Divine Incomprehensibility and the Knowledge of God
To say that God is incomprehensible is to gladly acknowledge that the glorious triune God of Scripture is in a category all by himself and that as such, he is unfathomable in his nature, knowledge, and works. However, due to his gracious self-disclosure, in general and special revelation, we can know the incomprehensible God truly but never fully or exhaustively.
This article describes how the knowledge of God is central to the purpose of our creation and all theological reflection. It also wrestles with how we can know the God, who alone is Creator and Lord, utterly unique and different than us, and thus incomprehensible. It concludes by arguing that our knowledge of God is not exhaustive, but objectively true, authoritative, and sufficient due to God’s gracious revelation of himself in nature and Scripture.
The Westminster Shorter Catechism begins with the famous question: “What is the chief end of man?” Its famous answer is this: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” In Scripture, central to our glorifying God is the knowledge of God. In fact, the purpose of our creation is to know and love God as his image-bearers and covenant people (Matt. 22:37-40). Think of how the new covenant relationship is described between God and his people: “And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD” (Jer. 31:34). There is no higher calling and nothing more urgent than for humans as God’s creatures, and especially God’s redeemed people in Christ, than to know our triune God in all of his majesty, beauty, and holy splendor (Psa. 89:16; Isa. 11:9; John 17:3). The life and health of the church is directly dependent on our knowledge of God.
The study of theology, or dogmatics, rightly understood, is also nothing more or less than the knowledge of God applied to every area of thought and life. Herman Bavinck captures this point well when he writes:
So, then, the knowledge of God is the only dogma, the exclusive content, of the entire field of dogmatics [theology]. All the doctrines treated in dogmatics—whether they concern the universe, humanity, Christ, and so forth—are but the explication of the one central dogma of the knowledge of God. All things are considered in light of God, subsumed under him, traced back to him as the starting point. Dogmatics is always called upon to ponder and describe God and God alone… It is the knowledge of him alone that dogmatics must put on display (Herman Bavinck, God and Creation, vol. 2 of Reformed Dogmatics, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004], 29).
But how do we know rightly the glorious God of Scripture who is totally unlike us? The distance between God and us is the difference between Creator and creature, eternity and time, one who is infinite in being, knowledge, and perfection, and humans, who are finite in every way. In addition, since Genesis 3, we are not only finite but we are also fallen; rebels who want to go our own way and to think our own thoughts. How is the knowledge of God possible?
The Triune God is there and He has Spoken Truth to Us
The answer Scripture gives is this: the knowledge of God is possible because the triune Creator-covenant God exists and has spoken to us. Let’s unpack this answer in two directions.
First, for the knowledge of God to be possible, God must take the initiative to speak to us. Hebrews 1:1-2 begins with these words: “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.” These verses remind us of the first and foundational truth that warrants our knowledge of God and thus everything we think and say about him. Apart from the triune God and his initiative to speak to us, not only would there be no universe (Gen. 1:1-3), we would also have no ground for the knowledge of God, truth, and possibility of doing theology, at least theology that is objectively true (principium cognoscendi, i.e., “principle of knowing,” or the foundation of knowledge). No doubt, creation is revelatory of God and necessary to know God (Psa. 19; Rom. 1:18-32). Yet, to know God beyond merely studying creation; to know his nature, character, will, and promises; to enter into covenant relationship with him; we need divine speech. We need God to tell us who he is, what his eternal plan is all about, and how we fit into that plan for God’s glory (Rom. 11:33-36). To know God and to do theology in any historic Christian sense of the word, divine speech is necessary, and thankfully God has not left us to our mere opinions and human subjectivity.
This point is vitally important for the church to maintain today. Our time, at least in the West, is characterized by a massive loss of truth, ultimately due to our rejection of the triune God and his Word. Our society is described as a postmodern and pluralistic culture. What this means is that we have lost the grounding for objective truth because we have attempted to find “truth” either in a changing, naturalistic world or the individual self. It’s not surprising, then, that our society views “truth” as merely perspectival, provisional, and always incomplete. By making finite human reason the ultimate standard, all attempts to gain a “God’s eye point of view” are rendered implausible, even impossible. But as we are witnessing around us, this view does not lead to peace and tranquility. Instead, it leads to an increasing totalitarianism that seeks to shut down all thought and speech that claims to be objectively true.
The Bible’s view of how we know God is the opposite of our day. Why? Because the triune God who is there has spoken and thus we can rightly think and speak of him. The “True,” “Good,” and the “Beautiful” are not merely in the eyes of their human beholders; they are grounded in God and his Word. As a result, the doing of theology is not only possible, but it’s also our highest calling: to love the Lord with our minds and lives as we “think his thoughts after him” and “take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2Cor. 10:5). The church is called to the supreme privilege of engaging in the joy of reasoning, understanding, and reflecting on the entirety of God’s speech. It’s on this basis alone that we know God, theology is done, lives are rooted in the truth, the church stands strong, and we avoid the quicksand of false ideas that stand in opposition to Christ.
Second, for the knowledge of God to be possible, a specific God must exist, namely the triune God of Scripture (principium essendi, i.e., “principle of being,” or foundation of being), who is both infinite, sovereign, absolute, yet personal, indeed tri-personal. From Genesis to Revelation, the triune God is presented as the uncreated, independent, self-sufficient Creator and Lord of the universe (Gen. 1-2; Psa. 50:12-14; Acts 17:24-25; cf. John 1:1). This truth establishes the central distinction of all theology: the Creator-creature distinction, which eliminates false ideas of God, places God in an entirely different category than his creation, and gives a specific understanding of the God-world relationship different than non-Christian thought. God alone is God; all else is creation that is totally dependent on him for life and all things (Col. 1:15-17).
“Incomprehensibility” is a theological term that seeks to capture the biblical presentation of the triune God in all of his uniqueness, transcendence, and glory. In historical theology, however, some have used the concept of God’s incomprehensibility to conclude wrongly that God is so different than us that our knowledge of him can only be done by “way of negation” (via negativa). Some, who have followed this path, say they are doing apophatic theology, i.e., describing God by emphasizing the limitations of human language and only saying what God is not. In their view, God is beyond description and definition—he is incomprehensible.
However, Scripture teaches that God is both incomprehensible and knowable. The same God who is the Creator and Lord, is also the covenant God who is fully present and related to his creatures: he freely, sovereignly, and purposefully sustains and governs all things to his desired end (Psa. 139:1-10; Acts 17:28; Eph. 1:11; 4:6). He rules with perfect power, knowledge, and righteousness (Psa. 9:8; 33:5; 139:1-4, 16; Isa. 46:9-11; Acts 4:27-28; Rom. 11:33-36), so that he may be known by us (Acts 17:24-28). As Lord, God acts in, with, and through his creatures to accomplish his plan and purposes (Eph. 1:11). As personal, God commands, loves, comforts, and judges consistent with himself and according to the covenant relationships that he establishes with us. The triune God, who alone is Creator and Lord, creates, rules, and redeems so that his image-bearers will know him in covenant relationship. Indeed, as we move through redemptive history, the triune God makes himself known uniquely in the incarnation of the Son, and in Christ, we are redeemed, reconciled, justified, and brought into the fellowship of the triune God (John 1:1-18; 14-16; 17:1-5; 1Cor. 1:9; Eph. 1:3-14; Rev. 21-22).
For this reason, the God who is infinite, absolute, and beyond our comprehension can also be known by us. No doubt, as finite creatures (and fallen), we can never fully understand God. God is beyond our full comprehension and description. However, this does not entail that God is unintelligible. God’s incomprehensibility is best understood in the sense that he is unfathomable. As the triune God, his being is independent, self-sufficient, and simple, and thus unfathomable. As the God who knows and plans all things, his thoughts are too deep to fathom and plumb. In fact, even in eternity, in our glorified condition, we, as finite creatures remain creatures and as such, we will never fully plumb the depths of God’s knowledge and being (Psa. 145:3,7; 139:6; Isa. 40-48; 55:8-9; Rom. 11:33-36). As Reformation theology rightly taught, along with the entire history of the church, “The finite cannot contain the infinite.”
In thinking about God’s incomprehensibility, especially his knowledge, it’s important to remember that God’s thoughts are not merely quantitatively greater than ours; they are qualitatively different. He is the archetype of all knowledge. No doubt, we can say that the “objects” of God’s thoughts and human thoughts are the same, yet the process of God’s thinking is entirely different, let alone its content. So, for example, God’s thinking is creative, ours is not. Our thinking and knowledge is only the ectype of his exhaustive, complete knowledge. In fact, God’s thinking and speech creates worlds and brings all things to pass (Gen. 1:1, 3, 6, 9, 14, 20, 24; Eph. 1:11). Our thoughts are never creative; they are only receptively reconstructive of God’s prior thinking, knowledge, and construction of the world. God’s thoughts are also the standard of truth. What God thinks and plans determines what is true, and morally speaking, his will and nature are the standard of right and wrong. For this reason, God is the standard of truth and determining what is morally right (Gen. 18:25; Matt. 4:4). Nothing in human thought is like this.
Yet, due to God’s gracious revelation of himself, the incomprehensible God is known by us. Our knowledge of him is never exhaustive, even in eternity, yet it’s true if it corresponds to his self-revelation. In contrast to current non-Christian thought that argues we can only have objective truth if we know things exhaustively otherwise we are left with merely finite perspectives, a Christian view of knowledge argues that we can have finite, objective true knowledge because it’s a subset of God’s exhaustive, complete knowledge of all things. That is why Christian theology is a “faith seeking understanding,” a “faith” rooted and grounded in divine revelation, which allows the incomprehensible God to be known by us.
The Locus of Divine Revelation
For the incomprehensible, triune God to be truly known by us, he must take the initiative to disclose himself to us, otherwise we would have no universal, objective grounds for knowledge of him. But where do we find God’s revelation? This is the question of “locus.” A distinction is often made between where God speaks “generally” (universally) or “naturally” versus where he speaks in a “special” (particular) or “supernatural” and salvific’ manner, namely, general versus special revelation.
As important as general revelation is for Christian theology, our focus is more on God’s self-disclosure by divine speech, namely Scripture. Scripture is God’s covenant Word, the product of his sovereign action through the Word and by the Holy Spirit whereby human authors freely wrote exactly what God intended to be written (2Tim. 3:15-17; 2Pet. 1:20-21). In fact, precisely because Scripture is God’s Word written, it’s fully authoritative, trustworthy, and without error. One cannot understand what Scripture is apart from the triune God of Scripture who gave it by his sovereign, providential, extraordinary action in and through human authors. Because Scripture is God’s speech through human authors, its language, even though it’s human and finite, is divinely chosen, true, and adequate to reveal who he is. As God describes himself across the entire canon of Scripture, appropriate and adequate speech is chosen so that we have an understanding of who he is. No doubt, our knowledge of God is never exhaustive, but on the basis of revelation, we do know God truly.
Furthermore, throughout redemptive history, God has entered into covenant relationship with his people and at each point, he has given us a written Word so that we may have total trust in all that he has promised and revealed (Deut. 5:22, 32; 29:9; 30:15-16; Josh. 1:7-8). Now in Christ—the Word incarnate—all of God’s promises have reached their fulfillment (Heb. 1:1-2), resulting in a closed canon. Now in Christ, the entirety of Scripture is for our instruction so that the church may be built up in truth and sound doctrine. The standard by which the church knows God, does theology, evaluates all ideas, is Scripture because it’s God’s Word. In fact, to disbelieve or disobey Scripture is to disbelieve or disobey God (Isa. 66:1-2). The only proper response to God’s Word is to trust and obey. This requires a faithful reading and exposition of Scripture on its own terms, following the Bible’s unfolding covenantal storyline from creation to the new creation, and applying the entire canon to our lives in light of Christ and the dawning of the new covenant age. How thankful we should be that God has not left us to our own thinking, but has given us a sure Word that can be wholeheartedly trusted and which will never lead us astray.
Our Knowledge of the Incomprehensible, Triune God is Analogical
Scripture, as God’s Word written, gives us true, finite knowledge about God. Yet, it’s important to remember that all biblical language in reference to God is true, but analogical. What this entails is that we must not confuse “literal” speech about God with univocal, and “non-literal” speech with analogical. Instead, under the larger category of analogical predication (i.e., language applied to God and humans is similar but different), we should place both “literal” and “non-literal” speech about God. In other words, both “literal” and “non-literal” language in Scripture about God is analogical. This allows us to maintain consistently the Creator-creature distinction, and to affirm that all biblical language about God is analogical, accommodated, and God-chosen human speech about him that truly communicates who he is, but not exhaustively.
In “literal” speech, words and phrases are used in an ordinary and normal sense tied to convention unless some contextual clue suggests otherwise. For example, God is love, is a “literal” description of God. “Non-literal” speech, which includes figurative and metaphorical language, uses words and phrases in a non-ordinary way intended by the speaker or author. For example, God is a Shepherd, or God is a rock is a “non-literal” or “metaphorical” description of God. However, both literal and non-literal speech about God: God exists, God is holy, God is love, God is a Shepherd, God is a rock, is analogical and not univocal. So, to say God is holy, God is love, God is a rock, is to affirm that God is love, holy, and a rock similar and different from humans or created realities. But, if we equate “literal” with univocal, and say that God is love or God is holy in exactly the same way that humans love or are holy, we make a fundamental theological mistake: we reduce the Creator to the creature, and undermine the biblical teaching of God’s utter uniqueness and incomprehensibility. All biblical language in reference to God is true, but it’s never one-for-one with the creature; it’s always analogical predication. Thus, in all of the Bible’s descriptions of God, whether they are “literal” or “non-literal,” the Creator-creature distinction must be preserved.
This point is crucial in our interpretation of Scripture and it must govern how we interpret all biblical language about God. Ultimately, it must also govern how we rightly theologize about who God is, his nature, attributes, works, and relation to the world. This requires that in our knowing God from Scripture, we must pay careful attention to all that Scripture says, and in the way that Scripture says it. God is the incomprehensible Creator, yet he is also the triune-personal God who has disclosed himself to us in a covenantal context and in real history. Because Scripture is God-given, the very language that God employs to describe himself is accurate, true, reliable, yet not exhaustive, univocal, or equivocal, but analogical. What is needed to know God rightly is to let all of Scripture speak for itself, in its own categories, presentation, and across the entire canon. When we do so, we can be assured that our incomprehensible, glorious triune God is known truly by us, yet for all eternity, we will never exhaust who God is in all of his majesty, transcendence, and covenant love and faithfulness in Christ Jesus.
- Herman Bavinck, God and Creation, vol. 2 of Reformed Dogmatics, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004).
- Ardel B. Caneday, “Veiled Glory: God’s Self-Revelation in Human Likeness,” in Beyond the Bounds: Open Theism and the Undermining of Biblical Christianity, eds., John Piper, Justin Taylor, Paul K. Helseth (Wheaton: Crossway, 2003), 149-201.
- John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (Phillipsburg: P&R, 1987).
- Michael S. Horton, “Hellenistic or Hebrew? Open Theism and Reformed Theological Method,” in Beyond the Bounds: Open Theism and the Undermining of Biblical Christianity, eds., John Piper, Justin Taylor, Paul K. Helseth (Wheaton: Crossway, 2003), 202-236.
- Richard A. Muller, The Divine Essence and Attributes, vol. 3 of Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, ca. 1520-1725 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003.
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