Over and over, the psalmist proclaims it: "God is great!" (Pss. 48:1; 86:10; 95:3; 145:3). What does this mean? Partly, it indicates God's immensity. We tend to think in spatial terms, of God being "big," and so do the Psalms occasionally, as in Psalm 103:11, "For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him." But something else is in view here. God is greater than we can grasp. There is more to God than we can ever know or even imagine. Think of the Incarnation, or the Trinity, or the cross of Christ and you will grasp a little of the "infinities and immensities" of the Christian faith. God is truly great!
Theology has expressed this notion by saying that God is incomprehensiblenot that God cannot be known at all, but that he cannot be known fully. "Finitum non capax infinitum," wrote Calvin: "The finite cannot grasp the infinite." Two opposing pictures help us grasp this idea: God dwells in "unapproachable light" (1 Tim. 6:16), and, "Clouds and thick darkness surround him" (Ps. 97:2). These are pictorial ways of saying that God cannot be measured.
Christianity is a revealed religion. What we know of God, we know by revelation. And we only know that which God has been pleased to reveal. Three things need to be borne in mind:
First, God is knowable. Every person knows God in a sense, even if he denies it! That is the position that Paul adopts in the first chapter of his letter to the Romans: "What may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them" (Rom. 1:19). As Calvin puts it, "His essence, indeed, is incomprehensible, utterly transcending all human thought; but on each of his works his glory is engraven in characters so bright, so distinct, and so illustrious, that none, however dull and illiterate, can plead ignorance as their excuse" (Institutes, 1.5.1).
This is so, partly, because God discloses himself in creation and providence, and, partly, because man is made in the image of God and still retains a semblance of that image even in his sinful, fallen condition. There is sufficient knowledge here, even in denial of it, that can condemn a man to hell!
Furthermore, in the gospel, that is, in the revelation of Jesus Christ in the Scriptures, there is knowledge that can redeem, knowledge that can restore to fellowship, knowledge that guarantees eternal communion with God. God is knowable!
Second, what we know, we truly know. This, too, is important. We may not know everything there is to know, but we do have real knowledge. What we know is not a pretense. God, said Calvin, has accommodated himself to us, speaking to us in "baby talk," in order that our finite capacities might grasp it. Childlike it may be, but it is nonetheless real and genuine for all that. In heaven, we will discover God to be greater than, but not different from, that which we now know.
Thus, God bends to our limited capacities and "prattles" (to use Calvin's word), telling us that he has hands (1 Sam. 5:11), feet (Nah. 1:3), eyes (Job 28:10), and ears (Neh. 1:6), and that he sits on a throne (1 Kings 22:19). But this is God speaking to us in a form we can understand. This is not the way that he is in himself. But this way of speaking does tell us something that transcends these anthropomorphic pictures: God is our Father and friend and rules all that is.
Third, we will never know God fully. This is not always sufficiently realized. When providence frowns and dark clouds gather, comfort is sometimes sought in the advice, "But we will understand in heaven." Two New Testament references are usually cited. The first is John 13:7, when, during the course of the foot-washing episode, Jesus says to the disciples, "You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand." It is doubtful if this refers to heaven; rather, it refers to what the disciples came to understand about his servant work after he had died on the cross.
The other passage is Paul's statement in 1 Corinthians 13:12, "Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known." Even if this does refer to an eschatological knowledge, rather than the knowledge gained by the completion of the canon of Scripture, Paul cannot possibly be understood to suggest that, in heaven, we shall know everything there is to know about God. Such a view would contradict other statements (e.g., 1 Tim. 6:16).
Even in heaven, our knowledge will be limited. It will be perfect, but it will not be comprehensive. Even there, we will need to bow before his inscrutable majesty, acknowledging the sovereignty of his ways and the perfection of his plans. But there, too, we will not see all there is to see.
There will be something, and Someone, to wonder at, to fall down before in doxology, for all eternity.
The author teaches at Reformed Theological Seminary and is the minister of teaching at First Presbyterian Church (PCA), both in Jackson, Miss. Reprinted from New Horizons, June 2002.