God Cannot Be Known Without God

I’m working on a chapter on the theological basis for the task of biblical theology. To speak of “redemptive history” requires a theology of both history and redemption. The notion that God is bringing about a plan of salvation for his people requires theological commitments about creation, providence, and covenant (among others!).

Central here to the study of the Bible’s witness to God himself is a theological truth in a Christian theology of revelation: that God is both ultimately incomprehensible and yet graciously knowable.

This reflection reminded me of one of my favorite statements from the second century theologian Irenaeus of Lyons. Late in his massive work, Against Heresies, Irenaeus draws upon the notions of incomprehensibility and knowability.

This an important maneuver in light of who he is seeking to refute: gnostic teachers who prioritized both secret knowledge and also the impossibility of truly knowing anything about the transcendent God(s). He writes:

The Lord taught us that no man is capable of knowing God, unless he be taught of God; that is, that God cannot be known without God. (AH, 4.6.4)
This is the sanctifying dynamic that inescapably engulfs theological discourse. True knowledge of God is beyond our comprehension, but this too is known only through special revelation.

Had God not chosen to reveal himself, we would have no knowledge of him.

The *revelation* of *incomprehensibility* both grounds and governs the possibility + limits of our theological godtalk. Not an intellectual language game but a paradox at the burning core of all theology.

Part of everything God has revealed is that he has not revealed everything about God.

Our theological confidence and discursive efforts are supposed to bend to this economic reality.

Brain breaking though it should seem, the outer reach of incomprehensibility balances the immersion of knowability. This should generate both boldness *and* humility in the theologian.

The two-fold thesis for incomprehensibility & knowability is Deut 29:29: 

"The secret things belong to the Lord our God," so this means he keeps secrets and will never be exhaustively known ad extra. This should deeply humble us.

Who among us could speak of the unspeakable?

"But the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever," so this means that by grace alone we can trust God's testimony about himself. This should deeply embolden us.

Who among us could refrain from speaking of the one who has given us words to say?

The Christian theologian is tasked with the impossible task: Speak rightly of the one who is ineffable.

His "greatness is unsearchable" (Ps 145:3), the psalmist declares. Now search out his greatness, the psalmist demands.

This is part of the impossibility that the Advent of the Son makes possible.

With an economy of words, the Word has made known the divine economy. He gave men and women of this world the ability to say, “Glory to God in the highest.”

A wondrous gift indeed!

Biblical Theology
April 30, 2024


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