God – Above All, Principle of All, Removed from All

by Fr. William Rock, FSSP

St. Thomas Aquinas with Aristotle and Plato from Benozzo Gozzoli’s Triumph of St Thomas Aquinas (source)

When treating of the Names of God in his Theological Summa, St. Thomas Aquinas remarked that “the name ‘God’ signifies the divine nature, for this name was imposed to signify something existing above all things, the principle of all things and removed from all things; for those who name God intend to signify all this” (S.T. I, q. 13, a. 8, ad 2).  In these few words, as he does, St. Thomas expresses very sublime and deep truths which will be explored below.

God is Above All Things – In these words, St. Thomas does not intend to indicate God’s physical location.  He is not implying that God is somehow physically located above creation, both material and spiritual.  Rather, he is expressing that God’s perfections are above all created perfections.  It is very easy to fall into believing, perhaps without even realizing it, that God is a “big man in the sky with a beard,” with perfections like His creatures, just to a much greater degree, a maximum degree.  The truth St. Thomas is here expressing, however, is that God’s perfections, while not completely dissimilar to those of His creatures, differ not only by degree, but also by kind or order.

Equilateral Polygons within Circles (source)

A common analogy used to explain the difference between God’s perfections and created perfections is that of comparing a series of equilateral polygons (polygons whose sides are all the same length) with an increasing number of sides to a circle.  The series starts with an equilateral triangle, then a square, then an equilateral pentagon, then an equilateral hexagon, and so on.  As the number of sides continues to increase, it is clear that the series is approaching, or converging to, a circle.  But, no matter how many sides are added, the series will never actually reach a circle.  No matter how many sides an equilateral polygon may have, there will always be angles and joints, which a circle does not have.  The circle is the limiting case of the series, what the series is converging to, but is itself outside of the series.

In this analogy, the equilateral polygons represent created perfections, while the circle represents divine perfections.  No matter how “maxed out,” as it were, created perfections may be, they will never make the jump to the level of the divine perfections, just as the equilateral polygon series will never make the jump to a circle.  Again, it is a difference not just in degree, but also in kind or order.  Further, just as equilateral polygons are not completely dissimilar to circles, after all they are all plane figures, so the created perfections are not completely dissimilar to divine perfections.  This is why created perfections can be used to discuss divine perfections analogously (expressing sameness yet also difference at the same time).  So, while perfections such as “power,” “wisdom,” and the like are attributed to God, these must be understood as “limiting cases” when compared to the same attributed to creatures.  God’s power, then, for example, is not just a maxed-out power such as that which creatures have but is actually the “limiting case” of creaturely power, completely beyond what any creature could possess.  The same, of course, can be said for all of God’s other perfections (see S.T. I, q. 4).

Antonio Tempesta’s God Creating Heaven and Earth (source)

God is the Principle of All Things – God, as expressed in the Creeds, is the Creator of all things, material and spiritual.  Further, He is also the cause of all being, of all that is ontologically one, true, and good (see S.T. I, qq. 4445).  No being falls outside of God’s causality.  But it is not just that God freely created all things which exist outside of Him, without any necessity or compulsion, ex nihilo (out of nothing, i.e., without recourse to anything besides His own power), He also continuously maintains His creation in existence (see S.T. I, q. 104, aa. 12).  Were He to remove this divine preservation, creation would return to nothingness.  God, then, is the principle not of some things, or even a majority of things, but of all things outside of Himself.

God is Removed from All Things – Even though God is the principle of all things, He is not mixed with His creation (here excluding considerations of the Incarnation).  Here, St. Thomas is setting up a safeguard against pantheism, the idea that God is somehow part and parcel with His creation.  In truth, God is one thing; His creation is another (see S.T. I, q. 3, a. 8).  But this does not mean that God is not present to His creation.  As St. Thomas explains, God is present to His creation by presence (all of creation is known by God), essence (all is maintained in existence by God), and power (God can act immediately on any portion of creation) (see S.T I, q. 8, a. 3).

These above reflections help express how truly other God is from His creation.  As was said above, there is always the danger of seeing God as the “big man in the sky with a beard.”  Knowing, however, that God is “above all things, the principle of all things and removed from all things,” serves as a safeguard to this misconception.

Fr. William Rock, FSSP was ordained in the fall of 2019 and is currently assigned to Regina Caeli Parish in Houston, TX.

In support of the causes of Blessed Maria Cristina, Queen, and Servant of God Francesco II, King 

June 11, 2024