The God who has revealed Himself in Scripture tells us that He is going to be “incomprehensible” to us. But does this mean that God is going to be irrational or illogical? No. It means that God is beyond man’s capacity to understand or explain exhaustively. In this sense, God is beyond human reason and logic because He is infinite and we are finite.
The doctrine of incomprehensibility is the opposite of rationalistic “reductionism,” which reduces God to human categories in order to make Him “manageable,” “coherent,” and “explainable.” Incomprehensibility allows God to be GOD. It reveals that God is infinitely better and greater than man. Thus we can build all the little theoretical molds we want, and we can try to force God into these molds, but in the end God will not “fit.” He will always be beyond our grasp. He is too high for us to scale and too deep for us to fathom. We cannot get God in a box. The finite span of the human mind will never encompass the infinite God of Scripture.
But does this mean that God is “unknowable”? If by “unknowable” we mean the Greek philosophic dichotomy that “man must know either all or nothing,” this is not what Christian theology means by its doctrine of incomprehensibility. We can have a true but finite knowledge of God on a personal and intellectual level because God has revealed Himself. Thus while we cannot fully understand the God who has revealed Himself, yet we can and do know Him. (See Jeremiah 9:23, 24; Daniel 11:32; John 17:3; Galatians 4:8-9; 1 John 4:4-8; 5:18-21).
The doctrine of incomprehensibility means that we can only go so far and no further in our understanding of God because we are limited in three ways.
First, we are limited by the finite capacity of our minds. This is a “problem” that cannot be avoided any more than it can be overcome. So, we might as well as admit that we are not gods. Since we are finite creations of an infinite God, we will never understand it all.
Second, we are also limited by the sinfulness of our minds. Thus we have a moral problem as well as a capacity problem. By nature, we do not want the light of Truth. We prefer the darkness of error (Genesis 6:5; John 3:19-21). Sin and Satan have darkened and blinded our minds lest we see the Truth (Romans 1:28; 2 Corinthians 4:4). Only God’s wondrous grace can overcome our moral aversion to truth and righteousness.
Third, we are limited by revelation. Paul warned the Corinthians “not to go beyond what is written” because it would lead to arrogance (1 Corinthians 4:6). The constraints of revelation are given in order to restrain man’s depraved lust to make gods for himself. We are not free to speculate and come up with our own ideas of God. We are to study the Bible in order to learn God’s ideas about Himself, to think God’s thoughts after Him.
What are the consequences if we reject the doctrine of the incomprehensibility of God? While we might “cheer” at first because this gives a cheap and easy way to resolve the antinomies and paradoxes of Scriptures, it ultimately leads to a rationalistic denial of all Christian doctrine.
Stephen Davis is a good example of this process. He demands a “precise explanation” that is “coherent” to him, or he will not believe. In other words, if he cannot fully understand some aspect of the Christian God, he will throw it out because “man (in this case Davis) is the measure of all things.” This is the basic assumption of secular and religious humanism.
Davis first applies his humanistic assumption to the issues of divine sovereignty and human accountability. He understands that the historic Christian solution beginning from the Apostolic Fathers is that both divine sovereignty and human accountability are true. Christians for two thousand years have also believed that no one is able to reconcile these two ideas. It is a Biblical mystery that demands faith, not explanation. Since those who hold to both doctrines at the same time openly admit that they cannot give a “precise explanation” of how divine sovereignty and human accountability are both true, Davis has no choice but to reject the Christian position that both are true. He must now choose one and reject the other.
But does he now choose God and exalt His glory? No, as a humanist, Davis will always exalt man at the expense of God. When the choice comes down to either God’s being “free” to do as He pleases with what He made, or man’s being “free” to do as he pleases, a humanist will always make man “free” and God “bound.” Thus Davis argues;
Take the person who tries to reconcile divine predestination of all events with human freedom by saying, “Well, I’m talking about a kind of predestination which allows for human freedom.” Until it is explained precisely what this species of predestination is, we will be suspicious that the proposed reconciliation is spurious.1
While this is a quick and easy way of philosophically dismissing the position of the early Church and the Reformation, we should warn the reader that having established the precedent that “whatever cannot be precisely explained is spurious,” Davis goes on to apply it to such doctrines as the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
Similarly, we would be suspicious of a person who tries to explain how an incorporate being can be spatially located somewhere by the use of what this person calls “an aspatial concept of inside of.” Again, until it is explained precisely what this species of “inside of” is, we will reject the proposed reconciliation.2
Since no one can “precisely explain” how an “incorporate being,” either the Holy Spirit or a demonic spirit, can exist “inside of” someone, Davis rejects the idea. He also calls into question the omnipresence of God, for who can “precisely explain” howGod is everywhere present? Davis3 concludes,
If we want to be rational we have no choice but to reject what we judge to be incoherent4
We had better consider the way that someone does theology because it sets a precedent that will be relentlessly applied to more and more Christian teaching until nothing is left. While a denial of predestination is exegetically foolhardy, it is not damnable. But it is damnable to deny the essential attributes of God, such as His omnipresence, or the doctrine of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Christians need to understand that they must first look at where a line of reasoning will take them before they unknowingly start down the “primrose path” to apostasy.
Let us now examine some of the Scriptures which clearly teach the doctrine of the incomprehensibility of God. We will begin with the book of Job as it contains the fullest treatment of the doctrine in the Bible.
The Book of Job
This book is the passage of full mention in the Bible concerning the problem of evil. And it is also the passage of full mention on the subject of the incomprehensibility of God. Thus any discussion of the problem of evil must involve an affirmation of the incomprehensibility of God.
In Job the problem of evil is “solved” by the doctrine of the incomprehensibility of God. In other words, Job’s solution was to accept both that God is sovereign and that man is responsible. He did not try to explain this. He simply left such mysteries in the hands of God.
It is interesting to note that when we examined the books that claim to “solve” the problem of evil by reducing the power and knowledge of God, not one of them even mentioned the book of Job. Why is Job ignored? Perhaps they don’t like the answer God gave Job out of the whirlwind, because this answer is the incomprehensibility of God.
Now, we must point out that the problem of evil was not an academic issue for Job. The pain and suffering caused by the death of his children, the theft of his goods, the loss of his health, the ruination of his marriage, and the criticism of his friends, were all real evils to him.
But when Job said that he was willing to receive “evil as well as good from God,” he meant what he said (Job 2:10). He was even willing to worship the God who “took” away his children, wealth, and health, saying:
The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away.
Blessed be the name of the Lord (Job 1:21).
When his wife told him to curse God for all the evils He had sent their way, Job refused (Job 2:9). In the face of unbelievable pain and suffering, Job exclaimed,
Though He slay me,
I will hope in Him (Job 13:15).
This passage is very important, for in his mind, Job viewed God as his “Slayer.” He did not say that “chance” or “bad luck” or even “the Devil” was the cause of all the evils which came upon him. He always assumed that God was in control of this world. Although the agent who caused the evil may have been the Devil, the Chaldeans, etc., Job bowed before God as the One who sent the evils his way. Yet, he did not “blame” or “curse” God as if He were the agent or cause of these evils.
Job held to two seemingly contradictory doctrines. On the one hand, God was not the author of evil in the sense of being its agent, and He was thus not accountable for it. Therefore God should not be cursed. On the other hand, God is sovereign and He sent all these evils on Job. Thus he states over and over again that it is God who “took” away his children, wealth, health, and happiness (Job 12:9). No other exegetical conclusion is possible. As we shall see, Job could live with two seemingly contradictory doctrines because he had a very deep belief in the incomprehensibility of God.
But how could he endure all these things and believe in God’s sovereignty and not curse God? Why didn’t he give up his belief in God and become an atheist? Why didn’t he trade in his infinite God for a finite god like the gods of the heathen? They were “guilty but forgiven” because they were limited in power and could not know the future. Did Job ever limit his God in these ways? How did he handle it?
Job handled all the evils in life the same way true believers have always handled them. Faith! Mighty faith! Faith that looked to God alone! This was his secret.
Job ultimately accepted the fact that his “reason” was incapable of comprehending the Being and works of God. So, he simply trusted in God that He knew what He was doing. Job did not presume to instruct the Almighty or to be His counselor.
But Job and his friends had to learn the hard way to trust in God and not to lean on their own understanding. At the beginning they still tried to reason it out all by themselves. But after all their discussions, they never solved anything. The book of Job concludes with the solution that Divine revelation is the only way for man to find an answer. This is the enduring message of the Book of Job and God’s eternal answer to the problem of evil.
Several passages in Job deserve close study.
But as for me, I would seek God;
And I would place my cause before God;
Who does great and unsearchable things,
Wonders without number (Job 5:9).
How does Job resolve the fact that God is good and, at the same time, that “He inflicts pain” (Job 5:18)? The answer given in Job 5:9 is that when we try to search out the whys and wherefores of God’s actions, we will always find that His ways are “unsearchable,” i.e., incomprehensible. His “wonders are without number” and cannot be counted and measured by man.
Who does great things, unfathomable,
And wondrous works without number.
Were He to pass by me, I would not see Him;
Were He to move past me, I would not perceive Him.
Were He to snatch away, who could restrain Him?
Who could say to Him, “What art Thou doing?” (Job 9:10-12)
Starting with the doctrine of Creation (v. 8), Job proceeds to the incomprehensible nature of God and His works. What God does is so “great” that no one can “fathom” its depths. This makes His works “wondrous” or “awe-inspiring.”
Job now proceeds to the fact that we cannot “see” God. Thus we cannot “perceive” His motives or goals. Neither can we “restrain” Him from doing whatever He wants. Thus we have no right to challenge God by demanding, “What art Thou doing?”
Can you discover the depths of God?
Can you discover the limits of the Almighty?
It is high as the heavens, what can you do?
Its measure is longer than the earth,
And broader than the sea.
If He passes by or shuts up,
Or calls an assembly, who can restrain Him?
For He knows false men,
And He sees iniquity without investigating (Job 11:7-11).
The impact of these rhetorical questions cannot be avoided. No one can “discover the depths of God” for the depths are bottomless. No one can “discover the limits of the Almighty” for He is limitless. The text states that even if we could search out all of creation in terms of its height, depth, length, and breadth, we still could not “discover,” i.e., comprehend, the infinite nature of the Almighty.
This is also applied to the sovereign will of the Almighty. If He wants to “pass by or shut up” something (v. 10), no one can restrain Him. He will do as He pleases.
God’s omniscience is then defined in terms of an immediate and perfect knowledge of all things including the sins of man (v. 11). God’s knowledge does not “grow” because He does not have to investigate a matter to learn about it. No, God knows all things “without investigation,” i.e., without waiting until the event and its investigation occurs. The incomprehensibility of God is the context for both God’s sovereignty and God’s omniscience.
Then the Lord answered Job out of
the whirlwind and said,
“Who is this that darkens counsel
By words without knowledge?
Now gird up your loins like a man,
And I will ask you, and you instruct Me!
Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth!
Tell Me, if you have understanding,
Who set its measurements, since you know?” (Job 38:1-5)
Job and his friends had sat around discussing the problem of evil in terms of what had come upon Job. On the basis of human reason, they engaged in endless philosophical speculation and, in the end, failed to resolve anything. Although a great deal of heat was generated during their discussions, little light came of it.
At last, God gives a revelation to the problem of evil. The first thing that He does is to dismiss all the conclusions of human “reason” as “words without knowledge” that only “darken counsel.” Paul echoes this thought when he states that the world with all its philosophical wisdom is sheer “foolishness” (1 Corinthians 1:18-21).
Then God challenges their ability and capacity to understand the questions and the answers to those questions. In fact, they had asked questions that were “too deep” for them. Not only did they not understand their questions, but even the answers were also beyond their capacity to understand. They were “in over their heads” and did not know it! This is why so many people drown in unbelief. And even when we toss out to them the lifeline of Scripture, they would rather drown in unbelief than accept God’s revelation by faith. For four chapters, God challenges them,
So, you think that you are so smart that nothing is “beyond” you? You don’t even hesitate to tell Me how to run the universe I made! Well, I have a few questions for you. We’ll see if you are as smart as you claim. Since you think that you can comprehend Me, let’s see how well you comprehend the world around you. After all, this should be easy for you since you claim to understand Me!
God then proceeds to put Job and his friends in the “hot seat” and give them “the third degree.” Under divine interrogation, they soon realized that their “reason” and “intuition” were not sufficient. The sovereignty of God was the solution to the problem of evil.
Then Job answered the Lord, and said,
“I know that Thou canst do all things,
And that no purpose of Thine can be thwarted.
Therefore I have declared that which
I did not understand.
Things too wonderful for me,
which I did not know.
Hear, now, and I will speak;
I will ask You, and You instruct me.
Therefore I retract,
And I repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:1-4, 6).
Under the rebuke of God for trying by “reason” to solve the problem of evil, Job “repents” and “retracts” all the things he and his friends had said. He now bows before revelation and submits to the Divine glory. He admits that God can do whatever He wants and no one can frustrate or condemn His sovereign will. He admits that such questions are “too wonderful,” i.e., mysterious, for him. He will leave such things to God.
The rest of Scripture follows Job in resolving the problem of evil by submitting to the incomprehensibility of God. Let us examine a few of these passages.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
It is too high, I cannot attain to it (Psalm 139:6).
In this Psalm, David first introduces the subject of God’s omniscience in verses 1-5, which leads him to the incomprehensibility of God in verse 6. Then he goes on to describe the omnipresence of God in verses 7-12. David did not become depressed over the fact that God’s omniscience and omnipresence are concepts that were “too high” for him to comprehend. The opposite was true. The incomprehensibility of God enhanced his worship. He could worship such a God because He is so wonderful.
Great is the Lord, and highly to be praised;
And His greatness is unsearchable (Psalm 145:3).
In the context, David has in mind not only the “greatness” of God’s being, but also of His works. The word “unsearchable” is often translated “unfathomable.” A nautical term, it meant that the plumb line of human reason will never discover a bottom to God in His nature or deeds. The true God has no “bottom” or limit for man to discover. Such a God is alone worthy of our worship.
Why do you say, O Jacob, and assert, O Israel,
“My way is hidden from the Lord
And the justice due me escapes the notice of my God”?
Do you not know? Have You not heard?
The everlasting God, the Lord, the Creator of the
ends of the earth,
Does not become weary or tired.
His understanding is inscrutable (Isaiah 40:27-28).
The apostate among Israel cherished two vain hopes. First, they hoped that God was limited in His knowledge and thus did not know about their sin. If He did not know about it, they would not get punished for it.
Second, they hoped that if God were not ignorant, at least He would be distracted by far more important things than meting out the justice due to them. If He were going to punish anyone, He would have to begin with people who are really wicked, not them. Or, perhaps, He was just uninterested in them and wouldn’t care.
The prophet Isaiah dashes to the ground all such finite views of God that would see Him as “growing” or “learning.” God is not ignorant, distracted, or uninterested, because the eternal God is the Creator of all things including man. His “understanding” or “knowledge” is not limited in any way by what He has made. It is thus “inscrutable,” i.e., unlimited.
Oh the depths of the riches both of the wisdom
and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable are His judgments
and unfathomable His ways!
For who has known the mind of the Lord,
Or who became His counselor?
Or who has first given to Him
that it might be paid back to him again?
For from Him and through Him and to Him
are all things.
To Him be the glory forever. Amen (Romans 11:33-36).
This is one of the most beautiful statements on the incomprehensibility of God in the New Testament. It is brought in by the Apostle Paul as the doxological climax to his discussion of election, predestination, God’s sovereignty, and human responsibility in Romans 8-11. The Apostle Paul calls us to worship a God who is beyond our capacity to comprehend in either His being or works. This God is “unsearchable” and “unfathomable.” No one will ever “know” all the “ins and outs” of the mind of the Lord. If someone could, he would “become His counselor,” for he who can understand God would be greater than God.
The immediate occasion of this doxology to the incomprehensible God is his discussion of the inclusion of the Gentiles into the covenant of grace and the exclusion of Israel. Paul states that God’s election is based on His grace and not on some condition of man such as race or parentage (Romans 11:6-7).
But what about all the “whys,” “hows,” and “wherefores” that naturally arise? Paul does not claim to know all the answers. He knows only what has been revealed. Thus he can now freely worship God because he leaves such mysteries in the hands of his Creator:
The love of Christ which surpasses knowledge (Ephesians 3:19).
Paul prays that the saints might “comprehend” and “know” the love of Christ (vv. 18-19). But while they can have a finite but true knowledge of such things, they cannot exhaustively comprehend the Lord Jesus Christ or His love. Christ is God as well as man. He is infinite in His being and love. We will never be able to understand the “whys,” “hows,” and “wherefores” of His love for sinners.
Let us point out that if we begin with the rationalistic assumption that everything must either be “precisely explained” or we must reject it, then we must reject the love of Christ because it “surpasses comprehension.” God’s election and love are so joined in Scripture that they either stand or fall together.
The peace of God which surpasses all comprehension (Philippians 4:7).
Who can “precisely explain” how the peace of God can “indwell” us and gives us comfort? Who can make “coherent” the ways of the Spirit of God? Is not the work of God in the soul like the wind which comes and goes without our permission or knowledge (John 3:8)?
If we are limited to what can be “precisely explained” and “made coherent,” then we will have to reject the peace of God as well as the love of Christ! But if we accept the incomprehensibility of God, we can have both His peace and His love. By this faith we can live without fear, being confident in His sovereign love and power.
From just these few passages of Scripture it is abundantly clear that the Christian doctrine of the incomprehensibility of God is a revealed truth. It follows naturally after the doctrine of creation and forms the context of all the other attributes of God.
It is also clear that the authors of Scripture were not embarrassed by the incomprehensibility of God but proud of it. They did not apologize for it but boasted of it. They did not agonize over it but rejoiced in it. They were not driven away from God by it but were drawn nigh unto God because of it. They did not curse God but fell at His feet in wonder, awe, and praise.
This is an excerpt of Exploring the Attributes of God by Robert Morey