Today’s Aquinas: God Cannot Be Defined

Today’s Aquinas: God Cannot Be Defined February 16, 2015

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

We understand the one God through a glass darkly, by means of many names:

A second point is this: since our intellect does not adequately grasp the divine essence in any of the conceptions which the names applied to God signify, the definitions of these terms cannot define what is in God. That is, any definition we might formulate of the divine wisdom would not be a definition of the divine power, and so on regarding other attributes.

God cannot be defined?  How odd: we speak of Him incessantly, we argue about Him, we describe Him; how can we say so much about Him without knowing what He is?  The answer is that truly do know things about God, some by pure reason and some by revelation, but we cannot define Him fully: in His infinity, comprehending Him is beyond our capabilities.

Aquinas uses a nice distinction: first we apprehend things—hey, there’s a dog!— and then sometimes we manage to comprehend them, understand them more deeply.  Looking at the root words for “apprehend” and “comprehend”, what Thomas is saying is that first we seize something; and then later, possibly, we grasp it firmly.  Picture snatching a falling object out of mid-air.  And God we can apprehend in part, and even comprehend certain small aspects, but we cannot grasp Him in his totality.

Now, remember that a metaphysical definition captures the essence of the thing defined.  But none of the names we have for God do this.  He is Truth, certainly; but He isn’t only Truth.  He is also Beauty and Goodness and Love.  If any of these captured His essence, we wouldn’t need the others.  Even Being, the most encompassing of the names, doesn’t capture everything.  Aristotle understood the Divine as Being; but he had no notion of God as Love, not as we mean it.

The indefinability of God shouldn’t surprise us; it also falls out of the metaphysical analysis Thomas did some chapters back, as he hastens to remind us:

The same is clear for another reason. A definition is made up of genus and specific differences, for what is properly defined is the species. But we have shown that the divine essence is not included under any genus or species. Therefore it cannot be defined.

photo credit: Public Domain; source Wikimedia Commons

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