church · theology · Thomas Aquinas

Thomas Aquinas on Knowing God

One of the most important figures in the medieval church was a man by the name of Thomas Aquinas.  His influence, however, did not stop after the middle ages.  He continues to influence the Catholic Church up to even the 20th century through theologians like Henri de Lubac.  Aquinas, heavily influenced by Aristotle, had a high view of the human intellect and believed humans were searching for an “ultimate happiness.”  Unlike other Catholic theologians who argued that humans look to understand God as the primary cause, Aquinas argued that humans must understand God in his essence.  In his pioneering work Summa Theologiae he said that “just as the sun is too bright for the eye of a bat…some people think created minds can never see God as he really is.”  These kinds of limiting statements, he argues, are false.  Because Aquinas believed humanity searches ultimate happiness—a happiness found only in God—Aquinas believed humans had to be able, in one form or another, to know God within the context of this life.  As evidence, he suggests that “our ability to understand…[is] a shared likeness of his [God’s] primordial intelligence, a sort of intelligence deriving from his primordial light.”

Aquinas’ views on the nature of God are quite complex, but let us suffice it here to understand that Aquinas viewed “God’s substance” as “existence itself.”  Because “God has no body” we cannot understand him by our senses.  Aquinas understands God in Aristotelian fashion by arguing that God is understood by the intellect rather than the senses.  The senses were considered secondary, lesser, more primal attributes of a human.  As such, Aquinas argued the senses can only distinguish individualistically, while the intellect can understand by “transcending the material…abstracting from concrete individuals…So the mind can be raised even higher by God’s grace to know substances that actually subsist independently of matter.”  In other words, by the grace of God, man is able to experience God totally outside sensory experience—experiencing the very otherness of God in the present.

Aquinas goes on that “when created minds do see God’s substance, the very substance of God himself forms their understanding; but when something more than their [human] nature is needed to predispose them to sub sublimity: what we call a light of glory.  The brightness of God will illuminate her, namely, the community of those who see God.  Their supernatural light likens us to God: when he shall appear we shall be like him and we shall see him just as he is.  The function of this created light is not to make God’s substance understandable…but to strengthen our understanding in the way kills and other dispositions strengthen our ability to do things.  It is not a medium through which God is seen, but something enabling us to see him immediately…The light makes the creature like God.  The more such light there is in the mind, the more perfectly the mind sees God.  And those who have the greater love have the more light.  Greater love causes greater desire, and desire is itself in some way a predisposition making man fit to receive what he desires.  So those who love more will see God more perfectly and be more blessed.”

Aquinas believed, by the power of the divine light, that we could see God and know him more perfectly through our explicit acts of love—as we become more and more loving in the world.  There is a danger in protestant circles to forget men like Aquinas as something that should be contained within ivory university towers or within the Catholic Church, but I think Aquinas has something—even today—to teach us.


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