In this study and the next we move into the area of knowledge or ‘epistemology’. The most basic question that both chapters address is how it is possible for finite human beings to know an infinite God. In this study, the third of our six theological ‘keys’ to Scripture is: We cannot comprehend God. Like the other theological keys in KMKG, incomprehensibility is clearly taught in Scripture.
On the basis of God’s simplicity, God’s knowledge is his essence. That means that God cannot be ‘separated’ from his knowledge. He is his own theology. This divine self-knowledge is sometimes called archetypal theology. What God knows to be, he wills to be, and therefore it is. In contrast, our human knowledge is creaturely: finite, fragmented, and (now) fallen.
This theological key can help stop us from overreaching ourselves in trying to grasp and express what is going on in God’s essence. A good example is our interpretation of Scripture texts that say God ‘regrets’ or even ‘repents’. We must interpret Scripture in light of Scripture: those texts that are clearer to us then become the interpretative framework by which we can understand those texts that seem more obscure. There is a distinction between God as known in his effects as experienced by ever-changing creatures like us, and God in his essence.
Recognising our lack of ability to comprehend God can help us in our discipleship, give us much consolation, and even impart joy to us as we rejoice in our epistemological limitations.
Aims of study
- To appreciate the incomprehensibility of God.
- To develop a deeper sense of God’s gracious condescension that underlies our knowledge of God.
- To be able to articulate something of the relationship between God’s essence, God’s knowledge, and God’s will.
- To recognise our own knowledge as finite and fallible, as well as in constant flux.
- To apply the principle that Scripture interprets Scripture to various texts that say God ‘changed his mind’ or similar.
- To allow a fresh acknowledgement of our inability to grasp God’s essence to refresh our discipleship, and give us consolation and joy in the God who knows all things.
- Read this quote from U.S. Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld in 2002:
[A]s we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know.
How might your life have been different if you had known the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns? What might have been the downsides of such knowledge?
Questions to review understanding and for discussion
- What does the ‘incomprehensibility’ of God mean? (p. 66)
- What did Herman Bavinck mean when he started his discussion of the doctrine of God with the famous words ‘Mystery is the lifeblood of dogmatics.’ (p. 70)
- What’s the point of Brash’s banana illustration on p. 72? (The ‘changes’ in my attitude are sometimes called ‘Cambridge changes’: you can search online to find out why. Some theologians use this term to specify the particular way that God ‘changes’.)
- What is the relationship between the incomprehensibility of God and the immutability of God? (p. 75) How does this help us with our Bible reading?
- St. Augustine said, ‘If you comprehend, it is not God.’ (See KMKG p. 77) Why not? So what?
Bible passage: Jeremiah 18:7-11
- Brash quotes this passage on page 73 of KMKG. Have a look at the wider context in Jeremiah 18, from a time not long before Judah’s exile. What is God’s intention in this passage? (i.e. What does God aim to achieve by speaking these words?) How does the image of God as the potter in verse 2-6 shed light on the later verses? What options are presented to the people of Judah in verse 7-11? What actually happens in response to (or following on from) these words? (See verses 12 and 18.) How can we know that there is not a real change in God’s knowledge or his will (his essence) here? Why is this important?
Suggested application questions
- How could you explain to a non-Christian God’s incomprehensibility? Why would you want to?
- How do the three applications of our ability to comprehend God’s essence given by Gregory of Nazianzus on p. 76 work in practice?
- Ezekiel’s vision of God caused him to fall on his face (Ezekiel 1:28. See KMKG pp. 76-77). What was it about the vision that produced this reaction? What should we learn from this about how we can relate to God?
- Having worked through this study, you might now return to the question raised as a starter question above: Why might it be good for us not to know all things as God knows them?
For further study
My favourite introduction to Christian epistemology is John Frame’s The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1987). Frame’s book would be good further reading for both this study and the next.
For a higher (almost sublime) level treatment of the main theme of this study, you surely couldn’t do better than turn to Herman Bavinck’s chapter on ‘The Incomprehensibility of God’ in Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 2, God and Creation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004), 27-52.