Talking about God’s Love – Part 1 of 2

April 1st, 2016 by

The God of Christianity is radically different than creation.  On a classical conception of things, God is maximally simple, immutable, powerful, wise, and good.  One will search creation in vain for an equivalent.  However, although God significantly transcends creation, he is traditionally believed to be in some sense accessible to human thought.  After all, we can’t meaningfully apply the aforementioned superlatives to God if we know nothing about him.  But this raises a question, “In what sense do our words apply to God?”

I think Scripture can provide insight into this question, for at least the term “love.”  In particular, I think that Scripture gives us reason to think that “love” can legitimately be applied to God and creature with the exact same meaning.  The view is quite controversial among contemporary theologians, however.  In fact, some accuse the position of downright idolatry.

In my next post I’ll explain why I believe that the Bible warrants the idea that “love” can mean the same thing when said of God and human.  Here I’ll set the stage for that explanation by surveying three of the major views on how our talk applies to God.     

First, there is univocity—the position I favor.  The defender of univocity maintains that the concepts embedded in a term (e.g., “love”) can rightly be said to share the same meaning or sense when applied to God and creature.  In the words of the philosopher Thomas Williams, the univocalist claims that “there are concepts under whose extension both God and creatures fall, so that the corresponding predicate expressions are used with exactly the same sense in predications about God as in predications about creatures.”

Williams describes the doctrine of univocity in its purest form (label that “pure univocity”). There is, however, a species of this doctrine that we might, following William P. Alston, call “partial univocity.”  According to partial univocity, a predicate shares some of the same meaning when applied to God and creature, only the meaning must in some way be modified when the predicate is directed at God.  Consider the claim that God “speaks.”  Both God and humans communicate, so in a sense they both can be said to “speak.”  Yet one might believe that the ascriptions of “speech” to humans contain notions involving bodily movements (e.g. tongue and lips), where no such notions can be assumed when “speech” is attributed to God.  Thus the application of the term “speech” means something slightly but not wholly different when applied to God.

Notice that subscription to partial univocity opens the door to pure univocity.  After all, partial univocity seems to presuppose that one can identify some conceptual overlap between the relevant terms, which in turn suggests that we can pick a term (actual or invented) to label said overlap.  But isn’t this newly picked out term one that can be rightly applied to God and creature in a purely univocal way?

Whether partial or pure, univocity stands in marked contrast to equivocity.  The latter is the view that there are no concepts under whose extension both God and creatures fall; the same term has an altogether different meaning when applied to either God or creature.  

In contrast to these two positions, defenders of analogical predication hold a view that they believe rests between univocity and equivocity.  Analogy is the doctrine that the relevant predicates have different but related senses.  The challenge for the advocate of analogy is to explicate her doctrine in such a way that it falls neither into (partial or pure) univocity on the one hand, or equivocity on the other. To avoid the pitfall of equivocity, she must do something to link-together the meanings of God-directed and creature-directed uses of the relevant predicates. To avoid univocity, however, she must not link these meanings together in such a way that we are able to specify the conceptual commonality between God-directed and creature-directed uses of a term. For if she contends that we are able to designate concepts under whose extension both God and creatures fall, she is clearly committing herself to at least partial univocity—a teaching, I suggested, that opens the door to pure univocity.

The best account of analogy that I’m aware of says that we are sometimes able to notice a similarity between God and humans which enables us to use a term to refer to this similarity.  In such an instance, however, we cannot specify what the conceptual commonality is between the God-directed and human-directed uses of the term.  Instead, the best we can do is vaguely sense ways in which a typical term can be said of God.  For instance, one might know on biblical grounds that God is “strong,” but also maintain that it’s impossible to precisely delineate what aspects of human conceptions of strength apply to God.

So, these are the three major views on how our talk applies to the divine.  Which is correct?  Most theologians favor analogy as the only reliable way to think about our theological discourse.  Equivocity is almost never explicitly held since it seems to desiccate all knowledge of God, and univocity is eschewed out of fear that it somehow cuts God down to creaturely size.  I agree with the majority about equivocity, but I believe Jesus’s teachings on love justify our believing that univocity is at least sometimes right.  But we will need to wait until the next post to discuss that claim.    

Jordan Wessling (PhD, University of Bristol) is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Analytic Theology Project at Fuller Theological Seminary. He holds a PhD in Theology and Religious Studies from the University of Bristol and was the Frederick J. Crosson Fellow at Center for Philosophy of Religion, University of Notre Dame.

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