Divine Incomprehensibility

by R.C. Sproul

What can we know about God? That’s the most basic question of theology, for what we can know about God and whether we can know anything about Him at all determine the scope and content of our study. Here we must consider the teaching of the greatest theologians in history, all of whom have affirmed the “incomprehensibility of God.” By using the term incomprehensible, they are not referring to something we are unable to comprehend or know at all. Theologically speaking, to say God is incomprehensible is not to say that God is utterly unknowable. It is to say that none of us can comprehend God exhaustively.

Incomprehensibility is related to a key tenet of the Protestant Reformation—the finite cannot contain (or grasp) the infinite. Human beings are finite creatures, so our minds always work from a finite perspective. We live, move, and have our being on a finite plane, but God lives, moves, and has His being in infinity. Our finite understanding cannot contain an infinite subject; thus, God is incomprehensible. This concept represents a check and balance to warn us lest we think we have captured altogether and mastered in every detail the things of God. Our finitude always limits our understanding of God.

If we misunderstand the doctrine of God’s incomprehensibility, we can easily slide into two serious errors. The first error says that since God is incomprehensible, He must be utterly unknowable, and anything we say about God is gibberish. But Christianity affirms the rationality of God alongside the incomprehensibility of God. Our minds can go only so far in understanding God, and to know God we need His revelation. But that revelation is intelligible, not irrational. It is not gibberish. It is not nonsense. The incomprehensible God has revealed Himself truly.

Here we allude to the Reformational principle that God is both hidden and revealed. There is a mysterious dimension of God that we do not know. However, we aren’t left in darkness, groping around for a hidden God. God has also revealed Himself, and that is basic to the Christian faith. Christianity is a revealed religion. God the Creator has revealed Himself manifestly in the glorious theater of nature. This is what we call “natural revelation.” God has also revealed Himself verbally. He has spoken, and we have His Word inscripturated in the Bible. Here we’re talking about special revelation—information God gives us that we could never figure out on our own.

God remains incomprehensible because He reveals Himself without revealing everything there is to know about Him. “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever” (Deut. 29:29). It’s not as if we have no knowledge of God or as if we have consummate knowledge of God; rather, we have a working knowledge of God that is useful and crucial for our lives.

This raises the question as to how we can meaningfully speak about the incomprehensible God. Theologians have an unfortunate tendency to swing between two poles. The pole of skepticism, which we considered above, assumes that our language about God is utterly meaningless and has no reference point with regard to Him. The other pole is a form of pantheism that falsely assumes we have captured or contained God. We steer clear of these errors when we understand that our language about God is built upon analogy. We can say what God is like, but as soon as we equate whatever it is that we use to describe God with His essence, we have committed the error of thinking that the finite has contained the infinite.

Historically, we see the vacillating between the two aforementioned errors in Protestant liberalism and Neoorthodoxy. Nineteenth-century liberal theology identified God with the flow of history and with nature. It promoted a pantheism in which everything was God and God was everything. Against that backdrop, Neoorthodoxy objected to identifying God with creation, and it sought to restore God’s transcendence. In their zeal, Neoorthodox theologians spoke of God as “wholly other.” That idea is problematic. If God is wholly other, how do you know anything about Him? If God is utterly dissimilar from us, how could He reveal Himself? What means could He use? Could He reveal Himself through a sunset? Could He reveal Himself through Jesus of Nazareth? If He were wholly other from human beings, what common basis for communication between God and mankind could there ever be? If God is utterly dissimilar from us, there is no way for Him to speak to us.

Understanding that we relate to the Lord by way of analogy solves the problem. There is a point of contact between man and God. The Bible tells us that we are created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-28). In some sense, human beings are like God. That makes it possible for communication to occur. God has built this capacity for communication into creation. We are not God, but we are like Him because we bear His image and are made in His likeness. Therefore, God can reveal Himself to us, not in His language, but in our language. He can talk to us. He can communicate to us in a manner that we can understand—not exhaustively, but truly and meaningfully. If you get rid of analogy, you end in skepticism.

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9 thoughts on “Divine Incomprehensibility

  1. John 17:3 says, “And this is life eternal, that they might KNOW thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.” I guess this is sufficient for me. If we don’t know him, we are damned. This means he wants us to know him, and he made sure that we can know him. That solves the issue, doesn’t it?
    Mike, your articles are more spiritual. I learn so much from them. The above is not much more than philosophy.

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  2. I’m busy this weekend so I don’t have a lot of time to sit and write. I’ll get back to it on Tuesday.🙂

    Also, I have over that last several days been “debating” people who are of the Open Theist and Molinist persuasions. I contend that they base their “religion” in their philosophy while we base ours in our faith given to us by God and the His truth with is the Word of God. I wanted to post this article because these fellas were accusing several of us of not knowing how to debate since we will not depart from the use of God’s Word as the only truth while they wanted to use logic and philosophical reason alone. I reject using any of that to try to understand God because of the doctrine R.C. Sproul talked about in this article. God has revealed Himself to us in His Word, but there are things about Him that we cannot understand because He is infinite and we are finite.

    In Christ

    Mike Ratliff

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  3. I Corinthians 2:12 – 16 tells us that Natural Man cannot know the Mind of God the Father but we, as Christians, have the mind of Christ.

    With that being true, it follows that since Jesus the Messiah has been exalted above all and whose Name is Placed Above All Other Names, That He is of the Trinity and we have His mind, that we DO have the Ability to Know His Mind.

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  4. Explain Omniscience and Omnipresence and Immutability Doug. We have one God who is all that and much more, but in three persons who all have all of that completely. Explain that. I believe Job and his friends got rebuked in a big way for making the assumption they could understand things that only God can understand.

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  5. How to describe the indescribable. How to define that which exceeds definition at every point. All I can say is there is a huge difference between Knowing and Understanding. If we have the mind of Christ as stated in ICor 2:12, our ‘having’ and knowing’ is in the Spirit. We only Understand what God reveals, but He does not reveal all.

    Isa 55:8 “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways My ways,” declares the LORD.
    Isa 55:9 “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are My ways higher than your ways And My thoughts than your thoughts.
    Isa 55:10 “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, And do not return there without watering the earth And making it bear and sprout, And furnishing seed to the sower and bread to the eater;
    Isa 55:11 So will My word be which goes forth from My mouth; It will not return to Me empty, Without accomplishing what I desire, And without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it.

    And, as Paul wrote to the elect in Corinth:

    1Co 2:1 And when I came to you, brethren, I did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God.
    1Co 2:2 For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.
    1Co 2:3 I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling,
    1Co 2:4 and my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power,
    1Co 2:5 so that your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God.
    1Co 2:6 Yet we do speak wisdom among those who are mature; a wisdom, however, not of this age nor of the rulers of this age, who are passing away;
    1Co 2:7 but we speak God’s wisdom in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God predestined before the ages to our glory;
    1Co 2:8 the wisdom which none of the rulers of this age has understood; for if they had understood it they would not have crucified the Lord of glory;
    1Co 2:9 but just as it is written, “THINGS WHICH EYE HAS NOT SEEN AND EAR HAS NOT HEARD, AND which HAVE NOT ENTERED THE HEART OF MAN, ALL THAT GOD HAS PREPARED FOR THOSE WHO LOVE HIM.”
    1Co 2:10 For to us God revealed them through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches all things, even the depths of God.
    1Co 2:11 For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so the thoughts of God no one knows except the Spirit of God.
    1Co 2:12 Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may know the things freely given to us by God,
    1Co 2:13 which things we also speak, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, combining spiritual thoughts with spiritual words.
    1Co 2:14 But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.
    1Co 2:15 But he who is spiritual appraises all things, yet he himself is appraised by no one.
    1Co 2:16 For WHO HAS KNOWN THE MIND OF THE LORD, THAT HE WILL INSTRUCT HIM? But we have the mind of Christ.

    We CAN see, in the Spirit, that which is of God, and we understand that which God reveals – IN THE SPIRIT! Not in the flesh.

    Describe the Trinity? I(t’s abilities? How three are One entity? Easier to describe His Creating 350+ Billion Galaxies with a single word!

    To Him Belongs all things, Praise and Glorify His Holy Name!

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