Divine Incomprehensibility and Man’s Knowledge of God


Written by E. J. Hutchinson


Moses at Sinai

What can we know about God?

Can we know anything about God? The deity’s traditional designation as “incomprehensible” is apt to make the unsuspecting nervous that those who talk in such a way mean we cannot. This would be problematic, of course, because Scripture clearly indicates that we do know God, and things about God. As Jesus says in John 17.3, “And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”

Divine Incomprehensibility in Scripture

Yet the doctrine of God’s incomprehensibility is itself founded on Scripture. Texts that are typically marshalled here are, for instance, Psalm 145.3 (“[God’s] greatness is unsearchable”) and Job 11.7 (“Can you find out the deep things of God? Can you find out the limit of the Almighty?”).

Because that is so, it has also long been the doctrine of the church. It is ubiquitous, for example, in the writings of the fourth century Cappadocians, and is a heritage of the Reformed churches as well. Thus the article “Of God, and of the Holy Trinity” in the Westminster Confession of Faith teaches it as part of its classical doctrine of God:

There is but on only, living, and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions; immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute…

Likewise, Question 7 of the Westminster Larger Catechism asks “What is God?” and gives as the answer:

God is a Spirit, in and of himself infinite in being, glory, blessedness, and perfection; all-sufficient, eternal, unchangeable, incomprehensible…

Divine Incomprehensibility in Nature

In addition, many have found God’s incomprehensibility to be known by nature as well. A story told about the ancient Greek poet Simonides comes to that conclusion, a story that is told by Thomas Boston in his exposition of the Westminster Shorter Catechism to illustrate this very doctrine:

Simonides, a heathen poet, being asked by Hiero king of Syracuse, What is God ? desired a day to think upon it; and when that day was at an end, he desired two days; and when these were past, he desired four days. Thus he continued to double the number of days in which he desired to think of God, ere he would give an answer. Upon which the king expressing his surprise at his behaviour, asked him, What he meant by this ? To which the poet answered, ‘The more I think of God, he is still the more dark and unknown to me. Indeed no wonder that he made such an answer; for he that would tell what God is in a measure suitable to his excellency and glory, had need to know God even as he is known of him, which is not competent to any man upon earth. Agur puzzles the whole creation with that sublime question, What is his name ? Prov. 30:4. But though it is impossible in our present state to know God perfectly, seeing he is incomprehensible.

“[Y]et,” Boston continues, “so much of him is revealed in the scriptures as is necessary for us to know in order to our salvation.”

But Can We Know More?

But one might even go further than Boston and claim that, even granting God’s incomprehensibility, there are things we can know about him, even things that do not come only from Scripture and that are not strictly necessary for our salvation—or, to put it another way, that would be knowable about God regardless of the Bible and of man’s fall into sin together with the redemption consequently necessitated. And all that is true despite God’s “unsearchability.”

One way in which to maintain the possibility of such knowledge is to draw a distinction. The incomprehensibility of God is a necessary entailment of his infinity. Because God is infinite, he has no “bounds” or “limits” (for that is what the word means), and so cannot be comprehensively understood by man. “To comprehend” means “to grasp.” By definition,then, the unbounded cannot be “grasped” or “embraced” by man’s understanding; it is too big; it eludes our grip, however tenacious; we cannot take it all in. Finitum non capax infiniti, as Calvin says.

Nevertheless, we are able to know God apprehensively. Though “to comprehend” and “to apprehend” are sometimes treated and used synonymously, it is possible to draw a subtle but important distinction between them by way of the prepositional prefixes appended to each word. The prefix “com-,” derived from the Latin cum, which primarily means “together,” also gives the sense, as the Oxford English Dictionary has it, of “altogether, completely.” Think of a comprehensive examination, in which you are required to master some field in its totality.

The “ap-” in “apprehensively,” on the other hand, comes from the Latin ad. To quote the OED again, it gives the sense “to, towards, near.” In our knowing the divine, we are always approaching toward God, always coming to him, but never “arriving,” never clasping him with a kind of mental circumscription. Think, here, of something like C.S. Lewis’ “further up and further in,” or Gregory of Nyssa’s infinite pursuit of God and progress in knowledge of and union with God—infinite precisely because predicated on God’s own infinity.

A good and succinct discussion of the distinction is to be found in the 17th century dissenter theologian Thomas Ridgley’s A Body of Divinity, composed of his lectures on the Westminster Larger Catechism. I do not quote Ridgley on the doctrine of God without some trepidation because, while orthodox on the topics of God’s unity and simplicity, he denies the eternal generation of the Son and the procession of the Holy Spirit. But his treatment of incomprehensibility in Question 7 is acute. He begins as follows, relying on the text of Job already given above:

God is incomprehensible. This implies that his perfections cannot be fully known by any creature. Thus it is said, “Canst thou by searching find out God? canst thou find out the Almighty unto perfection?”

He goes on to explain that God’s incomprehensibility results not only from our imperfection due to the Fall, but also from our finitude due to Creation. He writes:

When we consider God as incomprehensible, we not only mean that man, in this imperfect state, cannot fully comprehend his glory—for we can comprehend but very little, comparatively, of finite things,[1] and much less of that which is infinite; but we mean, that the best of creatures, in the most perfect state, cannot fully conceive of or describe his glory. The reason is, that they are finite, while his perfections are infinite; and there is no proportion between an infinite God and a finite mind.[2] As easily might the water of the ocean be contained in the hollow of the hand, or the dust of the earth weighed in a balance, as the best of creatures could have a perfect and adequate idea of the divine perfections.

But Ridgley then continues by noting that we do know God via apprehension. I quote him again at length:

On this subject we generally distinguish between apprehending and comprehending. The former denotes our having some imperfect or inadequate ideas of what surpasses our understanding; the latter, our knowing every thing that is contained in it, or our having an adequate idea of it. Now we apprehend something of the divine perfections, in proportion to the limits of our capacities, and our present state; but we are not, and never shall be, able to comprehend the divine glory—God being incomprehensible to every one but himself. Again, we farther distinguish between our having a full conviction that God hath those infinite perfections, which no creature can comprehend, and our being able fully to describe them. Thus we firmly believe that God exists throughout all the changes of time, and yet that his duration is not measured thereby; or that he fills all places, and yet is not co-extended with matter. We apprehend, as having undeniable demonstration of it, that he does so; though we cannot comprehend how he does it.

Conclusion

To sum up: only God knows God comprehensively. To assert this is to safeguard his infinity and his radical difference from every created being. As A.A. Hodge would later write, “Our knowledge is dependent; God’s is independent. Ours is fragmentary; God’s total and complete. Ours is in great measure transient; God’s permanent.” But man does know God in proportion to what he is capable of. To assert this is to safeguard man’s real relation to God and to give him some understanding of divine things. Though such understanding is limited, it is true understanding—understanding that is attuned to man’s creaturely capacities and ordered to the praise of God’s limitless majesty. As Paul says in Romans 11.33, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!”


E. J. Hutchinson is Associate Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College, where he also directs the Collegiate Scholars Program. His research focuses on the intersection of Christianity and classical civilization in late antiquity and early modernity. He is the editor and translator of Niels Hemmingsen, On the Law of Nature: A Demonstrative Meth- od (CLP Academic, 2018).

 

“Does Protestantism have anything to offer to philosophy? The contributors to this volume answer with a resounding yes as they examine a variety of topics, from natural theology to the relationship between science and Scripture. Theirs is an encouraging response in an age in which many Protestants have rejected philosophy out of hand. The authors here encourage believers to reconsider the meaning and role of philosophy for the Christian. The result is a valuable and thought-provoking book that invites the reader to share in that sense of wonder about God’s world that is at the root of all true philosophy.”

—KEITH MATHISON

PROFESSOR OF SYSTEMATIC THEOLOGY | REFORMATION BIBLE COLLEGE


Notes

[1] Gregory of Nazianzus makes this same point in the second of the Theological Orations.

[2] Here echoing the dictum of Calvin quoted above.