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.

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