What Language Can We Use to Talk About God?

According to Aquinas, there are two incorrect ways to understand language about God, which Aquinas summarizes in Summa Theologiae Ia, Q. 13. Univocal statements about God are statements that mean the same exact thing as the same statement said when referring to human creatures. If we say “God is wise” univocally, we mean that “wise” means the same thing as when we say “Beth is wise.” Aquinas says that we cannot use language to say anything univocally about God. We obviously mean something different when we say that God is wise than when we say that Beth is wise. Human wisdom is different, more limited, more restrictive, than divine wisdom.

The other erroneous way to speak about God that Aquinas identifies is equivocally. Equivocal statements about God mean something completely different than the same statement made in reference to human creatures. So if we use “God is wise” equivocally, what we mean is something completely unrelated to what we mean when we say “Beth is wise.” But Aquinas says that language about God cannot be totally equivocal. That is, there is some similarity, some connection in meaning between the statement “God is wise” and the statement “Beth is wise.” Human wisdom is not completely different than divine wisdom, or else we wouldn’t use the same word for it.

This is where scripture and metaphysics merge for Aquinas. Philosophically (metaphysically) and scripturally, Aquinas believes that we can say something about God. That is, we do not have to assume that our language is completely equivocal. He cites Romans 1:20 that something about God can be known through creation, thus, philosophically we can say something about God. And he believes as a Christian that what the Bible says about God is true, so we can in addition to natural knowledge of God (indicated in Romans 1:20), we can also have revealed knowledge of God.

So if language about God is not univocal or equivocal, what is it? Aquinas says that language about God is analogical. The example he uses is health. Health is a characteristic of a human body. If I say “I have a healthy heart,” what I mean is that my heart pumps blood well. When I say “I have a healthy body,” I do not mean only that my body pumps blood well, although this is certainly part of having a healthy body, but I mean something more expansive. I mean that all the parts of my body are functioning well, I have no illness, etc. So the two statements are not equivocal (meaning exactly the same thing) nor are the equivocal (meaning exactly different things). Rather, I use the phrase “healthy heart” analogically to “healthy body.”

So this is how we speak of God. When we say “Beth is wise,” we mean something analogical to what we mean when we say “God is wise.” Just like my heart has certain characteristics of health that my body does, so too, if I am wise, I have certain characteristics of God who is wise. But when we say “God is wise,” we mean something larger, something more expansive than what we mean when we say “Beth is wise.” According to Aquinas, just as a healthy heart partakes in the fullness of health of a healthy body, so too do creatures, who are created by God, partake in the attributes of God like goodness, justice, and wisdom.

But we should not stop here. In article 6 of question 13, Aquinas asks whether analogical language refers primarily to God or to creatures. He is asking a philosophical question here. Philosophically, if we say that analogical language refers primarily to creatures, what we are saying is that we have words (like “wise” and “good”) to refer to creatures, and we extrapolate from there and say that the fullness of the meaning of these words must belong to God. That is, we start with what we know about creatures and then raise all of that to the nth degree and say the same thing about God. So if “Beth is wise,” God must be the fullness of wisdom, since if God wasn’t, God would not be God. This is the philosophical (and specifically metaphysical way) of knowing something about God.

The philosophical way of knowing God starts with creatures and the words that we use to describe those creatures, and then posits a god that is based on what we already know, and usually like, about creatures. That is why people complain that the philosophers’ god is different from the Christian God as revealed in Scripture. People complain that people want to think that God is all-good and all-powerful, and so they logically construct a good who is such. This is what theists do. They say, “I believe in this type of god which is a god I can rationally conceive.” If God appears to get angry or vengeful or capricious in Scripture, a theist could say, “that is not the god that I believe in. My god is all-good, etc. We will see how Levering treats this in the next post, when he argues against Jon Levenson who claims that the philosophical god of people like Aquinas (all-good, all-knowing) is not the same as the God revealed in Scripture.

What is important to establish first in this post is that Aquinas does not take the philosophical way to knowing something about God. That is, he thinks that analogical language refers actually primarily to God, and secondarily of creatures. This means that if we say “Beth is wise,” what we first mean is that we know what wisdom is because God is the fullness of it. Beth shows certain similarities to that which we see first in God. So Beth is wise in a similar way—in an analogical way—that God is wise.

Aquinas argues this point from Scripture. He cites Ephesians 3:14-15 “I bow my knees to the Father, of our Lord Jesus Christ, of Whom all paternity in heaven and earth is named.” His argument is a scriptural one that we only know what fatherhood is because we first know it in God. So when I say “John is a father,” what I mean is that I see something similar in John that I see fully expressed in God. I can name something in John that I only know because it is in God. Same thing about wisdom. I can only say “Beth is wise” because I first see it revealed in God. Where? In Scripture. For Aquinas, the starting point of everything we know is not human reason which we explore philosophically; the starting point of everything we know is Scripture which reveals to us the living God.

And when we say that God is a living God, we are saying something analogical, not univocal or equivocal. What we mean when we say that “God is a living God” is that we only know what “living” means, and can apply it to creatures (Beth is a living blogger) because we first saw it revealed in God.

This will be important for subsequent discussions about God. For Aquinas, we only know that God is good because Scripture reveals that God is good (Exodus 33:19, 1 Chronicles 16:34), and so we can use the language of goodness to apply to creatures. We can say that God is wise only because Scripture reveals that God is wise (Job 12:16, Psalm 104:24), and what we know about human wisdom comes from this revelation.

Aquinas does not take the philosopher’s path to talking about, and knowing about God. That is, he does not assume that we start with human knowledge and extrapolate to God. We start off with knowledge of God revealed in Scripture and apply it to humans. Philosophy serves to illuminate what Scripture reveals. But philosophy is the handmaid, not the equivalent of scripture. When I say that Aquinas uses Scripture and metaphysics together to talk about God, I mean that Aquinas first uses scripture to know something about God, and uses philosophy to expand, in human language, that knowledge about God. And he does so by speaking about creatures and creaturely know in an analogous way to God.

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6 comments so far

  1. Bob MacDonald on

    Beth is a living blogger

    how do I know this? Do I know God as a living blogger? That’s how I first read your point 🙂

    Beth living – maybe is, maybe was and all these posts are preplanned posts? Maybe Beth is not the name of the living blogger I am reading?

    You do spark me to try and say what I have learned from God about God as mediated by Scripture – especially Job and the Psalms – (and about what I know in Christ Jesus by his death that the will to power is not the way God does things).

  2. everydaythomist on

    Bob,
    You push me to be more precise, for which I am grateful. I meant that we can predicate “living” from Beth in a way that is analogical to the way we predicate “living” of God. As you rightly note, Beth’s (that’s me!) “livingness” is contingent. Thus, it is logical to predicate “living” of Beth but not necessary. If we say “God is a living God,” according to my way of looking at it (the Thomistic way, best as I can do), what we have just stated is a truism. Of course God is living. Living need not be predicated of God to know that God lives unlike with Beth, whereby we learn something factual about Beth if we say that she lives. But my point is that “living” can only be meaningfully predicated of Beth because we first know what living is in God.

    You inquire about whether these posts are preplanned. Many of them are. I have been warned by my husband not to post too frequently because people won’t read them. So I often write multiple posts and save them. But you yourself are a prolific blogger and commenter, so perhaps my husband is wrong!

  3. Bob MacDonald on

    Your husband is wise – for it is true that I, like many, have to bypass many posts due to time constraints.

    Continuing the thought though and with thanks to Aquinas and your postings, do I know about living because God is living or because I find myself here alive and then predicate that to God? Prior to my jagged entrance into the realm of the one who is proclaimed as risen from the dead, I might have thought that aliveness attributed to God is a human projection. A desirable one, perhaps, but nonetheless I would have called it a projection.

    Job demands (by confrontation but also by intimation) from God an aliveness that goes beyond the individual life of a creature or even of creation. That relational scope fits the correction and strengthening that I know in God through the Psalms and also through Christ Jesus by his Anointing. The razor’s edge of such knowledge is difficult to express.

  4. everydaythomist on

    Right, you could say that “living” is a human attribute that we project onto God. This is what I have called “the philosopher’s way” of talking about God, meaning that we start with human knowledge and “project” it onto God. I am going the other way. I am starting with revelation, what God has revealed to be the case, in this case that God is a living God as Scripture attests, and I am saying that we project that onto human beings. Human “livingness” is only a pale reflection, however, of what we see fully expressed in God. I am a virtue-theorist in the Thomistic vein, and one of my premises for ethics is that we live more fully the more we imitate God. So God is our starting point for what it means to live, and human beings try to reflect it, not the other way around. How do we know what it means to imitate God? By reflecting on revelation, mainly through scripture, and proceeding in the illumination provided by the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love.

  5. […] human language. To see more on Aquinas’ use of analogical language to talk about God, check out this earlier […]

  6. Charles on

    One possible clarification. You write:

    “What we mean when we say that “God is a living God” is that we only know what “living” means, and can apply it to creatures (Beth is a living blogger) because we first saw it revealed in God.”

    –But we’ve not seen it revealed FULLY in God yet, have we? That is, our grasp of this term’s original reference is in a mirror and darkly. At the eschaton we will know what “living” means fully, for then we will know God face to face. This is important, I think, because it means that all of our words (at least all of our evaluative words) are ours only “on loan” from the end of time. We don’t fully know what they are–and so every time we use them, we ought to be longing for the eschatological completion of all things. What do you think?


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