Tuesday, November 02, 2010

The misrepresentation of the Clarkian idea of Univocity in Van Tillian thought

[Langdon B.] Gilkey demonstrates confusion on both the premodern and moder use of the terms "univocal" and "analogical" when he writes that "the biblical and orthodox understanding of theological language was univocal" ... It is clear that he equates univocal with literal. Given the assumption, he understandably concludes, "Unless one knows in some sense what the analogy means, how the analogy is being used, and what it points to, an analogy is empty and unintelligible; that is, it becomes equivocal language."

— Michael S. Horton, Covenant and Eschatology: The Divine Drama (Louisville, Kentucky, USA: WJKP, 2002), 52


Univocal: (adj) having only one meaning, unambiguous (Dictionary.com)

While doing my readings and preparing for my paper assignments, which are time-consuming, I came across a couple of interesting passages. In his book Covenant and Eschatology, my professor Mike Horton interacted with various theologians and philosophers on the themes of a God who actually acts in history (contrary for example Bultmann and Pannenberg) and a God who speaks into our world. While doing so, the passage above shows the Van Tillian idea of univocity, an idea which I would like to interact with.

As I have mentioned before, it seems that in Van Tillian thought epistemology is subsumed within ontology. Anytime the term "epistemology" is mentioned in Van Tillian discourse, just substitute it with "ontology" and the sense of the sentence is almost always right.

While interacting with Gilkey, Dr. Horton states that Gilkey confuses the term "univocal" with "literal". However, what exactly does "univocity" mean?

The term "univocal" as an adjective is used to state that something has only one meaning. In Clarkian thought, the adjective "univocal" is only applied to propositions not sentences. Therefore, when we express the proposition "God is God", it has only one meaning, namely "God" is "God. It does not mean "God" is "not God", "God" is not "God, "God" is "an animal" or anything else you can think of. Conforming to the dictionary meaning of the term "univocal", it is affirmed that epistemologically, propositions in theology and philosophy mean exactly what they mean.

Therefore, when we approach knowledge, while the manner (Note: an ontological term) of knowing is different for Man and God, the propositions known are univocal. Contrary to Horton, there is no real difference between saying that something is literal and something is univocal.

The problem in Van Tillian thought on this point seems to be a failure to read anything and anyone without interpreting their writings through their lenses. Since epistemology is seen to be subsumed within ontology, all writings about epistemology must be interpreted ontologically. Therefore, any affirmation of univocity is taken to mean a violation of the Creator/creature distinction. Noting Platonism's idea of the Ladder of Being which implies a univocity of Being, all mention of univocity is immediately associated with ontology (and Platonism), instead of allowing the term "univocal" to stand on its own as a neutral marker.

In my opinion, Van Tillians ought to stop their criticism of Clarkian thought until they can accurately represent their opponents.


Michael said...

Good comment! I found it helpful to think of Vantillian err in the sense of a univocal use of Ontology and Epistemology.

I think Dr. Robbins, or Clark previously said it is both limiting God and denying Man in the image of God to state that God can't teach truth to man. Also I believe Clark points out that it destroys revelation....since it wouldnt be revelation.

Good post! Thanks.

PuritanReformed said...


You're welcome. I agree