Thomas Aquinas on Analogy | Analogy Part 2

Updated: Nov 10, 2020

Now that we've spent a considerable amount of time discussing Van Til's analogical reasoning in part 1, we can turn to discussing Aquinas (or what Van Til called the romanist) view.


Why, first of all, is the question of analogy so important? What is involved in the question of analogy? It is the question of the relation of God to man. It is the question, more specifically, as to the priority of these two. There are those who worship and serve the creature rather than the Creator. There are also those, having been saved by grace, who worship and serve the Creator rather than the creature.

Romanism also speaks of human knowledge as being analogical [like Van Til does]. But Rome does not make the sharp distinction we have made between God as the original being and man as created being. It introduces this distinction after it has made many assertions about being in general. It follows that in the Romanist view human knowledge is not always and everywhere dependent upon a prior original act of God. In fact on the Romanist view human knowledge is never wholly derivative and re-interpretative. Rome therefore cannot really claim to think of human knowledge as analogical to God’s knowledge.

Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology

[For Aquinas], the starting-point and the method of the Christian are assumed to be the same as the starting-point and the method of the non-Christian. The only thing that the Christian needs to do is to show that the Christian position accords better with fact and with logic than does the non-Christian position.... [The] best result that the Christian has any right to think he is able to offer is that Christianity is an interpretation of life that offers something additional to what the non-Christian already has and that the addition of Christianity to non-Christian views produces a totality view, that is probably but not certainly true. In the case of Aquinas, Christianity is the addition of the Christian principle of grace to the principle of nature constructed by the method of Aristotle.

Van Til, Herman Dooyeweerd and Reformed Apologetics

To understand Van Til's statements above, we need to note three assumptions that Aquinas made:

  1. Human reason is at least semi-autonomous. Many things about the world and about God may be known without reference to revelation. For example, we (including unbelievers) can know certain things about nature and the world around us without the requirement to first be informed by divine revelation.

  2. For Aquinas, as for Aristotle, all knowledge begins in sense experience. “Our knowledge,” he writes, “taking its start from things, proceeds in this order. First, it begins in sense; second, it is completed in the intellect.” Stated another way, “There is nothing in the intellect which was not first in the senses.” Such an epistemology may be designated as a semi-empiricism. All concepts, even those used by revelation, are ultimately produced by the reason operating on sense experience.

  3. Being exists proportionately, or analogically, on a scale, ranging from pure being at the top to non-being at the bottom (analogia entis).

Aquinas' view can also be illustrated as follows:

The crucial fact to take note of, is that for Aquinas there is no fundamental differences in the starting point of knowledge for either the Christian or the non-Christian. Both are equally qualified in investigating and reasoning about the external world.


I'd like to spend more time on assumption 3 listed above.

Basics: The Essence Existence Distinction

We apply "being" and related terms to different things in the same manner. The existence of man is to his essence, as the existence of an angel is to his essence, as the existence of God is to his essence. The existence of each is related to its essence in a different way. In the case of God His existence is identical to His essence. In the case of an angel, his existence actualises an essence that is not identical to its existence, where what is actualised is the essence of something essentially immaterial. In the case of man, existence actualises something both material and immaterial.

Edward Feser, Scholastic Metaphysics


Essence, is properly described as that whereby a thing is what it is. Existence is that whereby the essence is an actuality in the line of being. This post by Evolution News provides a good summary of the essence existence distinction.


Essence can be understood as all the characteristics that are knowable about something. For example, for a particular dog the essence will contain the fur colour, fur softness, bark, length of snout etc. But let's say I describe a particular dog to you in exquisite detail, would that mean that dog I'm describing exists? For example, I'm thinking of a particular dog with brown fur, black spots of great size that likes to eat Scooby Snacks called Scooby-Doo. Does he exist? Well of course not. So for Aquinas, there is a distinction between the essence of something and it's existence. You cannot infer from the essence of Scooby-Doo whether he exists or not.


Evolution News then writes that existence is that a thing is, rather than what a thing is. The existence of a thing is different from the essence of a thing. I can know the essence of a rock, but it is the rock’s existence by which I stub my toe. I can’t stub my toe on essence, no matter how hard it is.


In Thomistic terms, in order for something in nature to exist, its existence must be joined to its essence. In fact, that is what nature is: distinct essences joined to existence. Stated differently, something can only exist IF it possess the act of being. If an essence has the act of being (which Scooby has not), than the existence (act of being) would be limited by the essence (e.g. Scooby is not a cat).


Food for Thought


The above discussion on the essence existence distinction is a big part of what is sometimes called an 'Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysic'. If all knowledge begins in the senses, how did Aquinas determine the above to be the case? If all knowledge is a posteriori then Aquinas should not have known the above to be the case as this is a more rationalistic (in the philosophical sense), a priori view.

The Analogy of Being

At the beginning of his project, Aquinas adopts Aristotle’s metaphysical model of the universe as a combination of eternal rational “forms” and time-bound “material” (hylomorphism). The various forms [essences] of existence may be organized on a scale, or as he calls it an “analogy of being” (analogia entis) with those that are more rational at the top (man, angels, etc.), and those that are relatively more material/chance-laden at the bottom (animals, rocks, etc.).

Bosserman, The Trinity and the Vindication of Christian Paradox


Since all that exist relate to each other ontologically on this chain of being, Roman catholic apologists argue that we can speak (predicate characteristics) about God and other all other beings in an analogical sense.

Why do they relate ontologically? Because all being has at least one thing in common: They are the actualisations of different essences in different proportions. Everything that exists shares this ontological bond. So what does this relation look like practically?


Feser, a Thomist, notes the following:

Because the relations [between essence and existence] are not absolutely identical the predication is not univocal (e.g. A is B and C is B, but in not exactly the same sense); but because there is nevertheless similarity between relations, the predications are not equivocal. They are predications of a sort of intermediate between equivocal and univocal predications - in particular, predications by an analogy of proper proportionality.

Edward Feser, Scholastic Metaphysics


According to Feser, then, we can say that God is wise, or that God is good, but we will never be able to apply the terms 'wise' and 'good' on an univocal manner to both God and man, as God's wisdom is on a different level than ours. God has a different essence than man. So for man to say that God is wise, man would know that by the analogy. The statement that God is wise is made from a "bottom-up" approach.


Take the following example:


Socrates was good and wise

God is good and wise.


Aquinas would argue that we come to understand the meanings of terms like ‘good’ and ‘wise’ through creatures. So, we have some understanding of those concepts in FINITE things. Hence, the predication that God is good and wise is made by way of analogy for Aquinas. Good and wise are not applied unequivocally (meaning it doesn't apply to God), or univocally (meaning it describes God exactly right). Rather, it is applied analogically:

Thus, when the term ‘wise’ is said of a human being, it in some way describes and comprehends the thing signified; this is not true when it is said of God, however, for what is signified remains incomprehensible, exceeding the signification of the name.”

Aquinas, I.13.5

So when we say, ‘God is good,’ the meaning is not, ‘God is the cause of goodness,’ or ‘God is not evil’; but the meaning is, ‘Whatever good we attribute to creatures, pre-exists in God,’ and in a more excellent and higher way.

Aquinas, I.13.2

We cannot know the essence of God in this life, as He really is in Himself; but we know Him accordingly as He is represented in the perfections of creatures; and thus the names imposed by us signify Him in that manner only.

Aquinas, I.13.2


Edward Feser also demonstrates this here:

... at least for Thomists, when attributing intellect, knowledge, etc. both to God and to us, we have to understand the relevant terms analogously rather than univocally.  It’s not that God has knowledge in just the sense we do, only more of it.  It’s rather that there is in God something analogous to what we call knowledge in us, even if (since He is absolutely simple, eternal, etc.) it cannot be the same thing we have.  

Feser, The Divine Intellect

Why does Aquinas think that he is justified in believing that qualities we find in ourselves are reflective of the qualities in God? He answers this in I.4.2:

First, because whatever perfection exists in an effect must be found in the effective cause... Since therefore God is the first effective cause of things, the perfections of all things must pre-exist in God in a more eminent way... Secondly, from what has been already proved, God is existence itself, of itself subsistent (I:3:4). Consequently, He must contain within Himself the whole perfection of being.

Aquinas, I.4.2


It is helpful to note that the reason Aquinas believes he is justified in making the above analogous predication because he has already proven the existence of God in the famous 5 ways. For Aquinas natural knowledge of God is mediated by our knowledge of the created order. The observable facts of that order reveal an efficient cause that is itself uncaused (see Aquinas' second way that argues for a first cause that is itself uncaused), a self-subsisting first mover that is uncreated and is not subject to any change. Hence the above quote. According to Aquinas, God, from whom everything else is created, “contains within Himself the whole perfection of being”. So whatever perfections we find in ourselves, we can predicate this to God analogously.


The sun cannot produce heat unless it is itself warm. A human cannot produce a cat. Hence, as creatures we can predicate analogically (our perfections) unto God because we are His creations.


What we have written so far we can see how assumption (1) and assumption (2) comes into play. As semi-autonomous creatures, we investigate the world around us and discover certain characteristics. We are able to deduce certain proofs of God's existence (e.g. that He is the unmoved mover), and from there, knowing that He is the creator of all being, predicate certain creaturely characteristics unto Him by analogy.


Aquinas and classical apologetics
Thomas Aquinas

Van Til on Analogy, Summarised


Before we start looking at Van Til on analogy, let's first avoid the most basic pitfall. Just because both Aquinas and Van Til used the same term, does not mean that they meant the same thing.

Most secondary discussions of Van Til’s doctrine of analogy have correctly contrasted it with the metaphysical assumptions of Thomism ..., but have fallen short of directly explaining how he avoids their same basic pitfalls. In an endeavor to accomplish both ends, we begin with the observation that Van Til’s doctrine of analogy concerns the relationship between different sorts of minds—that of God and man—and not between concepts and different grades of objects.

Bosserman, The Trinity and the Vindication of Christian Paradox


More can be read by on Van Til's use of the term "analogy" in our article on the subject. The confusion between Van Til's and Aquinas' use of "analogy" has led some to make the incorrect conclusions with regards to what Van Til taught. This was made clear by Gilbert Weaver in Jerusalem and Athens.

Aquinas presupposes that being exists as a scale so that all creatures below God are involved to some extent in non-being as well as being. But for Van Til, there exist only two levels of being, the uncreated and the created, and on this created level the existence of an ant or a flea is as much genuine existence as that of man...
In their views of the nature of analogy, Aquinas and Van Til also diverge. The basic difference is that for Aquinas analogy purports to be a middle way between univocal and equivocal predication of names or words to subjects. This is not the case for Van Til. For him analogy applies not to terms, but to the overall process of human thought: man is God’s created analogue in both his being and his knowledge. Man can know because as the image of God, he is ordained to mirror in a finite way God’s infinite knowledge of all things.

Gilbert B. Weaver, Jerusalem and Athens | Man: Analogue of God


Van Til therefore does not agree that our knowledge is of God is an analogy in the same sense that Aquinas did, but rather, Van Til's use of the term analogy describes a process. The process (the correct and proper way to think) for Van Til was man thinking as God's created analogue (image of God). The only correct and proper way to think and go about in this world is as a created being in the image of triune God.

With regards to knowledge then, Aquinas uses a bottom-up approach. He either describes God by what He is not, or predicates creaturely categories to the Creator by analogy (in the Thomist sense). Van Til, on the other hand, prefers a top-down approach. We start with the existence of the triune God who positively identifies Himself through revelation.


So, what's the controversy?


To understand Van Til's critique we need to understand the central thrust of Van Til's thought: We need to make the Creator-creature distinction BASIC in our thought. If we don't think properly as creatures, created in the world of the triune God we won't ever have any true knowledge. For Van Til, analogy meant man thinking as God's created analogue which is a more top-down approach to thinking rather than Aquinas' bottom-up.

The idea of analogy of being [Aquinas] means primarily that [natural] man may start with an objective state of affairs.

Van Til, Analogy of Faith

Thomas starts from the abstract concept of Being and introduces the Creator-creature distinction afterwards. He reduces the Creator-creature distinction to something that is consistent with the idea of God and the cosmos as involved in a chain of being, with varying degrees of intensity. His philosophy and psychology thus make any true Christian theology impossible.

Van Til, The Reformed Pastor and Modern Thought, p. 91

The Christian, however, will not talk about being in general, as if somehow all reality is on the same scale of being, and only afterwards, make a distinction between God and the universe. The Christian denies the ontological correlativity between Creator and creation. This is because fundamental to the Christian theory of reality is the Creator–creature distinction. God is Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable. His name is “I AM THAT I AM.” He is in no sense dependent for anything upon His created universe (Ps. 50:10–12; Acts 17:25). The universe and man, to the contrary, are created, finite, continually dependent upon God’s “upholding” powers (Heb. 1:3). Therefore, properly to conceive of reality, the Christian thinks in terms of God’s uncreated being and then the created being of all other things.

Robert Reymond, The Justification of Knowledge

Keith Mathison in his article published in 2019 titled "Christianity and Van Tillianism", wrote that "According to Van Til, Aquinas taught that God and His creatures participate in the larger category of “being in general.” Thomas “reduces the Creator-creature distinction to something that is consistent with the idea of God and the cosmos as involved in a chain of being, with varying degrees of intensity.”He claims that Aquinas based his views on Aristotle’s idea of the “analogy of being.”All of this is a fundamental misreading of Aquinas. The irony of Van Til’s claim is that Aquinas’ doctrine of analogy is actually necessitated by Aquinas’ radical distinction between the Creator and the creature, the very thing that Van Til says Aquinas denies."


What this means is that Aquinas' doctrine of analogy is a direct result of the Creator-creature distinction applied to his metaphysics. If Aquinas ignored the distinction, he would have had no problem predicating characteristics to God in an univocal sense. It is precisely because God has a different essence from humans that we predicate analogously from creature to Creator.


But is this a sufficient response from Mathison? I don't believe so. Van Til for example does not deny the essence existence distinction, so Van Til would agree with Aquinas that God's essence is identical with His existence and that God has a different essence from humans. The issue that Van Til takes is that Aquinas does not START by presupposing God whose essence is identical with His existence. The Creator-creature distinction is merely compatible with Aquinas' metaphyisc, not basic to it.


Note that Aquinas believes we demonstrate the existence of God at the start of His Summa Theologica, but that we can know nothing of the divine essence. To that Van Til asks, given the truth of what Aquinas is saying, "Thomas should tell us therefore what is existence apart from essence in God so that the former may be proved apart from the latter. This would be flatly contradictory [since God's essence is equivalent to His existence] were it not for the fact that the analogy concept has given him the right, so he thinks, to hold to God as transcendent without being wholly out of reach of the intellectual concepts of man. We have seen how untenable this position is. He loses the probative force of his argument in exact proportion to the extent that he holds to the transcendence of God." [The Reformed Pastor and Modern Thought].


If one does not begin with presupposing God in the scriptural meaning of the term, if one does not presuppose the ontological trinity and the idea of the plan of God as the principle of individuation, there is nothing left but either complete scepticism or pure blind faith. If one does not think analogously in Van Til's sense as a created creature in God's creation, we lose all knowledge.


Van Til hits the nail on the head when he writes the following: