Divine Comedy, "the master of those who know." Rather than ignore Aristotle’s scientific claims for the eternity of the world, thinkers such as Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas sought to examine the relationship between claims of faith and reason concerning creation and an eternal world. Thomas addresses this topic in each of the four times he discusses creation in a magisterial way, and near the end of his life he writes a small treatise, On the Eternity of the World. In this treatise, Thomas notes that there is no contradiction in something’s being created and never having a beginning of its existence. This is true, he thinks whether we consider either the action of the Creator or the creature as an effect of that action.
What seems obvious to Peter Leithart and also has seemed obvious to many others in the past (and today) is that an eternal, created universe is an oxymoron: to be created has to mean to have a beginning. It is this necessary entailment between being created and having beginning (and hence without any possibility of being eternal) that Thomas Aquinas denied.
For Thomas, when we speak of an "eternal universe" we do not mean a universe, as some might fear, that is equal to God, since we also speak of God’s being eternal. Eternity as predicated of God does not mean the same as it is predicated of the world. Only God is eternal in the sense of being beyond all temporal categories. There is no temporal succession in or for God. An eternal world, however, would mean a world of temporal succession, stretched out, as it were, for all times, and without a beginning.
To be created is to depend upon God for the very existence of the creature, in whatever way or ways the creature exists. Thomas thought that creation is a dependence in being, not necessarily a beginning of being. Whether or not the universe is eternal concerns the kind of universe God creates, not whether or not it is created. If there were eternal matter it still would be a total gift from the Creator since it depends upon God’s constant causality to exist at all. Whatever is created – with or without a beginning – is, to use Leithart’s phrase, "a free act of love."
The Creator is the complete cause of all that is and this sense of being the complete cause is captured in the expression "creation out-of-nothing." God does not change "nothing" into something; rather, were God’s not causing something to be it would not be at all. An eternal universe is still a universe created out of nothing. For Thomas, this fundamental sense of God’s creative act as the complete causing of all existing things is, at least in principle, something that can be known philosophically. It is a free act of divine love. God does not have to create; God is not somehow better off because He creates. All this remains true whether what God creates is eternal or has a temporal beginning. To be created does not necessarily mean to begin to exist; rather, it does necessarily mean to be completely dependent upon the Creator for its existence.
One error that may lead some to the conclusion that an eternal universe cannot be a created universe is to think creation is an event that occurred a finite number of years in the past. But Thomas helps us to recognize that creation refers to an on-going causal dependence. At every moment of any thing’s existence, God is creating that thing. Another error is to think that, as cause, the Creator must somehow be temporally prior to the creature, as effect. God is prior to His effects, but the priority is not a temporal one.
Thomas did believe that matter is not eternal; he accepted as a truth of faith that the Bible revealed that the universe has a beginning. Yet, he recognized that God could have created a universe that is eternal and that, accordingly, claims of an eternal universe were not incompatible with the fundamental sense of what it means to be created. He also thought, however, that any claims for an eternal universe could never be shown to be true, since this would involve a contradiction between faith and reason, a contradiction which would violate an ultimate principle that God is the author of all truth, that of faith and of reason.
It matters, however, to recognize that a proper understanding of faith and reason requires us to admit the intelligibility of matter’s being eternal and created. Knowledge of discussions in the Middle Ages about creation and the eternity of the world are not only crucial for understanding the historical development of the doctrine of creation, they continue to offer important insights about what truly matters for contemporary analyses about science, philosophy, and faith.
Dr. William E. Carroll is Research Fellow at Blackfriars, Oxford, and a member of the Faculty of Theology of the University of Oxford.