Inscrutability

One of the things that has struck me in preparing the house-group course on Revelation that I’ve been running is just how distant and indistinct the figure of God remains throughout this final book of the New Testament. That’s odd for a book intended to reveal God’s coming to dwell with men. His heavenly throne in ch4 (albeit the representation is itself apocalyptic and based on temple imagery) tells us a lot about the worshippers and what they say, but regarding God himself there are only metaphors. To my recollection, apart from 21.5-9, he does not himself speak, but is represented by voices from angels, the throne, the altar and so on throughout the book.

Worship-Before-the-Throne-of-God-Revelation-610x351Ch5 parallels ch4 in order to show Jesus, as the slain Lamb, to be the co-occupant of the heavenly throne. This is highly significant incarnational theology, but I noticed how it’s as if God actually fades from view in this chapter, only the Lamb being seen. I almost put “the Father” for “God” in the last sentence, but I think the division is actually subtly different in Revelation. It’s not that the divine Father, who is shown as inscrutable (in the theological sense that “no man has ever seen him”), is being distinguished from the divine Son, but that the Godhead, which we might perhaps see as “proto-trinitarian”, is being distinguished from the Incarnate Son in Christ. In other words, we should think of Jesus as Logos being included in the vision of God of chapter 4, and becoming visible as the Son of Man (aka the Lion of Judah and the Slain Lamb) in ch5. Likewise in the rest of the book.

That raises in my mind what Jesus really meant when he said, “No-one comes to the Father but by me.” To say it is only possible to know God through Jesus is pretty basic Christian doctrine, but what does it imply? Modern univocal positions, such as Open Theism, would conclude that what we see in Jesus’s words and actions shows us what we would also see in God the Father if he were visible. But I don’t want to start there. Instead let’s begin with a Jewish viewpoint. A piece by the late philosopher Theodore Plantinga says:

When Christians study Jewish thought, they may be struck by a paradox, namely, that what is said about (God’s) law is very detailed and specific, whereas what is said about God is maddeningly vague.

He describes how to the Jewish mindset (to generalise) genuine relationship with a fundamentally unknowable God begins with obedience to a thoroughly knowable torah. He goes on to show how the Jewish philosopher Maimonides, who greatly influenced Aquinas and later Christian as well as Jewish thought, bases his teaching about divine inscrutibility not only on reason, but on the Bible. Plantinga cites the passage where God reveals himself to Moses at the burning bush, and then writes:

Here God seems to have two names or designations. One is historical: he is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who were historical figures. He is then a God who has entered history at certain points. The other is exceedingly abstract: he calls himself “I AM.”

The latter designation has given rise to interesting philosophical speculation, which I will not explore here. My point is rather that this passage is part of the basis for the line of thought we find in Maimonides, especially, to the effect that virtually nothing can be said about God. Even his name is problematic. In some Jewish religious communities the name of God must be avoided; curious circumlocutions and substitutes are used instead.

In this we see where one ends up taking the biblical witness seriously without considering Jesus. To it we could add the way in which the Hebrew Bible shows angels speaking on behalf of God, the difficulty it describes in understanding many of his decisions, the empty holy of holies in the Temple, and the direct statements about his hiddenness and the unsearchable wisdom of his ways. Plantinga goes on:

Part of the Maimonides tradition on this set of issues is what we call negative theology (“theologia negativa”). According to this approach to “God-talk,” any quality we attribute to God is inadequate and does him an injustice because it gets its meaning from our experience of things here on earth.

Those who know something of Aquinas (even from the limited account of pieces on The Hump that have drawn on him) will recognise how this leads to the idea that whatever we say of God must be said analogically, lest we limit God to our human constraints. This is a fundamental of what is called “classical theism”. As Plantinga quotes from a book on Maimonides:

It is not that God is more intelligent than we are, but that His intelligence bears no resemblance to ours. So the difference between God’s intelligence and ours is not one of degree but of kind. God’s intelligence is so unlike ours that it cannot be measured according to the same criteria. Similarly, God is not on the same scale as we are with respect to power, goodness, unity, or existence. In every case, Maimonides argues that God is radically unlike us, which is the crux of what is termed negative theology.

To many of us there’s an element of the self-evident in that: we know by induction or deduction from a limited dataset. God knows by the direct intuition of himself, in whom all possible knowledge arises. Thus he is wisdom and knowledge, not just wise and knowledgeable, in the same way that he is “love”, rather than just “a supremely loving being”. Hence the doctrine of divine simplicity.

Now, I read Revelation to be saying that it’s not that Christ shows (somehow) that the God we thought inscrutible is, in fact, perfectly comprehensible through him. To know God in Christ is something more subtle than that, though more glorious than the Orthodox Jewish idea of entering into relationship with God by the Law (which Paul said was a paedagogue intended to bring us to Christ, in whom is true knowledge of God).

Talking analogies, here’s one. I dare say the Carlsberg Corporation has the same advertising strategy everywhere else as in the UK. Here’s a British example in the series “If Carlsberg did…”

The idea is that the wondrous efficiency seen in the soccer kickabout, or in the other themes featured in these ads, is an indicator of the care and expertise to be experienced if you buy the lager, which is why it is the best in the world. Within the hyperbolic genre of TV ads, that is. Now Carlsberg, of course, doesn’t brew kickabouts, and no single thing shown on the ad tells you directly about the beer itself.

A sponge soaked in it will not cure torn muscles. Immersing your arms it in will not give you David Beckham tattoos. Even the direct representation that glasses of the stuff fill themselves up is demonstrably untrue. All these things, though (if we analyse them in a po-faced way that ignores humour, etc) are intended to be understood analogically of the reality, which is a can of beer. There is at least a sporting chance that when you get to drink one after a few days in a truck in the African desert you’ll say, “It’s every bit as good as they claim” – but only because you recognised clearly the boundaries of analogy.

2101-2Strictly speaking, then, it’s impossible to know beer from a football game – and yet the ad is not misleading in principle, leaving aside that you might prefer Stella Artois or (if you’ve any taste) English real ale. The issue in spiritual matters is even more acute – it’s impossible for us humans to know God at all directly as he is, and all we can say about him is by analogy from our human condition. It’s as if we were created to play football, but without any organs for beer-drinking, in which case the Carlsberg ad might be our only way of knowing the virtues of lager.

That last analogy is imperfect, of course. For Scripture tells us that we are created “after God’s image”, and as I have explored before that makes for a strong correspondence between humanity and the Eternal Son, the second Person of the Trinity who is God’s True Image, by and through whom we were made. But it is a correspondence only of analogy – we are still on earth, and God is still in heaven, and his ways are still, as we are told in Scripture, as much above ours as the heavens are above the earth.

What it means for the Son to become man, then, is comparable in concept to what it would mean for Carlsberg lager to become a football game: “If God were a man, this is what he’d be like.” Now this idea assumes something else found in Aquinas and others before and after him, which is that each part of God’s Creation teaches us a tiny facet of the truth about him. Nothing in Creation demonstrates more of God than the being made after his own image and likeness – mankind. But equally truly, because of sin nothing in all Creation impedes and corrupts the knowledge of God more than does mankind:

The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it? (Jer 17.9)

The Incarnation of Christ, then, at least in part reveals God by restoring, and revealing, the perfect humanity God created originally. It is possible to know the perfect Christ as a man, and so to see God reflected in his human character. But as Jesus is also God’s eternal and divine Son and knows and mirrors the Father perfectly, we can know the Father through seeing the Son’s relationship with him, until the time when we shall “know as we are known”. Jesus truly is the Mediator between man and God. (Note that does not preclude in any way specifically divine acts on Christ’s part, demonstrating to us that he is more than man – the Transfiguration would be a prime example of that.)

If God were incarnated in a lion, or a lamb, what we would see would differ little from the general run of those creatures, for assuming (as I do on scriptural grounds) that our fall did not corrupt them, they already reflect as much of God as their limited natures are capable of doing. The possibilities of human nature are so much richer because of the image of God in it, and so Jesus, showing our created nature perfectly, shows us what it truly means to be human in relation to God and to each other.

And so in his teaching – and perhaps particularly in his teaching about self-givong servanthood as a model of kingship – Jesus models what the race of Adam, and human kingship, should be about, and not directly how God does his work as Lord of all. That Jesus, though our King, “became nothing” in taking the form of a servant even to the point of dying for us, tells us how God intended us to act towards each other when he created us, and that attitude will prevail when, as Revelation teaches, God’s saints will rule on the earth. But that does not give any warrant for saying that God’s Kingship of the universe should likewise involve self-emptying, still less that creation must be an act that diminishes God’s glory or compromises his supremacy. Even uncorrupted human nature is not the divine essence.

Likewise, we can agree with the Jews about the moral teaching of the Bible, be that Christ’s instruction or the Decalogue. To understand them gives insight into God, but does not teach us that God would never take way life, nor our possessions, any more than that he has a father and mother to honour, or that he does no work on the sabbath. What we learn by knowing Jesus aright is that God must be truthful about his goodness, despite “a frowning providence”, simply because the Son knows God and attests to his character. We know him as our Father because we know Jesus as his Son and our brother. But Jesus knows the Father as God – he doesn’t make the human error of reducing God to a scaled-up human being.

A further aspect of this is that, as a matter of logic, unless and until we partake of the divine nature (2 Pet 1.4), we can understand nothing of God that is beyond the human. We know Jesus only because his humanity opens him to our human understanding. We do not even understand the world, with its lions and lambs, except anthropomorphically – shades here of Thomas Nagel and his bats – so how could we possibly claim to understand God without first partaking of his nature? Somehow that is promised to us in Christ by our spiritual union to him, but we already partake in his human nature, which is the first step, and perhaps all we can attain to in the flesh.

And so even to the writer of the final book of the New Testament, God still appears dazzlingly and impossibly as a rainbow like an emerald, as “someone” with the “appearance” of jasper and carnelian. The scroll of history he has written is not only inscrutable because sealed, until unsealed by the man Christ Jesus, but its contents remain to all readers of the book troubling and beyond comprehension. That is intentional, for God’s ways are not our ways, and we cannot presume to know them. But we can know Christ, and know that those mysterious ways are his ways. That ought to be sufficient for us.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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