God’s Relation to the World in Aquinas

So, the other day Matthew mentioned that he has difficulties with Aquinas’s teaching that God doesn’t have a “real relation” with the world, but only a “logical relation.” After some discussion, we both agreed to do some more research and post on the subject. This is my contribution.

Disclaimer: I am not a Thomist or a theologian, and may butcher the concepts. You have been warned.

Aquinas affirms that God’s relation to us is a “logical relation.” However, he also affirms that our relation to God is a “real relation.”

The thing that’s difficult is wrapping your head around what a “real relation” or a “logical relation” is. Despite the terminology, a logical relation isn’t “unreal,” nor does it mean “uninvolved” or “remote.” In Aristotelian philosophy, a relation can either be real (inhering in the object) or logical (perceived by an intellectual comparison).

Why does Aquinas say God’s relation to us is a logical relation rather than a real relation?

1. Because God is immutable

If God’s relation to creatures were a real relation, then it would follow that at creation, God effected a change in His essence. But since God’s essence is immutable, God’s relation to creatures must be a logical relation instead.

2. Because if it were a real relation, creation would be non-contingent

Since God is immutable, if there were a real relation to creatures, then it would follow that the existence of creatures are necessary and non-contingent. This would deprive God of His sovereignty and freedom in creation.

Rather than freely choosing to create, the world would necessarily flow from God. This is the Plotinian vision of the world as an emanation, not the Christian vision of a God who freely chooses to create the universe.

3. Because in the Godhead, real relations are persons

In Aquinas’s teaching, real relations in the Godhead are persons. Specifically, the real relation of paternity is the Father, the real relation of filiation is the Son, and the real relation of spiration is the Spirit. Given this understanding, it seems that if there were another real relation, that this would constitute another person in the Godhead. (And this would be a contingent person per #1).

Why it’s not a problem

Most of the objections to characterizing God’s relation to the world as logical rather than real hinge on the idea that this creates too much distance between God and ourselves. But does this hold up?

It’s important to note that the God-creature relationship is two sided. While God’s relation to us is logical due to His transcendence, on the other side, our relation to God is real. “God is closer to me than I to myself.”

Further, a “logical relation” on God’s side doesn’t imply that God is uninvolved with us. Rather, it implies that the way in which God is involved with us isn’t by necessity, but by His free and sovereign choice.

I’m not convinced that Thomas came up with the final answer to this question. But I am fairly confident that Thomas gave the best answer possible within the philosophy of relations developed at the time.

Am I reading Thomas wrong? Am I confused about the concepts involved? If so, how?


About Joshua Michael

Writer. Catholic. Fan of John Henry Newman and the Inklings.
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5 Responses to God’s Relation to the World in Aquinas

  1. Preston says:

    Hm . . . but in Question 13 (article 9 or 10?) of the Summa, Aquinas says that some names of God are not names of Him until He does a certain action or does something within time. One of these is Creator, for He is not Creator unless He creates. The name is not obligated by the action, but the action obligates the name. I wonder how this and his whole question concerning the name of God would relate to our understanding of how God relates to us.

    • That actually is one of the points I was getting at. The reason that “Creator” isn’t a name of God prior to creation is that it indicates a double-relation between God and creatures. On the part of creatures, this is a real relation of createdness. On the part of God, this is a logical relation of Creatorhood. #1 and #2 reflect opposite sides of the issues with considering God’s side to be a real relation.

      Or am I misunderstanding you?

      • Matt says:

        I think what you both are getting at is that, ultimately, God is who God is and has always been who he is. When we call him “Creator” it is because we humans now are experiencing him as creator; the name connotes a change in our experience of relation to God. So for us to be created changes our real relationship to God who we know as creator. But God remains ever the same: logically (timelessly) he was God the Creator even before there existed a creation to name him as such.

        … I think. 😀

      • Definitely with you up until that last line. 🙂

        The basic point (from me at least) is that God is the way God is. Creation doesn’t change Him; it “changes” us.

  2. Matt says:

    Hmm, which last line? That God was Creator logically before there was a creation?

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