The gulf separating we lowly creatures from our Creator God is infinitely great. We require God to lovingly condescend and provide us in our frailty and limitation with words, forms, and structures to even begin to glimpse and understand him.
The idols of the nations are all mute; they are seen but not heard. But the true God of heaven and earth speaks; he is heard but not seen. He speaks, and the world is created. He hides his form on Mount Sinai but utters his Ten Commandments, literally his Ten Words, from the midst of the fire. He sends his Word to his prophets who speak to the people. His Word is carved on tablets of stone to inaugurate the Old Covenant, and his Word becomes flesh to inaugurate the New Covenant. And his Word is inscriptured to endure from generation to generation in this present age. God is a God of words; it is through words that God has accommodated our understanding of him. Therefore, we must pay attention to how words are used of him.
Concerning our senses of usage —
There are three ways that the same word can be used or function in multiple contexts. Firstly, the same word used in two different contexts can have the same meaning or be otherwise unambiguous by having only one meaning; this is called the univocal sense. Secondly, the same word used in two different contexts can have two distinctly different meanings or be otherwise ambiguous by having a breadth of meaning; this is called the equivocal sense. (Equivocation is when a word functions ambiguously and shifts in its meaning in conversation while it is presumed to have a clear meaning or is otherwise being used consistently throughout conversation.) Thirdly, the same word used in two different contexts can have two similar and yet unequal meanings where one meaning is a resemblance or reflection of the other meaning; this is called the analogical sense.
The Prophet Isaiah asks the people who worship false gods and idols, “To whom then will you liken God, or what likeness compare with him?” (Isaiah 40:18) Yahweh himself asks likewise, “To whom will you liken me and make me equal, and compare me, that we may be alike?” (Isaiah 46:5) Yahweh and his prophet expect the rhetorical answer of “nothing”. This is an inquiry for any sort of univocal description where God is just like something else. But there is none to be had.
But if God is utterly unlike any creaturely thing (meaning that descriptions of him are equivocal to all creaturely uses), then saying something about God is saying nothing at all, because we have no idea what it means. That would be rather strange of God who certainly seems to be saying things about himself which we are meant to grasp.
When speaking about God, describing him as he truly is, it’s important to remember what our words are really saying. All of our descriptions of God are analogical, and all of what God has spoken to us about himself in Scripture is analogical. When speaking outside of the language in Scripture and searching for clarity in our communication, words used of God often are required to take on a special theological connotation that functions in an analogical fashion.
This is the inescapable conclusion of a coherent reading of everything which God has spoken about himself. Our Creator has graciously condescended and accommodated our differences from him — our finitude as his creatures. Unless we want to insist that God is just a quantitatively bigger version of the same sort of beings we are (which is a profane humanization of God), then we must embrace his essential unlikeness as he has declared it to us as well as the analogical likeness in the creaturely words which he has benevolently given us to understand him.
Concerning our terms of denial —
A good deal of what we know about God is obtained through affirmation of who and what he is. This is called cataphaticism or cataphatic theology. Much of the analogical truthfulness in our understanding of God refers to our cataphatic theology — positive statements we affirm about him. We speak of God as living, and seeing, and knowing, and so forth. He is holy, good, righteous, and so much more.
However, a good deal of what we know about God is obtained through denial of who and what he is not. This is called apophaticism or apophatic theology. It is sometimes better or simply easier to say something truthful about God by stating what he is not. This is the via negativa — the way of negation. We speak of God’s incomprehensibility, his immutability, his immateriality, and so forth.
When we use terms of negation to speak of God, we are actually affirming something about God in our act of denying something about God. Our terms of negation do not amount to attributing some sort of emptiness or nothingness to God. Whatever God’s attributes may be, these are safeguards against certain attributes of creatureliness that God does not possess.
Concerning our figures of speech —
Word-pictures are often used in the Scriptures to convey truth about God. Sometimes, bodily figures of speech (verbal morphisms) are invoked to say something about the true God who is spirit and has no physical bodily form. God is described by human bodily figures of speech called anthropomorphisms, such as saving his people with a strong right arm, as well as animalian bodily figures of speech called zoomorphisms, such as sheltering his people under the shadow of his wings. God has neither arms nor wings, yet he does do things toward his people embodied by those bodily actions.
Bodily figures of speech applied to God are easily recognized and received, since God’s immaterial being isn’t in great dispute and is rather straightforwardly obvious (though I do recognize certain heterodox cults fail to grasp this). However, what is perhaps less obvious is the reality that descriptions of God’s shifting mental and emotional state are also figures of speech called anthropopassionisms. God is said to have regrets, yet he says of himself that he doesn’t change his mind. God says of himself that he will forget or will remember, and yet God observes everything everywhere all of the time. These are not contradictions. These mental and emotional changes express truth about God, but they’re figures of speech and not what they are for humans who undergo them.
Concerning our creaturely words —
Ultimately, human words are creations just as human beings are creations. Our human words are as qualitatively different from our Creator’s Word as we humans are from our Creator. Creaturely words function in a way that forms a map or blueprint to how our creaturely essence is composed. It’s inappropriate to expect the intuitive mapping or blueprinting of our human language to apply directly and straightforwardly to God (even though certain schools of modern thought assume or insist it does). Scripture in its warp and woof seems to expect that we should understand this about the creaturely language into which God Almighty inscripturated his Word. As such, Scripture speaks improperly though truthfully of God when it reveals the essence of God in language that reflects the essence of his creatures.
God has specially revealed himself in history through creaturely manifestations called theophanies. Examples include a man, an angel, a burning bush, a pillar of cloud and fire, a whirlwind, and much more. All of these theophanies are accommodated visible and tangible forms employed by the invisible and intangible God. The luminous and smoky glory of the Lord that filled Moses’s Tabernacle and Solomon’s Temple was a creaturely glory, not the unapproachable light and clouds of thick darkness in which the Lord dwells. The Father’s voice from heaven during Christ’s baptism at the river and his transfiguration on the mountain was a creaturely utterance for our ears. No grand though finite theophany should be mistaken for the incomprehensible fullness of God as a Consuming Fire, or the Light, or the Word, and so forth.
For humans to engage with God so as to have any sort of fruitful interaction with him, it’s necessary for God to voluntarily condescend and provide humanity a relationship structure to approach him. Humans cannot set up the terms upon which we relate to God nor can we obligate him to relate to us. God freely and lovingly engages us. Over the course of history, God has done so by accommodation to us through the human relational structure of a covenant. Two basic forms of covenant with God appear in the second millennium B.C. according to human political structures in the ancient Near East. God did not interact with his chosen people the way all of the false gods did in pagan mythology. Rather God interacted with Abraham and his descendants the way human kings interacted with the people. In his covenant with Father Abraham, God establishes something like a royal grant; the great king obliges himself to his subject without condition of any reciprocal expectations. In his covenant with Israel under Moses, God establishes something like a suzerain-vassal treaty; the supreme king of kings becomes lord-protector over a vassal state, bestowing benefits and demanding obedience. These human political structures form the backdrop for the establishment of God’s covenants of works and covenants of grace.
Even the relational titles of the Economic Trinity (i.e. the Holy Trinity as experienced by us in God’s dealings with humanity through the history of creation and the work of redemption) are accommodations according to the created world. The Father and the Son, paternity and filiation are taken from creaturely parentage and procreation which God created. What they mean about God is analogical, not univocal, to what creaturely fathers and sons are to one another. So too with the Holy Spirit, the Wind or Breath of God. His spiration or procession is taken from creaturely action, whether respiration or climatology. These are analogical titles fitting to the irreversible taxis (ordering) of the Immanent Trinity (i.e. the Holy Trinity as God is in himself and understands himself to be). The Economic Trinity reveals the Ontological or Immanent Trinity and yet the distinction being made is precisely one of God’s accommodation to us.