"The good of the grace of one soul is greater than the good of the nature of the whole universe"
- St Thomas Aquinas Ia IIa, q.24, a. 3, ad 2

— A Commentary on the First Part of St Thomas' Theological Summa

by Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O. P.


Question 3. Introduction


The theologians of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries usually discussed this question at the beginning of their treatise on God. St. Thomas discusses it in a special manner in the thirteenth question, in connection with the divine names, and rightly so, because the divine being is first considered by him, and then our possibility of knowing it.

Nevertheless the different views about these attributes as presented by nominalism, the formalism of Scotus, and the moderate realism of St. Thomas, oblige us to insert this introduction, which serves as material for reflection upon this treatise, and which was ideally present to the mind of St. Thomas as he was assigning in orderly arrangement the various parts of this treatise.

In this question of the divine attributes, all theologians distinguish between absolutely simple perfections, which imply no imperfection (such as intellection) and relative or mixed perfections, which denote imperfection even in their formal signification (such as reasoning). But certain theologians do not sufficiently distinguish the divine attributes or the absolutely simple perfections from God's free action and the divine persons; for, although the latter do not imply any imperfection, yet they are not absolutely simple perfections in the strict sense.


To avoid the above-mentioned confusion we must define the expression "divine attribute," as the Thomists usually do, by saying that it is an absolutely simple perfection which exists necessarily and formally in God, and which is deduced from what we conceive as constituting the divine essence.(22)

Explanation of this definition.
1) We are concerned with what is an attribute in the strict sense of the term, for sometimes the term refers in an improper sense to all that is predicated even not necessarily of God (as the divine free act) or else relatively (as the relations of paternity, filiation, passive spiration, by which the divine persons are constituted).

2) It is called an absolute perfection, not to the exclusion of perfections that are named with reference to creatures, such as providence, mercy, justice, omnipotence, but to the exclusion of the divine relation, to which the term "attribute" does not apply since the relations are not common to the three Persons; for the attribute is a property of the nature and is common to the three Persons.

3) It is called an absolutely simple perfection so as to exclude relative or mixed perfections, which essentially imply imperfection, such as rationality. But what in the strict sense is an absolutely simple perfection? It is that perfection which in its formal concept implies no imperfection, and which it is better for one to have than not. Many add these last words to the definition, and rightly so, because the divine free act and the divine relations, although they imply no imperfection, yet are not absolutely simple perfections, at least in the strict sense. For it is not better for God to have the creative act than not, and there would have been no imperfection in God if He had not created, no matter what Leibnitz said about this; nor does it add to God's perfection that He most freely wills to create the universe. In like manner the Father, to whom the opposite relation of filiation does not apply, would be lacking in some absolutely simple perfection if the relation of filiation were an absolutely simple perfection, as if it were superadded to the infinite perfection of the divine nature, which is common to the three Persons. Hence neither the divine relations nor the divine free act are absolutely simple perfections, at least in the strict sense. But the contrary of this is true as regards liberty and omnipotence, for God would be free and omnipotent, even if He had not created anything.

4) It is said to be necessarily existing in God, which means that it is like a property of the divine nature, so that God's free acts such as creation, are excluded by these words.

5) It is said to be formally existing in God so that also mixed perfections may be excluded; for these are only virtually in God, since He can produce them in creatures. Thus life is formally attributed to God, but not animal or rational.

6) It is said, "as derived from the essence," so as to exclude the prior concept of the divine nature. Thus the divine attribute is accurately defined.


The theologians are not altogether in agreement concerning this classification. Some stress too much the attributes as they relate to us in the classification; others prefer to discuss the attributes as they relate to God as He is in Himself.

Suarez and several other theologians, discussing the attributes more as they relate to us, classify them into positive attributes, such as goodness, wisdom, justice, and negative attributes, such as incorporeity, infinity, immutability, ineffability. They also point out that very many negative attributes, such as infinity and immutability, are incommunicable, or cannot be participated in.

A difficulty presents itself in this classification, inasmuch as certain attributes expressed in a negative form, such as infinity, are in themselves positive, just as incorporeity in itself denotes spirituality,(23) and immutability in itself expresses stability in the highest degree, the positive form of which is eternity. Hence this Suarezian division stresses too much the quoad nos element in the attributes.

St. Thomas, however, in considering the attributes as they relate to God as He is in Himself seems to have devised a better classification, by distinguishing between those that pertain to the divine substance and those that refer to the divine operation .(24) In the first class of attributes we have simplicity, perfection, goodness, infinity, immensity, immutability, eternity, unity, invisibility, and ineffability. In the second class, however, we have knowledge, will, and love, and subordinate to these are justice, mercy, and providence, as virtues residing either in the will or in the intellect. Finally, as regards virtually transient operations, we have the creative, conservative, and directive powers.(25 This division is primary and fundamental, because it stresses more God as He is in Himself, and not so much as we are related to Him. The classification proposed by Suarez is more of the nature of a subdivision, and St. Thomas refers to it as such.(26)


There are three leading opinions, and they are the result of the different ways of solving the twofold problem about universals and the analogy of the divine names.(27) Let us first consider the extreme views that are fundamentally in opposition.

I) The nominalists admitted only a mental distinction between the divine attributes, like the verbal one between Tullius and Cicero, or between Cicero the subject of some proposition and Cicero the predicate of another proposition.

They give two reasons for this opinion: (1) The universal is not even fundamentally present in things; only individuals exist, and in these there is no true, essential, and unchangeable similarity according to the species, the genera, and the transcendentals; (2) hence not even analogically can anything be predicated of God and creatures at least in the proper sense, but only metaphorically or symbolically. (28) Hence to say, "God is just," would no more properly belong to Him, than to say "God is angry." To say that "God is just" would not mean that He is so substantially but only causally, inasmuch as He is the cause of justice in creatures just as He is the cause of life in animals.(29)

Criticism. From this opinion it follows that the divine names are synonymous and that, contrary to reason, Scripture, and tradition, it can be said therefore that God punishes by means of His mercy and pardons by means of His justice; for, as the nominalists say, there is only a verbal distinction between these two attributes as between Tullius and Cicero, and wherever we find the name Tullius written the name Cicero can be written for it. Thus this opinion leads to pure agnosticism, which would result in God being absolutely unknowable, the treatise on God an absolute impossibility, and all the definitions of the Church about the divine attributes would be identical in meaning. As St. Thomas remarks: "If the words `God is good' signified no more than `God is the cause of good things,' it might in like manner be said that God is a body, inasmuch as He is the cause of bodies." (30) In the next two articles of this question he observes that not all the names applied to God are metaphorical in meaning, for some are applied properly although analogically (as in the case of "God is just"), and not all the divine names are synonymous.(31) The nominalist view destroys the analogy of being, and leads to equivocality of being.(32)

2) Scotus admits, however, that the divine essence is distinct from the attributes and the Persons, and he posits an actual and formal distinction pertaining to the nature of the thing, between the divine attributes, which is previous to our consideration of them, as already stated. Only in this way, according to Scotus, it can be affirmed that God punishes by His justice and not by His mercy. This necessitates that these two attributes be formally and actually distinct in God, previous to our consideration of them, about the same way as, in our soul, the intellect and the will are formally and actually distinct.(33)

This theory has its foundation in the extreme realism advocated by Scotus, who contends that already in created beings there is an actual and formal distinction between the metaphysical degrees of anything whatever, as, for instance, in Peter, between humanity, vitality, substantiality, and entity. From this it follows that being is predicated univocally of God and creatures, as Scotus explicitly maintains. Nor is it to be wondered at that being is univocal, if, previous to the mind's consideration, it is formally and actually distinct from substantiality, vitality, that is, from the modes of being.

Criticism. (a) This actual and formal distinction, devised by Scotus, if it is truly more than virtual, that is, as we remarked, if it truly exists in the thing before the mind's consideration, is already a real distinction, however slight it may be,(34) and then it is opposed to God's absolute simplicity; for, as the Council of Florence says: "In God all things are one and the same where there is no relation of opposition." In other words, in this way Scotus ends in extreme realism and in a certain anthropomorphism, since he posits in God a distinction that exists only in the mind. This theory is the absolute reverse of nominalism and agnosticism. Thus Scotus does not sufficiently recede from the exaggerated realism of Gilbert de la Porree, which was condemned in the Council of Reims as contrary to God's absolute simplicity.(36)

b) The metaphysical degrees are not actually distinct in a thing before the mind's consideration, as, for instance, in Peter, animality, vitality, rationality, and substantiality; for these are reduced to the same concept of humanity, of which animality is the genus, rationality is the specific differentia. Thus they correspond to the same reality that is in itself one but virtually multiplex.(37)

c) Moreover, if being is formally and actually distinct from modes, then these modes would be outside being, and therefore non-entities. There is danger of pantheism in this, for if being were univocal, there would be but one being, because the univocal is not differentiated except by differences extrinsic to it, and what is not being is a nonentity. Truly the modes of being are included in the concept of being, and are contained in it actually and implicitly. Therefore being is not univocal (like a genus, the differentiae of which are extrinsic to it), but analogical. Being expresses something that is not absolutely but proportionately the same in self-existing Being, in created substantial being, and in accidental being. Finally, this doctrine of Scotus does not seem to be in conformity with the teaching of the Fourth Lateran Council, in which we read: "So great similarity cannot be detected between the Creator and the creature that we do not have to take note of a greater dissimilarity between them." (38) This is practically a definition of analogy, since the analogical aspect in God and creatures is not absolutely but proportionately the same, as with wisdom which in God is the cause of things and in us is measured by things.(39) Hence, while the nominalists tend toward equivocation of being, Scotus maintains the univocation of being. The two opinions are fundamentally in opposition .(40)

3) The common opinion of the theologians mediates, so to speak, between nominalism and exaggerated realism, and towers above them. This opinion, the source of which is the moderate realism of St. Thomas, is commonly formulated by the Thomists and a great number of theologians as follows: There is a minor virtual distinction between the divine attributes and God's essence, between the divine attributes, and likewise between the divine persons and the essence.

St. Thomas uses simpler terminology, saying that God's essence is distinct from the attributes and the divine Persons "not really but logically." (41) He is speaking of the logical distinction that is founded on reality, which subsequently is commonly called virtual; and this calls for an explanation.

a) The virtual distinction is a distinction founded on reality, which means, contrary to Scotus' theory, that it is non-existent previous to the mind's consideration, and it does not destroy God's absolute simplicity. Against the nominalists and agnostics, however, it is said to be "founded on reality," since the different absolute perfections found in creatures are equivalently expressed in the eminence of the Deity.(42) St. Thomas says expressly: "To the various and multiplied conceptions of our intellect there corresponds one altogether simple principle, according to these conceptions, imperfectly understood." (43) The eminence of the Deity is most simple, but it is virtually multiple, and all absolutely simple perfections are contained in it formally and eminently. This must now be briefly explained, and more fully in the thirteenth question.

Formally: This means substantially and properly; not merely metaphorically, but analogically and properly.(44)
Eminently: How the perfections are contained is mysterious; but the divine attributes are so identified in the most eminent and formal concept of the Deity as not to be destroyed by it. They are contained formally in it, and yet they are not formally distinct. In fact, they are found in their purest state, without any imperfection, only in the Deity.

More briefly, absolute perfections are in God more so than the "seven colors are in the white light; for these seven colors are only virtually present in whiteness, whereas the divine perfections are formally distinct from one another. For, whereas whiteness is not blue, one and true are predicated of the Deity .(45)

(b) The distinction between the divine attributes is called a minor virtual distinction. For the major virtual distinction is that which is of the nature of excluding and excluded, as in Peter the genus of animality is distinct from rationality, which is the differentia extrinsic to it, and there is a real foundation for conceiving it as in potentiality for this latter, as being susceptible of further perfection by something extraneous to it. But there is no real foundation for conceiving anything in God as in potentiality for some further perfection by the addition of something extraneous to Him. Whatever is conceived in God, must be conceived in Him as purest act. Hence there is a minor virtual distinction between the divine attributes, and between these and the divine essence. This means that the distinction is not of the nature of excluding and excluded, but of implicit and explicit. In other words, God's nature as we conceive it (the self-subsisting Being) contains the attributes more so than virtually, more so than the genus contains the differences extrinsic to it, for they are contained actually and implicitly in it; but discursive reasoning is necessary for their explicit deduction from the divine nature. But the Deity, as it is itself, contains them actually and explicitly. Thus the blessed no longer need to have recourse to discursive reasoning so as clearly to see God's attributes in the Deity. Hence all the attributes mutually include one another, or each contains the others actually and implicitly.

Moreover, this minor virtual distinction properly applies only to those attributes that are differentiated specifically and that pertain to different orders, as, for instance, between intellection and volition, justice and mercy; but there is no such distinction between attributes which, as found in creatures, differ only as potency and act do, such as between essence and existence, intellect and intellection. There is only an extrinsically virtual distinction between these, which means that the foundation for this distinction is not in the divine reality but in creatures. Otherwise it would have to be said that our conception of God includes the presence of something potential in Him for which there is a foundation in the divine reality. St. Thomas, as we have remarked, makes use of simpler terminology, and says that the distinction between the attributes and the Persons and the divine essence is "not real but logical." (46) Moderate realism and the doctrine of analogy are the two fundamental reasons for this traditional opinion.

1)l According to moderate realism, the universe exists fundamentally in things, and there is a foundation for this in them. Thus in Peter there is a virtual distinction between rationality, animality, and entity. In like manner, there is a virtual distinction between God's attributes.

2) Being, is analogous, and is not a genus, for the differences of being would be outside being, and what is outside being is a nonentity. Nor is being equivocal, for this would mean the abolition of all true resemblance between beings. God would be absolutely unknowable, and it could be said of Him, as Nicholas of Autrecourt contended, "God is" and "God is not." (47) In fact, if being were equivocal, the principle of contradiction would be false.(48)

Therefore the divine attributes apply to God analogically, and are present in Him formally and eminently; but between the attributes and between each of them and the divine essence there is only a virtual distinction. Expressed more briefly: the attributes are formally in God, but they are not formally distinct.

Index Top


22. Cf. Damascene's De fide orthodoxa, Bk. I, chap. 12; Summa theol, Ia, q.3, a.3 ad 1um; q.13, a.4 ad 2um, 3um.

23. On the contrary, for the angels who have a positive and intuitive knowledge of spiritual things, corporeity is the negation of spirituality.

24. Summa theol., Ia, prologue to q.3 and especially to q. 14.

25 Ibid., q.25.

26. Ibid., q.13, a.2. In this same article St. Thomas notes another subdivision, since certain divine names are predicated absolutely (as perfection, simplicity), whereas others are predicated relatively as referring to creatures (such as providence, mercy, justice, omnipotence).

27. This has been more fully examined by us in God, His Existence, II, 203-46.

28. Concerning the philosophical errors of the nominalists, see Denzinger, nos. 553-70. The following philosophical errors of Nicholas of Autrecourt are condemned: (1) "That we can have no certainty from the natural appearances of things," which is practically a denial of the ontological validity of primary ideas; (g) "There is absolutely no difference in meaning between the propositions: God is, God is not." This is a denial of the transcendent validity of the notion of being in acquiring a knowledge of God, and so being is equivocal or is used in absolutely different senses, if its affirmation and negation are no different in meaning; (32) "God and the creature are not anything."

29. Summa theol., Ia, q.13, a.2.

30. Ibid., q. 13, a.2.

31. Ibid., a.3 f.

32. lbid., q. 13, a.5, for a refutation of this view.

33. Consult Scotus in I Sent, d.3, q.1, 3; d.8, q.3; d.5, q.1.

34. There is no intermediate distinction between the real and the virtual or t hat distinction which has its foundation in the thing, because there is no intermediate step between what precedes the mind's consideration and what does not.

35. Ibid., no. 703.

36.Ibid., no. 391.

37. Cf. Goudin, Metaphysica, disp. I, q.3: "De distinctione quo gradus metaphisici distinguuntur."

38. Denz., no. 432.

39. Cf. infra, q. 13, a.5.

40. Nevertheless, when Scotus substitutes his formal distinction for St. Thomas' real distinction, for instance, between the faculties of the soul, he paves the way for nominalism.

41. Summa theol., Ia, q.28, a.2.

42. Ibid., q. 13, a.4, 5; I Sent., d.2, q. 1, a.3.

43. Summa theol., Ia, q.13, a.4.

44. Ibid. a.1-5.

45. See Cajetan's Commentary in Iam, q.13, a.5, no. 7.

46. Summa theol., Ia, q.28, a.2.

47. Denz., no. 555.

48. Summa theol., Ia, q.13, a.5.



"The name of Jesus, pronounced with reverence and affection, has a kind of power to soften the heart. "

St Philip Neri

* * *

"Every man naturally desires knowledge; but what good is knowledge without fear of God? Indeed a humble rustic who serves God is better than a proud intellectual who neglects his soul to study the course of the stars."

Thomas á Kempis

* * *

"God speaks to us without ceasing by his good inspirations."

The Cure D'Ars

* * *