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Between Athens and Jerusalem: More Aquinas for Adventists

Lest this monthly foray into philosophy seem a bit too “Western”, we start this month’s post on Aquinas with words from the Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi, who notes: “A trap is for fish: when you’ve got the fish, you can forget the trap. A snare is for rabbits: when you’ve got the rabbit, you can forget the snare. Words are for meaning: when you’ve got the meaning, you can forget the words.” (XXVI, External Things).

Zhuangzi, writing roughly 300 years before Jesus was born, sounds like a contemporary. All too often, words fail to communicate. We fail to articulate our thoughts adequately. When we do, those we are speaking to, fail to understand our meaning. In worst case scenarios, words distort and deceive. There is a gap between the words we use, and the ideas, people, things to which they refer.

If this is this is the case for everyday language, what about religious discourse about the divine? Is it possible to speak of God? This may seem like an inane question, as people purportedly do so all the time. Let me rephrase the question, then. Is it possible to speak of God without either committing some form of linguistic or conceptual idolatry or falling into some form of agnosticism? In this post, we’ll examine the thought of Thomas Aquinas on this issue, trying to understand how he attempts to avoid both poles of this conundrum.

The starting point of our inquiry is the Summa Theologiae. In Book 1, Question 13, Article 5, Aquinas asks “Whether what is said of God and creatures is univocally predicated of them?” In other words, do the words we use to talk about ourselves and this world mean the same thing when we attribute them to God? Aquinas’ answer to the question is negative. He argues, “Univocal predication is impossible between God and creatures.” This means that in sentences like “Bob is good” and “God is good,” “good” does not mean the same thing.

Why not?

A crucial difference between God and the rest of creation, for Aquinas, is the relationship between God and God’s attributes. God, according to Aquinas, is “simple”, i.e. not a “composite.” This means that God’s attributes cannot be separated from God. Unlike God’s creatures, God’s being, wisdom, love, power, etc. are perfectly unified and identical with God’s essence. In God’s creatures, however, none of these attributes are essential; they are “accidents.” It is possible, for example, for me to not exist. Unlike God, existence is not a part of my essence. Thus, Aquinas explains, the term “‘wise’ applied to man in some degree circumscribes and comprehends the thing signified; whereas this is not the case when it is applied to God.” Thomas continues to explain, “it leaves the thing signified as incomprehended, and as exceeding the signification of the name” (emphasis mine).

However, Aquinas continues, “Neither…are names applied to God and creatures in a purely equivocal sense.” To equivocate is to be ambiguous or unclear. While acknowledging God’s ultimate transcendence, Aquinas wants to affirm that positive language about God is still meaningful. He argues that the mean between the strictly univocal and equivocal senses of language is the analogical sense–“[S]ome things are said of God and creatures analogically, and not in a purely equivocal nor in a purely univocal sense.”

But what does this mean? What, precisely, Aquinas means by “analogy” is a complicated issue; I won’t attempt to explain it fully here. Simply put, Aquinas seems to think that because of the causal relationship between God and God’s creation, there is a transmission of properties. God’s creatures bears God’s image. Although a causal relationship does not entail a relationship of exact similitude, there is some kind proportional relationship that holds. An analogical relationship between God and creation makes analogical talk about God possible; creaturely words and thoughts about God have a different, but related, meaning.

This seems to secure the meaningfulness of our discourse about God. But to some, affirming of an analogical relationship between God and creation is a dangerous idea; it domesticates God, and brings God down to our level. Take Barth, for example, who called the doctrine of analogy “an invention of the anti-Christ.” [1] Drawing on Kierkegaard, Barth also posits, “the ‘infinite qualitative difference’ between time and eternity,” reminding us that “God is in heaven and you on earth.” [2]

To be clear, Barth’s target is natural theology, or the effort to discern truths about God, through reason alone. Aquinas maintains that humans, without revelation, can know certain basic things about God, i.e. that God exists and God’s nature. Barth disparages all such efforts, arguing only revelation, and specifically the revelation of Jesus Christ, provides any knowledge of God. This revelation is recorded in Scripture, and grasped through faith, not reason.

Even if one sides with Barth, however, as Protestants generally do, on the prospects of natural theology, his criticisms, if directed at Aquinas, fail to acknowledge an important aspect of Aquinas’ thought. Aquinas also argues that God, the source of all created things, cannot share the same kind of being as the created order. Aside from being supremely simple, God’s Being is underived. The kind of existence that God has (or more properly is) is radically different from that or any creature. In the language of Aquinas, God is in a different “genus” entirely. Because we cannot intellectually grasp this, it is impossible to really “know” God.

The apophatic aspect of Aquinas’ thought has not always appreciated and some have been too quick to charge Aquinas with “onto-theology” or, saying too much about God. Aside from his many references to Scripture, Aquinas’ favorite philosopher to quote, after Aristotle, is Pseudo-Dionysius (who he erroneously thought was an actual apostle), who’s mystical negative theology is making a comeback recently. Combine this with the story of why the massive Summa Theologie is uncompleted—Aquinas purportedly had a mystical experience and afterwards declared, “Everything I have written seems like straw by comparison with what I have seen”—and Thomas’ thought seems to not only to parallel Pseudo-Dionysius’ in certain respects, but also Barth’s. All three thinkers emphasize the colossal gap between human thought and transcendent realities.

This aspect of Aquinas’ thought has important implications for Protestant thought, who generally, like Barth (although not all agree with Barth on the nature of this revelation) place emphasis on the divinely revealed Word of God. The revelation of God (ultimately through Jesus), however, is recorded in words and communicated in words. So, there is still the question of the relationship between the words of revelation and the divine realities to which they refer.

A criticism that has been raised against Barth, and I think rightfully so, is that his criticism seems to lead one to an entirely irrational or anti-rational understanding of faith. By “irrational” here, I don’t mean that Barth fails to provide adequate reason for belief in God in general, i.e. a proof, but that such a position applied to language and taken to an extreme would render talk about God meaningless. Aquinas’ distinctions, on the other hand, remind us of the gap between our words and realities to which they refer, without obliterating their meaning. Appreciating the distinctions Aquinas makes, I believe, protects us from an idolatrous relationship with the words of revelation (or Barthian in terms, the words that record revelation), while preserving a healthy appreciation of what they communicate.

Words can become idols in two ways. Like the actual idols of ancient times, they can distort the nature of the divine; eventually, they can take place of the divine. I don’t think that this danger or worry is overstated. Think of all the comments heard in Christian circles about “having the truth.” “The truth” here means the cognitive grasp and assent to a certain body of propositions. We “possess” the truth and hurl these truths like weapons at our opponents, wanting to bend their minds into our cognitive image.

Jesus, however, says, “I am the truth.” [3]

Aquinas affirms that theological language tracks the truth, and in that sense, is meaningful; these words, however, are not “the truth”, and should not be mistaken for the greater realities they purportedly point to. At stake is not what the words say, but what they fail to say. Understanding this, affects how we hold our words–as idols or as icons. Theological words, at their worst, are idols distorting and displacing God. At their best, they are icons and placeholders, directing our gaze beyond themselves (and ourselves) and opening a provisional space for an actual encounter with God.


Zane Yi is a Ph.D. Candidate in Philosophy at Fordham University. He hopes these thoughts on language elucidate more than they obfuscate.

1. Church Dogmatics, I/1, x

2. The Epistle to the Romans, 10

3. John 14:6

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