‘Who’ and ‘What’ God is


I’ve been struggling here and there with refining how I understand language to apprehend God—univocally, equivocally, analogically. How does our language about God apprehend God. I’ve expressed some frustration with this over at Fr Aidan’s place in the comments. I thought I’d express here how I try to approach theological language via Christology/Incarnation. It helps me. Perhaps it might help some others.

Begin with Christ, God truly incarnate in human flesh, but hypostatically (personally) so. The divine ‘nature’ isn’t reduced to the constraints and limitation of created being; God doesn’t “turn into” a perfect human being (as if ‘what’ God is essentially is human being writ large). Chalcedon spells out the terms: one person—two natures.

Now, if language is viewed as intrinsic to human nature personally realized, and God assumes and redeems that nature, then our language speaks of God the way Christ speaks of God, that is, our language speaks as truly of God as Christ truly makes God present, but hypostatically (personally so). A univocal apprehension would have to proceed upon the assumption of a “natural” equivalence (the way we as created beings speak of other created entities within a shared created ontology or nature), an approach I want to avoid.

Another thought that helps me balance theological epistemology by constantly referencing the Incarnation is the thought that in Christ God apprehends human being, in which case God apprehends our language, not the other way around. He is not ‘apprehended by’ or ‘made an object of’ our studious reference. In Christ the world experiences and fulfills itself as recognizing its ‘being given’. In Christ human being and language take the posture of a passio essendi, of being apprehended. And if we strive at least to posture our language in the same terms, we may avoid complicating the struggle.

So perhaps the best thing to say about how our language apprehends God is the same thing we say about how the Incarnation is God apprehending the world. Thus:

  • Cataphatic about WHO God is (based on the one Person of the Son with two natures)
  • Apophatic about WHAT God is (based on the two natures united inseparably in the one Person of the Son)

Our language always anticipated (because creation was always made for Incarnation) and now after the fact reflects, the cataphatic/apophatic relationship between God and the world and revealed finally in the achievement of this anticipation in the Incarnation understood in terms of Chalcedon. So perhaps the cataphatic and apophatic functions of language relative to God parallel each other from different perspectives (that is, one with respect to ‘who’ and the other with respect to ‘what’ God is) rather than operating sequentially within a single perspective inclusive of both ‘person’ and ‘nature’ (that is, employing cataphatic claims about God regarding both the personal and natural but then qualifying all this afterwards with something like “Well, God is after all excessively more than what we can say”).

Perhaps it would be helpful to understand the cataphatic to apprehend who God is (‘person’) and understand our apophatic qualification as a way of recognizing what God is (‘nature’) as inaccessible to us.

5 comments on “‘Who’ and ‘What’ God is

  1. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Tom, I don’t think that the “who” has anything to do with the cataphatic. The question of “who” is simply answered by personal names, and those personal names don’t tell us “what” God is. Specifically, “Father,” “Son,” and “Spirit” name the divine Persons in their processional identities.

    Cataphatic speech tells us about the divine perfections, but not univocally but analogically (if one follows Aquinas at this point).


    • Tom says:

      I think you’re missing my point about ‘who’, that is, about divine identity based in God’s acting (to create, to save, etc.). But that’s OK. If Aquinas defines the content, limits, scope of and answers for the conversation, that’s good news for some I suppose.


  2. Tom says:

    Postscript | June 3, 2016
    I’m still processing things after a few days of conversation on this over at Fr Aidan’s. I was close—but only close—to exiling the divine essence/nature from the reach of even the most careful, qualified apophaticism. Since we do not “know” the divine essence outside of the free and personal acts of God, there’s nothing to say. But this would be a bit much. Something of the nature of the artist is revealed in his work. So I’m fine with speaking “of” the divine essence/nature, but only on the basis of God’s free and personal acts.

    We cannot observe the self-constituting acts by which God is the God he is (the eternal begetting of the Son, the proceeding of the Spirit, etc.). But things are somewhat different, I claim, with the ‘person’. Why? Because the Son is homousious with us in our humanity, though we cannot be homousios with him in his divinity. So our inability to know divine essence/nature doesn’t leave us in the dark with respect to the divine Person/Son. And, wonderfully, his being divine doesn’t prevent him from becoming fully human. He can fully instantiate his personhood in and through human being. Thus our speaking of who he is can proceed along the lines of a nature we can and do know, in which case language apprehends ‘person’ in a way it cannot apprehend ‘essence’.


  3. I wonder how much of this is more a discussion and definition of metaphysics (as a whole, and of a certain kind)?

    And if so, the limitations of metaphysics make it a game of definitions that’s impossible to ever arrive at a conclusion.

    I’d use completely different categories, probably not even metaphysics, to describe God.


    • Tom says:

      Hi Johan. A lot of it does come down to terms and definitions. I think because I want to unpack things for today in terms of Nicaea and Chalcedon, it’s hard to do so while ignoring the terms of the debates surrounding those statements.

      I’d be open to rephrasing Chalcedon in modern terms of categories. I don’t know that I’d want to sideline Chalcedon and just start defining the faith all over again from the start. But we have to modernize the terms.

      I’d love to hear a brief description of how you’d rephrase things.


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