Updated: Jan 2, 2021
By Marcus B. Peter
In knowing a thing, it stands to reason that we would name it. Because God can be known by natural reason, it would stand to that same reason that we would name God. However, God also makes Himself known to us by revelation and the gift of faith. Hence, in knowing God, we are justified to name Him by the fact that we know what we are naming.
We apply names to God by means of the perfections that we find in the created world and in creatures. e.g. when we say God is beautiful, our measure of this beauty is found in creaturely perfection. However, these perfections exist in God in a far supereminent way than they exist in creatures. God must necessarily possess this perfection in its fullness for Him to be able to endow it upon creatures. Hence, when we apply attributes like these to God, we apply them to His essence/very being.
Because of this, the real names that we attribute to God are not metaphorical nor are they figurative. They are more real than the names we apply to creatures. These perfections actually exist in God absolutely. Nonetheless, we are limited by language and understanding because these names that we attribute to God do not fully encompass the mode of eminence in which they exist in the being of God.
All names that we apply to God are applied to his one, unified essence. Yet, each of these names expresses a separate attribute of God. They are not real distinctions because there is no distinction of parts in God. Instead, they are logical distinctions that help us say true things about God. In other words, God is beautiful, good, true, and love Himself. Each of these is a separate distinction for us logically but they are all names of the singular essence of God. There is no division in God. God is.
The problem that Aquinas identifies here is that of language. On the one hand, these names that we apply to God are true. Yet, the only reason we can come to know them as true is because we identify them as perfections in created things, as mentioned above. Conversely, God is infinitely more elevated than any name we could logically apply to Him. As such, Aquinas tells us that there are 3 distinctions in attributing names.
In univocal language, the word means exactly the same thing for two subjects. Yet, to say "God is good" and to say "man is good" are not entirely the same thing. God's goodness is infinitely higher than that of man. In equivocal language, the names are applied as entirely differently. A crude example of this is the word "bat" as meaning both a sports bat and a flying mammal. In this case, it would be to say "man's goodness and God's goodness are entirely different things." Hence, Aquinas proposes a third way, utilizing a both/and approach. He calls this Analogy. With analogy, when we say "God is good," and "man is good," we mean that these attributes are similar yet also very different. There is something true of man's goodness that is really like God's, yet God's goodness is supremely higher than man's goodness.
Because of this, when we think of all things good, e.g. "beauty," "goodness," "wisdom," "life," "intelligence," we think of them as primarily applied to God and only secondarily to man. This is because, firstly, they exist in God in perfection. Secondly, only because they exist in God could God endow human nature with such qualities.
There are other names that are attributed to God that imply relation. Names like "Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier" are among these. These names mean that man has a real relationship to God because God is, indeed, man's Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier. However, the relation is only real in one way. Man NEEDS God in order to exist, be redeemed, and be sanctified. God, in a very real sense, does not need man. God does not depend on us for His existence in any way. As such, God's relationship to us is strictly logical, while our relationship to God is strictly real. Hence, these names don't apply to His essence but to His actions that result in us creatures being dependent upon God.
Of all names of God, it is the name God alone that speaks of his supreme infinity and the absoluteness of His essence, substance, and nature. Hence, this name is reserved for God alone, the One, True God. There is none other but Him. Every time the name God is applied to anyone or anything else, in any form or manner, that is nothing short of idolatry.
In Sacred Scripture, God identifies Himself to Moses perfectly as follows (Exodus 3:14), "Thus shalt you say to the children of Israel: He who is has sent me to you." I AM who AM. The Tetragrammaton, or the Divine name is an expression of the fact that God's existence is His essence and His essence is Existence in infinity and eternity.
The final consideration in thinking of the many names of God is that, owing to language, it would seem that we apply negative names to God, e.g. "infinite" to mean without finitude, etc. Yet, properly speaking, these are negative titles that by themselves negate negation. To say God is infinite is to say that there exists no limit in God whatsoever. As such, they are positive in meaning. This is also why the principle of analogy is so crucial. This is so that we can say positively true things about God, i.e. that He is Omnipotent, Omniscient, Omnipresent, and Omnibenevolent, etc.
While all these names speak of separately true things about God, God in Himself is one, undivided essence. All these names speak of the same being who is, Himself, absolutely and infinitely simple.