What Can We Say of God?

What Can We Say of God? September 12, 2014

Stephen R. Holmes argues in his contribution to Two Views of the Doctrine of the Trinity that “the doctrine of the Trinity is not primarily an ontology, nor does it depend on a particular ontology,” though Holmes admits that it does imply a “modest” set of ontological commitments (35). 

The reason for this “ontological modesty” is “the recognition that our thought about God is inevitably limited in precisely this way: God’s essence is simple, incomposite; our thought and speech about it are complex, multiple, discursive, and so inexact. One implication of this is that we cannot reason analytically about divine reality, or at least not with any confidence. Our terms have no sure reference but are instead in some degree metaphorical. They cannot bear the weight of precision needed for analogical reasoning.” Our works are “partial and inadequate gestures toward the reality of the divine life, each of which points to something real, but in a partial and inexact way” (36).

In particular, Holmes denies that there are any “interesting analogies from creation to the Trinity, particularly not in the sphere of human sociality” (27).

Let’s start with that last claim. Are there no interesting analogies between human social relations and the Trinity? Not even father-son relations? That would seem to be a fairly basic form of human sociality, and one that would seem to be fairly fundamental to Trinitarian theology. Or what about speaker and word? Language is a fundamental form of human social relationship, and we’re told at the beginning of John’s gospel that in God there is Word who can be identified as the Word of God who is also God. I’m sure that Holmes finds these analogies “interesting”; if not, then the doctrine of the Trinity as a whole lacks interest.

I assume that Holmes is not challenging this biblical and classical terminology, and that his point about “no interesting analogies” is about the limits and inadequacies of human language. Of course, he might respond, Scripture and theology use human words, and words that describe human relations, to describe God’s being. What alternative do we have, after all? But when we have said that the Father and Son are Father and Son, we are not saying that their relation is like the relation of a human father to a human son. There is such a distance between Creator and creature that there is more dissimilarity than similarity between human father-son relations and the divine Father-Son relation.

But that brings me to the first quotation, about the “adequacy” of human speech to describe God. Holmes is right to highlight this as a critical point in current Trinitarian discussion. But the questions are, Inadequate for what purpose? And, inadequate as judged by what standard of adequacy

The standard of adequacy appears to be “analytical reasoning.” We don’t have the language to do that with respect to God, and so we are left with language that is “in some degree metaphorical.” But why would analytical reasoning be the standard of adequate language? And why would metaphor be considered (apparently) a poor substitute? Were Holmes a poet rather than an analytical theologian, he might conclude that it’s a very good thing we are left with metaphor rather than the capacity for analytical reasoning. And, it seems to me, the Bible is written by folks who were more poets than analysts.

What if God designed human language to be perfectly adequate for human needs? What if God designed human language (even metaphorical language) to be capable of naming God in all the ways we need to name God – for praise, for exhortation, for personal knowledge of our Creator? Humans don’t need language for God that is adequate to angelic uses; just for human uses. And perhaps that’s just what God gave us. 

A God who is Word seems perfectly capable of designing human language do to that, doesn’t He?


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