Sanders on Ineffability

John Sanders posts to Facebook:

To begin, let’s distinguish between two forms of ineffability: strong and modest. The strong version says we have no knowledge of what God is like. God is completely different or wholly other because God is totally outside the bounds creaturely existence. This was the common view in NeoPlatonism and became very influential the Christian tradition. On the desk in my office is a trophy base given to me by a student. The base reads: “Image of the Ineffable God.” On top of the base, where the trophy would be, is nothing. This image wonderfully captures the concept of strong ineffability. (see the photo of the plaque below)

Modest ineffability says that we can know something about God but we never understand God exhaustively since there is always more to know. To hijack a phrase from the apostle Paul, “We know in part” but we do know something. Those who affirm strong ineffability are motivated by a desire to safeguard the divine majesty and worry that modest ineffability undermines this by “bringing God down” to the level of creatures. However, it seems to me that a key part of the gospel is that God comes to us in the person of Jesus. To paraphrase Jesus, “the one who knows me knows what God is like” (Jn. 14:9) and the author of Hebrews says Jesus is “the exact imprint of God’s very being” (1:3). In other words, God comes to us on our level and meets us where we are at—within the boundaries of creaturely existence.

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