Tough Questions Answered

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Can Words Describe God? Part 2

Post Author: Bill Pratt

In the last post, we talked about how equivocal God-talk is self-defeating and how univocal God-talk lowers God to the level of a finite being.  The only solution seems to be analogous God-talk.  So how does analogous God-talk work?

Analogous God-talk ultimately tells us what God is like, but it does not describe him exactly as He is.

How does this work?  According to Geisler, “The definition of the attribute applicable to both God and creatures must be the same, but the application of it differs, for in the one case (God’s) it is applied without limits, while in the other (humankind’s) it is predicated with limitations.” (emphasis added)

Take the example of goodness.  The definition of good is “that which is desired for its own sake.”  Now, when we take that concept of good and use it to describe God and man, we retain the same definition.  But when we apply it (predicate it) to God, we apply it in an unlimited way.  God is unlimited good, whereas man is limited good.  God is good infinitely while man is good finitely.  God is to be desired for his own sake absolutely, while man is to be desired for his own sake relatively.

Another example would be the concept of being.  Geisler says, “Likewise, being may be defined univocally as “that which is,” but this univocal concept is predicated of God and creatures in an analogous way. God is “that which is” infinitely; a creature is “that which is” only finitely. Or, more properly, God is Existence and creatures merely have existence.”

Geisler further explains:

Generic concepts are univocal when abstracted, but analogical when asserted of different things, as man and dog are equally animal but are not equal animals. Animal is defined the same way (say, as “a sentient being”), but animality is predicated differently of Fido and of Socrates (c. 470–399 B.C.). (Socrates possesses animality in a higher sense than Fido does.) Likewise, both the flower and God are said to be beautiful, but God is beautiful in an infinitely higher sense than flowers are.

While this tells us nothing directly about the similarity between God and creation, it does inform us about the difference between an infinite being and a finite being. For if beauty means “that which, being seen, pleases,” then the pleasure of the beatific vision of God is infinitely greater than the pleasure of viewing a flower.

What about all the concepts of God that are applied negatively, such as eternal (non-temporal), uncaused (not caused), and immutable (not changing)?  The reason these concepts are negated is because their definitions contain limits or imperfections.  God, as an infinite (not limited) being, cannot be limited by any concept when it is applied to Him.  Time, causation, and change are all concepts which would make God dependent on something else – they all limit his being.  Therefore these terms must be negated.

Here is the bottom line.  We can never describe, with language, exactly who God is, but we can say what He is like.  We can take finite concepts and apply them to God in an infinite (unlimited) way.  That is the best we can do using human language.

An additional point needs to be made.  Some people find analogous God-talk to be difficult to understand (it can be more abstract that some people are comfortable with), and so they brush it aside and collapse their language back to univocal God-talk.  The danger, of course, is that when you start talking about God as a finite being, then you are lowering him to a creature.

Mormon theology is the poster child for univocal God-talk gone wild.  God is created, God is material, God is in time, and so forth and so on.  The Mormon God is not transcendent, is not infinite, is not uncaused -  he is just like the rest of us, a creature.  Is this the God that is presented in Scripture?  I think not.

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  • DagoodS

    Bill Pratt: God, as an infinite (not limited) being, cannot be limited by any concept when it is applied to Him. Time, causation, and change are all concepts which would make God dependent on something else – they all limit his being. Therefore these terms must be negated.
    Logic equally is a concept that would make God dependent on something else—logic limits his being. If (as this argument claims) such concepts must be negated, then we cannot use logic to explain God. Making these two blog entries (being based on logic) completely self-refuting.

  • Bill Pratt

    You said, “Logic equally is a concept that would make God dependent on something else—logic limits his being.”

    How does logic limit God? If you are saying that logic stands outside of God and exists separate from him, then that is not the Christian view. The Christian view of God holds that logic is part of God’s nature, just as his other attributes.

    If you are saying the ability to be illogical (or irrational) would increase God’s abilities, that his inability to be illogical limits him, I find that to be incredibly odd. Is God also limited by his inability to be evil? Or his inability to be unjust? All of these are attributes that don’t require negation because they are perfected in God. God is perfectly logical (rational), perfectly good, and perfectly just. I fail to see how they ontologically limit God.

  • DagoodS

    Words by their nature—especially descriptive words—are limiting. “A yellow bus” limits the color the bus can be. It cannot be blue, or else the term “yellow” loses all meaning. Nor can it be a bicycle, because the word “bus” is limiting.

    I utilized the same language you used in your blog entry. You indicated (presumably pursuant to Geisler) certain concepts are negated because “…their definitions contain limits….God, as an infinite (not limited) being, cannot be limited by any concept when it is applied to Him.”

    While you only pointed out a few concepts—time, causation and change—we could equally utilize the concept of “logic.” Logic is limiting; its definition contains limits. Logic prevents square circles and married bachelors. Hence your God, by your own argument, cannot be limited by logic.

    Therefore your logical argument is self-refuting because it uses logic to prove we cannot use logic when utilizing words to describe your God.

    Placing these concepts or attributes as “part of God’s nature” doesn’t remove the problem.

    Perhaps an example for the lurkers…

    You indicated, in your last comment, “God is…perfectly just.” Apparently you are attempting to convey meaning by using the word “just” (as compared to “yellow” or “umpa-loompa” or some other term) and the only way we can understand what you are trying to say is compare your use of the word “Just” to our typical use of the term “Just.”

    “Justice” is the application of a standard to a circumstance. It is rigidly confined by doing two things:

    1) Review the standard; and
    2) Apply the situation.

    If the law states going 0-5 mph over the speed limit results in a fine of $100; we apply the situation to the facts. If you go 1 mph over the speed limit, the only “just” thing to do is fine you $100. Excuses such as not knowing the speed limit, or taking an injured person to the emergency room unless specifically allowed by the law do not exempt you. Justice requires the fine. Even if you are the Judge’s son, or the President.

    Justice can be very strict.

    By stating “God is Just”—the only meaning being portrayed is that God strictly applies a certain standard to a situation. (For purposes of this discussion, it does not matter what that standard is, or where it comes from, so I will leave it as “the standard” to avoid Euthyphro’s Dilemma.) If God’s justice requires we are tortured for 10 billion years for going 1 mile over the speed limit, then as applied, we are tortured for breaching the standard if we go 1 mile over the speed limit.

    Understand, “Justice” has nothing to do with being fair, or proportionate—we look to the standard; we look to the facts.


    Your God-concept is also described as merciful. Luke 6:36; Rom. 9:15-18, 11:32; Eph. 2:4; Tit. 3:5; James 2:13. Now we have to look at what is meant by “God is merciful” and compare our use of the term “mercy.” Mercy is the deliberate withholding of Justice; it is the exact polar opposite of Justice. It is looking at the standard, looking at the facts and deliberately not applying the standard to the facts.

    It is foregoing the fine when the person was going 1 mph over the speed limit. Although we typically think of it being applied for extenuating circumstances, strictly speaking those are not necessary. The judge may decide to impose mercy for any (or no) reason whatsoever.

    You (or Geisler) argue we use the same definition of “good” to humans and God; but when we apply it to God, we apply it an unlimited way. We could say the same about mercy—defined the same way, but applied in an “unlimited way.”

    Now…how can a “perfectly just” being exhibit mercy at all? It can’t—because it would no longer be “just.” And how can a being with “unlimited mercy” be “just”? It can’t—because it would then have limited mercy!

    The only way around this (that I see) is to start saying the words “just” and “mercy” do not mean the same thing when talking about God, thus proving my point that words no longer have meaning when discussing about God. Or to say God is both perfectly just and unlimitedly merciful, which is a logical contradiction.

    Regardless, this whole argument collapses once we understand “logic” cannot be applied to your God-concept.

  • RLO


    If you have not already read it, I think you would very much enjoy reading the book, “The Foolishness Of God: The Place Of Reason In The Theology Of Martin Luther,” by Siegbert W. Becker (available many places online, as well as through Northwestern Publishing House). It really touches on many of the thoughts you have expressed in this thread. Luther’s conceptualizes God as neither rational nor irrational, but rather as “anti-rational.” Or as I understanding it, unlimited by man’s finite abilities of reason.

    In a sense, I understand DagoodS’s point of God also not being limited by logic, provided his thoughts are expressing that God “infinite logic” is not limited by man’s “finite logic.”

    Becker (and Luther) have shed a light on the words I grew up listening to every Sunday morning: “May the Peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.”

    One of my favorite quotes from Becker in “The Foolishness Of God,” is this:

    “It is not Christianity that needs to be made reasonable. It is reason that needs to be made Christian.” (pg 159).

    I would be interested to know what your thoughts are in this book.


  • Bill Pratt

    Thanks for the book suggestion.

    God bless,

  • Steve

    … we do not appeal specifically to God to explain why the universe is this way rather than that, for this we need only appeal to explanations within the universe. For this reason there can, it seems to me, be no feature of the universe which indicates it is God-made. What God accounts for is that the universe is there instead of nothing.
    … when we speak of God by using the word ‘God’, we do not understand what we mean, we have no concept of God; what governs our use of the word ‘God’ is not an understanding of what God is but the validity of a question about the world … What goes for our rules for the use of ‘God’ does not go for the God we try to name with the word. (And a corollary of this, incidentally, is why a famous argument for the existence of God called the ontological argument does not work.)

    Father Herbert McCabe, ‘God Matters’, Continuum, 2005, pg. 6
    It is sometimes claimed … that the existence of a certain sort of regularity in nature constitutes sufficient evidence for the existence of a God. [A religious man] would say that in talking about God, he was talking about a transcendent being who might be known through certain empirical manifestations, but certainly could not be defined in terms of those manifestations. But in that case the term “God” is a metaphysical term. And if “God” is a metaphysical term, then it cannot be even probable that a God exists. For to say that “God exists” is to make a metaphysical utterance which cannot be either true or false. And by the same criterion, no sentence which purports to describe the nature of a transcendent God can possess any literal significance.
    A. J. Ayer, ‘Language, Truth, And Logic‘, Dover, Second Edition, 1952, pg. 117

    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 … [As for Uni-vocal] 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.
    Norman Geisler, ‘Systematic Theology, Vol. 1‘, Bethany House Publishers, 2002, pg. 615

    The Pragmatic Argument About “God”
    1)”God” exists in the human vocabulary
    2)human reason is restricted by vocabulary
    3)God transcends human vocabulary
    4)the “God” in the human vocabulary has no referent
    5)therefore, all God-narratives are metaphysical sentences
    6)therefore, God-narratives are only meaningful (not true or false)
    Can we talk about God at all and know what we mean, or, should we know what we mean when we’re talking about “God”?
    If the former is asserted true, then by what means? If the latter, then all logical arguments for the existence of God are moot because “God” is a non-referent concept that is metaphysical. Further, claiming content about “God” can lead us to knowledge of God necessarily takes the form of the ontological argument for the existence of God; which is a logical reification of human attributes and concerns, admitted to by asserting the latter is what we are doing (metaphysics).

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