Thursday, October 23, 2014

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.

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