The Use of Language in God-Talk


When engaged in theological and apologetic discussions on the web and elsewhere about God, I've found it useful to know how we use words and language in both our own usage as well as in the language of those people I've listened to. To help others, I've put together the following cheat-sheet:



When discussing God we may talk about God in three different senses:

1) Univocal sense—simply describing God in human terms or applying human characteristics to God (this reduces down to idolatry).
2) Equivocal sense—saying God is "good" and that people are "good" without recognizing that the word "good" is used in a different sense (this reduces talk about God down to agnosticism).
3) Analogical sense—in a sense that recognizes language to describe God in a way that is somewhat similar yet somewhat different.

Functions of language:

1) Reportive—true or false information.
2) Non-Reportive—to create and effect.
a) Expressive—expressing feelings.
b) Directive—a command.
c) Performative—language that performs or accomplishes something.
d) Ceremonial—language that is social (ex. "How are you?").

We must note between illocutionary and the perlocutionary force of an utterance.

Kinds of definitions:

1) Stipulative Definition—the creation of a new term for a particular purpose.
2) Lexical Definition—standard definition as used by a community.
3) Precising Definition—attempts to reduce ambiguity by using a word in its normative sense.
4) Theoretical Definition—a proposal of a theory or definition.
5) Persuasive Definition—a definition offered to influence attitudes.

Two Ways of Defining Words:

1) Denotative or referential/extensional definitions—based upon the recognition that general terms or class terms are applicable to more than one object.

2) Connotative or intentional definitions—attempts to get at the sense of a term.
a) Synonyms—same meaning.
b) Operational—how things work.
c) Genus and species—by class.

Language or God-talk must distinguish between archtypal and ectypal knowledge:

The distinction refers to knowledge according to God's own self-understanding conversely to knowledge of God that accommodates our finite understanding.

1) Archtypal—language to describe knowledge of God's own self-understanding.
2) Ectypal—language to describe knowledge of God according to finite understanding.

In this sense ectypal knowledge is objective and real but understood according to the nature of the being apprehending it.


Eric Landstrom

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