Does The Bible Literally Describe God?
Imagine that you are at a park on a beautiful spring day. You and some friends are having a picnic, and you see a squirrel on the trunk of a tree near you. You, being the spry athlete you are, decide that you are going to try to catch it. So you start creeping up toward the squirrel. The only problem is that you can’t sneak up on it very well because the squirrel always turns so that it can see you. So though you keep circling the tree, trying to get behind the squirrel, you never really see the back of the squirrel because he always turns to keep you in view.
Here is the question: Have you gone around the squirrel?
William James, one of the great American intellectuals of the 1800’s, tells a story about a debate he is having with his friends regarding this very scenario. Some are saying that they did truly go around the squirrel (because they circled the tree), and others are saying that they did not go around the squirrel (because they only ever saw the squirrel’s face - not his back).
What’s the answer? It all depends on what you mean by the word “around.” If you mean, “did you circumnavigate the squirrel by going around the entire tree, including the squirrel?” the answer is yes. If you mean, “did you ever get behind the squirrel and go around his back?” the answer is no.
Language can be tricky. Here we see what is called an “equivocation”—which is where you use the same word (in this case, the word “around”) — in two different ways.
Talking about God
What does going around a squirrel have to do with God?
Just stick with me as I explain. There are basically three ways to use words when comparing two things:
Equivocally: When one word is used that has a different meaning than another. Equivocal language is what we see in the squirrel example above. There is debate regarding if one has gone “around” the squirrel because the word “around” is being used in two different ways.
Analogically: When one word is used to have a similar or “analogous” meaning as another. Analogical language is when two things can be compared, but not perfectly - it is just an analogy. Everything doesn’t literally hold true of two things that are compared. If I say that a powerful football player is like “an ox” I don’t mean that he literally has horns, four legs, and isn’t human. What I mean is that he is strong. A strong human and an ox are not exactly the same, but you get the point of what I’m saying – the football player is really strong.
Univocally: When one word is used to have exactly the same meaning as another. Univocal language is when you use a word that has exactly the same meaning when comparing two things. If I say, “Albert Einstein is smart,” and I say, “Jonathan Edwards is smart,” I’m meaning the same thing by the word “smart.” They are both two really intelligent humans. When it comes to human intelligence, one may be smarter than the other (Edwards probably was smarter than Einstein), but the word I’m using to draw the comparison (i.e. “smart”) doesn’t change its meaning qualitatively.
So, here is the million dollar question (and the focus of this blog):
When the Bible says that God has a “mighty right arm,” or he “remembers his covenant,” or he gathers us under the shadow of his “wings,” or he speaks with Moses “face to face,” or he “changes his mind”—are these things to be taken equivocally, analogically, or univocally?
Infinite God, finite language
Let’s take the sentence, “God is love.”
When we say that “God is love,” we can’t say that the word “love” should be used in an equivocal sense. If we do, then we can also say that the Bible teaches that “God is a score of zero in tennis,” (which is also called “love”). But that’s not what the Bible means. We can’t say the word “love” has nothing to do with literal love. If all language about God is equivocal then we can’t know anything about God! So it appears that equivocation, when used about God, gets us into the same trouble of William James and the squirrel.
On the other end of the spectrum is the view of one of the most influential Christian thinkers of the Middle Ages: John Duns Scotus. In fact, Scotus is so brilliant, and his arguments so technical, that his students had trouble reproducing his thoughts accurately. For their misunderstanding, they were called “dunces” (named after John DunsScotus) which is where we get the idea of people wearing cone shaped hats (with the word “dunce” on them) as a punishment for saying something dumb in class. Scotus held to a doctrine of univocity whereby our language about God must, in some sense mean the same thing that it means when it is used by us. So if we say “God is an infinite being” and “a cow is a finite being” he is not saying that God’s essence is the same thing as a cow’s essence. He is saying that our concept of “being” has to be the same for both or how could we ever know anything about God at all? Now, that sounds kind of nerdy and technical, and we don’t have time to get into his defense of this view.
Though Scotus is extremely smart, God’s nature is so different from ours that Scotus’s view runs into some problems. For example, when I say “God is loving” and I say “my dog is loving,” univocal language makes the word “loving” too close in meaning between the two sentences, which distorts my view of God and makes the Creator too much like creation.
The most influential Christian thinker in the Middle Ages is St. Thomas from a town in Italy called Aquino – better know as Thomas Aquinas. One of his major contributions to theology is to defend the idea that when language is used about God it is used analogically. This is the position that I think is correct. When we say “God is love” we don’t mean that we have no idea of what “love” means (equivocation). We also don’t mean that it is the same concept of love that I have (univocation). Instead, we can use the fact that we love people to give us an analogy of what God’s love must be like, but his love is on a totally different spectrum than ours. God is love, yes, but “love” means something qualitatively different when used to identify an infinite being than when it is used of finite beings. The sentence “God is love” is absolutely true – Aquinas would say it is even literally true - but it doesn’t mean “God is love just like you and I understand the word ‘love’.” God really is loving, but “love” means something very different to God than it means to us.
The Otherness of God
It is important to remember that God is completely “other.” He is completely unlike everything that is created. He does not have a body because he is spirit (John 4:24), he is not bound by time because he is eternal (Psalm 90:2), he is not bound by space because he is omnipresent (Jer 23:23-24; 1 Kings 8:26), he doesn’t need anything because he possesses aseity (Acts 17:24-25), you can’t see God’s substance because he is invisible (1 Tim 1:17), he is unchanging (James 1:17; Mal 3:6), and he knows everything (1 John 3:20). In addition to that, he is one, simple substance and is not composite or composed of parts. God is a trinity – One God who consists of three distinct persons who are each fully God but distinct from each other - all at the same time. God is being, he is not becoming. He is pure actuality with no potentiality. Whatever he is he is that thing all the way, all the time.
The Westminster Confession of Faith says:
There is but one only living and true [Trinitarian] God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions; immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute, working all things according to the counsel of His own immutable and most righteous will, for His own glory; most loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin, the rewarder of them that diligently seek Him; and withal, most just, and terrible in His judgments; hating all sin, and who will by no means clear the guilty.
In fact, God is so infinitely unlike creation that many theologians in the Middle Ages thought you could only describe God by what he is not. This is known as the via remotionis, via negativa, or, in Greek Orthodoxy, “apophatic theology.” These fancy words simply promote the view that we can’t say what God is. We can only say what he is not. So when we say God is “infinite” we are really saying he is “not finite.” When we say God is “loving” we are really saying he is “not unloving,” etc.
But, there are a few problems with trying to only talk about God in negatives:
The Bible talks about God in positive terms.
You cannot describe something using only negatives without assuming something positive. (For example, if you don’t know what a dog is and I say, “well, it is not a lizard, and it is not a cow, and it is not a car,” that doesn’t actually let you know what it actually is).
In Christianity, the highest object of our love, as Scotus would say, is not a negative.
All of these theologians and their big words are just trying to answer this question: how on earth do you talk about a being who is Trinitarian, simple, infinite, eternal, outside of time and space, unchanging, all knowing and spiritual with language that we use as humans who are none if these things?
Well, the answer is that you realize that all our language about God is analogical.
God is not a man, but the only language we use as men is human language. Our language is always constrained when we talk about God. We can know God truly but we cannot know him fully. We can apprehend but not comprehend him. When God talks to us in scripture he, as Calvin said, lisps to us as a mother does her children.
Clarifying it further
You see, God doesn’t literally have a mighty right “hand.” If he did, how big are his fingernails? Are they made up dead skin cells? Does A+ blood run through the veins in his hand? Does he have fingerprints so he can better grip things? Do his hands get pruney when soaked in water? You see that all of these questions are absolutely ridiculous. God doesn’t look like a man just because the Bible says he has a “hand” anymore than he looks like a bird just because the psalmist says he has “wings.”
If you want to try to use this type of language literally, you run into a lot of problems. Now you have to say that God literally has wings. You have to say that God literally has seven eyes (Zech 4:10). You have to say that God literally looks like a smoking fire pot (Gen 15:17) You have to say that God literally forgets things - (In fact, when the Israelites wanted to make an idol of God at Sinai they thought he looked like a bull (which is why they made a calf and not a man) so now you have to think of him as a bull, etc…).
You see, when you read a phrase about God’s mighty right hand, you are not supposed to take that in an equivocal sense and think the word “hand” means something like “God has a full house in a game of poker,” which would also be a “hand.” Nor are you to take it in a univocal sense and act like the concept of God’s “hand” is like yours. God doesn’t have a hand, or any body parts because he is infinite spiritual essence.
Rather, you are supposed to understand “hand” in an analogical way. Most people are right handed and their right hand is their “strong” hand, so you are supposed to know that God is strong too. Now, the difference between our strength and God’s strength is not one of quantity; it is one of quality. It is not as though we are on the same scale and he is just higher up on the scale. We are on two totally different scales when it comes to “strength.”
The Bible itself demonstrates this in several places. Consider an example from 1 Samuel 15. It says that God regretted something, and also says that he does not regret things:
The word of the LORD came to Samuel: “I regret that I have made Saul king, for he has turned back from following me and has not performed my commandments.” 1 Samuel 15:10-11
"And also the Glory of Israel will not lie or have regret, for he is not a man, that he should have regret.” 1 Samuel 15:29
Notice how language is used of God analogically. It says God “regrets” but then it goes on to say, “just in case you think God’s ‘regretting’ is like yours, you are mistaken; God is not a man, so ‘regret’ means something different for him than for you.” And the same is true regarding God “remembering” or “burning with anger” or anything that is said about God.
It is not just the case that some of the descriptions of God are constrained by human language, but all the language we use when we talk about God is constrained by human language. It is not as though the Bible just contains anthropomorphisms (describing God is human terms though he is not human); the entire Bible is anthropomorphic when it talks about God. We never think of God perfectly because we cannot think infinite thoughts.
So what? Why is this helpful to know?
I have found that many of our problems in life come down to us thinking that God is like us. We think of him as a really big man on a cloud. We think that because humans’ love for us varies depending on our behavior then God’s must as well. We think that we give him good and bad days based on how we are acting. We assume that because human break their promises then God must too. We assume that because humans have bad reasons for why they make laws then God’s rules must not be out for our good. We assume in some areas that we are smarter than God and would do things differently than him.
But that is idolatry.
If you are thinking of God in creaturely categories you are committing mental idolatry.
It is not as though God is just all your attributes to a higher degree. He is qualitatively different. You live in a house; he inhabits eternity (Isa 57:15). You are one human, one person. God is one God, three persons. You are created, changing, bodily, and limited. God is uncreated, unchanging, spirit, and unlimited. God is not a man (Num 23:19).
“But what about Christ?” you will say.
Even in the person of Christ, who is both God and man, his natures are not mixed (a heresy known as Eutychianism). His deity does not change just because he also has humanity. His two natures are distinct though Jesus is only one person. Even in the incarnation nothing changes about Christ’s deity. He doesn’t lay aside his “God-ness” or get rid of any of his divine attributes. He takes on a second nature (humanity), but nothing changes about his divine nature. So you should know that Jesus is fully human, but this is a second nature and it is not a place where you should think of his deity as human.
This should lead to absolute worship. It should cause us to bow down and repent of our pride and worship at the mystery of our infinite, Triune God. May we repent for making God in our image and for exalting humanity to the same level as God. May we realize that God’s nature is mysterious and beyond our full comprehension. May knowing how different he is than us cause us to trust his infinite power more and more.
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Hughes, Christopher. “Medieval Philosophy,” in Philosophy 2: Further Through the Subject (2 Vols). Edited by A.C. Grayling. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Trueman, Carl. The Medieval Church. Lecture Series: Westminster Theological Seminary.
Williams, Thomas. Reason and Faith: Philosophy in the Middle Ages. Lecture Series: The Great Courses.