Thursday, 22 April 2010

Question 12 - How God is known by us


In the first eleven questions Aquinas has built up an extraordinary picture of God, starting from creatures and working his way back to their creator, deducing various things about God using purely metaphysical demonstrations. However, at the moment, this picture of God may seem abstract and alien, being mostly based upon showing what God is not. At this stage one may be left thinking that God is unknowable and that we cannot say much about Him at all; how could we love and adore such a God? This simply will not do, so Aquinas now has to turn to the questions of how we can know God and how we are able to say things about Him in a positive sense.

Why this Question Matters.

Aquinas has shown that God exists and that we can affirm certain things about Him. In doing so, what he has shown is that that God’s being is in many ways utterly different from ours; there is a huge gulf between creatures and their creator. Now Aquinas starts to treat the ways in which we can bridge that gulf between us (or rather, how God bridges that gulf). It’s clear from what he has shown already that creatures can have some knowledge of God considered as first cause. However, such a picture of God is inadequate; it is time to start considering how the God known to natural reason relates to the God known through revelation. In this question, Aquinas enquires into what our finite minds can make of God, comparing what we can know by reason with what we can know by grace.

The Thread of the Argument

A1: In the first article Aquinas asks the fundamental question of whether a created mind can see God’s essence. The objections are basically twofold: firstly, God is infinitely beyond us so it would seem to be impossible; secondly, various authorities imply that it is impossible. For example, scripture tells us that “No one has ever seen God” (1 John 4:12). That the interpretation of this scriptural objection is not completely straightforward is shown immediately in the sed contra that quotes 1 John 3:2 to the effect that “we shall see Him as He is”.

Aquinas answers that although it might seem that God is infinitely beyond us, our ultimate happiness (which is our end) lies in the vision of God’s essence. If this were beyond us, we would be frustrated from our end and even the blessed would have to settle for an ultimate end below this. This is contrary to faith and hence incorrect. Indeed, we should recognize that something is knowable insofar as it is actual; God is pure actuality and therefore God is supremely knowable in Himself, even if He exceeds the power of any mind to fully know Him.

Turning to the objections, Aquinas points out that the authorities quoted are referring to the comprehension of God’s essence; which, as it is infinite, is certainly beyond our finite powers. (Aquinas will discuss the comprehension of God’s essence in the seventh article of this question.) Similarly, as far as the disproportion between God and ourselves is concerned, Aquinas argues that this prevents us from full comprehension of Him, but not from being able to see something of His essence. Although we cannot consider anything like a quantitative proportionality between God and His creatures, we can use the language of proportionality when we consider that creatures are related to God as effects are to their causes.

A2: When we see an everyday object, we form an image of that object in our minds (and the “image” need not simply be a visual image but one based on all the senses). It is not the essence of the thing seen that is in the mind, but an image of it; a created image. Aquinas now asks whether the same is true for the vision of God’s essence; do we see Him through some created likeness? Aquinas answers in the negative: although the power of sight needs to receive a certain image of Him to see Him, no created image is involved. There are three reasons: the first and third argue that a created image is too far below God Himself to convey His image; and the second argues that God’s essence is His existence, which cannot be true of any created image of Him. We receive God’s image by a sort of “divine illumination”.

A3: Since we will be able to see God’s essence, can that essence be seen with our eyes or any other bodily sense? No: the powers of our bodily organs are limited to the apprehension of bodily things; God is not a body, therefore we do not see His essence with our bodily organs. We do not see Him by way of our senses or our imagination; we see Him directly with our minds.

A4: The fourth article generalizes the question asked in the third article by asking whether a created mind can see God’s essence by means of its natural powers. It might seem that this question can be answered very quickly in the same fashion as in the third article. However, bodily organs and minds are to Aquinas quite different types of things. Bodily organs are composites of form and matter and are thus limited in their powers, but the mind is a faculty of the soul which is a form and so is not necessarily limited in the same way. In the objections, Aquinas emphasizes this by introducing the example of angels, whose minds are not limited in the same way that our minds are limited. (Aquinas will have much more to say about angels in Ia.q50-q64.)

Despite these objections, Aquinas’s answer is in the negative: if the way of being of the known is beyond the way of being of the knower, the knower cannot know the known by its natural powers. He argues that for us who exist as composites of matter and form, it is natural to know things through perception and through rational reflection upon those perceptions. For an angel, which is pure form, its knowing is proportioned to what it is; it can know things that are forms that are not instantiated in matter but for which existence and essence are separate. God alone, in whom essence and existence coincide, can know subsistent existence. So it is by the grace of God alone that we know Him.

In the reply to the third objection, Aquinas makes the important point that material senses, like the eye, cannot be raised to the perception of the immaterial; they are restricted to knowing the nature of something only as it is instantiated in a particular concrete individual exemplar of that nature. The mind, on the other hand, transcends the material to some extent and can abstract form from what it knows of individuals. Since it has the natural power to consider form in abstraction, it can be raised by grace beyond what it is naturally so that it can see separate subsisting being and existence. Thus raised by grace, it is the mind that will “see” God’s essence in the beatific vision.

A5: Returning to the divine illumination mentioned in the second article, Aquinas now asks whether we need a created light to see God’s essence. Since when we see something our intellect understands the form of what we see, in order to see God’s essence our intellect needs to be able to assimilate the form of God. Clearly this is beyond the natural human intellect; what is required is a created grace within us strengthening our natural intellect. This created grace is called divine illumination; it allows us to grasp the form of God. The intelligible form that this divine illumination creates within our minds is sometimes referred to in scripture as light or the glory of God.

A6: Will one person be able to see God’s essence better than another? We might think that the beatific vision is uniform for all the blessed who achieve it. However, Aquinas has already suggested (and will make clear in the next article) that although we are able to see God’s essence, we cannot fully comprehend it. This allows for the possibility that different people will have different degrees of comprehension of the divine essence and also suggests that there may be different degrees to the beatific vision itself. Indeed, 1 Cor. 15:41 (“Star differs from star in brightness”) has always been interpreted as referring to these different degrees in the beatific vision. Here Aquinas agrees with this proposition: to some is given a greater share in divine illumination according to their greater degree of charity which predisposes them to receive such a greater share. In the beatific vision they are gifted with a greater intellectual capability to see God.

A7: If we can see God’s essence, does that imply that we can comprehend it? Aquinas quotes St. Augustine to the effect that such comprehension is impossible to the created mind, but to answer the question properly, he has to enquire into the meaning of comprehension. To comprehend something is to understand it as fully as it can be understood. Someone who knows how to prove that the angles of a triangle add up to 180 degrees comprehends that fact whereas someone who knows it on the basis of some authority (a statement in a textbook, for example) knows it but does not comprehend it.

God is unlimited (Ia.q7.a1) and therefore comprehension of Him would involve infinite knowledge, which is beyond the capabilities of a finite created mind. The grace of divine illumination perfects the intellect that receives it but cannot make it to have infinite capability. To give it infinite capability would be change the nature of the human intellect rather than to perfect it. Therefore even though we can see God’s essence we cannot comprehend it.

The first objection brought forth evidence from scripture that appears to claim the possibility of the comprehension of the divine essence. In answer to this objection Aquinas distinguishes two meanings of the word “comprehend”. The first meaning (which is what is used in the body of the answer) is to do with circumscription; the second meaning is to do with laying a hold of or grasping. The English word “apprehension” corresponds to this second meaning; it is this meaning that St Paul is using.

A8: God is omniscient and so, if we can see His essence, does that mean that we can see all that He knows and therefore all that there is and can be? To answer this question, Aquinas notes that we can distinguish between things that exist in God by their very nature from things that exist in God in the same way that effects exist virtually in their causes. (Recall that there must be a resemblance between a cause and its effect; therefore an effect exists in some fashion in its cause). For this latter class of things, which contains all the effects in the world, the only way that we would perfectly comprehend all the effects would be if we perfectly comprehended the causes. But we do not comprehend God and therefore we cannot know all these things that are virtually in God.

The fourth objection is a subtle and important one: if we were not to know everything in knowing God, then our natural desire to know everything would be frustrated. This seems to be a strange state of affairs for our final end in which we obtain perfect happiness. Aquinas’s answer is that what we would know from the beatific vision would be enough to satisfy our natural desire for knowledge.

A9: In the second article Aquinas has already shown that we do not see God’s essence by means of a created image. But is it possible that some of the things we see in God’s essence we see through such a likeness? The argument in favour of this would be to say that although we don’t see God’s essence through such a likeness, our intellect might have to assimilate things seen in God’s essence in the usual way that it assimilates knowledge and abstracts from it. As an example of this, how would our memory of things seen in God’s essence be formed?

Aquinas’s answer is uncompromising: everything that we see associated with the beatific vision is made present to the intellect in the same way that the vision itself is made present to the intellect. Aquinas’s justification for this position is that to know things through likenesses is to know them directly in the normal way through the natural order but that to know them indirectly through their presence in God’s essence is a completely different mode of cognition. To explain this, Aquinas uses the analogy of the difference between knowing something by direct vision as opposed to knowing it via viewing a picture of that thing.

A10: In seeing God’s essence there is an awful lot to see! We are naturally creatures that live in time; thinking of more than one thing at a time is a strain. The eternity of the beatific vision would seem to offer plenty of opportunity to go through all of these things one by one, but the alternative might be that we apprehend everything all at once. Aquinas reassures us that all will be seen simultaneously through the Word of God. The reason we cannot think of more than a few things at once is that we normally think of them through created likenesses; but as we have seen, the beatific vision is not like that. We see all these things through the one thing that is God’s essence.

A11: The beatific vision is our ultimate end after the course of our earthly lives, but might we see God’s essence during our lives? Jacob says that he saw God face to face (Gen. 32:30); God says of Moses that Moses saw Him clearly (Num. 4:8) and yet we are told that “No human shall see me and live” (Exodus 33:20). St. Augustine observes that in knowing the truth of certain things we are seeing the unchangeable truth that lies in God and that therefore in this respect we see God Himself. Similarly, Augustine says that God is present to us in our souls (He is, after all, providing us with our existence) and thus we see Him in this sense.

Aquinas answers that, in the natural order of things, we do not see God’s essence in this lifetime. Our mode of being in life is through a material body, the cognition of which is ordered to material things or to things abstracted or inferred from them. Although we may be granted divine revelation when in dreams (or otherwise insensible), this is merely an indication that as our soul is abstracted from matter, so it becomes more amenable to such higher things. In the natural order of things, it is only when the soul is separated from the material body at death that its capabilities can be raised to the vision of the divine essence.

On the other hand, in the reply to the second objection, Aquinas does allow that God may suspend the natural order and elevate the mind to a vision of the divine essence in this lifetime. In reply to Augustine, Aquinas claims that our true judgements represent a participation in the divine light, but this illumination falls short of that required to see the divine essence. (Analogously, to see by the light of the Sun, we do not require seeing the Sun itself.) Likewise, God exists in the souls of the blessed in heaven in a different way to how He exist in the souls of the living; this accounts for Augustine’s second opinion.

A12: Having spent the first eleven questions discussing how we can know God through natural reason, it might seem surprising that Aquinas now asks whether we can know God in this life through natural reason! However, the purpose of this article is head off any misapprehensions about the relationship between our natural knowledge of God and our seeing of God in the beatific vision. We can know of God and of certain things about Him though natural reason, arguing from created things back to their first cause; but the beatific vision in which we see God’s essence is of a completely different order.

A13: Finally, as if to hammer home a point complementary to that made in the previous article, Aquinas asks if grace can give us a deeper knowledge of God than can natural reason. Of course it can! Natural reason takes the sense images that we have of things and abstracts our knowledge and understanding of those things from those images. Such natural illumination is only strengthened by the illumination of grace.

The third objection claims that our minds adhere to God by the grace of faith. Since faith is not, strictly speaking, knowledge, it would seem that grace adds nothing to our knowledge of God. Aquinas admits that faith is not knowledge in the strict sense of the term but that it would be unreasonable not to extend the meaning of the term, as faith makes the mind assent to something that is knowable. The difference between knowledge in the sense of demonstration and knowledge in this extended sense is that the former depends upon the seeing of the knowable whereas the latter depends upon the vision of Him who is believed.

Summary & Handy Concepts

  • The created intellect can be raised to the vision of the divine essence by the gift of grace.
  • Angels have minds that are not inhibited by being joined to matter in the way that our minds are.
  • We see God’s essence not through any created image but though a direct divine illumination. Our bodily senses are not involved in this perception; the mind is illuminated directly.
  • The vision of God’s essence is entirely beyond our natural capabilities; the gift of the vision of God is a gift of supernatural grace which elevates the intellect.
  • The gift of the vision of God’s essence is not shared equally between those who receive it; those who have greater charity receive a greater share.
  • Although we are capable, through the gift of grace, to see God’s essence we are unable to comprehend it fully.
  • The vision of God’s essence allows us to see some of the knowledge that is in God; but not all of it. The things that we see in the Word of God we receive by the same divine illumination by which we receive His beatific vision.
  • Those things that we apprehend in the Word of God we apprehend all at once.
  • In the natural course of events we do not see the divine essence whilst we are alive; to be granted such a vision would be a miracle.
  • When we “see” or understand something, our intellect grasps the form of that thing; in some sense the form itself exists within our intellect. Forms that we are able to grasp in this way are called intelligible forms.
  • The Glossa Ordinaria (referred to in the sed contra to the eleventh article) is a medieval gloss on scripture that was essentially the standard biblical commentary of the time.
  • We see Aquinas’s maxim that “grace perfects nature but does not destroy it” illustrated several times in this question.


  • Aquinas opens his answer to the first article with the bald statement that something is intelligible insofar as it is actual. He deduces from this principle that God is supremely intelligible in Himself. Aquinas doesn’t elaborate upon this principle, which is a shame as it seems to lie at the heart of his belief in the intelligibility of being.
  • The first article contains a difficulty that has provided a flash point for the one of the twentieth century’s most enduring and acrimonious theological arguments; the argument over Henri de Lubac’s Surnaturel, The particular problem in this article is that Aquinas appears to be attempting to argue philosophically that a created mind can see God’s essence. But in reaching his conclusion, he appears to make a jump from the created mind’s desire to see the essence of the first cause as first cause, to the created mind’s desire to see the essence of the first cause as God-as-known-to-Revelation. Has Aquinas suddenly slipped in a theological argument rather than a philosophical argument? The answer developed by the classical Thomist tradition is that he has not and that Aquinas’s argument is a genuine philosophical argument. This solution suggests that the intellect’s knowledge of God enables the will’s desire to transcend the horizon provided by God’s effects in the world, but this desire will remain conditional and imperfect (both technical terms!) until God provides the Revelation and the grace required to formulate an unconditional and perfect desire that leads us to Him through His grace.
  • Aquinas’s answer to the fourth objection of the eighth article seems strained. He seems to limit our desire for knowledge to knowing the species and genera of all things (i.e. the way in which the world is put together) and to deny us a natural desire for things in the future that have not yet happened! Perhaps he is tacitly implying that after the fall our natural desires are disordered and that in the beatific vision we will not be interested in things to which we are not ordered to know.
  • In the eleventh article Aquinas claims that the soul cannot be raised to the vision of the divine essence in this life in the absence of miraculous intervention. The argument is based on the soul’s mode of knowing being tied to its mode of being; it is limited to knowing through material things whilst joined to matter. Aquinas does not address the situation of the mind’s knowledge after the general resurrection when soul and body are reunited. Presumably one must take the glorified body of the resurrection not to impede the beatific vision.

Revised 08/04/12


  1. In the "difficulties" for this question, I mention the argument over the "Surnaturel". It may be too much to go into this in detail here (but please do if you want to!) but I've posted a few things about this over on my own blog that may help in providing a bit of background.

  2. The following question occurred to us as we were pondering Question 12:

    In the Summa Question 12, in the body of article 6, St Thomas writes:

    Hence, an intellect that has a greater share in the light of glory will see God more perfectly. But the one who will have a greater share in the light of glory is the one who has greater charity. For where there is greater charity, there is greater desire, and it is the desire that in some sense makes the one who desires disposed and prepared to receive that which is desired. Hence, it is the one who has greater charity who will see God more perfectly and be happier.

    We wondered whether 'desire' was used in the sense of the way rocks are said to 'desire' their place of rest, or whether St Thomas was referring to the psychological phenomenon we commonly call 'desire'. The idea of desire having a positive role runs refreshingly counter to a lot of 'moral' thinking attributed to Christianity. What do you think?

    Godzdogz were kind enough to give us this answer:

    "He is referring to human beings and to the virtue of charity and so ‘desire’ refers to the movement of the human will towards the good. That cannot be without the ‘psychological’ and even ‘physical’ levels of response since Aquinas always takes a ‘holistic’ view of the human being. The ‘moral’ thinking attributed to Christianity that you mention is clearly wrong as anybody who reads Augustine’s Confessions, the works of Newman, the writings of Catherine of Siena, countless others, not to mention the Bible itself, will see. Where such an understanding of Christianity comes from is an interesting question."

  3. You can obtain a copy (in latin) of the Glossa Ordinaria as an add-on to VulSearch. One might also refer to

    I’m not aware of any English translation.