God: His Knowability~Chapter One, Section One, Article One
Posted by Dim Bulb on April 1, 2017
The Knowability of God
human reason can know God
Human reason is able to know God by a contemplation of His creatures, and to deduce His existence from certain facts of the supernatural order.
Our primary and proper medium of cognition is the created universe, i. e., the material and the spiritual world.
In defining both the created universe and the supernatural order as sources of our knowledge of God, the Church has barred Traditionalism and at the same time eliminated the possibility of Atheism, though the latter no doubt constitutes a splendid refutation of the theory that the idea of God is innate.
man can gain a knowledge of god from the physical universe
the positive teaching of revelation
In entering upon this division of our treatise, we assume that the reader has a sufficient acquaintance with the philosophic proofs for the existence of God, as furnished by theodicy and apologetics. As against the attempt of atheists and traditionalists to deny the valor and stringency of these proofs, Catholic theology staunchly upholds the ability of unaided human reason to know God. Witness this definition of the Vatican Council: (Sess. III, de Revel., can. 1) “Si quis dixerit, Deum unum et verum, creatorem et Dominum nostrum, per ea quae facta sunt, naturali rationis humanae lumine certo cognosci non posse, anathema sit—If any one shall say that the one true God, our Creator and Lord, cannot be certainly known by the natural light of human reason through created things; let him be anathema.” Let us see how this dogma can be proved from Holy Scripture and Tradition.
1. The Argument from Sacred Scripture.—a) Indirectly the possibility of knowing God by means of His creatures can be shown from Rom. 2:14 sqq.: “Cum enim gentes, quae legem non habent, naturaliter ea quae legis sunt faciunt, eiusmodi legem non habentes ipsi sibi sunt lex: qui ostendunt opus legis, scriptum in cordibus suis, testimonium reddente illis conscientia ipsorum et inter se invicem cogitationibus, accusantibus aut etiam defendentibus, in die cum iudicabit Deus occulta hominum secundum Evangelium meum, per Iesum Christum—For when the Gentiles, who have not the law, do by nature those things that are of the law; these having not the law are a law to themselves: who shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness to them, and their thoughts between themselves accusing, or also defending one another, in the day when God shall judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ, according to my gospel.”
The “law” (lex, νόμος) of which St. Paul here speaks, is identical in content with the moral law of nature (Cfr. Rom. 2:21 sqq) the same which constituted the formal subject-matter of supernatural Revelation in the Decalogue. Hence, considering the mode of Revelation, there is a well-defined distinction, not to say opposition, between the moral law as perceived by unaided human reason, and the revealed Decalogue. Whence it follows, against the teaching of Estius, that “gentes,” in the above-quoted passage of St. Paul, must refer to the heathen, in the strict sense of the word, not to Christian converts from Paganism. For, one who has the material content of the Decalogue “written in his heart,” so that, without having any knowledge of the positive Mosaic legislation, he is “a law unto himself,” being able, consequently, to comply “naturally” with the demands of the Decalogue, and having to look forward on Judgment Day to a trial conducted merely on the basis of his own conscience,—such a one, I say, is outside the sphere of supernatural Revelation.
From this passage of St. Paul’s letter to the Romans we argue as follows: There can be no knowledge of the natural moral law derived from unaided human reason, unless parallel with it, and derived from the same source, there runs a natural knowledge of God as the supreme lawgiver revealing Himself in the conscience of man. Now, St. Paul expressly teaches that the Gentiles were able to observe the natural law “naturaliter”—“by nature”—i. e., without the aid of supernatural revelation. Since no one can observe a law unless he knows it, St. Paul’s supposition obviously is that the existence of God, qua author and avenger of the natural law, can likewise be known “naturaliter,” that is to say, by unaided human reason.
α) After denouncing the folly of those “in whom there is not the knowledge of God,” the Book of Wisdom continues (13:5 sq.): “A magnitudine enim speciei et creaturae cognoscibiliter poterit creator horum videri. … Iterum autem nec his debet ignosci; si enim tantum potuerunt scire, ut possent aestimare saeculum, quomodo huius Dominum non facilius invenerunt?—For by the greatness of the beauty, and of the creature, the creator of them may be seen, so as to be known thereby.… But then again they are not to be pardoned; for if they were able to know so much as to make a judgment of the world, how did they not more easily find out the Lord thereof?” A careful analysis of this passage reveals the following line of thought: The existence of God is an object of the same cognitive faculty that explores the visible world,—i. e., human reason. Hence the medium of our knowledge of God can be none other than that same material world, the magnitude and beauty of which leads us to infer that there must be a Creator who brought it forth. Such a knowledge of God is more easily acquired than a deeper knowledge of the creatural world; in fact, absence of it would argue unpardonable carelessness. As viewed by the Old Testament writer, therefore, nature furnishes sufficient data to enable the mind of man to attain to a knowledge of the existence of God, without any extraneous aid on the part of Revelation or any special illumination by supernatural grace.
β) We have a parallel passage in the New Testament,—Rom. 1:18 sqq., which reaches its climax in verse 20: “Invisibilia enim ipsius [scil. Dei] a creatura mundi per ea, quae facta sunt, intellecta conspiciuntur sempiterna quoque eius virtus et divinitas, ita ut sint inexcusabiles—For the invisible things of him [God] from the creation of the world, are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made; his eternal power also, and divinity: so that they are inexcusable.” In other words:—God, Who is per se invisible, after some fashion becomes visible to human reason (νοούμενα καθορᾶται). But how? Not by positive revelation, nor yet by the interior grace of faith; but solely by means of a natural revelation imbedded in the created world (τοῖς ποιήμασιν). To know God from nature appears to be such an easy and matter-of-fact process (even to man in his fallen state), that the heathen are called “inexcusable” in their ignorance and are in punishment therefor “given up to the desires of their heart unto uncleanness.” (Rom. 1:18, 24 sqq)
c) By way of supplementing this argument from Holy Scripture we will briefly advert to the important distinction which the Bible makes, or at least intimates as existing, between popular and scientific knowledge of God. The former comes spontaneously and without effort, while the latter demands earnest research and conscientious study, and, where there is guilty ignorance, involves the risk of a man’s falling into the errors of polytheism, pantheism, etc. We find this same distinction made by St. Paul in his sermons at Lystra and Athens, and we meet it again in the writings of the Fathers, coupled with the consideration that, to realize the existence of a Supreme Being men have but to advert to the fact that nations, like individuals, are plainly guided and directed by God’s Providence. In his sermon at Lystra, after noting that God had allowed the Gentiles “to walk in their own ways,” that is to say, to become the prey of false religions, the Apostle declares that He nevertheless “left not Himself without testimony, doing good from heaven, giving rains and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness.”(Acts 14:16) Before the Areopagus at Athens, the great Apostle of the Gentiles, pointing to the altar dedicated “To the Unknown God,” said: “God, who made the world, … and hath made of one [Adam] all mankind, to dwell upon the whole face of the earth, determining appointed times and the limits of their habitation, that they should seek God, if happily they may feel after him or find him, although he be not far from every one of us: for in him we live, and move, and are.”(Acts 17:24-28) In the following verse (Acts 17:29) he calls attention to the unworthy notion that the Divinity is “like unto gold, or silver, or stone, the graving of art, and device of man.” Both sermons assume that there is a twofold knowledge of God: the one direct, the other reflex. The direct knowledge of God arises spontaneously in the mind of every thinking man who contemplates the visible universe and ponders the favors continually lavished by Providence. In the reflexive or metaphysical stage of his knowledge of God, on the other hand, man is exposed to the temptation wrongly to transfer the concept of God to objects not divine, and thus to fall into gross polytheism or idolatry.(Cfr. Wisdom 13:6 sqq.) We have, therefore, Scriptural warrant for holding that the idea of God is entirely spontaneous in its origin, but may easily (though, it is true, only by an abuse of reason), be perverted in the course of its scientific development.
2. The Patristic argument may be reduced to three main propositions.
a) In the first place, the Fathers teach that God manifests Himself in His visible creation, and may be perceived there by man without the aid of supernatural revelation.
Athenagoras calls the existing order of the material world, its magnitude and beauty, “pledges of divine worship” and adds: “For the visible is the medium by which we perceive the invisible.” Clement of Alexandria, too, insists that we gain our knowledge of Divine Providence from the contemplation of God’s works in nature, so much so that it is unnecessary to resort to elaborate arguments to prove the existence of God. “All men,” he says, “Greeks and barbarians, discern God, the Father and Creator of all things, unaided and without instruction.” St. Basil calls the visible creation “a school and institution of divine knowledge.” St. Chrysostom, in his third homily on the Epistle to the Romans (n. 2), apostrophizes St. Paul thus: “Did God call the Gentiles with his voice? Certainly not. But He has created something which is apt to draw their attention more forcibly than words. He has put in the midst of them the created world and thereby from the mere aspect of visible things, the learned and the unlearned, the Scythian and the barbarian, can all ascend to God.” Similarly St. Gregory the Great teaches: “Omnis homo eo ipso quod rationalis est conditus, debet ex ratione colligere, eum qui se condidit Deum esse—By the use of his reason every man must come to the conclusion that the very fact that he is a rational creature proves that his Creator is God.”
b) The Fathers further teach: From even a superficial contemplation of finite things there must arise spontaneously, in every thinking man, at least a popular knowledge of God.
To explain how natural it is to rise from a contemplation of the physical universe to the existence of God, some of the Fathers call the idea of God “an innate conviction, planted by nature in the mind of man,” a knowledge which is “not acquired,” but “a dowry of reason,” and which, precisely because it is so easy of acquisition, is quite common among men. Tertullian calls upon “the soul of the Gentiles” to give testimony to God,—not the soul which “has learned in the school of wisdom,” but that which is “simplex, rudis, impolita et idiotica.”—“Magistra natura” he says, “anima discipula—Nature is the teacher, the soul a pupil.” St. Augustine says that the consciousness we have of God blends with the very essence of human reason: “Haec est vis verae divinitatis, ut creaturae rationali ratione iam utenti non omnino ac penitus possit abscondi; exceptis enim paucis [sc. atheis] in quibus natura nimium depravata est, universum genus hominum Deum mundi huius fatetur auctorem—For such is the energy of true Godhead, that it cannot be altogether and utterly hidden from any rational creature. For with the exception of a few in whom nature has become outrageously depraved, the whole race of man acknowledges God as the maker of this world.” Seeking a deeper explanation, several Fathers (e. g., Justin Martyr and St. Basil) have raised the rational soul to the rank of an essential image of the Eternal Logos, calling it a λόγος σπερματικός, which irresistibly seeks out and finds God in the universe.
c) The Fathers finally teach that human reason possesses, both in the visible world of exterior objects, and in its own depths, sufficient means to develop the popular notion of God into a philosophical concept.
The Greek Fathers, who had to combat paganism and the heresy of the Eunomians, generally relied on two arguments as sufficient to enable any man to form a philosophical concept of God; viz., the cosmological and the teleological. Augustine’s profounder mind turned to the purely metaphysical order of the true, the good, and the beautiful, to deduce therefrom the existence of Substantial Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. This trend of mind did not, however, prevent him from acknowledging the validity of the teleological and cosmological argument. “Interroga mundum, ornatum coeli, fulgorem dispositionemque siderum, … interroga omnia et vide, si non sensu suo tamquam tibi respondent: Deus nos fecit. Haec et philosophi nobiles quaesierunt et ex arte artificem cognoverunt.… Quod curiositate invenerunt, superbia perdiderunt.” Translation of the passage in full: Ask the world, the beauty of the heaven, the brilliancy and ordering of the stars, the sun, that sufficeth for the day, the moon, the solace of the night; ask the earth fruitful in herbs, and trees, full of animals, adorned with men; ask the sea, with how great and what kind of fishes filled; ask the air, with how great birds stocked; ask all things, and see if they do not as if it were by a language of their own make answer to thee, “God made us.” These things have illustrious philosophers sought out, and by the art have come to know the Artificer. What then? Why is the wrath of God revealed against this ungodliness? “Because they detain the truth in unrighteousness?” Let him come, let him show how. For how they came to know Him, he hath said already. “The invisible things of Him,” that is God, “are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made; His eternal Power also and Godhead; so that they are without excuse. Because that when they knew God, they glorified Him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened.” They are the Apostle’s words, not mine: “And their foolish heart was darkened; for professing themselves to be wise, they became fools.” What by curious search they found, by pride they lost.