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  • He Answered Them

Univocal Language in Theological Discourse

Outline

This paper argues that univocal language is insufficient and problematic for theological discourse, advocating instead for the use of analogical language to convey the true nature of God and His attributes. When the attempt is made to express concepts of God and the divine, to both religious and non-religious groups, the depth of God’s divinity becomes misunderstood. It will follow that we investigate the infinite being of God and the characteristics of His love, mercy, and justice, concluding that they cannot be fully understood when the language used is skewed towards anthropomorphisms. There is a qualitative difference between God’s being and attributes, compared to Man’s. Therefore, there is a significant difference in the language being understood as univocal or analogical.


Univocal understanding of language causes conflict

David Burrell highlights that reflection on the divine often occurs within religious communities, leading to the development of a specialized religious language. This intra-religious communication is crucial, but conveying divine concepts should not be exclusive to those with religious inclinations. Analogical language, which draws comparisons while acknowledging differences, opens the conversation to a broader audience, including non-religious individuals. From diverse faith communities, sophisticated patterns of interaction have sprung forth.[1] These complex patterns of communication and interaction are only possible when no one group claims that they have the exclusive truth. In a sense, religious language was developed through necessity: it is used to clarify conceptions of things that are fully ‘beyond our ken’.[2] As we endeavour to do this, we seek the most appropriate language to relate to one another.  Burrell is right to highlight this intra-religious group communication, but the conveying of divine concepts cannot be solely reserved for those who already have a religious proclivity. Analogy, therefore, becomes the key driver for many conversations. Analogy allows for the opening of conversation to those not in the immediate sphere of religion whilst simultaneously safeguarding against exclusive truth claims from those who are. For example, what does it mean that in the Bible we read the world was created in six days, when the latest scientific understanding undermines this? By being clear this is analogous language it can leads to productive questions about created order and what is meant by omnipotence, amongst other things. The danger of univocal language or literal interpretations is that they can lead to absolutism. No meaningful conversation can take place on the assumption that one party is already wrong; this is reserved for the sphere of debate, but even debate is only made meaningful when participants first agree on what they disagree on. Univocal language muddies the waters by not clearly expressing the differences between a philosophical concept and the elements that inhere that concept as we shall see below.


Analogical language for expressing God

Before we get there, this paper posits that Analogy is also vital in bridging the gap of interfaith understanding. Not every religion holds to a transcendent god - Hinduism, and Buddhism for example.  How does a Christian begin to describe or attribute concepts of God, to practitioners of either of these religions, that are transcendent or completely other when this is not within their native spiritual framework? It must first be made imminent and understandable; yet we must tread carefully as to not diminish the transcendence of the Christian God. By carefully selecting relatable language, most commonly in the form of analogy and metaphor, we can at least express a part of the wider concept. Andrew Porter is witness to Burell’s succinct summation of the problem: ‘the task is to both distinguish and relate God and the world, and in particular, to speak of acts of God in the world.’[3]

An example follows for the Christian Imago Dei and the Buddhists ‘buddha nature’. The Imago Dei is used in Christianity to signify a certain inherent dignity within the individual; being created in the likeness of God is to be understood as analogous language: we do not simply look like the creator God. Ryan S. Paterson conducts a full survey of the various ways in which the Imago Dei can be understood.[4] Indeed, if we understood ‘the likeness of God’ without any ambiguity (one definition of univocal) it actually complicates rather than simplifies the doctrine. The creator God of Christianity is normally defined by a formless substance or essentia. What, if anything, does that look like? Moreso, if the Christian is to completely insist upon the univocal approach to this doctrine, the contextual understanding is all but lost. This hinders, amongst other things, the dialogue around the differences within the Christian Imago Dei and the ‘buddha nature’ of Buddhism. The real issue to maintain focus on here is this: these concepts do not contain elements of one another, we are not self-existent sparks of divinity, as believed by the Buddhist, but that we are created beings who are image bearers of God, and all that entails. So, the doctrine works as an analogy of how we express an act of God in man; it is equally important to maintain analogy when we try to express the very being of God himself.





God not man

The biblical precedent is laid out in Is. 55: 8-9.[5] Michael Horton is keen to distinguish the separation of creator and creature; he does so by expressing that ‘neither being nor knowledge is ever shared univocally between God and creatures.’[6] For Duns Scotus, the being of God, alongside all his created beings, fell under the univocal concept of being. Duns Scotus began the discussion first with the separation of ‘being’ into the categories of finite and infinite.[7] These two class distinctions share the commonality of ‘being’ and thus being is shared univocally was his overarching point. Timotheus A. Barth puts it better when he writes: ‘Being itself is essentially included in the essential structure of finite beings and infinite beings.’[8] But these two distinctions remain vital in the understanding that man does not share in the infinite being of God: as finite creatures there remains a substantive difference in being between God and Man. To view ‘being’ as univocal to both Man and God does not come close to fully divulging the ‘being’ of God. Scotus was aware of this. Here perhaps is where some of the confusion seeps in. Was Duns Scotus talking about ‘being’ as a concept or a substance? As Douglas Langston navigates his way through the comparison of Scotus to Ockam’s understanding of being, he continually refers to the issue at stake as the concept of being.[9] To be clear Scotus does refer to the concept of being, but Barth goes deeper into Scotus’ writings and seems to move away from the mere concept of being, to the reality of being. To help frame this point, Elizabeth A Johnson brings to our attention the Aristotelian commentator Averroes. He believed that the content of a concept only belonged properly and fully to one reality, for Averroes ‘being’ belonged properly to substance. [10]It is possible to understand that Scotus held a similar view when we read Barth’s work.  He states that Scotus’ use of infiniteness here ‘does not mean [a] quantitative but [rather a] qualitative which is proper to God and constitutes his being from within’.[11] This clearly infers a more substantive understanding of Scotus’ work being put forward and not the mere univocal concept. He goes on, ‘it must be added that infiniteness transcends being as essence and comprises existence. The infinite being is not only a supreme being, but also one that exists of itself’.[12] To explain this better, Barth makes an appeal to the doctrine of divine simplicity:


Infinity is of itself the inner mode of the divine essence, and eternity is the inner mode of the divine existence. But since the existence of God has its ultimate reason within the divine essence and therefore originates ex natura rei, one can also say with equal right that infiniteness and eternity are, ultimately, connected with the divine essence. What is infinite in its essence has everything of itself and nothing from anything else. Hence the divine essence has existence of itself.[13]


With Man’s existence being entirely dependent upon God, we can see a substantive difference in the ‘beings’ of the two subjects. To express the idea univocally, the nuance is all but lost. This is why Horton is keen to maintain the distinction in being, and for it to not be understood univocally. Scotus’ aim was to provide the maximal range of understanding for the human intellect. He did this by dealing in concepts and frameworks, and not analogy, intuitively believing this provided the most reasonable method of conveyance. Thomas Williams believes the ‘doctrine of univocity is a semantic doctrine, although he does concede a certain ontological claim on the part of Scotus.[14] Basil Heiser writes that Duns Scotus defined a univocal concept as thus: ‘one which has sufficient unity for predication in a contradiction, or as one having sufficient unity to function as the middle term of a syllogism.’[15] In this manner Scotus found the univocal approach no hindrance to full expression of the being of God. He wrote ‘the intellect can be certain that it is a being and still be in doubt about the differences which delimit ‘being’ to the concept in question.’[16] He essentially argues that God cannot be known unless being is univocal to the created and uncreated. He tried to argue without analogy, but instead established concepts and frameworks that served much the same function; they assumed a difference or otherness, in the same way an analogy does.


Despite Scotus holding to the univocal concept of being to God and creature, his manner of demarking the difference (infinite/finite) suggests that there is no single concept of being put forward by him; he ultimately fails to clarify or disambiguate his original premise. Henry of Ghent phrased it thus: ‘There is no univocal concept of being common to God and creatures: There are two concepts, that of a necessary being and that of a contingent being, and our concept of being must be one or the other.’[17] The use of univocal language has not facilitated an understanding, it has further complicated the matter; hence why this paper continues to hold that univocal language is problematic.


God’s Love, Mercy and Justice

We have thus far demonstrated that distinction between man and God is key in attaining a full understanding of God. We turn now to some of the attributes shared by man and God. The Bible speaks, at various parts, of God’s love, mercy, and justice; these are all identifiable traits that can be found in human society. If, however, we are to univocally ascribe them to both God and man, without distinction, then much of the power of the biblical message is lost. To be clear, God’s love is not man’s love, God’s mercy is not man’s mercy and God’s justice is not man’s justice.


We love because God loved us first, is how the 1982 St. Andrews liturgy phrases 1 John 4:19. Here we see the dynamic of the necessary being to the contingent being. The way in which human love operates is only in an analogous manner to how God loves; the dynamic of human relationship, the depths which it can achieve, pales in comparison to that of God’s. At the heart of Christian spirituality is the doctrine of the Trinity. The community which resides at the ontological being of God is based on a foundation of love. 1 John 4:8 simply phrases it God is love. Therefore, to say that ‘God loves’ in no manner reflects that man loves too. Although it may not be any consolation to anyone who has ever had their heart broken, the way in which man loves is rather trivial when compared to how God loves. Colin Gunton defends the univocal predicate by defining love as ‘being and doing for the other what the other needs.’[18] This is a fair definition, but it once again demands an explanation on what the author means by their concept of love before it can then be predicated univocally; Gunton himself admits that his definition ‘is not intended to be a full definition but enough to make the point’.[19] So he is open that he is using an analogy of love that best fits his purpose. In much the way Scotus required the conceptual content to first be explained, I see this as no more than analogical application taken as a prior step.


Wessling puts forward his own biblical case found in the words of Christ in John 15. He notes that Jesus states ‘as the Father has loved me, so I have also loved you […]. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you’.[20] He highlights what Raymond Brown calls the ‘chain of love’: The Father loves Jesus; Jesus loves the disciples; they must love one another.[21] Wessling puts forward the claim that to understand Jesus’ words you first have to understand that divine love and human love are being used as a univocal predicate. He writes ‘if God and humans do not share the same kind of love, then we must say that somewhere within the chain of love, the use of the term love has a different meaning or sense. He argues against this being the case, but does not give a reason as to why that would be problematic. He concludes by quoting from Gunton ‘divine love is a pattern for human love, because it is precisely the same kind of attitude and action’.[22] Seems like a strong case, but human attitude to love does not share the same attitude and action as divine love. Wessling provides an excellent argument based on phileo love and perhaps enters into the sacrificial territory of agape love, but Jesus is not speaking of eros, romantic love, which is also a part of the gamut of human relational qualities. In Wessling’s argument this is distinctly missing. It works in this instance precisely because pure univocity is not being applied. To clarify further, there is a certain part to human love that cannot be commanded; Jesus here is speaking of the parts of love that can. It falls within the semantic range of love but does not encompass all human love. God and man love in different ways, claiming that they don’t either diminishes one or deifies the other.


Briefly to mercy and justice. Much the same can be said of these two as of love. If divine mercy and divine justice are merely scaled up versions of human mercy and justice - as univocity proposes, then much of the Christian message becomes unintelligible. It is not so much the cosmological scale of the divine attributes that is affected, more the cosmological consequences. Divine mercy and justice form integral parts to the doctrine of election. Those who receive mercy become the elect, those who receive justice do not. Human level mercy and justice can also be perceived in a judicial context, but they will never pertain to consequences beyond the grave. Divine mercy and Justice are almost exclusively used in scripture in this postmortem sense; human mercy and justice are almost exclusively used in an antemortem sense. To apply univocal understanding to these concepts is to completely ignore that distinction.


Conclusion

It has been contested throughout this paper that univocal language is problematic when attributing things to God. Further, before univocity is applied it is first  explained or expanded upon, often this operates in an analogical manner: a definition is required which assumes a difference, otherness or incompleteness to it; we demonstrated this with Duns Scotus’ finite/infinite being and Gunton’s self-admitted incomplete definition of love.  Far from disambiguating a term it merely complicates, which has the consequence of not fully conveying the original premise. This is as true of the being of God, as it is for the love, mercy and justice of God. To maintain the important distinction between God and creature, analogical language is the far more appropriate and efficient way to do this. Analogical language is the clearer way to bring out biblical meanings and attributes of God to other religious or non-religious groups; it is the far more relatable language.

 

Bibliography

Burrell, David B., Knowing the Unknowable God : Ibn-Sina, Maimonides, Aquinas (Notre Dame, Ind. : University of Notre Dame Press, 1986) <http://archive.org/details/knowingunknowabl00davi> [accessed 17 April 2024]

Frederick Copleston, S. J., A History Of Philosophy, Complete Volumes Collection (From I to IX), 1994 <http://archive.org/details/a-history-of-philosophy-complete-volumes-collection-image-edition> [accessed 27 April 2024]

Heiser, Basil, ‘The Metaphysics of Duns Scotus’, Franciscan Studies, 2.4 (1942), 379–96

Horton, Michael Scott, The Christian Faith : A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Grand Rapids, Mich. : Zondervan, 2011) <http://archive.org/details/christianfaithsy0000hort> [accessed 25 April 2024]

John Duns Scotus, John Duns Scotus Philosphical Writings, 1308 <http://archive.org/details/JohnDunsScotusPhilosphicalWritings> [accessed 25 April 2024]

Johnson, Elizabeth A., ‘The Right Way to Speak About God? Pannenberg on Analogy’, Theological Studies, 43.4 (1982), 673–92 <https://doi.org/10.1177/004056398204300405>

Langston, Douglas C., ‘Scotus and Ockham on the Univocal Concept of Being’, Franciscan Studies, 39 (1979), 105–29

Peterson, Ryan S., The Imago Dei as Human Identity: A Theological Interpretation (Penn State University Press, 2016), xiv <https://doi.org/10.5325/j.ctv1bxh0jj>

Porter, Andrew P. and The Society of Christian Philosophers, ‘Science, Religious Language, and Analogy’:, Faith and Philosophy, 13.1 (1996), 113–20 <https://doi.org/10.5840/faithphil199613112>

Studies in Philosophy and the History of Philosophy. Volume 3, John Duns Scotus, 1265-1965 (Washington, D.C. Catholic University of America Press, 1965) <http://archive.org/details/studiesinphiloso0000unse_t2a4> [accessed 26 April 2024]

Wessling, Jordan, ‘Colin Gunton, Divine Love, and Univocal Predication: Journal of Reformed Theology’, Journal of Reformed Theology, 7.1 (2013), 91–107 <https://doi.org/10.1163/15697312-12341277>

Williams, Thomas, ‘The Doctrine of Univocity Is True and Salutary’, Modern Theology, 21.4 (2005), 575–85 <https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-0025.2005.00298.x>

 


[1] David B. Burrell, Knowing the Unknowable God : Ibn-Sina, Maimonides, Aquinas (Notre Dame, Ind. : University of Notre Dame Press, 1986), p. 1 <http://archive.org/details/knowingunknowabl00davi> [accessed 17 April 2024].

[2] Burrell, p. 1.

[3] Andrew P. Porter and The Society of Christian Philosophers, ‘Science, Religious Language, and Analogy’:, Faith and Philosophy, 13.1 (1996), 113–20 (p. 115) <https://doi.org/10.5840/faithphil199613112>.

[4] Ryan S. Peterson, The Imago Dei as Human Identity: A Theological Interpretation (Penn State University Press, 2016), xiv <https://doi.org/10.5325/j.ctv1bxh0jj>.

[5] For My thoughts are not your thoughts,

Nor are your ways My ways,” says the Lord.

“For as the heavens are higher than the earth,

So are My ways higher than your ways,

And My thoughts than your thoughts.

[6] Michael Scott Horton, The Christian Faith : A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Grand Rapids, Mich. : Zondervan, 2011), p. 53 <http://archive.org/details/christianfaithsy0000hort> [accessed 25 April 2024].

[7] John Duns Scotus, John Duns Scotus Philosphical Writings, 1308, p. 2 <http://archive.org/details/JohnDunsScotusPhilosphicalWritings> [accessed 25 April 2024].

[8] Timotheus A. Barth, Being, Univocity and Analogy in Duns Scotus in Studies in Philosophy and the History of Philosophy. Volume 3, John Duns Scotus, 1265-1965 (Washington, D.C. Catholic University of America Press, 1965), pp. 210–62 <http://archive.org/details/studiesinphiloso0000unse_t2a4> [accessed 26 April 2024].

[9] Douglas C. Langston, ‘Scotus and Ockham on the Univocal Concept of Being’, Franciscan Studies, 39 (1979), 105–29.

[10] Elizabeth A. Johnson, ‘The Right Way to Speak About God? Pannenberg on Analogy’, Theological Studies, 43.4 (1982), 673–92 (p. 681) <https://doi.org/10.1177/004056398204300405>.

[11] Studies in Philosophy and the History of Philosophy. Volume 3, John Duns Scotus, 1265-1965. p.224

[12] Studies in Philosophy and the History of Philosophy. Volume 3, John Duns Scotus, 1265-1965, p. 224.

[13] Studies in Philosophy and the History of Philosophy. Volume 3, John Duns Scotus, 1265-1965, p. 225.

[14] Thomas Williams, ‘The Doctrine of Univocity Is True and Salutary’, Modern Theology, 21.4 (2005), 575–85 (p. 575) <https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-0025.2005.00298.x>.

[15] Basil Heiser, ‘The Metaphysics of Duns Scotus’, Franciscan Studies, 2.4 (1942), 379–96 (p. 383).

[16] John Duns Scotus, p. 5.

[17] S. J. Frederick Copleston, A History Of Philosophy, Complete Volumes Collection (From I to IX), 1994, Vol.2  p. 471 <http://archive.org/details/a-history-of-philosophy-complete-volumes-collection-image-edition> [accessed 27 April 2024].

[18] Jordan Wessling, ‘Colin Gunton, Divine Love, and Univocal Predication: Journal of Reformed Theology’, Journal of Reformed Theology, 7.1 (2013), 91–107 (p. 92) <https://doi.org/10.1163/15697312-12341277>.

[19] Wessling, p. 92.

[20] Wessling, p. 101.

[21] Wessling, p. 101.

[22] Wessling, p. 107.

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