Incomprehensible but Knowable: A Lisping God
The writings of French reformer, theologian, and pastor John Calvin are often remembered by the Latin phrase “brevitas et claritas”. Calvin wrote to be understood, and avoided using more words than would be helpful. To get to the point then, in English, the phrase means “brevity and clarity”. Unfortunately, many don’t understand Calvin, though this is often because they don’t actually read him, but only what others have written about him. At the same time, others will read Calvin, and yet still not understand him. To be sure, if someone says John Calvin is “incomprehensible,” it is not a complement. However, when Calvin and the broad consensus of Christian thinkers before and after him describe God as “incomprehensible”, it is to God’s glory and praise.
While Calvin wanted his writings about God to be understood, he realized there are limits to explaining God. We need to be careful here. In Christianity, God is knowable. He can be understood with certainty and rightly known. However, “comprehend” paints a picture of encircling and grasping with exhaustive completeness. The God of the Bible, the Creator, is too great to enclose in the limits of creaturely minds. Though pastors in training often earn Masters of Divinity degrees, they simply cannot master God, but can only be mastered by him, or fail to be. How than can we know God, if he is beyond us? Together with affirming God’s “incomprehensibility”, Calvin emphasized that God graciously overcomes our natural inability so that we truly can know him.
Let me note a few memorable passages from Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion [I.xiii.1, I.xiv.1] showing some practical results of affirming God’s incomprehensibility for the big picture of knowing God.
First, it is harmful to speculate in areas where Scripture is silent. Instead we must treat what is laid down in Scripture as sufficient:
When a certain shameless fellow mockingly asked a pious old man what God had done before the creation of the world, the latter aptly countered that he had been building hell for the curious. [Augustine, Confessions, XI.12] Let this admonition, no less grave than severe, restrain the wantonness that tickles many and even drives them to wicked and hurtful speculations.[i]
It is the person who attempts to be wiser to God who is shown the fool. Therefore, Scripture – not our own wisdom – must be the lens through which we “see” God:
For just as eyes, when dimmed with age or weakness or by some other defect, unless aided by spectacles, discern nothing distinctly; so, such is our feebleness, unless Scripture guides us in seeking God, we are immediately confused.[ii]
Speaking of what we can in fact be know about God from observing the created order, the vast yet limited scope of the natural universe places guardrails on our thinking about the Creator:
Therefore let us willingly remain enclosed within these bounds to which God has willed to confine us, and as it were, to pen up our minds that they may not, through their very freedom to wander, go astray.[iii]
In addition to limiting our knowledge of God to what his own self-revelation in Scripture and nature make inescapable, the doctrine of God’s incomprehensibility prevents us from adopting crude, overly simplistic readings of Scripture, such as attributing a physical body to God because the Bible speaks in terms of God’s “mouth, ears, eyes, hands, and feet”:
For who even of slight intelligence does not understand that, as nurses commonly do with infants, God is wont in a measure to “lisp” in speaking to us? Thus such forms of speaking do not so much express clearly what God is like as accommodate the knowledge of him to our slight capacity. To do this he must descend far beneath his loftiness.[iv]
God’s speech to us in Scripture is like a parent’s baby-talk with their newborn. Thus, God for Calvin is a Being naturally too great for us to know, yet so gracious that he personally condescends to make himself known to us.
Steven McCarthy is pastor of the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Walton, NY, a graduate of the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary, Pittsburgh, PA, and a Th.M. student in Reformation and Post-Reformation Theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, MI. He lives with his wife and three children in the Catskill Mountains of Upstate New York.
[i] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. J. T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2011), 1: 160–161.
[ii] Ibid., 160-161.
[iii] Ibid., 161.
[iv] Ibid., 121.