Although I’ve enjoyed a 50-year career expounding reasons for faith, I’ve always had a deep sense of the “incomprehensibility of God.” No matter how clear our concepts and cogent our arguments, God is, in the end, a transcendent being, above and beyond us, one whom we cannot master either by physical strength or by mental skill. His immanence is important too, his entering history to reveal himself and redeem us in Christ. But, even in his most intimate nearness, he remains God.
And as God, his knowledge—even of the things most familiar to us—is vastly different from our own. He and I both know the sago palm in my front yard, but he knows far more about it than I could ever grasp. He knows it as its Creator, as the one who made the whole universe and foreordained its history (Eph. 1:11), as the one who planned from the beginning the process by which that sago palm would grow in my front yard. Further, his knowledge is normative, a knowledge that governs how all his creatures should think about everything. Because God is the supreme King, he has the right to tell me and show me how I should think about that sago palm.
With Creator-knowledge, God knows everything about my sago; with creature-knowledge, I know whatever he chooses to let me know. When I learn something new about my sago, I am learning it from God, according to his standards.
There is certainly a strong similarity, a strong analogy, between God’s knowledge and mine, because I am seeking to know according to his revelation. He has ordained it that way. But I don’t know anything as the final standard of truth concerning that object. My knowledge is not identical to God’s, because I am not God.
My knowledge is not identical to God’s, because I am not God.
All of that implies that there is a deep dimension of mystery in the universe. God tells Isaiah that the evil man should “forsake his thoughts,” because
my thoughts are not your thoughts,
Neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD.
As the heavens are higher than the earth,
So are my ways higher than your ways
And my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isa. 55:8–9)
So, no matter how much we know, there will always be something beyond us. We cannot know God as God knows himself. Nor can we know anything in creation as God knows it. We cannot even know ourselves as God knows us. Our knowledge is adequate to serve God as he intends, and our ignorance is never an excuse for disobedience. But our knowledge is never exhaustive.
Humility of Mystery
In my study of the history of thought, I have seen many sophisticated thinkers struggle with God’s mystery. The ancient Greek philosophers tried to achieve an ultimate, exhaustive knowledge of things through human reason alone, without the assistance of divine revelation. But the best they could do was to conceive of a “pure being” from which lower beings somehow emanated. They knew that they couldn’t achieve their goal without something transcendent, but they couldn’t grasp how a pure being could contain enough impurity to make it emanate impure beings.
More recent thinkers have tried a different approach, anticipated by the Greek atomists. They’ve tried to come up with a comprehensive rational explanation of the world by chopping the world up into smaller and smaller pieces: molecules, atoms, subatomic particles, perhaps “superstrings.” But the tiniest particles they claim to exist cannot be the ultimate explanation of everything, for they cannot be understood except by reference to the larger things. (“Atom” is meaningless except as a component of something larger. Even more so, “superstrings.”)
Today some thinkers believe the world is largely made of “dark matter” and “dark energy.” But these, by definition, are realities that we don’t know, for they are dark. This is to say that for all our sophisticated philosophical and scientific schemes, the most fundamental reality of the world is unknown to us.
For all our sophisticated philosophical and scientific schemes, the most fundamental reality of the world is still unknown to us.
The same is true of theology. We “see but a poor reflection in a mirror” (1 Cor. 13:12). In theology, we seek to take Scripture—God’s revelation of himself—and apply it to our lives in the world. At best, this is “wisdom” (Prov. 1:7). Wisdom is a practical knowledge God gives to help us accomplish the work he assigns to us. But we need to get over the idea that theology takes all the mystery out of the world.
As I get older, I am less and less impressed by people, including theologians, who think they have everything figured out. Theologians readily confess God’s incomprehensibility as a doctrinal point, but often they go on from there to write as if they had that ultimate and final knowledge that belongs to God alone.
We need to get over the idea that theology takes all the mystery out of the world.
In conservative theology, writers tend to confess mystery, but then go on to meticulously explain such things as the order of God’s decrees and the inner activities of the Trinitarian persons without any clear biblical basis.
Liberal writers say that conservative theologians claim too much knowledge of the mysterious God, but then they go on to explain in great detail what government programs God demands of us to help the needy—again, without biblical basis.
At 80, I look at both types of theology with sadness and amusement. God is not here to motivate our rationalistic quest. God is Lord of heaven and earth. He comes to drive us to repent of sin and embrace Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.