Univocity, Equivocity, and Analogy

Posted: March 24, 2014 in Theology
Tags: , , , , , ,


The Ten Commandments (illustration from a Bible card published 1907 by the Providence Lit
hograph Company)

There is a reason Christians need to study theology. For one, men smarter than you have probably pondered over the same questions you’re having about a particular text.

That’s what I experienced recently.

As I was doing my daily reading (I use the M’Cheyne Bible reading plan), I began to think about a particular passage that troubled me. Here it is:

Exodus 32:14 NASB

So the Lord changed His mind about the harm which He said He would do to His people.

The context is that Yahweh is angry with the Israelites and is threatening to destroy them. Moses intercedes and tries to reason with God.

When we think about God , especially as He is revealed in the Old Testament, certain statements about Him are difficult to understand.

How does God get angry? Why would He act surprised? How can He change His Mind if He is Omniscient and Immutable?

At this point, it was fortuitous that I was reading Mike Horton’s Systematic Theology opus The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way. The particular place I was at was really helpful as I wrestled with the text in Exodus 32.

Sometimes it’s helpful to use some philosophical terminology to clarify Scripture.

First, let’s clearly define some terms that Dr. Horton uses.

Univocal: of a word or term having only one possible meaning.

Equivocal: open to more than one interpretation; ambiguous.

Analogy: a cognitive process of transferring information or meaning from a particular subject (the analogue or source) to another particular subject (the target).

Now let’s get down to it.

Knowledge between Creator and creature can never be identical or univocal.

“Neither being nor knowledge is ever shared univocally (i.e., identically) between God and creatures. As God’s being is qualitatively and not just quantitatively distinct from ours, so too is God’s knowledge. God’s knowledge is archetypal (the original), while ours is ectypal (a copy), revealed by God and therefore accommodated to our finite capacities. Our imperfect and incomplete knowledge is always dependent on God’s perfect and complete knowledge.” (1)

This means that there is always going to be a difference in quality as well as quantity when it come to the knowledge we possess, and the knowledge God possesses.

“Following Thomas Aquinas (1225–74), our older theologians therefore argued that human knowledge is analogical rather than either univocal or equivocal (two terms are related analogically when they are similar, univocally when they are identical, and equivocally when they have nothing in common).”(2)

Let’s go back to our text.

If we attempt the univocal approach, then God changed His mind exactly the way we do. Moses had reasoned with God, and had given Him a new perspective. Like us, God adapted. If this sounds familiar, this would be the conclusion of Open Theism. God learns, God grows. His Transcendence is no more.

If we attempt Equivocity, then there is no similarity at all between God changing His mind, and the changing of our own minds. The words become meaningless. God loses His Immanence.

If however, there is enough similarity through analogy between changing God’s mind and changing our own mind while maintaining a difference in the Transcendent Omniscient and Immutable attributes of God, we have avoided the trap of either univocity and equivocity. God stoops to baby talk to us.

“When we say that God is good, we assume we know what good means from our ordinary experience with fellow human beings. However, God is not only quantitatively better than we are; his goodness is qualitatively different from creaturely goodness. Nevertheless, because we are created in God’s image, we share this predicate with God analogically. Goodness, attributed to God and Sally, is similar but always with greater dissimilarity. At no point is goodness exactly the same for God as it is for Sally. The difference is qualitative, not just quantitative; yet there is enough similarity to communicate the point.” (3)

God changing His mind must be something completely different qualitatively than the changing of our own minds, yet it must somehow be similar, or the words mean nothing to us. Both Transcendence and Immanence must be maintained, or the nature of Yahweh becomes incoherent.

“God reveals himself as a person, a king, a shepherd, a substitutionary lamb, and so forth. These analogies are not arbitrary (i.e., equivocal), but they are also not exact correspondence (i.e., univocal). Even when we attribute love to God and Mary, love cannot mean exactly the same thing for a self-existent Trinity and a finite person. In every analogy, there is always greater dissimilarity than similarity between God and creatures. Nevertheless, God judges that the analogy is appropriate for his self-revelation. We do not know exactly what divine goodness is like, but since God selects this analogy, there must be a sufficient similarity to our concept of goodness to justify the comparison.”

We don’t exactly understand completely what it means when the Bible says God changed His mind, but we understand enough to know that there must be a great difference between He and we when it comes to the reality of God’s Wrath, His Love, His repenting or changing His Mind , His Justice or Righteousness , or His coming to know certain facts. All of these terms must be thought of as anological-similar but different in quality and quantity.

“This doctrine of analogy is the hinge on which a Christian affirmation of God’s transcendence and immanence turns. A univocal view threatens God’s transcendence, while an equivocal view threatens God’s immanence. The former leads to rationalism, while the latter engenders skepticism.”(4)

Here again, Dr. Horton is reminding us of the importance of these terms in relation to the Attributes of God. The reason univocity leads to rationalism is that God’s Transcendent nature is lowered to a creature level, which elevates human reason to the Divine level.

The reason equivocity leads to skepticism is because the gulf between Creator and creature, Nature and Grace, Divine knowledge and human knowledge becomes too great. Words lose any value when discussing God. Imminence of the Creator with the creature is diminished.

In our text, if God changing His mind is the same as our own change of mind, the Infinite and Perfect knowledge of God is no more. God becomes nothing more than an advanced, powerful human being. He is no longer the Necessary Source of everything. Moses is using reason to change God’s mind.

However, if there is no commonality at all between God changing His Mind, and Moses’ intercession, then the whole conversation makes no sense. God’s Knowledge remains perfect and infinite, but we have no actual communication.

If any of this seems too abstract and meaningless to you, think of how awful it would be if the God you worship could be talked into something by a fallen creature. That would change our whole perspective on the first few chapters of Job. God becomes the clueless grandfather figure cajoled into allowing a wiser Satan to afflict Job. Satan used God to achieve His own agenda. What a horrible thought! That’s not how I read Job.

“Especially as refined by Protestant scholasticism, however, the doctrine of analogy affirms that finite and creaturely knowledge is nevertheless true knowledge because it has its ultimate source in God even though it is not identical with God’s knowledge. God’s existence is not a threat to but is the necessary precondition and source of our own. So why would not the same be true of God’s knowledge and ours? Creatures can attain finite knowledge (dependent truth) because God possesses infinite knowledge (absolute Truth).”(5)

When my son was a baby, I would sit in the floor with him and roll a ball to him. The ball was big, round, and inflated rubber. It was red. I would say “Joseph, go get the ball”. Now to him, who was a toddler barely walking, we were communicating. He understood the word “ball”. His knowledge of “ball” was much different than mine, yet we were really communicating. If equivocity between us were true, there would have been no communication between us.

“Affirming God’s incomprehensible majesty, the Reformers and their scholastic heirs embraced the doctrine of analogy but offered a critical revision. Instead of our speculative ascent from the familiar to the less familiar, choosing our own analogies, we must restrict our thinking to the analogies that God offers us by his condescending grace. God became human; humans do not rise up to God. Therefore, we do not use our own analogies to climb the ladder of contemplation; rather, God uses analogies from the world he created to communicate with us.”(6)

The Lutherans speak of man’s attempts to ascend to God as three broken ladders of moralism, rationalism, and mysticism. We can’t get to an Infinite, Perfect, Invisible Being by our own means. He condescends to us, through His Self-revelation in His Word and in the Incarnation of the God-man. He communicates with us truly. But it must be Him coming to us, and not us building our own broken ladders to Him. We must be satisfied with what God reveals of Himself. It will never be exhaustive knowledge, but it will be true.

This discussion has helped me tremendously. My conclusion to the question I had with the text is this:

When the Bible talks about God, using our words, which we communicate to describe our own finite, human experiences, we must remember to avoid the two extremes of univocality, which has been the problem with modernity, and equivocity, which has been the problem with postmodernity.

There is a difference between God changing His mind and myself changing my mind, both qualitatively and quantitatively. I can’t drag God down to my level. Whatever the verse means, it can’t mean that Moses was wiser than God.

Yet there has to be some sense that what God did was similar to the experience of humanity, or the whole conversation was an exercise in futility, and communication with God is pointless.

My conclusion is that the Bible uses these descriptions of God’s activities analogically, and sometimes metaphorically. God’s mind wasn’t changed in the same way you or I get new information and adapt. The reality is that Moses was finally catching up to God, as a child catches up to a parent when running. The parent slows down, allowing the youngster to pull up alongside. They didn’t overtake the parent, but the parent slowed their pace. This helps me understand a lot of confusing language in the Bible, especially in the Old Testament. God was allowing us to catch up, condescending to our own language and experience.

I hope this is helpful for you, and not confusing.

I would recommend Dr. Horton’s book. You may find it here.

1. Horton, Michael Scott. The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011. Loc 955 of 25,464, Kindle file.

2. Ibid, loc 959 of 25,464

3. Ibid, Loc 969 of 25,464

4. Ibid, loc 976 of 25,464

5. Ibid, loc 1005 of 25,464

6. Ibid, loc 986 of 25,464

simul iustus et peccator,

Eric Adams


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s