St Gregory of Nyssa and the Incomprehensibility of 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, concurrent, coincident with the divine essence. Through them we do know the divine nature—yet we cannot comprehend or define it. Why? 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! “We learn by the senses just enough about the elements of the world to be able to make use of each for our life,” writes Gregory, “but as to a definition of their being, we have not understood it, nor do we regard our ignorance as a disadvantage” (C. Eun. II. 117). I first ran into this view when I read St Gregory the Theologian’s hymn of creation in Oration 28. I remember at the time wondering why Gregory would say that we cannot comprehend creatures. Aren’t we able to sensibly apprehend things and verbally state their definitional qualities? I thought he was confusing cognitive incapacity with provisional ignorance of how the world works, an ignorance always receding as scientific knowledge advances. But now I find Gregory Nyssen saying something similar. 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 comprehends the essences he has made, for only he knows things from the inside-out, if you will: only he has a God’s-eye view of their inner causality. Natures manifest themselves to us in their activities and workings. These activities are indeed apprehensible; but to know the activity is not to comprehend the essence. It is not to penetrate to the mystery of its existence. Our experience of beings in their energetic self-presentation does 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 plenitude 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; cf. Torstein Theodor Tollefsen, Activity and Participation)

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 incisively suggests that for Gregory the notion of knowing the divine essence is nothing less than a “category mistake” (p. 169, n. 35). The Bishop of Nyssa states the challenge: “He therefore who claims that he comprehends the knowledge of realities should in the first place reveal to us the nature of the ant, and only then give a scientific account of the Power which transcends all thought” (C. Eun. III.4).

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). And 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” (C. Eun. III.6.4).

(2 May 2014; rev.)

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

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24 Responses to St Gregory of Nyssa and the Incomprehensibility of the Incomprehensible God

  1. Tom says:

    No doubt, the essence of created realities is not knowable and so remain incomprehensible to us. God is essentially unknowable and so ineffable as well. But I wonder if these are convertible ineffabilities. It would be easier if they were. But however similar to us the experience of not knowing created essences is to the experience of not knowing God essentially – these are in fact infinitely different ineffabilities. If there’s a real comparison/similarity here – then one could do precisely what Gregory wouldn’t want us to do, and that is to reduce God to the world, or to make God a being among beings, for God could be a being among beings are still be ineffable if every being among beings is ineffable. So it seems to me that the sense in which creation is ineffable (or even transcendent of any particular knower’s ability to perceive) is not the sense in which God is ineffable. The latter is not an instance of the former.

    I don’t want to entirely dismiss Anatolios’ point about the ineffability of created things. I just wanted to say that perhaps we should not equate it with divine ineffability however similar we experience the failure of our language to comprehend the two. These are different-distinct failures of language for the simple reason that God is ineffable for reasons different than those that make created things incomprehensible to us.

    Take Pi as an example. Pi (3.14…) runs on infinitely open without repetition. Computers have been at work for years generating digits of Pi without repetition. In one sense whatever limited statement of Pi we posit (3.14, 3.14159, or 3.14159265359) Pi is truthfully posited but not comprehended. And no final comprehensive statement of Pi is possible. But I doubt Anatolios imagines God’s ineffability to be an instance of this sort of infinity.

    Yes? No?

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    • Robert Fortuin says:

      That is a good point Tom.
      I would take it a step further – to speak of essences is deceptive, amounting to nonsense, applied to creatures no less than to God. Are we truly expecting to find, voila there it is!, the essence of a man? Of a sunflower? Of God? There is no essence as an object to be cataphatic or apophatic about. An absolute realism appears to pose a danger of falling into a deceptive essentialism here. Even the moderate realist will have to admit that he can only partially define what something or someone may be, regardless of the category of being – created or uncreated. While for the former category of being cataphatic positivism inevitably leads to reductionistic materialism, for the latter it is apophatic agnosticism manifesting in outright denial.

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    • Tom,

      The way I am reading this is along the lines of the analogia entis, namely if God is incomprehensible, it isn’t inappropriate to see incomprehensibility of created beings in general. Univocally speaking, yeah it would be a grossly inappropriate comparison. As a general rule, I think that the more precise we try to define things the nearer we get to the vanishing point, then it all evaporates into mystery.

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  2. Excellent post. Thomas Aquinas concurs:

    (Preface of his Commentary on the Apostles’ Creed): “But our manner of knowing is so weak that no philosopher could perfectly investigate the nature of even one little fly.” (Lest the neo-thomists protest: “sed cognitio nostra est adeo debilis quod nullus philosophus potuit unquam perfecte investigare naturam unius muscae”

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      The Aquinas quote reminded me of what St Gregory said about the ant, which I just added to the above article. 🙂

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  3. Tom says:

    I’m not sure where to drop this in, Fr Aidan, but I believe you’re enjoying Pseudo-Denys right now. There’s a curious line in PD that differentiates between two kinds of denial – cataphatic denials (which are the logical contradictories of cataphatic affirmations, e.g., “God exist”/”God doesn’t exist”), and apophatic denials which do not contradict cataphatic affimations as such but rather negate (sidestep) ‘the propositional dialectic’ per se. PD writes: “We should not conclude that the negations are simply the opposites of affirmations, but rather that the cause of all is considerably prior to this, beyond privations, beyond every denial, beyond every assertion.”

    Forgive the link (it’s easy than cutting and posting), but I wonder how this distinction would accommodate the difference between the creation’s ineffability on one hand, and God’s ineffability on the other. I’d be interested in your thoughts on this curious line from PD.

    https://anopenorthodoxy.wordpress.com/2013/12/04/unspeakably-transcended-part-2/

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I am presently interpreting Dionysius’ statement as akin to similar statements made by David B. Hart, i.e., as gesturing to the radicality and non-duality of the divine transcendence. Am I off-base?

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      • Tom says:

        Far be it from me. I’m a hack. But if by ‘non-dual’ you mean something like ‘not reducible to the categorical embrace of propositional affirmations and their contradictions’ – then yeah, that’s what I have in mind. So – the truth about God isn’t exhausted by the propositional dialectic (duality). That’s how I read Hart (on Mon’s, Wed’s and Fridays at least). But mostly I’m just trying to see how it affects what we say and don’t say with respect to God.

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  4. Matthew Hryniewicz says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed this post. What I’m getting from this is that true knowledge of God comes from being drawn by God into deeper and deeper communion with the Trinity, where God reveals to us more of the ‘view from within’ (as opposed to an understanding derived from observing some exterior object). Knowledge of God is a type of experience, though not of the senses. It is a sort of becoming, where knowing is being. Hence “we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”

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  5. Robert Fortuin says:

    Fr Aidan,

    ‘we do know the divine nature—yet we cannot comprehend or define it’

    I am still at a loss what knowledge without comprehension may mean. How is it possible to know something without comprehending it? Whether such knowledge and comprehension be whole or in part seems irrelevant. Is it possible to have some measure of knowledge of something or someone without also have some measure of comprehension of this something or someone?

    How is knowledge and comprehension defined?

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Robert, I’ve been away from Gregory and the secondary literature for four years, and I’m afraid I do not remember a great deal. Perhaps the place to begin is with Gregory’s claim that we cannot comprehend sensible realities. What do you think Gregory means by this?

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      • Robert Fortuin says:

        It seems to me that he’s restating St Paul’s ‘we know in part’ principle. This locates the limit in our cognitive capacity as the knowing subject. If however we want to situate the limit in the object of our knowledge we are confronted with making a distinction, as some do, in being able to comprehend finite creatures in contradistinction to our inability to comprehend the infinite God. It appears to me the limit is both in us as knowing subjects and in the object as well. We comprehend in part because we know in part, whether this be a rock or God. Finitude, or the lack of it, of the object seems to me irrelevant to me, so I have to take issue with Tom. The nature of a rock is finite unlike God, but that is a concern altogether different from our knowledge and comprehension of either.

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    • Matthew Hryniewicz says:

      I do not have a background in any of this, so I’m just musing here, but perhaps one could propose a kind of knowledge that is more intimate and immediate than the conscious mind’s comprehension. For example, one might say that we know beauty but cannot comprehend it. That rapturous influx of light that accompanies our profoundest experiences cannot be comprehended (if by that we mean understood) or precisely defined; but yet we know it like it was a part of us. Or maybe we could think of even simpler things like the sensation of water running over our hands. What is that exactly? I can label it, but have I defined it or understood it? At the end of the day I don’t even know what it means to be, yet I am.

      I’m just rambling here, and I don’t think that is quite where you were going with your comment, but I had fun entertaining those thoughts. 🙂

      I’ve had this odd notion for a while that our being knows something that our minds do not. That somehow our very existence, what we are, that we are; has a certain intimacy to God as our source and ground, which our reasoning mind has yet to attain. That a quieted thoughtless mind may approach a kind of knowing that surpasses what we can think through. I’ve never been able to put a fine point on it, and don’t even know if it’s mostly fluff, but there it is.

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  6. Jonathan says:

    As for knowledge v. comprehension, in English usage I think this is clearer in the analogous distinction between experience and conceptual understanding. For example, I know my wife experientially and personally, but I would probably not be well advised to claim that I comprehend her, with the sense of completeness that that word connotes. Whereas I comprehend the quadratic formula. The same obtains with all relationships, indeed for everything, with differences being registered in degree, not in kind. I see a conceptual distinction to be made between our incomprehension of God and our incomprehension of finite beings; I do not see a linguistic or an experiential distinction there.

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    • Jonathan says:

      And as far as I know, there is pretty much the same distinction between knowing and comprehending in other European languages, viz. French savoir v. comprendre.

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      • Jonathan says:

        Actually, French connaitre is even better for “know” in this case, though both it and savoir are knowing, and distinct from comprendre. You see it more or less in German wissen/verstehen/begreifen too. It’s everywhere, this distinction: knowing; knowing how; understanding/comprehending. But it gets tricky, because wisdom or insight often looks more like comprehension or even know-how, i.e. a total grasp of something, a situation or character or what have you, or the kind of foresight that come from the mastery of technique.

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      • Jonathan says:

        All three forms are of vital importance: experiential knowing, technical know-how, and conceptual comprehension, are good in their place, and perhaps they overlap to some extent. For example, to write a good poem, or to make a true critique of a good poem, you have to 1) comprehend the literary tradition and culture of which it is a part, 2) you have to have the know-how or techne of the art of poetry, and 3) you also have to know poetry experientially, personally, with the commitment of your heart — or, in the case of writing the poem, you have to have some other experiential knowledge, in addition to those other kinds of knowledge. No one kind of knowledge on its own will suffice you. And all of this is dependent more or less on something that we could call the “self-revelation” of poetry or the poem. The world and all the things in it is not some inert object upon which we exercise our various kinds of intellection. There is not a single thing in existence that is that. All the kinds of knowing, even ‘mere’ comprehension, are in fact a kind of interaction, a disclosure, on the one hand, and on the other an acceptance, of being.

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        • Robert Fortuin says:

          Right Jonathan, but it isn’t helpful – here’s why: both knowledge and comprehension are interdependent: a limitation in one limits the other. You know your wife only in part (wisst), because you comprehend (begreift) her only partially. Perhaps the limitation is both due to limited cognitive capacity and the nature of the object of our knowledge – regardless, it doesn’t matter what the object may be, creature or Creator, as our knowledge and comprehension is limited in either case.
          How is the nature of our knowledge and comprehension of the divine essence distinct from that or let’s say the essence of a flower?

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          • Jonathan says:

            I agree. I think. Every form of knowledge is limited if they are all bound up together. The point I’m unsure on is whether it’s possible to express a qualitative difference of limitation. I mean I’m not sure I see a distinction, in language (rather than the object or referent of language), of one sort of apophaticism from another. We can make conceptual/logical distinctions using language, but I am trying to think about what we actually see in language itself. Apophasis and cataphasis are essentially linguistic terms, as you know. But language sounds the same whether it embodies a final ignorance about a flower or the Godhead. Does that makes sense? I think the poet never speaks of anything but God, yet he can never speak directly of God. Maybe God is the second-order apophasis. I cannot even say that I am ignorant of God, I have to say that I am ignorant of something that is not-God… or not-all-of-God, and thus imply another sort of apophasis (which is itself already a kind of implication or suggestion). So everything proceeds by way of figuration and form, and so art and ritual are the highest or most mysterious orders of language. I’m trying to understand a little of why we use figuration, why the highest orders of language are never simply about what they reference, their content. I would like to avoid a situation where, if you cannot produce exactly the right phrase about God, you lack the Spirit. I want to arrive at uncertainty, in silence, but an uncertainty and a silence that are somehow greater, more ample, than the uncertainty and silence in which I start out. Sorry, this is loopy, I know. I don’t have the time to write as clearly as I would like.

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  7. I hesitate to bring this up as I (yet) have no formal training in the matter, but if -as you and S. Gregory, and Anatolios seem to suggest- we cannot know the essence of God and/or creatures but only their productive energies (thus the essence/energy distinction), is this non-knowing/comprehending of essence the same as not knowing the thing itself, and does it then bring us to Kant’s theory of knowledge about never getting to knowledge of the thing-in-itself, leaving us with only only knowledge of thing-as-it-appears, which means we never have knowledge of reality, only of appearance? Or is it closer to Plato’s “knowledge” vs “opinion” where “knowledge is only of the Forms/Ideas, and “opinion” covers our experience of instantiations of the Forms in this or that object?

    Moreover, does this mean that we are not even capable of receiving a Revelation of the Self-disclosure of the essence of God (if not in this world, then in the next), and if so, what are we to make of being taken up into the “third heaven”, the theoria experiences of the Desert Ascetics, or the Spanish Mystics?

    And, on a side-note, I’m still trying to figure out what editing changes were done between the 2014 and 2018 versions of this post.

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    • At the same time, S. Gregory (and you) are providing sources of reflections for my future studies in epistemology, and religious epistemology, so I hope I can continue learning from y’all.

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