Aquinas: Do Angels Know God?

We’re moving into Aquinas on the angels now. I’ve skipped over a bunch of stuff that I didn’t find that interesting, but I’ve gone through 60-odd pages now and I feel like I should at least write something. So we’re dealing with 1a.56.3, on whether angels have a natural knowledge of God. This one highlights Aquinas’s theory of how knowledge works, which means it’s doing double duty for us. Let’s tear in! 

So Aquinas starts off suggesting that no, angels cannot have a natural knowledge of God. He gives three reasons – the first two basically boil down to the idea that God’s really complicated. “Dionysius says that God by His incomprehensible power is above all heavenly minds.” He’s too big and complex and incomprehensible, and puny angels can’t possibly understand him. The third reason sort of expands on and explains the first two. It starts with the quote from 1 Corinthians – “we see now as in a mirror in a dark manner; but then face to face.” There’s two types of knowledge here, Aquinas suggests – seeing God properly, in His essence, and seeing God in “the mirror of creatures.” I assume this is the mirror used by creatures (ie reality), rather than creatures functioning as a mirror, but could be wrong on that.

So basically the idea is that we don’t see God directly, we see and know Him through the constraints of reality and our human brains. Angels, however, can’t see God directly through their own natural powers – this point was argued all the way back in 1a.12.4: “the created intellect [angels and humans alike] cannot see the essence of God, unless God by His grace unites Himself to the created intellect, as an object made intelligible to it.” Nobody gets to see God directly through their own natural powers. You only get God if He basically brings Himself down to a level that you can understand, and even then it’s still kinda second-hand. So angels can’t see God through their own natural powers, and they can’t see God through the reality-mirror either. Angels aren’t physical beings, right, they’re just spiritual, which means they don’t take in information through their eyes or other bodily senses. So how could they learn about God from the physical world?

These initial arguments might sound a bit weak and odd out of context, but I’m not going over all the build-up here, and they’re also not really hugely the point, so I’m just putting them out there for interest so that we can move on to the really cool stuff. Aquinas starts his rebuttal by noting that humans can, to some degree, see elements of God in the natural world. He quotes Romans 1:19, where Paul is bagging people for being bad – “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.” Basically, Romans says, there are people in the world who are shit, and they’re gonna get punished for being shit, because everybody knows God in the world, and everybody knows what God wants and doesn’t want (ie right and wrong), and so there’s no excuses – if you’re shit, you were warned not to be shit, and you’re gonna get punished. But implicitly, Aquinas notes, this verse is suggesting that everyone can know things about God from just looking around in the world – it’s within our natural power. That’s why punishment is supposedly fair – because everyone had an equal chance to see God in the world.

Now, Aquinas has also argued that angels are basically of a higher intellectual order than humans (1a.54.1). So if humans can see God with their natural powers, then angels, who are smarter, must be able to do that too. Therefore, Aquinas argues, angels can see God with their own natural powers. He goes on to distinguish three different types of knowledge – and to understand this, we have to jump back a little bit and talk about how Aquinas thinks knowledge works. I talked about it over here, but I’ll give you the thirty-second summary: basically there’s matter, which is, uh, matter, and there’s form, which is the shape that the matter is arranged into, and when we see stuff we receive an image into our heads (that’s how eyes work) and abstract the Form out of the Matter and then we understand form, and that’s what knowledge is. So: if angels can see God with their natural powers, what are they – how are they doing it? How’s it possible? They can’t literally see God, because God is incorporeal – so how are they getting the form of God into their heads?

Well, Aquinas offers three types of knowledge. Say someone’s got a torch, and you see the torch – the image of it gets into your head and you abstract the form and now you know what torches are. That’s what basic knowledge is for humans, according to Aquinas. But then say this person switches the torch on and shines the light in your eyes. This is different – you don’t have an image of the light in your eyes, it’s the actual light itself present inside your eyeballs. This second type is what Aquinas thinks of as seeing God face to face: it’s “a knowledge of God as seen in His essence.” The third type is like seeing an image of something redirected through another medium – so like seeing yourself in the mirror. You don’t actually directly see yourself, you see a reflection. This is how Aquinas understands our current knowledge of God – we see Him through a glass darkly. You could also apply Plato’s cave here – it’s the same premise.

Aquinas then argues that angels know God by knowing themselves. God imprints His own image into the angels when He creates them, and they know God by recognising that image within themselves. Aquinas has to fiddle with this answer a bit because he’s already said that God has no image (“no created likeness is adequate to represent [God’s essence]”). So it’s the first type of knowledge, in that they have the image of God in their heads, but it’s also the third type of knowledge, in that the image isn’t literally the image of God because there is no image of God and so the ‘image’ that they do have is distorted, as if seen through a glass darkly. So it’s a combo of the first and third types of knowledge. They have the image of God implanted in them, but it’s a distorted image. This answer solves the problems from all the way at the start – angels can’t see God through the dark glass of reality, but they themselves become the dark glass. Similarly, although God is too complex to see properly, the angels have a distorted image through the darkened glass, and everything’s fine.

I’ll say this again to finish – the whole argument might seem a little weird and contrived, but the angels serve as an interesting case study because they highlight a bunch of the theoretical relationships between God and humans. They sit in this awkward middle ground where they’re incorporeal like God, but still not fully divine. All of the stuff that Aquinas has already said about the relationship between God and humans has to be filtered through this middle ground, and it helps to solidify the distinction between what’s really a quality of God and what’s a quality of created beings. More next week!

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