Monday, 19 April 2010

Analogical Language about God

This is a long response to a comment from a discussion based on these posts.

Hello Nathan,

I have really enjoyed your comments to me in this thread. I think they have the potential to push the conversation up another whole notch, so thank you. I'm not sure how many comments it is going to take me to deal with everything you've raised, but I think we need to settle back for a very long trip.

Before we settle in, as someone who has regularly had people take offence at how I've said things on threads, I find using the scare quotes ' ' useful when I want to distance myself from something I'm saying in a thread. We're so used to journalists stating the side they like without the quotes and the side they don't like with the quotes that just using the quotes can often remove possible offence. e.g. 'Martin's "creaturely" view of God' or 'Mark's "mystery" view of God' I think takes most of the sting out of a one word summary. It seems to have cut down on the number of people I've unnecessarily offended, so something like that might work.

I’m afraid that I’m going to have to (very respectfully) disagree with both your position and Martin’s. Let me see if I can outline more clearly what I believe is a third (and more reformed) way through this semantic entanglement :)
Hee! I love third ways, and especially when they're more reformed than me. :) So the student has exceeded the teacher! Well then my young padawan, the force is clearly strong with you, lead the way. (And another thanks is in order: I always wanted to say that.)

I don’t think, however, that you have avoided apophatic theology in your formulation. You’re position is essentially (at this point) no different from the analogia entis of the scholastics.
You had to go and introduce analogia entis into this whole debate didn'tcha? This is going to take some words to address, because there's a huge amount at stake here.

Okay, for those reading along who live in the real world, analogia entis means something like 'analogy of being' and the idea at stake is usually explained as there being some kind of correlation between creation and Creator - the creation is something like the One who called it from nothing, and hence language means something similar. Human power is a little like God's power, human goodness is a little like God's goodness etc. So language for God is analogical because it draws upon this analogy in reality, in existence, between us and God - we are a little bit like God.

Behind such an idea is the notion of causality - cause and effect. God is the cause of creation, creation is the effect, and an effect will share some of the characteristics of its cause. Or to put it in a different approach again, works express nature. Human beings are only capable of doing human works, but those works truly express human nature - they are have human fingerprints on them. God's works express his nature. So creation is good because it is a work of the good God - God's attributes are displayed in a creaturely way in creation.

Karl Barth famously identified Aquinas as being based upon an analogy of being and levelled pretty well every theological cannon he could find at the concept. For Barth, such an analogy would mean that there was some other basis for knowing God than the Lord Jesus Christ. It would mean that creation itself points to God (natural theology), and that that link forged by the act of creation is what enables any knowledge of God to take place. All of that was incompatible with Barth's desire to establish that God is free in his relationship with us - that God is Lord.

In it's place, as far as I can see, Barth still insisted that language for God had to be analogical (please take note! - an analogy of language without the analogia entis) but suggested an analogy of faith, or analogy of grace as the bridge that made language work. There is no 'landing place' for God's Word in the human person, God effectively ignores creation and doesn't work with it. There is actually no way at all that language can be used to speak of God - the gulf between us and God is absolute and infinite. God creates the path specially in redemption. The Word of God creates the landing place in the person, it creates its own path between us and God.

Such an approach really helped his 'core task' - freeing the Word of God from its Babylonian Captivity to Liberal scholarship. There is no basis in reality for us to know God. We have no resources at all to speak of God or know him. And so we can't create revelation, we can't initiate it, and we can't stand over it and judge it. Revelation is accountable to no-one and nothing other than itself - it is its own ground for justifying itself. It is free, it is Lord. You can't disprove God's Word by science, history or the like, and you don't need to get into all that stuff to apologetically defend it. You just proclaim the Word and it does all the work itself.

With this in mind, you can see why so many people in Sydney feel drawn to Barth when they read him. Emphasising that God is in control in his revelation to us, that apologetics is a kind of unbelief and entirely useless for creating faith, that the Word of God preached creates faith and justifies itself and so we can ignore challenges from science, philosophy, history, social science etc, and that there is no other, more basic, ground to know God than Christ all gels with a lot of the concerns of 'Sydney Anglicanism'.

My problem is that people don't seem to prepared to face up to the cost of Barth's approach. You get a lot, but in life you get what you pay for, and Barth's price-tag is pretty steep. A few examples:

The biblical gospel is history. It is a statement about what happened in space and time in this world we live in. This means it doesn't simply justify itself, at least some of its ground comes from outside itself. If Christ's bones were discovered the gospel is gone. You need an empty tomb for the gospel to be true. Paul doesn't say in 1 Cor 15, "The resurrection of Christ is true because the Word of God says so." He doesn't even say, "It's true because an apostle says so, so pull your heads in." He says (implicitly), this happened in the world we live in and you, my original audience, can confirm it by talking to a whole bunch of witnesses. Barth's system implicitly sets up a 'two truth' approach - something is true in the 'real world' and yet when God speaks, for the purposes of hearing and obeying the Word of God (and only for those purposes) something else is true. Even if the bones of Christ were discovered the preacher would say, "Christ is risen" and the congregation would respond, "He is risen indeed" - because the Word of God entirely justifies itself and never has to give account to anything outside itself. It creates its own landing place and the contingent facts of history are irrelevant.

Barth's argument that if creation formed a bridge then there'd be some other basis for knowing God other than the Lord Jesus Christ only works when you recognise that Barth rejected the idea that we could speak of the eternal Son of God before the Incarnation. For Barth, as far as we are concerned, the Son has always been human. The Lord Jesus Christ is the revelation of God, and in that revelation he is both God and Man, so we have no authority to speak of him other than as Incarnate. But for orthodoxy God created the world in and by and for his Son and Word. Creation and the Son are linked because the Father worked through the Son to make the world. So analogia entis isn't establishing a basis other than Christ for our knowledge of God. Rather, it simply shifts the issue from Christ's work as Redeemer, to his work as Creator as the ultimate ground. Redemption is redemption of a world that already exists, it is not the creation of a new one ex nihilo (from nothing). Christ's work as Redeemer doesn't stand on its own, somehow creating its own ground to stand on. It builds on and works within the boundaries established by Christ's work as Redeemer. Barth's position tends to push people to see an interest in creation as somehow anti-gospel - it pits creation and redemption off against each other. It separates the world from the One by whom and in whom and for whom it was made and in whom it holds together. And that's chickenfeed compared to making Chalcedon, with its talk of both natures not being changed by their union in Christ, almost unintelligible because you're not allowed to talk of an eternal Son before the Incarnation.

Barth says that language still predicates something of God analogically in revelation. However, there is no basis in reality for that analogy. Creation is 'good' and God is 'good' but between God's goodness and creation's goodness is an absolute and infinite gulf. So what connection is there between our goodness and God's? Absolutely none. If it were otherwise then there'd be some ground in reality for the Word of God, it wouldn't have to create its own 'landing place' and the freedom of God in revelation would (supposedly) be curtailed. We could then say something about God's goodness from what we can see about the goodness of creation - natural theology. And that has to be avoided at all costs. So how does the analogy in language work? It just does. It says it does and therefore it does. As soon as the Word of God says that God is 'good' the link is established just by the Word of God saying so. It hasn't changed anything in reality - the gulf is still absolute and infinite, and so there's no comparison in reality between us and God, but somehow the comparison works in revelation and words can predicate things of God when they really can't. When it comes to Barth's theology people sometimes talk about 'building castles in the air'. I think it's more like some amazing, stunning, megapolis in the air. It's so impressive it takes the breath away. But as you keep digging into the foundations you realise that there's nothing there, it's built on nothing. Ontology (reality) has been collapsed into epistemology (knowing), it no longer forms the ground for knowledge to occur. And that's when you begin to feel like chicken little, running around crying 'The sky is falling, the sky is falling!'

But it's even worse than that. The analogy of language doesn't really work. Making truth statements about God like, "God is good" is not really revelation. Revelation and God are identical. God is his revelation in the strongest possible sense. That's why the Trinity can be derived from revelation - God reveals himself through himself: God, God, and God again. The God doing the revealing is true God, the one in whom revelation occurs is true God, and what is revealed is true God in the same sense as the other two instances. That's why the Lord Jesus Christ is, properly speaking, the revelation and Word of God, and the Bible is only *ahem* analogically the Word of God. God is not a collection of truth statements, he's not a collection of 66 books, nor is he absolutely identical to any message those 66 books teach. God is a person, so only a person can reveal God in such a way that you end up with God and not merely statements about God. So the Bible gets us in contact with Christ, but Christ is actually the revelation of God, not anything the Bible might say about God (hence why Barth could acknowledge that the Bible teaches the existence of a personal satan but say that Christians aren't obligated to believe in such a thing). Barth's whole enterprise actually makes positive theology penultimate to a new kind of negative theology. We use the positive statements the Bible makes to get us in touch with Christ and at that point we have Divine Reality itself, unmediated by language (and hence reason) at all. An immediate, person to person communion. The writer of the Cloud of Unknowing would be jealous.

The irony here is that people want to say, "No analogia enis there is no similarity at all between creation and God" and yet use language for God univocally. The same people who most are drawn to Barth (or sound like him, even if they're not aware whose footsteps they shadow) usually are the ones who just instinctively read the Bible as though it says things about God univocally. And yet, of the options, that's the one thing you absolutely can't do if Barth is right. Ultimately, language can only be analogical if God creates a path for it in the act of revelation itself. And even that has to be penultimate, for the purpose of taking us beyond itself to an encounter with God in Christ that goes beyond any truth statement made by the biblical writers.

The final problem I'll raise here, is that this approach makes discipleship almost impossible. I'm going to stick my neck right out on this one, but I think it's the kind of thing that should happen on Sola Panel. For Barth, Revelation gives us the knowledge of God. Revelation is God. But revelation is all about God revealing himself. But for me to act I need God to stop talking about himself for a bit and start talking about me and the world. I need to know who I am, and what I'm supposed to do. But on Barth's system, all the Bible is doing is taking me to Christ who reveals God. That's it. Now, I need all of that. But I need more if I am to act - I need to know myself as well. And that's the big damage I think Barth has caused in Sydney. We don't have as good a grasp on the idea that theology gives us a knowledge of ourselves - we talk as though the Bible speaks 'only' about Christ. He's not just the centre, the centre has become the whole. (Now, I know that Barth does also say that Jesus Christ is the revelation of humanity as well. Jesus Christ isn't the true man - the ideal or perfect man who exemplifies what human beings should be. He is the real man - the man who reveals what it means to be human, the man who makes us all human. We are human because of the incarnation of Christ - the appearance of Jesus Christ in history retrospectively makes being human possible. It should be clear that, for me this is still more castles in the sky, and I can't say how relieved I am that this bit of Barth's theology has never had a lot of purchase in our circles.)

This is one of the reasons why I think peole are so worried about 'moralism' in our circles - and why 'typical' Sydney preaching that I have heard often lacks much of a cutting ethical edge compared to all the other resources we bring to our preaching. We preach as though God's demands on our lives - the moral imperatives in the Bible - are only there to lead us to Christ, they are just another way in which Christ is proclaimed to us. They aren't meant to bring us into the spotlight of God's Word, that shines on Christ and on Christ alone. We really struggle with 'the third use of the Law' - the idea that preaching and meditating on the Bible's commands and instructions can actually spur Christians on in the Christian life. For us, imperatives can't do that, only promises can. You don't help believers become more godly by exhorting, commanding, or correcting. You can only do it by pointing to the finished work of Christ on the cross.

I'm gong to stick my neck right out now. The irony here is that Sydney's two arguably most influential sons, the Jensen brothers senior, Peter and Philip, seem to me to be out of step with 'the Sydney Anglican' culture as a whole at this point. Their preaching is characterised by its ethical cutting edge. They have tried to encourage people to preach the 10 commandments. They invest serious time into understanding the world in which they live - cultural analysis - and see that what the Bible says correlates to the actual world they live in. They're good at listening to the enscripturated Word of God, looking at what life is like in modern Sydney and then pointing and saying "That, that there. That's what the Bible is talking about here. That's what sin (or godliness) looks like in our context." It's christocentric, but it's not christomonistic. It's theological but profoundly concerned with ethics, with godliness. It invests a lot into cultural analysis but that isn't the engine of what's being said, it's no pre-critical framework that Word of God has to fit into. They're hardly clones, but at this point they seem to be in agreement, an agreement whose example helped me debug Barth and the issues he raises. Now there are a lot of people in Sydney who know these two much better than I. So if I've managed to read either of them wrong and they're actually big fans of Barth and his whole enterprise, or even agree with Barth with demolishing the anologia entis then hopefully someone will join the thread and correct the record.

With all that in mind, here's where I stand on angalogia entis.

I am very sceptical about Barth's rejection of natural theology, analogy of being, et al. It's not so bad that I think, "Barth disagreed with analogia entis so therefore I should agree with it." That's just daft. But I do tread very, very carefully - I need some decent reasons to reject something that seems to me to have been assumed by mainstream theology in the early church, the middle ages, and in the Reformation. Barth's rejection of the analogia entis and his assertion of an 'absolute and infinite chasm' between God and creation seems to me to be little more than saying "Oh, and by the way chaps, Kant was right - you can't get there from here. There's no basis in reality for human language to predicate things of God." He's allowed to do that. But that's not really theology speaking at that point, that's German philosophy pretending to be theology. It might be right, but, to me, it seems to be a denial of the very thing Barth claims to be fighting for - pure theology that creates all its own ground. Moreover, in general evangelicals aren't overly happy with Kant. We don't think he's been a great friend to faith. So I'm not sure why we all seem to feel the need to adopt this orphan child of his offered to us in Barth's swaddling clothes.

Having said that, I'm not particularly committed to an analogy of being either. I just haven't done the work to chase it through, and it's such a senstive issue in our context that I'll hold off until I grasp things well enough to address it. Even if Barth's wrong as to why it's wrong (and I'm pretty sure about that) he might be right that it's wrong nonetheless.

But, at this point in time, it seems to make a lot of sense to me. Creation is good because it is the work of the God who is good. It seems strange to me to go stomping in at that point and say, "Unbelief! Unbelief! There's no relationship at all between the goodness of creation and the goodness of her Creator!" If Christ is the One in and through whom all things came to exist and be what they are, then I'm not bypassing him by saying that language can speak of God because of the Creator-created relationship. Understood rightly, it seems at least as strongly Christocentric as Barth's approach.

But I'll say that I don't think I have to sign up to any theory as to why language about God works analogically to say that it does. At this stage, I'm fairly confident that language about God has to work analogically. In time I might see what is the reason for that. And that might be the analogia entis. But it might be something else. I've been strongly influenced by reading Athanasius and he has some significant things to say about how objects precede words and how the words have to be understood in light of the object they name, not vice versa. It seems to me that the Arians tried the same kind of 'semantic domain has to carry through' argument on him that, in different ways, you and Martin have run on me. And Athanasius just blew raspberries at them. He argued for a theology from above, not from below, where the reality of God in Christ shapes the words and gives them a meaning proper to that object alone. The divine reality determines the meaning of words used on him, they don't govern what he can be by their pre-existing usage. That seems to me, at this point in time to have the potential to create the kind of theoretical framework necessary for analogical language to work without necessarily adopting an analogia entis.

So analogia entis? Pfft. The bogeyman is scarier.
The problem with saying, as you have done at least twice now,
The words mean something similar when used of God but not the same.
is that immediately we are forced to qualify in what way the words are similar, and in what way they are different. If you try to do this, you quickly discover that it is an impossible task to positively qualify their differences. You are left with only negative statements about God.
I don't think I am forced to do that all. I don't work out what 'father' means by creating a list of all the ways that it differs from every other word. I don't break every concept down into its bits, determine every bit in the puzzle and then construct a meaning of the word by putting those bits together in the right order. That's the usual empirical foundationalism nonesense (hello Hume) that I reject completely. I just 'get' what fatherhood is. I mightn't even be able to explain what it is well to someone else. I mightn't know where all the boundaries of the concept are and answer every possible question about it. But I still 'get' what it means to say - "This man is my father." And when I say, "God is my Father", I don't think that I either go, "Here's the core semantic meaning of fatherhood, and that carries through to God" (univocal approach) or I go "Here's all the ways that God's fatherhood is different from all other fatherhoods" (your view of how analogical has to work). I just get that God is my Father. And that it's different but the same as my human father. Discovering those differences and similarities is something that I grow into over time as I reflect, but I start by just getting the reality directly through the word 'father' and getting that it's speaking of something quite different than earlier occurences of the word.
I think words have the power to put me in touch with the reality or concept they name more or less directly. I get a sense of the thing more or less at the start, and over time begin to grasp its shape and boundaries as I get more familiar with it. Objects, especially God, reveal themselves to me through language. They don't sit there passively as I construct a concept to reach out to them. I think my understanding of language is so different from yours at this point that I can't find a way to respond to your critique other than to say, "Nup, it's not like that at all."

Perhaps an example might help. God is good. But not good like a good book - he isn’t enjoyable to read. And not good like a human - he doesn’t conform to the moral order for which he was created in relationship to his creator. In what way is God then good? He is in fact not good in any way in which we might apply the word to anything else. So God’s goodness fits into a semantic category all on its own, and is therefore beyond our ability to define. As far as I can see, this is where the analogia entis leaves us. He is good perhaps in some way similarly to us, but we can’t say positively how.
I respectfully disagree with your position here. :) God's moral order in creation is an expression and subset of his own goodness, justice, love, et al. God's not restrained or contained by his Law, sure. But that doesn't mean that the goodness of the Law of God is not grounded in the goodness of God. God doesn't murder. God doesn't lie. God is love. God does not acquit the guilty or condemn the innocent. Now, God's goodness transcends his Law, and so somehow the election of his people to eternal life and his passing over the unrighteous is good and just; the existence of sin in the world is good and right; the suffering we undergo that God could stop at any moment is good and right - all at some level above what the Law defines for human life.

But none of that is apophatic. The Law is a genuine expression of the goodness of God - they aren't arbitrary rules God's just whistled up for us. They are an expression into this creation of God's goodness to shape our human life. So God's goodness simply has to be more than the Law because God's 'life' is not a human life. But God is not less good than the Law or differently good than the Law, it's just that he's God and that's a very different 'job description' than we have. He's good in ways that apply particularly to being God - ways that we just can't grasp. But if that's apophatic (negative theology) then that means that God can't be good until the Law applies the exact same way to him that it does to us. And that really is disastrous - the price tag there for univocal language is just way too steep.

However, what prevents Calvin from descending into apophaticism at this point isn’t the analogia entis, Calvin won’t resort to this at all, in fact. What saves him at this point is his strong distinction between person and nature. When Calvin discusses the goodness of God (Inst. I.x.2) he claims that God is good in precisely the same way that we are good, because his goodness is seen in his personal relationship to us. The language can be univocal at this point because God is truly in his persons how he is towards us. Ultimately it’s the incarnation that allows us to speak positively of God, because it is the incarnation that proves that human language (and indeed humanity in general) is a fit vehicle for the description of God - as he relates in his persons.
Okay, I've read, and reread I.x.2 and if I've got the section and chapter right I can't see anything that resembles what you are saying here. Can you give me the quotes from there that lead you to say:
  • God is good in precisely the same way that we are good
  • That this is because God is truly in his persons how he is towards us.
  • That the incarnation proves that human language is a fit vehicle for the description of God.

  • What you're claiming here runs strongly counter to my impression of Calvin's theology. My view lines up more with what Paul Helm says in John Calvin's Ideas, Oxford University Press, New York, 2004 p31

    At the same time, Aquinas and Calvin are to be distinguished from a number of modern philosophical theologians because their use of the distinction between God in himself and God as he is towards us signals the existence of a substantive ‘epistemic gap’ between God and ourselves. Those who acknowledge this distinction understand that it involves the recognition of cognitive limitations on our part…[all of this] is not acknowledge in some modern philosophical theology.

    There are perhaps two interconnected reasons for this. One is that modern philosophical discussion of the concept of God takes for granted that the language necessary to elucidate the concept of God is typically univocal. Modern philosophical theologians resist accounts of language about God that involve a theory of analogy or accommodation, for example. They prefer accounts that are univocal even while they stress human cognitive limitations.

    In both Aquinas and Calvin some of the human language about God is univocal, but it is couched mainly in negative terms. But apart from this (what we might call) ‘negative core,’ all other language about God is analogical or accommodated language, with elements of univocity but also with elements of equivocity. Modern discussion recognizes that we readily employ metaphors, similes, and analogies when talking about God; nevertheless, it takes there to be a univocal core that is usually much more extensive than that envisaged by Aquinas or Calvin, for it embraces the entire concept of God. Consequently, when we say that God is wise, or all-good, it is presumed that what is predicated of God has the same meaning as what is predicated of individuals distinct from God. Only in this way, it is believed, can we have a rigorous or philosophically controlled account of our thought about God.

    Behind this view of language lies a metaphysical thesis that involves a suspicion of, if not an outright rejection of, the idea of divine simplicity and with that a rejection of divine timeless eternity and of any strong sense of divine immutability and divine impassibility. Consequently, much modern philosophical theology takes God to be more human-like than the God of Calvin or Aquinas: he exists in time, he has a memory, he hopes and (perhaps) fears, he acts and reacts to the actions of his creatures. Human language, developed by reference to empirically identifiable states of affairs and the changes they undergo, is not then put under very much strain when it is applied to God.
    This is far more where I think Calvin is. Helm might have some details wrong, but his basic gist of Calvin's theology 'rings true' of my reading of Calvin. And it's somewhere around here that I think is probably where I should be as well.

    This allows us to avoid Martin’s creaturely God as well. The incarnation doesn’t reveal the divine nature. It reveals the divine persons - the divine Son in human nature - through whom we meet the Father and the Spirit. Thus we know God personally, and positively - but we don’t know at all what God is in Christ.
    Therefore, if we are speaking about the nature of God, then I think I am going with your use of language. We are going to be left with an equivocal use of language. Perhaps there is a sense in which the analogia entis will help us. I doubt it, but someone smarter than me will have to figure that out.
    However, if we are speaking about the persons of God then I am going with Martin. God is a person in the same way that we are because we are created in his image for a personal relationship with him, and because the second person of the trinity took on human flesh, and human language, in order to reveal the Father.
    Okay. Martin is wrong because the univocal approach ends up with God as a creature. I am wrong because the analogical approach is actually the equivocal approach and ends up with a God about whom we can't say anything with positive content. So the third way is to do one bankrupt approach at one point and the other bankrupt approach at another. We can't say anything at all about God's omnipotence, omniscience, eternity, immutability, aseity, omnipresence and the like. But when it comes to God's love, justice, holiness, goodness and the like then "he is good in precisely the same way we are good," he's a mirror image of us.

    You've really stessed this because it appears in your next comment to me as well:
    You are talking about personal categories, and the reason our language about God works so well when we use personal categories is that God is a person. Not in some way different to us being persons. But in exactly the same way that we are persons.
    When Jesus drove the money-changers out of the temple, God was angry in exactly the same way that we are angry (except without sin).
    There's two basic problems here. First is 'person'. From what I can see, the early church fathers (particularly the Greek speaking ones) didn't even think the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were all 'persons' in the same way as each other. One of the Cappadocians (I think) even went so far as to say that there are not Three, but One and One and One. This is because everything that is common to the three persons is part of the being that is common to all three. So if 'personhood' was a quality identical in all three persons, then it would cease to be connected to personhood. 'Father' 'Son' and 'Spirit' aren't three names in the way that John, Jack, and Frank are for three identical persons. They don't simply describe some qualities that three people who are all persons in the same way. They are name the reality that is different between each one so named. If you like, the Father is a person in a fatherly way. The Son is a sonly way. And the Spirit in spiritally way. Contemporary social trinities just ignores this and treats them as though they are a community of three individuals who really really love each. If the three persons of the Godhead were persons in the exact same way we are then you would have tritheism.

    The other problem is what seems to be there in your 'personal qualities'. God is not loving, angry, good, wise et al. in the same way we are. Our anger could never justify sending someone to Hell, even if it was perfect. God's does. An eternal judgment for sins caused by finite creatures in a finite creation. Jesus' anger towards the money-changers definitely reveals the anger of God towards them, but it hardly exhausts it. They and us wait for judgment day to see that terror unfold.

    More than that, we acquire goodness, wisdom, love, mercy, justice and the like from outside us. They are qualities we can have more or less of, and acquire from outside ourselves. But Christ is Wisdom. God is love. These aren't just qualities God acquired. God has eternally been identical to these attributes. That's why he's the source of all these things in us and in creation - we acquire them through participation in God. This step in your position goes far beyond anything anyone has alleged about Martin's univocality. This really is to make God's personal qualities - his morality, so to speak - purely and entirely human. I think it is a bit of a stretch to say that this is 'more reformed.'

    This is where I stretch out my hands from within the folds of my robe, shoot lightning from my fingertips at you and declare, "Feel the power of the analogia entis!"