Can God Be Named?

by Fr. Albert, O.P.

St. Pius X identified two fundamental doctrines at the base of modernism: agnosticism and immanentism, the second being a consequence of the first. Agnosticism teaches that we cannot know God, nor make any positive statements about Him, which leads to the second doctrine, immanentism, according to which the dogmatic statements we make about God, since they cannot apply to Him, simply describe the ideas and sentiments we have in our hearts about Him.

Positive Statements about God

St. Thomas addresses head-on this crucial problem of the possibility of making positive statements about God in Question 13 of the Prima Pars of his Summa where he treats of the names of God. This question logically follows Question 12 on the knowledge we have of God for, he says, “everything is named by us according to our knowledge of it.” Thus, since we cannot know God’s essence in this life here below, the names we give Him do not express His essence, but rather they reflect the knowledge we have of Him through His creatures. These creatures come from God and so they tell us something about Him (since He could not give them what they have unless it existed in Him beforehand so that He could give it), but they do not tell us everything because He infinitely surpasses them.1 St. Thomas writes:

“Since our intellect knows God from creatures, it knows Him as far as creatures represent Him. Now…every creature represents Him, and is like Him so far as it possesses some perfection: yet it represents Him not as something of the same species or genus, but as the excelling principle of whose form the effects fall short, although they derive some kind of likeness thereto….Therefore the aforesaid names signify the divine substance, but in an imperfect manner, even as creatures represent it imperfectly” (I, q. 13, a. 2).

To an objection that quotes St. John Damascene, who says that the names we give God do not signify what He is, St. Thomas responds: “Damascene says that these names do not signify what God is, forasmuch as by none of these names is perfectly expressed what He is; but each one signifies Him in an imperfect manner, even as creatures represent Him imperfectly”2 (ibid., ad 1).

This strict correspondence between the signification of the names of God and the manner by which creatures represent Him leads to a very important distinction that must be made between the perfection signified by these names and the mode or manner by which they signify it. For the perfections in creatures truly exist in God (otherwise He could not give them), but they exist in Him in a more eminent way than in creatures. Thus the names also which we give to God truly express His perfections but in a way that falls far short of the way they exist in God.3

Distinctions to Be Made

This distinction between the perfection signified by a name and the mode by which it signifies it makes it possible to respond to the objection of the agnostics who say that since the names of God come from creatures they cannot be applied to Him properly, but only metaphorically, as when, for example, David says : “God is my rock.” St. Thomas responds:

“There are some names which signify these perfections flowing from God to creatures in such a way that the imperfect way in which creatures receive the divine perfection is part of the very signification of the name itself, as “rock” signifies a material being, and names of this kind can be applied to God only in a metaphorical sense. Other names, however, express these perfections absolutely, without any such mode of participation being part of their signification, as the words “being,” “good,” “living,” and the like, and such names can be applied to God properly” (I, q. 13, a. 3, ad 1).

So if the imperfect created mode of existence of a perfection enters into the name given to God, this name cannot be applied to Him properly, for this mode belongs to creatures, not to God. For example, God cannot be said properly to be a rock, because the name “rock” includes the imperfection of being material. If, however, the name expresses simply the perfection itself absolutely, without including the mode of its existence in creatures, the name can be applied properly to God. Thus when we say: “God is wise,” the name “wise” properly refers to something real in God, even though the name comes from creatures, because it merely expresses the perfection itself and not its mode of existence in creatures. This perfection “wisdom” does not exist in God in the same way as it does in creatures (for in them it is a quality of the intelligence while in God it is identified to His essence) but it really exists in Him.4

Logic in the Philosophical Sense

Using the same principle of the correlation between the names of God and the perfections in creatures, St. Thomas responds to the question of whether all the names we give to God are synonyms, that is, do they, in fact, all really mean the same thing. It would appear that they do because what we name “wisdom” in God is, in fact, His essence, and what we name “justice” in God is also His essence, and the same thing goes for all the terms we apply to God. They all are identified to God’s essence and so don’t refer to anything distinct in God, and so it seems that they must be synonymous.

The response to this question (as to a lot of others) involves doing a little bit of logic—not logic in the sense of analyzing arguments (which is only a small part of logic and the least important), but in the philosophical sense of the term, which designates the study of the concepts of our mind in their relations to the reality they express. It is a difficult science, but absolutely necessary because of the complexity of the mode of human understanding which is incapable of seizing reality immediately as it is in itself but must break it up into particles, as it were, and put it back together again without, however, ceasing to be objective. It is only in this way that we will be able to answer the problem posed at the beginning about the positive statements we make about God.

As we have seen, the meanings of the words we use to name God are concepts of the intellect which are proportioned to the perfections in creatures. These perfections, however, although multiple and varied, are so many reflections of something that is one and absolutely simple, namely their cause, which is God, who is represented in a multiple, varied way by these diverse perfections of creatures. In the same way, then, the names of God, like the creatures they come from, are multiple and varied, even though they all express, imperfectly, one thing: God. They are multiple and varied precisely because they are imperfect: one single word cannot express all the perfection of God,5 just as one creature cannot exhaust His infinite power and represent it, and so just as there are many creatures, there are many names of God.6

Thus even though all these names (like “wisdom” and “justice”) refer to the same thing, they are not synonyms because they do not mean the same thing. St. Thomas explains: “Synonymous terms are those which signify one thing under one aspect; for words which signify different aspects of one thing, do not signify primarily and absolutely one thing; because the term only signifies the thing through the medium of the intellectual concept, as was said above” (I, q. 13, a. 4 ad 1).

In other words, even though the terms we apply to God all signify, ultimately, the same thing (since “wisdom” and “justice” in God are the same thing), their signification is not the same, and so they are not synonyms. Words don’t refer immediately to things but to concepts through which the thing is known: so even if the thing they refer to is the same, the words are different, and not synonyms, if the concepts they refer to are different. The human mind is too weak to seize immediately the whole reality of things in one concept, even created things, and so much less can it seize the whole reality of God in one concept.7

True Affirmations

All of this permits us to understand how we can make positive statements about God which truly affirm something about Him, even though He is, in Himself, ineffable. Again, a little logic is necessary to explain this precisely.

What happens, in fact, when we make a positive statement is that we affirm the unity in reality of two separate concepts in our mind. Let us take the example of the proposition: “This tree is green.” The tree and the color green in reality are one sole thing, but my mind knows this one thing according to two different aspects: its essence (tree) and one of its qualities (the color green) and then by the proposition reunites the two.

To the diversity of the concepts, explains St. Thomas, corresponds the multiplicity of the predicate and the subject; the mind signifies their identity in the thing, however, by the proposition itself which unites them.

And he goes on to apply this to God, giving the coup de grâce to the agnostic fallacy which, under the pretext that here below we cannot know God as He is in Himself, claims that we cannot make any true affirmations about Him at all.8

“God, as considered in Himself, is altogether one and simple, yet our intellect knows Him by different concepts because it cannot see Him as He is in Himself. Nevertheless, although it understands Him under different concepts, it knows that one and the same simple thing corresponds to all its concepts. Therefore the intellect represents this mental plurality by the plurality of the predicate and the subject, but represents the unity by their composition” (I, q. 13, a. 12).

Fr. Albert, O.P., ordained in 1994, is presently superior of a newly founded Dominican community in Belgium under the authority of Bishop de Galarreta.

1 “For sensible creatures are effects of God that are not adequate to the power of their cause” (I, q. 12, a. 12).

2 Similarly, to another objection that says that since we cannot know God’s essence in this life, the names we give Him don’t apply to His substance he responds: “We cannot know the essence of God in this life, as He really is in Himself; but we know Him accordingly as He is represented in the perfections of creatures; and thus the names imposed by us signify Him in that manner.”

3 Cajetan explains: “For we know God by these perfections [in creatures] not in just any way, but according to the manner in which they exist in creatures; thus we know God by His effects in such a way that the manner of existence of the effects overflows proportionately into our manner of conceiving these perfections.” 4 St. Thomas adds, however, that although the word “wisdom” properly refers to something in God, it does not mean exactly the same thing as it means in creatures, and yet neither does it mean something totally different: it rather expresses a concept that is “analogical,” that is, a concept that applies both to God and creatures according to a proportion that is similar. In the same way we speak of sensation and intellection as both being “knowledge” and yet the term “knowledge” doesn’t mean the same thing in both cases. Nevertheless because the proportion between intellection and its object is similar to the proportion between sensation and its object, we call both “knowledge,” and this term refers to something real, namely this similarity of proportion.

5 That is, one created word; the Divine Word, however, can and does.

6 Cajetan, in his typically concise manner, succinctly sums this up: “Just as what is utterly and simply the same thing is represented by many perfections in real being, so it is in intentional being; that is to say, by many concepts.” “Intentional being” is precisely the object of logic: it is the existence things have in our minds, as opposed to their existence in reality (“in rerum natura”).

7 Cajetan again explains: “What corresponds in reality to the many concepts one has of some thing, of God, for example? To these concepts corresponds one thing that is imitable or representable in many ways: to their multiplicity however does not correspond a multiplicity in the thing that is their object, but its eminence, by which it contains united in itself what is apprehended as multiple by another.”

8 In the Sed contra of this same article, St. Thomas gives the argument of authority against this false doctrine: “What is of faith cannot be false. But some affirmative propositions are of faith; as that God is Three and One; and that He is omnipotent. Therefore true affirmative propositions can be formed about God.”