Doing Theology through Analogy

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R Scott Clark has a great discussion in his Recovering the Reformed Confession. He begins chapter four by explaining that Christian theology has a way of viewing reality that makes an important distinction between Creator and creature. This view of reality is commonly called analogical. Human, worldly, earthly existence is an analogy of God’s true essence or existence. Put another way, man is created in God’s image and likeness, but not in his essence. The world images and represents God, and we know him only through those images by way of analogy, not in his bare essence. Theology is then properly analogue speech.

Clark explains:

[There are a] number of biblical passages which indicate a conceptual framework in which God and human beings are regarded as analogues. This analogical conception is basic to Genesis 1:26, in which Adam is said to have been made in the “image” and “likeness.” In verse 27 the same language is repeated, but set in terms of Adam’s relations to another, a female person. As a created representation of God, as an image/likeness bearer, Adam was nothing, if not an analogue to God.

Recovering the Reformed Confession: Our Theology, Piety, and Practice (Kindle Locations 2020-2023)

Adam is called an image of God. He is a representation of him. He does not share in his essence. Rather, Adam is an “icon” of God’s true essence. What this means is that Adam represented and related to God by way of analogy.

Clark goes on to argue that this is how all of reality is: it is a representation of God’s true essence. He cites the fact that the temple built under Moses’ leadership was a “copy” of the heavenly temple. What this indicates of course, is that there is a heavenly temple after which the earthly temple is built. Israel only had a copy, not the real deal. And, they worshipped and relate to God by way of the copy, not the reality (that is not to say that their worship wasn’t real, but only to say that they really worshipped God in the temple-copy, not the reality). Clark also cites Hebrews which calls the temple and priesthood under the old covenant a “type and shadow” of the true and heavenly priest and temple, Christ.

The point of all of that is to say that we relate to God by way of analogy, of representations and copies that image him but do not show him in his essence.

Now, why does God relate to us this way? Clark explains that God does it this way beacuse “the ‘finite is not capable of the infinite’ (finitum non capax infiniti)”. The infinite cannot be perceived by the finite. For this reason, God’s true essence is hidden to us. It is unknown. But because God actually wants to relate to us, he “condescends” to us through images and representations, much like a father relates to his child. As Calvin famously says, God “speaks baby talk” or “babbles” to us so that we can relate to him.

Now what this means is that whenever we talk about God, we can only talk about him as he has revealed himself to us: through images, analogies, copies. We cannot know God in his essence; we must speak about God by way of analogy. And because we can only speak of God through analogy, as Clark explains, “there is a certain degree of falsehood in human speech about God” (Kindle Locations 2155-2156).

Clark calls this “degree of falsehood” the “as it were principle”. He explains:

We see [the as it were principle] at work in Heidelberg Catechism Q. 27. In answer to the question, “What do you understand by the providence of God?” we confess, “The almighty and everywhere present power of God, whereby, as it were, by his hand he still upholds heaven and earth.” We do not believe or confess that God, considered apart from the incarnation, can be said to have a literal hand. We recognize this as a metaphorical way of speaking about God’s providential work in the world. Yet we also recognize that, because of our finitude, in order to say something true about God we must use divinely authorized analogies to say something that entails a certain degree of falseness. (Kindle Locations 2156-2162).

Properly, it is false that God has physical hands which he uses to hold up the universe. But the point is that this is analogue speech about God. We know that God sustains the universe. How he does it, and what powers he works, we simply don’t and can’t know. We only know by way of analogy. We know God “as it were”. Which is to say that we know God by comparing, imaging, representing, etc. We cannot know him in his essence; but in his grace he stoops down in images and copies to make himself known to us!

 

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Eschatology as the Church Suffering with Christ

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Hans Urs von Balthasar has an interesting aside in his Theo-Drama IV: The Action, in which he suggests that eschatology and history, rather than centering around an “apocalypse-focused” theology (i.e. dispensational / rapture theology), should be centered, even structured around the church-as-suffering-with-Christ.

Balthasar suggests that the history of the church, and the church’s eschatological consummation, should be seen and structured in light of Christ’s life, death and resurrection. And what he means is that just as Christ’s life became more and more violent and ended in the cross and resurrection, so the church’s history, as Christ’s body, should be seen that way as well: growing in intensity, in violence, and consummating in a final persecution which ends in resurrection glory.

In other words, as Jesus goes, so goes the church, his body. Because Christ suffered, so the church must expect to suffer. The church’s destiny within history, is to die and rise with Christ. And this church-Christ connection is how Balthasar prefers to structure history. It is a progression of the church toward her ultimate end: death and resurrection with Christ. To him, this is what the final stage of history looks like!

What is interesting here, is that NT theology does seem to find a historical continuum of the church-as-suffering-with-Christ. Jesus himself says that suffering is a “norm” for the church. He also defines discipleship as being crucified with Christ: “if anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Lk 9:23).

Paul, in his letter to the Romans, says that suffering “with Christ” is a condition for final salvation (Rom 8:17). Paul even says that he rejoices in his sufferings, as they fill “up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Col 1:24). It would seem that persecution and martyrdom is an anticipated and even necessary experience for the church. Why? The church is the body of Jesus, growing into him through death and resurrection. In other words, the church suffers in and with Christ, as his body. This is her historic destiny.

More than that though, the NT also points to a final suffering, a final “dying-with-Christ”, if you will, where the church suffers in a more complete and eschatological sense. In Thessalonians, for instance, we find Paul teaching that persecution, although normal and expected (“mystery of godlessness… at work now“, 2 Thess 2:7), will grow to a climax at the appearance of a final “lawless one” (2:8, antichrist) whom Jesus himself will destroy. Revelation, of course, envisions a final persecution which will only end with the appearance of Jesus and glorification (Rev 19-20).

What Balthasar suggests is that the church, as the body of Jesus, is meant to experience Jesus’ sufferings. This is the destiny of the church: to be conformed into Christ. This experience of the church, this dying-with-Christ, is expressed in history, culminating in a final death and resurrection, after which she will be completed in glory. This is Balthasar’s eschatological center: the church as suffering with Christ.

Here is how Balthasar explains it:

A question may be asked at this point: Do the various periods in Jesus’ life shed light on the Church’s history and hence, indirectly, on world history? … [T]he destinies of Peter and Paul—according to John 21, Acts, 2 Corinthians, Galatians and 2 Timothy—are fashioned closely enough after their Lord’s. Should this sequence be applied to the Church’s history as a whole?…

[I believe we can draw a] parallel between Jesus’ progress toward his “hour” and the Church’s progress toward the eschatological tribulation. For, as we have shown, the Church comes from the Cross and is always heading toward it. It is in the power of the Holy Spirit, who is sent to her on the basis of Christ’s Resurrection and Ascension, that she is equipped for discipleship, enabled to drink the Lord’s cup (Mk 10:39). Hence, in Paul, the baffling simultaneity of transfiguration and Passion: “For while we live we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh” (2 Cor 4:11)… [And] indeed, it seems to be Paul’s view that the glory of the Lord actually shines forth in the disciple’s sharing of Christ’s sufferings: “When I am weak, then am I strong” (2 Cor 12:10). “For we are weak in him [Christ], but in dealing with you we shall live with him by the power of God” (2 Cor 13:4)…

So we cannot avoid the question: Does world history give indications that [Christ’s passion has]… a universal effect? That is, does not world history show a theological structure, a christological structure, and can it not be demonstrated even to the nonbeliever? In such a case, world history and the Church’s history would be more interrelated than is commonly assumed; not merely in the sense of an external intertwining of Church and State (since Constantine), including modern absolutism with its ideal of “throne and altar”, but in a way that is more in accord with the gospel? (Theo-Drama: The Action, Part IV, A)

I believe that Balthasar truly has something here. The church as the body of Christ, suffers as Christ in history. And this history centers around that suffering, in which we shall die with Christ, and finally be raised (in the actual eschatological sense of the world!) with him.

The Incarnation and the Physical

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One of the most central doctrines of the Christian faith is the doctrine of the incarnation. The claim that God the Son not only came into our world, but united himself with our world. The claim that God not only revealed himself to us, as he had already done in the OT, but that God became one of us. That God became truly human. That he came here physically. That he was born of a woman (Gal 4:4), that he lived and breathed, that he worked, that he walked and talked, that he ate and drank, that he slept, that God was truly human in every sense of the word.

The incarnation tells us that God not only came into our physical universe, but put on the physical. That he put on flesh. 

But what is so important about this fact? What is so important about God becoming truly man, being physical and material? Certainly the realness of Jesus’ humanity was important to the cross. Jesus had to literally (not spiritually) die and rise for our salvation. Had he not truly died, then we would not be saved. And had he not truly risen, we would have no hope.

But is the significance of the incarnation limited only to salvation? I would answer “no”. In fact, I would say that the incarnation speaks volumes about who God is and what he cares about. Let me explain.

I think that incarnation says something very important about God’s attitude toward the physical; toward the material. Namely, that God loves his material creation; that he thinks it “is good”; that his interest in our universe isn’t simply to get us out, or to remove us from the world. God doesn’t want to “rapture” us out of the world, in other words.

Actually, what the incarnation explains is that God wants to come into this world, not to get us out of it, but to transform it into a dwelling place for himself and for his creation. The reality of the incarnation tells us that God and the physical aren’t enemies, and that the great goal of God is that he would dwell on the earth, with his people.

In other words, the very reality that Jesus is the God-man, tells us that God has created the physical universe as a home for both him and man. He created the cosmos, that “the dwelling place of God…[would be] with man” (Rev 21:3). And so the incarnation tells us that the physical is inherently “good”, and that God doesn’t desire to remove us from it, but to enhance and beautify it! It tells us that God doesn’t want to do away with our physical bodies, but he wants to glorify them.

In short, God loves material, and we should too! That, is the beauty of the incarnation; the beauty of the God-man.

Theologian Robert Barron has much to add to this thought. He sees the incarnation as the central tenet of Christianity. Barron says this about the incarnation:

The incarnation tells central truths about God and us. If God became human without ceasing to be God and without compromising the integrity of the creature that he became, God must not be a competitor with his creation… God… enters into our creation, [and] the world is thereby enhanced and elevated. The God capable of the incarnation is not a competitive supreme being but rather, in the words of St. Thomas Aquinas, the sheer act of being itself, that which grounds and sustains all of creation, the way a singer sustains a song.

And the incarnation tells us the most important truth about ourselves: we are destined for divinization. The church fathers never tired of repeating this phrase as a sort of summary of Christian belief: Deus fit homo ut homo fieret Dues (God became human so that humans might become God). God condescended to enter into flesh that our flesh might partake of the divine life, that we might participate in the love that holds the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in communion. And this is why Christianity is the greatest humanism that has ever appeared, indeed that could ever appear.

God became a man, that his entire creation might be redeemed. This is the truth of the incarnation: that God cares about his creation, and means to bring us into the “divine life”.

What is the central focus of the Book of Revelation?

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When we think of this book called the Revelation of Jesus Christ, what most likely comes to mind is end times schemes, anti-christ persecution, strange visions and ethereal prophecies. And while these topics are contained in Revelation, what is the center of this great and mysterious biblical book? What is the primarily focus and hope of Revelation?

Horatius Bonar, a 19th century pastor and writer says that Jesus himself is the center and focus of the entire book. He says, “the ‘Lamb as it had been slain’ (Rev 5:6) [is] the theme”.

Bonar continues to say:

“It is the Lamb who stands in the midst of the elders (Rev 5:6), and before whom they fall. ‘Worthy is the Lamb’ is the theme of the celestial song. It is the Lamb who opens the seals (6:1). It is before the Lamb that the great multitude stand clothed in white (7:14). It is by the blood of the Lamb that the victory is won (12:11). The book of life belongs to the Lamb slain (13:8). It was the Lamb that stood on the glorious Mount Zion (14:1). It is the Lamb that the redeemed multitude are seen following (14:4); and that multitude is the first-fruits unto God and unto the Lamb (14:4). It is the song of the Lamb that is sung in heaven (15:3). It is the Lamb that wars and overcomes (17:14). It is to the marriage-super of the Lamb that we are called (19:7, 9). The church is the Lamb’s wife (21:9). On the foundations of the heavenly city are written the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb (21:14). Of this city the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are the temple (21:23). Of that city the Lamb is the light (21:23). The book of the life of the Lamb, and the throne of the Lamb (21:27; 22:1, 3), sum up this wondrous list of honours and dignities belonging to the Lord Jesus as the crucified Son of God.

lamb of god

…The Lamb is one of [Jesus’] special and eternal titles, and the name by which He is best known in heaven. As such, we obey and honour and worship Him, never being allowed to lose sight of the cross amid all the glories of the kingdom” (from The Everlasting Righteousness).

Indeed, the ending of Revelation sums the theme of this book (and the entire Bible) up well:

“He (Jesus) who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 20:22)