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.
The way of negation
Based on God’s status as the first cause of all creatures, the way of negation removes from God all features that pertain to being created such as dependence, composition, change, corruptibility, temporality, and so forth. These negations do not signify lack in God but follow from the acknowledgment of God’s transcendent fullness as the first cause of created being. Thus, to say that God is independent is to say that God transcends having a cause. To say that God is simple, is to say that God transcends composition. To say that God is immutable is to say that God transcends change for the better or for the worse. God is “separated” from all creatures and all creaturely qualities, not because he “falls short” of them, but because he “surpasses” and “exceeds” them (Thomas Aquinas, An Exposition of The Divine Names, 8.744). Which leads to our next point.
The way of eminence
Based on God’s status as the first cause of all creatures, the way of eminence affirms that all perfections which exist in the creature preexist in God in preeminent degree. As the first cause of all creaturely being, God is the first cause of all creaturely perfections, their divine source and paradigm. Creatures are not perfect in and of themselves. Creatures are formless and empty apart from God’s work of bestowing form and fullness (cf. Gen 1:2ff). That which God bestows on creatures (i.e., their perfections), he first possesses in himself. One cannot give what one does not first possess. However, God does not possess the perfections of creatures in the manner of a creature. Here the way of eminence must borrow insight from the way of negation. Whereas creatures receive their perfections from God, God receives his perfection from no one. Whereas creaturely perfections are characterized by limitations of species, number, etc., God’s perfection knows no limit. God is supremely wise, supremely good, supremely powerful, and so forth. Whereas creaturely perfections are multiple, God’s perfection is simple. Indeed, it takes a seemingly endless cosmic array of creaturely perfections even to begin approximating the unbounded fullness of God’s supreme and simple perfection. “His greatness is unsearchable” (Ps 145:3).
Affirming that creaturely perfections preexist in God in preeminent degree requires two further precisions. God is said to “possess” creaturely perfections in two distinct senses. God possesses some creaturely perfections virtually. God possesses other creaturely perfections formally.
God possesses certain creaturely perfections virtually in that he possesses—in and of himself, in a simple, supereminent manner—the power to produce those perfections and their effects in creatures. These are the perfections of God’s “eternal power,” of which the Apostle speaks in Romans 1:20, by which God is “able to do exceeding abundantly beyond all that we ask or think” (Eph 3:20). Thus, for example, in Genesis 15, Abraham received in promise things not yet in existence (i.e., offspring and land) because he was “fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised” (Rom 4:17). Because God is Spirit (John 4:24) he does not, formally speaking, possess the physical qualities of human offspring or the spatial extension of land. But God does, by virtue of his supereminent power, possess the capacity to produce offspring and land in fulfillment of his covenant promises. God possesses these creaturely perfections virtually.
God possesses other creaturely perfections formally in that he possesses them—in and of himself, in a simple, supereminent manner—as formal features of the “divine nature” (Rom 1:20). Thus, for example, when Daniel blesses the God “to whom belong wisdom and might,” who “gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to those who have understanding” (Dan 2:20, 21), the point is not merely that God bestows wisdom on creatures. The point is that 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 metaphorical predication, Scripture speaks positively, by the way of eminence, of God’s perfection. God is praised as our rock and our fountain. Scripture does not speak this way because God is, formally speaking, a rock or a fountain. Scripture speaks this way because God virtually possesses in and of himself, in a simple, supereminent fashion that which makes a rock a source of security to us and a fountain a source of satisfaction to us. There is no rock like our rock (1 Sam 2:2). With him is the fountain of life (Ps 36:9). In literal predication, Scripture speaks positively, by the way of eminence, of God’s perfection, praising perfections that God formally possesses. God is praised for his unbounded being, wisdom, goodness, and power, and this praise acknowledges, not merely that God is the source of these perfections in creatures but also that, before these perfections exist in the creature, they exist in and of himself, in a simple, supereminent fashion, in God.