The Mystery of God: Knowing God, the Ineffable One, In the Dialectic of the God-man, Jesus Christ

23 “Am I only a God nearby,”
declares the Lord,
“and not a God far away? –Jeremiah 23:23

Here at the Evangelical Calvinist, personally, I’m inclined to follow what is known as a cataphatic mode of theological endeavor rather than an apophatic one. Be that as it may my cataphaticism is present precisely because of a kind of very thick apophaticism; so thick in fact that I maintain that we can have no knowledge of God without his personal, objective, and particular Self-revelation in his Son, Jesus Christ. In other words, the idea of there being a natural theology of the sort that there is present within nature (including human beings) a capacity for knowledge of God—even a latently graced humanity—this I maintain is absent. As a Reformed Christian I take the noetic effects of the lapse to be absolute; viz. all of humanity, at the fall, in Adam and Eve, suffered such a traumatic de-conciliation between themselves and God, between the Mediator between God and humanity, the Eternal Logos, that any capacity they had, contingent as it was upon their relationship with God was lost. As such, and if so, if this relationship was so polluted, which I think it was, by the rupture that took place in Genesis 3, knowledge of God as their Father mediated through the Son was lost; in other words, I maintain that nature never had latent within it any sort of ‘hooks’ for discursively reasoning oneself back to a God concept—let alone God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The aforementioned noted, realizing that Henri de Lubac, who we will be hearing from shortly, isn’t in line with my own position (although closer in some ways than others), nevertheless offers some good words on how mystery and paradox function in our knowledge of God. I think, even with my medium-well cataphaticism in place, what he notes, at least here, can be resourced or at least imbibed by me in such a way that it turns fruitful towards thinking about how dialogical or dialectical theology vis-à-vis knowledge of God looks. De Lubac writes:

This idea of mystery is perfectly acceptable to reason once one has admitted the idea of a personal and transcendent God. The truth we receive from him about himself must exceed our grasp, simply because of its superior intelligibility: intellecta, it can never be comprehensa. The distinction is elementary, and accepted by Descartes as well as St Augustine and the scholastics. How could one possibly agree with Malebranche that ‘the Word unreservedly communicates all that he possesses as Word and eternal Wisdom whenever we question him with serious attention’? Or at least, how could one believe that a finite intellect could be capable of receiving such a communication in its entirety? Revealed truth, then, is a mystery for us; in other words it presents that character of lofty synthesis whose final link must remain impenetrably obscure to us. It will for ever resist all our efforts to unify it fully. This is baffling to a philosophy of pure rationality but not to a philosophy which recognizes in the human mind both that potential absolute that makes it declare the truth, and that abyss of darkness in which it remains by the fact of being both created and bodily. ‘Either . . . or’, says rationality, believing that it can get to the bottom of everything, because it makes itself the yardstick, and thinks that its own limits are the limits of being itself. It accuses Christian thinking of ‘a kind of hunger for what is absurd and contradictory’; thinking that what is incomprehensible must therefore be unintelligible, it considers the doctrine of mystery to be a ‘sophism’, an unwarranted overstepping of the bounds of common sense and reason. The idea of the Trinity, for instance, or even the idea of an infinite personal God is, from its point of view, a square circle. Throughout it finds ‘wilful contradiction, systematic absurdity, logical errors’, and so on. Or, because of St Thomas along with all Catholic tradition professes that God is present everywhere in his creation, it accuses him of ‘implicit pantheism’. Limited and enclosed, this philosophy of rationality is a philosophy of the dilemma and the univocal statement. ‘Contradiction is not distasteful enough to you’, wrote Renouvier to Secrétan, of problems concerned not with revelation itself, but with the very being of God. His correspondent, he thought, was leaving behind the honest thinking of the philosopher to enter upon the arbitrary ways of theologians who ‘try to lift thought above its proper conditions and look for truth outside the laws of understanding, outside consciousness altogether’. The objection is reminiscent of certain theologians of our own day, who hasten to speak of contradiction as soon as they hear phrases that seem even slightly paradoxical; in so doing they reject any truth that surprises them, without perceiving that to be really logical they should be rejecting numerous other incontestable truths, both of faith and reason, which only fail to surprise them because they are so used to them.[1]

What we get in de Lubac isn’t anything we’d find as lacuna in someone like T.F. Torrance who recognizes that even in the revealed God in Jesus Christ we are up against an Ultimate ineffable God. Some cataphatic theologians, certain types of Barthians et al are so absolute about God’s Self-revelation pressing so hard on theological actualism that there can be absolutely nothing left about who God is beyond what he has revealed of himself in Jesus Christ; i.e. that there is an ontological not just an epistemological givenness to God’s Self-revelation such that God’s very who is constituted by what he has freely chosen to do in the incarnation (and all its entailments). But this gets us further afield than I want to really chop into at the moment (like this would get us into the so called Barth Wars).

I’ve actually broached things in a somewhat fragmented way. I gave you a kind of sketch about my own approach to knowledge of God, and then quoted Henri de Lubac who seems to be talking about things a bit differently. But what I really wanted to highlight is that even for Christian theologians who hold to either apophaticism or cataphaticism the role of mystery must never be lost. Even as we are brought into participation in God’s life through Christ who God is in his inner-life, while not inconsistent whatsoever with who he has revealed himself to be in Christ, is always deeper and always more inexhaustible than the human mind could ever fathom. This is not to say that there is a ‘God behind the back of Jesus Christ,’ it’s just to say that the antecedent life which Jesus exemplifies enfleshed is deeper than our puny minds could ever imagine; which calls for worship. ‘And this is eternal life that they may know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.’ What this implies, though, is that even the ‘mystery’ or ineffability of God must always be circumscribed for us in and by Jesus Christ; we must never look outside the parameters of God’s life to think God, but from within as we participate in his triune life revealed and mediated in Jesus Christ. I think this is where apophaticism as a mode has a tendency to stray.


[1] Henri de Luback, The Mystery of the Supernatural (New York: Herder and Herder New York, 1967), 222-24.