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Until reading Dr. Peter Kreeft's Socratic Logic chapter on definitions, I had no idea that "God is Love" (1 John 4:16) is a metaphor. Quote from Section 4 (The limits of definition) page 129:

As far as God is concerned, we can only say (a) what God is not or (b) what God is like. But this is not to define God, for each of these two choices violates a rule of definition. (a) If we use literal, univocal language, we can only say what God is not, not what God is. (E.g. God is not a man, God is not a body, God is not in time.) But God is not a negative thing, like nonbeing or death or evil. So a negative definition of God would violate one of the rules of definition (rule #5). (b) If we use analogical or metaphorical language, we can speak positively, but only to say what God is like, not what God is, literally. (E.g. we can say that God is a Father, God is Love, God is a King. But God is not a human biological father or the changeable human passion of love, or an earthly political ruler.) And of course non-literal language violates another rule of definition (rule #3).

I don't really know why this blew my mind, but I had always taken those words and thought of them as literal (I still think they can and should be taken literally as well). And I've read a number of answers on this site recently that also take only a literal interpretation.

But according to the Catholic Catechism, there are four senses of scripture, so what have saints, popes, councils and other good exegetes, said about what does "God is love" means from a Metaphorical, Literal, Anagogical and Moral sense? I'd prefer answers that hit on all four senses bullet point style unless there's a very good reason for excluding one.

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  • Could you elaborate with how Kreeft explains "God is Love" metaphorically?
    – eques
    Commented Nov 14, 2022 at 15:23
  • @eques it's a book about logic, not theology so it's not an explanation, Kreeft just listed it along with other things that are metaphors in conjuntion with God. He does say that (according to traditional logic) you can't essentially define God, so you have to rely on metaphors; maybe that helps.
    – Peter Turner
    Commented Nov 14, 2022 at 15:34
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    Did he say metaphor or analogy? The traditional theology (Via Aquinas) is that because neither univocal nor equivocal terms can be used for God, analogical must be used.
    – eques
    Commented Nov 14, 2022 at 15:35
  • @eques he definitely didn't say analogy. But he wasn't talking about the specific classes of definitions; metaphor, essential, nominative, etc... But maybe that's why John wrote "God is love" and not "God is like love"?
    – Peter Turner
    Commented Nov 14, 2022 at 15:41
  • Some notes that may help: 1) "literal" in a logic textbook is not to be confused with literal sense of Bible interpretation; 2) that section deals with human language and human logic to capture divine reality using logical/literary concepts of literal/metaphor/analogy, which should not be confused with "analogy" as a theological method to understand God. This is an interesting question (at least for me) because the answer needs to cross THREE (3) domains: language+logic, hermeneutics, and theology, each with their own method and technical vocabularies. Commented Nov 14, 2022 at 16:07

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In effect, this is a conflation of two distinct theological concepts: the 4 senses of Scripture (of which literal is one) and the necessity of analogy to talk about God's attributes.

The conflation is a side-effect of the particular language that Kreeft uses.

He contrasts "literal, univocal language" with "analogical or metaphorical language". The key theological distinction is between univocal and analogical. I have never come across someone qualifying "univocal" as "literal" nor someone equating analogical and metaphorical.

univocal contrasts with equivocal and describes what a word represents. univocal means the word has one meaning across the uses (= called one) whereas equivocal means the word represents multiple means across the uses (= called equal). For example, the word bank means can mean a place for storing valuables, the edge of a river, etc.

Aquinas argues in the Summa (Prima Pars, Q13 A5) that no name of God can be said univocally of God and creatures. The question becomes how do we understand statements like "God is good" (or "God is love"). It cannot be univocal as Aquinas says because God is simple and perfect and "all perfections existing in creatures divided and multiplied, pre-exist in God unitedly." In man, saying he is wise is distinct from his existence or power but in God to be wise is to be and to be powerful.

Nor can terms be equivocal because then we can understand nothing about God because "for the reasoning would always be exposed to the fallacy of equivocation" (Ibid.) That is, the situation would be two things that are called the same thing without any relationship between them. Thus, we couldn't say what it meant for God to be good from knowing what "man is good" means.

The solution according to Aquinas is analogy (or proportion) which is where the word is understood according to a proportion or casual relationship. The typical example is "healthy" which can be applied to a person or food or urine where in the first in means "has health", the second it causes health and the last implies a sign of health.

Analogy in this sense is literal; that is God really is good, just, love, etc -- we aren't using that phrasing to represent something else, unlike when we talk about the allegorical sense of Scripture. More importantly, his Goodness is more real than what we think of as goodness in creature because his is the source and cause of the goodness we possess.

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