Analogy in Theological Language (Part 2)

Analogical Language in God-Talk –Special Reference to Unity and Diversity in the Trinity

For Part 1 – Analogy in Theological Language

For Part 3 – Analogy in Theological Language: A Model of the Trinity

Analogical Language in God-talk
Let us then investigate how analogical language plays a prominent role in Christian theology.

First, some words about the language of God talk: Talk about God can be univocal, equivocal or analogical.

Univocal language – When a term is used univocally it is being given exactly the same meaning in two different contexts, e.g., we would say of both a dog and a cat that each is a mammal.

Equivocal language – This is to give a word two completely different and unrelated meanings. It is purely accidental that the word sounds the same in each case. Thus the word ‘bat’ can be used of an object in the game of cricket and of a flying animal.

Any attempt at God-talk faces the following dilemma. We must use language derived from everyday experience. If we refer to God without qualifications, we make God part of the finite world. If we dichotomize human language from a God who is totally other, we empty our God-talk of meaning. As Frederick Ferré expresses it, ‘If univocal, then language falls into anthropomorphism and cannot be about God: if equivocal, then language bereft of its meaning leads to agnosticism and cannot for us be about God’ (p.105).

Norman Geisler well puts the dilemma faced in God-talk. “Religious language has two basic hazards. It must avoid verbal idolatry on the one hand and experiential emptiness on the other hand. If it is overly transcendent, it departs from an experiential basis for meaning. If it is completely immanentistic, it commits semantical atheism” PR 219.

Perhaps we have no other choice but to rely on analogical language. Geisler justifies the use of analogical language, drawing insight from Aquinas: “…between an infinitely perfect being and finitely perfect beings there is an infinite difference in perfection (certainly an infinite differs from a finite in more than a finite way). And where there is an infinite difference in perfection there cannot be a univocal predication. A given perfection cannot mean totally the same thing as applied to God and creatures, for God and creatures are separated by an infinite degree of perfection… An infinitely perfect Cause produced finitely perfect effects. And the perfections found in these effects cannot be predicated in exactly the same manner (i.e., univocally) of God” PR 258.

There are two main forms of analogy which are claimed to be applicable to terms used of God:
The Analogy of ‘Proportion’ or ‘Attribution’ – This relates two things (analogates) which may differ widely from each other. Here the common characteristic belongs formally to one of the analogies, i.e., in the proper (univocal) and actual sense of the word. The other analogate is then said to possess a ‘like’ characteristic in a derivative sense. The usual illustration is of a person and a holiday resort both being called healthy. The latter causes men to be healthy and is called so in a derivative sense. In this case there must therefore be some real prior relationship in which the analogates can be said to stand. When used of God and man this type of analogy is normally made to depend on the relationship which is said to exist between the creator and the creature.
The Analogy of ‘Proportionality’ – In this form of analogy both terms are said to possess the analogue in a literal and unmetaphorical sense, but only in a way appropriate to their distinctive natures. Thus we must understand the word good when applied to God in terms of the type of being He is. And similarly the goodness of man must be understood in a way appropriate to man’s finite nature.
One inescapable feature of analogical predication, therefore, is that it involves both affirmation and negation of the literal meaning of the term used. For only a similarity or resemblance is being asserted, otherwise analogy would pass over into a literal usage. ‘We speak affirmatively and negatively of God at the same time, asserting the image as genuinely revealing while denying the limitations which our experience of it inevitably suggests’ (Casserley, The Christian in Philosophy, p. 41).
Analogical language also preserves the distinction between the creature and the creator and yet indicates the link between them. F. Copleston stresses that ‘The foundation of all analogy, then, that which makes analogical predication possible, is the likeness of creatures to God’ (‘A History of Philosophy’, Vol. 2, p. 355).
I shall note only one objection from Barth at this point when he argues that analogical language ignores the fallenness and finiteness of humaninty. In Barth.s words, ‘We do not say “God” by saying “man” in a “loud voice”!

Geisler’s Elaboration of Analogical Language:
Kinds of Analogies: Two basic kinds of analogy should be distinguished: extrinsic and intrinsic. The analogy between God and the creation is based in an intrinsic analogy. Otherwise, there would be no real similarity.

Extrinsic Analogy. There is no real similarity between two parties in an extrinsic analogy. Only one thing possesses the characteristic; the other one is called that characteristic by its relation to it. This can best be explained by looking at the kinds of extrinsic analogy.
Extrinsic analogy is based on similarity of relations. An analogy based on similar relationships is sometimes called “the analogy of improper proportionality.” It is “improper” because the relationship exists only in the mind doing the comparing. There is no real similarity between the “analogates” (the two things being compared). This kind of analogy declares that:

Smile as Flowers
Face Meadow

A smile is not really like flowers. However, a smile brightens a face in the way flowers adorn a meadow. There is a perceived relationship between smile and face that corresponds to the perceived relationship between flowers and meadow.

Intrinsic Analogy. An intrinsic analogy is one in which both things possess the same characteristic, each in accordance with its own being. There are, again, two kinds: the analogy of proper proportionality and the analogy of intrinsic attribution.

Intrinsic analogy is based on similarity of relations. But subtly changing the statement of relationship in the analogy of improper proportionality, we can develop an “analogy of proper proportionality.” In the analogy of proper proportionality two like things are being compared, not two like relationships. There is a proper relationship between the attribute they each possess and their own respective natures. Applied to God this analogy would declare that:

Infinite Good as Finite Good
Infinite Being Finite Being

While this analogy does not explain a direct relationship between the attribute of goodness as it applies to both parties, it does compare the way an attribute in God relates to his essence and, by comparison, the way a similar attribute in man as a creature relates to his essence. The analogy tells us nothing directly about the similarity between God and creation. Rather, it informs us about the same relationship of goodness to being in an infinite being and in a finite being.

The analogy of intrinsic attribution. In the analogy of intrinsic attribution, the analogs /analogates??) possess the same attribute, and the similarity is based on a causal connection between them. For example, hot water causes the egg floating in it to become hot. The cause communicates itself to the effect. A mind communicates its intelligence to a book. The book, then, is the intelligible effect of the intelligent cause.

This is the kind of analogy on which Aquinas bases the similarity of Creator and creatures. What God creates must be like him because he communicates himself to the effect. Being communicates being. Pure actuality creates other actualities. This kind of analogy of intrinsic attribution, where both the cause and the effect have the same attribute, is the basis for making true statements about God. These statements correspond to the way God really is because these characteristics were derived from him and communicated by him to his effects. In short, the similarity between Creator and creatures is derived from the characteristics the Creator gave to his creature.

Creatures do not possess a common characteristic (say, goodness) in the same way God does. An infinite being possesses goodness in an infinite way. Nevertheless, they both possess goodness, because a Good Being can only communicate goodness. The extent to which the creature falls short of God’s goodness is due to the finite and fallible mode of the creature’s existence; it is not cause d by the infinite goodness of its cause. But the degree to which a creature has any goodness, that goodness is like the attribute in its Creator, who is Goodness.

Eric Mascall’s Elaboration of Analogy
In the strict sense, an analogy of proportionality implies that the analogue under discussion is found formally in each of the analogates but in a mode that is determined by the nature of the analogate itself. Thus, assuming that life is an analogous and not a univocal concept, it is asserted that cabbages, elephants, men and God each possess life formally (that is, each of them is, quite literally and unmetaphorically, alive), but that the cabbage possesses life in the mode proper to a cabbage, the elephant in that proper to an elephant, the man in that proper to a man, and finally God in that supreme, and by us unimaginable, mode proper to self-existent Being itself. This is commonly expressed in the following quasi-mathematical form, from which, in fact, the name “analogy of proportionality” is derived:

life of cabbage
essence of cabbage
= life of elephant
essence of elephant
= life of man
essence of man
= life of God
essence of God

We must, however, beware of interpreting the equal sign too literally. For the point is not that the life of the cabbage is determined by the essence of the cabbage in the same way as that in which the life of the man is determined by the essence of the man, but that the way in which cabbage essence determines cabbage life is proper to cabbagehood, while the way in which the human essence determines human life is proper to manhood.
Analogy of proportionality asserts:

life of man
essence of man
= life of God
essence of God

“In these equations,” he (Mascall) writes, “two created terms are known directly, one uncreated term is known indirectly by way of causality and we infer the fourth term which is known indirectly in a positive manner as regards what is analogically common with creatures and in a negative and relative manner as regards its proper divine mode.” And the first cause and the creature are directly related by the relation of creation, which thus, as it were, cuts horizontally across the analogy of proportionality with an analogy of attribution. The equal sign does not, as we have seen earlier, express a mathematical identity, but, on the other hand, the two sides of the formula are not left in complete separation. They are bound together by an analogy of attribution unius ad alterum, of the creature to God in the case which we have just been considering. In the cases considered earlier, where the two sides of the formula both refer to finite beings, the linking analogy is an analogy duorum ad tertium, which holds in view of the fact that each of the analogates is in an analogy of attribution unius ad alterum, of itself to God. The figure below, Fig. 4, may help to make this plain.

Analogy 1: analogy of proportionality combined with analogy of attribution unius ad alterum
Analogy 2: analogy of proportionality combined with analogy of attribution unius ad alterum
Analogy 3: analogy of proportionality combined with analogy of attribution duorum ad tertium

The conclusion would thus seem to be that, in order to make the doctrine of analogy really satisfactory, we must see the analogical relation between God and the world as combining in a tightly interlocked union of both analogy of attribution and analogy of proportionality. Without analogy of proportionality it is very doubtful whether the attributes which we predicate of God can be ascribed to him in more than a merely virtual sense; without analogy of attribution it hardly seems possible to avoid agnosticism.

Caveat: Nothing original in this post. I collected these notes over a period of twenty years – since I started reading theology seriously in the 1970s

Useful References:

Frederick Ferre. Language, Logic & God. Fontana Library 1970

E. L. Mascall. Existence and Analogy. Libra Books 1966

Norman Geisler & Winfried Corduan. Philosophy of Religion 2nd Ed. Baker 1988


  1. Charis Quay says:

    Thanks for the post on analogy in Islam – very interesting. I have only recently started reading about analogy in Christian theology, but was wondering if you have read von Balthasar on the subject? I first heard of him in a book on aesthetics by D. B. Hart, which draws heavily on his work. There is also a (quite good, as far as I can judge) introduction by Edward T. Oakes (Pattern of Redemption).

  2. Kam Weng says:

    For what von Balthasar personally wrote on the subject you can refer to his great book, The Theology of Karl Barth. von Balthasar succinctly caught the central concern for Barth’s rejection of the doctrine of analogy of being.

    “By now Barth’s objection to Catholicism should also be clear: he accuses it of possessing an overarching systematic principle that is merely an abstract statement about the analogy of being and not a frank assertion that Christ is the Lord. The principle presupposes that the relationship between God and creature can already be recognized in our philosophical foreunderstanding (of natural theology). This means that God’s revelation in Jesus Christ seems to be but the fulfilment of an already existing knowledge and reality. Perhaps this need not imply a metaphysics that sets itself above faith itself, but Christ’s place as the fulfulment of salvation history is still reserved “in advance’: in an ontology that exists prior to the order of revelation and cannot be shattered by it” (p. 37).

    The same criticism applies to the dominant theology of Barth’s early days, Liberal Protestantism. The strong rhetoric by Barth must be seen in the context of his struggle with a ‘natural theology’ that was hijacked by the Nazis. Some allowance for the ‘lesser lights’ was made later in his Church Dogmatics vol 4.

    Note we are merely discussing the function of analogical language at the formal level. Theologizing can only be valid when it is rooted in concrete revelation in Christ exemplified by Barth’s Christocentricity – a Christocentricity that is Trinitarian

  3. rose ann flores says:

    Thanks for the information about analogy, it really helps me in my subject philosophy…