The Impossibility of Comprehending the Incomprehensible God

What does St Gregory of Nyssa mean when he so emphatically claims that human beings are incapable of comprehending the divine nature. As we have seen, it does not mean that we must remain silent before the unspeakable Deity. Christians do in fact say many positive things about God via his essential properties. These properties, or goods, are coextensive and concurrent with the divine essence. Through them we do know the divine nature—yet we cannot comprehend or define it. Why? What does this mean for Gregory?

In his book Retrieving Nicaea Khaled Anatolios offers an interpretation of divine incomprehensibility which I find compelling.

First off, Anatolios notes that it is not just God whose nature humanity cannot comprehend. It’s all of creation! Gregory discusses this in his lengthy Contra Eunomium (which I have not yet read). I first ran into this view when I read Oration 28 of St Gregory of Nazianzus. I remember at the time wondering why Nazianzen would say that we cannot comprehend creatures. Aren’t we able to sensibly apprehend things and verbally state their definitional qualities? And because I did not understand, I did not discuss this aspect of Gregory’s epistemology in my blog series. But now I find Nyssan saying something similar. As Anatolios explains, “Gregory seems to have in mind a strict notion of what the act of ‘knowing the essence’ contains”:

This becomes clear from the fact that Gregory demonstrates the unknowability of the divine essence by reference to the unknowability of “the essential nature” of creaturely realities—which in turn is demonstrated by a rhapsodic description of these very realities! It is indeed startling that Gregory would seek to elucidate the incomprehensibility of the divine essence by comparison with mundane realities that are accessible to our sense experience and susceptible to lavish and detailed description. We should infer that for Gregory incomprehensibility of essence and inaccessibility are by no means equivalent categories. Creaturely realities are certainly accessible to us, and yet we can give no radical account of the fact and power of their being and of the act of self-bestowal whereby they become accessible to us. (p. 162)

Only the eternal Creator truly knows and comprehends the essences of that which he has made, for only he can know things from the inside-out, if you will. Only he has a God’s-eye view of their inner causality. Natures manifest themselves in their activities and workings, and these effects are indeed apprehensible and knowable; but our experiences of natures do not give us the kind of cognitive mastery that only the Creator enjoys:

Closely aligned with this notion is the understanding of essences and natures as intrinsically productive: a nature manifests itself in its active effects. Yet, for Gregory of Nyssa, encounter with the productive self-manifestation of a nature (physis/ousia) is not equivalent to knowing the nature as such. Knowing the nature, according to Gregory’s maximalist sense, would mean reaching behind its self-presentation, thereby rendering it a merely passive object of the mind’s act of comprehension. The knower would exhaustively grasp the nature’s inner intelligibility and the root power of its existence. As a rule, Gregory’s ontology precludes such an epistemology of “comprehension.” Being, both divine and creaturely, is a dynamic of active self-announcement that cannot be superseded by the knower’s grasp and announcement of it. Gregory definitively rules out that kind of knowing as a human possibility, with reference not only to God but to other creatures as well. Instead, knowing God—that is, endlessly journeying through the infinite plentitude of divine being—becomes a paradigm for knowing in general. We cannot know the essence even of creaturely realities; we cannot grasp the very origin of their causal power. The operative image here is the sun and its radiance; one cannot reach behind the productive self-manifestation of the sun in its radiance to the essence that is the radical causal source of that self-manifestation. By Gregory’s standards, then, we can register any number of true facts about a being and exhaustively analyze the connections between these facts and still be very far from “knowing the essence.” That is how Gregory is able to say that we do not even know our own essences. (p. 163)

Knowing the essence of something is clearly a more radical project than I ever expected. I perceive this computer sitting there before me. I know something about what it does. I know a little something about how it was made. I can make both apophatic and cataphatic statements about it. But what I will never apprehend, no matter how hard I should study it, no matter how much knowledge I should gain about it, is my computer’s inner intelligibility as a creature brought into being from out of absolute nothing. To know the essence of something is to know that something as only God can know it. No matter how deeply we plumb the mystery of existence, it remains unfathomable mystery.

Perhaps now we can better understand why comprehending the essence of the uncreated Creator is an impossible task. At least creaturely objects present themselves to our senses; but God cannot be so perceived. He is invisible to us, not just as neutrinos and angels are invisible, but invisible in his infinite and holy transcendence. Despite all our mighty efforts, we will never apprehend God as an object to be captured by our senses and intellect. Anatolios suggests that for Gregory the notion of knowing the divine essence is nothing less than a “category mistake” (p. 169, n. 35).

Hence our knowing of God is utterly dependent on his gracious self-revelation. The Creator must freely make himself known and by the Spirit draw us into his self-knowledge within the eternal life of the Father and the Son. The apperceiving of God, therefore, is never an effort of mastery but of receptive faith and worship. Anatolios describes it as doxological knowledge—a kind of comprehension that “has become utterly worship, the knowing-in-adoration of the transcendence of the glory perceived, traveled in, but not enclosed” (p. 165). Yet again: “Our knowing of God can never comprehend the divine essence as if it were an inert object; our knowing succeeds in being in touch with the reality of God when it reacts to the divine self-manifestation in wonder and worship” (p. 194).

“The only name that signifies the divine nature,” declares St Gregory, “is the wonder that arises ineffably in our souls concerning it” (Eun. 3.6.4).

(Go to “Was St Gregory Nyssen a Proto-Palamite?”)

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10 Responses to The Impossibility of Comprehending the Incomprehensible God

  1. AR says:

    Thank you for this. Another burdensome misunderstanding falls away.


  2. tgbelt says:

    You get the best ‘Accompanying Picture For a Blog Post’ of the year award. Love it.


  3. whitefrozen says:

    Somewhere out in the great beyond, T.F. Torrance ‘liked’ this post 🙂


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Can you expand on that a bit,


      • whitefrozen says:

        ‘Hence our knowing of God is utterly dependent on his gracious self-revelation. The Creator must freely make himself known and by the Spirit draw us into his self-knowledge within the eternal life of the Father and the Son.’ – that could be easily mistaken for Torrance, as well as the physis/ousia bit. He based his own understanding of how we know God on the same kind of thinking.


  4. PJ says:

    St. Thomas thought that created natures are fundamentally impenetrable. He held this opinion for two very different reasons: on the one hand, creatures are summoned from non-being; on the other hand, they are rooted in the divine mind. Every creature is at once nothing and a glimmer of the plenitude of the Godhead. Concerning the first point, and sounding rather like a Hindu philosopher, St. Thomas declared that “creatures are darkness insofar as they are from nothing.” Concerning the second point, he said, “Our knowledge is so weak to such a point that no philosopher would be able to perfectly investigate the nature of a single fly.” The mystery of being is therefore the mystery of non-being and Ultimate Being, both of which defy reason. Meister Eckhart would push both of these definitely Christian ideas to the extreme.


  5. Mina says:

    Christ is Risen!

    If I may offer a contemplation. One of my favorite chapters in the Bible is Ephesians 3. I think it’s important I quote the relevant passage, although the whole chapter deserves attention:

    14 For this reason I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, 15 from whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named, 16 that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with might through His Spirit in the inner man, 17 that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, 18 may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height— 19 to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge; that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

    20 Now to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us, …

    The most climactic part of this passage is verse 19, “to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge” is profound. It’s like saying to “know the unknowable”. And furthermore, St. Paul gives us the impossible in many theological minds: “that you may be filled with all the fullness of God”. I wonder if it is proper to do a patristic study on this chapter to fully appreciate deification and the knowledge of God.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Mina, I applaud you directing us back to Scripture. It’s easy to get lost in philosophical generalities.


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