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When I speak with a friend, I cannot fully grasp what he thinks and feels. I do not directly experience their day, their well-being, their slight muscle soreness, their previous conversations, their sleep level, and their past experiences. I cannot fathom someone’s daily experience of work, family, friends, medicine, pain, happiness, and much more besides.

I do not know how he cares for his sister and regrets treating his father unkindly. I do not know the thousand experiences that made him what he is today. He cannot either. Our limits are such that we cannot even know ourselves fully. In other words, we are often not conscious of many basic things about ourselves.

I cannot comprehend myself if that means knowing every fact of myself, how each fact relates to another, and the depths of what it is to be a human being. We are a fathomless mystery of experience, a world of wonder.

If all of this is true of people, how much more true is it when we think about God? That is kind of the point that Gregory of Nyssa (AD 335–395) makes when he debates Eunomius (AD 335–393) over how we can know God.

Names and Natures

Eunomius believed the Bible described God in such a way that names, titles, and descriptions in the Bible could define God’s essence. He ended up seeing the diverse ways that the Bible described God as being summed up by one word: Unoriginate.[1] God is uncaused, uncreated. The various descriptions of God really amount to this one name for God which tells what God is.

Gregory of Nyssa found such a view unpersuasive. Saying, for example, that someone is “great” could mean all sorts of things, but unless we know the full content of that greatness—someone’s background, skill, experience, and so on—then we can know only a little about that person. That is why, when it comes to the Bible, we need to read the whole book cover-to-cover to see all the ways Scripture speaks of God to paint a complex picture of who he is.

Since words cannot reveal the fullness of someone’s essence and since the Bible describes God in all sorts of ways—he just, good, holy, and so on—then we should understand these concepts (epinoia) as ways of revealing God to our created capacity. Each concept lets us glimpse at God’s being, who he truly is. Each can give us limited but true ways to apprehend God.

But we can never comprehend him, that is, know him as he knows himself. How can a finite human know an unbounded Being? “Behold,” proclaims Solomon, “heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you” (1 Kings 8:27). Here I am sitting and filling up my chair. If such a meagre thing can contain me, how can I expect to comprehend the God whose being transcends heaven and highest heaven?

Our joy continues just as long as he is infinite, which is to say, forever.

As Paul exclaims: “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Rom 11:33). If God’s judgments are unsearchable and his ways inscrutable, that means, well, we cannot search his judgements or discover his ways. As David too reminds us, “his greatness is unsearchable” (Ps 145:3).

And rather than make us think, Oh no, I cannot comprehend God! It should make us remember: How wonderful is it that I can endlessly come to know the infinitely good God. My joy and happiness in God have no term limit; my joy continues just as long as he is infinite, which is to say, forever.

Gregory conceived of knowing in terms of wonder. We come to know God as we contemplate his infinite goodness and beauty in wonder. That is, knowing God is an adventure of joy as we come to know aspects of infinite Being through the Bible.

What does this all mean?

It means reading the Bible is an act of worship and wonder. It means we cannot read a single verse alone and say, that sums up God! The Bible says God is love and God is holy (1 John 4:8; Isa 6:3). We need to read the whole Bible across every verse to understand who God is in all his splendour. Even then, we do so as created and finite creatures.

The fact that we cannot know God as God himself can know himself maintains the Creator-creature distinction. God created us. We are creatures. As the LORD says, “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isa 55:9).

And so this all means that when we read the Bible we should be careful that we don’t assume one word encapsulates the entire meaning of a thing, especially when that thing is God! We need to read across the whole Bible and reflect on what it all means. In so doing, we can enjoy the infinite wonder of God because Bible study, among all other things, is an act of worship as we receive what God shares of himself.

In the end, we must affirm with Gregory that “the only name that signifies the divine nature is the wonder that arises ineffably in our souls concerning it” (C. Eun. 3.6.4).

 


[1] Khaled Anatolios, Retrieving Nicaea: The Development and Meaning of Trinitarian Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), 166.

Image: AnonymousUnknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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