Lesson 12: The Names of God

The previous lesson has explained how the doctrine of analogous names enabled Aristotle and Thomas to provide sufficient unity for a science of being as being. This initial application to the subject of the science opens the way for another crucial application. Can the term "substance" be analogically common to material and immaterial substance?

It is in pursuit of this -- and of course if such an ascent cannot be made, metaphysics fails -- that we find Aristotle subjecting material substance to a surprising analysis in Book Seven. We find him stressing a truth about material or composite substance. The form, matter and composite itself can be called "substance", but not univocally. The primary and controlling meaning of the term is form. So it is that we can say that form is more substance than is matter or the composite (the composite gets tugged down in the scale because it includes matter which is least deserving of the appellation substance).

Of itself -- that is, with reference to material substance itself -- this is of minor consequence. It is not as if the form of a composite substance could exist by itself and thus be itself a full-fledged substance -- that is, that which neither exists in nor is predicated of another. But if there should be substances beyond material substances, we now know that we can call them substances properly. The reason is that they will be subsistent forms. But of course, to undertake metaphysics is already to have proved that there are things beyond the physical that relate to them as cause to effect. Accordingly, the analysis we are alluding to is the quest for a better understanding of such separate things and the fashioning of a vocabulary to speak of them.

Speaking of God

The ultimate aim of metaphysics, as we have seen, is such knowledge of God as the human mind can acquire. Let us look at the way the doctrine of analogous names enables Thomas to give an account of the divine attributes. Those attributes are wisdom, justice, mercy, being, one, true, good, etc. etc. Thomas approaches the question by asking in effect how such a term as wise can be common to God and creature.

This is dictated by a truth that Thomas never tires of repeating. We name things as we know them, and what we first know and name are the sensible things around us. Knowledge of the world provides us with a vocabulary that we then apply even to living and mental activities, which are reflexively known insofar as we know the world. Thus we use the language of matter and form to speak of sensation and intellection as we saw in Lesson 5. And it is truths about the world which provide the premises for the argument that, given these truths about the world, there must be a first mover unlike any of the moved movers in the world. The slow and painstaking ascent from the things of this world to God is tracked by the language we employ to express the stages of that knowledge.

A corollary of this is that there is no language that is proper to God. Our knowledge of God is oblique, gained from knowledge of creatures, and it is the language expressing first our knowledge of creatures that is extended to talk about God. That is why the problem of the divine names is one of asking how names are common to God and creature. Whether it is God telling us about himself or man trying to achieve knowledge of God, in either case the language used is common to God and creature.

Thomas distinguishes three categories of divine names: the negative, the relative and the affirmative or positive. Negative terms like infinite, timeless and incorporeal deny of God limiting features of his effects. Terms like Lord and Creator are said of God because of a real relation of creatures to him. We think of a relation going in the other direction, from God to creature, but this is merely due to our way of thinking. For God to be really related to something else would be for him to depend on that other thing, but this would be an imperfection and God is perfect being. It is the positive or affirmative terms to which the doctrine of analogous names applies. This can be discussed in terms of the following list:

    [1] Socrates is wise.

    [2] God is wise.

How does the recurrent term "wise" signify here? We reject the possibility that it is univocally common to God and his creature, for reasons that will emerge. Is it used equivocally? If this were so, there would be no relation between the two uses of the term. But surely God applies such terms to himself in order to tell us something about him. But how are we to understand [2].

Relying on Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, Thomas uses a three stage understanding of the affirmation:

    [2] God is wise.

    [2a] God is not wise

    [2b] God is eminently wise.

The relation between [2] and [2a] should surprise, since it seems to express a clear contradiction. In order to see that it is not a contradiction, we make appeal to the second-order vocabulary devised to express the doctrine of analogous naming. [2] is true because it affirms the res significata of wise and [2a] is true because it denies the modus significandi the term has as applied to Socrates.

This enables us to see why a univocal understanding of [1] and [2] was rejected. If the term were univocally common to God and Socrates, it would have the same res and modus in both uses. But wisdom as Socrates has it is an incidental characteristic. There was a time before Socrates was wise although he was Socrates and it is conceivable that he should cease to be wise while remaining Socrates. When God is called wise, it is the perfection of wisdom we have in mind, not the limited way in which Socrates has it. Hence [2a].

This indicates why "wise" is said to be analogically common to God and Socrates. The first condition of analogous names is met. There is a plurality of meanings which are partly the same and partly different. The sameness is found in the res significata, the difference in the modi significandi. But what of the second condition according to which the plurality of meanings of the analogous term make an ordered set, one of which takes priority over the others? What is the primary analogate of "wise?"

If we ask ourselves what the controlling meaning of the term is, it is obviously the meaning as it applies to Socrates. It is from the meaning that we work variations in order to make the term applicable to God. What is prior in the meaning of the name, however, is not what is ontologically prior. Our wisdom is a sharing in, an effect, of God's wisdom, and ontologically a cause is prior to its effect. But we come to know and name the cause from knowledge of its effects, so there is of course a dependence in the order of naming of God on creatures. This reversal is clear when we look into [2b]. In the case of names shared analogously by creatures, we can express the secondary mode as well as the primary, but this is not possible in the case of God. This is why, in [2b] we admit that we cannot grasp the way the perfection is had by God. We know that it is not an incidental attribute, as it is with creatures. This means that we can equally well say

    [3] God is wisdom

as that he is wise. But we can also say

    [4] God is justice

    [5] God is mercy

    [6] God is truth

and so on. All these terms signify the same perfect being. Are they synonyms? This would be the case if they were imposed to signify from the perfections as found in God, where they are identical. But the words are fashioned to express a perfection found in creatures and in creatures justice and mercy and truth really differ.

God as Subsistent Existence

The plurality of divine names suggests that the only way we can express the divine being is by saying that God "is just", "is merciful" and so on, with his being signified by way of the plurality of perfections from which such names are formed. Thomas has a further suggestion to make, guided by what God told Moses when he asked how he should describe the one who was sending him. "Tell them that He who is has said this." God is being; not just this sort of being or that, but being in all its amplitude. Here is the route Thomas takes to clarifying that claim.

Thomas wrote a commentary on the work of Boethius' that was called De hebdomadibus. He does not here employ the kind of exposition he used when commenting on Boethius's De trinitate. That, we remember, involved a divisio textus or literal commentary followed by a discussion of questions raised by the text. The exposition of the De hebdomadibus stays close to the text but amounts to both an explication and the embracing of its contents.

This little work of Boethius's is sometimes called the first scholastic treatise. Boethius himself characterizes its method as mathematical. Having posed his question, he will list a number of axioms and go on to develop an affirmative and negative answer to the question, after which he will resolve it and treat several corollaries. It is Thomas's discussion of the first axiom that interests us now. [You will find the exposition as selection 7 in Thomas Aquinas Selected Writings.]

Boethius's question is this: Is a thing good simply because it is? After explaining what is meant by an axiom, he gives this as the first: diversum est esse et id quod est: to be and that which is are different. This short sentence has generated an enormous amount of commentary but little agreement as to what it means and/or implies. Here is what Thomas says of it.

With respect to being, to be itself is considered something common and indeterminate, which is determined in two ways, first on the part of the subject, which has existence, and another way on the part of the predicate, as when we say of man, or of anything, not that it simply is, but that it is such and such, for example white or black.

Taking as his model "S is P", Thomas thinks of the infinitive to be [esse] as contracted in one way by the subject term and in another by the predicate. If we were to say simple "S is" this can be taken to stand for substantial existence, the existence of the subject. The predicate term, presuming the existence of the subject, adds incidental being to it. The substantial form is the measure of substantial existence as the accidental forms are of accidental existence. The infinitive to-be is made finite, determined, by form.

For a composite substance to exist is for its substantial form actually to inhere in its matter. To exist is not part of the essence or nature of the thing since if it were the thing it would exist necessarily. But composite beings are the very paradigm of contingent, that is, non-necessary being. Is simple substance, one that is subsistent form, not form in matter, necessary? Is the first axiom applicable to simple substance.

If we think of separate substances either on a Platonic or an Aristotelian model, we are confronted with forms which measure existence. "Therefore, if there should be found forms apart from matter, each of them is simple in that it lacks matter, and consequently quantity, which is a disposition of matter, nonetheless, because each form is determinative of to be itself, none of them is its own existence, but is something having existence." An angel is a pure form, but it is the form it is and its existence is measured according to that form. Thus it is a determinate kind or mode of existence -- Gabriel or Raphael or Michael. While simple in one sense, such entities are not wholly simple. They are in their way composite of form and existence, of to be and what is.

That will be truly simple which does not participate in existence as something inhering in it but is subsistent existence. But this can only be one. Because if existence itself has nothing added to itself besides existence, as has been said, it is impossible that that which is its own existence be multiplied by something diversifying it; and because it has nothing outside itself mixed with it, the consequence is that it is susceptible of no accident.

The suggestion is that if existence is, in the way displayed earlier, made finite and determinate by accidental and substantial forms, a simple substance -- one that has no matter -- will determine and restrict existence because of the form it has. For that form to subsist is of course the perfection of that thing, but its perfection is limited to the form it has. Now much the same thing, as we have seen, seems suggested by the plurality of divine attributes. Justice, mercy, truth, etc. are forms that determine and restrict existence. It is this we seek to go beyond when we say that God is subsistent existence. Not existence to this or that degree, but unlimited existence. It is as if we imagined to-be-just and to-be-merciful and to-be-true and all the other attributes to be returning to be coalescing in the infinitive to-be such that the infinite is no longer undetermined and undifferentiated but the fullness of all perfection.

The following passage discusses whether "He who is" is the most proper name of God.

Ad primum ergo dicendum quod hoc nomen Qui est est magis proprium nomen Dei quam hoc nomen Deus, quantum ad id a quo imponitur, scilicet ab esse, et quantum ad modum significandi et consignificandi, ut dictum est. Sed quantum ad id ad quod imponitur nomen ad significandum est magis proprium hoc nomen Deus, quod imponitur ad significandum naturam divinam. Et adhuc magis proprium nomen est Tetragrammaton, quod est impositum ad significandam ipsam Dei substantiam incommunicabilem, et, ut sic liceat loqui, singularem.

Summa theologiae, I, 13, 11

In reply to the first it should be said that this name "He who is" is a more proper name of God than the name "God" with respect to that from which it is imposed, namely, from existence, as well as with respect to its mode of signifying and consignifying. But with respect to that for which the name is imposed to signify, "God" which is imposed to signify the divine nature is the more proper. More proper still is the name Tetragrammaton which is imposed to signify God's incommunicable and, if it is permitted so to speak, singular substance.

With this subject -- our ability to speak about God -- we bring our introduction to metaphysics to a close. In the last year of his life, Thomas Aquinas had a vision after which he stopped writing. Everything that he had written now appeared to him, in comparison with what he had been allowed to glimpse, mere straw. The judgment, it should be stressed, is a comparative one. Still, considering the distance between Thomas and this poor effort to provide an introduction to his metaphysics, silence seems not merely desirable, but an obligation.

Suggested Reading Assignment

Selection 13, Selected Writings of Thomas Aquinas.

Suggested Writing Assignment

What is the distinction among divine names which are negative, relative and affirmative?


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