Academic journal article Theological Studies

Images of God within Systematic Theology

Academic journal article Theological Studies

Images of God within Systematic Theology

Article excerpt

[While respecting the freedom of expression inherent in Sally McFague's notion of "metaphorical theology," the author argues that the choice of a single governing image or set of interrelated images (e.g., the notion of God as a community of divine persons) is much more suitable for expansion into a systematic theology adequately representing the God-world relationship. At the same time, he recognizes that systematic theologies are only models or symbolic representations of a reality that is in itself humanly incomprehensible.]

IMAGES OF God abound in Sacred Scripture. In the Hebrew Bible some images are impersonal. God is described, for example, as a "rock," a "shield" and a "fortress" in one of the Psalms (Psalm 144:1-2; see also Psalm 18:31-32). More often God is described in personal terms as a warrior (Exodus 15:3), a shepherd (Psalm 23), or vinekeeper (Isaiah 5:1-7), a solicitous father (Hosea 11:1) or mother (Isaiah 49:15), a passionate lover (Hosea 2:16). Likewise in the New Testament, Jesus uses many different images to describe the kingdom of God and indirectly therewith the personhood of God (e.g., Matthew 13: God as sower of seed, fisherman, pearl merchant, housewife). But, while there are thus multiple images to describe the infinite and thus strictly incomprehensible reality of God, relatively few of these images can be employed as the governing concept within a systematic theology purporting to describe the God-world relationship. For, as Alfred North Whitehead points out with respect to his own metaphysical scheme, "God is not to be treated as an exception to all metaphysical principles, invoked to save their collapse. He is their chief exemplification." (1) Only a few images upon closer scrutiny can be thus incorporated into a metaphysical scheme as an exemplification of its basic principles.

Here it might be objected that one is thereby limiting the infinite reality of God. God is rendered finite by being incorporated into a human metaphysical scheme. But the obvious rejoinder is that one is not dealing here directly with the reality of God but with the more limited concept of God which is operative within a given metaphysical scheme. The metaphysical scheme as a whole, to be sure, functions as a model or extended metaphor for the God-world relationship. As Ian Barbour notes with respect to the use of models in both theology and natural science, models "are neither literal pictures nor useful fictions but limited and inadequate ways of imagining what is not observable. They make tentative ontological claims that there are entities in the world something like those postulated in the models." (2) Hence, provided that one respects the analogical character of the metaphysical system as a whole, one has every right to insist that the concept of God within the system be governed by the same metaphysical principles as every other concept within that system. Otherwise, the concept of God is not part of the system and the system is consciously or unconsciously atheistic; that is, it effectively prescinds from the reality of God in working out a theoretical scheme simply for the understanding of the world. Furthermore, while this is a perfectly legitimate methodology for the use of models within natural science since scientists ex professo are seeking a naturalistic explanation of events within this world, it is definitely a paradoxical procedure for theologians who are supposed to be seeking a rational explanation of the God-world relationship.

One might once again object that I am thereby ruling out the possibility of an apophatic approach to the mystery of God. My response is that I am simply transferring the notion of analogical predication from individual concepts of God to entire systems of thought which purport to explain the God-world relationship. That is, whereas Thomas Aquinas was fully aware that any given concept of God was necessarily analogical, (3) he apparently did not realize that his entire scheme for the God-world relationship as expressed in the Summa theologiae was analogical; it represented just one human attempt to comprehend the God-world relationship in terms of a given set of metaphysical principles derived partly from Sacred Scripture and partly from the philosophical legacy of Plato and Aristotle. …

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