According to St. Thomas Aquinas, which is greater, to know God or to love Him?

It seems knowledge of God is greater, because John 17:3 says:

Now this is eternal life: That they may know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.

Our goal is everlasting life (heaven, beholding the Beatific Vision of God).

However, in this life we cannot know God as well as we will be able to in heaven, because of the hindrance of our body (cf. 2 Cor. 12:2):

1 Cor. 13:12 We see now through a glass in a dark manner: but then face to face. Now I know in part: but then I shall know even as I am known.

So perhaps in this life we are more capable of loving Him than knowing him.


3 Answers 3


Antonio Royo Marín, O.P., addresses this in Teología de la caridad, pp. 139-9:

as St. Thomas explains,[II-II 27,4; cf. 26,1 ad 2; I 16,1; 82,3.] by the virtue of charity we can love God in an immediate way even in this life, and this by an obvious consequence of the psychology of love. For, unlike the understanding, which brings things to itself, the will goes out of itself by its act of love to rest immediately in the beloved object as it is in itself. The understanding draws things to itself, emptying them, as it were, into its own intellectual mold. Whence, when it knows beings inferior to itself (e.g., material things), it ennobles and dignifies them, making them ascend to the intellectual order; but, when it knows beings superior to itself (God, angels, supernatural truths), it dwarfs and diminishes them, forcing them into its inferior intellectual molds.

The exact opposite is true of the will. By virtue of its proper act—love—, the will goes out of itself to rest in the beloved object as it is in itself. Hence, if it loves beings inferior to itself (e.g., things of the earth), it is diminished and degraded, lowering itself to their inferior level; but, if it loves superior beings (God, angels, etc.), it is exalted and sublimated, raising itself to the level of those superior beings in whom it rests through love in an immediate and as they are in themselves manner. That is why St. Augustine said most profoundly, "If you love the earth, you are earth; but, if you love God, what shall I say but that you are God?" [St. Augustine, In epist. Ioannis tr. 2 n. 14: ML 35,1997: "Terram diligis? terra eris. Deum diligis? quid dicam? deus eris?"]

From whence it must be concluded—as St. Thomas says—that, although in itself, as a natural power, the understanding is more perfect than the will, nevertheless, in this life, and by the very nature of the operation, it is more perfect to love God with the will than to know him by the understanding.[Cf. I 82,3; II-II 27,4 ad 2.] There are theologians who know many things about God, but in a cold, purely intellectual way; and there are simple and humble souls who hardly know anything about theology, but love God intensely. The latter is better. Let us not forget that it is perfectly possible for love to surpass one's knowledge of the beloved object.[Cf. I-II 27,2 ad 2, II-II 27,4 ad 1 et 2.] It is enough for the soul to conceive of God as an infinitely good and lovable being, though incomprehensible and ineffable, for the impetus of its love to throw itself towards Him in a way far superior to the knowledge it has of Him.

como explica Santo Tomás[II-II 27,4; cf. 26,1 ad 2; I 16,1; 82,3.], por la virtud de la caridad podemos amar a Dios de una manera inmediata aun en esta vida, y ello por una consecuencia obvia de la psicología del amor. Porque, a diferencia del entendimiento, que trae las cosas a sí, la voluntad sale de sí misma por su acto de amor para descansar inmediatamente en el objeto amado tal como es en si. El entendimiento atrae a sí las cosas, vaciándolas, por decirlo así, en su propio molde intelectual. De donde, cuando conoce los seres inferiores a él (v.gr., las cosas materiales), los ennoblece y dignifica, haciéndoles ascender al orden intelectual; pero, cuando conoce los seres superiores a él (Dios, los ángeles, las verdades sobrenaturales), los empequeñece y achica, obligándolas a entrar en sus moldes intelectuales inferiores.

Con la voluntad ocurre exactamente lo contrario. En virtud de su acto propio—el amor—, la voluntad sale de sí misma para descansar en el objeto amado tal como es en si mismo. De donde, si ama a los seres inferiores a ella (v.gr., las cosas de la tierra), se empequeñece y degrada, rebajándose a su nivel inferior; pero, ú ama a los seres superiores (Dios, los ángeles, etc.), se engrandece y sublima, elevándose hasta el nivel de aquellos seres superiores en los que descansa por el amor de una manera inmediata y tal como son en si mismos. Por eso decía profundísimamente San Agustín: «Si amas la tierra, tierra eres; pero, si amas a Dios, ¿qué he de decir sino que eres Dios?»[San Agustín, In epist. Ioannis tr. 2 n. 14: ML 35,1997: "Terram diligis? terra eris. Deum diligis? quid dicam? deus eris?".]

De donde hay que concluir—como dice Santo Tomás—que, aunque en sí mismo, como potencia natural, es más perfecto el entendimiento que la voluntad, sin embargo, en esta vida, y por la naturaleza misma de la operación, es más perfecto amar a Dios con la voluntad que conocerle por el entendimiento.[Cf. I 82,3; II-II 27,4 ad 2.] Hay teólogos que saben muchas cosas de Dios, pero de una manera fría, puramente intelectual; y hay almas sencillas y humildes que apenas saben nada de teología, pero aman intensamente a Dios. Esto último es mejor. No olvidemos que es perfectamente posible que el amor supere al conocimiento que se tenga del objeto amado.[Cf. I-II 27,2 ad 2, II-II 27,4 ad 1 et 2.] Basta que el alma conciba a Dios como un ser infinitamente bueno y amable, aunque incomprensible e inefable, para que el ímpetu de su amor se lance hacia El en forma muy superior al conocimiento que de El tiene.

  • This is a good answer, but as an addendum to the last paragraph, it is not better absolutely to know little and love God. The best state would be to know much about Him Whom we ought to love above all else, and to love Him all the more for having known Him. In our modern Catholic culture, there is an oft repeated sentiment which causes many to believe, even if subconsciously, that knowing is nothing at all - that it is unimportant. If that's the case, we might as well shut down this site, along with Catholic Answers, the ICC, and any intellectually inclined orders within the Church.
    – jaredad7
    Jan 24, 2022 at 22:13
  • 1
    @jaredad7 "it is not better absolutely to know little and love God" However, "the slenderest knowledge that may be obtained of the highest things is more desirable than the most certain knowledge obtained of lesser things" (I q. 1 a. 5 ad 1; cf. Aristotle De Partibus Animalium lib. 1 cap. 5).
    – Geremia
    Jan 24, 2022 at 22:17
  • Of course, but a lot of knowledge of God is better than only a little knowledge of Him. I'm not saying you do this, but many Catholics de-emphasize that we are called to know and love God. I'm only trying to clarify a good and orthodox teaching that I fear might be misunderstood in this way.
    – jaredad7
    Jan 24, 2022 at 22:30
  • @jaredad7 "many Catholics de-emphasize that we are called to know and love God" Very true. The philosophical root of the heresy of Modernism is agnosticism (Pascendi §6);
    – Geremia
    Jan 24, 2022 at 23:11
  • 1
    @jaredad7 However, "the Vatican Council has defined, 'If anyone says that the one true God, our Creator and Lord, cannot be known with certainty by the natural light of human reason by means of the things that are made, let him be anathema' (De Revel., can. I)" (§6); cf. Rom. 1:20.
    – Geremia
    Jan 24, 2022 at 23:15

Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.- 1 Corinthians 13:8-13

When we see Him face to face all of the partial things (knowledge included) will pass away. In the interim, as the passing away of things is approached, there abides now Faith, Hope and Love...and the greatest (largest) of these is Love.

God knows everything but He is love. Knowledge may increase love, may I say (for it also puffeth up), but knowledge can never be perfected here on earth. When Aquinas affirms that it is better to love God with the will than to know Him by understanding he is affirming that obedience which is borne of love and which seeks greater knowledge so as to love more.

  • 1
    "When everything else has passed away (knowledge included) there will remain Faith, Hope and Love" Actually, faith and hope pass away in heaven. We won't need faith because we'll see God directly (Heb. 11:1: "faith is the substance of things to be hoped for, the evidence of things that appear not."), and hope passed away because we'll possess what we hoped for. Only charity (1 John 4:16: "God [the Trinity] is charity") remains.
    – Geremia
    Jan 25, 2022 at 12:20
  • @Geremia Whether they pass away or are fulfilled is unclear (Much the same way that the law is now fulfilled but will never pass away) but I see your point...**now** abideth these three. Edited appropriately. Jan 25, 2022 at 12:35

It's a bit difficult to answer a question that the OP has gone on to answer himself! I would not argue with you that Thomas Aquinas appears to think that knowing God is 'greater' than loving him, according to those quotes from Aquinas.

However, your question also invited thoughts on two scriptures, one about knowing God, and the other about loving God, which did not appear to feature in the quotes of Aquinas. To avoid this just becoming my subjective opinion on two texts, let me quote the words of Jesus which show how those two texts need to meld together, even while we are on earth. This is how he explained it:

"If ye love me, keep my commandments. And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever; even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him. But ye know him for he dwelleth with you, and shall be in you...

If a man love me, he will keep my words: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him... But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance... (John 15:15-17 & 23-16)

This shows how love is linked to knowledge and obedience. How can you love someone you know nothing about? Then, once you know something about them that you find lovely, and what they require of you, how can you claim to love that one if you disregard what you know they have said? This brings us to John 17:3, that eternal life is knowing God and Jesus Christ. This is not a mere head-trip knowledge that is cold-blooded or technical. This knowledge moves us to love God and Christ and to eagerly desire to please them by obeying them. We learn that God first loved us by sending us the best gift he possibly could - his only-begotten Son - 1 John 5:19 & Romans 5:8.

The second text you mention certainly shows that whatever we know, and whatever love we have for God and Christ here below, will be but a dim reflection of the astounding reality of heavenly knowledge and experience of the love of God.

My answer to your question is that to know God is to love him, shown by obeying him. Perhaps Aquinas went on to say something similar, I don't know. It's just that whatever Jesus has said on the subject is good enough for me, and that's what I go by. After all, Jesus said that nobody could know the Father without coming to him, and no-one can come to Jesus unless the Father has enabled him - John 14:6 in conjunction with John 6:65.

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are bound up in our knowing and loving the Godhead. We can begin to experience a little something of that now, but once in the glory, that knowing and loving will be infinitely greater. I would think that the more we know God, the greater our love of him will grow, and the more we love God, the greater our knowledge of him will become.

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