Round Table: The Knowability of God
The Scriptures are somewhat ambiguous about how fully God can be known by human beings. On the one hand, the Son has revealed God to be our Father and has pioneered the path of faith—offering unprecedented access through grace. Jesus teaches that the pure in heart “will see God” (Matt 5:8). Likewise in the first Johannine epistle: “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is” (1 Jn 3:2). Yet on the other hand, John’s Gospel states that “no one has ever seen God” (Jn 1:18), and Paul’s letter to Timothy speaks of God as one who “dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see” (1 Tim 6:16). What are we to make of these conflicting narratives? In conjunction with our friends at GotQuestions.org, we have tackled “The Knowability of God” for our Summer 2019 Round Table.
Misunderstandings about God often start with the assumption that He is “just like us.” Consciously expressed or not, that premise leads to confusion and frustration. Problems also arise when God’s abstruseness is used in ham-handed attempts to defend blatant contradiction. That God is both transcendent and personal is not an incongruity but an equilibrium. God cannot be “known fully” by His creations, but He can, and must, be “known sufficiently.”
Science provides a parallel. For most of history, humanity had no concept of subatomic particles, as understood today. All the same, strides were made in chemistry, medicine, and industry. Daily life functioned perfectly fine with “incomplete” knowledge. Lacking perception of the quantum realm didn’t entirely stop humanity from learning, growth, and development. Daily life requires no such knowledge: bread is baked, fires are stoked, engines burn fuel, and light switches switch, despite a user’s incomplete knowledge of physics. Much of our knowledge is true, even if it isn’t total.
In fact, certain aspects of math and science cannot be “fully known.” The human mind has no way of fully perceiving a quantity like “ten trillion,” or the relative sizes of suns versus quarks, or the difference between 5° and 6° Kelvin. We process these as abstractions: symbolic placeholders—numbers—give us a “good enough” grasp on the idea. We know what such terms mean, even if we can’t perfectly comprehend their subject. An idea need not be “fully known” in the most extreme sense to be practically applied.
God adopts the term Father often, so it’s unsurprising to find another parallel in parenting. Young children aren’t equipped to understand adult topics like sexuality or psychology. Limited experience prevents them from grasping politics or finance. Neither can children know a parent’s life history or experiences firsthand. In a sense, the parent exists in a “higher” state of awareness. The adult perceives things the child can’t even comprehend.
And yet, children can have meaningful relationships with parents. Even the young “know” their parents enough to recognize expectations. They realize what their parents like or dislike in their behavior or their attitude. Children learn to speak and read through interaction with the parents. Over time, children’s understanding should mature—they should know the parents better over time. Just because they cannot know their parents the way the parents know themselves does not mean the child cannot know the parents sufficiently to have fulfilling, accurate, and true “knowledge” within that relationship.
Scripture makes it clear that God’s essence is above and beyond our own (Isaiah 55:8–9; Romans 11:33–36). This, just as much as a computer programmer has a complexity of experience with orders of magnitude beyond what his lines of code “perceive.” Simultaneously, Christianity teaches that God makes Himself known to such an extent that no one is excused for rejecting Him (Psalm 19:1; Romans 1:18–20). The incarnation of Christ bridges the gap between our limitations and the transcendence of who and what God really is (2 Corinthians 4:6; John 14:7–9). Someday, we’ll have an even better understanding (1 Corinthians 13:12; 1 John 3:2).
There are multiple dangers in blurring the line between Creator and creation. We simply are not God. We have no right to demand perfect knowledge. Nor can we subject God to our own approval (Romans 9:13–21; Job 38:1–4). Just because we don’t—or can’t—understand does not mean God is wrong. Nor does it mean we can’t know anything, at all. There’s equal danger in pretending God is so ineffable that we can’t meaningfully understand Him. Respecting the fullness of God’s revelation means accepting that He cannot be “fully known,” as well as acknowledging that He must be “sufficiently known.”
Joshua Schendel, Reformed
In general, big questions deserve big answers. The question about the knowability of God is a big question. The limitations of this forum, however, do not allow me to provide anywhere near a big answer. Thankfully, the Christian tradition has already done so. Here, I am only able to gesture, in outline form, toward that fuller answer.
I have opted to summarize in the form of an ordered sequence of aphorisms; a much-used mode of theological discourse in the Christian tradition, and a very efficient way to cover ground quickly while simultaneously leading the reader to slow down and consider the topic carefully.
Let me first register a threefold distinction that I am working with in these aphorisms; they will benefit those who consider the aphorisms more closely. Human knowledge may be considered by attending to the following three categories: the object of the knowledge (the ‘thing’ known), the act of knowing, and the knower who knows the object. When considering human knowledge of God, then, one can inquire about God as the object of human knowledge (to speak improperly, as my aphorisms will make clear), about the characteristics of the act of knowing God, or about the human who knows God.
A full answer to the question will work carefully through each category. The knowability of God will deal with the non-proportion of the infinite to the finite, and then treat of God’s gracious self revelation as Creator and Redeemer. The act of human knowing will account for innate, acquired, and infused modes of knowing. Finally, human knowledge of God must judiciously give an account of the human knower. Most broadly, human knowledge is creaturely knowledge (i.e. finite). It is not simply creaturely, though, but specifically a human creature (i.e. rational). Still further, it is this human’s knowledge (i.e. particular). Yet more, it is this fallen human creature’s knowledge. Finally, it is either this fallen human creature’s knowledge of God in his or her state of rebellion, in the state of redemption (in via), or in the state of glory (in patria).
Now, the aphorisms:
1. God is his essence, unbounded and absolutely free. Human knowledge is creaturely, finite and restrictive. Therefore, human knowledge of God is impossible.
2. Humans are not only finite, but also fallen. No one seeks after God. The fallen mind is rebel; it runs from the Truth as much as it runs toward truths. Like Adam trying to hide, half-covered in leaves, the rebel mind hides in half-truths. Therefore, human knowledge of God is undesired.
3. God has placed eternity in the human heart; he has given to it the sensus divinitatis. The Alpha and Omega has given rationality to human nature, which drives it to ask “whence?” and “why?” Human knowledge of God is possible; for with God all things are possible.
4. God summons the rebellious mind, sanctifies it to himself, and heals its disordered affections. God infuses a disposition to know himself; he illumines his own revelation. Therefore, humans only desire to know God.
5. Even healed human knowledge of God is slow and laborious on the way. It’s a “journeying”kind of knowledge; knowledge of the ears and of the imagination, true but vague and incomplete.
6. Healed human knowledge has a terminus. One day the pilgrim will see the land, live in the land, enjoy the land.
7. The mode of human knowledge is always creaturely.
8. Knowledge of God is knowledge of God’s essence. Knowledge of God’s essence is the perfection of human nature.
Ben Cabe, Eastern Orthodox
Epistemological questions concerning how created beings are able to know the uncreated God have burgeoned for over 1500 years. Historically, the Christological controversies of the fourth century facilitated the rise of two very different theories about the knowledge of God; one held to a kind of radical apophaticism, claiming that God is totally unknowable, the other embraced the exact opposite view, proclaiming that we can know Him in His entirety (that is, by essence).1 Though opposite, the conclusions of Arius and Eunomius share a common foundation: the belief that the Second Person of the Trinity is a creature (κτίσμα) like us. Worth noting is their motivation behind insisting on Christ’s subjugation, founded as it was in fear of damaging the doctrine of God’s divine simplicity. In consequence, the outcome for epistemology was a false dichotomy: either God is not knowable at all or He is knowable by essence. This dichotomy denies any possibility of union (without confusion) with God, and thus any real knowledge of Him.
According to the Eastern Orthodox Church, neither of these views are correct, as both systems obliterate the bridge between created beings and the uncreated God.2 The Orthodox understanding concerning Jesus Christ Who is this bridge – homoousios with God on account of His Divine Nature and homoousios with us on account of His Incarnation – is reflected in the Nicene Creed, the Vesperal Hymn Gladsome Light, and the fourth century responses to Arius and Eunomius (Athanasius, the Cappadocians, Chrysostom, et al).
While all mainstream Christian confessions pay verbal homage to the full deity and humanity of Jesus Christ, hidden underneath the accepted technical terminology are a few fundamental differences. Namely, what are the implications of the Incarnation for our knowledge of God? And what constitutes knowledge of God? How one answers these questions will not only inform their adherence to a particular Christian tradition, but also how they live the Christian life on a day-to-day basis.
For Orthodox Christians, becoming like God is the prerequisite for knowledge of Him.3 The pathway towards Christ-likeness (see Matthew 5:48; 1 Corinthians 11:1, etc.) begins with keeping of the commandments (see Leviticus 22:31; Luke 11:28; James 1:22; 1 John 15:3, etc.).4 Those that persevere on this difficult path move from law to grace, where the Majesty, the Glory of God is revealed.5 This is what Fathers like Gregory the Theologian called the vision of God – a vision which constitutes union with Him. Put simply: knowledge of God is participation in God; it is participation in His very life.
This participation is not a vision of, or union with, the essence. Rather, it is a vision of “the Back Parts of God, which He leaves behind Him, as tokens of Himself like the shadows and reflection of the sun in the water, which shew the sun to our weak eyes, because we cannot look at the sun himself, for by his unmixed light he is too strong for our power of perception.”6
The result of the Orthodox view is a paradox with which not everyone is comfortable – but as Metropolitan Kallistos Ware once said, “antinomy helps us to shatter these idols…[and] if we exclude the antinomic dimension of theology, the danger is that we shall never ascend to the level of spiritual understanding at all.”7
Orthodox Christians confess, then, that we come to know God intimately by direct contact with Him (without mediation of created theophanies, effects, or acts), but we do not come to know or participate in His essence. This is made possible by His action – His involvement – in the world (His energies, also called powers). These actions of God in the world are manifestations of Himself, and as such they are uncreated, but they are not His essence, which is known only to the Holy Trinity. The essence-energies distinction in God is “an objective differentiation with God himself”8 that does not do damage to the divine simplicity.9
Like Arius and Eunomius before them, modern theologians who criticize this doctrine – codified by Gregory Palamas in the fourteenth century – are concerned about its effects on the divine simplicity. However, just as the distinction of persons does not divide the oneness of God, neither does the essence-energies distinction, which belongs to nature (oneness, as the Three always act together). This reality is central to our interaction and relationship with any person. Consider, for example, how each of us has a private internal world, the depths of which no other human being can plumb. This world remains unknown to those around us (and sometimes even to ourselves) unless we reveal it to them. Those to whom we reveal this world gain knowledge about us; we might even say that, to a certain extent, they participate in this world. But their participation is only participation in our energies (actions, interactions, words: what we reveal to them). They can never “get inside” of us and participate in the essence. This kind of knowledge is markedly different than the kind of knowledge that one gets from memorizing facts about a favorite celebrity. In like manner, knowledge of God is not verbally confessing or adhering to dogmatic axioms about Him. It is a living relationship with Him.
If the essence-energies distinction is not made the question of the fourth century remains: How can we truly know and be united with God without confusion? Either we only know created effects, and thus not God Himself, or we know God as He is in His essence – a reality admitted only to the Persons of the Trinity, Who share the Divine Nature.Show Sources
(1) The early Arians (led by Arius), who claimed that God was completely ineffable (ἄῤῥητος), even to His Son,, and the later Arians (led by Aetius and Eunomius), respectively. See Athanasius, De Synodis, 15, p. 457, 458; Gr. PG 25: 708A.
(2) See Basil, Against Eunomius., 1.26, pp. 128–129; Cf. Gregory of Nazianzus, Or. 29.17–20, pp. 307–309; Gregory of Nyssa draws this out in Against Eunomius, 2.12, p. 122–123; and 3.4, p. 145: “in the Incarnation, [the] Son of Man…link[ed] together by Himself what were divided by nature;” and 6.2, p. 184; 6.4, p. 189; 12.1, p. 241: “[Christ] through Himself…united humanity to God;” Answer to Eunomius’ Second Book, pp.291– 292; cf. John Chrysostom, On the Incomprehensible Nature of God, 3.5, p. 97.
(3) See Gregory the Theologian, Oration 28.17, p. 294; Select Orations, Or. 20.1, pp. 107–108.
(4) See Gregory the Theologian, Select Orations, 20.12, p. 115. See also, Or. 27.3, p. 285; Or. 29.11, p. 305; Select Orations, Or. 20.1, p. 108). Gregory notes that this model is based on Moses who ascends the mount and enters the cloud to speak with God. Aaron ascends, too, but does not enter, and the Elders ascend and stand a ways off – but the people who are not purified do not approach, “for it would be dangerous to [them.” (Or. 28.2, p. 298 [Exodus chs. 24–29]; cf. Select Orations, Or. 20.2, p. 108). See also 37.7, p. 287: Cf. Basil, Against Eunomius, 2.16, pp. 151–152; Gregory the Theologian, Or. 27.4–5, pp. 285–286; Or. 28.1, p. 288; Select Orations, Or. 6.2, p. 4.
(5) Gregory the Theologian, Or. 28.3, p. 289; Cf. Gregory of Nyssa, Against Eunomius, 2.10, p. 119.
(6) Gregory the Theologian, Oration 28.3, p. 289. For “it is impossible to express Him, and yet more impossible to conceive Him” (Ibid, 3, p. 289–290. Cf. Plato, Tim., 28E). Cf. Select Orations, Or. 32.16, p. 202: “Moses himself scarcely saw the back of God…and this only…after much prayer.”
(7) Ware, The Debate About Palamism, p. 47, 51. This is why we confess God as unknowable in His essence and knowable in His energies.
(8) Ibid, p. 49. Thus, “God is…unknowable [in His essence] and yet known personally and directly [in His energies]” (p. 49).
(9) The Triads, 3.1.24, p. 82.
Ben Winter, Roman Catholic
“[The LORD] made darkness his covering around him…” –Ps 18:11
Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of discursive practice in Christian theology: cataphatic (“toward language”) and apophatic (“away from language”). The entire history of “God-talk” could be conceived of, dialectically, as swaying between these two poles. Responsible thinkers will avoid falling into extremes. Yet the proposal I offer here is that we must maintain a certain primacy for the apophatic.
Over and above ideas and concepts, we are all travelers on the road of life. We live now by faith—not by sight (2 Cor 5). As such, one cannot hope to understand God—or to grasp how divine action influences our experience—without first acknowledging that humans cannot possibly see the whole picture. We see through a glass, darkly, in an enigma (1 Cor 13).
But Saint Paul continues, in an example of the apophatic being transformed into the cataphatic: “I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” As others have pointed out here, Jesus the Christ fundamentally changed the manner in which humans can come to know God. By calling God Abba, Jesus modeled a new form of relationship wherein the veil has been lifted. The temple curtain was torn down at the hour the Son embraced suffering and experienced abandonment. While “no one has seen God” (Jn 1), we can nonetheless understand God as far as is humanly possible due to the radical entering of divinity into humanity. This is the power of Christ’s Incarnation (literally: “enfleshment”).
So, Jesus does change things. But we must not squander the grace of God by taking the economy (“household”) of salvation for granted. Just as a parent ought to be obeyed and respected by his or her children, so Christians must not mistake their “sonship” for equality with God. We are not—like Christ—in constant contact with the ecstatic wisdom that emanates from the Godhead. In Christ, there was no division, separation, or confusion between the divine and the human (Chalcedon). In us, there is only participation in this reality—slow and steady progress insofar as grace allows and the will consents.
When I teach students about Pseudo-Dionysius, I posit that his perspective is absolutely essential for the Christian life. It is far too easy to fall into the trap of intellectual idolatry, namely, to mistake our concept of God (or our ideas about God and God’s action) for God in se. This is why the Scriptures are full of reminders that God’s essence (nodding to my Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters) is unknowable. We perceive God’s energies—we come to awareness of God’s plan for the universe and for the human family—but we never perceive God’s essence. To do so would be a contradiction in terms: a created entity simply is not and will never be Creator. A finite mind simply is not and can never be infinite.
But what about the beatific vision? Are we not fully incorporated into the divine life and deified? Yes, but there is much debate among Christians about how this vision is realized. In the West, two examples of this debate are St. Thomas and St. Bonaventure. While Thomas makes the beatific vision a species of knowledge, Bonaventure ultimately cedes to the “affective” or ecstatic. All (human) knowledge must pass away as we are consumed by the refining fire of God’s love.
John Ehrett, Lutheran [LCMS]
The Lutheran tradition has always drawn a distinction between the “God hidden” and the “God revealed.” The initial acknowledgment of “God hidden” captures the essential unknowability of the divine. This “unknowability” is not exactly absence—Lutherans have always acknowledged that natural reason permits a dim awareness of God’s reality as the source of the created order—but rather, His incomprehensibility, or the inability of natural human reason to discern the character and purposes of the divine. When this incomprehensibility is acknowledged in conjunction with the evil and suffering in the world, human reason readily concludes that God must be, at least in some sense, a being of wrath and terrifying law. This perspective must be augmented, however, by recognition of the “God revealed” through the incarnation of Christ and through the Word and Sacraments of the church. This self-disclosure fills out the hazy conclusions drawn by natural reason, revealing God’s overflowing love for His creations and desire that they be restored to the fullness of His presence. Apart from Christ and those means of grace He instituted—Word and Sacrament—such an eschatological hope would never have come into view.
There is at least some parallel here to the Eastern Orthodox distinction between God’s essence and His energies: on the Orthodox account, while the latter may be partially knowable (just as, in the Lutheran paradigm, the rough outlines of God’s presence and His ordering principles are accessible to human minds), the former is not. That is, there is no way for a human being to even begin to answer the question “what is it like for God to be God?” Such a distinction necessarily stymies all human ambitions to engineer a totally systematic theology (the Lutheran tradition is not known for sparring over supralapsarianism and infralapsarianism, for instance). The knowledge of God that humans possess may be sufficient, but it can never be exhaustive. And could one expect any less from a truly infinite God?
AJ Maynard, Baptist
Concerning this St Augustine says: the best thing that man can say about God is to be able to be silent about Him, from the wisdom of his inner judgment. Therefore, be silent and prate not about God, for whenever thou dost prate about God, thou liest, and committest sin. If thou wilt be without sin, prate not about God. Thou canst understand nought about God, for He is above all understanding. A master saith: If I had a God whom I could understand, I would never hold Him to be God.” – Meister Eckhart
What do we mean when we say, “I know God”?
As I see it, free of cognitive dissonance, few – if any – would claim to know God in the same way they know their best friend, parents, or neighbor. Doubtless one can know about God by reading the Bible, but the end result has been filtered through the interpretive lenses of not only the reader but also the biblical authors and their editors. One can interpret a powerful or emotional experience through a religious worldview and assign it meaning through that worldview, but can one truly know God? For me, the knowability of God raises profound epistemological questions worthy of research and robust debate but, for now, a different question:
What do we mean when we say, “I know love”?
If an alien, unfamiliar with human emotion, asked you to explain love, could you do it? Could you fully communicate the bond between a mother and child? Could you put into words how you felt as your true love proclaimed, “I do”?
True love is ineffable.
Musicians, artists, and poets perform admirably but ultimately fail to fully communicate that which is irreducible to human language. However, while love is ineffable, you and I have the capacity to both recognize and express the ineffable. Indeed, we’re able to recognize love both in ourselves and in others while simultaneously expressing that same love.
What does this mean?
I believe an answer might be found in 1 John 4: 7-9:
Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him.
God. Is. Love.
Love is not something God does but rather who God is – every time you or I express genuine love for the stranger, enemy, or outsider, we, in some very real sense, incarnate Christ. And, in doing so, familiarize them with the warm embrace of Love; the embrace of God. In this sense, knowing and encountering God is not simply about intellectual assent or the sensation of God as an external object, but more broadly like falling in love.
J.D. Canclini, Guest Author
Why is it important to draw a firm line between Creator and creature, and is this line transgressed by affirming that humans can know God fully?
A firm grasp of the connection between knowledge and its object is key to our understanding of man’s knowledge of God as Creator, and helps explain why we as his creatures cannot know him fully. Perhaps a helpful way of thinking about how we apply knowledge is to think in layered tiers: Knowledge of something is far different than knowledge of someone, and knowledge of someone is far different than knowledge of God Himself.
Imagine a young man at a party, wearing a new wristwatch, who proceeds to explain everything about his watch to anyone who cares to listen—how the gears function, from whence the metal comes, and how long the battery is expected to last. Nobody listening would doubt the man’s knowledge about his watch. But it would be an odd question if someone asked him if he understood his watch. How could he understand a thing like a watch? The question is nonsensical, because the watch has nothing to give of itself that requires understanding.
Our knowledge of other things or beings corresponds to the similarity of essence between us and them. To move from knowing merely about something to understanding someone necessitates a two-way dialogue. A man relates to his Labrador much more easily than he does to his wristwatch, but he relates to his spouse in ways and to a degree that he will never relate to a dog. For two people to know and be known by one another, each person must have something utterly unique—the imago Dei (Genesis 1:26-27, Psalm 139)—that they desire to share of themselves and understand within each other. In other words, in order to know someone in the sense of understanding them, there must be a relationship, within which two people grow in mutual understanding of how each reflects God’s character.
Our relationship with and knowledge of God involves an understanding that goes far beyond our relationship with, and knowledge of, any other creature. In one sense, how we know God is similar to how we know other image-bearers: through a dialogue of words. Yet the dialogue between Creator and creature is entirely unique, initiated by God and manifested through the Word made flesh. (John 1:14) On the basis of God’s prerogative, there is a two-way conversation (see Genesis 12, Exodus 3, Acts 9). Yet at the same time, how we know God is incomparable with how any two created beings know each other. In the latter case, two image bearers reflect features of that One Who gave them an image to bear. In the former case, an image bearer is relating to that which defines ultimate reality, and embodies the image that is reflected back to God. We as creatures bring nothing novel to our relationship with God, but are wholly dependent on him to reveal to us attributes of his divine and infinite character.
It is on the basis of God’s divine character, a well that is infinitely deep and whose water is unimaginably sweet, that full knowledge of God—by creatures who bring nothing but that which they were given (1 Corinthians 4:7)—is something that man can never obtain. This is strong medicine in a day and age that idolizes knowledge and would call this line between man and God cruel, even grounds for anger or despair. But this line is in fact an incredible gift and grounds for rejoicing. The deepest desire of our hearts is met; in Christ we are fully known, and we receive a source of joy and confidence in an understanding of God that grows fuller, day by day, for all eternity. For believers, our partial grasp of the holy and infinite character of God provides us yet another reason to boast in the cross, as God tells us through the prophet Jeremiah: “But let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me.” (Jeremiah 9:24)
Biography: J.D. lives in Virginia and works in cyber security. In his spare time he enjoys biking, reading, and good conversations with close friends around a fire.
We invite your participation in charitable discussion of these viewpoints—and others—in the comments section.