Summary Against Modern Thought: The Place of Revelation

Summary Against Modern Thought: The Place of Revelation

Previous post.

Book Four has only 97 — count ’em! — Chapters. Only two more years, more or less, and we’ll be done! This is the Foreward to the book.


Lo, these things are said in part of His ways: and seeing we have heard scarce a little drop of His word, who shall be able to behold the thunder of His greatness? (Job 26:14).

1 The human intellect, to which it is connatural to derive its knowledge from sensible things, is not able through itself to reach the vision of the divine substance in itself, which is above all sensible things and, indeed, improportionately above all other things.

Yet, because man’s perfect good is that he somehow know God, lest such a noble creature might seem to be created to no purpose, as being unable to reach its own end, there is given to man a certain way through which he can rise to the knowledge of God: so that, since the perfections of things descend in a certain order from the highest summit of things—God—man may progress in the knowledge of God by beginning with lower things and gradually ascending. Now, even in bodily movements, the way of descending is the same as the way of ascending, distinguished by beginning and end.

Notes Connatural: “Connected by nature; united in nature; inborn; inherent; natural.” From The Collaborative International Dictionary of English v.0.48.

2 There is a twofold account of the descent of perfections from God just mentioned. One account looks to the first origin of things: for divine Wisdom, to put perfection in things, produced them in such order that the universe of creatures should embrace the highest of things and the lowest. The other account comes from the things themselves. For, since causes are more noble than their effects, the very first caused things are lower than the First Cause, which is God, and still stand out above their effects. And so it goes until one arrives at the lowest of things.

And because in the highest summit of things, God, one finds the most perfect unity—and because everything, the more it is one, is the more powerful and more worthy—it follows that the farther one gets from the first principle, the greater is the diversity and variation one finds in things. The process of emanation from God must, then, be unified in the principle itself, but multiplied in the lower things which are its terms. In this way, according to the diversity of things, there appears the diversity of the ways, as though these ways began in one principle and terminated in various ends.

3 Through these ways our intellect can rise to the knowledge of God. But because of the weakness of the intellect we are not able to know perfectly even the ways themselves. For the sense, from which our knowledge begins, is occupied with external accidents, which are the proper sensibles—for example, color, odor, and the like.

As a result, through such external accidents the intellect can scarcely reach the perfect knowledge of a lower nature, even in the case of those natures whose accidents it comprehends perfectly through the sense.

Much less will the intellect arrive at comprehending the natures of those things of which we grasp few accidents by sense; and it will do so even less in the case of those things whose accidents cannot be grasped by the senses, though they may be perceived through certain deficient effects.

But, even though the natures of things themselves were known to us, we can have only a little knowledge of their order, according as divine Providence disposes them in relation to one another and directs them to the end, since we do not come to know the plan of divine Providence. If, then, we imperfectly know the ways themselves, how shall we be able to arrive at a perfect knowledge of the source of these ways? And because that source transcends the above-mentioned ways beyond proportion, even if we knew the ways themselves perfectly we would yet not have within our grasp a perfect knowledge of the source.

Notes Never forget the ability to move from particulars (accidents) to universals (natures, essences), is what it means to be rational, which is what separates us from the lower animals.

4 Therefore, since it was a feeble knowledge of God that man could reach in the ways mentioned—by a kind of intellectual glimpse, so to say—out of a superabundant goodness, therefore, so that man might have a firmer knowledge of Him, God revealed certain things about Himself that transcend the human intellect.

In this revelation, in harmony with man, a certain order is preserved, so that little by little he comes from the imperfect to the perfect—just as happens in the rest of changeable things. First, therefore, these things are so revealed to man as, for all that, not to be understood, but only to be believed as heard, for the human intellect in this state in which it is connected with things sensible cannot be elevated entirely to gaze upon things which exceed every proportion of sense. But, when it shall have been freed from the connection with sensibles, then it will be elevated to gaze upon the things which are revealed.

5 There is, then, in man a threefold knowledge of things divine. Of these, the first is that in which man, by the natural light of reason, ascends to a knowledge of God through creatures. The second is that by which the divine truth—exceeding the human intellect—descends on us in the manner of revelation, not, however, as something made clear to be seen, but as something spoken in words to be believed. The third is that by which the human mind will be elevated to gaze perfectly upon the things revealed.

Notes Only the first, and least, can be called science.

6 It is this threefold cognition which Job suggests in the words set down. The words, “Lo, these things are said in part of His ways,” refer to that knowledge by which our intellect ascends to a knowledge of God by the ways of creatures. And because we know these ways imperfectly, he rightly added: “in part.” “For we know in part,” as the Apostle says (1 Cor. 23:9).

7 What is added, however, “and seeing we have heard scarce a little drop of His word,” refers to the second knowledge, in that the divine things we are to believe are revealed to us in, speech; “faith then,” as Romans (10:17) says, “comes by hearing; and hearing by the word of God.” Of this John (17:17) also says: “sanctify them in truth. Thy word is truth.”

Thus, then, since the revealed truth is proposed not about divine things to he seen, but to be believed, Job rightly says: ““we have heard.” But, since this imperfect knowledge flows down from that perfect knowledge wherein the divine Truth is seen in itself, while God reveals it to us through the ministry of angels who “see the face of the Father” (Mat. 18:10), Job rightly names it “a drop.” Hence, Joel (3:18) also says: “In that day the mountains shall drop down sweetness.”

Since not all the mysteries known in the vision of the First Truth by the angels and the other blessed, but a certain few are revealed to us, Job adds significantly: “a little.” For Sirach (43:35-36) says: “Who shall magnify Him as He is from the beginning? There are many things hidden from us that are greater than these: for we have seen but a few of His words” And our Lord says to the disciples in John (11:12): “I have yet many things to say to you: but you cannot hear them now.”

The few things also which are revealed to us are set forth in similitudes and the obscurities of words—as a result, only the studious arrive at any sort of grasp of them at all. Others, however, venerate them as things hidden, and unbelievers cannot attack them; hence, the Apostle says: “We see now through a glass in a dark manner” (1 Cor. 13:12). Significantly, then, does Job add “scarce” to bring out the difficulty.

8 But this addition, “Who shall be able to behold the thunder of His greatness,”” refers to the third kind of knowledge, in which the First Truth will be known, not as believed, but as seen; “We shall see Him as He is,” we read (1 John 3:2). So Job adds: “to behold.”

Nor will one perceive some measure of the divine mysteries: the divine majesty itself will be seen and all the perfection of goods; hence, the Lord said to Moses: “I will show you all good” (Ex. 33:19). Rightly, then, does Job say “greatness.” Nor will the truth be set before man hidden under any veils, but will be entirely manifest; hence, our Lord says to His disciples: “The hour cometh when I will no more speak to you in proverbs; but will show you plainly of the Father” (John 16:25). Significantly, therefore, does Job speak of “the thunder” to suggest the manifestation.

9 Now, the words set down fit our purpose. In what has preceded we have dealt with divine things according as the natural reason can arrive at the knowledge of divine things through creatures. This way is imperfect, nevertheless, and in keeping with the reason’s native capacity. That is why we can say with Job (26:14): “These things are said in part of His ways.” We must now deal with those divine things that have been divinely revealed to us to be believed, since they transcend the human intellect.

10 And the manner of proceeding in such matters the words set down do teach us. For, since we have hardly heard the truth of this kind in sacred Scripture as a little drop descending upon us, and since one cannot in the state of this life behold the thunder of the greatness, this will be the method to follow: What has been passed on to us in the words of sacred Scripture may be taken as principles, so to say; thus, the things in those writings passed on to us in a hidden fashion we may endeavor to grasp mentally in some way or other, defending them from the attacks of the infidels.

Nonetheless, that no presumption of knowing perfectly may be present, points of this kind must be proved from sacred Scripture, but not from natural reason. For all that, one must show that such things are not opposed to natural reason, in order to defend them from infidel attack. This was also the method fixed upon in the beginning of this work.

11 But, since natural reason ascends to a knowledge of God through creatures and, conversely, the knowledge of faith descends from God to us by a divine revelation—since the way of ascent and descent is still the same—we must proceed in the same way in the things above reason which are believed as we proceeded in the foregoing with the investigation of God by reason.

First, to be specific, we must treat of the things about God Himself which surpass reason and are proposed for belief: such is the confession of the Trinity; second, of course, the things which surpass reason that have been done by God, such as the work of the Incarnation and what follows thereon; third, however, the things surpassing reason which are looked for in the ultimate end of man, such as the resurrection and glorification of bodies, the everlasting beatitude of souls, and matters related to these.

Notes Time to move beyond the simple!


  1. C-Marie

    Reason does not give this knowlege to us, but Jesus did and does. Among the best of Scripture for us to come to know God, for He would have us know and love Him as Jesus taught us … that He is our Father … and being born again by the Holy Spirit makes us God’s adopted children so that Jesus is our brother and Lord and Saviour and God … Him in us and us in Him.

    “11But Mary stood at the sepulchre without, weeping. Now as she was weeping, she stooped down, and looked into the sepulchre, 12And she saw two angels in white, sitting, one at the head, and one at the feet, where the body of Jesus had been laid.

    13They say to her: Woman, why weepest thou? She saith to them: Because they have taken away my Lord; and I know not where they have laid him.

    14When she had thus said, she turned herself back, and saw Jesus standing; and she knew not that it was Jesus. 15Jesus saith to her: Woman, why weepest thou? whom seekest thou? She, thinking it was the gardener, saith to him: Sir, if thou hast taken him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away.

    16Jesus saith to her: Mary. She turning, saith to him: Rabboni (which is to say, Master).

    17Jesus saith to her: Do not touch me, for I am not yet ascended to my Father. But go to my brethren, and say to them: I ascend to my Father and to your Father, to my God and your God.

    18Mary Magdalen cometh, and telleth the disciples: I have seen the Lord, and these things he said to me.
    John 20.

    God bless, C-Marie

  2. Uncle Mike

    Dear Dr. Briggs,

    Thank you for this series, now approaching 7 years running. I never would have read Saint Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Contra Gentiles on my own, but I have enjoyed it and learned a huge amount due to your generosity. Well done. KUTGW

    For those seeking to reread the entire series, just click on the category: SAMT above. You probably already knew that.

  3. C-Marie

    Yes, Dr. Briggs, I join with Uncle Mike in thanking you for this series on St. Thomas Aquinas. All is well. God is here. Love your generosity of time in the writing, and the space for comments!!!

    A thought just now…. wouldn’t it be that what we call any recognition of God by reason, actually be acceptance of revelation by the Holy Spirit, because we cannot know Him or that He is, without that He reveals Himself to us. So even the beauty of a flower, if it causes us to think that maybe there is Some Being greater than ourselves, wouldn’t that be a recognition of God’s revelation of Himself, though the one viewing the flower might well not realize it all?
    God bless, C-Marie

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