"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

REALITY—A Synthesis Of Thomistic Thought

by Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O. P.


We give here the chief characteristics of the knowledge creatures may have of God: first by the beatific vision; secondly by the analogical knowledge we must be content with here below.

Article One: The Essentially Supernatural Character Of The Beatific Vision [307]

The Deity, the divine essence as it is in itself, cannot be naturally known by any created intelligence, actual or possible. Created intelligence can indeed know God as being and First Being, starting from the analogical concept of being as the most universal of ideas. [308] But such knowledge will never lead to positive and proper knowledge of the Deity as Deity. [309] No creature, solely by its own natural powers, can ever see God without medium. "No one has ever seen God." [310] "He dwells in light inaccessible." [311].

This impossibility, according to St. Thomas and his school, is an absolute impossibility, resting, not on a decree of God's free will, as some authors say, but on the transcendence of God's nature. The proper object of the created intelligence is that intelligible reality to which, as mirrored in creatures, it is proportioned. For the angels, that object is mirrored by spiritual realities, [312] for man by sense realities. [313] Thus man's faculties are specifically distinguished by their formal objects, [314] the human intellect, feeblest of intellects, by the intelligible realities of the sense world, the angel's more vigorous intellect by the intelligible realities of the spirit world, the divine intellect by the uncreated reality of the divine essence itself. [315] Hence, to say that created intelligence can, solely by its own natural powers, positively and properly know the divine essence, Deity in itself, can even see that essence without medium, is equivalent to saying that the created intellect has the same formal object as has the uncreated intellect. And that is the same thing as to say that the intellective creature has the same nature as uncreated intelligence, that is, is God Himself. But a created and finite God is an absurdity, found in pantheism, which cannot distinguish uncreated nature from created nature, which forgets that God is God and creature is creature.

Further, if the created intellect can, by its own natural power, see God as He is, then elevation to the supernatural order of grace becomes impossible, since our soul, by its own spiritual nature itself would be a formal participation in the divine nature, which is the very definition of supernatural grace. Our natural intelligence would have the same formal object as have infused hope and infused charity. Hence these infused virtues would no longer be essentially supernatural. Only accidentally could they be infused, as might geometry, if God so willed. And this holds good also in the angels.

It is then an impossibility that a creature were able, solely by its own powers, to know, positively and properly, the divine essence, or even to see it without medium. And this impossibility is based on objective reality, on the unchangeable transcendence of the divine nature. Hence this impossibility is a metaphysical and absolute impossibility. Sense objects, says St. Thomas, which come from God as cause, are not the adequate effect of their cause. Hence, by knowing the sense world we cannot know God's full power nor, consequently, see His essence. [316] These conclusions are equally valid in the world of spiritual realities. [317].

According to St. Thomas and his school, then, the creature's natural impossibility to see God, does not arise, as Duns Scotus maintains, from a decree of divine liberty, but from the unchangeable transcendence of the divine nature. According to Scotus, God could have willed that human intelligence could see Him naturally, that the light of glory and the beatific vision be properties of created nature, human or angelic, but that in fact God did not so will. Thus the distinction between the order of nature and the order of grace would be, not necessary, but contingent, resting on a decree of God's free will. [318] Hence, according to Scotus, there is in our soul an inborn natural desire for the beatific vision. [319] A vestige of this Scotistic doctrine appears in the "active obediential potency" of Suarez. [320].

Thomists reply as follows: An inborn natural appetite for the beatific vision, and also an active obediential potency, would be, on the one hand, something essentially natural, as being a property of our nature, and, on the other hand, simultaneously something essentially supernatural, as being specifically proportioned to an object which is essentially supernatural. Thomists in general say further that the natural desire to see God, of which St. Thomas speaks, [321] cannot be inborn. It is, they say, an elicited desire, that is, a desire which presupposes a natural act of knowledge, and that, as elicited, it is not an absolute and efficacious desire, but one that is conditional or inefficacious, to be realized in fact only on condition that God freely raises us to the supernatural order. Let us recall that, in 1567, the Church condemned the doctrine of Baius which admitted desire of such exigence that elevation to the order of grace would be due to our original nature and not a gratuitous gift. Thus he confounds the order of grace with the order of nature. [322] Any efficacious natural desire would be exigent, grace would be due (debita) to nature.

St. Thomas, in speaking of conditional and inefficacious desire, uses the term "first will," [323] meaning thereby that attitude of the will which precedes the efficacious intention to attain an end. To illustrate. The farmer desires rain, really but inefficaciously. The merchant in a storm wills inefficaciously to save his goods, but efficaciously he wills to throw them into the sea. [324] St. Thomas finds this distinction also in God's will. God wills all men to be saved. If God willed this efficaciously, all men in fact would be saved. Hence we must admit in God an antecedent will, not indeed fruitless, but conditional and inefficacious. [325].

This desire to see God, natural but inefficacious, arises thus: Our intelligence seeks naturally to know the essence of the First Cause. But its natural knowledge of this cause rests on analogical concepts, many indeed, but all imperfect, which cannot make manifest the nature of that First Cause as it is in itself, in its absolute perfection and supreme simplicity. In particular, these limited concepts (justice, say, as contrasted with mercy) cannot show us how in God infinite mercy is identified with infinite justice, or omnipotent goodness with permission of evil. Dissatisfaction with our limitations leads to a natural inefficacious desire to see God without medium, if He would deign, gratuitously, to elevate us to see Him face to face.

Is this desire supernatural? Not properly and formally speaking, say the Thomists, but only materially, because it is by the natural light of the reason that we know this object to be desirable, and the object we desire is the immediate vision of the Author of nature whose existence is naturally known. The desire in question is not a supernatural desire like that of hope and charity, which under the light of faith carries us toward the vision of the triune God, the author of grace. [326] Thus we safeguard the principle that acts are formally distinguished by their object, which object must be in the same order as the acts. This would not be so if the desire in question were inborn, rising from the weight of nature, [327] anteceding natural knowledge, and specifically proportioned to an object formally supernatural.

This natural desire is indeed a sign that the beatific vision is possible. It furnishes an argument of appropriateness for this possibility, an argument very deep and inviting, but not an argument that is apodictic. Such at least is the common view of Thomists, since there is here question of the intrinsic possibility of a supernatural gift, and what is essentially supernatural cannot be naturally demonstrated. Mysteries essentially supernatural are beyond the reach of the principles of natural reason. [328] We cannot positively demonstrate the possibility of the Trinity. All that the created intellect, human or angelic, can at its utmost show, is this: not that the mysteries are possible, but that their impossibility cannot be demonstrated.

This then is the proposition upheld generally by Thomists: The possibility and a fortiori the existence of mysteries essentially supernatural, cannot naturally be either proved or disproved; and though they are supported by persuasive arguments of appropriateness, they are held with certainty by faith alone. [329].

The entire Thomistic school holds also that the gratuitous gift called the light of glory is absolutely necessary for the immediate vision of God. [330] Any created intellectual faculty, angelic or human, since of itself it is intrinsically incapable of seeing God without medium, must of necessity, if it be called to such vision, be rendered capable thereto by a gift which raises it to a life altogether new, to a life which, since it gives to the intellectual faculty itself a supernatural vitality, makes also the intellectual act essentially supernatural. [331] Here appears the marvelous sublimity of eternal life, which rises not only above all forces but also above all exigencies of any nature created or creatable. [332] On this point Thomists differ notably from Suarez [333] and from Vasquez. [334].

The beatific vision, finally, excludes all mediating ideas, [335] even all infused ideas however perfect. [336] Any created idea is only participatedly intelligible, and hence cannot make manifest as He is in Himself Him who is being itself, who is self-subsistent existence, who is self-existent intellectual brightness.

But this beatific vision, which without the medium of any created idea sees God directly as He is, can still not comprehend God, that is, know Him with an act of knowledge as infinite as God Himself. God alone comprehends God. Hence the blessed in heaven, even while they see God face to face, can still not discover in Him the infinite multitude of possible beings which He can create. Their act of intellect, which knows Him without medium, is still a created act which knows an infinite object in a finite manner, [337] with a limited penetration, proportioned to its degree of charity and merit. St. Thomas [338] illustrates. A disciple can grasp a principle (subject and predicate) just as well as his master. But his knowledge does not equal that of the master in seeing all the consequences which that principle contains virtually. He sees the whole, but not wholly, totally.

Article Two: Analogical Knowledge Of God [339]

If the Deity as it is in itself cannot be known naturally, and not even by the supernatural gift of faith, how can our natural knowledge, remaining so imperfect, be nevertheless certain and immutable?

The answer to this question rests on the validity of analogical knowledge. Here, as we said above, Scotists, and also Suarez, do not entirely agree with Thomists. This lack of agreement rests on different definitions of analogy. Scotus admits a certain univocity between God and creatures. [340] Suarez [341] was certainly influenced on this point by Scotus.

The teaching of St. Thomas appears in its most developed form in the thirteenth question of the first part of the Summa. All articles of that question are concerned to show God's pre-eminent transcendence. They may be summarized in a formula which is still current: All perfections are found in God, not merely virtually (virtualiter): but in formal transcendence (formaliter eminenter).

What is the exact sense of this formula? Our answer, by citing freely the first five articles, [342] will again show that St. Thomas runs on an elevated highway between two contrary doctrines: between Nominalism, which, accepting the opinion attributed to Maimonides, leads to agnosticism, and a kind of anthropomorphism, which substitutes for analogy a minimum of univocity.

Our saint, then, establishes three positions.

1. Absolute perfections, [343] which do not imply any imperfection and which it is always better to have than not to have, existence, for example, and truth, goodness, wisdom, love, are found formally in God, because they are in Him essentially and properly. They are found in Him essentially [344] because, when we say "God is good," we do not mean merely that He is the cause of goodness in creatures. If that were our meaning then we would say "God is a body," since He is the cause of the corporeal world. Further, these perfections are in God properly speaking, that is, not metaphorically, as when we say "God is angry."

The reason for this double assertion is that these absolute perfections, in contrast to mixed perfections, [345] do not in their inner formal meaning [346] imply any imperfection, although in creatures they are always found to be finite in mode and measure. Manifestly the first cause of perfection must pre-contain, in pre-eminent fashion, all those perfections which imply no imperfection, which it is better to have than not to have. Were it otherwise, the first cause could not give these perfections to His creatures, since perfection found in the effect must be first found in its cause. Hence no perfection can be refused to God unless it implies attributing to Him also an imperfection. On this truth theologians in general agree. Absolute perfections, then, we repeat, are in God essentially and formally.

2. The names which express these absolute perfections are not synonyms. Here Thomists, Scotists, and Suaresians are in agreement, and hence opposed to the Nominalists, who hold that these names are synonymous, distinguished only logically and quasi-verbally, as "Tullius" is distinguished from "Cicero." They argue thus: Since in God all these perfections, being infinite, are really identified each with all others, we can substitute any one of them (e. g.: mercy) for any other (e. g.: justice): just as in a sentence about Cicero we can, without any change of meaning, write "Tullius" instead of "Cicero."

Now this nominalistic position, which would allow us to say, for example, that God punishes by mercy and pardons by justice, makes all divine attributes meaningless and leads to full agnosticism, which says that God is absolutely unknowable.

3. Absolute perfections are found both in God and in creatures, not univocally, and not equivocally, but analogically. This is the precise meaning of the term formaliter eminenter, where eminenter is equivalent to "not univocally, but analogically." Let us listen to St. Thomas: [347].

"Any effect which does not show the full power of its cause receives indeed a perfection like that of its cause, but not in the same essential fullness [that is, in context, not univocally]: but in a deficient measure. Hence the perfection found divided and multiplied in effects pre-exists in unified simplicity in their cause." Hence all perfections found divided among numerous creatures pre-exist as one, absolute, and simple unity in God.

This text is very important. It contains precisely the saint's idea of analogy, an idea to which Suarez did not remain faithful. Suaresians often define analogy as follows: [348] The idea conveyed by an analogous predicate ("being" [ens]: e. g.: in the expressions "Deus est ens, creatura est ens") is, simply speaking, one idea, and only in a sense diversified. Thomists, on the contrary, speak thus: [349] The idea conveyed by an analogous term (as above) is, simply speaking, diversified, and only in a sense one, that is, one proportionally, by similarity of proportions. [350].

This formula agrees perfectly with the text just cited from St. Thomas. In that same article he adds: [351] "When God is called 'wise' and man is called 'wise', the idea conveyed by the one word is not found in the same way in both subjects." Wisdom in God and wisdom in man are proportionally one, since wisdom in God is infinite and causative, whereas wisdom in man is a created thing, measured and limited by its object. And what holds good of wisdom holds good of all other absolute perfections.

This manner of speaking is entirely in harmony with the common teaching in logic on the distinction between analogical and univocal. The genus animal, animality, e. g.: is univocal, because it everywhere signifies a character found simply in the same meaning, in all animals, even in such a worm as does not have all the five exterior senses found in higher animals. In contrast, take the analogous term "cognition." It expresses a perfection, essentially not one, but diversified, which, while found in sense cognition, is not found there in essentially the same way as it is found in intellective cognition. It is an idea proportionally one, in the sense that, just as sensation is related to sense object, so the intellective act is related to intelligible object. "Love" is similarly an idea proportionally one, love in the sense order being essentially different from love in the spiritual order.

Hence it follows that analogical perfection, in contrast to univocal, is not a perfectly abstract idea, because, since it expresses a likeness between two proportions, it must actually, though implicitly, express the two subjects thus proportioned. Animality is a notion perfectly abstracted from its subjects, expressing only potentially, in no wise actually, the subjects in which it is found. But cognition cannot be thought of without actual, though implicit, reference to the difference between subjects endowed only with sense and those endowed also with intellect. Hence the difficulty in so defining cognition as to make the definition applicable both to sense cognition, and to intellective cognition, and uncreated cognition.

If, then analogical perfection is only proportionally one, it follows [352] that when we speak of God, there is an infinite distance between the two analogues, that is, between God as wise, say, and man as wise, although the analogical idea (wisdom) is found in each, not metaphorically, but properly. Wisdom in God is infinitely above wisdom in man, though wisdom in the proper sense is found both in God and in man. This truth may surprise us less if we recall that there is already an immeasurable distance between sense cognition and intellective cognition, though each is cognition in the proper sense of the word.

The terminology of St. Thomas and of the Thomistic definition of analogy are in full accord with these words of the Fourth Lateran Council: [353] "Between Creator and creature there can never be found a likeness ever so great without finding in that likeness a still greater unlikeness." This declaration is equivalent to saying that analogical perfection is, in its analogues, simply diversified, and only in a sense one, proportionally one.

Hence in the formula commonly accepted, viz.: absolute perfections are in God formally, the word "formally" must be understood thus: formally, not univocally, but analogically, yet properly, and not metaphorically. The adverb "formally" thus explained, we now turn to explain the second adverb, "pre-eminently."

4. From what has already been said we see that the infinite mode in which the divine attributes exist in God remains hidden to us here below. Only negatively and relatively can we express that mode, as when we say "wisdom unlimited," "wisdom supreme," "sovereign wisdom." Listen again to St. Thomas: "When this term 'wise' is said of man, the term somehow circumscribes and encloses the thing signified [the man's wisdom, distinct from his essence, from his existence, from his power, etc. ]. But not so when it is said of God. Said of God, the term presents the thing signified (wisdom) as uncircumscribable, as transcending the meaning of the term." [354] This is the meaning of "preeminently" in the term "formally pre-eminently"; [355] but we must make that meaning still more precise.

It is clear from the foregoing conclusion that Scotus is wrong when he maintains that the divine perfections are distinguished one from the other by a formal-actual-natural distinction. [356] This distinction, as explained by Scotus, is more than a virtual distinction, since it antecedes all act of our mind. Now such a distinction, anteceding human thought, must be real and objective. [357] Such distinction in the attributes of God is irreconcilable with His sovereign simplicity, wherein all His attributes are identified. "In God all perfections are one and the same reality, except in terms that are relatively opposed." [358].

Distinction then among divine attributes must be but a virtual distinction, even a minor virtual distinction, since each attribute contains all others actually, but not explicitly, only implicitly, while genus contains its species, in no wise actually, but only potentially, virtually. Yet, on the other hand, against the Nominalists, we must also maintain that the names applied to God (e. g.: mercy and justice) are not synonyms. The distinction between them is not merely verbal ("Tullius" and "Cicero").

Hence arises a difficult question: How can these perfections be really identified with one another in God without destroying one another? How can each remain in Him formally, that is, essentially, properly, non-synonymously, and simultaneously be in Him pre-eminently, transcendently, infinitely? We can easily see, to illustrate, how the seven rainbow colors are pre-contained with virtual eminence in white light, since white light, formally, is not blue, say, or red. But the pre-eminent Deity is, not merely virtually, but formally, true and good and intelligent and merciful. To say that the Deity has all these attributes only virtually (just as it is virtually corporeal because it produces bodies) is to return to the error of Maimonides.

Let us repeat our question: How can the divine perfections be formally in God, if in Him they are all one identical reality? Scotus answers thus: They cannot be each formally in God unless they are, antecedently to any action of our mind, formally distinct one from another. Cajetan gives a profound answer to this difficulty, and his solution is generally held by Thomists. He writes: "Just as the reality called wisdom and the reality called justice are found identified with that higher reality called Deity and hence are one reality in God: so the idea (ratio formalis) of wisdom and the idea of justice are identified with the higher idea called the idea of Deity as such, and hence are an idea, one indeed in number, but pre-containing each of the two ideas transcendentally, not merely virtually, as the idea of light contains the idea of heat, but formally. Hence the conclusion drawn by the divine genius of St. Thomas: the idea of wisdom is of one order in God, of another in creatures." [359].

Hence Cajetan elsewhere [360] gives us the formula: An analogical idea is one idea, not one absolutely (simpliciter): but one proportionally. Thus we see that Deity, in its formal raison d'etre, is absolutely preeminent, transcending all realities expressed by being, unity, goodness, wisdom, love, mercy, justice, and hence pre-contains all these realities, eminently and yet formally. This is equivalent to the truth, admitted by all theologians, that the Deity, both as it is in itself and as seen by the blessed, contains, actually and explicitly, all the divine perfections, which therefore are known in heaven without deduction, whereas here on earth, where we know God merely as self-subsistent being, which contains all these perfections, actually indeed, but implicitly, we can know these divine attributes only by progressive deduction.

Guided thus by Cajetan, we may now see the Thomistic meaning of the two adverbs: formaliter, eminenter. Formaliter means: essentially and not only causally, properly, and not merely metaphorically, but analogically. Eminenter excludes formal actual distinction in the divine attributes, and expresses their identification, better, their identity, in the transcendent raison d'etre of the Deity, whose mode of being, which in itself is hidden from us here below, can be known only negatively and relatively. It is in this sense that we say there is a transcendent world which, antecedently to the act of our mind, excludes all real and formal distinction, so that in God the only real distinction is that of the divine persons relatively opposed one to another. [361].

Let us listen to another passage from St. Thomas: "Now all these perfections pre-exist in God absolutely as one unit, whereas they are received in creatures as a divided multitude. Hence to our varied and multiple ideas there corresponds in God one altogether simple unity, which by these ideas is known imperfectly." And again: "The many ideas expressed by these many names are not empty and nugatory, because to each of them there corresponds one simple unity, represented only imperfectly by all of them taken together." [362].

In the transcendental pre-eminence of the Deity, therefore, all these divine attributes, far from destroying one another, are rather identified one with another. Each is in God formally, but not as formally distinct from all others. [363].

Further: these attributes, thus identified and in no way self-destructive, find in God's transcendence their fullest, purest perfection. Thus existence in God is essential existence. His act of understanding is self-subsistent, His goodness is essential goodness, His love self-subsistent.

This identification is rather easily understood when the perfections in question are on the same level of thought, and are thus distinguished, virtually and extrinsically, by reference to creatures. Thus the faculty of intellect, and its act, and its object, three distinct realities in the creature, are in the Creator manifestly identified, since He is the self-subsistent act of understanding.

But when the perfections in questions are in different lines of being, identification is less easily explained. Take intelligence and love, for example, or justice and mercy. But that all such seemingly opposite perfections are really identified in God is evidently clear from the foregoing pages. And that this identification is commonly accepted appears in phrases like the following: "the light of life," "affectionate knowledge," "the glance of love," "love awful and sweet." When God is seen face to face, this identification becomes clearly seen. But here below, in the light of faith only, even the mystics [364] speak of the "great darkness." Overwhelming splendor becomes obscurity, in the spirit still too feeble to support that splendor, just as the shining sun seems dark to the bird of night.

What distinction is there further between the divine essence and the divine relation, or between the divine nature which is communicable and the paternity which is incommunicable? This distinction is not formal and actual, but virtual and minor. Listen to Cajetan: "Speaking secundum se, not quoad nos, there is in God one only formal reality, not simply absolute, nor simply relative, not simply communicable nor simply incommunicable, but pre-containing, transcendentally and formally, all there is in God of absolute perfection and also all the relative perfection required by the Trinity. For the divine reality antecedes being and all its differentiations. That reality is above ens, above unum, etc." [365].

We conclude. The divine reality, as it is in itself, transcends all its perfections, absolute and relative, which it contains formally preeminently.

Article Three: Corollaries

From this high doctrine of God's transcendent pre-eminence there follows a number of corollaries. Here we shall notice only three of very special importance.

1. Reason, of its own sole force, by discovering the transcendence and inaccessibility of the Deity, can demonstrate thereby the existence in God of a supernatural order of truth and life. But to know that such supernatural truths exist is not the same thing as knowing what those truths are. The Deity, the whatness of God, manifestly surpasses all the natural powers of all created or creatable intelligence. Thus St. Thomas, [366] having granted that man can clearly know the existence in God of truths which far surpass man's power of knowing them in their nature, goes on to show, a few lines farther down, that the Deity as such is inaccessible to the natural powers even of the angels. [367].

2. Sanctifying grace, defined thus, "a participation in the divine nature," is a participation, physical, formal, and analogical, in the Deity as it is in itself, not merely in God conceived naturally as self-subsistent existence, or as self-subsisting intelligence. Hence sanctifying grace, when it reaches consummation, is the radical principle of the beatific vision which knows Deity as it is in itself. Is grace, then, a participation in divine infinity? Not subjectively, because participation means limitation. But grace does, objectively, proportion us to see the infinite God as He is.

Created analogical resemblances to God form an ascending scale: minerals by existence, plants by life, man and angels by intelligence, all have likeness unto God. But grace alone is like unto God as God.

3. We cannot, as long as we are here below (in via): see clearly the harmony between God's will of universal salvation and the gratuitousness of predestination. That means we cannot see how, in the transcendent pre-eminence of the Deity, are harmonized and identified these three attributes: infinite mercy, infinite justice, and that supreme liberty which in mercy chooses one rather than another.

Theological contemplation of this pre-eminence of Deity, if it proceeds from the love of God, disposes us to receive infused contemplation, which rests on living faith illumined by the gifts of knowledge and wisdom. This infused contemplation, though surrounded by a higher and ineffable darkness, still attains that Deity, whom St. Paul [368] calls "light inaccessible": inaccessible, that is, to him who has not received the light of glory.

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