How we talk about God

One of the reasons why there has been some debate between evangelical/reformed theologians about the Doctrine of God is to do with the language we use to talk about God.

We can end up with three types of language.

  1. Univocal – This means that when we use the same word to describe God and his creatures, then we mean exactly the same thing. So, if I describe God as good, then I mean exactly the same as when I describe a pious and caring person in the community as a good man or woman. Similarly if I describe God as love or I talk about his wrath then these characteristics are the same as human love and anger.
  2. Equivocal – This means that when I use a word to describe God, I recognise that God is completely different to his creation. I cannot really describe him in human words, so I pick words to describe him but recognise that there is very little correspondence between what it means to describe him in that way and another human being.
  3. Anological – Assumes that a word or statement describing God is analogous to when we use that word or statement to describe creaturely characteristics and behaviour. God is different to us. He is infinite, eternal and perfect in all his ways, so when I describe him, I am using language that enables me to have a genuine sense of what he is like because it is in some way similar to what we know and see in creation yet at the same time is far over and above our experience. Take for example, God’s statement that he is a jealous God.  If I picture jealousy univocally then I imagine a God who gets angry and vengeful if he sees another getting the attention he deserves. However, if I think equivocally, then to describe God as jealous makes little sense at all, it is just a word. Analogically, I know what human jealously is like. I know that it is motivated by a strong desire and that it makes me protective towards a person or a possession. There are positives about that, however, human jealousy is often self-centred and controlling. Analogically, I can see that when the Bible talks about God as jealous, it describes something about that passion, it describes a concern for his own honour and glory and it describes the way that he treasurers us. Yet, I must not think of God as jealous in a way that leads me to seeing him as selfish/egotistical/controlling because those things belong with sinful characters. Not only that but even without the issue of sin, our time-bound finiteness and his eternal infiniteness means that I cannot get close to grasping the vastness and depth of that attribute when applied to God.

Univocal language makes the mistake of treating God as just another creature like you and me. God becomes familiar and I act as though I can know him and describe him exhaustively.

Equivocal language treats God as distant and unknowable. In fact some theologians go this far. They say that we cannot ever describe God positively. We can only say, negatively what God is not.  This is sometimes referred to as apophatic theology.

Analogical language recognises God’s transcendence. It acknowledges that we can know God, we can describe him but not exhaustively. God reveals something of who he is to us. We truly know him and yet at the same time we realise that there is much more to know about him than we can ever grasp.

Now, I think this is where some of the problems creep in because at this point even as we try to describe what God is like, we meet the limits of the human mind. We realise as well that some people will be leaning a little more to a univocal use of language and others to equivocal. We struggle to find the best language to describe God and that’s when the debates start.