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Searchlights on Contemporary Theology by Nels F. S. Ferré

Dr. Ferré was for many years Abbot Professor of Christian Theology at Andover Newton Theological School. Copyright 1961 by Nels F.S. Ferré. Published by Harper & Brothers, New York. All rights reserved by Harper & Brothers. This material has been prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.

Chapter 2: Paradox and Analogy in Theological Language

Paradox starts with the assumption of the difference between God and man; analogy, with the likeness. Paradox stresses basic discontinuity; analogy, continuity. Paradox is rooted in the problem of not knowing; analogy is grounded in the fact of knowledge. Epistemology also has generally these basic divisions. Epistemological dualism wrestles basically with the problem of error; monism, with the strange fact that we do know. One side is focused on mystery; the other, on meaning. The task of this investigation or analysis is to learn whether we should take one road or the other, or whether, forsooth, we can travel in opposite directions, par impossible, and reach the same goal. After all, perhaps truth, like the earth, is not a flat surface but a globe! It could be that what seems flatly contradictory may be the opposite direction of the same circumstance. If there be unity of discourse, may not truth be circular, always leading back to itself? If so, the vital question is the nature and the size of the true circle of truth, and how to find it!


Paradoxical language in theology results from the conviction that God is qualitatively distinct from man. He is "wholly other." Sf ren Kierkegaard spoke of the infinite, qualitative distinction between God and man; Karl Barth, of the complete chasm between eternity and time. Both have introduced, at least in much of their writings and in some stage of their thinking, the contention that the finite is never capable of the infinite. Perhaps Immanuel Kant’s Copernican revolution in philosophy, which exchanged the transcendent for the transcendental, or the realm of ultimate reality for principles of validity for experience, underlies the Kierkegaardian-Barthian claim to the unreachable nature for finite experience of das Unbedingte (the unconditional) and das Ding an sich (the thing itself). Barth, at least, came to see his contention in this light. Kierkegaard and Barth, on one side, have with a vengeance injected this note into modern theology. But it has come with equal vigor from the other side, from Bultmann and Tillich, who are impressed by the claim that the unconditional or the infinite cannot, as such, dwell in human experience or be subject to the human mind.

Within the contention that the finite is not capable of the infinite there are three basic kinds of discontinuities, and three framings of the theological answer to the problem of knowing God within the presuppositions of paradox. The three kinds of barriers between God and man are found in finitude itself, in the dialectical nature of historic thinking, and in original sin.

The claim based on man’s finitude, that the finite is not capable of the infinite, is obvious. We can know essentially, the claim runs, only what is on our own level. A grasshopper no doubt can know man as an object in his way or as a roving threat, but it does not know man essentially. Far less can finite man know God essentially. Even to make the claim is to be guilty of unpardonable hubris or presumptuous pride. Such assertions are in the nature of the frog who tried to blow himself up to the size of an elephant. No amount of man’s puffing of his own nature or of his own knowing can reach the knowledge of God. Such an attempt, this position holds, ends in man’s making an idol of God. He makes God a magnified man, the projection of his own dread or striving. He makes God in man’s own image. This position stresses that all picturing of God without paradox amounts to nothing other than spinning theories about God out of man’s own inner self and trying to catch God in a web of man’s own manufacture. Nor can man climb up on the web, for across the gulf separating the infinite God from finite man no one can ever pass to anchor the thread, and no human being is strong enough or can live long enough to travel that infinite distance.

Another version of this objection to nonparadoxical language from the standpoint of finitude as such is to the effect that, whatever truth of God or of God’s purpose man may see, God alone can see the reality or purpose as a whole. Man, at best, can see only broken bits of final truth. Jaspers uses the illustration of man being caught in an eddy in a great river of life, and mistaking the eddy for the river. Kierkegaard teases the theologian mercilessly as being nothing so much as comic when he tries to think as God thinks, or to see as God sees. He compares revelation to a prince who tragically and hopelessly loves the peasant maid: reason. For the prince to reveal himself to the maid would be the end of an impossible courtship and the death of the beloved, but for him not to reveal himself is to sin against the very nature of love, and involves the death of love. No wonder, then, that Paul exclaimed that the wisdom of man does not attain even to the foolishness of God, or that Tertullian declared that Jerusalem can learn nothing from Athens.

Paradox, moreover, may be thought of from the point of view of a historic dialectic. All truths in history are in time and develop piecemeal in time; God is in eternity and sees all things at once; he sees totum simul or as Martin Luther had it, Alles auf einmal. He sees the total puzzle of existence as a finished picture. Man sees only the separate parts and most minor segments. In Berkeley Square, man sees only to the next bend in the river of existence, while God from the perfect perspective of heaven sees the whole river of human existence, including all generations from the source of the river to the ocean of eternity. In Hegel’s terms, man knows in terms of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, whereas even the fullest synthesis is only the thesis of another wave of understanding.

Paul Tillich teaches that when the fullness of time, the unique, nonrecurring kairos, Jesus as the Christ, came into history, he was so qualitatively different from the kairic movement of any age that not reason but only daring faith beyond reason can know him. Barth, especially during his Kierkegaardian period, maintained that history is never a predicate of revelation; and Kierkegaard himself understood that the absolute cannot be received by, contained within, or understood by, history. Man is caught not only in finitude as such but within an impenetrable curtain of finite developments that shut out infinite being. Only paradoxical language, thoughts and terms beyond reason and even contrary to man’s ordinary thinking, can begin to convey the majestic otherness and fullness of God’s reality and purpose. Thus, revelation is paradoxical because of man’s dialectical situation in history.

Another reason requiring a paradox for the communication of revelation is the fact that God alone sights along the direction of continuity. The meaning of historic unfolding as well as of creation can be understood only in the light of the end of the process. The meaning of our history, therefore, is antisequential. For the thinker within history, the meaning of history must be essentially paradoxical. Man understands history in line with historic development; God, against it. Man moves forward in his thinking; God, so to speak, backward. Or, to put the same fact in terms of Karl Heim’s discussion of paradox in God Transcendent: From a one dimensional perspective, a two-dimensional vision is impossible. In a two-dimensional perspective there is no place for a third. Only the presence of the new reality reveals it. Knowledge is thus grounded not in reason’s expectation but in the act of revelation.

Or we can state the same fact in terms of evolution: From the ingredients of any stage of development no new level can be predicted. Genuine novelty cannot be reduced to what existed before its appearance, even by a reasoned investigation after it has come. Thus, its entrance into creation is again literally paradoxical as long as man sights along with history, whereas God from the end of creation sees all things in their organic togetherness and fulfilling relationship. For this reason, evolution cannot be a theory of reality, only of appearance. It is description, not explanation, of development. Evolution is reason’s description of the unfolding of what is more than nature and history in, to, and through nature and history. Or, to put the whole matter succinctly, the history of creation is the history of revelation. But such a claim can be made only in line with revelation, and never on the ground of what man actually finds in nature and history as a basis of prediction of where both are going. Thus again, if we listen to this argument, we return to the position that revelation is paradoxical to reason. Continuity is from God down, never from man up, and only God knows and can make known the truth of revelation.

The third reason for paradox in theological language is original sin. Man is by nature sinful and fears God. Therefore, he does not want to see the truth, but to hide from it. Natural man, who was created to behold clearly the eternal power and deity, according to Paul in the Letter to the Romans, has preferred instead to see a lie. Man’s reason in religious matters is subject to the total self. The thinking of man is subject to the spirit of man. Man, driven by original sin, does not reason, even if and when he could, but rather he rationalizes. He uses his reason mainly to justify himself. Instead of letting himself be naked before the truth of God he wraps himself in the fig leaves of lies.

Therefore, since theology deals with ultimate truth, it cannot appeal to the wisdom of the natural man. Whatever pleases man naturally, apart from repentance and newness of life, is a theological lie. Theological truth must ever be paradoxical to sinful man. However much man has the capacity to see facts as they are and to see objectively partial truths that do not affect man’s relation to God, man always distorts the truth to protect his guilty self and society when these facts of partial truths are interpreted with respect to his standing before God, or in their ultimate meaning and significance. Science, philosophy, and theology are all affected by this fact. Human wisdom is consistency with man the sinner; God’s wisdom is consistency with God the judge and savior of sinners, and is therefore contrary to man’s wisdom. Thus, the foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of man; theological language must be paradoxical in nature.

These are the main arguments for paradox in theological language; they must be taken with full seriousness; how and in what sense God can be known at all will be discussed in our conclusion after we have considered the opposite point of view, the way of analogy.


While paradox stresses the difference between God and man, analogy emphasizes the likeness. One glories in mystery; the other, in meaning. The main strength of the doctrine of analogy is obviously the fact that unless there is likeness of some kind, we cannot know God or even discuss him. We cannot talk about something completely unknown, whatever it be. (This is the reason that I cannot accept Carl Michalson’s discussion of analogy in The Hinge of History [Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1959], where he uses it to stress the difference between God and man. Nor can I at this point put the emphasis on Thomas Aquinas’ use of the analogy of attribution.) And yet, God to be God most certainly cannot be the same as we are. Therefore, at best some likeness rather than sameness seems to be the only answer. Even Barth, who in his earlier years dismissed analogy of being as the discovery of the Devil, has shown his understanding of the knowledge situation by his weighty discussion of the subject with the Roman Catholic scholar, Erich Przywara.

There are many uses of analogy. For our purposes we shall consider three: the analogy of mind, the analogy of being, and the analogy of Christ. The first kind of analogy is that of mind. Such analogy need not necessarily be based on idealism. Ever since Empedocles, the idealist case has been basically simple: Like can know only like. If mind can know anything beyond itself, what is known must, therefore, in some fashion, be in the nature of mind. The case for idealism was not developed by Empedocles. Anaxagoras, however, began to draw the fuller implications, and in Berkeley the position reached its logical limit. In modern times Borden Parker Bowne, in Metaphysics, and Brand Blanshard, in The Nature of Thought, are among those who have given this viewpoint a strong, critical reworking. If idealism is accepted in principle, all that needs to be said is that God is known as the infinite mind, but that we can know him as mind only by analogy to our finite minds. Man’s mind is to finite being what God’s mind is to infinite being. Who can frame such a proportion?( It may help to put the proportion: Man’s mind: man:: God’s mind: God, instead of man’s mind/man=God’s mind/God. But, again, who can finally frame the relationship?) Knowledge, as Thomas Aquinas knew, is according to the mode of the knower. Only because of likeness in the nature of God and man, however, can we know God at all. We know only because of the likeness of the nature of reality represented by mind.

To return to the illustration of the frog: for the frog to try to think as man is a ridiculous situation. Yet, if the frog can know man at all it is only because it has a brain. Even so, a man can know God only because he has a mind. But the analogy of mind does not have to endorse idealism. All it needs to claim is that in order for there to be any knowledge and communication of divine things the mind must be sufficiently akin to such realities as to perceive and interpret them, however different in themselves they may be in kind or in quality. The question then arises whether such knowledge and communication is veridical and significant. Perhaps it is not entirely foolish for us to wonder to what extent a frog or any animal can significantly know and share knowledge concerning man. Do not animal mothers teach caution of hunters? Can man know God better, comparatively?

But analogy of mind as a general philosophic doctrine when applied to the analysis of theological language cheats adequate theological content. The theological claim accepts the analogy of being which is based on man’s similarity to God by the very act of creation. God made man uniquely related to himself. He created man at man’s center in his own image. Thus the analogy of being, as Przywara rightly contends in his Polarity, is not so much a way from man to God as it is the understanding of creation in the light of God. By revelation, we see creation in general as God’s act. Man, however, we see as a special creation endowed by God’s grace with the capacity to know his maker. Thus the point is not whether, unaided, man can know God independently because of some general likeness, but rather, whether man cannot know God precisely because God has made him to know his creator. But what if we refuse to accept such a revelation? Then we are no longer in the realm of theological language.

Others, however, accept the revelation, contending all the while that man’s ability to know God was forfeited by the Fall. Therefore, they deny all legitimate recourse to analogy and choose paradox instead. The reply to such a charge, however, is that either paradox is a way of knowing or it is not. If it is not, we have no knowledge at all to describe and discuss; hence we have no theological language. On the other hand, if it is a way of knowing, then enough likeness is left in man to make communication a worthwhile enterprise.

Suppose, however, that neither the general, philosophic appeal to likeness of nature as the ground of knowledge nor the appeal to general human nature as created in the image of God and therefore as reflecting peculiarly the reality of God, is accepted; what then? There is left the most special case of analogy, namely the analogy from man to God through Christ as the Godman. He is then claimed to be man, but not man in general because he was not oppressed by original sin. He is himself in the biblical phrase "the express image of the invisible God." In this way, man does not know God through reason in general or through human nature in general, but only through human reason and nature re-created in Christ. Thus, man can speak about God as well as know God only through God’s fulfilling revelation in Christ. Analogia mentis and analogia entis have given way to analogia Christi.

Let us look more closely at this argument. A rock, a frog, and a man have energy in common. A chemist might say that from the point of view of chemistry there is no essential difference between them. But from the point of view of a loving wife it matters utterly that there is an essential difference between the rock, on the one hand, and the frog and the man, on the other. Both the frog and the man are alive!

To go further, if there is need to carry out an intellectual undertaking requiring human capacity and training, the difference between the rock and the frog, on the one hand, and man on the other, is essential. Mere life is not enough of a difference to matter essentially. Similarly, life is not sufficiently different from creation as a whole to characterize the God we worship. For God to be less than alive is obviously entirely insufficient. We worship the living God. What counts essentially in indicating the nature of God is the kind of life by which we know him. Is not this kind of life the universal love which Jesus lived and taught, for which he died, and by which he was raised to life again? Is not life, raised to its highest capacity in concern and faithfulness, the content that can most adequately indicate the nature of God?

Either this universal love in Christ is open to our nature and knowledge or it is not. If it is, are we not back at least potentially to some such ground for comparison in human experience as such? Without this ground on which to build our knowledge of God, we certainly cannot know him at all. But if God is thus known, does such knowledge give us veridical and significant knowledge of God in all his fullness, or is he now known, after all, in the measure in which he reveals himself to man and according to the nature of the knower? If we overstress meaning we lose the needful place for mystery in our knowledge of God, but if we overemphasize mystery, we lose the reliability of meaning, without which there is no knowledge.


It seems, then, that paradox and analogy belong together in some tension necessary for human knowledge and communication. Without the use of analogy, paradox inclines overwhelmingly to our not knowing. Faith’s "in spite of" becomes a walking in the dark. God’s revelation of himself is kept from becoming knowledge, and the Spirit’s witness becomes a substitute for reason’s seeing. God appears then only as the dark angel, not as light. Mystery needs to be counterbalanced by meaning, otherwise Christianity becomes a mystery religion instead of a religion of revelation. But if, on the other hand, we let go of paradox, meaning slips easily away from mystery. We slip into flat, earth-bound surface thinking, man-centered and frail. The mysterion of the faith disappears. The dimension of the eternal is lost. Revelation becomes equated, however gradually and subtly, with man’s reason; and God is brought low within the reach of man. When mystery fades, the life of faith sickens and man becomes wearied with hopelessness.

For both knowledge and communication, therefore, we need the language of paradox and the language of analogy. Such an affirmation springs, we have already seen, not only from the nature of the knowledge of God but also from the nature of the man who is finite, lives within the waves of history, and is blinded by original sin. The answers to the arguments for analogy, given by those who believe in paradox, are: (1) that even though finite man cannot know God, God can make himself known to man through faith’s paradoxical thinking; (2) that even though the waves of historic antitheses blind man to eternal truth, Christ, the eternal Lord of history and meaning for history, has himself come to us, albeit by means of God’s incognito; (3) that even though sinful man cannot dare or bear God’s truth he can be forgiven, and as a new creature, or as a spiritual man, can see within God’s grace the revelation as truth, which to the natural man is foolishness or offensive. Therefore, paradox is itself a way of knowing, with no need of analogy.

The fuller answer, based on our analysis, seems to be that man the finite and the sinful needs to live within a dialectic of paradox and analogy. Paradox comes first because of the incomparable priority of God’s being and initiative of communication; but analogy maintains the secondary stubborn reality of God’s bridging the difference between the uncreate and creation by the very act of creation. For truth to be real and moving, man needs to live in the drama of this dialectic. Only a dynamic synthesis can achieve a dramatic situation for the creative background of theological communication.

Theological language is also up against a problem that can best be discussed after our analysis of paradox and analogy. This problem goes as follows: What right do we have to affirm any transcendent reality? The claim is made that either we use our words referring to the transcendent realm univocally, that is, in their ordinary sense, or else we use them equivocally, in some different sense, but in either case the words carry no linguistic freight save their this-worldly content; for if the words are used univocally, nothing but this world is indicated, but if the words are used equivocally, all that is added is a dimension of mystery. At best, all we have done is either to refer a reality in this world to another, duplicating "essences" needlessly while Occam’s razor is still fatally sharp, or we have purported to indicate a different reality "beyond’’ this world, while giving no content to that other world. All that is not known in terms of the words we use is their sign of nescience or of our ignorance. The aspect of mystery indicated by words used equivocally gives no meaning. The way of ignorance may be the way of affirmation, but it affirms nothing. It leads to no new understanding. Therefore, the argument runs, theological language in the sense of classical Christianity with its faith in a God who created the world and in all that is entailed in the doctrines of providence, incarnation, and resurrection, finds no linguistic justification. Either we speak univocally and are stuck with this world of history and experience or we speak equivocally and talk sheer mystery without meaning.

Nor is there any escape from this dilemma in either paradox or analogy. Both paradox and analogy depend linguistically upon words from human history, and all such words designate only their sign content and their symbolic content from our world of ordinary experience. Thus we have no words, it is claimed, that can legitimately be extended by symbols beyond this world. To say that the flag stands for the country is meaningful because in ordinary usage we know what the country is. To say that Santa Claus stands for the secular side of Christmas also accords with ordinary and meaningful use of language. To speak of God at all, however, we must find content for the concept within our experience. We must use such terms as "living" and "personal," or "father," "guide," and "judge." When we do, we immediately find ourselves confronted with the linguistic dilemma of the univocal or with the equivocal use of terms.

This problem of the question of the meaningfulness of any transcendent realm is the subject for our next chapter. It is, I believe, the most critical issue for modern theology. Unless this attack be honestly joined and fairly overcome, we have no earned right to theological language. Even though religion is too widespread and immemorial, yes, too indigenous to the very life of man, for theological language not to be used, nevertheless its critical use must be bought with labor and competence in the market of truth. Up to this point, the conclusion we have reached is that somehow paradox and analogy as the two roads to truth within the circle of reality are both necessary if human beings are to know and to communicate effectively the full Gospel of mystery and meaning. Is there, however, a fuller synthesis beyond these two approaches where we can know as we are known? Can we find an overarching faith for our times, the cry of a thousand trained lips?

Tillich has struggled with this problem throughout his life. For many years, he called all theological language, in its description of God, symbolic, except "Being itself." For him, God was, symbolically, personal, living, and love, but literally, God was only Being itself. Now, in the second volume of Systematic Theology, Tillich writes that all theological terms are symbolic except the statement that they are symbolic. The symbols referring to God even have to be "broken," i.e., they must indicate that the finite is trying to communicate beyond speech concerning the infinite. W. M. Urban of Yale University finally convinced Tillich that to call all theological language symbolic is to land in Ernst Cassirer’s pansymbolism where, if all language is symbolic, symbol itself loses its significance. Consequently, Tillich now says that at one point theological language must be both symbolic and nonsymbolic, and that point is, again, Being itself.

Such an interpretation of theological language, however, fails to differentiate it from language in general. All theological language can be symbolic without landing us in a pansymbolism of language as a whole, since all language need not operate on the logic of theological expression. Is it meaningful language, however, to speak of the synthesis of paradox and analogy? Or must all language of the finite world with reference to God remain a continuing dialectic of paradox and analogy? May there not be some reality underlying the use of theological language that will reach more firmly into a theological usage where paradox and analogy are not central channels but flow out from the main stream? (For my main theological method see Chapter 12.)

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