Please read this important preface:
I write what follows with a general sense of prudence due to the fact that the individual I am interacting with, Samuel Renihan, is not only much smarter than I am, but he has also been one of the most important individuals in the development of my thinking regarding the important subject of Covenant Theology. While I do not want to get into the details of Covenant Theology on this website, so that it remains mainly philosophical in nature, the reader should understand the extent to which I have been blessed by the hard work of Mr. Renihan. I look forward to years and decades of productive writing from him, and I stand to gain much learning from his able mind. In our time of confusion regarding issues such as justification and other matters related to the gospel message and the kingdom of Christ, Renihan is a solid resource, and I appreciate what he has done so far in his short ministry.
On a related note, the context of Sam Renihan’s thoughts on the matter of analogical predication have to do with a holistic and multi-publication effort by a doctrinally sound and impressively productive group called Reformed Baptist Academic Press (RBAP); a group that has earned all my respect and praise over the last several years. This effort has to do with defending two related doctrines: The Impassibility of God and Divine Simplicity. I agree with both of these (though my understanding of simplicity might have its distinctions, considering RBAP’s Thomism and my own Augustinianism/Clarkianism). My point, however, is that one should not mistake my disagreement with analogical predication with an admittance of agreement with the various groups that RBAP is trying to defend the Confessional view from. On a personal level, I too subscribe to the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith.
In the introduction to the book God Without Passions: A Reader, Samuel Renihan provides a succinct overview regarding his views (and implicitly, the views of the various theologians whose content makes up the body of the book) on “analogical predication” as it relates to the way that we, finite human creatures, can talk about God, who is both divine and eternal. This is an important philosophical issue, as it has led to a variety of different debates leading into big issues such as the nature of truth, the proper epistemological methodology, the role of logic in our thinking, and beyond. In fact, there are issues relating to the present subject that were key aspects of the so-called and understudied “Clark-Van Til debate” that raged in Reformed circles during the early to mid twentieth century. As this site takes an explicitly Clarkian view of things, I should just take a moment to explain how Clark and Van Til thought about the tool of “analogy” in their respective philosophical systems.
In Van Til’s estimation, all knowledge held in the mind of the human being is “analogical” to “God’s knowledge” because the distinction between creature and creator was such that there could never be any point of contact between the mind of God and the mind of man. Why? Essentially, the reason was sourced in the idea that the “essence” of God and the “essence” of man were by necessity so infinitely separated that one could not predicate the same thing of both God and man. It follows from this that if we predicate “knows proposition x” onto “God” we cannot at the same time predicate “knows proposition x” onto “man” and mean the same thing. Therefore, in Van Til’s view, God and man cannot know the very same proposition. Man, therefore, only knows an analogy of the truth.
This view stems from the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas. To be clear, Van Til does not mean by analogy the precise same thing as is meant in the Thomistic doctrine of analogy of being. Van Til is not a Thomist per se. In the Thomistic view, we cannot predicate things of both God and man univocally. We cannot properly say God and man are both good or smart or creative, because God is those things in a completely different way than we are. Robert Reymond, in his fantastic Systematic Theology, expands on this point:
“Aquinas declared that nothing can properly be predicated of God and man in a univocal sense. To do so and to say, for example, that God and man are both “good” and to intend by “good” the same meaning, is to ignore the difference between the essences of God the Creator (his existence is identical with his essence) and of man the creature (his existence and his essence are two different matters).”
It was this paradigm that paved the way for analogical predication:
“But Aquinas saw too that to intend an equivocal meaning for “good” would lead to complete ambiguity and epistemological skepticism. Therefore he urged the way of proportionality or analogy as the via media between univocality and equivocality. In other words, the assertion, “God and man are both good,” means analogically that man’s goodness is proportional to man as God’s goodness is proportional to God, but it also means that the goodness intended cannot be the same goodness in both cases. In sum, of this Aquinas was certain: nothing can be predicated of God and man in the univocal sense. Rather, only analogical predication is properly possible when speaking of the relationship between them.”
Indeed, in the upcoming book “Confessing an Impassible God,” Charles J. Rennie, relying on the views of Thomas Aquinas, writes: “There is infinitely greater difference between God and man, than between man and beast.” Sam Renihan agrees with this basic framework as he writes: “Nothing that is truly in God can be predicated properly of the creature, and conversely nothing that is truly in the creature can be predicated properly of God.” It is for this reason that Renihan embraces the need for the category of “analogy,” as did Thomas Aquinas before him.
Now let’s step back once more to the Clark-Van Til divide (and by way of reminder, their differences are philosophical in nature– while it is popularly assumed that the split between these two thinkers was on apologetic methods, we need to realize that their respective methods were merely a result of their differing epistemologies.). Van Til took Aquinas’ “particular ontological vision” and “insist[ed] that all verbal revelation [the Bible] coming from God to humans will of necessity be ‘anthropomorphic’” and in “human form” (Reymond). In short, Van Til’s position led to the conclusion that man has knowledge that both “never corresponds” to God’s knowledge and at the same time can be considered “true knowledge.” But this was severely problematic, as Gordon Clark observed when he wrote:
“If God knows all truths and knows the correct meaning of every proposition, and if no proposition means to man what it means to God, so that God’s knowledge and man’s knowledge do not coincide at any single point, it follows by rigorous necessity that man can have no truth at all.”
“If God and man know, there must with the differences be at least one point of similarity; for if there were no point of similarity it would be inappropriate to use the one term knowledge in both cases…. If God has the truth and if man has only an analogy [“this “analogy” containing no univocal element”–Reymond], it follows that he (man) does not have the truth.”
And in this way, the Van Tillian view of truth and analogy and God’s knowledge leads straight to skepticism.
My point here is not that Van Til is a Thomist per se, or that Renihan is a Van Tillian. Van Til’s use of analogy is not quite the same as Aquinas’ analogy of being.
Now then, above we mentioned Clark versus Van Til. And if Renihan also takes up Thomas Aquinas’ foundation, does he avoid the path taken by Van Til? Let me be clear here: I am not accusing Mr. Renihan of falling into the same extreme problems as Van Til, but I am saying that, by utilizing the same Thomistic foundation, he hasn’t done enough to prepare the way for a rational system of knowledge about both God and the world. In other words, while he doesn’t talk about it, it is hard to imagine how he would escape the implications of the fact that one cannot both believe that man and God hold to the same true propositions and at the same time state that nothing predicated of God can be predicated of man. Because then one would have to agree that you cannot predicate “knows proposition x” onto both God and man. This is the implication of Aquinas’ “analogy of being.”
But there are more fundamental flaws as well in “analogy” as an interpretive tool, as Clark explains:
“Furthermore, analogical knowledge, supposedly superior to negative knowledge, turns out to be impossible. Analogies can be constructed only when we first know some element common to the things compared. The paddle of a canoe and the propeller of an outboard motor are analogous because in a univocal sense they are both means of a moving a boat over the water. Without this univocal purpose there would be no analogy. It is also necessary to know both the paddle and the propellor before the analogy can be stated. No one ignorant of a propeller can construct an analogy between it and a paddle, much less claim that this analogy now gives him a knowledge of the propellor which he did not previously have. It follows that we have a positive and univocal knowledge of God or no knowledge at all.”
What this means is that, in order to create an analogy in the first place, one needs to know the precise point of univocality. But as Renihan states below, under his framework, there actually is no univocality at all! How then can analogy serve its purpose? And actually, what is the purpose of analogy anyway? Consider Clark’s reflections:
“Thomism has always denied man a positive knowledge of God. Only negative and analogical knowledge is admitted. This Thomistic position has recently been accepted by many non-Romanists. For example, Langdon Gilkey in his book, Maker of Heaven and Earth, says that “the transcendence of God requires that all our language about him be analogical” (323); and later repeats that “It is only by analogy and paradox, not by literal language, that we can speak of God” (349).
Now obviously, Gilkey sounds quite Van Tillian. But while Renihan (thankfully) doesn’t venture into paradox land, please consider his own statements regarding language below. But first, continuing with Clark:
“Contemporary theologians should examine carefully the functions and limitations of analogy. Analogy is essentially a literary and aesthetic device. […]
However, in philosophy and theology analogy is not much use. If two objects are compared, for example, if we say that man is the image of God, it is not immediately evident what the point of similarity is. It may be freedom; it may be male and female; or it may be rationality. In addition to the bare statement that man is like God, we need a definite, positive identification of the similarity. Analogy does not give us this information.
What is much worse is that in theology, as distinct from poetry, analogy is used to compare a known object with an unknown object. The Thomistic theory is that we have no positive knowledge of God, but our ignorance can be relieved to some extent by learning that this unknown God is like man. Thus we manufacture an analogical notion of God. This is impossible. Suppose I were to tell you that a boojum is like an apple. Does this mean that a boojum is red but not round, round by not red, both round and red, or neither round and red but soft? A statement comparing a known with an unknown object gives us no knowledge of the unknown object at all. Hence dependence on analogical knowledge, paradox, or symbols, with its denial of literal and positive knowledge of God, destroys both revelation and theology and leaves us in complete ignorance.”
This is devastating to Thomistic ontological claims. For in their framework, God cannot be known as such, and we therefore must use non-univocal and analogical predications to describe God. But if these predications are just analogies, and we don’t know what the analogy points to, then the analogy is completely useless. Much of our language is useful precisely because it corresponds univocally with what we know about God. When we speak of truth, we are not referring to some “human conception,” we are referring to the very propositions which God believes. When we speak of “goodness,” “righteousness,” “justice,” and “love,” we do not speak of mere “human conceptions. We are speaking of God-ness. God is love. Inasmuch as the conception in our mind of love is non-univocal with God, my conception is deficient. We can say that God is good, and by good realize that we do not mean exactly our conception of good, but if God is not our conception of good, it follows that we actually don’t know what we mean when we say God is good. Or even more to the point, we don’t actually know a true proposition when we say we believe that “God is good.”
Now then, to comment on a few specific sentences that Renihan wrote in his introduction.
Firstly, he makes a set of claims regarding language and how God uses it to reveal himself to us. “[W]e must admit at the outset that our language will never line up univocally (i.e., identically) with what God is in his essential absolute perfection.” And further: “God speaks to us of himself, borrowing from our own language and experience to communicate with us. This is necessary because our language cannot perfectly correspond to what God is due to the infinity of his being and perfection.”
In reflecting on this, it should be noted that this understanding of things presumes a certain view of language that can be improved. The vocabulary above suggests that language is something that God needs to borrow from, rather than created, in order to communicate with his creatures. But perhaps this is just an unclear expression or oversight, and, if pressed, Renihan would gladly admit with Gordon Clark that “God gave Adam a mind to understand the divine law, and he gave him language to enable him to speak to God.” But if Renihan would agree with this position after all, then he could not agree with the position that Clark was critiquing. “Language,” Clark explains, “did not develop from, nor was its purpose restricted to, the physical needs of earthly life.” In other words, language is not something that originates with man, but rather with God, who shares rationality in common with his image-bearers. And if God created language to express Himself, it is suddenly not so clear why God cannot be known univocally through it. For, as Clark, points out:
“If God is omnipotent, he can tell men the plain, unvarnished, literal truth. He can tell them David was King of Israel; he can tell them he is omnipotent; he can tell them he created the world; and he can tell them that the divine image consists in reason. He can tell them all this in positive, literal, non-analogical, non-symbolic terms.”
Stated differently, God created language precisely so that it might be used as a vehicle to communicate propositions that can be understood and known by both God and man in the same sense. This of course implies a certain theory of knowledge that is distinct from Renihan’s. For Clark, the language– words and sentences– is just a sign that signifies the very thoughts themselves; these thoughts are understood by the human mind, which, like God’s, is rational. Clark: “Since God is both rational and omnipotent he faced no problem in adequately expressing his truth in words. Because man is also rational, he faces no inherent problem in understanding God’s words.” Thus, language does “line up” with what God is, precisely because that is the role God intended for language, as he created minds that might know God. The language, strictly speaking, is not the truth. But the language is a sign that tags the very propositions in the mind of man that also are in the mind of God (if they are true propositions since truth is the propositions in the mind of God).
Further on, Renihan writes (and quotes Zanchius) “If we understand God’s self-revelation ‘in that sense which he [God] would have it [revelation] taken’ then we need not doubt its truth, usefulness, or accuracy. God not only gives us his names by which we can know him, but he also gives us the sense in which we ought to understand those names. Thus, so long as we use God’s names in the way the Scripture does, there can be no doubt that we are describing him truly, albeit not univocally.”
Now, this is very curiously phrased. The first sentence seems to be arguing that God intended his revelation to be understood in a certain way, and if we understand it in this way, then we don’t need to doubt its truth. There is no problem with this per se. But the important question here is whether God intends his revelation to be understood in the same way as He Himself understands it. If not, then obviously we cannot have truth (because God understands the truth, but if we can’t understand it in the same sense he does, then we cannot have the truth).* But if so, then it seems that we can predicate “understands God’s self revelation” onto both man and God, thereby dissenting from Aquinas and affirming the more Augustinian Gordon Clark. Moreover, then we would also be describing God univocally after all; for only in this way can we claim to be describing him truly.
This directly counters Renihan when he writes “we are describing him truly, albeit not univocally.” If truth can be non-univocal, then we have a situation in which a true proposition can be in our mind, while not in God’s mind (remember, we are talking about the names God uses to describe himself to us). Or vice versa. For instance, in the Thomist view, we have a limited understanding of what “good” might mean when applied to God because our “experience” does not allow us to understand the exact meaning. But if this is the case then the meaning of the proposition “God is good” is different when thought by God and by man. But only one meaning can be true.
Either we are describing him with truth or we are describing him with an analogy of the truth. If the first case, we eliminate the possibility that God can have that truth in his mind; and in the second case, we rule out of the possibility of knowing a true proposition at all. In other words, if we know a true proposition, God cannot know that proposition and it is absurd to suggest that God is not omniscient. But, if God knows a proposition, our knowing it is precluded on this view.
Skepticism regarding God has not been avoided.
Renihan moves on to explain the so-called “quidditative” otherness of God, which is a Thomistic term that aims to reflect the idea that God is totally different ontologically or “in his essence,” or “in his being” than his creation. Quiddity refers to the “whatness” or “essence” of God. It is here that Renihan and the ontological Thomists will drive home that idea that God is totally other and that finite human language therefore by essential necessity falls short of univocally predicating of God and man. While we will have to expand on our thoughts of quiddity in the future due to the length of this article, this section is where things get very interesting because it is due to this idea that Renihan can claim: “in a manner of speaking, analogical predication is never univocal and partly equivocal.” But this is highly questionable. After all, the whole point of analogy was to serve as a via media between univocal and equivocal. And if the analogical predication is never univocal, what’s the point of the analogy? As Robert Reymond argues:
“…what is it about any analogy that saves it from becoming a complete equivocality? Is it not the univocal element implicit within it? For example, if I assert that an analogy may be drawn between an apple and an orange, do I not intend to suggest that the apple and the orange, obviously different in some respects, are the same in at least one respect? Why, otherwise, would I be drawing attention to the relationship between them? While it is true that the one respect in which I perceive that they are similar will not be immediately apparent to anyone else without further explanation on my part, it should be clear nonetheless to everyone, if I assert that they are analogous one to the other, that I believe that in some sense a univocal feature exists between them—in this case, it may be that I have in mind that they are both fruit, or that they are both spherical, or that they both have extension in space or have mass. I intend to suggest that, for all their differences, they have something in common. The predicate indicates something that is equally true of both. What I am urging here is that the success of any analogy turns on the strength of the univocal element in it.”
It seems that Renihan suffers the same dilemma as Aquinas himself (per Reymond):
“Aquinas’s dilemma is that he wanted to have his cake and eat it too. He wanted to affirm the analogous relationship between God and man on the one hand, but he denied all univocal coincidence in predication respecting them on the other. But if he affirms the relationship between God and man to be truly analogous, he cannot consistently deny that in some sense a univocal element exists between them. Or if he denies all univocal coincidence in predication between God and man, he cannot continue to speak of the predicative relationship between them as one of analogy. As a matter of fact, Gordon H. Clark has argued that Aquinas’s doctrine of the analogia entis (analogy of being) between God and man is actually not analogical at all but really an equivocality.”
This is why Clark at several points in his writings blamed Aquinas for ruining an innocent use for analogy (as utilized by Aristotle) by twisting it from its original use (being built on a known univocal aspect) and applying it wrongly (using it without knowledge of the univocal aspect). Which again is why “Clark has argued that Aquinas’s doctrine of the analogia entis (analogy of being) between God and man is actually not analogical at all but really an equivocality.”
And of course, if the whole thing is an equivocality after all, is not skepticism the result? Can man know his God?
Renihan shifts to a slightly different subject following the above, and we will not consider the rest. But I should emphasize what was stated in the beginning of the present essay: the context of Renihan’s thoughts is in pursuit of defending the Reformed Confession’s doctrine of a God without passions. One should not mistake my disagreement with Renihan’s understanding of analogical predication with the idea that I agree with the other side of the debate regarding a passionate God. And neither do we deny the distinction between Creator and creature. Like Renihan and the good folks at Reformed Baptist Academic Press, I believe and confess that God does not have passions. I strongly disagree with their opponents in this important debate and I praise the efforts to defend the confession’s view. I do side with Gordon Clark and Robert Reymond over against Sam Renihan, Charles Rennie, and James Dolezal on the issue of analogical predication; and this is primarily due to their Thomistic understanding of the being and essence of God, as I prefer instead the Augustinian and Clarkian view, which I hope I can expand upon in a future follow up to this article.
* (Note: it is here that the doctrine of Divine Simplicity comes into play, but we will have to save that for a future essay).