A question which we don’t often stop to think about in theological discussions is whether or not it is, in principle, possible to speak of the divine. Archie Spencer’s book, The Analogy of Faith, asks just this question and offers an in-depth analysis of various approaches alongside proposing a model for speaking about God.
The book is split, roughly, between analysis of various proposed models for speaking about God and a development of a Christocentric model for speaking of the divine.
The analysis of Aristotle’s analogy of being in the first chapter is particularly interesting. Spencer notes that because Aristotle’s analogy depends upon the interrelatedness of things through cause, and because God is the ultimate relation of causation as the unmoved mover, his concept of analogy is ultimately almost useless. The reason is because it becomes too broad: effectively anything can be related to anything else through an analogy of relation, and then this tells us nothing about the things being related themselves. Yet even here Spencer argues that Aristotle’s concept of analogy–itself reliant upon Plato in many relevant ways–can be useful in that it relates causality and the divine ideas, thus preparing the way for Neoplatonist thinking.
Following on the heals of this analysis are some fantastic insights into Augustinian and Thomistic thought about analogy as well. Thomas Aquinas is perhaps the most important thinker regarding the use of analogy in speaking about God of all time. As Spencer notes, it is impossible to adequately deal with the topic without spending significant time on Aquinas’s view of analogy. However, Spencer’s ultimate analysis is that Aquinas did not have a well-developed theory of analogy of his own. Instead, he asserts, it has been the followers and interpreters of Aquinas who made a “Thomistic” theory of analogy, based around the analogy of being. Because these theories ultimately depend on an Aristotelian foundation, they, too, are found to be ultimately inadequate. After all, if we are unable to reference God’s being in any direct way, then it is difficult to see how creatures totally unlike the divine can have an analogue of that divine. Spencer’s analysis in this section is thorough and fairly convincing.
Karl Barth and Eberhard Jungel are the next thinkers addressed, and they provide a basis for Spencer’s own theory of analogy, which is Christological. I’m summarizing an extraordinarily detailed theory here, so I’m sure I’m not adequately outlining it, but the basic thought is that because God has come to us, that allows us through divine revelation of Christ to refer to God. Thus, analogy is the analogy of faith rather than an analogy of being–one in which God has condescended to allow reference to the divine being in human language, rather than one in which we are able to, by our own thinking, come to language which speaks of God.
Upon reading Spencer’s analysis and arguments, I am fairly convinced that he is correct in his notion that the analogy of being is insufficient to capture the possibility of talk about God. What I do wonder, however, is whether Spencer (and most others) too quickly dismiss the possibility of univocal language about God. It seems to me that if we are to say “God is love” then we must have some sense in which that actually relates to God. To be fair, Spencer could respond by pointing to such a statement as exactly in concord with his theory, which would assert that it does relate to God because God has revealed the divine nature to us in Christ and God’s Word, thus allowing us to rightly say “God is love.” However, I think that a deeper treatment of the possibility of univocal language related to God talk would have been appreciated in a book like this. Though, admittedly, the book is already lengthy and is specifically focused on analogy, not the possibility of univocity or equivocal language.
One minor complaint I have is that in the thoroughness of the book, it seems that Spencer is sometimes repetitive. He hits the same point from several different angles in the same chapter, to the point that the book can become quite dry at times. However, the subject matter itself is deeply intriguing, and his full treatment of the topic makes it hard to fault him for stating a few things more than once.
Those interested in reading a dense book of philosophical theology should look no further than The Analogy of Faith by Archie Spencer. It is a deep work that demands much reflection and consideration. It is the kind of seminal writing to which one will constantly return as one thinks about the topic discussed. I can say that I learned a great deal from the book, and had my mind stretched as it hasn’t been stretched in some time. I recommend it highly.
+Deep analysis of key concepts related to analogy
+Many avenues for further research
+Workable theory which offers some resolution
-A bit too verbose at times
-Dismisses univocity a bit too quickly
Disclaimer: I received a review copy of the book from the publisher. I was not required to provide any specific kind of feedback whatsoever.
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Archie Spencer, The Analogy of Faith(Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2015).
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In 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?
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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John Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1987).
The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.