Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth on Divine Simplicity and Analogy [of Being] in Comparison

The following is the combination of two posts I wrote about a year ago, I was broaching the issue of analogy in regard to how human beings attempt to speak and know God. What I sketched was the disparity that inheres between Thomas Aquinas’s and Karl Barth’s respective deployments of analogy, and how it works or doesn’t within each approach. I thought it might be helpful to combine these two posts into one, and re-present it in that form. As you will see I am appealing to George Hunsinger’s work throughout; I think his perspective is helpful in not only describing the aquinas2dilemma that is inherent to using analogy as a theological tool, but how that “tool” gets even more so exacerbated given the reality of God’s Simplicity and non-composite nature. In order to combine these two posts I had to modify some of the language a bit. If you want to read the original postings you can read those here and here.

Once, I tried to compare and contrast Thomas F. Torrance’s and Thomas Aquinas’ respective and disparate views on the usage of ‘analogy’ in theological engagement. I did this in our (Myk Habets’ and my) edited book Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church; my personal chapter in that book is titled: Analogia Fidei or Analogia Entis: Either Through Christ or Through Nature. I wasn’t altogether pleased with how that chapter came out, but it is what it is (it wasn’t bad; it just was where I was at when I wrote it).

George Hunsinger in his new book Evangelical, Catholic, and Reformed: Essays on Barth and Other Themes engages with the same issue I attempted to, but his comparison and contrast is between Karl Barth and Thomas Aquinas; a similar endeavor to mine (I mean in regard to the traditions on analogy being compared). Throughout the rest of this post (which will probably run long) I am going to engage with Hunsinger’s comparative and constructive work here, which will involve engaging with the ostensible problem of Divine Simplicity and analogy respectively.

The Fourth Lateran Council serves as a jumping off point for Hunsinger in setting up this (his) discussion. We will enter into this with him at length (in other words I am going to be doing some extensive quotation work), and then we will follow it up with my own reflections in response to Hunsinger’s salient points on Barth and Aquinas in discussion. So Hunsinger:

A famous formula from the Fourth Lateran Council ran as follows:

For between Creator and creature there can be noted no similarity so great that a greater dissimilarity cannot be seen between them. (Constitutions, ii)

Whatever this formula might mean, it is not necessarily in agreement with the view taken by Irenaeus. Although both would posit an analogy between the Creator and the creature, the Lateran formula, if taken strictly, seemed to construe their metaphysical difference as a matter of degree (“greater dissimilarity”), whereas Irenaeus, if taken strictly, appeared to adopt a more radical view. For him their difference would seem to be absolute, as set forth through a pattern of negation and eminence, not just a matter of degree. Uncreated light, being wholly other than created light, was placed in a class by itself: God was “unlike any light that we know.”

The idea of divine simplicity seemed to generate a quandary. Defining God as wholly other than any creatures seemed to rule out the possibility of analogical discourse in theology. The idea of analogy, even as construed by the Fourth Lateran Council, seemed to posit that God and the creature were somehow metaphysically comparable. The dissimilarity between them, no matter how great, was finally a matter of degree. Divine simplicity, on the other hand, seemed to require a difference that was not merely relative but absolute. If so, it seemed to rule out the possibility of analogical discourse about God. Language about God, on these terms, could only be equivocal and apophatic. Analogical views of theological language that affirm divine simplicity, or God’s radical difference from the world, need to deal with this dilemma.[1]

To sharpen this dilemma Hunsinger appeals to Denys Turner and Patristic Hippolytus; first to Turner:

There can be no good sense … in any … calculation of the greater and lesser degrees of “distance” which lie between Creator and creatures as contrasted with that between one creature and another; for it is not on some common scale of difference that these differences differ … as if to say: it is this kind or that, only infinitely so…. A term of comparison … presupposes a common scale…. For if God is not any kind of being, then his difference from creatures is not a difference of any kind, hence is not a difference of any size, hence is not incomparably greater, but, on the contrary, is, simply, incommensurable. “Greater” and “lesser” cannot come into it, logically speaking.[2]

Hunsinger then cites Hippolytus:

For comparisons can be instituted only between objects of like nature, and not between objects of unlike nature. But between God the Maker of all things and that which is made, between the infinite and the finite, between infinitude and finitude, there can be no kind of comparison, since these differ from each other not in mere comparison (or relatively), but absolutely in essence. And yet at the same time there has been effected a certain inexpressible and irrefragable union of the two into one substance [upostasin] which entirely passes the understanding of anything that is made. For the divine is just the same after the incarnation that it was before the incarnation; in its essence infinite, illimitable, impassible, incomparable, unchangeable, inconvertible, self-potent [autosXenes], and, in short, subsisting in essence alone the infinitely worthy good.[3]

If God is ‘simple’ and non-composite, if He just is and His predicates are just who He is fully and wholly in all that those are realized in Himself; if God is so unique and other in this regard, such that He is not open to creaturely comparison, then how can we ever speak of God in anything but equivocal ways? This is the dilemma that Hunsinger has introduced us to, and the dilemma that Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth understand and work through in their respective ways.

As we have been describing there is a dilemma of sorts, a dilemma that has arisen because of an affirmation of so called Divine Simplicity (the idea that God in His inner being is non-composite andsui generis, unlike anything creaturely conceivable), and our ability to speak about this ‘other’ God in meaningful and full ways. The dilemma arises because if God genuinely is apophatically distant from us we have no recourse from within our own human conniving to even speak of God, but only maybe in equivocal ways. But as we saw, further, in the last post the Fourth Lateran Council posited the possibility for there to be a degree of similarity of kind between the Creator and the creature such that it could be potentially possible for human beings to speak of God analogically as humans find a point of contact in their own beings vis-à-vis God.

This is the context within which Thomas Aquinas operated, from within the context that the Fourth Lateran Council provided; for a degree of likeness between God and humanity. As such Thomas barthiconfamously developed his analogia entis (analogy of being) wherein he worked his way from nature back to nature’s cause in God; as a result His conception of God took a bottom-up approach as he worked through what he thought of as an interconnected chain of being between God and humanity.

George Hunsinger, with the help of Rocca, describes what this really looks like within the theology of Thomas Aquinas:

Rocca advances three points of particular interest. First, for Aquinas analogy was “more a matter of judgment than of concept in the traditional sense”…. In other words, analogy was more about modes of reflection (meaning) than about modes of being (truth), though of course the two cannot be separated. Second, analogical discourse in theology presupposed truths about God to which Aquinas had already assented on the basis of faith, and those truths took primacy over truths of reason…. Finally, an important condition for the possibility of analogical discourse was “the creatures ontological imitation of the divine nature and properties”….

Despite the creature’s radical unlikeness to God, the creature nevertheless corresponded to God by nature so as to make analogical discourse possible. A real metaphysical similarity was in force between the human creature and God…. The statement from the Fourth Lateran Council regarding creaturely likeness in the midst of greater unlikeness, to which Aquinas subscribed, meant that “a real though deficient likeness to God” was inherent in the creature by God’s design…. An inherent likeness in the midst of unlikeness helped make analogical discourse possible.[4]

Contrariwise, Karl Barth, while using analogy in order to talk Christianly about God, worked from what can be construed as a top-down approach wherein there was a radical and qualitative difference between God and humanity. Such a difference in fact that lest God reach down to us in gracious accommodation our ability to know this ‘simple’ God would be impossible (so Barth has a thickapophatism underlying his theology). But this seems strange, doesn’t it? If Barth worked from a top-down approach, if he had a heavy apophatism underwriting his theology, if he saw a qualitative difference (contrary to the Fourth Lateran Council) between God and humanity then in what way could Barth have analogy operating in his theology; how could he avoid speaking equivocally about God out of his own machinations? Hunsinger answers those questions, and more, this way:

… Barth solved the problem of analogical discourse by appealing not so much to nature as to grace. Although human language was inherently incapable of referring to God, it was nevertheless made capable of doing so. Human language, as sanctified by grace, was at once affirmed, annulled, and elevated — affirmed in its creatureliness and annulled in its incapacity, in order to be elevated beyond itself. This gracious process of affirming, nullifying, and elevating, of capacitating the incapacitated, was associated with being raised from the dead (II/1, 231). It was therefore miraculous and beyond comprehension. Barth’s controlling metaphor was not creation but resurrection.

Grace made possible, and continued to make possible, what was otherwise impossible. Analogical discourse was grounded not in some metaphysical similarity between God and the creature, but solely in the sovereign freedom of divine grace. Human language, without ceasing to be essentially inadequate, was extended to be made fully appropriate. To be made appropriate despite being inadequate meant becoming absolutely dependent on grace. It was a miraculous dependence that occurred perfectly and perpetually: not statically but dynamically, not merely once and for all, but continually again and again.

Yet in elevating human language beyond its natural capacities, God “does not perform a violent miracle” (II/1, 229). The Creator enjoys an original and proper claim on human language, even though it has no such claim on him. Neither human sin nor creaturely finitude could undo this primordial divine claim. Human language belongs to the good creation in and through which God knows himself as God. When the Lord God graciously elevates human words, concepts, and images to participate in the truth of his own self-knowledge, language is not alienated from its original purpose, “but, on the contrary, restored to it” (II/1, 229).

For Barth, because God and the creature are incommensurable, any ontological continuity between them — not only regarding predicates like goodness, reason, and wisdom, but also regarding “non-agential” predicates like being, beauty, and light — must be seen as miraculously given, again and again, from above. Ontological continuity with the reality of God does not belong to the creature qua creature. It does not belong to the creature as a given endowment or a fixed condition — not originally, and not even subsequently. The continuity does not exist except as it is continually given, and it is not given except miraculously through God’s gracious operation. As continually though miraculously given, the continuity is not merely “occasional” (a common misunderstanding of Barth). It is rather a function of the perpetual operation of God’s grace as grounded and centered in Christ from before the foundation of the world. As such the continuity is always at once real and yet also incomprehensible. Therefore the ontological difference between God and the creature is not seen as “infinitely greater” but as absolute. Any similarities between the creature and God — real though incomprehensible, incomprehensible though real — are not grounded in the creatureliness of the creature, but strictly and entirely (not just partially) in divine grace as a perpetual and miraculous operation from above.[5]

For Barth, as Hunsinger underscores well, there is nothing in creation itself, no ‘pure nature’ built into the fabric of what it means to be human wherein a point of contact can be made between the creature and the Creator (like we see in Aquinas). For Barth creation has always been ready for recreation, as such it has always been anticipating something beyond itself in order to truly have purpose and order within God’s good creation. In other words, in Barth’s theology, creation itself does not precede God’s grace, but instead is preceded by it in the election of God’s grace in Christ. As such human language as a part of God’s good creation is open and ready to be commandeered by God’s grace through which human language is given capacity to analogically speak of the God who opens language up in this way. So for Barth the analogy (of faith) happens as language is appropriated by God for us, taken from its inadequate setting, put to ‘death’ as it were, and resurrected and recreated in Christ in such a way that we are able to think and speak God from a center within Himself as he allows human language to find gracious correspondence to who He is as explained and revealed by Jesus Christ.

The important takeaway in regard to understanding what Barth is getting at is this: we are completely at God’s behest. If we are going to know and speak God it will only happen if God desires for it to happen. And God has graciously desired for that to happen, and He has limited that happening, so to speak, in and through His grace given to us and for us in His Son Jesus Christ. The consequence, contrary to the Thomist approach, is that we cannot posit a conception of God based upon a corollary of being (however dissimilar in grade that that might be) between ourselves and God from a built-into-creation point of contact. Things (in the Barthian account) are much more tenuous and vulnerable than that; within a Barth account we walk by faith, and not a faith generated from ourselves, but by the faith of Christ for us generated by His grace, His life with us. As we are related to Him by the Spirit, as He freely and willingly related to us in Incarnation (by the Spirit), it is in this gracious relation wherein who God is can be known and spoken.

I hope this has been a helpful comparison and contrast between Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth on analogy. The way I have left it makes it appear that Barth and Aquinas are worlds apart. George Hunsinger, as he continues to write, actually attempts to bring them closer together; it is an imaginative attempt that you will have to read for yourself to see what you think.


[1] George Hunsinger, Evangelical Catholic And Reformed: Doctrinal Essays on Barth and Related Themes (Grand Rapids, Michigan/Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015), 61 kindle.

[2] Denys Turner cited by George Hunsinger in Ibid., 61-2.

[3] Hippolytus cited by George Hunsinger in Ibid., 62-3.

[4] Hunsinger, Evangelical Catholic And Reformed: Doctrinal Essays on Barth and Related Themes, 70-1 kindle.

[5] Ibid.


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