1. Theology and the Incomprehensibility of God
Theology is the task of thinking and speaking about God. This assumes that there is such a God to be thought of and spoken about, and it also assumes that this God is knowable in significant ways. Yet many people today, and even some Christians, think that God is fundamentally unknowable. We cannot really know anything truly about God, they say. After all, God’s thoughts and ways are higher than ours, therefore how could we mere humans really claim to know Him with any kind of certainty? And since “the secret things belong to the LORD our God” (Deuteronomy 29:29), there’s no real use in exploring the nature and character of God.
The problem with this view, of course, is that it fails to take into consideration the whole scope of biblical teaching concerning our knowledge of God. There is a real sense in which we should say that God is beyond our comprehension. One of Job’s friends asks, “Can you find out the deep things of God? Can you find out the limit of the Almighty? It is higher than heaven–what can you do? Deeper than Sheol–what can you know? Its measure is longer than the earth and broader than the sea” (Job 11:7-9). The infinite God really is incomprehensible to His finite creatures. We cannot fathom the fullness of God as He is in Himself.
But though we cannot know God fully or exhaustively, we can know Him truly and rightly. The Bible everywhere assumes this to be true. The full statement of Deuteronomy 29:29 is “the secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.” Thus, we can know God (not in our own power but) because God has revealed Himself to us. Psalm 19 speaks of the two ways in which God reveals Himself to His creatures: general and special. God reveals Himself generally always and everywhere to all people through creation (“the heavens declare the glory of God” [v. 1]). And God also reveals Himself specially in His Word (“the commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes [v. 8]). The ultimate manifestation of God’s special revelation is in His Son, Jesus Christ, who is the very Word of God (John 1:1, 14).
Thus, the Puritan theologian Stephen Charnock says, “though we cannot comprehend God as He is, we must be careful not to fancy Him to be what He is not.” Many people have rejected the importance of theology in knowing God because they think God is fundamentally unknowable, but in so doing they have fancied God to be something He is not. If God had not revealed Himself to us, it would indeed be true that we could not know anything of Him. Yet He has revealed Himself to us, and therefore we can know, think, and speak of Him rightly. This is the task of theology, and the goal of knowing, thinking, and speaking of God rightly is so that we might adore Him.
2. God Is Infinite in Being and Perfection
One of the historic Christian confessions says that God is “infinite in being and perfection” (Westminster Confession of Faith, 2.1). We know that “God does not live in temples made by man” (Acts 17:24) since “heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain [Him]” (1 Kings 8:27). There is no limit to the Almighty (cf. Job 11:7-8). His being is infinite, without end. The Psalmist says, “great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised, and His greatness is unsearchable” (145:3). For this reason, another historic confession says that God’s “essence cannot be comprehended by any but Himself” (Second London Confession, 2.1). The reason that only God can comprehend Himself is because only He has infinite knowledge. It takes infinite knowledge to comprehend infinite being.
Thus, the doctrine of the incomprehensibility of God is fashioned primarily on the grounds that God is infinite in being and perfection. Since God “dwells in unapproachable light” (1 Timothy 6:16), it follows that His creatures cannot comprehend the fullness of His being or perfection. It is not merely that God dwells in unapproached light; rather, He dwells in unapproachable light. Finite creatures cannot draw near to the infinite God, though that same God has drawn near to us, as it were, by revealing Himself in creation, Christ, and Scripture.
3. Creaturely Finitude
There are two primary reasons why creatures cannot fully comprehend their Creator. First, God is infinite and creatures are finite. This means that creatures operate with finite and limited understandings of the world. In ourselves, we do not and cannot know everything there is to know. There is a limit beyond which our minds cannot go. Moreover, if we can’t fully comprehend all the finite things in and about the universe, how much more can we not fully comprehend the infinite God who created the universe and all things therein?
Though our finite amount of knowledge might be quite frustrating to us at times (ever forget where you put your keys?), it is not an inherently bad thing. God never intended for us finite creatures to possess infinite knowledge. Limited knowledge is merely a side-effect of being a limited being. In our finitude, we know “the outskirts of His ways, and how small a whisper do we hear of Him! But the thunder of His power who can understand?” (Job 26:14). The result of this consideration should be us humbling ourselves before the infinite God of heaven and earth whose majesty and greatness is unsearchable.
4. Creaturely Sinfulness
Yet there is another, more sinister, reason we cannot fully comprehend God, and it has to do with the fact that we do not, in fact, humble ourselves before Him. Sin obscures our knowledge of God and blinds us to His glory. God reveals Himself from heaven such that all people everywhere know Him and are without excuse for suppressing the truth they know about Him in unrighteousness (cf. Romans 1:18-21). Paul says that those who deny the existence of God “are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart” (Ephesians 4:18). Indeed, “the fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God'” (Psalm 14:1).
Whereas our finitude limits our capacity for knowledge, our sin causes us to take what we know about God and suppress it, just as Paul says in Romans 1. It is as if our knowledge of God were a beach ball and our sin causes us to hold the ball underwater. By holding it underwater, we have not altogether eliminated the ball for it inevitably remains in our possession as we seek to continue to hold it underwater; so too, by suppressing the truth we know about God in unrighteousness, we have not altogether eliminated our knowledge of God.
5. Adoring the Incomprehensible God
One of the implications of the doctrine of divine incomprehensibility is that if we know God at all, it is due to His gracious revelation of Himself to us. Since we are finite, we cannot know the infinite God by working our way up to Him, or by building a tower composed of finite parts. But He can, and has, made Himself known to us by way of revelation in creation, Christ, and Scripture. This ought to keep us humble, acknowledging that everything we know generally, and everything we know about God specifically, is all of grace.
This doctrine also means that we should never think that we have gotten to “the end” of God. Indeed, divine infinity literally means that God has no end. This truth is incomprehensible to our minds, yet we can and should confess it with our mouths. John Owen, when considering the doctrine of divine eternity (another incomprehensible doctrine!), says,
How inconceivable is this glorious divine property unto the thoughts and minds of men! How weak are the ways and terms whereby they go about to express it….He that says most only signifies what he knows of what it is not. We are of yesterday, change every moment, and are leaving our station tomorrow. God is still the same, was so before the world was,–from eternity. And now I cannot think what I have said, but only have intimated what I adore.
Owen is right to say these things. We should always and everywhere be totally stunned in awe and wonder by the supremacy and greatness and majesty of the glory of our incomprehensible God. With Paul, we should confess,
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and how inscrutable His ways! ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been His counselor?’ ‘Or who has given a gift to Him that he might be repaid?’ For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be glory forever. Amen (Romans 11:33-36).
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