Jacques Maritain Center : A First Glance at St. Thomas Aquinas / by Ralph McInerny


Theology, whether that in which philosophers engage or that based on Sacred Scripture, is talk about God. We have seen how the two of these differ, the former arising only from what anyone can know about the world and himself, the latter taking its rise from revelation. But they are as one in this: in speaking of God, they must apply to Him terms which have their natural habitat with creatures.

Anyone who goes to the Bible expecting to find a special terminology applying to God alone is in for a bit of a shock. God walks with Adam and Eve in the cool of the evening, he speaks to Moses from the burning bush, he admonishes, he cajoles, he repents of having made man. The imagery is rich and various. God is compared with animals meek and fierce, with natural phenomena. We look in vain for God to speak of Himself in terms appropriate to Him alone. He Who Is? Yes and no, as we shall see.

The mark of Thomas's vocabulary that we mentioned earlier -- key words acquiring in an orderly way meanings which record the trajectory of the mind's journey -- reaches its culmination in talk about God. Words with the humblest of origins will be stretched almost beyond recognition to convey something of the perfection and otherness of God.

Human knowledge begins in the senses. Words express what we know. Our language will, if only in its etymology, exhibit this anchor in the sensible, the easily and readily available. Words which first mean sensible things are extended to mean other things insofar as knowledge of them arises out of knowledge of the things first meant by those words.

The vocabulary of grammar and logic exhibit this trait. The subject of a proposition is a foundation on which things are placed; genus derives from family and procreation, the copula has biological overtones; terms are like boundary stones and discourse is a stream which spreads out from a spring.

Our mathematical vocabulary owes much to the Arabic but such words as geometry invoke surveying as arithmetic does counting, numbering, and measuring the sensible. Our image of Einstein is of a man at a blackboard.

It does not matter to the point being made whether what is involved is etymology, metaphor, symbolism, or what Thomas calls analogy. They all reveal the primacy for us of the sensible, the palpable. It is the way of the human mind. And God, when He reveals Himself to us, mercifully makes use of our natural way of knowing even when He has in mind a supernatural goal. Is revelation really a concealment, then, God hidden behind the sensible?

If the sensible were opaque, this might be so. But sensible reality is a bridge to what is beyond sense. It is in reflecting on our knowledge of sensible things that we come to see that coming to know is very different from such things coming to be. The chalky squiggles on the board enable the mind to think of abstract entities. So, too, the world shows forth the glory of God.

Metaphorical Talk

If God were literally a fire, if he had a hand to place on Ezekiel exactly like a human hand, if he became angry as we do, if he literally stretched from end to end mightily, He would be a physical thing, something that has come to be, something caused and not the ultimate cause of all else. It is the rare believer indeed who understands such talk literally. The fervor with which we sing "He's got the whole world in His hand" does not entail a cosmic theory somewhat on the order of the turtle supporting the earth. Those words speak a truth. That's the way it is, it is like that. The image is rich in associations and they play upon our heart and imagination and lift them beyond the realm of the sensible.

That is the role of symbols and metaphors in Scripture. A symbol gathers together the sensible and more, the metaphor transfers a word from the sensible world and tries to put it down in the spiritual realm. The metaphorical use of a term does not involve a new meaning of the term, only a new reference. And the term metaphorically refers to something that is like that to which the term, thanks to its literal meaning, properly refers. A fire consumes and cleanses, the laying on of a hand is a bestowal of confidence and assigning of a task, one who is angry punishes, what spans the cosmos seems free of it, not an item in it.

Spelling out metaphors is a bit like explaining jokes, of course. Part of the power of metaphor is that it does not depend for its effect on our analyzing how it works. The shock of recognition is there, perhaps, but it is a confused recognition. Philosophy, alas, is a lot like explaining jokes, making the initially surprising and effective combination dull and, as it were, literal. No one laughs at an explained joke. The joke disappears with the explanation.

Analogous Talk

What Thomas calls analogy goes beyond metaphor by developing a new meaning for a term thanks to which it can refer to something its earlier meaning did not cover. As with metaphor, there is reference back to the first meaning but not in the same way. When we call Fifi's complexion healthy, we mean that it is a sign of her health, but "sign of health" is a new meaning of the term. Thomas will then say that "healthy" refers properly but not primarily to complexion. When we call Fifi's jogging healthy, we mean it will enable her to keep her health and "preservative of health" is a new though secondary meaning. "Subject of health" is the controlling or focal meaning of 'healthy' -- Thomas calls it the primary analogate and it is present sotto voce in the other meanings.

After he has acknowledged that most of our talk about God is metaphorical and symbolical -- as is most of God's talk when He reveals Himself to us -- Thomas goes on to say that there are three general sorts of divine name, the negative, the relative, and the affirmative or positive. What does he mean?

When God is called Lord or creator, He is spoken of in a way that depends on other things, the things over which He is lord, the things He has created. 'Lord' and 'creator' are both relative in that sense. God is denominated from other things, and those other things are built right into the meaning of the name. If God is always named from creatures, need creatures enter into the meaning of the name?

When God is said to be infinite and eternal and simple we are being told what He is not rather than what He is. He is not composed, for then the composition would need a cause, He is not limited. He is not measured by time as are physical things. But what is He in himself?

The question may seem idle. If God can only be known and spoken of from creatures, to ask what He is in Himself may seem to demand an access to Him that is closed to us. What else can divine names be but relative and negative. Thomas holds that some are positive and analogous. They tell us, however imperfectly, what God is in Himself.

Thomas wants to be able to accommodate the sense we have that, however secondarily a name may be applied to God. He is what that name means in a far more perfect way than the creature whose name it first is. He is that father from whom all fatherhood is named, both in heaven and on earth.

We learn the meaning of 'father' from experience with our male parent. Later we learn the role our father played in our coming into being. We recognized that our physical existence is dependent on him as effect on cause, at least by way of origin. After a while we can survive by ourselves, we are fated by and large to outlive our parents. Whatever contingent and autobiographical associations the term may have for us, those with different backgrounds, even orphans, will agree that a father is a cause of the physical generation of offspring.

Our father in heaven is not our male parent. He does not have gender. We can understand calling him father in terms of many things we associate with male parents -- indulgence, forgiveness, gifts we don't deserve, and the like -- and these associations would ground the metaphorical use of the term. The term can become analogous in Thomas's sense if we leave our features essential to male parents and save what is in another way central to its meaning. A father is the cause of another's being. Put that way, our instinct is to say, but then God is far more of a father than any earthly parent. And so he is. He not only causes us to come into existence, but sustains us at every moment. He cannot cease to be, but if He did, we would be annihilated by that very fact.

Thomas recognizes a number of words which are used analogously of God. As such, they are extended to him from what they originally mean and name. He is only secondarily meant by them. But when we consider the core of these meanings, we say that, however it may be with our language and the trajectory of our knowledge, what is named last in these cases is the mot perfect.

He Who Is

If God can be named analogously and thus properly, this is not to say that human language can encompass His reality. Our language is inherently defective for expressing what God is.

A swift way of seeing this is the following. God can be called wise and just analogously. There are meanings of both terms according to which they can properly be applied to God. But imperfectly. Is this merely a pious addendum? It has a quite definite meaning in Thomas. However properly God can be called wise, however true it is that He is the most perfect among wise beings, to call Him wise expresses His perfection in a partial way. A sign of this is that there is a plurality of analogous divine names. To call God just is to name him in a way that refers to his perfection in a partial way To be wise is not the same things as to be just.

Any attribute, any expression of the kind, God is X, catches the divine perfection by way of the meaning of X, a meaning whose origin is in created perfection. But there are many values for that variable, X, many divine names. It seems that every effort to express the divine perfection involves imperfection.

This is not at all the same situation as when Socrates is called wise and just and bald and Athenian and a war veteran. All these terms refer to him truly but there is a really different basis for the truth of each. Socrates is a complex, historical entity. But God is simple. In God there is no distinction between his wisdom and his justice.

The Book of Exodus suggested a term that seems to avoid these difficulties. God tells Moses that he can tell others that He Who Is has sent him. In reflecting on this, Thomas takes it to mean that God is, not in the sense of 'is wise' and 'is just' and 'is merciful', but is in the fullest sense of the term. That is, he is taking wise and just and merciful and the like to be restricting the range of 'is' so that 'God is wise' limits God's existence to what is expressed by the predicate.

If predicate adjectives restrict the copula, we can take the infinitive of the copula, to be, esse existence, and say that God is unrestricted existence. This, Thomas concludes, is the least imperfect way of referring to God.


This is the merest hint of what Thomas has to say about these matters. They are for him the most important matters, both as believer and as theologian. The theologian is one who speaks of God. Thomas's accounts of what is meant by calling God omnipotent and eternal and simple are not merely historical items. They enter into current discussion in philosophy of religion, sometimes even dominate those discussions, not as a voice from the past, but as a living companion in the quest for knowledge.

To say only this about Thomas's theology is a crime, but then this whole book is a felony. Let us turn now to Thomas's moral teachings.


The Names of God

It is impossible that anything be predicated univocally of God and creatures. Any effect which is not even with the power of its cause receives a likeness of the agent but not of the same order but deficiently. That which exists divided and multiplied in the effects are in the cause simply and in the same way, as the sun with its one power produces diverse effects among lower things. In much the same way all the perfections of things, which are divided and multiplied in created things, exist unified in God. Thus when a name pertaining to a perfection is said of a creature, it signifies that perfection as definitionally distinct from others. For example, when a man is called wise, we mean a perfection distinct from the essence of man and from his potency and his existence and all like things. But when this word is said of God we do not mean to signify something distinct from his essence, power, or existence. Thus when 'wise' is said of man it in a way circumscribes and comprehends the thing signified, but when it is said of God the thing signified is left uncomprehended, as exceeding the meaning of the name. Thus it is evident that 'wise' does not have the same meaning as said of God and creature. And so it is with other words. So nothing is said univocally of God and creature.

But neither are they said equivocally, as some maintain. If that were true, nothing could be known of God or demonstrated about Him but we would always be guilty of the fallacy of equivocation. Not only is this against the philosophers who demonstrated many things of God, but also against the Apostle who says "that the invisible things of God can be seen through knowledge of the things that are made" (Romans 1:19).

It ought to be said, therefore, that names of this kind are said of God and creatures according to analogy or proportion. This occurs in two ways, either because many have a proportion to one, as 'healthy' is said of medicine and urine insofar as each had an order and proportion to the health of the animal, the former causing it, the latter signifying it, or because the one has a proportion to the other, as 'healthy' is said of medicine and the animal, insofar as medicine is the cause of the health in the animal. That is the way some things are said analogically of God and creatures and not simply equivocally or univocally. We can only name God from creatures, as was said earlier. That is why whatever is said of creatures is said of them insofar as there is some order of creature to God as to its principle and cause in whom preexist all the perfections things in an excellent manner. This kind of community is midway between pure equivocation and simple univocation. Nor in things said analogously is there one meaning, as with univocal terms, nor totally diverse meanings, as with equivocal terms. Rather the word is said in many ways insofar as it signifies different proportions to some one thing, as 'healthy' said of urine means the sign of the animal's health, and said of medicine means the cause of that same health.

-- Summa theologiae, First Part, Question 13, article 5

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