The Knowability of God

January 17th, 2009

The Protestant Scholastic Francis Turretin wrote:

But if any singular, immaterial and in the pure act is presented, science can undoubtedly appropriate it because being is an object of intellect. Therefore the more perfect a being is, the more can he be known and apprehended; and he is the more perfect, the more he is in act and the less in potency.

This can serve to elucidate the statement he had made a little previously that God is the most capable of being known of knowable things. Being is an object of intellect. In order for something to be known, it must have being. We cannot know the non-existent. But created objects are like a candle flame guttering in a wind; they are there, but they are barely there. What we see around us is almost non-existent, comparatively.

The more something is merely potential, rather than actual, the closer it is to non-existent. So a being is more perfect, the more he is in act and the less in potency. But God is actus purissimus, a most pure working: He is fully actual, fully realized. There is no potential in God, because all is actual. So God is most perfect, most existent, and consequently, most capable of being known of knowable things. We only know things that exist; nothing exists so fully as God, and so God is eminently knowable.

Of course, there is more to the story than that. We must distinguish between what is knowable and what human beings can know. William Hendriksen spoke truly in saying: “Godís very essence, by virtue of what it is, conceals him.” This is by no means an insoluble difference. Turretin again:

But when God is set forth as the object of theology, he is not to be regarded simply as God in himself (for thus he is incomprehensible [akataleptos] to us), but as revealed and as he has been pleased to manifest himself to us in his word, so that divine revelation is the formal relation which comes to be considered in this object. Nor is he to be considered exclusively under the relation of deity (according to the opinion of Thomas Aquinas and many Scholastics after him, for in this manner the knowledge of him could not be saving but deadly to sinners), but as he is our God (i.e., covenanted in Christ as he has revealed himself to us in his word not only as the object of knowledge but also of worship. True religion (which theology teaches) consists of these two things.

Since God is most fully existent, He is most eminently knowable; but I am only capable of knowing Him covenanted in Christ.