God is Incomprehensible

High school students love biology class for one simple reason. They get to dissect frogs, worms and other once living things. In addition to grossing out their weak stomached classmates they also learn a thing or two.  They learn things not otherwise gleaned if the subject of dissection were still living.  The student gets to look at the frog’s internals. He can see what the stomach, heart and lungs actually look like. His biology professor can point out things he would not otherwise know and see.

But all of this dissecting is an attempt to master the object of our study. It’s not enough to watch the frog hop, eat and even mate. The student needs to “get inside” in order to really master the topic of study. To speak proverbially, the student wants to know his topic inside and out.  How different it is for the theologian.

Yes, God is the object of our study. But he can never be mastered. It is impossible to dissect God like we would an animal.  An autopsy on God is impossible. In fact, the relationship that a human has to a frog is not even close to the same relationship that we have with God.  God is both the known object and the knowing subject! How different is that from a frog!  The object we are seeking to know actually knows us exhaustively! He is our master. In fact, the only way that we can know the object we desire to know is by His self-revelation.

But why is this?  Herman Bavinck answers this question succinctly, “The distance between God and us is the gulf between the Infinite and the finite, between eternity and time, between being and becoming, between All and nothing.”[1] Bavinck is consistent with the early church fathers.  Augustine once said, “Just as no intellect is able properly to conceive of God, so no definition is able properly to define or describe him.”[2]  Now, this raises the obvious question, how can we know God?

Well, the situation is further complicated by the fact that “There is no knowledge of God as he is in himself.” In other words, we cannot know God as He knows Himself. The self-knowledge possessed by God is called archetype knowledge.  God alone possesses this knowledge of Himself.  What is more, He is unable to pass this knowledge along to His creation.  Why?  Because creation is finite and cannot contain the archetypical knowledge found in the Infinite.  So, what is to be done?  Is God to remain unknowable and incomprehensible?

The answer is obviously, no.  God reveals Himself.  This revealed knowledge is accommodated to our finite condition and is called ectype knowledge.  Calvin once said that God stoops and lisps to us like the children we are. This is not to say that He speaks falsely about Himself.  Accommodated language is not false but rather fitted to our finite condition.  To put it simply, I may talk to my eight year old about economics but it will certainly be different than the knowledge one might receive in a college classroom.  In other words, what I say to my eight year old will be suitable to his age.

God is certainly bigger than we can possibly imagine.  Theologians call that bigness incomprehensibility.  What is more, the practical nature of this doctrine cannot be overestimated. The finite cannot contain the infinite means more than God’s knowledge is different from ours. It means that His wisdom and goodness are beyond us. Any time we are tempted to think that things are not as they ought to be we need to check our finitude. We are not all wise.  We are not all good.  We are not all powerful. We are finite. We see from a very small perspective.  The doctrine of incomprehensibility reminds us to let God be God.  That’s not always easy but it is always best.

Jeffrey A Stivason (Ph.D. Westminster Theological Seminary) is pastor of Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church in Gibsonia, PA.  He is also Professor of New Testament Studies at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA. Jeff is the Senior Editor of Place for Truth (placefortruth.org) an online magazine for the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. 


[1] Bavinck, Herman, Reformed Dogmatics vol. 1: God and Creation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic), 2004, 30.

[2] Ibid. 37.


Jeffrey Stivason