Ineffability of God

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The ineffability of God designates his incomprehensibility. While human beings can come to some knowledge of God through reason and even more so through God's revelation, yet he continues to be incomprehensible.

Biblical Basis. Through his immanent actions within the world of time and history God reveals that he is completely other than the created order and so transcends it. As such God reveals himself as an ineffable mystery. God is known as the one who cannot be known. The name he gives to Moses, "I Am Who Am" (Ex 3:14), is a revelation, but it is also ineffable and incomprehensible. God "dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has every seen or can see" (1 Tm 16). The ineffable mystery of God is testified in the prohibition against making images of him (Ex 20:4, Acts 17:29). Nonetheless, the marvels of creation manifest the unspeakable and ineffable grandeur of God (Job 38, Wis 13, Rom 1:1920). When we speak about God "though we speak much we cannot reach the end, and the sum of our words is 'He is the All"' (Sir 43:27). The Psalmist declares that the mystery of how God knows is "too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain it" (Ps 138/139:6). "His understanding is unsearchable" (Is 40:28). Before the mystery of God praise is the only proper response. "O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgements and how inscrutable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, who has been his counselor?" (Rom 11:3334). God is an ineffable mystery, yet that mystery is made known, though not comprehended, through God's actions, especially through the Incarnation of the Son (Jn 1:18; Mt 11:27). While the mystery of God remains, humankind comes to know the mystery of God by faith through the light of the Holy Spirit (Jn 14:26; 1 Cor 1:1116).

Christian Tradition. Clement of Alexandria stated that we may advance in our understanding of God, yet "knowing not what he is, but what he is not" (Strom.,5.73.5). Against the Eunomians, who held that the very nature of God could be known, Gregory of Nyssa wrote that our inability to give expression to the nature of God, "while it reflects upon the poverty of our own nature, affords an evidence of God's glory, teaching us as it does, in the words of the Apostle, that the only name naturally appropriate to God is to believe him to be 'above every name.' That he transcends every effort of thought, and is far beyond any circumscribing by a name, constitutes a proof to man of his ineffable majesty" (C. Eun. 2). Augustine echoes this (In Ev. Joh.,13.5; Serm. 117.5). Dionysius is the first to use the term "apophatic [negating] theology" as opposed to "cataphatic [affirming] theology" (Mystical Theology 3). All images and concepts of God are rejected and the soul enters into "the darkness with the Ineffable" (ibid. ). This is why Christian mystics, especially within the Orthodox tradition, often speak of entering into the darkness of God's ineffable light. Aquinas teaches that "we cannot know what God is, but rather what he is not" and therefore "we have no means for considering how God is, but rather how he is not" (Summa theologiae I.3. preface). Thus we predicate of God such attributes as being infinite (not finite), immutable (does not change), impassible (does not possess emotional changes of state). Nonetheless, Aquinas, somewhat in contrast to the Eastern tradition, allowed that, founded upon human experience, we can truly affirm, by way of analogy, positive perfections to God such as being omniscient, good, wise, and loving. However, since these attributes concur with God's simple essence as being itself (ipsum esse ) and so pure act (actus purus ), we do not comprehend what it means for God to possess all knowledge fully in act or to be possess perfect love fully in act. For Aquinas, even in heaven, when we see the very essence of God, we will not comprehend him (Summa theologiae I, 12, 7).

The ineffability of God pertains to man's inability to comprehend him not only by reason alone, but also by revelation. The more God reveals himself (and so the more we come to know him) the more ineffable he becomes (and so the less we actually comprehend him). For example, God has revealed himself to be a trinity of persons. We know that God is the mystery of the Trinity, but we cannot comprehend the mystery of the Trinity. As Aquinas intimated above, in the beatific vision we will see clearly the mystery of the Trinity in all its glory, but in that vision we will simultaneously become aware of the complete ineffability of that mystery. Lateran Council IV expressly stated that God is ineffable [H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum, ed. A. Schönmetzer (32d ed. Freiburg 1963) 800; cf. 3001].

Some contemporary theologians have argued on the basis of God's ineffability that all that is said of God is relative to our historical and cultural symbolic understanding and expression. Appealing to the notion of apophatic theology, they maintain that the Church's teachings concerning such doctrines as the Trinity or the Incarnation are not objectively true statements about what God has revealed but symbolic approximations, and so can be changed. Such an approach misconstrues apophatic theology and the nature of God's ineffability. It is one thing to say that God is ineffable and it is another thing to say that we do not know the manner in which he is ineffable. The doctrines of the faith, such as that God is a trinity of persons or that Jesus is the Son of God existing as man, define what the ineffable mysteries of God and his actions are and so protect them from fully rational comprehension.

See Also: god, intuition of; infinity of god.

Bibliography: t. aquinas, Summa theologiae, I, 1213. d. burrell, Knowing the Unknowable God (Notre Dame 1986). b. davies, The Thought of Thomas Aquinas (Oxford 1992). r. haight, Jesus Symbol of God (Maryknoll, N.Y. 1999). c. m. lacugna, God for Us (San Francisco 1992). a. louth, Denys the Areopagite (London 1989). e. l. mascall, Existence and Analogy (London 1966). john paul ii, Fides et ratio (1998). j. pieper, The Silence of St. Thomas (London 1957). Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works, trans. c. luibheid and p. rorem (New York 1987). d. turner, The Darkness of God: Negativity in Christian Mysticism (Cambridge 1995). t. j. van bavel, "God in between Affirmation and Negation according to Augustine," Collectanea Augustiniana, v. 2, eds. j. t. lienhard, e. c. muller, and r. j. teske (New York 1993) 7397.

[t. g. weinandy]