QUESTION 173: OF THE MANNER IN WHICH PROPHETIC KNOWLEDGE IS CONVEYED
We must now consider the manner in which prophetic knowledge is
conveyed, and under this head there are four points of inquiry:
(1) Whether the prophets see God's very essence?
(2) Whether the prophetic revelation is effected by the infusion of
certain species, or by the infusion of Divine light alone?
(3) Whether prophetic revelation is always accompanied by abstraction
from the sense?
(4) Whether prophecy is always accompanied by knowledge of the things
Article 1: Whether the prophets see the very essence of God?
Objection 1: It would seem that the prophets see the very essence of God, for
a gloss on Is. 38:1, "Take order with thy house, for thou shalt die and
not live," says: "Prophets can read in the book of God's foreknowledge in
which all things are written." Now God's foreknowledge is His very
essence. Therefore prophets see God's very essence.
Objection 2: Further, Augustine says (De Trin. ix, 7) that "in that eternal
truth from which all temporal things are made, we see with the mind's eye
the type both of our being and of our actions." Now, of all men, prophets
have the highest knowledge of Divine things. Therefore they, especially,
see the Divine essence.
Objection 3: Further, future contingencies are foreknown by the prophets "with
unchangeable truth." Now future contingencies exist thus in God alone.
Therefore the prophets see God Himself.
On the contrary, The vision of the Divine essence is not made void in heaven; whereas "prophecy is made void" (1 Cor. 13:8). Therefore prophecy is not conveyed by a vision of the Divine essence.
I answer that, Prophecy denotes Divine knowledge as existing afar off.
Wherefore it is said of the prophets (Heb. 11:13) that "they were
beholding . . . afar off." But those who are in heaven and in the state
of bliss see, not as from afar off, but rather, as it were, from near at
hand, according to Ps. 139:14, "The upright shall dwell with Thy
countenance." Hence it is evident that prophetic knowledge differs from
the perfect knowledge, which we shall have in heaven, so that it is
distinguished therefrom as the imperfect from the perfect, and when the
latter comes the former is made void, as appears from the words of the
Apostle (1 Cor. 13:10).
Some, however, wishing to discriminate between prophetic knowledge and
the knowledge of the blessed, have maintained that the prophets see the
very essence of God (which they call the "mirror of eternity") [*Cf. De
Veritate, xii, 6; Sent. II, D, XI, part 2, art. 2, ad 4], not, however,
in the way in which it is the object of the blessed, but as containing
the types [*Cf. FP, Question ] of future events. But this is altogether
impossible. For God is the object of bliss in His very essence, according
to the saying of Augustine (Confess. v, 4): "Happy whoso knoweth Thee,
though he know not these," i.e. creatures. Now it is not possible to see
the types of creatures in the very essence of God without seeing It, both
because the Divine essence is Itself the type of all things that are
made---the ideal type adding nothing to the Divine essence save only a
relationship to the creature---and because knowledge of a thing in
itself---and such is the knowledge of God as the object of heavenly
bliss---precedes knowledge of that thing in its relation to something
else---and such is the knowledge of God as containing the types of
things. Consequently it is impossible for prophets to see God as
containing the types of creatures, and yet not as the object of bliss.
Therefore we must conclude that the prophetic vision is not the vision of
the very essence of God, and that the prophets do not see in the Divine
essence Itself the things they do see, but that they see them in certain
images, according as they are enlightened by the Divine light.
Wherefore Dionysius (Coel. Hier. iv), in speaking of prophetic visions,
says that "the wise theologian calls that vision divine which is effected
by images of things lacking a bodily form through the seer being rapt in
divine things." And these images illumined by the Divine light have more
of the nature of a mirror than the Divine essence: since in a mirror
images are formed from other things, and this cannot be said of God. Yet
the prophet's mind thus enlightened may be called a mirror, in so far as
a likeness of the truth of the Divine foreknowledge is formed therein,
for which reason it is called the "mirror of eternity," as representing
God's foreknowledge, for God in His eternity sees all things as present
before Him, as stated above (Question , Article ).
Reply to Objection 1: The prophets are said to read the book of God's
foreknowledge, inasmuch as the truth is reflected from God's
foreknowledge on the prophet's mind.
Reply to Objection 2: Man is said to see in the First Truth the type of his
existence, in so far as the image of the First Truth shines forth on
man's mind, so that he is able to know himself.
Reply to Objection 3: From the very fact that future contingencies are in God
according to unalterable truth, it follows that God can impress a like
knowledge on the prophet's mind without the prophet seeing God in His
Article 2: Whether, in prophetic revelation, new species of things are impressed on the prophet's mind, or merely a new light?
Objection 1: It would seem that in prophetic revelation no new species of
things are impressed on the prophet's mind, but only a new light. For a
gloss of Jerome on Amos 1:2 says that "prophets draw comparisons from
things with which they are conversant." But if prophetic vision were
effected by means of species newly impressed, the prophet's previous
experience of things would be inoperative. Therefore no new species are
impressed on the prophet's soul, but only the prophetic light.
Objection 2: Further, according to Augustine (Gen. ad lit. xii, 9), "it is not
imaginative but intellective vision that makes the prophet"; wherefore it
is declared (Dan. 10:1) that "there is need of understanding in a
vision." Now intellective vision, as stated in the same book (Gen. ad
lit. xii, 6) is not effected by means of images, but by the very truth of
things. Therefore it would seem that prophetic revelation is not effected
by impressing species on the soul.
Objection 3: Further, by the gift of prophecy the Holy Ghost endows man with
something that surpasses the faculty of nature. Now man can by his
natural faculties form all kinds of species of things. Therefore it would
seem that in prophetic revelation no new species of things are impressed,
but merely an intellectual light.
On the contrary, It is written (Osee 12:10): "I have multiplied" their
"visions, and I have used similitudes, by the ministry of the prophets."
Now multiplicity of visions results, not from a diversity of intellectual
light, which is common to every prophetic vision, but from a diversity of
species, whence similitudes also result. Therefore it seems that in
prophetic revelation new species of things are impressed, and not merely
an intellectual light.
I answer that, As Augustine says (Gen. ad lit. xii, 9), "prophetic
knowledge pertains most of all to the intellect." Now two things have to
be considered in connection with the knowledge possessed by the human
mind, namely the acceptance or representation of things, and the judgment
of the things represented. Now things are represented to the human mind
under the form of species: and according to the order of nature, they
must be represented first to the senses, secondly to the imagination,
thirdly to the passive intellect, and these are changed by the species
derived from the phantasms, which change results from the enlightening
action of the active intellect. Now in the imagination there are the
forms of sensible things not only as received from the senses, but also
transformed in various ways, either on account of some bodily
transformation (as in the case of people who are asleep or out of their
senses), or through the coordination of the phantasms, at the command of
reason, for the purpose of understanding something. For just as the
various arrangements of the letters of the alphabet convey various ideas
to the understanding, so the various coordinations of the phantasms
produce various intelligible species of the intellect.
As to the judgment formed by the human mind, it depends on the power of
the intellectual light.
Now the gift of prophecy confers on the human mind something which
surpasses the natural faculty in both these respects, namely as to the
judgment which depends on the inflow of intellectual light, and as to the
acceptance or representation of things, which is effected by means of
certain species. Human teaching may be likened to prophetic revelation in
the second of these respects, but not in the first. For a man represents
certain things to his disciple by signs of speech, but he cannot
enlighten him inwardly as God does.
But it is the first of these two that holds the chief place in prophecy,
since judgment is the complement of knowledge. Wherefore if certain
things are divinely represented to any man by means of imaginary
likenesses, as happened to Pharaoh (Gn. 41:1-7) and to Nabuchodonosor
(Dan. 4:1-2), or even by bodily likenesses, as happened to Balthasar
(Dan. 5:5), such a man is not to be considered a prophet, unless his mind
be enlightened for the purpose of judgment; and such an apparition is
something imperfect in the genus of prophecy. Wherefore some [*Rabbi
Moyses, Doct. Perplex. II, xxxvi] have called this "prophetic ecstasy,"
and such is divination by dreams. And yet a man will be a prophet, if his
intellect be enlightened merely for the purpose of judging of things seen
in imagination by others, as in the case of Joseph who interpreted
Pharaoh's dream. But, as Augustine says (Gen. ad lit. xii, 9),
"especially is he a prophet who excels in both respects, so," to wit, "as
to see in spirit likenesses significant of things corporeal, and
understand them by the quickness of his intellect."
Now sensible forms are divinely presented to the prophet's mind,
sometimes externally by means of the senses---thus Daniel saw the writing
on the wall (Dan. 5:25)---sometimes by means of imaginary forms, either
of exclusively Divine origin and not received through the senses (for
instance, if images of colors were imprinted on the imagination of one
blind from birth), or divinely coordinated from those derived from the
senses---thus Jeremiah saw the "boiling caldron . . . from the face of
the north" (Jer. 1:13)---or by the direct impression of intelligible
species on the mind, as in the case of those who receive infused
scientific knowledge or wisdom, such as Solomon or the apostles.
But intellectual light is divinely imprinted on the human
mind---sometimes for the purpose of judging of things seen by others, as
in the case of Joseph, quoted above, and of the apostles whose
understanding our Lord opened "that they might understand the scriptures"
(Lk. 24:45); and to this pertains the "interpretation of
speeches"---sometimes for the purpose of judging according to Divine
truth, of the things which a man apprehends in the ordinary course of
nature---sometimes for the purpose of discerning truthfully and
efficaciously what is to be done, according to Is. 63:14, "The Spirit of
the Lord was their leader."
Hence it is evident that prophetic revelation is conveyed sometimes by
the mere infusion of light, sometimes by imprinting species anew, or by a
new coordination of species.
Reply to Objection 1: As stated above, sometimes in prophetic revelation
imaginary species previously derived from the senses are divinely
coordinated so as to accord with the truth to be revealed, and then
previous experience is operative in the production of the images, but not
when they are impressed on the mind wholly from without.
Reply to Objection 2: Intellectual vision is not effected by means of bodily and
individual images, but by an intelligible image. Hence Augustine says (De
Trin. ix, 11) that "the soul possesses a certain likeness of the species
known to it." Sometimes this intelligible image is, in prophetic
revelation, imprinted immediately by God, sometimes it results from
pictures in the imagination, by the aid of the prophetic light, since a
deeper truth is gathered from these pictures in the imagination by means
of the enlightenment of the higher light.
Reply to Objection 3: It is true that man is able by his natural powers to form
all kinds of pictures in the imagination, by simply considering these
pictures, but not so that they be directed to the representation of
intelligible truths that surpass his intellect, since for this purpose he
needs the assistance of a supernatural light.
Article 3: Whether the prophetic vision is always accompanied by abstraction from the senses?
Objection 1: It would seem that the prophetic vision is always accompanied by abstraction from the senses. For it is written (Num. 12:6): "If there be among you a prophet of the Lord, I will appear to him in a vision, or I will speak to him in a dream." Now a gloss says at the beginning of the Psalter, "a vision that takes place by dreams and apparitions consists of things which seem to be said or done." But when things seem to be said or done, which are neither said nor done, there is abstraction from the senses. Therefore prophecy is always accompanied by abstraction from the senses.
Objection 2: Further, when one power is very intent on its own operation,
other powers are drawn away from theirs; thus men who are very intent on
hearing something fail to see what takes place before them. Now in the
prophetic vision the intellect is very much uplifted, and intent on its
act. Therefore it seems that the prophetic vision is always accompanied
by abstraction from the senses.
Objection 3: Further, the same thing cannot, at the same time, tend in
opposite directions. Now in the prophetic vision the mind tends to the
acceptance of things from above, and consequently it cannot at the same
time tend to sensible objects. Therefore it would seem necessary for
prophetic revelation to be always accompanied by abstraction from the
Objection 4: On the contrary, It is written (1 Cor. 14:32): "The spirits of
the prophets are subject to the prophets." Now this were impossible if
the prophet were not in possession of his faculties, but abstracted from
his senses. Therefore it would seem that prophetic vision is not
accompanied by abstraction from the senses.
I answer that, As stated in the foregoing Article, the prophetic
revelation takes place in four ways: namely, by the infusion of an
intelligible light, by the infusion of intelligible species, by
impression or coordination of pictures in the imagination, and by the
outward presentation of sensible images. Now it is evident that there is
no abstraction from the senses, when something is presented to the
prophet's mind by means of sensible species---whether these be divinely
formed for this special purpose, as the bush shown to Moses (Ex. 3:2),
and the writing shown to Daniel (Dan. 5:)---or whether they be produced
by other causes; yet so that they are ordained by Divine providence to be
prophetically significant of something, as, for instance, the Church was
signified by the ark of Noah.
Again, abstraction from the external senses is not rendered necessary
when the prophet's mind is enlightened by an intellectual light, or
impressed with intelligible species, since in us the perfect judgment of
the intellect is effected by its turning to sensible objects, which are
the first principles of our knowledge, as stated in the FP, Question , Article .
When, however, prophetic revelation is conveyed by images in the
imagination, abstraction from the senses is necessary lest the things
thus seen in imagination be taken for objects of external sensation. Yet
this abstraction from the senses is sometimes complete, so that a man
perceives nothing with his senses; and sometimes it is incomplete, so
that he perceives something with his senses, yet does not fully discern
the things he perceives outwardly from those he sees in imagination.
Hence Augustine says (Gen. ad lit. xii, 12): "Those images of bodies
which are formed in the soul are seen just as bodily things themselves
are seen by the body, so that we see with our eyes one who is present,
and at the same time we see with the soul one who is absent, as though
we saw him with our eyes."
Yet this abstraction from the senses takes place in the prophets without
subverting the order of nature, as is the case with those who are
possessed or out of their senses; but is due to some well-ordered cause.
This cause may be natural---for instance, sleep---or spiritual---for
instance, the intenseness of the prophets' contemplation; thus we read of
Peter (Acts 10:9) that while he was praying in the supper-room [*Vulg.:
'the house-top' or 'upper-chamber'] "he fell into an ecstasy"---or he may
be carried away by the Divine power, according to the saying of Ezechiel
1:3: "The hand of the Lord was upon him."
Reply to Objection 1: The passage quoted refers to prophets in whom imaginary
pictures were formed or coordinated, either while asleep, which is
denoted by the word "dream," or while awake, which is signified by the
Reply to Objection 2: When the mind is intent, in its act, upon distant things
which are far removed from the senses, the intensity of its application
leads to abstraction from the senses; but when it is intent, in its act,
upon the coordination of or judgment concerning objects of sense, there
is no need for abstraction from the senses.
Reply to Objection 3: The movement of the prophetic mind results not from its own
power, but from a power acting on it from above. Hence there is no
abstraction from the senses when the prophet's mind is led to judge or
coordinate matters relating to objects of sense, but only when the mind
is raised to the contemplation of certain more lofty things.
Reply to Objection 4: The spirit of the prophets is said to be subject to the
prophets as regards the prophetic utterances to which the Apostle refers
in the words quoted; because, to wit, the prophets in declaring what they
have seen speak their own mind, and are not thrown off their mental
balance, like persons who are possessed, as Priscilla and Montanus
maintained. But as regards the prophetic revelation itself, it would be
more correct to say that the prophets are subject to the. spirit of
prophecy, i.e. to the prophetic gift.
Article 4: Whether prophets always know the things which they prophesy?
Objection 1: It would seem that the prophets always know the things which they
prophesy. For, as Augustine says (Gen. ad lit. xii, 9), "those to whom
signs were shown in spirit by means of the likenesses of bodily things,
had not the gift of prophecy, unless the mind was brought into action, so
that those signs were also understood by them." Now what is understood
cannot be unknown. Therefore the prophet is not ignorant of what he
Objection 2: Further, the light of prophecy surpasses the light of natural
reason. Now one who possesses a science by his natural light, is not
ignorant of his scientific acquirements. Therefore he who utters things
by the prophetic light cannot ignore them.
Objection 3: Further, prophecy is directed for man's enlightenment; wherefore
it is written (2 Pt. 1:19): "We have the more firm prophetical word,
whereunto you do well to attend, as to a light that shineth in a dark
place." Now nothing can enlighten others unless it be lightsome in
itself. Therefore it would seem that the prophet is first enlightened so
as to know what he declares to others.
On the contrary, It is written (Jn. 11:51): "And this he" (Caiphas)
"spoke, not of himself, but being the High Priest of that year, he
prophesied that Jesus should die for the nation," etc. Now Caiphas knew
this not. Therefore not every prophet knows what he prophesies.
I answer that, In prophetic revelation the prophet's mind is moved by
the Holy Ghost, as an instrument that is deficient in regard to the
principal agent. Now the prophet's mind is moved not only to apprehend
something, but also to speak or to do something; sometimes indeed to all
these three together, sometimes to two, sometimes to one only, and in
each case there may be a defect in the prophet's knowledge. For when the
prophet's mind is moved to think or apprehend a thing, sometimes he is
led merely to apprehend that thing, and sometimes he is further led to
know that it is divinely revealed to him.
Again, sometimes the prophet's mind is moved to speak something, so that
he understands what the Holy Ghost means by the words he utters; like
David who said (2 Kgs. 23:2): "The Spirit of the Lord hath spoken by me";
while, on the other hand, sometimes the person whose mind is moved to
utter certain words knows not what the Holy Ghost means by them, as was
the case with Caiphas (Jn. 11:51).
Again, when the Holy Ghost moves a man's mind to do something, sometimes
the latter understands the meaning of it, like Jeremias who hid his
loin-cloth in the Euphrates (Jer. 13:1-11); while sometimes he does not
understand it---thus the soldiers, who divided Christ's garments,
understood not the meaning of what they did.
Accordingly, when a man knows that he is being moved by the Holy Ghost
to think something, or signify something by word or deed, this belongs
properly to prophecy; whereas when he is moved, without his knowing it,
this is not perfect prophecy, but a prophetic instinct. Nevertheless it
must be observed that since the prophet's mind is a defective instrument,
as stated above, even true prophets know not all that the Holy Ghost
means by the things they see, or speak, or even do.
And this suffices for the Replies to the Objections, since the
arguments given at the beginning refer to true prophets whose minds are
perfectly enlightened from above.