The Names of God: St. Thomas on How Language Works

“The Names of God” in the Summa Theologica (Section 1.13 / Question 13)

When Thomas speaks of the “names” (Lat. nomen) of God, he means the words we use to describe God, including his “attributes,” such as “good,” “wise,” etc. (not just biblical names such as “Lion” or “Rock”). In the first section (1.13.3) Thomas argues that some of the words we use do, in fact, refer to God literally. Unlike some words such as “rock” or “strong” which are metaphorical in that they posit an analogy between God and creation, other words such as “good” are literally referential of God, even though they, too, Thomas admits, are derived from our understanding of creatures.

Literal, yes, but univocal, no, for “no name belongs to God in the same sense that it belongs to creatures.” (69) The definition of “wisdom” is dependent upon its referent. So it does not mean the same thing when referring to God as it does when referring, say, to a serpent. (Since this is the case, it seems like Thomas does not believe in univocal language at all [not just with respect to God]).

(Section 1.13.5) Words of perfection describe something in God which preexists what they describe in creatures. In fact any term of perfection, when applied to a creature, refers to something independent of the creature. For example, to call a man “good” is to invoke the objective reality of “the good” which is totally independent of the man spoken of. Not so with God, however. When we say that God is good we are not invoking some standard which God is then compared to and subsumed under. Rather, what we are signifying is not distinct from God’s “essence, power, or existence.” (70) So “good” here is not univocal: it means something different, or at least something non-univocal, when applied to God vis a vis creatures.

However, “good” here is not (purely) equivocal, either. Otherwise, we would have no knowledge of God, for language of God would always be guilty of the fallacy of equivocation.[1] Rather, language about God is analogical, since it is neither univocal nor equivocal.

Analogy functions in two ways. First, many things (two or more) can have a “proportion” (relationship?) to a third thing. For example, “healthy” can refer to urine or medicine, because both are related to a third thing: the body. Second, two things can have a relationship to each other. For example, “healthy” can refer to medicine or to an animal, since these two things are related to one another directly (ie, without a third thing). Our language about God falls under this second category. The two “things” are creation and God, and they are related in terms of cause. The perfections in the cause “preexist in the most excellent way.” (71)

Hence Thomas’ arguments about language presupposes his argument about causation, that God is the cause of creation.

Not just words are univocal or non-univocal. Agents (ie, causes and effects) are, too, since “the non-univocal agent is the universal cause of the whole series.” (My “gloss” on this: Thomas is saying that the cause “contains” the whole series. Hence its “meaning” must contain the meaning of all the effects, or something like that.)

Thomas has been presupposing that language and causality themselves are analogous or somehow related, and he makes this pruspposition explicit near then end of this section: “[This universal agent ] can be called an analogous agent, in the same way that in predication all univocal predications are traced back to the first non-univocal analogous predication, which is being.” (72) Bauerschmidt puts it nicely: “Whatever we affirm in our language involves a logically prior affirmation of some sort of being.” (72)[2]

Analogical language lies between univocal language and equivocal language. Hence our language about God is true, although it still contains an element of non-fixedness or perhaps ambiguity.

I find it interesting that, throughout this entire discussion, Thomas is speaking about God as if God were not incarnate. I am not suggesting that this is inappropriate. However, it does seem that in the Incarnation opens up whole new possibilities between God and man. For now, in Jesus, there is not an analogy between God and man, but a unity or an identity.


[1] Question: Does Thomas think that language is prior to thought, ie, that no thought is possible apart from language, and that all thought is in effect linguistic? I don’t think he thinks this. What “camps” of thinkers historically have thought this? (Phenomenologists?)

[2] So this means, then, that unicorns exist in some sense. (In the mind?)

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I would like to see you expound more upon being in “unity” with God in Christ instead of the analogical relation between God and creation, if I am not mistaking what it is you are saying? And how does this explain the Trinitarian unity of God, the Son, and the H.S.? Just needing some clarification my good friend 😉

Collins, it is not “either/or.” Can you restate what it is you want me to clarify, more specifically?

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