So, there is a problem: Aristotle’s language threatens how we talk about God.
The Meaning of our language depends on our concepts, but since our idea of concepts derives from meaningful things, and those things fall short of God, so it would seem that our language cannot talk about God at all. Aquinas will claim that we can speak meaningfully about God but because our language is imprecise, there will always be some slippage when speaking about God. In short, there will always be a gap in how our Names (or “words”) about God describe the Almighty.
Aquinas takes a dual approach in talking about God. He insists that both the “Negative” and “Positive” Ways must be considered; we cannot merely talk about what God is not (the Negative) or about what is (the Positive Way). How is this, though? How can we name God truly if he is so far beyond our understanding?
Answering: Aquinas proposes a general theory of names and then how this theory works; as far as the general theory is concerned, he takes inspiration for it from Aristotle: words are signs of ideas; Ideas are resemblances, or similitudes, of things; so, words do signify things but only indirectly by way of the intellects idea of the thing. If we were to apply this theory to God, then we see through sensible things—perfection in creatures—aspects of God (God cannot give perfection to creatures if he himself lacked this perfection) beholden in our mind. Provided, God’s perfection is far above that of the creature’s own perfection; the creature’s perfection merely resembles God’s in a vague manner. It is this fact that allows us to understand God since the general theory of names implies that we can talk about things insofar as we understand them.
There are three ways this perfection can work. On one, some perfections do not imply limitation; wisdom, for example, if finite within a person but not finite as a concept. It is neither good or bad, simply is: God, then, is the source of this concept (in this example wisdom). Additionally, we can take a concept which implies ‘without limitation’ and add what Aquinas calls the Mode of Super-Immanence. So, instead of wise, we would say “infinitely wise”. Doing this results in a name which can only be applied to God. Further, we can add this further to imply limitation, such as “being a rock”, an odd kind of perfection but perfection nonetheless (why is because it is an actualization of a potentiality: the rock is actually a rock and it is perfect in its rockiness. Ergo, it is perfected, even if it is not an impressive perfectness). Such is capable of being applied to God because God is in several places, referred to as a rock in the metaphorical sense. In metaphorical predication, the thing we have in our mind does not apply directly to the subject, it is merely a mode of deliverance. Only in literal predication is the thing we have in our mind a direct application to what we have in our mind. Aquinas, meanwhile, is interested in most in names (words) which can be applied to both God and creatures.
A glaring defect of our language is that it enacts a multiplicity and suggests that God is multiple. Here is where Boethius’s Doctrine of Divine Simplicity causes problems. To illustrate: when we think of a creature’s goodness, we think of that goodness as a quality or characteristic which that creature has. So, when we do the same for God, we think of God and then slap on the quality of goodness to create a Good God. But, this is not right. God is not a composite made up of different properties—he is simple. Yet, our language suggests that God is a plurality since we draw our knowledge from sensible things and from those things we learn different things about God. So, how do we reconcile this complexity? By understanding God’s perfection encompassing all these perfections through his essence.
All of this follows a third limitation of our language: that is when we say that “God is Wise” and “Socrates” is wise, “Wise” does not have the same meaning in those two uses.
How this relies on the three different kinds of literal predication: hermetical, equivocal, and analogical.
Hermetical: one applies a thing to two or more things with exactly the same meaning. If I say Ben and Bobby are golfers, then the word “golfer” has the same meaning. Equivocal predication, meanwhile, is a case where two words sound the same but have different meaning; such as a “bank” as in a “river bank” and bank as in a place to store valuables and money. Aquinas will argue that when we use words to describe God which do not describe limitation, our words are not predicated either hermitically or equivocally: we can’t have hermitically predication since God’s effects fall short of the divine essence; we can have equivocal since it is not a mere accident that we call both God and creatures “good” as it is an effect of God’s goodness, so our words are not a mistake; if this was the case, then we would have no idea about what it would mean to call God good since our idea of that would be unknown and undefinable. Rather, Aquinas will argue that analogical is the best kind of prediction to use when talking about God.
This kind of prediction is used when something has related but not identical meanings to something else. This is a form of literal, non-metaphorical predication. An example of this would someone who says “this is my niece” while pointing at a little girl and someone saying the same thing while pointing at a photograph. In both examples, though they are related, they are not the same; the words have a relation in some manner to the word “niece”. The difference is that the girl was brought into the world via biological reproduction whereas the photograph technological. In either case, though, the pointing out of the girl refers to the girl herself. The mode of expression, then, is likewise similar in meaning.
Aquinas then asks which form of the expression has priority or is more fundamental. This depends: does one mean which is more fundamental in order of reality or does one mean which is more fundamental in the order of knowledge? These changes depending on the person: an uncle will know his niece purely by the niece’s existence but a stranger’s knowledge is wholly dependent on the picture; hence, the uncle will have the order of knowledge prioritized whereas the strange will do the same with the order of reality. If one was to apply this to the God-Creature issue, the same result would happen: God is prior to the order of reality whereas creatures are prior in the order of knowledge.