Summa Theologica Part I, Question 12. How God is Known by Us
by William C. Michael
St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274)
As hitherto we have considered God as He is in Himself, we now go on to consider in what manner He is in the knowledge of creatures; concerning which there are thirteen points of inquiry:
Table of Contents- Article 1. Whether Any Created Intellect Can See the Essence of God?
- Article 2. Whether the Essence of God Is Seen by the Created Intellect Through an Image?
- Article 3. Whether the Essence of God Can Be Seen with the Bodily Eye?
- Article 4. Whether Any Created Intellect by Its Natural Powers Can See the Divine Essence?
- Article 5. Whether the Created Intellect Needs Any Created Light in Order to See the Essence of God?
- Article 6. Whether of Those Who See the Essence of God, One Sees More Perfectly Than Another?
- Article 7. Whether Those Who See the Essence of God Comprehend Him?
- Article 8. Whether Those Who See the Essence of God See All in God?
- Article 9. Whether What Is Seen in God by Those Who See the Divine Essence, Is Seen Through Any Similitude?
- Article 10. Whether Those Who See the Essence of God See All They See in It at the Same Time?
- Article 11. Whether Anyone in This Life Can See the Essence of God?
- Article 12. Whether God Can Be Known in This Life by Natural Reason?
- Article 13. Whether by Grace a Higher Knowledge of God Can Be Obtained Than by Natural Reason?
Article 1. Whether Any Created Intellect Can See the Essence of God?
Objection 1: It seems that no created intellect can see the essence of God. For Chrysostom (Hom. xiv. in Joan.) commenting on John 1:18, “No man hath seen God at any time,” says: “Not prophets only, but neither angels nor archangels have seen God. For how can a creature see what is increatable?” Dionysius also says (Div. Nom. i), speaking of God: “Neither is there sense, nor image, nor opinion, nor reason, nor knowledge of Him.”
Obj. 2: Further, everything infinite, as such, is unknown. But God is infinite, as was shown above (Q. 7, A. 1). Therefore in Himself He is unknown.
Obj. 3: Further, the created intellect knows only existing things. For what falls first under the apprehension of the intellect is being. Now God is not something existing; but He is rather super-existence, as Dionysius says (Div. Nom. iv). Therefore God is not intelligible; but above all intellect.
Obj. 4: Further, there must be some proportion between the knower and the known, since the known is the perfection of the knower. But no proportion exists between the created intellect and God; for there is an infinite distance between them. Therefore the created intellect cannot see the essence of God.
On the contrary, It is written: “We shall see Him as He is” (1 John 2:2).
I answer that, Since everything is knowable according as it is actual, God, Who is pure act without any admixture of potentiality, is in Himself supremely knowable. But what is supremely knowable in itself, may not be knowable to a particular intellect, on account of the excess of the intelligible object above the intellect; as, for example, the sun, which is supremely visible, cannot be seen by the bat by reason of its excess of light.
Therefore some who considered this, held that no created intellect can see the essence of God. This opinion, however, is not tenable. For as the ultimate beatitude of man consists in the use of his highest function, which is the operation of his intellect; if we suppose that the created intellect could never see God, it would either never attain to beatitude, or its beatitude would consist in something else beside God; which is opposed to faith. For the ultimate perfection of the rational creature is to be found in that which is the principle of its being; since a thing is perfect so far as it attains to its principle. Further the same opinion is also against reason. For there resides in every man a natural desire to know the cause of any effect which he sees; and thence arises wonder in men. But if the intellect of the rational creature could not reach so far as to the first cause of things, the natural desire would remain void.
Hence it must be absolutely granted that the blessed see the essence of God.
Reply Obj. 1: Both of these authorities speak of the vision of comprehension. Hence Dionysius premises immediately before the words cited, “He is universally to all incomprehensible,” etc. Chrysostom likewise after the words quoted says: “He says this of the most certain vision of the Father, which is such a perfect consideration and comprehension as the Father has of the Son.”
Reply Obj. 2: The infinity of matter not made perfect by form, is unknown in itself, because all knowledge comes by the form; whereas the infinity of the form not limited by matter, is in itself supremely known. God is Infinite in this way, and not in the first way: as appears from what was said above (Q. 7, A. 1).
Reply Obj. 3: God is not said to be not existing as if He did not exist at all, but because He exists above all that exists; inasmuch as He is His own existence. Hence it does not follow that He cannot be known at all, but that He exceeds every kind of knowledge; which means that He is not comprehended.
Reply Obj. 4: Proportion is twofold. In one sense it means a certain relation of one quantity to another, according as double, treble and equal are species of proportion. In another sense every relation of one thing to another is called proportion. And in this sense there can be a proportion of the creature to God, inasmuch as it is related to Him as the effect of its cause, and as potentiality to its act; and in this way the created intellect can be proportioned to know God.
Article 2. Whether the Essence of God Is Seen by the Created Intellect Through an Image?
Objection 1: It seems that the essence of God is seen through an image by the created intellect. For it is written: “We know that when He shall appear, we shall be like to Him, and we shall see Him as He is” (1 John 3:2).
Obj. 2: Further, Augustine says (De Trin. v): “When we know God, some likeness of God is made in us.”
Obj. 3: Further, the intellect in act is the actual intelligible; as sense in act is the actual sensible. But this comes about inasmuch as sense is informed with the likeness of the sensible object, and the intellect with the likeness of the thing understood. Therefore, if God is seen by the created intellect in act, it must be that He is seen by some similitude.
On the contrary, Augustine says (De Trin. xv) that when the Apostle says, “We see through a glass and in an enigma ,” “by the terms ‘glass’ and ‘enigma’ certain similitudes are signified by him, which are accommodated to the vision of God.” But to see the essence of God is not an enigmatic nor a speculative vision, but is, on the contrary, of an opposite kind. Therefore the divine essence is not seen through a similitude.
I answer that, Two things are required both for sensible and for intellectual vision — viz. power of sight, and union of the thing seen with the sight. For vision is made actual only when the thing seen is in a certain way in the seer. Now in corporeal things it is clear that the thing seen cannot be by its essence in the seer, but only by its likeness; as the similitude of a stone is in the eye, whereby the vision is made actual; whereas the substance of the stone is not there. But if the principle of the visual power and the thing seen were one and the same thing, it would necessarily follow that the seer would receive both the visual power and the form whereby it sees, from that one same thing.
Now it is manifest both that God is the author of the intellectual power, and that He can be seen by the intellect. And since the intellective power of the creature is not the essence of God, it follows that it is some kind of participated likeness of Him who is the first intellect. Hence also the intellectual power of the creature is called an intelligible light, as it were, derived from the first light, whether this be understood of the natural power, or of some perfection superadded of grace or of glory. Therefore, in order to see God, there must be some similitude of God on the part of the visual faculty, whereby the intellect is made capable of seeing God. But on the part of the object seen, which must necessarily be united to the seer, the essence of God cannot be seen by any created similitude. First, because as Dionysius says (Div. Nom. i), “by the similitudes of the inferior order of things, the superior can in no way be known;” as by the likeness of a body the essence of an incorporeal thing cannot be known. Much less therefore can the essence of God be seen by any created likeness whatever. Secondly, because the essence of God is His own very existence, as was shown above (Q. 3, A. 4), which cannot be said of any created form; and so no created form can be the similitude representing the essence of God to the seer. Thirdly, because the divine essence is uncircumscribed, and contains in itself super-eminently whatever can be signified or understood by the created intellect. Now this cannot in any way be represented by any created likeness; for every created form is determined according to some aspect of wisdom, or of power, or of being itself, or of some like thing. Hence to say that God is seen by some similitude, is to say that the divine essence is not seen at all; which is false.
Therefore it must be said that to see the essence of God, there is required some similitude in the visual faculty, namely, the light of glory strengthening the intellect to see God, which is spoken of in the Psalm (35:10), “In Thy light we shall see light.” The essence of God, however, cannot be seen by any created similitude representing the divine essence itself as it really is.
Reply Obj. 1: That authority speaks of the similitude which is caused by participation of the light of glory.
Reply Obj. 2: Augustine speaks of the knowledge of God here on earth.
Reply Obj. 3: The divine essence is existence itself. Hence as other intelligible forms which are not their own existence are united to the intellect by means of some entity, whereby the intellect itself is informed, and made in act; so the divine essence is united to the created intellect, as the object actually understood, making the intellect in act by and of itself.
Article 3. Whether the Essence of God Can Be Seen with the Bodily Eye?
Objection 1: It seems that the essence of God can be seen by the corporeal eye. For it is written (Job 19:26): “In my flesh I shall see . . . God,” and (Job 42:5), “With the hearing of the ear I have heard Thee, but now my eye seeth Thee.”
Obj. 2: Further, Augustine says (De Civ. Dei xxix, 29): “Those eyes” (namely the glorified) “will therefore have a greater power of sight, not so much to see more keenly, as some report of the sight of serpents or of eagles (for whatever acuteness of vision is possessed by these creatures, they can see only corporeal things) but to see even incorporeal things.” Now whoever can see incorporeal things, can be raised up to see God. Therefore the glorified eye can see God.
Obj. 3: Further, God can be seen by man through a vision of the imagination. For it is written: “I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne,” etc. (Isa. 6:1). But an imaginary vision originates from sense; for the imagination is moved by sense to act. Therefore God can be seen by a vision of sense.
On the contrary, Augustine says (De Vid. Deum, Ep. cxlvii): “No one has ever seen God either in this life, as He is, nor in the angelic life, as visible things are seen by corporeal vision.”
I answer that, It is impossible for God to be seen by the sense of sight, or by any other sense, or faculty of the sensitive power. For every such kind of power is the act of a corporeal organ, as will be shown later (Q. 78). Now act is proportional to the nature which possesses it. Hence no power of that kind can go beyond corporeal things. For God is incorporeal, as was shown above (Q. 3, A. 1). Hence He cannot be seen by the sense or the imagination, but only by the intellect.
Reply Obj. 1: The words, “In my flesh I shall see God my Saviour,” do not mean that God will be seen with the eye of the flesh, but that man existing in the flesh after the resurrection will see God. Likewise the words, “Now my eye seeth Thee,” are to be understood of the mind’s eye, as the Apostle says: “May He give unto you the spirit of wisdom . . . in the knowledge of Him, that the eyes of your heart” may be “enlightened” (Eph. 1:17, 18).
Reply Obj. 2: Augustine speaks as one inquiring, and conditionally. This appears from what he says previously: “Therefore they will have an altogether different power (viz. the glorified eyes), if they shall see that incorporeal nature;” and afterwards he explains this, saying: “It is very credible, that we shall so see the mundane bodies of the new heaven and the new earth, as to see most clearly God everywhere present, governing all corporeal things, not as we now see the invisible things of God as understood by what is made; but as when we see men among whom we live, living and exercising the functions of human life, we do not believe they live, but see it.” Hence it is evident how the glorified eyes will see God, as now our eyes see the life of another. But life is not seen with the corporeal eye, as a thing in itself visible, but as the indirect object of the sense; which indeed is not known by sense, but at once, together with sense, by some other cognitive power. But that the divine presence is known by the intellect immediately on the sight of, and through, corporeal things, happens from two causes — viz. from the perspicuity of the intellect, and from the refulgence of the divine glory infused into the body after its renovation.
Reply Obj. 3: The essence of God is not seen in a vision of the imagination; but the imagination receives some form representing God according to some mode of similitude; as in the divine Scripture divine things are metaphorically described by means of sensible things.
Article 4. Whether Any Created Intellect by Its Natural Powers Can See the Divine Essence?
Objection 1: It seems that a created intellect can see the Divine essence by its own natural power. For Dionysius says (Div. Nom. iv): “An angel is a pure mirror, most clear, receiving, if it is right to say so, the whole beauty of God.” But if a reflection is seen, the original thing is seen. Therefore since an angel by his natural power understands himself, it seems that by his own natural power he understands the Divine essence.
Obj. 2: Further, what is supremely visible, is made less visible to us by reason of our defective corporeal or intellectual sight. But the angelic intellect has no such defect. Therefore, since God is supremely intelligible in Himself, it seems that in like manner He is supremely so to an angel. Therefore, if he can understand other intelligible things by his own natural power, much more can he understand God.
Obj. 3: Further, corporeal sense cannot be raised up to understand incorporeal substance, which is above its nature. Therefore if to see the essence of God is above the nature of every created intellect, it follows that no created intellect can reach up to see the essence of God at all. But this is false, as appears from what is said above (A. 1). Therefore it seems that it is natural for a created intellect to see the Divine essence.
On the contrary, It is written: “The grace of God is life everlasting” (Rom. 6:23). But life everlasting consists in the vision of the Divine essence, according to the words: “This is eternal life, that they may know Thee the only true God,” etc. (John 17:3). Therefore to see the essence of God is possible to the created intellect by grace, and not by nature.
I answer that, It is impossible for any created intellect to see the essence of God by its own natural power. For knowledge is regulated according as the thing known is in the knower. But the thing known is in the knower according to the mode of the knower. Hence the knowledge of every knower is ruled according to its own nature. If therefore the mode of anything’s being exceeds the mode of the knower, it must result that the knowledge of the object is above the nature of the knower. Now the mode of being of things is manifold. For some things have being only in this one individual matter; as all bodies. But others are subsisting natures, not residing in matter at all, which, however, are not their own existence, but receive it; and these are the incorporeal beings, called angels. But to God alone does it belong to be His own subsistent being. Therefore what exists only in individual matter we know naturally, forasmuch as our soul, whereby we know, is the form of certain matter. Now our soul possesses two cognitive powers; one is the act of a corporeal organ, which naturally knows things existing in individual matter; hence sense knows only the singular. But there is another kind of cognitive power in the soul, called the intellect; and this is not the act of any corporeal organ. Wherefore the intellect naturally knows natures which exist only in individual matter; not as they are in such individual matter, but according as they are abstracted therefrom by the considering act of the intellect; hence it follows that through the intellect we can understand these objects as universal; and this is beyond the power of the sense. Now the angelic intellect naturally knows natures that are not in matter; but this is beyond the power of the intellect of our soul in the state of its present life, united as it is to the body. It follows therefore that to know self-subsistent being is natural to the divine intellect alone; and this is beyond the natural power of any created intellect; for no creature is its own existence, forasmuch as its existence is participated. Therefore the created intellect cannot see the essence of God, unless God by His grace unites Himself to the created intellect, as an object made intelligible to it.
Reply Obj. 1: This mode of knowing God is natural to an angel — namely, to know Him by His own likeness refulgent in the angel himself. But to know God by any created similitude is not to know the essence of God, as was shown above (A. 2). Hence it does not follow that an angel can know the essence of God by his own power.
Reply Obj. 2: The angelic intellect is not defective, if defect be taken to mean privation, as if it were without anything which it ought to have. But if the defect be taken negatively, in that sense every creature is defective, when compared with God; forasmuch as it does not possess the excellence which is in God.
Reply Obj. 3: The sense of sight, as being altogether material, cannot be raised up to immateriality. But our intellect, or the angelic intellect, inasmuch as it is elevated above matter in its own nature, can be raised up above its own nature to a higher level by grace. The proof is, that sight cannot in any way know abstractedly what it knows concretely; for in no way can it perceive a nature except as this one particular nature; whereas our intellect is able to consider abstractedly what it knows concretely. Now although it knows things which have a form residing in matter, still it resolves the composite into both of these elements; and it considers the form separately by itself. Likewise, also, the intellect of an angel, although it naturally knows the concrete in any nature, still it is able to separate that existence by its intellect; since it knows that the thing itself is one thing, and its existence is another. Since therefore the created intellect is naturally capable of apprehending the concrete form, and the concrete being abstractedly, by way of a kind of resolution of parts; it can by grace be raised up to know separate subsisting substance, and separate subsisting existence.