In the world of theology, it’s known as aseity.
Aseity is the doctrine that God is the source of his own existence. Naturally, the word is a Latin compound: a, meaning from, plus se, meaning itself. But don’t file this one away as something that you can leave to professional theologians and philosophers. It has ramifications for each of us. It shapes our understanding of God and our relationship to Him.
The first clue that this is important for us comes in Exodus 3, where God introduces Himself to Moses. When asked His name, God says, “I am Who I am.” That’s a simple way of saying: “I am the source of my own existence and being.” What’s interesting is that God gives this to Moses as His name. A name is how we address someone. It’s how we build a relationship with someone. So, God’s aseity is a foundation of our relationship to him. It therefore is worth further examination of what this means.
He has no need of us
The first implication is that aseity is that God has no need of us. This may sound a bit harsh and counterintuitive to put it like this, but it’s absolutely critical to be clear about this truth. Think about what it mean if this were not the case: God would be dependent on us in some way. Of course, none of us would consciously think this, but it’s easy to fall into the trap in even subtle ways, imagining, for example, that God needs our love, friendship, or adoration. But He doesn’t. St. Paul makes this clear in his speech at the Areopagus:
The God who made the world and all that is in it, the Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in sanctuaries made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands because he needs anything (Acts 17:24-25).
The last line is critical. We could paraphrase it this way: “nor does God need anything from His human servants.”
God is self-sufficient in every way
It follows from the above that God is self-sufficient in every way. He is great enough for Himself. He is wise enough for Himself. He is powerful enough for Himself. Of course, we all know this.
But He is self-sufficient in other ways that are even more radical.
Consider the concept of relationship. To adopt language commonly used by Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, every “I” needs a “Thou.” In other words, relationship is an essential part of who we are.
God’s aseity, if it is really true, means that He satisfies that need for relationship within Himself. The doctrine of the Trinity confirms that He is able to. For, as a Trinity, God is a community, or a communion of three persons. What the doctrine of the Trinity does, then, is reaffirm God’s radical aseity.
Our absolute dependence on God
The above language might be mistaken for deism, for advocating a universe where God is estranged from His creation.
But aseity actually requires the opposite.
God’s absolute independence as the source of His being means that everything and everyone one else absolutely depends on Him for their being. This conclusion follows from considering the alternative: if there was another self-sufficient being that would mean there would be two gods, which is impossible. There cannot be two all-powerful beings. There can’t be two omnipresent beings. And, by definition, there cannot be two maximally perfect or maximally good beings.
So God’s aseity, His radical independence, entails our radical dependence on Him. This is the conclusion Paul reaches in his speech,
Rather it is he who gives to everyone life and breath and everything. He made from one the whole human race to dwell on the entire surface of the earth, and he fixed the ordered seasons and the boundaries of their regions, so that people might seek God, even perhaps grope for him and find him, though indeed he is not far from any one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being,’ as even some of your poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring’ (Acts 17:25-28).
In Thomistic terms, there are three ways to talk about our dependence on God. (See this section of the Summa Theologica for more information.)
Our Cause. First, as the uncaused cause, God is the cause of everything else, including our own existence. In the Thomistic system, there are four causes. They are the: material, formal, efficient, and final causes.
To borrow Catholic writer Taylor Marshall’s analogy let’s think of a table. The matter is the wood. So the material cause of the table is the wood. The form of the table is the blueprint for the table. So the formal cause is the blueprint. Then there is the efficient cause. The wood cannot make itself into a table. The blueprint can’t do much on its own either. This is where the carpenter comes in. He is the efficient cause. The final cause—the purpose—might be the family who plans to use the table for dinners.
According to Marshall, here’s how the four causes apply to us:
- 1. Material cause. Your body.
- 2. Formal cause. Your soul.
- 3. Efficient cause. God, but more proximately, your parents.
- 4. Final cause. Contemplation of God.
Of course, ultimately, we can also trace the material and formal causes back to God. Genesis 2 tells us that God fashioned man out of the dust and Genesis 1 says that God Himself was the blueprint or ‘image’ for man.
In the example of the table, the carpenter was indispensable only as the efficient cause. But, in the case of man, the carpenter is everything—the ultimate cause behind our matter, form, efficient cause, and final cause. (Of course, God is the ultimate cause behind the table too, but to make the point I had to briefly overlook that fact.)
Act and potency. Another way of thinking about our dependence and God’s independence is the Thomistic concept of act and potency, which also originated with Aristotle. At its core it’s quite simple. To extend our table analogy, a bunch of wood as the potential to become a table, but it takes a carpenter to make it a table in ‘actuality.’ Causes, particularly the efficient cause, is what brings something from potentiality into actuality.
God’s aseity means that He doesn’t need someone or something else to do this for Him. It also means that He’s ‘pure act.’ Otherwise, if God had both actuality and potentiality, it means that He would need a cause to bring all of His potentiality into actuality. And, as established above, God is the uncaused Cause.
Participation. A third and final way to think about our dependence on God is the concept of participation. According to one perspective, we don’t so much as exist and participate in God’s existence. Likewise, we don’t take a piece of His goodness or His beauty for ourselves. Instead, we participate in His goodness and His beauty.
This last point leads to a striking conclusion. God’s aseity, or independence, turns into a sort of invitation—an invitation to participate in His being. Far from making God aloof, His aseity becomes the foundation for a wonderful relationship that His creatures have to Him. Hence, the final point.
Because He does not need us, God’s creation of mankind and everything else is a completely gratuitous act. He didn’t create us because He needed to be loved. He was sufficiently loved in his communion of three persons. He didn’t create us because He needed an image of Himself. He already had that in Jesus who is the ‘image of the invisible God’ (Colossians 1:15). And He didn’t bring about creation because He didn’t something beautiful to look at that, He already had that in abundance Himself. (Because again, otherwise, that would mean God would be dependent on us for something.)
This truth is what makes creation so wonderful. God didn’t create us because He needed to. He did it simply because He wanted to. In other words, creation was a completely gratuitous act of love, which always arises out freedom, not compulsion.
So also with the redeeming work of Christ: God does not need us to keep Him company in heaven and He certainly was not obligated to save us from our sins. He didn’t do it because He had to but because He wanted to. Moreover, He pursued a relationship with us through Christ simply out of love, not because He was lonely. God’s aseity, far from distancing Him from us, is what makes an intimate relationship with Him possible. His aseity is the foundation for His gratuity.