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.
[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!