Can we really know God? More on incomprehensibility and the inner life of God

I want to say a little bit more about how and what we know about God following on from the article I wrote the other day and some further discussion.  In the first article we observed the following:

  1. God is incomprehensible.  This does not mean that we cannot know God or anything about him. It means that we are dependent upon revelation and we cannot know God exhaustively.
  2. That Eternal Generation means that God the Son is eternally begotten of the Father. 
  3. That when talking about the Triune God, we must not deny the unity and oneness of the Godhead, the distinction of persons or the equality of persons.

All of this means, I believe that describing Eternal Generation as revelation does not make the Son in any way inferior to the Father for the reasons set out in the earlier article.  However, there may be other reasons given as to why we are uncomfortable with describing Eternal Generation as an act of revelation.

Two were given in further discussion.  The first is that Eternal Generation concerns the inner life of God, the imminent Trinity.  The second is that for God to reveal anything to us is an act of accommodation. As I described it in my first article, there is a stooping as God comes down to our level to help us understand.  If Eternal Generation is an act of Generation, does that mean that God somehow stoops in it and so the Son becomes a lesser god, through begetting?

I can understand both of these arguments and think they are a little more pertinent to the issue that the original discussion, though I’m still unconvinced that there is a major issue here.  Let’s explain why starting with the second question.  I think that when we get to the first question, we discover something very exciting.

If Eternal Generation is an act of revelation, does this mean that God stoops in begetting the Son

I want to keep hammering at a point I made in the first article, because I’m not sure that until we get this that we have fully grasped what Eternal Generation is.  If Eternal Generation is a stooping, then it applies to both the Father and the Son because both are actively involved and so the Father would also be stooping in begetting, as much as the Son stoops in being begotten. Therefore, if anything is lost from the Son’s nature in the stooping or condescending of revelation, then it is also lost from the Father’s.

We don’t believe this of course. But then I’m not sure that saying that God stoops, condescends, comes down to our level lessons him. It does not remove anything from his nature. This is important because we want to insist that in the incarnation, at the very point when Jesus stooped low, he did not cease to be fully God. Contra the Kenosis theory, Christ did not empty himself of divine attributes but rather took to himself a human nature.

Furthermore, I think that we might be struggle with the phrase “act of revelation” here because in effect we are using the phrase as a compression of all we want to say about God’s revelation in terms of Eternal Generation. 

We might argue that the phrase “act of revelation” could be unpacked a little.  We would then distinguish different stages in the order of things. There is first the content of revelation, namely that God the Son is eternally begotten.  This is of course not in and of itself “revelation.”  You see in eternity and right up until the point when Jesus entered the world, or even more precisely, the point where John wrote his Gospel describing and explaining this, we might argue that the eternal generation of the son was hidden from us.  It was a mystery. It remained solely within the inner, imminent life of the Trinity.  We could then say that properly speaking, the act of revelation is the writing of Scripture which made clear what the incarnation revealed about Eternal Generation.  We would then say that Eternal Generation is not itself, on its own the act of revelation, it is the content of revelation revealed to us through the incarnation and the inspiration of Scripture.

However, I think we can grasp how compression of language works and see that “Eternal Generation is an act of revelation” is properly speaking a compression of “The Eternal Generation of the Son is a great truth about God revealed to us in the incarnation and Scripture.” In other words, God applies the revelation to our hearts through Scripture and until that point, the revelation has not been properly given.  Yet eternal generation is very much part of that act of revelation.  What this also means is that the “stooping” happens specifically at the point when the revelation is applied to our hearts.

If Eternal Generation concerns the inner life of God/imminent Trinity does this mean that it cannot be revelation?

This is something that I’ve picked up to be a particular concern within contemporary theological thinking.  Those things that belong to the inner life of the Trinity are seen to be hidden or closed off from us so that they don’t reveal God to us, we cannot learn from them.

I think that this again relates to a misunderstanding about incomprehensibility, revelation and God.  It’s helpful to step back a bit here and think again about what we mean when we say that God is incomprehensible.  What I think is at the heart of this is that we cannot master, control, subjugate God. This distinguishes the creator from the created.  It may be true that many things about creation seem at first glance incomprehensible to us.  We cannot fully comprehend them. However, they are by nature of being created, comprehensible.  I may not know everything that it is possible to know about trees and flowers and I may not individually be able to know them.  I think it is also fair to say that only God can truly know everything exhaustively.  However, over time, we as human beings together may be able to develop a high degree of comprehension, with enough of us working at it for long enough because these things are finite.  But not only that, I think that the expectation of comprehension is implicit in the command to subdue and rule.  We are expected to, at some level comprehend the creation.

With God, no mater how many of us, together, for how long and however closely seek to study and know God, we will come nowhere near such exhaustive knowledge of him.  There will always be fresh depths to dive into.

This is important because we talk about the inner life of God as though it is something God has shut off to us and this is what prevents us from knowing him perfectly, as though we could somehow get round and behind the barrier, we would get to see what he is really like.  Such thinking also leaves us with the impression that what God reveals to us, especially in the economic Trinity is something different, a mask, a façade, like God’s avatar or handle.  This enables God to create an image or impression of himself for us to see, hear and interact with that is distinct and different from his true nature.  We never get to know the real God.

This was the problem with modalism. By seeing the persons as modes or appearances it treated the Trinity as being like a set of puppets with the true God operating them from behind the curtain like the Wizard of Oz.  And I fear that this is a trap that some attempts at recovering classical theism are falling into.

If this were true, it would mean that the Cross is only a partial atonement because we would only be reconciled to the puppets, to the avatar. The true God would remain at a distance unknown and unknowable.

However, this is not what has happened in the Gospel. Instead, God has drawn so near to us in the person of Christ that he indwells us richly.  Not only that but we are in God, in Christ and seated with Christ in the heavenlies.  We might therefore say that the Gospel invites us into the inner life of God. That’s how close and intimate the relationship is.

This not make God any less incomprehensible.  Although God’s inner life is not closed off from us, when we dive in we will still find that the depths and breadth of all that he is are beyond our comprehension.  Even the whole of eternity will not be enough time to fully and exhaustively know God.

Doesn’t eternity sound exciting though!

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