Augustine on how to know when you are thinking and speaking rightly of God

 What then, brethren, shall we say of God? For if you have been able to comprehend what you wanted to say, it is not God; if you have been able to comprehend it, you have comprehended something else instead of God. If you have been able to comprehend Him as you think, by so thinking you have deceived yourself. This then is not God, if you have comprehended it; but if it is God, you have not comprehended it. How therefore would you speak of that which you cannot comprehend?

How do you know if you are thinking and speaking rightly of God? In short, when you know that you do not know what you are thinking and talking about. Is knowing God possible? Yes, but only in the sense that He may be apprehended, but never comprehended.

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8 thoughts on “Augustine on how to know when you are thinking and speaking rightly of God

  1. Hello,

    Could you please provide the reference to the Augustine quote? Thanks. I’d like to read it in context.

    I don’t think Augustine was suggesting that it’s impossible to know God, because that would contradict the scripture.

    “For what man knows the things of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so no one knows the things of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things that have been freely given to us by God.” (1 Corinthians 2:11-12)

    “And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” (John 17:3)

    • And you are right. He was certainly not saying it was impossible to know God. As I said in the post, it is possible to apprehend God, but not to comprehend Him. comprehension implies mastery of the subject or field of knowledge. God is known by all to whom He reveals Himself, but is only comprehended by Himself (Matt. 11:27; 1 Cor. 2:11).
      Thanks for the questions!

  2. Thanks for the reference. There’s so much to learn from St. Augustine.

    I tend to think that if God can only be comprehended by Himself, Apostle Paul would not have exhorted the Ephesians “to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height— to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge; that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. ” (Ephesians 3:18-19)

  3. Amen. Isn’t that an awesome passage? For many days we could sit and feast at the table that Paul spreads before us. But even Paul seems to realize the nature of his request with the statement, “and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge.” How can you know something that surpasses knowledge? If it surpasses knowledge you cannot know it. If you can know it, it does not surpass knowledge. That is what we are up against as we discuss knowing God.

    I certainly do not want to get into quarreling about words (2 Tim. 2:14), but I think we are both after the same thing.

    Again, in your defense, I would say that I am using “comprehend” in a very literalistic sense. To comprehend something is to have complete knowledge of it. Obviously we cannot comprehend God in that sense. We cannot know everything there is to know about God. To know everything about God we would have to know everything God knows. We would have to know and understand all His perfections. We would have to know and understand the mystery of the Trinity. We would have to know his essential nature. This is beyond our capabilities (Job 9:10-12; 11:7-9; 26:14; Psalm 145:3; Rom. 11:33-36).

    Even in Ephesians 3, Paul does not pray that we would know God, but know His love. And as I mentioned above, even at the thought of knowing “only” the love of God is something that is presented as something that “surpasses knowledge.” If only one of His perfections surpasses knowledge, surely God in Himself is incomprehensible.

    God is known to the extent that He reveals Himself. As we think and talk about God, I agree with Karl Barth, “We are unprofitable servants, we have only thought and said in figures what we were under obligation to do, but we cannot claim that what we have thought and said is correct. Correctness belongs exclusively to that about which we have thought and spoken, not to what we have thought and spoken.” (Church Dogmatics, I/1, 432)

    The truth is in God, and in God alone: not in our thoughts or statements about Him.

    Here are some other statements that I have collected over the past that relate to this issue:

    But to the Father of all, who is unbegotten there is no name given. For by whatever name He be called, He has as His elder the person who gives Him the name. But these words Father, and God, and Creator, and Lord, and Master, are not names, but appellations derived from His good deeds and functions. (Justin Martyr, The Second Apology ch. 6)

    He orders everything, whatever it is, by a word; arranges it by His wisdom; perfects it by His power. He can neither be seen—He is brighter than light; nor can be grasped—He is purer than touch; nor estimated; He is greater than all perceptions; infinite, immense, and how great is known to Himself alone. But our heart is too limited to understand Him, and therefore we are then worthily estimating Him when we say that He is beyond estimation. (Minucius Felix, Octavius, ch. 18.)
    Thus our confession of God fails through the defects of language; the best combination of words we can devise cannot indicate the reality and the greatness of God. The perfect knowledge of God is so to know Him that we are sure we must not be ignorant of Him, yet cannot describe Him. We must believe, must apprehend, must worship; and such acts of devotion must stand in lieu of definition. (Hilary, On the Trinity, II.7)

    We are speaking of God; what marvel, if you do not comprehend? For if you comprehend, He is not God. Be there a pious confession of ignorance, rather than a rash profession of knowledge. To reach to God in any measure by the mind, is a great blessedness; but to comprehend Him, is altogether impossible. (Augustine, Sermon 67 (on John 1:1).

    Have I spoken of God, or uttered His praise, in any worthy way? Nay, I feel that I have done nothing more than desire to speak; and if I have said anything, it is not what I desired to say. How do I know this, except from the fact that God is unspeakable? But what I have said, if it had been unspeakable, could not have been spoken. And so God is not even to be called “unspeakable,” because to say even this is to speak of Him. Thus there arises a curious contradiction of words, because if the unspeakable is what cannot be spoken of, it is not unspeakable if it can be called unspeakable. And this opposition of words is rather to be avoided by silence than to be explained away by speech. And yet God, although nothing worthy of His greatness can be said of Him, has condescended to accept the worship of men’s mouths, and has desired us through the medium of our own words to rejoice in His praise. For on this principle it is that He is called Deus (God). For the sound of those two syllables in itself conveys no true knowledge of His nature; but yet all who know the Latin tongue are led, when that sound reaches their ears, to think of a nature supreme in excellence and eternal in existence. (Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, Bk. 1 Ch. 6)

    There is no knowledge of God as He is in himself. We are men. He is the Lord, our God. No name fully expresses his being; no definition describes him. He is exalted infinitely high above our conception, thought, and language. He cannot be compared to any creature. All the nations are accounted by him as less than nothing and vanity. ‘God has no name. He cannot be defined.’ He can be apprehended; he cannot be comprehended. There is a ‘knowledge’; there is no ‘comprehension’ of God. (Herman Bavinck, The Doctrine of God, 32-33)

    It is completely incomprehensible to us how God can reveal himself and to some extent make himself known in created beings: eternity in time, immensity in space, infinity in finite, immutability in change, being in becoming, the all, as it were, in that which is nothing. This mystery cannot be comprehended; it can only be gratefully acknowledged. (Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, II, 49)

    God is known only by God. We do not know Him, then, in virtue of the views and concepts with which in faith we attempt to respond to His revelation. But we also do not know Him without making use of His permission and obeying His command to undertake this attempt. The success of this undertaking and therefore the veracity of our human knowledge of God, consists in the fact that our viewing and conceiving is adopted and determined to participation in the truth of God by God Himself in grace. (Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, II/1, 179)

    “What is God like?” If by that question we mean “What is God like in Himself?” there is no answer. If we mean “What has God disclosed about Himself that the reverent reason can comprehend?” there is, I believe, an answer both full and satisfying. For while the name of God is secret and His eternal nature incomprehensible, He in condescending love declared certain things to be true of Himself. These we call His attributes. (A.W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy)

  4. Thanks for taking the time to write the detailed response and the quotes. I admire your erudition, though I disagree with you in interpretation. Before I proceed, I’d ask you to keep in mind that my comments are directed at the opinions expressed, not you or the authors you quoted. It’s also likely that those quotes are taken out of context and I’m arguing against a strawman. I also pray that this discussion may edify not ruin the hearers.

    I’ll response to a couple of quotes before addressing the main point.

    1. Karl Barth
    I haven’t read Karl Barth, but the passage you quoted made me wonder whether his works are worth reading at all.

    You quoted, “Correctness belongs exclusively to that about which we have thought and spoken, not to what we have thought and spoken.” (Church Dogmatics, I/1, 432)

    If that’s true, then there is nothing “correct” or “true” in what Barth himself thinks, says or writes, what then is the point of him writing and others reading his books?

    2. A.W.Tozer
    You quoted, “For while the name of God is secret and His eternal nature incomprehensible, He in condescending love declared certain things to be true of Himself. These we call His attributes.” (The Knowledge of the Holy)

    Yes, God’s love is condescending Love, but it’s also self-giving Love. He doesn’t grant us knowledge of himself piecemeal, as though feeding crumbs to the dogs under the table. No, he has seated us at his banquet as sons of God and legitimate heirs of His Kingdom. As it is written in Luke 11:13, “If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him!” Who is the Holy Spirit? He is God Himself. As St. Augustine writes in his seminal work “On the Trinity”, “How great is a God who gives God!”

    3. Ephesians 3:18-19
    Now returning to your question, “How can you know something that surpasses knowledge?…That is what we are up against as we discuss knowing God.”

    What surpasses knowledge is Love, God is Love, and we cannot fully comprehend Love through knowledge, for the following reason:

    “Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away.”

    Knowledge is our partial and imperfect mental image of the Truth, but not the Truth itself. As long as we’re holding on to the mental image of something, instead of the thing itself, we do not have Truth. In that sense, Karl Barth is correct. Truth always surpasses our knowledge, as long as we are not One with the Truth. But Christ, who is the Way, the Truth, the Life, has come, so that we shall know the Truth, and the Truth shall set us free. We are set Free because we are One with Christ, and as Saint Paul boldly proclaims in 1 Corinthians 2:16, “we have the mind of Christ.”

  5. Good to hear from you again. Regarding Barth, in context he is addressing our speaking about God. He is cautioning against relying to heavily on our theological constructions to give an accurate and wholly trustworthy description of God. God is true, but our statements and thoughts about Him, however well intentioned, do not have that guarantee.

    Have you ever had occasion to read St. John Chrysostom’s series of homilies, On the Incomprehensible Nature of God? They were polemical addresses against those who taught that we could know God as well as He knows Himself. They are collected in volume 72 of CUA’s The Fathers of the Church series. If you live near a decent theological library you should be able to find it: if you don’t want to spend $40 for it!

    I pray you will continue to be amazed at the love of God for us!

  6. I haven’t read St. John Chrysostom’s work (it’s not in our library’s catalog, and I couldn’t find it online either), but, if I may venture a guess, I think it would be consistent with Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 2, that the nature of God is incomprehensible to the natural man, who attempts to comprehend God in their own wisdom and reasoning.

    “But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. But he who is spiritual judges all things, yet he himself is rightly judged by no one. For “who has known the mind of the LORD that he may instruct Him?” But we have the mind of Christ.”

    In this chapter, Paul teaches how to speak rightly of God– “not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power”. I think this also applies to the “theological constructions” you mentioned. If we construct a notion of God out of the fancies and imaginations of our own mind, then it’s not only incorrect, but also ruinous, but if we receive the knowledge of God through the Spirit, we can speak boldly of God with assurance of faith and understanding, as “ambassadors of Christ”.

    “As the hour of his address approaches, before he opens his thrusting lips he should lift his thirsting soul to God so that he may utter what he has drunk in and pour out what has filled him.” (St. Augustine “On Christian Teaching”)

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