The Possibility of An Eternal World

We discuss what must happen when God creates; what must He do, and for how long? This will lead us to the famous medieval debate over the eternity of the world. So, we will:

  1. present an overview of ScG, II.28–38;
  2. consider the way in which justice and necessity are found in creation (II.28–30);
  3. sketch the debate over the temporal infinity or temporal finitude of creation;
  4. examine some of the many parts of the debate, following St. Thomas (II.31–37);
  5. raise an objection from St. Bonaventure.
  6. present in overview the debate between St. Bonaventure and St. Thomas; 
  7. consider the position of St. Bonaventure on a temporally finite, created world;
  8. consider the judgment of St. Thomas as to the possibility of an eternal world;
  9. some interesting ramifications of the last argument pair in ScG, II.38.

3.1. What Must Creation Be? (ScG, II.28–38)

In order to present an overview of these chapters, recall that II.28 is part of a previous discussion about the mode of action in creation on God’s part:

[1] The mode of action re: God’s part (II.23–28) … not necessitated/limited by nature, knowledge, or will
[2] The action re: created beings (II.29–38)
(1st) In regard to the necessity of producing beings (II.29–30)
– 1st: How the “debt of justice” is found in creatures (II.29)
– 2nd: How absolute necessity is found in creatures (II.30)
(2nd) In regard to the measure and duration of creation (II.31–38)
– 1st: That it is not necessary that creatures be ab aeterno (II.31)
– 2nd: Consideration of eternal creation (II.32–37)
– Arguments for this, on the part of God (II.32), creatures (II.33), and making (II.34)
– Arguments against, on the part of God (II.35), creatures (II.36), and making (II.37)
– 3rd: Consideration of temporally finite creation (II.38)

That is, we move from creation as an action (really, a relation—recall ScG, II.18) considered on the side of God, and how God is free in regard to creation. However, St. Thomas then contrasts this with the way in which God is bound in justice in certain ways, that is, given the supposition of creation. What must be about creation leads us to an interplay of the contingent and the necessary, the possible and the impossible, as well as what is demonstrable and what must be taken on supernatural faith.

3.2. What Does God Owe Creatures? How Are Creatures “Necessary”? (ScG, II.28–30)

There are essentially three conclusions defended in II.28:

  1. God does not create out of a debt of justice by which He owes something to creatures.
  2. Nor does He create due to some debt arising from the divine goodness, absolutely speaking.
  3. The production of things is necessitated only by God’s dispositio, or ordinance, to create.

The core of the first conclusion proceeds from the notion of justice itself: justice is to give to someone what is owed him, and in order for that debt to arise, there must be some prior basis for the claim. However, non-existent creatures can make no claims upon non-existent grounds!

The second conclusion means that not creating does not do any injustice to the divine goodness—creation is not something God must do in order to be God (see II.31, 4th argument). Ferrariensis comments on St. Thomas’s qualification that justice in a broad sense can be said of God’s act of creation. This is not a strict debt but as what is fitting to do:

In this way, justice is found in the creation of things, because it renders to the divine goodness what is due to it according to a certain fittingness [convenientiam] and becomingness [decentiam]. For it is fitting [decens] that the highest goodness be shared and manifested in the production of creatures, since “the good is diffusive of itself,” [Pseudo-Dionysius]. This mode of justice St. Thomas calls “the becomingness [condecentiam] of divine goodness.”

We will discuss the subject again from another angle in ScG, II.31, but we should note here that St. Thomas argues that God need not will creation (to diffuse His goodness ad extra), because He only wills one thing necessarily: His own goodness; other things are willed freely (see ScG, I.80–83).

In II.29, which forms something of a continuous chapter with II.28, St. Thomas expands upon a consequence of the third conclusion in II.28. That is, justice arises within creation, once God’s will to create is given. This is due to conditional necessity, namely, the necessity which arises from what is posterior in being but prior by nature. (The other form of necessity here is absolute necessity, that is, the necessity which arises from what is prior both by nature and in existing.)

Generally, we should recall some of the senses of priority (before and after):

  • Before and after in time (or, ‘in being’ in the above sense): an acorn is before an oak tree
  • Before and after in reason: an premise is before a conclusion
  • Before and after in nobility: a virtuous person is before a vicious one
  • Before and after by nature: an oak tree is before an acorn; one is before two
  • Before and after in causality: a son is after his father; a true statement comes after what it is about (“Socrates is seated” is true because he is, in reality, sitting down.)

In light of the priority of conditional necessity, St. Thomas proposes three ways that such necessity (or, justice) is found in the cosmos.

Explication of Conditional NecessityExample(s)
Whole universe to partsIf such a whole (the universe) is the end, then certain parts (various creatures, their properties) are needed.The sun and moon If a universe such as ours, then also hydrogen (for stellar fusion)
One creature to anotherIf a certain part (creature) is willed as created, then other creatures needed for it must also be created.If animals and plants, then the stars If humans, then animals and plants (survival; still a good example!)
One creature to its partsIf a certain creature is to be created, then its parts and accidents must also be created (excl. mutilation, defects?).If humans, then soul and body, etc. If lions, then sharp teeth; if sheep, then wool; if atoms, then electrons
The basic outline for a universe.

In these ways, “God is said to be a debtor not to the creature, but to the fulfillment of his purpose.” The idea that creation must be complete is a notion to be remembered later on in ScG.

In ScG, II.30, we avoid the danger of a world of total contingency or randomness, where things could-have-always-been-otherwise: “This might seem to someone to be the case, for the reason that things have arisen from their cause not of absolute necessity, since in things a contingent effect tends to be one that does not necessarily result from a cause.” (Translation modified)

St. Thomas offers a type of “map” of necessity based upon the four causes. For the causes of form and matter, interwoven through these two is a division of three cases, based upon how absolute necessity arises from the principles of things

  1. from the principles of the being to the being itself,
  2. from the being as thus constituted to its parts,
  3. and properties arising from the substances to which they belong.

We incorporate this consideration into one table, below, for your reference:

Explication of Necessity InvolvedModern Examples
Material causeBecause it is open to contrary states, matter is corruptible by absolute necessity.Dissipation of heat in an open system; principle of entropy
Formal causes

In pure formsThe “virtus essendi” of the form necessitatesAngels, separate human souls
In heavenly bodiesThese are material things, but cannot corrupt.(Physical space???)
In terrestrial bodiesThese are not necessary, the “victory” of form over matter in these cases is always incomplete.Still true cases!
Whole to partA given whole by nature necessitates its parts.If human, then human DNA
Necessary accidentsA given substance by nature necessitates these.If human, then teachable
Agent causes

In the agentThe agent’s power itself necessitates its effect.
Immanent actionThe actions of thinking or sensing, as such (not as tied to organs), cannot be interrupted physically.Thinking is still a clear case.
Transitive actionThe action of certain physical agents, as such, necessarily arise from their being such.Fire still heats; or: gravitational field (cannot shield from it)
In its effectSince, in certain cases, the patient must have a certain disposition to receive the effect; without the right disposition, the effect is impeded.An organism dying from radiation poisoning (note contingency still possible!)
Final Causes

As prior by intentionWhether voluntary or by nature, the motion towards the end necessitated by the formal intention.Human and natural teleology are still true examples.
As posterior in beingThis is not absolute necessity, but conditional necessity.

Even though these are phrased with if-then conditions, the necessity signified is still absolute necessity.

3.3. Whence the Debates Over a World Eternal?

Why was this topic such a heated one for the medieval theologians and philosophers?

First, the claim that God created the world (the universe, all creatures) ex nihilo and with a beginning in time is both Scriptural and doctrinal, for Catholics: “In principio creavit Deus caelum et terram.” (Gen 1:1) Again: “Look round at heaven and earth and all they contain; bethink thee that of all this, and mankind too, God made out of nothing [ex nihilo].” (2 Macc 7:28) Also: “It was through him that all things came into being, and without him came nothing that has come to be.” (John 1:3)

Second, this was definitively taught at the Fourth Lateran Council (1215):

[The Trinity of Persons are] the one principle of the universe, the creator of all things, visible and invisible, spiritual and corporeal, who by his almighty power from the beginning of time made at once out of nothing [ab initio temporis utramque de nihilo] both orders of creatures . . .

Heinrich Denzinger, Enchiridion Symbolorum: A Compendium of Creeds, Definitions, and Declarations of the Catholic Church, ed. by P. Hunermann, et al., 43rd ed. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2012), n. 800, my emphasis.

As such, it was the most recent doctrinal statement of the Church in St. Thomas’s day. Why, then, were medieval theologians so concerned with the issue? It was also not just Catholics—Jewish and Islamic thinkers also debated this topic heatedly.

The answer, of course, is Aristotle. While Aristotle provides in his Topics (see I.11, 104b1–17) as an example of a “dialectical problem” of “vast” scope “whether the universe is eternal or not,” he also provides arguments, particularly in his Physics, that appear to prove the eternity of the world. Hence, the late 11th- and early 12th-century Aristotelian renaissance in the Latin West provided a wealth of new philosophical contentions to this effect and more:

The impact of this great mass of new knowledge on the Western mind could not but produce startling effects. It raised the whole question of the relations between religion and science, and between reason and faith, in a very sharp and accentuated way. . . . For the new scientific doctrines were not simply an addition to the common stock of knowledge which Western culture already possessed. They formed part of an organized system of thought which embraced every aspect of reality. . . . And hence, as the theologians of Islam had long ago realized, Hellenic science was not the obedient servant of revealed religion but an independent and rival power. It was a danger alike to Christianity, to Judaism and to Islam, since it challenged the fundamental dogmas that were common to the three religions: the doctrine of creation, the doctrine of personal immortality, and the belief in a personal Deity who governed the world by His providence and the free exercise of His omnipotent will.

Dawson, Medieval Essays, 124 (Ch. 8, “The Scientific Development of Medieval Culture”).

In brief, Aristotle provides arguments (interpreted and expanded upon by the Arabic commentators) that the world is eternal. Typically, he was also interpreted as thereby denying that it was created by God (although certain medieval readers disagreed).

The medieval version of this debate was multifaceted: it had deep roots in the thinking of the Church, a multitude of participants both recent and contemporary (to the time), and nearly endless iterations among the parties involved.

The roots of the question go back to St. Augustine and St. Boethius. For his part, Augustine brought forward the Platonic account of the “creation” or making of the world:

Plato, however, in writing concerning the world and the gods in it, whom the Supreme made, most expressly states that they had a beginning and yet would have no end, but, by the sovereign will of the Creator, would endure eternally. But, by way of interpreting this, the Platonists have discovered that he meant a beginning, not of time, but of cause. “For as if a foot,” they say, “had been always from eternity in dust, there would always have been a print underneath it; and yet no one would doubt that this print was made by the pressure of the foot, nor that, though the one was made by the other, neither was prior to the other; so,” they say, “the world and the gods created in it have always been, their Creator always existing, and yet they were made.”

St. Augustine, City of God, Book X, Ch. 31, my emphasis (URL:

However, St. Augustine counters this idea with an analysis of creation in Genesis, in which creation must also be with a beginning in time. Time is also a creature:

For if eternity and time are rightly distinguished by this, that time does not exist without some movement and transition, while in eternity there is no change, who does not see that there could have been no time had not some creature been made, which by some motion could give birth to change — the various parts of which motion and change, as they cannot be simultaneous, succeed one another — and thus, in these shorter or longer intervals of duration, time would begin? Since then, God, in whose eternity is no change at all, is the Creator and Ordainer of time, I do not see how He can be said to have created the world after spaces of time had elapsed, unless it be said that prior to the world there was some creature by whose movement time could pass.

St. Augustine, City of God, Book XI, Ch. 5. The entirety of Book XI concerns the beginning and end of the “two cities,” viz., the City of God and the City of Man.

Or, as he states in his Confessions, “It is not in time that you precede time, since otherwise you would not precede all times.” (St. Augustine, Confessions, Book XI, 13.16, in A. Hyman, et al., eds., Philosophy in the Middle Ages: The Christian, Islamic, and Jewish Traditions, 3rd ed. (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 2010), 75.) Here, St. Augustine does distinguish temporal and causal priorities. In the same place, Book XI (which includes his lengthy and famous consideration of the nature of time), he also articulates the notion of creation, that it must be ex nihilo: “You spoke and they were made; and in your word you made them.” (Ibid., 73.) Of course, St. Augustine ever philosophizes as a believer.

As for Boethius, he contributes not only the definition of eternity but also its distinction from “sempiternity” or temporal endlessness: “Eternity is the whole, perfect, and simultaneous possession of endless life. . . . Therefore, if we wish to call things by their proper names, we should follow Plato in saying that God indeed is eternal, but the world is perpetual.” Thus, it will not do in what follows to think that “eternity” is identical to a divine attribute attributable uniquely to God.

Apart from these deeper roots, there was a multitude of contemporaneous participants in the debates, especially at the University of Paris: the Augustinian theologians, the Averroists in the Faculty of Arts, all stemming and recapitulating the Arabic debates between the Islamic philosophers and Kalām theologians (e.g., the debate between Al-Ghazālī in The Incoherence of the Philosophers and, later on, Averroes in The Incoherence of the Incoherence).

Here is a way to schematize the basic division of positions, according to Moses Maimonides:

There is a temporal beginning.There is not a temporal beginning.
Matter is not eternal, so the world caused by God ex nihilo.The Jews and Christians
(the world has a history, a grand story)
Matter is eternal, so the world is caused by God, but not ex nihilo.The Platonists
(cycles, potter’s clay shaped, reshaped)
The Aristotelians
(cycles, but invariantly fixed patterns)

We should also recall what Rabbi Moses considered to be the importance of this debate:

It must be clearly understood that once we believe in the world being created, all miracles become possible and the Law itself becomes possible, and any question that might be asked is automatically void, even such questions as the following: why did God accord a revelation to this one and none to others? . . . thus He wanted, or: thus His wisdom decreed it. . . . This, then, is our reason for recoiling from that theory [of Platonists/Aristotelians]. This is why people of worth have spent their lives, and others will go on spending their lives, in speculating on this problem.

Moses Maimonides, The Guide of the Perplexed, Book II, Ch. 25, in Hyman, Philosophy in the Middle Ages, 375.

Perhaps Rabbi Moses’s position overall tends too much towards a sort of fideism, but it is still a valuable, partial insight, and one which we ought to share.

We should distinguish some of the layers or possibilities countenanced in the debate.

PositionsStatus and knowability?Example defenders?
1. The world is not created ex nihilo.Demonstrably false by faith and reasonMaterialists
2. The world is created (ex nihilo).True; knowable by faith or reason.Christians, Jews, Muslims
3. The world is created by God of necessity, and thus, eternally.*Demonstrably false by faith and reasonAvicenna, Averroes
4. The world is created freely by God.True; knowable by faith alone.Certain Muslim thinkers
True; knowable by faith and reason.Some Christian thinkers
5. The world is created freely by God, and from eternity.False and impossible; and such falsity is claimed to be knowable by reason.Kalām theologians;
St. Bonaventure
False, but possible; knowable by reason.St. Thomas
6. The world is created freely by God and with a beginning in time.True; knowable by faith and reason.St. Bonaventure
True; knowable only by faith.St. Thomas, St. Albert**

Typically, most interpreters think that Aristotle holds (1a) that the world is not created ex nihilo and is eternal; some think that Plato holds (1b) that the world was not created ex nihilo but formed a finite time ago from prior, eternal ‘matter’ (e.g., see Maimonides, above table). St. Thomas disagrees with this interpretation of both Aristotle and Plato.
* Another logical possibility is a temporally finite yet necessary creation. Does any thinker of note defend this?
This is the typical interpretation of St. Bonaventure. Later, we discuss contemporary nuancing of such views.
** However, they give different reasons for holding this view, as we will discuss later.

3.4. The Question of an Eternal World (ScG, II.31–37)

Let us begin to examine the various arguments. St. Thomas divides them into three groups, and presents arguments both pro and con. (This is indeed a dialectical question!)

The first groups is for or against the conclusion, where the arguments focus on the necessity of an eternal creation on the part of God (i.e., God is such, which necessitates He create always, ∴ etc.).

Whether or not the world is eternal, ex parte Dei
Affirmative Arguments (ScG, II.32)Negative Arguments (ScG, II.35)
1st: God is moved neither per se nor per accidens, and so acts always, and hence un-alterably must create.1st: Since God is His action, He need not be moved (per se or per accidens) due to the newness of effects.
2nd: God’s action is eternal, not brought into actuality by some other agent.2nd: God’s action (eternal will) includes the disposition of time in creation, so creation not necessarily eternal.
3rd: A sufficient cause posited, the effect necessarily follows; and God is a sufficient cause.3rd: A sufficient will means the effect exists as willed, not when the will exists. (Not true of natural agency!)
4th: God’s will is not lacking, not able to be impeded, nor awaiting the opportune time or means.4th: God’s will includes not just that creatures be, but that they exist in such a way.
5th: “God’s will is indifferent to produce creatures through the whole of eternity.”5th: This supposes “time” before creation; a fallacy based on the imagination, akin to “place” of world.
6th: God’s reason for creation, his goodness, is eternal, and so also must be his choice to create.6th: The relation of creation’s end-goal to God does not determine world’s duration, but that end to creatures.
7th: God’s perfect goodness is infinite, and “it belongs to it to communicate itself in an infinite manner, and not only at a particular time.”7th: More fitting to create in time, as “the transcendence of the divine goodness over the creature” is thereby better manifested; although some contradict this.

The next group includes arguments for or against the world’s eternity based upon some necessitating ground which is claimed to be found in creatures.

Whether or not the world is eternal, ex parte creaturarum
Affirmative Arguments (ScG, II.33)Negative Arguments (ScG, II.36)
1st: Some creatures exist which do not have a potency towards non-being (angels, spheres).1st: This necessity of existence in things is one of order, given their existence; it doesn’t necessitate production.
2nd: Some creatures have a virtus essendi so as to be always, and what begins to be cannot be always. 2nd: Similar to the prior argument, this one presupposes the production of things, it doesn’t prove it.
3rd: Motion must always be preceded by motion, whether in the mover or the moved, so moving things have always existed.3rd: See II.35 (2nd arg.); God’s can also bring motion about anew, insofar as His will thus disposes it in the things which are created.
4th: There is a not-in-vain natural desire to perpetuate one’s species by generation.4th: This also presupposes the production of such things in being; cf. also Book IV (re: the eschaton).
5th: Mobiles and motion have always existed if time is endless, but the “now” of time limits past and future, and thus is infinite.5th: This does not follow because time exists only when motion does; so, it is possible to suppose a “now” which is uniquely without a past.
6th: We cannot deny “before” or “after” time without assuming it also; thus, it must be so, always.6th: This argument proceeds from a fallacy of the imagination, as seen in examples of place or sizes.
7th: There are propositions which are necessarily true, thus, always true; so, time has always existed.7th: Necessary truths are such by necessity of order, supposing creation; or, they preexist in God’s mind.

The last group consists of arguments claiming that the nature of creation itself gives rise necessarily to an eternal act of creation and thus an eternal world.

Whether or not the world is eternal, ex parte factionis
Affirmative Arguments (ScG, II.34)Negative Arguments (ScG, II.37)
1st: Nothing comes from nothing (as all philosophers say), and so prime matter must always have existed.1st: This axiom of the natural philosophers does not reach the profundity of the principles of being itself.
2nd: Any motion requires a preexisting subject and prior motion, and thus something always having existed prior to motion.2nd: Creation is metaphorically a motion, as when we say that day comes from night; nihil cannot exist in some “other way.”
3rd: Any being was possible before it came to be, and thus possibility has always been.3rd: The relevant “possible” is not of matter (passive potency, needed for motion), but either the power of the agent, or the possible opposed to the impossible.
4th: Something coming to be requires a preexisting subject, and thus something always having been.4th: This applies only to things which arise by way of motion; no becoming is before being in creation.

Of these, the first argument is especially interesting.

  • Some philosophers considered things too extrinsically, analyzing only to accidental change.
  • Other philosophers considered things more intrinsically, analyzing to substantial change.
  • Finally, “entering still more deeply into the origin of things,” one can analyze to creation.

St. Thomas gives a similar three-stage progression in Summa Theologiae, Ia, q. 44, a. 2, c.

We should also note that many of the arguments in ScG, II.33 and 34 err because of mistakes concerning the physical agent causality model. That is, creation is likened too much to ordinary physical change, or how we imagine or understand such changes.

3.5. A Resolution to the Question?

One might wonder, however, whether St. Thomas has actually resolved the issue with the above dialectical back-and-forth: “The theme of the limits to philosophical discourse resurfaces in the dialectical consideration of the eternity of the world, where Thomas argues that philosophy cannot settle the question.” Indeed, on the one hand, we should note what St. Thomas states at the end of these six chapters: “It is, therefore, in this way evidently clear that nothing prevents one from positing that the world has not always been. This is what the Catholic faith posits.” Genesis 1:1 is then cited.

The citation of scripture at the end of the dialectical discussion of creation opens philosophy to the narrative of scripture. In that narrative, the nothingness from which creatures come is an ‘infinite privation of being.’ . . . Only the Christian narrative . . . unequivocally eclipses the notion that ‘ontological violence’—a conflict or battle between order and disorder, intelligibility and unintelligibility—lies at the origin of things.

However, in the very next chapter, ScG, II.38, St. Thomas considers six arguments back and forth about the temporal finitude of the world. These arguments he clearly characterizes as merely probable, not demonstrative. Aquinas must discuss them, he notes, lest “the Catholic faith seem to be founded on empty reasonings, and not, as it is, on the most solid teaching of God.” (Recall where this general admonition was given in Book I?)

It seems, then, that neither can we show that the world is eternal nor can we show that the world is temporally past-finite. Indeed, as we will discuss in the following class, St. Thomas is well-known for defending this view. He thinks that one can philosophically prove the following:

  1. An eternally created world is possible. 
  2. A temporally finite world is possible.
  3. Whether God created the world as (1) or (2) is not demonstrable philosophically.

There are also subtler variations under which we could approach claim (1). Someone could hold the following views as philosophically demonstrable:

  1. An eternally created world is possible.
  2. Is it not possible to demonstrate the impossibility of the eternity of the world.
  3. It is not the case that the impossibility of the eternity of the world has been demonstrated yet.

Option (c) is the weakest one, and (b) is stronger, while position (a) is the strongest position. That is, if one holds (a), one must defend (b) and (c); if you maintain (b) you must maintain (c) but can remain silent about (a); holding (c) obliges nothing in regard to (a) or (b).

Throughout his career, St. Thomas clearly holds (c), and then, over his life, more and more clearly articulates his views regarding (b) and then (a).

For students interested, the following supplemental texts could be read:

* * *

Who are St. Thomas’s principal interlocutors? While he had read many in the debate, and there were many in the Arts Faculty who perhaps spurred his argumentative fervor (perhaps Siger of Brabant or John Peckham), the Angelic Doctor also disagrees with the Universal Doctor and the Seraphic Doctor on this topic.

3.6. The Schoolmen Debate: Doctor Universalis & Doctor Seraphicus vs. Doctor Communis

As discussed in Lectures Notes 3A, part of the constraints of the medieval debate concerning the creation of the world is theological (e.g., the Fourth Lateran Council, 1215). But the authority of holy father Augustine was also a factor. Note, below, how he distinguishes between creation in time and creation simultaneously with time.

And if the sacred and infallible Scriptures say that in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, in order that it may be understood that He had made nothing previously—for if He had made anything before the rest, this thing would rather be said to have been made “in the beginning,—then assuredly the world was made, not in time, but simultaneously with time. For that which is made in time is made both after and before some time—after that which is past, before that which is future. But none could then be past, for there was no creature by whose movements its duration could be measured. But simultaneously with time the world was made, if in the world’s creation change and motion were created . . .

St. Augustine, The City of God, Book XI, Ch. 6 (URL:

This notion, that time is co-created with creatures, will be a significant point in arguments put forward both by St. Albert the Great and St. Bonaventure. We focus on these three Doctors of the Church, passing over other aspects of the debate: e.g., the various other masters of the Arts Faculty at the University of Paris involved in the debate, or the Condemnations of 1270 and 1277, which included among their condemned propositions ones about the eternity of the world.

Recall that another part of the constraints of the medieval debate concerned Aristotle. Some took Aristotle to merely be proving in his Physics that the world could not arise by way of motion or change. Others read Aristotle’s arguments literally: he thought the world was eternal, and—because creation means, following St. Augustine, that time is co-created with it, a created world must be a temporally finite world, but defending a beginningless world requires a denial of a created world.

The most striking feature of Bonaventure’s account of the philosophers is the manner in which he juxtaposes the doctrine of creation, as he understands it, with the philosophical theory of origins. According to Bonaventure, only two theories regarding the origin of the cosmos are really tenable: first, the theory of the pagan philosophers according to which the world is eternal and the matter of the universe is without ultimate causal origin; second, the Christian doctrine of creation according to which the universe depends entirely for its being on God, is produced “from nothing (ex nihilo),” and is temporally finite in the past. The third possibility, namely that the world is both produced from nothing and eternal, Bonaventure vehemently rejects on the grounds that such a position is inherently contradictory: «Response: To posit that the world is eternal or eternally produced, while positing likewise that all things have been produced from nothing, is altogether opposed to the truth and reason, just as the last reason stated showed. Indeed, it is so opposed to reason that I do not believe any philosopher, however small his intellectual abilities, took this position. For this involves, in itself, an obvious contradiction. To posit, however, that the world is eternal on the supposition that matter is eternal seems reasonable and understandable…» (ibid.)

Timothy Noone and R. E. Houser, “Saint Bonaventure,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. by E. N. Zalta, Winter 2014 (Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, 2014) URL:

It is precisely that third possibility which Aquinas says is a possibility, even though St. Thomas argues on the basis of faith that it is not true of our universe. In what follows, we will look more closely at the debate between the Franciscan and the Dominican. Indeed, “Bonaventure’s arguments are to be noted, for St. Thomas will take the greatest care to respond to them point by point—however, without naming their author: fraternal charity impels saints!” (A. M. de Lassus, F.J., “Saint Thomas et le problème de la possibilité d’un univers créé éternel,” Sapientia 52, no. 201 (1997): 195–202, at 196 (my translation).)

To analyze the logic of the debate, we ask the Three Doctors a series of questions. (For the sources on St. Bonaventure, see Steven Baldner, “St. Bonaventure on the Temporal Beginning of the World,” New Scholasticism 63, no. 2 (1989): 206–28; and, Matthew D. Walz, “Theological and Philosophical Dependencies in St. Bonaventure’s Argument Against an Eternal World and a Brief Thomistic Reply,” American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly 72, no. 1 (1998): 75–98. For St. Albert, see Steven Baldner, “Albertus Magnus on Creation: Why Philosophy Is Inadequate,” American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly 88, no. 1 (2014): 63–79.)

Questions about CreationBonaventureAlbertThomas
1. Did God create the world out of nothing (ex nihilo)?yesyesyes
2. How is the answer to #1 knowable?only by faithonly by faithfaith & reason
3. Is creation defined by cocreating w/beginning in time?yesyesno
4. Did God create the world with a beginning in time?yesyesyes
5. How is the answer to #4 knowable?only by faithonly by faithonly by faith
6. Did God necessarily create with a beginning in time?yes, see #3yes, see #3no
7. Can one show arguments for eternal worlds fail?yesyesyes
8. Can one prove the impossibility of an eternal world?yes / nonono
9. Is it possible for God to have created an eternal world?nonoyes

This is where interpretations of St. Bonaventure vary. Baldner and Walz defend the “no” option; the more common interpretation of St. Bonaventure is that he answers “yes” to question #8.

The above table focuses the logical options of the debate (compare to the broader strokes of tables in Lectures Notes 3A, pp. 5–6). We see overall agreement between Bonaventure and Albert, although the typical interpretation of St. Bonaventure re: Question #8 would make St. Albert more of a middle-ground between the other two. However, what is the significance of the answers to Questions #4 and #6? How can there be agreement on Questions #4 and #5, but disagreement on Question #6? Or, for that matter, does this factor into the disagreement about Question #9.

It does. The answer lies in how they each define creation:

  • St. Albert:
    • «It is clear that the creature is out of nothing, that is, after nothing, as the saints say. Thus the negation included in the “nothing” negates everything that is able to be in the creature before it comes to be. Clearly, duration is some part of the being of the creature. Therefore, duration cannot be understood to be extended into the past, nor beyond the first now of the creature. Otherwise, the creature would come to be out of something and not out of nothing. It is clear that the preposition “out of” (ex), when it is said that the creature comes to be out of nothing, does not indicate some essential principle, whether material or formal, but simply an order, that is, after nothing.» (St. Albert, Summa theologiae, II, q. 4, qi. 2a (Borgnet ed., 32), 108a, quoted in Baldner, “Albertus Magnus on Creation,” 76.)
  • St. Bonaventure: 
    • «Creation is a change [Creatio est mutatio], but distinct from natural change. . . . There is another sort of production in which what is produced has everything it does not and in no way before [nunc et nullo modo prius]. Such is the production which is from nothing [ex nihilo]. . . . This second [production of creation] is not defined as motion, and yet it includes the notion of change and production. It lacks the notion of motion, because, as it does not have matter, a disposition can in no way be prior. Still, it fits the notion of change [mutatio], because it is the quick and new induction of a form. It has the notion of production, because it includes being from some other effective principle. . . . To come to be out of nothing [fieri ex nihilo] has being after nothing, and thus after non-being; therefore, it bears itself in some way now which it did not have before. Thus, change [mutatio] is necessarily posited by production from nothing, or beginning [inceptio].» (St. Bonaventure, II Sent., d. 1, p. 1, a. 3, q. 1, resp. & ad 7m (Quaracchi ed., II, 32–33), my translation; see Baldner, St. Bonaventure on the Temporal Beginning of the World,” 212.)
  • St. Thomas:
    • «God’s action, which is without preexisting matter and is called creation, is neither movement nor change, properly speaking.» (ScG, II.17)

That is, both St. Albert and St. Bonaventure define creation as required creation simultaneously with time, while St. Thomas does not. The two former think that a beginning in time is required as a necessary property of creation, while Aquinas thinks that such a beginning is a contingent property. 

To put it another way, the debate consists in what “absolute” means when one claims that “it is because the act of creation is an absolute origination that its effect can have existed always.” (James F. Anderson, “Time and the Possibility of an Eternal World,” The Thomist 15, no. 1 (1952): 136–61, at 144.) All three agree that creation is ex nihilo, and thus it is in that way “absolute.” The question concerns what must be included necessarily in that absolute origination of beings from God.

We should also recall some key ideas about time:

  • Time, in the Aristotelian view common to the three interlocutors, is the measure of motion.
  • Thus, motion is the subject or “matter” of time. However, only the now of time exists in the moment of motion in the moving thing
  • The successive (before and after) character of time exists fully only in the mind (remembering or anticipating). This before and after exist only parasitically upon the potencies and motion of the physical things moving.
  • So, time’s now is distinct from its before and after. See ScG, II.36, 5th & 6th arguments.

3.7. St. Bonaventure and the Temporal Finitude of the World

In the table below, I have summarized St. Bonaventure’s arguments as presented in his Sentences commentary, and, for those concerned with the world’s eternity, I have briefly noted an argument from St. Thomas that is very similar, so as to illustrate their accord on this issue. At the bottom of the table, St. Bonaventure’s arguments for a temporally finite creation are given. 

Has the world been produced in time or from eternity? (St. Bonaventure, In II Sent., d. 1, p. 1, a. 1, q. 2)
The world has been produced from eternity …… St. Bonaventure’s repliesSt. Thomas
1st: Before every motion and change, there is a motion of the primum mobile; this must exist prior to others.1st: This does not apply to the supernatural change of proceeding into being.See ScG, II.37, 4th
2nd: Everything which comes to be does so through motion or change; this regresses to infinity.2nd: God cocreates the motion with the mobile; “prior” to this is beyond our ken.See ScG, II.36, 3rd
3rd: Everything begins either in an instant or time; before time or instants there is time, the now flows.3rd: In the very production of time there is a “now” before which there is no time.See ScG, II.36, 5th
4th: In every time there is a prior and a posterior, so if time began, then “time” also before its beginning!4th: The essence of time is merely the now, its existing is via motion, not creation.*See ScG, II.36, 6th*
5th: Given an adequate and actual cause, the effect follows, and God is such a cause.5th: This does not affect causes which operate through wisdom and fittingness.See ScG, II.35, 3rd
6th: If God began to produce the world, then He would pass from rest into act, and be mutable.6th: God is not like such agents: He is His own action. We cannot imagine this.**See ScG, II.35, 2nd
The world has been produced with a beginning in time.
1st: Cannot add to the infinite (no next sunrise in eternal world); or, an infinite part of an infinite whole results.
2nd: An infinite number cannot be ordered, since it lacks a first; hence, no generable animals w/o first parent.
3rd: It is impossible to traverse what is infinite; that there is “no first” does not work, it is infinitely “distant”. (!!)
4th: The infinite cannot be grasped by a finite power; but the angels would do so in an infinite universe.
5th: An actual infinity of things is impossible; such would happen here, re: number of separated human souls.
6th: That which has being after non-being cannot be eternal, because this implies a contradiction.

* In his reply, St. Thomas states that this is a fallacy of the imagination, a very different rebuttal.
Note that this is very similar to the reason which St. Thomas gives in ScG, II.38, 7th argument; see below.
** St. Bonaventure quotes Boethius here: “So it is, ‘remaining at rest He causes all things to be moved.’”
St. Thomas does not countenance this argument in ScG, II.38.

Note that the 6th argument is St. Bonaventure’s “Main Argument.” We should note two features of this argument. First, in the context of his Sentences commentary, it relies upon a theological premise, that the world is produced ex nihilo; second, it employs his definition of creation, viz., that it must take place simultaneously with time: “According to the Seraphic Doctor, then, for something to receive its existence from another in toto entails a beginning in time for that something, in this case the world. St. Bonaventure simply accepts this statement as an indisputable philosophical propositio per se nota.”

The various arguments involving infinity, then, are put forward—according to the interpreters followed here, Baldner and Walz—as probable arguments used to weaken philosophical resistance to what St. Bonaventure regards as a truth of the faith, viz., creation ex nihilo. This does not prevent the arguments from infinity from seeming very convincing, and to those we now turn.

3.8. St. Thomas and a True Antinomy of Reason

We should begin by noting how St. Thomas qualifies his argumentation against many of St. Bonaventure’s own arguments in ScG, II.38:

Now since these arguments do not conclude of absolute necessity, although they are not devoid of probability, it is enough merely to touch upon them, lest the Catholic faith seem to be founded on empty reasonings, and not, as it is, on the most solid teaching of God.

That is, we ought to point out the limitations of these arguments so as to avoid a certain “intellectual scandal” in regard to the Catholic faith (as noted in ScG, I.9.)

In the table below, arguments that are very similar to the ones given above by the Seraphic Doctor are marked: e.g., (B3) for St. Bonaventure’s third argument.

Whether or not the world is past-finite (St. Thomas, Summa contra Gentiles)
Affirmative Arguments (II.38)Negative Arguments (II.38)
1st: God is the cause of all things, and the cause precedes the effect (in time).1st: This temporal priority is true of agents acting through motion; not true of agents acting in an instant.
2nd: God did not make from something, so, from nothing; they exist after having not existed. (B6)2nd: This argument makes an improper immediate inference re: contradictories.
3rd: The infinite cannot be crossed, and this would happen in a past-infinite world (e.g., sunrises). (B3)*3rd: There can be an infinity in succession; if infinite in act, there would have been no first, thus, no passage.
4th: If the world were eternal, this would mean that one could add to the infinite (e.g., day by day). (B1)4th: You can add to a one-sided infinite on its finite side; thus, time is finite ex parte post, but not ex parte ante.
5th: It would follow that agent causes in generation would proceed to infinity (hence, no first?). (B2)5th: One can proceed to infinity in causes which are not simultaneous (according to those defending this view).
6th: It would follow that an infinity would exist, namely, of separated human souls. (B5)6th: This argument supposes many things; some reply by denying immortality of the soul, or the multiplicity of the immaterial soul, or by positing reincarnation, or by saying this non-ordered actual infinite is possible.
7th: “Now God’s might and goodness are especially made manifest in that things other than himself were not always. … Therefore, it was most becoming [convenientissimum] to the goodness of God that he should give his creatures a beginning of their duration.” Does St. Thomas propose this philosophically? N.b.: last paragraph!
* It seems as though St. Bonaventure, in his Sentences, is also responding to the rebuttal from St. Thomas in his Sentences.

We should examine the 1st argument and the 3rd argument (to which the 4th and 5th are closely related). The reply to the first  argument is similar to a distinction St. Thomas makes elsewhere:

According to the Philosopher a thing is said to be possible, sometimes in reference to a power, sometimes in reference to no power. If in reference to a power, this power may be active or passive. In reference to an active power, as when we say that to a builder it is possible to build; in reference to a passive power, as when we say that it is possible for the wood to burn. Sometimes, however, a thing is said to be possible, not in reference to a power, but . . . absolutely, that is when the terms of a proposition are in no way mutually contradictory, whereas we have the impossible when they exclude each other. Thus, it is said to be impossible for a thing to be and not to be at the same time, not in reference to an agent or patient, but because it is impossible in itself, as being self-contradictory.

If, then, we consider the statement that something substantially distinct from God has always existed, it cannot be described as impossible in itself as though it contained a contradiction in the terms, because to be from another is not inconsistent with being from eternity, as we have proved above, except when the one proceeds from the other by movement, of which there can be no question in the procession of things from God. And when we add substantially distinct, this again involves no contradiction absolutely speaking with the fact of having always been.

If we refer the possibility to an active power, then God does not lack the power to produce from eternity an essence distinct from himself. On the other hand, if we refer the possibility to a passive power, then given the truth of the Catholic faith, it cannot be said that something substantially distinct from God can proceed from him and yet have always existed. For the Catholic faith supposes that all things other than God at some time existed not. (De Potentia, q. 3, a. 14, c.; my emphasis)

That is, temporal priority is not the same as causal priority. A principle of origin in being is not necessarily conjoined with a principle of duration in time. (See Anderson “Time and the Possibility of an Eternal World,” 139n13: “The theological argument: if to be from another were per se repugnant to being from eternity, the Son of God could not proceed from the Father (De Pot., q. 3, a. 13), demonstrates that the repugnance in question is philosophically inadmissible. Nothing could be rationally possible if it implied a theological impossibility or contradiction.” However, the philosopher must still see whether it is possible in cases that fall under his purview.) However, in the above passage, Aquinas does qualify his answer. Relative to this universe there is no passive potentiality to have always existed, because the opposite has been revealed by faith.

Nonetheless, he does maintain that it is absolutely speaking possible. In his short work On the Eternity of the World, he argues as follows:

It remains to be seen, then, whether there is a contradiction in saying that something made has always existed, on the grounds that its non-being necessarily precedes it in time, for we say that it is made out of nothing. But that there is no contradiction here is shown by Anselm in his explanation of what it means to say that a creature is made out of nothing. He says in Monologion, 8: “the third sense in which we can say that something is made out of nothing is this: we understand that something is made, but that there is not something from which it is made. In a similar way, we say that someone who is sad without reason is sad about nothing. We can thus say that all things, except the Supreme Being, are made by him out of nothing in the sense that they are not made out of anything, and no absurdity results.” On this understanding, therefore, no temporal priority of non-being to the thing made is posited, as there would be if there were first nothing and then later something. . . .

It is thus clear that there is no contradiction in saying that something made by God has always existed. Indeed, if there were some contradiction, it would be amazing that Augustine failed to see it, for exposing such a contradiction would be a most effective way of proving that the world is not eternal, and although Augustine offers many arguments against the eternity of the world in De Civitate Dei, Books XI and XII, he never suggests that such a view involves a contradiction.

St. Thomas, On the Eternity of the World, my emphasis; Aquinas Institute:

How, then, might one answer the view of St. Albert and St. Bonaventure that creation necessarily implies creation with time? We must recall the distinction between temporal priority and causal priority: “Stated in logical terms, the concept of caused being does not include the concept of beginning de novo.” (Anderson, “Time and the Possibility of an Eternal World,” 143.) Thus, the three Doctores must differ on what, exactly, must be caused in a being and whether that causality is knowable. Thus:

  1. Both Albert and Bonaventure hold that creation in being is different than conservation in being. We can know about conservation philosophically, but not creation. For both, this can be traced to their position that the philosopher cannot discover the creation of matter.
  2. St. Thomas holds that creation in being and conservation in being are two sides of the same metaphysical coin. Furthermore, he does argue philosophically for the creation of matter.
  3. Aquinas is able to maintain we can philosophically know about both creation and conservation, as well as the creation of matter, because the actus essendi or act of existence is a really distinct principle from the essences of things.

So, when St. Albert argues that “If we suppose that God is creating any temporal being, we must suppose that God is creating this temporal being now, at this moment,” we can reply that this is a fallacy of composition: it attributes both to God’s eternal causal act of creation as well as the created thing what is proper only in temporal priority. The act of creation is always causally prior to any given “now” of the creature, and so there is no absolute impossibility of beginningless creatures.

However, even though St. Thomas thinks that it is an absolute possibility that there could have been an eternal creation, he also argues that the philosopher cannot prove which is the case with our world. For from created effects we can only infer truths about God’s will in regard to what He wills necessarily; however, to create at all is not necessary on the part of God. So, which of the two actually happened must be revealed to us. Thus, the 7th argument in ScG, II.38 is put forward as a clear argument from fittingness, a probable argument and not a necessary demonstration.

This fits with St. Thomas’s intention that, when it comes to revealed truths of the faith, “certain probable arguments must be adduced for the practice and help of the faithful, but not for the conviction of our opponents, because the very insufficiency of these arguments would rather confirm them in their error if they thought that we assented to the truth of faith on account of such weak reasonings.” (ScG, I.9) Nonetheless, by showing the philosophical intelligibility of creation, and all which that entails, St. Thomas helps to free philosophers from the “blindness or mental dullness” about the origin of things.

3.9. Impossible Infinity or the Beginning of the Human Race?

While we might find ourselves convinced of some of St. Thomas’s replies to the views put forwards in ScG, II.38 which involve the notion of infinity, what about the 6th argument? Even Aquinas thinks that “the objection taken from souls is more difficult” than the other objections. In this Summa, his answer might seem like more of an evasion: he simply says that argument presupposes many things and that various responses have been given.

St. Thomas add to his response in the later Summa Theologiae, Ia, q. 46, a. 2, obj. 8 and ad 8:

[obj. 8:] Further, if the world and generation always were, there have been an infinite number of men. But man’s soul is immortal: therefore an infinite number of human souls would actually now exist, which is impossible. Therefore it can be known with certainty that the world began, and not only is it known by faith.

[ad 8:] Those who hold the eternity of the world evade this reason in many ways. For some do not think it impossible for there to be an actual infinity of souls, as appears from the Metaphysics of Algazel, who says that such a thing is an accidental infinity. But this was disproved above [Q. 7, A. 4]. Some say that the soul is corrupted with the body. And some say that of all souls only one will remain. But others, as Augustine says, asserted on this account a circuit of souls—viz. that souls separated from their bodies return again thither after a course of time; a fuller consideration of which matters will be given later [Q. 75, A. 2; Q. 118, A. 6]. But be it noted that this argument considers only a particular case. Hence one might say that the world was eternal, or at least some creature, as an angel, but not man. But we are considering the question in general, as to whether any creature can exist from eternity.

It is really the last two sentences that are the addition to the Summa contra Gentiles’s argument. What does this addition mean?

St. Thomas is pointing out that the objection infers from part to whole invalidly. Just because an absurdity results from the part (the human race), it does not follow that the absurdity applies to the whole. Thus, if you prove philosophically that the human race is not beginningless, you thereby defend the possibility of a beginningless world (the whole of which the human race is a part). How could such a proof be effected? Some of St. Thomas’s commentators offer suggestions.

Cardinal Cajetan, commenting on the reply to the eighth objection quoted above, notes that

For given that man’s having a temporal beginning [hominem incoepisse] is demonstrable, this doubt would yet remain as to whether the beginning of the universe is demonstrable: because the eternity of the world or angels is compatible with the temporal beginning [incoeptione] of man, as is said in the text. . . . Note that, according to the teaching of Aquinas—sustaining the immortality of the number of souls without a circuit and the impossibility of an actual infinity of things simultaneously in act, even per accidens—it is not intelligible that the generation of human beings is eternal. On account of this, the Thomists are cautious in conceding that the world could have existed eternity.

Cajetan, In ST, on q. 46, a. 2 (Leon.4:483).

Ferrariensis notes that there is a certain trilemma at work here (Ferrariensis, In ScG, on II.81 (Leon.13:508).). One cannot simultaneously hold the following three propositions:

  1. The generation of human beings is beginningless.
  2. The human soul (of each individual human) is immortal.
  3. There cannot exist an actual infinity of things.

So, if one proves (2) and (3), (1) must be false. (Not exactly a low bar!)

* * *

Next, when considering the distinction of things, we will consider also certain contemporary cosmological theories which attempt to usurp the philosophical doctrine of creation. Our reading is ScG, II.39–45. These chapters discuss the order of creation—that is, they begin to define what the created universe is. St. Thomas speaks about this under the notion of “the distinction of things,” both what it is and and the causes for such distinction.

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