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Life in Oxford 2013

Religious Studies

Here are some useful notes from a topic that is in many RS A2 syllabuses.

Religious language, analogy and symbol

Univocal language

God’s language has been described in various ways by theologians and philosophers down the centuries. Some have recognised more than others the challenges of representing God in human language. For example if we were to use the words ‘God’s love’ using only the idea and the experience that we have of human love then this would not represent him properly. It would not be language about God. This type of language is known as univocal language about God. David Hume uses a character in one of his dialogues to illustrate the point,

‘Wisdom, thought, design, knowledge –these we justly ascribe to him because those words are honourable among men, and we have no language by which we can express our adoration of him. What is honourable among men can be justly ascribed to God.’

This is human language about God not God’s language given to human beings about him.’

But if religious language is actually about God it must be based upon an actual experience of his attributes. With univocal language there is no underlying assumption that the words religious people use about God actually are speaking about him. They are rather a human attempt at representing him in some way without any actual experience. This is different when we turn to the book of Psalms for example. Here is a song and language from the lips of David as he perceives the voice of God within him, and sees the work of God’s creation around him.

Psalm 19 ‘The heavens declare the glory of God and the skies proclaim the works of his hand. Day after day they pour forth speech…’

In this case the writer seems to be saying that creation is speaking of the separate existence of a real God. Creation speaks of God and so is the foundation for our language concerning him, and yet language is obviously personally inspired.

Equivocal language

Equivocal language about God is when we speak of God’s love with the recognition that we are distinguishing two different things. i.e. there is God’s love and there is human love. God’s love is very much different from human love, similarly his justice.

The main point is that Gods’ attributes are certainly not equal to man’s and indeed vastly superior and greater. This is off course true, but the problem here is that God may be rendered incomprehensible and unknowable. Aquinas tried to solve this problem by pointing to ‘the gradation of things’ in nature. So as there is a hierarchy of things in nature so we can speak of God’s love by recognising that he first loved. The problem here is that this approach does tend to ignore the mediation of Christ the Saviour as an element which is actually necessary. Is this speaking of a primal being rather than the God of Christian faith?

The person of Jesus and his language

Christian doctrine states that Jesus was equal to God from the beginning and was subsequently made man. And so God spoke to man, not from a hierarchy of things alone but also by entering into our experience as a person. Thus Jesus’ words have an underlying basis in God, and in the world he created with God in the beginning. But he came into this world to speak the language we speak and enable us to speak about God as he did. Underlying Jesus’ speech, however, was a qualitative personal difference. Jesus demonstrated his love and power by dying and being raised for us. Having conquered in this way, risen and ascended the language that Jesus speaks is thereby truly the language of God. If we consider Jesus from first to last in this way we can see that Jesus’ language has exhaustive authority and provides a foundation for all language that truly represents reality.

Human beings can thus sensibly speak of God through the mediation of Jesus and the enabling of the Holy Spirit. This might be described as a triune vocal language. This language does not confuse God with things by equating him too closely with a human hierarchy, but distinguishes him as a person. This is true Trinitarian and incarnational language in the creation that God has made.

The ‘game’ of language

The idea here is that if you are playing a game of rugby there are certain rules by which you must abide. There are certain rules by which we must abide to participate in the ‘game’ of language for it to be a meaningful experience. There are certain objections which might be presented in the consideration of language as a game. For example, does this not take seriously the fact that people can be put in jail, lose their jobs, fail their exams, destroy their marriages, and suffer a whole number of other consequences through an improper use of language. Nevertheless there is an element of necessary competition in language that might be understood to be like a game that is ‘played’ within given guidelines.

Language game theory recognises a coherence theory of truth in which meaning grows out of context. Wittgenstein, after later giving up his picture theory of language accepted that religious language can make sense but it is non-cognitive and so cannot make factual statements about what is real. It is in effect anti-realist. Meaning in religion does not come from what is real, but more as the context of religious communities.

There are strengths and weaknesses to this way of understanding language. Firstly, it recognises the distinct way in which language is used religiously. It clearly has a particular meaning within a certain group. This provides community cohesion and boundaries. As believers learn the rules of the game they learn to appreciate the strengths of their particular community. The weakness is the limited context. Is this really language about God if it is so narrowly confined to one group? Universal truth and objective truth is truth that is true regardless of whether or not a particular group believes it. This kind of religious language may have no wider authoritative guidelines for it’s use and may also lack a wider common basis.

Non- literal modes of expression and Myth

The use of the term in Judaeo-Christian tradition is a relatively new phenomenon. ‘Myth is a symbolic, approximate expression of truth which the human mind cannot perceive sharply and completely, but can only glimpse vaguely, and therefore cannot adequately or accurately express’ (Tyler & Reid).

Non-literal (covered under symbols) and mythological are distinct. Much biblical language is metaphorical when it speaks of God. It accommodates human understanding of things to express a truth about God. This it does by actually stating that God is a certain person or animal on earth by means of a metaphor, rather than merely likening him to it (simile).

e.g. ‘The Lord will march out like a mighty man’

‘The Lord roars from Zion, and thunders from Jerusalem’ (Amos 1 v.2)

Both speak of God’s power and authority, but they do not literally mean that God is a warrior or a lion- they only seek to convey a certain characteristic of God such that human beings may grasp the reality of this.

Myth speaks of something that is well known and here we should distinguish between something that cannot be known and something that simply is not well known. Myth falls into the latter category, but descriptions of God may actually convey something but as through ‘a glass darkly’. This is in fact the way that Paul describes prophecy. The prophets spoke of something that was known, but not very well.

D.F. Strauss argued that the miraculous accounts of the New Testament actually fall into the category of myth. The Bible’s language is outdated or anachronistic and was written in a time when people believed in miracles in contrast to enlightened modernity. But language that is not sharply historically perceptive does not at all mean that it does not convey a real event. It rather means that the event was not adequately grasped. Strauss himself may be falling into the error of confusing the language someone uses to describe something and the actual event itself.

(Bultmann followed a programme of demythologisation of the Bible which was also based on the view that the world of the New Testament writers was a mythological world. To find the real gospel this was considered necessary.)

Biblical interpretation

The issue of myth and non-literal modes of expression highlight the need to interpret the Bible in the modern world. The key to biblical interpretation is finding the thought world, and the way in which meaning was communicated in the time of the New Testament writers, and then translating that into the thought of today. This process is called hermeneutics – the science of biblical interpretation. This can help to recognize that the significance of the events of biblical language may mean that we need to express these events using biblical language as a basis, but then using a different language to communicate the meaning. This relates most essentially to decisions that translators of the Bible must make in making the text understood in today’s common parlance.


A helpful definition of a religious symbol is an earthly thing that signifies a spiritual or heavenly reality. What is the relationship between religious language and symbols? The symbolic kind of non-literal expression may relate more to a correspondence form of truth or a priori Christian belief depending upon the extent of dependence upon the symbol. If the symbol is seen as the sole grounds of the language used with less transcendence towards what it intends to depict, then it will fit more into the former category. The key symbols in the Christian faith are baptism and the eucharist. These are active symbols i.e. they include an action with a symbolic meaning. Both of these symbols are strongly transcendent since they speak of the eternal salvation and forgiveness of Christians. Symbols can thus help to bring the meaning of salvation to a fuller appreciation and awareness. Indeed the Christian theologian John Calvin understood the sacraments to be necessary because of weak faith – something real is necessary to encourage this. The twenty fifth article of the Anglican church understands the sacraments to be more than symbols but ‘sure witnesses’ by which God works invisibly. Thus the foundation of their effectual working and ‘speech’ is a living and personal God, rather than in their intrinsic nature.

To what extent symbols are necessary to religious language is a moot point. Rowan Williams, the present Archbishop of Canterbury says,

‘The development of symbolism in religious language is not a process of the encrustation of an original, simple idea with distracting and extraneous and ornament. Like all other serious human discourse, religious language requires a symbolic foundation’. (Tyler and Reid)

This tends towards a correspondence theory of truth in which language must necessarily correspond to our experience of things. It is true to say that language must in some way be grounded in what is real. If it is not it cannot have any meaning. But there is off course a danger that language about God is purely and simply defined by things. That language must be grounded in earthly reality is unlikely to have been disputed by New Testament writers. But they had become convinced that the earthly things they had encountered pointed to something far greater – the personal reality of God:

‘For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No-one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side has made him known’. (John 1 v.18).

True religious language is such when it is grounded in real events on earth that transcend the incident to point up towards God. Religious language then truly represents God. This is a language that recognizes God and is worthy of him, that human beings express in praise and adoration of his glory and mystery.