Question 13 in Aquinas’ Summa wrestles with the question of theological language. How do we use words, of human construction and origin, to speak about transcendent realities? Can we use words to speak of God? Can we name God? Do our words describe God’s essence? Does a word that is applied to a human or a thing mean the same when applied to God? What does the word ‘God’ even mean?
Article 1. Can we use any words to refer to God?
Aquinas quotes Pseudo-Dinoysius’ radical statement: “Of him there is no naming nor any opinion…” (Divine Names, 1)
Aquinas differentiates between two types of nouns: the concrete and the abstract. Both types of nouns cannot be adequately and properly used to speak about God.
Concrete nouns are said to be “inappropriate” because God is “altogether simple.” (1a, 13, 1)
While I don’t quite understand what Aquinas means by this, I did a little bit more reading elsewhere and a concrete noun is often used to refer to a physical object that is sensible. (At least this is the contemporary usage.)
Abstract nouns are equally problematic because they “[do] not signify a complete subsistent thing.” (1a, 13, 1)
Abstract nouns refer to ideas, not an actual existent reality. God is not just an idea. God is a “subsistent thing.” (Though he’s not a thing.)
Aquinas then talks about other grammatical considerations one should be aware of with theological language: “A noun signifies a thing as coming under some description, verbs and participles signify it as enduring in time, pronouns signify it as being pointed out or as in some relationship. None of these is appropriate to God…” But why? (1a, 13, 1)
Nouns are not appropriate because we don’t have a definition of what God is and any “accidental attributes” (that which we see God do?) are also not available to us.
God is also outside of time so verbs and participles break down in their use when applied to God.
Pronouns also are problematic because a pronoun requires some other descriptor (like a verb and noun) to be applied.
Thus, it seems as if God is so far beyond speech that we are left speechless.
But, what about Scripture’s statement that “The Lord is a great warrior, Almighty is his name.”
Aquinas quotes Aristole’s idea that words signify a thought and thoughts bear the “likeness of things.”
Thus, Aquinas writes that “how we refer to a thing depends on how we understand it.” (1a, 13, 1, Reply)
Aquinas refers back to his already decided upon beliefs that “we do not see the essence of God, we only know him from creatures…”
God is known as the source of all creatures who is beyond them.
“It is the knowledge we have of creatures that enables us to use words to refer to God, and so these words do not express the divine essence as it is in itself.” (1a, 13, 1, Reply)
Words are dim indicators of the essence of God and should (perhaps?) not be taken as literal statements of God’s essence.
Thomas concludes that “God is said to have no name, or to be beyond naming because his essence is beyond what we understand of him and the meaning of the names we use.” (1a, 13, 1, 1)
Moreover, we know God through creatures (analogy of being), and we use language that refers to creatures to refer to God, with the caveat that the words we use are limited and analogical.
God is a composite of the form and the subsistent (the abstract and the concrete). This means that we are able to use both concrete and abstract nouns to refer to God. “…though neither way of speaking measures up to his way of being, for in this life we do not know him as he is in himself.” (1a, 13, 1, 2)
Because we can use these nouns, we are also free to use verbs, participles, and pronouns because we are speaking of God as a definite form that is subsistent.
Verbs can be used because even though God is not bound by time, he contains time within himself.
Question 12 in Summa Theologiae is “how God is known by his creatures.”
I already summarized Article 1 (Can any created mind see the essence of God?).
Article 2. Does the mind see the essence of God by means of any created likeness?
Aquinas notes that in 1 John 3.2, “We know that when he [God] appears we shall be like him and we shall know him just as he is.” (1a, 12, 2, 1) Further, Augustine comments that “When we know God a likeness of him comes to be in us.” (De Trinitate IX, 11)
When we think or sense something (in order to know something), we rely on the likeness of the thing we are trying to know.
“Hence,” Aquinas says, “if God is actually seen by the created mind he must be seen through some likeness.” (1a, 12, 2, 3)
But, in contrast to this, Paul writes about how we perceive reality “in a mirror by dull reflection.” Here, according to Augustine, Paul is saying that the mirror that offers a dull reflection to us is “any likeness that may help us to understand God.” (De Trinitate IX, 11)
Aquinas supposes that if we are really to see the essence of God, as God actually is in himself, then we would not be looking into a mirror that is dull. If we look into a mirror, we are not seeing the a real thing, but a reflection of the thing. If one does not look at God in his fullness, then one is not really seeing God. If one sees God, one does not see him through a mirror that is a dull reflection because then one would simply be looking at a image of God, but not God in himself. “But to see God in his essence is not to see him ‘in a dull mirror’ but is contrasted with this; hence the divine essence is not seen through any likeness.” (1a, 12, 2, Contra)
Aquinas talks about how for us to see something, we have to have the faculty of sight and the thing that we are looking at needs to be in view. The essence of the thing we are looking at is not in the faculty of sight. When one looks at a rock, the rock is not actually in our eyes; we are just seeing an image of the rock.
How does this relate to our seeing of God’s essence?
First, Thomas proposes that God is both the source of sight (understanding, contemplation) and the object of sight (object isn’t the best word, but it works for now). “Now it is clear that God is the author of the power of understanding and also can be an object of understanding.” (1a, 12, 2, Reply to Contra)
Metaphorically, one would say that God is both the source of light that illuminates the way to himself and the light which one seeks. This means that our mind relies on some likeness to God. We need light to see God who is light.
(I am a still bit shaky on this argument of Aquinas’)
“When, however, we consider the essence of God as an object of sight, it is impossible that it should be united with the power of sight by any created image.” (1a, 12, 2, Reply to Contra)
Referring to Dionysius, Aquinas notes three points:
First, “we cannot even know the essences of incorporeal things through bodily likenesses, much less could we see the essence of God through any kind of created likeness.” (1a, 12, 2, Reply to Contra)
This means that we cannot know the abstract thing as it really is (its essence) through a concrete object. E.g., we might catch glimpses of what love is through the bodily communication between two lovers, but that doesn’t mean that we know what love is in its essence.
Why then do we assume that we can somehow grasp God’s essence through created things?
Second, “the essence of God is to exist, and since this could not be the case with any created form no such form could represent the essence of God to the understanding.” (1a, 12, 2, Reply to Contra)
God’s essence is his existence. Created things have essence and existence, but they are not one and the same. Created things also derive their existence from God who sustains everything in existence.
Created things participate in the essence of God, to the extent that they derive their existence from God.
Created things’ essence is not the same as their existence. (Unlike God)
Third, “the divine essence is beyond description, containing to a transcendent degree every perfection that can be described or understood by the created mind.” (1a, 12, 2 Reply to Contra)
Time to find a good commentary on Aquinas!
Aquinas concludes that in order to comprehend God’s essence, we have to have some likeness to him, that is, the gift of sight that is given from God to our mind. “It is not that God’s essence can e seen b means of any created likeness representing him as he is.” (1a, 12, 2, Reply to Contra)
The likeness we bear to God is not created, but is divine grace.
I have to admit that this article was a bit over my head in some places. Like I said, time to find a good commentary that can explain this a bit more clearly to me.
If I am honest, I will admit that I have had an aversion to Aquinas that was pretty well unfounded on an assumption that he was an ardent rationalist intent on creating a neat systematic theology that excluded any sense of epistemological humility. While his Summa Theologiae is still intimidating to me, I have to say that in reading only a few pages so far of the volume on knowing and naming God, I have once again been proven wrong in my stereotypes.
I was astonished when my prof suggested I read Aquinas for this course on apophatic theology. Seriously? How much would he have to say about the apophatic way? Wasn’t he all kataphatic?
Even though I took a course that spent half a semester on Aquinas (a course which I was not prepared intellectually or spiritually to take made all the more evident in realizing I don’t remember anything from those classes), I had no realization of just how important Aquinas would be on this little study of negative theology.
And so to my amazement, I have met the Angelica Doctor on the via negativa.