A2 Religious Language – part one

Topics comprise

Language games
Myth and symbol
Verification and falsification



Religious language has some substantial problems regarding its use and comprehension:

  • Difficulties of extending language from one context to an entirely different use
  • Some people claim it is meaningless
  • The difficulty of objectivity


The language of proof and evidence tends not to be much use when talking about God.

Poetry or myth or symbol might be better.

“The only thing we can understand about God is that he can’t be understood. If you can grasp it, it is not God.” ST John of Damascus

He is always totally beyond what we can knowSt Gregory of Nyssa

God does not name himself when asked by Moses – he replies, “I am who I am” i.e. I’m not telling, I can’t be named.

Thomas Aquinas 1225-1274

Maintained that it is possible to speak about God in a meaningful way by analogy.

He understood language as having 3 different uses:

  • Univocal – where a word has only one meaning e.g. zinc, nutmeg
  • Equivoval – where a word has more than one meaning e.g. set, table, well…
  • Analogical – here e.g. approximations about God, like but not the same: Judge, shepherd, light of the world.


Ian Ramsey 1915-1972

Suggests that we use many models about God and each is modified by a qualifier:

God is not just a judge he is the supreme judge; the true vine; the good shepherd; the wise ruler….

Hence he is like but not!

We speak about God not because we know anything about him but because the alternative is to say nothing.St Augustine

Some groups have taken this to its logical conclusion and worship God in silence: e.g. some monastic orders and the Quakers.

A Zen story tells how a teacher specified two things for the search for God:

  • To realise that all efforts to find God are useless
  • To act as if you didn’t know that!


Apophatic Theology

Suggests that God is not any of the things he is called therefore even traditional theology tends to negative descriptions:

In visible

in comprehensible

in expressible

Im mutable

im mortal


In effable

in finite



This is known as the Via Negativa.


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