Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Inadequacy of Natural Knowledge of God


1.  Next he asks whether it is possible for any creature to know God’s Essence by its own natural power.  This article clarifies certain points about the operation of the human intellect.  It also establishes that the angelic intellect, superior though it is, remains by nature infinitely distant from God, and requires grace to know him in his Essence.

2.  He gives three objections:  the first is from a passage in Denys, where he says that the Angelic nature reflects the whole beauty of God.  If the angelic nature is so proportioned to reflect God in this way, then it would seem naturally apt to know him in his essence.

3.  The second objection is based on the supposition that we cannot see God naturally on account of the limitations of our understanding caused by its dependence on the body.  If angels are not limited in their knowledge by the use of bodily organs, then surely they must be capable of knowing God naturally as he is.

4.  The third objection is that since sense organs are not capable of naturally knowing God, and cannot be elevated to know him, then it seems that if no intellect is capable of knowing him naturally, then knowledge of God’s Essence by creatures would be utterly impossible.

5.  For the Sed Contra he combines citations from St. John’s Gospel and St. Paul to create a neat syllogism: The knowledge of God is eternal life.  Eternal life is made possible by grace.  Therefore to know the divine essence is a matter of grace, not nature.

6.  In the Corpus he argues as follows:  Knowledge is granted to a thing to the extent that the known is present in it.  Knowledge is in the knower according to the mode of his knowing, and therefore according to the mode of his nature.  So if the mode of being of a thing known exceeds the mode of the nature of the thing knowing, knowledge of that thing is necessarily above the nature of the knower.  Having established this principle, he sets out to apply it.

7.  First he distinguishes the different ways of being of things known: some are limited to a particular bit of matter (this coffee cup), others can exist in matter generally (coffee cups), others do not exist in matter at all but subsist as immaterial forms that receive their existence from another (angels), but God alone is a subsistent immaterial form who does not receive his being from another.

8.  Next he describes what humans can know: our soul is the form of a material body, and is thus naturally suited to know material things and the forms of material things: by the power of sense, which regards individuals, and by the power of understanding, which abstracts universal forms from individual objects of sense.  This is as far as our power to know extends.  By nature we cannot know forms that are not abstracted from matter except indirectly, by their effects on material things.  Thus humans are naturally incapable of knowing God through his essence.

9.  The angels on the other hand do not subsist as the form of some material thing, nor is their knowledge dependent on the abstraction.  They understand things through their own essences, a point which will be discussed later on (Q.55).  But it is impossible that an Angel should possess by its own nature a form adequate to the Divine Essence, which exceeds all things.  Angels can naturally know God in themselves to the extent that God’s likeness exists in them, but knowledge by way of likeness is (as established in Article 2) inadequate for knowledge of God through his Essence.

10.  In response to the first objection he says that the Angelic nature is a likeness of God, and thus through himself an angel knows God by way of likeness, but not through his essence.  To the second he says that the angelic intellect is not defective in itself, but only relative to the supreme perfection of God’s knowledge.

11.  To the third objection he responds by distinguishing the way sight knows from the way the intellect knows: bodily vision always knows sensible singulars, and only sensible singulars, and it is incomprehensible to talk about seeing an abstract idea with the eye, or seeing something that is immaterial.  Bodily sight is essentially tied to matter.  But intellectual vision is not tied to matter except accidentally.  Though ordinarily in humans intellectual sight is limited to forms abstracted from sensible things, it is possible for the intellect to know things separate from sensible realities, and thus where bodily vision cannot (on account of its very essence) be elevated to the sight of spiritual realities, intellectual vision can, by grace.


- Denys says that the angelic nature is a pure mirror of God.
- The angelic intellect is not impeded by association with a body.
- If the intellect cannot naturally know God, then nothing can.

- Knowledge is in the knower according to the mode of the knower, and thus according to the nature of the knower.
- In humans natural knowledge extends so far as forms abstracted from material things.
- In angels natural knowledge extends to the likeness they have in themselves of God.
- Neither of these are adequate for knowledge of the Divine Essence.

- Denys is talking about the likeness angels have to God by nature.
- The angelic intellect is not defective in itself, but relative to God.
- The intellect, being immaterial, can be elevated to know things above it in a way that the bodily sense organs cannot.

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