September 2013 Print

God Is Knowable

by Fr. Albert, O.P.

Having considered how God is in Himself, it remains for us to consider how He is known by creatures.1

Thus St. Thomas begins a new section in his study of God. Having seen that He exists (q. 2) and a certain number of His general attributes2 (qq. 3-11), he now inquires about His knowability (q. 12).3 The immense practical importance of this question is obvious; our life literally depends on it, our eternal life. For Our Lord at the Last Supper prayed to His Father: “This is eternal life, that they may know thee, the only true God” (Jn. 17:3).

Knowing God As He Is

Unfortunately, however, the question is as difficult as it is important, for, as we have already said, we cannot know what God is, but only what He is not. Dionysius the Areopagite lays down very bluntly the reason for this when he says that God is not being, but above being. But the object of the intelligence is being. God, therefore, is unknowable. We reach the same conclusion by reflecting on the fact that God infinitely surpasses us: thus there is no proportion between us and God that would permit us to know Him.

Holy Scripture, nevertheless, assures us that, in spite of all this, we can, indeed, know God: and know not just His existence, or what He is not, but God Himself. St. John declares this wonderful news in a phrase that leaves no room for ambiguity: “We shall see Him as He is” (I Jn. 3:2).4

St. Thomas explains this saying that, in Himself, God is not only knowable, but supremely knowable, because He not only has being, but is Being itself.5

“But [he goes on] 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.”6

We are all, then, literally as blind as bats when it comes to knowing God “as He is,” and this goes not just for human intellects, but even for the angels themselves. He is as far “above the intellect” of angels as He is above ours, because their mode of being is just as far from His mode of being as ours is, since He alone is Being (ipsum esse subsistens). St. Thomas explains this, saying:

“Knowledge takes place in so far as the thing known is in the knower. But the thing known is in the knower according to the mode of the knower.7 Hence the knowledge of every knower depends on the mode of its own nature. If therefore the mode of being of the thing known exceeds the mode of the nature of the knower, it must result that the knowledge of that object is above the nature of the knower.…It follows therefore that to know being itself subsisting (ipsum esse subsistens) is natural to the divine intellect alone; and that this is beyond the natural power of any created intellect; for no creature is its own being, but rather participates in being.”8

And yet, as we have seen, Revelation teaches us that we can know God “as He is” and even that it is in this that the beatitude of all men consists. It is a simple fact, then, that we must believe by divine faith: we cannot even prove the very possibility of this knowledge rationally, because even this possibility is something that is essentially supernatural in its being, and therefore is supernatural as well in its knowability.9

Natural Desire to Know

Nevertheless, we can refute by reason any attempt to prove that this knowledge is impossible, and we can even show that it is fitting that God give it to us (if He chooses to do so by grace even though it is not “natural” to us).10 This is just what St. Thomas goes on to do, saying:

“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. If, therefore, the intellect of the rational creature could not reach so far as to the first cause of things, a natural desire would remain void.”11

It is important to repeat, however, that this argument does not claim to prove the possibility of this vision of the First Cause and much less its necessity, but merely wants to show that it is fitting that it be possible. For if one claims that this natural desire to see God proves that man is naturally ordered to this end, one blurs the distinction between the supernatural order and the natural order, because it implies that man is naturally ordered to something supernatural (the vision of God’s essence).12 This is a dangerous error that leads logically to Conciliar ecumenism, for it places all religions on the same plane, since they all express, more or less, this natural desire for God.

In reality, this desire to see God is, with regard to the object desired, supernatural only from a material point of view, that is to say, what is desired is the vision of the First Cause which cause is, in fact, God Himself. Formally, however, this object remains merely natural, for what is desired formally is the knowledge of the cause of the natural thing we see.13 With regard to its subject, this desire is merely conditional, that is to say, we would gladly accept to see the First Cause if it be possible, but we know that we have no natural claim to it.

Thomists have formulated a precise term to express this possibility of human nature to receive the vision of God which strikes the balance between, on the one hand, a natural desire that would be a veritable exigency and, on the other hand, a repugnance that would make such a vision surpass man absolutely to the point where it would not interest him (just as, for example, a symphony of Beethoven doesn’t interest a monkey because it is “over his head”). They describe this possibility as an “obediential potency,” which means that even though man doesn’t have a positive potency or ordination to this vision of God (as he does, for example, to the knowledge of the essence of material things) he is capable of receiving it. In this he differs from other animals which do not have this capacity because their knowledge is limited to what is purely sensible.14

Thus it is not true, as it was said earlier, that there is no proportion between God and man that would enable men to know Him, because there is a proportion between God, ipsum esse subsistens, and the intellect of man, in so far as man is capable of knowing being in itself and not just particular being, as animals do. Also, when Dionysius says that God is “not being” he doesn’t mean that He has no being at all, but simply that His being is not like any other being because He is His very being and thus is above all other beings. From this it follows, not that He cannot be known at all, but simply that He is above all knowledge in the sense that He cannot be understood completely.15

Supernatural Disposition Given

It remains to explain how this direct knowledge of God Himself takes place. Since no created concept can represent God as He is in Himself, in this act of knowledge it is not some created concept but God’s very essence which must inform the human intellect. This, however, is something that is above the nature of man, as we have said, so it is necessary that a supernatural disposition be given to the human intellect so that it might receive this supernatural form, just as, says St. Thomas, “if air is to receive the form of fire, it must be prepared by some disposition for such a form.” This supernatural strengthening of the intellect is what is called “lumen gloriae—the light of glory.” It is called light by analogy with corporal light, because just as corporal light renders the medium transparent and capable of transmitting light waves, so this special gift strengthens the intellect so that it can receive the essence of God as its form.

St. Thomas insists on the fact that this lumen gloriae is necessarily essentially supernatural, because it is a disposition to receive a form (God’s essence) which is supernatural.16 Suarez disagrees, saying that this added supernatural disposition is not absolutely necessary because the obediential potency in man is not just a passive capacity to receive the beatific vision but already an actual disposition for it, although it cannot, obviously, pass into act except by a special grace of God. Thus for Suarez the lumen gloriae is not an essential elevation of man’s nature but simply a grace that actualizes a potency already present in that nature.17 Thomists, however, reply that this position involves a dangerous confusion of nature and grace, because it implies that the obediential potency, which is natural, would have a positive order to a supernatural object, the beatific vision. The error of Henri de Lubac was already present in the error of Suarez.


St. Thomas concludes this question on the knowability of God by inquiring about the knowledge we can have of Him by natural reason, quoting St. Paul’s affirmation in his epistle to the Romans: “That which is known of God is manifest in them” (Rom. 1:19), that is, explains St. Thomas, “by natural reason.” This knowledge, however, does not extend to God’s essence, because it consists in the knowledge of Him as cause of the effects which are evident to our senses, and these effects do not adequately express God’s power.

“But [he goes on] because they are His effects and depend on their cause, we can be led from them so far as to know of God whether He exists, and to know of Him what must necessarily belong to Him, as the first cause of all things, exceeding all things caused by Him.”18

This leads us naturally to the very delicate question which follows about the names of God, where will be explained more precisely this knowledge of God “as the first cause of all things, exceeding all things caused by Him.”

Fr. Albert, O.P., was ordained by Bishop Fellay in 1994 and belongs to a traditional Dominican community based in Belgium.

1 I, q. 12, a. 1.

2 Attributes which consist, as we have seen, rather in what He is not than in what He is: simplicity (He is not composite), perfection (He has no potency), infinity (He is not limited), immutability (He is not changing), unicity (He is not multiple).

3 This will be followed, logically, by another question (q. 13) about the names of God, since the names we give things are simply tags we attach to the concepts by which we know them.


4 This truth has even been defined as a dogma of faith by Pope Benedict XII: “We define by Apostolic authority that (the saints) see the divine essence by an intuitive vision, face to face” (Denzinger 530). This is simply a restatement of St. Paul’s affirmation that we will see God “face to face” (I Cor. 13:12).

5 He is, St. Thomas says, “ipsum esse subsistens: being itself subsisting” (not just “self-subsistent being,” as some translations say: the idea is that in God we have Being itself that exists on its own, as a separate thing, in a way similar to the way we could say that St. Francis de Sales was “gentleness itself,” as if gentleness had taken on an existence of its own in him, as if he were gentleness). These three words come as close as it is possible to expressing God’s essence, for God’s essence is, precisely, His being, and it is this that distinguishes Him from creatures, in all of whom essence is distinct from being. Thus God revealed to Moses His name saying: “I am Who am” (Ex. 3:14). This real distinction between being and essence in creatures is the fundamental thesis of Thomism, thesis denied by the Jesuit theologian Suarez, of whom we will have to speak later.

6 I, q. 12, a. 1.

7 This is just one example of the universal principle which states: “Everything is received in the receiver according to the mode of the receiver.” This is just common sense because if something is received in something else, that means that it begins to exist in that thing and therefore must begin to exist in the way that the thing that receives it exists. This principle explains, for example, why Our Lord spoke in parables, using sensible images to express spiritual realities, because He knew that men, who are corporal beings, cannot receive in their minds spiritual things unless they take on a sensible form.

8 I, q. 12, a. 4.

9 For, as we just saw, the orders of being and of knowledge correspond.

10 St. Thomas says that to deny this knowledge is, first of all, “against the faith” (alienum a fide), and also “not reasonable” praeter rationem: to translate this, as some do, by “against reason” is a grave error in Latin and an even graver error in theology, for it implies that God has to give us this knowledge).

11 I, q. 12, a. 1.

12 This is why Pius XII, in the encyclical Humani Generis, condemned the teaching of Henri de Lubac who said that this desire constituted a veritable exigency for the beatific vision, thus denying its gratuity (Denzinger 2318). The Jansenist Baius had already been condemned for a similar error (Denzinger 1021).

13 Theologians express this by saying that the desire is to see God, the Author of Nature. The Carmelite theologians of Salamanca sum this up perfectly in a precise little phrase: “The thing desired is materially supernatural but not the desiring: Tunc res appetita esset materialiter supernaturalis non vero ratio appetendi.” The desiring must be in proportion with what is desired, and what the intellect desires is simply the explanation of a natural thing. In reality, the explanation (God) surpasses infinitely what it explains (because He infinitely surpasses anything He creates or even could create), but He is only desired inasmuch as He is the explanation, not as He is in Himself.

14 Cf. I, q. 12, a. 4, ad 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.”

15 Thus even the blessed in heaven, even Our Lady, and even the soul of Our Lord Himself do not comprehend God. On the contrary, St. John of the Cross says that the more one of the blessed knows God, the more clearly he sees all that he doesn’t see (Spiritual Canticle, Strophe VII, verse 5).

16 Thus he writes, continuing the example of air and fire: “The disposition to the form of fire can be natural only to the subject that has the form of fire. Hence the light of glory cannot be natural to a creature unless the creature has a divine nature; which is impossible” (I, q. 12, a. 5, ad 3).


17 For Suarez, in fact, the beatific vision is the result of two co-ordinated causes, the human intellect and divine grace, each of which acts on its own to produce the result, like two men pulling a cart. For St. Thomas, on the contrary, it is the result of two subordinated causes, which each exercise their causality on the whole effect, but in such a way that the second cause acts only in virtue of the first cause, as, for example, when a man writes with a pen, the man and the pen both cause the writing, but the pen acts only in virtue of the impulse given by the man. This fundamental difference between the Jesuits and Dominicans in theology is the cause for the fundamental difference between them in spirituality (although it is perhaps, at the same time, its consequence too).

18 I, q. 12, a. 12.