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Does God require a special language?

By Peter Sellick - posted Monday, 12 August 2013

I find myself completely disinterested in the current round of arguments about the existence of non-existence of God. That may seem surprising for a clergyman, but there has been nothing new in these arguments for a few hundred years. Protagonists and agonists have been laboriously going over the same ground and end up at the same dead end.

A recent debate in the theological community may throw some light on why this is the case. This debate goes back to arguments made in the 13thC about what we can know and say about God. An argument was introduced by Duns Scotus (1266-1308), derived from Aristotle, that all things "are" in the same way and as such they may be described by a common language; there is a univocity of being. This means that when talking about the goodness of God then "goodness" means the same as when a person is described as good.

The argument is that this broke with a tradition that fiercely guarded language about God and that it tended towards an objectification of God that made Him an object among objects or a subject among subjects. This is explored in Placher's book "The Domestication of Transcendence". It is this objectification of God both by theists and atheists that make the argument about the existence of God entirely irrelevant to Christian faith. It amounts to idolatry.


Israel was so sensitive about idolatry that it forbade any graven image that purported to represent God. It even refused to enunciate the name of God (YHWH) and substituted the word "Lord" whenever texts were read that contained "the name." In early Christianity theologians held that God dwelt in inaccessible light and could not be seen or described in any way. Indeed, to see God was to die.

This conception, or denial of conception, has been carried by the Christian tradition into the present day. For example Karl Barth framed God as the "wholly Other", the one who could not be found at the end of any human path. The result is that God is protected from all human projections so that faith could be free of idolatry.

This means that our language about God is not the same as our language about the world or its inhabitants. It means that there is no univocity when it comes to talk about God. Such talk is often couched in paradox. We can say that while God is "wholly other" we can also say without fear of contradiction that God is closer to us than breathing. God may be talked about within a dialectic, He exists between the known and the unknown, the seen and the unseen. This is how the transcendence of God is safeguarded.

Talk about God is talk about the acts of God rather than the being of God. In this talk the being of God, the actor that acts disappears behind the act itself. God is pure act. Of course our minds rebel. How can we have an act without an actor? I am reminded of Israel's ark of the covenant, a wooden box said to contain the stone tables that Moses brought down from Mt Sinai containing the law. On the top of the box were carved cherubim, one on each end. In the middle, between the cherubim, was the mercy seat, the seat of God. The catch is that the seat was empty. When Israel envisioned its God it could only summon up an empty space.

When we talk about acts of God we cannot use ordinary language or the rationality of the world. For example, how could Christ be present both seated at the right hand of the Father and on the altar of every Eucharist celebrated. Clearly this is metaphorical language that is used to represent the heart of Christian worship.

Talk about events in history is qualitatively different from talk about acts of God. The most obvious example is the death and resurrection of Christ. The cross may be described in ordinary language. It was an event in time that recedes further into the distance as time elapses. This is an event that may be described by historians whose job it is to define such events. It was an event that occurred "under Pontius Pilate." The crucifixion was a human act and can be described in human language.


However, when we come to talk about the resurrection we are dealing with an act of God, a fundamentally different category than an act of man. This is an event that occurs in God's time. Rather than being a point in history, like the crucifixion, it occupies all of time and is a present reality to all of the faithful. They, a Paul says, live in the resurrection.

Being an act of God, the resurrection is not open to historical investigation. No amount of textual analysis or historical research will ever be able to confirm its occurrence. It is an event in God in God's time. It may never be reduced to a nature miracle by enthusiasts of biblical inerrancy. The resurrection can never be proof of the existence and power of God.

Rather, the resurrection stands for the truth of the life and death of the man Jesus. What man, in all his religious concerns, spurned, framed and murdered, God has vindicated. By vindicating Jesus, God judges the ones who crucified him and judges all violence in all of time. It is this judgement that is the reality behind the resurrection. But, in the grace of God, this judgement does not bring us all down to the grave in guilt but sets us free to be like Him.

The tiresome and never-ending debate between atheists and theists comes about because of the failure of each side to speak theologically. Ordinary speech is inadequate when applied to God because it always ends in idolatry, making God into a human conception. Theological language is comfortable with paradox. We know that the power of God is displayed in the dereliction of the cross. We know that God is weak in the world according to the world's purposes but the only source of life. In Christ all of the powers of the world that hold us in subjection are put to death: patriarchy in the virgin birth, religion and political power in those who were instrumental in the death of Jesus, the family who would displace the love of God.

The arguments about the existence of God are arguments about an abstraction. The real arguments are theological and use theological language. This is the debate we have to have.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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