Two Ways of Speaking About God

There are, it seems, two main ways the Bible speaks about God:

  1. Phenomenologically – with reference to how God is experienced. This category utilizes metaphor, myth, positive language, etc.
  2. Ontologically – with reference to God’s nature or being. This category typically uses negative language or positive language which implies non-describable realities.

Here is an example of each:

  1. Deuteronomy 1:30-31 ESV The LORD your God who goes before you will himself fight for you, just as he did for you in Egypt before your eyes, (31) and in the wilderness, where you have seen how the LORD your God carried you, as a man carries his son, all the way that you went until you came to this place.’
  2. Hosea 11:9 ESV I will not execute my burning anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and not a man, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.

Neither of these is superior to the other. One is in terms of an attempt at scientific accuracy, which is helpful for guarding against idolatry. The other is psychologically true and perhaps historically true in a way that is meaningful to finite minds.

The usefulness of each way of speaking about God isn’t always obvious, but I’ll try.

Speaking of God as a mythical bird or angelic creature whose wings can keep you safe (Psalm 36:7), is more experientially true for many people than an exact explanation of how we think or hope that providence and eternal rewards will work out.

But some people might believe that God really has wings in such a way that God is a being in the universe subject to nature and therefore not God. In such cases, language like Paul’s might be best:

Acts 17:24-25 ESV The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, (25) nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.

Note that the positive description of God as the one “who made the world” implies that God is not the world or reducible to any feature of the world. And this God doesn’t live in temples or need things. And so the language is philosophical, ineffable, and negative. God is a mysterious other, who nevertheless exists.

But as helpful as that language is, it still misses some of what Hosea said near the passage quoted above (the one which pointed out that God isn’t a man):

Hosea 11:8 ESV How can I give you up, O Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.

This passage portrays God as incapable of passing righteous judgment upon Ephraim and Israel, Admah and Zeboiim, due to deep personal love and even need.

And so, there are two ways of speaking about God, and both matter.

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