Quick-Blog #10: Don’t Get Analogy, Don’t Get God (Michael Horton on the Doctrine of Analogy)

If you’re going to study the doctrine of God, you need to understand the doctrine of analogy. It’s that simple.

Honestly, I’ve become convinced of this over the last few years as I moved from my early days as a Jurgen Moltmann fan to my current Reformedish semi-classicalism. (I have no good term for it. Whatever Kevin Vanhoozer is.) If you haven’t stopped reading already, you might be wondering what the doctrine of analogy is.

The doctrine of analogy is a very old one shared by the post-Reformation scholastics with their medieval forebears like St. Thomas Aquinas. In that sense it’s a very “catholic” teaching, shared across the tradition by Catholics and Protestants of various stripes. (I’m not too sure they’d put it this way, but I think the Eastern Orthodox would be fine with it as well.) Michael Horton laid out one of the cleanest summaries of the doctrine I’ve found in an article on the subject of the Reformed theological method. I’ve already quoted it here, but it’s worth high-lighting 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.”

Basically, when you’re saying something about God or reading it in the Bible, whether about his being or his emotions, or something else, you have to insert a little qualifier because you’re comparing the transcendent, uncreated one to something created. Kinda like, “God is good (but not exactly the way you think of good)”, or “God is strong (and that is an understatement so serious you don’t have a category for it)”, or “God is angry (but you can’t think of it like sinful human anger)”, or “God repented (but not in the way that implies he didn’t know what he was doing)”. It’s like, but unlike.

Does this mean we can’t know anything about God? No. As Horton points out, God picks out these human analogies, especially in the Scriptures, to tell us something about himself. We just have to be careful when we pick up these analogies to use them and think of them in the way God intends us to, with the reading clues he gives us. For instance, when God is said to be our Father, we have to stop ourselves from immediately filling that word with everything we learned about fatherhood from our own fathers, but rather we must look to the way he is our Father in Christ, or better, the Father of the Son. That’s the kind of Fatherly love we look for, not the imperfect, possibly too lenient (ie. neglectful), or harsh, or whatever loves we find on earth. Again, it’s like, but unlike.

As always, there’s more to it than that, but this is supposed to be a quick-blog.

Soli Deo Gloria

10 thoughts on “Quick-Blog #10: Don’t Get Analogy, Don’t Get God (Michael Horton on the Doctrine of Analogy)

  1. God is Father, eh?

    “Well, I’m a Dad and I’d never allow anything bad to happen to my kids just to teach them something…” This kind of reasoning drives me up the wall. Analogy! Maybe God isn’t completely like me after all.

    Great little post.

    • Ha! Absolutely. I know that being a dad one day will probably shift the way I think about God. Still, having been a son my whole life, I know that doesn’t always help me think about how I’m to be a son to the Father of lights.

  2. As a Lutheran (funny how all my theology comments start that way…), I really think I need more explanation of this doctrine. On the one hand, it definitely makes sense: God is more than human language or thought can express, therefore analogy is necessary. On the other hand, I really, really, REALLY get scared when people say things like, “Well, the Bible says God gets angry, but because God is impassible, and has to be impassible in the way the Greeks thought, He doesn’t get passionate.” I sort of just want to leave it at “God is God. He is unchanging. He also gets angry. Deal with it.” I guess what I’m saying is sometimes analogy is useful to point out qualifiers that Scripture itself gives, but when we use analogy to bring the Bible in line with philosophy, that gives me pause. Kinda like calling Genesis 1-12 “saga” to bring it in line with current scientific thought. 😉

    Knowing you to be too good a theologian to commit the error described above, please explain to me how you’re not doing that. :p

    • Nathan, my dear Lutheran brother, as always you raise excellent questions. First off, you might enjoy this article on impassiblity I put out a little bit ago. https://derekzrishmawy.com/2012/09/25/the-beauty-of-the-impassible-god-or-is-god-an-emotional-teenager/
      Also, you might enjoy the whole Horton article that I cite.

      To try and answer your question, I think the key is the whole, “has to be impassible in the way the Greeks thought.” Analogy has to be scripturally-informed and shaped. As I point out, we don’t think of God’s fatherly love and just fill it with our culturally-shaped notions of fatherly love. We, in a sense, look to the way the term is used in the scriptures to re-shape our notions. I get a lot of my understanding for how analogy is to be properly employed from Kevin Vanhoozer and, obviously, Michael Horton who emphasize the scriptural shape of our analogies. I do think the direction is revelation–>theologico-philosophical reflection, rather than theologico-philosophical–>reflection. And, thing is, we have to engage at that level because sometimes the philosophers are asking good questions, (and the lay-people with them.) It’s about drawing out the metaphysics presupposed or implied, but nowhere cleanly laid out, by Scripture.

      Again, I really think you’d enjoy Horton’s full article. I mean, as a plus, he takes on some of the Open theist’s more annoying claims.

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