The Limitations of Natural Knowledge of God
Scotus sets out what we may know and not know of God. We may be able to grasp some things intellectually but much else must rely on God’s own revelations and that come to us.
The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament proclaims His handiwork. (Psalm 19)
In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. (Hebrews ch1).
The two biblical texts set out two ways in which God may be know. From the Psalm there the sense that very facts of nature somehow show the character of God for all to see. But in Hebrews there is the special emphasis that knowledge of God comes from divine revelation, and for the Christian this is special and seen in Jesus Christ.
If there is a God how can we know what God is like? Is there some infused or natural knowledge given to our minds? Can the nature of God be determined from an analysis of the world? We have the texts of scripture that we may think of as some record of divine revelation but how good are these as guarantee of knowledge about God? Can we show that the pictures of God in the biblical texts have some reasonable degree of truth and can other rational philosophy be used to support them?
These are not new questions and we have a whole history of Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox church traditions that have sought to answer them and others. It is in this sort of context that we can place Duns Scotus and his extensive and critical enquiries into the nature of God and the content of the received traditions of doctrine. Primary to Scotus theology and philosophy is what we can determine about the nature of God by natural means and whether we need additional revelation in the scriptures and revealed knowledge given to the church to assist us in finding knowledge of God.
As a first example In Ordinatio 1, distinction 3 he asks “whether it is possible to know God: Whether the intellect of man in this life is able to know God naturally”.
Scotus’ first and main answer to his own question is that the intellect of man in fact is not able to know God fully naturally. He goes on to an elaborate consideration and defence of that view. In the first place he says that it may be argued that our senses can only get at sensible things and God is not available to senses. This is still a truism today even with our advance technolological extension of our senses.
Secondly the intellect cannot grasp any image it does not know by the senses. It could therefore be implied that humanity could not have evolved in a knowledge of the Transcendent unless the transcendent had provided a means of self-revealing. As Scotus shows in his argument about God as First Cause it may possibly be argued that God is the originator of the cosmos but besides this we would know nothing about the character and commands of God without God’s self-revelation. This also especially so with respect to the Trinity that has been derived from the special revelation through Jesus Christ in the lives of the apostles. We would not have arrived at the doctrine of the Trinity apart from the neccessity of its elabororation in the light of the life of Jesus, what was revealed in him and aboutr him. It is not science or human knowledge that led to it.
Elsewhere Scotus argues that God is Infinite Being (see page on Infinite Being) and it stands to reason that the Infinite as infinite cannot be fully knowable by our natural powers and we simply cannot comprehend it. We cannot mentally grasp the fullest meaning of infinity of God. It is not possible for us to know an infinite number of things in the same way that God does and hence the Infinite Being is disproportionate to our intelligence and cannot be known to us by natural means alone.
Although sometimes Scotus seems certain we can say some things about God he also draws on Aristotle saying our greatest happiness would be to know the Infinite Being, but in fact this is problem for us. We can only know what God is not, although we may be able to affirm some things from experience and reason (and revelation). By stating what God is not we may come to some knowledge of what God is or may be in relation to our current natural state. This is somewhat similar to some Eastern traditions that we can only know God by way of negation.
We know now that we can describe the Cosmos in some complex mathematics that we are unable to fully know in any other way and cannot hold in our minds the near infinity of the universe and all in it. Since God as source of the cosmos is greater we cannot conceive of God with finite natural minds.
To extend this further we may next consider that our potential knowledge of things could change with time and experience. Since what we know of the world has changed, what God must be in relation to us must change our perceptions of what God is not and may be. As evolved and developing people our natural perceptions of God have changed and will continue to do from our perceptions of the world. Our perceptions also change from the recorded experiences of others and what others think and convey to us. We may know some things by way of perceptions of the world and intellectual projections of this reality, although we may also be mistaken and led astray by both our perceptions and our imperfect intellectual grasp.
Scotus in some contrast to this it is certain that we all have concepts that are certain even if other concepts may be doubt. Even in this we can be certain that God is This Being even if we have doubts about other aspects of God’s Being. We can apply some things to God by the meaning of pure perfections of what we know (we extrapolate some finite characteristic to some transcendent infinity of perfection). But no pure perfection can be found in creatures unless it comes from God. Things in creation are applied to God in their ultimate perfection, because any perfection of God has in ultimate degree. (This is called Univocal).
But there again is a cautionary note that even in these attempts at knowledge there is no certitude in every aspect of these Univocal concepts. They are only projections and interpretations and can be false, until proved or disproved in some way. The fact is that we have no complete concept of God that enables us to know every attribute and we only know certain things such as the Trinity because it has been revealed to us and we accept it by faith. We may only know God by applying familiar things univocally but cannot know for certainty unless God reveals the truth about the Divine Being. God in His absolute and perfect Transcendence cannot be known, and any univocal or analogous use of created things will always be imperfect. The fullness of the essence of God cannot be known in this life, even if we can conceive some things univocally. We can only truly know God if God reveals the divine nature to us beyond our senses and intellectual powers, such as occurs in the revelation of God in Jesus Christ.
All of this has relevance with other more modern authors such as Paul Tillich in which he finds fault with our making God just a being and not as the Ground of Being. It always underlines the fact that we too easily make God in our images but we must wait for the fullest revelations from God, which even then may be only partly perceived as truth. All of this has relevance also when we try an see God in the hugely expanded view of cosmic dimensions and cosmic and evolutionary history. We have a need for a truly Cosmic God and not a little god for our convenience and satisfaction of our desires and whims.
I may know that You exist
I may know You are the author of things
I may know that You are the most perfect and most good
Yet all else must come from You or I do not know You
Thus must I rest in what it has seemed You have revealed to others before me
And maybe You may still through them and through Your most gracious favour
Give me a little more of Yourself for me to know and love and serve