Thinking About God: Univocally or Analogically?

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One of the realities that should govern your life is that there is a God and you are not him. That is, there is a Creator and there are creatures. We should not confuse the two. Christians have understood this in the past and have spoken, with a fair bit of consistency, accordingly.

To maintain this Creator/creature distinction, theologians have used the terms univocal, analogical, and equivocal when speaking about how we know God. Those who argue for some type of univocal understanding (e.g. John Duns Scotus in the 13th century) seem to believe “some predicates applied to God and humans must be univocal (i.e., mean exactly the same thing)” (Horton, Justification, vol. 1, 139). Others, like Thomas Aquinas (12th century), argued for an analogical view.

What’s the difference? Michael Horton offers a careful explanation.

Neither being nor knowledge is ever shared univocally (i.e., identically) between God and creatures. As God’s being is qualitatively and not just quantitatively distinct from ours, so too is God’s knowledge. God’s knowledge is archetypal (the original), while ours is ectypal (a copy), revealed by God and therefore accommodated to our finite capacities. Our imperfect and incomplete knowledge is always dependent on God’s perfect and complete knowledge.

A covenantal ontology requires a covenantal epistemology. We were created as God’s analogy (image bearers) rather than as self-existent sparks of divinity; therefore, our knowledge is also dependent rather than autonomous. So there is indeed such a thing as absolute, perfect, exhaustive, and eternal truth, but this knowledge is possessed by God, not by us. Rather, we have revealed truth, which God has accommodated to our capacity.

Following Thomas Aquinas (1225–74), our older theologians therefore argued that human knowledge is analogical rather than either univocal or equivocal (two terms are related analogically when they are similar, univocally when they are identical, and equivocally when they have nothing in common). Take the word ball. There is no obvious connection between a formal dance and an object that I bounce. Thus, the use of the word “ball” in these different contexts is equivocal. However, in sports, “ball” is used analogically. Football and baseball are not the same games; even the balls they use are qualitatively different. Nevertheless, they are similar enough for them both to be called ball games. Only when I am comparing one baseball game to another is ball used univocally—referring to exactly the same thing.

When we say that God is good, we assume we know what good means from our ordinary experience with fellow human beings. However, God is not only quantitatively better than we are; his goodness is qualitatively different from creaturely goodness. Nevertheless, because we are created in God’s image, we share this predicate with God analogically. Goodness, attributed to God and Sally, is similar but always with greater dissimilarity. At no point is goodness exactly the same for God as it is for Sally. The difference is qualitative, not just quantitative; yet there is enough similarity to communicate the point.

God reveals himself as a person, a king, a shepherd, a substitutionary lamb, and so forth. These analogies are not arbitrary (i.e., equivocal), but they are also not exact correspondence (i.e., univocal). Even when we attribute love to God and Mary, love cannot mean exactly the same thing for a self-existent Trinity and a finite person. In every analogy, there is always greater dissimilarity than similarity between God and creatures. Nevertheless, God judges that the analogy is appropriate for his self-revelation. We do not know exactly what divine goodness is like, but since God selects this analogy, there must be a sufficient similarity to our concept of goodness to justify the comparison.

This doctrine of analogy is the hinge on which a Christian affirmation of God’s transcendence and immanence turns. A univocal view threatens God’s transcendence, while an equivocal view threatens God’s immanence.”—Michael Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims Along the Way (Zondervan Academic. Kindle Edition), 53–55.

What is the practical payoff of considering this rather heady debate? Well, this discussion helps us remember that we are not God. Adopting an analogical view of our knowledge of God guards against collapsing the Creator/creature distinction. We are, indeed, created in the image of God. Yet, we are not exactly like God. He is God. We are not.

Remembering God’s transcendence humbles us (or at least it should). God is far above humanity. He is high and lifted up. Remembering the utter uniqueness of God moves us to worship.

Second, we are reminded that our knowledge of God is dependent upon God’s self-revelation. Because God is beyond us, if we are to know him rightly, then he must stoop to our level. Graciously, he has done just that! In Calvin’s words, God has “accommodated” to our capacities and we can know him truly (though never exhaustively).

This point is the balance to the previous one we just made. Though God is high and lifted up, beyond us in so many ways, he has nonetheless come to us. He is not a distant deity. Instead, he has leaned toward us and revealed himself to us in the rocks and trees and oceans and mountains (Ps 19). And he has made himself known more clearly through the Word of Christ. The God who is “other,” has drawn near.

Perhaps this has stretched your mind. Good. The exercise of our brains is a God-honoring thing. My hope, however, is that in thinking about how you think about God will move you to worship the God who transcends us but has come near to us most clearly in the person of Jesus Christ.

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