Posted by: davidlarkin | January 25, 2018

The Ineffable God

“As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

Isaiah 55:9 (NIV)

How Can We Talk to God, if He is?

There has been theological controversy forever whether we can know God, who, if he exists, must be beyond our ken, and therefore, how can we find his language to speak to him.

“O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!”

Paul, Romans 11:33 (ESV)

“Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised; his greatness is unsearchable.”

Psalm 145:3 (ESV)

“Because God is infinite and we are finite or limited, we can never fully understand God. In this sense God is said to be incomprehensible where the term incomprehensible is used with an older and less common sense, “unable to be fully understood.” This sense must be clearly distinguished from the more common meaning, “unable to be understood.” It is not true to say that God is unable to be understood, but it is true to say that he cannot be understood fully or exhaustively.”

Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (1994), Ch. 10. The Knowability of God
Religious language has been a philosophical problem arising from the difficulty of accurately describing God. Because God is generally conceived as incorporeal, infinite, and timeless, ordinary language cannot always apply to that entity.  As Jesus said:

God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.

John 4:24 (ESV)

This makes speaking about or attributing properties to God difficult: a religious believer might simultaneously wish to describe God as good, yet also hold that God’s goodness is unique and cannot be articulated by human language of goodness. Arguably so, and if we cannot use language to describe God, and his attributes, how then can we use human language to communicate with such a God?

Christians believe that the language we have is God given, so of course, we can speak to God, who in effect, lowers himself to our level for communication. Nevertheless, it is conceptually difficult to understand how we could speak God’s language.  God is an ineffable God.

This poetic prayer by C.S. Lewis looks at our prayers as metaphor, and is quite good regardless of spiritual beliefs. In this prayer/poem, “Pheidian” refers to the Greek sculptor Pheidias who was famous for his sculpture of the Greek god Zeus, who he sculpted as he imagined him, though we know of the sculpture only through historical ancient Greek writings because the statue did not survive to modernity:

Prayer to the Ineffable God

He whom I bow to only knows to whom I bow
When I attempt the ineffable Name, murmuring Thou,
And dream of Pheidian fancies and embrace in heart
Symbols (I know) which cannot be the thing thou art.
Thus always, taken at their word, all prayers blaspheme
Worshipping with frail images a folk-lore dream,
And all men in their praying, self-deceived, address
The coinage of their own unquiet thoughts, unless
Thou in magnetic mercy to Thyself divert
Our arrows, aim unskillfully, beyond desert;
And all men are idolaters, crying unheard
To a deaf idol, if thou take them at their word.

Take not, oh Lord, our literal sense. Lord, in thy great,
Unbroken speech our limping metaphor translate.

C. S. Lewis, 1898-1963 from The Oxford Book of Prayer, Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford (1985).


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