Thursday, July 3, 2014

Can creatures see God through his essence?


1.  Having concluded his investigation into the Existence and Essence of God considered in itself, St. Thomas sets aside two questions in order to clarify the extent and basis of our knowledge and language about God.  First, he looks into the ways God is known by creatures (Q.12), and second, because the names given to a thing follow from the way it is known, he asks about the divine names (Q.13).

2.  The first article asks whether any created intellect can see the essence of God.  Notice that St. Thomas wastes no time getting to the crux of the matter: our hope is for salvation, and salvation consists in eternal fellowship with God, who, as a spiritual being, is united to others by knowing them and being known by them, and, which follows from that, by loving and being loved.  Thus the primary question, the most practical question is whether this unity, this apprehension, is possible at all.  But this question is also primary because the subject at hand is God's Essence, and so the main question is whether that Essence can be known directly by creatures, and then how.

3.  He gives four objections.  The first is from the authority of St. John Chrysostom and Pseudo-Denys, both of whom deny that there is any knowledge of God.  Second, he says that what is infinite is unknowable, and God is infinite.  Third, only existing things are intelligible to the created intellect, but Denys says that God is “above existence”.  Fourth, that since knowledge is a perfection of the knower, there must be some proportion between what is known and the one knowing, but there cannot be any proportion between God and creatures, since they are infinitely distant.

4.  His Sed Contra is that great promise of St. John in his first epistle: “Videbimus eum sicuti est.

5.  In the Corpus he begins by laying down the principle that each thing is knowable to the extent that it is in act.  Thus God, since he is maximally actual, is maximally knowable in himself.  But the knowability of a thing in itself does not guarantee that it is knowable to every other thing, because the means by which a knower gains knowledge and the power of its intellect limit a creature’s ability to know things.  Thomas draws a comparison to the difficulty with which a bat could see the sun.

6.  Thomas offers two arguments: one from faith, the other from natural reason.  If it were impossible for a creature to see God through his essence, it would be impossible for anyone to achieve beatitude, or its beatitude would have to consist in something less than fellowship with God by this direct knowledge, which the scriptures contradict at several points.  From reason, he observes that there is a natural desire in humans to know the cause of every discovered effect.  Now no natural desire is in vain.  But if man could never come to know the first cause of things, this desire would be in vain.  So it must be possible to see the essence of God.

7.  Note with respect to the second argument: he shows that there is a desire to see God, and that that desire must be capable of some degree of satisfaction.  He does not show that by nature the means of satisfaction are known, or that natural modes of knowledge suffice to satisfy the desire.  But the desire remains a natural desire, i.e. one belonging prior to grace to the nature of the human person.  Various dangerous errors arise from a lack of subtlety on these points.

8.  He answers the first objection by distinguishing between the vision of apprehension and the vision of comprehension.  It is possible for creatures to see God through his essence by apprehension, but utterly impossible for a created intellect to comprehend the divine essence.  Denys and Chrysostom are both speaking of comprehension.  More will be said about this in the seventh article of this question.

9.  To the second he says that the infinity of material quantity cannot be known because it is not terminated by a form, and thus is lacking formal determination it lacks both existence and intelligibility.  Things are knowable to the extent that they are actual, and we know things by their forms.  But God is not infinite by an infinity of material quantity: he is infinite by the total perfection of his form, which is not limited by any potency or imperfection.  And thus his infinity makes him supremely knowable.

10.  To the third he explains Denys’s phrase: “above existence” is meant to imply that God’s being exceeds that of every other being, not that God does not exist.  This excellence in being rules out comprehension of God’s essence, but not knowledge of it.

11.  The reply to the forth objection is the first account of the proportion in the Summa.  He distinguishes between proportion of quantity, as in a ratio of 1:2, and proportion as any sort of relation from one to another.  There is no proportion in the former sense, but there is in the latter, and this is the basis of the proportion by which creatures come to know God.


- Chysostom and Denys both deny the possibility of such knowledge.
- The infinite is unknowable.
- God is “above existence”.
- Knowledge requires a proportion between knower and known.

- Everything is knowable to the extent that it is actual.
- God is supremely knowable in himself.
- That creatures can come to know him can be shown from faith, which says that this is our beatitude, and from reason, which observes a natural desire in man.

- They are speaking of comprehensive knowledge.
- Infinite quantity is unknowable because it is formless.
- God’s being is above the being of other beings.
- A proportion of relation exists between God and creatures.

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