God is not a King

A longstanding conversation in theology has to do with how we know things about God and how we describe what we “know” about God. One way this has been stated in theological circles is “all of our knowledge about God is analogical.” I have used the phrase: “all theology is analogy” many times in conversations. Here is what it means and why it is important.

Sunday in church we sang the hymn: Crown Him with Many Crowns. One of the lines is: “Crown Him with many crowns, The Lamb upon His throne.”

The song describes Christ as a king (seated on a throne, deserving of crowns) and as a lamb. Jesus is neither a king, nor a lamb.

These descriptions of Jesus are analogous. The description is an attempt to use a symbol that is commonly understood and to use it as an analogy of something that is difficult to understand. When we do this we must distinguish the way the symbol is like the target and the way it is unlike the target. To say that Jesus is a lamb is to say he is like a lamb in some ways, but not necessarily in all ways (the technical term for this is “analogical predication” 1).

Jesus is a “lamb” not in the same way that Fluffy is a lamb. He doesn’t walk on all fours. He isn’t covered in wool. He doesn’t “baa” like a lamb. He is a lamb in the limited (and analogical) sense that early Judaism knew lambs: as the sacrificial offering of atonement specifically at Passover. But Jesus is not “equal” to that lamb either (although the body and blood analogies of Eucharist/Communion arise from the same definition of “lamb”).

Jesus is a king but not in the same sense that Caesar is a king. He never had a “kingdom” meaning that he never ruled over a piece of geography with a population of people. Even now, the usage of “throne,” “crown.” and other elements associated with a king are not meant to be the equivalent when in reference to Jesus. IN the same way that Jesus is not a “lamb” he is not a “king.” It would be a mistake to picture Jesus on an actual throne somewhere in “heaven” seated next to another “throne” where the Father was seated. 

The reason that all theology is analogy is an important discussion is that making these kinds of statements equivocal (Jesus = lamb) in some instances makes the statements non-sensical and in other instances makes the statements vague or culturally constrained. It is odd that in the USA, which at its basic political construction is “anti-king,” we elevate Jesus as a king. It is a cultural oddity that demands clarification. The easiest way to see this is that we have to explain the lyrics to the hymn Crown Him with Many Crowns, they are not self-evident without the context of the Old Testament and Judaism.

Theology as analogy as a definitive statement of the theological process is important because it points out our limitation in knowing, understanding, and explaining God. We only know God through the lens of our knowledge, which is human and has borders. We can see this limitation in the study of religion throughout history. We can see this limitation in the critiques of religion in statements like:

“Man is, and always has been, a maker of gods. It has been the most serious and significant occupation of his sojourn in the world.”

(John Burroughs / 1837-1921 / American essayist)

“God is not a king” is an accurate statement. We say things about God that we think are accurate by grabbing certain things from the definition of “king” and applying them to God as a means of describing the indescribable. So we like the definition of king for God when it means, “powerful, benevolent, gracious” and reject the definition when it means “despot, domineering, neglectful.”

All theology is analogy is most readily demonstrated in the Incarnation. The idea that God became a man and took on human flesh is the admission that the highest, best, most clear way that we have of knowing God is to put him into a human costume. This is because our knowledge is limited to anthropomorphism (the attribution of human characteristics to God, or the use of human analogies to describe God). That is all we have, our knowledge of God is limited by this. Even if we try and get around it by appealing to revelation as a primary means of knowing God, the revelation must “condescend” to us. God has to use pictures and language we understand, ie, anthropomorphism and analogy.

Why is this important?

Much of our confusion about God falls into the area of apprehension, understanding, and interpreting analogies and their meanings. Where does the analogy end? What does it include and exclude? Sometimes it is easier (lambs) and sometimes it is more difficult (kings, Father, etc). Often this is the place where we start name calling (liberal, heretic, etc.). Knowing that all theology is analogy may make us more careful with our theological constructions and applications, and maybe make us less strident in our theological stances. 

  1. In Logic, we study the three modes of predication: univocity, equivocity, and analogy. As will soon become obvious, predication is not the same as “definition.” In univocal predication, I apply a word to two things in exactly the same way. In equivocal predication, I apply the word to two things in a completely different way. In analogical predication, I apply the word in partly the same and partly a different manner. http://catholicism.org/analogical-knowledge-of-god.html

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