God’s Knowledge (Aquinas 101)


When Thomas Aquinas considered
the attributes of God in the first part of the Summa, one of the attributes he discussed
was God’s knowledge. God knows things, lots of things. Indeed, God knows everything. But the interesting point is that God’s knowledge
is so very different from our own. God does not know things in the way you or
I do. He knows things in a much higher way than
you or I do. So the big question is, what is this higher
way in which God knows? The answer is that God’s knowledge is mysterious,
and we should not expect to fathom his way of knowing, but we can still say some things
about his knowledge. We can catch a glimpse of his knowledge. Let’s start by considering what his knowledge
is not. First, God does not know things by sensation. Since he does not have a body, he doesn’t
have physical organs for sensation. That also means God does not imagine or remember
things like you or I do. Since, for Aquinas, imagining and remembering
are works of physical organs. Second, God does not learn things from nature,
since learning is a form of change and God doesn’t change. Third, God does not form judgments or reason
or figure things out like we do, since that too is a form of change. In fact, God does not have a whole bunch of
ideas or concepts in his mind like we do, since God is simple. At this point, you might be asking, what in
the world is God’s knowledge? The answer is that God’s knowledge is not
in the world or from it. God’s knowledge is beyond ours and of a different
order than ours, and the knowledge of God would be what it is even if there were no
world. How can we make sense of this mystery? For Thomas Aquinas, the knowledge of God is
an eternal, simple gaze. God sees all in one glance and when God knows
all in this one eternal simple gaze, what does he see first? He first of all sees himself. Even before the foundation of the world God
knew himself, and in this eternal self knowledge, he knew that he would create the world and
what he would create and each feature of each thing that he would create. And he knew all this by knowing that he would
create each thing that way. And in this fountain of simple self-knowledge,
he knew that he would create each thing with a nature and a purpose and the power to make
a difference in the world for better or for worse. He knew that he would create causes, the sun
warming the earth, water giving hydration to living things, gravity attracting bodies
to each other. He knew that he would create persons in particular
as a special sort of cause, each with the power of free choice. And he knew our ability he would give us to
make things go one way or another in the world by our choices. He knew what our choices would be and that
we need not have made those choices and that we could have chosen otherwise by the power
he gave us to choose. All of this and more God sees in one simple,
unchanging and eternal glance upon himself as creator of the world of natural causes
and free persons. In the eternal gaze upon himself, he sees
you, for you are one of his works. Thomas Aquinas gives an analogy. Let us think of an artist who wants to paint
a portrait. Before putting anything on the canvas, the
artist first forms an image or understanding of what he wants to put on the canvas. Similarly with God. Before the foundation of the world, from all
eternity, God knew in his own mind what he wanted to create. He knew the whole of creation in all of its
details, from the beginning through the middle to the end. And in this knowledge, he also knew what could
have been otherwise and what should have been otherwise but was not otherwise due to the
free choices of persons. There’s only one difficulty with this analogy. The analogy can make it sound like God has
lots of things in mind like human beings do. When he sees things in his mind, so to speak,
he’s not seeing his own conceptions or ideas or images of things. That’s not how it is with God. The things in the world around us are not
modeled on conceptions, ideas or images in the mind of God, rather, they’re modeled on
God, who’s all simple and without a multiplicity of thoughts and images. Let’s say a bit more about the divine ideas. To provide an analogy not found in Aquinas,
we can think of a man who is modeling the human form for a studio full of painters. The model stands in the middle of a circle. The painters stand in fixed positions on the
perimeter of the circle around him. Each painter portrays what the model is and
appears to be given the painter’s location on the perimeter. If the model knew everything about himself,
he would know himself as portrayable in one way by a painter at this position, as portrayable
in another way by a painter at that position, et cetera. And if the model could know everything about
himself in one unchanging glance, he would know all at once all the ways he is portrayable. Aquinas himself uses similar language in his
question on the divine ideas. “God knows his essence as so imitable by such
a creature and knows it as the particular model and idea of that creature.” The divine ideas are God seeing his own simple
being as susceptible to participation or imitation in various ways by various creatures. The plurality is in the many creatures that
imitate and in the various ways they imitate, not in the one whom they imitate. Now we can see how God’s knowledge is the
criterion of truth for all things. So let’s say a word about truth. What is truth? Aquinas speaks of things as existing between
two minds, God’s and ours. A thoroughbred horse, for example, stands
between God’s understanding of what a thoroughbred is and our understanding of what a thoroughbred
is. Our judgments about thoroughbreds may be called
true when our judgments match what a thoroughbred is in reality. But thoroughbreds themselves may be called
true when they match God’s understanding of what a thoroughbred is. A weak limping, thoroughbred cannot be called
a true thoroughbred because it does not match or live up to God’s understanding of what
a thoroughbred is. But a strong coordinated thoroughbred does
live up to God’s understanding of what a thoroughbred is. And that’s why we would call a strong coordinated
one a true thoroughbred. Our understanding of things is true when it
matches what things are, but things are true when they match God’s understanding of what
they are. For readings, podcasts, and more video like this, go to Aquinas101.com. While you’re there, be sure to sign up for one of our free video courses on Aquinas. And don’t forget to like and share with your friends, because it matters what you think!

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