Christian Doctrines, Religious Language

Analogical Language, Doctrine of God, and the World

800px-Lavaux_Alpes_et_Lac_lémanIn God’s world, everything is, after all, comparable to everything else. Granted, we tend to wince a bit when something we love or admire is compared to what we consider an unworthy object… Everything is related to everything else. There is nothing that ‘has nothing to do with’ anything else… To criticize a metaphor as such is to engage in criticism at the word-level, rather than the sentence-level, which is an illegitimate practice. (John Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, cited below, 231-232)

One of the most interesting discussions in theology is the use of language about God and the world. Much ink has been spilled in writing about this topic, because it is of critical importance. If human language is incapable of meaning anything in relation to God, then we can say literally nothing about God. There is also much discussion over the relation of different things in creation to other things. Are there bits of creation which are absolutely unique?

Creation

It does not seem to be the case that any part of the created world is sui generis in the sense that it is absolutely unique from anything else in creation. Consider anything you like which exists. It is easy to draw parallels. A flower and an automobile are both made of matter; a lake and a grove each contain water. The analogies may take a while to think up, but they are there.

God and Analogy

Conversely, we find great difficulty when we try to relate creation back to God. We think of analogies for the Trinity and discover they all fall into one variety of Trinitarian heresy or another. The problem is because although creation gives us evidence for a creator, creation is not the creator. Using analogies to try to compare the deepest mysteries of God to the natural world is theologically dangerous. However, using analogies to discuss God is not always impossible. Indeed, the Bible is filled with analogies regarding God: God is like a rock, a mother hen, a fortress, and the like. Thus, it is possible in principle to compare the created world with the creator. The problems come when we try to turn the relations of the Godhead into relations of the natural order. So it is necessary to remember that though we can speak analogically of God, we should be careful in choosing what we are speaking of. To speak analogically of the Trinity to things such as the states of water invites heretical understandings of the Trinity.

Another difficulty is when we read human relationships back onto the Trinity as well. One error which has unfortunately become quite common is to look at the terms “Father” and “Son” and assume that these names for the divine persons must mean that the relationship between these persons in the Godhead entails eternal subordination. Such thinking is extremely anthropomorphic. It reads human relationships back onto God. Again, creation is not the creator. Human relationships should not be our model for the doctrine of God. One should never govern the doctrine of God by human analogy, and to eternally subordinate one of the persons of the Trinity introduces hierarchy into the Godhead and invites multiple theological mistakes.

Doctrine of God, therefore, should always be the guide. Analogies should flow from God to creation rather than from creation to God. Thus, we should say “God is like x”; not “x is like God.” Semantically, these two sentences are fairly equivalent. My point is that prioritizing God in such language helps us to focus on the necessity of prioritizing God’s reality over our own. When we speak analogously of God, we must remember that we are not saying God is like creation in that an aspect of creation is Godlike or somehow an exact replica of an attribute of God. Instead, when we speak analogously of God, we must speak from God to us.

Talk About God

God is the being which is absolutely unique. There is no one like God (2 Samuel 7:22; 1 Chronicles 17:20; Jeremiah 10:7). But does this mean that we are incapable of talking about God? Indeed, some theologians have favored the notion that we can only speak analogically of God. For example, when we say God is loving, what is meant by that phrase is not that God is loving in the sense that we are loving, but rather that God is something like loving is for us. However, this notion seems to me to be just as mistaken as attempting to describe Trinitarian mysteries in naturalistic forms. For if God cannot be known other than analogically, then we have no true knowledge of God. The claims of those who argue we can only speak analogically of God leads to a state of affairs in which we know nothing of God. After all, when I make the claim that “God loves us” my claim, on this view, is reducible to: “God loves us, but this love is qualified in some unknown [and unknowable!] sense.” For if we were able to know what it means to say “God loves us” that is itself univocal and not analogical. Thus, those who claim that we can only speak analogically of God eliminate the possibility of knowing anything at all about God.

Think on this for a moment with me. Suppose the claim is correct. We can only know God analogically. Thus, God is “like” something loving, but not actually something loving in the sense we mean when we say loving. If we say that God is Just, we cannot mean it in any sense which we know to be true univocally. The difficulty rating only increases when we consider those properties exclusive to God. We claim that God is omnipotent–all powerful. But on the view that we can only speak analogically or metaphorically of God, God is all-powerful, but only “like” having power in the sense that we conceive of when we think of power. God doesn’t actually have the capacity to do anything which is logically possible, for that is merely conceiving of power within the realms of human language; no, God, on this view, has omnipotence*, which is omnipotence + something that we cannot know. Thus, such an assertion undermines all knowledge of God.

Therefore, we must admit that talk about God has some sense of univocity to it. When the Bible teaches that God is just, that concept of justice is univocal in some sense with our own. We can understand some truths about God.

Once we have established this point, it is again extremely important to realize that the flow of such truths is from God to us and not vice-versa. God’s justice is the perfect form of what we understand to be just. God’s love is perfect love, which our human love can only imitate. Yet in that imitation, we have some understanding of what it is like to be loving. Thus, we can know God without knowing everything about God.

To Sum Up

Religious language is one of the areas of philosophical theology which is often just assumed. I think it is to our own discredit that we avoid such discussions. I have shown how misunderstandings of religious language can lead to theological errors which can be fairly easily avoided. The way we can avoid such errors, I have charged, is to remember that language about God should always flow from God to us. God is perfect, and our language about God should never be used to limit that perfection. Thus, we cannot limit God to human relationships or human understandings of deity. On the other hand, we should not be so pessimistic of our possibility of knowing God that we undermine any possibility of speaking truthfully of our Lord.

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Source

John Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1987).

SDG.

——

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About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick has an MA in Christian Apologetics from Biola University. His interests include theology, philosophy of religion--particularly the existence of God--astronomy, biology, archaeology, and sci-fi and fantasy novels.

Discussion

7 thoughts on “Analogical Language, Doctrine of God, and the World

  1. This is quite the pickle! If I follow your line of thinking here, you are saying that for us to know anything about god requires you listen to language that flows from God to us. That would be nice if it were practical, if there was some way to differentiate god’s language from other languages, so to speak. The pickle arrives in trying to answer the following question, namely, “How can you determine which language (which words, which ‘knowledge’) is from god and not from your assumptions and interpretations about it?” I suspect the honest answer is that you have no method that doesn’t replicate the very assumptions you are trying to counter.

    Posted by tildeb | April 22, 2013, 7:34 AM
    • I don’t think I’m following your line of reasoning. I have not argued here nor anywhere that there is a special “god language” as you seem to imply.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | April 22, 2013, 4:24 PM
      • You write The way we can avoid such errors, I have charged, is to remember that language about God should always flow from God to us. God is perfect, and our language about God should never be used to limit that perfection.

        So what I’m wondering is how you determine whether the language about god is flowing from him or from us? Yes, you’ve stated as if external fact rather than internal belief that god is perfect so you can tell if the language about god is from god if it attempts to describe this perfection, whereas language that describes anything less than perfection can therefore be known to us to be from us. I’m saying that this method creates a pickle for you in that it is a closed system originating from a subjective belief to reinforce a subjective belief, that this method is inherently flawed if you attempt to take it outside of the closed circle of belief and use it to describe external ‘knowledge’. In other words, your line of reasoning separates what can be ‘known’ about god from anything outside of your beliefs to adjudicate the claim. And this is a pickle if you want to use your beliefs about god to indicate ‘knowledge’ about god independent of your closed circle of beliefs.

        Posted by tildeb | April 22, 2013, 4:55 PM
      • You have misunderstood the context of that sentence. Reread the paragraph. Specifically:

        Thus, we should say “God is like x”; not “x is like God.”

        When I wrote “language about God should always flow from God to us” I am speaking specifically of analogical language. When we speak analogously of God, my point is that such language should prioritize doctrine of God rather than doctrine of creation. Doctrine of creation should not govern doctrine of God.

        Therefore, your entire objection is based upon your misunderstanding of what I was actually saying. Part of that may be my fault for not writing clearly enough. Hopefully this clarification clears it up. Your objection, of course, fails because it is an objection not based upon any claim I was making but rather a misreading of my point.

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | April 22, 2013, 5:06 PM
  2. It also seems that the claim that “all knowledge of God must be analogical” is, itself, a claim to possess true (non-analogical) knowledge about God. If all knowledge of God is analogical, then so is that claim about knowledge of God, thus even the idea that all knowledge of God is analogical cannot be known truly.

    Posted by Luke Nix | April 22, 2013, 1:26 PM
  3. I see both points, have either of you or anyone else dig deeper in this language of God? I am now wondering this question, because I do believe that God want us to be the image he created. However, whenever we read the Bible we discover many layers of comprehension, which I believe the two of you are talking about. The question I’m wondering is which layer of thought, has what we are seeking in the truth? If that even makes sense….

    Seeker

    Posted by Cynthia Brown | October 17, 2013, 7:10 PM

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