Speaking About God

The Christian faith is premised on the belief that since God has revealed himself, the Church as the recipient of this divine self-disclosure is able to say something true about him. Put differently, Christians believe that their speech about God – in their prayers, worship and sermons – is both objective and true.

This assertion concerning the veracity and truthfulness of the Church’s speech about God has been subjected to attack and ridicule since the Enlightenment, especially in the writings of its more radical spokesmen like the French philosopher and encyclopaedist Baron d’Holbach. In our time, writers such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens – the so-called ‘new atheists’ – have continued this campaign of rubbishing all forms of theological or religious language.

Even the more sympathetic among the modern philosophers have questioned the epistemic significance of much of theological language.

For example, R. M. Hare, writing in the 1960s argues that religious language says nothing objective about reality but only expresses the outlook of the person or community who uses it. While Hare is willing to concede that some theological speech – or bliks as he calls them – may be meaningful, the claims that they make cannot be empirically verified.

Similarly, R. B. Braithwaite argues that religious language does not contain any information about the world, but merely expresses the speaker’s intent. The meaning of a religious claim or assertion, he insists, ‘is given in its use in expressing the asserter’s intention to follow a specified policy of behaviour’.

The Christian understanding of the veracity and truthfulness of the Church’s speech about God is based on the doctrines of creation and revelation.

Christians believe that because God has created the world, the latter can and does reveal or reflect its Creator in some measure and in some significant ways. This means that the world that God has brought into being tells us something about him, just like a work of art or music disclose something about the artist or composer.

This is the general revelation of God in creation.

In addition, as the great Swiss-German theologian Karl Barth has pointed out, in his special revelation in Scripture, God commandeers human words that describe the things of this world in such a way that they are now truly able to speak of him. To put this in another way, in his special revelation God teaches us how we may speak about him by using our words – i.e., human words – to describe his own being and character.

We may therefore say that the Church’s speech about God is authorised by God himself in Scripture.

Both general and special revelation, however, presuppose that human words can be used to speak about God. And this brings us back to fact that God has created the world in such a way that there is a real correspondence between the creation and the Creator.

This of course does not mean that the world is exactly like God, for the Creator is qualitatively different from the creation. However, although creatures can never be said to be exactly like their Creature they do resemble their Creator in some sense.

Thus, the great medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas could assert that ‘Any creature, in so far as it possesses any perfection, represents God and is like him, for he, being simply and universally perfect has pre-existing in himself the perfections of all his creatures’. This means that the things that are said about the creature can also be said about God, its Creator.

A simple concrete illustration would bring clarity to Aquinas’ dense philosophical argument.

For instance, when we say ‘Solomon is wise’, we are attributing wisdom (which is a perfection) to Solomon. According to Aquinas, that perfection – wisdom – can also be attributed to God since the creature resembles the Creator.

However, a further qualification must be made. Although we can say that both God and Solomon are wise – that they both literally possess wisdom – God’s wisdom and that of Solomon are radically different.

And because of this difference, ‘wisdom’ is not used univocally of God and Solomon, although they both possess that perfection. Neither is ‘wisdom’ used unequivocally because that would suggest that God’s wisdom is not only radically different from that of Solomon, but totally so.

But if that were indeed the case, the assertion that ‘God is wise’ would be meaningless to us because we would have no idea what constitutes divine wisdom, what it looks like.

Human wisdom is therefore analogous with divine wisdom. This means that there are similarities as well as profound dissimilarities between the two.

In addition, God alone possesses true wisdom and all creaturely wisdom, however excellent, is always derived from and therefore dependent upon divine wisdom. This means that words used analogously of God and creatures apply primarily to God and only secondarily to creatures.

Analogy therefore helps us to understand how the Church is able to talk about God with human words. As the English theologian of the last century E.L. Mascall puts it: ‘The function of the doctrine of analogy is not to make it possible for us to talk about God in the future but to explain how it is that we have been able to talk about him all along’.

This doctrine of analogy has important implications for the theological language of the Church.

Because words can be used analogously to describe God and creatures, our statements about God do describe his divine nature (e.g., God is really wise). However, because the words we use for creatures are used of God only analogously, they can never adequately speak of him.

To fail to understand the limitations of our language when it is used for God is to be in danger of idolatry – of creating misleading and harmful distortions by reducing God to our concepts.

The doctrines of creation and revelation show that the Christian’s speech about God is not merely an expression of his existential angst or his attempts at self-projection (Feuerbach). The Christian is able to say something objective and true about God’s being and character. The doctrine of analogy explains how this is done.

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