Can Words Describe God? Part 1

Post Author: Bill Pratt

Recently some of my skeptical friends who frequently comment on the blog raised a very important issue: how do we use language when talking about God?  Is God so transcendent that our words communicate nothing about him?  Is the Christian God so “other” that words completely fail us?

There seem to be three options about God-talk.

First, that it is equivocal (totally different from the way God really is).  According to theologian Norman Geisler in his Systematic Theology. Vol. 1, “Equivocal God-talk leaves us in total ignorance about God. At best, one can only feel, intuit, or sense God in some experiential way, but no human expressions can describe what it is that is being experienced.”

This option has several problems.  Geisler clarifies, “First, it is self-defeating, since it affirms with human language about God that we cannot affirm anything about God. Religious mystics certainly write books about God. In brief, any attempt to express the equivocal view about God implies that some non-equivocal language about God is possible.”  Total agnosticism about God, in other words, is self-defeating, as soon as the agnostic says anything about God.

“Second, the Bible declares that God can be described in human language. Indeed, Scripture as a whole is an attempt to inform us about God and to evoke a response from us.”  Equivocal God-talk is totally contradicted by Scripture, where the writers clearly believed they were communicating truths about God.

“Third, there is a continual and consistent tradition in orthodox theology from the earliest centuries to the present that assumes human language can express truth about the transcendent God. This is manifest in the great confessions, creeds, and councils of the Christian church, to say nothing of all the theological treatises of the great Fathers of the church from the second century to the present.”  The history of the church demonstrates that even the earliest believers thought they could use language to talk about God.

For these reasons, equivocal God-talk must be rejected.

The second option for God-talk is that it is univocal (totally the same as God really is).  This view claims that the words we use can be applied directly to God, in the same exact way we would apply those words to finite creatures, such as human beings.

This option also has problems.  Geisler explains, “First, how can our understanding of God be entirely the same as God’s (i.e., univocal)? Our understanding and expressions are finite, and God’s are infinite, and there is an infinite gulf between finite and infinite. As transcendent, God is not only beyond our limited understanding, but He is also beyond our finite expressions.”  Because God’s nature is understood to be infinite in being, we cannot use finite language to capture exactly who God is.

“Second, the Bible makes it clear that God is far above our thoughts and words. As the prophet Isaiah aptly put it, “’For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ ” declares the LORD. “’As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts’ ” (Isa. 55:8–9). For a mortal human being to know as God knows, he would have to be God, since only God knows infinitely.”

For these reasons, univocal God-talk must be rejected.

That brings us to the third option, that God-talk is analogous (similar to the way God really is).  This seems to be the only alternative if we are to avoid self-defeating skepticism (equivocal God-talk) on the one hand, and avoid lowering God to the level of finite beings (univocal God-talk) on the other hand.

In the next post, we will discuss in more detail what analogous God-talk is and how Christians use this kind of language to speak about God.

  • Boz

    A view that I’ve briefly encountered, which is not on your list of three, is similar but different to the equivocal idea. The idea says that we can’t give properties to a deity.

    so, for example, is Yahweh a male or a female? or androgynous or transgender? or does gender not apply?

    or, is Zeus omnipotent, very powerful, or weak? What units is power/potency measured in?

    And the idea suggests that we can’t determine the answer to the gender or the power question, or other similar questions. So we can’t say what properties Loki has. But we CAN say things about deities. For example, we can say “we can’t determine the gender of Quetzacotl”.

  • I dislike the first option, not so much because it implies such a gulf between God and man that even the tiniest statement about God is not just unfounded, but gibberish. Ultimately, a statement like “God exists” would have to be rejected. One could not claim anything (positive or negative) about holiness, or person-hood, or goodness, without running into the gulf. Even agnosticism would run afoul, because how can one have doubts about something that can in no way be described? There are no claims, positive or negatively, that can be made.

    I say this even though I am enough of a Barthian to acknowledge the gulf. But I do think that, although we cannot comprehend the transcendent, the transcendent can understand us. Words dealing with the transcendent must be derived from revelation. The lower may not be able to reach the higher, the higher can reach down to the lower.
    This revelation may be general. It may be understood by what we see in nature as in the observation that “reason” and “logic” exist. If God indeed made such a world, reason and logic must devolve from His character. We can see from that logic, that if God exists, He must be one He must be able to do all that is able to be done without violation of that same logic that is an arises from His nature. We can understand it in our own sense of awe, at whatever natural phenomenon be it stars, Angel Falls, or the Grand Canyon, which tells us that we have an innate pointer towards beauty, and at least some thirst for and recognition of transcendence, and desire for worship. As has been said, this desire for worship does not prove that the God Christians proclaim is real, any more than the capacity for “thirst” proves that the liquid before me is water. But it strongly suggests that there is, or at least was, such a thing as water, and that I was made in some connection to it.

    Ultimately, this “Bending down” to cross the gulf between a transcendent God and finite man is what we understand as the Incarnation. If God is to be understood, He must “get down on our level” Among the other points of His mission was to display to us what God is like, if on could turn down the brightness of Glory far enough that we could see. The disciples asked him to “show us the Father” and Jesus’ reply was the “he who has seen me has seen the Father,” along with other similar statements.

    That is why I think that there is true theology that gets very far without a consideration of Jesus as God. As Paul in the 1st chapter of Colossians called him “the image of the invisible God” and the centerpiece of all that is.

    I eagerly await “Part 2”

  • Please forgive my fumble-fingers!
    The worst is in the last sentence, which should read “…there is NO true theology that gets very far…”

    Thank you!