NOTES on Ian Ramsey (1915-1972): Talking of God: Models, Ancient and Modern

Ramsey I

Ian Ramsey: Use Models to Talk About God

Ian Ramsey gives us yet another way of speaking about God. We can talk about God in terms of models. A model is a way of speaking about God that allows us to speak positively about Him. For example, if I call God “Father,” I am using “Father” as a model. I am saying that in some sense God is like a male parent. The use of “Father” as a model gives me a way of speaking and thinking about God.

Three Types of Models Used to Describe God

In all of the three types of models below, theological language is directly related “to the world of experience,” in the words of Eric Heaton.

  1. Family Models (Associated with Home and Friends)

The first type of model is related to the family; for example, God is described in terms of these models:





Why use family models? Why use these models that are associated with home and friends? As an example, let us take the model of Father. What can we learn from the description of God as our Father? When you have a loving Father (and God is described as loving us), you have a Father who takes pains over you. Often this means that your father gives you rules to follow and punishes you if you don’t obey the rules. Chances are, everyone reading this has been grounded at one time or another. Similarly, God — Our Father Which Art in Heaven — has given us rules to follow. (Of course, when God grounds you because you broke His rules, it’s for eternity!) When things are going well for us, as they often do, it’s as if we had a loving Father watching out for us.

As another example, let’s take a true friend. (God, of course, is true.) Characteristics of a true friend include reliability and trustworthiness. In some aspects, the universe is like that. For example, take seed-time and harvest. One thing that we can always be sure of in Athens, Ohio, is that Winter will be succeeded by Spring. Winter may seem as if it will never end, but eventually it does end and is succeeded by Spring.

In these models of home and friends, Ramsey writes that “the human case acts as a catalyst for the cosmic case, to generate a cosmic disclosure.” The term “cosmic disclosure” is important in Ramsey’s thought. We can look around us, and often we can learn something about the transcendent reality that lies behind the physical reality that we experience with our senses.

  1. Work and Crafts, and Profession Models

The second type of model is related to work and crafts, and professions; for example, God is described in terms of these models:




Fuller (Laundress)






Teacher and Scribe


Metal Worker

Why use models that arise from Humankind’s work and crafts and professions? Once again, there is a correspondence of patterns. A well-developed model in the Bible is that of shepherd. (“The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.”) In what way are the ancient Israelites and we like sheep?

The ancient Israelites were frequently at war, as are the modern Israelites. It’s no wonder that they felt in need of a protector. C. S. Lewis referred to the material universe as being under enemy occupation. Although God is the Creator of the Universe, evil is present in the universe, and evil spirits are about, trying to tempt us. We need a protector — a shepherd — even today.

III. National Models

The third type of model is related to the Nation; for example, God is described in terms of these models:




Why use models that arise from the context of national or international politics? The model of Judge is well developed. At the end of time, there will be a Day of Judgment, and there it will be decided whether we loved truth and justice or merely said we did. At the Day of Judgment God will decide whether we will be close to Him or banished to Outer Darkness.

The other two models are also well developed in the Bible. About the model of Warrior: C. S. Lewis believes that the forces of God will eventually triumph over the forces of Evil. Since God is omnipotent, there is no doubt that He will eventually triumph. Things may seem ambiguous right now, but that is partly so we can make our choice (either for God or against God) in an ambiguous situation.

Some Models are More Fertile than Others

Some models speak to us more than other models. The models of God as Father and as Judge are very fertile. Other models are not so fertile. For example, God as fuller (laundress) seems to have little to say to us today. However, Ramsey writes, “Every model is sooner or later inadequate.” The model of King may someday lose its adequacy.

Two Cautions

Ramsey does write that we must be careful to observe two cautions:

1) “… we shall not remain content with any one model. … [Therefore,] use as many models as possible, and from them develop the most consistent discourse possible.”

We need to use a multimodel discourse, because no one model can capture the characteristics of God.

2) “If we are to talk reliably about God we must be alert to the need to fit our discourse at all points to patterns of events in the world around us.”

Models need to be both meaningful and relevant. They therefore need to fit the events of this day and age.

Five Reflections

Ramsey next draws five reflections based on the material he has presented so far:

1) “Theological language, and talk about God in particular, often passes men by because it brings with it no cosmic disclosures.”

Suppose we call God a King. Today this may remind a student of the King and Duke in Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Or perhaps it may remind the student of the many wives of King Henry VIII. Calling God a King may be meaningless to many modern people.

So can we use new models to speak about God? Can we use the models of a sleek new sports car or personnel manager? (God is my personnel manager. I shall not want.) Perhaps not. Perhaps we can find no “cosmic disclosures” in such models.

But what about the model of Air Traffic Controller? These people have the job of bringing in planes safely to the airport runway. Can this be a meaningful and relevant model for today?

2) “Whether our models are old or new they must be developed with circumspection.”

“Circumspection” means “prudence.” We must choose our models carefully. Is “rugby player” a good model for God?

3) “Further, all models in theology must be accompanied by qualifiers, those words in theological language which preserve the mystery and transcendence of God, for example, ‘perfect,’ ‘infinite,’ ‘all,’ ‘only,’ and so forth.”

According to Ramsey, we must use the word “infinite” as a qualifier. We should not say, “God is infinite,” because it is incomplete (though relevant). Instead, we should say, “God is infinitely loving” or “God is infinitely powerful.”

4) “… none of us must ever despise the models whence our theological discourse is hewn, for without these we have no way to the cosmic disclosure and no way back to relevance.”

Unless we use models, Ramsey writes, theology can become “no more than word-spinning.”

5) “Presented with some theological phrase, then, of whose meaning (if meaning it has) we are doubtful or even inclined to deny, my recipe for understanding it is:

“a) Do not be content to take the phrase in isolation, but search for its appropriate context, verbal and nonverbal.

“b) At this point try to pick out the model(s) from which the context is derived; these should help us to discover that ‘basis in fact’ for the theological assertion — its bearing on the world around us.

“c) […] See […] how any particular model has been qualified to generate that cosmic disclosure in which I am bound to think that the ultimate ground of all theological assertions will be found.”

A Final Comment

Ramsey writes that theology must always have “some fit with the world around us.” Therefore, according to Ramsey,“[…] the believer is committed to an endless exploration of countless models, in this way constantly improving his understanding of the one God who confronts him in any and every cosmic disclosure.”

Note: The quotations by Ian Ramsey that appear in this essay are from his Christian Empiricism(Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdsman Publishing Company, 1974).

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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