William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Summary Against Modern Thought: Of The Divine Perfection

This may be proved in three ways. The first...

This may be proved in three ways. The first…

See the first post in this series for an explanation and guide of our tour of Summa Contra Gentiles. All posts are under the category SAMT.

Previous post.

We’re still on our quest to define what God is.

Chapter 28: Of The Divine Perfection

1 Now although things that exist and live are more perfect than those which only exist, yet God Who is not distinct from His own existence, is universally perfect being.[1] And by universally perfect I mean that He lacks not the excellence of any genus.i

2 [This may be skipped.] For every excellence of any being whatsoever is ascribed to a thing in respect of its being, since no excellence would accrue to man from his wisdom, unless thereby he were wise, and so on. Wherefore, according as a thing has being, so is its mode of excellence: since a thing, according as its being is contracted to some special mode of excellence more or less great, is said to be more or less excellent. Hence if there be a thing to which the whole possibility of being belongs, no excellence that belongs to any thing can be lacking thereto. Now to a thing which is its own being, being belongs according to the whole possibility of being: thus if there were a separate whiteness, nothing of the whole possibility of whiteness could be wanting to it: because something of the possibility of whiteness is lacking to a particular white thing through a defect in the recipient of whiteness, which receives it according to its mode and, maybe, not according to the whole possibility of whiteness. Therefore God, Who is His own being, as shown above,[2] has being according to the whole possibility of being itself: and consequently He cannot lack any excellence that belongs to any thing.ii

3 And just as every excellence and perfection is in a thing according as that thing is, so every defect is in a thing according as that thing in some sense is not. Now just as God has being wholly, so is not-being wholly absent from Him, since according as a thing has being it fails in not-being. Therefore all defect is removed from God, and consequently He is universally perfect…iii

5 Again. Every imperfect thing must needs be preceded by some perfect thing: for seed is from some animal or plant. Wherefore the first being must be supremely perfect. Now it has been shown[3] that God is the first being. Therefore He is supremely perfect.

6 Moreover. A thing is perfect in so far as it is in act, and imperfect in so far as it is in potentiality and void of act. Wherefore that which is nowise in potentiality but is pure act, must needs be most perfect. Now such is God.[4] Therefore He is most perfect.iv

7 Further. Nothing acts except according as it is in act: wherefore action follows upon the mode of actuality in the agent; and consequently it is impossible for the effect that results from an action to have a more excellent actuality than that of the agent, although it is possible for the actuality of the effect to be more imperfect than that of the active cause, since action may be weakened on the part of that in which it terminates. Now in the genus of efficient cause we come at length to the one cause which is called God, as explained above,[5] from Whom all things proceed, as we shall show in the sequel.[6] Wherefore it follows that whatever is actual in any other thing, is found in God much more eminently than in that thing, and not conversely. Therefore God is most perfect.v

8 Again. In every genus there is some thing most perfect relatively to that genus, by which every thing in that genus is measured: since every thing is shown to be more or less perfect according as it approaches more or less to the measure of that genus: thus white is said to be the measure in all colours, and the virtuous among all men.[7] Now the measure of all beings can be none other than God Who is His own being. Therefore no perfection that belongs to any thing is lacking to Him, otherwise He would not be the universal measure of all…vi

————————————————————————————

iAs the song says, dead puppies aren’t much fun—and they are surely less excellent as puppies than live ones. Here is the crucial idea: the lack of the good is the lack of perfection. Which is to say (in brief), evil is the lack of the good, and the good is perfection. It’s not that God is lacking some thing, but since His essence and existence are the same, He is perfect: nothing could be added to make his essence more perfect. The word perfect does not here retain its popular meaning: it is a technical term.

iiI considered leaving this one out as it is, sort of, a more long-winded repeat of argument 1. But I left it because of this sentence: “…if there were a separate whiteness, nothing of the whole possibility of whiteness could be wanting to it: because something of the possibility of whiteness is lacking to a particular white thing through a defect in the recipient of whiteness, which receives it according to its mode and, maybe, not according to the whole possibility of whiteness.” This is an analogy. If whiteness could somehow per impossible exist on its own, it could not lack in whiteness, right? It would, in the sense of the word above, be perfectly white. Now things which are meant to be white, say a certain flower, which are somehow not white are that way due to some imperfection, an imperfection that cannot be caused by the perfection of whiteness. And the same with God being being-itself.

iiiIsn’t that pretty? Since God is being-itself, He cannot be in any part not-being, therefore he isn’t lacking that which the good of His essence demands. Thus He is perfect—in this sense. We still have lots of work to do to detail the consequences of this.

ivThese last two follow simply from what was proven before.

vCauses must be at least as great as their effects: causes are more excellent than effects. And we’re right back at Chapter 13, which is ever required reading. Don’t skimp here: review, review, review. Book 2, mentioned in footnote 6, is still about 75 chapters off.

viVirtue is what we’re aiming at; most of us, including Yours Truly, are lacking in this regard. But don’t miss the main point: “…since every thing is shown to be more or less perfect according as it approaches more or less to the measure of that genus”. Since imperfection abounds, it’s obvious that inequality is part of the (fallen) system. But since imperfection varies as the distance from the measure of a genus, we have natural goals, things to aim at. It is possible and necessary to measure ourselves against a standard. In other words, though one many may be more virtuous than another, goodness itself is not ultimately relative. We all aim at the same standard.

[1] Sum. Th. P. I., Q. iv., A. 2.
[2] Ch. xxii.
[3] Ch. xiii.
[4] Ch. xvi.
[6] Ch. xiii.
[7] Bk. II., ch. xv.
[8] 3 Ethic. iv. 5; v. 10.

28 Comments

  1. Sander van der Wal

    November 30, 2014 at 10:52 am

    Race cars are better if they go faster. So being able to change is part of their genus, and the faster they change some of their attributes, like their position, the closer they are to their genus

    Now God cannot change by definition, so how is God supposed to be the perfection of a race car?

  2. Briggs

    November 30, 2014 at 10:58 am

    Sander,

    You have an equivocation with “change”. If change means ability to accelerate or decelerate, then race cars that could not do this would be lacking in perfection (assuming these qualities help define the genus “race car”). Or you use “change” as in this car becomes a better faster car. But if you make improvements to this car to make it go faster—just as you make changes to your behavior to become more virtuous—you are improving the car toward perfection.

    Being-able-to-change is not part of the genus of “race car”. Being in potential to some state of actuality is part of all things short of God.

  3. Not everything imaginable necessarily needs to exist. “Divine perfection” looks like an axiomatic definition of an attribute of God, and is falsified by the flood narrative. No divine perfection would create something to destroy it later on: no he would create it perfectly.

    May I suggest to combine a few chapters?

  4. Briggs

    November 30, 2014 at 11:50 am

    Hans,

    So you know the mind of God, eh? Actually, of course, the world is in a fallen state as a result of sin. Sin is the absence of the good. Etc.

    As far as combining goes, I’m doing it to the extent I can. Posts can be too long. Already I suspect people aren’t reading every word. Right? But next week just happens to be two-chapters-in-one!

  5. Sander van der Wal

    November 30, 2014 at 12:02 pm

    @Briggs

    Half of the proofs of the ScG is based on the definition that God doesn’t change == is all actual and not in potency.

    And the point of a race car is that is racing. Not that it might be racing, that you can twiddle with it to make to go faster, or that it did race and is now a dust magnet in some boring museum. You must see it cross the line before all other cars. That is the ‘race’ bit or a race car.

    Think of it as how perfect it is about going through some of its potentialities.

  6. Briggs

    November 30, 2014 at 12:05 pm

    Sander,

    You’ll have to rephrase because this is not, as far as I can tell, in the least inconsistent. Every race car is short of perfection. But God is not.

  7. Briggs, thank you for this Sunday post. The thread will be open to reasoned discourse.

  8. Briggs

    November 30, 2014 at 12:25 pm

    Bob,

    The best way to deal with somebody who won’t answer straight questions (not the folks in this thread) is to not ask them questions. Debating some people is pointless. Pearls before swine.

  9. Would you guys say that “God Lives,” or “God is alive?”

    JMJ

  10. Come on Briggs, which objective outsider would label a global flood as a solution for human evil an Idea of a Divine Perfection?

    And if you really choose to eradicate human evil (which in itself is a most laudable initiative), how about a virus that only kills the villains in their sleep? That would not have caused that huge amount of collateral damage.

  11. Briggs

    November 30, 2014 at 1:03 pm

    JMJ,

    Neither. God is Being Itself, the Uncaused Cause, the Umoved Mover, He is divinely simple, and so on. He is not alive in the sense you are, a being full of potentialities. See the previous posts in this series for explanations of these technical terms.

    Hans,

    Still playing God, eh? I’ll settle for the real one, if you don’t mind.

  12. Briggs, “The word perfect does not here retain its popular meaning: it is a technical term.”

    Fair enough, but if that is the case why have you not, and Aquinas not, given us this technical meaning. Without it this chapter is incomprehensible.

    You also seem to be claiming that the Catholic position on the great flood is the same as that of fundamentalist Christians, a point that was vigorously denied earlier. I don’t think that I ever did get a straight answer on this.

  13. Of course you may settle for the “real”one. You are only saddled up with another new definition: this time it is “perfect”.

    God is “perfect” and has no “body”. 😛

  14. Sander van der Wal

    November 30, 2014 at 3:30 pm

    @Briggs

    If you would race against God, then God would win, by definition. Perfection in racing is after all winning all of them. And because God is that kind of perfect, he will win by definition

    Which means that there is no race. Races are only interesting because you do not know who will win. A perfect race is the race that is completely undecided until the last moment. Hence a perfect race cannot be had with perfect race cars and/or perfect drivers.

  15. Ye Olde Statisician

    November 30, 2014 at 8:58 pm

    Half of the proofs of the ScG is based on the definition that God doesn’t change

    But this isn’t a definition. It was a consequence proved in an earlier entry in this series.
    ++++++++++++
    why have you not, and Aquinas not, given us this technical meaning.

    Because in Aquinas’ day, it simply was the meaning of the Latin term perfectus. The modern colloquial meaning in English came much later. It means “thoroughly made” or per-fectus. It means that a thing lacks nothing which it needs to be thoroughly itself. The opposite is de-fectus, by which some good which the thing ought to possess is lacking. Hence, the definition of an “evil” as “defectus boni,” a defect in a good. Think about what you mean when you say someone is a “good” archer or a “good” doctor. Think about an archer who sometimes misses the mark or a doctor who sometimes botches a cure. These are defects in the goodness of an archer or doctor. If there are no such defects, you have a perfect archer or a perfect doctor. But what is good for a doctor may not be what is good for an archer, and so their perfections are different.

  16. That’s right, Briggs. You’re a real Old World guy, huh? That’s cool.

    JMJ

  17. The problem is that the 10 Commandments tell us not to define God. OK, the 16th century language is “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness … ”

    Which means that it doesn’t matter what the precise definition is.

    Just pray, live a righteous life, don’t steal from other people, don’t bully, don’t condemn, and your life will be the best it can possibly be. It’s not for you to criticise God – see Book of Job.

    I like to describe God as the basic force that governs the universe.

  18. Sander van der Wal

    December 1, 2014 at 8:57 am

    @YOS

    With God being the perfection of everything, he must be the perfection of things which are by necessity each others complement. Like a bomb and a bomb shelter. Or armour and an armour-piercing arrow, which is more appropriate for the 13th century. Both these things have a clear definition of what it means for them to be perfectly made, but it is then impossible for the other to exist if one exist.

  19. YOS, “It means “thoroughly made” or per-fectus. It means that a thing lacks nothing which it needs to be thoroughly itself.”

    This is also the modern definition so where is the technical distinction? If all we are saying is that God is thoroughly himself then I don’t see the point, as there are no other imperfect gods to act as a comparison.

    But Aquinas goes beyond this as he says “by universally perfect I mean that He lacks not the excellence of any genus.” and “He cannot lack any excellence that belongs to any thing.” and “Now the measure of all beings can be none other than God Who is His own being. Therefore no perfection that belongs to any thing is lacking to Him, otherwise He would not be the universal measure of all…”

    This says that He is not just a perfect god but universally perfect or the standard of all things. Thus your analogy “But what is good for a doctor may not be what is good for an archer, and so their perfections are different.” is not useful here. It is a little like the immovable object meets the irresistible force paradox.

    Anng, “It’s not for you to criticise God – see Book of Job.” I’m not sure this is the lesson of Job. There seems to be a least three, somewhat contradictory themes. Bad things happen to bad people (the neighbours’ view), stoic faithfulness will be rewarded in the end (except that Job is not stoic), and the railing against an unjust God (which is also rewarded) and which is answered in a somewhat defensive manner given that the whole affair was the result of a bet between God and Satan. One view is that the original story was rewritten in an inconsistent way.

  20. Ye Olde Statisician

    December 1, 2014 at 10:54 am

    With God being the perfection of everything, he must be the perfection of things which are by necessity each others complement. Like a bomb and a bomb shelter. …it is … impossible for the other to exist if one exist.

    A perfect bomb is one that explodes when properly detonated. There is no flaw in the casing, detonator, load, etc. It lacks for nothing which a bomb needs to fulfill its bombiness. This is not incompatible with a bomb shelter, whose perfections run to protection from concussion, acceleration, shrapnel, and so forth. A bomb may flawlessly explode and the shelter flawlessly protect.

    But perhaps it needs to be pointed out that while God may be Da Bomb, he is not in fact a bomb.

  21. A god whose existence can be debated — such that the “proof” is not necessarily compelling even to believers…

    …and a god whose nature has been debated for millennia…also without resolution…

    (e.g. consider Marcion’s development & conclusion [AD 144-ish] that the wrathful Old Testament God could not possibly have been the same deity as the NT’s forgiving god [accessed via Church authorities that quote it at length to refute it]; vs. Catholicism’s views vs. those of any number of evangelicals including of a “personal savior” that values material success such as Joel Osteen’s; vs. etc., vs. etc., not to mention the varied & divergent earliest versions of Christianity [for example] where the nature of Jesus [man possessed; god-as-man; spirit appearing as man] were all unresolved in the same generation he visited and for generations to follow )

    ….demonstrates himself as a deity of flighty, inconsistent, nature and one of dismissive indifference to the [so-called] “flock” [humans] that claim subservience.

    If that’s not true, then He’d simply present Himself such that existence & nature were unequivocal — this would ensure a proportion of human converts approaching 100 percent.

    Since that doesn’t happen, and if once claims that this withholding of proof by the Deity Himself is by some Grand Design, that withholding of proof suggests that the efforts by mere mortals to find proof is misplaced.

    It’s a crazy way to run a species of souls — to present cryptic guidance lending itself to wildly divergent interpretations to such an extent that one’s very existence remains debatable. An absentee deity!

    Imagine of someone tried to run a business, or school, or family like that! Raising one’s kids as an absentee parent patterned after what’s presented for god would constitute child abuse via neglect.

    But, for some reason, this is accepted by believers as somehow reasonable. Be that as it may…it does illustrate that this deity is far from being “perfect” as self-revelation of His existence & nature & clarification of His expectations would achieve far greater results of the type He’s said to be desirous of…

  22. Romans 13:13 Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy.
    Proverbs 27:4 Wrath is cruel, anger is overwhelming, but who can stand before jealousy?
    One Lesson: Jealousy is not good. Jealousy is bad, at least bad enough to be avoided/resisted/refrained from…

    James 3:14-15 But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic.

    Possible Lesson: Jealously is earthly, unspiritual, demonic …however…maybe it’s only when jealousy AND selfish ambition are combined (need to check the original language/wording to assess with confidence).

    Contrast those deity-inspired sentiments with:

    Exodus 20:5 You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me.

    Deuteronomy 4:24 For the LORD your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God.

    God is overtly jealous to the point of being VINDICTIVE to subsequent generations having no culpability in what prompted the jealousy (an intolerable sentiment in modern human civilized societies) – ok for god to be jealous & vindictive…but not us mere mortals. Double standard there. Or, maybe, god isn’t “perfect.” Of course, that jealous god is the OT god…which is portrayed differently than the forgiving god in the NT…maybe Marcion got it right, or, something in god’s very nature changed? Course,’ Jesus did curse a fig tree for not bearing figs out of season…so, maybe, the NT god isn’t really all that different after all….

    However, IF jealousy is bad enough to warrant special mention, and presumably god & humanity is bound by the same values, THEN the character weakness of jealousy–with a vindictive streak–in god indicates a fundamental character flaw…an imperfection.

    Or, for some reason, it is ok for god to be jealous & vindictive to generations incapable of culpability for the act prompting god’s jealousy…but not ok for mortals to be jealous, much less vindictive in response. An explanation for why that is [besides some version of ‘he’s got the power & can get away with it and there’s nothing we can do about it’] would be interesting.

  23. Ye Olde Statisician

    December 1, 2014 at 3:35 pm

    A god whose existence can be debated — such that the “proof” is not necessarily compelling even to believers…

    Except that it is not “a god.” See the part of not being a genus or even the perfection of a genus.
    Consider what might constitute a “compelling proof” to a young lady that she ought to love (believe in) you.

    Further:
    http://thomism.wordpress.com/2012/08/08/benscoters-account-of-the-argument-from-hiddenness/
    and this in two parts:
    http://thomism.wordpress.com/2014/11/25/an-objection-to-an-argument-from-divine-hiddenness/
    http://thomism.wordpress.com/2014/11/25/an-objection-to-the-problem-of-divine-hiddenness-2/

    The gist: who ever heard of establishing any relationship just by being open to the possibility and having the capacity to embrace it? It doesn’t work with pets, sweethearts, and local businesses. Why expect it anywhere else?

  24. YOS “establishing any relationship”
    Say, I have an uncle in New Zealand (I live in Europe) who never answers my letters, wouldn’t you call that a one-directional relationship?
    It takes two to tango.

  25. Hans

    My experience has been exactly the opposite of that which you describe.

    It was I who never acknowledged God’s attempts at communication.

    But God was quite patient with this old man.

  26. Sander van der Wal

    December 2, 2014 at 9:52 am

    @YOS

    I would say that the purpose of a bomb is to blow up bomb shelters, and not just detonate when ignited. Otherwise people would still be using firecrackers, and bomb shelters would be made of carton.

  27. Ye Olde Statisician

    December 2, 2014 at 10:04 am

    I would say that the purpose of a bomb is to blow up bomb shelters

    But now you are talking about the purposes of the bomber, which is derivative of the functionalities that a bomb must possess in order to be as a bomb.

    And I would say that the purpose of a bomb is to blow up enemy armor formations, infantry concentrations, C&C centers, logistic depots, the city of Hiroshima, Milwaukee NAACP headquarters, Jewish schoolchildren on buses in Israel, Wall Street banks, the Sultan Abdul Hamid II, the Bath MI elementary school, and sundry other targets of legitimate or illegitimate wrath.

  28. John b, been there, done that.

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