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How to Speak About God?


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.

Analogous Language

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.

  1. First, there is no passion in God.

  2. Second, there is no evil present in God wherein He needs to repent.

  3. Third, God does not change His will.