Christians live in a strange tension: on the one hand, we know God, and on the other hand, God is beyond all knowledge. We know God because he has revealed himself to us; God is beyond all knowledge because he is the infinite Creator, and we are finite contingent creatures. Scripture speaks of both experiences of knowledge: the intimate knowledge that comes in relationship with God in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit (see Ephesians 3:14-21), and the sheer limits of humanity’s ability to know God both because we are creatures. We are limited in our capacity as creatures and because we are sinful creatures, whose God-given limited capacity to know and enjoy God is marred and clouded by sin.
In this, we can see two barriers arise. First, the proper barrier between creator and creature. Humanity is a creature of God made for fellowship with God. We are created to know God, but in being creatures, this knowledge will always be a knowledge of fellowship or participation. That is to say, we were created to know God in a creaturely fashion. Throughout Chruch history, the creator/creature distinction has remained central to Christian theology, because it polices the collapse of God into humanity or humanity into God. As the Preacher of Ecclesiastes says: Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few (Eccl. 5:2) (See my reflections on this verse in this post).
This creaturely knowledge, however, is marred by sin and in need of God’s work of revelation and redemption to bring it back into the right order.
Across Christian Traditions, Theologians have sought to articulate the limits and capacities of human knowledge of the Triune God of Scripture. In this post, I examine three theologians who seek to 1) distinguish between God’s knowledge of himself and our knowledge of God and 2) how God invites humans into proper creaturely knowledge of God without overstepping or severing the creator/creature distinction.
In this discussion, several things are at play. How we know God, who is incomprehensible, and then how we order our knowledge of God concerning who God reveals himself to be. In a previous blog post, I considered how Aquinas order his Summa regarding God’s being, while the knowledge of God is through God’s revelation of himself. In the three examples below we see a similar three-step movement: 1) God reveals himself in the missions of the Son and Spirit, 2) humans learn about God through this revelation/salvation. Because of who God is 3) we order our thoughts, not on our experience of God, but by beginning with who God is.
Basil of Caesarea on The incomprehensible God who reveals himself
I think that comprehension of God’s substance transcends not only human beings, but also every rational nature. Now by ‘rational nature’ here, I mean one which belongs to creation. For the Father is known by the Son alone and by the Holy Spirit… (see Mt.11:27; 1 Cor. 2:10-11) It is to be expected that the very substance of God is incomprehensible to everyone except the Only-Begotten and the Holy Spirit. But we are lead up from the activities of God and gain knowledge of the maker through what he has made and so come in this way to an understanding of his goodness and wisdom. For what can be known about God is that which God has manifested (Rom. 1:19) to all human beings. (Against Eunomius, 1.14).
In this passage, Basil proposes several important points for our conversation. In the first sentence, he establishes the distinction between God and creation: everything that is created cannot comprehend the nature of God. Turning to Scripture, Basil then asserts that only God can know God; only the Son and Spirit know the Father. If that is true, how then can creatures have knowledge of God? God reveals himself through his activities and creation. His activities are primarily the work of salvation wrought in Jesus Christ and through the Holy Spirit; secondary to this is the knowledge of the creator through creation; which basically establishes that there is a first cause to creation.
So, while creatures cannot know God, God through the economy of Salvation and through the creation, brings humans into a proper creaturely knowledge of God. This knowledge, however, is always a knowledge of apprehension from a limited sphere; even in our redemption, we do not gain access to the unmediated essence of God. In other words, we don’t come to know God in the exact same way that the Son knows the Father. Christians are children by adoption and grace not by nature.
Basil posits that we can have some knowledge of God through nature, looking to Romans 1:19; but salvific knowledge can only come through the action and revelation of the Son and Spirit in their work of salvation and the Holy Scriptures.
The Greek Fathers, of whom Basil is one, are famous for the distinction between Theology (God in himself) and economy (God at work in creation). While he doesn’t use these terms in this passage, the ideas are at work here. Only God knows God and God reveals himself through his activities so that we can apprehend an outline of who God is, through participation in God’s saving work in the Son and Spirit. Theology proper is the redeemed human mind seeking to apprehend, in faith, who God is through what he has revealed of himself; it is the ordering of our creaturely thoughts to God’s infinite being. Our next theologian has a similar division between God’s knowledge of himself and human knowledge of God.
Francis Turretin on Archetypal and Ectypal knowledge
True theology is divided into: (1) infinite and uncreated which is God’s essential knowledge of himself (Mt 11:27) in which he alone is at the same time the object known, the knowledge, and the knower, and that which he decreed to reveal to us concerning himself which is commonly called archetypal; and (2) finite and created, which is the image and ectype of the infinite and archetype (viz., the ideas which creatures possess concerning God and divine things… (Institutes, 1.2.6).
Turretin divides theology in two ways: God’s knowledge of himself and our creaturely knowledge of God. All human knowledge, from those who are in heaven beholding the glory of God, to humans on earth is of the second kind of knowledge: ectypal. It is the image of God’s own knowledge, but it is not identical to God’s knowledge. God in his grace does reveal himself to us, he reveals the archetypal knowledge; but the creaturely apprehension of God’s self-knowledge is a mere image of it. Turretin clarifies for us something that might have felt off in Basil: there is only one God and one knowledge of God: archetypal. There isn’t God in himself and God in his outer works. However, because of our creaturely existence, we do not obtain to archetypal knowledge, but we receive it as an image of the archetype. This is true of creaturely knowledge fall or not, and made more real because of the fall. Humans now need their minds to be redeemed renewed so that they can properly apprehend the ecytpal knowledge of God which he graciously gives us as an image of his own knowledge.
Does this division mean that we cannot really know God? No, and yes. No, we cannot know God if by this we mean having the same kind of knowledge that the Triune God has of itself. But yet, we can know God through God’s gracious act of revelation, especially through the Incarnation and Holy Scripture, we obtain true knowledge of God but not comprehensive knowledge, simply because the human mind is finite and God is infinite. Only God can know God, and only God can reveal God, and only God can redeem human minds to their properly creaturely status of knowing God, through redeemed fellowship in Christ through the power of the Spirit.
In our final theologian, we turn to Webster who adroitly summarizes what we have considered in Basil and Turretin.
John Webster on Theology and Economy.
Systematic Theology has a single but not simple object: God and all things relative to God…The one complex matter may therefore be divided into (1) God absolutely considered, that is, considered in himself in his inner life as Father, Son, and Spirit (theology), and (2) God relatively considered, that is, considered in his outer works and in relation to his creatures (economy) (God without Measure, I.45-46).
It is important to note that Webster considers both aspects of systematic theology to fall under the domain of ectypal theology (God without Measure, I.85). This means that two things; Theology is always a work of progress; we’ve never arrived because we are always seeking the one who is beyond our comprehension. Secondly, Theology proper must be studied under the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit because it is only in fellowship with God that ectypal theology can seek to apprehend either God absolutely considered and God considered in his outer works.
When we consider these three theologians together; we can see some common themes that are significant for everyone in the church:
- God in his Goodness and infinite life reveals himself to his creation in a way that we can apprehend him.
- Even when humans sinned, God provided a way to reestablish the relationship with him, and provide an even deeper communion with God than before the fall; those who are saved are in Christ through the Holy Spirit. Christians are made participants in God through grace and adoption.
- Knowledge of God is possible, but only on a creaturely register, even after the Eschaton, our knowledge of God will be only ectypal.
- Knowing God now requires the work of God to redeem and sanctify our minds and hearts. As God does this and we pursue him, we should order our thoughts towards God first and consider everything else in light of his being and his work.