Jacques Maritain Center : Natural Theology / by Bernard Boedder, S.J.

SECTION 3. -- The Infinity of God.

Thesis IX. -- God is infinitely perfect.

65. Infinite, according to the etymological meaning of the word, is that which has no limits. Now a thing may be said to have no limits, either because we are not able to assign its limits, or because it is really unlimited. We speak, for instance, of an infinite number, of infinite space. These expressions do not imply that number and space do or can exist without limit. That is repugnant to reason. For what is number in reality but a collection of units, all of which are equally conceivable by one general concept? But no collection of such units can be so great that the addition of another unit would be inconceivable; on the contrary, however much it may be increased, it must remain a limited number. If it ever became really unlimited or infinite, the taking away of one unit would make it finite; and its infinitude would be made up of a finite number and a finite unit, which is evidently absurd.{10}

66. Nor can space be actually unlimited, because its real foundation consists in the dimensions between the extreme surfaces of one body, or of many bodies taken together, or of all bodies forming the one universe, as we call it. Now such dimensions cannot become so large as not to allow of a larger one. If space ever were actually infinite, a certain part of it, say a cubic inch, would be contained in the whole a really infinite number of times, the impossibility of which is clear from what we have said about infinite number.{11}

67. A so-called infinite number, therefore, can only be a number so great that every number assignable by us is next to nothing in comparison with it. In the same way, infinite space can exist only so far as there can exist a space so great that any corporeal magnitude assigned by us is next to nothing when compared with its dimensions.

These remarks about infinite number and space will serve to illustrate the meaning of the word "infinite" when applied to God. We do not intend thereby to suggest the idea of a being containing infinite extended parts, or compounded of any sort of infinite entities. Such notions not only suppose the possibility of infinite extension and number, but are also opposed to the simplicity of God, as already proved.

68. Infinity, then, when predicated of God, means that He is unlimited in His perfection, that is to say, that every perfection conceivable belongs to Him. The proof of this statement, is based on the truth that God alone is self-existent, and everything else contingent. This truth supposed, we may argue thus: All perfections conceivable fall either under the heading self-existent or under the heading contingent, in other words, they are either uncaused or capable of being caused. The former class God possesses formally, that is, He possesses them as they are in themselves according to their own proper nature. The other class, since He, as the only First Cause, is able to produce them, He must have equivalently and eminently: that is, in some manner superior to the manner in which they exist outside Him, and at the same time enabling Him to realize them in their own proper nature.

Thus God is infinite in all perfections. For it is no limitation to His perfection that He does not contain contingent perfections formally. To contain them eminently is more than to contain them merely formally. It is, in fact, to contain them in an infinite instead of a finite manner.

69. This truth of the infinite perfection of God must be our guide in deciding whether any given attribute can be predicated of God or not. There is a truth underlying the error of the agnostic, namely, the fact that our knowledge of God, although evidently true as far as it goes, must necessarily be inadequate. From this, however, it by no means follows that no name expressing a created perfection can be given to the Most High. On the contrary, we say that all nouns and verbs applied to creatures, so far as their objective meaning expresses pure perfection without connoting imperfection, must be true of God before they can be true of creatures. Indeed perfection, as such, signifies something actual; and everything actual, so far as it can be conceived without the limitations and privations which accompany its existence in created beings, must be eminently in the Infinite Being.

70. The preceding observations enable us to lay down the following three canons for the predicates to be given to God in common with creatures in general and with man in particular.

I. Although no predicate given to creatures, and expressing a perfection, attributes this perfection to them without limit; yet the meanings of some predicates, taken by themselves, do not connote imperfection, whereas the meanings of others always connote it. The former must be applied to God in the proper sense of the words, the latter not. Thus we may say of God that He is infinitely mighty, infinitely wise, has infinite knowledge, is infinitely just, infinitely benevolent, and so on. But we cannot say that He is infinitely extended like a body, that He reasons with infinite perfection, that He possesses infinite courage, &c. To illustrate the difference by an example, let us take the two adjectives wise and courageous. I may say and must say of God that He is wise in the proper sense of the word. And why so? Because the word wise denotes the perfection of knowing the causes of things, and this perfection can be conceived without the addition of any imperfection. But it is quite otherwise with the word courageous. This connotes the condition of having to face danger, whereas a being which can be threatened with danger necessarily must be limited in its perfection; only things weak and not wholly self-sufficient can be brought into danger. And thus the infinitely perfect God cannot be properly said to be courageous.

71. II. Although certain predicates are in the most proper sense applicable to God and to creatures; yet they are true of God in an infinitely higher sense than of creatures. In God they are found without limit and independently, in creatures they are found under limitation, and with entire dependence upon the power of God. Consequently, the relation of these predicates to God and to creatures is not equal, but most unequal, although their meaning is realized in both: and, in consequence, when we ascribe them to God, our intention is to ascribe them to Him with the understanding, implied or expressed, that there is this inequality of relation between the mode in which the reality signified exists in Him and in creatures. This may be illustrated by our parallel procedure when in propositions worded in exactly the same terms, we ascribe beauty of countenance to a portrait and to its living original. In each case we say, "What a beautiful face," and by employing in each case exactly the same language, we signify that the same reality finds a truthful concrete expression alike in the original and in the portrait; but we are quite aware of the great difference between the mode in which beauty of countenance is realized and predicable in the two cases. If we do not call attention to the difference by the wording of our proposition, this is partly because when a reality is predicated of a subject in a simple proposition, the predication asserts only the fact of the subject possessing the reality, not the mode in which it is possessed, partly because the difference of mode is sufficiently clear to the persons addressed without formal statement, or at all events can be left to stand over till another time, as one cannot be always explaining. As it is always an advantage to have technical terms to fix distinctions like this, predication is said to be univocal when the reality predicated is not only found in all the subjects of predication, but found in each of them in the same manner, and analogical when it is found in them, and thereby founds an analogy between them, but is not in them all in the same manner.

To apply this doctrine to the case of God, we say that attributes like "being," "goodness," "power," "wisdom," &c., are predicable of God as well as of creatures, meaning thereby that the meaning of these terms has a true realization in Him, although we are quite aware, and on fitting occasions explicitly declare, that the manner in which they are realized in Him differs widely from the way in which they are realized in His creatures: that His Being, Goodness, Power, Wisdom, &c., are necessary, uncaused and self-existent, and without limit; whereas the being, goodness, power, wisdom, &c., of creatures is contingent, caused, and finite. We say, therefore, that these terms are predicable of God and creatures, not univocally, but analogically.{12}

From this second canon there follows the very important corollary:

The application of the same predicates to God and to creatures does not imply co-ordination or classification of God with creatures.

Wherever two things are co-ordinated or classified together there must be not only likeness, but, under one aspect at least, perfect likeness. Now creatures, though imitations of the Divine Essence in all their perfections, are under no aspect perfectly like that Essence. What we mean, when we speak of created perfections, is in God really; but the way in which it is in Him, differs under all aspects from the way in which it is in creatures, not only in degree but in kind.

Thus, for instance, wisdom, or the knowledge of the nature of things and their causes, is truly in God, and can to a certain extent be truly in man. But in God it is identical with the simple and infinite Divine substance; consequently God is His wisdom, and His wisdom is an eternal all-comprehensive act of knowledge, including (as identical with it) an infinitely perfect Will, which never can act against the practical corollaries of theoretical wisdom. In man, on the contrary, wisdom exists as an acquired accidental quality, now as actual knowledge, now as an habitual disposition to actual knowledge; and so far as it is actual knowledge in the mind, it is composed of many successive mental acts, all of which are more or less inadequate expressions of their objects. In a word, a wise man is not his wisdom, but has wisdom, and has it only in a very small degree.

72. III. Predicates, the meaning of which expresses perfection with connotation of imperfection, though they cannot be true of God in their proper sense, may be true of Him when used metaphorically.

As man belongs to the order of sensible things, he is fond of clothing his thoughts in impressive imagery drawn from the objects of sense. A hero is a lion; a discoverer a luminary of science; and so forth. This use of metaphors, provided it be in taste and moderation, is a great aid to human language, even in speaking of God Himself. Instead of naming a perfection of His directly, we may suggest it indirectly by expressing something which bears a resemblance to it at least under one or other aspect. Thus we may attribute eyes to God to signify His knowledge, ears to express His acceptance of our prayers. We may speak of Him as angry with sinners when we would point to effects of His justice.

73. This subject of the application of terms of human thought to the Deity is treated by St. Thomas,{13} whose doctrine is the doctrine of all Catholic philosophers. It could therefore only be want of familiarity with their teaching which led Mr. Herbert Spencer not to except them from the charge of anthropomorphism which he launches against even the most civilized believers in a knowable Deity. These are his words:{14} "From the time when the rudest savages imagined the causes of all things to be creatures of flesh and blood like themselves, down to our own time, the degree of assumed likeness has been diminishing. But though a bodily form and substance similar to that of man, has long since ceased among cultivated races to be a literally-conceived attribute of the Ultimate Cause; though the grosser human desires have been also rejected as unfit elements of the conception; though there is some hesitation in ascribing even the higher human feelings, save in greatly idealized shapes; yet it is still thought not only proper, but imperative, to ascribe the most abstract qualities of our nature. To think of the Creative Power as in all respects anthropomorphous, is now considered impious by men who yet hold themselves bound to think of the Creative Power as in some respects anthropomorphous, and who do not see that the one proceeding is but an evanescent form of the other."

Certainly it would be great irreverence to entertain an anthropomorphous conception of God, so as to attribute to Him human perfections, as such, in the limited and imperfect way that those perfections exist in ourselves. But no instructed theist will do so. It is true that we attribute to God what Mr. Spencer seems to call the most abstract qualities of our nature, understanding, free-will, wisdom, benevolence, love of justice, &c. Yet at the same time we explain that only the abstract meaning of these perfections is objectively real in God, not the dependence and limitation which attend the realization of that meaning in man. Instead of coordinating God with man in any of these attributes, we prove that all of them in Him are identical with His self-existing nature in a way infinitely perfect, and therefore infinitely exceeding our experience and our comprehension. But the fact that we are unable to comprehend God's infinity is no proof that we can know nothing definite about Him. On the contrary, as we have shown, His very infinitude compels us to predicate of Him whatever created perfection is, by way of abstraction and exclusion of limits, conceivable without including objective defect or imperfection. Moreover, after having predicated all this, as far as we can, we must confess that all the predicates by which we have tried to describe the infinite Majesty of the Most High, though they express what is truly proper to His Being, nevertheless fall infinitely short of an adequate representation of that Being.

The final practical conclusion, therefore, to which we are led by reasoning from creatures to their First Cause, is not that of the agnostic who says, "We ought to be silent about the attributes of God," but that of the Psalmist: "Great is the Lord and exceedingly to be praised;"{15} "Magnify the Lord with me, and let us extol His name together."{16}

{10} Cf. St. Thomas, Sum. Theol. i. 7. 4.

{11} Ibid. 7. 3.

{12} Quantum igitur ad id quod significant hujusmodi nomina, proprie competunt Deo et magis proprie quam ipsis creaturis, et per prius dicuntur de eo. Quantum vero ad modum significandi non dicuntur proprie de Deo." Sum. Theol. i. 13. 3. c. Cf. ibid. ad 2dum.: 'Id quod significatur per nomen non convenit eo modo ei Deo quo nomen significat sed excellentiori modo.'

{13} St. Thomas, Sum. Theol. i. q. 13. Especially, art. 3. art. 5. and art. 6. are to be noted.

{14} First Principles, pp. 109, 110.

{15} Psalm xlvii. 7.

{16} Psalm xxxiii. 4.

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