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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 achieved through a three-fold process, first, we affirm in the creaturely realm, then we remove all imperfections, and then raise to the superlative degree. The previous section has given us the material to engage in the via negationis. First, from plant life, we deny that God does not have knowledge. For, as we have spoken of above, all affirm the knowledge of God. The plant’s lack of knowledge is due to its pure materiality, whereas God is pure Spirit.

Second, from animal life we can make some denials about the mode of God’s knowledge. With animals, external stimuli are received through the sensitive faculties and then instinctually responded to by the animal. God does not have “sensitive faculties” (outside of the incarnation). God does not come to know through an imperfect process of receiving certain aspects of an object but perfectly knows the object through His one essence.

Third, from human knowledge, we can make some denials about the mode of Divine knowledge. First, God does not have discursive reasoning. Although we affirmed the lack of discursive reasoning in plant and animal life, this is an imperfection in them, where it is a perfection in Angels and in God. We deny that God goes through any process of reasoning or learning, yet we affirm eminently that God has the fruit of such reasonings as we have. God does not need to reason discursively from cause to effect, He knows in one vision the cause in the effect, where plants and animals cannot at all reach the cause from the effect through lack, not eminence.

Also, humans learn successively. Stimuli enter into our sensitive faculties and we grow in our conception/knowledge of a certain object. God, on the other hand, does not through sensitive faculties grow in a knowledge of an object, but perceives the entire object at once, having perfect and eternal knowledge of all things in every aspect.

Angelic knowledge gets us the closest to Divine knowledge, yet there are still denials we must still make. Angels know through infused knowledge, God does not learn from any other source but is eternally knowing in and through his own essence.

An Affirmative Doctrine of Divine Knowledge

Now, we have reached the mode of Divine knowledge. We say that “God sees all things in one (thing), which is Himself. Therefore God sees all things together, and not successively.” First, we say that “God sees all things in one (thing).” This “see[ing]” ought not to be regarded as a carnal seeing through bodily eyes. This is an analogous term that refers to a single act whereby God “comes to know.” This cannot be referred to a temporal act, this is an “act” that is eternally existent. God does not come to know, but God knows.

Second, the mode is “in one thing.” God is regarded as being simple. God is made up of no parts, God is His essence. God, therefore, does not know through different streams of knowledge coming in through sensitive faculties, rather, God’s knowledge is simple, it is “in one thing.” Further, this “thing” is “Himself,” that is, the Divine essence. God does not depend on creaturely existence to know, but He knows in and through His own simple essence. This is why it is important to compare Divine and Angelic knowledge. Angelic knowledge is like Divine knowledge in many ways, but the source differs. The source of Angelic knowledge is an infused knowledge from God, where God’s knowledge is Himself.

An objection may arise in the mind of the reader at this point, “How can God know all things through His essence when God is not all things?” It seems that this is a pantheistic conception. On the contrary, we do not say that God knows all things through His essence as essentially present in His essence, rather he knows them as effects of His work of creation. They are still regarded as one due to His simplicity. God does not reason as we do from His own cause of creating to the effect of creation. Rather, He “sees” the effect as present in the cause (Himself) without any discursion.

Third, it is affirmed that God sees all things “together.” This is the positive side to the negation which follows that God does not see “successively.” The negation is affected against human ways of knowing. We receive discrete species of knowledge and build up an edifice of knowing out of these discrete pieces. This can be referred to as “progressive knowing.” This is denied of God. Rather, he views all things “together.” God knows, but He never learns. This is an eternal state of knowledge where he knows all things at once in his essence, not in individual pieces and we learn. This follows directly from the last statement. His essence is one, He knows through His essence, therefore, He knows all things “together.”

The Implications of the Thomistic Doctrine

This is the only way in which we can affirm knowledge of God and keep an orthodox and catholic doctrine of God. For, this defends God’s simplicity, immutability, aseity, and perfection. First, this defends God’s simplicity. Specifically, the affirmations that God knows in “one (thing).” Let’s imagine for a moment that God knew through multiple “things” rather than through one thing. The “thing” could either be in God or outside God. It is absurd to say that it is outside God, for then there would need to be something outside of God that was eternal. Therefore, this thing must be in God. If it is multiple and in God then that must mean that God has parts and is therefore not simple.

Second, this defends the immutability of God. Especially the idea of God not knowing “successively.” It is a foundational assertion that God is simple, therefore we may say that God is His knowledge. If God knows successively then God is processing and “growing.” If God is “growing,” then God is changing and thus is not immutable by definition.

Further, a denial of this strikes against the perfection of God. God’s growth is from one perfection (knowledge) to another perfection (knowledge), for all would admit that it is more perfect to know than to not know. Therefore, God was less perfect than now, or at least was less perfect at one point and then more perfect once the succession took place and during the succession grew from lesser to greater perfection. Therefore, the perfection of God is impugned.

Lastly, this defends the aseity of God. The aseity of God posits that God is self-existent and does not have another cause for His existence. Going back to simplicity, we affirm that God’s existence is His essence. Since this is the case and knowledge is the essence of God, the knowledge of God must be God. This is defended by the affirmation that the one essence through which God sees is Himself. If God were to rely on creaturely effects rather than see the effects in the cause, Himself, then God’s essence would not be self-existence, but, on the other hand, would be reliant on the creature, and would be from the creature.


In conclusion, as we have seen, the mode of God’s knowledge is simple (in the theological sense of the word). He sees all things in eternity through a self-knowledge. He knows all things in virtue of all things being dependent on Him for their existence and essence. It is necessary to posit this mode of knowledge in God in order to maintain the orthodox and catholic system of Dogmatic Theology.

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