Analogy of Being: Knowing God in Similarity within Dissimilarity

How is it possible to speak meaningfully of the infinite and transcendent God? By definition he is not an object of our sensible, perhaps not even of our intellectual, experience; yet human language is grounded in our experience of the world. We confidently say that God is good, wise, just, loving, personal; but these are concepts we use to refer to finite beings, particularly finite rational beings. What meaning can they possibly have when used to speak of the ineffable reality who is “wholly other”? Sure, we can always retreat into the revelational positivism of the neo-orthodox, the language games of Wittgenstein, or the metaphorical theology of Sallie McFague; but the gap between the infinite and finite remains. Divinity may well condescend to cross the gap and communicate with its creatures, employing our words and terminology, but the problem of meaning is not thereby magically resolved. Reflecting on the infinite qualitative distinction and the impossibility of empirically verifying theological claims, philosopher A. J. Ayer famously pronounced: “All utterances about the nature of God are nonsensical.” Oh my—those pesky philosophers.

Norris Clarke believes that the solution to this perceived problem is to be found in the participation metaphysics of St Thomas Aquinas:

There is only one bridge that enables us to pass over the cognitive abyss between ourselves and God and talk meaningfully about Him in our terms: the bridge of causal participation, or more simply of efficient causality, taken with all its implications. If God were not the ultimate causal Source of all the perfections we find in our world, we would have no way of talking meaningfully about Him at all. It is the causal bond which grounds all analogous predication about God.

What is there in this relation that forges a bond of community between the effects and their cause? It is the fundamental property of all efficient causality—a doctrine implicit in Plato but first laid down by Aristotle, echoed with some reservations by the Neoplatonic tradition, and systematically exploited by St. Thomas in his participation metaphysics—that every effect must in some way resemble its cause. Since all that the effect has comes from its cause and is the gift of the cause, and since the cause cannot give what it does not possess, at least in some higher equivalent way, then under the pain of unintelligibility there must be some resemblance between the effect and its cause, at least in the most fundamental order of existence and the latter’s satellite properties, such as unity. That is precisely why the world, as created by God, has always been considered—and rightly so—as an image of God, perfect but still participating in its own limited way in the infinite plenitude of the divine perfection. Creation itself, therefore, immediately sets up a bond of community between the world and God. …

Cut the bond of causal similitude between God and creature which, outside direct mystical experience, is our only bridge across the unfathomable abyss between finite and Infinite, and there is no path left to the mystery-shrouded peaks of the farther shore. (The Philosophical Approach to God, pp. 78-79, 81)

In other words, that we may, and indeed do, speak meaningfully about God presupposes an analogy of being (analogia entis). Even the language of divine revelation presupposes the “community of being and intelligibility established by the causal bond contained in the notion of creation” (p. 80). Apart from this ontological unity, God’s revealed Word would not succeed in communicating with us. It would be mere noise. But in fact it does succeed, and it succeeds because the world has been sung into being by the eternal Word.

Following Thomas, Clarke identifies the community of being shared by Creator and creature as one, not of essence or nature, but of esse—the act of existing. The essence of God is not violated. It remains incomprehensible to finite human knowing, as long asserted by the Eastern theological tradition. By the creatio ex nihilo God establishes a proportional relationship to his creatures, thus allowing us to speak of the similarities of creatures to their Creator within a wider dissimilarity:

For the Thomistic notion of being as that which is (an essence exercising the act of existence in its own particular way) focuses explicitly on the similarity of the act of existence in all real beings—not on their essences or forms, save as modes-of-existing; hence, it does not require that in applying the notion of being to God we must know or specify the mode of existing of the divine essence, what God is like. We affirm only that God exists, is actively present in his own distinctive infinite way, but not how he exists, what his essence is like in itself, which is totally hidden from us. Hence, we can leave the essence of God intact, without drawing it down to our own level (anthropo­morphism) yet affirm something supremely positive about its “owner” that links it with the entire community of all other real existents, God’s creatures. Thus, God becomes accessible to our human minds as the fullness of existence, yet transcending all the particular modes of existing that we know from our own this-worldly experience. (The One and the Many, p. 54)

Early in his career Karl Barth famously declared, “I regard the analogia entis as the invention of the Antichrist” and insisted that it was the one decisive reason why he could never be Roman Catholic. I have never really understood his antipathy to the analogy of being and have suspected some kind of misunderstanding, either on my part or Barth’s. Yet I didn’t lose any sleep about it. Regardless how one parses the dispute, Christians will continue to talk about God and his perfections. But I am finally beginning to see the critical significance of the analogia entis. It invites us to experience the panoply of creation, and every being within it, as a wondrous theophany of the infinitely transcendent and beautiful God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

(Go to “God is Different”)

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27 Responses to Analogy of Being: Knowing God in Similarity within Dissimilarity

  1. Robert Fortuin says:

    Barth’s response of course was the Analogy of Faith. His objection is that Entis undermines the need for revelation in Christ (Christology), and thus situates the analogy solely in the Christ event. As I understand it Barth in later years qualified his antipathy, albeit retained the core of the Analogia Fides in contradistinction to the Analogia Entis.

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  2. Wyatt says:

    Karl Barth’s rejection of analogia entis is tightly coupled with his debates with Erich Przywara and Emil Bruner, and his resistance to German Christians in Nazi Germany. Barth never affirmed the analogia entis, but did affirm an “analogia relationis” throughout his life. After the dissolution of Nazi German and the political environment had changed, Barth revised his No to Natural Revelation in the last volume of the Churches Dogmatics. He affirmed a natural theology that he called “secular parables” that allowed for lesser lights outside the true light of Jesus. He had essentially affirmed what Bruner had said before in his commentary on Calvin, yet he still refused to affirm the phrase “analogia entis”. He wrote a letter to Bruner at the end of his life that said behind his loud Nein! Was a hidden yes. I believe that this brings Barth into your proximity. Great blog post!

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  3. Bobby Grow says:

    I think it is possible to ‘commandeer’ the language of analogia entis under “Barthian pressure.” In other words, I think it possible to think of an analogy of being within a Christ concentrated frame which would cohere with Barth’s analogia fidei/relationis; i.e. to think God from the vicarious human being of Jesus Christ, and work from there.

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    • Robert Fortuin says:

      Bobby, I find this problematic as nevertheless Barth posits a divide between nature and grace, such that creation is merely awaiting the advent of grace as a passive receptacle upon which grace is superimposed. Creation has little if any true ontological grounding in God as God’s creative act of being.

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      • Bobby Grow says:

        No, I don’t agree with that whatsoever. He doesn’t work w/ the nature/grace binary at all; it’s all grace for Barth. Think about he thinks about the covenant in relation to creation and recreation.

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      • Bobby Grow says:

        Your description makes it sound like Barth has a naturum purum at play in his theology; when in fact he sees that as anti-Christ.

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    • Thomas says:

      Sure, and it’s also possible to move from a metaphysical understanding of the being of beings to an analogical understanding of their source, Being as such, without any specific appeal to revelation or the Incarnation.

      Barth’s articulation of the analogia entis he opposed is no more accurate than his reading of the “natural knowledge of God” passages of Scripture.

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      • Bobby Grow says:

        I know Barth. I know Aquinas. But who are you? Your comment pretty much makes no sense, Thomas. By the way, it’s not just Barth who opposes “natural knowledge of God.” The reason your comment makes no sense is because you are making an abstract disconnected non-correlative assertion about Barth; it is all of that because if you’d actually read and understood Barth you would be embarrassed to make the assertions that you are here. Again, I know Barth. Since I don’t have the time, I’ll put as much energy into my response as you have yours and just offer a counter-assertion and say: you’re way wrong. Now we’re back to square one.

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        • Thomas says:

          My original point was simply that it is of course true that some of the apparatus of the analogia entis could be repurposed, but that is not what is controversial about Barth. The controversy is concentrated more on the question of how well Barth understood the analogia entis doctrine and the related question whether there is a philosophical approach to God.

          It’s pretty clear Barth didn’t understand the doctrine of analogia entis as it was classically articulated. In fact, Barth had a quite poor understanding of Aquinas. In 1909, he gave a lecture claiming that Aquinas’ cosmological proofs depend upon an ontological proof. He’s simply parroting Kant here, of course; if you’ve read Aquinas you will recognize how bizarre that claim is. And, to his credit, he admits that he’s relying on Franz Hettinger for his interpretation of Aquinas. (This episode is recounted in the book by Oakes that you cite, on pages 29-30.) I don’t think Barth ever retracted that analysis.

          Later in Barth’s career, Barth himself seems to recognize how limited his understanding of Aquinas is. He told Hans Frei that “I have also studied Thomas, but I am not so sure about what he is saying.” (‘Podiumsdiskussion in Chicago,’ 463). And indeed he is not.

          As to the substantive question, Barth famously denies natural knowledge of God. I don’t think many people really take his Scriptural exegeses on this point seriously anymore; I would hope not. In the event that you do, you may want to consult James Barr’s 1991 Gifford lectures on the subject, published as “Biblical Faith and Natural Knowledge.”

          Really, though, Barth’s strenuous denials of philosophic proofs for the existence of God rest on his insistence that such natural knowledge is simply impossible. And this is Barth’s way: his writings are propelled by the force of his assertions, not his arguments or scholarship. I am reminded Hegel’s rebuke to skepticism in the opening of the Phenomenology of Spirit: the apparent energy with which some deny the possibility of true knowing (Science) operates simply “to be exempt from the hard work of Science, while at the same time giving the impression of working seriously and zealously ….” And just as the best way of refuting skepticism is to go ahead with the business of knowing, leaving the skeptics behind to fret about its abstract possibility, so the best way of responding to Barth’s oracular pronouncements about the impossibility of e.g., demonstrating the existence of God is to go ahead and do it, leaving the Barthians and their worries behind.

          Fortunately, these sorts of philosophical demonstrations are easy to come by these days. I’ve written about them myself at some length. Robert Spitzer’s and Joseph Owens’ works on the topics would be a good place to start.

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          • Bobby Grow says:

            Thomas,

            I understand what you see as controversial; your tone is just a bit too patronizing to take all that seriously. And of course there’s no philosophical approach to God! Why would we need that when we have Jesus? Come on.

            Yes, I’m well aware of Barth’s denial of natural knowledge of God; I full heartedly agree with him. You don’t think anyone takes Barth’s exegesis and thinking on this seriously anymore? Maybe not in the apparent bubble you inhabit. Yes, believe it or not (why are you so presumptuous?), I’ve engaged with Bart’s nonsense. Thanks for mentioning him, it gives me a better grasp on how to understand your reading of Barth.

            Barth’s way, as Hunsinger ably demonstrates, is in step with the Chalcedonian pattern; it’s confessional and thus genuinely Christian, not reliant on the apparent rationalism you seem to be basing your approach on. I can’t believe you would assert that Barth makes no arguments and is not a good scholar. You aren’t worth taking serious, Thomas. You’re pretty audacious. The fact that you think God’s existence can be proven by you says a lot about you, and helps explain the arrogance that has characterized your whole comment here.

            A good place to start?! Lol. Your presumption and arrogance is something to behold. You don’t even know who I am and what I have or haven’t studied.

            Oh full disclosure: I am a Barthian/Torrancean. You should repent and start doing principially rich Christian theology yourself. You ought to give up on this outlandish idea that you or anyone could “prove” God, that’s ass backwards; we need to be proven by him—exactly what has happened in the resurrection.

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          • Bobby Grow says:

            *Barr’s nonsense …

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          • Bobby Grow says:

            Oh, and yes I’ve published on Barth and the analogia entis.

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          • Bobby Grow says:

            Let me just close with this, Thomas: I am writing a blog post response to your comment here, and will post it sometime in the next few days.

            Again, to reiterate, your comment, the whole thing, is presumptuous on many levels. You presume that Barth is not taken seriously by most; really? That presumption is as self-referential as it gets (in other words you need to get out more).

            And I’m not quite sure why I’m paying you any more attention, you have a patronizing tone, and one that is based upon, it appears, non-understanding of Barth’s actual theology and of those who currently study Barth’s theology constructively in After Barth studies of today.

            As far as mixing philosophy of religion (what you do), and actual Christian Dogmatics/Theology, this is a matter of prolegomena, and has been one for centuries actually. You presume too much, and move too quick, which betrays the kind of appearance you seem to be going for; which is one of appearing informed about Barth (you don’t appear to be to me).

            Anyway, I’ll reply to you further at my blog; not here any longer.

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          • Bobby Grow says:

            Oh yeah, one last final thought here: Both you and DB Hart’s comment and critique of Barth runs parallel with the Van Tilian critique of Barth in regard to Barth’s ostensible misunderstanding of Reformed/Federal theology (i.e. based upon his reading of Heppe et al). What this misses is the constructive, and yes, even scholastic value of Barth’s material theological insights; insights that have broad reaching impact say upon Federal theology, as well as the anlogia entis. Even if Barth had some misinformed ideas on any and all of this, or under-informed, does not mean that his critique of the analogia and Federal theology loses its sting; it’s just that the sting comes from a more indirect direction that historians of ideas might like. This does nothing though to undercut the material theological value of Barth’s reasoned and scholarly theologoumena. Really all your comments illustrate is that you just don’t like Barth; why would you? You are a philosopher trying to do theology philosophically.

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  4. DB Hart says:

    Barth never understood what the analogia entis in Przywara’s thought. On the whole, Barth was fairly inept in philosophical matters. It is best simply to ignore him, charitably, on the issue.

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    • Bobby Grow says:

      Horse puckey. Whatever. You ought to read Kenneth Oakes’ wonderful book on Barth on Philosophy and Theology; it makes your assessment look highly uninformed.

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  5. Iain Lovejoy says:

    What is a parable if it is not an exhortation to understand God through the comprehension of the natural?
    I don’t understand the objection that seeing God through the study of his creation denies the revelation of Christ: Christ revealed how the scriptures pointed to himself, and likewise it requires revalation to see God in nature: the atheist sees the same nature but does not see.

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  6. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Okay, I think I’ve had enough. It’s unfortunate that the discussion, such as it is, turned into a polemical discussion of Barth and his competence as a philosoopher. Barth himself is partly responsible, I suppose. He is the one who polemically declared the analogia entis to be the invention of the anti-Christ. That’s fightin’ language and can only generate responses in kind.

    Exercising my blog authority, I ask everyone to restrict themselves to the substantive arguments of Norris Clarke as presented in this article. Thank you.

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  7. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    BG: “And of course there’s no philosophical approach to God! Why would we need that when we have Jesus? Come on.”

    Of course there’s a philosophical approach to God, Bobby. Christians started doing metaphysics as soon as they started applying divinity language to Jesus, and I’m sure glad that they did. If they hadn’t started asking important philosophical questions about the biblical revelation, we would not have apprehended the creatio ex nihilo nor grasped the non-contrastive nature of divine transcendence, which in turn allowed the Church to think more deeply the mysteries of Trinity and Incarnation. I would go on to suggest that the analogia entis is implicit in the sacramental practices of the patristic Church and the theological reflections of the Church Fathers, becoming explicit in St Gregory of Nyssa. Robert Fortuin addresses this in his several articles on the Nyssen. See especially his most recent article: “Reflecting the Mystery.”

    So yes, we have Jesus. That we do is our salvation. And with Jesus we are introduced into an analogical imagination that makes sense of the universe.

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    • Bobby Grow says:

      All I’ll say to your reply Aidan is that there is correlation and non-correlation. The best of the patristics, as TFT has developed, offered a non-correlationist appropriation of the Hellenic grammar and allowed the pressure of God’s Self-exegesis in Jesus Christ to retextualize that in a genuinely Christian sense; i.e. an evangelization of “metaphysics” as it were.

      You would have to do way more work in establishing your suggestion in regard to the analogia entis being present in the early church, particularly since its primary development took place in mediaveal theology.

      And at the end of the day I am not interested in simply repristinating theology, whether that be from the Patristics, the Medievals, or the Post Reformed orthodox. You seem to be committed to that though, Aidan (on the Patristic and Medieval front).

      As far as what you take as the digression of this thread, you’re the one who not only finished off your post with reference to Barth, but you also shared a link of this post to the Karl Barth Discussion Group on Facebook. Next time, if you really aren’t looking for a focus on Barth, don’t share your link in the KBDG; I don’t really understand why you’re acting so surprised.

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  9. brian says:

    Bobby Grow,

    I don’t wish to antagonize you by impugning the philosophical acumen of Barth. I have read some relatively late comments of his where he admits that he was uncertain how well he truly understood the thought of Thomas. Regardless, the more fundamental issue, Barth aside, is indicated in Father’s most recent comments. There is a certain sort of Thomist (which I dissent from,) who posits a “two-tier” approach to God — one of supposedly “pure nature” that generally limits anthropology to Aristotelian potentialities and an additional “supernatural destiny” accomplished through grace and revelation. I surmise it is possibly this sort of conceptual approach that you reject as spurious. The Catholic ressourcement movement, especially Henri DeLubac’s Surnaturel, asserted the contrary view that the only real creation available to us was “always already” taken up into a supernatural teleology. One can conceptually distinguish, but not metaphysically separate nature from a single, supernatural destiny.

    However, the abiding questions of the relations between nature and grace remain. The early Christological controversies were precisely driven by confusion and lack of clarity over these matters. In Aaron Riches’ Ecce Homo, he delivers a compelling argument for the consistently “high Christology” of the Church whereby one must ultimately “unite to distinguish.” What he means by this formula, among other things, is that human nature is itself not clarified until the revelation of Jesus Christ. Christ illuminates how human nature is intrinsically constituted and made capable of truly human action by the enabling presence of the divine. However, Christological imbalance can occur in many ways. Nestorian tendencies falsely thought that human integrity would be abrogated by too close an intimacy with the divine. A converse temptation would be to understand (as may have been the danger in Apollinarian views) divine personhood as evacuating human nature of its own constitutive faculties. It seems to me that one can understand Christian revelation as overpowering nature rather than fulfilling it. This is tantamount to a one-sided Christology that ironically saves human nature by doing away with it. Likewise, Christ does not eliminate nature or suspend the need to live out a searching inquiry into the depths of creation. Rather, Christ validates the philosophic impulse; indeed, revelation infinitely extends the “ecstatic reach” of reason that is now shown to be “always already” “beyond itself,” founded upon the gift of a reality that dynamically exceeds any attempted intellectual closure.

    To forget or denigrate philosophy as radically superceded, then, is to court the danger of an overweening theology that unwittingly takes revelation for an overwhelming divine act that rides roughshod over the creature. Then the nuptial destiny of cosmos and Christ becomes a mere play acting and one is left with the kind of crypto-monism that hides a metaphysical occasionalism hard to separate from Spinoza where the creature acting is a modal figure for the divine alone.

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    • Bobby Grow says:

      Brian,

      Yes, your points of Christomonism are well rehearsed when it comes to Barth’s theology. But, really, your whole argument here ends up being petitio principii. You’re presupposing the Thomist ‘grace perfecting nature’ mode that Barth rejects; if anything Barth flips that on its head as he speaks of creation being the exterior reality of which the covenant (i.e. God’s life of grace) is the internal reality. In other words, for Barth it is all grace, the ground of creation is ‘election’, and in Barth’s world that means God’s free choice to not be God without us but with us (Immanuel). Instead of ‘evacuating human nature of its own constitutive faculties’ this supplies a Christ concentrated bases for them not only teleologically, but protologically. Yes, Barth (along with Thomas Torrance) sees an independent integrity to creation itself, but one that is contingent upon God’s choice (i.e. election) to be for creation (humanity as its crown) rather than not; and this choice is primal to all else. There is nothing in Barth’s theology, from this perspective, that does away with human nature, instead human nature is always understood to be an image of the image (Col 1.15), and a reality that only finds its true and genuine taxis from God’s being Deus incarnandus. This is why resurrection is so important for Barth’s theology; contra your critique, what resurrection does in Barth’s theology is provides the type of integrity to human nature that you seem to think is elided by Barth’s theology. The resurrection/re-creation singles that God’s telos for creation, always already, has been realized as its ground is taken up within the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ; in other words, for Barth, humanity’s integrity has integrity because of the archetypal humanity of Jesus Christ (i.e. election). The Creator/creature distinction is honored in Barth’s theology, and even elevated, insofar as it is understood that humanity’s integrity was and is always already only what it is as conditioned by the humanity of God in Jesus Christ (before the foundations of the world). I don’t think the premise of your comment really works when confronted with Barth’s actual theology.

      What you haven’t really attended to is how Covenant and election function in Barth’s theology, particularly as that relates to a doctrine of creation and re-creation. There is no “overweening” of revelation in Barth’s theology, what’s operative in his theology, instead, is premium on God’s Triune life as normative for everything else. There is no ‘grace perfecting nature’ in Barth’s theology, but at the same time there is not a collapse into or conflation of grace into nature with the monist results you are wanting to charge Barth with. There is simply an attempt to think God from God’s Self-exegasato in Jesus Christ (Jn 1.18) in a principial way; in a way that avoids the chimera of a natural theology in favor of a de jure revealed theology and reality; an attempt to think God from God and not before but after this Christian God has spoken (Deus dixit). Even with your qualifications, in reference to Nouvelle Théologie, you still operate with the type of ‘grace perfecting nature’ and a type of naturum purum that Barth’s theology intentionally seeks to avoid; and he, again, does this by following his prolegomenon of God reveals God with no latent potentialities for that hidden somewhere in nature.

      So we seriously disagree.

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      • brian says:

        Bobby,

        I won’t dialectically engage you with regards to an interpretation you so thoroughly embrace. I certainly reject your characterization of my own views as implicitly accepting any ontological norms for “pure nature.” I thought I had gone out of my way to strongly distance myself from such a starting point. My Christology synthesizes various theological perspectives, but it is largely Balthasarian. If you are familiar with Balthasar, you will know that like Barth, he rejects any sense in which nature can presumptively anticipate the novelty of Christ. In that respect, I do not reject a Christocentric anthropology in the least. Nonetheless, a certain paradox is involved, for part of Christ’s pro nobis is to soteriologically take up the cultural words and inquiry of mankind and bring such to an “unforeseen” conclusion. You have correctly assessed some of the dangers I perceive in Barth; objections you evidently find unpersuasive.

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        • Bobby Grow says:

          I like Balthasar on some levels. You did distance yourself from pure nature but then you went right back to it as if you hadn’t. And I don’t full reject what you say about taking up cultural words and inquiry of mankind, but I don’t see how the analogy of being necessarily must be an entailment of that. Barth has this in his theology in regard to secular parables, and Thomas Torrance who I’m also a student of has his social coefficients; but again, I don’t see that fitting into an analogia entis per se.

          I will say Brian that I do appreciate the depth and reasoning of your comment; you obviously know what you’re talking about. But we disagree it appears, and maybe if in person not as strenuously as it is coming off through this online flat medium.

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          • brian says:

            In my view, Przywara’s understanding of Analogia Entis resists any kind of presumptive conceptual capture of God’s unique revelatory power. I also understand pure nature as a notional concept without any ontological or historical reality. I suspect some of our differences are semantic. At least, nothing Mozart and a good pub couldn’t solve.

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