previous post on the real distinction, but briefly: existence unifies all existing things as existing, whereas essence diversifies us within this unity by limiting that existence in various ways. One thing is distinct from another by virtue of being limited in a way that the other is not. Material things with the same common essence are diversified by differing determinate dimensions, which limit us to different places and times; created immaterial substances (angels) are diversified simply by their individual essences, so that there are no two angels have their existence limited in a common way; and God is that existence which is not limited in any way by his essence, since they are identical. Since diversity occurs through limitation, and since a thing whose essence is identical to its existence is not limited, there cannot be a diversity of such things.

Q3. Could existence be part of an essence without being identical to it?

But what if the existence of these atoms was really distinct but not wholly distinct from their essences? That is, why couldn’t their existence be a proper part of their essence?

Let’s start by considering some things which are parts of essences: substantial form and primary matter. When we first learn about form and matter, they are said to correspond to actuality and potentiality — the indeterminacy of matter corresponds to its potential for being in different ways, and the determination of this matter by the form is an actualization of one of those potentials. But things get a little confusing, later, when we then learn that both form and matter are parts of an essence, and that essence is a sort of potentiality for existence. How is it possible that form is an actuality but part of a potentiality?

Fundamentally, this boils down to the fact that the form-matter distinction is orthogonal to the essence-existence distinction. In a composite being, there are these two overlapping real distinctions, each of which focuses on the actualization of a potential in different but complementary ways. The form-matter distinction captures what obtains when a material thing exists, while the essence-existence distinction captures whether this obtains in reality. Form accounts for the unity a material thing has with all other material things of the same kind, and matter distinguishes this instance of the kind from that instance of the kind. Existence accounts for the unity a thing has with all existing things, and essence distinguishes this existing thing from that existing thing.

form-matter-vs-essence-existence

To put this in more concrete terms, we can compare me, Sherlock Holmes, and the tree outside my house. Many people don’t know this about me, but I’m a composite of form and matter.2 Likewise, the tree is a composite of form and matter, although my form makes me a human while the tree’s form makes it a tree. Sherlock Holmes is also a composite of form and matter, since this is part of being a human, and he would have the same sort of form that I do. Now, in one sense I am more similar to Sherlock Holmes than to the tree, but in another sense I am more similar to the tree than to Sherlock Holmes. The difference lies in whether we consider things in terms of their form and matter, or in terms of their essence and existence: I am similar to Sherlock Holmes in virtue of our shared form which the tree does not have, and I am similar to the tree in virtue of our shared existence which Sherlock Holmes does not have.

The Sherlock Holmes case also lets us see how the actuality of form can be part of the potentiality of essence. Consider this question: does Sherlock Holmes’s substantial form actualize a potential in his primary matter? Well, in one sense of course it does, for if it didn’t then he wouldn’t be a human capable of sleuthing around London. But in another sense of course it does not, for if it did then he would be a real human rather than a fictional character. It’s the difference between these two senses that is captured by the actualization of an essence by its existence — form is always the actualization a potential of matter, but it’s when this actualization obtains in reality that this corresponds to the actualization of something’s essence by its existence.

Since the actualization of matter by form is what constitutes the existence of a composite thing, and since this actualization is contained in the essence of a thing, we could in some sense say that the “existence” of a thing is contained in its essence. But, as we’ve just seen, this will not help in the present case, because this doesn’t determine one way or the other whether the thing’s existence obtains in reality. The core of the problem is that an essence, of itself, is indifferent to whether it obtains in reality or not, which is why we can talk of the essence of Sherlock Holmes without falling into incoherence. This is the indifference that I’ve recently noted belongs to all potentials, and it is on account of this that we say essence is a potential.

But why couldn’t the existence which is the actualization of the essence (and accounts for it obtaining in reality) be a proper part of that essence? Because this would entail that the essence is capable of having multiple simultaneous existences, which is absurd. To see this, let A be the part of the essence which is also the thing’s existence and let B be the other part (or the collection of other parts). From this it follows that A is an actuality since existence is a sort of actuality, and B is a potentiality since it is the part of the thing’s essence that is not its existence. In order for B to exist, then, it would need to be actualized. The resulting actuality, call it A2, would need to be separate from A. Why? Because, as we’ve seen in our above discussions on the essence-existence and form-matter distinctions, actualities are distinguished from one another by reference to the potentials they are the actualizations of (or, in the special case, because one is an actualized potential and the other is a pure actuality). So, since A is not the actualization of B but A2 is, it follows that A and A2 are distinct actualities. But since A is stipulated to be the existence of the thing, and since A2 is the actualization of the essence of the thing, it follows that A and A2 are distinct existences of the same thing.

In fact, a parallel argument could be raised against any proposal that seeks to divide an essence into parts, whether they all be actualities, all potentials, or a mixture of the two. An essence must be a single potential or actuality. It might have parts in the sense we were considering earlier, but these are not parts in the sense we’re talking about now. That is, an essence can have parts in the sense that it is the potential for the existence of a composite thing, not in the sense that it itself is a composite thing.

Conclusion and further reading

In the course of these answers we’ve had to go through some pretty heavy Aristotelian metaphysics, hitting all the important distinctions and clarifying them as we go. Of course so much more can and has been said about each one, but I can’t hope to cover all of that in one blog post. So, Ante, I hope what I’ve said has at least helped you along the way a bit.


  1. Non-Thomist contemporary philosophers have also taken exception to the modal essentialist proposal. See, for instance, Kit Fine’s “Essence and Modality.” For longer discussions on these issues, see Ross Inman’s Substantial Priority and David Oderberg’s Real Essentialism.
  2. It’s funny because it’s true: the vast majority of the human population is not interested in philosophy and would have no idea what it even means to be a form-matter composite. Nor, as my housemate notes, does the vast majority of the human race know me at all.

Monty Hall explained in two sentences

Since the host will never open a door with the car behind it, the remaining door will have a car behind it in exactly those cases where you originally pick a door with a goat behind it. Since there is a 2/3 chance of you originally picking a door with a goat behind it, there is therefore a 2/3 chance that the remaining door has a car behind it.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you can find the Month Hall problem described in the movie 21 or the TV show Brooklyn Nine-Nine. You can find longer explanations of it over at D!NG, Vox, and Numberphile.

Potentiality and inertia

A key thing to appreciate about potentials is that they are indifferent to what is actually the case. It’s because of this that they are able to play the role they do in accounting for the reality of change, together with actualities.

I have the potential to sit down even when I am standing up, and it is this potential that I actualize when I do eventually sit down. If I did not have that potential, then I would not be able to actualize it in myself and therefore not be able to sit down. We can see this work itself in cases where things lack the relevant potentials: a rock depends on other things to move it because it does not have the potential for self-movement, a squirrel never actually thinks about the physical laws of the universe because it lacks any potential for rational thought, and a match never produces snow when struck because it does not have any corresponding potential for this.

I also retain the potential to sit down while I’m actually sitting down, since I can’t be actualizing a potential I don’t have. This can be missed because we sometimes speak of the potential to become actual in some way rather than the potential to be actual in some way, even though the latter is more fundamental. This ambiguity is not particularly surprising, since potentials are capacities for being actual in particular ways and we see this ambiguity in other examples of capacities: a one-liter bottle has the capacity for containing one liter of liquid even when full — since that’s exactly what it’s doing — it just doesn’t have the capacity for containing another liter of liquid. Similarly, if I’m currently sitting down I still have my potential to be sitting down, even if it is no longer the case that I can move to the state of sitting down.

Thus, the potential exists in me regardless of whether it is actualized or not, and so, as we said, the potential itself is indifferent to what is actually the case. It follows from this that every potential depends on some other actuality in order to be actualized from moment to moment, and in an indirect way it also depends on some other actuality in order to be unactualized. At any given moment, the existence of a potential cannot guarantee one way or the other what is actually the case — it can only determine what could be, not what is the case. And this can’t be addressed simply by adding another potential into the mix, because that will suffer from the same limitation. Rather, what is needed is an actuality which either actualizes the potential or indirectly unactualizes it by actualizing some other incompatible potential, as sitting down is incompatible with standing up. Of course, this other actuality could itself be an actualized potential, and so on, and so on.

The indifference of potentials is, I think, the core reason for why actualized potentials need to be continually actualized by some other actuality. On the face of it, however, the result that potentials depend on actualities in order to be continually actualized seems to be at odds with the Newtonian principle of inertia. Since inertia is a well-known phenomenon, and since it makes our result counter-intuitive, it’s worth considering this intuition in more detail. Inertia, Newton tells us, “is the power of resisting by which every body, so far as it is able, preserves in its state either of resting or of moving uniformly straight forward.”1 Applying this to the notion of potential we’ve been discussing, we may wonder why a potential needs to be continually actualized by some actuality in order to stay actualized. Making this a bit more precise, consider the following two conditions:

  1. At time t, potential P exists.
  2. At some earlier time t* < t, P was actualized by something else.

A little reflection will make clear that these are not sufficient to account for P’s being actualized at time t. If I was holding a book above the ground in order to actualize its potential to be a meter above the ground at time t*, but have since let it go, then by time t the book would be falling to the ground, and therefore the potential would no longer be actualized. Of course, this occurs because of the gravitational force applied by the earth on the book, and realizing this we might add a third condition to the two above:

  1. At time t, potential P exists.
  2. At some earlier time t* < t, P was actualized by something else.
  3. Between t* and t, nothing actualizes a potential P* that is incompatible with P.

But while this addresses our previous example, this is still insufficient. An example that illustrates this from more recent physics is radioactive decay, wherein an unstable atom will spontaneously emit particles of its own accord, and thereby unactualize certain potentials within itself. More generally, any non-equilibrium state of a system will lead that system to change the set of potentials that are actualized within it as it tends toward an equilibrium state. Both of these involve potentials which are actualized in a way that is inherently temporary when left alone. Once we realize that such “transiently actualized potentials” exist, we recognize this behavior in everyday things around us without needing to defer to such complicated examples. For instance, the clicking of my fingers is an actualization of a potential that inherently becomes unactualized almost immediately. And a burning fire tends to go out as it uses up the combustible molecules in the wood.

You’ll notice, however, that none of these examples mention the motion of physical objects in straight lines. And that’s no coincidence, since inertia applies in those cases. The point of these examples is not to somehow disprove inertia, but rather to show the failure of a certain approach to questions of actuality and potentiality. Inertia is a very specific physical principle, which cannot be applied to such a general metaphysical notion as potentiality. Rather than trying to understand actuality and potentiality in terms of inertia, therefore, we should instead try to understand inertia in terms of actuality and potentiality. In doing so we will see how inertia is in no way at odds with our earlier conclusion about the actualization of potentials.

With this reorientation in hand, we can ask: what needs to be added to our three conditions in order to properly characterize inertial behaviors? We’ve said that a potential of itself is indifferent to what is actual. Since the continued actualization of a potential is not indifferent to what is actual, it follows that we should be looking for an actuality. And not just any actuality, but an actuality that is somehow ordered to maintaining the actualization of P:

  1. At time t, potential P exists.
  2. At some earlier time t* < t, P was actualized by something else.
  3. Between t* and t, nothing actualizes a potential P* that is incompatible with P.
  4. Since t* until t, some actuality A maintains the actualization of P.

Importantly, this actuality doesn’t need to be something external to the thing whose potential we’re considering — as Newton said, inertia is in some sense the power of a body — it just won’t be the potential itself. We could call this actuality the “inertial actuality,” since it is the source of the inertial behavior. At the level of generality that we’re considering it here, inertial behaviors and actualities are not restricted to physical inertia. Just as there are many different ways that actuality and potentiality come to be in the world, so too there may be many different kinds of inertia. Nevertheless, we can characterize inertia in general in terms of another category, and use physical inertia as a paradigm case.

The category I have in mind is the Aristotelian form. Form and matter are two mutually intelligible categories, at least when it comes to material things. Generally speaking, matter is a substratum of some kind that is indeterminate of itself, and form is the determination of that substratum to one of the alternatives.2 In the case of physical things, matter is that which underlies all physical reality, and form is that which determines what kind of thing each physical thing is. It’s because matter is determined in a particular way that some physical things are trees, others are rocks, others sub-atomic particles, and so on. The indeterminacy of matter corresponds to its potential of being in different ways, and the determination of this matter by the form is an actualization of one of those potentials. Thus, a form, as an actuality, is a ready candidate for being an inertial actuality.

And indeed, the Aristotelian notion of form does well in accounting for physical inertia, both in terms of how Newton originally conceived of it (his rejection of the notion notwithstanding), and in terms of how physicists have conceived of it since. On this account, inertia as a feature common to forms of all physical things, as something that flows from the determination of matter regardless of the form that is doing the determination. Not only is form an actuality internal to a thing, but it is also common for forms to only partially determine matter, leaving it up to further forms to complete them. For instance, the primary (or substantial) form of a squirrel determines its underlying matter to be ordered in a certain kind of activity of life, but is indifferent to the exact details of that life, such as location, size, strength, and so on. These variables are provided by the primary form, to be fixed by secondary (or accidental) forms that augment the exact shape of that life at different times. Likewise, in the case of inertia, the primary form of any physical thing orders that thing in such a way as it maintains its rectilinear motion, but is indifferent as to exactly which inertial frame it’s in. This variable is provided by the primary form, but is fixed by other causes, which thereby impart the relevant secondary form of the precise rectilinear motion to be maintained.

Now, Aristotle knew that the primary forms of natural things would move them in the absence of some countervailing influence. His mistake was his particular conception of this motion: he thought that it was always ordered toward a specific place or in a specific direction, with light things inherently moving upward and heavy things inherently moving downward. The inadequacy of this particular conception of physical motion notwithstanding, his broader theory of forms is still a valuable tool in accounting for modern conceptions of physical inertia.

So, the primary forms of physical things are the inertial actualities that account for their physical inertial behavior. Moreover, we can flesh out the picture as follows. Every primary form of a physical thing will be the actualization of a potential in the matter underlying that physical thing. Applying our argument from the indifference of potentials, it follows that this form is actualized by some other actuality. And since this form is what grounds the existence of the physical thing in question, this other actuality must be the actuality of something else. But it’s not as though this cause will be some other perpetually-conjoined physical thing, since physical things only act on other pre-existing physical things, while this cause is sustaining the existence of the physical thing in question from moment to moment. The primary form a physical thing, then, is a metaphysical “threshold” of sorts, beyond which we move from physical actualities to non-physical actualities.

This leads us to another sort of inertia that is discussed in metaphysics, namely existential inertia. This refers to the inherent tendency of things to stay in existence in the absence of countervailing influences. In the terms of what we’ve been discussing, it’s the notion that once a physical thing has been brought into existence, we don’t need a “something else” to keep it in existence. There are, I think, two motivations that might be given for existential inertia, each problematic in their own way. First, we could motivate it by analogy to physical inertia. The problem with this, as we’ve seen above, is that such “inertial explanations” require an inertial actuality, and since we’re considering the actualization of a thing’s potential for existence, this further actuality cannot be something internal to that thing. Second, we could motivate it by generalizing the observation that the things we experience don’t require continually conjoined causes to keep them in existence. The problem with this is that it’s looking for the wrong sort of cause, not realizing that in talking about the cause of a thing’s continual being we’ve crossed that metaphysical threshold we just mentioned. We are not saying that this cause somehow acts on that thing, as if to presume that the thing somehow pre-exists the acting, but rather that by acting the cause actualizes the potential whereby the thing has existence from moment to moment in the first place. If this cause acts “on” anything, it’s on the thing’s constitutive principles, such as its form and matter, not the thing itself.

There is, however, something to be said for a qualified version of existential inertia: insofar as something is determined to exist, it is determined to continue existing. Thus, many things tend to preserve themselves in existence until they’re destroyed, or the underlying resources that they depend on run out. But this flows from the primary form of such things, and so as before if this form is an actualized potential then it will need a cause.

Further reading

If you’re interested in reading more about inertia and related topics, I can recommend Sean Collins’s paper “Animals, Inertia, and the Concept of Force” (or his related blogpost Animals, Inertia, and Projectile motion), Thomas McLaughlin’s paper “Nature and Inertia” (JSTOR), the exchange between Edward Feser and Michael Rota in the Proceedings of the Society for Medieval Logic and Metaphysics (vol 10), and Feser’s blogpost Oerter on inertial motion and angels.


  1. Isaac Newton, The Principia (def 3), cited in Thomas McLaughlin, “Nature and Inertia.”
  2. See my discussion on the threefold whole for an extensive discussion on form and matter. To see that these general definitions extend beyond simple physical objects, consider the following examples. The matter of a wooden table is the underlying wood, since it is indeterminate between various ways of being used, and the form of the table is how the wood is cut up into pieces and structured together in a particular way. The matter of my action of punching something is the motion of my arm, since the same motion is present in different actions, and the form of my action is my intention to damage something. The matter of a person educated in some field is the person considered without regard to their education, and the form is their educatedness or uneducatedness.

Divine simplicity and freedom

In the conversation on divine simplicity over at the Theopolis Institute, Mullins’ most recent response draws attention to the three premises that are “only affirmed by proponents of divine simplicity”:

  1. All of God’s actions are identical to each other such that there is only one divine act.
  2. God’s act to give grace is identical to God’s one divine act.
  3. God’s one divine act is identical to God’s existence.

After which come the following steps:

  1. Therefore, God’s one divine act is absolutely necessary.
  2. If God’s one divine act is absolutely necessary, then God’s act to give grace is absolutely necessary.
  3. Therefore, God’s act to give grace is absolutely necessary.

This implication is problematic for Christians because we hold that God is free to withhold grace if he chooses, which means his act of giving grace cannot be necessary.

But, while proponents of divine simplicity do indeed affirm (9)–(11), we reject (13) and therefore reject the conclusion in (14). In order to see how this works, it would be good to consider a parallel argument involving a more familiar situation. Imagine that whenever Alice is put in some circumstance C she must choose between two options, A and B. Assuming that Alice has libertarian free will, in some possible worlds she will choose A and in other possible worlds she will choose B. Supposing that in the actual world she chooses A, we have the following argument:

  1. Alice’s choice of A is identical to her choice between A and B.
  2. Alice necessarily chooses between A and B in circumstance C.
  3. Therefore Alice necessarily chooses A in circumstance C.

Now, (3) is false on our supposition about Alice’s free will. The problem with this argument is that (1) is ambiguous. If the identity in view is necessary (that is, if “Alice’s choice of A” is a rigid designator for “Alice’s choice between A and B”), then the argument is valid but the premise is obviously false. If, on the other hand, the identity in view is world-relative (that is, if it is just making a claim about the actual world), then the premise is true but the argument is invalid by virtue of committing a modal scope fallacy.

To give a common example of this fallacy, consider the following argument which is a direct parallel of our choice argument:

  1. The number of planets in our solar system is identical to eight.
  2. Eight is necessarily greater than seven.
  3. Therefore the number of planets in our solar system is necessarily greater than seven.

The first premise of this planet argument suffers the same ambiguity and pitfalls as the first premise of the choice argument. The reason for this in the choice argument comes down to the nature of libertarian choice: the same act of choosing can amount in different choices in different worlds.

But there is a subtle and interesting response lurking in the vicinity. In libertarian choices, the response goes, the choice between A and B is a deliberative act which consists in Alice weighing the reasons for preferring A over B up against the reasons for preferring B over A, while the choice of A is the resultant act of Alice pursuing A. Thus, despite initial appearances, the choices are not identical acts, but are two distinct acts, one of which causes the other in a non-deterministic way. In God’s case, however, we have one act rather than two, and so the parallel doesn’t work.

Does such a response rebuff our objection? I don’t think so, for it still grants that there is indeterminism in the deliberative act, which is sufficient for our purposes. With this we can reframe the choice argument as follows:

  1. The act that causes Alice to pursue A is identical to her deliberative act.
  2. Alice necessarily engages in her deliberative act in circumstance C.
  3. Therefore, Alice necessarily engages in the act that causes her to pursue A in circumstance C.

We see here the same problems with the identity in premise (1), despite granting the distinction introduced by the response.

But can we just ignore Alice’s second act of pursuing A? Here we must appreciate an important difference between God’s choices and ours. Alice’s pursuit of A does not belong to her choosing per se, but rather to the execution of the choice she had already made in her deliberative act. Humans need this additional step because our actions find their expression through our bodies — we need to move somewhere, communicate something, start a new thought process, or something else. But God needs no additional act of execution, he acts without need for mediation — he does not need to work through a body and does not depend on other things to bring about his effects. God’s one divine act consists of him choosing which world to actualize based on the the contrastive reasons for preferring each world over the alternatives, including factors such as whether to create anything or not, and whether to give grace or not. This is analogous to Alice’s deliberative act, although without any need for actual deliberation, since God is immediately aware of the all the relevant reasons and does not need to weigh them up successively. And because God is not limited like we are, this one act immediately produces its effects rather than requiring a follow-up act to bring it about.

So, proponents of divine simplicity should reject premise (13) of Mullins’ argument because the identities in premises (9)–(11), while true, are not sufficient to do the work he needs them to do.

Breaking the silence

This year has been very busy for me, and which has unfortunately led this blog to fall by the wayside. Among the things that have been keeping me busy is a new project I’ve started with a friend called Faith Seeking Understanding: a ministry geared towards equipping Christians to develop a biblical worldview, grounded in the Bible as a whole, and integrated with knowledge from God’s creation, to know and serve him better. It seeks to combine my loves for theology and philosophy for the purposes of helping Christians think through their faith more deeply. More info will be available once we get our website up and running.

I’ve also recently given two sermons on Leviticus, titled The Holy and Dangerous God and The Holy and Good Law. The second of these includes part of the research I’ve been doing on the Levitical law and how we as Christians should think about its continuing relevance to us today. I’ll be adding both of these talks to the Leviticus page on this site.

One of the things I’ve been considering ⁠— and may try out in the coming weeks while I’m still busy ⁠— is posting shorter thoughts on things as I come across them. Much of the content on this blog is longer-form, and while it is certainly my preference ⁠this takes much longer to research, write, and edit. Shorter-form posts might therefore be a way to ensure consistent output in times of busyness.

Eternity’s relation to time

A few months ago, reader Ante asked this question on my What I Believe page:

I am very much struggling how to combine a presentist account of time (like the A-theory for example) and the view that God is outside of time, in a Thomistic sense.

I would be very thankful for your help, since it seems to me that I am hitting a wall regarding this issue, since I cannot accept a B-theory of time, but at the same time the view of St. Thomas regarding God’s eternity is much more plausible than the other philosophical alternatives (especially open theism!).

For those unfamiliar with the relevant terms, we begin by briefly explaining what the A-theory and B-theory are, how they relate to presentism, and what this has to do with God’s eternity.

The distinction between A- and B-theory of time was introduced to analytic philosophy by McTaggart in his paper The Unreality of Time. Briefly, the A-theory of time holds that there is some objectively privileged moment of time we call the present, relative to which other moments of time can be categorized into past and future (called the A-series). By saying it is objectively privileged we mean that the fact of which moment is present is not a matter of perspective, but is rather a feature of reality prior to any considerations from us. The B-theory, by contrast, denies that there is such an objectively privileged moment of time, and holds that the only relations between moments are those of earlier than and later than (called the B-series). We can still speak of the present, but it must always be understood from the perspective of a particular moment under consideration. The most we can say, for instance, is that from the perspective of the 3rd of March 2018, the 2nd of March is in the past and the 4th is in the future.

Each of these theories has a number of models, which are concrete proposals for the nature of time that satisfy the requirements of the theory. Confusingly, these models are also sometimes called “theories.” A-theoretic models include presentism, which holds that only the present moment of time is real, while the past moments were once real and the future moments have not yet become real; the spotlight theory, which holds that all moments of time are equally real but only one ever has the property of “presentness”, which leads to us visualizing time as a spotlight gradually moving over a fixed timeline; and the growing block theory, which holds that once a moment is real is stays real, resulting in all past moments being equally real and forming a “block” of time, with the present being on the edge of this ever-growing block. B-theoretic models include four-dimensionalism, which treats time like a sort of spatial dimension, holding that objects have temporal parts spread across the fourth dimension of time just like they have spatial parts spread across the first three dimensions of space; and eternalism, which we will here take to be the model that all moments of time are equally real without any having the status of being objectively present, but not necessarily construed as temporal parts of objects either.

As for God’s eternity, the Thomistic view is that eternity and time represent fundamentally different modes of being. Eternity is not merely about existing without beginning or end, since this would be consistent with existing in time as long as we stipulate that (1) either time itself has no beginning or end or (2) God entered time upon creation.1 The Thomistic view can be seen as a consequence of Boethius’ definition of eternity, which says that it is “the complete possession, all at once, of illimitable life.” Such an existence is incompatible with being in time, since temporal existence requires that we have our life bit by bit rather than having all of it at once. Accordingly, God’s eternity means that he must be outside of time, and the problem of eternity has to do with the relationship between an eternal God and his temporal creation.

Thomistic and analytic approaches to time

Now, for us Thomists who are familiar with the analytic distinction between A- and B-theory, it is natural to wonder how it applies to God’s eternity and his relation to time. What is not always realized, however, is that there is an important difference between the Thomistic and analytic approaches to questions of time. The Thomistic approach is Aristotelian, and therefore starts with an analysis of change. Aristotle starts by asking questions like whether change is possible and what it consists in, and considers examples like that of a person becoming educated and an object moving location. By contrast, the analytic approach — by which I mean the approach of those in the analytic tradition broadly following McTaggart — starts with the ontology of the passage of time. The main point at issue in the debate over A- and B-theory is whether the passage of time “flows” from past to future. On the A-theory it flows as the present moves from moment to moment, while on the B-theory it is in some sense static.

We saw the analytic approach in action during our discussion on McTaggart’s paper, wherein he switches between questions about changes to reality (which is change in the everyday sense of the word) and questions about changes to the time series, as if these were interchangeable. On the Thomistic approach, time is just the measure of change,2 and it makes little sense to speak of the time series itself changing, as if this could be decoupled from the change to reality which it measures. Indeed, from a Thomistic perspective the analytic approach can seem to treat time as a sort of quasi-substance, which is certainly the impression one gets from McTaggart’s talk of moments of time merging into one another or changing properties.

We can illustrate the difference between the two approaches by considering how they would attempt to answer the question of whether temporal becoming is an objective feature of reality.

For the Thomist, temporal becoming is the feature of things when they change, as when an uneducated person becomes educated or a physical object moves from one place to another. Every change involves a coming-to-be of what was not before, and in this case the becoming is of things and in time. Given this sense of temporal becoming, we can determine whether it is an objective by determining whether change is real. And since change is evident to our experience, all we need is an account of it that shows its possibility, and therefore that our experience of it need not be an illusion.

On the analytic approach, things are less clear, because temporal becoming sometimes takes on a different sense and because the two senses are not always clearly distinguished. It’s difficult to avoid talking about changes to everyday things like people and physical objects, but with a primary concern for the ontology of time this talk gets mixed up with talk about changes to the passage of time itself.3 We are no longer simply interested in whether someone who is uneducated can become educated in the future, but also whether that future moment itself is something that can become present. This is not simply a becoming in time, but a becoming of time itself. The result is the conflation of temporal becoming with the A-theory, since only the A-theory involves the passage of time being in flux. Given this sense of temporal becoming, in order to determine whether it is objective we need to determine whether the A-theory is true, and that our experience of the passage of time itself (which is much less evident than our experience of change) is not an illusion.

So these two approaches give us two senses of the notion of temporal becoming, namely becoming in time and becoming of time. The former arises from considerations of change in the Aristotelian sense, as when an uneducated person becomes educated, and a physical object changes place. The latter arises from considerations of how the moments of time itself might change, as when a future moment takes on “presentness.”

The compatibility of (Aristotelian) change with B-theory, and its irrelevance

The upshot of all of this is that the analytic debate over theories of time is irrelevant to Aristotelian and Thomistic concerns. Both A-theorists and B-theorists recognize the reality of time with its peculiar feature of being ordered according to before and after, which is all the Aristotelian needs. As Aquinas said, “time is nothing else than the reckoning of before and after in movement” (ST I Q53 A3 corp).

Failure to recognize the different senses of temporal becoming has led some to conflate views they shouldn’t.4 The B-theory, for instance, is sometimes labeled “Parmenidean,” as if these two views are even remotely similar. Parmenides denied the existence of any distinctions in reality whatsoever, which leads to the denial of change and therefore the denial of any meaningful distinction between before and after. But the B-theory presupposes a distinction between before and after, since this is built into the relations earlier-than and later-than.

Another claim is that the B-theory excludes the possibility of change, and is therefore at odds with the Aristotelian commitment to its reality. Why does the B-theory preclude change? Well, the argument goes, if all moments of time are equally real, then the earlier moments when someone is uneducated are equally as real as the later moments when they are educated, and so they never become educated. But this clearly equivocates the two sense of becoming we’ve been discussing. The Aristotelian concern is whether someone who is uneducated at some time t1 can become educated by some later time t2, not whether t1 and t2 can somehow change their properties of “presentness.” All the Aristotelian needs is that a person can persist through time while varying in their educatedness, which the B-theory happily provides. What the B-theory does not provide — but which is irrelevant to the Aristotelian — is that this happens together with a change to the moments of time themselves. Again, the Aristotelian is concerned with becoming in time, not becoming of time.

Once we recognize the difference between Aristotelian temporal becoming and analytic temporal becoming, we can see that Thomists can happily hold to either the A- or B-theory. The analytic debate just isn’t something we have a stake in. But here’s the kicker: this doesn’t help us in any way with the problem of eternity! It is tempting to think that the B-theory would give us an automatic explanation of the relationship between the eternal God and his temporal creation, but it doesn’t. Why? Because at the end of the day, the B-theory is still a theory about time.

Let me explain.

We’ve said that time is the reckoning of before and after in the process of change, but what we haven’t mentioned is that before and after can be reckoned to something on account of a change to something else. This is an instance of what’s been called “Cambridge change,” which Feser describes as follows:

Here, building on a distinction famously made by Peter Geach, we need to differentiate between real properties and mere “Cambridge properties.” For example, for Socrates to grow hair is a real change in him, the acquisition by him of a real property. But for Socrates to become shorter than Plato, not because Socrates’ height has changed but only because Plato has grown taller, is not a real change in Socrates but what Geach called a mere “Cambridge change,” and therefore involves the acquisition of a mere “Cambridge property.”

There’s a certain ambiguity in this that we’ll discuss later, but for now consider the example he gives. Socrates remains the same height while Plato grows, and on account of this we can reckon before and after for Socrates: before he was taller than Plato and afterwards he was shorter than Plato. Thus, there’s a sense in which the change of other things can bring us along with them through time. Since this results from our being able to reckon before and after through changes to things in time, and since both the A- and the B-theory give us this, this will apply on both theories.

The real problem of God’s eternity, then, isn’t about whether the nature of time is such that all moments are equally real, but about how our movement through time doesn’t bring God along with us. And since this happens for both A- and B-theories of time, neither of them is capable of solving the problem.

Starting over with relations

Rather than a theory of time, what we need is a theory of relations. The reason Plato brings Socrates along with him through time is that Socrates is really related to Plato in some respect. In the above example it is that they are really related in regards to their height, but it could equally have been their relative location, color, age, or whatever. Conversely, if Socrates were not really related to Plato with respect to some feature of Plato that changes, then there would be no way of reckoning before and after for Socrates in terms of a change in Plato.

Aquinas worked out a detailed theory of relations, and we will summarize the relevant parts here. First, relations are divided into real relations, which obtain in reality prior to any consideration by an intellect, and logical relations, which result from such consideration. Socrates being taller than Plato is a real relation, but Socrates being to the left of Plato is logical since it is dependent upon how one considers their relative positions. When something has a real relation to another thing we say that it is “really related” to it. In English, the word “really” is often used to mean “truly” — as when we say something “really happened” — but in our present case “really” just indicates the nature of the relation. Socrates being to the left of Plato is not a real relation, but it is nevertheless true that Socrates is to the left of Plato.

Now, a relation between two things is not some separate reality floating outside of those things, but is instead grounded in them. When we have some relation R between A and B, it is therefore technically more precise to speak of R as a pair of relations, R1 from A to B and R2 from B to A. Socrates is taller than Plato (R1) and Plato is shorter than Socrates (R2). Each relation has a foundation in the thing it relates from, and this foundation grounds how that thing relates to others. For instance, Socrates has a certain height H, by virtue of which he will be shorter than things with heights taller than H and taller than things with heights shorter than H. This generic relational fact comes to be “resolved” to one of the alternatives when considered with respect to a particular individual: Plato has a height shorter than H, and so Socrates is taller than Plato. Notice that since the relation from Socrates to Plato will depend on both their heights it can change without Socrates ever changing, as when Plato changes his height while Socrates remains the same. It is this change in the relation from Socrates to Plato that brings Socrates through time when Plato changes.

We can also talk about the type of relation, which is derived from the type of its foundation: the taller-than relation is based on height while the brighter-than relation is based on color. In addition to the foundation in A, a real relation from A to B requires something in B of the relevant type, which we might call the relation’s co-foundation. It makes little sense, for instance, to say that Socrates is taller or shorter than an immaterial angel, since a relation of height from Socrates to another thing requires that that thing have a height as well. There is no co-foundation of the relevant type in the angel.

We say that the co-foundation must be of a “relevant” type rather than the “same” type because sameness is not always required. The height relation is an example that requires the co-foundation to be the same type, but consider what happens when I come to know a material object. In this case I take on its form in my mind, which serves as the foundation for a real relation from me to it and which has the object’s own form in itself as the co-foundation. But these two forms have different types: the form in my mind is intentional while the form in the object is entitative; the form in my mind does not turn my mind into that object whereas the form in the object’s matter does.

Knowledge is also an example of what is called a non-mutual relation. We have said that my real relation to the object has its foundation in the intentional form in my mind and its co-foundation in the entitative form in the object. This works because of the intentional form by its very nature refers to the object of the intention. But the entitative form is about constitution rather than reference, and so does not refer back to the intentional form in my mind. It can serve as the foundation of relations to other things by comparison to their entitative forms, but that’s about it. This means that there is no corresponding real relation from the object to me that has its entitative form as foundation and the intentional form in my mind as co-foundation. This asymmetry in foundation and co-foundation is what makes the relation non-mutual. When a real relation from A to B is can be turned into a real relation from B to A simply by flipping the foundation and co-foundation, then that relation is mutual.

If this were not complicated enough, consider what happens with active and passive powers. Here we have an agent with an active power (ability to influence others) and a patient with a passive power (capacity to be influenced by others), and when the agent actually does influence the patient then we have action and passion. The active power of an agent is grounded in some actuality (actual feature) of the agent, like motion, size, intentions, and so on. Any relation that arises from the active power, then, will have this ground as its foundation, which will determine which co-foundations are relevant. The passive power of a patient is slightly different in that it is grounded in the potential of the patient to be influenced in a particular way. This potential will be the foundation of the relations that arise from the passive power, and the co-foundations will be any actuality that can actualize it.

There is an important asymmetry here, in that the conditions for an agent to really relate to the patient are different from the conditions of the patient to really relate to the agent. For a patient, all that is needed is something capable of actualizing it, but for the agent, the conditions will depend on the ground of the active power. It could happen, then, that a patient is really related to an agent by a non-mutual relation. Consider, for instance, a saw cutting through wood. We might say that the active power of the saw is grounded in the sharpness of its serrated blade, while the passive power of the wood has to do with its potentiality for being split. Certainly there is a real relation from the wood to the saw because of this passive power, but as for the active power the wood is not really comparable in terms of sharpness or serratedness. The wood is really related to the saw, then, with a non-mutual relation. Of course there are other real relations between the two that have to do with active and passive powers and which are mutual. The saw might be used to push the piece of wood, for instance, in which case the ground of the active power (the motion of the saw) has a relevant co-foundation in the wood (the motion of the wood).

The problem of eternity

With this we can state the Thomistic answer to the problem of eternity: God is not really related to creation, and is therefore not brought through time by our changes.

This arises from applying what we’ve said about relations to the nature of God. For Thomists, God is a being of pure actuality, with no potentiality in him whatsoever. This makes him radically unlike anything else in reality, all other things being made up of a combination of potentiality and actuality. Furthermore, since potentiality is what allows for the diversity of actuality within a thing, it follows that God’s purely actual substance is the only possible foundation for real relations from him to others. But since pure actuality is so different to anything else in existence, it follows that there can be no relevant co-foundation to this purely actual foundation, and that therefore God cannot be really related to anything else.

Creation is still really related to God, mind you, but this relation is non-mutual. We are really related to God by virtue of our dependence on him for our being, and by virtue of being ordered toward him as the ultimate final end (cf. ST I Q44). Both of these arise from us being patients of God’s activity, and it is because of the potentialities in us that we can be really related to him — although pure actuality might be very different from us, it is nevertheless capable of actualizing all the potentials in us. Conversely, since God has no potentiality in himself there can be no chance of him really relating to us by virtue of us acting on him in some way.

Not only does God’s pure actuality exclude real relations from him to us or our acting on him, but it also excludes the possibility of change within him. All change involves the actualization of a potential, after all, and so without a potential there is no possibility of change. This notwithstanding, he is the source of all actualizations of potentials, including all instances of change. Thus God is called the Unmoved Mover, or Unchanged Changer, or more generally the Unactualized Actualizer. It might sound a bit strange to say that something could cause change without itself changing, since in our experience these tend to coincide. But it is a consequence of the fact that action and passion arise by an actuality of an agent actualizing a potential of a patient.5 This does not require that the agent’s actuality itself be the actualization of a potential, even if that happens with all the material agents we experience in the world.

Now, we might wonder why God would not be really related to us by virtue of knowing us. God is omniscient, after all, and earlier we mentioned that a knower is really related to the object of their knowledge. Here we must again appreciate the difference between God and ourselves. We come to know things outside ourselves through inquiry and exploration, by means of which we acquire the intentional version of its form in our mind. The entitative form in the object stands as a measure to our conception of it, and it is to the extent that our conception fulfills this measure that it is said to be true or accurate. With God, things look very different. His act of knowing reality is the same act whereby he creates and sustains everything in reality, and so he has no need of inquiry or exploration. He does not discover anything and has no need to acquire new knowledge by means of taking on the intentional forms of things. Since it is by his activity that all things continue to have their being, and since his act of knowing is the same as this activity, it also follows that God’s knowledge is measure of things rather than the other way around. All of this means that God’s knowledge does not make him really related to us like our knowledge makes us really related to the objects of our knowledge.

So, God does not change and is not really related to things that change. This means that there is no way of reckoning before and after for him and that therefore he is not in time. This notwithstanding, he is still the creator and sustainer of everything, and by virtue of this we are really related to him. Just as God is an unchanged changer, so too is he the non-temporal cause of things in time. We must remember, of course, that being really related to something is not the same as being truly related to it. Despite not being really related to us, God is still truly related to us as Lord, Creator, Knower, and so on; it’s just that these true relations are based on logical relations from him to us rather than mutual real relations between him and us.

Now before we conclude, we said earlier that there is an ambiguity in the notion of Cambridge change, and we are finally in a position to see why. Sometimes Cambridge change is proposed as a solution to the problem of God’s eternity, but of itself this is insufficient. To say that God only undergoes Cambridge change is to say that he does not undergo any change within himself. This is fine so far as it goes, but it doesn’t explain why he isn’t brought through time by changes to other things — as we saw in the example of Plato and Socrates we used to introduce Cambridge change. This further step requires the approach we’ve outlined in this post. The upshot of this is that either we should say (1) that God doesn’t even undergo Cambridge change, or (2) that Cambridge change must be divided into instances that bring us along through time and instances that don’t. In this second option, the two species of Cambridge change are distinguished by whether there are the relevant real relations in place or not.

Conclusion and further reading

So, Ante, thanks for the question and sorry for taking so long to reply. As I see it, the Thomistic approach to time is largely indifferent to the analytic debate over A-theory and B-theory, and the problem of eternity is not caused or solved by embracing either of these. What we need for a solution is an account of when and why things are brought through time, and an explanation for why this does not apply to God. To this end, the Thomistic account of relations provides us with a promising start. I hope what I’ve managed to outline here helps.

On the topic of relations, Mark Henninger’s Aquinas on the Ontological Status of Relations and David Svoboda’s Aquinas on Real Relation are both excellent discussions on the account of relations laid out by Aquinas. From Aquinas himself, perhaps the most important place to start is his discussion in question 7 of the De Potentia, especially articles 9–11. His discussions on God’s knowledge through his substance and the divine relations in the Summa Theologica are also noteworthy, since they push the account of relations to its limits when applying it to God.

More broadly, Edward Feser’s Classical Theism Roundup is a great resource for thinking through issues like eternity. Moreover, while I think Thomists don’t have a stake in the analytic debate between A-theory and B-theory, that is not to say that we don’t have interesting contributions to make. A case in point is Elliot Polsky’s Thomistic Special Relativity, which provides a three-dimensionalist account of length contraction and time dilation using a Thomistic framework that is different from other A-theoretic approaches I’ve seen.


  1. This is the view of William Lane Craig. See, for instance, his God, Time and Eternity. I also discussed it in my pre-Thomist days in an earlier post.
  2. Or, more accurately, it is the numbering of change according to “before” and “after”. (ST I Q10 A1 corp.) We’ve discussed before the connection a measure must have with what it measures.
  3. I’m not the only one who sees this. According to the SEP article on Being and Becoming in Modern Physics, “What emerges from the McTaggart literature is, first of all, a tendency to identify the existence of passage or temporal becoming with the existence of the A-series (that is, to think of becoming as events changing their properties of pastness, presentness or nowness, and futurity) and hence the tendency for debates about the existence of passage to focus on the merits or incoherence of the A-series rather than examining alternative accounts of becoming.” Note that the “events” mentioned in the parenthesis should be taken to mean “event-slices,” since an event in the everyday sense is something that spans multiple moments of time, and not all slices of it will be present (or past, or future) simultaneously. Again, this is a usage that we see in McTaggart’s paper.
  4. I stumbled upon a recent example of this while writing this very post.
  5. See my earlier post Lonergan on Aquinas on Causation for a discussion of this in Aquinas, as well as the essential agreement between him and Aristotle despite a terminological difference.