Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Analogy of Being.

In light of the last post my wife and I have been having a discussion regarding the analogy of being. Here is my position in outline.

First, let's define the analogy of being. The analogy of being presupposes that there is a similarity between God and his creatures. God of course does not exist as his creatures exist. He is infinite, eternal, and non-contingent. Nevertheless, he can be said to exist, as can his creatures even if there existence is profoundly different. Hence there is an analogy of being existing between them. Moreover, God's attributes (wisdom, power, goodness, etc.)though infinite and eternal, can be observed as existing in analogous manner in creatures who also possess them. There is a similarity with a still greater dissimilarity between God's reality and his creatures. Such a claim about God allowed the Medieval theologians (particularly Thomists) to claim that their doctrinal statements about God's nature were realistically true, while at the same time allowing for divine mystery.

My difficulty, which I expressed in the last post, is that to my thinking that this amounts to a theology of glory. In other words, the knowledge of God is a matter is seeing past created thing and into God's eternal being. This allows creatures to "see" God (for ancient philosophy the act of cognition is identified with seeing and not with hearing) and thereby attempt to correspond to God's glory. For Thomas in particular, the human creature is supposed to see God's being and thereby gradually become similar to it by the power of grace.

My alternative is not to talk about creatures as analogues for God, but as divine "masks" in accordance with Luther. This is not a Barthian rejection of natural theology, but a revisioning of natural theology by Luther in terms of divine presence and action, rather than ontological likeness and distance.

Luther often speaks in terms that sound (without actually meaning to be) pantheistic or panentheistic. For example, Luther talks about how God channels his goodness to his creatures through created means. When the "fool eats bread, he does not realize that he is eating God in the bread." Luther says that God "wraps himself up" in his creatures. The point here is not that God somehow is identical with the substance of the bread, but rather that God's goodness is active and present through the bread. The bread (or any other creatures) is a mask of God's presence and action. The created entity is a medium of God's goodness in that God can be recognized as creating, sustaining, and acting through the bread to give his goodness to his creatures. It is not analogical of God's goodness because there is no distance of "likeness and unlikeness" between God's creative and sustaining action and its manifestation in the creature. God's graciousness is literally and concretely manifest in that he gives the good through the bread, not a similitude to the good. Moreover, since one only comes into contact with the good that God is giving in, under, and with the creature, it is is impossible to strip away the creature to get to God's naked goodness inside. Hence, the creaturely mask is not as an "image" or analogue for God's goodness. It does not bid us to draw our minds away from the created medium to God "above" the medium (which is the point of analogy), but rather God's actual presence in the bread. I take this to be what Paul means in Romans 1 when he states that God's power and glory are known "in that which was made" (ESV). We can say this with regard to God's activity in creation as we do with regard to redemption. For example, we do not say that the Lord's Supper "reflects" God's willingness to forgive or the presence of Christ, but rather it is these things. In a similar manner, in the OT, the covenant was circumcision.

This is all very consistently with Lutheranism's insistence that the "finite is capable of the infinite." As Gustaf Wingren points out, God's creatures are not alien to him in that made them precisely for the purpose of acting through them. Analogy supposes that the finite can only "reflect" or "echo" the infinite by similitude. For Lutherans, the infinite God can be known truly and directly through the created medium in that it is capable of serving as a vehicle of his infinity. This also corresponds to how Lutherans understand the Incarnation. For Lutherans, the man Christ is the presence of God, whereas for the Reformed and Catholics Christ's humanity reflects God. Denying the genus majestaticum, both Reformed and Catholics talk about the "creatured gifts" (i.e. created analogues of God's divinity in Jesus' humanity) given to the man Jesus.

For this reason, our language about God should be characterized as "sacramental" and not analogical. God cannot, as Luther states, be spoken of apart from the masks of his creaturely coverings. Whenever we speak about God, we are speaking about his presence and activity wrapped in his creatures, not his eternal and hidden being. This is why the analogy as a theological method ultimately does not work. It ignores the means through which God has made himself present to us and seeks to look into his hidden being through the creaturely medium as if they were transparent.


  1. So this works as well with the way Lutherans collapse the signifed/signifier distinction in considering the sacraments and word, I assume? I'm still curious about language though. We suffer God's activity directly via His masks in creation. How do we talk about this activity in a realistic way without analogy without falling into the idea that our concepts apply to God in the exact same way that they apply to us - sort of sliding into the univocity of being. Meaning in language is based in part on distinction. Does no analogy mean no distinction, which would be no meaning? This maybe makes no sense. I have to grade exams now.

  2. Jack, you started by talking about the analogy of being and ended by talking about analogical language for God. Those are related, but different things.

    I'm with Bethany here. If you don't want to fall into the trap of the "God-talk-has-no-referent-to-reality-as-we–know-it" school of agnosticism, you have to say that statements about God have some real relationship to statements about created things.

    Either words like "goodness" "knowledge" and "existence" mean the same thing when applied to God and to creatures, or they are analogous, or they are ambiguous. So what other options are there? The agnostics would have it be ambiguous. I think "masks of God" is right, concerning how God deals with us, but it doesn't answer the question about what theological language is. It doesn't answer the question of the truthfulness of our praise of God and speaking about Him.

    BTW, Johann Gerhard claims to predicate things of God without using analogy, but I think he actually does use analogy. And really, how could it be otherwise?

  3. The analogy of being applies to God and creature *but* only if God is not reducible to His attributes. In other words, attributes are not the "sum total" of His essence. The early church fathers, particularly the Eastern tradition, one of whom Jack has cited, namely St Basil, were particular in insisting that the essence is unknowable. The essence "defines" the Deity but the Deity namely God the *Father* (as per the Apostles' Creed confesses in the opening lines ...) does not define the Deity. Being - existence - then is equated with the triune Persons, and not the essence. Thus, the analogy of being is the analogy of operations or acts and not some abstract philosophical speculation about the "being" of God. For example, God's creative power is reflected in human creativity. But this says nothing about the essence. The divine energies comes down but the essence remained inaccessible. In this, Luther (in distinction from the Lutheran scholastics) was much closer to the patristics. The error of the Reformed is heightened all the more by their rejection of the genus majestaticum. Jack is right to add both the Reformed and Roman in the same breath in this respect.

  4. Ben,

    I also share your concern for the "realism" of theological language. Allow me further clarification.

    1. My major concern is that we do not view God as being different than he testifies himself to be and is present in his works. For this reason, we cannot talk about God's self presentation in his works as being analogical insofar as they are not "similar and disimilar" to God, but rather are literally true of God in, under, and with his masks. Hence, we would not want to say with Barth or Aquinas that God is known because of his "similarity" to creaturely means that he is established, but rather is really what he is in himself in these creaturely means. In the word of absolution, for example, God is quite literally gracious- not a similitude of graciousness.

    2. Secondly, I am concerned that we do not attempt to think into revelation and ignore God's presence in means through which he wishes to interact with us. You are correct that "existence" "Goodness" or "Wisdom" cannot be predicated of God and creatures in the same way and that our propositional statements about God are therefore necessarily analogical.

    This being said, we must say that this does not allow us to talk about God directly above means of his self-presentation, i.e., above his masks- but rather "through a glass darkly."

    Suffering God in, under, and through his masks, we come to recognize that God as he is present in these masks corresponds to how he is in himself. For example, receiving his grace through Word and sacrament, we recognize and confess God to be gracious in himself. If God was not, then how and why would we suffer him as such in his masks? Our concepts of God therefore arise from this reception of God's true self through means. This does not mean though that these conceptions fully encompass the fullness of his glory, especially since it is hidden- only his "hind quarters" as Luther translated Exodus 33. An additional problem is that God acts on us differently through different means. In the kingdom of world he acts upon us through wrath, and in the means of grace he acts according to his mercy. We cannot ascend to heaven and coordinate how and why God chooses to be present differently to us in different means.

    Since our finite words and concept do not encompass the fullness of the hidden divine being, we must trust that they correspond to his reality analogically without knowing in his life how they do so. In other words, we cannot use our confession of God's "Goodness", "Wisdom," or "Holiness" to ascend into the hidden divine being and see these things in themselves. Neither can we use our recognition of God's grace in the Church to explain away God's wrath and judgment through other means. How God's real presence in contradictory manners is synthesizable in the eternal unity of his being is not knowable this side of eternity. We will see in the next life in light of glory how our confession of these words and concepts correspond to God himself. In this life, we must be content to deal with God in his means and confess these things to be true about God in himself.

  5. Jack, I like your explanation. It seems to me that some people read "analogical language for God" in an ambiguous nothing-signifying direction, and others read it in a direction toward identical predication. You avoid both of these errors, which I also was trying to avoid.

    "Augustinian Successor," why the pseudonym? What do you have to hide? And on what primary sources is your assertion about Lutheran orthodoxy based?

  6. Ben,

    Why do you have to hide your doubts behind an accusation? I am not the least surprised that you don't like my remarks about Lutheran orthodoxy.