Knowledge of God’s Perfections through Reason

“Every perfection and goodness which is in creatures belongs to God essentially (Aquinas, SCG, 1.80).” Just as we can know the existence of God from reason alone by reasoning from effects to cause, we likewise can know certain attributes of God.

Yoram Hazony* recently published an opinion piece, in which he claimed that we can know little, if anything, about God. The key concept, which he was adamant to deny, was knowledge of God’s perfection or perfections. While the article showed certain theological and hermeneutical errors, the primary issue was one of reasoning, specifically metaphysical reasoning. It is to that error, its origins, and its solution, that I now turn.

Metaphysical thought inquires beyond our sense experience, but is derived from it.  We can understand something about the world beyond our immediate perceptions, and “come to a knowledge of the truth.”  Philosophical reasoning canbring us to many of the same truths as divine revelation, as truth is one.  But a bad metaphysics, or a doubt of the possibility of metaphysics, can lead to an equally erroneous view.

The two directions of rationalism and empiricism that developed in the modern period of philosophy, as emphasized by Descartes and Hume, respectively, contributed to a divorce between faith and science.  Kant later attempted to reconcile the divergent views, but he also had to deny the ability to prove the existence of God, and many other metaphysical possibilities fell by the wayside in his system as well.

But these problems began earlier than Descartes with theologians who viewed being as either an equivocal or as a univocal concept. Univocity and equivocity are not the only available positions, however.

We must say here something about abstraction if the point is to be understood. We will quickly look at natural philosophy, mathematics, and metaphysics to demonstrate this.

In the study of natural philosophy we merely abstract the universal from the particular.  We study the features of flesh and bones, apart from this particular flesh or this particular bone. This is to consider objects as “matter as such,” such as flesh and bones, but not particular matter, such as “this flesh” and “these bones.”

Freedom from all sensible matter brings us to mathematics.  For we do not need to include matter in the definition of a circle as we do when we define flesh, but there are no existing circles apart from matter.  We see that the difference, then, is that while both require matter to exist, mathematical objects do not require that matter be part of their very definition.

Metaphysics goes beyond this by not only abstracting the object of study from sensible matter, but understanding that some things can exist and be defined apart from any matter whatsoever. In other words, the mind leaves aside all the limitations of matter and cognizes an object that is intelligible without reference to matter and so is independent of matter in both meaning and existence.

The understanding of abstraction and separation are not only important for understanding the difference in the speculative sciences, but in understanding metaphysical topics. It is especially important in contemplating how all created things relate to God without falling into the areas of thinking that God’s being and our being are completely univocal or completely equivocal.

Nominalism is the general philosophical position of many today. Simply put, a nominalist cannot see the connection between beings in any metaphysical way, but only as matters of fact. Nominalism tends to be the underlying premise of empirical scientific positivism.

A different metaphysical understanding than that of univocal or equivocal being is necessary to arrive at an understanding of God. That position, held by St. Thomas Aquinas, is one of analogy. When one understands being analogously, we are able to see that there are similarities and differences in what is common from one being to another, and we can use this understanding to see that effects must have some similarity to their cause. It is through this similarity that we can know something of God and His perfection.

Before we go a little further into exploring the use of analogy in understanding God and His perfections, something must be said of the two ways in which we can, philosophically, know something of God.

The first way is that of negation, which consists in denying of God anything that belongs to contingent beings as contingent. Here, we say more about what God is not than what He is, but in doing so, we really do come closer to understanding God. After all, we move closer to understanding anything when we can limit certain attributes from our concept of the thing. We do this with mathematics, in which we remove the material and simply understanding the thing as, for example, a circle. When we realize a contingent thing, as contingent, requires a cause, we can see that God is uncaused. Uncaused, infinite, etc, are actually negative terms, but they tell us real information about God. In this via negationas, then, while perhaps not stating perfections of God, we do take away imperfections from our concept of God.

The second way we of philosophically speaking of God is the way of eminence, the via eminentiae. In this way, we attribute to God, to an eminent degree and analogously, everything that can be considered a pure perfection. In this way, we can say that God is wise, for example. But He is not wise in the way a human is wise, for a human learns in time, and through discursive reasoning, and learns a limited amount of things. So we, by removing all the imperfections of wisdom as it exists in our own experience, can say that God is wise. Of course, God’s wisdom is really wisdom, but it is spoken of neither equivocally nor univocally as compared to ours, but analogously.

As we stated earlier, we reason to the wisdom of God, for example, by understanding the relation of cause and effect, knowing that effects in some way resemble their cause, and cannot exceed its cause. Therefore, an unwise (primary) cause could not create a wise effect. Being does not come from non-being. Here, we come full circle, and see that, in the same way we prove God’s existence, moving from contingent being’s dependence on necessary being, we can likewise know of some of the perfections of God.

Again, it is by a sort of incomplete abstraction from one subject that we understand such terms as goodness and even being itself.  The primary subject that we abstract these analogies from is being itself, which is God.  For example, God is not [merely] “good” but is goodness itself, whereas other things are “good” by way of analogy, and this goodness is understood as related to God’s goodness but not univocal to it.

Lastly, mention must be made of the supposed imperfections of God mentioned in Scripture, as pointed out by Mr. Hazony in his recent article. Again, we refer here to the importance of analogy. There are several types of analogy used in natural theology, and each has important uses in the field. However, one type of analogy called, by the philosophers, improper proportionality, but might better be known in general as a metaphor.

If God is “like a lion,” then we have an example of this type of analogy. We can derive some knowledge of God, as He relates to His creatures, from such analogies. But obviously, such analogies have limited use. God is not gold-furred, around 450 pounds, and carnivorous, and no one that says that “God is like a lion” intends such things to be conveyed. Likewise, in the places where the Scriptures seem to make statements that limit the perfections of God, they are always stated in metaphorical ways, and almost always meant to show, not an intrinsic attribute of God, but to convey something about how He relates to His creatures, or, more appropriately, how creatures are related to Him.


*Yoram Hazony does not exist. This short essay is a response to an imaginary article that denies we can know, through reason, that God has certain perfections.

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