Our language is not adequate to capture all of the truths of God, but it does allow us to begin to understand and describe him
Douglas M. Beaumont • 12/18/2019 / catholic.com
Every Advent, Christians ponder a singular event: God becoming man. This is an incredible thought—one that, on some accounts, seems completely impossible. After all, how can the infinite become finite? Christians have a similar problem when it comes to talking about God: how can finite language capture truths about an infinite God?
To borrow a humorous example from Stephen Bullivant’s book The Trinity: How Not to be a Heretic, imagine that you had grown up in a town that only served fast food. One day you visit another town and have a meal at a five-star steakhouse. The experience would be radically different! It would be so different, in fact, that you would have a difficult time describing it to the people back in your hometown. The words you use to explain your culinary experience would primarily come from your shared experience of fast food, and so you’d be hard-pressed to adequately describe your steakhouse meal. You might borrow language or images from other shared experiences that approach more or less how “beyond” the experience was, but you’d know that there were limits to conveying the truth of your experience.
We face an even greater problem when speaking of God. Practically every word we use refers to something from our experience of finite reality. We can try to elevate the concepts our words create by adding prefixes like “super“ or “all“ or “omni“ to them, but ultimately the thoughts in our head remain finite. How, then, can our limited language capture the truth of our infinite God?
The Church’s answer is that language can be accurate even when it cannot evoke adequately the fullness of the truth of God. This is because the way in which words are used in a particular language varies, and not all uses of language are legitimate when speaking of God (Catechism of the Catholic Church 39-49, cf. Aquinas, Summa Theologiæ I, Q.3, A.5).
Note, for example, when a word has a single meaning even when used to describe two different things. If I say, “Plato is a man,” and “Aristotle is a man,” I mean the word “man” in the same exact way even though I am referring to two different men. This is called the “univocal” use of language.
Clearly, our finite language cannot adequately express truths of an infinite God univocally, because that would make God out to be a finite being. As the Catechism says, “God transcends all creatures. We must therefore continually purify our language of everything in it that is limited, image-bound, or imperfect, if we are not to confuse our image of God” (42).
The second way words occur in a language is when they have the same appearance (spelling, pronunciation), but have completely different meanings. So, for example, a tree’s “bark” is nothing at all like a dog’s “bark.” It’s just an accident of language that we use the same word for both of these different things. This is called the “equivocal” use of language. Now, it might seem like our finite language would always be equivocal when expressing truths of an infinite God; but if this were the case, then words would not tell us anything about God (any more than a dog’s “bark” helps us understand a tree’s “bark”). If words could not tell us anything about God, then the Bible would be meaningless. (Not to mention the fact that we would be using words about God to say we cannot use words about God, which is self-defeating!)
We can say, however, that a particular pizza is good and that God is good. In the case of the pizza, the meaning is clear enough—the pizza is well-made and enjoyable. We can describe in a finite way the traits that make it good. But how is this the same as God’s goodness? Poets, musicians, philosophers, mystics, and theologians have tried, and together, they even they can barely begin to approach the reality of God’s goodness.
This points to the third way words occur in a language, which is when they have similar meanings. This is called the analogical use of language, as when a single word is used in related but distinct ways. Although what makes two different objects “good” is not the same thing in reality, the word “good” can be used accurately of both. A related, but not identical, use of language is that of metaphor, as when we say that “God is our rock.” In saying this (or think of countless other examples from scripture and from the saints), we’re obviously not saying that a particular rock is the God of the universe, worthy of our worship. We’re conveying in an imperfect way one aspect of God, his steadfastness.
It is through the use of analogy and metaphor that our finite language is able to accurately (if not adequately) express truths of an infinite God.
When St. John says, “God is love,” the evangelist does not mean God is reducible to feelings, or even to the greatest theological virtue. When we say, “God is all-powerful,” we do not mean merely that he is stronger than any other person. With these terms we are capturing, with more or less accuracy, aspects of God’s indescribable love, power, and greatness.
But we can take this a step further as well. When we say, accurately, that “God knows all,” we do not mean that He just happens to know everything in the universe for all of history. Here, even the word “know” is analogically used: God’s knowledge of all being as its creator and sustainer is also impossible for us to capture completely in the verb “to know.”
Why does this matter? Because confusion over how these finite terms relate to God’s actual being can easily result in bad theology and even heresy. It is not inaccurate, for example, to call Jesus a “friend”—he loves us, is close and available to us, and wants the best for us. This does not mean, however, that he is the type of friend who just pats us on the back no matter what we do. Yet, how often have we heard homilies in which Jesus is called a friend who loves us no matter what? This isn’t untrue, but the false impression is often left that he doesn’t care how we live our lives, that we have nothing to be sorry for when we sin. No, the friendship of Jesus—the Son of God, the second Person of the Holy Trinity, the One through whom all things were made—is more complete and more intimate than we can fully fathom. And he has made it perfectly clear that he cares very much about how we live our lives, and where we will spend eternity if we do not follow his commands.
So it is not truthful to say that because our language can never capture God’s true essence, it is therefore useless in describing or understanding him. On the contrary, because God is the Creator, and because we are made in his image and he has revealed himself to us, we can know truths about him through his creation (e.g., Rom. 1:19-20), through his revealed word, and express truths about him in words. But we must never think that we have captured the whole truth of God in our descriptions (e.g., Rom. 1:21-23). The balance comes when we see our finite language as accurate but not adequate (Ps. 50:21).
As we prepare our hearts for Our Lord’s birth this Advent season, let’s take strength from knowing that, even given the imperfection of our souls and the language we use, we can know Our Lord more closely by immersing ourselves in the sacraments and traditions of the Church, and in his Word.