"The Christian Church confesses on the one hand that God is the Incomprehensible One, but also on the other hand, that He can be known and that knowledge of Him is an absolute requisite unto salvation" (L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 2A, p.29).
Initial Considerations on "Knowing" God
Knowing something normally requires only the appropriate mental capacities and right study. These two prerequisites fulfilled, knowledge can be complete. For example, it is known that the world is round. Yet, this has little impact on how one thinks or lives his life. Knowing somebody, however, requires more than just head "smarts." In the case of the President of the United States, you may be able to claim that you know who he is. But, you probably do not know him in a personal way. Knowing somebody, then, requires more than knowledge of facts.
Pursuit of the knowledge of God should be aimed toward such an end: seeking to know the Almighty Creator God in a personal way. While that understanding and learning may start with the "facts," it should be overridden in the Christian's life by a relationship. The theologian Millard Erickson states it well: "The knowledge about was for the purpose of knowledge of" (Christian Theology, Ch. 8, p. 176). John Calvin also emphasized the soundness and fruitfulness such a relationship should produce: "...we are called to a knowledge of God: not to do that which, content with empty speculation, merely flits the brain, but that which will be sound and fruitful if we duly perceive it, and if it takes root in the heart" (Institutes, 1:5:9, Battles translation; cf. Beveridge translation).
Why Know God?
A first reason for knowing God is that man might know himself. For without looking at who God is, man cannot convince himself who he is himself. The scriptures are full of instances where man is convicted of his own misery before God's face (Judges 13:22; Isa. 6:5; Ez. 1:28; Gen 18:27). God is the ultimate standard by which all things can be measured in goodness, holiness, and beauty.
Secondly, man is called unto worship of God. And, worship of God must guard against crossing that fine line that leads unto idolatry - worship of a false God. This is why all religions are not the same. The pantheist (who believes that God is creation) does not worship the One True God of all, who created all things, whose glory is expressed in all things, but is not all things. The Deist (who believes that God is not intimately involved with his creation) does not worship the One True God of all, who lovingly intercedes for us day-to-day, hour-to-hour, minute-to-minute. He, who rejects Jesus Christ as the Son of God slain for the sins of the world, does not worship the One True God of all and is left in his sinful nakedness before a Holy Lord God. True worship of God requires relationship, which requires knowledge of God himself. "But let him who glories glory in this, that he understands and knows Me" (Jer. 9:24).
Thirdly, man's peace and eternal security require knowledge of God. In the words of the Apostle John, "...this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent" (John 17:3, emphasis added). In fact, the scriptures elsewhere teach that there is no salvation in any other name besides that of Jesus Christ (Acts 4:12). Man is condemned to hell outside of faith in the Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ John 3:18). This scriptural truth and great hope of life in Christ is reflected by John Calvin: "The final goal of the blessed life, moreover, rests in the knowledge of God" (Institutes, 1:5:1, Battles translation; cf. Beveridge translation). It is echoed by God's saints throughout the history of the church: "When I seek thee, My God, I seek a happy life" (Augustine, Confessions, 10:20); "Therefore man's final glory or happiness consists only in the knowledge of God" (Aquinas, Summa Theologica, 2:Q3:A7). Salvation in Christ is the most personally beneficial reason for knowing God.
Limitations to Our Knowledge of God
Certainly, the study of the infinite (God) by the finite (man), brings with it natural limitations. The scriptures affirm our inability to learn infinitely about God: "Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out!" (Rom. 11:33; cf. also Job 11:7-9; Is. 40:18; Ps. 147:5; 139:6; 145:3). However, the position that man cannot know anything that is supernatural or which he does not know in its entirety is based on a false premise that partial knowledge is the same as no knowledge. This position is unrealistic and would invalidate all knowledge man claims to have regarding any study of science, as man knows not even the finite infinitely. Partial knowledge is real knowledge, albeit incomplete knowledge.
A further hurdle in learning about God is language. Most people have struggled at one point or another to find the right words to explain a great or surreal experience. The events of September 11 left many speechless, as words could not even describe the horror. Words appropriate to describe simple smells or tastes often fail in that regard. So, how can one expect to understand God from what has been revealed in his Holy Word, the Bible? The answer to that question first requires a basic understanding of language itself.
Three types of language should be considered at this point: 1) univocal; 2) equivocal; and, 3) analogical. Univocal language involves words used in only one sense, such as big, short, or tall. Stating that "the tree is tall" or that "Wilt Chamberlain is tall" offers little room for confusion over the meaning of "tall," as the word carries with it the same meaning in both statements. Equivocal language, on the other hand, involves words that have completely different meanings within their contexts. Referring to a "toybox full of blocks" involves an entirely different meaning of the word "block" than "to block ball." If either of these forms of language (univocal or equivocal) were assumed as the sole form of scripture, theological problems would result. For example, assuming univocal language can result in seeing God as only quantitatively different instead of qualitatively different than man; and, assuming equivocal language would result in total confusion over the meaning of revelation, even to the complete disregard of the scriptures themselves.
Analogical language on the other hand presumes similar but not identical meaning of words. An example might be "the railroad stretches from Philadelphia to Los Angeles," compared to "the boy stretches the rubber band." While in both sentences, the meanings of the word "stretches" are different, they are similar. Analogical language is used in the scriptures to describe what God is like, that man might learn of him. It is important to realize that scriptural revelation uses analogy to clarify analogy so that wrong conclusions about God might be avoided. Furthermore, the scriptures include negative, as well as positive statements about God to prevent wrong conclusions. For example, starting from the following truths of scripture:
Clearly, man is called to a truthful knowledge of God, that he might deeply know and relate with Him. Man benefits from this knowledge by learning more of himself, more purely worshipping his Creator, and securing eternal peace and joy for himself. This knowledge of God is gained through God's Word and will remain partial and incomplete, due to our finite condition as mortals. In fact, this is why it is more right to refer to our understanding of God as "apprehension" rather than "comprehension," as the latter implies (nearly) complete understanding. However, the incomplete understanding man has of God is still able to be true and right. It is real knowledge that grows and urges the further seeking of the very Face of God. In the words of the Apostle Paul: "For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known" (1 Cor 13:12). That is the hope of the Christian - that one day he will have a complete AND truthful understanding of God after being glorified in Christ.
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