I was thinking of Father Ritt whose Fundamentals of Theology class I enjoyed so much I repeated it for the sheer joy of being in his class. If I were to retake it yet again I would come primed with this essay. The good Father would have us run through the various proofs of God’s existence but we never covered this very strategic and necessary piece of the pie.
Sed contra est quod dicitur Exod. 3 ex persona Dei: Ego sum qui sum
(Summa theologiae 1.2.3).
["On the contrary, the book of Exodus (3:14) presents God as saying I am who am."]
Theologians often quote this statement of God to establish, on the basis of belief in divine authority, that Being is the proper name of God. Here, however, it is found in the second question of the Summa theologiae, in the sed contra of Article 3: “Is there a God?”; or, as we usually say, “Does God exist?”
Since it is taken from scripture, the statement certainly means that God himself has given an affirmative answer to the question of his existence. To assent to his word is to believe that God exists because he himself has said so. In this sense the existence of God is held as true through an act of faith in the word of God.
The knowledge of God’s existence thereby acquires a universal significance and absolute certitude. Indeed, even those who do not understand the philosophical proofs of the existence of God are informed about this truth by divine revelation. Philosophers or not, everyone to whom his word is communicated through the preaching of scripture and who receives it as coming from him, in this way knows that God exists. Philosophers themselves need to remember that God has revealed his existence and to hold onto that truth by faith.
There are rational proofs by which we can know with certitude that God exists; but the certitude of faith, which is based on the infallibility of the word of God, is infinitely more reliable than all knowledge acquired by natural reason alone, no matter how evident it may be. In matters of revelation, error is absolutely impossible because the source of the knowledge of faith is God Himself, who is the Truth.
“… much more is a person certain about what he hears from God, who cannot be mistaken, than about what he sees with his own reason, which can be mistaken” (ST 2-2.4.8 ad 2m). [Gilson then adds the following quotation:] “In reply to the third objection we say that understanding and science are more perfect than the knowledge of faith because they have a greater clarity, but not because they have a greater certitude. For the whole certitude of understanding or science, as gifts [of the Holy Spirit], comes from the certitude of faith, as the certitude of the knowledge of conclusions comes from the certitude of principles.
But insofar as science, wisdom, and understanding are [natural] intellectual virtues, they are based on the natural light of reason, which falls short of the certitude of God’s word, on which faith is based” (ST 2-2.4.8 ad 3m). So it seems impossible to acquire in the light of principles of knowledge themselves certitudes equal to those given by faith in the word of God, for this word expresses the certitude that God himself has. Now this certitude is infallible, whereas that of the finite natural light is not. Hence in no case would reason be substituted for faith without changing the less infallibly certain for the more infallibly certain. Important consequences follow from this, the first of which is that the theologian, as he begins his work, by calling upon the word of God affirming his own existence, asserts in the name of faith the existence of the proper object of theological science. In this sense the whole of theology hangs upon that first truth — a point worthy of meditation.
There were prophets who in certain respects could have been greater than Moses, but absolutely speaking Moses remains the greatest of all: Non surrexit propheta ultra in Israel, sicut Moyses (And there has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses; Deuteronomy: 34:10). Scripture immediately gives the reason for this judgment. There has not arisen in Israel a prophet equal to Moses, “he whom Yahweh knew face to face.” St. Thomas will look no further for the first reason for his own position that Moses excelled all the prophets (ST 2-2.174.4).
There are four special signs of prophecy: knowledge both by intellectual and imaginative insight, the promulgation of revealed truth, and the confirmation of that promulgation by miracles. The first two of these four signs should hold our attention here. First, Moses excels the other prophets by his intellectual vision of God, since, like St. Paul later in his rapture, “he saw the essence itself of God.” But he also had the sensible perception of it to a degree attained by no other prophet, for he enjoyed it so to speak at will, not only hearing God’s words but even seeing God himself speak, either in sleep or even while awake. In the face-to-face vision of the divine essence Moses saw that God exists. Hence it is by an act of faith in that existence of God revealed to Moses in an immediate vision that the theologian first answers the question, Does God exist? Nothing will ever replace for us the assent to that intellectual vision of the divine essence that Moses had face to face and in which we ourselves can share, obscurely but infallibly, by faith.
St. Thomas never doubted the necessity of believing in the existence of the God of Moses at the beginning of all theological inquiry. According to him, faith consists principally in two things: the true knowledge of God and the mystery of the Incarnation. Now, there can be no hesitation about what he calls the true knowledge of God. By that he understands what all the faithful are bound to believe explicitly and always in order to be saved. These are the truths spoken of by the Apostle in the Epistle to the Hebrews, 11.6: “Without faith it is impossible to please him. For whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” To which St. Thomas adds, “Consequently everyone (quilibet) is bound to believe explicitly and always that God exists (Deum esse) and that he exercises his providence over human affairs” (QDV 14.11). So all our theological knowledge of God begins with an act of faith in God’s revelation of his own existence. The Ego sum of Exodus is indeed in its right place in the Summa theologiae, before all the rational and properly philosophical proofs of the existence of God.
At this point we should carefully avoid a confusion that is all too prevalent. How, it will be asked, could the theologian at one and the same time believe that God exists and rationally demonstrate his existence? The question seems to be all the more in order as St. Thomas himself explicitly teaches that it is impossible to believe and to know the same conclusion at the same time and in the same respect. Will it be necessary, then, to stop believing that God exists after having demonstrated his existence five times; or, on the contrary, will we pretend to continue believing what we already knew? If we remove belief in the existence of God, we assign to theology an object whose very existence is established by philosophy, but if we keep it after the demonstration we are asked to believe what we know, which is impossible.
In order to clear up this difficulty, we must remember first of .111 what the object of faith is, namely the substance or foundation of the whole spiritual edifice. Faith is not directed to the formula of the proposition that calls for our assent. Beyond the intelligible meaning of the words it directly reaches the very object which these words signify. For this reason alone no rational proof of the truth of the proposition “God exists” could dispense us from believing in the existence of him in whom we believe on the word of God. Affirming God by faith is specifically different from affirming him by philosophical reason. The truth of the conclusion of the philosopher is justified on its own rational ground; the affirmation of the faithful is a sharing in the knowledge that God himself has of his own existence and of which he instructs us by way of revelation. Faith is a properly theological virtue which has God for its cause and object
Accordingly, the knowledge of faith and the knowledge of reason do not belong to the same species, not even to the same genus. Knowledge of the existence of God as an assent to the revelation made to us about it is entirely different from that which philosophy conveys about it, because for the believer it is a first real possession of God and his first step on the road to his final end — the beatific vision. Between the face-to-face vision of Moses and that of eternal life, faith offers to believers an obscure but certain road that does not lead to metaphysics but to salvation.
Hence God only revealed his existence to us because he began, in that free initiative, to give us already in an obscure way a sort of laying hold of our final end: accedentem ad Deum oportet credere quia est (whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists: Hebrews 11:6). No philosophy, no natural knowledge of God, could put us in possession, whether it be by one or five ways, of a knowledge of God’s existence that belongs to the economy of salvation. Philosophy is not a doctrine of salvation. We should not lose sight of this absolute transcendence of theological knowledge and of faith: “The principal object of faith is the First Truth, the vision of which gives the happiness of heaven and takes the place of faith” (Principale objectum fidei est veritas prima, cujus visio beatos facit et fidei succedit: ST 2-2.5.1). Hence the relation of belief in God’s existence to the certain knowledge of it given by philosophical demonstrations does not truly raise any insoluble problem.
Some are upset to hear that natural reason is fallible, even when it makes use of first principles. It is simply a fact that it makes mistakes. It is certain that the existence of God is rationally demonstrable, but not all the demonstrations of it that are offered are conclusive. Suppose a philosopher like St. Anselm holds it for certain that God exists on the ground of the purely rational conclusion that we cannot know the meaning of the word “God” without being compelled to admit his existence, not only in thought but also in reality.
The least we can say is that the proof is not certainly conclusive. If it were not, what would be the position of a philosopher, in this case one who is also a theologian and a saint, who would think himself dispensed from believing that God exists, with the excuse that he knows it with certainty by a rational demonstration whose value in fact is uncertain? He would no longer believe in the existence of God, but he would believe he knows it, and since he would neither believe it nor know it, that person would be completely ignorant of the existence of God. That truth is then no longer recognized except in the confused way described by St. Thomas (ST 1.2.1 ad 1m), or by a belief that takes itself for knowledge: partim ex consuetudine (CG 1.11.1). Certitude, which is our concern here, does not belong to judgments of this sort, and that is why the only infallible and supremely reliable certitude remains that of the act of faith. It is always present and is never mistaken.
So we must try to distinguish between two questions that are often confused in this discussion. Is the existence of God a truth demonstrable by natural reason, so that it is knowable and known with certitude? Without a doubt the answer to this first question is “yes.” The second question is whether everyone can consider his natural reason infallible in its effort to demonstrate rationally the existence of God? The merciless criticism of the proofs of St. Augustine, St. Anselm, Descartes, Malebranche and many others are timely reminders of the need for modesty. Are we keener philosophers than they? That is the whole question. Modesty is not skepticism. So we should not be afraid to let our mind pursue the proof of God’s existence until we reach the greatest possible certitude, but we should keep intact our faith in the word that reveals this truth to the most simple folk as well as to the most learned. Here it is well to meditate on the very complex and nuanced passage in ST 2-2.2.4: “Is it necessary to believe what can be proved by natural reason?” The answer is in the affirmative: “We must accept by faith not only what is above reason but also what can be known by reason.”
Others are also concerned that if we adopt this attitude, we are once again involved in the contradiction already mentioned, that is, knowing and believing one and the same proposition. But this is not the case. By a supernatural act of faith we cannot believe that God is the immovable Prime Mover, or the First Efficient Cause, or the First Necessary Being. All this, which the philosopher demonstrates, belongs to natural reason, not to faith. These conclusions, moreover, have been discovered by men like Aristotle and Avicenna; they have not been revealed by God.
It is true that if the God of revelation exists, he is the Prime Mover, the First Efficient Cause, the First Necessary Being, and everything reason can prove about the First Cause of the universe. But if Yahweh is the Prime Mover, the Prime Mover is not Yahweh. The First Efficient Cause never spoke to me by his prophets, and I do not expect my salvation to come from him. The God in whose existence the faithful believe infinitely transcends the one whose existence is proved by the philosopher.
Above all, he is a God of whom philosophy could have no idea, for all the conclusions of natural theology only reveal to us the existence of a First Cause of the universe. They are affirmed as the crowning point of science, but along the same line, whereas Yahweh reveals his existence to us in order to raise us to the vision of his essence and to share his own happiness with us. The God of reason is the God of science; the God of faith is the God of salvation. All the philosophical demonstrations can easily unfold below that divine revelation; no one of them could reach it or even conceive of its object
So we believe all the knowledge that directs us to beatitude, and all knowledge is the object of faith insofar as it directs us to beatitude. All scibilia are alike in being objects of knowledge, but because all do not equally direct us to beatitude not all are equally credenda (ST 2-2.2.4 ad 3m). Knowing the existence of God because it can be proved in the Aristotelian manner does not even start us on the road to salvation; believing that God exists because he has revealed it sets us on the road to our final end. Then there is nothing to prevent the theologian from directing all his knowledge toward that end, including Aristotle, Avicenna, Averroes, and the storehouse of their proofs. Philosophy can and ought to be saved, but it could not save itself any more than the philosopher could. As philosophy, it cannot even conceive the simple possibility of its own salvation.
We can recognize the absolute transcendence of revelation by the curious fact of the philosophical and theological multiple meanings of the texts of scripture. When St. Thomas was looking for a sed contra for his question on the existence of God, he does not seem to have found a text in which Yahweh says in so many words, “I exist.” So he had recourse to the statement of Exodus: Ego sum qui sum. But that statement is a reply to the question Moses put to God: When the people ask me who has sent me to them, what shall I answer?
So the passage in question also contains the reply to another query: What is the proper name of God? This question will be raised later in the Summa 1.13.11, and the sed contra will simply appeal to another part of the same text (Exodus 3:14): “Say this to the children of Israel: ‘I Am’ has sent me to you.” The text of the Summa reads: “… respondit ei Dominus: Sic dices eis: Qui est misit me ad vos. Ergo hoc nomen Qui est est maxime proprium nomen Dei” (The Lord answered him, ‘This is what you shall say to them: He Who Is sent me to you.’ Therefore this name, He Who Is, is the most proper name of God). Hence the sed contra that guarantees the existence of God has a wealth of meaning of which none of the five ways of proving that existence could give the slightest idea. The God of the sed contra is someone, a person, who reveals his name while revealing his existence. These matters do not come within the scope of philosophy. It is not called upon here to prove the truth of scripture. The theologian asks for its help only to put humankind on the track of an order of whose existence it itself has no suspicion and consequently to which it will never have access. (Meditate on ST 2-2.2.3 and ad 3m)
A written statement almost incidentally casts a still more instructive light on what the mind of the theologian can read in a single word if it is spoken by God. In the article of the Summa in which St. Thomas asks if the degrees of prophecy vary with the passage of time, he answers in the affirmative, and he offers the following proof: “The Fathers who had gone before had been instructed in the faith about the omnipotence of the one God, but afterward Moses was more fully taught about the simplicity of the divine essence when he was told Ego sum qui sum, the name the Jews represented by the term ‘Adonai’ out of respect for this ineffable name” (ST 2-2.174.6).
Thus the same statement that guarantees that God exists and that his most suitable name is He Who Is, also reveals to us the perfect simplicity of the divine essence. And indeed, God did not say: I am this or that, but simply I Am. I am what? I am ‘I Am.’ So, more than ever, the statement of Exodus seems to soar above in a kind of empty space, where the attraction of the weight of philosophy can no longer be felt. The work of reason is good, healthy, and important, for it proves that, left to itself, philosophy can establish with certitude the existence of the primary being whom everyone calls God. But a single word of the sacred text at once puts us in personal relations with him. We say his name, and by the simple fact of saying it, it teaches us the simplicity of the divine essence.
If we reflect on the significance of this last remark, it will make us even more aware of the absolute transcendence of a science such as theology, and in what sense it is true to say that natural reason, which it makes its servant, never empties it of faith.