Progressive God-Talk, Reformed Theological Method, The Doctrine of Analogy, and God’s Grace in our Knowledge

(Warning: this is a mildly dense one. If you haven’t had coffee yet, you might want to grab some, then come back. Also, it might seem dry at first, but there’s a punch-line you don’t want to miss.)

Progressive God-Talk

A few days ago, progressive author and blogger, Tony Jones threw down a challenge to his fellow progressive bloggers to start actually saying something substantive about God, “Not about Jesus, not about the Bible, but about God”, because they seem to  “have a God-talk problem. That is, progressives write lots of books and blog posts about social issues, the church, culture, and society. But we don’t write that much about God. That is, we don’t say substantive things about who God is, what God does, etc.”

I don’t have a lot to say on the subject of liberal God-talk at this point, except that its been interesting to watch as it unfolds (or the way it doesn’t.) My hope is that more liberal/progressives do post substantive pieces of theology so that a real discussion of the nature and character of God can ensue.

One thing I do have something to say about is the topic of Reformed God-talk, and the attitude that those of us who engage in theology out of the Reformed tradition should take towards the conversation that’s happening right now amongst the progressives. To do that, though, I’m gonna call in a little help.

Reformed Theological Method (Or how Reformedish people go about thinking about God)

A while back I read a great article by Michael Horton on the Reformed theological method in conversation with Open Theism that will be helpful to our conversation. In it he deals with the common charge made that the Reformed scholastics were too dependent on “Hellenistic” thought or Greek speculative, systematizing which distorted the true, “dynamic”, biblical portrait of God. Leaving aside the problem that many who lodge this charge are guilty of the genetic fallacy, Horton shows that, in fact, “Contrary to popular caricature, Reformed scholasticism championed an anti-speculative and anti-rationalistic theological method based on the Creator-creature distinction.” He quotes Francis Turretin as representative of the tradition when he says,

But when God is set forth as the object of theology, he is not to be regarded
simply as God in himself . . . , but as revealed . . . Nor is he to be considered
exclusively under the relation of deity (according to the opinion of Thomas
Aquinas and many Scholastics after him, for in this manner the knowledge of
him could not be saving but deadly to sinners), but as he is our God 
(i.e.,
covenanted in Christ as he has revealed himself to us in his word) . . .

Thus although theology treats of the same things with metaphysics, physics
and ethics, yet the mode of considering them is far different. It treats of God
not like metaphysics as a being or as he can be known from the light of nature; but as the Creator and Redeemer made known by revelation . . . For theology treats of God and his infinite perfections, not as knowing them in an infinite but in a finite manner; nor absolutely as much as they can be known in themselves, but as much as he has been pleased to reveal them.

So, theology treats, not of God in general, but of God as he has given himself to us in Christ and in the history of Israel as attested to in the Scriptures. This straight from the mouth of Turretin, the Reformed Aquinas and the grand-daddy of all post-Reformation dogmaticians.

Horton then outlines then expands on 4 important distinctions that flow from the Creator/creature distinction that give Reformed theology its particular shape (transcendence and immanence, hidden/revealed , eternal decree/temporal execution, and archetypal/ectypal knowledge). We don’t have space to go into all of them here, but the final one, the archetypal/ectypal knowledge distinction is important for us. This distinction teaches that God’s knowledge is archetypal and primary, while our knowledge is ectypal and dependent on God’s. Horton writes that:

It is the epistemological corollary of the ontological Creator-creature distinction. Although it had been a category in medieval system, Protestant dogmatics gave particular attention to this distinction and made it essential to their method. Just as God is not merely greater in degree (“supreme being”), but in a class by himself (“life in himself,” John 5:26), his knowledge of himself and everything else is not just quantitatively but qualitatively different from that of creatures…affirmation of this distinction is essential if we are to maintain with Scripture that no one has ever known the mind of the Lord (Rom 11:34, where the context is predestination), that his thoughts are far above our thoughts (Isa 55:8), and that he is “above” and we are “below” (Eccl 5:2)—if, in other words, we are to truly affirm the Creator-creature distinction.”

So, the idea is that because there is a radical gap in reality between God and ourselves–he is necessary, infinite, transcendent, etc. and we are contingent, finite, bound–there is also a radical gap in our knowledge. In the same way that God’s reality is at a higher level than ours and sustains ours, the same is true of our knowledge. It’s not just that we know less stuff, but that we know the stuff we do in a lesser way than God does.  This is not to say that we don’t have true knowledge, any more than to say that we are not real, simply because we’re not on the same ontological playing field as God, but that our knowledge is at a lower level than God does and is.

The Doctrine of Analogy (“God is…”)

With this distinction in hand, our discussion brings us to the doctrine of analogy, which has a long history both in Catholic and Protestant theology. I’d explain it, but here’s Horton again:

All of this leads us, finally, to the doctrine of analogy. When we assert certain predicates of God, based on God’s own self-revelation, we use them in one of three senses: univocally, analogically or equivocally. If we say that the predicate “gracious” means exactly the same thing, whether in God or in a creature, we are using “gracious” univocally. At the other end of the spectrum, if we say that by using that predicate we are ascribing something to God whose appropriateness is unknown to us, we are using it equivocally. If, however, God is said to be “gracious” in a way that is both similar and dissimilar to creatures, we say it is analogical. For instance, when we acknowledge that God is a “person,” do we really mean to say that he is a person in exactly the same sense as we are? When we follow Scripture in using male pronouns to refer to God, do we really believe that he is male? Unless we are willing to ascribe to God (in an univocal sense) all attributes of human personhood, predications must be analogical. Human language cannot transcend its finitude, so when God reveals himself in human language, he draws on human analogies to lead us by the hand to himself. It is correct description, but not univocal description.

This is a useful doctrine for many reasons, but as Horton points out, it both acknowledges human finitude unlike rationalistic, univocal approaches to God-talk, as well as gives a place for real knowledge of God unlike modern, skeptical, equivocal approaches God.

Calvin’s Lisp, or God’s Grace in our Knowledge

Why do I bring all of this up? Well, aside from the fact that it’s just important for theology as a discipline, it’s important for our own theology as a part of life. It’s very easy for theology types to get really puffed up when it comes to their “knowledge” of God and his ways. Paul had to administer many a 1st Century beat-down over this in the church in Corinth. (cf. 1 Cor 1-4) What all of this points to is that this should not be so for Christians, especially for those who claim to be Reformed. Listen to Horton again:

“Thus, Calvin and the Reformed do not use analogy as a fall-back strategy when they find something that does not fit their system. Rather, it is the warp and woof of their covenantal approach, a necessary implication of the Creator-creature relationship as they understand it. All of God’s self-revelation is analogical, not just some of it. This is why Calvin speaks, for instance, of God’s “lisping” or speaking “baby-talk” in his condescending mercy. Just as God comes down to us in the incarnation in order to save us who could not ascend to him, he meets us in Scripture by descending to our weakness. Thus, not only is God’s transcendence affirmed, but his radical immanence as well. Transcendence and immanence become inextricably bound up with the divine drama of redemption. Revelation no less than redemption is an act of condescension and grace.”

All of our knowledge of God is had by God’s grace. It’s not just that we find out about a gracious God when we hear the Gospel, but that our hearing the Gospel at all is an act of grace! Our very knowledge of God is God’s kindness, God’s condescension to take up our feeble language and use it in powerful ways to speak to us of his great love. For the Reformed, it should be grace all the way down to your epistemology.

This is why it makes no sense at all for us to boast, or pride ourselves as better than others because of our ability to say and believe true things of God or on our theological systems and tradition. These are good things; they’re great. They’re a rich resource. They can be a great blessing. They can be all of these things, but the one thing they cannot be, must not be, is a source of arrogance or pride. Instead  every truth we utter or find in one of our dogmatics should be a reminder of God’s grace, not our own awesomeness.

So, if you’re cruising around the blogosphere, or just in life, reading people or hearing people talk about God in what you find to be silly fumbling, or inadequate ways, your first instinct should not be to look on condescendingly or pridefully, but remember God’s condescension that made your knowledge possible. When you get that point, maybe, just maybe you can engage in a loving, humble conversation about God and his truth with those whom you disagree.

7 thoughts on “Progressive God-Talk, Reformed Theological Method, The Doctrine of Analogy, and God’s Grace in our Knowledge

  1. Pingback: Quick-Blog #10: Don’t Get Analogy, Don’t Get God (Michael Horton on the Doctrine of Analogy) « Reformedish
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  3. Pingback: Sneering Calvinists – The Gospel Coalition Blog
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  6. Pingback: Mere Fidelity Podcast: How Does God Accommodate Himself to Us? | Reformedish

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