Analogy and God Talk
One of the first things we discover when we begin reading the Bible is that we are not God. He is the Creator and we are the created, and between Creator and created stands an infinite, qualitative difference. So pronounced is this difference that some people despair of ever speaking meaningfully about God. They reason that human languages were invented to discuss human matters, so when human terms are applied to God they necessarily distort and mislead.
For such individuals, God-talk is always and only equivocal. The problem with their perspective is that if we cannot say anything about God, then we really do not know anything about God (except perhaps at the purely mystical and experiential level). This theory runs directly afoul of the fact that God Himself has spoken.
In reaction, other people have insisted that God-talk is univocal. For these people, language means exactly the same thing when it is applied to God that it does when it is applied to humans and other created things. The problem with this approach is that it almost inevitably ends up reducing the distance between creature and Creator. It often shrinks God to a mere object of inspection. Furthermore, a moment’s reflection reveals that God-talk cannot function with the exactness and precision of univocal language.
Consider the propositions, “George is,” and “God is.” Both of these propositions are predicating being, first of George and then of God. Assuming that George is a human, his being is finite, contingent, and temporal. God’s being, however, is infinite, necessary, and eternal. This difference is not merely quantitative but qualitative. God does not merely have more of the same kind of being that George does. God has a different kind of being. In other words, when we say that “God is,” we do not mean exactly what we mean when we say that “George is.”
Nevertheless, we do not mean some altogether different thing. Being is never non-being. We cannot rightly say, “God is,” if we mean that “God does not exist.” Consequently, when we say that “God is,” we are not speaking equivocally—yet clearly, we are not speaking univocally. God’s being has something in common with ours, but it also differs. When we say that “God is,” we are speaking analogically.
Much (perhaps all) of what we say about God we say analogically. More to the point, much (perhaps all) of what God says to us about Himself, He says analogically. Biblical propositions about God are always absolutely true, but they may not mean the same thing that they would mean if the same language were used of humans or other created beings. We repent and God repents, but God’s repentance is not altogether such as ours, for He is not altogether such as us.
God Himself has chosen to communicate Himself through analogical language. Consequently, we must presume that He has created the human mind to function analogically. His choice of analogical language as a medium for transmitting theological truth requires a mind that is capable of receiving and understanding the transmission.
When we examine Scripture, we discover that it is filled with the principle of analogy. Everywhere we turn, we find important spiritual truths expressed through comparisons. We are constantly being shown that this is like that, where this is some spiritual reality that we might never otherwise encounter or understand, and that is some familiar aspect of life. The mechanism that enables us to grasp and understand these comparisons is the faculty of imagination. In a very real sense, we can know God only as we imagine Him rightly.
The Lord God pictures Himself as a shepherd, a rock, a tower, a fortress, a commander (hence the name Yahweh Tsidkenu), a man of war, a jilted husband, a great king, a dwelling place or home, a legislator, a judge, an inheritance, a teacher, a planter of a vineyard, a farmer of a field, a consuming fire, a shelter, a rider on the storm, a sun and shield, a banner, a hunter setting a snare, a singer, a crown of glory and beauty, a sleeper about to rise, and a potter who fashions a vessel.
The Bible pictures Jesus Christ as a door, a road, a mother hen, the lion of the tribe of Judah, the lamb of God, the BRANCH, the good shepherd, the true vine, the bread of life, the light of the world, the root of David, the bright and morning star, and the bridegroom.
Biblical descriptions of salvation lead us into a variety of imaginative settings. Justification has its setting in the courtroom. Regeneration takes us into the birthing chamber. Redemption occurs in the slave market. Imputation locates us in a commercial transaction. Other vivid images such as satisfaction and washing further enhance our knowledge of what it means to be saved.
The church is depicted through many analogies that take the form of word pictures. It is a flock and not a fold. It is a new race or people. It is a holy temple, a select nation, a priesthood, the bride, and the body of Christ. Its leaders are described as fishers of men, as farmers in a field, as architects and builders, as aged men, as shepherds, as overseers or managers, and as nursing mothers.
Indeed, we ourselves are more than we perceive, and Scripture helps us to see the unseen through its analogical descriptions of us. We are freed slaves. We are purchased possessions. We are pardoned criminals. We are born children and adopted sons (to confound these images is to confuse ourselves). We are new creations. We are sheep of His pasture, temples of His Spirit, members of Christ’s body.
These are not simply occasional figures of speech that occur here and there in biblical discussions. Rather, they are the fundamental stuff of which our theology is made. Such analogies are indispensible for a right understanding of God, Christ, sin, salvation, the church, its leadership, and even of ourselves. They are one of God’s primary mechanisms for enabling us to conceptualize Him and His works. They are more than mere ornaments to our knowledge of God. They are one of the main ways in which we know Him. Even the discursive texts of Scripture draw deeply upon these images to aid our understanding.
Analogy is essential for a right understanding of God. God Himself has chosen analogical language and analogical imagery to reveal His person and works. Rather than fearing the principle of analogy, we ought to embrace it as heartily as God Himself has.
This essay is by Kevin T. Bauder, Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology atCentral Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
Two Went up into the Temple to Pray
Richard Crashaw (1612-1649)
Two went to pray? O rather say
One went to brag, th’ other to pray:
One stands up close and treads on high,
Where th’ other dares not send his eye.
One nearer to God’s altar trod,
The other to the altar’s God.
About Kevin Bauder
Kevin T. Bauder is Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that this post expresses.