Understanding Classical Theism: How God "Interacts" with the Universe

I came across this blog post, which nicely illustrates the difference in which classical theists (the majority of Roman Catholics and confessional Protestants) conceive of God compared to the “neo-theism” common among many evangelicals. The dialogue is worth reading in full. I’m interested if the Christians among us find this kind of language about God to be unsettling instead of fairly commonplace.

Bob: How can an immaterial God interact with a material universe?

Alice: The question itself needs to be questioned before we can answer it.

Bob: How so? It seems like a fairly straightforward question.

Alice: Well, consider the word “interact.” God does not interact with anything. To inter act requires action going in both directions, and since God is pure actuality this is impossible. Rather God acts on and through creatures without them acting on him.

Bob: Ok, so we’ll change the question to how an immaterial God can act on or through a material creature.

Alice: It’s better but still has problems. When you ask “how” God can act, what type of answer are you expecting?

Bob: I’m not sure I lay out exactly the type of answering I’m looking for, but I can give you illustrative examples. Fire heats by inducing mean molecular motion, I pick up things with my hands, and one stone acts on another by knocking into it. In each of these cases, I can point to the means or process by which some action is performed by one thing on another.

Alice: But on that account, the question is loaded! In each case, you could give some organ, part, or some material property by which one thing causes something in another thing. None of these kinds of answers apply to God since he has no organs, parts, or material properties. And to assume this in the question at hand is to preclude the possibility of giving an answer.

Bob: I grant your point but how, then, am I to proceed? Surely there’s a legitimate question to be asked here? And if we can’t use physical categories to have the conversation, then what can we use? After all, surely all our knowledge comes from our experiences of physical things?

Alice: It is true that all human cognition starts with sense data. But through abstraction and other intellective acts, we can move beyond these data, so that while our knowledge starts with our experiences it needn’t end with them. We do this, for example, when studying infinities in mathematics or when picking out idealized models in physics. Even in imagining things that don’t really exist, like fictional characters and stories, we are moving beyond what we have experienced. I agree that there is a legitimate question to be asked, but my point is that it should not be understood as a physical question but as a meta -physical one.

Alice: As we’ve said, God is pure actuality , which is to say that there is no potency in him that limits his action. He simply brings about his effects immediately, without any need for the various means we need as material beings. This is why I said the question is misplaced. If anything is surprising it’s that we limited beings can interact with each other, not that the unlimited God can act on us.

Bob: That may be evident upon later metaphysical reflection, but I think the question arises quite naturally from our everyday experience of how things interact with one another. After seeing that things typically interact by various means that depend on their materiality, we quite reasonably ask how it is that an immaterial God could do something similar.

Alice: That’s a fair point. The answer, then, is that an immaterial God does not do something similar. He does not interact, but rather he acts . And he does not act by means of something, but rather he acts immediately . His action is similar to ours in that it arises from him being in act, but it is different from ours in that his being in act is not limited by any potencies within himself.

Bob: I see. In a way, it is almost an inevitable consequence of his being the creator of everything. If he needed a means by which to act, then this means could not have been created by him.

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If God is required as the final arbiter of everything that occurs, as the final and sustaining cause of all events and occurrences, then God is basically ultimately responsible for everything that happens.

If I pick up a knife to stab someone, then on the Thomistic interpretation God is required to sustain and actualize my potential to carry out this act. I could not be doing it, if God wouldn’t be doing it through me. Clearly this is… rather unconventional thinking for a Christian. In a way God is basically rubberstamping every depraved or otherwise horrible event that ever occurred.

And I’ll generously refrain from spelling out some of the things God is not just a willing participant in, but which could not even occur if he did not actively cause it to.

Of course, as a Reformed Christian I absolutely believe that. Other Reformed Christians @david.heddle would likely also agree.

In the act of murder, you, not God, are the one who actualizes the potential of the knife to kill by stabbing it into someone. Because you hold the knife and use it, not God. So there is a real sense in which you are uniquely guilty of the murder, because of your proximity to it. God is several degrees removed from the act, although it is also true that God actualizes your existence, that of the knife, and that of the victim being murdered. So God is “ultimately responsible” of murdering the person in a sense, but God is also “ultimately responsible” of allowing the person being murdered to have lived in the first place. My point is that in this picture, because God ultimately causes everything, he can’t be treated like a regular human actor.

True, he’s uniquely positioned to prevent evil acts, but elects instead to actualize them. Not just refrains from intervening, he makes them so.

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Be careful: as I explained, God doesn’t actualize evil. Evil in the Thomistic understanding is not an independently existing entity, anyway - evil is the absence of good, the perversion of something other than what it is intended for. God only allows for evil to happen, which is a consequence of the natural order (including the freedom of human agents) that he set up and sustains. This subtle distinction is important.

Now, it’s a mystery why God doesn’t just create everything perfect from the get go. And of course, God could possibly intervene to stop every possible evil from happening, but he doesn’t do this. Perhaps it is fundamentally impossible. Perhaps there’s some other good being actualized. Theologians have hypothesized all sorts of things. And Christians don’t shirk from affirming the bleak reality of evil, violence, and injustice in the world, seemingly without recompense, as seen if you’ve read the books of Job and Psalms, for example. Ultimately, however, everything is going towards a future where all creation will be redeemed and perfect justice will be meted out. So in the long run, all evil will be “paid” for. That is the eschatological hope that each Christian holds onto, one that the Resurrection of Christ prefigures.

Here you overstate how unconventional this type of thinking is for the Christian. As you know, Thomism is the dominant philosophical view in the RCC, a church which consists of 1 billion people across the globe. What I stated is not some newfangled theology that Edward Feser came up with. He’s just restating what many philosophers and theologians have articulated for centuries. Just accept that Christianity is way more diverse than the picture that you grew up with (and rejected). I’m also fully aware that not everyone is a Thomist or Calvinist either - there’s a rich Eastern Orthodox tradition, for example, which I am almost completely ignorant of.

So God isn’t required to sustain and actualize the evil acts people carry out? Somehow me holding a knife and stabbing into the air requires God, but if I aim it at another person, God no longer has to actualize that event? I have to say I’m not convinced you’ve actually got this Thomism right.

The vast majority of which have probably never read a second’s worth of Thomist philosophy of causation. So no, I’m quite certain it’s very unconventional.

I’ve known about that since I was probably 10 years old(they teach comparative religion in Denmark), but thanks for the lecture anyway.

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Then digging a hole with a screwdriver, or using my tv remote as a paper weight, is an act of evil.

That’s a complete misrepresentation of what I said, which also shows that you don’t understand the distinction between primary and secondary causality. There’s a difference between God actively causing everything that happens directly versus God causing everything only in an ultimate sense. The former is similar to the view of Descartes and other occasionalists (who rejected Thomistic philosophy) - they thought that God directly causes every sensation that we experience, including pain. But Thomists don’t.

The relationship between God and the knife you used in the hypothetical murder is more similar to the relationship between the knife manufacturer and the knife. Another example: a computer hacker breaks into the secure network of a bank and steals a lot of money. Is the ISP who provided his internet connection during that break-in also equally responsible for the theft?

By that standard, the majority of the world also doesn’t know much about evolutionary biology or atheism or physics - so all of these are equally unconventional positions. If that’s what you mean by unconventional, then fine.

Both screwdrivers and TV remotes are artifacts, not natural substances (in the Thomistic sense). They have no essential natural purpose, so someone utilizing them for a different purpose is not necessarily evil.

Sorry but no, it’s not a misrepresentation, and no, it doesn’t show any lack of understanding on my part. If you feel like you’re being misrepresented, or misunderstood, and if this is truly what is occurring, may I take this opportunity to suggest you try to express yourself more clearly? I am simply reacting to what you say.

No, I’m actually pretty sure now that you’re not correctly understanding God’s role as pure actuality in Thomism. He’s not just responsible for the existence of the ISP or the bank, he’s actualizing the hacking. Ultimately.

Yes absolutely. The vast majority of the world’s population have an extremely superficial, and probably wrong understanding of evolution, or indeed any other scientific subject. And most people haven’t read philosophy. What other sense of unconventional is there?

What do understand by the term natural substance?

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I’m sorry if I’m not expressing myself clearly. I’m willing to try to explain more, as best as I can. But comments like “I’m not convinced you’ve actually got this Thomism right” sound sarcastic and mean to me and make me think you’re not trying to read me charitably. I read that sentence as saying that you’ve already understood Thomism and that I’m not expressing it properly. If that’s the case, then you should enlighten and educate me, instead of just making fun of what I said.

First, I’m not sure you’re using “actualizing” in the same way that I am. First: “hacking” is not a potential, so it’s awkward to talk about “actualizing hacking”. In Thomistic terminology, you can only actualize a potential. The computer, the internet connection, and the bank network have potential to be used for a hacking. Second: it is the hacker who actualizes these objects to be used for a hacking, not God. Otherwise we remove secondary causality entirely, and everything is directly caused by God, which is the occasionalist, not Thomistic position. Thomists believe that agents and objects really can cause things to happen, even if their existence is actualized by God.

Second, apart from the terminological misunderstanding, I’m not sure we disagree in a fundamental sense. I agree that God is in a sense ultimately responsible for the hacking because he actualizes the potential of the computer, internet connection, bank network, and hacker to exist at a moment in time. He’s just not proximately, or directly responsible. That’s my point.

To take a further analogy: it’s similar to how the computer isn’t made by God directly - the computer was assembled by the computer manufacturing company. The computer manufacturing company was in turn created by the owners, managers, and workers of the company. We can keep pushing this causal chain further and further back, until we reach the very first cause of everything that exists - and that would be God. But the existence of God at the end of this causal chain doesn’t nullify the role of the other agents further up along the chain.

Normally I would think conventional vs. unconventional should be judged relative to other scholars or experts who have thought about the subject. For example, William Lane Craig’s view that God exists in time is unconventional. If you compare his views to that of other philosophers and theologians both today and historically, few would agree with him. It’s a minority viewpoint. In contrast, many theologians have held to classical theism in history. So it’s not unconventional.

Similarly, if you say that “Dr. X holds an unconventional view of cosmology”, people normally wouldn’t interpret that as simply saying that Dr. X knows more about cosmology than the average person. Rather, maybe he disagrees with the majority of cosmologists on something.

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I’m not sold on the strongest claims of classical theism, but I do think that the part of the dialogue you quoted doesn’t really depend on it. A modified form a classical theism (what might be called “neo-theism” or “theistic personalism” by proponents of the more traditional positions) which accepts the attributes of necessary existence, aseity, perfection, but denies the inference from these attributes to divine simplicity, pure actuality, immutability, can still say many of the same things regarding divine action in the world.

E.g. a modified classical theist can still say that God both conserves creation in existence and concurs with creaturely exercises of causal power (without which divine actions, the creatures would not exist or be able to cause any effects). And a modified classical theist can still say that God acts immediately on creation rather than mediately. This latter distinction especially is pretty common in theological discussions, I think - even before I knew anything about classical theism, I’ve never understood why the “how can God interact with a material universe?” objection has any force.


Hi @dga471, @structureoftruth and @Rumraket,

Bob: That may be evident upon later metaphysical reflection, but I think the question arises quite naturally from our everyday experience of how things interact with one another. After seeing that things typically interact by various means that depend on their materiality, we quite reasonably ask how it is that an immaterial God could do something similar.

Alice: That’s a fair point. The answer, then, is that an immaterial God does not do something similar. He does not interact, but rather he acts . And he does not act by means of something, but rather he acts immediately . His action is similar to ours in that it arises from him being in act, but it is different from ours in that his being in act is not limited by any potencies within himself.

There are a few comments I’d like to make here:

(1) I quite agree that there’s something fundamentally misplaced about the question of how God acts upon His creatures, if they are related to Him in the way the characters of a book are related to the author, as Ed Feser and several other Thomist authors suggest. (One cannot sensibly ask how J.K. Rowling makes Harry Potter get up in the morning; she just writes her story that way.) One problem with this analogy, however, is that it would render creatures powerless to defy the wishes of their Maker - thereby undermining the doctrine of libertarian free will. (Draco Malfoy may be free relative to Harry Potter, but he has no freedom relative to his author, J. K. Rowling: he does whatever she decides he will do, and she cannot possibly blame him for that. And yet God blames us for what we do.) Other analogies which preserve libertarian freedom are possible (e.g. God as a video game maker or a movie director), but these analogies resurrect the possibility of two-way interaction.

(2) If the Boethian interpretation of Divine foreknowledge, which likens God to a timeless watcher on a high hill, surveying the past, present and future in a single glance, is correct, then some kind of interaction between creature and Creator is possible after all: God is timelessly informed of His creatures’ free choices, which means that they must have the power to make Him aware of what they’re up to. (I might add that the Boethian account of Divine foreknowledge is the interpretation that ordinary lay Catholics believe, as they are very prone to saying things like “God sees all,” which makes God a Divine spectator of our choices, and in any case, I know for a fact that most Catholics have never heard of either Bannezianism, which strikes most Catholics as downright Calvinistic when they first hear about it, or Molinism, which sounds a lot like psychological determinism, as it entails God knowing what I would do in every possible situation). And surely God, if He wished, could give His creatures the power to influence their Creator. Prayer is also commonly envisaged as a two-way communication between creature and Creator.

(3) In any case, the doctrine that God is pure actuality makes no sense. For if He is identical with some activity, then we can reasonably ask: which one? The only two which seem to be worthy of God are thinking and loving. But if God is Thinking itself, then we can ask: what does God think of, above all else? And the only fitting answer seems to be: Himself. So Thinking thinks of thinking, which thinks of … well, I’m sure you can see the problem. And if God is Love, then again we can ask: what does He love, above all else? If He loves Himself, then Love loves Love. which once again sounds circular. All of which suggests to me that any attempt to identify God with an activity of any sort is doomed to failure. By all means let us acknowledge that God acts. But to say that He is an activity seems to make no sense at all. Contrary to the claims of Thomism, I would argue that God is first and foremost a noun, not a verb.

(4) I think it’s fair and reasonable to say that God’s action of maintaining things in existence is a properly basic action, which He does not do by doing any other activity that’s even more fundamental. However, radical defenders of Divine simplicity go further, and say that there is no activity (or more precisely, no additional activity) whereby God maintains the cosmos in existence. The only activity God performs is God’s necessary activity of knowing and loving Himself, and this necessary activity also maintains the cosmos in existence, despite the fact that the latter is contingent and the former is necessary. Putting it another way, God is like a “no hands” cyclist: He doesn’t have to do anything extra (even timelessly) in order to maintain the cosmos in existence, apart from His usual timeless, necessary activity of simply being Himself. On the classical theist account defended by Thomists (and many Calvinists), God doesn’t (timelessly) create as well as existing; He just exists, and that’s all. This, I would argue, is high-sounding nonsense. Think of it this way. Instead of making this world, God could have chosen to make a completely opposite world from ours (say, with time flowing in the opposite direction from this world), or no world at all. And on the classical theist account, He wouldn’t have done anything different: He would have performed the exact same necessary action of being Himself. I put it to you that one and the same action A cannot be legitimately invoked to explain both X [our world] and the opposite of X [a world opposite to ours], as well as the total absence of X [no world at all]. I would also argue that a necessary action cannot explain a contingent effect; only a contingent action can do that. That’s why I believe that God performs contingent acts (such as having multiple thoughts and making choices) in addition to His timeless, necessary act of being Himself. Cheers.

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