How can we speak about God? As creatures, we only (per se) know creation. Yet, there is a boundless gulf between creatures and the Creator. How can we, from our restricted knowledge of creation, know the Creator? For, “Who is like unto the LORD our God, that hath his dwelling so high?” (Psalm 113:5)
This article seeks to lay out how the tradition has begun to answer this question through apophatic theology and analogous language. In this, we will see that there are steps to obtaining a knowledge of God, go over the idea of analogous language, and cover the distinction between negative and positive terms applied to God.
Positive vs. Negative Terms
First, there is a distinction between “positive” names and “negative” names. Negative names are those names wherein we deny something in God. For example, when we say that God is “infinite,” we only deny that God is “finite.”
There are many examples of this. In simplicity, we say that God is “not compound,” etc. The mode of using these names is quite simple and does not need a lengthy treatment. In sum, you take a created imperfection, and then you deny it of God.
Positive terms, on the other hand, are tricker. It requires a deeper investigation into the nature of language and God. In sum, a positive term is a term in a proposition about God wherein we are affirming a certain mixed perfection in creation to, in some sense, be true of God in that it stands in some relation to Him. The tradition has systematized the process of rightly using these positive terms, which I will outline below.
When we think about the relationship between the affirmation of the same term to different subjects, there are three species. First, the terms may be univocal. That is, the terms are identified with one another. When I say that “I am white” and “Socrates is white,” I mean the same thing by “white.”
Second, terms may be equivocal. That is, the terms have no relation with one another. For example, if I said “I am white” and “Betty White died,” there is no relation between the two terms except that they have the same spelling. In the first, I am referring to a certain accident (color) that inheres in me, and in the second, I am referring to a proper name.
Third, terms may be analogical. There is a certain relation between the term that is “mixed,” wherein the reference is found in different modes. For example, if I said “I am healthy” and “this food is healthy,” I am not attributing a state of medical wellbeing to food, but am speaking about the fact that it causes health, i.e., that it exists in a certain mode wherein it gives health.
It is clear that we cannot affirm a purely univocal term of God and creation. Some have affirmed that all of our language about God is equivocal. This is clearly silly. For, in this case, all our language about God would be meaningless, and we would be able to say nothing about Him. Therefore, our language about God must be analogical.
As the Catechism of the Catholic Church States,
All creatures bear a certain resemblance to God, most especially man, created in the image and likeness of God. The manifold perfections of creatures—their truth, their goodness, their beauty—all reflect the infinite perfection of God. Consequently, we can name God by taking his creatures’ perfections as our starting point. (CCC 41)
Step 1: Affirm the Analogous Term
The first step in properly affirming a positive term of God is to affirm the analogous term. In this, we affirm and assert a term that is predicated both to creation and God in different senses. As is stated in the Book of Wisdom, “For from the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator.”
We will take an example through this process that is as controversial as it is obscure, the repentance of God. Sacred scripture speaks of God being repentant. (Gen. 6:6-7; 1 Sam. 15:11) In creatures, repentance is the desire to remove a certain evil present in itself.
Step 2: Deny the Created Imperfections
In the term we have affirmed to God analogously, there is a mixed perfection. Some aspects of this term are imperfect and must be denied. As Dionysius states, “The same things are like and unlike to God; like, according to as they imitate Him, as far as they can, Who is not perfectly imitable; unlike, according to as effects fall short of their causes.” (Div. Nom. 9)
Specifically, “such terms can be either affirmed or denied of God: affirmed, on account of the signification of the term; denied, on account of the mode of signification.” (SGC 30)
In step 2, we take that term applied to God from our created experience and deny those imperfect aspects.
God transcends all creatures. Therefore, we must continually purify our language of everything in it that is limited, image-bound or imperfect, if we are not to confuse our image of God—“the inexpressible, the incomprehensible, the invisible, the ungraspable”—with our human representations. (CCC 42)
In the case of our example, there are quite a few aspects that must be denied.
First, there is no passion in God.
Second, there is no evil present in God wherein He needs to repent.
Third, God does not change His will.
Therefore, in our removal of imperfections, repentance in God is not a passion but an inclination. Second, it does not have as its object its own evil, but the evil in another. Third, it does not involve a change in will but refers to a will that changes.
When we speak of the repentance of God, we are speaking of the inclination of His will to eradicate evil in creation (SCG1.C91.17), as is clear from the text in Genesis wherein God had the inclination of will to eradicate evil on earth by a flood, not a change of will coming from some realization of a mistake.
Step 3: Raise Perfections to the Superlative Degree
While we have removed the created imperfections from our term, the perfections that remain are still created perfections. Therefore, we will raise the remaining perfections to the superlative degree as Divine perfections.
Pohle helpfully outlines three ways in which this is done,
Language has three terms for three different forms of the superlative: First, abstract terms; e. g., God is goodness (ipsa bonitas—αὐταγαθότης); second, terms compounded with the adverbs “all” or “alone”; e. g., God is all-powerful or, “God alone is powerful” (cfr. the “Tu solus altissimus” of the “Gloria”); and third, terms compounded with the prefix “super” (e. g., God is super-temporal, i. e., above time, independent of it). (Dog. Th., God, 70)
In our case of repentance, God has a superlative inclination towards the removal of evil; this is seen in the incarnation. God is so supremely repentant (in the sense laid out above) that He became man in order that creation would be eradicated of its evil, more than that, that nature would be elevated by grace to glory. This repentance was so strong that Our Lord suffered the greatest humiliation and pains to carry out this repentance.
As a summary of these three ways, Frassen provides a helpful illustration of this:
The painter produces a portrait as it were “affirmatively,” by brushing his colors upon the canvas; the sculptor may be said to proceed “negatively” in carving a statue; while the poet treats his subject “superlatively,” by applying to it all sorts of tropes, metaphors, and hyperboles. (Scotus Academicus, “De Deo,” disp. I, art. 2, qu. 1.)
In conclusion, the tradition has given us adequate tools for being able to speak about God, namely, “affirmation, negation, intensification.”
Yet, we must remember two things. First, that our language “really does attain to God himself.” (CCC 43) Just because we are using analogous language, cleansed of imperfection, does not mean that we are agnostics; to the contrary, we are saying something which is true about God (to our limited capacity).
Second, even though we are saying something true about God, nevertheless we are not speaking about Him per se, but only, as St. Thomas Aquinas says, “what he is not, and how other beings stand in relation to him.” (SCG I, 30)