Theology in 3D

Knowing an Unknowable God

Greg Stiekes | July 20, 2018
New Testament

Those mysterious doctrines of grace that we often wrestle with—God’s foreknowledge, election, calling, predestination, justification, glorification, and unending love (Rom 8:28–39)—are even more astounding when we consider the sheer epistemic distance between us and our Creator. The Bible describes our God as a Person who is unknowable because of two stunning realities.

GOD’S TRANSCENDENCE

The first reality is that God is invisible. Jesus declares that God is a “spirit” (John 4:24), which makes him imperceptible to the physical senses. But the Bible also says that God is “invisible” (Col 1:15), which means that invisibility is part of God’s nature, perhaps even an accident of his essence. John 1:18 states, θεὸν οὐδεὶς ἑώρακεν πώποτε: “God no one has seen. Ever.” It is a categorical proposition that indicates we will actually never see God, not in heaven, nor on the New Earth. In fact, most likely there is no created being, even the Seraphim who hide their eyes from the manifestation of God’s glory (Isa 6:1–2), who have ever actually “seen” God.

Speaking of the seraphim, they declare one of God’s attributes that manifests the essence of his invisibility, “Holy, holy, holy” (Isa 6:3). God’s holiness means that he stands apart from all that he has made, that he is utterly “other-than” his creation.

Furthermore, Paul tells Timothy that God dwells in unapproachable light, whom no human has ever seen, nor even has the ability to see (1 Tim 6:16). God is not simply hiding in light. His unapproachableness means that he is not able to be conceived of by mere human beings. That is why, in the worship of Israel in the Old Testament, the most holy place where God “dwelled” actually kept the people at arm’s length from their God. The vast majority of Israelite’s lived and died having never seen for themselves the temple furniture, and the even the vast majority of priests lived and died having never seen the ark of the covenant that adorned the most holy place (Heb 9:1–7).

OUR IGNORANCE

Couple the absolute unknowability of God with the ignorance of his creatures and we have a second stunning reality. We cannot comprehend God, for even God’s thoughts are unattainable. Isaiah 55:8–9 says that the distance between our finite, transient thoughts and God’s infinite wisdom is higher than the distance between the heavens and the earth.

We can appreciate this hyperbole well enough, but not perhaps as well as those to whom it was first delivered. For most of the people who heard those words read did not understand height like we do. Most of us have flown before, and we have seen pictures of the earth from the Space Shuttle. Back in Isaiah’s day, however, a few of the Israelite people may have journeyed to the top of a small mountain, and some may have even climbed to the summit of Mt. Hermon, close to 10,000 feet above sea level. But even they would watch the eagles in the sky and could only imagine what it was like to be so high above the earth. To them, to be higher than the heavens above the earth was to be at an unknowable distance, to contemplate an impossible mystery. It is striking to consider that the most profound thinking in human history—such as the thinking of Plato, Aristotle, Pythagoras, Archimedes, Da Vinci, Kepler, Bach, Hume, Hegel, Kant, Nietzsche, Einstein—is merely like a mountain peak resting at an unfathomable distance from the heavenly thoughts of God.

Then there is the fact that we all come into the world as unbelievers, and unbelievers are described as those whose minds are dark. Paul describes the unbelieving Gentiles as those who are “darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart” (Eph 4:18). If that is not bad enough, dark-minded believers are also being blinded by “the god of this world” (2 Cor 4:4; cf. Eph 2:1–3).

Furthermore, Paul tells us in Romans 3:10–11 that we do not even seek God. This means that even if we were aware of God’s existence, his love and his beauty and his glory, we would still flee in the opposite direction, for our hearts are utterly sinful. We cannot know God, we do not want God, and we do not seek God.

THE KNOWLEDGE OF GOD?

If I were applying mathematics to theology, I would have to conclude rightly that the sum of these two stunning realities could not possibly equal a knowledge of God. A hard-hearted, ignorant, blinded creature could never even be cognizant of an invisible, unapproachable, incomprehensible Creator. For us to know God, God had to reveal himself, make himself known. God has made himself known through his creation, his Word and ultimately through the Son, who exegeted God the Father, fleshing him out for all to see (John 1:18b).

But God’s declaration of himself alone is not enough to bridge the epistemic gap between us. God had to enable his creatures to be able to perceive him. This enablement is an act of God’s common grace, in that God created us with the capacity to perceive him through his creation (Rom 1:20) and to engage in communication rationally and emotionally with God’s messengers (Acts 17:22–32).

But for us to truly “know” God personally, God had to perform that mysterious work of knowing and electing us from the foundation of the world, predestinating us, calling us, justifying us. This is the special grace of God that Paul speaks of in Gal 4:9, when he prefers not to say that we have “come to know God,” but rather that we have “come to be known by God.”

Christians may argue the finer points of these doctrines of grace. But at their core these doctrines show us that God’s enabling us to know him is a warm and loving act of redemption. Without this communicative act of God’s common grace followed by his special grace, we would remain hopelessly unaware of God’s existence and still lost in our sins. The doctrines of grace, therefore, should never divide us, but should propel us to worship.


9 responses to “Knowing an Unknowable God”

  1. What would you do with Jesus’ promise that “the pure in heart…shall see God” (Matt 5:8)? Job, too, was confident that “in [his] flesh” he would “see God” (Job 19:26). Personally, I’m inclined to think that God’s invisibility is an accident of our nature rather than God’s, “visibility” being defined by our (fallen) physical senses. So, when Scripture describes God’s invisibility, could it be because of us and our fallenness rather than part of the essence of Deity?

  2. Ken Casillas says:

    Reminds me of a favorite John Owen quote: “We lisp and babble, and say we know not what, for the most part, in our most accurate (as we think) conceptions and notions of God. We may love, honor, believe, and obey our Father; and therewith he accepts our childish thoughts, for they are but childish. We see but his back parts; we know but little of him…. The queen of Sheba had heard much of Solomon, and framed many great thoughts of his magnificence in her mind thereupon; but when she came and saw his glory, she was forced to confess that the one half of the truth had not been told her [1 Kings 10:7]. We may suppose that we have here attained great knowledge, clear and high thoughts of God; but, alas! when he shall bring us into his presence we shall cry out, ‘We never knew him as he is; the thousandth part of his glory, and perfection, and blessedness, never entered into our hearts.'”

  3. Greg Stiekes says:

    In response to Layton, and with the full realization that I am about to “lisp and babble” …. No, I do not think that anyone has ever or will ever “see” God except through the Son (John 14:9). No created being could ever behold God directly and live. Jesus said in John 6:46 that only he has seen the Father (and he was probably not talking about seeing God with his corporeal eyes). But as for these other references where people are said to “see” God, there is, as you know a lot of elasticity in the word “see.” Jacob says he saw God face to face (Gen 32:20); Moses speaks face-to-face with God (Exod 33:11); Samson’s parents thought they had seen God (Judg 13:22). Yet Jesus could still say that no one had ever “seen” the Father at any time (John 1:18).
    But the Job and Matthew references are interesting to consider. If Job was speaking of a resurrection body, then he would be able to “see” God as a resurrected believer on the New Earth, but not in heaven. But why would Job have to wait till the resurrection to see God? Would he not be able to see God in heaven? And, yet, Jesus still says long after Job has died, “No one has seen God.” And why would Job be able to see God when the spirit beings themselves are not able to?
    In Matt 5:8, the pure in heart will see God. Leaving aside the the questions pertaining to the offer of a political kingdom in this context, if Jesus is speaking of literal sight as we understand it, then why have the pure in heart who have gone to glory still not seen God according to Jesus in John 1:18?
    Finally, the question of whether God’s invisibility is an accident of his essence or part of his nature …? Notice I waffled on this a little in my post. Upon further reflection, why could we not explore a third idea, that God’s invisibility is an attribute of God. God’s attributes are those characteristics that express his essence. I mean, for example, that God is infinite; that’s his essence. But his omnipresence is God’s infinity related to space; and his eternity is God’s infinity related to time. Holiness is also part of God’s essence, and holiness cannot mean inherently that God is pure from evil because he is holy whether there is evil or not. But God’s purity is his holiness in relation to sin or evil. By the same line of thinking, then, perhaps God’s “invisibility” is his holiness in relation to the perception of his creatures. So really when we talk of God’s invisibility we are talking about his holiness, his “other-than-ness,” that he is utterly separate from all he has made.
    [As a side note, notice that we are exploring questions that biblical theology alone cannot answer.]

    • To Ken: Thanks for that fabulous Owen quote! I’m intrigued, however, by your ellipsis. You left out this: “Hence is that promise wherewith we are so often supported and comforted in our distress, ‘We shall see him as he is,’ we shall see him ‘face to face’ … ‘Now we see him not’; –all concluding that here we see but his back parts; not as he is, but in a dark, obscure representation, not in the perfection of his glory.’” I’m no Owen scholar, but it sounds like he expects to see God:)
      To Greg: You’re right, we have dipped into systematic theology; but to be sound, systematic theology has to be grounded in all the biblical theology we have and, where that fails, remain tentative. Your original post reflects that tentativeness: “most likely [a healthy qualifier!], there is no created being, even the seraphim … who have ever actually ‘seen’ God.” But that original expression of opinion graduates to dogma in your reply: “no created being could ever behold God directly and live” and “why would Job be able to see God when the spirit beings themselves are not able to.” I’m not convinced we can be so confident of such unequivocal statements without equally unequivocal biblical data.
      Regarding the angelic spirits, Matt 18:10 says fairly plainly that they see God’s face. And you’re right, the word “see” has some elasticity; but elasticity stretches in more than one direction.
      Both John 1:18 and John 6:46 are unequivocal data, but our interpretations of them may not be. In light of data like Matt 5:8 and Job 19:26, why may we not understand Jesus’ statement to mean, “No living man you will ever hear from has seen God…ever…except me. I am the sole human revealer of God who has ever actually seen God.” In the context, John seems to be making a concrete personal point about Jesus’ unique revelatory role, not an abstract theological point about an attribute of God.
      I would certainly agree that living mortals who are said to have “seen” God via theophany did not see a full manifestation of God’s glory. That seems to be the import of Exo 33:20, which I would take to mean man in his fallen, sinful, unglorified state—like Moses. Hence, Moses saw only God’s “back part” (an interesting “anthropomorphism,” no?).
      But the combined data seem to me to indicate that believers will see God “as He is” in all his glory, and God is certainly capable of making us able to do so. But, I may be wrong. We’ll see:)

  4. Greg Stiekes says:

    So, I will continue to babble a little more here. I realize the comment about ST versus BT is was an in-house conversation reference. We all agree that solid ST finds its basis in BT, where BT refers to reading the meaning of the text in its context and basing theology on the text itself. And I’m much more of a BT guy than an ST guy, as you know. But I think this is a good example of the fact that the kinds of questions we’re asking cannot be answered by BT, only by ST; moreover, ST informed by philosophy and epistemology. In fact, we’re really influenced by Aristotle’s categories in this entire conversation. In particular, the category of οὐσία, or God’s essence, and ποῖος, what kind of being God is.
    Thus, statements such as “Not even the angels have seen God,” to your point, should not be dogma but more like propositions to be tested. I think this proposition best explains the biblical data, data in which you have various uses of the word “see.” For instance, you have statements that people “see” God and statements that say no person “has seen nor can see” God (1 Tim 6:16). So right away we know we have to be cautious about reading the text too literally.
    Matthew 18:10 says that the angels behold the face of God. But do they? Does God have a face? No; that is a figure of speech, an anthropomorphism, as you mentioned, just like the references to God’s eyes, ears, mouth, arms, and wings (I guess that last one is zoomorphism!). So God “does not have a body like men,” as the Reformed catechisms state. The Fathers seems to be unanimous on this point.
    Clement of Alexandria wrote, “What is God? ‘God,’ as the Lord says, ‘is a spirit.’ Now spirit is properly substance, incorporeal, and uncircumscribed. And that is incorporeal which does not consist of a body, or whose existence is not according to breadth, length, and depth. And that is uncircumscribed which has no place, which is wholly in all, and in each entire, and the same in itself” (On Providence).
    So here we have a discussion concerning God’s οὐσία, or essence. If I can use Clement as a way to explain this essence, God’s existence is not according to breadth, length, and depth. Why? Because God created breadth, length, and depth. The space between two random points did not exist until God created it. The seconds between one random event and another did not exist until God created the event and the sequence that we call “time.” And the Creator is separate from his creation, outside of space and time. But everything else that God made is subject to these confinements because they are created beings alongside of them, governed by them. And these creatures must include spirit beings, for they were also created.
    So, when I read in Matthew 18:10 about the “face” of God, and that the angels behold God’s “face,” I already know that this is an impossibility. For God has no face. I must therefore take this verse to mean what so many other verses mean when they speak of God’s creatures beholding him. In other words, that it is a reference to God’s presence, or at least the manifestation of his presence. Because all beings, including spirit beings, are created, and God is not. That is an infinite distance, and it is what makes the incarnation so utterly astounding, and the fact that God can know and choose us so astounding. Like something almost impossible to believe.
    Furthermore, I think that God’s prohibition about making a carved image of his likeness (Exod 20:4–5) is even more evidence of the fact that God is not able to be seen—his image cannot be traced or represented by any created being. Because no creature knows what he looks like, and any likeness of God therefore debases God. Would this commandment be so stern and the warning of its violation so dire if the angels and glorified human beings could see a form when they beheld God? I wonder.
    Again, I’m only probing the possible verification of the proposition, asking what proposition is most satisfying, say, on the matter of angelic beings or justified people literally seeing God.

    • Well, you’re not going to lure me into an extended discussion of anthropomorphism before my Seminary Theological Symposium presentation this Fall (which is why I referenced it in the first place). I’ll just suggest (a) when it comes to anthropomorphism as a category of explaining God, not necessarily, and (b) when it comes to “people literally seeing God,” it is a mistake to confuse “literal” with “physical.” That’s why I think anthropomorphism is a distraction from the issue at hand, which is whether invisibility is an inherent and absolute attribute of God such that no created being, angelic or human, unfallen or glorified, ever has or ever will actually see God. That strikes me as an unnecessary systematic conclusion in the face of repeated implications to the contrary. I don’t think the issue in this instance is “reading the text too literally” (“So right away we know we have to be cautious about reading the text too literally.”). I think the issue is not what the text means by “see” but what the text means by “God”; and the danger is letting purely logically defined categories (like what a spirit is or is not) shape our reading of the text rather than letting the text shape our categories and definitions.
      John Frame, no stranger to Reformed catechisms, says, “God is essentially invisible. This means, not that he can never be seen under any circumstances, but rather that, as Lord, he sovereignly chooses when, where, and to whom to make himself visible [and, I would add, to what degree].He controls all the matter and light in the universe, so that he alone determines whether and how he will be visible to his creatures” (Doctrine of God, 590). I’m very much inclined to agree with him. God is not bound by my logic, but is Lord over it.

      • Greg Stiekes says:

        Well … I’m not sure I follow everything you’re saying here. Maybe it’s just too late in the day! I don’t think you are trying to make a distinction between logic and letting the text shape our thinking about God. (Can we separate logic from interpretation? Logic was created by God.) I will have to grab Frame’s Doctrine of God and read that quotation in context. What does Frame mean by “essentially” invisible? That invisibility is part of God’s essence? Also, on what basis does Frame explain that his invisibility means that he can be seen? Invisibility means just the opposite. Frame gives no reason in this quotation for his assertion (which is why I want to read the greater context). Furthermore, when Frame adds that God controls the matter and the light of the universe, it seems to me that he must be speaking of God’s making himself visible through his manifestations, such as the cloud that filled the temple or the Angel of the Lord. Are you sure Frame’s talking about actually “seeing” God apart from harnessing the matter of the universe to reveal himself?

        • Frame’s discussion of God’s Invisibility is on pp. 587-591; and yes, he is primarily discussing the various references in Scripture to people “seeing” God (i.e., theophanies). He never addresses the question of whether anyone will ever see God even in heaven (at least not in this discussion). I quoted him for his larger point about God’s lordship over his visibility. My point was that, in my opinion, (a) several scriptures seem to indicate adequately that angels can, and that saints will, see God, (b) no scripture requires an interpretation that unequivocally contradicts that future possibility, and (c) if God wants his people to see him in all his glory he is fully capable of enabling us to do so.

  5. Greg Stiekes says:

    Your (a), (b), and (c) summary is really helpful, and I think I can use these to pinpoint where the major difference may lie between us on this subject–although, we might discover that we are both saying the same thing, or at least that we are closer to each other than it might seem and language is getting in the way. We all speak as fools on any subject related to the greatness and glory of God! Also, I am not pretending to have an original thought on this matter but rather I am indebted to theologians who go far beyond my capabilities.
    I believe that we could continue to discuss (a) and (b) for a long time, but (c) is really at the heart of the matter. You state, “… if God wants his people to see him in all his glory he is fully capable of enabling us to do so.” This is where I see the main disagreement.
    On the one hand, I would definitely say, Amen! In fact, God has already enabled creatures to see his glory, because he has revealed himself through his Son who is “the radiance of God’s glory” and the hypostasis of the very Person of God (Heb 1:3). This is the manner in which God has chosen to reveal himself supremely. And one day “we shall see Christ as he is” (1 John 3:2)! So, therefore, we shall see God. “He who has seen me as seen the Father” (John 14:9).
    But if by the statement, “… if God wants his people to see him in all his glory he is fully capable of enabling us to do so,” you mean that God can enable us to actually behold him apart from the manifestations he has decreed, then I struggle to see how that can be true, and maybe I have misunderstood. Because I would argue just the opposite of that statement. That God is not capable of enabling creatures to see him in all his glory. Because our essence is different than God’s essence. To “see” God, there always has to be a manifestation of God somehow, something apart from God’s essence that commends his presence to us. Because God is holy and infinite, and these essences make it impossible that we as his creatures can fully perceive him. That’s what holiness and infinity mean. To actually “see” God, to behold him as he is, we would have to be holy, eternal, infinite beings like he is. And the Bible would not use the word “invisible,” in that case to describe God.
    And this does, I fully admit, color my interpretation of these passages we have been discussing, that I still believe, read in a strictly literal way, appear to contradict one another.
    This would be a great subject to bring up around the table at the Faculty Summit next week!

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