An Illustration of Why Latin Can Be Useful

Christian theology has often affirmed Si comprehendis, non est Deus. In English one might translate it as “If you understand it, it’s not God.” This statement gets at the basic idea of apophaticism: God is beyond us, not just quantitatively but qualitatively. Because God is the creator and we are created, there is an infinite gap between us.

We make efforts to know and understand God. Sometimes we have great confidence in thinking we understand God. That’s when we need to remember, Si comprehendis, non est Deus.

So why prefer the Latin rendering? It’s not just to be pedantic or prideful. It’s not to show off one’s learning. For the advantage is in the non-use of pronouns. If you haven’t studied Latin, take my word for it: there are no pronouns in this sentence. What about the English? Do you see the pronouns in “If you understand it, it’s not God?” They’re right there in the middle, first as an object, then as a subject: “It.”

The antecedent of “it” in both cases is “whatever it is you think you’re understanding.” But it’s easy to think we’re using the pronoun for God. I have a problem with using pronouns for God (and also not using pronouns for God). The first problem is theological, the second is literary.

In English we have three normal 3rd person singular pronouns: he, she, and it. “He” is a masculine pronoun and is usually a stand in for males. “She” is a feminine pronoun and is usually a stand in for females. “It” is a neuter pronoun, usually a stand in for objects, for things that are not alive.

So what is God? God’s not an object. Biblically God is alive and active. What about male or female? Some of us are more used to using masculine pronouns for God; some even think of God as masculine. Some, especially those influenced by feminist theology, may use feminine pronouns for God.

Masculine and feminine (and neuter, as well as any other genders that might exist) are aspects within the created order. Things can have gender; God is not a thing, and as Creator is beyond gender. Our challenges are that although God (Father, Son, and Spirit, whom we see active in scripture) does not have gender, Jesus, as a fully human Jewish male does have gender; even more, our words have gender. When we use scriptural language and call God “Father,” it seems natural to use the pronoun “He” for “Father.” Also, though we don’t see it in English, the word “god” is gendered in many languages. All this gives us reason to associate God with a particular gender.

But again, since gender is an aspect of creation, not the Creator, we should think carefully and circumspectly about our use of pronouns for God. For me, that’s a reason to use Latin in this case, since we can get by merely implying pronouns rather than using them.

This entry was posted in God, Language, Theology, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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