The Analogy Circle

Over the years, I've written a lot about "going the right way around the circle."

This image and language of a circle comes from a series of theology classes some of us take with InterVarsity.  Our professor, Gary Deddo, does the inconceivable ... dares to teach systematic theology to InterVarsity's nerdiest Staff.

We drink from the firehose in those classes, cramming a semester of lectures into a week.  Reading broadly, learning technique.

And it's this technique piece that I've found most valuable.

We easily fall prey to messy thinking, theologically.  And this is where The Circle comes in.

I'm sure the idea isn't unique to Gary.  And I'm sure I don't have a firm grasp on it.

But, disclaimers aside ...

Why does it matter which way we run around The Circle?

If we run the wrong way ...
  1. We consider God as smaller than Creation
  2. We attribute human brokenness to God
  3. We miss opportunities for transformation by the renewal of our definitions
  4. We build theological systems on analogies of sand
What is The Circle?

The Circle is the analogical circle of predication, of course.

We understand a lot of the world by analogy.  Think about it.  What do you know about the sun? About chemistry?  Electricity?  I think of the sun as hot (like a campfire) and bright (like a lightbulb).  Chemistry, I picture dots-in-orbit.  Electricity, flows like water.

These analogies help.  But they also break down if pressed too far.  (The sun would ruin your marshmallows)  All analogies break down if pressed too far.  Analogies get you close, but don't get you there.

And this makes theology difficult. 

We want to say clear, firm things about God and about God's character.  This is predication.  God is love.  God is our Father.  God is immortal, invisible, only-wise, hid-from-our-eyes.

But God is holy, numinous, different from us, from all of Creation.  So, using analogy to make predication happen can lead us astray.  Nothing in the created world perfectly and comprehensively communicates to us the Uncreated.  Analogies break down faster and faster when applied to God (see point 1 above).

This is why The Circle matters ... and why it matters if we run the right way around The Circle.

The Circle protects us from holding too tightly to our analogies.  We constantly revisit our analogies, circling back to them.  What does "immortal, invisible, only-wise, hid-from-our-eyes" mean after we hear "The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us"?

It still means something, but The Circle refreshes the analogy.

In a world bent and broken by sin, stained and scarred in scary ways, it's easy for us to make bad analogies about God.  God is our strong tower, but we've seen towers fall.  No, our analogies suffer from more than being too small.  They flow out of a world that's too broken.  Applied to God, they can mislead (see point 2 above).

But if we run the right way around the circle, God can give us new analogies.  What if we learned about true Fatherhood from watching a faithful Father at work?  What if we learned to think of God's presence in terms of tabernacle and cross, rather than abstract omni's?  As we come to know and love God more and more, he transforms our analogies, purifying and enlarging them (see point 3 above).

And God does this as we run the right way around The Circle.

So, how do we run the right way around The Circle?

First, we start with the clearest place we can find.  This is why we always circle back to the Bible and to Jesus.  Greek philosophical terms like omniscience and omnipresence and omnipotency amplify our theology, but they make horrible beginning places for analogical predication (see point 4 above ... thought I forgot it?).

Second, we draw analogies.  God is Father, Son, Spirit.  Husband.  Father.  Like a prophet or a priest or a king or a shepherd or a lamb or a mother or a hen or a head or a lover or a slave-owner or a redeemer or a woman sweeping the house.  And so on.  The Bible freely uses analogies and metaphors.

Third, we try our dangdest to avoid mangling the metaphors.  The "God is head" metaphor does not mean "source" (ie. headwaters) or "supervisor" (ie. head honcho).  Limit the application of the analogy to the clear meaning of the text.

Fourth, we move from clear into the less clear.  If we think we understand "God is Shepherd," we build on that.  Trust me, the God-is-Shepherd metaphor makes the Woman-sweeping-the-house metaphor a lot less weird.  (Both are found in Luke 15)

Lastly, we run all the way around The Circle and do it again.  Our analogies need constant refreshing and revision.  God-is-Father means something different to me after May 9, 2010, when my son, my only son, whom I love was born.  You shift and change and so will your grip on your analogies.

Does this help clarify The Circle?

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