Avoiding Idolatry or What We May Learn From the Ancient Church

Some time ago, a Christian celebrity occupied the office next to my office at the university. This great lunch partner and friend awarded me a gift upon his departure — a Bible signed by Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. They gave him the gift when his wife and he had appeared on their TV show. Upon hearing the story my daughter laughed and asked, “Who signs the Bible – is that idolatrous?” We talked about when one should and should not sign a Bible. My daughter laughed at me even more when I confessed I had for a time used the Bible to prop up my computer monitor to the correct height- irreverent by contrast. Recently I came across the word “idolatry” in Denys Turner’s beautiful book on Thomas Aquinas. I teach that religious language is rooted in analogy. I tell students that some language is metaphorically true, for example, “God is my rock.”  Literal language, more modestly, sees a connection between our words about people and our words about God.

Analogy falls between two mistaken approaches to language. A (1) univocal sense pictures our language is a perfect fit; words like “wise” apply directly to God without reservation. Thomas knew this approach would never work. It is indeed the case that my father is wise; but Thomas knew that God was wiser still.

Neither did Thomas tolerate the other mistaken approach – the (2) equivocal sense. In this approach, the words we use to speak about God have nothing to do with our human experience at all. Saying my father is wise would have no relationship at all to saying God is wise.

Thankfully, Thomas avoids the two extremes. The (1) univocal is over confident in human ability to capture God exhaustively. The (2) equivocal concludes that human experience and language is not related to God at all; our language thus provides no insight whatsoever. Thomas teaches that human analogues, like a wise father, really do help us understand something about God. Simple enough. We can speak meaningfully but not exhaustively about God.

Turner’s book artfully argues that Thomas was more concerned with what analogical language sought to protect (the mystery of God) than to articulate.  In other words, Thomas was happy to nail down that knowing my father was wise would help me understand that God was wise; he was even more concerned to remind me that there is a depth to God’s wisdom beyond my father’s – beyond what I could know.

Turner worries about modern folk’s God talk. Without the limits of analogy in mind, we may read the Scripture picturing God as one more actor among all the others. Taking God down to size has consequences; according to Turner, Thomas would declare it idolatry.

Herbert McCabe wrote long ago that Thomas was a mystic; he seems smarter with each passing day.

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