Today’s Aquinas: The Many Names of God

Today’s Aquinas: The Many Names of God January 26, 2015

ThomasAquinas We’re blogging through St. Thomas Aquinas’ Compendium Theologiae, sometimes called his Shorter Summa. Find the previous posts here.

Up until now, Thomas has mostly been working from Aristotle’s playbook.  He has shown us that:

  • There is a First Cause
  • That it is metaphysically simple
  • That it is infinite
  • That it is the Creator of all other beings and the source of all of their perfections

At this point, then, we have a divine creator, but Thomas has not yet shown that this divine creator is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of Christian Theology. Now he begins to take up this task by addressing the divine names, as described by Dionysius the Areopagite in his On the Divine Names, a work that had great influence in the world of Thomas and his contemporaries.

On hearing the phrase “divine names”, most of us probably think of the various titles that are applied to God in the Bible: the Lord, God of Hosts, the Ancient of Days.  What Thomas is speaking of are not these, however, but rather the highest things we may properly say about God: that He is Being itself, that He is Goodness, Truth, Beauty, that He is a Person, having Life, Intellect, and Will.

We have many of these names, each calling out different traits or characteristics or perfections of God; yet we have one God, metaphysically simple.  How is it that we have so many distinct, apparently non-overlapping names for one and the same God?  Thomas explains:

This enables us to perceive the reason for the many names that are applied to God, even though in Himself He is absolutely simple. Since our intellect is unable to grasp His essence as it is in itself, we rise to a knowledge of that essence from the things that surround us.

These names of God are abstractions: Truth, Goodness, Beauty, and so forth.  We understand these abstractions only because we first grasped them in the things of common experience: honest words, kind actions, and the flowers of spring.  But the truth, the goodness, and the beauty of these things have their source in God, as Thomas as shown; therefore God possesses them as well, and infinitely well:

Various perfections are discerned in these things, the root and origin of them all being one in God, as has been shown. Since we cannot name an object except as we understand it (for names are signs of things understood), we cannot give names to God except in terms of perfections perceived in other things that have their origin in Him. And since these perfections are multiple in such things, we must assign many names to God.

In short, to speak of God we have to use words that we understand; and in our finiteness we can only understand a little of Him, and that only one piece at a time.  Each of the names captures, as through a glass darkly, one small inadequate sliver of the Glory of God.  But this is only due to our smallness:

If we saw His essence as it is in itself, a multiplicity of names would not be required; our idea of it would be simple, just as His essence is simple. This vision we hope for in the day of our glory; for, according to Zacharias 14:9, “In that day there shall be one Lord, and His name shall be one.”

Those who speak of the boredom of Heaven are thinking of an eternity of lolling about on clouds, twiddling with harps.  But everything that we find good on Earth, everything worthy of attention, is there present in God, infinitely magnified; and in Heaven, we shall see Him as He is.

___
photo credit: Public Domain; source Wikimedia Commons

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