The Euthyphro Dilemma and Analogy of Being

There is a trend within modern Orthodoxy theology, represented most famously by Fr. John Romanides, to dispute the legitimacy of analogical language with respect to God-talk. Romanides’ book Patristic Theology has an entire section on the evils of analogical language, and popular Orthodox apologists (one thinks particularly of Clark Carlton) now take it as given that the role of apophatism in Orthodox epistemology necessarily excludes analogical approaches.

There are many things we could say about this, including the important—yet ofted overlooked—role that Thomas Aquinas has played in Eastern Orthodox thought. However, since objections to the doctrine of analogy usually hinge on caricatures and misunderstandings of the idea, I think the best corrective I can offer is simply sketch the basic shape a metaphysics of analogy can take and how it relates to Plato’s famous Euthyphro Dilemma. Whether you are convinced or not, I hope at least to help you come away from this article with a more accurate understanding of analogical language, and why some thoughtful Orthodox figures are uncomfortable completely ditching the concept.

Within metaphysical theology, there is been a problem that we may call the problem of univocity. Is human goodness, truth, and beauty, the same as God’s goodness, truth, and beauty, but just lesser in degree? In other words, is the being of God on the same qualitative plane as the things of earth, but simply infinitely more, like a hundred-watt light bulb compared to an infinitely bright bulb? Until the thirteenth century, Christian philosophers generally answered these questions in the negative, lest God’s being be rendered “univocal” with (the same as) the being of this world. After all, they pointed out, God is not simply more of what we find in creation, for He transcends all descriptions. God “is” not in the same sense creation is, for the things of creation receive their being, while God is self-existent. Thus, while we can talk about God’s actions in relation to creation, His nature—what He is in Himself—cannot be grasped by human descriptions, concept, or predicates.

Yet piety also constrained Christian thinkers to deny that all predicates for God are “equivocal” (uncertain and ambiguous) and without definite content, lest God’s self-revelation of Himself Scripture and Jesus Christ be reduced to meaninglessness, collapsing in an abyss of epistemological nihilism (which is indeed the route John Calvin took in some of his less sanguine writings, such as his Commentary on Job and the third book of the Institutes).

To navigate between the Scylla of univocity and the Charybdis of equivocity, some Christian philosophers found a solution in the Platonic notion of participation or imitation, and the related concept of analogy. Here’s how it works.

To preserve the Biblical gap between creation and creator (a gap which is both epistemological and metaphysical) we may say that God’s being is related to the being of this world analogously. That is, the created world is a sign or analogy of the more substantial being of God, who exists as True Actuality. Thus, God’s love, beauty, justice, truth, goodness, etc., are not univocally related to these same qualities within the world, as if God and creation are on the same plane of existence. That is, God is not another instance of being, but the very ground of being itself. However, precisely because true being can only be predicated to God, created things must participate in God in order to be. Accordingly, we can say that human goodness, virtue, wisdom, beauty, justice, and so forth, are like, or reflective of, or analogous to, the nature of God in which these qualities participate. This can be compared to the way a sword that the smith puts in the fire takes on the property of fire, namely heat. The sword becomes “like” the fire—or, we might say, the sword participates in the fire’s energies—while still retaining its distinct particularity (i.e., the sword remains a sword and does not become fire).

Historically, Western and Eastern Christianity both agree on the legitimacy of analogy. Significantly, Greek theologians, with their more apophatic emphasis, still saw no problem simultaneously affirming analogy. Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, for example, could hold in tension the cataphatic theology of analogy with the higher apophatic theology of divine unknowability. God, he explained in The Divine Names,

“is celebrated by all beings according to the analogy that all things bear to him as their Cause. But the most divine knowledge of God, that in which he is known through unknowing, according to the union that transcends the mind, happens when the mind, turning away from all things, including itself, is united with the dazzling rays, and there and then illuminated in the unsearchable depth of wisdom.”

See Also

In this passage, Pseudo-Dionysius both uses analogical language (“according to the analogy that all things bear to him as their Cause”) alongside an apophatic approach. Other theologians grappling with Neoplatonism—both East and West—built on this by emphasizing that qualities in the created world (i.e., goodness, truth, beauty, wisdom, justice, love, etc.) participate in the being of the Triune God. Various thinkers have nuanced these truths differently. For example, there has been debate on how to reconcile the many-ness of the divine attributes with the unity of the divine nature. Moreover, some of my Eastern Orthodox dialogue partners are uncomfortable talking about created things participating in God’s “nature,” out of concern that this presumes to know something of the divine essence (what God is in Himself) which, unlike God’s uncreated energies, must always remain the object of a purely apophatic approach. These are all legitimate areas of inquiry, although the details need not concern us here. What all Christians—Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant—are committed to believing is that goodness, truth, beauty, are somehow rooted in the being of God. How we parse this out—for example, whether we say that goodness, truth, beauty, etc. are Platonic forms pre-existing in the Divine Mind, or that these qualities are grounded in God’s “nature,” or that these are among God’s eternal uncreated energies, or that these are divine names pre-existing in the divine essence in an incomprehensible way, or all or some of the above—need not concern us here. The important point is that piety demands we affirm that qualities such as goodness, truth, and beauty are neither prior nor subsequent to God, but somehow rooted in Him.

Why is it a matter of piety to affirm that goodness, truth, beauty, etc. are somehow rooted in the being of God? This is where Plato comes in. In Plato’s dialogue the Euthyphro, Socrates asked the character Euthyphro whether an action is pious because it is willed of the gods, or whether the gods will an action because it is pious. This basic problem has come to be known as “the Euthyphro Dilemma.” In Christian theology, the Euthyphro Dilemma refers to the question of whether an action is good because God wills it, or whether God wills an action because it is good? Both ways of answering the question are problematic. If we say that an action is good because God wills it, then that would seem to make the goodness of an action purely arbitrary, leading to an extreme voluntarism and philosophical Nominalism. I knew a Protestant pastor who took this route and concluded that God could have created a planet where it was beautiful to hate Him, and where the continuum of vices and virtues could have been completely reversed. On this nominalist scheme, what we call “good” is simply what God happened to will, but there is no necessary relation between God’s will and His being. Accordingly, to say “God is good,” is simply to say, “God wills what God wills,” which is the height of impiety since this is equally true of the devil. But it seems just as impious to assert that God wills an action because it is good, as if goodness is a standard external to God to which He chooses to submit.

Early on, classical Christian philosophy left behind the Euthyphro Dilemma by asserting that neither God’s will nor the goodness of an action are related to each other as cause and effect; rather, both follow from God’s perfectly good nature. (And again, for those who are uncomfortable talking about God’s nature, we can say the same thing regarding His eternal uncreated energies.) The point is that goodness, truth, beauty, wisdom, justice, love, along with all God’s attributes, are neither prior nor subsequent to God. Just as three-sidedness is intrinsic to what a triangle is (for a triangle could not be a triangle without having three sides), so infinite goodness, truth, and beauty are intrinsic to God Himself (or, if you prefer, His energies). But if this is true, then it means that when we experience goodness, love, truth, wisdom, and beauty in creation, we are experiencing qualities that somehow imitate, or participate in, the Divine. As a consequence, the human mind can genuinely yet imperfectly grasp goodness, truth, and beauty via the things of this world. As James Matthew Wilson summarized this philosophical tradition,

“The human intellect can imperfectly but really grasp the True, the Good, and the Beautiful—some of the Divine Names Dionysius the Aeropagite enumerated in his Christian Platonist theology. Thus, our reasonings and our aesthetic judgments are based on a certain foundation even if we do not possess with certain knowledge the full vision of that foundation.”

Scroll To Top