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Revelation, Analogy and Semantic Participation in the Divine

18 Mai 2007

În Iosif Ţon. Orizonturi noi în spiritualitate şi slujire, (editors: Sorin Sabou şi Dorothy Ghitea) Editura Cartea Creştină, Oradea, pp. 175-196.

I remember very clearly my first encounter with the name of Iosif Ţon. It was in the mid ’70s and my sister was a student in Galaţi. I was only about 10 years old at the time. My sister brought home with her in one of her vacations a copy of Ţon‘s open letter (published later as The Christian Manifesto) which he had sent to Nicolae Ceauşescu. Parts of it were read aloud and commented on in our home, and my brother spent most of the two weeks during which the text was available to us copying it by hand. We heard about brother Iosif’s three weeks of fasting and prayer for change and renewal at the Baptist Seminary in Bucharest. We were delighted that someone had had the inspiration, the courage and the concrete possibility to speak up for us, Baptist and Evangelical believers, and for our freedoms. We were also fearful of what might happen to him if the communist authorities decided to eliminate him. Later, when his solitary effort was supported by a second letter, written by Vasile Taloş and signed by 50 Baptist ministers, my father (who had himself been harassed by the Securitate) was among the signatories.

I also remember clearly the first time I heard Iosif Ţon preach, at the Baptist Church in Şimleu-Silvaniei. It was an expository sermon from the book of Romans. Most of all, though, Iosif Ţon was helpful to me personally through his broadcasts on Radio Free Europe. Back then Christian books were few, and my generation had very limited options if they wanted to find answers to their questions about God and spiritual life. In this context his systematic teaching contributed greatly to the spiritual formation of people such as myself.

My paper for this Festschrift addresses, from a particular angle, one of the constant themes that has characterised Iosif Ţon‘s witness over the years, i.e. our knowledge of and love relationship with God. In his preaching, teaching and writing, spirituality has played a significant role. He has tirelessly taught that the most worthy human endeavour is to know and love God. Indeed, what could or should preoccupy us more than to be able to participate, by God’s grace and through his Spirit, in the Divine life? My own work has led me to explore questions about the nature of our talk about God, and about the implications for human language in general of his self-revelation by means of human language. Language mediates our relationship with God to a more significant degree than we consciously realize. Thus, prayer, teaching, witness, Bible reading and other such common ‘spiritual’ activities happen by means of language. How can we know that a humble human tool such as language can serve us without distorting our relationship with, or knowledge of, God? This concern has a long history in Christian thought, starting perhaps as early as the time of Clement of Alexandria. In this paper I shall present some of the answers that have been given over the centuries to this concern. In the context of this historical debate, I shall interact particularly with a creative proposal coming from the contemporary Scottish theologian Alan Torrance, who suggests that God-talk and theology find their proper context and normative grammar in the Christian community’s participation in worship in Christ through the Spirit. He argues that even though its language is imperfect, the worshiping community participates doxologically, by the Spirit, in the Son’s relationship with the Father, and on that basis, through its distinctive talk, it also participates semantically in the divine life. The practical importance of this discussion is that it has the potential to reform our understanding of the church, of Christian teaching and of human language. It can excite the minister, humble the theologian and encourage the thoughtful Christian who goes about his business in God’s created world.

As to brother Iosif Ţon, my prayer for him is that God will continue to use his words to attract many people closer to himself, and also that God will bestow wisdom and inspiration on him in his old age to at least the measure that he did in his younger years.

1. Revelation as Act

The task of speaking about language is always perilous, given the fact that in talk about words, one cannot but use words. The fact that the very object under scrutiny is also the medium of conveying the findings is bound to influence and distort the picture. The matter is complicated even more for a theologian by the fact that his or her picture must include God — a transcendent reality whose relation to our language is even more intricate than the relations that language bears either to our own humanity or to the world in and about which we use it. Moreover, in a theology of language God not only has to be part of the picture, but he has to be its focal point and controlling factor.

One level of inquiry would involve looking at language through the lenses of creation, Christology and Pneumatology. But then again a different level of inquiry involves a systematic theological approach, with us asking questions such as what it is that we do when we think theologically about language. How can we view creaturely language in the light of the reality of a transcendent God in a way that ensures that our discourse is truly theology and not mere projection? Does God in his action relate or adapt in any way to our language about him and about the world? My method involves extending one of the classical doctrinal debates—the relationship between God and the world—so as to include its implications for the issue we have under scrutiny here. Why should the theme of theological knowledge and the discussion of these models contribute to a theology of language? Because no theoretical discussion or a priori delimitation or ‘natural’ definition can properly account for human language. Rather, it is in the actuality of its use, both about God’s being and about created beings, that language should be studied.

Thus, in this paper, I will review a major theological problem the different possible answers to which can and should shape our theological understanding of language and being, and should constitute the background against which we seek to approach the questions outlined above. I will be looking at the epistemological dimension of the relationship between God and his creation, touching on ways of relating the semantic with the ontological, in view of God’s being and action. My guiding question in this discussion is: How can a created being know a transcendent God? In answering this question, I shall look at three models of providing a warrant for our doctrines and for our other God-related linguistic practices. The three models are the revelational one, coming from Karl Barth, with its roots in Calvin, the analogical one, coming from Thomas Aquinas, refined and interpreted by later Catholic theologians, and the doxological one proposed by Alan Torrance but bringing together ideas from several other modern or contemporary authors.

The question of a theology of language in the context of the relationship between God and the world will be put here into proper perspective by starting from the givenness of revelation as act. In short, this is taken to imply that language about God is instigated and required by this givenness and is commandeered and made good by God’s grace for his people. This paper contributes towards the building of an argument that attempts to show that there is a theological basis for language use, not only in terms of legitimating God-talk, but also of language in relation with the world of things and persons in God’s creation.

From the outset, I need to clarify one of my main presuppositions, which derives from a Barthian epistemological model founded on revelation. It is to the credit of Karl Barth that he should have approached revelation, against his background, in a fashion that integrates it with the doctrines of creation and of reconciliation.[1] Thus, for him the Being of God is not divorced from his acts, and therefore we cannot know God before and apart from his supreme act of revealing himself in Christ. God’s truth is not a static datum that we can acquire, but an event in which we can participate. It is a living truth, identical with God’s being, supremely sovereign and speaking for itself. Therefore it is only in this hypostasis, as truth speaking for itself, that we can receive it. It is God’s self-revelation that must be accepted, and it must be accepted in its givenness. We cannot infer things about God on the basis of our knowledge of other realities.[2] It is by his self-revelation alone that we can know God, not as another object of human cognition that we can make manifest to ourselves, but only by virtue of his grace and love. As the prius of all cognition, it is possible for God to make himself manifest to his creation; and he has done so, thereby making this possibility a reality.[3] Therefore God’s revelation is not based on anything exterior to itself, but is based on its own actuality. God’s particularity is shown to us only by God himself and therefore the truth of his revelation is and can only be self-grounding. Barth writes:

According to the Holy Scripture God’s revelation is a ground which has no higher or deeper ground above or below it but is an absolute ground in itself, and therefore for us a court from which there can be no possible appeal to a higher court. Its reality and truth do not rest on a superior reality and truth. […] On the contrary, God’s revelation has its reality and truth wholly and in every respect—both ontically and noetically—within itself.[4]

As Alan Torrance points out, Barth is concerned to stress ‘not that revelation can necessarily have no higher or deeper ground in terms of which it can receive verification or validation, but rather that it has no such higher ground and this fact belongs to the nature of the revelation itself.’[5] This is not an arbitrary statement, but is in the nature of revelation, whose logic of givenness is part of its own content and as such can only be described a posteriori.

The givenness of revelation and the a posteriori nature of theology are of particular importance for my purposes here. They are the reasons why we cannot think theologically about language unless we view it in the light of the reality of God’s being, as well as, and following from that, in the light of the realities of the world’s beings. As we have already seen, no general features that we may know from other realities can guide us in making theological judgements. Also, when we conceive of other realities, including language, in relation to God we cannot think of them except as originating from him and oriented towards him. The ontological divide between God and other realities can limit them, but cannot limit him. He ‘can encounter them on their side of the ontological divide’, as he ‘is alive and free not only as their transcendent limit but also as their immanent ground.’[6] This leads Barth to the idea of God’s commandeering, or requisitioning, of human language for his own revelatory purposes. From what we have established so far it is clear that as we try to understand language and being theologically we are faced with the problem of the continuity and discontinuity between the human and the divine realms. Indeed, language as a created reality that mediates our knowledge of the world and of God must itself be understood in the light of God’s being and self-revelation.

2. God-talk and the Catholic Doctrine of Analogy

The epistemological quest for a way of cutting through the divide between the human and the divine realms has a long history in Christian thought. We recall the discussion of apophaticism and cataphaticism, that is to say, the debate between those who believe that God is ontologically removed from us to such a degree that he cannot be known conceptually, the only way of approaching him being the mystical way of negation stating what he is not, and those who, in contradistinction, believe that human concepts and language do have the possibility in some way of saying something positive and true about him. Whilst cataphatic theology has by and large prevailed in western Christianity, in the East we find a strong commitment to apophaticism, with some influential attempts at a synthesis between the two, by theologians such as Maximus the Confessor and John of Damascus. In the tradition of those who believe in the possibility of positive speech about God, we can distinguish further between two currents. The first current represents those who, with Thomas Aquinas, appeal to some notion of analogy between ordinary language and language about God. Taking on board some of the tradition of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, for them, since Aquinas, speech about God is situated somewhere between univocity and equivocity and can communicate something meaningful only because there is a similarity of some sort between God and his creation. The second current represents those who, with Duns Scotus, favour the idea that terms are applied in exactly the same manner to both man and God. Based on the fact that we are created in God’s image, they argue that we can have exact knowledge of him, the only precaution that we have to take being to make allowance for higher degrees of certain properties, such as goodness for instance, when applied to God than we do when they are applied to man. The basic meaning, however, is the same and we come to know it from the concept’s ordinary use.

The doctrine of analogy has been prominent in Catholic theology since Aquinas. An early interpretation by Cardinal Thomas Cajetan of St Thomas’ relatively brief and unsystematic treatment of analogical predication[7] became more or less the standard teaching of the Catholic Church. After the massive refutation by Karl Barth of the analogia entis as he understood it from Aquinas through Cajetan, more recent Catholic theologians such as Battista Mondin have shown that Cajetan’s was a misinterpretation that pushed the Thomist doctrine in a wrong direction and that Barth’s position is in fact not as far from Aquinas’ as his rhetoric might lead us to think.

A number of authors have been over the arguments in recent times, offering explanations and interpretations of the main players. One of the clearest presentations and assessments is given by Alan Torrance in his Persons in Communion. His purpose in entering the analogy debate is to assess the propriety or otherwise of using the term ‘person’ in relation to both man and the members of the Trinity.[8] Not unlike my purpose here, this presupposes the possibility of epistemically ‘cross-sectioning’ both the human and the divine realms in order to reform our grasp of reality, be it of ourselves, of the world or of God.

Like Torrance, I shall start by looking first of all at the traditional interpretation of St Thomas’ theory of analogy. As I have already mentioned briefly, analogical predication stands midway between univocal predication and equivocal predication. While in univocal predication terms applied to two different objects in the same way designate exactly the same thing, in equivocal predication terms applied to two different objects in the same way designate different things in one and the other. An example of univocal predication would be to say, ‘a Trabant is a car’ and also ‘a BMW is a car’. The word car is used in both cases with exactly the same meaning (in spite of the fact that our uncritical perception might tell us otherwise!). An example of equivocal predication can be found in the way the term ‘wicked’ is applied in one instance by a child in the statement, ‘Captain Hook is wicked!’, and in another instance by a teenager in the statement, ‘This concert is wicked!’. In contradistinction with both of these, when I say that I had a bad day, and that a certain play received a bad press, the relation between the use of the word bad in the two cases is neither totally the same nor totally different, but analogous.

Following the exemplary Catholic exposition of the doctrine by Gerald Phelan, Torrance distinguishes between three forms of analogy. In the first form, the common character belongs properly to both parties in the same way but in different degrees, in which case we are dealing with an analogy of inequality, or an analogy of generic predication. In the second form, the common character belongs properly to only one of the parties, but is attributed to the other through association by the mind, in which case we are dealing with an analogy of attribution. An example of this kind given apparently by Aquinas himself is in speaking of healthy food, when healthy is an attribute that applies truly and properly only to organisms.[9] In the third form, the common characteristic belongs properly to both parties in proportion to their being and in this case we have an analogy of proportionality.[10] It is in the light of this classification that the traditional interpretation of St Thomas must be understood. Torrance quotes from Phelan:

…the basic proposition…in its strict and proper meaning, is that whatever perfection is analogically common to two or more beings is intrinsically (formally) possessed by each, not, however, by any two in the same way or mode, but by each in proportion to its being.[11]

Thus, what we are dealing with here is not an analogy between two beings, but an analogy between two proportions, that is to say a proportion of proportions. For instance, God relates to goodness in a manner that is proportionate to God’s being and at the same time we relate to goodness in a manner that is proportionate to our being. Although we cannot establish a proportion between the two instances of goodness, we can establish a proportion between the two manners of relating to goodness, or between the two proportions. It is, nevertheless, an analogy of being for it gives us an insight into beings of any kind, namely that they participate in their attributes according to their beings and that those participations are therefore analogous. Thus, analogia entis provides an overall cosmological principle of unity whereby all beings are one in being and yet that one being is varied in each of them, being proportionate to the essence of each.[12] It was believed that through this form of analogy the dangers of anthropomorphism would be avoided, thus providing a way of speaking analogically about God’s possession of an attribute rather than directly by intrinsic attribution.

We must note at this point that the analogy of proportionality raises some serious problems. As Torrance points out, the danger of anthropomorphism remains the same as in the case of a simple predication. The only difference is that the similarity is transferred from the quality itself to the subject’s relation to the quality. Moreover, in order to avoid the confusion of making the analogy between God’s relation to one quality (say, goodness) and man’s relation to another (say, knowledge), a further relationship must be employed between the divine and the human versions of the same quality. Also, the kind of statement allowed by the analogy of proportionality is quite different from the direct and intrinsic predication of attributes, such as ‘God is good’, which has always been part of Christianity’s message. It seems that the very purpose of understanding how it is that words function in the case of God is defeated by this complex procedure.[13]

A further problem with the traditional analogia entis noted by Torrance is that raised by the fresh interpretation of Aquinas coming from theologians such as Mondin and Suárez. They emphasise one of the central elements of Aquinas’ doctrine of analogy which Cajetan and the traditional interpretation fails to reflect. Namely, that any approach, if it is not to fall under the charge of anthropomorphism, has to be unius ad alterum per prius et posterius. That is to say, the analogy has to be from one to another according to priority and posteriority. The meaning of the latter part of the statement is that the primary predication of an attribute, such as goodness, belongs to God and its predication of humankind can only be made in a secondary and derivative sense.[14] Indeed, the traditional interpretation fails to meet this criterion, which for Aquinas seems to have been quite central. For him the unius ad alterum principle ensures that God as the source of all is never made into a species belonging to a class along with another species. The analogy from two to a third can never be applied to God, but only the analogy from one to the other, which allows the kind of relationship in which God is the source and the primary possessor of an attribute. In this way the analogy is made according to priority and posteriority.[15]

With all its merits, Mondin’s version of Aquinas’ doctrine also has its problems. In his new classification of analogy in St Thomas, Mondin includes the analogy of intrinsic attribution, which is based on a relation of efficient causality between the analogates and which had been ignored by Cajetan. He also includes the analogy of proper proportionality, i.e. the analogy of intrinsic denomination based on a similarity of relations. In order for this kind of analogy to function, the agents must act in ways similar to themselves. Mondin stresses that without this likeness between cause and effect we cannot have the assurance that there is a real similarity between the analogates in the way required by intrinsic attribution. It is this reliance on the scholastic principle, omne agens agit simile sibi, that Torrance criticises. Firstly, if this principle is applied to God and to his relation to the created order, God appears to be subsumed to a generic category. He becomes part of a class of agents for which it is true that their actions always are similar to them. This represents the same problem as that of an analogy from two to a third, of the kind that Aquinas rejected. Secondly, this argument functions on the basis of some kind of ‘empirical necessity’ that is ‘so all-pervasive that it includes God’. It is this kind of necessity derived from human experience and projected on to God that cannot escape the type of criticism that David Hume applied to Aquinas’ proofs for the existence of God, proofs that tend to jeopardise God’s transcendence and pre-eminence.[16]

I shall turn at this point to Barth’s rejection of the analogia entis and his treatment of the matter of theological language.

3. God-talk and Analogy in Karl Barth

Barth identifies the analogia entis as the Grundprinzip of Catholic theology and rejects it as the invention of the Antichrist, since it militates against the revelation of God and is guilty of confusing theological discourse and relativising theological knowledge. For Barth the inner logic of the analogy of being proceeds from the premise of the Vaticanum that the being of God can be known and is known in abstracto, apart from his activity in the world.[17] In a separate chain of reasoning being is also ascribed to man. On the basis of these two philosophical moves the category of ‘being’ emerges as the neutral ground or class in which both man and God are bracketed. Even though the quality of being is ascribed to them in infinite qualitative disparity, the ascription nevertheless establishes an analogy between the two. Barth’s objection is that such a theory evades revelation and, as such, is not obedient to God’s Word given to us in Christ. Furthermore, the analogy of being is based for Barth on a general theory of causality. If causa is seen as a common denominator for both man and God, if causa is a master concept or a genus of which both divine and creaturely causae are species, then the divine pre-eminence is lost and there is no Christological control over theology. (Just as, indeed, it would similarly be a serious mistake to say that since Christ has a divine nature and a human one, there is a master-concept, nature, which comprises both and therefore there is an analogia naturae between God and man.[18])

Barth’s alternative approach to the problem of theological language is based on revelation and faith. As is well known, for him theology is Dogmatic Theology, which is the ‘self-examination of the Christian Church in respect of the content of its distinctive talk about God’.[19] The criterion for talk about God, therefore, is not some abstract and a priori philosophical principle, but the very Word of God, who alone can enable theological discourse in the Church, when, and to the extent to which, God himself speaks the Word of God to his Church. As Torrance puts it,

…Barth refuses to determine the nature of the free Self-giving of God to be spoken of independently of the event of God’s actually giving himself to be spoken in and through the Logos and by the Spirit.[20]

It is the actuality of the fact that God gave himself to be spoken of that legitimates theological discourse as our response of obedience. God instigates and requires God-talk, and therefore any attempt to go beyond this and constitute some normative form for this God-talk is an act of disobedience and a rejection of God’s initiative. As theology is always a theologia crucis, we are expected to respond in obedience to God’s requirement and accept by faith his reconciliatory commandeering of human language and of language about himself. I quote from Torrance again:

The question how theological terms refer to God is not decided, therefore, by abstract, human speculation, but lies with the manner in which God has chosen to give himself to be spoken of in Christ. And this suggests that God is spoken and wills to be spoken out of, in the light of and by virtue of God’s gracious Self-gift in Christ. Our language is, therefore, ‘chosen’ by God in this and as such possesses warrant.[21]

From this basis Barth concludes that the only concept of analogy that is capable of enabling us to understand revelation is the analogia fidei, which in his words is ‘the correspondence (in faith) of the thing with the knowing, of the object with the thought, of the word of God with the word of man in thought and speech’.[22] We are still dealing with an analogy, but the grounds on which that analogy functions are that firstly, it must be established by God and secondly, it must be recognised by the Body of Christ as having been so established and endorsed by God. It is in the event of faith that the knowability of the Word of God is given to the human subject. In faith there is a form of participative knowing that works intimately with language in a way that guarantees and impels the ascription to God of all the attributes which the experience of the Word of God drives us to ascribe.[23] Barth writes:

To the question how we come to know God by means of our thinking and language, we must give the answer that of ourselves we do not come to know him, that, on the contrary, this happens only as the grace of the revelation of God comes to us and therefore to the means of our thinking and language, adopting us and them, pardoning, saving, protecting and making good.[24]

Barth’s doctrine of analogy goes further than this. Based on the traditional doctrine of the image of God, which he takes to be the human being in its entirety as human being, he affirms that human beings mirror in their relationships God’s purposes in salvation-history. More precisely, for Barth the human I-Thou relationship between man and woman is an image of the divine I-Thou relationship between the Father and the Son. The result is not an analogy of being as traditionally understood, but an analogy of relations, a similarity in spite of dissimilarity.[25] Furthermore, as Mondin and Torrance show, there are in Barth three other areas of similarity or analogy — continuities in discontinuity — which together provide the basis for communion between the divine and the human realms. They are (a) the analogy between Christ and God, (b) the analogy between Christ’s humanity and his divinity and (c) the analogy between humanity in general and Christ’s humanity. They are all carefully articulated and conform to the criterion of unius ad alterum per prius et posterius. Stated concisely, these analogies reflect Barth’s conviction that the relationship between God and man as played out in the cosmos, in the life of Jesus, in his contemporaries and in his relationship with his disciples is grounded in, and is a reflection of, the original relationship within the divine being.[26]

Torrance rightly criticises Barth at this point. The parallelism between this kind of analogy and the traditional analogy of proper proportionality is striking. For both the analogates are relations that are established within or between the two realms; for one relations of causality and for the other relations of an I-Thou nature. If Barth’s version is to be called analogy of relations, then the traditional Thomist version has every right to be called analogy of causes. Conversely, if the Thomist version is to be called analogy of being, than Barth’s version should be called analogy of being as well. This suggests, for Torrance, that Barth ‘failed to appreciate the full ramifications of his own position’. Indeed, he failed to see that there is no reason why correspondence between beings or attributes is more susceptible to anthropomorphism than correspondence between relations.[27] Nevertheless, the merits of Barth’s contribution must be recognised, as he turned away from the essentially philosophical approach of Thomist theology, which attempted to answer the problem of theological language on the basis of a universalising principle of causality (all agents act in a manner similar to themselves), and instead offered an essentially theological answer, grounded on the dynamic communion between God and man enacted at God’s initiative in human history.

This essential commitment of Barth’s theology is reflected further in the way he deals with the issue of the vestigia Dei. He does not rule out the possibility of direct traces of the Divine in the created world of human conceptuality and indeed, of secondary pointers stemming from the actual emergence of theological language from reference to non-conceptual creation. Rather, he prefers to analyse what is actually there in the respective claims. The vestigia Dei notion may be understood as an attempt to provide grounds for a unified interpretation of the reality of God’s Being and of the created order, by means of metaphors or, indeed, parallels connecting creaturely forms and the Being of God. This discussion leads Barth to central questions about the nature of theological language and even of language in general. Thus he emphasises that theology, the Church and the Bible use the same language as sinful and corrupt man uses, a language conditioned by the limitations of creaturely existence and a language in which man ‘wrestles with the world as it encounters him and as he sees and tries to understand it’.[28] The use of this worldly language implies belief in, if not the actuality, than at least the possibility of witness, of revelation, of proclamation and of dogma. Yet there is an essential distinction that Barth wants to maintain, and that the proponents of the vestigia trinitatis have not maintained, namely, between understanding this possibility as that of language, and therefore of the human realm, and understanding it as a ‘venture’, ascribed to language and therefore to the human realm from outside, in which case it is revelation and not the inner possibility of language that enables us to speak of theological realities.[29] As Torrance points out, Barth clearly wants to place the correspondence between, on the one hand, human language and, on the other, the created world and human capacities, at the very basis of theological expression. There is an inherent capacity for correspondence on the part of human language, so understood, with the triune God; and we know of it because God actually does reveal himself so that we can speak of revelation and ‘of things for which man’s speech has no aptitude whatever.’[30] Torrance writes:

Yet again, Barth’s concern is with divine freedom on the one hand (which means that if there is a ‘correspondence’ it will be a corresponding), and with preserving a dynamic interpretation of God on the other (which means that such a corresponding will be a dynamic and ‘act-ual’ corresponding where God is freely identifying himself with what we might call the ‘correspondent’—a ‘correspondent’ which is only such in so far as it is given to be, and actively sustained in its being as ‘correspondent’ by God).[31]

It is the Barthian idea of language’s solidarity with creation and with the world of human capacity that is of particular interest for the purposes of my paper. Noticing this feature, Torrance turns it in the direction of a post-Wittgenstinian understanding of language as the praxis of our engagement with the world and with each other, without the assumption of ‘some prior non-semantically-mediated thought to which words are simply attached.’[32] However, there is also a need for expanding this idea in the sense of accounting theologically for such solidarity. As we shall see later, Barth’s model and indeed, Torrance’s model suffer at this point from not bringing enough of a theology of creation into the picture. The actualist understanding of God’s appropriation of human language does assume such language and its nature of a medium where the world encounters us and where we try to understand the world, but it does not explain how and why this is the case. Barth’s purpose, of course, is to justify theological language, but a weakness of his work is probably that he does not account for language in general, especially that in justifying theological language he does make assumptions about language in general.

To conclude, Torrance questions, with Barth, the ultimate usefulness of the concept of vestigia trinitatis, given that even when employed in the Patristic manner of trying to understand the world in the light of the Trinity rather than the Trinity in the light of the world, there is always the danger of reversal and thus of projection. When the Trinity is illustrated in the triads of this world, one is always in danger of side-stepping God’s pre-eminence and making an analogy from two to a third, whereby both the Trinity and the triad conform to some abstract, higher principle of the number three.

I shall turn now to Alan Torrance’s contribution and consider the way he uses, and also goes beyond, Barth in the quest for a proper way of relating semantically to God.

4. Alan Torrance and Semantic Participation

Torrance’s main problem with Barth’s position stems from the criticism that has been outlined earlier (i.e. that he failed to realise that correspondence between relations is no less in danger of anthropomorphism than correspondence between beings or attributes) and is as far-reaching in its implications as the latter’s preference for the term Seinsweise (mode of being, or being-mode) rather than person in designating the divine hypostases. One of the components of Torrance’s alternative seems to be the attempt to suggest a via tertia between, on the one hand, a unifying ontology conceived as a human project, or an ontological monism, and on the other hand a Gnostic dualism, or an approach postulating an absolute disjunction between humanity and God. This third way, seeking ‘epistemic atonement’, is conceived in ‘participative terms’ and rather than being driven epistemologically towards either unification or bifurcation, gives some prominence to a ‘semantic atonement’ made possible by a focus on the Logos. Torrance contemplates the possibility of what he terms as a ‘Logontology’ that stems ‘from the given „Logontic” impetus to theology (as opposed to noetic or ontic)’. Avoiding in this way any predetermined ontic grounds in terms of being and beings, as well as any noetic grounds in terms of foundationalist concepts, such a proposal would seek to allow God, the subject of revelation, to preserve his ultimate freedom as subject.[33]

This participative and semantic orientation is then taken further with the help of Eberhard Jüngel, who develops parts of the Barthian doctrine of theological language into a more elaborate position centred on God’s commandeering of human language. Jüngel provides Torrance with a more dynamic model, taking into account the nature of language and its close interaction with revelation and, through that, its potential for the participation both of the human in the divine and of the human in Christian koinonia.[34]

What Torrance’s work leads towards—his most distinctive contribution—appears in the book’s last chapter. Drawing critically from Zizioulas, he moves beyond Barth’s revelation model and proposes a model of ‘doxological participation’ which is intended to offer an alternative means of access to the doctrine of the Trinity. Apart from a fresh perspective on human participation in the intra-trinitarian life and a ‘more dynamic conception of personhood’, this model also seeks to suggest a ‘different approach to theological semantics’.[35] The exposition of the doxological model is articulated in critical dialogue with Moltmann and LaCugna and essentially it concentrates on worship as the locus of that event which, through the Spirit, unites us to Christ and enables us to participate in his relationship to the Father. On that basis, theology receives a doxological ‘grammar’ that expands its possibilities of integration and creativity. Worship is not something that we achieve historically, but it is an event of grace, in which Christ as High Priest alone offers for us and on our behalf that which we are required, but are unable to bring before God. On the basis of this free and unconditional gift constituted as the proper response of Christ to the Father on our behalf, worship becomes our free participation in that which God perfects for us.[36] The doxological model for Torrance does not imply primarily a subjective response or appropriation from us, but rather presupposes that our subjectivity finds itself ‘caught up’ in this event of participation post factum, and only thus is the subjective response implied by God’s commitment to humanity realised in us.[37]

What concerns us here primarily, however, is Torrance’s idea of ‘semantic participation’ which is implied by the doxological model. As we have already seen, Torrance draws significantly from Jüngel in this regard. Another author of special significance for Torrance’s concept of semantic participation is Wittgenstein. His emphasis on language as praxis—as opposed to the traditional designativist view inherited from Augustine—and, through this, on its sociality and communal nature, on the concept of language-game, on language’s use as a means of distinguishing, of articulating and interpreting experience—all contribute to Torrance’s argument. Further insights are taken from Susan Patterson (about the nature of language as part of reality), from Soskice and Patterson (about the nature of metaphor) and from the thought of Michael Polanyi and his post-critical epistemology. In a nutshell, Torrance wants to emphasise the crucial importance of language as the ‘most essential or fundamental tool for our indwelling the world’[38] and wants to recognise its powerful workings in us when words, such as those found in the Scripture, affect, reform and transform us, becoming the means through which God brings us into communion with his trinitarian life. I quote extensively from Torrance:

…the rich variety of scriptural terminology, as this includes the metaphorical dimension to the functioning of the trinitarian names, the ‘parables’ and so much more should not be seen as serving to obscure the specific Reality of God (and, therefore, as theologically peripheral), nor as unwarrantable forms of anthropomorphic projection (similes), but as essentially creative means through which the dissimilar God comes to us in an assimilating or ‘theopoietic’ event, articulating his own reality for our understanding (expanding and deepening our conceptual categories to this end) and reforming our apperceptions in such a way that we may be brought by the creative dynamic of the Spirit epistemically and semantically to indwell the triune life as created human beings and, thereby, to participate in created ways in the Son’s eternal communion with the Father.[39]

Torrance concludes that between semantic participation in Christ and doxological participation in Christ in worship there is an ‘integral symbolic link’. The linguistic practices of our worship do have an important component of semantic participation as they include cognitive, conceptual and social dimensions. Furthermore a correspondence between the two kinds of participation can be established, which is spelled out in terms of their givenness in Christ and realisation by the Spirit, of the necessity of each for the other and of the metanoia that is implied by both. Also, the semantic dimension of our participation may be described in terms of an ‘analogy of being’ to the extent to which this link gives us a ‘real and given event of communion’ with God. However, Torrance stresses that we can speak of an analogy of being only to the extent to which created reality is to be interpreted in the light of this ‘koinonial’ event, and not the other way round.[40] One of the implications he draws from the whole discussion, and one which is of interest to us, is that there seems to be an analogical parallelism between the mutual relationships within the Trinity opened to us in Christ and the ‘trans-subjectivity’ which is intrinsic to the communion of the Church. And even more interestingly, Torrance suggests that the wider scale of semantic sociality is constituted by another form of trans-subjectivity, which might be viewed as representing a further ‘analogy’, if we agree that obedience to social rules can be assimilated with ‘a form of unconditional „covenantal” commitment to others, that is, … [a] form of communion in itself.’[41] Finally, I should mention an element which appears in the very last few pages of his book, concerning the inadequacy, the ‘intrinsic provisionality’ and the ‘incompleteness under grace’ of our language, despite its being at the same time commandeered by the Logos.[42]

5. Conclusion

There is much to be said for Torrance’s penetrating analysis of the tradition and the judicious way in which he deals with the relevant questions in a large body of material. Most importantly, his reading of the tradition is at one and the same time an interpretation and also a carrying forward into a new development. Using the strengths of both Aquinas and Barth, his doxological model of the theological enterprise and his idea of semantic participation throw fresh light on the subject. Ideas and concepts that had been floating around in fragmentary forms in previous years among theologians find in his book a coherent integration in a discourse that seriously engages both with them and with some of the deepest roots of the theological tradition.

The doxological model, however, does present some difficulties. First of all, the very move of doing away with an epistemological model and preserving only a few of the theological principles that have come to be crystallised over the centuries as part of that debate (such as unius ad alterum per prius et posterius), and of adopting a purely doxological model, seems to me to run the risk of moving theology too close to phenomenology. However carefully we redefine worship theologically, as Torrance does, if we view doxology as the only grammar of theology, there is always the danger of buying too wholesale into a Wittgensteinian, praxis-based and ultimately socially construed understanding of doctrine. It is not that Torrance wishes to let our experience of worship dictate a priori our language about God, but his move may have the effect of disabling its most important aspect as a function of the Church, that of self-critical analysis in the light of God’s Word. I would suggest that the particularities of concrete ecclesial gatherings, their specific language-games and practices, are in much more intricate a relationship with theology than Torrance’s model seems to suggest. To give the example I alluded to earlier, when theology is understood merely as a cognitive form of semantic participation, its prophetic call and function in the church, which have always been well-acknowledged in the tradition, do not seem to be accounted for in any obvious way.

One possibility of misuse for the doxological model might be its employment by those whose churchmanship and ecclesiology lead them to idealise the ‘church universal’ and the doxological medium of a long-standing liturgical tradition. Idealising what the traditional churches do in worship would lead to a kind of ex opere operato liturgical perfectionism. But such a position would not stand the test of actuality and givenness and would work against what Torrance is trying to achieve. The doxological model has value only in so far as it refers to concrete and particular ecclesial gatherings, and not to some kind of ideal doxological community. In other words, if we are to follow Torrance’s model, the cognitive and conceptual dimensions of our semantic participation in Christ would necessarily be shaped by the local particularities of our own doxological community. However, with this arises another possibility of misuse of the doxological model. If these cognitive and conceptual dimensions are to have unity and coherence, one needs to find ways of guarding against any narcissistic concentration on the localised phenomena of worship. Hence, unqualified acceptance of this model would pose great difficulties for the articulation of a consistent ecclesiology which genuinely maintained the unity of the Church. Consequently, I suggest that the concrete actualities of worship need to be undergirded by other actualities that represent the same Logos and are at the same time both interior and exterior to worship. Such actualities would better fit an epistemological model, working in complementarity with the doxological one. A possible example of such a complementarity would be to employ a hermeneutical circle that included not only community and worship but also Scripture and tradition. The best means for preventing the two extremes of institutionalised and ‘roll your own’ subjectivism is real Christian doctrine, modelled within the framework of such a hermeneutical circle. This depends on being able to use language legitimately in a warrantably objective way that can be coordinated with our language experience and knowledge of God through worship.

In the process of redefining worship theologically as participation in the life of the Trinity, Torrance rightly emphasises its transcendental dimension, but he seems to lose sight of its historical and ultimately human nature. True worship is elevated into the divine life in a manner that idealises it in an almost Platonist fashion. The model that Torrance provides for linking this lofty understanding of worship with historical, concrete acts of worship, that of a post factum historical appropriation on our part, does not give—it seems to me—enough space to human participation. How can worship be, from our perspective, a free participation without being at the same time a subjective response? Is our personhood and particularity truly acknowledged if even our subjective response is realised in us from the outside? In spite of our imperfection and inability to come before God, there is however a sense in which we are co-workers with Christ in worship, as the Spirit perfects our imperfect acts and unites us with Christ in what he did on our behalf.

Secondly, Torrance’s theological enterprise seems insufficiently informed by a theology of creation. The createdness of language and its relation to the rest of creation, which he acknowledges, should have been pointers in the direction of giving a more prominent place to the doctrine of creation in the whole enterprise. Taking on board a large part of Wittgenstein and also some of the post-Saussurean views on language, Torrance seems to dispose too easily of the question of the referentiality of language. Indeed, one must not neglect its dimension as praxis, but, however perilous, provisional and epistemologically difficult the links, many of our words and sentences do indeed point to realities beyond themselves, albeit within the very practical use that our sociolect regulates. This pointing is not an a priori assumption on our part but results from the very unity of creation and revelation in Christ and their perfection by the Spirit. If Torrance were fully consistent with the Barthian principle of actuality and givenness repeatedly affirmed throughout his work, he would have looked for clues about the nature of language in the very actualities of God’s action in the economy. For instance, rather than simply borrowing from Wittgenstein, we could look and see whether God’s movement of self-revelation in creation and redemption does indeed warrant the Wittgensteinian idea of language as praxis. Such an exercise would indicate, for instance, that between the being of language and the being and beings of creation the connections are much more intricate.

This neglect of a theology of creation is closely related to another problem, posed by the apparent enclosure of theology within the confines of the linguistic practice of the worshipping community. One need not abandon the principle of actuality and givenness, so important for Barth, in order to open theology up to sets of issues and even language-games from outside the communities of worship. As Gunton has pointed out, and here his criticism of Barth applies also to Torrance, when ‘the challenge of the links between theological and other epistemology’ is evaded, than the risk of being charged with fideism is very real. If the word God ‘refers in part to the universal source of being, meaning and truth, then those who would use it must be prepared to take some responsibility for intellectual enterprises which impinge upon theirs from „outside”. ‘[43] In fairness to Torrance, his book does engage with larger issues and makes use of intellectual results originating outside Christianity, but his model does not truly account for such a practice as being an integral part of doing theology.

Thirdly, it could be suggested that either eschatology is virtually absent from Torrance’s model, or we are dealing with a realised eschatology, especially in relation to language. The remarks noted earlier about the provisionality of the mediation of language are more of an appendix and in no way inform the rest of the discussion. This is actually a problem that stems from the very strong view of God’s commandeering of human language which comes from Barth and Jüngel. There must be in language an element of pointing forward to a perfection that our language-events now can only foreshadow. The stories of the Fall and of Babel would suggest that this should be so not only by virtue of its users being still ‘on the way’ and semper reformanda, as Torrance suggests, but because they draw attention to a corporate effect, to a fallenness that strikes at the very heart of human linguistic possibility. This realisation therefore impels us to look for the eschatological redemption of language and to regard all our present attempts to use it – however valid in some limited sense – as incomplete, but nevertheless hopeful. And that hope is based on what Christ has achieved at the cross and what the Spirit came to achieve at Pentecost and continues to achieve in the church and the world. All these considerations make eschatology a ‘must’ for any adequate theological description of language. Theological language, above all kinds, should never be used over-confidently. It should always be ‘a conversation on the way’, semper reformanda; but it will never relax its eschatological hope.

Our purpose here has been to see in what way theological epistemology, and in particular some of the classical debates about the relationship between God and the world, can contribute to a mode of relating the semantic with the ontological in general. In particular, we have discussed the relationship between God and language, in view of his being and his acts. Each of the three models we have discussed can teach us something in this respect.

The revelational model is helpful because it submits any theological inferences that we might make about language to the factual reality of God’s act of revealing himself to us. Barth compels us not to lose sight of the fact that God did not disdain using human language to speak to us. He has spoken to his people through prophets, and he has spoken to them supremely through Christ, not least through his human words. Therefore, whatever its imperfections, human language becomes God’s efficient and therefore perfect tool as he commandeers it for his revelatory purposes. Therefore, before we start speculating about language, we are challenged to obediently trust in God’s act of revealing himself faithfully, as he does through the words of Jesus.

The proponents of the analogical model are to be credited with having realised the depth of the philosophical and theological problems involved by God-talk. Even though the analogy of being fails on theological grounds, we can see how, over the course of the centuries, some of the most important theological principles came to be formulated as part of that debate.

Torrance’s doxological model brings a fresh perspective on the issue of language, and particularly of theological language, by redefining the semantic practices of the worshipping community in participative terms. Doxological participation, through the Spirit, in the life of the Trinity enables us to also participate in Christ semantically, which in turn can involve God-talk or theological language. Torrance is careful to emphasize that theological language gives us analogical access to the being of God only to the extent to which our created reality is seen in the light of the koinonial event of worship, and not the other way round. A high point of Torrance’s model, but one whose implications would have needed to be taken further, is that semantic participation is described as being given in Christ and realised by the Spirit. Semantic participation parallels in this respect doxological participation. By this, theological language itself is modelled theologically within a trinitarian framework and becomes subject to God’s larger economy with his created world.

Torance’s proposal of a redefined analogy of being, understood semantically in the light of the koinonial event of participation in worship, seems a promising idea for our purposes. It is important to note his attempt to establish an analogical parallelism between the intra-trinitarian relations and the trans-subjectivity that marks the communion of the Church. I need to point out here that both the way we establish the parallelism and the way we define such trans-subjectivity would need careful consideration, but it is beyond the scope of this paper to do this. I will only mention here that if this trans-subjectivity is spelt out in terms of givenness in Christ and realisation by the Spirit, indeed, it could be thought to parallel aspects of relationality found between the members of the Trinity, but only as this relationality is opened to us in Christ, who is the head of the Church, to which we are members.

This trans-subjectivity is probably implicitly understood by Torrance to have a semantic component. If so, his parallelism might be taken to mean that our doxological linguistic practices (broadly speaking) mirror in some way the dynamic reality of the Divine Persons. This mirroring is not made possible simply by some inherent capacity of language to give access to being (including God’s), but because in Christ the doxological community participates by the Spirit in the dynamic relationships between the Divine Persons. Therefore, doxological language (broadly speaking) is warranted by Christ and enabled by the Spirit to perform its functions within the communion of the Church. It is no wonder, therefore, that there is special mutual understanding within the worshipping community. Using biblical language, the things that come from the Spirit of God are spiritually discerned—and, implicitly, they are spiritually talked about.[44] We are not talking of a private, or esoteric language here. Yet, although it is a public language, its true meaning can be apprehended only by participation within the worshipping community.

The parallelism between the trinitarian relations and the Church communion’s trans-subjectivity may not be taken to mean that we can look at our trans-subjective semantics and obtain thus a better view of the mutual relationships within the Trinity. On the contrary, it implies an element of non-realisation, in the sense that this ‘analogy’ is both a reality and a task. Although the language of our Church communion already parallels the mutual relationships of the Trinity, we are also called to reform and transform it in order to allow it to be perfected in the likeness of the unconditional love relationships of the Trinity.

Finally, another idea suggested by Torrance which would need to be developed further is his attempt to establish yet another ‘analogy’ of the trinitatian relationality with a wider form of inter-subjectivity, namely that inter-subjectivity which constitutes our general semantic sociality. As we have seen, Torrance extends in this respect the model of the Church to the wider society. In order to be able to make this extension, he suggests the possibility of assimilating our obedience to social rules, with an unconditional commitment to others, which in turn could be viewed as a form of communion. If this further analogical parallelism was proved to be well founded, this would be one of the very few occasions where Torrance’s model can be brought to bear on a theological description of human language in general. My criticism of Torrance’s move at this point is that it simply permutes, without enough warrant, the church situation to a society situation. The covenantal communion of the worshipping community is a reality headed by Christ and perfected by the Spirit. The work of Christ and of the Spirit in this sense should not be confused with their work in the wider creation. I suggest that there are better ways of allowing the reality of the Triune God to explain or to impinge upon human semantic sociality. Any consistent theological account of semantic sociality needs to be developed on the basis of the doctrine of creation, looking particularly at the roles of the Son and the Spirit in creation. Only in this context God’s redemptive purposes manifested in the Church and, through it, towards the whole of humanity and of creation can properly become part of the picture. In this context also eschatology has to play its part, as the future reality of the new creation enables us to properly understand the present of our language possibility. As I have mentioned earlier, a weakness of Torrance’s model is that it is not properly informed by the doctrine of creation and by eschatology.

As we have seen through the course of this paper, the many centuries old discussion about the nature of theological language appears today as fresh as ever. This problem provides a challenge for every generation of theologians, and the history of its various answers always provides intellectual stimulus to those who wish speak in their changing context about the unchanging reality of God. Faced with postmodern challenges about the nature of our language and particularly about its slippery—it is claimed—even non-existent relation with being, Christian theology demonstrates that it has the ability and the strength to develop a perspective about language which offers a better and more fruitful account of its reality. Theology is able to develop such a perspective not least by reflecting at the nature and workings of language in the light of the reality and actions of the Triune God. How can a created being know a transcendent God? By looking at some of the answers that have been given to this question, we have been able to learn indirectly how our language is to be related to God’s being and to beings in the world. In my analysis, on many occasions I have only pointed the way forward rather than giving a coherent account, especially with regard to the relationship between language and beings in the world. Nevertheless, I hope this discussion has helped the reader, as it helped me, to better appreciate and understand this baffling, God-given, yet so human and creaturely reality, which is language.


[1] Alan Torrance, Persons in Communion, (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1996), p. 58ff.

[2] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/1 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1956), 333f.

[3] Ibid, p. 197.

[4] Church Dogmatics I/1, p. 305

[5] Torrance, op. cit., p. 75.

[6] George Hunsinger, How to Read Karl Barth, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), pp. 74ff.

[7] Etienne Gilson, The Christian Philosophy of St Thomas Aquinas, trans. L. K. Shook (New York: Random House, 1956), p. 105.

[8] Op. cit., pp. 120-21.

[9] Thomas Aquinas, Contra Gentiles, 1, 33.

[10] Torrance, op. cit., p. 131, referring to Gerald B. Phelan, Saint Thomas and Analogy, The Aquinas Lecture (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press 1941).

[11] Torrance, op cit., p. 132, quoting from Phelan, op. cit., p. 22.

[12] Torrance, op. cit., p. 134.

[13] Ibid., p. 140.

[14] Ibid., p. 141.

[15] Thomas Aquinas, De Potentia 7, 7; quoted by Torrance, op. cit., pp. 136f., n. 37.

[16] Torrance, op. cit., pp. 143f.

[17] Church Dogmatics II/1, p. 81.

[18] Church Dogmatics II/1, p. 102f.

[19] Ibid., p. 11.

[20] Torrance, op. cit., p. 149.

[21] Ibid., p. 150.

[22] Church Dogmatics I/1, p. 279.

[23] Torrance, op. cit., 155f.

[24] Church Dogmatics II/1, p. 223.

[25] Church Dogmatics III/2, pp. 203, 220.

[26] Torrance, op. cit., pp. 180ff., cf. Barth, Church Dogmatics III/2 p. 220.

[27] Torrance, op. cit., p. 185.

[28] Barth, C.D. I/1, p. 339.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Torrance, op. cit., pp. 198f.

[32] Ibid. p. 198.

[33] Ibid., pp. 194f.

[34] Ibid., pp. 206f.

[35] Ibid., p. 308.

[36] Ibid., pp. 313f.

[37] Ibid., p. 319.

[38] Ibid., p. 352.

[39] Ibid., p. 354.

[40] Ibid., pp. 356-361.

[41] Ibid., p. 358.

[42] Ibid., pp. 369f.

[43] The One, the Three and the Many (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), p. 134.

[44] 1 Corinthians 2:14.

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5 comentarii leave one →
  1. Petrica permalink
    21 Mai 2007 7:07 pm

    Extraordinar! Ce tur de forta!
    P.

  2. 15 Martie 2011 8:26 pm

    dragul meu, se pare ca sint citeva probleme cu fonturile si cu redarea notelor de subsol.
    as putea prelua articolul drept guest post?

    • 15 Martie 2011 11:32 pm

      Draga Marius,
      Da, știu ca la preluarea din Word au aparut la note ceva mizerii in plus. Acum le-am eliminat. Fonturile la mine le reda bine. Am testat pe trei browsere diferite.
      Ma simt onorat ca vrei sa-l preiei, numai ca vad cel putin doua probleme cu asta:
      1. Articolul a fost publicat de Cartea Crestina. Ei n-au obiectat ca l-am pus la mine pe blog dar ca sa apara in alta parte cred ca ar trebui acordul lor;
      3. Articolul e destul de tehnic, e in engleza si e si foarte lung.

      Daca totusi crezi ca ar fi de interes pt. cititorii tai, ma gandesc la doua variante: fie pui un link la el (cel mai simplu) fie cerem permisiunea la Cartea Crestina, iar apoi il publici integral.

  3. 16 Martie 2011 2:04 am

    nu, mă gindeam la un link

    • 16 Martie 2011 11:59 am

      Da, fara probleme. Chiar si introducere + link pentru continuare.

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