Most of us are confident that human language is reasonably reliable when used to refer to the realm of finite existence. (Yes, yes, there are lots of problems here, too, but we'll hold off on those for the time being.) Question: How reliable is human language when used to refer to the realm of infinite existence? (Metaphor of the window--how clear is the glass?)


1. Language is equivocal. Human language cannot refer to the infinite. This route is taken by some mystics and is representative of the via negativa. St. John of the Cross is a good example of one who held this position.

2. Language is univocal. There is no problem. Words which refer to God and to humanity have exactly the same meaning. Carl F. H. Henry holds this position.

3. Language is analogical. One can postulate that there is an analogy between what a word means when it applies to humanity and when it applies to God. [Theory of analogical predication.] This use of language assumes that there is a "proper proportionality" to language describing God's attributes and activities and human attributes and activities. St. Thomas Aquinas is perhaps the greatest proponent of this perspective.

4. Metaphysical language is meaningless. Only propositions which can be empirically verified have meaning. This is the position of the Logical Positivists. A. J. Ayer and Rudolf Carnap held this position.

5. Religious language is moral discourse. Language about God is really language about how people should behave towards each other. The notion of God serves as a "regulative ideal" to grant validity to the ethical imperatives. R. B. Braithwaite, Immanuel Kant, and Albrecht Ritschl all held this position.

6. All "language games" exist within particular "forms of life." Wittgenstein argues that speaking a language is a kind of activity. As such, "meaning" is best understood as "use." (Wittgenstein said "Words do not have meaning; they have usage.") Thus speaking about God (in the context of a religious community or life) is as valid as any other activity. Paul Holmer and Paul van Buren hold this perspective.

7. Religious language is metaphorical and symbolic. Language contains helpful metaphors and symbols about God, but there is no way to substantiate them ontologically. Position of Paul Tillich. Tillich does not believe that we can talk about God as a "being" the same way we are "beings." Rather, for Tillich, God is the "ground of being."

8. Religious language is a "mode of signification." Agrees with the ontological distinction which is made by Tillich but denies the linguistic distinction. Reality can be signified by language but not completely. (e.g., We can know that God loves, but we cannot know how God loves.) This is the position of William Alston.

For an excellent treatment of these issues and a thorough introduction to the philosophical problems surrounding the nature and use of religious language, see Dan R. Stiver, The Philosophy of Religious Language: Sign, Symbol, and Story , Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1996.

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