How God’s Nature Is Known: The Three-Fold Way
Acceptance of God’s existence is conditioned for many on whether or not a convincing proof thereof can be presented to them. But for others, it is not a problem of proving that God exists, but rather questions about whether the concept of a Supreme Being is even coherent. Many atheists or agnostics simply find the classical conception of God to be unintelligible. God is said to be omnipotent, omniscient, eternal, all good, omnipresent, and so forth. But to many it is not at all clear how these divine attributes can either be proven as real or, more importantly, how they make any sense or can co-exist in one and the same entity or in relation to the world around us. Skepticism of the classical notion of God is evident in the tendency among atheists to deny the existence of “any gods,” rather than of just the one “God.”
Moreover, even if one accepts that the classical proofs for God do demonstrate an Unmoved First Mover, an Uncaused First Cause, a Necessary Being, and so forth, how can we prove that these are even the same being—or that this being possesses the properties associated with the classical conception of God assumed by most Western philosophers?
This article will not attempt to prove God’s existence. His reality is merely assumed for present purposes. I have previously offered arguments for God’s existence on Strange Notions here and here. Still, St. Thomas Aquinas presents the best proofs for God, as found in his opuscula, De Ente et Essentia (On Being and Essence), chapter four, his Summa Contra Gentiles I, chapters 13 and 15, and his famous quinque viae (Five Ways) of his Summa Theologiae I, q. 2, a. 3, c.—these, taken together with their interpretations by classical and modern commentators. Also, I do not intend herein to show how the divine attributes are coherent, consistent with each other, and consistent with the created world in which we find ourselves.
The present enquiry’s sole purpose is to show how the human mind can come to know the nature of God, once his existence is demonstrated. If any particular divine attribute is mentioned, it will be primarily to illustrate the methods being explained and not to attempt a full explanation or defense of that attribute’s existence or coherence.
Classical metaphysics attains knowledge of God’s nature by means of an interpretation, mostly taken from the Christian Neo-Platonist Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (c. late fifth century) known as the via triplex or three-fold way. This entails (1) the way of causality (via causalitatis), (2) the way of remotion or negation (via remotionis), and (3) the way of eminence (via eminentiae). It is only by understanding how these three methods work and how they interface with each other that it is possible to begin to establish a realistic and coherent understanding of what can be correctly said about the divine nature.
#1 - The Way of Causality
According to the Platonic doctrine of participation, creatures participate in the “pure forms” of heaven by way of imitation. Thus, an earthly horse reminds us of “horseness-in-itself” eternally existing in a spiritual pure form. Christian thinkers transformed this “participation” from mere imitation into real causality, where participation’s etymology (cipere – to receive, pars – a part) became ontologically real. Now, in virtue of preexisting formal perfections in the Creator, the creature is directly caused to have its own proper intrinsic form—thus making it to be, say, a horse.
Employing the basic metaphysical principle that non-being cannot beget being, it is self-evident that a being cannot give what it does not have. Certain proofs for God’s existence, for example, the second of St. Thomas’ five ways, show that he is the Uncaused First Cause. As such, he cannot cause qualities or perfections in creatures which he does not possess. Therefore, any perfection we find in a creature must somehow preexist in God. If a creature lives, then God must be alive. If a creature has intelligence, then God must be intelligent. If there is goodness in creation, then God must be good. If some creatures are persons, then God must be personal. The principle is evident. Still, considered alone it does not give us the full picture of how we form a coherent notion of God.
#2 - The Way of Remotion
What about things we find in creation that do not manifest perfections, but imperfections? Creatures are finite. Does that mean God is finite? There is evil in the world. Does that mean God is evil? Our intellects often make mistakes. Does God make mistakes? There is pain and suffering in the world. Does God suffer pain? The world is constrained by time. Does God exist in time? And in particular, how can a spiritual First Cause create material being? How can that which lacks matter cause matter to exist? These and many other questions arise in which it appears that God is causing problematic effects.
The key to resolving such enigmas is to remove from God any negation, imperfection, limitation, non-being, or evil found in the creature. For any creature to exist, God must create every extent of being or perfection of existence found within it. But non-being needs no cause. Hence, causality need not imply that God causes anything that entails limitation or imperfection in creatures.
Perhaps, the most challenging question would be, “How can God cause material things when he lacks it himself? If he cannot give what he lacks, how can God, who lacks materiality, give materiality to physical beings?”
And yet, being material simply isn’t all that great! It entails being extended in time and space, which also means to be limited by time and space. Being limited in time means not to possess the quality of being present to all time at once. Being limited in space means not to be present in all places at once. Still, such lack of being in these various respects self-evidently requires no direct causation from God. Moreover, Being material means to be composed of form and matter, which necessarily entails the possibility of decomposition and, thereby, destruction. The alternative would be to create no physical beings at all.
But cannot material beings impact other material beings? Yes, but so can God—merely by creating or uncreating whatever existential qualities are needed to change a thing.
God can create material being because he pre-eminently contains all the existential perfections contained within it, but without the corresponding defects that come with being an actual material substance.
Similarly, the very notion of a finite thing is that it possesses some perfections of existence and lacks others. God is needed to cause what being or perfection is present, but need not be the cause of what is lacking to a finite being. “Finitude” is not a name for the perfection of a being, but a reference of its very lack thereof.
Likewise, evil is not absolute non-being, since that would not exist at all. The proper metaphysical definition of evil is the lack of a due perfection, that is, the absence of some property or quality that ought to be in a given nature. For example, having a “cold” is the lack of the good health we should enjoy. Yet, the “cold” itself is caused by the multiplication of a virus in us. From the standpoint of the virus, having a “good” cold means the virus is thriving, while we are not!
Moral evil is the performance of an act that deviates from what a human being ought to do so as to attain his last end in God. It is performed to attain a good of some sort, but by a means that is lacking proper ordination to human nature’s true end. Again, God is the cause of all that is good in creatures, but moral evil is the result of a use of free will contrary to the good intended by God for human nature. That is to say, the lack of proper ordination of human free acts is caused by man’s misuse of his free will, not by an action of God himself. Thus, the moral evil is man’s responsibility, not God’s. Without addressing all the complexities of the problem of evil itself, the general principle is to remove from predication of God’s causality anything in a being that constitutes a mere lack of what is proper to its nature. The nature itself needs God’s creative causality; the lack does not.
Always focusing on the being of things makes clear what actually needs a cause and what is merely the lack of what ought to be, as measured by the nature of the thing. The challenge in each case is to determine precisely what positively requires a cause of existence versus what is merely a negation or lack of being. While God is needed to cause the perfection of a nature, its defect or lack need not be attributed to God as the ultimate cause of the thing itself.
What has no need to be caused, namely a lack of being, need not be said of God as its cause—since there is nothing to be explained by a cause. Thus, being is predicated of God; finitude is not. Goodness is predicated of God; evil is not. Intelligence is predicated of God; mistakes are not. Suffering is found in creatures, but not in God. Creatures are constrained by time and space; God is not. Some creatures are material; God is strictly immaterial, which is the proper meaning of “spiritual.”
One can see the nature of remotion or negation in the very way we speak of God as opposed to creatures. We say God is infinite, immutable, uncaused, non-contingent, immaterial, and so forth. In each case, we find a quality of creatures that mark their “creatureliness” and negate its application to God. Each term has a prefix indicating negation, followed by a term marking the finitude of the creature. Thus, we render a judgment that affirms that God possesses some perfection, but in a manner absent the limitation of that same perfection as it is found in the creature.
For example, we do not directly know what the “infinite” in itself may mean, but we do know that God’s way of existing is not limited the way that creatures are limited beings. Because of the negative form of the prefix involved, the etymology of some of these attributes may make them sound as if they were something negative. Still, we should remember that such attributes express in fact a positive content.
Some have been deceived by such “indirect naming” into thinking that it is impossible to form any concept of God, saying that he is so ineffable that nothing can be known of him at all. Nothing could be further from the truth, since a term, such as “infinite,” actually affirms the infinite perfection of God’s being.
#3 - The Way of Eminence
Finally, we consider the way of eminence, which is manifest from the conclusions of St. Thomas’ proofs for God given in the fourth of his Five Ways and in his De Ente et Essentia argument. These proofs conclude to God as greatest in being, a being which is its very act of existing. That is, God is found to be that Supreme Being whose essence and act of existence are absolutely identical.
These arguments show that all the lesser perfections of existence that are found in creatures must be found in God in a manner that is identical with his very essence. Thus, whatever perfection is found in creatures is said to be preeminently contained in God. And, since God’s being is infinite, this means that any perfection found in creatures must be found in God as infinitely expressed. We sometimes illustrate this by saying that while man has intelligence or goodness, God is intelligence or goodness itself.
This again follows from the idea that creatures participate in the divine perfections – receiving, as it were, a part of the divine reality itself.
Here we see a certain conflating of the via triplex with the doctrine of analogy. Metaphysical analogy is based on a relation between creatures and God which expresses a real similarity or proportion, but not the exact same meaning of terms used to describe the subject. It is unlike univocal predication. When we say a tiger is an animal and a dog is an animal, the meaning of “animal” is exactly the same. This is univocal predication. But when we say man is a being and God is a being, the term, “being,” does not express the same formal identity. The predication is analogous. For in creatures, existence, or being, is received into a nature from which it is distinct. In the proofs of God’s existence, creatures are revealed to be effects of God’s creative act, which means that they receive their act of existence (esse) from God.
In fact, that need to receive existence from an external cause is why the creature needs to be created. But, in God, his very nature is to exist. His existence is identical with his essence. Indeed, every perfection of existence which is found in creatures must exist in God in a manner identical with his infinite essence or nature. Thus, each perfection found in creatures in a limited manner is found in God infinitely expressed, which is precisely the meaning of the way of eminence.
I have not directly intended to explain or defend the divine names or attributes in this article. Yet, by studying the conclusions of the various arguments to God’s existence, one can come to see the necessary properties of the divine essence. Thus, through understanding the logical implications of God being the First Mover, First Cause, Necessary Being, Supreme Being, and Ultimate End, knowledge of the various divine attributes, their internal and relational coherence, as well as the intelligibility of God’s relation to the world becomes possible. All the while, it remains true that in God these various divine names refer to one and the same identical reality.
While many discussions and disputes arise concerning the coherence of God’s nature, the primary purpose of this article has not been to defend that coherence, but rather to show the proper method for investigating the divine attributes—the project which logically follows after having discovered that God actually exists.
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