THE PRINCIPLES OF ANALOGY: Two Principles of Analogy Sometimes Affect Christian Apologetics

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Two principles of analogy sometimes affect Christian apologetics. One is a rule of historicism, laid down by historian and liberal theologian Ernst Troeltsch (1865–1923) that the only way the past can be known is by analogy in the present. The implication of this rule is that, since the kinds of miracles performed in the Bible are not taking place today, we cannot know that they took place in the past either. For a discussion of this principle and its difficulties, see the article Troeltsch, Ernst. The other way in which this term is used is as a fundamental principle of reason (see First Principles). It is in this sense that the principle is considered here.

The Principle of Analogy. The principle of analogy states that an effect must be similar to its cause. Like produces like. An effect cannot be totally different from its cause. An act (or actor) communicates actuality. It affirms that the Cause of all being (God) must be like the beings he causes. It denies that God can be totally different (equivocal) from his effects, for the Being that causes all other being cannot bring into being something that does not have being like he is. Being causes being.

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Likewise, analogy affirms that God cannot be totally the same as his effects, for in this case they would be identical to God. But the created cannot be identical to the uncreated, nor the finite to the Infinite. Hence, God the Creator of all being must be similar to the creatures he has made. Likewise, our judgments about God—if they are accurate—are neither totally the same nor totally different; they must be similar (analogous). Analogous religious language, then, is the only way to preserve true knowledge of God. Univocal God-talk is impossible and equivocal God-talk is unacceptable and self-defeating. Only analogy avoids the pitfalls of each and provides genuine understanding of God. As Thomas Aquinas declared “This name God … is taken neither univocally nor equivocally, but analogically. This is apparent from this reason—univocal names have absolutely the same meaning, while equivocal names have absolutely diverse meanings; whereas analogical, a name taken in one signification must be placed in the definition of the same name taken in other significations” (Summa Theologica, 1a. 13, 10).

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The Basis for Analogy. Analogy preserves a true knowledge of God because it is rooted in the very nature of God’s self-expressions. Of course, God can only express himself to his creatures in terms other than himself. Thus, by its very nature such expression or manifestation of God will be limited, whereas God himself is unlimited. Nonetheless, an expression about God must express God. Hence, analogy flows from the very nature of the process of God’s self-revelation.

Analogy in Causality. The similarity between Creator and creature is based in the causal relation between them (see Causality, Principle of). Since God is pure existence (Being), and since he causes all other existence (beings), there must be a similarity between him as the efficient Cause and his effects. For a cause communicates itself to the effect. Being causes being. The Cause of being must be a Being. For it cannot give what it has not got; it cannot produce reality it does not possess. Therefore, even though the Cause is Infinite Being and the effect is finite being, the being of the effect is similar to the Being that caused it. Analogy is based in efficient causality. For “we can name God only from creatures. Hence, whatever is said of God and creatures is said according as there is some relation of the creature to God as to its principal cause, wherein all the perfections pre-exist excellently” (ibid., 1a. 13, 5).

The Witness of Analogy. The need for analogy is not only apparent in God’s general revelation in nature; it is also essential to God’s special revelation in Scripture (see Bible, Evidence for). The Bible declares true knowledge of God (see Bible, Evidence for). But this knowledge is contained in a book composed of human words and sentences based in finite human experience. Thus the question is: How can finite human concepts convey an Infinite God? Aquinas’s answer is that they must do so analogically. God is neither identical to nor totally different from our expressions about him. Rather, he is similar to them.

Special Revelation in Analogy. The Bible is emphatic about two things in this connection. First, God is beyond our thoughts and concepts, even the best of them (cf. Rom. 11:33). God is infinite, our concepts are finite, and no finite concept can capture the infinite. It is also clear in Scripture that God goes way beyond the puny ability of human concepts to convey his ineffable essence. Paul said, “now we see as in a mirror dimly” (1 Cor. 13:12). John said of mortal man in this life, “no one has seen God at any time” (John 1:18). Second, yet human language is adequate for expressing the attributes of God. For in spite of the infinite difference between God and creatures there is not a total lack of similarity, since the effect always resembles its efficient Cause in some way.

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But if God is both adequately expressed in, and yet infinitely more than, human language—even inspired language—can express, then at best the language of Scripture is only analogous. That is, no term taken from human experience—and that is where all biblical terms come from—can do any more than tell us what God is like. None of them can expressive comprehensively what God really is. Religious language at best can make valid predications of God’s essence, but it can never express his essence fully.

Sociologist and Theologian Ernst Troeltsch (1865-1923)

Language of Analogy. There are two reasons that statements made about God on the basis of general revelation (see Revelation, General) are merely analogous. First is the matter of causality. The arguments for God’s existence are arguments from effect to the efficient Cause of their being (ibid., 1a. 2, 3; see God, Evidence for). Since the effects get their actuality from God (who is Pure Actuality), they must be similar to him. For Actuality communicates and produces actuality.

Second, Pure Actuality (God) cannot create another Pure Actuality. Pure Actuality is uncreated, and it is impossible to create an uncreated Being. But if uncreated Actuality cannot create another Pure Actuality, then it must create an actuality with potentiality (Aquinas, On Being and Essence). Thus, all created beings must be composed of actuality and potentiality. They have actual existence, and they have potential not to exist. Anything that comes into existence can pass out of existence. But if all created beings have a potential that limits their existence, then they are limited kinds of existence, and their uncreated Cause is an unlimited kind of existence.

Thus, there must be a difference between creatures and their Creator. They have limitations (potency), and he does not. It follows that, when making statements about God based on what he has revealed of himself in his creation, there is one big proviso: God is not like his creation in their potentialities, but only in their actuality. This negative element is called “the way of negation” (via negative), and all adequate God-talk must presume it. This conclusion emerges from the very nature of the proofs for God’s existence.

We may state the positive and negative as two propositions:

God is a Cause.

This is the positive element of similarity in the creature-Creator analogy. Whatever actuality exists is like the Actuality that gave it.

God is an uncaused cause.

This is the negative element. The same negation must be taken into account when considering other attributes of God that emerged from the argument for his existence. As Aquinas said, “no creature being finite, can be adequate to the first agent which is infinite” (On the Power of God, 7.7). God is the infinite cause of all finite existence. But infinite means not-finite; it too is a negation. God is the eternal, that is not-terminal or non-temporal, Cause. Some of the negations are not immediately obvious. God is the simple Source of all complex being. But “simple” here really means noncomplex. We know creatures are contingent and God is necessary, but by “necessary” we simply mean that God is not contingent. We have no positive concepts in our experience that can express the transcendent dimension of God’s unlimited metaphysical characteristics.

Therefore, the analogy with which we speak of God will always contain an element of negation. The creature is like God because Actuality communicates actuality, but unlike God because it has a limiting potentiality God does not have. He is Pure Actuality.

Kinds of Analogies. Two basic kinds of analogy should be distinguished: extrinsic and intrinsic. The analogy between God and the creation is based in an intrinsic analogy. Otherwise, there would be no real similarity.

Extrinsic Analogy. There is no real similarity between two parties in an extrinsic analogy. Only one thing possesses the characteristic; the other is called that characteristic by its relation to it. This can best be explained by looking at the kinds of extrinsic analogy.

Extrinsic analogy is based on efficient causality. This analogy is called “analogy by extrinsic attribution.” The characteristic is only attributed to the cause because the cause produces the characteristic in the effect. It does not really possesses the characteristic. Some food is called “healthy” because it encourages health in the body, not because any food in itself really is healthy.

This analogy does not provide any real basis for knowledge of God. It simply tells us what the cause can produce, not what characteristic it actually possesses. In this kind of analogy, God might simply be called good because he produces good things, but not because he actually is good in himself. Therefore, analogy based on extrinsic attribution leaves us in a state of agnosticism about God.

Extrinsic analogy is based on similarity of relations. An analogy based on similar relationships is sometimes called “the analogy of improper proportionality.” It is “improper” because the relationship exists only in the mind doing the comparing. There is no real similarity between the “analogates” (the two things being compared). This kind of analogy declares that:

Smile

 

Flowers

 

as

 

Face

 

Meadow

A smile is not really like flowers. However, a smile brightens a face in the way flowers adorn a meadow. There is a perceived relationship between smile and face that corresponds to the perceived relationship between flowers and meadow. This is a relationship between two relationship.

Infinite Good

 

Finite Good

 

as

 

Infinite Being

 

Finite Being

Infinite good is related to an infinite Being the way finite good is related to a finite being. This, however, is not helpful, and could be misleading, in finding a relationship (similarity) between an infinite good and finite good. This is not the kind of analogy on which Aquinas based the similarity between Creator and creature.

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Intrinsic Analogy. An intrinsic analogy is one in which both things possess the same characteristic, each in accordance with its own being. There are, again, two kinds: the analogy of proper proportionality and the analogy of intrinsic attribution.

Intrinsic analogy is based on similarity of relations. By subtly changing the statement of relationship in the analogy of improper proportionality, we can develop an “analogy of proper proportionality.” In the analogy of proper proportionality two like things are being compared, not two like relationships. There is a proper relationship between the attribute they each possess and their own respective natures. Applied to God this analogy would declare that:

Infinite Good

 

Finite Good

 

as

 

Infinite Being

 

Finite Being

While this analogy does not explain a direct relationship between the attribute of goodness as it applies to both parties, it does compare the way an attribute in God relates to his essence and, by comparison, the way a similar attribute in man as a creature relate to his essence. The analogy tells us nothing directly about the similarity between God and creation. Rather, it informs us about the same relationship of goodness to being in an infinite being and in a finite being.

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The analogy of intrinsic attribution. In the analogy of intrinsic attribution, the analogs possess the same attribute, and the similarity is based on a causal connection between them. For example, hot water causes the egg floating in it to become hot. The cause communicates itself to the effect. A mind communicates its intelligence to a book. The book, then, is the intelligible effect of the intelligent cause.

This is the kind of analogy on which Aquinas bases the similarity of Creator and creatures. What God creates must be like him because he communicates himself to the effect. Being communicates being. Pure Actuality creates other actualities. This kind of analogy of intrinsic attribution, where both the cause and the effect have the same attribute, is the basis for making true statements about God. These statements correspond to the way God really is because these characteristics were derived from him and communicated by him to his effects. In short, the similarity between Creator and creatures is derived from the characteristics the Creator gave to his creature.

Creatures do not possess a common characteristic (say, goodness) in the same way God does. An infinite being possesses goodness in an infinite way, and a finite being possesses goodness in a finite way. Nevertheless, they both possess goodness, because a Good Being can only communicate goodness. The extent to which the creature falls short of God’s goodness is due to the finite and fallible mode of the creature’s existence; it is not caused by the infinite goodness of its cause. But the degree to which a creature has any goodness, that goodness is like the attribute in its Creator, who is Goodness.

God and Creatures. All meaningfully descriptive talk about God is based on the analogy of intrinsic attribution, whereby creatures are like the Creator because of the causal relationship between them. Aquinas wrote, “Some likeness must be found between them [between effects and their cause], since it belongs to the nature of action that an agent produces its like, since each thing acts according as it is in act” (Summa contra Gentiles, I, 29, 2). Important features of this relationship should be understood.

A Causal Relationship. The relationship between God and the world is causal. In names given to both God and creatures “we note in the community of such names the order of cause and effect” (ibid., I, 33). Hence, “whatever is said of God and creatures is said according as there is some relation of the creature to God as to its principal cause” (ibid., I, 13, 5). Causality is a relation of dependency, not of dualism. The creatures possess the characteristic only because they got it from the Creator. To state the matter simply, the Cause of being shared being with the beings it brought into being. Apart from this causal relation of dependency, there would be no common, shared attribute between the Creator and creatures.

An Intrinsic Relationship. The causal relationship between God and human beings is real. Similarity is based on the fact that both cause and effect have the same characteristic, the effect getting it from the cause. God is not called good, for example, simply because he made good things. This would be an extrinsic causal relation, like hot air making clay hard. The air is not hard; it simply made the effect hard. The same hot air makes wax soft.

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Rather God is good, and so a human being has a source of good. Both hot air and clay become hot, because heat communicates heat. Heat producing heat is an intrinsic causal relation. This kind of causal relation exists between God and creation.

All of creation is like God insofar as it is actual, but unlike God insofar as it is limited by its potentiality to receive his likeness. A sculptor, the cause, cannot get the same effect in pudding as in stone, even though the same form is imposed on both. Pudding simply does not have the same potential as stone to receive a stable and lasting form. The similarity between God and a creature will depend on the limited potential of the creature to receive his actuality. Thus, creatures differ from God in their potentiality, but are like (though not identical to) God in their actuality.

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An Essential Relationship. The causal relationship between God and the world is per se, not per accidens. That is to say, it is an essential, not an accidental relationship. God is the cause of the being of the world, not merely the cause of its becoming.

An accidental causal relationship is one where there is only nonessential relation between the cause and the effect. Musicians give birth to non-musicians. Musical skill is not an essential element of the relationship between parent and child. So there cannot be said to be an essential relationship between two great violinists, even though they might be mother and daughter, and even if genetics and nurture did contribute to the daughter’s accomplishments.

However, humans give birth to humans. Characteristics of humanness were essential to the relationship of those mother-daughter musicians. The daughter might have been born tone deaf, but she could not have been born feline. Humanity is an essential causal relation. The essential characteristics of humanness are possessed by both the cause and the effect. This is the kind of causal relation that exists between God and his creatures.

An Efficient Cause. The efficient cause is a cause by which something comes to be. An instrumental cause is that through which something comes to be. The student is the efficient cause of the completed examination paper; the student’s pen is only the instrumental cause. Therefore, the exam will resemble the student’s thoughts, not any ideas in the pen, even if it were fitted with a powerful microcomputer. The garage resembles the plan in the carpenter’s mind, not the carpenter’s hammer. Hence, there is no necessary connection between an instrumental cause and its effect, only between the efficient cause and its effect.

The same can be said of the efficient cause as opposed to the material cause. The material cause is that out of which something comes to be. The sun produces heat, which is an efficient cause of the heat absorbed by the piece of clay baking on the stone. The sun’s heat is a material cause of the hardness produced as the clay bakes on a rock. But the hardness is not caused by the sun’s heat. The hardness is not even caused “efficiently” by the material conditions of the clay. That is another sort of material cause. The efficient cause of the hardened clay is the God who designed the physics by which clay reacts to heat.

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Furthermore, just because God created Adam’s body out of matter (its material cause) does not mean that God is a material being. Efficient causes do not need to resemble their effects any more than Wilbur and Orville Wright’s minds had wings and a fuselage. An airplane is made of matter; the mind that designed it is not. The visible, material words on this page resemble my mind (their efficient cause), but my mind is not made of paper and ink. Likewise, the invisible God (efficient cause) is not like the visible world (material cause), nor is the material world like the immaterial God (John 4:24).

Criticisms of Analogy. A number of objections have been raised against the principle of analogy (for example, Ferre, 1:94–97). Many of these were answered by Aquinas or can be inferred from what he said. The following are responses to some significant objections.

A General Theory of Analogy Does Not Work. So long as analogy is tied to the metaphysics of intrinsic causality, analogy does work. In fact, analogy seems to be the only adequate answer to the problem of religious language. All negative God-talk implies positive knowledge of God. But positive affirmations of God are possible only if univocally understood concepts can be applied to both creatures and Creator (as Duns Scotus argued).

On the other hand, since God is infinitely perfect and creatures are only finitely perfect, no perfection found in the finite world can be applied univocally to both God and creatures. But to apply them equivocally would leave us in skepticism. Hence, whatever perfections are found in creation and can be applied to God without limits are predicated analogically. The perfection is understood univocally (in the same manner), but it is predicated analogously (in a similar manner), because to affirm it univocally in a finite way of an infinite Being would not truly describe the way he is. And to affirm it equivocally in an infinite way would not describe him at all. Hence, a univocal concept, drawn from the finite world, can speak of God only analogically.

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Distinctions among Univocal, Equivocal and Analogical Are Obsolete. According to Ludwig Wittgenstein, expressions receive meaning from their use in language games based in experience. Each language game is autonomous. (It sets its own rules for establishing meaning.) insofar as there are no universal criteria for meaning. Words that carry over from game to game or words with similar meanings bear family resemblance, but we can never isolate a core meaning they must share. Thus, Wittgenstein believes that the separation of meanings into categories of univocal, analogical, or equivocal breaks down in dynamic usage of language.

Is meaning so arbitrarily established at the whim of the context? Unless there is an essential, as opposed to a purely conventional, meaning to language, then all meaning (and truth) is relative (see Conventionalism). But it is self-defeating to claim that “No meaning is objective,” since even that statement would be without objective meaning. If there were no objective meaning, then anything could mean anything to anyone, even the opposite of what the communicator intended. This would be linguistic (and social) chaos.

Also, distinctions between univocal, equivocal, and analogical are not arbitrary. In fact, they are logically exhaustive; there are no other alternatives. A term is understood or applied in entirely the same way (univocally), in an entirely different way (equivocally), or in a similar way (analogically). Wittgenstein does not offer another alternative. Rather, as applied to objective reality, his view reduces to equivocal God-talk. For although he accepts meaningful God-talk, insofar as it is based in meaningful religious experience, nonetheless, it is not really talk about God. It is really talk about religious experience. God remains part of the mystical and inexpressible, at least so far as descriptive language is concerned.

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Why Only Some Qualities Apply to God. Only these characteristics (authenticity, compassion, freedom, goodness, holiness, immanence, knowledge, love, righteousness, wisdom) apply to human actuality rather than to human potentiality. So only these flow from God’s efficient, essential, principal, and intrinsic causality. Other beings have these qualities; God is these qualities. Only these characteristics may be appropriately applied to an unlimited Being. Things are like God in their actuality, but not in their potentiality, since God has no potentiality. He is Pure Actuality. So, only their actuality is like God.

Applying Words to the Infinite. Words divorced from their finite condition are devoid of meaning. This means that all God-talk about analogies or anything else is meaningless, since the concepts cannot apply to an infinite, transcendent Being. Such a criticism overlooks the distinction between a concept and its predication. The concept behind a word remains the same; only the way in which it is predicated changes. The meanings of the words goodness, being, and beauty can be applied to finite reality, and they can be applied to God; when used in the divine setting, the words are merely extended without limits. Being is still being, and goodness is still goodness; in application to the essence of God they are released from any limiting mode of signification. Since the perfection denoted by some terms does not necessarily imply any limitations, there is no reason why perfection cannot be predicated of an unlimited Being. In Aquinas’s terms, that which is signified is the same; only the mode of signification is different.

Analogy and Causality. It is argued that analogy rests on the questionable premise of causality. It is true that Aquinas bases analogy in the similarity that must exist between an efficient cause and its effect. This is true because Being communicates only being. The Cause of existence cannot produce perfection that it does not “possess” itself. If God causes goodness, then he must be good. If he causes existence, then he must exist. Otherwise the absurd consequence ensues that God gives what he does not have to give.

Tailoring Terms to the Infinite. An analogous predication of God fails to identify the univocal element. In drawing an analogy between the finite and the infinite, we must be able to isolate that “univocal” attribute or quality that both share. And we can identify the basic element, though we have to drop the limitations from our thinking when applying it to its Pure Actuality. For a predication of a perfection of an infinite Being cannot be done in the same way of a finite being because it does not have qualities in a finite way. The objection would hold for equivocal concepts, those that cannot be applied both to God and to creation, but it is not true of univocal concepts that have analogical predications. One must have a univocal understanding of what is being predicated. I must be careful of my definition of love when I say that “I love,” and that “God is love.” The only way to avoid equivocation when predicating the same quality to finite beings and infinite Being is to predicate it appropriately to the mode of being that each is.

Relating Creator to Creature. The real relationship between Creator and creatures is not univocally expressible. This criticism fails to distinguish between the thing signified and the mode of its expression. The concept of being or existence is understood to mean the same thing, whether we are referring to God or a human being. It is “that which is or exists.” God exists and a person exists; this they have in common. So the concept being is univocal to both. But God exists infinitely and independently, whereas a human being exists finitely and dependently; in this they are different. That they both exist is univocally conceived; how they each exist is analogically predicated. For God exists necessarily, and creatures exist contingently.

Conclusion. Religious language does not merely evoke an experience about God that tells us nothing about who “God” is. God-talk is either univocal, equivocal, or analogical. It cannot be equivocal since we do know something about God. The claim: “We cannot make any meaningful statements about God” implies that we know what the word God means in the context of other words. By the same token, God-talk cannot be univocal, since we cannot predicate an attribute of an infinite Being in the same way that we do of a finite being. God is “good,” for example, in an unlimited way. Creatures can be “good” in a limited, reflective way. Both are good, but not in the same way.

But if God-talk is neither univocal or equivocal, then it must be analogical. This analogy of similarity is based in the Creator/creature relations. As Cause of being, God is Being. He cannot give what he does not have to give. Being produces being; Pure Actuality actualizes other actualities. Since God cannot produce another Necessary Being like himself, he must produce contingent beings. But contingent beings, unlike a Necessary Being, have the potentiality to not be. Hence, while God is pure Actuality, everything else is a combination of actuality and the limiting potentiality not to be.

Thus, when we predicate to God things from creation, we cannot predicate any of their limitations to him. We can only ascribe the actuality the creature received from the Creator. In this sense, creatures are both like and unlike God. That opens the door to understanding by analogy.

The only alternatives to analogy are skepticism or dogmatism: Either we know nothing about God, or we assume that we know things in the same infinite way in which he knows them.

Sources

  • F. Ferre, “Analogy” in the Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Paul Edwards, ed.
  • Norman L. Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, Baker Reference Library (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999)
  • N. L. Geisler, Philosophy of Religion
  • ———, Thomas Aquinas: An Evangelical Appraisal
  • R. McInerny, The Logic of Analogy
  • B. Mondin, The Principle of Analogy in Protestant and Catholic Theology
  • Thomas Aquinas, On Being and Essence
  • ———, On the Power of God
  • ———, Summa contra Gentiles
  • ———, Summa Theologica

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