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The Analogy of Faith

Spencer, Archie J. The Analogy of Faith: The Quest for God’s Speakability. Strategic Initiatives in Evangelical Theology (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2015), 441 pp. $40.00 (paperback).

Reviewed by Kathryn Bradford Heidelberger (February 13, 2017)



How can a human being speak meaningfully of God? Given that language is a human construction, and given that the Divine life is a transcendent reality that stands outside of finite experience, using language to meaningfully speak of God may seem like an impossible or fleeting task. Archie J. Spencer, in his book, The Analogy of Faith: The Quest for God’s Speakability, sets out to find a way where one can make true and meaningful statements about God which neither collapse God into human experience nor distance God so far from human experience that God becomes entirely unknown. In order to accomplish this goal, Spencer takes up two differing thought systems that are used to solve the conundrum of making speech about God intelligible. The first, analogia entis, or analogy of being, affirms that there is some kind of resemblance or analogy between God and human beings that is the impetus for language about God (16). The second, analogia fidei, or analogy of faith, is a kind of shorthand for the gospel as it is written in Scripture, and affirms that the relationship between Creator and created is solely dependent on the Incarnation as the Word of God. Only on the basis of the revealed Word of God can language hope to make true statements about God (17). Using careful research and masterful analysis, Spencer argues for a Christologically grounded account of analogia fidei that clarifies just how the term ‘analogy’ can be used properly in reference to God and human beings. A very rough sketch of Spencer’s argument is presented in brief below in order to highlight his movement from analogia entis toward analogia fidei.

Beginning with Plato and working through Aristotle, Neoplatonism, and Augustine, Spencer’s first chapter outlines the foundations for the use of the term analogy and how it entered Christian theological discourse. For Plato, at the heart of his understanding of analogy is a principle of absolute dissimilarity, meaning that though the transcendent realm and the human realm are absolutely distinct and dissimilar realms, a principle of logic remains such that analogies can be drawn in between the two realms (35). Analogy, on this view, is a sort of reasoning from experience. Key to Plato’s thought is what Spencer terms “cause-effect-resemblance,” or CER, which is the assumed belief in the presence of the universal, the whole, which is the foundation of all analogy (36). Ultimately, Platonic thought appeals to an innate resemblance between the sensible and the suprasensible, and this resemblance presents itself to the senses by rational engagement with CER (40).

Aristotle somewhat shares Plato’s concept of CER, except that while Plato theorized that all phenomena participate in the forms, Aristotle distinguishes between particulars and universals, giving superiority to the universals. For Aristotle, the forms are expressible by means of analogy. Analogy can point us to wisdom (a form), which is the knowledge of the universal cause of all in Aristotle’s conception (50). As such, cause, as it points to intelligible forms in things, “accurse to things as their fundamental being” (50). Basically, this means that analogical predication about forms reveals an ontological reality inherit within that analogy. When applied to God, then, Aristotle assumes a relationship between existent things and God as the cause of that existence. Cause, in this instance, is the common relation, even though they are absolutely dissimilar. In classic thought, then, analogy arose out of ontological and cosmological conceptions of CER.

Augustine adapts Platonic thought into Christian theological discourse through his doctrine of creation. According to Augustine, the human soul is created in the image of God, while the human being remains composite of two substances—body and soul (81). Analogy, for Augustine, assumes a similarity between the “triunity of human being as soul and the triunity of God.” This similarity is the basis upon which human beings can speak meaningfully of God. As such, Christian discourse came to be wholly framed and determined by Platonic and Aristotelian modes of speech about God, which are in turn defined by CER and analogical modes of speech.

In the second chapter, Spencer’s task is to show that Aquinas developed a confused and inconsistent method of analogy that left the ensuing Catholic tradition open to taking Aquinas’ thought down a variety of interpretive avenues, ultimately leaving revelation and theology susceptible to synergistic tendencies (92). One of Aquinas’ most significant developments in regards to analogy is his insistence that nothing is predicated univocally (113). While Aquinas affirms that there is an imprint of the Creator on creation, this imprint is similar in its very dissimilarity. If it was a univocal relationship, the Creator and creation would be collapsed in the same genus or species. But God cannot be reduced to a genus or species because God is totally dissimilar to all of creation as God is the final cause of creation (113). Put another way, God and creation relate to one another analogously, which is a kind of recognizable, intrinsic relation between God and creature. Though Aquinas wants to maintain dissimilarity in the midst of relation, he cannot escape falling into an ontological/metaphysical conception of intrinsic analogy (118).

Spencer briefly analyzes Scotus’ and Cajetan’s adaptions of Aquinas’ use of analogy, noting that Cajetan’s developments give us the term analogia entis. Cajetan works analogy out by proper proportionality, rather than using Aquinas’ understanding of intrinsic attribution. Creation imperfectly participates in God’s being, thus reflecting perfection in a way (170). Cajetan develops the analogia entis as creation’s participation in God’s being, in a way that is mean to protect God from being univocal to creation. But in so doing, being is abstracted from divine revelation, which leads being to be dissolved into creation or God, leaving human beings with no grounding for speaking of and relating to God in any concrete manner.

If all of this sounds confusing—it is. Aquinas and his subsequent followers leave us with a muddled understanding of analogy based on philosophical principles that they attempted to graft onto theological inquiry. Ultimately, Spencer concludes that there can be no true “Catholic doctrine of analogy” precisely because Aquinas and his subsequent followers failed to create a concise, clear definition of analogy.

Chapter three marks the beginning of Spencer’s constructive turn as he explores the use of analogy in Karl Barth’s theology. Barth rejects the analogia entis because it fails to concern itself with revelation. For Barth, revelation is of singular importance in regards to doctrinal expression (181). God cannot be intuited by any natural means nor can we speak meaningfully about God based on abstract understandings of being, essence, and existence. Rather, responsible speech about God must be constituted solely on the basis of God’s self-revelation (187). This is the analogia fidei. Caught up in Barth’s rejection of analogia entis in favor of analogia fidei is also a concern to affirm that God is not bound up in any metaphysics of necessity that would require some kind of cooperation on the part of God and humanity—this puts God in danger of collapsing into human categories. Rather, the doctrine of providence is essential here because it emphasizes divine election and favor in the act of revelation (202).

In developing the analogia fidei, then, Barth places all of theology’s weight on Christology. God’s self-revelation to humanity through Jesus Christ is through and through an act of God—we do not meet God in the act of revelation; God meets us in revelation (219). As opposed to Aquinas, where humanity meets God in something innate to creation, Barth develops an encounter between God and humanity that is exclusively a divine act. In this way, God is His act of revelation and is fully revealed in this act (221). As far as human beings are concerned, Barth maintains a qualified use of the word analogy to describe our participation in the “reality of the revelation of God” (223). The revelation of God in the event of the Incarnation posits God as a comparable object for human beings (225). Understood in this way, then, analogy has a purely Christological determination. In the midst of the Christological grounding of analogy, however, Barth is also adamant to maintain absolute disparity between God and human beings—they are not on the same scale of cooperation or identification. It is solely by revelation through Incarnation that theological speech is possible (232).

Jüngel furthers Barth’s conception of the analogia fidei by developing the analogy of advent. The analogy of advent focuses primarily on the event of God’s coming to us through the Incarnation. Jüngel argues that God is not an unthinkable being, but rather that God is thinkable precisely because he has spoken in His Word (255). This speech, or address, is a “language event” of the Gospel, and is grounded in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

Having demonstrated the unviability of analogia entis in favor of the analogia fidei and the analogy of advent, Spencer concludes his book with a final chapter that seeks to establish an even more robustly Christologically centric account of God’s speakability. This chapter is the most constructive and original of Spencer’s preceding chapters, where he develops his own account of the ways analogy can be understood to speak responsibly about God. First, as analogy of participatory Word, Christian theological conviction assumes that there is some kind of divine participation in creation and vice versa. In this participation between God and humanity, the full entirety of the glory of God is revealed in the work of Jesus Christ (329). Human beings, through Divine action, are caused to participate in the Word. Second, as analogy of performative Word, theological speech, in the act of proclamation, liturgy, and sacraments, performs the Divine drama of revelation (351). Finally, as analogy of parabolic Word, Spencer affirms, “God is, primordially, human in his divine election” (374). Parable brings speech to language, opening up both temporal and metaphorical possibilities for language within the bounds of the revelation event. Parable affirms that God comes into language in such a way that a relation between God and humanity is established, a void crossed, all on the basis of God becoming Incarnate (379).

All in all, Spencer’s work is impressive and well worth the read. The book isn’t exactly an introduction to the topic of analogia entis and the speakability of God, though it does provide a thorough overview of the theological conversation thus far. In this way, it is an excellent primer on the most crucial aspects of the debate, and is fair and reasonable in its critique of the analogia entis. At the root of Spencer’s theological contribution to the conversation is his desire that all theological speech and language enact the story of the Gospel. If theological speech fails to proclaim the exclusive act of God’s revelation found in Jesus Christ, Spencer asks that we question the truth and validity of that speech. At the end of the day, then, Spencer’s work is a call to theologians to take special care with their language, as it analogous to the revealed Word of God.

Kathryn Bradford Heidelberger, Benedictine University

The views expressed here are strictly those of the author; they do not necessarily represent the views of the Center for Barth Studies or Princeton Theological Seminary.