Jacques Maritain Center : Natural Theology / by Bernard Boedder, S.J.

CHAPTER III. The Immensity of God.

Thesis XXIV. -- God is immense.

152. The word "immense," explained according to its etymology, signifies a state of things not capable of measurement, or of reference to another thing taken as a rule or standard. Things of this world are measured chiefly under one of three aspects, either according to their extension in space, called simply extension; or according to their extension in time, called duration; or according to their extension in being, called perfection. Under none of these aspects is God measurable. In so far as no created perfection can be applied as a measure to His infinite perfection, we call Him infinite; in so far as His duration is beyond the measure of any created duration, we call Him eternal; and in so far as He is so present to all things in space, that His presence cannot be measured either by parts of space or by the whole of it, we assign to Him the attribute of immensity.

In virtue then of this perfection God exists everywhere in space, without consisting of parts corresponding to parts of space, and without being limited to any extension of space. To understand more fully what this means, the reader must bear in mind what space properly is, and in what different ways things can be conceived to exist in space.

As time is not a particular enduring reality existing in itself, but an object of thought, which is formed by collecting mentally and reckoning together the successive states of changeable things; so space is not a thing having its own individual being different from the corporeal beings which are said to exist in it, but it is an object of thought, formed by thinking about the extension of bodies under a peculiar aspect, namely, by thinking of the relation of distance between their surfaces, which distance involves three dimensions, and may therefore be called volume. Representing to ourselves the volume between the surfaces of one or several particular bodies, we form the idea of a space, or place within the world; and thinking of the volume between the extreme surfaces of the whole material world, we conceive the whole of actual space. Space, therefore, is only actual in so far as extended bodies exist.

Beyond the corporeal world there is, however, infinite possible space, inasmuch as by the power of God the extension of the world can become larger, and exceed any assignable limit.

The whole of actual space coincides with the whole of the corporeal world, considered as included within the extreme surfaces of the extreme bodies. Each particular body has its own particular space, which means that it is extended according to three dimensions between the surfaces surrounding it. In so far as it is included in its own surfaces it is sometimes said to have an internal space or place; whilst the surfaces of other bodies surrounding it are called its external space or place.

153. We have next to consider and discriminate the way in which things can exist in space. A thing is said by the scholastics to exist circumscriptively in space, if it be divisible into parts corresponding to the parts of the surfaces surrounding it. As only bodies are thus divisible, they alone can exist in space circumscriptively.{1}

A thing is said to exist in space definitely, if its presence be limited to a certain part of space, and its whole substance be everywhere within the bounds of that part of space. Thus the human soul is said to exist definitely in the body, because its existence is conterminous with the body in such a way, that its whole substance exists whole in the whole body and whole in every part of it,{2} and on the other hand is found nowhere outside of the body. A thing which exists in space circumscriptively is said to be formally extended. The definite existence of an indivisible substance in space is called virtual extension.

By the immensity of God we understand a mode of existence in corporeal things or space, which is neither circumscriptive nor definite. It is not circumscriptive, because in God there are no parts assignable corresponding to the parts of space. And it is not definite, because there is no space real or possible where He does not exist in His entirety, or in other words, because no limit of possible space can be given beyond which He would not be present to created things, if the world were extended thus far by His power.

154. Is then the way of existence we are speaking of really proper to God? That He must exist without having parts corresponding to the parts of space, is evident from His simplicity. But how shall we prove that His essence must extend its presence to every possible space that may be created, and is not confined to any fixed limits of corporeal magnitude?

For our first argument again as ever we may appeal to the infinity of God. On account of this attribute we have to predicate of Him whatever perfection can be conceived without connotation of defect. But the perfection of being indivisibly and unlimitedly present to any possible created being, and of surpassing by an extension which we may call infinitely virtual, the formal extension of every conceivable corporeal magnitude is evidently a perfection without defect. Consequently it is in God, that is to say, He is immense.

A slightly different way of arriving at the same conclusion is opened by the consideration that the creative power of God is infinite. God can create any number of worlds outside the present, and God alone can do it. If, therefore, He will create them, He must create them by the immediate application of His own power.{3} Now it is inconceivable that any efficient cause should immediately apply its power there, where it is not by its substance. Consequently the Divine substance is such that it would be present to any possible world supposing that world to start into existence. This presence would not be anything new in God: or He would not be immutable. Therefore we must say that the Divine substance has an existence eminently equivalent to any possible extension whatever of corporeal worlds, i.e., that God is really immense.{4}

It is gratifying to see this great truth accurately stated by Newton in Scholion Generale, added to the third book of his Principia, where he says: "God is present everywhere, not only by His power, but also by His substance; for power cannot subsist without substance."{5}

155. To express more fully how God is in all His creatures, scholastic philosophers are wont to say that He is in each of them "by essence, presence, and power." St. Thomas{6} illustrates the meaning of this phrase by some instances taken from human life. "A king is said to be in his whole kingdom by his power, though he is not present everywhere. A thing is said to be by its presence in all things which are in view of it, as all things that are exposed in a room are present to a visitor, who nevertheless is not in substance in every part of the room. Finally, a thing is said to be according to its substance or essence in that place in which its substance actually is to be found."

St. Thomas proceeds to apply this doctrine to three forms of error not at all too antiquated to deserve mention in our day. The first found an eloquent advocate in John Stuart Mill,{7} the second was partly at least adopted by some of the deists of last century;{8} and the third is, to say the least, not opposed with enough decision by some Christian authors who have written on the subject.{9}

These are St. Thomas's explanations: "There have been some, to wit, the Manicheans, who have said that spiritual and incorporeal things were subject to the Divine power, but visible and corporeal things to the power of a contrary principle. Against these then we must say that God is in all things by His power.

"There were others who believed indeed that all things were subject to the Divine power; yet did not extend Divine Providence to the things here below. Their mind is well expressed in the words of Scripture: 'He walks about the poles of Heaven and does not consider our things.'{10} Against these we must say that God is in all things by His presence. Again, there were others who granted that in some way all things are under the sway of Divine Providence, but at the same time made the assertion that not all things were immediately created by God. According to them He created immediately only the first creatures, and these created the rest. Against them we must maintain that God is everywhere by His essence.

"Thus then He is in all things by His power, in that all depend upon Him, and by His presence, inasmuch as all things are 'naked and open to His eyes;'{11} He is in all by His essence, because He is with all as the cause of their existence."

In order to prevent any misunderstanding of the phrase, "God is in creatures by His essence," St. Thomas presently remarks that it does not mean that His essence is an ingredient of created essences, but only that His substance is with them all as the cause of their existence.

And, in the same place, he tells us that the being of God in creatures by His essence signifies a closer proximity than His being in them by His presence. It signifies His being, not at a distance from His creatures, as one who sees them from afar, but at their side, sustaining them by His power. Or, to quote the words of the Saint: "God is in all things so as to surround them on all sides with His Being"{12} and, "Nothing is distant from God, as though He had it not in Himself."{13}

{1} St. Thomas is wont to speak of this circumscriptive existence in space as esse in loco.

{2} St. Thomas, Sum. Theol. Ia. q. 76. art. 8.

{3} Cf. Bk. I. c. iv. Th. XVI. § 90.

{4} St. Thomas, Sum. Theol. Ia. q. 8. art. 1.

{5} "Deus omnipaesens est non per virtutem solam sed etiam per substantiam; nam virtus sine substantia subsistere nequit."

{6} St. Thomas, Sum. Theol. Ia. q. 8. art. 3. in corp.

{7} Essays on Religion, p. 116.

{8} Thomas Chubb (1679-1747) taught that since creation God has never acted immediately upon His creatures, and does not care whether man lives well or badly. Viscount Bolingbroke (1672-1751) held that God did not care for men as individuals.

{9} Crombie, Natural Theology, i. p. 64, disapproves of Newton's saying that God is everywhere by His substance.

{10} Job xxii. 14.

{11} Cf. Hebrews iv. 13.

{12} "Deus est in rebus sicut continens res." (St. Thomas, Sum. Theol. Ia. q. 8. art. i. ad 2.)

{13} "Nihil est distans ab eo quasi in se illud Deus non habeat." (Ibid. ad 3.)

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