Martin Shields’s second point is, in my view, the most important of all. He argues that God is no Humpty Dumpty from Through the Looking Glass:
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”
(Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There, Macmillan, London, 1871, chapter 6.)
Most of us agree with Alice that large anthropomorphic eggs sitting on walls don’t get to use words with completely different meanings. Words mean what they mean. And that’s Martin Shields’s second great concern:
2. This particular theological framework [i.e. claiming God is impassible] ultimately appears to diminish the status of God’s revelation: God reveals in human language but, when referring to God, the language cannot mean what it means in all other contexts. It is no longer perspicuous in any real sense. If God is a speaking God and relates to us through language—if human language itself finds its roots in God—then this would seem to have implications for language about God in his revelation to us. Ultimately, notions of absolute impassibility call into question the effectiveness of God’s ability to communicate with us. This is particularly troubling when essentially passible language is said to have an impassible meaning!
“This is particularly troubling when essentially passible language is said to have an impassible meaning”: it’s a great point. Passible and impassible are so different from each other (can we passible creatures really even grasp what a genuinely impassible Person might be like?) that to say that the Bible’s passible language for God is actually impassible is to do a Humpty Dumpty.
I’m sensitive to the criticism, and have no desire to join Humpty Dumpty on his solipsistic wall; I doubt there’d be room for us both, he’d probably fall off, and then there’d be tears and scrambled eggs before bedtime.
However, and it is a really big ‘however’, we could take ‘passible’ and ‘impassible’ out from the sentence and replace it with almost every other attribute that distinguishes God from creation: “essentially finite language is said to have an infinite meaning”, “essentially time-bound language is said to have an eternal meaning”, “essentially material language is said to refer to someone who is pure spirit”, “essentially creaturely language is said to have a Creator meaning”. And when we do that, we begin to see that there is something wrong with that principle itself.
God is God. Human language is the product of finite, time-bound, material creatures. It is a communication and cognitive tool fitted for being part of and working within a finite, time-bound, material creation, and that, except when it speaks of God, refers to finite, time-bound, material created realities. When that same language speaks of God, then either God is a finite, time-bound, material creation or, to use the words in point 2, “when referring to God, the language cannot mean what it means in all other contexts”.
Protesting about too-clever-by-half theologizing warping the meaning of words beyond recognition may seem like it is a defence of the ‘plain sense’ of Scripture. Humpty Dumpty can’t make words mean so many different things; words mean what that say. And so a word has to mean the same thing when applied to God as when it applies to everything else, or else it is no longer perspicuous.
But I’d suggest that this concern plays neatly into the hands of one of the bigger conceptual presuppositions behind a lot of modern atheism: good old Kant. The presupposition is that human language just cannot speak about something that is not part of our space-time system, and human reason can’t reason about it either. Speech of a ‘God’ who is ‘outside’ the universe/multiverse is, strictly speaking, nonsense. The words have to mean what they mean what they mean when speaking of anything else—so they can only speak of creatures inside the framework of creation. God is either another creature, or speech about him is, quite literally, meaningless and non-rational. From here, we get Freud’s view that God is simply a projection of human qualities upwards, the idea that faith is just a leap into the unknown, and much of the rest of the unbelieving nonsense we have to put up with in the modern world. Finite, temporal, material creatures cannot talk about an infinite, eternal creator who is Spirit without breaking words in the process. Therefore, as Pope advised, “Know then thyself, presume not God to scan; / The proper study of mankind is man.” (‘An essay on man: Epistle II’, London, 1733-34.) Just give up on God-talk altogether as a chimera.
I would say that precisely because human language is grounded in God in some fashion, it can do what the concern denies: our words can mean something different when speaking of someone who is not a creature, and yet still communicate some kind of profound positive content when speaking that way. A word does not have mean the same thing when applied to God or else it means nothing. Creaturely language can genuinely mediate knowledge of divine reality.
Let me offer a couple of illustrations. When I say God ‘creates’, ‘knows’ and ‘exists’, these terms all mean something radically different than when they are used in any other context.
God creates simply by speaking things into existence. That is nothing like how any creature creates; we actualize possibilities using pre-existing materials (both physical and cognitive) that God called into existence by speaking. Those are radically different realities, being named by the same word with at least as big a difference as speaking of passible ‘anger’, ‘grief’ and ‘joy’, and impassible ‘anger’, ‘grief’ and ‘joy’. Do we really want to run this principle against ‘create’ and say the language has to mean the same for God as it does for us or else it isn’t perspicuous?
When I say God knows something, he never learns it. It is not that God didn’t know it and now does. Furthermore, our knowledge of things is highly limited and provisional: we grasp aspects of things, but get that much of things remain hidden. We never know the essence of anything. God’s knowledge is nothing like that. He knows it as a whole—from every angle—in its essence, and always has. So does the word mean the same thing when used of God and used of us? Just how small do we have to shrink God to fit him neatly into the rule that the words mean the same thing when used of him as they do in every other context?
When I say things exist, I speak of contingent realities. That is, I speak of things that do not have life in themselves; nothing in creation had to exist, and it does not exist eternally nor does it exist necessarily. As a Christian, I believe that everything that ‘is’ was created—brought into existence by an act of God. Nothing continues to exist under its own power either; everything continues to exist by the goodwill of God. So whenever I speak of ‘existing’, in every context I speak of this reality—of a derived, created, contingent existence. But when I speak of God’s existence, I speak of something very different; I speak of someone who has life in himself—who just is. Does the word really mean the same thing when it refers to God as when it is used in all other contexts?
When speaking of God, I’d suggest that language gives us more options than those offered by little girls and large talking eggs. We don’t have to choose between either words mean exactly the same thing when they are used of God as when they refer to everything else, or else they are not perspicuous. Those two choices lead to a practical atheism even though they get to look at different scenery en route. Because language is grounded in God, God can use it to speak about himself. And we are able to just ‘get’ that the words mean something different, even as we also ‘get’ that they mean something the same at the same time.
That ‘third way’ is the way of revelation.