Theology Lessons from Brandi Huerta
Imagine if an exceptionally bright three-year-old asked a neuroscientist to explain to him what a brain was and what it did. How would he answer? If he were a good teacher, he would find a way to convey some level of genuine truth in a way the child could understand, right? Think for a moment about how you would go about such a task. How comprehensive could your answer be, considering the child’s level of cognitive development?
Similarly, John Calvin compared God’s communication with us, His creatures, to a nursemaid stooping down and lisping to a small child in her care. Calvin said that the information God has given to us about Himself is accommodated to our finite, creaturely understanding. What He tells us about Himself in His Word and the creation is true, but it doesn’t begin to touch the level of knowledge God has about Himself. That would be impossible.
Have you not known? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable (Isaiah 40:28).
The analogy (hold on to that word) of the child and the neuroscientist breaks down when you think about it: you could actually show a child a brain to teach him what a brain is like. He can have direct or immediate knowledge of the brain, even as his understanding will be limited. All of our knowledge of God, on the other hand, is indirect: it is mediated by the Word and by creation.
We learn about the infinite God, not by observing Him in His essence, but only through what He has made. So, the child’s knowledge of the brain can, to some extent, be direct without being mediated (which is what immediate means in this case), but this is how our knowledge of God functions.
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. The infinite cannot be contained in the finite. God exists infinitely and nothing finite can grasp him infinitely. –Augustine
Nevertheless, my analogy and John Calvin’s nursemaid analogy do communicate to you something true about what we wanted to express. Similarly, all of the Bible’s language about God is analogical: it communicates, albeit in a limited way, the truth about God. Consider when God says in Psalm 50 that if He were hungry, He would not tell us.
Does He mean to tell us that He gets hungry? Absolutely not—He has no needs whatsoever, which is precisely what He is communicating. We can’t add anything at all to God by serving Him. He lacks nothing, and He is using a common human experience we can relate to in order to tell us exactly that.
We humans can have the audacity to think that our service to God puts Him in our debt somehow, and the Lord is saying that we have nothing He needs. A biblically literate Christian is aware that God is spirit; He is immaterial. Hence, when the Word says that God has an arm or a hand or an eye, it’s conveying something of what God is like; it doesn’t intend to communicate that He literally has body parts.
God is simple, or without parts, so we understand the language these passages use to be anthropomorphic: they describe God as though He had human form or attributes to communicate something about Him in a way that we can grasp. Similarly, the Bible’s depiction of God as having “emotions” is anthropopathic, meaning that God doesn’t really have emotions as we do, but that type of speech communicates something true about God nonetheless.
They communicate truth, even though they’re not, properly speaking, true. Speaking of God’s hunger, as Psalm 50 does, is an anthropopathism: it attributes a human emotion or experience to God as a teaching tool. Another example of anthropopathic language is when 1 Samuel 15:29 says that the Lord does not repent, and yet in verse 11 of that same chapter, it says that God repented of or regretted making Saul king.
Have you ever been confused about how to think about paradoxes like these? When the Bible says God does not repent, it is speaking properly of Him—He absolutely does not change in any way. When it says He does repent, it is speaking figuratively, improperly, anthropopathically of Him. The phrase tells us something about God without being, strictly speaking, true.
It conveys that Saul moved himself out from the enviable position of divine favor he previously occupied. Saul’s sin moved him with respect to the immoveable God, and yet, from a human standpoint, it appeared that God changed His mind about Saul, even though we know from other places in Scripture that God wills whatsoever comes to pass, including Saul’s downfall so that David could be king.
In Romans 9-11, Paul faced a similar paradox when he considered the faithfulness of God with regard to Israel’s rejection of Himself. How can we, the church, believe all the promises in Romans 8 when some may be tempted to question God’s ability to keep His own people? Do we have a God who repents or changes His mind? That would be a terrifying thought! Absolutely not, says Paul.
Even when the Bible talks about God’s communicable attributes, which are those true and proper things about His nature that He communicates or shares with His creatures, those things are not true of us in the same way they are true of Him. What goodness you have is not part of your essential nature, and it’s limited. In God, goodness is identical with Himself and is boundless: infinite. Your goodness reflects God in some way, but it is actually more unlike Him than it is like Him.
So going back to our analogy word, we say that our goodness is analogical to God’s; we don’t speak of goodness univocally—meaning in the exact same way—with respect to God and creatures. Like I talked about in lecture one, we always must remember the creator/creature distinction.
If you met some people who lived in a cave and had only ever seen candlelight and you wanted to describe the sun to them, you could tell them something about the sun’s characteristics by comparing it to the candle. Your description would fall short, but still, the sun is not entirely unlike the candle. In fact, the candle is much more like the sun than we are like God. This understanding is key to the study of the doctrine of God.
The balance we want to maintain in speaking about God is stated well by Puritan Stephen Charnock. He said that though we cannot comprehend Him as He is, we must be careful not to fancy Him to be what He is not. We acknowledge the impossibility of describing God as He is, and yet we want Him to get the praise He deserves, so we will endeavor to speak clearly and accurately about Him. Our language generally is most suited to describe finite, changing things because everything in our experience—other than God—is finite, imperfect, and changes.
So at times, we use apophatic language, which is negative language that focuses on what God is not like. Everything in creation is finite, but we refer to God as infinite, simply meaning not finite. Everything in the created order changes, or is mutable, so we say that God is immutable or unchanging. In many cases, our language cannot say what He is, so we emphasize that He is not like us.
We do have some words that positively describe what God is like. He is good, eternal, and simple, for example. Again, apophatic words emphasize what God is not like, and these words emphasize what He is like: we call them cataphatic descriptors. All of the vocabulary words in this article will serve you well as part of your theological toolbox.
Even though this lesson has been about God’s incomprehensibility, already your understanding of Him should be growing through your grasp of the different ways Scripture speaks of Him. God seeks those who will worship Him in spirit and truth, and I hope that through this series, you will continually grow in doing just that. At the end of Romans 9-11, that I mentioned earlier, as Paul was seeking to help us understand God and His perfect will, he broke out into spontaneous doxology, or praise, for the incomprehensibility of God:
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways. “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen (Romans 11:33-36).
Like I said in lesson one, knowing God and worshipping Him rightly is the summum bonum: the greatest possible good. You will be transformed into His image as you do this, make no mistake, but even that is for Him, for His glory.
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