Friday, August 19, 2016

On Divine Incomprehensibility and Ineffability

What do we mean when we say God is incomprehensible, or that God is ineffable? The typical definition is that God is incomprehensible because we cannot comprehend, fully understand, God. But we can apprehend God, which is to say we can know something about God. To say God is ineffable is to say that God is beyond words of description. Of course, as Fred Sanders kindly pointed out, "Clever philosophers of religion have even observed that if something were absolutely ineffable, we could not say so, because that would be saying enough about it to prove we could say something about it." This brings us to the problem at hand: If God is truly incomprehensible, then how can we even apprehend Him, since any comprehension reduced by infinity is certainly zero? If God is truly ineffable, then how can we even speak about Him?

The traditional explanation of the doctrines of incomprehensibility and ineffability in my opinion does not help us to better understand God. The traditional explanation starts with the God who is infinitely above the creature, and this Creator/ creature distinction gives rise to God being incomprehensible and ineffable. God is so far above us, so qualitatively above us, that all our knowledge is wrong in comparison. All our words fail before Him as the Infinite One. But all of these seem to lead us to the conclusion of agnosticism about God. Are these doctrines wrong, or perhaps are the explanation of these doctrines wrong?

Scripture does show us the qualitative transcendence of God and His thoughts (Is. 55:8-9). But note here that the focus is on elevation and loftiness. In other words, here are our thoughts, and God is qualitatively higher than them. Instead of starting with God as a category, we start our understanding with men, and this I think is the better way we are to understand these two doctrines.

So we humans have thoughts and knowledge about God. God's thoughts and understanding transcend ours. In other words, we are to understand God's thoughts and understand as being much much greater than ours. Our thoughts and knowledge can be stated as a variable quantity n. God's thoughts and understanding however transcend ours in infinite degree, thus it is ∞. And to show the qualitative difference, we can even express it as (∞a, ∞b, ∞c, ...., ∞∞). The key point to note here is that God is incomprehensible as a plus infinity, instead of us being negative infinity from a large fixed value. Therefore, "incomprehensibility" is not a function of how terrible we are, but how superior God is. Seen in this way, God as incomprehensible allows us to truly apprehend Him in some significant way.

Similarly, when we say that God is ineffable, we are to understand that God is beyond words as a plus infinity, not of us as negative infinity from a finite point. God is beyond words because we cannot exhaust Him in words. We have words about God, but God is plus infinity from them. Therefore, we can truly speak about God even at great length, but ineffability means we cannot ever exhaust God. Seen this way, ineffability should lead to much praise, not to silence since words and praise to God is to be positive infinity. This is unlike the mystical appropriation of ineffability which takes God as a finite (although very high) point, therefore to render Him ineffable means that we cannot say anything about God (minus infinite words).

The doctrines of incomprehensibility and ineffability are biblical, becuase God is infinite. But how we understand them is also important, in order that knowing them brings us to glorify God as the High and Lofty One, instead of moving us towards soul-destroying mysticism. Imcomprehensibility and ineffability has a God-ward thrust, and should not be used against us and God-given revelation

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