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Incomprehensibility of God

The Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 2 on "Of God, and of the Holy Trinity" section 1 says "There is but one only living and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions, immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute..." (emphasis added).

The Athanasian Creed also contains the following in verses 9 and 12.
  • "The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Spirit incomprehensible." (vs. 9)
  • "As also there are not three uncreated nor three incomprehensible, but one uncreated and one incomprehensible." (vs. 12)
The original Latin word, which was translated as "incomprehensible", is immensus, andmeans unmeasurable.

The English word "incomprehensible" simply means "not comprehensible; that cannot be understood; obscure or unintelligible" (Webster's New World College Dictionary, Third Addition, Macmillan, 1997). Does that mean that the Westminster Confession of Faith is saying that we cannot understand anything about God because He is unintelligible?

Quantitative Understanding of Incomprehensibility

Historically there have been two understandings of the incomprehensibility of God. The first understanding is that God is incomprehensible in a quantitative sense. That is, God's ways are above our understanding because they are too numerable for our finite minds to comprehend.

The Athanasian Creed seems to support this understanding since it uses the Latin immensus or unmeasurable. The knowledge of God is incomprehensible because God's mind contains an unmeasurable number of propositions.

This quantitative understanding is also supported in the following scriptures:
  • Job 11:7-9 - "Can you search out the deep things of God?
Can you find out the limits of the Almighty?
They are higher than heaven— what can you do?
Deeper than Sheol— what can you know?
Their measure is longer than the earth
And broader than the sea."
  • Isaiah 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."
  • Romans 11:33 - "Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out! "

Discussion Questions:
  • Should the fact that the "deep things of God" are without measure discourage us from searching them out? Why or why not?
  • How does this understanding of God humble us?
  • Will we ever grow bored in heaven? Why or why not?

Qualitative Understanding of Incomprehensibility

The second understanding of incomprehensibility is that God is incomprehensible in a qualitative sense. Neo-Orthodox theologians such as Emil Brunner and Karl Barth stressed God's transcendence in reaction to German Protestant Liberalism. But they went too far. God, to them, is so transcendent that He can not be known or understood. His thoughts are qualitatively different than ours. Brunner insisted that "God and the medium of conceptuality are mutually exclusive".

The Dutch reformed theologian Herman Bavinck (1854-1921) and later Cornelius Van Til (1895-1987) also had similar ideas about man's understanding of God. Near the beginning of Bavinck's Doctrine of God he states "...the idea that the believer would be able to understand and comprehend intellectually the revealed mysteries is equally unscriptural. On the contrary, the truth which God has revealed concerning himself in Scripture far surpasses human conception and comprehension".

When Gordon Clark was a part of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Van Til, along with others, filed a complaint against Clark in which he states, "We dare not maintain that his (God's) knowledge and our knowledge coincide at any single point" (p. 5, col. 3). John Murray filed a minority report in Gordon Clark's trail at the 12th General Assembly (Clark was acquitted) in which he states the following:
"The issue therefore seems to be as follows:...The content of knowledge is different -- on this the Complaint is insistent and it contends that the doctrine of the incomprehensibility of God is radically impaired if the qualitative difference at this point is denied or not jealously guarded."

And so we see that both Van Til and Murray believed that God's thoughts and our thoughts do not intersect. As Clark says on p. 85-86 of The Trinity, "If this were so, the proposition "David was king" would have two totally, totally, different meanings, one for God and one for man, with not a single point of coincidence. Nothing that we could get from the sentences in the Bible would be what God meant by them. Clearly we could not think God's thoughts after him. Since God knows all truth, and since God's mind and ours do not have a single point in common, man can know nothing at all."

Logical Problems with Qualitative Understanding

  1. Contradiction - Those who argue a qualitative difference between the our knowledge and God's knowledge invariably suffer from an inability to define what they mean by "qualitative". For as soon as they do, they express something that they deny. They laughably contradict themselves whenever they assert something about God to be true. One way to deal with this kind of thinking is to ask a simple question. Is the idea, that our thoughts and God's thoughts do not intersect, an idea about God? If so, what must it be, true or false?
  2. Logical skepticism - To assert that God's thoughts are un-knowable is to commit the logical error of skepticism. Such skepticism is equivalent to claiming omniscience, since you would need to know all things in order to know if something is not knowable.

Scriptural Problems with Qualitative Understanding

  • 1 Cor. 2:7-16 - "...But as it is written:
    “ Eye has not seen, nor ear heard,
    Nor have entered into the heart of man
    The things which God has prepared for those who love Him.”[a]
    But God has revealed them to us through His Spirit. For the Spirit searches all things, yes, the deep things of God. ... Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things that have been freely given to us by God. ... For “who has known the mind of the LORD that he may instruct Him?” But we have the mind of Christ."
  • John 8:32 - "And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free."
  • 1 John 2:21 - "I have not written to you because you do not know the truth, but because you know it, and that no lie is of the truth."

Discussion Questions:
  • How does the qualitative understanding of the incomprehensibility of God reflect pride and arrogance, even though they claim they are humble?
  • How is this error dangerous? How does it impact the doctrine of the Trinity?
  • How does this support many other errors such as the so called "free offer of the gospel" and the error of "common" grace?
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