Analogical Language and Approaching God

There are three types of language that we use when speaking about God. By language, I don’t mean English, Spanish, French, etc. I mean rather the way we use the words that we say no matter what language they’re in. All of these were discussed in the Medieval period by Dons Scotus and Thomas Aquinas.

The first is univocal. Let us take the word love as an example. If I were to be seeing my family again at Christmas and I see my Mom and say “I love you Mom” and were then to see my Dad and say “I love you Dad”, it is not likely anyone would think that I mean something different by the word love in each case. I love my Mom and my Dad the same way.

On the other hand, in English, we know love can take on a number of other meanings which is really a deficit in the English language. I cannot say I love my friends the same way that I love my parents. I definitely cannot say I love my friends or parents the way I’d love a significant other of the opposite sex. I finally cannot say I love any of these the way I am to love God. When the same word is used and the meaning is differnt, then we have what is called equivocal language.

There is a third type and that is analogical language. There is a similarity but a difference. Scotus and Aquinas went back and forth on this, though not literally as they didn’t live at the same time exactly, but their writings show a discussion over the ideas. Scotus was worried that if our words don’t mean the same thing when describing God, then all God-language is meaningless, but Aquinas knew that there had to be some difference between us and God.

The answer is that the concepts that we speak of are univocal, but the application of them is analogical. We can speak of the wisdom of God for instance. Wisdom is meant univocally. It’s not something completely different for God than it is for us. However, when it comes to application, it’s analogical. We are wise finitely and God is infinite wisdom.

What does this have to do with the approach to God?

My prayer time for me is the last thing before I turn out the lights at night. I am finding it a more and more exciting time. I find this quite odd and some of you I’m sure can relate. Why is it that I enjoy that time so much, but I find it hard to come and do that which I enjoy so much? One would think it second nature. One would also think it easy to fall back to sleep when I wake up in the middle of the night just by coming to that place of joy again. Both times there seems to be a disconnect and I’m skeptical to it being a disconnect of the same nature each time.

Yet as I pray, I find the words of my prayer being totally inadequate and realize that the God I am addressing is far greater than I thought. We must realize this with Scripture also. It speaks in this language as well that if we took it literally many times, we would be in trouble. It would leave us with some false notions of God. The metaphor is there though to paint a symbol for us of a far more beautiful picture.

Take the passage about boldly approaching the throne of grace. We are told to do that. Consider this though. Do you literally come to a throne? Is God literally sitting on a throne? Is there a place where you go and then you are with God and in another place, God is not there? While I believe God’s presence can be made manifest in a certain area, I also hold to the omnipresence of God and believe that he is in all places.

Instead, I try to realize now that I am not so much coming to him as I am realizing where I already am. Reality clicks in and I realize that God is present and he has always been present. If only I would see him present more often. It would make struggles I have with sin be far more easier and would increase my dedication through long work hours or other forms of suffering.

The throne is to remind me of who he is. He is the king of the universe. He is the originator of the cosmos. He is the creator and sustainer of all life. He is the sovereign master who oversees it all. He is omnipotent. He reigns. I am told to approach the throne, but may I never lose sight of what is meant by that throne.

It could be frankly that sometimes, we have a hard time believing in and trusting God because we haven’t taken a good idea of who he is. We’ve made God so small today that we don’t really consider how awesome it is that such a being exists and what an impact that makes. If God can be taken away from one’s life and there is little or no change ultimately in the worldview, one has to wonder how much impact God was making before. Nietzsche got this right. Take away God and there are consequences and he made sure we knew what those were. 

Now many of us might not be at that point, but are we much better? Do we have the knowledge of who God is as a vibrant reality in our lives that shapes all we do, or does God just occupy one small little portion of our worldview? If you’re wondering if this blogger thinks he’s there yet, rest assured, he’s not. I speak to myself as much as I speak to all of you.

As an intellectual, I also realize a great danger that I face. When doing theology, while I should be intellectual, it is very easy to come to God as if I am a great master of knowledge approaching a subject for study. It is just the reverse. I should come to God realizing that I am a subject and I am approaching the great master. Humility needs to be a huge part of the approach to God.

Consider another case. What if I say I am now approaching him? I am now for me, but God has always been there. My ideas of time and space bind me so much that I cannot help but see them as I approach God. I find it so difficult to fathom a God who lives in an eternal now and is doing all things that he is doing at one moment and holds all knowledge about me at this time, past, present, and future.

Have you stopped to think lately how awesome he is?

If our prayers are nonchalant, maybe it could be because we don’t realize who we’re praying to. If our Christian life is not one that we are growing in grace and truth, maybe we don’t realize who our teacher is. If our Bibles aren’t teaching us truths, maybe we don’t realize who it is that is really the mind behind them.

And yes, I speak to myself as much as you. I need to improve as well.

I don’t know when your time is for prayer, but I hope you have one. Next time you go, consider to whom you are going.

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47 Responses to “Analogical Language and Approaching God”

  1. John Gallagher Says:

    Found this article while searching for a way to explain to someone about the analogical use of language. Thanks for posting it.

  2. Bemskie Says:

    Thank you. :)

  3. Chris Says:

    I know this is a really old post, but if you get this, could you post a reference on this statement:

    “The answer is that the concepts that we speak of are univocal, but the application of them is analogical. We can speak of the wisdom of God for instance. Wisdom is meant univocally. It’s not something completely different for God than it is for us. However, when it comes to application, it’s analogical. We are wise finitely and God is infinite wisdom.”

    I don’t disagree, but I was surprised to find that Scotus and I had the same concern, and I’d like more information on this answer. Thanks!

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