Lesson 11: The Divine Names

Concern with our knowledge of God and the reach of our language in speaking of him is not of course confined to philosophical inquiry. No one can read Thomas's careful commentaries on Aristotle without sensing his profound admiration for the Greek thinker. It was as if Aristotle represented for Thomas what the unaided human mind can do. Thomas was severe with those he took to be distorting the thought of Aristotle. There is a profound sense in which, as a philosopher, Thomas is an Aristotelian. This does not mean that he was a member of a fan club nor that he was interested in what Aristotle had to say because Aristotle said it. To the sometimes consternation of modern philologists, Thomas was interested in the truth or falsity of what Aristotle said, the force of his arguments, the ability of his position to defeat radical alternatives to it. No matter how often he cites Aristotle as the Philosopher, Thomas was not interested merely in historical truth, the accuracy of ascribing certain positions to Aristotle. He was interested in such questions, of course. His little polemic against the Averroist interpretation of Aristotle's De anima is there for anyone to read. But once he had settled the textual or historical question to his satisfaction, Thomas goes on to ask if what Aristotle says is true. As Father Chenu pointed out, Thomas in his commentaries is interested in the intentio as well as the verba of the text. In short, he is as commentator engaging in the same activity as the author of the text he comments on. Nowhere is his assumption of the truth of Aristotle's teaching more evident than in Thomas's discussion of the divine names.

Knowing and Naming

However much one must admire the achievements of Aristotle in the matter of knowing and speaking of God -- the whole point of philosophy, we remember -- philosophical theology must seem thin beer when compared to the richness of revelation. As a theologian, Thomas pored over Scripture with an attention surpassing that he devotes to any philosophical text.

We have spoken earlier of Thomas's teaching on the trajectory of human knowing, the natural progression from knowledge of sensible things to non-sensible things. This order is observed rather than abrogated by divine revelation. God tells us about himself in our language whose words have their own history and origin. Christ tells stories which rely on the common knowledge of the things of this world, of the relationship between father and son, planting and harvesting, fishing, and so on. The parables have as their point, not to tell us what we already know, but to employ what we know to point to truths we would not otherwise know. The language of Scripture generally, the parables more particularly, and most especially the Incarnation and the Sacraments display the way the naturally known is put to a higher purpose. Our knowledge of God is expanded considerably by revelation, but the way God is spoken of recalls the extrapolated language of the philosopher. Thus, in speaking of the divine names, Thomas will first say things true of both philosophical and theological naming of God.

The Divine Names

The question implicit in any discussion of the names of God is this: how can words or names be common to creature and God? God is wise, but 'wise' is a word that is applied to such men as Socrates. God is good, but 'good' is applied to many other things. God is just, but so is St. Joseph . . . And so on. The names of God are shared with creatures, and it is the meaning the terms have as said of creatures that provides the springboard for understanding their application to God. Names are not common to God and creature univocally or equivocally but analogically.

A univocally common name receives the very same account as said of many things. E.g 'man' said of this person and that and the other and so on. An equivocally common name is one which receives quite different and unrelated accounts as said of many things. 'Slip' as said of a place for a boat and of an item of lingerie is the same word, but there would seem to be no connection at all between these two meanings of it. An analogous name, Thomas says, is midway between these two.

    Socrates is wise.

    God is wise.

The implicit question, again, is how is the same word said of God and creature? 'Wise' doesn't get exactly the same account in these two instances. For one thing, the wisdom of Socrates is a hard-earned characteristic, There was a time when he was not wise, he has lapses even in his prime, and eventually he may end up drooling out of both corners of his mouth and uttering nonsense. None of that is true of God. Why not? The basic rule is to deny of God anything that is imperfect. But of 'wise' said of Socrates entails all these imperfections, how can it be predicated of God?

By purifying it of those imperfections. By eliminating the creaturely mode of wisdom. And what is left? Wisdom. But wouldn't this be like the onion once it is completely unpeeled. What could possibly be left after we peel away the features of Socrates' wisdom? Thomas says we can indeed retain these perfections without their accompanying imperfections; indeed, we must if the word is to be applied to God. And of course God has applied the word to himself, so this is a spur to the theologian to go on. The perfection is found in God in a manner quite different from the manner it is found in creatures.

The Three Ways

This analysis is the basis for distinguishing moments in speaking of God, ways of speaking of him. First, affirmatively. "God is wise." Second, negatively. "God is not wise as humans are." Thirdly, by way of eminence. "God is wise in a way that surpasses our ability to comprehend."

Of course, the very plurality of the divine names is a sign that none of them comprehends him. If one did, we would not need the others. The plurality derives from the fact that perfections scattered in creatures have been caused by God. But nemo dat quod non got.

But Thomas is not through. Isn't there a name of God which is, as it were, his proper name? God told Moses to tell his skeptical brethren that 'He Who is' had spoken to him. To be wise, to be good, to be just, and so on, are ways of being, and the one way is not the other. The diversity stems from the diversity in creatures. But we try to think beyond that to the union of all these attributes in God: each is one with him. Nicholas of Cusa thus spoke of God as the coincidentia oppositorum. Things that are other and opposites in creatures are unified in God, are one with him.

It was by reflecting on the fact that particular divine attributes are ways of being that Thomas offered an account of those words in Exodus. The quasi proper name of God, Thomas writes, is Ipsum esse subsistens. In any creature, its nature is a mode of existence; no creature is existence. But in God there is no such distinction between what he is and his existence. Reflection that the infinitive to-be, esse, is thus limited in creatures, Thomas thinks of God as unrestricted existence, not limited to this kind or that. God is subsistent existence. That is the meaning of Ipsum esse subsistens.

The Cloud of Unknowing

Considering these various moves necessary to speak of the divine names, and noting that in the end we do not know how God is wise or good, or indeed existence as such, Thomas says that, in the end, we know what God is not rather than what he is. This is profoundly true. For all that, it would be wrong to suggest that Thomas ends by denying that we know anything of God. That would make mincemeat out of the complicated analyses we have just sketched. Complete ignorance would make impossible the precisions just seen. We must not make Thomas say less than he says. Nor of course more. Our mind is made to know God, but in this life, whether by nature or grace, we cannot fully grasp what he is. That is what awaits us as our reward, to be seen even as we are seen.

Suggested Reading Assignment

Summa theologiae, I, question 33. Exposition of Boethius's De hebdomadibus. Included in my Penguin Classic, p. 142 ff.

Suggested Writing Assignment

Analyze the second lesson of the commentary on Boethius.


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