Religious Language: negative, analogical or symbolic


Uses of Religious Language

Religious language can be used in many different ways, including:

  • to make truth-claims
  • to envoke feelings of worship
  • to express emotion
  • to solemnise occasions
  • to pray

Religious language issues are issues of whether the ordinary language of the everyday physical world can be used to convey ideas or make truth-claims about God, the afterlife or other spiritual issues.

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The Via Negativa or Apophatic Way

  • Supporters of the via negativa claim that in order to say things that are literally true of God, it is important to use only negative terms.
  • Negative terms might include things like 'invisible','incorporeal' and 'timeless'.
  • This is because using positive terms of God makes God seem too small, as if God is like a human father or judge and as if God has only human wisdom and strength.

Pseudo-Dionsysius the Areopagite - was influential in developing the via negativa, arguing that people need to go beyond the need for understanding and enter a 'cloud of knowing'.

Moses Maimonides - gave the example of describing a ship by explaining what it is not, to illustrate how knowledge of God could be communicated.

  • The via negativa can produce statements which are literally true rather than requiring interpretation.
  • Statements made using the via negativa can be meaningful across different times and cultures.
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Criticisms of Via Negativa

  • It could be argued that the via negativa is not of much help to someone who knows nothing of God.
  • Defining God in negative terms might not be very different from claiming that God is nothing at all.
  • The Bible uses positive terms of God, and so does Jesus in the Bible.
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The Via Positiva or Cataphatic Way


is a comparison made between one thing and another in an effort to aid understanding.

  • Analogical language contrasts with univocal language (where words are used in exactly the same way) and equivocal language (where words have completely different meanings).

Aquinas - argues that whenever we speak of God we use analogy, whether we mean to or not. He thought that recognising that we are using analogy helps to avoid the problem of making God too small. Aquinas divides analogy into two kinds:

  • Analogy of Attribution- is where there is a causal relationship between the two things described. When we speak of God as loving we should remember that God is the cause of love. When we speak of God as wise we should remember God as the cause of wisdom.
  • Analogy of Proportionality- is when analogy relates two things that are in different proportion. We need to remember that his attributes are on an infinitely greater scale.
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The Via Positiva or Cataphatic Way 2


Ramsey - wrote about analogy using 'models' and 'qualifiers'. We can take an idea from this limited physical world and use it as a model. We can use other words such as 'infinitely' or 'holy' to indicate that the word is being applied analogically to an infinite being who will always remain beyond human comprehension.


is a word or other kind of representation used to stand for something else and to shed light on its meaning.

  • All language is symbolic in that words stand for the things they represent.
  • We use metaphor in many contexts to aid understanding and add vividness.
  • Using symbolism can be a way of saying positive things about God without making God too small.
  • The Bible uses symbolic language of God, for example saying that 'the Lord is my Shepherd' or that God is a 'father'.
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The Via Positiva or Cataphatic Way 3

Tillich - was a protestant theologian. He had a 'theology of correlation', showing the relation between the questions raised in philosophy; the arts, psychology and history, answered by theology. He argued that all religious language is symbolic. Symbols, Tillich thought, 'participate in' the things to which they point. Tillich thought that understanding religion as symbolic helps us to understand God as the 'ground of all being'.


  • Using ideas from limited, imperfect physical world to express ideas about God might make God seem too small.
  • Using positive terms to speak of God might wrongly suggest that human beings can come to an understanding of God.
  • If we use analogy and symbol,knowing that the terms we use are only a partial, smaller shadow of the greatness of God, then we still do not come to a clear understanding.
  • Analogies and symbols require interpretation and we do not always know if we are interpreting them correctly.
  • Some symbols can change in meaning over time or between different cultures e.g. the swastika symbol.
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