Meeting Aquinas along the Via Negativa, Pt 3

Well my reading of Aquinas was put on hold for the past few days because I misplaced my copy (actually the university’s copy). And then I looked up and there it was on the shelf. Bizarre.

I am skipping ahead to article 7: “Can a created mind comprehend God’s essence?”

  • To begin with, Aquinas discusses the argument that proposes “that those who see the essence of God comprehend him.” (1a, 12, 7, 1)
    • Aquinas quotes Paul who speaks of his journey towards comprehending God. (cf. Phil 3.12, I Cor 9.26)
  • But this raises the question, what do we see when we comprehend God (if we can see and if we can comprehend God in his essence).
    • Augustine: “We say that something is comprehended when the whole of it is so visible that nothing of it is hidden.” (De Videndon Deum)
    • This would lead to the conclusion that to see God is to comprehend him in his totality since “nothing is hidden” because “God is altogether simple.” (1a, 12, 7, 2)
    • God is totally seen in his totality because “we shall see him just as he is.”
    • “Whoever, therefore, sees God in his essence sees him totally, and this is to comprehend.” (1a, 12, 7, 3)

  • Aquinas then puts forward a point contrary to all of this: Quoting Jeremiah 32.18, “O God, most powerful, great, and strong, Lord of armies is they name, mighty is thy designs, incomprehensible in thy thoughts.”
    • So then it would appear that we can’t comprehend God which would mean that we can’t see God as God is.
    • “To comprehend is to understand perfectly: a thing is perfectly understood when it is understood as well as it can be.” (1a, 12, 7, Contra)
    • Aquinas explains how comprehension is more than just knowing about something. Comprehension entails that we exhaustively understand a particular subject or object. He uses the example of someone who can scientifically prove something versus someone who just accepts what other people have said about the scientific fact. The first one comprehends. The second one just has an opinion.
    • Can we obtain perfect knowledge of God? Aquinas argues “No.”
      • Reason being, God is infinite. Thus, God can only be understood in terms of infinity.
      • To even have a degree of understanding of God, one must be gifted the “divine light.”
      • Our finite minds cannot comprehend infinity. God is incomprehensible.
  • Aquinas concludes by identifying two meanings of “to comprehend.”
    • First, it “strictly and properly” means “to contain something.” If we use this sense, we are aware of the reality that the finite cannot contain the infinite. Thus “God cannot be comprehended either by the mind or anything else.” (1a, 12, 7, Reply to Contra 1)
    • Second, “to comprehend” means “the opposite of letting something slip: anyone who attains anything, when he lays hold on it could be said to comprehend it.” (1a, 12, 7, Reply to Contra 2)
    • If we use the second sense, then we can say that to some extent, we can comprehend God. “I held him and will not let him go.”(Song of Songs 3.4)
    • So when Paul talks about comprehending God, he is using this second sense of the verb: “to comprehend.”
    • “For in this life not everything in our vision is in our grasp–for we see some things in the distance and we things that are not in our power, nor have we enjoyment of all we grasp…” (1a, 12, 7, Reply to Contra 1)
    • The “blessed” are gifted with a three-part gift: “For they see him and seeing him they possess him, holding him for ever in their sight, and holding him they enjoy him as their ultimate goal fulfilling all their desires.” (1a, 12, 7, Reply to Contra 1)
  • Aquinas argues that the incomprehensibility of God does not mean that there is a “part” of God which his hidden. God doesn’t have parts since he is pure simplicity.
  • Rather, the incomprehensibility of God is an issue with our finite mind. “he cannot be seen as perfectly as intrinsically he is visible.” (1a, 12, 7, Reply to Contra 2)
  • “Whoever sees God in his essence sees something that exists infinitely and sees it to be infinitely intelligible, but he does not understand it infinitely.” (1a, 12, 7, Reply to Contra 2).

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