Whether any created intellect can see the essence of God?

This is in response to Adam Greenwood’s post titled “Revelation: A Syllogism” in which, and in the comments, he argues that revelation can’t be perfect, since men are so limited in what they can know relative to God. Based on this, and on a prior discussion I had with Adam, I understand his position to be that God must necessarily, in a sense, falsify revelation to us; which is not to say he lies, but that he doesn’t give us “the whole truth”, but must simplify and omit many things, so that we end up with an incomplete and possibly distorted picture of the truth. (If I misrepresent Adam’s point it’s unintentional and I welcome correction.)

I argued in the comments to Adam’s post, that the fact that we can’t know and grasp the whole truth, doesn’t necessarily mean that the picture we receive from God’s revelation is in any way a false picture of reality. You can have a true picture of reality, even if that picture is incomplete. I gave the example of an ant walking on a globe: He may not be able to have knowledge of the whole globe (assuming for the sake of argument that he can have knowledge at all). Nevertheless, the knowledge that he has of the part of the globe on which he walks, could be totally true, notwithstanding that it’s incomplete.

Not knowing that Aquinas had covered this topic, I was pleasantly surprised to come across the following in my daily reading of a tiny part of the Summa:

Article 1. Whether any created intellect can see the essence of God?

It seems that no created intellect can see the essence of God.


On the contrary, It is written: “We shall see Him as He is” (1 John 2:2).

I answer that, Since everything is knowable according as it is actual, God, Who is pure act without any admixture of potentiality, is in Himself supremely knowable. But what is supremely knowable in itself, may not be knowable to a particular intellect, on account of the excess of the intelligible object above the intellect; as, for example, the sun, which is supremely visible, cannot be seen by the bat by reason of its excess of light.

Therefore some who considered this, held that no created intellect can see the essence of God. This opinion, however, is not tenable. For as the ultimate beatitude of man consists in the use of his highest function, which is the operation of his intellect; if we suppose that the created intellect could never see God, it would either never attain to beatitude, or its beatitude would consist in something else beside God; which is opposed to faith. For the ultimate perfection of the rational creature is to be found in that which is the principle of its being; since a thing is perfect so far as it attains to its principle. Further the same opinion is also against reason. For there resides in every man a natural desire to know the cause of any effect which he sees; and thence arises wonder in men. But if the intellect of the rational creature could not reach so far as to the first cause of things, the natural desire would remain void.

Hence it must be absolutely granted that the blessed see the essence of God.

Summa Theologica, I-I, Q. 12, A. 1.

Then he says in response to an objection, “[I]t does not follow that He cannot be known at all, but that He exceeds every kind of knowledge; which means that He is not comprehended.”

Thus the key word for St. Thomas seems to be “comprehend”. We can know God, but can’t comprehend, i.e. fully grasp him.  However we can know the part that we can grasp:  not that “He cannot be known at all, but that He exceeds every kind of knowledge”. An eight-ounce cup can’t contain a gallon of water, but it can contain as much of the water as will fill it; and the water it contains is true water.


5 thoughts on “Whether any created intellect can see the essence of God?

  1. I might actually say that the Angelic Doctor is agreeing with me, since my argument is about mankind in mortality and he is talking about mankind in our state of ultimate beatitude.


  2. It appears you are right, that he is speaking about man in the state of beatitude, since in another Question under the same Article, he answers in the negative to the question, “Whether anyone in this life can see the essence of God?”

    Because I only read the first question in the article, I had missed the import of the word “essence”: that we cannot see God’s essence “except we [be] separated from this mortal life” (since in this life we can know “only what has a form in matter, or what can be known by such a form”; “it is evident that the Divine essence cannot be known through the nature of material things”; Article 11).

    But does this necessarily argue against my point, that the fact that we can’t know a thing completely, doesn’t mean that the part we do know is known inaccurately or falsely to some degree?

    In answer to the question, “Whether God can be known in this life by natural reason?” (Article 12), he says,

    “Our natural knowledge begins from sense. Hence our natural knowledge can go as far as it can be led by sensible things. But our mind cannot be led by sense so far as to see the essence of God; because the sensible effects of God do not equal the power of God as their cause. Hence from the knowledge of sensible things the whole power of God cannot be known; nor therefore can His essence be seen. But because they are His effects and depend on their cause, we can be led from them so far as to know of God “whether He exists,” and to know of Him what must necessarily belong to Him, as the first cause of all things, exceeding all things caused by Him.

    “Hence we know that His relationship with creatures so far as to be the cause of them all; also that creatures differ from Him, inasmuch as He is not in any way part of what is caused by Him; and that creatures are not removed from Him by reason of any defect on His part, but because He superexceeds them all.”

    In other words, though we can’t see his essence in this life, we can *know* certain things about him in this life, through natural reason. And yet there is the possibility of even better knowledge still (in this life): “We have a more perfect knowledge of God by grace than by natural reason.” And, “we know Him more fully according as many and more excellent of His effects are demonstrated to us, and according as we attribute to Him some things known by divine revelation, to which natural reason cannot reach, as, for instance, that God is Three and One.”

    Thus, St. Thomas doesn’t seem to be casting any aspersions on the accuracy of what we can know about God through revelation and by grace, even if such things do not constitute “seeing” God’s essence itself, as we may do after death.


  3. “Partial knowledge is always partially inaccurate.”

    I don’t think that makes any sense, unless I’m missing something. There is a family at my kids’ school that has 9 kids. I only know 3 of them: I know their names, ages and grades. I know which college some of them have gone on to, and what they’re majoring in. I know the mother and father’s names, where they’re from and what college they went to, and what the father does for a living.

    Thus, I have partial knowledge of this family. Because I don’t know the whole family, does that mean the knowledge I have must be inaccurate? Surely the fact that I don’t know the ages and grades of the other 6 kids, doesn’t mean that the information I possess about the 3 I know, and about the parents is wrong?

    I suppose what you might be saying is that having knowledge of only a part of a thing, means you can’t have entirely accurate knowledge of the whole. This I could agree with.

    Applying this to my example, from the knowledge I have of the 3 kids, I might extrapolate knowledge of the rest of the kids, for example that they must all be friendly, confident and smart like the 3 I know; and that might be false. Or, from the knowledge I have of the 3 kids, I might assume that their internal family life is a certain way, which could turn out to be wrong. Is that what you mean?


  4. Pingback: Is an incomplete picture necessarily a false picture? | Agellius's Blog

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