JMC : The Knowableness of God / by Matthew Schumacher, CSC


The Concept of the Infinite. It was the supposed inadequacy of finite things to lead to a concept of the Infinite, that gave birth to Ontologism, which posits an immediate vision or intuition of God. The formation of this and other concepts brings out clearly the need of a well-defined and consistent theory of knowledge, as well as the demand for methods that make for a legitimate application of the theory. "Our intellect in understanding, reaches to the infinite; as evidence we have the fact, for any given finite quantity, it can think a greater. This tendency of the intellect would be in vain, were there not some infinite intelligible thing. There must then be some infinite intelligible thing which must be the greatest of things; and this we call God. Again, the effect cannot extend beyond its cause. But our intellect can only come from God, who is the First Cause of all, therefore our intellect cannot think anything greater than God. If therefore we think something greater than every finite, it follows that God is not finite."{1} This is not the argument of St. Anselm, for its basis is the relation of cause and effect. Thus from finite things, from effects, through the operation of our intellect, we reach the Infinite.

How can finite things lead to the Infinite? Are we not simply piling finite upon finite as Locke held, and at most landing at the indefinite with a 'something beyond'? We cannot actually know infinite quantity, because "we could only understand it by receiving part after part. . . and thus the infinite could not be known unless we enumerated all its parts, which is impossible."{2} This is not the idea of the infinite applied to God, for "God is not called Infinite privatively as quantity." Here enters the idea of matter and form, implying perfection and imperfection. "A thing is called infinite because it is not finite. Matter is made finite in a way through form, and form through matter. . . Matter is perfected through the form by which it is made finite, and thus the infinite as attributed to matter has the concept of the imperfect, for it is as matter without form. But form is not perfected through matter, but rather its amplitude is restricted, whence the infinite considered from the side of form not determined by matter has the concept of the perfect."{3} God then "is not called Infinite privatively as quantity, for the infinite of this nature is reasonbly unknown, because it is as matter without form, which is the principle of knowledge. But He is called Infinite negatively, as form per se subsisting, not limited through receiving matter."{4} "The formal Infinite, which is God, is known in Himself but unknown to us on account of the defect of our intellect, which in our present condition has a natural aptitude to know material things. And thus now we can know God only through material effects."{5} The difficulty arising from the disproportion of the finite and the infinite is answered on the basis of analogy or proportion, in as far as "proportion signifies some relation of one to another, either of matter to form or of cause to effect. Thus nothing forbids a proportion of the creature to God according to the relation of the understanding to the understood, as also according to the relation of the effect to the cause."{6} We might recall here the principle of knowledge, that the species is not the thing known primarily, but the object which it represents. It is finite of course, but it contains the object, the infinite, in the imperfect and negative way that we know it, and in so far gives us a true concept. The concept is positive also, though it is reached by way of remotion. Moreover, we see evidence here of the principle of knowledge -- that all things are known according to the nature of the knower. We know God in our finite way, but the object known is the Infinite represented by the species. The ideas in this concept are -- matter and form, imperfection and perfection. God is pure form without any matter, He is therefore perfect, infinitely perfect. We can know Him as infinite however, only through objects that have a material covering. We remove this material covering by abstraction and negation, and then we arrive at an idea of God under one aspect, that of Infinite Perfection.

God is Omniscient. Since "God is in the height of immateriality, it follows that he is on the summit of cognition." We have seen the position of immateriality in the theory of knowledge, it is the basis of knowledge for the knower and the known. "The immateriality of a thing is the reason of its knowableness, and the degree of knowledge depends on the degree of immateriality."{7} The discussion of the Infinite showed that God was pure form, and hence wholly immaterial, and thus infinitely knowable and knowing. "We find in the world many things moving through intelligence, it is then impossible that the Prime Mover be without intellect."{8} Again, irrational objects tend toward ends, and this is not by chance, hence this "end must be given them by another who is the founder of nature . . . but he could not give a purpose to nature unless he were intelligent."{9} God's knowledge and that of man differ. "Man has diverse cognitions according to the objects known." His knowledge is successive, and admits of varying degrees of certitude, which he expresses by various names, as wisdom, intelligence, and the like. In God there is but a simple cognition to which we can apply these different names, yet in such a manner "that from each of them as they are used for divine predications we exclude what is of imperfection in it, and retain only what is of perfection."{10} "Everything that pertains to the imperfect mode proper to the creature must be excluded from the meaning of the name."{11}

God is not simply intelligent, but He knows all things at once; "every intellect that understands one thing after another, is sometimes potentially intelligent and sometimes actually. . . But the Divine Intellect is never potentially, but always actually intelligent, hence it does not understand things successively, but it understands all things at once."{12} Prof. Royce says, the Being that is Omniscient "would behold answered, in the facts present to his experience, all rational, all logically possible questions. That is, for him, all genuinely significant, all truly thinkable ideas would be seen as truly fulfilled, and fulfilled in his own experience. Again, "His experience then, would form one whole, but the whole as such would fulfil an all-embracing unity, a single system of ideas."{13} But in what way is He all this? Here Prof. Royce goes astray. It is true he admits, that God has "richer ideas than our fragments of thoughts"; and he also truly remarks, "these things, wherein we taste the bitterness of our finitude, are what they are because they mean more than they contain, imply what is beyond them, refuse to exist by themselves, and at the very moment of confessing their own fragmentary falsity assure us of the reality of that fulfilment which is the life of God."{14} We can not, however, admit his statement when he enters into details, for he seems to find realized in his Omniscient Being things that St. Thomas was careful to exclude, by his method of remotion. The absence of this discrimination leads Prof. Royce to say, "the total limitation, the fragmentariness, the ignorance, the error, -- yes (as forms or cases of ignorance and error), the evil, the pain, the horror, the longing, the travail, the faith, the devotion, the endless flight from its own worthlessness, -- that constitutes the very essence of the world of finite experience, is, as a positive reality somewhere so experienced in its wholeness that this entire constitution of the finite appears as a world beyond which in its whole constitution, nothing exists or can exist."{15} "Evil, pain, horror", are not known as a "positive reality" for they are negations and imperfections, and hence find no place in God except through a knowledge of their opposites -- "because God knows bona He also knows mala", for evil is "privatio boni."{16} All imperfection and limitation must be removed from the Omniscient, the above quotation limits the Omniscient to the sole experience of the finite in its entirety, "beyond which, in its whole constitution, nothing exists or can exist." We have then in the Concept of the Omniscient according to St. Thomas, the ideas of immateriality and actuality, the requisites for knower and known. Our knowledge is perfect as it approximates to the full expression of these qualities; we know only through material conditions, we remove these and arrive at a knower, who, because He is on the apex of immateriality, is likewise on the summit of cognition.

God is Omnipotent. This attribute is but the extension of the action of the will. Apart from the identity of all perfection in God, St. Thomas frequently unites the ideas of intelligence and power. "Power is not attributed to God as something really different from His knowledge and will, only conceptually; power means the principle of executing the command of the will and the direction of the intelligence. These three are one in God."{17} Practically the same reasons that lead us to ascribe Omniscience to God lead us to attribute Omnipotence to Him. We see the evidence of will in rational creatures, and we see the natural inclination of all things to an end; the short-comings and imperfections manifested in our endeavors, for we are often thwarted and only attain success by overcoming obstacles, bring us to a will where all this is absent, and where execution is co-extensive with rational determination. The idea of cause runs though the whole presentation of this attribute, and thus largely repeats what we have already said. "It is further manifest that everything according to its actuality and perfection is the active principle of something. . . God is pure act and simply and tin iversally perfect, nor is there any imperfection in Him. . . In God therefore, is the highest power."{18} God is a cause that the effect cannot fully express, as we saw in the discussion of similitude. "God is not a univocal agent, for nothing agrees with Him specifically or generically. . . But the power of a non-univocal agent is not wholly expressed in the production of its effect."{19} Thus effects or creation do not express the limit of His power, for there is nothing to contrain Him to this full expression. We have then, a conception of free, infinite power, arrived at from a consideration of limited and imperfect power here below. The limitations are removed and we have Omnipotence.

God is a Person. The attribution of Personality to God sums up briefly the whole method of divine predication according to St. Thomas. "Person means what is perfect in all nature, viz., subsistence in a rational nature. Whence, since whatever partakes of perfection is to be attributed to God because His essence contains all perfection in itself it is proper that this name person be predicated of God, but not in the same manner as it is said of creatures, but in a more excellent way."{20} The word person is not given more prominence specifically in the writings of Aquinas, for the simple reason that its component elements -- intelligence and will -- are fully treated by him. He answers an objection to the effect that this name person is not applied to God in the Scriptures, by saying there was no need of the word until the idea it stood for was called in question. This name is especially appropriate to God "since to subsist in a rational nature is great dignity."{21} The terms of the definition given by Boetius, adopted and explained by St. Thomas -- person is the individual substance of a rational nature -- are realized in God. Individual means one, distinct from others; substance means existence per se, no need of any other for its existence; rational nature means intelligible nature in general, not the discursive way of reasoning of our intelligence. In this light, the definition is perfectly valid, receiving confirmation from the various elements that compose it. Today it would be interesting to show in the light of psychological experiment that personality is actually a perfection. I do not think the above definition would need modification as giving the essentials of the conception, though it is possible that certain qualities usually attributed to personality would be shown to rest on a less secure basis than is ordinarily supposed. As yet there is no decided case even against any of these, such as unity, permanence, and the like.{22} Mr. Bradley has a bit of reasoning, on the subject of personality, that is after the fashion of Aquinas. "The Absolute, though known, is higher, in a sense, than our experience and knowledge; and in this connection I will ask if it has personality. . . We can answer in the affirmative or negative according to its meaning. Since the Absolute has everything, it of course must possess personality. And if by personality we are to understand the highest form of finite spiritual development, then certainly in an eminent degree the Absolute is personal. For the higher (we may repeat) is always the more real. And, since in the Absolute the very lowest modes of experience are not lost, it seems even absurd to raise such a question about personality."{23} Thus, again, this concept is derived from what we perceive in rational creatures; we eliminate its imperfection as there found, and in the refined condition we attribute it to God. "This name person is not proper to God, if we consider whence the name arises, but if we consider what the name signifies it is highly proper to God."{24}

We might go through the whole series of attributes as found in St. Thomas, and we should note the same principles operating through all. When we considered the proofs for God's existence we arrived at five aspects of God, and we have just considered a few more in detail to illustrate his method and to show how consistent he is throughout the long and difficult handling of the Conception of God as known by us. Yet did we follow this discussion to its end, prolong it as we would, the final outcome would not be a strictly proper or adequate concept of God. We should only know God in a way, though our knowledge would be real and thorough to that extent -- a fact long ago pointed out by St. Chrysostom, and valid against Agnosticism. A partial knowledge, says he, is not absolute ignorance, nor is relative ignorance the absolute absence of knowledge.{25} We can designate at most, the lines along which our endeavors are to move in forming as perfect a Concept of God as is in our power. These have been well expressed by Hontheim. To form a concept of God it is sufficient: a) to have the things of the world, from which we can conceive perfection in general, and single perfections in particular; b) to have a faculty of the mind to overcome contradictory notions, by which we can conceive individual perfections, denying the conjoined imperfection, by which especially we can think of them without limit, as infinite; c) that we can unite into one notion the perfections thus conceived.{26} These are the principles of Aquinas that we have tried to set forth in our presentation. He follows them out faithfully, and accepts the conclusion they offer. The concept is analogous, derived through a species or similitude that reflects God mediately. All knowledge is through species, but we have no immediate species of God, hence, strictly, no proper or quiddative concept, for a concept of this nature should agree alone with the object it represents.

St. Thomas then, not without meaning, gives as the most appropriate name of God -- Qui Est. He gives his reasons for this attitude; they are taken from the meaning of the phrase, from its universality, and from its co-signification. "It does not mean any form, but being itself, and since the Being of God is His essence, which is proper to no other, it is manifest that among other names, this especially names God properly, for everything is named from its form."{27} All other names "determine God in a way, but our intellect can not know God at present as He is in se."{28} Finally, this phrase means "esse in praesenti, and thus is properly applied to God, for His Being knows neither past nor future."{29} This phrase -- Qui Est -- is the proper Concept of God considered in Himself, since He alone is self-existent Being, and all else dependent, created existence; but this concept does not say enough for us as it stands; it is truly comprehensive of all the attributes we can conceive of God, yet not satisfying to us. There is a two-fold tendency of the human mind -- the one to contraction and the other to expansion. We desire to press into as small a compass as possible the greatest amount of matter, and thus we seek for a telling phrase and an all-embracing idea. The other tendency asserts itself when we seek to know to its fullest the subject we are handling. We use every available means to make it yield all that it contains, we analyze it thoroughly. St. Thomas has recognized both these tendencies in the question of God. He has given us the short phrases -- Actus Purus, Omnino Immutabilis, Qui Est; but knowing how little these convey to our minds as they stand, he has subjected them to a careful and detailed analysis with the result that we have tried to express. "God considered in Himself is altogether one and simple, but still our intellect knows Him according to diverse conceptions, because it cannot see Him as He is in Himself."{30} We shall then follow the lead of our intelligence at work on created things and arrive at the varied and full number of perfections they mirror forth, for they are but ambassadors of a King whose riches they can not fully portray; and the result of it all will be a Concept, showing,, that "God is One, Simple, Perfect, Infinite, Intelligent, and Willing."{31}

{1} C.G., 1\l. 1, c. 43.

{2} (Infinitum) non potest intelligi nisi accipiendo partem post partem. . . et sic infinitum cognosci non posset actu, nisi omnes partes ejus numerarentur; quod est impossible. Sum. Theol., I. q. 86, a. 2.

{3} Infinitum dicitur aliquid ex eo quod non est finitum. Finitur autem quodammodo et materia per formam, et forma per materiam. . . Materia autem perficitur per formam per quam finitur; et ideo infinitum secundum quod attribuitur materiae, habet rationem imperfecti; est enim quasi materia non habens formam. Forma autem non perficitur per materiam magis per earn ejus amplitudo contrahitur; unde infinitum, secundum quod se tenet ex parte formae non determinatae per materiam, habet rationem perfecti. Sum. Theol., I. q. 7, a. 1.

{4} [C.G.,] l. 3, c. 54.

{5} "Infinitum autem formale, quod est Deus, est secundum se natum; ignotum antem quoad nos, propter defectum intellectus nostri qui secundum statum praesentis vitae habet naturalem aptitudinem ad materialia cognoscenda. Sum. Theol., I. q. 87, a. 2. ad 1.

{6} C.G., l. 3, c. 54.

{7} Immaterialitas alicujus rei est ratio quod sit cognoscitiva; et secundum modum immaterialitatis est modus cognitionis. Sum. Theol. I. q. 14, a. 1.

{8} C.G., l. 1, c 44.

{9} Ibid., c. 56.

{10} Homo autem secundum diversa cognita, habet diversas cognitiones. . . Unde simplex Dei cognitia omnibus istis nominibus nominari potest; ita tamen quod ab unaquoque eorum, secundum quod in divinam praedicationem venit, secludatur quidquid imperfectionis est, et retineatur quidquid perfectionis est. Sum. Theol., I. q. 14, a. 1 ad 2.

{11} Quandocumque nomen sumptum a quacumque perfectione creaturae Deo attribuitur, secludatur ab ejus significatione omne illud quod pertinet ad imperfectum modum qui competit creaturae. Ibid., ad 1.

{12} C.G., l. 1, c. 56.

{13} Loc. cit., p. 10.

{14} Ibid., pp. 14, 15.

{15} Ibid., pp. 46, 47.

{16} Sum. Theol., I. q. 14, a. 10.

{17} Potentia non ponitur in Deo ut aliquid differens a scientia et a voluntate, secundum rem; sed solum secundum rationem; inquantum scilicet potentia importat rationem principii exequentis id quod voluntas imperat, et ad quod scientia dirigit. Quae tria Deo secundum idem conveniunt. Sum. Theol., I. q. 25, a. 1 ad 4.

{18} Manifestum est enim unumquodque secundum quod est actu et perfectum, secundum hoc est principium activum alicujus. Deus est purus actus, et simpliciter et universaliter perfectus, neque in eo aliqua imperfectio locum habet. Unde maxime ei competit esse principium activum, et nullo modo pati. Ibid., q. 25, a. 1.

{19} Deus non est agens univocum. Nihil enim aliud potest cum eo convenire neque in specie, neque in genere. . . Sed potentia agentis non univoci non tota manifestatur in sui effectus productione. Ibid., a. 2 ad 2.

{20} Persona significat id quod est perfectissimum in tota natura; scilicet subsistens in rationali natura. Unde cum omne illud quod est perfectionis Deo sit attribuendum, eo quod ejus essentia continet in se omnem perfectionem, conveniens est ut hoc nomen persona de Deo dicatur; non tamen eodem modo quo dicitur de creaturis, sed excellentiori modo. Ibid., q. 29, a. 3.

{21} Magnae dignitatis est in rationali natura subsistere. . . Sed dignitas divinae excedit omnem dignitatem; et secundum hoc maxime competit Deo nomen personae. Ibid., ad 2.

{22} Cfr. Piat, La Personne Humaine.

{23} Appearance and Reality, p. 531.

{24} Quamvis hoc nomen, persona, non conveniat Deo quantum ad id a quo impositum, est nomen; tamen quantum ad id ad quod significandum imponitur, maxime Deo convenit. Sum. Theol., I, q. 29, a. 3 ad 2.

{25} Com. in Matth., 21: 23.

{26} Theodicea, p. 19.

{27} Non enim significat formam aliquam, sed ipsum esse. Unde cum esse Dei sit ipsa ejus essentia, et hoc nulli alii conveniat, manifestum est quod inter alia nomina hoc maxime proprie nominat Deum. Unumquodque enim denominatur a sua forma. Sum. Theol., I. q. 13, a. 11.

{28} Ibid.

{29} Ibid.

{30} Deus autem in se consideratus est omnino unus et simplex, sed tamen intellectus noster secundum diversas conceptiones ipsum cognoscit; eo quod non potest ipsum, ut in seipso est, videre. Ibid., I, q. 13, a. 12.

{31} Opus. 2.

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