Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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Religious language, especially language about God, is subject to two opposite dangers: that of associating creatures too closely with their Creator and that of stressing so far the difference in sense of the same terms as applied to God and creatures that apparently one might infer that God could as well be called bad as good, impotent as almighty, nonexistent as existent, and so on. When admonished repeatedly by exponents of the "negative way" and other sophisticated theologians, that they do not mean what it seems that they mean by the terms that they apply to God (e.g., How could the reality of divine omnipotence and goodness, in any ordinary senses of these expressions, fail to imply that little girls would not die agonizing deaths of throat cancer?), the sincere inquirer may well conclude that religious claims, which once seemed good brash hypotheses, have died the death of the thousand qualifications (Flew 1966). It will not do, in other words, for language to be equivocal as applied to God and creatures—as the English word box is equivocal as applied to a container, a sort of shrub, and pugilism. On the other hand, it hardly can be univocal either—as though knowledge or goodness could be just the same in nature as between God and humanity.

A mediating doctrine of "analogy" has been developed, especially by Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theologica I, xiii): The meanings of terms to be predicated of God and creatures may have the same sort of relation as the meanings of the term healthy when applied to a human being, on the one hand, and to her food or her complexion, on the other. One may say in this case that the human being is healthy in the primary sense, while food and complexion are healthy in a derivative sense, as causes or signs of such health. However, there is no problem about describing and identifying a human being apart from such analogies, and if all terms are to be thus qualified as analogical in their theological as opposed to their ordinary use, it is hard to see how we can really know what we are doing in attributing goodness, knowledge, creativity, or anything else, to God.

To overcome this difficulty, Duns Scotus (Opus Oxoniense , I,8,3; I,3,2) maintained that "being" must be understood as univocal in all its applications, but one might protest that matters are not much mended by the invocation of a peculiar property called "being" supposed to belong in just the same sense to God, the Battle of Thermopylae, and a potted shrimp (Kenny 1959). Another possible solution is that certain attributes, for example, understanding and will, are to be conceived as the same in kind but vastly different in degree, as between God and humanity; thus God may be deemed to conceive all possible worlds, and to will the actual one, as the reader may conceive possibilities and will what actually is to be the case within her own limited sphere of influence (Lonergan 1992).

In the middle decades of the twentieth century, the logical positivists were influential in their claim that God-talk violated the rules of meaningful discourse. This they did on the ground that it did not comply with their "verification principle"—which was to the effect that all meaningful statements that were not true by virtue of the definitions of their terms were in principle verifiable or falsifiable by sense experience. But this principle is no longer much in vogue, because it not only makes mincemeat of ethics, and apparently of science in the bargain, as well as of religion, but actually self-destructs. Furthermore, on a more liberal understanding of "verification," religion might well in principle be verified—through postmortem experience (Hick 1971) or, in the case of Christianity, by objective historical inquiry tending to confirm rather than impugn the peculiar claims made by the New Testament writers about Jesus Christ (Crombie 1955). Ludwig Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (Routledge 1961) seemed grist to the mill of the logical positivists, owing to the sharp distinction it drew between significant discourse, which could aspire to represent the facts of the world, and that which was not so significant. (The quasi-mystical intimations that form the conclusion to that enigmatic work did not suit their purposes so well.) However, Wittgenstein's later philosophy, expounded most notably in Philosophical Investigations (Blackwell 1958), has been interpreted in such a way as to encourage a view of religion and its language as autonomous and self-justifying, to be neither corroborated nor impugned by the different "language games" constitutive of science, ethics, or whatever.

Hugo Meynell


W. P. Alston, "Aquinas on Theological Predication," in Reasoned Faith , ed. E. Stump (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1993): 145-178

A. J. Ayer, Language, Truth and Logic (New York: Dover Books, n.d.)

C. Barrett, Wittgenstein on Ethics and Religious Belief (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991)

I. Crombie, "Theology and Falsification," in New Essays in Philosophical Theology , ed. A. G. N. Flew and A. C. MacIntyre (London: SCM Press, 1955): 109-130

A. G. N. Flew, God and Philosophy (London: Hutchinson, 1966)

J. Hick, "Theology and Verification," in Philosophy of Religion , ed. B. Mitchell (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971): 53-71

D. Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion

A. Kenny, "Aquinas and Wittgenstein," Downside Review 77(1959): 368-381

B. J. F. Lonergan, Insight (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992)

D. Z. Phillips, Belief, Change and Forms of Life (London: Macmillan, 1986).

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