Tag Archives: Epistemology

“Theology by its nature is a mystery discerning enterprise” by Thomas Weinandy

“I believe that a distinction between problem and mystery is relevant to how theologians ought to approach issues of faith and theology.

Marcel and Maritain were well aware that, arising out of the Enlightenment, there grew the mentality that intellectual advancement consisted in solving problems that had hitherto not been solved. The former ‘mysteries’ of the physical universe were being resolved by approaching them as scientific problems to be decoded and unraveled.

The scientific and physical laws of nature became transparent and unmistakable. The new enthusiasm and success of the scientific method was the major contributing factor to this mentality.

Science became the means of resolving all kinds of problems and issues concerning nature and how nature worked. All this was done in a concise, rational, mathematical, and experiential fashion.

It was equally eminently practical. Scientific knowledge could solve a host of practical problems, and everyone gloried in its success. This mentality is illustrated in the contemporary belief that technology, one of the fruits of science, can solve almost any problem.

In the realm of science and technology this mentality, that intellectual advancement consists in solving theoretical and practical problems, may be legitimate. However, I want to argue that this mentality, to disastrous effect, has coloured how many philosophers and theologians approach questions of faith and theology.

Many theologians today, having embraced the Enlightenment presuppositions and the scientific method that it fostered, approach theological issues as if they were scientific problems to be solved rather than mysteries to be discerned and clarified.

However, the true goal of theological inquiry is not the resolution of theological problems, but the discernment of what the mystery of faith is.

Because God, who can never be fully comprehended, lies at the heart of all theological enquiry, theology by its nature is not a problem solving enterprise, but rather a mystery discerning enterprise.

This can bee seen already in the early stages of God’s revelation of Himself to the Jewish people. God manifested Himself to Moses in the burning bush (see Exod. 3).

Moses, in the course of the conversation, asked God: ‘What is Your name?’ Since names, for the Israelites, both revealed the character of the person so named and allowed for the knower of the name to call upon the person so named, Moses in asking God to tell him His name, wanted to know God as well as have the power to call upon Him.

God must have chuckled (It was obviously an ‘impassible’ chuckle!) to Himself as He replied to Moses: “I Am Who I Am’ or “I Am He Who Is.’

God did reveal to Moses His name and so Moses now knew more about God than he knew before. He now knew that God is ‘He who is.’

However, Moses must have quickly realized that, in knowing God more fully, God had become an even greater mystery than He was before. Previously Moses in calling God, for example, El Shaddai— God of the Mountain– may not have known a great deal about God, but the little he did know was at least somewhat comprehensible. God was He who dwelt on the mountain, which was the home of the gods.

However, Moses now knew much more about God. He actually knew that God is ‘I Am Who I Am,’ but what it means for God to be ‘He Who Is’ is completely incomprehensible. Moses, nor we today, can comprehend that God’s very nature is ‘to be,’ that He is the One who is the fullness of life and existence.

Here we learn a primary lesson concerning the nature of revelation and theology. The more God reveals who He is and the more we come to a true and authentic knowledge of who He is, the more mysterious He becomes.

Theology, as faith seeking understanding, helps us come to a deeper and fuller understanding of the nature of God and His revelation, but this growth is in coming to know what the mystery of God is and not the comprehension of the mystery.”

–Thomas G. Weinandy, Does God Suffer? (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2000), 31-33.

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“An adorable mystery” by Herman Bavinck

“To a considerable extent we can assent to and wholeheartedly affirm this doctrine of the unknowability of God. Scripture and the church emphatically assert the unsearchable majesty and sovereign highness of God.

There is no knowledge of God as He is in Himself. We are human and He is the Lord our God. There is no name that fully expresses His being, no definition that captures Him. He infinitely transcends our picture of Him, our ideas of Him, our language concerning Him.

He is not comparable to any creature. All the nations are accounted by Him as less than nothing and vanity. ‘God has no name. He cannot be defined.’ He can be apprehended; He cannot be comprehended.

There is some knowledge (γνωσις) but no thorough grasp (καταληψις) of God. This is how the case is put throughout Scripture and all of theology. And when a shallow rationalism considered a fully adequate knowledge of God a possibility, Christian theology always opposed the idea in the strongest terms…

Involved here is a matter of profound religious importance, to which Augustine gave expression as follows:

‘We are speaking of God. Is it any wonder if you do not comprehend? For if you comprehend, it is not God you comprehend. Let it be a pious confession of ignorance rather than a rash profession of knowledge. To attain some slight knowledge of God is a great blessing; to comprehend Him, however, is totally impossible.’

God is the sole object of all our love, precisely because He is the infinite and incomprehensible One. Although Scripture and the church, thus as it were, accept the premises of agnosticism and are even more deeply convinced of human limitations and the incomparable grandeur of God than Kant and Spencer, they draw from these realities a very different conclusion.

Hilary put it as follows: ‘The perfection of learning is to know God in such a way that, though you realize He is not unknowable, yet you know Him as indescribable.’ The knowledge we have of God is altogether unique. This knowledge may be called positive insofar as by it we recognize a being infinite and distinct from all finite creatures.

On the other hand, it is negative because we cannot ascribe a single predicate to God as we conceive that predicate in relation to creatures. It is therefore an analogical knowledge: a knowledge of a being who is unknowable in Himself, yet able to make something of Himself known in the being He created.

Here, indeed, lies something of an antinomy. Rather, agnosticism, suffering from a confusion of concepts, sees here an irresolvable contradiction in what Christian theology regards as an adorable mystery.

It is completely incomprehensible to us how God can reveal Himself and to some extent make Himself known in created beings: eternity in time, immensity in space, infinity in the finite, immutability in change, being in becoming, the all, as it were, in that which is nothing.

This mystery cannot be comprehended; it can only be gratefully acknowledged. But mystery and self-contradiction are not synonymous.”

–Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: Sin and Salvation in Christ, vol. 3Ed. John Bolt, and trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 47-49.

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“The mystery of grace” by Herman Bavinck

“Although knowledge is attainable in theology, this is not true of comprehension. There is substantial difference between ‘being acquainted with,’ ‘knowing,’ and ‘comprehending.’

True, these words are often used interchangeably. But there are demonstrable differences among them. ‘Being acquainted with’ pertains to a thing’s existence, the that; ‘knowing’ concerns a thing’s quality, the what; comprehending relates to its inner possibility, the how of a thing.

There are few things we comprehend; actually we comprehend only the things that are totally in our power, the things we can make or break. I comprehend a machine when I see how it is put together and how it works, and when there is nothing left in it I still think strange.

Comprehension excludes amazement and admiration. I comprehend or think I comprehend the things that are self-evident and perfectly natural. Often comprehension ceases to the degree a person digs deeper into a subject.

That which seemed self-evident proves to be absolutely extraordinary and amazing. The farther a science penetrates its object, the more it approaches mystery.

Even if on its journey it encountered no other object it would still always be faced with the mystery of being. Where comprehension ceases, however, there remains room for knowledge and wonder.

And so things stand in theology. Disclosed to us in revelation is ‘the mystery of our religion’: the mystery of God’s grace [1 Tim. 3:16].

We see it; it comes out to meet us as a reality in history and in our own life. But we do not fathom it.

In that sense Christian theology always has to do with mysteries that it knows and marvels at but does not comprehend and fathom.”

–Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: Prolegomena, Ed. John Bolt, and Trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), Vol. 1: 619.

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