The Incomprehensibility of God

From Reformation Bible College | April 5, 2018

When we read about our Triune God in Holy Scripture, one of the most common ideas that we encounter is that He is beyond the complete grasp of finite minds. In Psalm 145:3, for example, we read:

“Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised, and his greatness is unsearchable.”

In the book of Job, we read:

“Behold, these are but the outskirts of his ways, and how small a whisper do we hear of him! But the thunder of his power who can understand?” (Job 26:14).

Isaiah writes, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isa. 55:8–9).

The same idea is encountered in the New Testament. Paul, for example, exclaims:

“Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” (Rom. 11:33–34).

The idea we encounter in passages such as these is the doctrine of the incomprehensibility of God. This phrase is commonly misunderstood, so it helps to begin by explaining first what it does not mean. When we say that God is incomprehensible, we do not mean that we cannot know anything at all about God. God has revealed Himself to us and therefore we can know something about Him. We know something of God through both His general and His special revelation. His creation reveals truth about Him (Romans 1:19–21), and His written word reveals truth about Him (2 Timothy 3:16). It is important to note, however, that He has not revealed everything about Himself to us. Instead His revelation is according to our finite capacity. Theologians have distinguished between archetypal and ectypal theology. These are fancy words to point out the difference between God’s infinite and perfect knowledge of Himself and all of His works and our finite and limited knowledge of Him.

So, when we say that God is incomprehensible, we do not mean that we cannot know anything at all about God.  What we do mean is that we cannot know Him exhaustively and comprehensively. Why not? Because God is infinite and we are finite. You may have heard or read the phrase Finitum non capax infiniti. This can be translated “The finite cannot grasp (or contain) the infinite.” It is simply hubris to think that our tiny little minds could fully comprehend the infinite God. And if we had a God we could fully comprehend, it would be a good indication, to paraphrase Augustine, that we weren’t actually thinking about the true and living God.

We have to remember that God has not revealed everything to us:

“The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law” (Deut. 29:29).

What are the implication of this doctrine? At the very least, it should encourage humility. Our God is infinitely exalted above us. We must understand our place as creatures in relation to the Creator. In theology, the incomprehensibility of God also means that we have to be willing to acknowledge our ignorance at times. We need to be able to say “I don’t know” when we do not know.

Dr. Keith Mathison is Professor of Systematic Theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Fla.