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Commentary on the First Book of the Sentences of
Peter Lombard, Distinction III, Question 1, Article 1.
Whether God can be known by the created intellect.
To the first article we proceed thus:
- It seems that God cannot be known by the created intellect. For
Dionysius says in Chapter 1 of On the Divine Names, that we
can neither say nor understand God, which the following proves. Knowledge
is proportional to the existence thing. But God is above all existence.
Therefore, He is above knowledge.
- Again, God is more distant from every existing intelligible thing known
to us, than the intelligible is from the sensible. But sense
cannot know the intelligible. Therefore, neither can God be known by our
- Again, all knowledge is through some species, through which information
comes about by the assimilation of the knower to the thing known. But some
species cannot be abstracted from God, since He is most simple. Therefore,
He is not knowable.
- Again, as the Philosopher says in Book III of the Physics,
every infinite thing is unknowable. The reason for this is that it belongs
to the notion of the infinite that there (always) be something of the
infinite outside of whatever was grasped, and such it is
unknowable. But God is infinite. Therefore, He is unknowable.
- Again, the Philosopher says, in Book III of De Anima, that just as colors
are related to sight, so phantasms are related to the intellect. But,
corporeal sight sees nothing without color. Therefore, our intellect
understands nothing without a phantasm. Since, therefore, a phantasm cannot
be formed about God, as Isaiah 40: 18 says: "What image will you make for
Him?" it seems that (God) is not knowable by our intellect.
- In Jeremiah 9: 24 it is said that "In this is he glorified
who would be glorified, to know and understand Me." But it is not vain glory
to which God exhorts (us). Therefore, it seems that it is possible to know
- Again, as was said above, even according to the Philosopher, in Book X
of the Ethics, Chapter 10, the ultimate end of human life is
contemplation of God. If, therefore, man is not able to attain to this, in
vain would he be constituted; because that is vain, according to the
Philosopher in Book II of the Physics, which is directed to an
end, but which does not attain it. And this not fiiting, as is said in
Psalm 88: 48: "For how vainly you have made him."
- Again, as the Philosopher says in book III of De Anima, in
this does the intelligible differ from the sensible, that the intensly
sensible destroys the sense; but the exceedingly intelligible does not
destroy, but strengthens the intellect. Since, therefore, God is maximally
intelligible insofar as He is in Himself (because He is the primary
intelligible thing (primum intelligibile)), it seems that He
can be understood by our intellect. For (the intellect) would not be impeded
except by His excellence.
Solution: I respond that it should be said that this is
not the question whether God can be seen immediately in His essence, for
this belongs to another discourse. The question is whether (God) can be
known in any way at all. And so we say that God is knowable; not however
that He is so knowable that His essence can be comprehended. Because every
knower has the knowledge of the thing known, not according to the mode of
the thing known, but according to the mode of the knower. The mode, however,
of no creature attains to the height of the divine majesty. Wherefore, it
is necessary that He is known by no creature perfectly, as He Himself knows
Replies to Objections
- Just as God is not an existant according to this existence, but rather
the nature of entity is eminently in Him, and so He is not in all ways devoid
of entity; so even He is not in all ways devoid of knowledge that He may not
be known. But He is not known by the mode of other existing things, which
can be comprehended by the created intellect.
- Although God stands more distantly from every intelligible thing,
according to the propriety of nature than the intelligible from the sensible,
nevertheless, the notion of knowablity is more befitting to God. For
everything that is separate from matter shares in this notion as far as it
is known as intelligible. However, what is material is known as sensible.
- The species, through which cognition comes about, is in the knowing power
according to the mode of that knower. Wherefore, the species of those things
that are more material than (a pure) intellect is in the intellect more
simply than in the things. And so, such are said to know through the mode of
abstraction. However, God and the angels are more simple than our intellect,
and so the species which are effected in our intellect through which they are
known are less simple (than they are). Wherefore, we are not said to know
them through abstraction, but through the impression of them on our
- The infinite is said in two ways, namely, privitively and negatively.
The privitive infinite is that which, according to its genus, is born to
have an end but does not. And such a thing, since it is imperfect, owing to
its imperfection is not perfectly knowable. The negative infinite is said of
that which is no way finite; and this is something which extends itself to
everything and is most perfect, not being fit to be comprehended by the
created intellect, but only to be touched upon.
- The Philosopher, in Book III of De Anima, is speaking of
the knowledge of the intellect which is connatural to us in this life. And
in this way, God is not known by us except through the phantasm, not of Him
Himself, but of His effects through which we come (to knowledge) of Him.
But through this mode (the objection) is not removed unless the intellect
were able to have some knowledge, not through the natural way, but (through)
a higher (way), namely through the influence of divine light for which a
phantasm is not necessary. The rest (of the objection) we concede.
Nevertheless, to the last (contra), which concludes that God
even now is maximally knowable by us, it should be responded that the
intellect and the senses are in a certain way similar, and in a certain way
dissimilar. They are similar in that just as sense cannot (know) that which
is not proportional to itself, so neither can the intellect, since all
knowledge comes about through the mode of the knower, according to Boethius
in Consolation of Philosophy, Book V. However, they are
dissimilar in that the extremely intelligible does not corrupt as the
extremely visible does. Wherefore, the intellect does not fail in knowledge
of the extremely intelligible because it is corrupted, but because it does
not reach it. And so the created intellect cannot see God perfectly.
Return to the Aquinas on the Existence of God