Revealed Knowledge of God

Today’s first reading for Mass from 1 Samuel presents the perfect opportunity to talk a little about natural knowledge of God and revelation, a topic which I have also written about here.

Samuel is sleeping in the temple of the Lord where the ark is when he hears a voice calling him. Thinking the voice is coming from Eli, the only human voice around, he runs to him saying “Here I am. You called me.” When this has happened twice to Samuel, the author tells us, “Samuel was not familiar with Yahweh because the lord had not revealed anything to him as yet.” The NRSV makes it clearer “Samuel did not yet know Yahweh” (1 Samuel 3:7). Because God had not yet revealed himself, Samuel attributes his experience–hearing this voice–to a natural cause. Only when it happens a third time does Eli realize that no natural cause could explain Samuel’s experience. “Eli understood that Yahweh was calling the youth. So he said to Samuel, ‘Go to sleep, and if you are called, reply, ‘Speak, Yahweh, for your servant is listening.’” The next time that Yahweh calls out, Samuel is able to respond correctly. He knows who is calling.

If you went to Mass this morning, you probably heard a slightly different reading of the story. Instead of “Yahweh,” you probably heard “the LORD.” When you see in your Bibles the word “LORD” in small capital letters, what you are seeing is the translation of the transliteration of the Hebrew word for “Yahweh.” I used Yahweh in my own version of 1 Samuel to emphasize that the young Samuel is not receiving just any revelation, but is learning the proper name of the God of Israel.

Thomas Aquinas’ second question of the Summa Theologica is on the existence of God, a part of the Summa often quoted and studied in intro. Philosophy classes and often misunderstood. First, Thomas asks whether the existence of God is self-evident. He answers, “No one can mentally admit the opposite of what is self-evident; as the Philosopher [Aristotle] states concerning the first principles of demonstration. But the opposite of the proposition “God is” can be mentally admitted: ‘The fool said in his heart, There is no God.’ Therefore, the existence of God is not self-evident.”

Something is only self-evident, according to Aquinas, if the essence of the subject includes the predicate like “a zebra is an animal” because the essence of zebra, what makes a zebra what it is, includes animal in it. Regarding God, Aquinas says that if we say “God is,” the statement in itself would be self-evident because God includes his own essence. There is no predication in God. But here’s the rub: “Now because we do not know the essence of God, the proposition is not self-evident to us, but needs to be demonstrated by things that are more known to us, though less known in their nature, namely, by effects.”

Thomas’ main interlocutor here is John Damascus who says that “the knowledge of God is naturally implanted in all.” Aquinas agrees that the knowledge of God is in us naturally–sort of. Here, the passage in 1 Samuel is helpful. Samuel hears Yahweh calling him, so in this way, he has knowledge of God because he hears the voice of God. But until it is revealed to him that this voice comes from Yahweh, he attributes the voice to other things, namely, Eli. Aquinas writes,

“To know that God exists in a general and confused way is implanted in us by nature, inasmuch as God is man’s beatitude. For man naturally desires happiness, and what is naturally desired by man must be naturally known to him. This however is not to know absolutely that God exists; just as to know that someone is approaching is not the same as knowing that Peter is approaching, even though it is Peter who is approaching; for there are many who imagine that man’s perfect good which is happiness, consists in riches, and others in pleasures, and others in something else.”

The knowledge human beings have of God naturally is analogous to Samuel hearing a voice, and not knowing who it comes from, or seeing a person approaching and not knowing who it is. Not very useful knowledge.

But Aquinas still wants to insist that we can know that God exists naturally. Our knowledge of his existence comes from his effects. For Aquinas, the universe is constantly in motion, and it is this motion which is mysterious and needs to be investigated. Motion means that the universe is always in a state of flux, because when one thing moves, it impacts another. And because the universe’s change is attributable to motion, the universe can be investigated according to principles of causation.

Aquinas, when he looks around the universe, tries to explain things in terms of Aristotelian causation, as he claims all humans do. But this chain of causation cannot be endless. There must be some first cause. There must be some first efficient cause, some unmoved mover or necessary “causer” on which all other contingent causes derive their existence. This, Aquinas says, is God, which he explains in the second question of the Prima Pars. This first cause is what is naturally sought out by the intellect. In other words, the intellect was made to seek out knowledge of God in this way. Aquinas writes,

The existence of God, like other truths about God, which can be known by natural reason, are not articles of faith, but are preambles to the articles; for faith presupposes natural knowledge, even as grace presupposes nature, and perfection presupposes that something can be perfected (I, Q. 2, art. 2, ad. 2).

What Aquinas is trying to do is show that the intellect can come to some natural knowledge of what God does through his effects. But this tells us nothing about the essence of God. What or Who or the Essence of God remains beyond us. The human intellect, says Aquinas is not made to know anything naturally about God.

For knowledge of God, the human depends on grace. In the first question of the Prima Pars, Aquinas says that sacred science (I.e. theology) is necessary because the human being does not naturally know God, and so a further principle, revelation, is necessary. This first question regarding the importance of revelation guides the rest of the Summa. When Aquinas says that the effects of God in the universe lead the intellect to posit God as their cause, he emphasizes that revelation is still necessary in order to know anything about this first cause. The intellect depends on God’s grace to elevate it and allow it to grasp knowledge of God. Thus, faith, the theological virtue located in the intellect, is necessary to grasp knowledge of God.

In the story in 1 Samuel, Yahweh has to be revealed to Samuel. He can’t just hear the voice and know God. He must be helped, both directly by God’s self-revelation, and indirectly by the assistance provided by those who know Yahweh, in this case, Eli (this “assistance” other people provide in disclosing knowledge of God is what Aquinas calls “justifying grace”).

Fergus Kerr says that Aquinas’ five proofs are about showing how God has already been known naturally by the philosophers. He is not re-proving God, but simply rearticulating. His basis for doing so is Scriptural, and he cites Romans 1 “for what can be known of God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world, his eternal power and divinity has been understood by the things he has made.” In the Old Testament, we see a fuller understanding of God, revealed in God’s election and sustaining of Israel. But the Jews also have an imperfect knowledge of God. The fulfillment of knowledge about God is found in the person of Jesus Christ, in his birth, life, death, and resurrection. It is in Jesus that God makes himself fully known.


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