Saturday, July 12, 2014

Can we talk meaningfully about the substance of God?


1.  Having established that God can be named (i.e. can be referenced and described in words), St. Thomas proceeds to ask about the way we can refer to God in words, and how the meanings of these words refer to who God is.  The second through seventh articles focus on modes of reference in names used to describe God, the eighth through eleventh discuss particular names of God (“God” and “He Who Is”), and the final article responds to certain challenges raised by an excessive apophaticism.

2.  First he asks whether any name can be said of God substantially, i.e. can reference the substance or essence of God.  He gives three objections.  The first is from St. John Damascene, who says directly that what is said of God does not signify what he is according to his essence.  

3.  The second is from Denys, who seems to suggest that the different ways of naming God follow from his processions (i.e. creatures), and therefore refer to him by means of these, and do not name his essence or substance.

4.  The third is from the principle that a thing is named according to the manner in which it is understood.  But the divine essence is not known in this life, so it cannot be named.

5.  For his Sed Contra he cites Augustine’s De Trinitate.

6.  The Corpus is complex and unusually long.  First, he distinguishes between negative and affirmative names.  Then, after dealing with the former, he gives a summary of existing (incorrect) doctrines concerning affirmative names, offers three arguments against these opinions, and then gives his own solution.

7.  As regards negative names, he grants promptly that because negative names signify God only by his relationship to creatures, as lacking some particular defect, they do not say what he is, and therefore do not name him substantially.

8.  He then expounds two opinions on the way positive names refer to God.  One is that they only refer to him in order to exclude their opposite.  By this view, saying that God is “good” would indicate only that he is not evil, and saying that he is “powerful” would mean that he is not weak.

9.  The other view is that affirmative names designate God only as the cause of whatever perfection in creatures.  By this view, saying that God is “good” would indicate merely that God is the cause of the goodness of creatures, and to say that he is “wise” would be to say that he is the creator of creaturely wisdom, etc.

10.  He gives three arguments for rejecting both of these views.  First, that if we accept either of them, there ceases to be any basis for ranking the names of God, and thus one can just as much say “God is good” as “God is a flaming jelly bean” since they would refer to God in the same way (by remotion or causation).

11.  Second, because then every name would be said of God in a secondary and purely equivocal way, when what was really being referenced was the creature from which the name attributed to God was taken.  When we call salad “healthy”, we say this not because the greens in it have health (which they do not, being dead), but because they are the cause of the health of the one who eats them.  Thus the designation “healthy” is really said only of the person eating the salad, and in a purely equivocal way of the salad.  If names are given to God only by way of causation or remotion, the same situation will occur there, which then vitiates our ability to speak of God.

12.  Third, he points out very simply that when we speak of God with affirmative names, we intend to speak of him substantially and positively, and not just to reference him as the cause of things or as lacking the opposite of whatever we attribute to him.  When I say “God is good” I mean to attribute Goodness to God, really, as he is in himself.

13.  Next he proposes his own solution to the problem of affirmative names.  This paragraph is one the most important in Q.13, and should be read very closely.  The affirmative names we use for God are taken from creatures.  Thus these names can be said to represent God to the extent that the creatures from which they are taken represent him.  But it was established earlier (1.4.2) that God contains within himself all the perfections of creatures pre-eminently, so that creatures can be said to be like God (1.4.3), and therefore to represent the divine essence in a finite and imperfect way.  Therefore affirmative names do actually signify the divine substance, and are predicated of God substantially, but imperfectly, just as people sometimes call lightning “fire” because they come to know it through the fire that it ignites, which represents the higher fire that lightning actually is.  Calling lightning “fire” is not exactly correct, but even though it falls short of the perfect denomination of the essence of lightning, it still represents that essence by way of the imperfect likeness of it in its better-known effect.  

14.  When we say that God is good, we speak from the forms of goodness known to us in creatures, extending the same form to the one who caused them to be good, but we do not say that he is good merely because he is the creator of good things, but on the knowledge that the actuality of the cause exceeds that of the effect, so that God’s goodness must exceed the goodness of creatures, although in a way that we cannot know in the present life.

15.  In response to the first objection, Thomas clarifies that Damascene means only to deny the perfection of the names, not the fact that they reference the divine substance.

16.  To the second he says that often the thing a name is derived from differs from the name actually signifies.  He uses the famous (false) etymology of the word “lapis”, which is supposedly from “laedit pedem” to illustrate.  Many other examples are available.  For example, “lightning bug” is said of a certain species of glowing insect.  If the derivation of the name were adequate to specify which thing it referenced, then many things would count as lightning bugs which do not go by that name.    Similarly, the names of God are derived from the creatures which proceed from him, but they designate God by way of the likeness of him contained in these various processions.

17.  To the third he says that the objection suffices only to reject any name derived from the vision of the divine essence, which we cannot possess in this life.  But the representations of that essence which we do see in the present life are adequate for us to grasp something of who God is, and to name God substantially by what we find of him represented in creatures.


- Damascene says that no name signifies the divine substance.
- Denys says that we name God by his processions, and therefore not by his substance.
- We cannot know the essence of God in this life, therefore we cannot name it.

- Negative names do not signify the substance of God.
- Affirmative names must signify the substance of God, because (1) otherwise there would be no order of names, (2) otherwise every name would be said of God in a secondary and equivocal way, (3) we clearly intend to reference God substantially when we use affirmative names.
– Affirmative names are said of God substantially on the basis of the imperfect representation of God found in the creatures from which these names are derived.

- Damascene meant that no name signifies the divine substance perfectly.
- The names derived from the processions still signify the substance.
- Though we can’t name the divine essence on the basis of vision, we can name it on the basis of its representations in creatures.

Can we meaningfully describe God?


1.  Having concluding his discussion of the mode and extent of creatures’ knowledge of God’s essence, St. Thomas devotes twelve articles to various questions about the names given to God.  This question is, in a way, the logical foundation of the Summa.  Here St. Thomas explains the mode of signification of language used to speak about God and attempts to resolve various difficulties that result from the dissimilitude between God and creatures.

2.  As should be expected, Thomas begins his treatment of the divine names with an “An sit?” type question: Whether any name befits God at all.  He gives three objections.

3.  The first is from Denys, who says there can be no name for God.  The second is from a dichotomy: a name (nomen, the root of our “noun”) is either abstract (e.g. “white” or “squishy”) or concrete (e.g. “turtle” or “oak tree”).  A concrete name cannot be said of God because God is simple and immaterial.  An abstract name cannot be said of God because abstract names, being abstracted from things, do not signify subsistent beings.

4.  The third involves a division of the various parts of speech into the categories.  In nouns, we name substances by their qualities; verbs name them by their activity in time; pronouns by their relations to other things; demonstrative and relative pronouns either by their corporeal presence or by their relation to other things.  But God has no qualities or accidents, because he is absolutely simple; he has no time, because he is eternal; he cannot be felt or seen or sensed in any way and thus cannot be pointed out by corporeal presence; and he cannot be named by a relative pronoun, since such a name depends on some prior noun or demonstrative or participle in order to have meaning.

5.  In the Corpus he cites Aristotle’s book On Interpretation, where we find the principle that words are signs of ideas, which are likeness of things.  Whatever we can have an idea of, then, we can give a name to.  But we demonstrated in the previous question (1.12.12) that it was possible to know God in the present life indirectly, as the principle of created things, as exceeding them in all their actual excellence, and as differing from them by his lack of every imperfection.  Thus from our knowledge of creatures and the names given to them to designate their perfections we can derive names applicable to God, who has the same perfections superabundantly.  However, these names derived from creatures name God only indirectly and do not define his essence.

6.  To the first objection he says that God is said to be above any name because his essence exceeds everything we know and express in language based on natural knowledge.

7.  To the second he says that we name God by the abstract names taken from creatures, because they are simple (unlike the material supposits we abstract them from), and we name him by concrete names taken from creatures, because they have subsistence (unlike the qualities abstracted from creatures).  But in God quality and subsistence are one, so our names fail to perfectly grasp his mode of being, even though each kind of name can designate something that exists in God under a higher mode.

7.  In the response to the third he lays out the different ways that parts of speech can refer to God: nouns refer to God inasmuch as we use them to designate a supposit, because God is subsistent, like what is designated by ordinary concrete nouns.  And because we use what is complex and concrete (which we can naturally perceive and understand) to refer to what is simple and incorporeal, we use verbs of God to signify his eternity, since eternity is present in all time, without being temporal itself.  Then as regards demonstrative and relative pronouns, he says that these always point back, not to some concrete perceived thing, but to what is understood in the mind about God.  Thus we can call God “the almighty” (which names him by a quality), we can say that he is the maker of heaven and earth (which names him by a temporal act), and we can refer to him as “He Who Is”, which employs pronouns.  This reply may seem pedantic and overly technical, but errors that arise from bad answers to this question have plagued the church for centuries.


- Denys says that God is above every name.
- God cannot be named by either abstract or concrete names.
- God cannot be named by nouns, which designate qualities, or verbs which designate action in time, or pronouns which depend on corporeal presence or are meaningful only by reference to some other kind of name.

- Words are signs of things understood.
- Something can be named to the extent that it can be known.
- God can be known in this life by way of remotion from creatures and by way of eminence relative to their perfections.
- Therefore he can be named.

- He is above every name because his essence transcends the names we can devise based on creatures.  But he can still be named.
- We use concrete names to signify the subsistence and perfection of God, and abstract names to signify his simplicity.
- Nouns refer to God’s subsistence, Verbs refer to his eternity by relating it to time, pronouns refer to him by designating what is understood in the mind.

Faith is a Kind of Knowledge


1.  Finally, he asks about the knowledge of God to be had in the present life through grace, and whether it is higher than the knowledge of God available through the use of natural reason.  He gives three objections.

2.  First he cites Denys, to the effect that even one who knows God through grace in the present life, knows him without knowing his essence, and therefore in effect does not know him at all.  This same sort of unknowing is what characterizes the indirect knowledge available through natural reason, though, so it seems that the knowledge given in grace is not essentially higher.

3.  Second, he observes that both the knowledge given through grace and the knowledge possible through natural reason are acquired by the use of the imagination.  Thus, passing through the same faculty, one cannot be essentially higher than the other.

3.  Third, he quotes Gregory the Great, who seems to distinguish between faith and knowledge.  Thus if the faith given through grace in this life is not knowledge, then it cannot be a knowledge superior to that available through natural reason.

4.  For the Sed Contra he cites Paul, who contrasts the knowledge given in faith with the the ignorance of the pagan philosophers.

5.  In the Corpus he explains how the knowledge we have through grace is superior to naturally available knowledge of God.  He says that both kinds of knowledge depend on images received and the intelligible light which enables us to abstract the forms from those things.  Intelligible light, recall from earlier in this question, is another way of referring to the power of the intellect to receive a given form, i.e. to make intelligible to itself an object it is united to.

6.  Now, under natural reason, the images by which we know God are the images of ordinary sensible things, and the intelligible light by which we understand them is our own natural power of understanding.  But under grace, the natural light of the human intellect is augmented by the light of grace, so that what we understand of God from sensible things and from the accounts given to us of revealed truth, is more intelligible.  Additionally, in some cases under grace the mind is given images and other phantasms which conduce to supernatural understanding of divine things otherwise unavailable to the human intellect.  His illustration of this is the appearance of the voice from heaven and the dove at the baptism of Christ.

7.  He answers the objections as follows.  To the first he says while knowledge given through grace in the present life is not adequate to know God’s essence, this knowledge does give us a greater ability to know him through his effects, and are introduced into certain mysteries of the divine essence (e.g. the Trinity).

8.  To the second he says that even though the imagination is employed, images received through grace or made more intelligible by the light of grace disclose greater knowledge than they could by the merely natural use of our faculties.

9.  To the third he reaffirms that faith is a kind of knowledge, inasmuch as through faith the intellect is determined to a knowable object (God revealing himself), but it differs from both ordinary knowledge and the vision of God’s essence in that the determination or reference to the object is not made by vision of the object, but by seeing the one who testifies to the object.  Interestingly this puts faith in an odd position.  In terms of the way the evidence of faith is held, it is in a way inferior to the ordinary sciences available to the human mind, where the first principles can be known directly in experience.  Faith does not give us a perfect science of its object, because its ultimate object is the essence of God, which is hidden from us in the wayfaring state.  Nevertheless, because the testimony of faith is believed on the authority of God himself revealing himself, its evidence outstrips that of any naturally available science.  


- Denys says that in this life all our knowledge of God is as of one unknown.
- Faith and Natural Reason both acquire knowledge through the imagination.
- The object of faith is unseen and therefore faith is not knowledge.

- Natural knowledge is based on the natural light of the intellect and images received from sensible objects.
- Under grace the light of the intellect is augmented supernaturally, so that we can see more of the divine nature in sensible objects we behold.
- Under grace sometimes images and visions are given which are matter for a more profound understanding of divine things.

- In faith we know the effects of God more clearly, and know certain mysteries of the Essence unavailable in natural knowledge.
- By the light of grace the images received in the imagination are more conducive to knowledge of God.
- In faith the intellect is determined to a particular knowable object, not by vision but by testimony.

Can God be known by the natural use of reason?


1.  Next he asks whether God can be known by natural reason.  He gives three objections.  The first is from Boethius, who says that reason is incapable of grasping simple forms.  The second is from the fact that natural reason depends on the imagination from which it abstracts intelligible species.  But imagination has only sensible objects, and therefore God cannot be grasped by it.  Third, he says, citing Augustine, that knowledge of God can be had only by the good, whereas natural knowledge can be had by anyone.

2.  His Sed Contra is from the great passage in Paul’s letter to the Romans concerning the natural knowledge of God.

3.  In the Corpus he gives the principle of natural human knowledge of God.  We can naturally know those things given to us through the senses, or which the things we encounter in our senses point us to.  Since we can never experience God by sensation, natural human knowledge is inadequate to know God in his essence.  However the evidence of material realities discoverable through the senses is sufficient to prove the existence of God, and certain characteristics which follow necessarily from the idea of God as the cause of all creatures.  However, this is still infinitely less than the knowledge of God through his essence, since such knowledge is proportioned to the effects, which are infinitely outstripped in this case by the excellence of their cause.

4.  He replies to the objections as follows: First, that the power of reason cannot grasp the absolutely simple by itself, but can determine the existence of such a thing.  Second, that God is known through creatures by the images of his effects, from which is goodness and power are made known.  Third, he distinguishes between the knowledge of God under grace or glory, which is limited to the good, and the knowledge available by natural reason, which is common to all.


- Boethius says the mind cannot grasp what is absolutely simple.
- God cannot be imagined, but imagination is necessary for human knowledge.
- Only the good can know God, but everyone can know what they know by reason.

- Natural knowledge originates in the senses.
- What can be known naturally is either directly sensible or is demonstrable by the evidence of the senses.
- God cannot be known directly by natural reason, but his existence and certain attributes can be known, insofar as sensible things point to him as their cause.

- The mind cannot naturally grasp the simple, but can ascertain its existence.
- God’s image is given to the mind inasmuch as it is imprinted on all of creation.
- Only the good can know God under grace or glory, but natural knowledge is available to both good and bad.

No Heaven on Earth


1.  Having answered various questions regarding the nature and extent of the vision of God given to the blessed, Thomas devotes the last three articles of this question to the ways of knowing God available to those still in the wayfaring state.  He begins by asking whether anyone in the present life can see God through his Essence, and he provides four objections.

2.  The first is from the patriarch Jacob, who says that he has seen the face of God.  The second is from the words of God given in the book of Numbers, where he says that he speaks directly to Moses without any mediation.  The third is from certain passages in Augustine, which seem to indicate that knowledge of the divine essence is the basis for all our other knowledge and judgments of things.  The fourth is from a clever equivocation drawing on the fact (as proved above, cf. 1.8.3) that God is present in the mind by his essence.  Since the things which are in the mind in their essences are known by the mind, God must be known in this life.

3.  The Sed Contra is from Exodus: no one shall look upon God and live.

4.  The Corpus of this article contains an odd argument, which seems inconclusive.  He says that it is impossible for the human soul to see God in the present life, because the mode of knowledge follows from the nature of the knower, and thus a mind which is immersed in matter and naturally apt to receive only material forms cannot receive the vision of the Essence of God, until it is separated from matter, since then it will be better disposed to receive this vision.

5.  The argument is puzzling because in this very question he has affirmed his belief that St. Paul received temporarily a vision of God in his essence during his lifetime.  He will also affirm later on that the human soul of Christ possessed the beatific vision during his life on earth.  Furthermore, after the general resurrection, the souls of the blessed will be united with their glorified bodies, and yet will not be deprived of the vision of God.  Thus the argument is only an argument from the disposition of the soul given its union with a body, or from the un-fittingness of a human in the wayfaring state receiving the beatific vision.  As such an argument it works well.

6.  To the first objection he replies by citing Dionysius, who interprets this and similar passages as referring to mental images or phantasms or elevated contemplative states given to individuals by God, which are nonetheless distinct from the vision of his essence.

7.  In response to the second objection he explains that the vision of God granted to Moses and Paul is a miracle which exceeds the common order of things, but does not negate that order.

8.  To the third, he explains that God underlies every act of the intellect because the light of the intellect is a participated light received from God, without which we would be incapable of discerning anything or knowing anything, even naturally.

9.  He answers the fourth by distinguishing between God’s presence in the blessed which is by way of intelligibility, and his presence in wayfarers, which is by essence presence and power, as explained above.


- Jacob saw God face to face.
- Moses and Paul saw God in this life.
- Augustine seems to say that every act of the intellect presupposes God.
- God is present by his essence in all things, but what is present by its essence in the mind is known by the mind.

- The mode of knowledge is according to the mode of the knower.
- It is unfitting that a mind immersed in material things and naturally disposed to receive only material forms, should receive the vision of God’s essence.

- This is figurative, and refers to a vision or gift of supernatural contemplation.
- Moses and Paul saw God by miracles which transcend the common order of things.
- The intellect’s acts presuppose God’s illumination in the real order, but not in the order of discovery.
- God is present in the blessed by union and intellgibility, which is not true of everything else.

The Simultaneity of Beatific Knowledge


1.  Continuing his inquiry into what is known in the vision of God’s essence, St. Thomas next asks whether the things given to those who see God to see in him are seen simultaneously or successively.  He proposes two objections.

2.  First, he cites Aristotle to the effect that only one thing is understood by the intellect at a time.  We may know many things (by habitual or potential knowledge) simultaneously, but the adversion of the mind to a particular form is exclusive.  Thus if many things are understood by those who see God, they must be understood successively.

3.  Second, he cites Augustine’s literal commentary on Genesis (in fact, a passage he has quoted above, in the discussion of angelic time, cf. 1.10.5), which seems to imply that there is succession in the angelic vision of God.

4.  For the Sed Contra he cites Augustine again, who says that “omnem scientiam nostram uno simul conspectu videbimus”.  We shall see all that we know (lit. “all our science”) by one glance.

5.  In the Corpus he cites the same principle appealed to in the first objection.  The mind can actively be informed by one idea or intelligible species at a time.  Since those who behold God are intellectually directed toward him, they see him, and whatever else they see they see in him and through him, just as one who knows the principle of a science deeply can, by thinking of that principle, simultaneously grasp many things which follow from it.  Thus the vision of things in God by the blessed is simultaneous.

6.  Note that instead of simply referring to what is seen in the divine essence, he refers to “ea quae videntur in verbo” the things which are seen in the Word.

7.  In response to the first he clarifies that when only one thing is understood by an idea, only one thing can be thought at a time, but where a single idea extends to many things, many things can be understood simultaneously in that one idea.  He gives examples of composite things which involve the simultaneous conception of various different things (e.g. “house”).

8.  To the second objection he says that the angels have succession in their natural knowledge, but the knowledge they have from the beatific vision is simultaneous.


- Only one thing can be understood by the mind at a time.
- Augustine speaks of succession in angelic understanding.

- Only one thing can be understood by the mind at a time.
- The blessed see God, therefore whatever else they see they see through him.
- Everything they see in God they see by the likenesses pre-existing in him, so that they see all that they see simultaneously in the vision of God.

- Only one idea or intelligible species can be understood by the mind at a time, but if that idea extends to many objects, then many things can be understood through it simultaneously.
- Augustine speaks of the natural succession of knowledge in the angels, and not their beatific knowledge.

The Mediation of Beatific Knowledge of Creatures


1.  Next he asks whether the things that those who see the divine essence see in God will be seen by some likeness.  He gives two objections.

2.  The first objection is that knowledge comes about by the assimilation of the knower to the known, i.e. knowledge itself is the conformity of the mind to the object known, just as sensation is the conformity of the sense faculty to what is sensed.  Thus it is impossible for there to be knowledge of an object without the mind receiving a similitude of the object into itself, so that the mind must know whatever it knows in God by some sort of received likeness.

3.  The second objection comes from the nature of memory.  In memory we keep records of things seen, which serve as likenesses by which we can think of them again in their absence.  St. Paul discusses his vision of God in rapture and thus clearly remembers things that he saw.  But if there is memory, then what is remembered is known through a likeness, therefore etc.

4.  His Sed Contra is taken from the analogy between our knowledge of things in God and seeing by reflection in a mirror.  We see what we see in a mirror by the same means that we see the mirror itself.  But we see the essence of God without recourse to any likeness.  Therefore whatever we see in God is seen in the same manner, and not by any likeness.

5.  His answer in the Corpus is rather intricately stated.  He affirms the principle of the objections: that what is known is known insofar as the likeness of the known is in the knower.  But he observes that in the vision of the divine essence, what is known is known by union with God, and not by a received similitude.  So in the knower, what is known is not known by a similitude.  However, the forms of things exist in God not as themselves, but as likenesses.  So what is known in God is known by a likeness, but a likeness in God and not in the knower.  More will be said about the likenesses of things in God later on (1.15).

6.  One further note about the Corpus of this article: St. Thomas returns again to the distinction between knowing a thing by apprehending its image in another thing, and knowing it by apprehending it itself (cf. 1.4.3 and 1.12.2), and again he says that when a thing is known through an image of it, it is only known as it is in the image and not as it is in itself.

7.  In response to the first objection he says that the intellect is assimilated to what is seen in God not by a likeness in the intellect but by a likeness in God, to which the intellect is immediately united.

8.  The second objection is solved by observing that some of the powers of the mind form images of what is known, as for example the imagination when it synthesizes an image of something never seen based on two things actually seen.  His example is a golden mountain, but we might also think of a unicorn, or a statue made out of chicken kidneys, etc.  The memory likewise forms images of what is known, and thus he supposes that Paul’s mind formed in itself a likeness of what he saw in God when the vision was given to him.  But of course this vision by an image or likeness in the memory differs from the original apprehension of the thing by union.


- What is known is known by assimilation to the knower, i.e. by the formation of a likeness to the known in the knower.
- St. Paul remembered what he had seen in God after the vision had been removed, thus there was a likeness in him by which he remembered, and so he must have known by means of a likeness.

- The act of knowing depends on the assimilation of the knower to the thing known.
- This assimilation may happen in two ways: either by the direct apprehension of what is known, or by the apprehension of the object through its likeness in something that is directly known.
- In the vision of God’s essence we know without recourse to a similitude, but what we know in him of other things is known by a similitude pre-existing in him.

- The intellect of the one who sees God is assimilated to the things known in God by union with the divine essence, and not by the reception of a similitude.
- St. Paul’s memory formed an image of what was known, but this does not imply that what was known was known originally by an image or likeness.