The Incomprehensibility of God

I appreciate John Frame’s contribution to the Van Til/Clark controversy in The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God. He is a Van Tillian, but he is not uncritical of Van Til, nor does he disagree with Clark on absolutely everything. In fact, his position is that:

In the 1940s there was a debate within the Orthodox Presbyterian Church about the concept of God’s incomprehensibility. The major opponents were Cornelius Van Til and Gordon H. Clark. Neither man was at his best in this discussion; each seriously misunderstood the other, as we will see. Both, however, had valid concerns. Van Til wished to preserve the Creator-creature distinction in the realm of knowledge, and Clark wished to prevent any skeptical deductions from the doctrine of the incomprehensibility, to insist that we really do know God on the basis of revelation. Van Til, therefore, insisted that even when God and man were thinking of the same thing (a particular rose, for example), their thoughts about it were never identical—God’s were the thoughts of the Creator, man’s of the creature. Such language made Clark fear skepticism. It seemed to him that if there was some discrepancy between man’s “This is a rose” and God’s (concerning the same rose), then the human assertion must somehow fall short of the truth, since the very nature of truth is identity with God’s mind. Thus if there is a necessary discrepancy between God’s mind and man’s at every point, it would seem that man could know nothing truly; skepticism would result. Thus the discussion of incomprehensibility—essentially a doctrine about the relation of man’s thoughts to God’s being—turned in this debate more narrowly into a discussion of the relation between man’s thoughts and God’s thoughts. To say that God is incomprehensible came to mean that there is some discontinuity (much deeper in Van Til’s view than in Clark’s) between our thoughts of God (and hence of creation) and God’s own thoughts of himself (and of creation).

DKG, pp. 21-22.

What I really appreciate about Frame’s approach is that he is not content to pick a side and continue dogmatic and polemic arguments against the other side’s obviously heretical view. Instead, he looks charitably at the merits of each view and really tries to understand how they relate to each other. There are key phrases and terms that have become jargon; Frame examines what people actually mean by these terms and how they can be understood in multiple senses:

My contribution to this discussion will be to offer the reader a list of discontinuities between God’s thoughts and ours that I believe can be substantiated from Scripture, a list of continuities between the two that ought to be acknowledged, and a list of alleged relations between the two that seem to me to be stated ambiguously and that therefore are capable of being affirmed in one sense and denied in another. (p. 22)

One of the discontinuities he lists is:

7. God has not chosen to reveal all truth to us. For example, we do not know the future, beyond what Scripture teaches. We do not know all the facts about God or even about creation. In the OPC debate, the difference between God’s knowledge and ours was called a “quantitative difference”—God knows more facts than we do. (p. 23)

And, as a footnote to this point, Frame lists some key ways in which Clark and Van Til misunderstood each other:

Clark expressed this idea by saying that God (more precisely, God’s essence) is incomprehensible except as God reveals truths concerning His nature. Van Til rightly replied that apart from revelation, God is not only incomprehensible but inapprehensible (i.e., unknowable…). The proper conclusion, then, would be to say that Clark failed to distinguish adequately between incomprehensibility and inapprehensibility or to say that he has an inadequate concept of incomprehensibility. Van Til, however, assumed that Clark was willing to make such a distinction. He understood Clark to say that God is incomprehensible but not inapprehensible apart from revelation, and thus he charged Clark with holding that God is knowable apart from revelation. But I find no evidence that warrants such an interpretation of Clark. Van Til’s argument here is ingenious, but it is a misunderstanding of Clark’s position. (Footnote 8, p. 23)

I commend the whole section, indeed, the entire book, to your reading.

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