top of page

The Thomistic Doctrine of the Knowledge of God


How does God know? It is a fundamental conviction of even the most heretical sects of Christendom that God knows, but how? For, God does not have eyes, yet we say that He sees, He does not have ears, yet we say that He hears. Further, God does not have a physical brain, how does He remember, think, reason, or do any of the other acts of knowing that we do. Further, God changes not, how can He achieve knowledge? God is outside of time, how does He come to know anything? Yet, all attribute knowledge to God, but how?

It is the conviction of the author that "God sees all things in one (thing), which is Himself. Therefore God sees all things together, and not successively.” That is, the answer is that God knows, yet not like us, for, He knows things, not with discursive reasoning or sensory input, but he knows things non-successively by one “vision” of His own essence. To show this, first, I will provide the larger context of the doctrine of Divine Scientia. Then, I will analyze the mode of plant, animal, human, and angelic knowledge to provide a “foil” whereby we may negate those creaturely aspects and come finally to a robust set of negations that separate creaturely and Divine knowledge. Lastly, I will apply this doctrine to the larger locus of Theology Proper.

The Knowledge of God in General

It is a fundamental presupposition of all that God knows, as St. Thomas writes “All attribute knowledge to God, but in different ways.” The catholic theological tradition speaks of three aspects of this Divine knowledge, mode, objects, and medium. When it comes to the mode of the Scientia Divina God knows all things outside Himself through Himself, the truth being dependent on Him, not He on the extra-Divine existence of truth. For, all things depend on the Divine essence, flowing from Him and back to Him as their cause, therefore in God’s knowledge of Himself, He knows all things. The objects of the Scientia Divina are all things, this is referred to as “omniscience.” Although God’s knowledge is purely simple (has no parts) we may distinguish between the objects. There is the scientia necessaria (knowledge of necessary things, i.e. Himself) and scientia libera (things which exist by virtue of His will). The second may be further distinguished into scientia simplicis intelligentiae (knowledge of purely possible things) and the scientia visionis (knowledge of actual things). The medium of Divine knowledge is the Divine Essence.

This paper is concerned with the mode of the scientia Divina, that is the “how?” of the Scientia Divina. Specifically, it is concerned with the process of the mode of the scientia Divina, the “succession.” As the thesis above states “God sees all things together, and not successively,” that is, God does not come to know, but He knows, not in some sort of discursive or sensory process. This paper seeks to unpack that statement, showing the various aspects of the mode of creaturely knowing which we must negate of God, and providing a defense of the idea of a non-successive mode of knowledge in God.

Negating Creaturely Modes of Knowledge

The three modes of creaturely knowing which will be negated are the mode of plant/animal knowledge, human knowledge, and angelic knowledge. First, plants. Plants do not have scientia. Plants are wholly material, yet alive, therefore they have a vegetative soul which keeps them alive, but not an intellectual soul. Yet, on the other hand, animals are one step above the vegetative soul of plants. They have a “sensitive” soul whereby they are able to receive external stimuli and respond to it. They are able to “go outside” themselves so to speak. The only way we can attribute scientia to animals is an ability to respond to sensory input. The mode may be described as reactive rather than retentive.

Second, human. Human knowledge is distinguished from plant knowledge (in that we have knowledge) and from animal knowledge in that we have an intellectual soul which retains knowledge. While the mode of animal knowledge is one of mere sensation, external stimuli are received by the senses and instinctual responses are made to that external stimuli, the human mode of knowledge differs. It differs in the sense that our mode of knowledge extends beyond “instinctual responses.” The process of this mode is described as “successive.”

It can be described as successive in three senses. First, in our coming to know of the individual. We come to know of an individual thing through a successive gathering of data that we attribute to a certain thing. Our various senses give sensory output and we “construct” the thing in our mind. Second, the coming to know of the whole. The whole of knowledge in man comes in bits and pieces. We do not come to know all knowledge at once, being gifted with all understanding. Rather, as a successive process over time, we receive sensory input which we construct into a “whole” of knowledge. Thirdly, in our discursive reasoning. In this, we are distinguished sharply from the animals. Not only can we know individual things that are sensorially present, but we can reason from the created effect to their causes and relations. Building a larger body of knowledge over the process of learning.

Now, Angelic knowledge. We deny that Angels have no knowledge. Further, we deny that Angels, like animals, have sensory faculties whereby they instinctively react to outward stimuli (for, Angels have no bodies). Further, we deny that Angels reason discursively like men from premises to conclusions (for, Angels are pure intelligences). Rather we say that Angels in their creation (concreatively) are given all natural knowledge by God. Knowledge is not received through any discursive process of reasoning or the reception of external stimuli but is given at creation. Therefore, whereas, the reception of knowledge on the behalf of other creatures is either non-absent or is successively, in Angels it is truly non-successive. As the Angelic Doctor writes,

From the moment of their creation, however, the intellects of angels are perfected by innate forms giving them all the natural knowledge to which their intellectual powers extend, just as the matter of celestial bodies is completely terminated by its form, with the result that it no longer remains in potency to another form. For this reason, The Causes states: “An intelligence is filled with forms.” Now, it would not be filled with forms unless its entire potentialities were actuated by forms. Therefore, an intelligence is ignorant of none of the things that it can know naturally.

The Mode of Divine and Creaturely Knowledge Compared

Our doctrine of the knowledge of God is