Naming God: The Threefold Way


*The following includes quotations from The Trinity: On the Nature and Mystery of the One God by Thomas Joseph White, along with my own paraphrase and reflections.

Dionysius the Areopagite (c. 5th-6th century AD) is the author most associated with the triplex via or “threefold way” of naming God. Thomas Aquinas appeals to this method in his Summa Theologica. Under this schema, we can denote God on the basis of the perfections of creatures. This form of naming God is analogical, and is to be understood in a kind of logical succession, each one qualifying and perfecting that which precedes it.

The Threefold Way of Naming God

  1. By way of Causality (via causalitatis).
    “God is good, because what He produces is good.” God has in Himself the perfections of all creatures, of which He is the cause (1 Tim. 4:4, James 1:17). As such we can denote God by way of the perfections that are his effects.
  2. By way of Negation (via negationis).
    “God is good, but not in the same way that creatures are good.” Because God is transcendent (Is. 55:8-9), and His manner of existing is utterly different from ours (Ex. 3:14, Rev. 1:8), when we say that God is good, we must do so having removed all creaturely imperfection.
  3. By way of Eminence (via eminentiae).
    “God is good in a superabundant way that is as unspeakable as it is mysterious.” Because God’s essence is ineffable and in this life we cannot see the essence of God, we must confess that even in naming God as good, we do not comprehend Him (Eph. 3:18-19, 1 Cor. 2:12, 2 Cor. 9:15).