John Chrysostom On The Incomprehensible Nature of God Sermon 5: Only the Trinity knows the Trinity

Sermon 5 is the longest sermon in the series of 12 sermons On the Incomprehensible Nature of God, but like the previous two sermons Chrysostom has lengthy conclusion that has little to do with the stated thesis of the series as the final third of the sermon deals with the subject of prayer (43-62). [1]

Chrysostom deals intricately with the texts of John 1:18 and 6:46, “No one has ever seen God. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, himself declared him. Not that anyone has seen the Father except him who is from God, he has seen the Father.” The fact that “no one” has seen the Father except the Son is not meant to exclude the Holy Spirit, but all created beings (5-6). For support, Chrysostom turns to Paul’s words in 1 Cor. 2:11, “For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God” (7). This is certainly delicate reasoning, but it is sound. “No one” cannot exclude the Spirit in John or the Son in 1 Corinthians. Because we know God’s word is true and his testimony concerning himself is trustworthy, John 1:18; 6:46; and 1 Cor. 2:11 must all be true. So “no one” must indeed refer to all creatures outside of the Trinitarian communion.

Chrysostom then enters into a discussion that is, frankly, an amazing display of exegesis. The preacher turns his attention to 1 Corinthians 8:6, “yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.” As “no one” separates the Trinity from all creation, so “one” separates the Trinity to itself. To prove the equality of the Son and Father Chrysostom demonstrates that “God” and “Lord” are used interchangeably of the Father and Son. Paragraph 12 offers a concise summary,

 Some names are common to several; others are proper to one. There are common names to show that the essence is exactly the same; there are proper names to characterize what is proper to the personal realities. The names “Father” and “Son” characterize what is proper to the personal realities; the names “God” and “Lord” show what is common. Therefore, after Paul set down the common name of “one God,” he had to use the proper name so that you might know of whom he was speaking. He did this to prevent us from falling into the madness of Sabellius.

The preacher then goes through Old and New Testament Scriptures demonstrating that the Father and Son are each called Lord and God (13-24). Returning to his main text, Chrysostom again asserts that knowledge necessitates identity. As men do not know the essence of angels, so neither angels nor men know the essence of God. The preacher goes even further in an amusing fashion. Not only are men incapable of knowing the essence of angels or God, they are incapable of knowing their own essence:

 And why should I speak of what kind of essence the soul has? It is not even possible to say how it exists in the body. What answer could anyone give to this question? That it is extended throughout the bulk of the body? But that is absurd. To exist that way is proper only to bodies. That this is not the way that the soul exists in the body is clear from this example. If a man’s hands and feet are amputated, the soul remains whole and entire and is in no way mutilated by the maiming of the body.
Then it does not exist in the whole body but has it been gathered together in some part of the body? If that is true, the rest of the parts must be dead, because whatever lacks a soul is altogether dead. But we cannot say that. What we must say is that we know not that the soul is in our bodies but that we do not know how it is there. God has shut us off from this knowledge of the soul for a reason. So that, out of his great superiority, he might curb our tongues, hold us in check, and persuade us to remain on earth and not to meddle out of curiosity with matters which are beyond us. (28-29)

This also points to an important conclusion to be made plain before Chrysostom turns his attention to prayer. There is something inherently off-putting to the statement that a person cannot comprehend God. Even when time is taken to explain weight of “comprehend”; even when it is acknowledged that things can be truly known of God; for some it is hard to hear that God cannot be known in his essence. Chrysostom has a helpful analogy:

 Tell me this. Suppose that two men are obstinately arguing with each other about whether they can know how large the sky is. Suppose that one of them says that it is impossible for the human eye to encompass it, and the other would contend that it was possible for a man to measure the entire sky by using the span of his hand. Which of these two would we say would know the size of the sky? Would it be the one who argues how many spans wide the sky is? Or would it be the one who admits that he does not know? Surely the man who admits he does not know the size of the sky when he sees its magnitude will have a better understanding of how large the sky is. When it is a question of God, will we not use the same discretion? Would it not be the ultimate madness if we failed to do so? (39)

Underlying the sermons of Chrysostom is a trust in the word of Scripture. This trust underlies his philosophy and epistemology too. It is not adventurous, brave, or noble, to go beyond the bounds of Scripture. It is folly and madness. Neither is it weak or ignoble to rest content in the knowledge that Scripture does provide. To stay within the bounds of Scripture is true security, it is full sanity.







[1] All paragraph references refer to those in Paul W. Harkins, St John Chrysostom On the Incomprehensible Nature of God (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1984).

John Chrysostom On the Incomprehensible Nature of God: Introduction and Sermon 1

John Chrysostom delivered the series of 12 sermons known as On the Incomprehensible Nature of God over the course of the years 386 and 387. The target of the addresses was the heretical group known as the Anomoeans. Johannes Quasten describes the first five sermons in which Chrysostom:

…attacked the Anomoeans, the most radical of the Arian parties which pretended to know God, as God knows Himself (Hom. 2,3), and maintained not merely the inequality but the dissimilarity of the Son’s nature to that of the Father. Their founder was Aetius, but their chief teacher Eunomius, from who they were also called Eunomians. Chrysostom castigates their blasphemous arrogance which dares to confine God to the limits of human reason and to empty out the mystery of divine essence. He defends the ineffable, inconceivable and incomprehensible nature of God against these rationalistic tendencies, which deny the transcendence of the Christian religion. At the same time he points out the co-equality of the Son with the Father.[1]

The claim of the Anomoeans was that they were able to “know God as perfectly as God knows himself.”[2]

The nature of the discussion touches on multiple themes: theological, philosophical, epistemological, etc. At the risk of over-simplification, however, the core issue is the extent of man’s knowledge of God. The argument is not over whether man is able to know anything true about God. There are knowable and certain truths about God that man may confidently cling to. There are two main questions in the debate. Can man know God completely? Or, in other words, is man’s knowledge of God comprehensive? Can man know everything there is to know about God? A first grader flies through simple addition problems and says he knows math. But give him a calculus book and see how far he gets. Secondly, and closely related, can man know God in His essence? Whereas the first question addresses the extent of man’s knowledge, the second addresses the depth of man’s knowledge.

The text of Chrysostom’s first sermon is 1 Corinthians 13:8, “Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away.” Chrysostom’s proposition is that the passing away of knowledge refers to the passing away of our imperfect knowledge (10-12).[3] Support for this proposition is drawn from verses 10-12 and the illustration of growing from childhood to adulthood. The statement of Scripture that offers the most support of Chrysostom’s argument is, “Now I know in part; then I shall know fully.” So it is not that all knowledge will pass away when “the perfect comes”, it is imperfect knowledge passing away to mature knowledge.

The content of paragraph 19 is crucial to understanding the entire discussion of the knowledge of God. It is one of the mail pillars of the patristic teaching on the nature of man’s knowledge of God:

 I, too, know many things but I do not know how to explain them. I know that God is everywhere and I know that he is everywhere in his whole being. But I do not know how he is everywhere. I know that he is eternal and has no beginning. But I do not know how. My reason fails to grasp how it is possible for an essence to exist when that essence has receives its existence neither from itself nor from another. I know that he begot the Son. But I do not know how. I know that the Spirit is from him. But I do not know how the Spirit is from him.[4]

These words demonstrate the tension of truth at the foundation of this subject: truths about God are known, but not understood. God has revealed truth that can be known, but God cannot be comprehended. Until and unless this distinction is understood progression in this debate is impossible.

Moments later (21) Chrysostom offers some a jaw dropping bit of logic that simultaneously eviscerates the position of his opponents and supports his interpretation of 1 Cor. 13:8. If man has perfect knowledge of God now; and in the future that knowledge will pass away; then what knowledge will there be left to had? It is only his position, that imperfect knowledge will pass away, that makes sense of the passage.

While Chrysostom’s concern and tone throughout the series of sermon is intended to be winsome, pastoral, and rehabilitative (38-40, 45-48), he is not afraid to be direct in his description of the error of the Anomoeans. Those who would claim to know God completely, or know the essence of God are “obstinately striving” in “ultimate madness.” It is the “very height of folly” to claim to know God fully (23).

Chrysostom then begins a discussion of the Scriptural evidence to support the proposition that God is incomprehensible (24-30). When David considers the knowledge of God he can only say, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it” (Ps. 139:6). The prophet Isaiah rhetorically questions the one who could declare God’s generation (Is. 53:8)? Paul rhapsodizes that the judgments and ways of God are inscrutable and unsearchable (Rom. 11:33). The rewards of God are unimaginable (1 Cor. 2:9). The peace of God passes understanding (Phil. 2:9). The gift of God is indescribable (2 Cor. 9:15). Chrysostom concludes the discussion,

 What are you heretics saying? His judgments are inscrutable, his ways are unsearchable, his peace surpasses all understanding, his gift is indescribable, what God has prepared for those who love him has not entered into the heart of man, his greatness has no bound, his understanding is infinite. Are all these incomprehensible while only God himself can be comprehended? What excessive madness would it be to say that?[5]

Before concluding his first sermon, Chrysostom briefly makes use of a line of argument that will appear more fully in later sermons: the relation of angels and God (34-37). If the angels in God’s presence are unable to even look upon God, who is man to say that he can know God completely?

In concluding the first sermon, Chrysostom again asserts his desire to win back heretics to the true faith but warns his hearers that they must shun those who show persistence in pursuing error (43).

As mentioned earlier, this type of discussion necessarily enters multiple fields. In the area of theology, the question must be asked, “What type of God is worthy of worship?” Is a God that can be fully comprehended really worth pursuing? Could such a God even be considered God in any meaningful sense? Along these lines, a vivid quote is provided in a footnote from Gregory of Nyssa describing the man who approaches God:

 He finds himself, as it were, on a steep cliff. In fact, let us imagine a smooth and precipitous rock whose bulk sinks down into the sea to a limitless depth and raises up its ridge on high, whose summit plunges down from its brink into a yawning abyss. Then, what generally happens to a man  whose toes touch the brink which overhangs the abyss but find no support for his foot nor grip for his hand, this same sensation which has gone beyond any place where it  had a footing as it searched for the nature which is before time  and cannot be measured by space. Since this soul no longer has anything on which to take hold—neither place, not time, nor measure, nor anything else—it no longer finds any support for its thoughts. As it feels that what is incomprehensible is slipping away on all sides, the soul is gripped by dizziness and it has no way to get out of its difficulty.[6]



[1] Johannes Quasten, Patrology vol III The Golden Age of Greek Patristic Literature (Utrecht/Antwerp: Spectrum Publishers, 1963), 451.

[2] Paul W. Harkins, St John Chrysostom On the Incomprehensible Nature of God, The Fathers of the Church A New Treanslation (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1984), 28.

[3] All parenthetical references to the content of the sermon refer to Harkins’ translation cited above.

[4] Ibid, 57-58. Cf. paragraph 33 p. 65.

[5] Ibid, 64.

[6] Ibid, 61.

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.

Studies in 2 Peter: 2 Peter 1:1-4 The Gracious Gifts of God

Simeon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ: May grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord. His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. (2 Peter 1:1-4 ESV)

Peter begins his second epistle at the best place to begin: with God. In these four introductory verses, Peter focuses our attention on the gracious nature of our giving God. As we enter into the study of this letter we are to concentrate on three foundational gifts of God.

First, we have obtained faith by the righteousness of Jesus Christ who is God and Savior.[1] Believers have been given faith- it is not something they worked up from within themselves (Eph. 2:8-9). They did not obtain faith through their own efforts or strength, but through God’s favor alone (Calvin). This faith has fallen to believers by the righteousness of Christ who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption (1 Cor. 1:30).

Secondly, believers are given everything they need for life and godliness. Believers have not just been given new life, but are given everything they need to sustain this new life. Often this verse is used to teach dependence upon Scripture: this is an unfortunate leap.

Knowledge is an important theme in 2 Peter. Already in verse 2 the apostle states that grace and peace are multiplied to us in the knowledge of God and Jesus. In verse 3, we find everything we need for life and godliness in the knowledge of God. Knowledge is to be added to our faith to prevent us from becoming ineffective, unfruitful, nearsighted, and blind (1:5-9). Peter wrote this letter to keep certain things in the mind of believers (1:12, 13, 15). He is not a propagator of myth, but of knowable truth (1:16). Believers must know the true nature of Scripture in order to stand against irrational false teachers who forsake what they once knew to be true (1:20; 2:12, 21). While these false teachers are deliberately ignorant of the judgment of God, believers must not be ignorant of the patience of God (3:5, 8). Knowing the destiny of all creation (3:17) and that God knows how to deliver the righteous (2:9) arms the believer to grow into even greater grace and knowledge of Jesus our Lord and Savior (3:18).

Scripture is obviously an indispensible element in our knowledge of God: Peter teaches as much in 1:19-21. Yet we must be careful to say what the Holy Spirit says and not what we think preaches better. Peter does not say we have been given everything we need for life and godliness in Scripture. Everything we need for life and godliness comes from knowing the one who called us to his own glory and excellence. It is not from knowing data, even inspired and inerrant data, that we find everything we need for life and godliness. We find everything in knowing a person. Eternal life does not come from knowing Scripture, but from knowing God and Christ (John 17:3). Godliness does not come from knowing Scripture, but from knowing Jesus in his death and resurrection (Phil. 3:8-12).

It is all well and good to say that God is not known apart from Scripture. That is true. But when we say everything we need for life and godliness is in Scripture, we can miss knowing the God of Scripture. Biblical faith and biblical knowledge are not primarily intellectual in nature but are primarily personal in nature.

Thirdly, believers have been given precious and very great promises. By “very great” Peter is not speaking of the amount of promises, but their value (cf. NASB “precious and magnificent promises”). The promises Peter explicitly are those centering on God’s promise of the return of Jesus and the renewal of creation (2 Peter 3:4, 9, 13). How is it that through the promises of God we share in his nature and escape the corruption of sin? Peter answers that question in 3:11, “Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness?” Living in the light and knowledge of God’s promise to send his Son to punish wickedness and reward righteousness; to destroy that which is corrupted by sin and replace it with that which is perfect; motivates the believer to let go of the things of the world and pursue the things of the new heavens and earth in which righteousness dwells (3:13, cf. 2 Cor. 7:1; Titus 2:11-14; 1 John 3:2-3).

In these four verses Peter outlines how the gifts of God encompass the entirety of a believer’s existence. God has granted us faith- the genesis of eternal life. God has granted us everything for life and godliness- the sustaining of eternal life. God has given us precious and magnificent promises- carrying us through to the enjoyment of eternal life.

[1] It is debated among some whether or not the phrase “our God and Savior Jesus Christ” attributes deity to Jesus. There is nothing textually that indicates Peter might mean anything else. Any refusal to acknowledge that this text calls Jesus “God” is not textually, grammatically, or contextually based: it is prejudicially based. As Charles Bigg comments, “If the author intended to distinguish two persons, he has expressed himself with singular inaccuracy.” 2 Peter 1:1 identifies Jesus as God.

Nothing can be compared to God. Everything demonstrates Him.

Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand and marked off the heavens with a span, enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure and weighed the mountains in scales and the hills in a balance? Who has measured the Spirit of the LORD, or what man shows him his counsel? Whom did he consult, and who made him understand? Who taught him the path of justice, and taught him knowledge, and showed him the way of understanding? Behold, the nations are like a drop from a bucket, and are accounted as the dust on the scales; behold, he takes up the coastlands like fine dust. Lebanon would not suffice for fuel, nor are its beasts enough for a burnt offering. All the nations are as nothing before him, they are accounted by him as less than nothing and emptiness. To whom then will you liken God, or what likeness compare with him?

To whom then will you compare me, that I should be like him? says the Holy One.

“To whom will you liken me and make me equal, and compare me, that we may be alike? …remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me…

Isaiah 40:12-18, 25; 46:5, 9

Herman Bavinck writes, “For precisely because God is pure being—the absolute, perfect, unique, and simple being—we cannot give a definition of him. There is no genus to which he belongs as a member, and there are no specific marks of distinction whereby we can distinguish him from other beings in this genus.”

God is unique. There is no other. Because of this, there is nothing or no one to whom God can be compared. Yet because of this, God can only be known by comparison. What a marvelous paradox! Because God is unlike all else, the only true sui generis, he can only be known by comparison to things we do know. We know God analogically. We know God through the comparisons reveled to us in his Word and in his world. Because God wants us to know him, he speaks to us in terms we can understand.

Therefore Scripture states that God has:

A face (Ex. 33:20, 23; Isa. 63:9; Ps. 16:11; Matt. 18:10; Rev. 22:4)
Eyes (Ps. 11:4; Heb. 4:13)
Eyelids (Ps. 11:4)
Ears (Ps. 55:3)
A nose (Deut. 33:10)
A mouth (Deut. 8:3)
Lips (Job 11:5)
A tongue (Isa. 30:27)
A neck (Jer. 18:17)
Arms (Ex. 15:16)
Hands (Num. 11:23; Ex. 15:12)
Fingers (Ex. 8:19)
A heart (Gen. 6:6)
Intestines (Isa. 63:15; Jer. 31:20; Luke 1:78)
Feet (Isa. 66:1)

God is a:
Husband (Hos. 2:16)
Father (Deut. 32:6)
Judge, king, lawgiver (Isa. 33:22)
Warrior (Ex. 15:3)
Builder and architect (Heb. 11:10)
Gardener (John 15:1)
Shepherd (Ps. 23:1)
Physician (Ex. 15:26)

But the realm of humanity is not sufficient, for God is also compared to:
A lion (Isa. 31:4)
An eagle (Deut. 32:11)
A lamb (Isa. 53:7)
A hen (Matt. 23:37)
The sun (Ps. 84:11)
The morning star (Rev. 22:16)
A light (Ps. 27:1)
A lamp (Rev. 21:23)
A fire (Heb. 12:29)
A fountain (Ps. 36:9; Jer. 2:13)
Food, bread, drink (John 6:35, 55)
A rock (Deut. 32:4)
A refuge (Ps. 119:114)
A tower (Prov. 18:10)
A stronghold (Ps. 9:9)
A shadow (Ps. 91:1; 121:5)
A shield (Ps. 84:11)
A road (John 14:6)
A temple (Rev. 21:22)

The Lord reveals himself in these ways to us, for us. So we are not afraid to say:
The LORD is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation; this is my God (Exo 15:2)
The LORD Is My Banner (Ex. 17:15)
The LORD is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer (2Sam. 22:2)
The LORD is my chosen portion and my cup (Ps. 16:5)
The LORD is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. (Ps. 18:2)
The LORD is my shepherd (Ps. 23:1)
The LORD is my light and my salvation…The LORD is the stronghold of my life (Ps. 27:1)
The LORD is my strength and my shield (Ps. 28:7)
The LORD is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation. (Ps. 118:14)
The LORD is my portion (Ps. 119:57)
“The LORD is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.” (Lam. 3:24)
The LORD is my God. (Zec. 13:9)
So we can confidently say, “The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?” (Heb 13:6)

All his works declare his praise for all his works demonstrate who he is. Not fully, nor completely, nor essentially. But it is enough to overwhelm the believing heart with wonder. It is enough to draw us onward in passionate pursuit knowing we can never have enough. Our thirst is slaked by increasing our desire for drink. So the yearning heart presses on through the glorious blinding light into the thick darkness where the glory dwells. For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.

Lloyd Jones on our inability to know God completely

Scripture itself, it seems to me—I say it with reverence—does not attempt to give us an adequate conception of the Being of God? Why? Because of the glory of God. Our terms are so inadequate, and our minds are so small and finite, that there is a danger in any attempt at a description of God and His glory. (D. Martyn Lloyd Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, vol. 1, p. 113)

Exodus 15:11 “Who is like you, O LORD, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders?

1Samuel 2:2 “There is none holy like the LORD; there is none besides you; there is no rock like our God.

Psalm 89:6 For who in the skies can be compared to the LORD? Who among the heavenly beings is like the LORD,

Psalm 113:5-6 Who is like the LORD our God, who is seated on high, who looks far down on the heavens and the earth?

Isaiah 40:18 To whom then will you liken God, or what likeness compare with him?

Isaiah 40:25 To whom then will you compare me, that I should be like him? says the Holy One.

Isaiah 46:5 “To whom will you liken me and make me equal, and compare me, that we may be alike?

Jer 10:6 There is none like you, O LORD; you are great, and your name is great in might.