Universe, Order of

views updated


The universe is here taken to mean the totality of created beings, both material and spiritual. The order of the universe is the complex of relationships joining them to one another and to God. The order of the universe can be considered from several points of view: scientific, purely philosophical, or theological. It is here considered from the theological point of view, i.e., relying not only on the evidence afforded by observation and reasoning, but especially on that coming from divine revelation. This consideration falls under two heads: a historical sketch of the idea in Western thought; and a doctrinal synthesis based chiefly on the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas, and indicating the use of this doctrine in theology.

Historical Development

Although the doctrine of the order of the universe was explained most fully by St. Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century, its roots go back 2,000 years before this to two widely separated cultures of the 6th century b.c.

Greek and Jewish Origins. Among the Greeks, pythagoras first explicitly formulated the idea of an ordered universe, calling the totality of things κόσμος the cosmos, i.e., the order or beauty [Aetius, Placit, 2.1.1, ed. H. Diels, Doxographi Graeci, 3d ed. (Berlin 1958) 327]. At approximately the same time a Jewish editor in exile at Babylon was giving the final form to the priestly account of the Mosaic teaching on creation in Genesis 1. Centuries of tradition and reflection were crystallized under divine inspiration in a description of all things as they were called into being and ordered by the creative word of Almighty God.

The Greek line of thought, oriented by Pythagoras, was continued through the 5th century by his followers, such as Philolaos, and became common in philosophical poets such as Empedocles and parmenides. In the 4th century plato wrote a magnificent description of the divine ordering of all things (Tim. 27A34A). After this, Aristotle made the most important observation of antiquity about the good of the whole universe. This good is found in a twofold order, first between all the constitutive parts of the universe themselves, second between them and the external divine source of good. The first is on account of the second. The universe is like an army, where there is an order between various men and units, and where these are all ordered to the goal aimed at by the leader (Meta. 1075a 1125). stoicism, founded by Zeno at the end of the 4th century, regarded the whole multitude of existing things as constituting a unity, one living body [ed. H. von Arnim, Stoicorum veterum fragmenta (Leipzig 1903) 2:169f.]

The Greek and Jewish lines of thought, begun independently in the 6th century, met in Alexandria three centuries later. The Septuagint (LXX), whose earliest portions date from this period, makes frequent use of the word κόσμος, a use continued in later OT books, actually written in Greek (e.g., see Wis 7.18; 2 Mc 8.18). The Alexandrian philo judaeus (20 b.c.a.d. 60) used the Greek idea of the cosmos to help understand the universe and its relationship to God (see esp. Op. mund. and Act. Mund. ). NT writers also use κόσμος to designate the universe created by God (e.g., Mt 24.21; Jn 17.5; Acts 17.24; 1 Cor 3.22).

Christian Era. For subsequent Christian writers God's work as an ordered universe is a frequent theme. Clement of Rome (c. a.d. 97) exhorts the disobedient Christians at Corinth to submission by proposing to them the divinely established order of the universe [1 Clem. 20, ed. F. X. Funk, Patres Apostolici (Tubingen 1891) 126]. The Apologists appealed to the order of the universe as evidence of the governing intelligence of the Creator (e.g., Theophilus of Antioch, Ad Autol. 1.6, Patrologia Graeca, ed. J. P. Migne, 6:1033; Tertullian, Apol. 17, Corpus Christianorum. Series latina (Turnhout, Belg. 1953) 1:117).

Alexandria continued as a center of religious reflection upon the universe. clement of alexandria (c. a.d.195) speaks of God as the true measure, containing and upholding the universe in balance [Protrep. 6, Die griechischen christlichen Schriftsteller der ersten drei Jahrhunderte (Leipzig 1897) 12:52]. Origen argues against the polytheists from the manifest unity of the universe to the existence of only one God (C. Cels. 1.23, Die griechischen christlichen Schriftsteller der ersten drei Jahrhunderte 2:73). A group of non-Christian thinkers developed a doctrine on the order of the universe that combined ideas derived from Stoicism and from Gnostic theories of salvation [see Herm. 10; Asclep. 13; tr. W. Scott, Hermetica (Oxford 1924) 1:187205, 311]. plotinus also considered the universe and its order from the viewpoint of man's perfection and destiny (Enn. 1.2.1;2.3.7; 3.2).

Patristic Period. Among the Latin writers after Tertullian, lactantius in the early 4th century saw the beauty and order of the universe as manifesting to all the existence of God [Div. instit. 1.2.5, Corpus scriptorum ecclesiasticorum latinorum (Vienna 1866) 19:7]. A century later St. augustine urged the goodness and beauty of the whole created universe against the Manichaean doctrine of the evil of matter (Enchir. 10, Patrologia Latina, ed. J. P. Migne, 40:236). Toward the close of the patristic age in the West, boethius taught a universal order of providence, embracing all things and drawing good even from evil (Consolat. phil. 4.6.5253, Corpus scriptorum ecclesiasticorum latinorum 67:101).

Among the Greek Fathers, St. basil in the 4th century preached the manifestation of God's wisdom and beauty in the ordered arrangement of all things (see Hom. in hexaem., esp. n. 6; Patrologia Graeca 29:11748). In the following century, pseudo-dionysius produced four theological works expressing in the strongest way the ordered hierarchic structure of the universe (Patrologia Graeca 3). At the close of the patristic age in the 8th century St. john damascene, summing up the traditions of Eastern Christianity, taught that the ordered unity of the universe, made up of various and opposing parts, offers manifest proof of the omnipotent power of the Creator, by whose will the cosmos holds together (Fid. orthod. 1.3, 2.29; Patrologia Graeca 94:796, 964).

Scholasticism. The doctrine of the order of the universe was directly introduced into the Christian thought of the early Middle Ages by Peter abelard (10791152). Citing the authority of Plato, he defended the position that the world of creatures is made and ordered by God in the best possible way (In hexaem., de 6 a die, Patrologia Latina 178:766; Theol. christ. 20, Patrologia Latina 178:1141). hugh of saint-victor (10961141) opposed him, saying God could make creatures better whether they be considered individually or as constituting a universe (Summa sent. 1.2.22, Patrologia Latina 176:6970). This chapter of Hugh of Saint-Victor's work was reproduced almost word for word by peter lombard in his Libri Sententiarum (1.44). As this work became the standard theology text for centuries to come, all the great commentators on the Sentences treat at this point the question of the universe and its perfection: St. albert the great, St. bonaventure, St. thomas aquinas, Peter of Tarentaise (Bl. innocent v), richard of middleton, giles of rome, durandus of saint-pourÇain, and denis the carthusian. In the works of St. Thomas all the intellectual currents of the past on the order of the universe came together to receive a philosophical and theological exposition of unmatched precision and penetration (C. gent. 1.42, 78, 86; 2.42; 3.64, 112, 140; Summa theologiae 1a, 1923; 4750; 6065; 10305).

Recent Thought. Since St. Thomas very little has been added to the doctrine of the order of the universe, though scientific discoveries have revealed the staggering dimensions of this order on the material level. P. teilhard de chardin developed a religious concept of the universe that makes little use of traditional terminology [The Divine Milieu (New York 1960)]. Pope pius xii made the order of the universe the theme of his final Christmas message in 1957 [Acta Apostolicae Sedis 50 (1958) 524].

Thomistic Synthesis

The whole teaching of St. Thomas on the order of the universe is an elaboration of a basic insight derived from Aristotle: the order of the universe is twofold, of the parts of the universe to one another, and of the whole to God as end. The former order is on account of the latter. This statement has two different, complementary meanings. The first, a largely static meaning, is that the order of parts to one another flows from the ordination of all things to God as end. The second, a dynamic meaning, is that the order of parts to one another is aimed at promoting the movement of the whole universe toward God. These meanings are considered in turn.

Static Orientation. The universe with its order has its ultimate source in God's decree to create, to share His goodness and perfection with beings distinct from Himself. Now, when someone acts to produce something, the thing produced reflects in its purpose the intention of the one producing it. Since, then, God's intention to communicate His goodness is ultimately motivated by that goodness itself, the purpose of any individual creature has a double aspect: (1) to receive for itself a participation in the divine goodness, and (2) to act for the communication of the divine goodness to others. Both these aspects must be kept in mind or the inner meaning of the order of the universe does not emerge. The purpose of any individual creature is not adequately expressed by saying it is intended to share in the divine goodness, but rather in saying it is intended for the realization of God's intention to communicate His goodness. This second formulation makes each individual both a receiver and giver in the way proper to its nature. Thus, the order of each individual thing to God as end necessarily links it with all other things produced by God, according to their diverse capacities for mutually giving and receiving. Consequently, one has not only an order of individuals to God, but also an order of all things to one another.

This mutual ordering of all things to one another gives to the universe as a whole its own proper being, unity, truth, beauty, and goodness. The being of the universe comes from this order, because apart from it there is nothing objectively existing that can be called a universe, but only many isolated individual things. A mind might conceive of them as constituting some kind of a whole, but unless they are objectively linked no such whole would actually exist. Secondly, this internal ordering of all things to one another makes the universe one, a unity of order. All beings from the highest archangel to the most fleeting subatomic particle belong to this one same ordered universe. Further, the truth of the universe, its inherent intelligibility as a whole comprising all created things, comes from this mutual ordering of its parts. Next, the beauty of the universe, its power to delight the mind, is found in its all-embracing order where each thing is seen to fit in precisely where it belongs; hence the Greek name for the universe noted earlier, cosmos, meaning both order and beauty. Finally, and most important, the intrinsic good of the universe is found in the order of its parts to one another. For this good is the common good of all created things. It is constituted by the contribution of every individual good and shared in by every individual creature. Now, that which gathers all individual goods into one, and at the same time enables all to share in the universal good, is the internal order linking all parts to one another according to their capacities to give and receive.

Dynamic Orientation. This leads to the dynamic meaning of the principle that the internal order of the universe is on account of the order to God as end. For, since God's intention to create many beings necessarily means the intention to create a universe whose parts cooperate for the good of each and all, it becomes evident that the creative intention of God should be conceived primarily as the intention to create the universe as such, viz, this unity whose ordered perfection is superior to every other created good. God wills individual things to exist in function of the perfection of the whole ordered to Himself as the end whose goodness is to be communicated and diffused. The universe, then, is God's proper effect, that to whose perfection and goodness His creative act chiefly tends. Thus, the internal order of the parts to one another is intended for the realization of the purpose of the whole universe in relation to God as end.

The purpose of any composite whole is what determines the order of its parts to one another. To understand, then, how this order within the universe promotes the purpose of the universe, it is necessary to ascertain precisely what purpose of the universe it is that requires for its attainment the order of parts actually given. There are two different but complementary ways of expressing this purpose: (1) God intends the universe to be a created likeness of His own goodness and perfection; and (2) God intends the whole universe to be united to Him through the beatific knowledge and love of intellectual creatures.

Created Likeness. If one considers the ultimate purpose of the universe as likeness to God, he can see why there must be a host of diverse beings, since the immense goodness and beauty of God could not otherwise be represented outside Himself. The diversity required is primarily a diversity of species rather than of individuals within the same species, since these have all essentially the same perfection. Furthermore, since the universe as such will always endure, inasmuch as it is willed immediately on account of God Himself, these things that belong to the essential perfection of the universe are imperishable. They include species, by reason of the unfailing succession of individuals; elements and first principles, since these are never wholly destroyed but only changed; and spiritual beings, in themselves naturally immortal. The internal order of the mutual sharing of goods is required for the universe to imitate God's act of diffusing His goodness. This involves a radical harmony between the basic tendencies of all created things, and establishes within the universe an order of ends, a subordination of lower to higher, all culminating in the similitude of each and all to God. Higher beings lead the lower to perfection, while the lower in turn serve the higher.

Beatific Union. Likeness to God by itself, however, is an insufficient explanation of the purpose of the universe. It is necessary to state further what God was intending in choosing to create this rather than any other possible universe. For uncounted universes were possible to God, each distinguished from the others by its own peculiar purpose, by its own special likeness to God. This leads to the consideration of the purpose of the universe as the activity of created intellectual beings seeing and loving God, an activity that terminates directly and immediately in the divine goodness itself. For intellectual beings are the highest in creation, and all other things are ordered to them, and through them are related to God as end. The universe is like an army where the activity of the weapons' maker is ordered to victory through the activity of the man using the weapon. The return of the universe to God is thus realized in spiritual activity, in the beatific vision and love of the saints.

The beatitude of the saints is not to be considered as a multitude of isolated acts of seeing and loving God. The unity of the order of the universe is found here, too, in the unity of a "We," wherein each speaks for all in praising and loving God. The perfection of the individual, considered precisely as his own subjective good, is subordinated to the perfection of the whole city of the blessed, but considered as joining him immediately to God, is superior to every created good, even the internal order of the universe. For here, in each case, is the order to the end that joins not only the individual to God, but also the whole ordered universe, of which the individual is a part.

But God did not create the universe in the state of ultimate perfection, joined to Him through the beatitude of the saints. He gave it an initial perfection in the completeness of its parts, and the universe, then, under the influence of God, moves from initial perfection to consummate perfection. For God wishes the blessed to be His friends, not mere puppets and slaves. They are to be with Him because they have freely accepted His offer of friendship, which they could not do if they were created in actual possession of the end. Their free response to His love is the essential movement of the universe to God. And all created beings cooperate to lead intellectual beings to the vision of God.

Thus to achieve His purpose God created angels, men, and nonintellectual beings. Angels, pure spirits, in one act make their total response to God, and afterward together assist men toward God by their inspirations and protection. Men, beings of spirit and matter, shape their total response to God through many acts governed by charity, and thereby simultaneously help one another. Nonintellectual beings, purely material, minister to man's needs both material and spiritual, by providing him with food, shelter, clothing, a field for the growth of knowledge, and a whole series of temporal situations in which charity and justice may develop.

Evil as Disorder. This harmonious structure apparently neglects one element: evil, the real disorder found in the universe. Evil is a failure in some particular being, the privation of an individual good. But God allows evil in some parts of the universe for the good of the whole. For He does what is best for the whole, whose perfection He primarily intends, but not always for the part, except in relation to the whole. Although beings not subject to failure are better in themselves than those that can fail, it is better that both kinds should exist in the universe than only the former. And if some beings exist that can fail, then sometimes they will fail, God so allowing it. He allows it in order not to cancel out the very natures He has made, nor to impede much good that is connected with such defects within the universe.

Kinds of Evil. Evil may be physical or moral. Physical evil is the privation of some good that pertains to the subjective well-being of a creature but has no direct, intrinsic reference to its ordination to God, e.g., poverty, disease, disgrace, death, which of themselves turn one neither to nor away from God. Since this sort of evil itself implies no disorder in the universe with respect to God as end, He may sometimes will it in connection with some good. In willing to nourish men and animals He wills to destroy some plants and animals. In willing to teach men patience and a true sense of values He may will them to be afflicted by some trial. At other times, however, He only permits physical evil, i.e., does not hinder its actual occurrence, since He can order its effects to good.

Moral evil or sin, being a disorder with respect to God as end, is in no way intended by Him, but only permitted. He permits it so as not to destroy the freedom of man's response to Him. He orders it to good either by repentance, patient endurance of its effects, and temporal afflictions, or if serious and finally unrepented, by eternal punishment. Through such punishment the order of justice manifests God's supreme worthiness to be loved and adored, a worthiness that unrepented sin continues to spurn. However, the order of the universe does not antecedently require for its perfection that anyone be punished eternally. Only those are finally disposed of in this way who by their obstinate refusal to love have freely rendered themselves unfit for anything else.

Remedy for Disorder. The ultimate remedy for the disorder of sin and the ultimate internal source of the universe's perfection is Christ, the Son of God made man. The movement of the universe toward God is supposed to be a created free response to God's loving initiative, not simply the passive reception and instrumental, necessary execution of His activity. Through the incarnation of the Word, a created nature was joined to a divine person as His own. Thus, a true man, freely accomplishing the divine will with an efficacy deriving from His personality as God, removed in principle the disorder of sin and linked the human race once more to its destiny in God. He freely entered into death, the ultimate purely physical evil consequent upon sin, and triumphed over it through His obedience and humility. Risen from the dead and exalted at the right hand of His Father, the man Christ Jesus continues to exercise His mediating function to restore all things, especially in and through the Church. And He awaits the day when at the command of His Father He will finally come to subject all things to Himself, even death by raising those who have believed in Him, and then hand over the universe to His Father as the kingdom He has won, the unfailing realization of divine wisdom and love. Thus the eternal kingdom o God, the beatitude of the saints, is the glory of Christ, wherein are manifested and adored His redeeming power and love. This is the final perfection of the order of the universe.

Order in Theology. St. Thomas uses the doctrine of the order of the universe to clarify more than 70 different questions in the Summa theologiae (see Wright, 194212). Since the order of the universe is the complete plan of God for communicating His life and goodness, and includes both the natural disposition of things and the supernatural economy of grace in Christ, the universe as such is God's greatest created manifestation of Himself and can serve to illuminate almost every truth of faith. The individual themes that form the heart of this doctrine, such as creation, the twofold ordering of all things, the common good, beatitude, the permission of evil, and redemption are more fully understood when considered as parts of a whole to which they belong.

Furthermore, truths about god Himself can be more deeply penetrated by means of this doctrine. The being and unity and splendor of God are reflected in the beauty and unity of the whole universe. His detailed knowledge is manifested in the comprehensiveness of the order He has established. His wisdom and love are seen in the dynamic ordering of all things to Himself to share in His goodness. His mercy is seen in establishing and repairing this order; His justice, in maintaining it. The nature of His providence can be seen in the kind of created activity immediately establishing those relationships that are the order of the universe upheld by His providence. For creatures act not merely as puppets, but each with its own spontaneous part to play according to the nature it has received. The order of the universe even provides a dim analogy to help faith toward a deeper knowledge of the Holy trinity, which is an order of Divine Persons based on knowledge and love in the perfect and total communication of the divine nature.

Finally, other truths about creatures not directly required for stating the doctrine of the order of the universe can be integrated into it and thereby illuminated. For example, the solidarity of all men, implied in the doctrines of original sin and redemption, can best be grasped as an aspect of the solidarity of the whole universe. Mary as Mother of the Head of all creation is Queen of the universe. Sacred history is the movement of the universe to its final perfection. The church especially can be more fully appreciated. For the Church on earth is the essential anticipation and seed of the Church in heaven, the city of the blessed, which is the ultimate perfection of the universe. This makes clear the connection between Christ's headship of creation and of the Church, which St. Paul is concerned to emphasize (Col 1.1520). The whole structure of the Church, its channels of authority in carrying on the mission it bears from Christ, its visible signs of grace by which Christ's intention to redeem and sanctify is efficaciously applied to the world, its sacrifice in which Christ the Head unites all things to Himself as priest and victim in the movement of history toward Godthis structure is set at the heart of the universe, the one supreme work of God.

See Also: order; providence of god; angels; beatific vision; parousia.

Bibliography: j. h. wright, The Order of The Universe in the Theology of St. Thomas Aquinas (Rome 1957); "The Consummation of the Universe in Christ," Gregorianum 39 (1958) 28594. b. coffey, "The Notion of Order According to St. Thomas Aquinas," The Modern Schoolman 27 (1949) 118. j. de finance, "La Finalité de l'être et le sens de l'univers," Mélanges Joseph Maréchal, 2 v. (Brussels 1950) 2:14158. j. legrand, L'Univers et l'homme dans la philosophie de Saint Thomas, 2 v. (Brussels 1946). m. j. adler, ed., The Great Ideas: A Syntopicon of Great Books of the Western World, 2 v. (Chicago 1952) 2:1132. g. giannini, Enciclopedia filosofica, 4 v. (Venice-Rome 1957) 3:106168.

[j. h. wright]

About this article

Universe, Order of

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article


Universe, Order of