Alike, but Very Different

“The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold” (Ps. 18:2).

- Psalm 18

In seeking to examine the nature of the God we worship, we must understand how it is that we use language to define His attributes. Issues about whether we can know anything about God or whether words can even be used to reveal His nature, as in Scripture, are intimately connected to the idea of us using words to describe Him.

Many philosophers emphasize the inadequacy of human speech to describe God. Because our words are human words, they say, we cannot say anything about God. We can only grope in the darkness, hoping to touch upon the divine. Skepticism prevails, and a host of non-biblical terms are accepted to explain the Lord’s nature.

All language we use to speak about the Lord is indeed human language, but that does not mean our words lack all meaning. We are made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26–27), and since we are like Him in some sense, we can therefore speak meaningfully about Him.

Thomas Aquinas identified three ways in which we use language. When we use a word to describe two different things and the meaning stays the same, we have spoken univocally. For example, to call a dog “good” and a cat “good” is to say they both are obedient. Equivocal language occurs when we use the same word to describe two separate things, but in this case, the word changes meaning completely. A “bald” man has no hair on his head, but when the reading of a story is “bald,” the reader has not read with dramatic flair. When a word is used to describe two different things and the meaning changes proportionally, but not completely, we have spoken analogically. A “good” man and a “good” dog may both be obedient, but their obedience is not exactly the same.

When we speak about God, we speak analogically. Today’s passage calls God a “rock,” but this does not mean He is the product of volcanic processes (univocal use). Likewise, it does not mean He is hard to the point of being impersonal or unfeeling (equivocal). Instead, it means that He is strong and reliable (analogical use). All analogies will break down if pressed too far, but when used appropriately they give us true knowledge about the Lord.

Coram Deo

As John Calvin has said, God condescends to our limitations, revealing Himself in our words with images that give us real knowledge about His nature. Today consider three metaphors often used for our Father in Scripture — rock, light, and shepherd. Think of the ways the Lord is like and unlike all of these things. Go before Him in prayer and thank Him for His faithfulness, goodness, and kindness.

Passages for Further Study

Ps. 27:1
Isa. 64:8
Hos. 2
John 10:1–21
1 Cor. 10:4b

First published in Tabletalk Magazine, an outreach of Ligonier. For permissions, view our Copyright Policy.