A scene from The Canterbury Psalter (12th century)

“God Rested in Himself”

Creation mosaic, San Marco, Venice

On the seventh day, God rested from all his works (Gen 2:2). The OT itself, and then the NT, especially Hebrews, shows some interest in the meaning of divine rest.

Augustine brushes up against this notion of divine rest in several places (the very end of Confessions, the appropriate place in City of God, and the various Genesis treatises he wrote or started). While Augustine sees in this repose something of God’s eternity, he also tends to involve humans in the deeper sense of God’s resting: God works in us now but will repose in us at last, etc. [I thought this would be easy to look up, but it turns out I’ll need to get at least a half dozen books open in order to be properly attentive to a theme Augustine revisited often.]

Thomas Aquinas asks (ST I Q73a2) whether it is right to attribute rest to God. Isn’t it dangerously anthropomorphic to suggest that God was busily moving around from place to place for a while, then stopped when he was done? But Scripture says it! So how is it to be understood?

On the one hand, every operation may be called a movement, and thus the Divine goodness is said to move and go forth to its object, in communicating itself to that object, as Dionysius says (Div. Nom. ii). On the other hand, the desire that tends to an object outside itself, is said to move towards it. Hence rest is taken in two senses, in one sense meaning a cessation from work, in the other, the satisfying of desire. Now, in either sense God is said to have rested on the seventh day.

In the first sense, God rested in that he had accomplished the making of all the types of things in the six days. But in the second sense, thinking of “rest” as the satisfying of desire, Thomas points out that God never exactly had a restless desire for something outside of himself

because He Himself had no need of the things that He had made, but was happy in the fruition of Himself [seipso fruendo beatus est]. Hence, when all things were made He is not said to have rested “in” His works, as though needing them for His own happiness, but to have rested “from” them, as in fact resting in Himself, as He suffices for Himself and fulfils His own desire [sed ab eis requievit, utique in seipso, quia ipse sufficit sibi et implet desiderium suum.]. And even though from all eternity He rested in Himself [ab aeterno in seipso requieverit], yet the rest in Himself, which He took after He had finished His works, is that rest which belongs to the seventh day. And this, says Augustine, is the meaning of God’s resting from His works on that day (Gen. ad lit. iv).

To keep at the Augustinian turn of phrase, we could say that our heart is restless until it rests in God, but we wouldn’t want to reverse that and think of God’s heart as restless until it rests in us. Ever! Instead, God’s heart rests where all hearts that find rest must rest: in God.

Augustine sometimes explained “God rested” as a circumlocution for “God made humans rest,” and this way of explaining it entered into the tradition. [Can’t recall the technical name for this kind of explanation.] Thomas entertains the idea, admits there’s an issue with it (voiced as objection 3), but goes on to explain how it is still a fine thing to say:

Even as God rests in Himself alone and is happy in the enjoyment of Himself, so our own sole happiness lies in the enjoyment of God. Thus, also, He makes us find rest in Himself, both from His works and our own. It is not, then, unreasonable to say that God rested in giving rest to us. Still, this explanation must not be set down as the only one, and the other is the first and principal explanation.

Lutheran theologian Johann Gerhard makes the same point aphoristically: “God rested from his works in himself, because he is sufficient for himself and fulfills his own desire. Thus we too should seek our rest not in created things but in God.” (E.J. Hutchinson’s Twitter-shared translation of Deus ab operibus requievit in seipso, quia sufficit sibi et implet desiderium suum: ita et nos in Deo non in creaturis quietem inquiramus; 1616 printing can be read here. )

About This Blog

Fred Sanders is a theologian who tried to specialize in the doctrine of the Trinity, but found that everything in Christian life and thought is connected to the triune God.

Explore Blog Categories