The Analogy of Being

What are the issues at the heart of the difference between Protestantism and Catholicism? We’ve looked at some issues here recently–satisfaction, indulgences, temporal punishment, sacrifice, purgatory.

Karl Barth thought these all missed the point. He felt the major difference to be the understanding of the relationship between the Creator and his creation, summed up in the concept of analogia entis, the “analogy of being.” In the earliest part of his monumental Church Dogmatics he throws down the gauntlet:

I regard the analogia entis as the invention of Antichrist, and think that because of it one can not become Catholic. Whereupon I at the same time allow myself to regard all other possible reasons for not becoming Catholic, as shortsighted and lacking in seriousness (Church Dogmatics, I/1:x).

He elaborates further on:

[In Catholicism] grace … becomes nature, in which … God’s action disappears at once and dissolves into the action of the man visited by grace, in which what is outside all human possibility is here at once transformed into a something enclosed within the Church’s reality, and the personal act of divine approach into a continuously present and objective relation. Roman Catholic faith believes in this transformation. It can recognise itself and God’s revelation again in this continuously present relation between God and man, in this objective revealedness. It affirms an analogia entis, the actuality of a likeness in the creature to God even in a fallen world and therewith the possibility of applying the profane “es gibt” (there is) even to God and divine things; just as it is the–of course ontological–presupposition of the transformation, the circumvention and neutralisation of the decisive character of revelation and faith (CD I/1:44).

It’s an essential point for Barth that God veils himself and–through revelation–unveils himself. If he spoke to us without a veil, directly, or even through such an analogia entis “it would be the end of us and the end of all things” (I/1:192-93). The only analogy of which we may properly speak is what Paul calls (Romans 12:6) analogia tes pisteos, the analogy of faith, “the correspondence of the thing known with the knowing, of the object with the thought, of the Word of God with the word of man in thought and in speech” (I/1:280).

The New Catholic Encyclopedia (first edition; s.v., “Analogy of Faith”) comments on Barth’s “violent rejection of the analogia entis” by observing that he was reacting against liberalism and existentialism, and “built upon Kierkegaard’s notion of God as ‘completely other’ than man, and as totally transcendent”; the analogy of faith means that God “gives meaning to the words” (the priority of revelation), whereas the analogy of being allows philosophical speculation to “sit in judgment on the Word of God.” It argues,

To reject the analogia entis entirely, however, cuts man off so radically from God that, as Emil Brunner points out, the end result can be nothing but the most advanced form of Nominalism, in which human words take on divine meanings that are purely arbitrary and are in no way reflected in a reality already existing in the midst of creatures.

The New Catholic Encyclopedia roots the Catholic understanding of analogy in Aristotle and Plato by means of Pseudo-Dionysius–“all the things that are called being are so called by reference to one subject that is being in the primary sense.” Thus, “affirmative statements can … be made about God (ST 1a,13.12), both on the basis of the perfections and on the basis of revelation” (s.v., “Analogy”).

It then expands on the Catholic theological use of analogy (s.v., “Analogy, Theological Use of”):

While in the Catholic theory of analogy it is legitimate to use human concepts and human language when one talks about God because of a permanent analogy existing between God’s being and man’s being, according to the Protestant theories of analogy any such use is condemned, because after the Fall there is no longer an analogy of being between God and man. …

… Catholic and Protestant theologians generally agree that the very possibility of any knowledge of God, both natural and revealed, rests on analogy: in the natural knowledge it is man who takes some concepts from nature and applies them to God; whereas in the supernatural knowledge it is God Himself who chooses some of the concepts used by man in order to tell him something about Himself. The first kind of analogy is called analogia entis, the second, analogia fidei. According to the Catholic doctrine on the relationship between grace and nature, there is no conflict, but harmony, between the two analogies: grace does not destroy analogy, but, by raising it into analogy of faith, fulfills it. On the contrary, according to the Protestant doctrine on the relationships between nature and grace, there can be no harmony between the two analogies but only conflict: analogy of being cannot be redeemed and therefore it cannot be raised into analogy of faith. …

From the Catholic point of view such a conflict is inadmissible: “to separate the supernatural from the natural knowledge of God in this radical way is to render the former unintelligible and impossible, since revelation, and this is clear, does not change our natural mode of knowing, but utilizes the natural instruments of our knowledge, our acquired concepts, and our mental constructions”….

Can you begin to get a sense of the wider implications of this?

Catholicism insists study of theology must follow study of philosophy; grace builds upon nature; reason and revelation are reconcilable; faith and works can go together; we can cooperate in salvation; visible things, whether sacraments or sacramentals, nature as well as images, are means of approach to God; the spiritual life can be thought of as an interior ascent to God. All of these things are rooted in a particular understanding of the relationship of man to God.

The Protestant understanding emphasizes God as “Wholly Other,” who can be known not by reason, but only by revelation; philosophy can give no true knowledge of God; we know God through his own self-disclosure; salvation is his gift, received through faith alone; we celebrate those sacraments rooted in explicit commands of Christ; to imagine visible things can be means of approach to God is idolatry; the spiritual life is grounded in the acceptance by faith of revealed truth.

I’ve only cited the New Catholic Encyclopedia so far–let’s turn to an authoritative source, the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

40 Since our knowledge of God is limited, our language about him is equally so. We can name God only by taking creatures as our starting point, and in accordance with our limited human ways of knowing and thinking.

41 All creatures bear a certain resemblance to God, most especially man, created in the image and likeness of God. The manifold perfections of creatures – their truth, their goodness, their beauty all reflect the infinite perfection of God. Consequently we can name God by taking his creatures” perfections as our starting point, “for from the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator”. …

43 Admittedly, in speaking about God like this, our language is using human modes of expression; nevertheless it really does attain to God himself ….

Richard McBrien (Catholicism), underscores the importance of this dividing line between Protestant and Catholic thought, referring to David Tracy’s book, The Analogical Imagination (Crossroad, 1981). Catholicism looks for similarities between man and God (the analogical), while Protestantism emphasizes the dissimilarities (the dialectical).

For Catholicism we come to a knowledge of God through our knowledge of the created world, and especially of the humanity of Jesus, who is the “primary analogue,” and through an understanding of our own human experience. Because the reality of God is mediated through such visible signs as these, the Catholic analogical imagination is essentially sacramental (p. 15).

Thus, for Catholicism, “Realities are more similar than dissimilar. The Church and the world are more alike than different” (p. 78).

As the citation from the New Catholic Encyclopedia indicated, this approach is linked in history especially with that of Pseudo-Dionysius, the 5th/6th century Christian philosopher who, writing under the pseudonym of the Biblical Dionysius the Areopagite, mingled Christian and Neoplatonic thought. Here are some examples (taken from the edition of his works in the Paulist Press “Classics of Western Spirituality” series). First, from the Divine Names:

We use whatever appropriate symbols we can for the things of God. With these analogies we are raised upward toward the truth of the mind’s vision, a truth which is simple and one. We leave behind us all our own notions of the divine (p. 53).

… [A]ll being drives from, exists in, and is returned toward the Beautiful and the Good (p. 79).

… [T]here is a simple self-moving power directing all things to mingle as one, that it starts out from the Good, reaches down to the lowliest creation, returns then in due order through all the stages back to the Good, and thus turns from itself and through itself and upon itself and toward itself in an everlasting circle (p. 84).

So there is nothing absurd in rising up, as we do, from obscure images to the single Cause of everything, rising with eyes that see beyond the cosmos to contemplate all things, even the things that are opposites, in a simple unity within the universal Cause (p. 100).

In the Mystical Theology, he emphasizes that though you start with what is known and seen, you must then put it behind you, “to strive upward as much as you can toward union with him who is beyond all being and knowledge” (p. 135). Moses is one who does this as he ascends the mountain and is wrapped in cloud. He

breaks free of them, away from what sees and is seen, and he plunges into the truly mysterious darkness of unknowing. Here, renouncing all that the mind may conceive wrapped entirely in the intangible and the invisible, he belongs completely to him who is beyond everything (p. 137).

In the Celestial Hierarchy, he elaborates on these principles in discussing the ranks of heavenly intelligences; through this hierarchy, we are lifted up toward God, from it, light can be passed on to those below (pp. 153-154). In the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, this becomes the model for the church, in which everything is interrelated, and the church participates in the divine life, both raising men to God and dispensing grace, and separating the more sacred ranks from the more profane (pp. 198, 213, 238).

In the 13th century, St. Bonaventure continued with this way of thinking, particularly in The Soul’s Journey into God, where he uses St. Francis’ seraphic vision to describe six stages of the contemplative ascent to God, through and in his vestiges in creation, through his image stamped upon our natural powers and in it as reformed by grace, as unity and as trinity. Here, too, I’m quoting from the volume of his works in the Paulist Classics of Western Spirituality series. The universe, Bonaventure said,

is a ladder by which we can ascend into God. Some created things are vestiges, others images; some are material, others spiritual; some are temporal, others everlasting; some are outside us, others within us (p. 60).

…[T]he whole material world [is] a mirror through which we may pass over to God, the supreme Craftsman (p. 63).

Concerning the mirror of things perceived through sensation, we can see God no only through them as through his vestiges, but also in them as he is in them by his essence, power and presence” (p. 69).

In the Legenda Major, this mystical/philosophical theology provides the framework for the telling the life of St. Francis who “in an ordered progression from the lowest level reached the very heights” (p. 321).

The Catholic Church is not alone in its indebtedness to Neoplatonism for both philosophy and spirituality–the New Age movement has the same roots. A Vatican document, Jesus Christ: The Bearer of the Water of Life (Jesus as the true Aquarius, in other words), describes its basis thus:

The essential matrix of New Age thinking is to be found in the esoteric-theosophical tradition which was fairly widely accepted in European intellectual circles in the 18th and 19th centuries. It was particularly strong in freemasonry, spiritualism, occultism and theosophy, which shared a kind of esoteric culture. In this world-view, the visible and invisible universes are linked by a series of correspondences, analogies and influences between microcosm and macrocosm, between metals and planets, between planets and the various parts of the human body, between the visible cosmos and the invisible realms of reality. Nature is a living being, shot through with networks of sympathy and antipathy, animated by a light and a secret fire which human beings seek to control. People can contact the upper or lower worlds by means of their imagination (an organ of the soul or spirit), or by using mediators (angels, spirits, devils) or rituals.

How is that different from what we’ve been looking at? Catholic thought can’t criticize the New Age movement for its “essential matrix”–it can only assert its own unique authority. There are some good points in that critique, but it doesn’t look at the role of Neoplatonism in both. And if the Catholic theologian believes in using created things to ascend to God (knowing that they are but stepping stones, and eventually must be negated), what is to rule out the use of New Age techniques? That was Matthew Fox’s experience. But that’s also what led a conservative theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar, to recommend Meditations on the Tarot, by a so-called “Christian Hermeticist.”

And consider these comments from a work that has led many into the New Age movement, The Power of Myth, by Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyer. All myths and names and images of God are masks, metaphors “for what lies behind the visible world” (p. xviii); all being is interconnected, as myths show; “the idea of God as the Absolute Other is a ridiculous idea. There could be no relationship to the Absolute Other” (p. 227).

The Protestant theologian can’t go there, however. I return to the point I made earlier:

The Protestant understanding emphasizes God as “Wholly Other,” who can be known not by reason, but only by revelation; philosophy can give no true knowledge of God; we know God through his own self-disclosure; salvation is his gift, received through faith alone; we celebrate those sacraments rooted in explicit commands of Christ; to imagine visible things can be means of approach to God is idolatry; the spiritual life is grounded in the acceptance by faith of revealed truth.

Here, too, was another critical element of Luther’s dissent. It arises in the Heidelberg Disputation in 1518.

Thesis #19: “That person does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible in those things which have actually happened.”

Thesis #20: “He deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.” (LW 31:40)

Revelation is necessary for Luther because speculation on the basis of what is visible will not lead one to a knowledge of God. Yet what God reveals of himself is, at the same time, concealed. God shows only his “back side.” This revelation of the posteriora Dei takes place in suffering and the cross, not in common human morality or in the design and order of creation. And it demands faith–for only faith recognizes that the One on the cross is, in fact, God (McGrath, Luther’s Theology of the Cross, pp. 149-50).

The theology of the cross and the theology of glory are mutually exclusive. As he says in Bondage of the Will (1525):

Faith has to do with things not seen (Heb. 11:1). Hence in order that there may be room for faith, it is necessary that everything which is believed should be hidden. It cannot, however, be more deeply hidden than under an object, perception, or experience which is contrary to it (LW 33:62)

The analogia entis is yet another human work, a way for us to reach up to God, a philosophical Tower of Babel. The analogy of faith is the theology of the cross, that doubts human effort and reason, and clings by faith alone to the Word.

27 thoughts on “The Analogy of Being

  1. “The Protestant understanding emphasizes God as “Wholly Other,” who can be known not by reason, but only by revelation; philosophy can give no true knowledge of God; we know God through his own self-disclosure; salvation is his gift, received through faith alone; we celebrate those sacraments rooted in explicit commands of Christ; to imagine visible things can be means of approach to God is idolatry; the spiritual life is grounded in the acceptance by faith of revealed truth.”

    Need it be that stark? I’d be curious to know how someone subscribing to such a Protestantism would deal with St Paul’s claim in Romans 1:20 that “the invisible things of him, from the creation of the world, are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made; his eternal power also, and divinity: so that they [the unjust] are inexcusable.”

  2. Protestants see the sort of “natural revelation” described in that verse as only being sufficient cause for man’s condemnation, not for man’s salvation.

    A practical consequence of this understanding of revelation: the Declaration of Barmen.

  3. There is so much there that all one can do is stand back and say wow! Correct me if I am wrong but in the centurys before Christ we see a shift in Judaism, it becomes more Hellenised, it was not the early or post-Constantinian Church that began to use Greek philosophy. Anyway I am suffering insomnia, I have been up for the past three hours so I am going to lie down …

  4. (I should probably mention I was working off notes I took about ten years ago, which I had always wanted to write up).

    Yes, there was Hellenization in Judaism–something against which the Maccabees revolted. It was strongest in Alexandria (e.g., Philo). Gnosticism was one of the things that grew from the syncretism that Hellenistic thought encouraged. The influence of Neoplatonism is also seen in the Kabbalah.

    And it is something that already causes tension in the New Testament. It didn’t take long for the dominant culture to begin affecting Christianity in all areas.

  5. Bill, the CCC doesn’t say that natural revelation is sufficient for salvation, either.

    It’s interesting that you raise this issue now… I’m just completing Fr. Robert Barron’s collection of essays, “Bridging the Great Divide”. In his essay, “Thomas Aquinas’s Christological Reading of God and the Creature”, he notes how for Thomas (and Catholicism in general) God is *both* totally other *and* unspeakably close. The latter flows from the fact that we *somehow* (analogously) participate in His being. This isn’t a consequence of a Neoplatonic distortion of the evangel… it’s a consequence of the doctrine of creation ex nihilo.

    Also, Barron follows a number of other recent scholars who demonstrate that both Thomism in particular and Catholicism in general *use* philosophical insights in theology, instead of being *used* by them. In doing so, they are simply following the path blazed by the Fathers, who took over and reworked Hellenistic concepts to articulate Trinitarian and Christological doctrine in the first centuries of the Church.

  6. No, you’re right, it doesn’t. Special revelation is required. But the Dionysian strain puts the emphasis on the ascent of the person to God, climbing the ladder, “albeit with the assistance of grace.”

    How does creatio ex nihilo require a participation in God’s “being”? Rather, this is what completely distinguishes us from him as creature–Creatio ex nihilo is a rejection of the Platonic idea of emanations, among other things.

    I disagree on that latter point. Examples such as the immortality of the soul, purgatory, etc., show that the Fathers of the Church let reason and philosophy pull the train.

  7. Cultures never live in isolation, it is impossible. Judaism, in the centuries before Christ was affected by Greek philosophy. In other eras Judaism was affected by other Semetic cultures.
    Today we are faced with globalisation, Anglo-American culture is being spread throughout the world and it is being done through the English language, the primary means for spreading any culture is through its language. Any first century Greek speaker would have being affected by Greek thought, philosophy, literature etc.
    What about Christology? Our early Christology would have been more difficult without Greek philosophy. Of course herseies were equally facilitated by the same philosophy.

  8. And so we always have to be careful lest our translation of Biblical teaching be compromised; thus Scripture must remain the norm.

  9. Bill, if reason pulled the Fathers’ train re: immortality of the soul and purgatory (how, on this?), then who’s to say that the same isn’t true regarding the Trinity and the Incarnation?

    This is getting back to an issue we’ve touched on previously: knowing which interpretation of Scripture is the correct one. Arius’ understanding was obviously plausible enough that a great number of Christians accepted it, and the same is true for all the major schisms: it’s possible to give a plausible interpretation of Scripture on numerous important issues. So, which is the correct one, among the plausible candidates? And who says?

  10. How on purgatory? I posted a bunch of things on this–it comes straight from Plato.

    Scripture must be the test–because there is plenty of contradiction in church teachings. You can kill, you can’t kill; you can drink from the cup, you can’t drink from the cup.

    The Trinity and the Incarnation are clearly Biblical teachings–that’s what Arius’ and Nestorius’ opponents turned to, not papal authority. The pope wasn’t the deus ex machina resolving all dispute–his power claims developed.

    This means there’s no short-cut. Christians must study and know Scripture, and pastors must preach and teach on it.

  11. How do we *know* that the Trinity & Incarnation are accurate biblical teachings? Because *I* have found it to be so? The (unintended) consequence of such an epistemology is this: every Christian a pope.

    In the end, Athanasius and the Cappadocians et al. pointed to Tradition, to what had always been the belief and practice of the Church, and rendered a decision by virtue of their authority as successors of the Apostles. It wasn’t a battle of exegesis at all… look to the canons of the early Councils: they don’t contain any extensive Scriptural proofs. They simply indicate what is authentic Christian belief. Of course the giants of the patristic era made recourse to Scripture, but what defeated Arianism et al. in the end was not the genius of exegetes, but the normative tradition of the Church and the authority of her pastors.

    I completely agree with your closing sentence, but when it comes to conclusively addressing heresy, the role of the authoritative shepherd & teacher is demonstrably necessary.

    One final note: that’s for humoring me, Bill! I appreciate your willingness not just to post my comments, but to engage them as well. May we both grow as disciples of Jesus Christ.

  12. Not every Christian a pope–every Christian a disciple, seeking to listen to the voice of the one shepherd.

    Otherwise you get a pope who can’t be judged or criticized or corrected.

    But there is a middle ground … to have an office of pastor which is responsible for handing on what is taught, and to preach faithfully, to be accountable to what has gone before but to also be accountable to the Word of God. I think that’s closer to what is in Scripture and to the real life practice of most Protestant churches.

  13. Bill.

    That is a good reply – every Christian a disciple.

    At any rate, in general we are indeed making decisions as human beings, the difference is where we are entrusting such decisions . The RC has made a decision that God speaks to him through the Pope as the final interpreter of Scripture. In other words, they have delegated their decision.

    The Prot makes a decision (in theory at least) that God speaks to him through Scripture that reveals Christ (some do detach Christ from Scripture which they should not do). In other words, they thrust or should trust what Jesus said – John 8:31.


  14. God speaks to us as a community through scripture, if God speaks to us as individuals why bother with a church? What is the purpose of a community. Its like universalism, we all gather and do what feels good. A little bit of this and a little bit of that. Scripture, for Catholics, just as it was for Jews was read and preached upon within the context of liturgical worship.

  15. God doesn’t speak to individuals?

    Well, that’s a rather blunt statement.

    Seems to me the whole Bible is about how he spoke to individuals. And while there was a very long period in which the Catholic Church didn’t want people reading the Bible–going so far as to kill those who would make it available–popes over the past hundred years have encouraged the reading of it. Which is good, since that was the attitude of the apostles toward Scripture.

    Why gather as a community? Because we are members of the Body of Christ, with responsibility for one another and to share our various gifts with one another “For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.”

  16. “there was a very long period in which the Catholic Church didn’t want people reading the Bible”

    Come on, Bill. You know better than this… this is most definitely *not* a statement worthy of someone committed to ecumenism and its dialogue.

  17. Dialogue requires grappling with the facts of history. That’s one of them.

    Here, by the way, are some historical references. Pay particular attention to Items 7 and on, which are links to papal documents on the EWTN webpage.

  18. I’m aware of the history, Bill. I’m also aware that the issue was generally one of two things: proper concern for catechesis, and (relatedly) concern for accurate translations.

    Those with problems with the Church also often point to the fact that the Bible was chained down in churches, failing to note that this was so that they couldn’t be stolen, not so that (illiterate!) Christians couldn’t read them. So, too, are things not as horrible as you’d lead your readers to believe.

  19. The church documents linked speak for themselves, and say much more than that.

    Not so horrible? People were killed because they wanted to get the Bible to people. You can’t get much more horrible than that.

  20. So, just to be crystal clear, you think that the Catholic Church didn’t want people to have access to the Bible, period. No extenuating circumstances whatsoever, correct?

  21. I refer back to the documents to which I linked. There were periods of blanket prohibition, and there were times when there were specified restrictions.

  22. I believe the quote from the New Catholic Encyclopedia you gave is important, because it notes the influence of Nominalism upon Protestant thought. From my own philosophical studies, I’ve come to see how different Nominalism is from a Biblical worldview.

    Bill, do you think that perhaps Protestant thought may be mal-affected by Nominalism?

  23. Nominalism was certainly an important issue in the 16th century, but Lutheranism opposed nominalistic principles on many points. Heiko Oberman is the best scholar in this field.

  24. Just as his encounter with Manichaeanism shaped Augustine’s thought (even if in reaction), so too did Luther’s formation in nominalist theology & philosophy give some form to his thought. His thought on the will, for instance, is indebted to Ockham and even Scotus, in that these scholars broke from Thomas and the prior tradition in essentially putting divine and human will on the same playing field, the former just being “bigger” than the latter. While Luther sought to “protect” the divine will from the human will, his formation in the nominalist tradition had the consequence of him seeking a solution by annihilating human freedom, instead of correctly recognizing that human and divine freedom are *not* univocal, but are equivocal. If he had realized this, he would have seen that there is in fact no competition between divine and human wills, and therefore no need to develop a theory of will which did away with the human for the sake of the divine.

  25. “Broke from Thomas”? That’s ahistorical. Thomas was not read universally at that period. He was dominant among Dominicans, of course, but Franciscans–and those who followed that school of thought, like the Augustinians–read Bonaventure, Scotus (now Blessed), Occam and Biel. Ratzinger is also indebted to this tradition. In the 19th and 20th centuries, when Thomas was more universal, it was popular for Catholic apologists to dismiss Luther by suggesting he was malformed by the Franciscan school of thought. Well, that doesn’t wash among historians today; the Franciscan school has been restored to its rightful place in Catholic theology and philosophy.

    And one doesn’t have to get into philosophers to speak of predestination–Luther got that from Augustine.

Comments are closed.