Thursday, September 15, 2011

Great Minds Reject Univocity

Contra Gordon Clark, Carl Trueman, speaking of the archetypal/ectypal distinction in epistemology, indicates how the Reformed have always thought of this distinction:

"In Reformed theology, the distinction functions in such a way as to delimit human knowledge of God and to underline the fact that theology is utterly dependent upon God's act of condescending to reveal himself. This acknowledgement ensures that theological statements are only apprehensive, not comprehensive, of the truth as it is in God. Language can thus be referential, but there is no simple one-to-one correspondence between human words and divine realities as they exist in God himself. The presence and function of this distinction in, say, the Leiden Synopsis, or Francis Turretin or, later, in Herman Bavinck, denotes a theological sensitivity to the innate weakness of human language when talking of God; and it roots such God-talk not in any true rationalism but in the free, condescending, revelatory acts of God himself. Such language is still referential; and truth still has a non-negotiable objectivity; but it is not rationalism in any recognizable Enlightenment sense." (Rage, Rage Against the Dying of the Light, WTJ 70 [2008]: 10, 11)

I can imagine Trueman and Van Til sharing beer over this.


  1. To reject univocity utterly isn't to say there's no one-to-one correspondence between human words and divine realities, it's to say that there is no correspondence at all between human words and divine realities. While certainly it's not a relation of equivalence, there must be some inexhaustive univocity between revelation and divine reality in order to avoid religious skepticism.

    We must recognize the limits of human language and cognition in apprehending the divine, but we must also recognize that God created human beings and language with revelation and God-ward capacity in mind. Religious postmodernism is at least as much of a danger as thoroughgoing rationalism in my opinion.

  2. Religious skepticism would only be an issue if by knowledge we mean the attainment of the knowledge of exhaustive "is-ness" that is privy only to God.

    What human beings have access to, as necessitated by the Creator-creature distinction, is analogical knowledge, not univocal knowledge. By analogical knowledge, we mean God-revealed knowledge as "packaged" fit for human consumption.

  3. Analogical knowledge must necessarily contain univocal aspects, or else it ceases to be analogical. If there is no point of correspondence (i.e.: univocity), there is no analogy.

  4. This brief treatment by Michael Horton on what the Reformed actually mean by "analogy" is profitable:

    "When we assert certain predicates of God, based on God's own self-revelation, we use them in one of three senses: univocally, analogically or equivocally. If we say that the predicate 'gracious' means exactly the same thing, whether in God or in a creature, we are using 'gracious' univocally. At the other end of the spectrum, if we say that by using that predicate we are ascribing something to God whose appropriateness is unknown to us, we are using it equivocally. If, however, God is said to be 'gracious' in a way that is both similar and dissimilar to creatures, we say it is analogical. For instance, when we acknowledge that God is a 'person,' do we really mean to say that he is a person in exactly the same sense as we are? When we follow Scripture in using male pronouns to refer to God, do we really believe that he is male? Unless we are willing to ascribe to God (in a univocal sense) all attributes of human personhood, predications must be analogical.

    Human language cannot transcend its finitude, so when God reveals himself in human language, he draws on human analogies to lead us by the hand to himself. It is correct description, but not univocal description. As we will argue below, the univocal approach to such language almost always tends toward rationalism and the suspicion of the mystery inherent in the Creator-creature distinction. And equivocal approaches, such as those adopted in some forms of mysticism and in the wake of Kant, denying any certainty about the truth of our predications, tend toward skepticism under the guise of God's mysterious incomprehensibility.

    Thus, Calvin and the Reformed do not use analogy as a fall-back strategy when they find something that does not fit their system. Rather, it is the warp and woof of their covenantal approach, a necessary implication of the Creator-creature relationship as they understand it. All of God's selfrevelation is analogical, not just some of it. This is why Calvin speaks, for instance, of God's 'lisping' or speaking 'baby-talk' in his condescending mercy. Just as God comes down to us in the incarnation in order to save us who could not ascend to him, he meets us in Scripture by descending to our weakness. Thus, not only is God's transcendence affirmed, but his radical immanence as well. Transcendence and immanence become inextricably bound up with the divine drama of redemption. Revelation no less than redemption is an act of condescension and grace.

    Those who are uncomfortable with this analogical approach frequently betray an autonomous view of knowledge. How can we know if the analogies fit? The assumption seems to be that unless one can stand outside of the analogy and its referent, one cannot compare the analogy for its success. Many conclude that if the predicate 'good' applied to both God and Sally does not mean exactly the same thing, then we are left in skepticism (equivocity). Either rationalism or irrationalism: that is the choice that an autonomous epistemology requires. But a Reformed analogical approach insists that, because Scripture is God's own speech in human language, the analogies that God selects are appropriate whether we know the exact fit or not. We do not need that which we cannot possibly have—namely, archetypal knowledge. Because creaturely knowledge is inherently ectypal, it is essentially analogical. Univocal knowledge is reserved for the Creator and his archetypal theology. But if God authorizes the analogies, they must be accurate descriptions even though they do not provide univocal access to God's being. Scripture is sufficient for the purposes God intended—to reconcile us to himself, not to satisfy our curiosity." (Michael Horton, 'HELLENISTIC OR HEBREW? OPEN THEISM AND REFORMED THEOLOGICAL METHOD', JETS 45/2 (June 2002): 324-325)

  5. I don't disagree with Horton at all in his premises, but I still think we need to be more careful about how we parse our words. His (implicit) definition of analogical is not entirely in opposition to either equivocity or univocity, it is a kind of via media that contains elements of both equivocity and univocity (e.g.: "God is said to be 'gracious' in a way that is both similar and dissimilar to creatures").

    It's not uncommon for certain heterodox sorts today to take the Van Tillian distinction to an extreme and insist that there is no real univocity in analogy, that everything in revelation is paradoxical, and therefore we can believe just about whatever we want and still be "Reformed". Man is justified by his works AND by grace through faith, Man has (libertarian) free will AND God is sovereign, natural man is in bondage to sin AND entirely free from it.

    Though the Creator-creature distinction must be maintained, so must the Creator-creature connection established in creation and redemption.


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