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Aug 27, 2017

The Incomprehensibility of God


First I would be negligent if we did not talk about the solar eclipse.  For some of you who watched the eclipse answer the following questions:

  1. Where were you?
  2. How dark did it get and did you a witness a total eclipse? What other phenomena did you see or experience?
  3. What were your thoughts and feelings about the experience?


Another amazing planetary event occurred on Christmas Eve in 1968.  The handout being passed out now is of from the Apollo 8 mission.  It demonstrates what we will discuss today, how the almighty, omnipotent, eternal and incomprehensible God has revealed himself through natural and special revelation. 


The event happened on Christmas Eve in 1968 and the Apollo 8 spacecraft, the first aircraft to orbit the moon. The Apollo 8 astronauts got where they were that Christmas Eve because of a bold, improvisational call by NASA. With the clock ticking on President Kennedy's challenge to land on the moon by decade's end, delays with the lunar module were threatening to slow the Apollo program. So NASA decided to change mission plans and send the Apollo 8 crew all the way to the moon without a lunar module on the first manned flight of the massive Saturn V rocket.

The crew rocketed into orbit on December 21, and after circling the moon 10 times on Christmas Eve, it was time to come home. The crew splashed down in the Pacific on December 27. A lunar landing was still months away, but for the first time ever, humans from Earth had visited the moon and returned home safely.  We remember that less than four months later Apollo 11 blasted off on July 16, 1969. Neil Armstrong, Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin and Michael Collins were the astronauts on Apollo 11. Four days later, Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the moon.


On that Christmas Eve in 1968, the Apollo 8 crew witnessed what no human had ever seen, an Earthrise above the surface of the Moon.  As one of the most turbulent, tragic years in American history drew to a close, millions around the world were watching and listening as the Apollo 8 astronauts - Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders – as they became the first humans to orbit the moon.  The mission became famous for this iconic "Earthrise" image, snapped by Anders, which would give humankind a new perspective on their home planet. Anders said that despite all the training and preparation for an exploration of the moon, the astronauts ended up discovering Earth.


As their command module floated above the lunar surface, the astronauts beamed back images of the moon and Earth and took turns reading from the book of Genesis, closing with a wish for everyone "on the good Earth."  Now look at the picture as I read the scripture verse.

Genesis 1:1-10.”

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2 Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. 3 And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. 4 God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness.5 God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.6 And God said, “Let there be a vault between the waters to separate water from water.” 7 So God made the vault and separated the water under the vault from the water above it. And it was so. 8 God called the vault “sky.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the second day. 9 And God said, “Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear.” And it was so. 10 God called the dry ground “land,” and the gathered waters he called “seas.” And God saw that it was good.”

The Earthrise photo became a symbol of not only the great frontier in space but of the vast undiscovered parts of our soul and of the origin and meaning of life in this world and beyond.  The natural response of a skeptic is to stand in awe, wonder and in deep longing that seeks spiritual meaning and knowledge of its origin and final destination.  For Christians it should elicit thoughts and feelings of awe, wonder and humility that the vast regions of space are but a small part of God’s essence and creation.  Thus we deeply understand from this fact that God is incomprehensible.  This is an important tenet of the Reformation that the finite cannot contain the  infinite. 


The incomprehensibility of God should humble us as Thomas Aquinas states: “Then alone do we know God truly, when we believe that He is far above all that man can possibly think of God.” 


One famous skeptic was Joseph Campbell. He was called an American mythologist which means that he studied the myths inherent in the world’s religions and literature.  He thought that all organized religious belief is myth and have many common myths among them.  He studied the similarities in belief and sacred literature and made the wrong conclusion.  He decided that none of them represented absolute truth.  He viewed the heavens and saw proof that beyond the Heavens as some impersonal, unknowable and ineffable force that may actually equate to a state of nothingness.  He encouraged readers and followers to “follow your bliss” which is a familiar creed in our modern culture. 


He is quoted in comments about the Earthrise Photo:


  • “There are no horizons – that is the meaning of the Space Age. We are in free fall into a future that is mysterious. It is very fluid and this is disconcerting to many people… Earthrise is like all symbols. They resemble compasses. One point is in a fixed place but the other moves to the unknown. The fear of the unknown, this freefall into the future, can be detected all around us. But we live in the stars and we are finally moved by awe to our greatest adventures.”


Campbell states; “From the point of view of any orthodoxy, myth might be defined simply as “other people’s religion”, to which an equivalent definition of religion would be “misunderstood mythology”, the misunderstanding consisting in the interpretation of mythic metaphors as references to hard fact.


Campbell is right in saying that symbols are compasses that point to a greater reality.  That is precisely what God had in mind in the natural revelation of his glory in nature and of the special revelation we have through Christ in scripture.    


Since we are made in God’s image we have a connection to God that He uses to inspire and inform us. AW Tozer wrote;

“The yearning to know what cannot be known, to comprehend the Incomprehensible, to touch and taste the Unapproachable, arises from the image of God in the nature of man. Deep calleth unto deep, and though polluted and landlocked by the mighty disaster, theologians call the Fall, the soul senses its origin and longs to return to its Source. How can this be realized?”


He also states, contrary to Campbell’s view that God is a composite of all the religious pictures we have seen, all the best people we have known or heard about, and all the sublime ideas we have entertained.” 

We know that the purpose and value of Great Art or of Sublime Nature is that they are symbols or signposts that point us in the direction of some infitesimal aspect of God’s essence and character. 


Ps. 145:3 

Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised, and his greatness is unsearchable.


Isa. 55:8–9

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.


Romans 11:33-34

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! "For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?"


RC Sproul said that by using the term incomprehensible, we, and the church fathers, 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.


In doing so he was calling attention to at least two vitally important notions:

  1. That in the simplest Christian truth there resides a profundity that can occupy the minds of the most brilliant people for a lifetime. (Think of all the writers, philosophers, poets, artists and theologians who have pondered and written on this subject.)
  2. That even in learned theological sophistication, we never really rise above a child's level of understanding of the mysterious depths and riches of the character of God.


Have you ever tried to communicate with an infant or toddler who is not yet verbal; or a teen or adult who is nonverbal?  What many call baby talk is actually a very sophisticated manner of communication that uses sounds and non-verbal physical and expressive clues to communicate emotions, wants and needs.  This is may be analogous to how God communicates with mankind. 

JI Packer uses a similar analogy in saying “Just as the two-year-old son of a man with a brain like Einstein could not understand all that was going on in his father’s mind if his father told him, so (we may be sure) it would be beyond us under any circumstances to understand all that goes on in the omniscient, all-wise, and not in any way time-bound, mind of God. But, just as the genius who loves his boy will take care that in talking to him he speaks in such a way that all he says can be understood, even though that means reducing it all nearly to baby-talk, and leaving much of his own thinking unvoiced, so God does when he opens his mind and heart in the written Scriptures.

John Calvin also describes the act of God’s self-revelation in saying that God speaks to us in a kind of lisping. As parents engage in "baby talk" when addressing their infant children, so God, in order to communicate with us lowly mortals, must condescend to speak to us in lisps.



Eric Thomas states that there are multiple reasons for God’s Incomprehensibility. 

  1. God is infinite and his creatures are finite. By definition, creatures depend on their Creator for their very existence and are limited in all aspects. Yet God is without limitations in every quality he possesses. This Creator/creature, infinite/finite gap will always exist.
  2. The perfect unities of God’s attributes are far beyond the realm of human experience. God’s love, wrath, grace, justice, holiness, patience, and jealousy are continually functioning in a perfectly integrated yet infinitely complex way.
  3. The effects of sin on the minds of fallen humans also greatly inhibit the ability to know God. The tendency of fallen creatures is to distort, pervert, and confuse truth and to use, or rather abuse, it for selfish ends rather than for God’s glory). We want a God we can measure and control.  We want to bend God to our reality, understanding and desires. 


Rom. 1:18–19

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 


  1. A final reason God can never be fully known is that in his sovereign wisdom God has chosen not to reveal some things:


Deut. 29:29

The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law”


Many would label it unloving for God to decide to withhold some information from his people. They wrongly believe God should reveal everything they may want to know. Yet, as with all good fathers, God’s wisdom leads him to refrain from answering all the questions his children ask him, and this contributes to his incomprehensibility.


RC Sproul wrote that the doctrine of the incomprehensibility of God is easily stated in the saying "The finite cannot grasp (or contain) the infinite." Nothing is more obvious than that an infinite object cannot be squeezed into a finite space.  I mentioned earlier that this is a key tenet of the Protestant Reformation.


 “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. If we misunderstand the doctrine of God’s incomprehensibility, we can easily slide into two serious errors.

  1. The first error says that since God is incomprehensible, He must be utterly unknowable, and anything we say about God is gibberish.


R C Sproul continues in saying that Christianity affirms the rationality of God alongside the incomprehensibility of God.  Here we allude to the Reformational principle that God is both hidden and revealed. There is a mysterious dimension of God.  But 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 memorialized 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.


  1. This raises the second error and 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 God himself.  For example the philosopher David Hume taught that knowledge is limited to sense perception.  He once stated that; “Beauty is no quality in things themselves: It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty.” 


  • The other pole is a form of pantheism that falsely assumes we have captured or contained God.


Historically, we see the vacillating between the two aforementioned errors in Protestant liberalism and Neo-orthodoxy

  1. 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.
  2. Neo-orthodoxy objected to identifying God with creation, and it sought to restore God’s transcendence. In their zeal, Neo-orthodox theologians spoke of God as “wholly other.” Kant – We can only know appearances or phenomena, not reality itself. The neo-orthodox writer John Baillie describes our encounters with God as a numinous one that transcends our speech and complete understanding.


The Neo-Orthodox 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.


The Knowability of God


So as God is incomprehensible so is he knowable.  These are not mutually exclusive ideas. 


Herman Bavinck

  • “God’s incomprehensibility, so far from canceling out God’s Knowability, rather presupposes and affirms it. The riches of God’s being—riches that surpass all knowledge—are in fact a necessary and significant component of our knowledge of God. The fact remains that God makes himself known to us in the manner and measure in which he reveals himself in his creatures.”


Earlier we showed how analogies are used in understanding God and his dealings with man Understanding that we relate to the Lord by way of analogy is very helpful. .  RC Sproul explains that through the use of analogy there is now 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.


One very popular story recounts the time when the Swiss theologian Karl Barth was asked by a student during a seminar in the United States, "Dr. Barth, what is the most profound thing you have ever learned in your study of theology?" Barth thought for a moment and then replied, "Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so." The students laughed at his simplistic answer, but their laughter was of a nervous sort as they slowly realized Barth was serious. Barth gave a simple answer to a question of profundity.


Jesus Christ is the revelation of God incarnate and the Word of God.  Scripture is the means by which God has chosen to communicate with us in a language we understand. 


John 11;17-18

17 For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.

18 No man hath seen God at any time, the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him


While we proclaim that Scripture is the inerrant and infallible Word of God we must humbly hear the words of JI Packer in saying that as we examine Scripture we must not dare imagine that the truths taught in those books give us the full measure of God’s reality.  The fact that God condescends to us in revelation makes clarity and understanding possible but only within the limitations of the revelation itself that God shapes to our finite minds.  Though Scripture gives everything we need for living in faith, hope and love it does not mean that God has revealed everything about himself. 

The doctrine of incomprehensibility of God could lead to despair or apathy in the quest to know God, but the Bible also teaches that God is knowable. The multiplication of grace and peace in our lives is dependent on knowing God, and this knowledge provides sufficient resources for life and for becoming the people God wants us to be.  Thus by reading, meditating and praying on scripture we begin to understand the depth and richness of God’s special revelation to us.

2 Pet. 1:2–3

Grace and peace be yours in abundance through the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord.   His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.


He states further that knowledge of God in Christ should be our greatest delight (Jer. 9:23–24; 1 Cor. 2:2; Gal. 6:14). It is the basis of attaining eternal life (John 17:3); it is at the heart of life in the new covenant (Heb. 8:11–12); it was Paul’s primary goal (Phil. 3:10); and it leads to godly love (1 John 4:7–8)


Implications of Knowability of God (Eric Thomas)


  1. God has provided knowledge of himself that is personal, relational, and sufficient for fruitful, faithful, godly living. No one will ever be able to say he lacked the necessary revelation to know God and to start living as God intends.
  2. God’s personal and sufficient revelation of himself should foster solid conviction among believers. We need not live in ambiguity and uncertainty about who God is and what he demands of his creatures.
  3. The increasing influence of Eastern religions on the West, certain postmodern views of truth, and religious pluralism all emphasize God’s incomprehensibility so much that he is eventually made to seem unknowable. It then becomes impossible to say anything definitively true or false about him, and people then think that the only heresy is claiming that there is any heresy at all!
  4. We must confess the Lordship of Christ in every area of thought as well in all aspects of human life. We must confess that God’s thoughts are wholly sovereign and therefore sharply different from ours, which are thoughts of servants (John Frame)