How Can I Describe?: Analogical Language

“Surely, his infinity ought to make us afraid to try to measure him by our own senses. Indeed, his spiritual nature forbids our imagining anything earthly or carnal of him…. For who even of slight intelligence does not understand that, as nurses commonly do with infants, God is wont in a measure to “lisp” in speaking to us? Thus such forms of speaking do not so much express clearly what God is like as accommodate the knowledge of him to our slight capacity. To do this he must descend far beneath his loftiness.”[1]

Can you really describe a sunset, or the way parents cherish their newborn baby? Some things are just beyond explanation and understanding. We stand in awe and never fully comprehend the beautiful or the sacred. We can’t comprehend God or describe God accurately. We stand amazed before the presence of the holy God. Our words and worship are deeply deficient for the spectacle before us.  Language, in its finitude, fails to fully explain the nature of God. Still, God has chosen that his lasting revelation to his people to be delivered in words. As Bavinck said:

But the moment we dare to speak about God the question arises: How can we? We are human and he is the Lord our God. Between him and us there seems to be no such kinship or communion as would enable us to name him truthfully. The distance between God and us is the gulf between the Infinite and the finite, between eternity and time, between being and becoming, between the All and the nothing.”[2]

How can we understand what God reveals about himself with the limited languages available to humanity?

Psalm 18:2 helpfully exhibits the way language tries to communicate truth about God. The text reads, “The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.” God is not literally a rock, but God is the Rock of his people. In the same way, Psalm 29 describes the awesomeness of God, but the God’s awesomeness is not described in literal ways. Because of the communicative difficulty, the Bible also makes seemingly contradictory statements about God. For example, God is described as having winged feathers (Ps. 17:8) and that God doesn’t have a body (Jn. 4:23). The Bible says God changed his mind (Gen. 6:6) and that God cannot change his mind (Num. 23:19).

God’s awesomeness is beyond our description. One of the great problems of religion is that God cannot be fully described. God is noncorporeal, infinite, timeless, and immutable. Creatures are corporeal, finite, and constantly changing in time. These contrasts—opposites—make accurate communication about God incredibly difficult.

Basil said, “the knowledge of God consists in the perception of his incomprehensibility.”[3] How can infinity accurately be described? To describe something infinite, we would need to be able to comprehend the infinite. So, unless we are infinite, we can’t describe the infinite.  As Bavinck wrote, “There is a big difference, certainly, between having an absolute knowledge and having a relative knowledge of such an absolute Being. Given the finiteness of human beings, the former is never an option.”[4] When we read or talk about God, we aren’t describing him with scientific accuracy of a lab. All we can do is describe God to the best of our ability. Creatures cannot describe God as he is. Creaturely minds simply cannot comprehend God or describe the incomprehensible God. We can only describe God as best we can. This is called accommodative language.

Accommodative Language

Accommodative language doesn’t leave us completely without information. God’s nature cannot be comprehended but God’s nature can be apprehended.[5] Just as God revealed a portion of his glory to Moses, God has revealed a slice of his glory to his people. So, when God is described as great, we know that “great” does not begin to describe the infinite God.  Accommodative language literally reveals some information about God just not in a literal way.

God’s knowledge is perfect and the original knowledge. God’s knowledge then is the source of all knowledge. God’s original knowledge is called the archetype. Creaturely knowledge is just a copy or dim reflection of the original. We call this creaturely knowledge ectypal knowledge. Our knowledge of God could be compared to a documentary on black holes. No one fully comprehends black holes, but we can gain some knowledge through the documentary. We can never know God fully, but we can gain some knowledge of God through his revelation.

Analogical Language

But though God is thus beyond our full comprehension and description, we do confess to having the knowledge of God. This knowledge is analogical and the gift of revelation.”[6] Our languages and cognitive ability allows us to speak analogically or relatively of God. We could never speak of God univocally. Univocal language “refers to something having the same meaning as something else.”[7] We understand metaphors, simile, and hyperbole as we use these figures of speech every day. Similarly, we can only speak about God comparatively or metaphorically. C. S. Lewis said “all language about things other than physical objects is necessarily metaphorical.”[8] Bavinck said, “If we cannot speak of God analogically, then we cannot speak of him at all.”[9]

This analogical language is seen in the way we describe God and created things with the same words. We can say dogs, marriage, ice cream, coffee, Michael Jordan, honor students, and movies are good. Good doesn’t accurately describe any of those things and something slightly different is communicated in each of those things being described as good. When God is described as good, this communicates that God is goodness. Something is literally communicated to us by God, but this knowledge of God can’t be a full description of God’s nature. “We can never understand how God is good, and so although we do have an understanding of goodness, there is inevitably a vagueness and inadequacy when we use the term of the perfect being.”[10]

Typically, our descriptions of God are given in what God is not. We call this apophatic theology. Apophatic theology is “a way of approaching God by denying that any of our concepts can properly be affirmed of Him.”[11] We can describe God as timeless, but that is telling us that God is not in time. It doesn’t really describe what God’s being is like in a positive sense. Instead, timelessness tells us what God is not.

Another way the Bible describes God is through anthropomorphic language. Anthropomorphic speech occurs when we describe animals or objects as though they were human. God is not physical. God is spirit (Deut. 4:12, 15-16; Lk. 24:39-40; Jn. 4:23-24). God is described as having eyes, a long nose, feet, and knees. He is described in human ways and even with feathers. God is described as sitting and standing. He is described as coming, going, leaving, arriving, and dwelling. None of these are literally true of God in a physical way. Rather each of these terms reveal literal metaphysical truths.

In order to speak about God rightly, we need to keep in mind that God is chronologically, ontologically, and logically prior to all other reality and thus to all other knowledge. Since God is the ontological source of knowledge, all things are to be understood to reflect the divine nature in some way. To understand what it means to be a father, for example, we should try to understand what it means for God to be Father. There will be aspects of the Fatherhood of God which we can then see in human fatherhood. At the same time, there will be some characteristics of God’s Fatherhood which are not reflected in human fathers. For

[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion & 2, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, vol. 1 of The Library of Christian Classics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 121.

[2] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 2:30.

[3] O. Bardenhewer, Patrologie (Freiburg i.B.: Herder, 1894), 260. Ed. note: ET: Patrology (St. Louis: Herder, 1908).

[4] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics 2.51.

[5] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics 2:49.  

[6] Herman Bavinck, John Bolt, and John Vriend, Reformed Dogmatics: God and Creation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), 28.

[7] Matthew Barrett, None Greater, 33.

[8] C. S. Lewis, Weight of Glory, 134.

[9] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics 2:28.

[10] Katherine Rogers, Perfect Being Theology, 17.

[11] “Apophatic Theology,” Cross, F. L., and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, eds. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Oxford;  New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

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