Saturday, August 1, 2015

Note to Readers

Welcome to Tollat Summam.  I began this project about two years ago.  Due in large part to the learning which resulted from sketching out the expositions contained in this blog, I became aware of the inadequacy of these same expositions.  For the most part they are solid attempts at explaining the true sense of St. Thomas's text.  However, I have begun to revise and completely rewrite most of the content which was originally posted here.  The blog will remain untouched, though the re-written commentary will eventually be published elsewhere (hopefully in print).  I hope that what remains here is useful to you, but read it with a skeptical eye.

—E. Milco

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Doctrine of Analogy


1.  Next, St. Thomas asks whether the names we use to describe God are used univocally of both God and creatures.  Here we should pause for a brief note on univocity and equivocation.

2.  A term is used “univocally” to describe two different things if it designates the same thing or form in both of them, under the same aspect or ratio.  For example, if I say “that bucket is heavy” and “your backpack is heavy” I am designating weight in both cases in the same way, though the extent of the form may differ between them.  But if I then say “the plot of that movie is very heavy”, I am not using the term in the same way—I am equivocating.  Equivocation is the use of one term to describe things under two different aspects or rationes.  

3.  Here, however, things become complex.  In some cases equivocal terms are actually unrelated to each other, and simply grasp two different senses of a word: “late” can mean both “unpunctual” and “dead”.  In other cases the terms are related to each other by comparison to a single primary meaning in various ways.  This is called “analogy to one” or (in Cajetan’s classic treatment) “analogy of attribution”.  The famous example is the word “healthy”.  If we call a person’s diet, or their medicine, or their urine “healthy”, it is by reference to the health of the body: diet is a cause, medicine is a restorative, and urine is a sign.  Notice that this bottle of urine is not itself actually “healthy”.  It does not have the form of health in any way, because it is not alive.  Though the equivocation has an analogical character, the predication of “healthy” to everything other than the primary term in the analogy (my body) means something different in each case, which does not entail any determinate relationship between what this medicine is, or this food, and what my body is.  

4.  In the earlier articles of this question (especially 1.13.2) St. Thomas has argued that when we speak of God we employ a mode of predication that is neither purely equivocal nor equivocal by an analogy of attribution.  In this article, he identifies a further mode of predication, which entails a real proportionality of form between the two uses of a term, without being strictly univocal.  

5.  He gives three objections in support of the univocity of names given to both God and creatures.  The first is that, since every equivocation must be reducible to something univocal (since otherwise a given word would have no determinate meaning), it seems that God, to which all agents are reduced, should be a univocal agent, and therefore that what is said of God and creatures is said of them univocally.  (This argument, amusingly, is based on a very simple equivocation of “reducere”, which is concealed by the way the objection is presented, leaving a large gap between the major and minor premise.)

6.  The second objection is from the first chapter of Genesis.  It is said that man is made in God’s image and likeness.  But if the names applied to God are all applied equivocally, then there can be no likeness.  Therefore some must be applied univocally.

7.  The third is from the idea of God as the measure of everything that exists.  Since a measure must be homogeneous somehow with what it measures, there must be some univocity between the characteristics of God and those of creatures.

8.  The Sed Contra of this article is unusually long.  In it St. Thomas provides two arguments against the univocity of names applied to God and creatures.  These arguments are meant to provide a second set of objections running in the contrary direction, which while correct, are not complete in their analysis.  The first is from the categories to which names given to creatures belong.  For example, “wisdom” is a quality in creatures, i.e. a kind of accident, but in God it cannot be an accident, because God has no qualities distinct from his own act of being.  Likewise with any other name we could give to God.  Since a name that does not belong to the same category when it is applied to two different things is not applied to them univocally, it is clear that we do not use names univocally of God and creatures.

9.  The second argument in the Sed Contra comes from the distance or diversity between God and creatures.  He points out that among creatures, diversity is frequently sufficient to make univocal predication impossible: this fish and that rock belong to such different genera, so that it is not possible to call them both “living” univocally.  But God is not in any genus with other things (1.3.5), and is in fact more different from creatures than any two creatures are from each other.  So any univocity must be ruled out.

10.  The Corpus of this article is divided into three parts: first, he provides further demonstration that names are not used univocally of both God and creatures; second, he reiterates reasons why the names attributed to God must not be purely equivocal; third, he gives an account of the kind of analogy by which affirmative names are applied to both God and creatures.

11.  His chief argument against univocity is simple and very powerful.  When an agent causes an effect, the form of the effect bears some relation to the form of the agent causing it.  It can be the full form of the agent (as in biological reproduction), or it can be some incomplete likeness of that form (as when a fire heats iron).  If the effect is not adequate to the full power of the agent cause, then the form of the effect falls short of the form of the cause, and not just accidentally, but essentially: the form imposed is of a different species from the form of the cause.  And in this case whatever form is imposed is imposed according to a partial likeness to the agent cause, so that many different things can receive the fullness of the agent’s effects under different forms and rationes, which bear a real likeness to their source, without having a full community of form with it.  Thus a name derived from an effect which shares the form of its cause imperfectly, under a different ratio, will not univocally signify the full perfection of the cause, but will grasp some aspect of the form of the cause, which exceeds the signification of the name.  And since, as has been abundantly shown, there is only one God, and he is uniquely and utterly simple, infinite, perfect, etc., and no creature draws close to his perfection, none of the terms we derive from creatures concerning the substance or perfection of his being are adequate to the extent of the perfection actually in it.  Thus none of them apply to him univocally.

12.  However, Thomas says, the divine names are not said in a purely equivocal way either, for reasons stated above (1.13.2).  He reiterates: if the divine names were said in a purely equivocal way, reasoning about God would be impossible, because the ratio of each name could not be taken to have any real correspondence to its object, and thus any inferences from the content of a particular name to the fittingness or unfittingness of other names for God would be worthless.  In fact, as stated earlier in this questions, the ultimate implication of pure equivocation would be that no name is really superior to any other when we speak of God.  Thomas cites St. Paul, saying that the invisible things of God are clearly seen through the things he has made.  And thus by the light of those things something about God is known.

13.  Next, Thomas provides his solution to the problem.  Between pure equivocation and pure univocity he describes a third kind of relation between the uses of a given name, which is called analogy, or proportion of one to another.  The analogical predication of a name to two different things is based on the proportionality of the form of one, as an effect, to the form of the other, as the cause of the effect.  Notice that in the analogy of attribution described above, any sort of logical relation to the primary analogate will do, because the analogy of attribution is a mode of simple equivocation which does not depend on the real relation between the forms of the things described, just on the logical referability of all of them to the prime analogate.  But in the analogy of proportionality, the predication of the name to one depends on its being similar to the other because they have a certain type of causal bond.  Up to this point we have spoken of “equivocal causes”, but it is clear that it would be more correct to speak of “analogical causes”, i.e. causes the form of which is present in their effects in an imperfect and attenuated way, and which can be known from their effects only indirectly and by the synthesis of many partial impressions into a fuller understanding.

14.  To summarize, then: Names applied to both creatures and God cannot be said univocally, because no creature is adequate to the power or essence of God, and therefore every creature, differing in essence from God, receives his effect not in a way equal to the divine power, but in an imperfect and partial way.  However, this imperfect and partial resemblance to God still retains the divine likeness, and by virtue of being an effect of God’s power as agent cause, every creature can be said to reflect the perfection of the divine essence, in so far as that creature is, and is perfect.  So what results when we take terms which refer to the perfection and being of creatures without including the idea of their limitation, are terms not capable of applying to God by mere metaphor based on the arbitrary association of ideas or impressions (the way we would apply the name “dog” to a kind of fish, horizontally across diverse genera), but based on the real resemblance that follows in an effect from the fact of its proceeding from a cause.  Common names of this variety are said to apply to the agent cause and its effects neither equivocally nor univocally, but analogically, and this “analogical” predication is the foundation for all theological speech and reasoning about God.

15.  In response to the first objection, St. Thomas explains that if we distinguish between non-univocal and univocal agents, the non-univocal agent must ultimately come first, because the univocal agent produces its own likeness within the same species and genus, whereas the non-univocal agent causes the species or genus as a whole to come into being.  So if we ask of any particular species or genus what agent caused it to be, the answer cannot be a member of the species or genus, but something outside it, to which the form of the species or the genus is proportionate.  Thus the warmth of grains of sand on a summer day cannot be reduced ultimately to warm bodies making contact with each other, but must ultimately be referred back to the radiation of the sun.

16.  An aside: notice that it is impossible for there to be a purely equivocal agent cause, because then the form of the effect it brought about would be totally unrelated to the cause itself (not by any proportion or likeness), in which case it would be impossible to say in what way the agent cause was a cause at all, and the effect received would be left unexplained as a sort of brute transformation in the thing effected.  Pure equivocation occurs not in relations between cause and effect, but in horizontal relations among things of different kinds, where the attributes proper to one kind are related logically to similar attributes in another kind.  The real similarity is the occasion of the common attribution usually, but it is not the basis of it, which is more or less arbitrarily imposed by the one conferring the equivocal name.

17.  He answers the second and third objections very briefly.  To the second he refers back to (1.4.3), where it was established that creatures have an imperfect likeness to God, and thus this likeness cannot be the basis for any univocal names.  To the third he says that God as measure of everything else is not proportionate to the things measured.  Things are proportionate to God by a likeness which is real, but also of infinite inferiority.


—Every equivocation must be reducible to something univocal.
—Likeness between God and man requires at least some univocal attribution.
—The measure must be univocal with what it measures.

—Names applied to creatures are applied in categories not applicable to God, and therefore are not said univocally.
—God and creatures aren't in any genus together, since God is not in any genus.

—(See above.)

—The non-univocal agent produces the entire genus, and thus every univocal cause is reducible to an equivocal one.
—(See 1.4.3)
—Creatures are proportionate to God, but God is not proportionate to them.

Are all the words we use to describe God synonymous?


1.  Next, he asks whether all the names said of God are synonymous.  He gives three reasons for this view.  First, because two words are synonymous if the things they signify are altogether the same.  But in God everything we name in God is really identical, because he is utterly simple, so that his goodness and his life and so on are all the same thing.  

2.  Second, because even if the various names of God differ secundum rationem, i.e. differ logically according to the aspect of the thing understood in the name, because they do not differ at all secundum rem, i.e. as to the thing designated, the this diversity would be vain and empty.

3.  Third, because it redounds to the unity of God that there should only be one idea of him, and therefore only one name which expresses who he is under the proper ratio.

4.  For the Sed Contra he observes that if all the names of God were synonymous, then it would foolish to say that “God is good” or “powerful”, etc., because these would add nothing to the name “God”.  He appeals to the authority of Jeremiah.

5.  In the Corpus he resolves the question as follows: the ratio of a name is the intellectual conception of the thing signified by the name.  But our intellect, when it knows God from creatures, forms conceptions of God proportionate to the perfections proceeding form God into creatures.  And since these perfections exist in creatures in a diverse and partial way, though they exist in God perfectly and simply, by each ratio of perfection taken from creatures our intellect grasps some partial aspect of the united perfection of God.  The names signify God, each under the ratio of a perfection found in creatures, but taken in such a way that the mode of signification suspends the limitations of the name as applied to creatures, and refers instead to the supreme and simple perfection of God.  But, since the names differ secundum rationem, they are not synonymous.

6.  To the second he says that the diversity of rationes is not empty, because even though all the names reference the same, simple thing, they do so each under a different partial aspect.

7.  To the third he says that the perfection of God requires that what is multiple and divided in other things is simple and united in him, so that if we know him through creatures, we will know him in the multitude of imperfect and divided ways that creatures represent him.


- All these names have one simple object, so they must be synonymous.
- If they are diverse in ratio but the same in reference, then their diversity is empty and their rationes are contentless.
- God, being supremely one, should be known only under one ratio, and therefore should have only one name.

- We know God through creatures by the perfections they receive from him.
- In creatures these perfections are partial and diverse.
- Therefore the ideas of God we gain from creatures are partial and diverse.
- When we suspend the mode of signification proper to these names as applied to creatures, and apply them to God by way of eminence, the names signify one thing: God.
- But because we do not know the essence of God, each name grasps the nature of God through an imperfect ratio based on the perfection in the creatures from which it was abstracted.

- The object is simple and perfect, but the ratio of the name follows the mode of knowledge, and the mode of knowledge, through creatures, is diverse and imperfect.
- The many rationes of the divine names each imperfectly grasp some aspect of the simple reality of God.
- The names represent God in a multiple and diverse way, because he cannot be known through creatures as he is in himself.

Can names taken from creatures apply properly to God?


1.  Next he asks whether any name is said of God properly.  He gives three objections.

2.  The first is from what was said earlier in this question, that the names we give to God are taken from creatures.  He reasons that if these names apply properly to creatures, they can only be said of God metaphorically, and therefore not properly.  (Note that the standard translation uses “literally” for the latin “proprie” here.)

3.  The second objection is that if a name is more truly removed or denied of a thing than predicated of it, then the name is not properly said of that thing.  For example, if someone asks “Did you see the movie?” and I say “I saw the movie, but it would be more true to say that I did not see the movie”, then it is not difficult to deduce that properly speaking I did not see the movie.  A name properly predicated of a thing should be predicated without any reservation.  But Denys says that all the names we give to God are more truly removed from God than predicated of him.  So none of them must be properly said of God.

4.  The third objection is from the fact that the names we give to God are all abstracted from corporeal things, and therefore imply in them some sort of corporeality, either spatially or temporally or on account of material composition.  And therefore they can only be applied to God, who is incorporeal, metaphorically.

5.  For the Sed Contra, he cites St. Ambrose, who explicitly says that some names name properties of God’s divinity, and others him only metaphorically.

6.  In the Corpus he reiterates the core of the previous article: we know God from the perfections that flow from him to creatures, and we name him based on the names of those perfections as we discover them in creatures.  He then distinguishes between the perfection itself signified in each of these names (goodness, life, wisdom, etc.) and the mode in which it is signified.  Now, because they are derived from creatures and are ordinarily used in reference to creatures, their primary mode of signification is proper to creatures.  But as regards the perfection itself that each of these names references, they are said properly and God has priority of predication.  Here we can see the distinction between the order of discovery and the real order: in the order of discovery, the names belong properly to creatures because they are derived from creatures, but what they designate in creatures belongs primarily to God in the real order, so that ultimately these names are more properly said of God than they are said of creatures.  However, insofar as the logic of these names is derived from creatures, their mode of signification is often limited by the accidental features of the creatures by which we come to know them, so that their ordinary mode of signification is not proper to God, but is proper to the creatures from which the names are taken.

7.  In response to the first objection, Thomas distinguishes between names taken from creatures which include in their meaning some imperfection present in the creature (e.g. “stone” includes the ideas of materiality and lifelessness), and names which express perfection absolutely without reference to any creaturely imperfection.  The former can only be said of God metaphorically, but the latter can be said of him properly.

8.  He answers the second objection (which is a variant of one we have seen previously) by explaining that Denys only means to deny that the names in question (living, good, etc.) are predicated of God in the same way that they are predicated of creatures.  Denys carries this line very far, denying as well that God is a being, because his mode of existence is above that which we speak of in creatures.  However, this is a difference of the mode of signification, not of the thing signified itself.

9.  He answers the third objection similarly: names taken from creatures that are said properly of God imply corporeality only in the mode of signification in which they are used to speak of creatures.  E.g. when we speak of the perfection of a tree, this idea of perfection brings along with it certain corporeal features.  But when we take the notion of perfection and abstract it from the corporeality of sensible things, it is capable of referencing God’s perfection according to a higher mode of signification.  More will be said about this as we move forward.


- Names taken from creatures cannot be said of God properly.
- Denys says that none of our names are said properly of God.
- Every name taken from sensible things involves the idea of corporeality.

- Two things need to be considered in a name: what it signifies and its mode of signification.
- The thing signified in notions of perfection taken from creatures can be such as to reference God properly.
- But the mode of signification in these cases must differ from their ordinary mode of signification as applied to creatures, since God is more perfect than creatures.
- Thus under a higher mode of signification certain names which signify perfections in creatures can be predicated properly of God.

- Names taken from creatures can be said properly of God, if they signify perfections without including the idea of some creaturely defect.
- Denys means to deny the possibility of using these names of God under the same mode of signification.
- Some names directly imply corporeality, and these are said of God metaphorically.  But others can be taken in abstraction from the corporeality of the things they originally designated, and these can be said of God properly.

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.