Analogical Knowledge of God

In order to understand why and in what ways St Thomas says that our knowledge of God is analogical, there are some prior considerations that must be understood first. The Summa Theologiae is nothing if not spectacularly orderly, such that later articles depend upon what is developed in earlier ones. We shall see this as we proceed, but it seems like a good idea to mention this up front. It is easy to question or misunderstand some things that he writes if the reader ignores or is unaware of the foundations upon which it stands. I am quite certain that for the present subject it would be helpful if I could make reference to his Commentary on the Metaphysics (available online here). Unfortunately I haven’t read it yet. Nevertheless, the Summa is sufficiently orderly and self-contained that we should be safe from misrepresenting him by omission.

Aquinas makes his major case for the fact that our knowledge of God is analogical in I q.13, and particularly in article 5 (“Whether what is said of God and of creatures is univocally predicated of them?”).

Whatever is predicated of various things under the same name but not in the same sense, is predicated equivocally. But no name belongs to God in the same sense that it belongs to creatures; for instance, wisdom in creatures is a quality, but not in God. Now a different genus changes an essence, since the genus is part of the definition; and the same applies to other things. Therefore whatever is said of God and of creatures is predicated equivocally.

Things cannot be said of us and of God in the same exact literal sense, and the reason for this has at least partly to do with God’s perfections in contrast to ours. God is said to be perfect by virtue of the fact that he is the First Mover or “first active principle” (see I q.4 a.1). Why does he argue this way? When we think of things as perfect rather than imperfect, we typically do so in terms of defects which the latter possess that the former do not: so that perfect whiteness lacks any tinge of color at all that takes away from its whiteness, or perfect behavior might be said to lack any misbehavior that makes a child naughty. This is not how Aquinas approaches the question. Instead, he speaks of it in terms of act and potency.An illustration that makes better sense of what he means might be to think of a lamp that is controlled by a dimmer switch. When the dimmer switch is turned way down, the light produced by the lamp is imperfect because it lacks its ordinary full brightness: it is actually dim, but it possesses the potentiality to be brighter than it actually is. But when the dimmer switch is turned all the way up, the light produced by the lamp can be said to be perfect because it cannot be any brighter than it is: it has no potency for greater brightness; in this respect, it is fully in act. So that which is completely actual, or in act, lacks any potency to be more in act.

In this way we see that perfection necessarily lacks any potentiality to be more perfect, just by definition. Now there is no potentiality in God at all. He is completely actual, as Aquinas argued earlier in I q.3 (the whole article, really). So when he says that God is perfect, this is what he has in mind: God is fully in act; there is no potency in Him at all.

A second connected reason for the fact that we cannot speak strictly univocally of God and creatures has to do with the fact that God is absolutely simple: there is no composition of any sort in Him at all. This is something that Aquinas establishes in I q.3, and it finds expression in I q.13 a.5 thus:

wisdom in creatures is a quality, but not in God.

This is a point that he addresses specifically in I q.6 a.3, where he concludes:

Hence it is manifest that God alone has every kind of perfection by His own essence; therefore He Himself alone is good essentially.

What this means is that God is His goodness; He is His wisdom; He is His justice; etc. But this is not how creatures are at all. As Thomas says, these are qualities that we may possess. So when we use these terms of us and Him, properly speaking they cannot mean the same thing.

Along the same lines, it cannot be the case that our knowledge of God is univocal because He is not in the same genus as we are. In fact, He is in no genus at all, as St Thomas explains in I q.3 a.5. Genus is necessarily part of the definition of that which it contains, just by the meaning of the terms. But God is in not part of any genus. Consequently nothing that defines the genus of which we are a part can be said to define God as well, or He would be a member of our genus as well. And so Aquinas concludes that “whatever is said of God and of creatures is predicated equivocally.”

But that is not the end of his argument. He continues:

I answer that, Univocal predication is impossible between God and creatures. The reason of this is that every effect which is not an adequate result of the power of the efficient cause, receives the similitude of the agent not in its full degree, but in a measure that falls short, so that what is divided and multiplied in the effects resides in the agent simply, and in the same manner; as for example the sun by exercise of its one power produces manifold and various forms in all inferior things. In the same way, as said in the preceding article, all perfections existing in creatures divided and multiplied, pre-exist in God unitedly. Thus when any term expressing perfection is applied to a creature, it signifies that perfection distinct in idea from other perfections; as, for instance, by the term “wise” applied to man, we signify some perfection distinct from a man’s essence, and distinct from his power and existence, and from all similar things; whereas when we apply to it God, we do not mean to signify anything distinct from His essence, or power, or existence. Thus also this term “wise” applied to man in some degree circumscribes and comprehends the thing signified; whereas this is not the case when it is applied to God; but it leaves the thing signified as incomprehended, and as exceeding the signification of the name. Hence it is evident that this term “wise” is not applied in the same way to God and to man. The same rule applies to other terms. Hence no name is predicated univocally of God and of creatures.

The thrust of this argument depends upon two things we have already adumbrated above: the simplicity of God, and the fact that His essence is His existence. These are contrasted with how things are in creatures. Perfections in us are “divided and multiplied” as is obvious from observation, but when we say them of God “we do not mean to signify anything distinct from His essence” precisely because there is no composition in Him at all. Furthermore, we know what it means to say that a creature is (for example) “wise,” because the word refers first in our understanding to our fellow creatures, so that (as he says) it “in some degree circumscribes and comprehends the thing signified. In contrast, though, this is not so when we apply the term to God. This is because in reference to Him it would require saying something about His essence (which we certainly do not comprehend), which is not at all the case with creatures, and because He is infinite (on both of which counts He necessarily “exceeds the signification of the name.” This is true of other words as well, and so the same conclusion follows.

[Aside: at the time of this writing there is a transcriptional error on the page for this article at New Advent. There is a second paragraph beginning “I answer that…” that actually belongs to this article.]

So names are not used of God and creatures univocally, but on the other hand they are not used strictly equivocally either:

Neither, on the other hand, are names applied to God and creatures in a purely equivocal sense, as some have said. Because if that were so, it follows that from creatures nothing could be known or demonstrated about God at all; for the reasoning would always be exposed to the fallacy of equivocation. Such a view is against the philosophers, who proved many things about God, and also against what the Apostle says: “The invisible things of God are clearly seen being understood by the things that are made” (Romans 1:20). Therefore it must be said that these names are said of God and creatures in an analogous sense, i.e. according to proportion.

We already know (as he says) that philosophers have demonstrated various things about God. So it cannot be the case that we know nothing about God, and so it cannot be the case that names are applied strictly equivocally. Furthermore, to say this would be contrary to Scripture (as he points out). Consequently, since we cannot speak univocally about God (for the reasons he has provided), and because it is not the case that we speak strictly equivocally about Him either, there must be another alternative. And he says that this alternative is that they said analogously or “according to proportion.”

Now names are thus used in two ways: either according as many things are proportionate to one, thus for example “healthy” predicated of medicine and urine in relation and in proportion to health of a body, of which the former is the sign and the latter the cause: or according as one thing is proportionate to another, thus “healthy” is said of medicine and animal, since medicine is the cause of health in the animal body. And in this way some things are said of God and creatures analogically, and not in a purely equivocal nor in a purely univocal sense. For we can name God only from creatures (1). Thus whatever is said of God and creatures, is said according to the relation of a creature to God as its principle and cause, wherein all perfections of things pre-exist excellently. Now this mode of community of idea is a mean between pure equivocation and simple univocation. For in analogies the idea is not, as it is in univocals, one and the same, yet it is not totally diverse as in equivocals; but a term which is thus used in a multiple sense signifies various proportions to some one thing; thus “healthy” applied to urine signifies the sign of animal health, and applied to medicine signifies the cause of the same health.

(Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange has helpfully addressed this subject as well, and his analysis may be found here. I am not going to go into a complete discussion of it now because this post is too long already. But it is well worth reading.)

So when this gentleman says here:

When therefore a man thinks that God is good or eternal or almighty, he not only means something different from what God means by good or eternal or almighty, but, worse (if anything can be worse) he means something different by saying that God is.

When he says this, he is not saying anything that is relevant to what Aquinas says about how we can speak truthfully about God. Because (as Aquinas says) we do not speak merely equivocally about Him (in which case the criticism just given would be true), but rather “in an analogous sense, i.e. according to proportion.”

And when he says in the same place:

Since as temporal creatures we cannot know the eternal essence of God, we cannot know what God means when he affirms his own existence. Between God’s meaning of existence and man’s meaning there is not a single point of coincidence.

When he says this, he is once again saying nothing about Aquinas’ views, because Aquinas affirms that we can indeed see God’s essence, although of course we cannot comprehend itprecisely because we are finite and He is not.

And when our gentleman says (again in the same place):

Weaver says, “The word analogical, so far as I can find, is not used by Van Til to apply to terms, but to the process of reasoning it is based squarely upon the doctrine of the creation of man in God’s image.”[Festschrift, 304-305] For some strange reason Van Til actually thinks this is the only way that man can have knowledge of God. Clark says, “if Van Til means nothing else by the term analogical than the dependence of all knowledge on knowledge of God, what is the point of Weaver’s criticisms?”[Ibid,463 ] Van Til’s appeal to analogy merely disguises the skepticism, it does not remove it. Van Til’s system is supposed to preserve the idea that man cannot have knowledge apart from God. We heartily agree. The word “apart” though is ambiguous. Does “apart” mean apart from effectual calling, apart from common grace, apart from a priori structures? Even Clarkians believe that man must have a priori structures to have knowledge of God, even a lost man must have them and does have them. Clark’s take on Van Til was that he was inconsistent and at times said things that were on the right path but then would go back on them. Who knows? Van Til’s writings are so cryptic, it’s difficult to determine what he believed.

Well, when he says this, he is obviously talking about Van Til and not about Aquinas. So how this is supposed to constitute a criticism of what Aquinas meant is a mystery to me, since Van Til was no Thomist and Aquinas was obviously not Vantillian.

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Posted in Aquinas - Philosophy, Epistemology, Thomistic Theses
8 comments on “Analogical Knowledge of God
  1. olivianus says:

    Aquinas etc.
    “ When we think of things as perfect rather than imperfect, we typically do so in terms of defects which the latter possess that the former do not: ”
    >>>And the imperfection is namely multiplicity. As one moves toward unity, perfection, when one moves toward multiplicity, imperfection. This is Plotinus clear as day. See you admit it, “ Perfections in us are “divided and multiplied” as is obvious from observation, but when we say them of God “we do not mean to signify anything distinct from His essence” precisely because there is no composition in Him at all.”

    “When the dimmer switch is turned way down, the light produced by the lamp is imperfect because it lacks its ordinary full brightness: it is actually dim, but it possesses the potentiality to be brighter than it actually is.”

    >>>How does the potential become actual? Regarding the initial definitions of potentiality and actuality, the difficult point surfaces that motion cannot be defined as either pure potentiality or pure actuality. To assert that a certain thing is capable of becoming a certain size does not mean that it is in motion, but merely capable of motion. Moreover, if a certain thing actually is a certain size it is not in motion either, for it is not becoming something, it is something. For example, the actualization of the buildable house is not a house, because a house is not buildable, the house is built. Therefore, the actualization of something must be a combination of the two in a process. Therefore, motion is an attribute of a thing when in this process.

    Can real things be pure potentialities that people possess? It makes no sense.

    “A second connected reason for the fact that we cannot speak strictly univocally of God and creatures has to do with the fact that God is absolutely simple: there is no composition of any sort in Him at all.”

    >>>I reject divine simplicity as Plotinus’ Pagan Construction of the One and followed up by Origen.

    I have provided articles here
    http://olivianus.thekingsparlor.com/theology-proper/divine-simplicity-and-scripturalism and here http://olivianus.thekingsparlor.com/theology-proper/divine-simplicity-and-scripturalism-part-2-by-drake and a video here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R4ZIZ26MQnM. Then this Simplicity mistake follows up centuries later with the Filioque clause and the disaster of the split in 1054.

    “Along the same lines, it cannot be the case that our knowledge of God is univocal because He is not in the same genus as we are.”
    >>>How do you even speak of a genus?

    “Consequently nothing that defines the genus of which we are a part can be said to define God as well, or He would be a member of our genus as well.”

    Here is where the Christological Disaster of Western Scholasticism surfaces. Turretin who mastered the Thomistic Philosophy said,

    “For the Son of God only is ‘the image of the invisible God’ (Col 1:15)-the essential and natural, and no mortal can attain to it because the finite cannot be a partaker of the infinite. And if we are said by grace to be ‘partakers of the divine nature’ (2 Pet 1:4), this is not to be understood of an essential, formal and instrinsic participation, but an analogical, accidental and extrinsic participation (by reason of the effects analogous to the divine perfections which are produced in us by the Spirit after the image of God).” Institutes of Eclenctic Theology vol. 1, p. 465

    As in Aquinas, if man is consubstantial with the humanity of Christ and vice versa, then Christ’s human nature has only an analogical and accidental union to the divine. This is Nestorian. So God never became a member of your genus huh, Aquinas etc. ? Sounds to me like I need to read the New Testament to you again. If you believe this nonsense you are not a Christian.

    “The reason of this is that every effect which is not an adequate result of the power of the efficient cause, receives the similitude of the agent not in its full degree, but in a measure that falls short”

    >>I said, summarizing my understanding of your view, “On this view
    comprehension is a relational activity not a propositional activity.
    This relationship is called analogy. Comprehension has two sides an
    objective and a subjective. The degree of comprehending is on the
    subjective side of the relation; it need not be on the objective side
    of the relation. On the subjective side is the analogical predication.
    On the objective side is the One the absolute Monad. Comprehension on the human side is analogical to the reality on the divine side. Our
    knowledge in this life is modulated and as seen in a mirror darkly,
    but after death there is something more.” I think I understand your view. This is more of a definition than it is an argument though.

    “ This is because in reference to Him it would require saying something about His essence (which we certainly do not comprehend), which is not at all the case with creatures, and because He is infinite”

    The infinitude predications of God make no sense. How can that which is simple have no last term? How can God be omniscient is his knowledge is infinite? How can one possess that which has no last term?

    “So names are not used of God and creatures univocally, but on the other hand they are not used strictly equivocally either:”

    >>>You give no definitional individuation between equivocation and analogy. Proportions is not going to work for you either.

    First, Aquinas says, “since medicine is the cause of health in the animal body.”

    There is no such thing as a created cause. Only God causes things because the only coherent definition of a cause is something that infallibly guarantees a uniform result.

    Aquinas says, “For we can name God only from creatures”. This is the exact view of language that Clark proved to be atheistic. Se here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kb3UcMvUa_g and here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mM2Kl4oT1qM. Moreover, if we can only know what the creature teaches us, then how did Adam know what death was in Gen 1and 2?

    Aquinas gives no definition of “simple univocation”. Is he assuming the insanity that univocal predication is a participation in God as to become God? He doesn’t say.

    You gave no reply to Dr. Clark’s gauntlet “if the human mind were limited to analogical truths, it could never know the univocal truth that it was limited to analogies.” That is why when you say, “Because (as Aquinas says) we do not speak merely equivocally about Him (in which case the criticism just given would be true)”, you are wrong, you are speaking equivocally because you never know if the proposition, “I know only analogies” is univocally true. Which proportion do you take the proposition, “I know only analogies”? You have only speculation. And so when you say,

    “When he says this, he is once again saying nothing about Aquinas’ views, because Aquinas affirms that we can indeed see God’s essence, although of course we cannot comprehend itprecisely because we are finite and He is not.”

    You are merely asserting a refuted opinion.

    What you are going to have to say is what I said earlier, that analogies are fine as long as the analogy is accompanied by an explanation that reveals the univocal point between the sign and that to be signified. Clark says,

    “A paddle for a canoe may be said to be analogical to the paddles of a paddle wheel steamer; the canoe paddle may be said to be analogous even to the screw propeller of an ocean liner; but it is so because of a univocal element. These three things–the canoe paddle, the paddle wheel, and the screw propeller–are univocally devices for applying force to move boats through water…if the human mind were limited to analogical truths, it could never know the univocal truth that it was limited to analogies.” [The Bible as Truth]

    Suppose I were to say a flajibubblesmiter is like an apple. Does this mean the flajibubblesmiter is red, round and red, neither red nor round but soft? Who is to say? When I speak in an analogy and give you no identical point of coincidence between the two you know nothing of the flajibubblesmiter and it remains what it always has been, a nothing.

    You are someone who has not even read rudimentary literature from
    the opposite of what you are blogging on.

  2. aquinasetc says:

    Hmm…I’m not sure why WordPress held your comment for moderation. Sorry about that.

  3. aquinasetc says:

    Drake (#1),

    You said:

    > And the imperfection is namely multiplicity. As one moves toward unity, perfection, when one moves toward multiplicity, imperfection.

    No. That is not what Aquinas said, and that is not what I said.

    Do you always try to push what people say into boxes of your own design? :-)

    > Can real things be pure potentialities that people possess? It makes no sense.

    I am not sure that I understand what you are asking, because it seems like you are mixing concepts. A “real thing” isn’t something that people possess unless you are talking about physical ownership. Or are you talking about accidents? Or something else? And pure potentiality does not exist.

    > I reject divine simplicity as Plotinus’ Pagan Construction of the One and followed up by Origen.

    Well, thank you for that autobiographical interlude. But that has nothing to do with the purpose of this post, which is to present Aquinas’ view concerning why our knowledge of God is analogical. :-)

    > Turretin who mastered the Thomistic Philosophy said, [some stuff]

    What is the purpose of this quotation? Is he criticizing someone, or is he presenting his own view? If you mean to say that he is critiquing Aquinas’ view, well, I don’t recognize Aquinas in the quotation at all.

    > As in Aquinas, if man is consubstantial with the humanity of Christ and vice versa, then Christ’s human nature has only an analogical and accidental union to the divine. This is Nestorian. So God never became a member of your genus huh, Aquinas etc. ? Sounds to me like I need to read the New Testament to you again. If you believe this nonsense you are not a Christian.

    Dude. You already know that I am Catholic, and so we both already know that you do not think I am Christian, so your faux conditional is pointless.

    Who said that the hypostatic union is analogical or accidental? Not Aquinas, and not me. If you’re referring to the Turretin quotation, that’s fine, but nothing in it bears a resemblance to Aquinas.

    > How can that which is simple have no last term?

    God is not a sequence.

    > How can God be omniscient is his knowledge is infinite?

    Because His knowledge is His Essence.

    > How can one possess that which has no last term?

    Sorry, I do not understand the question.

    > You give no definitional individuation between equivocation and analogy. Proportions is not going to work for you either.

    Please explain the first sentence.

    The second sentence is irrelevant to the post, which is presenting Aquinas’ view of how we know God, and amounts to a bare assertion (which in my experience you detest).

    > There is no such thing as a created cause. Only God causes things because the only coherent definition of a cause is something that infallibly guarantees a uniform result.

    You are injecting your personal views of causality here, and they are not Thomistic. And there is nothing at all incoherent about the Thomistic view of them.

    > You gave no reply to Dr. Clark’s gauntlet “if the human mind were limited to analogical truths, it could never know the univocal truth that it was limited to analogies.”

    Who said that the human mind is limited to analogical truths *entirely*? Not me, and not Aquinas. And why do I need to reply to Clark at all? Did I say that I was going to?

    > You are someone who has not even read rudimentary literature from
    the opposite of what you are blogging on.

    What is the point of this remark?

  4. olivianus says:

    “What is the point of this remark?”

    >>>The point is, to be an honest apologist and to be a meaningful blogger you need to deal with the opposite view of what you are blogging on.

    Prov 18:17 The first to plead his case seems right, Until another comes and examines him.

  5. olivianus says:

    The point is, I am wasting my time here. You are not dealing with what I am saying. I cite numerous works containing scores of arguments against divine simplicity and you say I am giving personal interludes?

  6. aquinasetc says:

    The point is, to be an honest apologist and to be a meaningful blogger you need to deal with the opposite view of what you are blogging on.

    What gave you the idea that this blog is intended as an apologetics site? Your notion of what a “meaningful blogger” must do is your opinion. I am happy to let you or anyone else decide for himself whether this blog is useful to him or not. I am not interested in protracted arguments and heated rhetoric, both of which appear to be your stock in trade.

  7. […] a previous post we discussed the fact that our knowledge of God is analogical. In this post I want to present […]

  8. […] Analogical Knowledge of God ~ https://aquinasetc.wordpress.com/2011/07/02/analogical-knowledge-of-god/ […]

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