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Current Theology Thoughts: Pt. 3, Incomprehensibility

First Tension

I want to start this off with one of the intellectual tensions I’m undergoing: while many historic theologians (patristics) believed that God is incomprehensible in either His essence, interpersonal relations, or being, simultaneously–if we do not comprehend Go–then how can we know Him?

Many theologians today try to answer this tension by arguing that though God is incomprehensible, He is not unknowable. Their line of reasoning is to define incomprehensibility as “to not fully grasp” something intellectually. They say that though we cannot fully circumscribe God intellectually, we can know something true regarding Him in some manner.2,3 But, to me, I think we need to be careful not use lexical slipperiness rather than develop an actual, meaningful explanation about how God can be incomprehensible but not unknown. It is lexical side-stepping to say that incomprehensibility means only “to not fully surround” a concept rather than to mean “not understand” a concept. If one cannot comprehend some concept, then one does not know it. They may know of the existence of said concept, but they do not understand it. This is the base meaning of comprehension and incomprehensibility. It is not merely paradoxical, but actually contradictory, then, to say that one can know something while simultaneously not comprehending it. What is not comprehended is unknown.

Contrarily, if God is incomprehensible but knowable, rather than redefining incomprehensibility, I think we have to suggest that something regarding Him must be comprehensible, and other things regarding Him must be incomprehensible.

For example, the apostle Paul writes,

For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.

-Romans 1:19-20

In this statement I think we see a few things:

  1. We cannot know certain things about God. “What CAN be known about God” implies that there are things that cannot be known about Him (i.e. incomprehension!).
  2. We can know certain things about God (i.e. comprehension).
  3. The things we can know about God are clearly shown to us. “God has shown it to them.”
  4. There are two things that can be known about God in the creation: Of the invisible aspects of God (αορατος) that can be known, two things can be known about God by looking “in the things that have been made”. These two things are His eternal power (αιδιος δυναμις) and divine nature, ie. divinity (θειοτης) [see also Colossians 2:9]. These two things must be comprehensible then, or else human beings could not understand them.

The tension remains, then: to know God, He must be comprehensible in some manner. But simultaneously, most (if not all) early Church fathers propose that God is incomprehensible. The fathers of the Church, in the majority, adhered to the concept that God is incomprehensible in some manner.

The Fathers, Doctors, and Divines on Incomprehensibility

I just want to list out some quotes by the fathers, doctors, and divines on the incomprehensibility of God, and maybe add a few comments, just for my own research and reflection, and hopefully for the benefit of any readers too:

Origen (c. 185-253)

He argues that the inter-Trinitarian relationship is incomprehensible. He says that human thought is unable “to apprehend how the unbegotten God becomes the Father of the only-begotten Son.” – On First Principles, 1:2.4

Gregory Nazianzen (c. 329-390)

He says that the divine nature is incomprehensible:

“And when I looked a little closer, I saw, not the First and unmingled Nature, known to Itself — to the Trinity, I mean” -Orations 28:3. Further, he says,

“And when I looked a little closer, I saw, not the First and unmingled Nature, known to Itself — to the Trinity, I mean; not That which abides within the first veil, and is hidden by the Cherubim; but only that Nature, which at last even reaches to us. And that is, as far as I can learn, the Majesty, or as holy David calls it, the Glory which is manifested among the creatures, which It has produced and governs. For these are the Back Parts of God, which He leaves behind Him, as tokens of Himself like the shadows and reflection of the sun in the water, which show the sun to our weak eyes, because we cannot look at the sun himself, for by his unmixed light he is too strong for our power of perception.”-Gregory Nazianzen, Orations 28:34

If by ‘nature’ Nazianzen means the philosophical term “inner principle” then, he is arguing that that thing that defines God’s potentiality & actuality (being at rest or in action) is incomprehensible. We can comprehend “tokens”, or evidence that such a thing exists. These “tokens” are “like the shadows and reflection of the sun in the water”–not the sun itself, but only a sign that the sun exists.

He also argues that not only the inner nature (the inner principle that defines potentiality & actuality), but also the entire divine being or entity is incomprehensible:

“It is difficult to conceive God but to define Him in words is an impossibility, as one of the Greek teachers of Divinity taught, not unskilfully, as it appears to me; with the intention that he might be thought to have apprehended Him; in that he says it is a hard thing to do; and yet may escape being convicted of ignorance because of the impossibility of giving expression to the apprehension. But in my opinion it is impossible to express Him, and yet more impossible to conceive Him. For that which may be conceived may perhaps be made clear by language, if not fairly well, at any rate imperfectly, to any one who is not quite deprived of his hearing, or slothful of understanding. But to comprehend the whole of so great a Subject as this is quite impossible and impracticable, not merely to the utterly careless and ignorant, but even to those who are highly exalted, and who love God, and in like manner to every created nature”.

-Gregory Nazianzen, Orations 28:4

If by “being” He means the philosophical concept of something that really “is”, then Nazianzen means the existence of such an entity is incomprehensible. This is a step beyond saying that God’s inner nature is incomprehensible, and I think what many (if not most) of the fathers argued. It’s important because if we can comprehend certain things about God, but cannot comprehend His existence, then what do we comprehend of Him?

He also says that the generation of the Son is incomprehensible:

“And do not even then venture to speculate on the Generation of God; for that would be unsafe. For even if you knew all about your own, yet you do not by any means know about God’s. And if you do not understand your own, how can you know about God’s? For in proportion as God is harder to trace out than man, so is the heavenly Generation harder to comprehend than your own. But if you assert that because you cannot comprehend it, therefore He cannot have been begotten, it will be time for you to strike out many existing things which you cannot comprehend; and first of all God Himself. For you cannot say what He is, even if you are very reckless, and excessively proud of your intelligence. First, cast away your notions of flow and divisions and sections, and your conceptions of immaterial as if it were material birth, and then you may perhaps worthily conceive of the Divine Generation. How was He begotten?— I repeat the question in indignation. The Begetting of God must be honoured by silence. It is a great thing for you to learn that He was begotten. But the manner of His generation we will not admit that even Angels can conceive, much less you. Shall I tell you how it was? It was in a manner known to the Father Who begot, and to the Son Who was begotten. Anything more than this is hidden by a cloud, and escapes your dim sight.” – Orations 29:8

-Gregory Nazianzen, Orations 29:8

As an inter-Trinitarian relation, one could reason that Nazianzen then refers to a particular kind of “property” (a predication) of God as incomprehensible, though He doesn’t use the philosophical terminology.

Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335-395)

Gregory of Nyssa says the words “begetting”, “Son” and “Word” do not have the same implications when applied to the incomprehensible divine essence as when we apply the words to us (Against Eunomius 8:4).

Basil of Caesarea (c. 331-379)

Basil argues that the divine essence cannot be defined at all (much less to define it as unbegottenness as the heretic Eunomius did). He further argues that basic, created essences are incomprehensible as well,

“If they can discourse irrefutably about what lies under their feet, then we can believe them when they penetrate to things beyond all conception.”

Basil, Against Eunomius, 1:12

John Chrysostom (c.347-407)

In the Eucharistic anaphora of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom God is called both aperinoetos and akataleptos, “For Thou art God unspeakable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible, the same from everlasting to everlasting.”

Ambrose of Milan (c. 339-397)

Ambrose echoes Gregory Nazianzen on the incomprehensible nature of the generation of the Son (a personal property or attribution),

“For me the knowledge of the mystery of His generation is more than I can attain to, — the mind fails, the voice is dumb — ay, and not mine alone, but the angels’ also. It is above Powers, above Angels, above Cherubim, Seraphim, and all that has feeling and thought, for it is written: The peace of Christ, which passes all understanding. If the peace of Christ passes all understanding, how can so wondrous a generation but be above all understanding?”5

Ambrose of Milan, Exposition of the Christian Faith 1:10.64

Aquinas similarly quotes this section of Ambrose in Summa Theologica I 32.1.

Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (c. 5th-6th AD)

Pseudo-Dionysius makes some bold statements, such as: God is un-intelligible, a-noetos (Celestial Hierearchy 2:3 151A; On the Divine Names 1:1, 588B), God is noeton nor aistheton, neither an intelligible nor sensible thing (On the Divine Names 7:3, 86C), and that the Triune God is super-essential/being (hyper-ousios).

Maximus the Confessor (c. 580-662)

In Maximus’ thought there are three important concepts: essence, energies, and logoi. According to his writings, the essence of God is utterly incomprehensible, the uncreated energies of God are comprehensible and communicable and surround the essence like a radiation, and the logoi are partially comprehensible. The energies penetrate the logoi, yet remain distinct from them. The logoi are uncreated formative principles that are located in the Logos (the Son), yet they are a freely volitional thing in God and a distinct thing from the essence and energies of God. The logoi may not be wholly comprehended, but they can be perceived via the creation. 6

John of Damascus (c. 675-749)

John of Damascus argues that God’s essence, nature, and even existence (ousia/being) are incomprehensible, and that God is hyper-essential and hyper-existent. “What He is in His essence and nature is absolutely incomprehensible and unknowable. “7

He also states,

“But even this gives no true idea of His essence, to say that He is unbegotten, and without beginning, changeless and imperishable, and possessed of such other qualities as we are wont to ascribe to God and His environment [1445] . For these do not indicate what He is, but what He is not [1446] . But when we would explain what the essence of anything is, we must not speak only negatively. In the case of God, however, it is impossible to explain what He is in His essence, and it befits us the rather to hold discourse about His absolute separation from all things [1447] . For He does not belong to the class of existing things: not that He has no existence [1448] , but that He is above all existing things, nay even above existence itself. For if all forms of knowledge have to do with what exists, assuredly that which is above knowledge must certainly be also above essence [1449] : and, conversely, that which is above essence [1450] will also be above knowledge.”8

-John of Damascus, Exposition of the Orthodox Faith

Anselm of Canterbury (c. 1033-1109)

Anselm says that the being of God is incomprehensible:

God is “more than any creature can understand.” -Anselm, Proslogion 14.

And further he says,

“Is its (man’s) eye darkened by its own weakness or is it dazzled by your glory? Surely it is both darkened in itself and dazzled by you. Indeed it is both obscured by its own littleness and overwhelmed by your immensity. Truly it is both constricted by its own narrowness and overcome by your vastness.”

-Anselm, Proslogion

Albert the Great (c. 1200-1280)

“It is utterly impossible to comprehend God (Deum comprehendere) but within the realm of the possible to attain to God (Deum attingere)” – Muller’s summary of Albert’s dictum in PRRD Vol. 3, pg. 471. Again, another statement on the incomprehensibility of God’s being. I like this dictum, though it fails to explain what can actually be comprehended of God!

Hugh Binning (1627-1653)

“We can find no name to name him; or what can you call him when you have said, ‘He is light?’ You can form no other notion of him but from the resemblance of this created light. But alas! that he is not; as he infinitely transcends that, and is distant from it…His name is above all these names; but what it is himself knows and knows only…An angel and a man, a man and a worm, differ much in glory and perfection of being: but oh! in [God’s] presence there is no such reckoning. Upon this account all things are alike, God infinitely distant from all, and so not more or less. Infiniteness is not capable of such terms of comparison.” – Cited in Muller, PRRD Vol 3, p. 471

Wilhelmus a Brakel (1635-1711)

“We are very unfit to comprehend anything about God who is an infinite Spirit…Truly, to perceive that God is incomprehensible and to acquiesce in and lose one’s self in this; to pause and reflect in holy amazement…that constitutes knowledge of God and is the best frame to increase in this knowledge.” -Cited in Muller, PRRD Vol. 3, p. 471-472

Section Summary: Though there seems to be a consensus of the fathers on the matter of incomprehensibility, I don’t intend to write a lengthy diatribe about what someone ought to believe about incomprehensibility. I’m far more interested in the implications, or in teasing out loose threads in the concept as I’ve heard it taught.

Intellectually, a subject that is incomprehensible is unknown. If, then, God is incomprehensible in His being, inter-personal relationships, and/or nature (or essence), then He is unknown in His being, inter-personal relationships, and/or nature (or essence). It is to say that we know these things exist, but do not understand them.

Second Tension

A second intellectual tension I’m wrestling with is that everything is incomprehensible in some manner, and so what does that mean about God’s incomprehensibility?

Incomprehensibility in Epistemology

Incomprehensibility may also be true as an epistemological concept for every single human thought, in that, in a sense, all things are incomprehensible in some manner to the human mind. That is, incomprehensibility is an issue related to the human intellect in general, and not only to certain aspects of God. If that is the case, then saying that God is incomprehensible isn’t necessarily a unique attribute but just a kind of exalted attribution or analogy, i.e. “He is incomprehensible in a similar way to how created things are incomprehensible.”

For example, in Basil’s refutation of the heretic, Eunomius, he argues,

“I would very much like to ask them what they have to say about the earth on which they stand and from which they are born. What can they announce to us about its essence? If they can discourse irrefutably about what lies under their feet, then we can believe them when they penetrate to things beyond all conception. So what is the essence of the earth? How is it comprehended?

-Basil, Against Eunomius 1:12

And, though Augustine of Hippo (c. 354-430) may differ from most contemporary theologians as to whether we ultimately can comprehend things and comprehend God, he argues,

“Everything that the bodily senses attain, that which is also called sensible, is incessantly changing…. But what is not constant cannot be perceived; for that is perceived that is comprehended in knowledge. But something that is incessantly changing cannot be comprehended. Therefore we should not expect pure truth from the bodily senses.”

-Augustine, Eighty-Three Different Questions, q. 9

Augustine’s line of reasoning is that we can only comprehend unchanging things, and since bodily things change, we must receive comprehension via another way. Though I disagree with both the premise and with his later conclusion that we may comprehend God, I think it’s worthwhile to note that he believed “changing [things] cannot be comprehended”.

Even the deuterocanonical Judith argues as much,

You cannot plumb the depths of the human heart or understand the workings of the human mind; how do you expect to search out God, who made all these things, and find out his mind or comprehend his thought? 

Judith 8:14, NRSV

Some of the fathers of the Church, at the least, articulated the view that humans cannot comprehend the essences of basic created things. The implication of this, at least as I am considering it, is that incomprehensibility is something we understand from created things, and we apply the analogy of incomprehensibility to God.

Excursus: Creaturely Knowledge

This discussion of all essences generally being incomprehensible leads me to meander through a section on the human mind. I’ve thought through some historic views on the human mind, and written about them previously (mainly in the posts on Vermigli), but I also want to include some things about current philosophical thought and scientific research. There are numerous philosophical and pseudo-philosophical views regarding cognition and consciousness, and I just have to suggest the reader review this article for a helpful overview.

One view that I find interesting suggests that there are four kinds of life, with only one kind having what could be called consciousness: the biological, neurological, cognitive, and conscious. These, I think, are useful distinctions, especially given contemporary neurological and behavioral research.9 Though there is a great deal of contemporary discussion on what constitutes cognition and what constitutes consciousness (and what constitutes self-consciousness in particular), many or even most current philosophers would probably agree that many other animals possess cognition and/or consciousness, and that there are differences between cognition and consciousness.10, 11

For example, there was a recent study on funguses that indicates that there is a fungal ‘language’ of sorts communicated via electrical impulses, which would likely put them in the “neurological” category.12 There was also a recent study on several plants that indicate that plants communicate in some manner via chemical emission. One of the researchers in this study argued, “If that plant can mount an adaptive response…this is the definition of intelligence.”13 While I wouldn’t agree that this constitutes intelligence, I do think it at the least indicates it may fit a “neurological” category, possibly even consciousness.14 Similarly, the elephantnose fish sees by creating a 3-D environment using a weak electromagnetic field and a dance-like movement, which at the very least would put them in the “neurological” area, if not into cognitive.15 For clear demonstrations of cognition, there have been studies that indicate that rats might have an imagination16, that it is likely that rats use imagination to create mental maps17, that chimpanzees study their enemies’ movements from hilltops in order to plan18 , that bees ‘play’19, that fiddler crabs communicate producing unique vibrations to attract mates20, that certain fish produce remarkably loud minute-long calls to attract mates21, that octopuses feel pain22, that cuttlefish remember specific details of past events23, that cleaner passe appear to have some form of self-recognition24, that zebra fish display curiosity25, certain fruit flies have sleep patterns affected by their social environment26, that certain fish use punishment to encourage their offspring to cooperate,27 and crayfish display symptoms of anxiety that can be treated with anti-anxiety medications.28 These are only a few recent studies, and by no means cover the numerous examples of some animal cognition (particularly bird and mammalian cognition).

While there is always the risk of anthropomorphizing the animal world, there is also the risk of denying the levels of mental or cognitive or consciousness capabilities that could exist in them.29, 30 Indeed, I think it actually behooves us in theology to consider creatures on a sliding scale, similar (though not identical) to the ancient distinction between rational, animal, and vegetative souls.

As we attempt to grasp the cognitive capacity of other creatures, we’re constantly examining our own capacity, and then attempting to compare ourselves to them by analogies. We attempt empathetically to grasp the ‘mindset’ or the situation of other creatures to figure out in what way they are similar to us in regards to cognition. In the end, we must resort to analogies since many creatures have various organs and sense-receptors that we do not possess, and therefore if they bear some form of cognition or even consciousness then it may not look the same as human cognition and consciousness. If we must employ analogies to grasp in what way creatures parallel us, so too we must use analogies to speak of how we are similar to God.

What is Comprehensible? – The Issue of Predication

If everything, in general, is incomprehensible in some manner, than what do we comprehend? What can we comprehend of created things, and what do we comprehend of the Uncreated One? The solution, I believe is in the idea of predication. We comprehend predications to God, but not God.

“The problem of predication, with specific reference to God, is simply that of the transition, both metaphysical and logical, from finite to infinite being”.

– Richard Muller, PRRD, Vol. 3, p. 468(3)

The above quotation is true, in my estimation, only in part. The problem of predication, that is, applying terms from one object to another, is not merely a problem of the difference between finitude and infinitude in being–but in the issue of the concept of being itself.

For example, Muller also points out that the Reformed Scholastics “often did not consider God within ‘being in general’ as He is the ground of being and different, and had recourse to the principle ‘finiti ad infinitum dari proportio non potest’ (ie ‘the finite cannot be given a proportion to the infinite’).” -Muller, PRRD, vol. 3, p. 472.

Something so different from us can have things predicated to Him, however what the predicate truly is is beyond comprehension. We can say God is “goodness” but what that goodness is in Him we do not know.

I wrote about predication in general in the last post, and just for my own review (again I don’t know if anyone reads these things or finds them valuable other than myself, here was my summary:

…without properties, or distinctions, or universals, discussion about reality is impossible. A property is a predication, or something that can be attributed to something else. For example “big” is a property. Properties are generally understood as being universals, or things that can be instantiated or shared by other things. For transcendent realists like Plato, these universals are transcendent entities he called ‘forms’ or ‘ideas’. For immanent realists like Aristotle, universals exist only (but truly) in instantiated things. For nominalists, universals do not exist outside of the human mind. Instead, universals are something done by the linguistic act in predication and/or in tropes. Conceptualists agree with nominalists, but rather than proposing tropes as a solution, they argue that ‘concepts’ are what we utilize to band together items that appear similar to us.31

In Reformed scholastic thought, a ‘property’ or predication is something not merely nominally (in name) attributed to God, but something essential to Him. They often do not use the term ‘attribute’ because, at that time of their writing, ‘attribute’ implied a nominalist view of predication/properties that they wanted to avoid. Muller argues, “The Reformed orthodox prefer to use the terms ‘property,’ ‘essential property,’ or ‘perfection’ rather than the term ‘attribute’ or, when they use ‘attribute,’ they make very clear that the term indicates a property or mode of the divine being and not merely an ‘attribution’ on the part of human beings.” -Richard Muller, PRRD, Vol. 3, p. 467.

Though this is the case, the Reformed scholastics simultaneously adopted some of the nominalist frameworks, such as archetypal-ectypal theology. The concept of archetypal-ectypal theology purportedly began with Scotus’ theologia in se (theology in itself) and theologia in nostra (our theology). These categories mean that God has a theology of Himself that is perfect, but which we do not comprehend. Yet, God has created an analogous form of theology in perfection that is “our theology”, possessed fully and in perfection by Jesus Christ alone, which is revealed in part to the frail/sinful human mind, and to which our minds can know more or less depending on our natures and growth. In later theological developments, this was termed archetypal-ecytpal theology.32, 33

when God is set forth as the object of theology, he is not to be regarded simply as God in himself (for thus he is incomprehensible to us) but as revealed and as he has been pleased to manifest himself to us in his word, so that divine revelation is the formal relation which comes to be considered in this object. Nor is he to be considered exclusively under the relation of the deity (according to the opinion of Thomas Aquinas and many Scholastics after him, for in this manner the knowledge of him could not be saving but deadly to sinners), but as he is our God (i.e., covenanted in Christ as he has revealed himself to us in his word not only as the object of knowledge, but also of worship).

-Franciscus Turretin, Elenctic Theology (1.5.4)

There is a kind of tension in this system of thought. On the one hand, predication is viewed from a realist perspective: ‘goodness’ truly exists in God, not merely as a term we use. But on the other hand, ectypal theology is an analogy to something we do not comprehend: ‘goodness’ exists in God in a way we do not understand.

If God is indeed the predication of goodness, but simultaneously we cannot comprehend this because it is merely an analogy to what is in Him, then what is it we are comprehending? Indeed, I think the logical effect of the archetypal-ectypal distinction is that even a perfect, full knowledge of God possessed by Christ is only an analogy that belongs to Jesus Christ as the Mediator. The analogies regarding God are comprehensible, but not the thing to which they refer.

The last aspect of this tension to work through is: is this actually the ‘solution’ or is there another answer (or no real answer)?

Comprehending God in Glory

Some theologians have argued that humans may comprehend certain things about God in either our current state or else in a glorified state. In their estimation, the human soul and mind (nous) is incapable of comprehending God currently because of its frail original nature, or else because of its sin and endarkenment, nevertheless it can comprehend certain things regarding Him now or then because of His grace/energies.

For example, Augustine’s doctrine is contested, but my takeaway is that he believed God is not incomprehensible. Augustine’s logic is that since God is “the immutable Truth which contains all that is immutably true” (On Free Choice 2:33), and the rational soul can only perceive and possess what is immutable (one of the three Platonic/Plotinian principles of Ideas), then God is intelligible and not incomprehensible. For Augustine, the human mind originally could comprehend God, but after the fall the human mind now cannot comprehend God. The fall caused a frailty of the human mind such that we cannot comprehend Him in this lifetime. For Augustine, divine illumination and grace are required to repair the human mind so we can comprehend God as we were originally created. This divine grace is granted via numerous ways, including, but not limited to a free gift of illumination, via the sacraments, and via contemplation. Only once a person has been glorified (deified), will they be fully restored and thus capable of perceiving the divine essence.

Another example is from Aquinas. Aquinas goes beyond Augustine in that he argues the original human nature, prior to the fall, was incapable of perceiving the essence of God unless a super-added, created grace was endowed. While he rejects certain Augustinian elements of divine illumination, he argues that for the human mind to comprehend God, some level of supernatural illumination is required, in addition to natural illumination, but that both are forms of divine illumination. In his estimation, super-added created grace elevates the human intellect beyond its natural deficiency such that it can perceive the divine essence in the beatific vision.34 In theories based on Aquinas’ doctrine, cataphatic (images) forms of prayer are often an important part of contemplation, a type of prayer often criticized by Protestant and Eastern theologians.35

Still another example is in Palamite theology. In this view, God’s essence cannot be comprehended in any state of humanity, but humanity can comprehend or perceive the uncreated energies of God (i.e. The Tabor Light)36 via the sacraments and an apophatic (non-image) form of prayer and contemplation (theoria) called hesychasm.

Yet, the problem remains: How can even this intercourse be compatible with the Divine Transcendance? And this is the crucial point. Does man really encounter God, in this present life on earth? Does man encounter God, truly and verily, in his present life of prayer? Or, is there no more than an actio in distans? The common claim of the Eastern Fathers was that in his devotional ascent man actually encounters God and beholds His eternal Glory. Now, how is it possible, if God “abides in the light unapproachable”?

The paradox was especially sharp in the Eastern theology, which has been always committed to the belief that God was absolutely “incomprehensible”—akataleptos—and unknowable in His nature or essence. This conviction was powerfully expressed by the Cappadocian Fathers, especially in their struggle against Eunomius, and also by St. John Chrysostom, in his magnificent discourses Peri Akataleptou. Thus, if God is absolutely “unapproachable” in His essence, and accordingly His essence simply cannot be “communicated,” how can theosis be possible at all? “One insults God who seeks to apprehend His essential being,” says Chrysostom.

Already in St. Athanasius we find a clear distinction between God’s very “essence” and His powers and bounty: Kai en pasi men esti kata ten heautou agathoteta, exo de ton panton palin esti kata ten idian physin. [He is in everything by his love, but outside of everything by his own nature (De Decretis II)].

The same conception was carefully elaborated by the Cappadocians. The “essence of God” is absolutely inaccessible to man, says St. Basil (Adv. Eunomium 1:14). We know God only in His actions, and by His actions: Hemeis de ek men ton energeion gnorizein legomen ton Theon hemon, te de ousia prosengizein ouch hypischnoumetha hai men gar energeiai autou pros hemas katabainousin, he de ousia autou menei aprositos. [We say that we know our God from his energies (activities), but we do not profess to approach his essence—for his energies descend to us, but his essence remains inaccessible (Epist. 234, ad Amphilochium)]. Yet, it is a true knowledge, not just a conjecture or deduction: hai energeiai autou pros hemas katabainousin. In the phrase of St. John of Damascus, these actions or “energies” of God are the true revelation of God Himself: he theia ellampsis kai energeia (De Fide Orth. 1: 14). It is a real presenceand not merely a certain praesentia operativa, sicut agens adest ei in quod agit [as the actor is present in the thing in which he acts]. This mysterious mode of Divine Presence, in spite of the absolute transcendence of the Divine Essence, passes all understanding. But it is no less certain for that reason.

St. Gregory Palamas stands in an ancient tradition at this point. In His “energies” the Unapproachable God mysteriously approaches man. And this Divine move effects encounter: proodos eis ta exo, in the phrase of St. Maximus (Scholia in De Div. Nom., 1: 5).

-Fr. George Florovsky37

In Palamite thought, the energies truly are God, yet we participate in them and comprehend them. When He meets us in His goodness and grace, it is Him truly, but not His essence.

Concluding Thoughts:

A final issue for Reformed thought is – what do we meet with when we meet God?38 If He is incomprehensible entirely aside from His attributes (known by analogy only), then when we meet Him and know Him, what do we meet and know? Reformed authors refer the answer to one of two categories: either we meet God by the Spirit’s personal indwelling, or we meet God by the miraculous works He does within providence. When it comes to the Spirit’s indwelling, some say this is merely a terminological thing to refer to special providence, and others say that it refers to an actual presence of this divine Person of the Spirit (see footnote 38’s link, last page). There are issues with both conceptions, but both seem more plausible than the concept of created grace or of God’s energies/logoi. Take a look at this comparison to see this all spelled out:


What is God?Pure ActualityPure ActualityActuality & PotentialityPure Actuality
What is Incomprehensible?All of God in this lifetimeAll of God in this lifetime God’s being, essence, interpersonal relationsAll of God
What is Comprehensible?God’s being and essence in glory & pre-fallGod’s being and essence in gloryGod’s energies and logoi in this lifetimeGod’s attributes by analogy
What Meets Us??God’s created graceGod’s energies and logoi (potentiality)God’s providential works & the Spirit’s presence without exchange of nature.

My conclusion is that I think we can comprehend certain things about God, but only analogies regarding Him. He is like a created thing (but uncreated), His is like a being (but different), He is like this, like that. The obvious trouble with this thought is: what do we meet with when we meet with this God? When He encounters us and we encounter Him, are we encountering only painted pictures? One day we will no longer see “as in a mirror dimly”, because we will see the God-Man, Jesus, face-to-face.

So, personally, I don’t think we don’t work from the analogy up to a picture of the essence or the nature. We can’t piece together the puzzle of His essence using imagery–it doesn’t work. And we cannot contemplate our way outside of the rational realm unto an experience of His essence or nature. As Hugh Binning puts it, “You can form no other notion of him but from the resemblance of this created light. But alas! that he is not; as he infinitely transcends that, and is distant from it.” Truly, He is the Deus Absconditus, the God Who is Hidden, and that behind a cloud of unknowing (Isaiah 45:15). Until we see Christ in the flesh, the image of the invisible God is known only by analogy.

“God then is infinite and incomprehensible and all that is comprehensible about Him is His infinity and incomprehensibility. But all that we can affirm concerning God does not shew forth God’s nature, but only the qualities of His nature [1451] . For when you speak of Him as good, and just, and wise, and so forth, you do not tell God’s nature but only the qualities of His nature [1452] . Further there are some affirmations which we make concerning God which have the force of absolute negation”.39

-John of Damascus, Exposition of the Orthodox Faith

Read More:

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4


  1. Aquinas, De ente et essentia
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  4. Gregory of Nazianzen, “Orations” ↩︎
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  6. Ambrose of Milan, “Exposition of the Christian Faith” ↩︎
  7. John of Damascus, ” Exposition of the Orthodox Faith” ↩︎
  8. ibid. ↩︎
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  32.  This essay is helpful for its chart ↩︎
    Schmid is a Lutheran theologian, and in this section he cites Quenstedt frequently. ↩︎
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  39. John of Damascus, ” Exposition of the Orthodox Faith” ↩︎

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