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“God Talk” and the Problem of Otherness

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul
The Truth Network Radio
April 21, 2021 12:01 am

“God Talk” and the Problem of Otherness

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul

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April 21, 2021 12:01 am

If God were completely different from us, it would be impossible for us to describe Him. Today, R.C. Sproul looks at the problem of otherness in the theology of Karl Barth.

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Today on Renewing Your Mind, God is God and we are not.

How can He reveal anything through any means to us if there's absolutely no point of contact between us? If we are utterly dissimilar beings, what possible ground of communication could there be? That's a great question, one that philosophers and theologians have wrestled with for ages. Twentieth-century theologian Karl Barth said that God is wholly other than us, meaning that there is no point of similarity between God and man. Then what are we to do with the fact that we're created in God's image?

Today on Renewing Your Mind, R.C. Sproul continues his series on classical apologetics by proving that God made us with the ability to know Him. We're going to continue now with our examination of apologetics, and we're looking at the crisis in language with respect to God talk. And in our last session, I talked about the problem that pantheism posed for meaningful discourse about God, and we saw the reaction into the twentieth century in an attempt to reconstruct the supernatural. And we saw the introduction of this concept that God was wholly other. This was popularized by the theologian Karl Barth, who also gave a massive critique in his lifetime against what's called natural theology, which is an attempt to learn something about God from deductions drawn from nature.

Barth was opposed to the intrusion into theology of categories of reason. He's one who, as we mentioned before with respect to the law of non-contradiction, said that unless a Christian or until a Christian is able to affirm both poles of a contradiction, that person has not yet reached maturity. I would revise that and say when a person is able to affirm both poles of a contradiction, that person has finally reached insanity. But in any case, in his antipathy against reason and against natural theology, he also leveled a radical assault against a concept that was deeply rooted in Christian history, particularly as it was articulated by St. Thomas Aquinas. Which concept is called the analogia entis?

Now this Latin phrase, analogia entis, is a technical term, but it's one that's critical for this whole discussion because what it means is analogy of being. And Karl Barth attacked that, said that there is no analogy of being between God and man because God is holy other. He completely transcends us so that He's totally different from us. Now to try to illustrate the problems that this poses for Christianity, let me tell the story, my favorite illustration of this, of an experience I had several years ago in Canada where I was talking with a faculty of a particular institute there that opposed natural theology and rationality and saw in my theology too heavy of a dependence on St. Thomas Aquinas, on Aristotle, on logic and the like. And while we were having this discussion, they made the statement to me, I was speaking by myself with their entire faculty and one of their leading theologians said to me, we have a problem with your view of natural theology and so on because we believe that God is holy other. I said, okay, if God is holy other, how do you know anything about Him? And he immediately responded, just as Karl Barth had responded earlier, that we know God not through rational speculation or deduction, but we know Him through revelation that this transcendent God reveals Himself to us. And I said, well, let me ask you again, how does He reveal Himself to us? And they responded by saying, well, He reveals Himself to us through history, through the Bible, and preeminently through Christ. I said, I don't think that I'm getting through to you people.

Maybe I'm just inarticulate and not framing the question the way I ought to. What I'm trying to get from you is how a being who is completely different from me, for whom there's no analogy of being between me and this being, how He can communicate anything to me about Himself. How can He reveal anything through any means to us if there's absolutely no point of contact between us?

If we are utterly dissimilar beings, what possible ground of communication could there be? And finally, the lights came on, and this theologian literally hit himself in the forehead like that and said, hmm, maybe I shouldn't have said that God is wholly other. I said, that's right, because as soon as you say that, you open the door to the skeptic who comes in and says to you that your language about God is meaningless. Because the philosopher understands the point I was just making to you, that if there is no similarity between God and man, then there's no common ground, no possible forum or avenue of communication. Let me try to explain that further.

Some of you saw the movie years ago with Paul Newman in it called Cool Hand Luke, where Luke was the Christ figure in the film, by the way, somebody's creative imagination. But throughout the movie, they had problems with their being in the chain gang and so on, and the statement was made, what we have here is a failure to communicate, and that became one of the key lines in that movie. Well, what is necessary for communication is some common ground for people to have discussions. If you go to a foreign land, if you go to Russia and you don't know anything about the Russian language and the person you meet over there doesn't know anything about the English language, you have a hard time communicating, particularly if they tie your hands and you can't draw pictures or anything. You listen to the words, and the words just sound like gibberish to you, and yet when two Russians talk with each other, they know exactly what each one is saying because they both speak the same language. Well, I say I speak the same language with you who are Americans, and that may or may not be true. Remember Winston Churchill's comment that the Americans and the British are two people separated by a common language.

I like that line. But I talk to you, and I say that this man here in the front row is sitting on a chair, and you, I think, have a pretty good understanding of what I mean by saying that he is sitting on a chair, because you understand what the word chair refers to. Now how do you understand the meaning of the word chair? I wonder how many thousands, maybe millions of chairs you've seen in your lifetime.

And every time you've seen objects such as these chairs in this room, you register in your mind a relationship between this object and its function and that little English word c-h-a-i-r. You develop an idea, as Plato regarded it, of chairness from all these experiences of particular chairs that you have, so that your understanding of the meaning of the word chair is based in the final analysis of your particular experience of chairs. Now, no two people in this room have had exactly the same personal experience with chairs. Your experience with chairs is different from mine. You're much younger than I am, and I assume that you've seen far less chairs than I have.

You live in a different time where the styles of chair change from decade to decade, and there are chairs I'm familiar with from the 40s and 50s that you may not even recognize as chairs. And so we have a different background of experience of that word. So when I say chair, and you hear chair, you hear something different from what I'm saying, because your understanding of the word chair is derived from your personal experience of chairs, and my understanding of chairs is derived from my personal experience of chairs. And if those experiences are different, to the extent to which they are different, there's miscommunication or differing assumptions. However, our experience of chairs is so overwhelmingly similar that we are still, even though we don't have an exact one-to-one correspondence of experience with respect to the word chair, the similarities of our experience of chairs are so close to one another, so carefully approximate each other that any difference in understanding of the meaning of the term chair is infinitesimal, and in this case, irrelevant.

You know what I mean when I say chair, so that we can carry on a meaningful dialogue, and we can have a meaningful conversation where you basically understand what I'm saying, and I understand what you're saying. Now, the other day I was talking at the conference about divine transcendence and imminence, and one of the people who's in this room right now, I'm not going to identify, thought that she heard me say something when I was talking about imminence. She thought she heard me say M&Ms, and that I was talking about the candy that melts in your mouth rather than your fingers. Why was that miscommunication possible? Because how many times had she ever heard the term imminence from a philosophical or theological perspective?

Probably never before that day. She had no experience of that word, and her experience of it the first time she heard it was not all that dissimilar from mine the first time I heard it when I spit my soup out on a table, and I'd have been better off if I would have heard the professor say M&Ms than what I actually heard. So, when you get more esoteric words, stranger words, less frequently used terms, then that whole complex of familiarity begins to fall away, and then we have difficulty communicating because you may not know what I'm talking about if I use technical terms that are not common everyday terms that everybody else uses. So, we understand how language can fall down and break down when our familiarity with the words we're using with each other also breaks down.

Now, what does that have to do with God and apologetics? Well, again, if God is completely different from us, then we have no common ground, a common familiarity, and anything that He says to us about Himself has no relationship to us if He's totally different. If He says, I'm omnipotent, and we say, well, wait a minute, I understand something about omnipotence. I've never encountered an omnipotent being, but that word omnipotence, I can parse it and see that it means all powerful, and power is a word I do understand because we exercise power. Our power is limited, but even though I have never experienced unlimited power, I can at least imagine what unlimited power might be like because I see gradations of power in this world where I live. And so, when God reveals to us that He is powerful, I have some concept of powerfulness so that when He speaks to me and says that He's powerful, I have a point of contact with power. But that's only if there is some sense in which He is like me and I am like Him.

Now, let me back up a little bit, do a little history lesson. This issue of the meaningfulness and adequacy of human language to talk about a transcendent holy God was not invented in the 20th century. This issue went way back in the history of theoretical thought and was a question that St. Thomas Aquinas had to deal with as he was an apologist in his era. And Aquinas distinguished among three kinds of language, three kinds of descriptive language, which I've gone over in other courses at Ligonier, but we'll look at it again here. He distinguished among, first of all, univocal or univocal language, second of all, he talked about equivocable language or equivocal, and third, analogical. Now, what is the difference among these three? Univocal language is language that describes things between two parties and an exact one-to-one identification that if, for example, my understanding of chair were exactly your understanding of chair, we would have univocal communication, one sound, right?

It's exactly the same, identical. Equivocal language is language where the meaning of the term changes dramatically in the course of the conversation. I illustrate this when I teach logic to my seminary students and teach them the fallacy of equivocation. And I show them the fallacy of equivocation by proving that cats have nine tails. Do you remember the time I proved to you, Roger, that cats have nine tails?

We're going to do it again. My first premise in my syllogism is this. No cat has eight tails. Do you agree with that, Roger? You've never seen a cat with eight tails, have you? Okay, well, I'm going to prove to you that cats have nine tails. No cat has eight tails, right? Now, here's my question. If I have two boxes up here and one box has a cat in it and the other box is empty, got an empty box here and a box with a cat in it here.

Now, I'm going to test your knowledge of arithmetic and mathematics. How many more cats are in this box, Roger, than are in this box? One, thank you very much. How many more cats' tails are in this box than in this box? One. And how many cats are in this box?

Zero. I've got no cat in this box and one cat in this box, right? So, I have one more tail in this box than I have in this box. So, I say here one cat has one more tail than what?

No cat. Now, this is just a simple matter of deduction. If no cat has eight tails and one cat has one more tail than no cat, then how many tails does one cat have?

QED, right? Eight and one makes what? Nine. And so, one cat, then the conclusion by resistless logic is that one cat has nine tails.

Now, I tricked you, and what was the trick? What happened in this line of reasoning? The meaning of this term, no cat, changes in the middle of the discussion. It means something completely different here than it means here, and that's called the fallacy of equivocation.

I'll illustrate it this way. A man goes to a theater to hear a dramatic reading. He comes back from the theater and I say, how was the dramatic reading? And he says to me, it was a bald narrative. A bald narrative? You mean the speaker didn't have any hair in his head?

No. That's not what you would understand him to mean. That there was something lacking, perhaps some expressiveness or some punch or a lawn in the reading.

They didn't have any pizzazz, and so we say it was bald. That's called an equivocal use of the term bald, where normally when we use the term bald, we mean the absence of hair from the head. But then we stretch it out way away from its original meaning to apply it to a narrative, and here the meaning of the term changes dramatically. So, the difference between equivocal and equivocal is that univocal language has a very tight, close similarity of meaning, an exactitude. And equivocal language is where the meanings change radically from person to person. But Aquinas said there is a middle ground of language, which is analogical. And the definition of analogical is that the meaning of a term changes proportionately to the difference in the beings that are being described. Let me say it again, that the meaning of a term changes proportionately to the difference in the beings that are being described.

Let me illustrate that. Do you have a dog? Who has a dog? Is your dog a good dog? I have a good dog. Now, when he tells me that his dog is a good dog, does that mean that your dog has a highly developed sense of a categorical imperative, you know, acutely sensitive conscience about right and wrong?

Is that what you mean? No, you don't think that your dog sits around and worries about ethical propositions. When you said your dog is good, you mean that he comes when you call him, he's housebroken, right, and he doesn't bite the mailman in the leg.

Good. Now, if I say that Fred here is a good guy, do I mean by that he comes when I call him, he's housebroken, and he doesn't bite the mailman on the leg? Now, obviously, I mean something different when I say that Fred is good from what I mean when I say my dog or your dog is good, because goodness changes with respect to the difference of the beings here. And then we go and we speak of the goodness of God. Now, God's goodness is like ours, but it's not identical. It's even higher.

It's even better. His goodness has no defects where our goodness is filled with defects. So, even though when I say that God is good, I'm not using the term good in a univocal sense.

I'm using it in an analogical sense. Nevertheless, it's meaningful, and it's made meaningful biblically because God creates us in His image, that He makes us with a likeness so that God in creation gives to us the very grounds and possibility for us to have meaningful communication from Him that we can understand as far as it goes. God gave us language and infused it with meaning, and He communicated with us through Scripture, and He also gave us the Word, that is, Christ. He became flesh and dwelt among us. What a helpful message today from Dr. R.C.

Sproul. You're listening to Renewing Your Mind. I'm Lee Webb, and I'm glad you could be with us.

This week we're featuring R.C. 's series Defending Your Faith, and he's helping us apply reason to our faith. If you've listened to this program for any length of time, you're probably serious about sharing your faith with others, and we think this series is a helpful resource. It's 32 video messages on 11 DVDs, and we'd like to send it to you for your donation of any amount to Ligonier Ministries. You can reach us by phone with your gift at 800-435-4343, or if you prefer, you can find us online at There's no question that high school and college students are taking the brunt of the cultural onslaught against Christianity, and that's why we think this is such a helpful series for them.

Each video message is less than 30 minutes long, so it's a perfect format for a classroom setting. So again, request Defending Your Faith by Dr. R.C. Sproul when you contact us today with your donation of any amount. Our web address again is, and our phone number, 800-435-4343. There are many people today who reject Christianity because they claim there are contradictions in the Bible. How do you respond to them? Tomorrow Dr. Sproul will continue his series by showing us the distinction between contradiction and paradox. So I hope you'll join us Thursday for Renewing Your Mind. God bless.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-11-27 20:04:36 / 2023-11-27 20:12:54 / 8

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