God and Creation

The OCR DCT specification for this section says that you must know and be able to evaluate Aquinas' teaching on God's relationship to matter, to humans, and to angels.  In addition it is very important that you have some understanding of both the Genesis creation stories and the teachings of Aristotle.

Creation in Genesis

The Bible contains two different creation stories which appear to have been written at different times and then combined by an editor at a later date.  

Genesis 1:

Genesis 1 tells story of creation over six days after which God rested.  The story begins with the words 'In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth'. Traditionally Christianity has taught that God created the world 'ex nihilo' which means 'out of nothing'.  In this first creation story God creates just by speaking things into existence. 

'And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.' (Genesis 1:3) 

This is important because it demonstrates God's supreme power.  God calls things into being by an act of will.  There are several other things worth noting because they have theological importance.

  • The order of creation is hierarchical.  Humans are created last which suggests that God creates the world especially for them.  Once humans are created God rests, his work done.
  • God creates humans in his image. 'So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.' (Genesis 1:27).  This implies that he has a special relationship with human beings.
  • Everything that God creates is described as good and throughout the story the refrain '...and God saw that it was good' is repeated each day.  God values all parts of creation.  He creates deliberately and purposefully.

Genesis 2-3:

Many Biblical scholars believe that the creation story in Genesis 2 is older than the one in Genesis 1.  This is because the descriptions of God are more anthropomorphic and seem more 'primitive' than the transcendent stately God on Genesis 1.  In Genesis 2 God creates Adam physically shaping his body out of the dust of the ground and breathing into him the breath of life.  The imagery is intimate and parallels the way in which an artist might sculpt out of clay.

Despite the differences between Genesis 1 and 2 there are important repeated themes:

  • Creation is deliberate.
  • God cares about creation.
  • God has a special relationship with human beings.
  • God creates both matter and form.


The Four Causes:

Actuality: What something already is.

Potentiality: What the thing can become in the future.

Things have both actuality and potentiality because they have things that they already are but they also have the possibility of being something else and taking on a different form in the future.

Aristotle believed that the physical matter that everything is made of lasts forever; it is eternal.  Therefore, there is no need to ask who created it and where it came from.  The question that Aristotle found interesting was not 'who made matter?' but 'why do material things change?'.  He observed that everything in the world is continually 'actualising its potential' or changing.  

Aristotle developed the four causes as a way of explaining why things are the way they are.  He thought that if you knew the material cause, the efficient cause, the formal cause and the final cause of a thing then you had a very thorough explanation of why anything is the way it is.

The Four Causes:

Material Cause:  The physical substance from which the thing is made.  I.e. is it made of metal, wood etc.

Efficient Cause:  The process or individual by which the thing has been made.  The thing that brings about the effect.  (This is probably closest to what we mean by 'cause').

Formal Cause:  This is the most difficult of the four causes to understand.  The formal cause is the concept or the idea of the thing.  The properties and features it has to have to be the thing that it is.

Final Cause:  The purpose or objective of the object.  What it is made for.

The four causes can easily be used to explain how human-made things have come about.  The causes explain how things move from potentiality to actuality.

  • The matter things are comprised of has the potential to take on a different form.
  • Efficient causes act upon the matter and cause it to take on a different shape.
  • The new form it has dictates what it has become (e.g. if it has the form of a chair then it is a chair).
  • Things exist to fulfill their purpose.

However, whilst the four causes can easily explain the change that occurs to things that humans act upon they don't initially seem to explain the change that occurs in the universe as a whole.  Aristotle observed that unintelligent beings seem to behave as though they are directed towards some type of goal or end.  The 'heavenly bodies' (stars/planets) moved in circles throughout the sky.  Trees grow and develop, produce flowers and then seeds.  Aristotle thought that this purposeful action pointed towards the existence of some type of force acting upon everything else and causing the change.

The Prime Mover:

Aristotle termed this force the 'Prime Mover'.  The Prime Mover is the thing responsible for all the other change in the world.

  • It must remain changeless itself otherwise it would not be a full explanation of change (we would have to ask what is causing the change in it).
  • It must be purely spiritual because if it were made of matter it would itself be subject to change.
  • Following on from this, it must be fully actual - it cannot have any potential because if it did then it could change.  Everything it could possibly be, it already is.
  • As it is changeless it must also be eternal.  It it had a start point or an end point then it would not be changeless.
  • It cannot be aware of anything except itself because if it were to think about changing things then its thoughts would be changing which would mean that it would not be truly changeless.
  • If it is not aware of anything but itself then the effect that it has on the world must be unconscious.  It does not create order deliberately but just as a bi-product of its existence.

It should be apparent that Aristotle's Prime Mover is very different from traditional Christian beliefs about God.  Its unconscious affect upon the world is analogous to a magnet that affects and shapes iron filings pulling them into orderly patterns without itself being changed by the action.  Alternatively, we could compare its affect to that of a famous person emulated by legions of fans.  Imagine the super-fans who copy the dress sense, tattoos, hobbies and mannerisms of their idols. Their life is shaped by the pop star, but that star has no knowledge of the affect that they are having.  Their creation is unconscious and non-purposeful.


Aquinas was born near Naples in 1225 CE.  He was educated from the age of five in Benedictine monasteries and later at the University of Naples where he became a Dominican monk. He taught at the University of Paris and wrote the Summa Theologica which is a vast work of systematic theology intended (apparently) for beginners!  His life story, whilst interesting (it involves his family kidnapping him) is not so immediately relevant to his theology as that of St Augustine, so it is less important to dwell on it now.

Aquinas studied the work of Aristotle and was impressed by its logic and intellectual rigor.  Aquinas believed that human reason was a gift given to people by God.  Consequently, Aquinas believed that the use of reason would lead people to divine truth.  He firmly believed that although the 'revealed truth' found in the Bible might appear contrary to reason at first sight, with greater study it would become apparent that it was compatible.  If both the Bible and reason come from God then they must agree!  Aquinas thought it was perfectly possible to demonstrate the rational basis of Christianity and he believed that Aristotle's work could be used for this purpose.

Aquinas' aim was to combine the biblical insights into God's relationship with creation with the Aristotelian philosophical framework of the four causes and the Prime Mover.

The Five Ways:

Going Further:

Read Aquinas' Five Ways here. Aquinas sets out his argument by stating his point, listing objections to his point and then systematically dealing with each objection.

Aquinas' Five Ways are sometimes called the five 'proofs'.  This is misleading. Aquinas did not intend them to prove to the unbeliever that God exists.  He was attempting to show the ways in which belief in God may be said to have a logical foundation.

1) The Unmoved Mover

In the first way Aquinas deals (like Aristotle does) with the way that things change from potentiality to actuality.  

  • Things move from potentiality to actuality.
  • For this to occur there must be something to bring about this change.
  • Things cannot move themselves.
  • They cannot be moved by anything that does not exist.
  • The thing that brings about the change must have (in some sense) the property that it brings about.  Fire can only make sticks hot because fire is itself hot.
  • There must be an unmoved mover that brings about change without being changed.
  • This unmoved mover is God.

This shows us that in Aquinas' view God is responsible not just for the origin of things (as stated in way 2 below) but also for the form that they take.  It also suggests that God has a continual involvement in the world as sustainer rather than just initiating the process.

The idea that God is pure actuality is sometimes referred to as divine simplicity.  God is simple in the sense that he is not composite.  He is always the same.

Aquinas use the term actus purus to refer to God's continual creative activity. Like Aristotle, Aquinas believed that God must be changeless because he is perfect.  A perfect being must be fully actual and have no potential.  With no potential God cannot change.  If God is changeless then he cannot act in different ways at different times.  He cannot create matter one day and not be creating it the next.  Therefore, God is actively involved in the creation of the world all the time.

2) The Uncaused Cause

The second way is very similar to the first except that he is dealing with how and why things come into being rather than why they change.

  • Things only come into existence when they are caused to exist.
  • They cannot cause themselves to exist as to do that they would have to exist before themselves.
  • They must be caused by other things.
  • These other things must themselves have been caused to exist.
  • There is a chain of cause and effect.
  • This chain cannot go on for ever (if it went on forever there would be no first cause.  If you take away a cause you take away and effect.  If cause and effect are like a tower of bricks then they must be standing on something!)
  • BUT things DO exist.
  • There must be an uncaused cause.
  • The uncaused cause must be different to all the other things in the world.
  • The uncaused cause is God.

This way demonstrates that everything (including matter) owes its existence to God.  It is not just that he gives form to things, he also creates the matter that they are made of.  It relates to the traditional Christian doctrine of creation ex nihilo.

3) Contingency and Necessity

Contingent things are things that depend on other things for their existence.  They have a starting point and an end point and their existence is conditional. Necessary beings do not depend on anything for their existence.

  • The world is made up of contingent beings.
  • Contingent beings are finite.  They have a start point.
  • There is a time before each contingent being existed.
  • There must have been a time when nothing existed.
  • If nothing existed then no contingent being could start to exist because the things that they depend on for their existence would not exist.
  • BUT things DO exist.
  • Therefore, there must be a non-contingent being upon which the existence of contingent beings depends.
  • There is a necessary being.  This is God.

The third way stresses the difference between God and the created world.  It also makes clear the utter dependence of the world on God.  It is not that God 'just happens' to be the uncaused cause.  The uncaused cause has to be something entirely different to everything else in the world.  

Degrees of goodness:

Aquinas' fourth way deals with degrees of goodness.

  • Everything that exists possesses properties.  
  • These properties exist on a scale. Some things have more of them, others have less.  E.g. some things are more beautiful, others less so.
  • If things exist 'by degrees' then there will be something that is at the top end of the scale that has that property to the fullest degree.
  • Goodness exists in the world in various degrees.
  • There must be something that is most good.
  • This is God.

This relates to Aristotle's belief that everything unconsciously imitates the perfection of the Prime Mover.  Aquinas made that point that all goodness in the world comes from God.  This means that the badness in the world is just a 'falling short' of the good that God intends for the world. (Augustine centuries earlier that Aquinas also argued that evil was a 'privation' or just a lack of good).  

Order and purpose:

Aquinas' final argument is basically a teleological argument.  Things look like they have been designed for a particular purpose.  Therefore a designer (God) must exist.

  • Things that 'lack reason' act as though directed by something.
  • However, unintelligent things cannot behave in this way unless directed by something.  This is analogous to the unintelligent arrow that hits the target because the intelligent archer has aimed it to do so.
  • There must be an intelligence directing the unintelligent aspects of the world.
  • This is God.

Aquinas' fifth way, like the first way, explains how unintelligent things develop and change.  It implies that God designed the world in a way which enabled purposeful behaviour.  Unlike Aristotle's Prime Mover Aquinas' God creates the world with a deliberate sense of purpose.

The Treatise on Creation:

Going Further:

Read the Treatise on Creation here.  Aquinas sets out his argument by stating his point, listing objections to his point and then systematically dealing with each objection.

Aquinas' Treatise on Creation in his Summa Theologica is structured around Aristotle's four causes. Aquinas argued that all the four cause (material, efficient, formal and final) can somehow be traced back to God.  

  • He is the uncaused cause that brings about the matter
  • He is the efficient cause that brings potentiality to actuality.  
  • He conceives of the forms that things will take before they come into being 
  • He is the final objective of everything that exists.

God as Efficient Cause:

Aquinas says that existence is part of God's essence.  To exist is part of the nature of God.  This is because God is a necessary being rather than a contingent being.  As a necessary being he is not dependent on anything and thus his existence is not dependent on anything else.

Contingent things do not have to exist.  They have a start point and an end point which means that there are times when they have not existed.

Aquinas goes on to explain that contingent things 'participate' in the existence of God.

He explains this by means of an analogy.  Fire is inherently or intrinsically hot.  You cannot have fire without having heat.  Heat is part of the essence of fire.  Iron is not inherently or intrinsically hot but it can become hot by participating in the heat of the fire.  Iron can only be made hot by something that does possess the property of heat.

In the same way things that do not have to exist can only gain existence by participating the in existence of something that has existence as a part of its essence.

'It must be said that every being in any way existing is from God.  For whatever is found in anything by participation, must be caused in it by that to which it belongs essentially, as iron becomes ignited by fire.'

Aquinas, Treatise on Creation.

God as the source of Matter:

Aquinas then turns his attention to 'matter'.  He says

'...it is necessary to say that also primary matter is created by the universal cause of all things.'

Aquinas, Treatise on Creation.

Aquinas, unlike Aristotle, believes God creates ex nihilo.  Whilst Aristotle's Prime Mover gave things a final purpose and thus gave order to the pre-existing matter, Aquinas' God creates everything.  Aquinas believed that unless God created the matter as well he could not truly be regarded as the cause of all things.

God as the creator of Form:

Substantial form: the type of thing e.g. bowl.

Accidental form: the individual thing e.g. metal bowl.

The substantial form refers to the features the thing must have to be the type of thing it is.  The accidental form refers to features that it doesn't have to have.  They are what makes it the individual thing it is.

Aquinas dealt with the question of form in his explanation of matter.  He said that God gives things both their category (the type of thing that they are) and their individuality (the particular thing that they are).  He called these 'substantial form' and 'accidental form'.  If we relate this back to humans this means that God creates the substantial form (human being) and accidental form (the individual person with all their own personal characteristics).

Aquinas describes God as the 'exemplar cause' (or 'form') of everything.  This is because all things exist in the mind of God before they exist in reality.  Thus the form of everything is contained within God's being.  To illustrate this Aquinas uses the analogy of an artist who imagines the thing he will create before he creates it.

'In the divine wisdom are the types of all things, which types we have called ideas...In this manner therefore God Himself is the first exemplar of all things.'

Aquinas, Treatise on Creation

God as Final Cause

You could link this to Natural Law.  The primary precepts include worshiping God.

Aquinas says that everything should strive to live up to the ideal that God has created for them (to fulfill their form).  Since the form comes from God in a sense the objective of things is to aspire to be like God.  God is the fullest form of perfection so to aim to achieve perfection is to imitate God.  Humans are made in God's image so for human beings the goal of life is to perfect the Imago Dei within themselves.

'...every creature intends to acquire its own perfection, which is the likeness of the divine perfection and goodness.  Therefore the divine goodness is the end [purpose] of all things.'

Aquinas, Treatise on Creation

God and Matter:

Essay tip:

If you get set an essay on God's relationship to matter you could structure the essay around the five ways or the treatise on creation. Use a paragraph for each way or each of the four causes. Explain it  as thoroughly as you can and draw out the implications that this has for God's relationship to matter.  It would be helpful to compare this back the Aristotle's Prime Mover and explain how the Prime Mover's relationship to matter is different.

God creates matter out of nothing.  He is responsible for the form it takes and for the changes that it undergoes.  Matter is different to God in that it is subject to change and to decay and it is contingent.  God is not formed of matter but because he gives it its existence he can relate to it.  

Humans are part matter (the body) and the Genesis 2 story makes it clear that God creates Adam and Eve's physical bodies as well as their souls.

Ens and Esse

Ens and Esse are Latin terms that Aquinas uses.  An object’s ‘ens’ is its existence.  Everything that exists has ens.  Plants have ens, animals have ens, people have ens.  They all have existence, they all have a ‘life’.  

'Esse' also refers to existence but it is existence in the active sense.  One way to think about it would be to say that if objects have ens then they do esse.  

The esse of an object is its way of existing in the world.  The esse of an object is its affect upon other things around it.  For example, a tree because it has existence (ens) has an effect on the world around it (esse).  The tree’s esse means that it shades the things below it, it takes nutrients from the soil, it affect the movement of the wind as it blows past.  All things that have ens have esse.  Things that have more existence have more of an active effect on the world.  Put really crudely, a big tree affects more things than a tiny blade of grass.  Things that possess a more active form of existence (like animals and humans) have even greater esse.  God, as the being that has existence as part of his essence and thus exists in the fullest sense also affects the world in the fullest sense.  

Aquinas believed that God's ens is the same as his esse.  This is because he is fully actual.  Everything that he could be he is so there is no distinction between his existence and his way of being.

God and Angels:

Aquinas' teaching about angels initially does not seem very relevant to the rest of this section.  However, understanding the nature, role and origins of angels can help to make God's relationship both to humans and to matter clearer.  

Angels are intermediary beings.  In some ways they are like God (purely spiritual, purely intellectual) and in others they are like humans (contingent and created). The efficient cause of angels is God because he brings them into existence. Part of their purpose (final cause) is to act as messenger which in itself tells us something about God's relationship to humans as he created an entire order of beings to ensure that humans are able to understand his will.  In addition, the existence of angels helps to explain how a spiritual transcendent being can interact with material, temporal humans.

What are angels?

Some of Aquinas' contemporaries believed that angels would have to have been made of some type of matter.  

This is because angels are not fully actual (only God can be that).  They have the potential to change.  The ability to change is a property of matter (matter has potential).  Thus is angels can change they must be made of matter.  

Aquinas' answer to this is that angels can change without being made of matter because they can behave in different ways and move from one place to another.  Thus the change is in their action and the way they exist (their esse) rather than in their being (their ens).

According to Aquinas angels are purely intellectual creatures.  This means that they do not have a physical body (although they can 'assume' one in order to be able to appear to humans).  As they do not have a body they do not have a material aspect to them.  So, they have no material cause.

However, angels do have a formal cause.  Angels are pure form.  They have an identity and this identity is specific to them (their form is unique).  Aquinas believed that as angels had no matter to be made of each angel must have a specific and different form.  If any shared a form then they would be indistinguishable from each other as they would have no matter to give them individuality.  This is different to human beings who have a shared form in that we have a shared human nature. We are individuals despite our shared form because we all have our own individual bodies.  

Imagine if you had two identical gasses in bottles.  Uncork the bottles so that the gasses escape.  The identical gasses will merge together, it would be impossible to differentiate them.  However, if you had two different gasses then even if they were not contained within bottles it would be possible to tell them apart because their form would be different.  This is a little analogous to angels (although obviously in actual fact gasses are made of matter so the analogy is not perfect!)

For Aquinas, the existence of angels was verified by two things:

  1. They are mentioned in the Bible.
  2. Creation imitates the creator in varying degrees.  If God is rational and spiritual then the created world should include creatures that possess these attributes.

God and Humans:

Synoptic link

Synoptic link to Ethics and Natural Law.

Consider the differences between the way humans gain knowledge and the way angels gain knowledge.  How could this help explain how and why people mistake apparent good for real good?

Humans are part material part spiritual.  This enables them to both relate to God and to act upon the matter that the world is made up of.  As contingent beings humans depend upon God as their efficient cause.  The material cause of humans is the physical body which enables the soul to interact with the world, to learn through our senses and to reproduce.  The formal cause of humans includes both body and soul.  Humans are created in the image of God (Imago Dei) and Aquinas, like Augustine, believed that the soul should be in control of the body.  The final cause of humans is to live up to the Imago Dei and be united with God after death.  This is the ultimate purpose of human life. However there are other aspects to the human purpose too.  Aquinas believed that we could use our reason to derive our purpose in life.  These primary precepts are part of his Natural Law theory.

But how can God relate to humans?

Aristotle had argued that the Prime Mover could not have any knowledge of the world because perfect things cannot change.  Aquinas agreed that God was perfect and could not change but he did not think that this prevented God from having a relationship with the world.  Aquinas argued that:

  • Perfect beings must know and understand themselves.
  • To understand themselves they need to understand the effect they have.
  • To understand their effect they need to understand the thing that they affect.
  • God affects the world, thus he must know about the world.

For Aquinas, God could not be perfect unless he knew about the world.  Aquinas then went on to explain how this could be possible.

  • God is outside time, thus what he knows he knows eternally.
  • God knows about changing beings, but he always knows about the changes so the overall body of his knowledge does not change.

This means that God can have a relationship with human beings! (Which is useful if you want a God who knows that you exist).


Aquinas' Cosmological Argument (the five ways) has been challenged in many ways.  These range from the obvious (if everything needs a cause then what caused God) to the less obvious (Hume suggested that we cannot actually prove that causality exists).  Some of the criticisms leveled at the Cosmological argument include:

  • The universe may not need explaining, it may just be a 'brute fact'.
  • We only have experience of one universe, so we cannot conclude that universes need causes.
  • The chain of cause and effect may be infinite.  This is as logical as belief in an eternal God.
  • The Big Bang caused the universe.  We don't know what caused the Big Bang but it could have been a quantum fluctuation (at a subatomic level things sometimes seem to occur randomly).

There are other elements of Aquinas' theory we could also challenge or at least question:

  • Does he actually successfully get round the problems associated with the idea of a perfect changeless being relating to changing beings?  Process theology rejects the idea that God is perfect and changeless.  Is this a better interpretation of God?
  • If matter and spirit are entirely different things then how can one affect the other?  Surely only material things can affect material things?
  • He bases his theory on an acceptance of Aristotelian metaphysics.  Aristotle was not necessarily correct!  We might find the idea that the universe and humans have a final cause (a purpose) particularly problematic.  
  • If God did create the world then how do we explain the existence of evil and suffering? Surely and omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent God could have done better?  There are many standard Christian responses to the problem of evil, but it remains a very powerful problem for traditional Christian doctrines about creation. 

Aquinas' teachings about Angels include some potentially difficult ideas:

  • How would an angel 'assume' a body?  What does it mean to assume a body without living in it?  
  • Is it possible to have a mind without having a brain?  Form without matter?  Are these ideas incoherent?
  • Are there any good reasons to believe that angels exist?  

Further Reading:

Find Aquinas' Five Ways here (Primary text).

Find Aquinas' Treatise on Creation here (Primary text).

Find Aquinas' Treatise on Angels here (Primary text).

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Aquinas here (Secondary material).

VERY USEFUL but very complex Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Aquinas' metaphysics (includes good detail on essence and existence) found here (Secondary material).