On what God is not

But any readers of Thomas's Summa Theologiae who supposed that that was his procedure would be much puzzled by what they find in the course of the argument of those twenty-five questions: first, because Thomas sets about demonstrating the existence of God without giving even preliminary thought even to a 'heuristic' definition of God. In fact, the reader will be at a loss to find any 'definition' of God anywhere at all, even were he to read right through to the end of the Summa. All Thomas appears to say on this matter, at any point, is immediately at the end of each of the five ways, when he says, with that demotic optimism which we have already noted (and to the dissatisfaction of most readers today who misunderstand the point), that the prime mover, the first efficient cause and the necessary being and the rest, are 'what all people call God'29 -exactly the proposition which Gunton is pleased to contest in the name of his trinitarian priorities. Secondly, when, immediately after his discussion of whether God exists, Thomas does appear to set about the more formal discussion of what it is of which he might have proved the existence, he tells us flatly that there is no definition to be had, for there can be no

answer to the question of what God is, but only of what God is not. 'Once you know whether something exists', he says, it remains to consider how it exists, so that we may know of it what it is. But since we cannot know of God what he is, but [only] what he is not, we cannot enquire into the how of God ['s existence], but only into how he is not. So, first we must consider this 'how God is not', secondly, how he is known by us, thirdly, how he is spoken of.30

That said, the reader will be further puzzled by the fact that, nonetheless, Thomas then proceeds for a further nine questions to discuss what, on most accounts, will be considered classical attributes of God - his simplicity, perfection, goodness, infinity, ubiquity, immutability and unity -as if thereby ignoring what he has just said and supplying us with what to many will appear to be a quite unproblematised account of God's multiple 'whatnesses'. And as if that were not bad enough, after first telling us that we can know only what God is not, he then says that, once he has shown that to be so, he will go on to tell us how God is, after all, known and spoken of- a case, we might imagine, of knowing the unknowable, of describing the indescribable, or perhaps of self-defeatingly throwing your cake away in order to eat it. Something is badly wrong here: either, on this way of understanding Thomas's theological method, he is plainly muddled and inconsistent, or, if consistent, then some other way of reading his method will have to be found.

It is charitable at least to try for a consistent Thomas. Nor is it difficult. Nothing is easier, to begin with, than to see that, in his discussion of the divine simplicity in question 3, what is demonstrated is not some comprehensible divine attribute, some affirmation which marks out God from everything else, but some marker of what constitutes the divine incomprehensibility, as distinct from the incomprehensibility of everything else. It is helpful, in this connection, to take note of David Burrell's distinction between those names of God which denote substantive 'attributes', such as 'goodness', 'beauty', 'justice' and 'mercy' and so forth, and those names of God which denote what he calls 'formal features' - among which he numbers 'simplicity' and 'eternity'. Whereas the 'attributes' predicate of God, on whatever logical grounds justify such predications, terms predicable of creatures, the 'formal features' 'concern our manner of locating the subject for characterisation, and hence belong to a stage prior to considering attributes as such'.31 In this sense, Burrell's

30 ST 1a q3 prol.

31 David Burrell, 'Distinguishing God from the World', in Brian Davies OP, ed., Language, Meaning and God: Essays in Honour of Herbert McCabe OP, London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1987, p. 77.

'formal features' are markers of what Thomas calls the ratio Dei, for it is, Burrell says, 'the formal features which secure the proper distinction of God from the world, thus determining the kind of being (so to speak) said to be just and merciful, and hence establishing critical modifications in those attributes'.32 It is in this same sense, moreover, that Thomas's exploration of the ratio Dei through the 'formal feature' of 'simplicity' is designed to establish a first line of defence against idolatry. For what Thomas recognises to be in need of determination about the ratio Dei -that which in some way is criterial for speaking of God's otherness as distinct from all secondary, created othernesses - is the precise nature of God's incomprehensibility, lest it be mistaken for that more diffused and general sense of the mysteriousness with which we are in any case confronted within and by our own created universe - for there is puzzlement enough in creatures. You do not know the nature of God, he says. You know only that you do not know what God is. But all the same, there is a job to be done of determining whether the 'unknowability' you may have got to in your contemplation of the world is in truth the divine unknowability, the divine 'otherness' - as distinct, for example, from simply giving up on seeking to know at some lesser point of ultimacy. For the penultimate unknowability of creatures is always less than God's ultimate incomprehensibility.

Therefore the argument for the divine simplicity in Prima Pars, question 3, is designed to demonstrate that the 'how' of that ultimate divine 'otherness' is incomprehensible to us so that we could not confuse that divine otherness with any lesser, created form of otherness. Not only can we not know the 'how' of God's existence, so other is it; so 'other' is God, that that otherness has itself lost its threads of straightforward continuity with any conception of'otherness' of which we do know the how. We do not know, therefore, how 'other' God is: which is why Thomas is at one with the pseudo-Denys's saying that, at the climax of ascending scales of God's differences from all else, God must be thought of as off every scale of sameness and difference as such and thus to be beyond 'every assertion . . . beyond every denial'.33 Therefore, if the theologian is to know what the ratio Dei is, that standpoint from which speech about God is marked out as properly theological, then the answer is: he knows he is talking about God when all theological talk - whether it is materially about the Trinity, or the incarnation, or the presence of Christ within church or sacrament, or about grace, or the Spirit in history, or the manner of our redemption - is demonstrably ultimate, when,

32 Ibid.

33 Pseudo-Denys, Mystical Theology 5, 1048A, in The Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works, trans. Colm Luibheid and Paul Rorem, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1987.

through the grace of revelation, we are led deeper than we otherwise might be into the unknowability of the Godhead. For Thomas, faith deepens everything that reason knows, including the 'darkness' of its knowing. The believer has a stronger sense of mystery than the philosopher, not a weaker. For even if in truth Christians do know by grace and revelation what the philosopher can never know - and they do - such knowledge as faith teaches us can serve only to draw us into a darkness of God which is deeper than it could possibly be for the pagan; it is deepened, not relieved, by the Trinity, intensified by the incarnation, not dispelled. For which reason, Thomas says: 'in this life we do not know what God is [even] through the revelation of grace, and so [by grace] we are made one with him as to something unknown'.34

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