"The good of the grace of one soul is greater than the good of the nature of the whole universe"
- St Thomas Aquinas Ia IIa, q.24, a. 3, ad 2

— A Commentary on the First Part of St Thomas' Theological Summa

by Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O. P.


Question 3. Introduction


Before we come to consider God's various attributes, we must discuss His nature as conceived by us, and His attributes in general. This especially applies here, because from the very end to which the five proofs converge, which is the self-subsisting Being, there arises the question whether what formally constitutes God's nature, according to our conception of it, is self-subsisting Being, from which perfection all the other attributes are afterward deduced.


State of the question. We are not concerned here with God's nature as it is in itself and as it is seen by the blessed; for what formally constitutes the divine nature as it is in itself, is that most proper and most eminent formal concept of the Deity, which contains actually and explicitly (and not merely implicitly) all God's attributes, which are truly identified in the absolute simplicity of the Deity, and which are seen in it by the blessed without any deductive process.

It is our analogical and very imperfect knowledge of God's nature that concerns us here, and the question is whether among all the divine perfections there is one that is, as it were, the source of the others, just as in the human nature rationality is the source of the various properties in man. Then the divine nature, when so viewed, according to our imperfect mode of knowing it, is virtually distinct from the divine attributes. This means that it contains them actually and implicitly, but not explicitly; for these attributes are afterward explicitly derived from it.

Billuart and certain other Thomists make another addition to the state of the question, but, unless I am mistaken, on insufficient grounds. Billuart is of the opinion that it is not a question of the divine nature as expressed by the most common and transcendental concept of uncreated being, which applies to all the divine attributes, just as the concept of created being applies to all the differences found in creatures.

There seems to be no foundation for this distinction between what is common and special in God, for God is not in any genus, not even according to our mode of conceiving Him. We can indeed distinguish in any creature the transcendentals that are common to all the genera and the species. But this distinction is of no value in God, since God is not in any genus, and transcendentals, such as being, unity ..., are verified in God in a most special manner, that is, by reason of Himself. Hence it is not repugnant on a priori considerations for what constitutes the divine nature to be the self-subsisting Being, this constituting the terminus of the five proofs in the ascending order and the principe for the derivation of the attributes.


1)The nominalists reply that God is an accumation of perfections, and there is no need of our inquiring into the logical priority of one perfection over the others. It would be a useless question. In fact, the nominalists said that the distinction between the divine attributes was a purely mental one (rationis ratiocinantis), a verbal
distinction, such as we have between Tullius and Cicero, and from this it would follow that the divine names are synonymous.(1) This opinion of the nominalists leads to agnosticism, for it could just as well be said that God punishes by His mercy and forgives by His justice. This would mean the end of all knowledge about God, and for this reason the nominalists were formerly expelled from the University of Paris.

2) On the other hand, Scotus admitted an actual and formal distinction between the divine attributes, a distinction that is actual from the nature of the thing, and which is prior to the consideration of our mind, and which gives us the answer to the question as to what constitutes the divine nature, by saying that it is radical infinity, demanding as such the various divine attributes.

In reply to this, the Thomists say that radical infinity, or the exigency of all perfections, does not constitute the divine nature, but is presupposed by it and has its foundation therein. It is indeed the very essence of God that demands all the perfections which are derived from it. Moreover, God's infinity is deduced from the fact that He is the self-subsisting Being.(2) Besides, infinity is a mode of each of the divine attributes. Finally, the Thomists say that the actual and formal distinction of Scotus, by the very fact that it is prior to our consideration of it, is already a real distinction, however slight this may be, and hence it is excluded from God by reason of His absolute simplicity in whom, as the Council of Florence says, "all things are one and the same where there is no opposition of relation," (3) and this opposition is to be found only between the divine Persons.

3)Several Thomists of the seventeenth century and later, such as John of St. Thomas, the Salmanticences, and Billuart, hold that subsistent intellection is what constitutes the divine nature. Their principal argument is as follows: The supreme degree of being is that which must constitute the divine nature; but the various grades of being are existence, life, and intellection; therefore subsistent intellection is what constitutes the divine nature.
Hence in their opinion "self-subsisting Being" is in God to be taken as something transcendental and not specific. But, as we have pointed out in the state of the question, there seems to be no foundation for this distinction in God between what is common and what is specific; because God is not in any genus, not even according to our mode of conceiving Him.

4) Many other theologians, several of them being Thomists, hold that self-subsisting Being is what constitutes the divine nature. Among the Thomists holding this opinion we have Capreolus, Bannez, Ledesma, Contenson, Gotti, and more recently del Prado and Father Billot. We find this view expressed in the twenty-third proposition of the Thomistic theses approved by the Sacred Congregation of Studies (1914): "The divine essence, in that it is identical with the actuality of the divine being in act, or in that it is the self-subsisting Being, is proposed to us as constituted, as it were, in its metaphysical aspect, and by this same furnishes us with the reason of His infinite perfection." (4) But Suarez says that it is better to posit the fact itself of aseity as the principle from which the divine attributes are derived.

Others reply to this, and justly so, that the reason for this fact is that only in God are essence and existence identical, or that God alone is the self-subsisting Being. But Suarez expresses a different view, because he does not admit a real distinction between created essence and existence.

As we shall at once see, it seems that our preference must be for this opinion, on the supposition, however, that God is not a body but pure spirit. But it is especially because God is He who is (5) that He transcends all spirits. Before we prove this fourth opinion, mention must be made of two other views proposed by those outside the Catholic schools of theology.

Fifth opinion. There are those who maintain that essential goodness is what formally constitutes the divine nature. Thus Plato was of the opinion that the supreme reality is the idea of Good transcending essence and intelligence.(6) In like manner Plotinus considered that the supreme reality is the One Good transcending intelligence. We still find some traces of this theory in the writings of several Augustinians although they do not explicitly examine this question. Thus Peter Lombard divided the subject matter of his Book of the Sentences with reference to enjoyable and useful good, namely, to those things that can be enjoyed, especially God, usables or creatures, inasmuch as they are means for the attainment of the supreme Good.

To this opinion the Thomists reply in the words of St. Thomas,(7) that, as being is absolutely prior to the good, God, prior to being conceived as the supreme Good, is conceived as the supreme Being existing of Himself; in fact, God is the supreme Good only because He is the plenitude of being. In other words, the idea of being is more absolute, simple, and universal than the idea of good, and good can be conceived only as being that has reached its final stage of perfection, and that is capable of appealing to the appetitive faculty and perfecting it. Hence God is the supreme Good inasmuch as He is the plenitude of being.

But it must be conceded (8) that in a certain sense, that is, not in order of being but of causality, good is prior to being, since the end is first among causes, attracting the agent, and the agent educes the form from the matter for the production of the causated being. Hence, for us, God is first of all considered as the supreme Good, our ultimate end; but in Himself, God is first of all the self-subsisting Being, and would be so even if He had not created anything, and were not the end of any creature.

Sixth opinion. It is that of certain modern philosophers, such as Secretan and J. Lequier, who believed in voluntarism and absolute libertism. These maintained that divine liberty is what formally constitutes the divine nature, for God is His own reason for what He is. But there is nothing, they say, that is more its own reason for what it is than liberty, which determines itself as it wills. Hence God would be absolute liberty, and most freely would have determined all things, even those that pertain to His intimate life. Wherefore, according to Secretan,(9) the definition of God is not "Who is" or "I am who am," but "I am that which I most freely will to be."

The writings of Descartes revealed a tendency to accept this theory. In his opinion, eternal truths, even the truth of the principle of contradiction, depend upon God's free will. Ockham had said something similar to this in maintaining that God could have commanded us to commit murder and even to lead an irreligious life; to which Leibnitz replied that "God would then no more be, according to His nature, the supreme Good than the supreme evil of the Manichaeans." (10) St. Thomas likewise said: "To say that justice depends simply upon the will of God, is to say that the divine will does not act according to wisdom; and this is blasphemy." (11)

This libertarian theory cannot be admitted, because freedom of choice presupposes deliberation on the part of the intellect, otherwise it would be the same as chance. But chance is an accidental cause, and so cannot be the first cause; for the accidental presupposes the essential. If anyone digging a grave, did not intrinsically as such dig, the treasure would not accidentally be found. Hence it is most manifest that the first liberty presupposes the supreme Being and the first Intellect.

Besides these six opinions, it is difficult to conceive or think of any other ways of solving this problem. Priority is given either to Being or to the Good or to the Infinite or to Intellection or to liberty. Whether we consider in God what is subjective or what is objective, no other answers than these can be found.

We have already stated why the last two opinions cannot be admitted, nor the opinion of the nominalists nor that of the Scotists. Therefore we have but two opinions left to consider, namely, whether self-subsisting Being is what formally constitutes the divine nature, or whether it is self-subsisting intellection.

Solution. From the teaching of St. Thomas we see that the formal constituent of the divine nature is self-subsisting Being, which is the view held by several Thomists above mentioned, although not all are of this opinion.

We are at least persuaded of this for three reasons: (1) because of the order observed by St. Thomas in this treatise on God; (2) from his teaching on this point; (12) (3) from the solution of the difficulties proposed against this opinion.

1) The order observed in the treatise is evidence of this. In fact, according to this order, by means of the five proofs, we advance in knowledge to the establishing of this supreme truth: "God is the self-subsisting Being," (13) and the divine attributes are afterward derived from this supreme truth.

Thus from the beginning of the third question to the end of the fourth article the mind continually advances in knowledge, for the first article establishes that God is not a body; the second, that God is not composed of matter and form; the third, that God is not a composite, consisting of His nature and the principle of individuation. From this we conclude that God is a pure spirit. But a pure spirit can be a created being; hence to distinguish God from even the noblest of creatures, it is established in the fourth article that God is the self-subsisting Being, since He is the first efficient cause, pure act, and essential being.

This is the culminating point in the ascendant order or by the way of finding, and the principle in the descendent process or by the way of judgment, of wisdom, which judges of all things by the highest of causes. Thus from the fact that God is the self-subsisting Being is deduced the real distinction between God and the world, (14) and from this the divine attributes are afterward deduced, such as goodness (plenitude of being),(15) infinity (being not received in anything is infinite),(16) immutability, eternity, and other attributes. Likewise the divine intellection is deduced from the immateriality of the divine being, and omniscience from the fact that God is the self-subsisting Being. Hence it is only in the fourteenth question that the divine intellection is discussed. In fact, the opening words of the prologue to this question are: "Having considered what belongs to the divine substance, we have now to treat of God's operation." Being is prior to truth and intellection, for intellection is predicated only of the subject and as this latter is related to intelligible being as the object.

Such is the order observed in this treatise on God. From this we see that the formal constituent of the divine nature is stated before the fourteenth question, in the fourth article of the third question, where it is shown that only in God are essence and existence identical. As Father del Prado (17) with good reason shows, this proposition constitutes the fundamental of Christian philosophy, fundamental indeed not by way of finding but by way of judgment, since wisdom judges of all things by the highest cause, or by reason.

2) This opinion is equivalently what St. Thomas said: "This name, He who is, is most properly applied to God for three reasons. First, because of its signification . . . , since the existence of God is His essence itself. . . . Secondly, on account of its universality . . . to designate by this the infinite sea of substance. ... Thirdly, from its consignification, for it signifies present existence, and this above all applies to God, whose existence knows not past or future." (18)

Thus, when Moses asked God His name, "God said to Moses: I am who am. He said: Thus shalt thou say to the children of Israel: He who is hath sent me to you." (19) The Hebrew word "Yahweh" (from which the word Jehovah is derived, which is written with the vowel signs of Adonai) is the equivalent of "He who is." It is known as the Tetragrammaton, a word of four letters, and is God's proper name in the strictest sense.

3) This opinion receives its confirmation from the solution of the principal difficulty proposed by other Thomists who hold a different opinion. This difficulty is enunciated as follows: The highest degree of being is what constitutes the divine essence. But this highest degree is intellection; for, in the ascendant order of the grades of being we have: existence, life, intellection. Therefore intellection is what constitutes the divine nature.
St. Thomas replies to this by distinguishing between participated being - which can be without life and intelligence - and self-subsisting being, which is the fullness itself of being, including all other perfections actually and implicitly. In the passage referred to, St. Thomas says: "Although therefore existence does not include life and wisdom, because that which participates in existence need not participate in every mode of existence, nevertheless God's existence includes in itself life and wisdom, because nothing of the perfection of being can be wanting to Him who is subsisting being itself." (20) Similarly, from the work just quoted, we read: "Being taken simply, as including all perfection of being, surpasses life and all that follows it." (21)

Index Top


1. Summa theol., Ia, q. 13, a.4.

2. Ibid., q.7, a. 1.

3. Denz., no. 703.

4. Cf. Guido Matuissi, S.J., Le XXIV tesi della filosofia di S. Tomasso d'Aquino approvate dalla S. Congregazione degli studi. Roma, 1917, pp. 260-76.

5. Ex. 3: 14.

6. The Republic, Bk. VII.

7. Summa theol, Ia, q.5, a.2.

8. Ibid.

9. La philosophie de la liberte, I, Bk. XV, pp. 361-70.

10. Theodicee, II, §§ 176 f.

11. De veritate, q. 23, a.6.

12. Summa theol., Ia, q. 13, a.11.

13. Ibid., q.3, a.4.

14. Ibid., a.8.

15. Ibid., q.5.

16. Ibid., q.7.

17. De veritate fundamentali philosophiae christianae

18. Summa theol., Ia, q. 13, a. 11.

19. Ex. 3: 14.

20. Summa theol., la, q.4, a.2 ad 3um.

21. Ibid., Ia IIae, q. 2, a.5 ad 2um; see also I Sent., d.8, q. 1, a. 1, 8; De potentia, q.7, a.2 ad 9um; cf. Gotti, O.P., De Deo, tr. II, dub. 3, §3; Contenson, O.P., De Deo, diss. II, c. 2, spec. 2.



"Those who love God are always happy, because their whole happiness is to fulfill, even in adversity, the will of God."

St Alphonsus de Liguori

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"Every man naturally desires knowledge; but what good is knowledge without fear of God? Indeed a humble rustic who serves God is better than a proud intellectual who neglects his soul to study the course of the stars."

Thomas á Kempis

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"God has no need of men."

St Philip Neri

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