The Three Ways

The Three Ways

Written by Scott R. Swain |
Tuesday, November 21, 2023

The God who is wise by nature bestows wisdom on creatures. The perfection of wisdom formally exists in God (in a divine manner) before it exists in the creature (in a creaturely manner). As Thomas Aquinas observes, “we do not call God wise because he causes wisdom, but he causes wisdom because he is wise” (Thomas Aquinas, The Power of God, trans. Richard J. Regan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 7.6). The distinction between God’s virtual possession of creaturely perfections and God’s formal possession of creaturely perfections is important for the distinction between metaphorical predication and literal predication.

In its pilgrim state, theology lacks an immediate grasp of God’s nature, which is infinite, incomprehensible, and ineffable. For this reason, theology also lacks the capacity for deriving God’s attributes from God’s nature. The ways of causation, negation, and eminence provide an alternative path for identifying God that is suitable to theology’s pilgrim state. This path is indirect because it identifies God by means of his creaturely effects. It is nonetheless reliable because it is illumined by the light of nature and, to a fuller degree, by the light of Scripture, which presupposes and, where necessary, corrects fallen creatures’ idolatrous misunderstandings of the light of nature. The way of causation, which identifies God as the first cause of all creatures, stands at the starting point of this path. Following from the way of causation, the way of negation and the way of eminence lead us to the end point of this path.

The Way of Causation

The light of nature and the light of Scripture proclaim God’s status as the first cause of all things: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1; Ps 19:1; Rom 1:20; 11:36). Scripture’s foundational identification of God identifies him, not by describing his nature, but by means of his creaturely effects: all things are “from him and through him and to him” (Rom 11:36). The revelation of God’s status as the first cause of all things provides an indirect but nonetheless reliable starting point for reflection on the being and attributes of God. The dominical saying, “each tree is known by its own fruit” (Luke 6:44; cf. James 3:11-12), indicates how this works: Because certain kinds of effects follow certain kinds of causes, certain kinds of effects are signs of certain kinds of causes.

As the first cause of all things, God is the transcendent cause of all things. God and creatures do not belong to the same order of being. Creation is the product of equivocal causation, where the thing produced (e.g., a building) does not share the nature of its producer (e.g., a builder), not the product of univocal causation, where the thing produced (e.g., a son) shares the nature of its producer (e.g., a father). The world is made, not begotten. For this reason, there is no formal resemblance between God and his creaturely effects, no one to one correspondence between the nature of God and the nature of creatures. Nevertheless, while the world bears no formal resemblance to its transcendent cause, as a product of divine wisdom (Ps 104:24), goodness (Ps 33:5), and power (Ps 93:1-2), the glory of creation reflects, as in a mirror (cf. 1 Cor 13:12), the glory of its Creator: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Ps 19:1). As a limited reflection of God’s unlimited glory, the visible world is designed to lead us to the knowledge of the invisible God, laying a foundation for true piety by instructing us regarding God’s “eternal power” and “divine nature” (Rom 1:20).

The absence of formal similarity between a transcendent God and his creaturely effects, along with the creature’s distant reflection of God’s transcendent glory, provide an indirect but reliable starting point from which theology may draw sound and reverent conclusions regarding the being and attributes of God by means of the way of negation and the way of eminence.

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