This will be a brief introduction because it comes by way of prefatory caution rather than a long doctrinal debate or extensive theological excursus. Any systematic theology ought to start its discussion on God with divine incomprehensibility, in one way or another. If we proceed upon the assumption that God can be comprehended, either in theory or practice, we may end up rejecting certain orthodox tenants of the faith simply because we cannot seem to reconcile them according to our personal powers of reason.
In the coming series, our presupposition will be this: the infinite Lord of glory may be apprehended by virtue of His own self-disclosure, but He may not be comprehended by the finite human intellect. In other words, we can know what we can know about God (Job 37:5). We are creature and He is Creator. Because of this, there will always be a fundamental separation between God and humanity both in terms of ontology and epistemology. Yet, it is not a separation that renders God unknowable.
Knowing and Comprehending
It is one thing to know, it is another to comprehend. What’s the difference?
Think of a broad topic, such as mathematics. I know math. I can figure 2+2=4 or 3×9=27. But does this mean I comprehend math as a subject? Of course not! I cannot even come close to successfully articulating equations in theoretical physics or the level of geometry used by structural engineers, for example. I know math, but I do not comprehend it as a subject.
We can know truths about God, but we cannot comprehend God exhaustively.
Even what we do know…
Now that we’ve established that we can know things about God, and that God has disclosed Himself to us, we must say something about this knowledge. Our knowledge about the facts of God, we may call it propositional knowledge, is creaturely. For starters, we do not know like God knows. God does not come to facts in an intellectual sequence like humans. We must obtain knowledge, God does not have to do this. He is the very perfection of what we might call knowledge itself. Thus, He knows all things immediately––without process.
Another way we are different from God is that our experiences are creaturely and our language is limited to creaturely-ness, so to speak. We express our thoughts in language. Our thoughts are sequential (you could also say, linearly progressive) and so our predication must follow this pattern. When we say, “God is all loving,” we are basically saying communicating God + His love. But God does not come to love, nor does God share in the perfection of love. We would say God Himself is the highest perfection of love. Yet, our language limits us to speaking in such ways. “God is powerful,” is another example. Is the statement wrong? Well, no, it communicates truth about God. But it is improper in the sense that our language does not comprehend the essence of God much like our thoughts do not comprehend God.
This all seems to indicate we can’t know anything about God in any quality sense of knowledge. However, we can and do have true knowledge about God. Here is an example: In Exodus 15:6, Moses writes, “Your right hand, O LORD, is majestic in power.” We all know that God, who is not a physical body, does not literally have some material hand which stretches through space. But, does Moses communicate something false about God or is he saying something true about God using anthropomorphic language? The latter must be the case. The author of Exodus is using concepts common in human experience to say something absolutely true about God, that is, that God is fundamentally powerful.
There is, however, an even better way to talk about God, that is by the via negativa. Speaking about God by way of negation, which is a form of apophaticism, is the best way to speak of God. For example, rather than predicating something positive about God, thus adding to Him in our language, we can say what He is not. God is not comprehensible; God is not composed; God is not corporeal, etc. This is not to say that everything we say about God must be in the negative, even Scripture says positive things about God (1 Jn. 4:8). However, we can speak of God with more caution by way of negation.
If I could add another note concerning our language: When we talk and think about God, we must talk and think about God analogically rather than univocally. Univocal language would suggest that our language directly corresponds to the infinite essence of the divine. However, our finite language cannot directly apply to the divine essence like it might directly apply to the keyboard I’m typing on or my computer’s hard drive.
I may say, “My computer has a lot of memory,” but a computer having a lot of memory and a human having a lot of memory are two different things, although related. We are using the term memory in an analogical way when we talk about hard drive storage. Man has created a machine that has something like human memory inside of it, but it’s not human memory at all. It’s something different than human memory, that is, it is digital file storage while human memory is a faculty of the intellect.
When we speak of God and say, “God’s knowledge,” we say and think about “knowledge” like we might think about our own and this is to be expected. The limitations of our experience force us to relate the knowledge of God to our own in some ways. But, most (if not all) of us would agree that God’s knowledge does not happen like our knowledge happens. In other words, there is something like our knowledge in God, but it is not our knowledge. We should refrain from saying God’s knowledge is really just a bigger, better knowledge than our own. God’s knowledge is, altogether, not creaturely knowledge and does not fall within the scale of what constitutes greater or lesser creaturely knowledge.
This topic is one of the most important areas of theology. The rest of our theology, including the simple gospel, will be affected by how we think and talk about God. If we go wrong here, we will go wrong everywhere. We must understand that God (1) is not like us in the sense of being able to draw one-for-one correlations between His nature and ours; and (2) we will never be able to mentally or linguistically comprehend the divine essence. If we start with the incomprehensibility of God, we will be preserved from error as we proceed in this study.