Accommodation, Analogical, Analogy, Athanasius, Carl F Henry, Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin, Richard Sibbes, Thomas Aquinas, Univocal, Van Til
In the previous post on Richard Sibbes Second Sermon on the Canticles, Sibbes makes this point:
Indeed, taking the advantage of such relations as are most comfortable, to set out the excellent and transcendant relation that is between Christ and his church; all other are not what they are termed, so much as glasses to see better things. Riches, beauty, marriage, nobility, &c., are scarce worthy of their names. These are but titles and empty things. Though our base nature make great matters of them, yet the reality and substance of all these are in heavenly things. True riches are the heavenly graces; true nobility is to be born of God, to be the sister and spouse of Christ; true pleasures are those of the Spirit, which endure for ever, and will stand by us when all outward comforts will vanish.
Richard Sibbes, The Complete Works of Richard Sibbes, ed. Alexander Balloch Grosart, vol. 2 (Edinburgh; London; Dublin: James Nichol; James Nisbet And Co.; W. Robertson, 1862), 23.
Below, I am going to outline some of the ideas which are relevant to this question of analogy and analogical thinking and talking about God. This is by no means exhaustive — and I am going to end with a conflict between Gordon Clark and Van Til on analogy.
This concept of an analogy between divine and human things was not new to Sibbes. Thomas Aquinas in Summa Theologiae in response to the question of any name can be applied to God in a literal sens, answered:
I answer that, According to the preceding article, our knowledge of God is derived from the perfections which flow from Him to creatures, which perfections are in God in a more eminent way than in creatures. Now our intellect apprehends them as they are in creatures, and as it apprehends them it signifies them by names. Therefore as to the names applied to God—viz. the perfections which they signify, such as goodness, life and the like, and their mode of signification. As regards what is signified by these names, they belong properly to God, and more properly than they belong to creatures, and are applied primarily to Him. But as regards their mode of signification, they do not properly and strictly apply to God; for their mode of signification applies to creatures.
Thomas goes on to write, that we can only speak of God by means of analogy:
I answer that, This name “God” in the three aforesaid significations is taken neither univocally nor equivocally, but analogically. This is apparent from this reason: Univocal terms mean absolutely the same thing, but equivocal terms absolutely different; whereas in analogical terms a word taken in one signification must be placed in the definition of the same word taken in other senses; as, for instance, “being” which is applied to “substance” is placed in the definition of being as applied to “accident”; and “healthy” applied to animal is placed in the definition of healthy as applied to urine and medicine. For urine is the sign of health in the animal, and medicine is the cause of health.
The same applies to the question at issue. For this name “God,” as signifying the true God, includes the idea of God when it is used to denote God in opinion, or participation. For when we name anyone god by participation, we understand by the name of god some likeness of the true God. Likewise, when we call an idol god, by this name god we understand and signify something which men think is God; thus it is manifest that the name has different meanings, but that one of them is comprised in the other significations. Hence it is manifestly said analogically.
Article 7. Whether names which imply relation to creatures are predicated of God temporally?
The doctrine of analogy brings together rather disparate elements of the Christian tradition (it’s not always that one cites Thomas Aquinas and Van Til). The doctrine of analogy rests upon the Creator-creature distinction, and here Van Til makes as good a point as anyone:
God is “infinite,” “eternal,” and “unchangeable” in his being. Because God’s being is such, and because man’s being is finite, temporal, and changeable, in short, because there is the ontological distinction, man can have no univocal knowledge of such a being as God. Nor can man, because of the ontological distinction, know what God knows in the same way as God knows it, whether that knowledge pertains to God Himself or to some created thing.
Jim Halsey, “A Preliminary Critique of Van Til: The Theologian A Review Article,” Westminster Theological Journal 39, no. 1 (1976): 122. But we will get back in a moment to that last bit, “know what God knows in the same way as God knows it.” Henry makes a very similar point:
The Bible affirms not simply that God differs from all finite created beings. It declares also that God is the supremely knowable reality, and is so in view of his intelligible self-revelation and disclosure of reliable information about his nature, purposes and acts. It denies, however, that God is in all respects wholly other than man who bears his image.
The analogy of attribution affirms a likeness between God and the creaturely in specific perfections or attributes in distinction from mere analogical relationships.
Carl F. H. Henry, “Methods of Determing Divine Attributes” in God, Revelation, and Authority, vol. 5 (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1999), 86–87. Analogical thinking, due to the Creature-Creator distinction necessitates some sort of analogical use of language to talk about God:
Thus, when we predicate to God things from creation, we cannot predicate any of their limitations to him. We can only ascribe the actuality the creature received from the Creator. In this sense, creatures are both like and unlike God. That opens the door to understanding by analogy.
The only alternatives to analogy are skepticism or dogmatism: Either we know nothing about God, or we assume that we know things in the same infinite way in which he knows them.
Norman L. Geisler, “Analogy, Principle Of,” Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, Baker Reference Library (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), 22. And so Geilser agrees with Aquinas.
The necessity of analogical thinking was illustrated by Athanasius in dispute with some Arians (those who denied the divinity of the Son), when they argued that God “begetting” the Son means that the Son is a creature. He responded by making an analogical argument:
Words so senseless and dull deserved no answer at all; however, lest their heresy appear to have any foundation, it may be right, though we go out of the way for it, to refute them even here, especially on account of the silly women who are so readily deceived by them. When they thus speak, they should have inquired of an architect, whether he can build without materials; and if he cannot, whether it follows that God could not make the universe without materials4. Or they should have asked every man, whether he can be without place; and if he cannot, whether it follows that God is in place, that so they may be brought to shame even by their audience. Or why is it that, on hearing that God has a Son, they deny Him by the parallel of themselves; whereas, if they hear that He creates and makes, no longer do they object their human ideas? they ought in creation also to entertain the same, and to supply God with materials, and so deny Him to be Creator, till they end in grovelling with Manichees. But if the bare idea of God transcends such thoughts, and, on very first hearing, a man believes and knows that He is in being, not as we are, and yet in being as God, and creates not as man creates, but yet creates as God, it is plain that He begets also not as men beget, but begets as God. For God does not make man His pattern; but rather we men, for that God is properly, and alone truly5, Father of His Son, are also called fathers of our own children; for of Him ‘is every fatherhood in heaven and earth named6.’ And their positions, while unscrutinized, have a shew of sense; but if any one scrutinize them by reason, they will be found to incur much derision and mockery.
Athanasius of Alexandria, “Four Discourses against the Arians,” in St. Athanasius: Select Works and Letters, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. John Henry Newman and Archibald T. Robertson, vol. 4, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1892), 320. We may wish to add here Calvin’s statement in the Institutes that God must accommodate himself to our limited understanding and does this by means of an analogy:
What, therefore, does the word “repentance” mean? Surely its meaning is like that of all other modes of speaking that describe God for us in human terms. For because our weakness does not attain to his exalted state, the description of him that is given to us must be accommodated to our capacity so that we may understand it. Now the mode of accommodation is for him to represent himself to us not as he is in himself, but as he seems to us. Although he is beyond all disturbance of mind, yet he testifies that he is angry toward sinners. Therefore whenever we hear that God is angered, we ought not to imagine any emotion in him, but rather to consider that this expression has been taken from our own human experience; because God, whenever he is exercising judgment, exhibits the appearance of one kindled and angered. So we ought not to understand anything else under the word “repentance” than change of action, because men are wont by changing their action to testify that they are displeased with themselves. Therefore, since every change among men is a correction of what displeases them, but that correction arises out of repentance, then by the word “repentance” is meant the fact that God changes with respect to his actions.
John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion & 2, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, vol. 1, The Library of Christian Classics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 227.
And now as promised, back to Van Til:
Van Til tells us that the Christian is always to think “analogically”: “Our reasoning then must always and everywhere be truly analogical.… The necessity of reasoning analogically is always implied in the theistic conception of God.”8 But what does it mean to “reason analogically” in contrast to “reasoning univocally”? If we but keep the three elements of analogy in mind, we cannot go far astray in our answer to this question. To reason analogically will mean, for the regenerate consciousness, reasoning as a dependent creature. “Dependent upon what?”, we might well ask. The answer can only be, “dependent upon the self-revelation of the Creator as that self-revelation has been inscripturated in the Bible. Thinking analogically entails:
(a) thinking under the authority of the Scriptures and therefore of necessity:
(b) being in covenant with God (by regeneration), and hence:
(c) recognizing the finite, creaturely status of our thoughts as these thoughts are derivative of their Original (God).
(d) Consequently, our reasoning (use of the law of non-contradiction) will accord with (a) above. We will see the significance of this point in a little while.
Jim Halsey, “A Preliminary Critique of Van Til: The Theologian A Review Article,” Westminster Theological Journal 39, no. 1 (1976): 125–126. But there is one further matter of Van Til to consider: how great is the disjunction between human and divine thought. An important aspect of Van Til’s thought is that he posits a “hard distinction” in the analogy between Creator and creature:
Again, because of the emphasis Van Til places upon the ontological distinction between God’s being and knowledge and man’s being and knowledge, there can never be any one to one correspondence between the divine and the human mind. For example, God’s concept of a rose and our concept of that same rose will not correspond on a one to one basis at any juncture.5 This lack of identity does not lie in the fact that God knows more about the rose than does man; rather, the difference lies in the ontological level of God’s knowledge. This is but another way of saying that God’s knowledge of the rose proceeds upon a qualitatively different plane than does man’s. If analogy were simply a matter of knowing “more than,” the distinction to be drawn between divine knowledge and human knowledge would be a quantitative and not a qualitative one. If the difference were only quantitative, emphasis would fall upon the commonality, upon the ultimate univocism, of the divine being and the human being.
It is abundantly clear, from even a cursory reading of Van Til, that it is not the quantitative difference that finds emphasis in the doctrine of analogy: “For man any new revelational proposition will enrich in meaning any previous given revelational proposition. But even this enrichment does not imply that there is any coincidence, that is, identity of content between what God has in his mind and what man has in his mind.… There could and would be an identity of content only if the mind of man were identical with the mind of God.”6
Jim Halsey, “A Preliminary Critique of Van Til: The Theologian A Review Article,” Westminster Theological Journal 39, no. 1 (1976): 123–124. This led to a serious conflict with Gordon Clark (you can read about the history of their conflict in lots of places; just search their names and your find endless posts on the issue). I just want to highlight some of the intellectual nature of the conflict:
But Van Til is equally insistent that this divine self-revelation, by the Spirit’s enabling illumination, can produce in men a “true” knowledge of God, although their knowledge will be only “analogical” to God’s knowledge of himself— it will never correspond to God’s knowledge at any single point! How Van Til can regard this “never corresponds” knowledge as “true” knowledge is, to say the least, a serious problem. Perhaps he means that the Creator is willing to regard as “true” the knowledge that men derive from his self-revelation to them even though it is not univocal knowledge at any single point, because due to human finiteness he had to adapt his revelation to creaturely finite comprehension. God’s verbal reve-lation to human beings, in other words, since it is “creature-oriented” (that is, “analogical”), is not a univocal statement of his understanding of himself or of anything else and thus can never produce anything higher than a creaturely (“analogical”) comprehension of God or of anything else. If this is what Van Til means, it is difficult to see how, with his explicit rejection of the univocal element (see his “corresponds at no single point”) in man’s so-called “analogical” knowledge of God, Van Til can rescue such knowledge from being in actuality a total equivocality and no true knowledge at all. It is also difficult to see how he can rescue God from the irrationality in accepting as true what in fact (if Van Til is correct) he knows all the while coincides at no single point with his own knowledge, which is both true and the standard of truth.
Against all this, Clark contended that Van Til’s position leads to total human ignorance:
If God knows all truths and knows the correct meaning of every proposition, and if no proposition means to man what it means to God, so that God’s knowledge and man’s knowledge do not coincide at any single point, it follows by rigorous necessity that man can have no truth at all.11
He further argues:
If God and man know, there must with the differences be at least one point of similarity; for if there were no point of similarity it would be inappropriate to use the one term knowledge in both cases.… If God has the truth and if man has only an analogy [this “analogy” containing no univocal element], it follows that he (man) does not have the truth.12
Clark illustrates his point this way:
If … we think that David was King of Israel, and God’s thoughts are not ours, then it follows that God does not think David was King of Israel. David in God’s mind was perchance prime minister of Babylon.
To avoid this irrationality, … we must insist that truth is the same for God and man. Naturally, we may not know the truth about some matters. But if we know anything at all, what we know must be identical with what God knows. God knows the truth, and unless we know something God knows, our ideas are untrue. It is absolutely essential therefore to insist that there is an area of coincidence between God’s mind and our mind. One example, as good as any, is the one already used, viz., David was King of Israel.13
If God is omnipotent, he can tell men the plain, unvarnished, literal truth. He can tell them David was King of Israel, he can tell them he is omnipotent, he can tell them he created the world, and … he can tell them all this in positive, literal, non-analogical, non-symbolic terms.14
Robert L. Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (Nashville: T. Nelson, 1998), 99–100.