Monday, October 17, 2016

On the Knowledge of God

God has plainly revealed His existence to every creature on earth; all people know that He exists, whether or not they acknowledge it. However, we need to move beyond the knowledge that God exists and come to a deeper understanding of who He is—His character and nature—because no aspect of theology defines everything else as comprehensively as our understanding of God. In fact, only as we understand the character of God can we understand every other doctrine properly.


Historically, the first undertaking for systematic theologians is the study of the incomprehensibility of God. At first glance, such an undertaking appears contradictory; how can one study something that is incomprehensible? However, this pursuit makes sense when we grasp that theologians use the term incomprehensible in a narrower and more precise way than it is used in everyday speech. 

Theologically speaking, incomprehensible does not mean that we cannot know anything about God but rather that our knowledge of Him will always be limited. We can have an apprehensive, meaningful knowledge of God, but we can never, not even in heaven, have an exhaustive knowledge of Him; we cannot totally comprehend all that He is.

One reason for that was articulated by John Calvin in the phrase finitum non capax infinitum, which means “the finite cannot grasp the infinite.” The phrase can be interpreted in two distinct ways because the word capax can be translated either as “contain” or as “grasp.” An eight-ounce glass cannot possibly contain an infinite amount of water because it has only a finite volume; the finite cannot contain the infinite. But when Calvin’s phrase is translated with the other meaning of capax, “grasp,” it indicates that God cannot be grasped in His totality. Our minds are finite, lacking the capacity to grasp or understand all that God is. His ways are not our ways. His thoughts are not our thoughts. He surpasses our ability to comprehend Him in His fullness.


Since the finite cannot grasp the infinite, how can we, as finite human beings, learn anything about God or have any significant or meaningful knowledge of who He is? Calvin said that God in His graciousness and mercy condescends to lisp for our benefit. In other words, He addresses us on our terms and in our own language, just as a parent might coo when talking to an infant. We call it “baby talk”; nevertheless, something meaningful and intelligible is communicated.


We find this idea in the Bible’s anthropomorphic language. Anthropomorphic comes from the Greek word anthrĊpos, which means “man,” “mankind,” or “human,” and morphology is the term for the study of forms and shapes. Therefore, we can easily see that anthropomorphic simply means “in human form.” When we read in Scripture that the heavens are God’s throne and the earth is His footstool (Isa. 66:1), we imagine a massive deity seated in heaven and stretching out His feet on the earth, but we do not really think that is what God actually does. Likewise, we read that God owns the cattle on a thousand hills (Ps. 50:10), but we do not interpret that to mean that He is a great cattle rancher who comes down and has a shootout with the devil every now and then. To the contrary, that image communicates to us that God is powerful and self-sufficient just like a human rancher who owns vast herds of cattle.

The Scriptures tell us that God is not a man—He is spirit (John 4:24) and therefore not physical—yet He is often described with physical attributes. There are mentions of His eyes, His head, His strong right arm, His feet, and His mouth. Scripture speaks of God having not only physical attributes but also emotional attributes. We read in places of God repenting, yet elsewhere in the Bible we are told that God does not change His mind. God is described in human terms in certain instances in the Bible because it is the only way man knows to speak about God.

We must be careful to understand what the Bible’s anthropomorphic language conveys. On the one hand, the Bible affirms what these forms communicate about God; on the other hand, in a more didactic way, it warns us that God is not a man. However, this does not mean that abstract, technical, theological language is superior to anthropomorphic language, so that we are better off saying, “God is omnipotent,” rather than “God owns the cattle on a thousand hills.” The only way we can understand the word omni or all is by our human ability to understand what all means. Similarly, we do not conceive of power in the same way God conceives of power. He has an infinite understanding of power, whereas we have a finite understanding of it.

For all these reasons, God does not speak to us in His language; He speaks to us in ours, and because He speaks to us in the only language we can understand, we are able to grasp it. In other words, all biblical language is anthropomorphic, and all language about God is anthropomorphic, because the only language we have at our disposal is anthropomorphic language, and that is because we are human beings.

God Described

Because of these limits imposed by the gulf between the infinite God and finite human beings, the church has had to be careful in how it seeks to describe God.

One of the most common ways to describe God is called the via negationis. A via is a “road” or “way.” The word negationis simply means “negation,” which is a primary way we speak about God. In other words, we describe God by saying what He is not. For example, we have noted that God is infinite, which means “not finite.” Similarly, human beings change over time. They undergo mutations, so they are called “mutable.” God, however, does not change, so He is immutable, which means “not mutable.” Both terms, infinite and immutable, describe God by what He is not.

There are two other ways that systematic theologians speak of God. One is called the via eminentiae, “the way of eminence,” in which we take known human concepts or references to the ultimate degree, such as the terms omnipotence and omniscience. Here, the word for “power,” potentia, and the word for “knowledge,” scientia, are taken to the ultimate degree, omni, and applied to God. He is all-powerful and all-knowing, whereas we are only partially powerful and knowing.

The third way is the via affirmationis, or “way of affirmation,” whereby we make specific statements about the character of God, such as “God is one,” “God is holy,” and “God is sovereign.” We positively attribute certain characteristics to God and affirm that they are true of Him.


In considering God’s incomprehensibility, it is important to note three distinct forms of human speech that the church has delineated: univocal, equivocal, and analogical.

Univocal language refers to the use of a descriptive term that, when applied to two different things, renders the same meaning. For example, to call a dog “good” and a cat “good” is to say they both are obedient.

Equivocal speech refers to the use of a term that changes radically in its meaning when used for two different things. If you went to hear a dramatic poetry reading but were disappointed with the performance, you might say, “That was a bald narrative.” You certainly would not mean that the narrator had no hair on his head; you would mean that something was lacking. There was no pizzazz or passion. Just as something is lacking on the head of a bald person—namely, hair—so there was something lacking in the dramatic reading. You are employing a metaphorical use of the word bald, and in so doing you are moving far away from the meaning of the word when it is applied to hair.

In between univocal speech and equivocal speech is analogical speech. An analogy is a representation based on proportion. The meaning changes in direct proportion to the difference of the things being described. A man and a dog may both be good, but their goodness is not exactly the same. When we say that God is good, we mean that His goodness is like or similar to our goodness, not identical but enough like ours that we can talk meaningfully with each other about it.

The fundamental principle is that even though we do not know God exhaustively and comprehensively, we do have meaningful ways of speaking about Him. God has addressed us in our terms, and, because He has made us in His image, there is an analogy that opens for us an avenue of communication with Him.