Saturday, July 12, 2014

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.

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