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).
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Original Sin Defined
The writers of the Augsburg Confession (found in the Book of Concord) defined Original Sin as the belief that “…since the fall of Adam all human beings who are propagated according to nature are born with sin, that is, without fear of God… [we] teach that this disease or original fault is truly sin, which even now damns and brings eternal death to those who are not born again through baptism and the Holy Spirit” (BOC, 39).
Ezekiel 18:20a states, “The soul who sins is the one who will die. The son will not share the guilt of the father, nor will the father share the guilt of the son.”
The word used for “soul” in this passage is the Hebrew word, nephesh. This passage leads to the objection that original sin cannot be true as I have outlined it, because it involves the son inheriting the guilt of the father.
The Question of the Soul: A Metaphysic of Original Sin
Three views of the soul are prevalent in Christianity. All of them presuppose metaphysical dualism. They are:
1) Our soul is constructed just as our physical body: Our soul is a half-and-half combination of the souls of our mother and father.
2) God specially creates each soul for each person when he/she is conceived/born/etc. Alternatively, God has already created every soul for everyone who will ever live, and puts them in a body when one is needed. The main problem with this view is that it would seem that if original sin is true (in the sense I have outlined it above), then God creates sinful souls for us.
3) Our soul is from Adam. There are no new souls for mankind, rather, we all share, in some sense, Adam’s soul.
I tend to favor 1) (now, anyway). But I favor a version of 1) which is not so much a half-and-half combination of souls, but a union of the totality of the souls we inherit. I originally wrote this post for my new site, but an insightful commentator lead me to heavily edit my views here. Just as we become one in the union of sex, so do our souls become one when we conceive a child.
What this means, then, is that the soul we inherit from our ancestors includes the inheritance of the guilt of sin. I must note the distinction here between sins which require action and those that do not. I have been pondering this idea for some time–is it possible to have sins for which we are guilty that we don’t commit? The answer I lean toward is “No”, but that doesn’t preclude original sin. The reason is that through the soul, we have literally participated in the original sin of Adam. When we are told that we have the “Old Adam” in us, this should be taken in a more literal sense than it often is.
We are told by Paul that there is a natural and spiritual body (1 Corinthians 15:44). These are both the inheritance of our ancestors. In a literal sense, then, there is the “old self” (Romans 6:6) and the Old Adam (1 Corinthians 15:45) which, from birth, enslave us to sin (Romans 6:6). Metaphysically I think this means that our soul has literally participated in, and is therefore held accountable for, the original sin. Original sin is a substantive entity–it corrupts our very nature. This is no mere inclination to sin, but a bondage to sin and a separation from God. It only makes sense to me on a metaphysical level to argue that this sin is inherited through our soul, which, like our body, maintains the union with Adam himself.
So how does this answer the objection from Ezekiel 18:20? Initially, one may argue it seems to purge the passage of all meaning. This is not the case, however. What Ezekiel is referring to is the sin of commission. That is, it refers to a sin which requires an action. Ezekiel is telling us that the actions of the father do not condemn the actions of the son. This does not, however, preclude the original sin in the metaphysical sense in which I have outlined it, because we have each participated in the action which causes original sin.
One final note is required, however. This is again a modification of my original thoughts due to enlightening discussion with my good friend’s comments. We must remember that this stain of sin, this original sin, has passed away for those who have faith in Christ. For, though the passages I quoted above discuss the nature of our original guilt, they immediately turn to salvation which is through Christ. Our New Adam replaces the Old (1 Corinthians 14:42-57), and our enslavement to sin is no more (Romans 6:6-14). Our original guilt, received through our sharing in the action of Adam, and our shared spirit with him, is no more.
The Book of Concord. Augsburg Fortress. 2000.
The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author.
I have started another blog, which will not interfere with this one (though there may be some overlap). It is called Christian Diversity. Here’s the mission statement:
Christianity has been separated into divisions over denominational, cultural, and theological lines, yet the message of Christianity remains the same for all generations: Christ crucified for our sins. We at ‘Christian Diversity’ seek to demonstrate that while Christianity may be divided institutionally, we are of one mind spiritually. We affirm ‘Mere Christianity’, which is the belief that Christianity is ultimately this faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. We affirm the Three Ecumenical Creeds (The Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds).
The goal of ‘Christian Diversity’ is to discuss doctrinal differences on matters not essential to the faith. We understand that the goal of total ecumenism–that is, the unity of all churches–may be out of reach, but we strive to come to the understanding that all Christians are saved, and there are no divisions among us when it comes to Christ. Thus, while we may disagree on many of the issues we discuss, we continue to strive towards a better understanding of our fellow Christians and increase unity with them. This will serve to strengthen us as brothers and sisters in Christ.
Our motto comes from St. Paul, who writes in 1 Corinthians 1:10 I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought.
Check it out! Let me know your thoughts!
I’m planning to start a new site (in addition to this one). The point of the site is to have internal Christian dialogue, with an emphasis on the fact that despite our disagreements on matters not related to salvation, we are all Christians and should treat each other with love.
The writers for the site will be required to affirm the three ecumenical creeds (Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian). The posts on the site will be intended for the lay reader but will feature doctrinal discussion on a loving, Christian level. Specifically, some topics could include: the origins of life (i.e. creation vs. evolution vs. ID), Christian approaches to religious diversity, original sin, baptism, the role of women in the church, the authority of the Bible, the authority of the Church, etc. The posts would be laid out either as a point-by-point dialogue between the contributers (i.e. a back and forth with short e-mails in published form) or as series of posts with writers talking back and forth.
The purpose will be many-faced: to encourage discussion among Christians about issues which are important, while still maintaining Christian love for each other; striving for church unity by increasing respect among members of the Body of Christ; potentially apologetic/evangelistic purposes; and giving glory to God.
Posts on this new site will be short, so as to make sure the time commitment is not too high. I’m thinking about around 500 words as being the upper limit (though writers could exceed that if they desired–these issues are important and some could require several pages to fully address).
Any interested writers should be prepared to demonstrate writing skill and a knowledge base sufficient for engaging in discussion on the aforementioned topics. Applicants may submit an up to 500 word sample of writing on one of the topics above, along with a short biography and affirmation of Christian belief (this part will not count towards the 500 words) to firstname.lastname@example.org. Applications from Christians of any denomination are accepted, though, once more, adherence to the three ecumenical creeds is a requirement (which includes belief in the Trinity, the divinity of Christ, etc.).
I’m also looking for people talented with graphics/etc. who could potentially help with making pictures/banners/etc. for the site.