As in every subject area, we use language when doing theology to define terms and give explanations. This is no inconsequential observation, for the questions of whether we can know anything about God or whether He can reveal Himself in Scripture are connected to the adequacy of human language to describe Him.
Beginning in the twentieth century, many philosophers came to emphasize that human speech is inadequate for — even incapable of — describing the Almighty. As finite creatures, they asserted, we cannot say anything that is true about God. Skepticism prevails, which has influenced many liberal theologians, leading them to accept a host of non-biblical terms in their attempts to do a work that they no longer believe is really possible. Impersonal terms rule the day — God is the “ground of all being” and not the loving Father of His people.
Of course, human language has its limits, but that does not mean our words have no meaning. The Lord is a being who communicates in words, and since we are made in His image (Gen. 1:26–27), we are like Him and can speak meaningfully about Him.
Thomas Aquinas, one of the most influential theologians in church history, identified three uses of language. We speak univocally when a word is used to describe two different things without changing its meaning. To call a dog “good” and a cat “good,” for instance, is to say they are both well-behaved. Equivocal language describes two separate things with the same word, although the word has an entirely different meaning in each case. “Bald” men are hairless, but a “bald” reading of a story aloud is a reading with no life in it. When we speak analogically, we use the same word to describe two different things, changing its meaning proportionally, not completely. “Good” children and a “good” dogs are both obedient, but not in the same way.
Our language about God is analogical. David refers to God as a “rock” in Psalm 18:2, but this does not mean volcanic processes produced Him, nor does it mean that our Creator is impersonal and unfeeling. Instead, the psalmist is confessing God’s strength and reliability; like a rock, the Almighty is firm and unshakable. Every analogy breaks down when pressed too far, but the appropriate use of analogical language gives us true knowledge about the Lord.