Up to this point, we have seen how the incom­pre­hen­si­bil­i­ty of God is taught in Scrip­ture and also how it has been includ­ed in the the­o­log­i­cal reflec­tion of folks such as the church fathers. The church has been pon­der­ing the mys­tery of God for hun­dreds and hun­dreds of years. Augus­tine, Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin all affirmed God’s rev­e­la­tion to us as incom­pre­hen­si­ble mys­tery, each in their own way. 

Yet we might still be inclined to ask, quite sim­ply, how can it be so? If God is real­ly beyond knowl­edge, then how can it be that the whole Chris­t­ian church talks so read­i­ly about know­ing” God? Indeed, J.I. Pack­er has writ­ten a book with that very title. Note that this ques­tion is not quite the same as the more skep­ti­cal, can we know God? We can sure­ly rule out the notion that real knowl­edge of God is sim­ply impos­si­ble. The unit­ed tes­ti­mo­ny of Scrip­ture and tra­di­tion com­bines with the con­crete expe­ri­ence of Chris­tians like you and me to insist that knowl­edge of God cer­tain­ly is pos­si­ble, for it actu­al­ly does hap­pen. So my ques­tion is not whether” but how.”

This how” ques­tion is real and extreme­ly impor­tant. We might some­times over­look its force, because the ques­tion seems to be so eas­i­ly answered by a straight­for­ward appeal to God’s rev­e­la­tion, and espe­cial­ly to his rev­e­la­tion in Scrip­ture, where the mys­tery has been revealed. We can know the incom­pre­hen­si­ble God because, to put it sim­ply, he has told us about him­self. This answer is right in so many ways that one is hes­i­tant to quar­rel with it, but we must pause to remem­ber just what we mean — and what we do not mean — when we speak about know­ing the incom­pre­hen­si­ble God.

To say that God is incom­pre­hen­si­ble” is not to say mere­ly that he is not com­pre­hend­ed; it is to say that he can­not be com­pre­hend­ed by finite, crea­ture­ly minds. As I’ve not­ed in past blogs, God is not an inves­tiga­tive mys­tery that could, in prin­ci­ple, be resolved if only we con­sult­ed the right sources (say, an inerrant Bible). No, God is a rev­e­la­tion­al mys­tery, who has made him­self known pre­cise­ly as a mys­tery, pre­cise­ly as a tran­scen­dent real­i­ty that does not fit neat­ly into the log­i­cal or lin­guis­tic cat­e­gories we use when we think about anything. 

Do you remem­ber our anal­o­gy from Flat­land? It might, of course, be a very good thing for Flat­landers to have an inerrant rev­e­la­tion about the mys­te­ri­ous object called a cylin­der rather than mere­ly rely­ing on their own flawed per­cep­tions and spec­u­la­tions. Such a rev­e­la­tion might allow the Flat­lander to say, Yes, I am con­vinced: there are objects that are both round and square at the same time.” But what the rev­e­la­tion can­not do is to show him how that round­ness and that square­ness con­crete­ly fit togeth­er in a sin­gle fig­ure. In this sense, he still does not know what a cylin­der is. He believes that there is such a thing on the basis of the rev­e­la­tion giv­en to him, but he still does not com­pre­hend it, and he has lit­tle idea how to live with his new knowl­edge in day-to-day, prac­ti­cal terms. 

So also, Scrip­ture gives us true propo­si­tions about the tran­scen­dent Cre­ator, spo­ken to us in a crea­ture­ly idiom that we can read­i­ly under­stand. And we can cer­tain­ly expect that God knows how best to use that idiom: his rev­e­la­tion is ful­ly trust­wor­thy. But for us to know the real­i­ty of which the rev­e­la­tion speaks requires some­thing more. The Flat­lander, if he is to engage a three-dimen­sion­al world, does not need sim­ply a set of incon­tro­vert­ible propo­si­tions: he needs to be drawn out of Flat­land alto­geth­er. Sim­i­lar­ly, the crea­ture who would know God needs — some­how — to move beyond mere crea­ture­li­ness. To know the God who sur­pass­es knowl­edge requires not just hav­ing the right sources of infor­ma­tion. It requires being the right kind of knower.

How, then, is this seem­ing­ly impos­si­ble task to be accom­plished? How can we approach the one who dwells in unap­proach­able light? How are mere crea­tures to gain and to live in the knowl­edge of a tru­ly incom­pre­hen­si­ble God? The answer is bound to be com­plex, but its basis can be eas­i­ly stat­ed. The fun­da­men­tal premise for true knowl­edge of God is this: God desires for us to know him, and he has act­ed, in cre­ation and redemp­tion, to make just such knowl­edge a real­i­ty. The basic asser­tions here rest square­ly on the Chris­t­ian under­stand­ing of who God is, and so we must start our inves­ti­ga­tion at that point — the nature of God.

Catch up with all of Chris’s blog posts in this and oth­er series at Con­ver­sa­tions with Chris.

This series has been adapt­ed from Steven D. Boy­er and Chris Hall’s The Mys­tery of God: The­ol­o­gy for Know­ing the Unknow­able. Hun­gry for more? Please vis­it Bak­er Aca­d­e­m­ic for more information.

📚 The 2022 – 23 Ren­o­varé Book Club

This year’s nine-month, soul-shap­ing jour­ney fea­tures four books, old and new, prayer­ful­ly curat­ed by Ren­o­varé. Now under­way and there’s still time to join.

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