"The good of the grace of one soul is greater than the good of the nature of the whole universe"
- St Thomas Aquinas Ia IIa, q.24, a. 3, ad 2

— A Commentary on the First Part of St Thomas' Theological Summa

by Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O. P.


Question 8: The Existence of God in Things


In this chapter we consider how God is immanent to the world, although at the same time transcending it. We shall also clearly distinguish between this immanence and pantheism, inasmuch as immanence belongs to God not as the formal or material cause of the world, but as its efficient or extrinsic cause, which is intimately connected, however, with the effect that immediately proceeds from it.

This question is placed right after that of God's infinity, because God's immensity and omnipresence are discussed in it, and these are in some way related to God's infinity.

First of all, we must note that immensity and omnipresence have not absolutely the same meaning. Immensity, or impossibility of being circumscribed by real space, is commonly defined as the aptitude or capacity to exist in all things and places. But omnipresence is the actual presence of God in all places. Hence immensity is an attribute that is an indispensable accompaniment of the divine nature. Even if God had not created, He would have been immense; on the contrary, omnipresence is a relative attribute since it refers to actually existing creatures.

There are four points of inquiry in this question. (I) Whether God is in all things. The question considers His actual presence, but the mode of His presence is likewise touched upon in this article. (2) Whether God is everywhere, or in all things in so far as these are in place. (3) How God is everywhere: whether by essence, power, and presence. (4) Whether to be everywhere belongs to God alone. The first article is of great importance, and from this article it is evident that there is a considerable difference between the doctrine of St. Thomas and that proposed later on by Scotus, as we shall at once see.


State of the question. Several difficulties are proposed: (1) that, since God is above all, He is not in all things; (2) that God rather contains things than is contained by things; (3) that God is the most powerful of agents and therefore He can, like the sun, act at a distance, and all the more so inasmuch as He is the more powerful agent; (4) that God does not seem to be in the demons, and therefore He is not in all things that exist.

It must be observed that because of these and similar difficulties several persons denied that God is in all things. Thus the Manichaeans said that only spiritual things are subject to the divine power, but that corporeal things are subject to the power of the contrary principle. Some denied God's existence in things by His general presence, inasmuch as they said that divine providence does not extend to the lower grades of being. Moreover, certain Jews confined God to the temple of Jerusalem.(1) Lastly, the Socinians and certain Calvinists said that God is everywhere by His power and action, making His presence felt as the sun does on things here below, but that He is substantially present only in heaven.

Reply. God is in all things, and intimately so.

1. In evidence of this we may quote the following texts from Holy Scripture: "Whither shall I go from Thy spirit? Or whither shall I flee from Thy face? If I ascend into heaven, Thou art there; if I descend into hell, Thou art present." (2) "Do not I fill heaven and earth, saith the Lord?" (3)"He is not far from every one of us, for in Him we live and move and are." (4)"In Him are all things."(5), "One God and Father of all, who is above all and through all, and in us all." (6) Moreover, Isaias says: "Lord, Thou hast wrought all our works for us."(7)

But we must seek for the reason why God, who is pure spirit, and ineffably exalted above all things, is in all things, even those that are corporeal. St. Thomas gives us the reason for this in the body of this article, when he says: "God is in all things, neither as part of their essence (matter or form) nor as an accident, but as an agent is present to.that upon which it works. It is proved as follows:

Every agent must be joined to that wherein it acts immediately, by virtual contact if not by quantitative contact, which does not belong to an incorporeal agent; but God is the proper and immediate cause of the production and conservation of all things in being; therefore God is in all things as agent, not by quantitative contact since God is incorporeal, but by His virtual contact, which is not really distinct from His essence.

Then St Thomas proves that God as agent is innermost in all things, because He conserves in them that which is more inherent, namely, "being which is formal in respect of everything found in a thing," Just as, in anything whatever, form is more inherent than matter, because it contains and determines the matter (for instance, in us the soul remains just the same, whereas the body undergoes a change), so being is more inherent in anything whatever than the form, because it is related to the form as its ultimate actuality. All that is contained in anything is actuated by being, either by substantial being or by accidental being.

In this article St. Thomas declares but does not prove, that God is the conservative and immediate cause of being in all things. This he proves farther on, saying: "As the becoming of a thing cannot continue when that action of the agent ceases which causes the becoming of the effect (as when the building of the house ceases, the house ceases to be built), so neither can the being of a thing continue after that action of the agent has ceased which is the cause of the effect not only in becoming but also in being." (8)

Thus when color ceases to affect the sense of sight, sense perception of color ceases; likewise, when the end, such as health, ceases to attract, then the desire ceases for the means, such as medicine, to attain the end; also when the principles of a demonstration cease to have any force, then there is no more evidence in the conclusion. When the sun ceases to illumine, there is no longer light in the air. If therefore God is the proper cause of created being, which is distinct from the becoming of things, then the being of things cannot continue in existence without God's preservative action.

In the body of the article it is proved in a few words that "created being is the proper effect of God, just as to ignite is the proper effect of fire." The reason is that God is essentially being. Thus He is the cause of participated being. For the proper effect is that which necessarily and immediately depends on its proper cause.(9) The proper effect is like a property manifested ad extra, for it is related to its proper cause, as a property is related to its essence; but it is external to its cause. Thus the killer kills (for there can be no one killed without a killer); so also the builder builds, the painter paints, the singer sings. Thus God brings things into existence and preserves them in being. Indeed, as St. Thomas says more explicitly, "the more universal effects must be reduced to the more universal and prior causes. But among all effects the most universal is being itself. Hence it must be the proper effect of the first and most universal cause, and that is God." (10)
Thus my free choice, as it is my own personal choice, is the proper effect of my will; but as it is a being, it is the proper effect of God. Thus God is in all things by a virtual act, preserving them in being.

However, there is still a difficulty in this demonstration. We have yet to show that God immediately preserves things in being and not through the intermediary of some other being.

It is only in one of subsequent articles that St. Thomas explicitly proves this for us, when he shows that there can be no instrumental cause in God's creative act: "Now the proper effect of God creating is what is presupposed to all other effects, and that is absolute being. Hence nothing else can act dispositively and instrumentally to this effect, since creation is not from any presupposed (subject), which can be disposed by the action of the instrumental agent." (11) There would be no effect produced by the instrument, and, moreover, the instrumental action would be an accident in God, and it would have to terminate in something that is acted upon, that is, in a pre-existing subject, and there is nothing such in creation.

In like manner, St. Thomas shows farther on that God preserves the being of things directly, and indirectly the less universal effects, for he says: "An effect is preserved by its proper cause on which it depends. Now just as no effect can be its own cause, but can only produce another effect, so no effect can be endowed with the power of self-preservation, but only with the power of preserving another." (12) Thus the sun is the conservator of light in the air inasmuch as it is light, but not inasmuch as it is being, because the sun is just as much a created being as light is. Hence just as God does not create by means of an instrument, neither does He preserve things in being, inasmuch as they are being, by means of an instrument, but does so immediately, as stated in this article.

Thus the major of this article is explained; namely, "Every agent must be joined to that wherein it acts immediately, and be in virtual contact with it." But if the agent is corporeal, there are two ways in which it comes immediately in contact with its effect, namely, by its quantitative matter and by its power. But if the agent is incorporeal, it does not come immediately in contact with its effect by quantitative matter, but by its power.(13) In this case there is immediate contact both of power and suppositum.

There is immediate contact of power because the divine power does not produce its effect through some intermediary power; for it does not operate by the power of a higher agent, but immediately of itself.

There is also immediate contact of suppositum, that is, there is no intermediate suppositum between God preserving and the being of the thing preserved; for there is no instrumental cause in the creative act and in the immediate preservation of things in being. Nor is the divine power something distinct from God, for it is the very essence of God, since God is His own action and His own being. Thus St. Thomas proves that God is in all things by His preservative action.

This conclusion is confirmed by the solution of the objections.

Reply to first objection. God who transcends all things, not focally but by the excellence of His nature, is in all things, not as a part of their essence but as the agent who is the cause of being in all things.

Reply to second objection. God, being pure spirit, is in things as containing things, in a way, as the soul contains the body. However, God contains things, not as a form determining matter, but as a cause conserving the effect.

Reply to third objection. No agent acts upon any distant thing except through some medium. Thus the sun illumines and imparts heat to bodies on this earth through the medium of the air and ether, for the power of the agent can be only in a subject; but if it is not in the subject to which it properly belongs, then it is in an intermediate subject, as in an instrument.(14) But, as stated, God cannot make use of an instrument in creating and preserving things in being, inasmuch as they are being. Therefore He preserves them immediately. As St. Thomas in this article says: "But it belongs to the great power of God that He acts immediately in all things," (15) because He alone is the proper Cause of being as such in things.

Hence to the objection, "The more powerful an agent is, the more extended is its action," we must reply with the following distinction: that it is so when there is some medium, this I concede; when there is no medium, then I deny it. Thus while the sun preserves light as such, God preserves the same as being; just as He preserves the sun as being. Moreover, matter, the human soul, and angels can be produced only by God's creative act, and their preservation in being depends on God alone.(16)

Reply to fourth objection. God is in the demons, not as preserving the deformity of sin in them, which is not from Him, but as preserving them in their nature.

In order to bring out more clearly the meaning and validity of St. Thomas' doctrine, these objections may be presented in syllogistic form. Thus the syllogism serves as a means of direct perception.

1) What is above all things is not in all things; but God is above all things; therefore God is not in all things.
Reply. I distinguish the major; what is above all things because of the dignity of its nature is not in all things as an essential part, this I concede; that it is not in all things as their cause, this I deny. I concede the minor, and distinguish the conclusion in the same way as the major.

2) But neither is God in all things as cause. Therefore the difficulty remains. The proof: The supreme cause produces inferior things only through the mediation of secondary causes; but God is not the sole, but the supreme cause; therefore God is not in all things as cause, at least not in inferior things.

Reply. I distinguish the major: that the supreme cause does not produce particular being, luminous being, for instance, this I concede; that it does not produce absolute being, or being as such, this I deny. I concede the minor, and distinguish the conclusion in the same way as the major.

3) But neither God as cause of being as such is in all things. Proof: The more powerful an agent is, the more it can act at a distance; but God is the most powerful of agents; therefore God can produce the being of things at a distance.
Reply. I distinguish the major: that the agent can act at a distance without an intermediary, this I deny; through an intermediary, again I distinguish; that it can so act by producing such or such being, this I concede, by producing being as such, this I deny.

4) It seems that God can create and maintain things in being by means of an instrumental cause, that is, by not acting immediately. For God, indeed, creates every day the souls of children, while the parents give to the matter the final disposition requisite for the human form.

Reply. The parents are not, strictly speaking, the instruments in the creation of the soul, because the spiritual soul is not educed from the potentiality of matter. But the matter is duly disposed so that it can be informed by the soul, which is created from nothing. On the contrary, there is an instrument (namely a sacrament) in the production of grace, which is educed from the obediential potentiality of the soul, on which it depends as its accident.

5) Nevertheless the action of the creature can extend to being as such, at least instrumentally. For my freedom indeed is the proper cause of my choice, as it is my choice, and it is the instrumental cause of the same choice as it is being. Then being as such is not immediately produced by God.

Reply. This is not a case of creation from nothing, but under the divine motion our will elicits its act. Nevertheless the being as such of my choice depends of itself and immediately as such on God as its proper effect, and God produces it immediately not only by the direct contact of His power but also of His suppositum. In a broad sense we can speak of the will as an instrument with reference to the being as such of our choice. Nevertheless God, who maintains immediately our soul in being, is intimately present in it and in its operations.(17)

6) How is it, then, that creation does not apply to operations of the natural order, if God is the proper cause, for instance, of the being as such of the ox that is generated?

Reply. Although the being as such of the generated ox depends of itself and immediately as such on God as His proper effect, yet it is not produced by way of creation, namely, from no presupposed subject. Hence in this case the total entity of the ox is not produced, because the matter, which is immediately preserved in being by God, was already in existence.(18)

Scotus and the Scotists attacked this doctrine of St. Thomas.(19)

They deny that God's virtually transitive operation is precisely the reason for His existence in things, just as material quantity is precisely the reason why a body occupies a place. Scotus attacks the major of St. Thomas, namely, "an agent must be joined to that wherein it acts immediately." He holds this proposition to be true only as regards corporeal and limited agents, which must be in quantitative contact with the subject to which they are joined, before they can act upon it.

Reply. This major of St. Thomas is true of every agent as such, and does not apply merely to a corporeal agent, which first occupies a place before it acts. Although indeed the agent may be a pure spirit and likewise the effect be merely spiritual, as the angel maintained in being by God, the agent must be joined to its effect at least by a virtual contact, and this for two reasons. (1) Because the perfecter and the perfectible that is immediately actuated by the perfecter must be joined together; for the effect seeks immediate contact with the active power from which it dynamically (though not always spatially) proceeds. There is no other way possible of conceiving this. (2) If it were not so, then there is no reason why this causative power would produce that particular effect rather than a certain other. The divine power is not something distinct from God, but is the very Deity, a formally immanent action, which is said to be virtually transitive in that it produces an effect external to itself.

1) Objection. It may be said that this is something merely philosophical, which has not at all been revealed, not even virtually.

Reply. There is at least a veiled reference to this proposition in the following familiar words of St. Paul: "He is not far from every one of us. For in Him we live and move and are." (20) Here the Apostle clearly shows from God's operation in us that He is present in us, even in those who do not know Him. The reference is to God's general presence or to His immensity, and not to His special presence in the souls of the just, in whom He dwells as knowable by them by a quasi-experimental knowledge, and by whom He is loved.(21) Moreover, St. Augustine says: "Since we are something other than God Himself, it is not because of something else that we are in Him, but because this latter is the result of His operation." (22)

2) Objection. The Scotists say that it is not repugnant for God to operate in things by a power that goes forth from Him, and to instruments. Therefore the difficulty remains.

Reply. I distinguish the antecedent. It is not repugnant for God to operate by a power that goes forth from Him and is created, so as to produce such or such being, for instance, luminous being, this I concede; to produce being as such or absolutely, this I deny. There can be no instrument, indeed, in the act of creation, no presupposed subject being required for this.

3) Objection. Just as operation follows being, so operation in a place follows the presence of a being in a place, and not vice versa. Therefore a being must be there where it operates.

Reply. I distinguish the antecedent. I concede that operation in a place follows the presence of a being in a place, as regards a physical agent, which essentially occupies a place by reason of its quantity; I deny that this applies to a spiritual agent. For the spiriitual agent occupies a place only in so far as it operates in a place and yet in the order of being, not of location, its operation follows upon its being.

4) Objection. However, God's operation does not appear to be the reason for His presence where He operates. For, what is not locally distant is present. But, if by an impossibility, God did not act in any thing, He would not, however, be distant from it, because God is not absolutely assigned to a place. Therefore He would be present.

Reply. I distinguish the major. What is not locally distant is present, always positively present, this I deny; always negatively present, or not distant, this I concede. That God would be negatively present, which means not locally distant, this I concede; that He would be positively present, this I deny.

5) Objection. But a necessary attribute of God cannot be dependent on His free action. But ubiquity is one of God's necessary attributes. Therefore it cannot be dependent on His free action.

Reply. I distinguish the minor. That this is true of ubiquity in the broad sense of the term, or of immensity, this I concede; of ubiquity in the strict sense, this I deny. For immensity is only the aptness to exist in all things and places. But ubiquity is the actual existence in all things.

Final objection. Just as God by His eternity is immediately coexistent in all time, so by His immensity He is immediately present in every place.

Reply. The difference between the two is that eternity is the actual and simultaneously whole duration of the immutable God, whereas immensity is not the actual existence in things, but onlythe aptness to exist in them. The reason is that God is by His very nature absolutely and actually immutable and His life is simultaneously whole and interminable without any successive duration, and He would be so if there were no created beings. On the contrary, it is not in accordance with God's nature to occupy a place, because He is a pure spirit. And before creation He was nowhere, transcending the spatial order.(23)

This last reply shows that the teaching of St. Thomas on this subject follows as a logical conclusion from the principle that God is incorporeal, a pure spirit. Those on the contrary, who seek to explain God's presence in all things apart from His divine action in them, willingly or unwillingly posit a certain virtual extension in God prior to His action, and thus they do not sufficiently distinguish between immensity and ubiquity. Thus Suarez, who follows Scotus to some extent in this thesis as in several others, maintains that God actually exists in imaginary spaces, beyond the limits of the universe.

To this the Thomists reply that God is virtually present in imaginary spaces, in that He can create some body in them; but He is not actually and positively present in them, for these imaginary spaces are not actual realities, but only possible receptacles of bodies. This question, however, belongs rather to the following article.

Index Top


1. Cf. St. Jerome, Corn. on Isaias, chap. 66.

2. Ps. 138: 7 f.

3. Jer. 23: 24.

4. Acts 17: 27.

5. Rom. 11: 36.

6. Eph. 4: 6.

7. Is. 26: 12.

8. Summa theol., Ia, q. 104, a. 1.

9. St. Thomas, Com. on Posterior Analytics, Bk. 1, lect. 10: "the fourth mode of direct predication."

10. Summa theol., Ia, q.45, a.5.

11. Ibid.

12. Ibid., q. 104, a.2 ad 2um.

13. Contra Gentes, Bk. III, chap. 68.

14. In fact, creative action cannot be an accident, because as an accident it would be received and would terminate in a subject. But there is no presupposed subject in creation. Hence creative action is not really distinct from God's essence. See !a, q.45, a.3 ad 1um. Conservative action, however, is continued creative

15. Cf. ad 3um.

16. As Goudin says, and rightly so (Metaph., disp. II, q.3, a-2), God not only premoves secondary causes, but, by a simultaneous concurrence that is properly explained, He produces the being of their effects.
Whereas the divine motion ceases when the causality of the created agent ceases, the divine concurrence preserves the effect produced as long as the effect continues in being. Thus absolute being in all things is the immediate result of the divine concurrence. Therefore God, by producing and preserving the being, for instance, of the ox generated, after the generating action of the ox has ceased, comes in immediate contact with this effect not only by His power, but also by His suppositum.
However, creation does not enter into the operations of nature, for the ox generated is not produced from nothing, but from a presupposed subject.

17. See Cajetan, Com. on Summa, Ia, q.45, a.5, nos. 5-11.

18. Ibid., no. 10.

19. In I Sent., d. 37, q. unica.

20. Acts 17: 27.

21. Summa theol., la, q.43, a.3.

22. De Gen. ad lit., chap. 12, no. 23.

23. St. Augustine says in his commentary on psalm 122: "Where was God before He made heaven and earth? He was in Himself, with Himself." Without Him nothing was; therefore He was not in another.




"Whom do you seek, friend, if you seek not God? Seek him, find him, cleave to him; bind your will to his with bands of steel and you will live always at peace in this life and in the next."

St Alphonsus de Liguori

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"God gives us some things, as the beginning of faith, even when we do not pray. Other things, such as perseverance, he has only provided for those who pray."

St Augustine

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"What good does it do to speak learnedly about the Trinity if, lacking humility, you displease the Trinity? Indeed it is not learning that makes a man holy and just, but a virtuous life makes him pleasing to God. "

Thomas á Kempis

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