Explaining Our Knowledge of God (Letham)

  Here’s a helpful section of Robert Letham’s new Systematic Theology.  It has to do with the nature of our knowledge of and language about God.

Our knowledge of God is not univocal, identical to his in manner or content.  If it were, it would yield a precise identity between God’s knowledge and ours.  His knowledge of this or that, from 2×2=4 to more complex realities, would  not differ in principle from the way we know things.  This would be rationalism.  It would erode the Creator-creature distinction.  God transcends his creation.

Conversely, neither is our knowledge of God or creation, in relation to God’s knowledge, to be understood as equivocal, in principle totally different.  If it were, there would be no correspondence between our knowledge of God’s knowledge, and unbridgeable gap between God and ourselves.  We could not know God at all, nor know his creation accurately.

Instead, our knowledge of God is analogical, with both a correspondence and a difference between our knowledge of God and who he is in himself, between our knowledge of this or that created entity and God’s knowledge of the same entity.  This is based on the biblical revelation that God is the infinite Creator, knowing all things instantaneously and comprehensively, and we are his creatures, yet made in his image for partnership, with a correspondence between him and us….

This is of monumental importance.  It affects the way we interpret the Bible.  God speaks to us in ways we can understand.  His revelation is true.  He reveals himself in a manner that we can grasp, like a father speaking to his young child.  Yet the reality transcends the revelation….

Robert Letham, Systematic Theology, p. 62-3.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

Our (Ectypal/Analogical) Knowledge of God (Bavinck)

Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 2: God and Creation
Bavinck, vol. 2

We can know the true and living God in a personal way. We can know the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as Lord, Father, Redeemer, and Rock. But we can’t know him in an exhaustive way. We can’t know him in his inner being or as he is in himself. We can know him because he’s revealed himself and because he gives us his Spirit in and through Christ, but we cannot know him apart from revelation, his Spirit, and Christ. I appreciate how Herman Bavinck discussed this topic (analogical & ectypal knowledge):

1. All our knowledge of God is from and through God, grounded in his revelation, that is, in objective reason.

2. In order to convey the knowledge of him to his creatures, God has to come down to the level of his creatures and accommodate himself to their powers of comprehension.

3. The possibility of this condescension cannot be denied since it is given with creation, that is, with the existence of finite being.

4. Our knowledge of God is always only analogical in character, that is, shaped by analogy to what can be discerned of God in his creatures, having as its object not God himself in his knowable essence, but God in his revelation, his relation to us, in the things that pertain to his nature, in his habitual disposition to his creatures.2 Accordingly, this knowledge is only a finite image, a faint likeness and creaturely impression of the perfect knowledge that God has of himself.

5. Finally, our knowledge of God is nevertheless true, pure, and trustworthy because it has for its foundation God’s self-consciousness, its archetype, and his self-revelation in the cosmos.

Herman Bavinck, John Bolt, and John Vriend, Reformed Dogmatics: God and Creation, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), 110.

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

A Pious Confession of Ignorance

 In the opening section of his discussion of theology proper, Herman Bavinck does a nice job utilizing Augustine and Hilary to explain the biblical teaching that a person can know God truly but not exhastively.   In other words, a person can apprehend God by faith in Jesus, but no one can comprehened him.  The first part of this longer quote is from Augustine’s lectures on the Gospel of John.

“‘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.’  God is the sole object of all our love, precisely because he is the infinite and incomprehensible One.”

“Although Scripture and the church, thus as it were, accept the premises of agnosticism and are even more deeply convinced of human limitations and the incomparable grandeur of God than Kant and Spencer, they draw from these realities a very different conclusion.  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, you know him as indescribable.'”

“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.”

Bavinck goes on to discuss this “adorable mystery,” that the infinite God can make himself known to finite creatures.  He says it well: “This mystery cannot be comprehended; it can only be gratefully acknowledged.”  Reminds me of Paul’s doxology at the end of Romans chapter 11.

The above quotes can be found in volume 2 of Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics, pages 48-50. 

shane lems

Bavinck on Our Knowledge of the Triune God

Here’s a summary of Bavinck on human knowledge of God.  It can be found in his Reformed Dogmatics, volume II, page 110.  As you read this, also remember Bavinck’s constant chorus of the Creator/creature distinction.  The following sounds pretty much like Turretin on the same topic.  Don’t let anyone tell you that Bavinck wasn’t working with classic/historic Reformed distinctions!

“Theology must be called ectypal or analogical” instead of archetypal or univocal.

1)      All our knowledge of God is from and through God, grounded in his revelation, that is, an objective revelation.

2)      In order to convey the knowledge of him to his creatures, God has to come down to the level of his creatures and accommodated himself to their powers of comprehension.

3)      The possibility of this condescension cannot be denied since it is given with creation, that is, with the existence of finite being.

4)      Our knowledge of God is always only analogical in character; that is, shaped by analogy to what can be discerned of God in his creatures, having as its object not God himself in his knowable essence, but God in his revelation, his relation to us, in the things that pertain to his creatures.  Accordingly, this knowledge is only a finite image, a faint likeness and creaturely impression of the perfect knowledge that God has of himself.

5)      Finally, our knowledge of God is nevertheless true, pure, and trustworthy because it has for its foundation God’s self-consciousness, its archetype, and his self-revelation in the cosmos.

shane lems

sunnyside wa

Geerhardus Vos on Kingdom

 Is the kingdom of God a process of development or social utopia?  Let’s ask Vos:

“Side by side with ‘the future age,’ and characterizing it from a less formal point of view, the phrase ‘kingdom of God’ designates the consummate state, as it will exist for believers after the judgment.  Jesus, while making the kingdom a present reality, yet continues to speak of it in accordance with its original eschatological usage as ‘the kingdom’ which lies in the future….”

“Although the eschatological kingdom differs from the present kingdom largely in the fact that it will receive an eternal, visible embodiment, yet this does not hinder that even in it the core is constituted by those spiritual realities and relations which make the present kingdom.  Hence the figures in which Jesus speaks of it, such as eating, drinking, reclining at table, while not to be taken sensually should not on the other hand be interpreted allegorically, as if they stood for wholly internal spiritual processes: they evidently point to, or at least include, outward states and activities, of which our life in the senses offers some analogy, but on a higher plane of which it is at present impossible to form any concrete conception or to speak otherwise than in figurative language.”

I think the term “analogy” there is helpful, and not used arbitrarily by Vos.  Different, but like; described figuratively only in terms of accommodation.  Language here is not univocal (i.e. sensual?) or equivocal (i.e. allegorical?), but analogical. 

For Vos’ full article on the eschatology of the NT, see pages 979-993 of the International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia Volume II, ed. James Orr (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1952).  It can also be found in the Vos’ Shorter Writings that Richard Gaffin edited and P&R published.

shane

sunnyside wa