Of God and His Creatures


LO, these things that have been said are but a part of his ways; and whereas we have heard scarce one little drop of his speech, who shall be able to look upon the thunder of his greatness? (Job xxvi, 14.) It is the nature of the human mind to gather its knowledge from sensible things; nor can it of itself arrive at the direct vision of the divine substance, as that substance is in itself raised above all sensible things and all other beings to boot, and beyond all proportion with them. But because the perfect good of man consists in his knowing God in such way as he can, there is given man a way of ascending to the knowledge of God, to the end that so noble a creature should not seem to exist altogether in vain, unable to attain the proper end of his existence. The way is this, that as all the perfections of creatures descend in order from God, who is the height of perfection, man should begin from the lower creatures, and ascend by degrees, and so advance to the knowledge of God. Of this descent of perfections from God there are two processes. One is on the part of the first origin of things: for the divine wisdom, to make things perfect, produced them in order, that the universe might consist of a complete round of creatures from highest to lowest. The other process belongs to the things themselves: for, as causes are nobler than effects, the first and highest products of causation, while falling short of the First Cause, which is God, nevertheless are superior to the effects which they themselves produce; and so on in order, until we come to the lowest of creatures.* And because in that 'roof and crown of all things' (summo rerum vertice), God, we find the most perfect unity; and everything is stronger and more excellent, the more thoroughly it is one; it follows that diversity and variety increase in things, the further they are removed from Him who is the first principle of all. Therefore the process of derivation of creatures from their first principle may be represented by a sort of pyramid, with unity at the apex, and the widest multiplicity at the base.* And thus in the diversity of things there is apparent a diversity of ways, beginning from one principle and terminating in different terms. By these ways then our understanding can ascend to God.

But the weakness of our understanding prevents us from knowing these ways perfectly. Our knowledge begins with sense; and sense is concerned with exterior accidents (phenomena), which are of themselves sensible, as colour, smell, and the like. With difficulty can our mind penetrate through such exterior phenomena to an inner knowledge of things, even where it perfectly grasps by sense their accidents.* Much less will it be able to attain to a comprehension of the natures of those objects of which we perceive only a few phenomena by sense;* and still less of those natures no accidents of which lie open to sense, but certain effects which they produce, inadequate to their power, enable us to recognise them.* But even though the very natures of things were known to us, still we should have but slight knowledge of their order, of their mutual relations, and direction by divine providence to their final end, since we cannot penetrate the plan of Providence.* The ways themselves then being so imperfectly known to us, how shall we travel by them to any perfect knowledge of the First Beginning of all things, which transcends all created ways and is out of all proportion with them? Even though we knew the said ways perfectly, we should still fall short of perfect knowledge of their origin and starting-point.*

Feeble and inadequate then being any knowledge to which man could arrive by these ways, God has revealed to men facts about Himself which surpass human understanding; in which revelation there is observed an order of gradual transition from imperfect to perfect. In man's present state, in which his understanding is tied to sense, his mind cannot possibly be elevated to any clear discernment of truths that surpass all proportions of sense: in that state the revelation is given him, not to be understood, but to be heard and believed.* Only when he is delivered from the thraldom of sensible things, will he be elevated to an intuition of revealed truth. Thus there is a threefold knowledge that man may have of divine things. The first is an ascent through creatures to the knowledge of God by the natural light of reason. The second is a descent of divine truth by revelation to us; truth exceeding human understanding; truth accepted, not as demonstrated to sight, but as orally delivered for belief. The third is an elevation of the human mind to a perfect insight into things revealed.

This triple knowledge is suggested by the text above quoted from Job. These things that have been said are but a part of his ways, applies to that knowledge whereby our understanding ascends by way of creatures to a knowledge of God. And because we know these ways but imperfectly, that is rightly put in, but a part, for we know in part (i Cor. xiii, 9). The next clause, and whereas we have heard scarce one little drop of his speech, refers to the second knowledge, whereby divine truths are revealed for our belief by means of oral declaration: for faith is hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ (Rom. x, 17). And because this imperfect knowledge is an effluent from that perfect knowledge whereby divine truth is seen in itself, -- a revelation from God by the ministry of angels, who see the face of the Father (Matt. xviii, 10),* he rightly terms it a drop, as it is written: In that day the mountains shall drop sweetness (Joel iii, 18). But because revelation does not take in all the mysteries which the angels and the rest of the blessed behold in the First Truth, there is a meaning in the qualification, one little drop: for it is said: Who shall magnify him as he is from the beginning? many things are hidden greater than these, for we see but a few of his works (Ecclus xliii, 35): I have many things to say to you, but ye cannot hear them now (John xvi, 2). These few points that are revealed to us are set forth under similitudes and obscurities of expression, so as to be accessible only to the studious, hence the expressive addition, scarce, marking the difficulty of the enquiry. The third clause, who shall be able to look upon the thunder of his greatness? points to the third knowledge, whereby the First Truth shall be known, not as believed, but as seen: for we shall see him as he is (1 John iii, 2). No little fragment of the divine mysteries will be perceived, but the Divine Majesty itself, and all the perfect array of good things: hence the Lord said to Moses: I will show thee all good (Exod. xxxiii, 19). Rightly therefore we have in the text the words look upon his greatness. And this truth shall not be proposed to man under the covering of any veils, but quite plain: hence the Lord says to His disciples: The hour cometh, when I will no longer speak to you in proverbs, but will tell you openly of my Father (John xvi, 25): hence [the] word thunder in the text, indicative of this plain showing.

The words of the above text are adapted to our purpose: for whereas in the previous books we have spoken of divine things according as natural reason can arrive through creatures to the knowledge of them, -- but that imperfectly, according to the limitations of the author's capacity, so that we can say with Job: Lo, these things that have been said are but a part of his ways; it remains now to treat of truths divinely revealed for our belief, truths transcending human understanding. And the words of the text are a guide to our procedure in this matter. As we have scarce heard the truth in the statements of Holy Scripture, those being as it were one little drop coming down to us, and no man in this life can look upon the thunder of his greatness, our method will be as follows. Taking as first principles the statements of Holy Scripture, we will endeavour to penetrate their hidden meaning to the best of our ability, without presuming to claim perfect knowledge of the matter. Our proofs will rest on the authority of Holy Scripture, not on natural reason: still it will be our duty to show that our assertions are not contrary to natural reason, and thereby defend them against the assaults of unbelievers. And since natural reason ascends by creatures to the knowledge of God, while the knowledge of faith descends by divine revelation from God to us, and it is the same way up and down, we must proceed in these matters of supra-rational belief by the same way in which we proceeded in our rational enquiries concerning God. Thus we shall treat first of the supra-rational truths that are proposed for our belief concerning God Himself, as the confession of the Trinity [Chapp. I - XXVI: cf. I, Chap. IX: this answers to Book I]. Secondly, of the supra-rational works done by God, as the work of the Incarnation and its consequences [Chapp. XXVII - LXXVIII: answering to Book II]. Thirdly, of the supra-rational events expected at the end of human history, as the resurrection and glorification of bodies, the everlasting bliss of souls, and events therewith connected [Chapp. LXXIX - XCVII: answering to Book III].

3.164 : Of Predestination, Reprobation, and Divine Election
4.2 : Of Generation, Paternity, and Sonship in God