God and analogical language

The statement that God communicates in analogical language is an attempt to reconcile the twin truths of the knowability of God and the incomprehensibility of God. God can be known truly but he cannot be known exhaustively by anyone other than himself. It is only the Spirit who searches the depths of God, and yet it is this Spirit who reveals Scriptural truth (1 Cor. 2:10). There are two pitfalls to avoid when it comes to God and human language. The first is the concept of univocal communication, as if the proposition “God is holy” conveys the same exact set of information to the finite human mind as it does to the infinite divine mind. The second pitfall is to conclude that Scripture contains only equivocal truths about God, as if God is trapped outside of the human language he himself created. The distance between the Creator and the creature must be maintained, but not in a way that neglects that God is, in fact, the Creator of creation. And he is the One who is able to enter creation through incarnation.

To say that all language in the Bible is analogical is not to assert that everything in the Bible is metaphorical. Scripture contains a variety of genres, including symbolism and metaphor, but also discourse and historical narrative. Scripture must be interpreted according to the intent of the human author. The “allegorical” method attempts to do justice to the mystery of revelation but ultimately fails to reckon with how God has chosen to reveal himself. It is in danger of separating divine language from normal human communication to such a degree that it almost commits the same error as the logical positivists and those who eliminate “God talk” from ordinary human speech.

Nevertheless, Biblical revelation is a product of divine accommodation (or God speaking in a form of “baby talk,” as Calvin illustrates), and this includes anthropomorphism. But it is not so much that God attempts to find an illustration in human experience, but that human experience is itself theomorphic (rooted in the image dei). God has patterned himself in the created order, and he makes reference to this design in his speech with his creatures.

This is ultimately a function of divine Lordship, which implies both distance (transcendence) and Covenant presence (immanence). God is Lord in that he is categorically different from what he has made, but he is Lord over and in what he has made, not least in the language of the Bible. So we must conclude with Hilary of Poitiers that “the perfection of learning is to know God in such a way that, though you realize he is not unknowable, yet you know him as indescribable.”

About Evan May

Evan May is a student at Reformed Theological Seminary and a pastor at Lakeview Christian Center in New Orleans.
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