YHWH: God’s Being as Simple Being

Continuing on with our examination of Matthew Levering’s Scripture and Metaphysics, in this post I will give a concrete, hopefully simple, example of how metaphysical speculation can enhance our understanding of Scripture.

In examining Scripture, there are numerous passages that refer to God’s body. In Exodus 33, God speaks to Moses face to face, and allows Moses to gaze upon his back. Psalm 33 anthropomorphically depicts God sitting on his throne in heaven and looking down on the earth to judge the righteous and the wicked. Scripture frequently refers to God’s “right hand” (Psalm 48:10, Acts 7:56). However, Christianity holds that God is not a body, but that God is a spirit. In light of the scriptural passages that say otherwise, how can Christianity hold such a belief?

Aquinas, as Matthew Levering points out, provides one such way of interpreting these seeming conflicting passages, by using metaphysical reflection to illumine the relevant passages of Scripture. He begins with John 4:24: “God is a spirit” as providing the basis of his metaphysical reflection (Ia, Q. 3, art. 1). He then goes on to say, in light of the biblical quotations which describe God in bodily terms, that the Bible “puts before us spiritual and divine things under the comparison of corporeal things” (Ia, Q. 3, art. 1, ad. 1). Aquinas’ point is that human language must rely on sensible images to describe God, though God is immaterial.

But how do we know this is the case? In light of the numerous Scripture passages that say otherwise, would it not make more sense to conclude that God has a body (and a spirit, to take into proper account John 4:24)? Aquinas uses metaphysical arguments to the contrary. First, a body is composed of matter, and it would be impossible for matter to be attributed to God. This is because matter exists in a state of potentiality.

Aquinas takes his understanding of potentiality from Aristotle. Aristotle’s definition of potentiality in the Metaphysics, is the “power that a thing has to produce change” or “the source of change in something else or in itself qua other.” (1046a12). The exercise of potentiality is movement or process (kinesis) or actuality (energeia). So a thing has potentiality in so far as it is capable of changing, and especially in so far as it is capable of taking on a better or more complete state of being.

We can think of potentiality as “potential energy” in physics. A stone sitting at the top of the hill has potential energy, which will be translated to movement (kinesis or kinetic energy) as the stone rolls down the hill and comes to a rest. But metaphysically, potentiality has a wider meaning that refers to states of being. An infant, for example, has potentiality to grow into an adult, thus taking on a more perfect or more complete state of being, because as an adult, the infant will be able to do more things properly ascribed to humans (walking, talking, reasoning, making art) that an infant cannot do.

According to Aristotle, everything in the universe can be described as a combination of form and matter. Matter is the raw material of things, whereas form is the structure of a thing or the “essence of what a thing is.” A woman and a gazelle are both composed of matter, and some of the same types of matter (like carbon, oxygen, nitrogen) but the two substances are distinguished by their form—the woman has the form of a human and the gazelle the form of the gazelle. All matter is in a state of potentiality because it could take on any number of forms. So matter is the “waiting to happen” part of existence; form is the “happening” part of existence. An infant’s matter will change over time, but the form, the essence of what that infant is, will remain constant, which is why the three year-old, 20 year-old, and 90 year-old “former infant” can still be said to be the same person.

Things that have bodies, therefore, are in a state of potentiality. They are changing, they are always in the process of becoming. So if God had a body, God would be in a state of change. But Aquinas, based on both Scripture and metaphysics, does not accept that God changes. He cites James 1:17 that in God “there is no change nor shadow of alteration” and Malachi 3:6 “For I the Lord do not change” and Numbers 23:19: “God is not as a man, that He should lie, nor as the son of man that He should be changed” (see Ia, Q. 14, art. 10 and Q. 19, art. 7) Using these passages of Scripture, Aquinas can then return to his metaphysical speculation—things that have bodies composed of matter are in a state of potentiality, and therefore they change. But God does not change. Thus, God must not have a body composed of matter.

Metaphysically, this informs Aquinas of something important. He accepts the Aristotelian dictum that all things are composed of matter and form or potentiality and actuality. But if God does not have matter, then God must be only form, and if God is only form, then God must be only actuality without any potentiality. Another way of saying this is that God is “pure Act” or the perfect fullness of “to be.” Moreover, things that are composed of matter and form are composites, but God is not composed of matter and form and therefore cannot be a composite. Thus, Aquinas concludes, that God is simple.

These are the two metaphysical assumptions which Aquinas bases all subsequent metaphysical reflection when discussing God’s existence: (1) God is pure Being or pure Act and (2) God is simple. Although he uses metaphysical language to make these claims, Aquinas is not doing pure metaphysical speculation. In other words, he is not just recapitulating the “static Aristotelian conception of the deity” as a “mere philosophical problem” (Levering 86) but is rather using Aristotelian metaphysics to illuminate an understanding of the God of Israel and this God’s relation to human history.

For Aquinas, the language of God as “pure Being” is not separable theologically from the revelation of “YHWH”: “The two names complement each other, revealing God’s historical presence as infinite, sheer, eternal Presence. They express the same God, understood metaphysically and historically” (Levering 61).

So why use the metaphysical language at all? Because, as we saw at the beginning of this post, Scripture uses language to refer to God that describes God in human terms, and as such, the language of Scripture can possibly dispose readers to idolatry, to create God according to a human image. According to Aquinas, as Levering points out in his book, the metaphysical language God ascribes to Godself in Exodus 3:14 is intended to wean God’s people from idolatry by revealing God as pure being and nothing more, without any particular mode of being (i.e. as simple) and consequently, and here is the important part, as sheer presence.

Because God does not have any particular mode of being, God is eternally present. As YHWH, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, God is intimately active without being limited by temporality. There should be no doubt that Aquinas is not trying to create a philosopher’s God who is detached from creation, but is rather trying to use metaphysical language to illuminate the God who is intimately close to creation, who is personal, and eternally present. God as Aquinas describes him in the language of Greek metaphysics as Pure, Simple Being is also the living and creating God of Israel. On this point, Thomas Weinandy finds a unity of metaphysical and historical naming of God in Christian thought:

Within Greek though these attributes [e.g. imperishability, perfection, goodness, power] constitute God as one who is removed from, even if related to, all else that is. They constitute him as transcendent in the sense of not only making him other than the cosmic order, but also as often being incapable of actively relating to the cosmic order. Within the Judeo/Christian tradition these attributes do constitute God as wholly other than all else, but they equally constitute him as Creator and so immediately related to all else that is” (Weinandy, Does God Suffer?, 72)

So here we have one example of how Aquinas uses both Scripture and metaphysical reasoning to illuminate God as revealed in Scripture, namely, as a God who is simple (not composite form and matter but rather pure form without a body) and a God who is Pure Being.

Questions:
1. Aquinas uses metaphysics to make sense of all those scriptural passages saying that God has a body. How do you make sense of those passages?
2. It is very important for Aquinas’ understanding of God that God does not have a body. In your mind, what difference does it make if God does or does not have a body?
3. Does describing God as “Pure Being” obscure or illuminate God as God is revealed in Scripture, especially in light of the fact that God gives the name YHWH “I am who I am” to Moses as the name by which God should be called.

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3 comments so far

  1. Bob MacDonald on

    God as Act – a One-Act play – summarized in the lifting up of the Son of Man. Does the One-Act play of creation – “God saw the light and it was good” – change God? – “the same yesterday, today and for ever…” Sameness and change in the same breath.

  2. everydaythomist on

    You are quite right. We will see in the upcoming posts how Aquinas uses the concept of “analogical language” to shed light on the seeming paradox of God’s existence and attributes.

    I like the idea that God is a One-Act play. But you could also argue that God is a two-act play, that the incarnation marks the beginning of a new act which we are still watching. Now, the incarnation surely does not change God (or the play that God is, to hold onto the metaphor) but it is a fundamental rupture in human history. God-for-us is different after the incarnation because we see what was previously only foreshadowed. What do you think?

    But if we accept that God’s play really is one act, it is a long one, at least from our vantage point. It is only one act with one moment from God’s view. For us, who exist in time, we are continuously watching God’s play unfold. So God may have lifted up the Son of Man in the same moment that God created the universe, but for us, we had to wait. Which is why God may be simple, but our knowledge of God is most definitely not.

  3. Bob MacDonald on

    As God is One so the play must be as you say one (if long) act. The Biblical writers already had to invent a transformation of time – the Lamb that was slain before the foundation of the world, and in the TNK, before they call, I will answer. From our temporal point of view it is a single ‘rupture’ and therefore there is a ‘before’ – a foreshadowing and ‘after’ – the apocalypse, the unveiling. But in the One in whom there is no shadow of turning, foreshadowing is a weak metaphor (though the ‘shadow of thy wings’ is a metaphor in Psalm 17) – perhaps ‘stage management and lighting’, to continue the metaphor. Stage has a lively portion in the full action of the play, as if the preparation and unfolding are again One. And the spotlight is directed to the chosen in all time. So the Shema of Israel is a fine invitation and credo, and incidentally is ‘reflected’ very strongly in Romans where Paul wants the division (between Jew and Gentile) to be recognized but not to be a ‘rupture’. (Nanos – Mystery of Romans has a nice treatment of the role of the Shema in Romans)


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