The Problem Of Predication

The second of the general problems I distinguished above had to do with the sense of the terms we predicate of God. Neo-Wittgensteinians and others who question the metaphysical reference of God-talk will have their own perspective on this issue. (Thus Wittgensteinians will say that the sense of God-talk is evident from the forms of life in which it is embedded.) But if we adopt the approach of metaphysical theism, a rather different set of problems emerges. In brief, the difficulty can be expressed as follows. When we consider the terms which we use of God and of creatures (terms like 'good' and 'wise'), we can suppose first, that these terms have the same sense in divine and creaturely contexts or second, that their senses differ in these two cases. But neither of these approaches seems satisfactory. The former is likely to leave us with an anthropomorphic account of the divine nature. And the latter seems to issue in a kind of agnosticism. For our understanding of our terms derives from the sense which they bear when they are used of creatures; so if terms like 'good' acquire a different sense when they are predicated of God, then we shall not be able to locate their religious sense with any precision.

St Thomas Aquinas (1224/5-74) identifies the same dilemma when he proposes that the relation between the terms we use of God and of creatures cannot be one of univocity (sameness of sense) nor one of equivocity (total difference of sense). Instead, he suggests, we need an intermediate possibility, where the meaning of a term is stretched in the divine case but not stretched so far as to lose all continuity with its original, creaturely sense. This intermediate possibility he terms analogy (Aquinas 1964: la 13.5; 61-7). For instance, the term 'healthy' is not used in just the same sense when we speak of 'a healthy complexion' and of 'a healthy man'; but at the same time, it is not used in totally different senses in these two contexts (we are not merely punning when we use the same word in each case). To mark this fact, we may say that the term 'healthy' is used analogically of human beings and their complexions.

More generally, in the language of one of Aquinas's commentators, Cardinal Cajetan (1469-1534), we may say that there are two kinds of analogy. First, there is 'analogy of attribution' (of which 'healthy' as used above would be an example). In this case a term applies, strictly speaking, to just one of the analogates (in our example the human being) and in a derivative way (or by attribution) to the further analogate by virtue of some relation which it bears to the primary analogate (for instance, the relation of being a symptom, in the case of a healthy complexion, or of being a cause, in the case of a healthy diet). On the other hand we may speak of an 'analogy of proportionality', in cases where a term applies, strictly speaking, to both analogates, but in a different way to each analogate. For instance, we may speak of 'a faithful dog' and 'a faithful spouse', where faithfulness is 'proportional to' the natures of dogs and human beings respectively.

It is natural to ask the question: which of the many terms we predicate of created things may be predicated analogically of God? With reference to the analogy of attribution, we might suggest that any term which can properly be applied in the created order may be used analogically of God also, in so far as he is the cause of all created things. But this approach carries unfortunate implications. It suggests that terms like 'goodness' and 'wisdom' may be used in the fullest sense of creatures (the primary analogate in this case) and only derivatively of God (in so far as he is the cause of the goodness and wisdom of creatures). By contrast, the believer is inclined to say that it is God who is the supreme exemplar of goodness, and that creatures are good only in some secondary sense. More importantly, it suggests that terms like 'round', 'green' and 'hirsute' all apply to God, since they can be truly predicated of God's effects. The analogy of proportionality also poses problems, at any rate if it is treated as a kind of formula for ascribing sense to the terms we use of God. For this approach suggests that in order to give sense to a term like 'good' when it is predicated of God, we need to take account of the fact that God's goodness is in proportion to his nature. And it may be objected as follows: in order to act on this proposal, we must first have some notion of what God's nature is like; but we cannot have such a notion without already understanding what terms like 'good' mean when they are predicated of God; for such terms are basic to our conception of the divine nature; so we are caught in a circle.

To meet these difficulties, the theory of analogy needs development. There are some indications of how to proceed in Aquinas's own account. For example, he suggests that when we ascribe a property to God we should remove from our idea of the property anything which implies imperfection or a creaturely form of existence (the via remotionis). The application of this rule will ensure that terms like 'round' are not predicated of God. Aquinas adds that we should suppose that God possesses these 'pure perfections' in a supereminent degree (the via eminentiae). This approach gives us some idea of how perfection terms must be stretched when they are applied to the divine nature, although it does not provide a substantive conception of God's perfection.

Some may wonder whether we can dispense with some of these difficulties by adopting a theory of univocity. Following Duns Scotus (d. 1308), it may be suggested that we should draw the boundary between univocal and analogical uses of terms by considering the possibility of various comparisons (Sherry 1976:439-40). For instance, the comparison 'Your complexion is healthier than I am' sounds logically odd, suggesting that 'healthy' does not have the same sense when used of complexions and human beings. But the comparison 'God is wiser than you are' does not sound so obviously amiss (although Wittgensteinians may detect deep differences of 'logical grammar' here). So there are reasons for thinking that in some central cases we may talk of God and of creatures univocally. Indeed, it may be argued (as Scotus himself suggests) that Aquinas's own doctrine is implicitly univocalist. For instance, Aquinas maintains (1964: la 13.3; 57-9) that the res significata of terms like goodness is the same in the case of creatures and God (that is, the property signified in the two cases is the same); it is just the modus significant which differs in the two cases (that is, it is just the way in which God possesses the property that differs). But surely, it may be said, if terms like 'wisdom' and so on pick out the same property when used of God and of creatures, then it is best to suppose that these terms are used univocally in the two cases (Swinburne 1993:80-1).

These arguments suggest, contrary to Aquinas's stated view, that there is indeed a sense in which talk of God and of creatures may be said to be 'univocal'. But this sense is to be distinguished from Aquinas's. For Aquinas's account of univocity (unlike Scotus's) seems to be more than a merely logical doctrine: it also involves a range of metaphysical judgements. In particular, from the way in which Aquinas argues for the impossibility of univocal usage, it is clear that on his understanding the possibility of making certain comparisons is not a sufficient condition of univocity; in addition, it is necessary that the things concerned should not differ too profoundly in their mode of being. For instance, Aquinas argues that we cannot speak univocally of God and creatures because the divine properties are possessed in a simple and undivided way, whereas those of creatures are not. Similarly, his doctrine of analogy involves more than the logical point that certain terms can be used across generic boundaries (terms like goodness and existence). It also involves a metaphysical account of causation, in particular the view that a cause must possess in a higher form whatever perfections it brings about in other things; and it includes the view that as subsistent being itself, God must possess all perfections. In sum, our verdict on the claim that terms may be used of God and creatures univocally, or only analogically, should be sensitive to different connotations of the terms 'analogical' and 'univocal'.

Analogy, univocity and equivocity are all literal modes of discourse. But we also speak of God metaphorically or figuratively, as when we say that 'God is a rock' or that 'God is angry' (assuming the truth of the impassibilist account of the divine nature). Indeed, some have proposed that all human language, including the language we use of God, is metaphorical (Sarot 1992:141-4). Suppose for instance that I am introduced to the term 'red' in relation to the colour of a certain apple. When I use the term thereafter, it is most unlikely that I will be applying it to things whose colour resembles in all respects the colour of the apple. Instead, in saying that a thing is red, I will be noting that its colour resembles that of the apple in some but not in all respects; so my application of the term in further cases is a creative use of language which extends the term's range of application. But such creativity, it may be said, is characteristic of metaphorical discourse. For instance, if we remark that someone has a 'regal manner', speaking metaphorically, we are using the term 'regal' outside of the context in which its sense was first established, and noting that the deportment of the person resembles that of a king in some but not in all respects.

If we adopt this view of metaphor, it follows uncontroversially that all talk of God is metaphorical, because the terms we use of God we learn first in relation to creatures, and the divine properties are not like those of human beings in all respects. However, if we are using the term 'metaphor' in its everyday sense, then the claim that all human talk is metaphorical is false. And on this same understanding of metaphor, we might argue that the supposition that all talk of God is metaphorical must also be false (Alston 1989:17-37). (Here the issue concerns positive descriptions of the divine; all parties can agree that negative and relational attributions may be literally true.) Suppose we distinguish between the subject of a metaphor (the thing to which the metaphor is applied) and its exemplar (the thing to which the expression in question literally applies). Using these terms, we may say that a metaphor proposes that a certain exemplar is an appropriate model of the metaphor's subject (ibid.: 22). So a metaphor will be apt or the statement in which it is embedded true on condition that the exemplar is indeed a good model. We might then argue as follows. But in making such judgements of aptness or truth, we must judge that the metaphor's subject is appropriately compared to its exemplar in a given respect. And to make such a judgement, we need to know what the subject is really like in that respect. And this implies an ability to speak of the metaphor's subject in literal terms, at least in principle (that is, on condition that the language contains an appropriate predicate). Similarly, if we wish to say that we can distinguish good from poor theistic metaphors, then we must say that talk of God cannot be irreducibly metaphorical. (Of course, this is not to say that the sense of theistic metaphors can be exhaustively specified in the form of a literal paraphrase.)

Advocates of the 'pan-metaphorical' view would endeavour to escape the force of Alston's argument by questioning the account of metaphor on which it relies. According to Alston's view it does appear that metaphors are true or apt only if they are implicit comparisons and if they impute resemblances between the subject and exemplar which are found to hold. Many would question this account of metaphor as too crude. They would contend that the basic function of a metaphor is to make us think about one thing in terms of another and that this can be fruitful even though there are no literal similarities between exemplar and subject. By metaphorical descriptions of God, we set up associations between divine and mundane realities which help us in thinking about God (for example, by extending upon reflection our negative or relational knowledge of him), without imputing any literal resemblances between creature and creator. In this way the transcendence of God may be preserved (see Searle 1979 and Yob 1992 for the basis of this reply). This debate throws up the question, crucial also in discussions of analogy described above, as to what account of divine transcendence underlies our strategies for interpreting religious language.

Although the claim that all talk of God is metaphorical may be controversial (on some understandings of the nature of metaphor), it seems clear that metaphors do have an important role in the language of religion. In particular, a number of recent philosophical discussions have drawn attention to the importance of models in theology. The relation between metaphor and model is a matter of debate, but models (when they are spelt out linguistically) seem to comprise metaphors themselves and to sponsor the use of further metaphors. For instance in speaking metaphorically of the brain as 'a computer', we use a model to establish a theory; and this model generates further ways of thinking metaphorically about its subject, as when we speak of the 'programming' of the brain. Thus we may distinguish respectively between theory-constitutive metaphors and metaphorically constituted theory terms (Soskice 1985:101). Analogously we may begin with a model of God as father, or as mother or friend, and use these models to derive further ways of speaking metaphorically of the nature and activity of God.

Soskice elaborates on the parallel between the scientific and theological uses of models, suggesting that the two are more alike than is sometimes supposed. In particular, she suggests that models in religion have an explanatory or cognitive and not merely an affective role. And she suggests that scientific and not merely religious or theological theory is inextricably bound up with the use of models: models constitute the projective capacity of a scientific theory, suggesting new lines of enquiry, as we investigate which of the points of comparison implicit in the model are appropriate and which are not (Soskice 1985:108-15). These reflections suggest that by noting the referential success of scientific models, we can develop a further argument for the idea that religious language is anchored in our empirical experience even though its ontological claims are not reducible to claims about the data of observation. To substantiate such a case, we would need, of course, to give reasons for rejecting other (e.g. positivist and instrumentalist) interpretations of the status of scientific models.

We have now considered a number of issues relating to the nature of predication in religious uses of language: should our talk of God be understood in metaphorical terms alone, or do some of the things we say of God have a literal significance? If the latter is true, should we suppose that the terms we use of God and of creatures are related analogically, or should we take them to be related univocally (or equivocally)? And does the metaphorical use of language in religion provide a way of anchoring religious claims, by analogy with the ways in which scientific models may be grounded in the empirical data? In these various ways, we may debate the meaning of expressions like '.is good' and '.is wise' when predicaed of God. But what about the term 'God' itself? How does this term function linguistically?

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