Aquinas on God’s Knowledge

Jon Levenson writes in Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence that three Christian theological errors have distorted the scriptural understanding of Israel’s God:

1. “the residue of the static Aristotelian conception of deity as perfect, unchanging being”
2. “the uncritical tendency to affirm the constancy of divine action;”
3. “the conversion of biblical creation theology into an affirmation of the goodness of whatever is.” (Levenson xxv).

This is the argument that Matthew Levering takes on in Chapter 3 of Scripture and Metaphysics, namely, that in light of Scripture’s numerous accounts of God’s capricious will e.g. Exodus 32, Jeremiah 18), incomplete knowledge (Genesis 18:21), and impotence to stop certain atrocious acts, how can Christian theology still hold that God is unchanging, omniscient, and omnipotent. Levering illustrates how Aquinas solves this problem through a creative interplay of Scriptural exegesis and metaphysical reflection. In this post, we will discuss Levenson’s argument that God is not omniscient as the metaphysicians claim that God is.

Levering first identifies three important aspects of Aquinas’ scriptural exegesis. The first is that Aquinas has a “whole-canon hermeneutic;” that is, he accepts on faith that the whole Bible contains God’s self-revelation. This means that Aquinas thinks that each passage which reveals something about God’s identity must be weighed against other relevant passages in order to understand the full meaning of these passages.

Second, Aquinas thinks that the images of God found in the biblical texts must be analyzed metaphysically in order to fully understand what the text is saying, and in order to avoid anthropomorphizing God. The third point is related to the second. That is, Aquinas believes that human language used to refer to God is analogical, meaning that words used to describe finite creatures like “good” or “wise” or “angry” cannot be fully and properly ascribed to God who is beyond human comprehension and human language. To see more on Aquinas’ use of analogical language to talk about God, check out this earlier post.

In seeking to understand God’s knowledge, Aquinas turns first to the relevant passages of Scripture, and then uses metaphysical speculation to investigate these revealed mysteries by establishing “their ontological, causal, and communicative structures, [thus enabling him as a theologian] to express judgments about the meaning of Scripture’s claims about God and human beings” (Levering 21; see Fides et Ratio no. 66).

Jon Levenson, influenced by process theology, doubts that God fully knows other creatures, arguing that this seems to contradict the image of God in scripture of God coming to know his creatures, whose free actions seem to frequently allude the knowledge of God. In investigating God’s knowledge, Aquinas begins with God’s perfection, citing Matthew 5:48: “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is also perfect.” Aquinas notes that “a thing is perfect in proportion to its state of actuality, because we call that perfect which lacks nothing of the mode of its perfection” (Ia, Q. 4, art. 1). What he means is that we use the word “perfect” analogically to describe the being of something.

A thing is perfect in so far as it exists the way that it is supposed to. A pen, for example, is perfect in so far as it fully exists as a pen is supposed to exist, writing smoothly, etc. Human beings, however, are more complicated than pens. There are lots of different ways that humans can be. Humans can be wise or unwise, they can be good or not good, they can be knowledgeable or lacking knowledge. Human beings are good or perfect (that is, achieve the fullness of their being) to the extent that they do the various things that human beings are supposed to do. One of the things that humans are supposed to do is “know things.” Thus, knowledge is one of the various perfections that we can ascribe to humans.

But humans exist or “have being” in a different way that God does since they are (1) created and (2) embodied. Humans can have more or less existence. For example, somebody who has lived a long time and has done good and virtuous things and has gained a lot of knowledge we might describe as having “a full life.” Such a person has reached a greater state of perfection. I do not a moral state of perfection but an ontological state of perfection. They have reached a greater or fuller state of being. They have lived the way humans are supposed to live.

God, we have already established, is pure Being, because God is pure form. Since God is pure and simple Being, there is only one way for God to exist. In other words, God does not have more or less existence like human beings do. So all the “perfections” that we ascribe to humans to indicate the extent to which they are fulfilling how they are supposed “to be,” perfections like goodness and knowledge, are already in God because God is simple Being. God is not better or worse, or does not exist in a fuller or lesser way. God simply IS. And this means that any perfection that we would derive from existence is simply in God.

Aquinas uses this idea of God’s perfection to shed light on the scriptural passages that refer to different “perfections” of God like God’s knowledge. He looks at Romans 11:33, for example, “O the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God” and Job 12:13 “With God is wisdom and strength, counsel and understanding” and Hebrews 4:13 “All things are naked and open to his eyes.” Aquinas’ explanation is metaphysical. Since God is simple being, God’s knowledge is not a perfection that exists apart from God’s being. As Levering writes, “God is his knowledge, and his knowing is infinite. Knowing is a perfection of His infinite Act” (86). Simple existence that God reveals of his identity in Scripture, from which all created things take their existence demands that God is also perfect and knowing.

But surely Levenson would argue that this is exactly the God that is not revealed in Scripture, but rather the philosophers’ god superimposed on the scriptural account. Levering would point to Scripture accounts of God not knowing, such as in Genesis 3 when he questions the woman. If God knew everything, why the questions?

Aquinas’ response to Levering is that Scripture clearly indicates that God is all-knowing. However, in describing the ways that human beings can relate to God, the authors of scripture sometimes portray God’s knowledge as incomplete, not because God’s knowledge is incomplete, but because human language is insufficient to describe the complex ways that human beings relate to God. Human beings know, to return to our last post, in an analogous fashion to the way God knows.

Human knowledge in Aquinas’ theory is obtained in two operations. The first operation, the sensitive operation, is when the sense perceptions like vision and hearing and touching perceive a particular object. Sense knowledge then is knowledge of particular things like a particular dog. The second operation is the intellective operation. Intellective knowledge is knowledge of universal things, that is, what makes this particular furry and barking thing in front of me a “dog.” So human knowledge proceeds from particular things to the ideas behind those things; that is, human knowledge processes from sensory knowledge to intellective knowledge of the ideas behind the sensory objects.

Another way of explaining this is with the distinction between form and matter (see this and this earlier post for more explanation). In Aquinas’ view, all things are composed of form, or the essence of what they are (the dogginess in the dog) and matter, the particular individuating “stuff” which makes one dog a particular dog and distinguishes it from other dogs. The sensory operation of knowledge perceives the various aspects of the dog like fur, four legs, paws, canine teeth. The intellective knowledge abstracts from the particular matter and judges the “thing” to be a dog. It is the intellect that allows a person to say that both a Chihuahua and a Doberman, despite their differences. That is, it is the intellective operation that allows a human to abstract the form “dog” from the particular substance.

Truth consists in the equality of the intellect with its object. True knowledge of a dog is when the intellect rightly abstracts the form “dog” from the particular substance, rather than abstracting the form “cat” or “bear” despite certain similarities in the particular matter.

God’s knowledge is different. God does not have a body, so obviously, God does not know things through a sensitive power. Nor is God’s knowledge a distinct power in God. As we established above, as simple Being, God is God’s own knowledge. So how does God know? God knows, according to Aquinas, because God is the cause of all things. God knows things because God makes them. God’s knowledge, therefore, (and this is the important part) is not affected by and dependent on what is known, but God’s knowledge is what causes anything to be known.

For humans, something must exist (even as an abstraction like a dinosaur) for it to be known. For God, it is the opposite. God must know anything for it to exist. God’s knowledge is logically and metaphysically prior to existence. God’s causative knowledge raises a huge theological problem, namely the problem of evil, because if God’s knowledge causes all things, then how can we say that God does not thereby cause evil. We will address this problem in another blog post. But for now, it is sufficient to address Jon Levenson’s claim that God has incomplete knowledge with the metaphysical claim that our knowledge is analogical to God’s. So we have to use analogical language to talk about God’s knowledge. God does not know through sensory perception like we do, nor does God know in stages of perceiving, abstracting, and judging like we do. God’s knowledge of a dog, in its essence, is metaphysically necessary (though not sufficient) for the dog to even exist, much less be known according to human knowledge.


1 comment so far

  1. David Adkins on

    I look forward to further blogs, esp. re evil.

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