Saturday, February 20, 2010

Analogies and Iconoclasm

Dale Tuggy has an interesting post in which he notes the claims of certain theologians that analogies should not be used except to show what the Trinity is not. And he concludes by suggesting that this would be opposed by a Catholic:

This is interesting; a hard-core catholic traditionalist could accuse both of departing from the tradition, which has long used various analogies, with the standard caveat that one should take care not to be mislead by any one of them, and taking care to multiply and diversify them.

I think this is right, but I think the point can be put much more strongly than Dale does; you don't have to be Catholic, and you don't have to be a particularly hard-core traditionalist to find yourself in strong opposition to this approach. And the reason is this: it's a form of iconoclasm. If the Trinity cannot be taught with verbal similitudes or figures it certainly cannot be taught with icons. Icons are pictures; they present a sensible representation. But a claim that does not deal with something directly sensible can only be pictorially represented if it can be thought of in terms of a sensible analogue -- and if it can be thought of in terms of a sensible analogue, it can be taught by verbal analogy based on that analogue. The analogy isn't what it represents; proper understanding of how it represents depends on recognizing this fact. But if you cannot represent the doctrine of the Trinity with verbal similitudes you cannot represent it with pictures, and if you cannot represent the doctrine of the Trinity with pictures, you cannot pictorially represent the Incarnation, and that is iconoclasm, and if you're Catholic or Orthodox you don't even have to be very traditionalist to have a problem with it.

And in both Catholic and Orthodox cases this will link up eventually with the iconicity of Scripture. Analogies do have a negative function: they can easily show that a particular claim that X and Y are inconsistent is false at least up to a particular level of description. But the Scriptural passages themselves from which we have the doctrine of the Trinity are rich with analogies: light, word, wind, flame, son. The doctrinal definitions that followed upong them are based on being able to recognize that they can teach us about the Trinity: unity in distinction, origination without subordination, that perichoresis by which (in Augustine's famous formula) "each is in each and each is in all and all are in each and all are in all and all are one." We don't have any sort of doctrine of the Trinity without them. If Scripture shows the way to teach the doctrine, as any iconodule would hold, at least some analogies must be good ways to teach at least some parts of the doctrine.

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