God is known and unknown: Thoughts from St John Chrysostom

I have been reading through St. John Chrysostom’s homilies on the mystery of God and have truly found this work to be a treasure. It is my firm belief that all Christians should read this at some point in their lives because it is both deeply theological and deeply devotional.

One point that Chrysostom brings up is that God is not merely incomprehensible, but that God is also unapproachable. He is pulling this distinction from 1 Timothy 6:15-16, which reads:

“…he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords,  who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.”

The commentary that Chrysostom provides on this passage states that, “…Paul did not say, ‘Who is an unapproachable light,’ but, ‘Who dwells in unapproachable light.’ But if the dwelling is unapproachable, much more so is the God who dwells in it. Paul did not say this to limit God to a place, but to prove all the more cogently that God can neither be comprehended nor approached.”

This is sometimes difficult for Christians to grasp. All are guilty of creating an idol of the mind when it comes to God. Often times Christians desire to have a comprehensible God. This is why conservatives act as though they can speak for God on all matters – after all, God is against gays, against abortion, again Democrats, pro-Republican, and watches Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity. But the liberals aren’t any better. To them God is all loving, welcomes all religions, hates CEO’s and Republicans, and wears designer jeans. What happens for both sides is they begin to create a God that looks more like them. They conform God to themselves rather than conform themselves to God.

Look to the pagan gods of Greece. Each one reflected some part of human nature. In fact, these gods acted just like humans and though they weren’t comprehensible, they could be predicted and understood to a certain degree by their nature. God, on the other hand, cannot be known unless He chooses to be known. Even when we point to natural theology – the idea that we can deduce the existence of God via creation – we do so with the implied meaning that even natural theology exists only because God chose to reveal Himself in creation. If He so desired, He could have remained hidden from us.

How often are we guilty of neglecting the mystery of God in order to feel as though we can spiritually one-up people? I can think of a recent discussion where someone said, “Well your God might throw me into Hell since I believe in pluralism, but the God I worship would simply smile at you and love you no matter what.” But such a god is comprehensible and approachable because such a god comes from the human mind. There are few people in this world who savor the idea of Hell; that someone who is kind and sincere in their faith could face eternal torment simply because they were sincere in the wrong faith is not a comfortable thought for any sane person. The Bible, however, is very clear that Christ is the only way to a relationship with the Father and the alternative is torment. Rather than accept this and embrace what God says as being beyond our capacity to reason, we instead reject the reasoning of God and supplant Him with our own god. Our god then becomes kinder and more loving, at least by our standards. But such standards fall short of true kindness and true love, which are only found in God.

We often forget that God is simply unknown. He is incomprehensible, but He is more than incomprehensible. The universe is incomprehensible to us currently. But we can approach it, we can study it, we can know it’s there and learn more and more each day. Conceivably, given enough time, we could comprehend the universe or at least find predictable patterns. But God is unapproachable; if He dwells in an unapproachable light, then how much more unapproachable is He than the light? We can’t even come into His presence, much less know Him. This means that while God is incomprehensible, He is more; we cannot study Him, we cannot dissect Him, we cannot break Him into parts to discover how He operates. Rather, anything and everything we know about God is only because He reveals it.

But how does He reveal Himself? In John 6:46 Jesus says that no one has seen God, no one has approached Him. But just a few chapters later, in John 14:9 we read, “Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?” Jesus, the Word, is how we see the Father and how we are able to approach God.

To say that God is unapproachable means that we cannot search Him out or study Him to know what He is like. Rather, anything and everything we know about God has to come from Him and what He has chosen to reveal. Think about these implications – all that we know of God, as difficult as it is, was revealed to us by Him. This means that to study God is to love God, because what was revealed by God was only done so out of love. The revelation of God is a gift, so to ignore God’s revelation is to ignore God’s gift.

This is why Scripture is so precious and why we should read it. We often take it for granted, but we forget that such revelation points us to what God wants us to know about Himself. More importantly, the Word (Christ) is the absolute revelation of the Father. We can know God by knowing His Son, Christ, who is God. But never let us think this means we can comprehend God, rather we can know about God without comprehending Him. This means we must put away speculative theologies that attempt to limit God or do away with the difficult ideas of God. Just because a doctrine is difficult doesn’t mean we should eradicate it for something simpler; if the doctrine is how God reveals Himself then we should trust Him on His revelation.

We should explore the mystery of God, but always keep in mind that we will never comprehend Him and all knowledge about Him comes from Him. We have learned nothing about Him on our own, but rather from His Spirit guiding us and working within us. That is what it means to embrace the mystery of God, to have a God that makes us uncomfortable and challenges us to conform to Him. If we ever find ourselves saying, “I can’t believe that about God,” even though it has always been believed about God by orthodox Christians, then we must beware the false idol of God we are creating in our minds. The real God is mysterious, but revealed in Christ. A fake god is one that we can predict, study, and reminds us a lot of us.


2 thoughts on “God is known and unknown: Thoughts from St John Chrysostom

    1. It’s a good post and reminds me a lot of Chesterton’s “Orthodoxy.” While I don’t think our imagination should shape how we view God (I think God should shape how we view Him), I do think having faith means we will have an imagination. I think of Chesterton’s quote in Orthodoxy where he says (paraphrase), “A seven-year-old is amazed when you read a story to her and the door opens and a dragon is behind it; the three-year-old is amazed that the door opens.” Having an imagination means that when God performs something, we don’t lose that child-like wonder. That is what it means to live in the mystery of God, to trust Him so much that we are constantly amazed by Him because He simply isn’t predictable.

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