“…It Is Not God You Comprehend” (Augustine/Bavinck)

When the Bible talks about knowing God it does not mean a person can or will know God exhaustively, comprehensively, or fully (e.g. Is. 40:13ff, 1 Cor. 2:16, etc.). But it does mean there is such a thing as true and saving knowledge of God (e.g. 1 John 2:13). As various theologians have rightly said, we can apprehend God but we cannot comprehend him. Herman Bavinck did a nice job discussing this in his section on the incomprehensibility of God:

Involved here is a matter of profound religious importance, to which Augustine gave expression as follows: “We are speaking of God. Is it any wonder if you do not comprehend? For if you comprehend, it is not God you comprehend. Let it be a pious confession of ignorance rather than a rash profession of knowledge. To attain some slight knowledge of God is a great blessing; to comprehend him, however, is totally impossible.”54 God is the sole object of all our love, precisely because he is the infinite and incomprehensible One. …Hilary put it as follows: “The perfection of learning is to know God in such a way that, though you realize he is not unknowable, yet you know him as indescribable.”55 The knowledge we have of God is altogether unique. This knowledge may be called positive insofar as by it we recognize a being infinite and distinct from all finite creatures. On the other hand, it is negative because we cannot ascribe a single predicate to God as we conceive that predicate in relation to creatures. It is therefore an analogical knowledge: a knowledge of a being who is unknowable in himself, yet able to make something of himself known in the being he created.

54 Augustine, Lectures on the Gospel of John, tract. 38, NPNF (1), VII, 217–21.
55 Hilary of Poitiers, De trinitate, II, 7.

Here, indeed, lies something of an antinomy. Rather, agnosticism, suffering from a confusion of concepts, sees here an irresolvable contradiction in what Christian theology regards as an adorable mystery. It is completely incomprehensible to us how God can reveal himself and to some extent make himself known in created beings: eternity in time, immensity in space, infinity in the finite, immutability in change, being in becoming, the all, as it were, in that which is nothing. This mystery cannot be comprehended; it can only be gratefully acknowledged.

Herman Bavinck, God and Creation (volume 2 of Reformed Dogmatics), p. 48-49.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015