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defining God as indefinable

The Fourth Lateran Council (1215) defined God as “eternal and immeasurable, almighty, unchangeable, incomprehensible and ineffable“. [Reinforced by the First Vatican Council]

in·ef·fa·ble [in-ef-uh-buhl] adjective
1. incapable of being expressed or described in words; inexpressible.
2. not to be spoken because of its sacredness; unutterable.

in·com·pre·hen·si·ble [in-kom-pri-hen-suh-buhl] adjective
1. impossible to understand or comprehend; unintelligible.
2. limitless; not limited or capable of being limited.

I’m convinced that we urgently need to recover our apophatic foundations in the West.

No image to give a source for. Wonder why?!

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6 Responses to defining God as indefinable

  1. This seems to me to be a critical exercise for those learning to exercise their ministry. I find that often people have never reflected on the “content” of what they mean by the word “God”. So I have them draw a large circle and fill it with their words for God. We then compare notes around the group and members immediately see how their descriptors vary from their colleagues’. More importantly, we then ask “What is outside your circle, that you haven’t included”. And ultimately we recognise that the circle itself is an artifice. To round off, a consideration of C.S. Lewis’s “Footnote to all prayers” brings the point home (in a devotional way, of course!). See here for the poem and some comment: http://homebrewedchristianity.com/2012/02/14/horse-gods-c-s-lewis-xenophanes-and-john-pipers-blaspheme/

  2. No arguments with a place for the apophatic tradition, but we also, of course, have to honor what Scripture does say we can say about God. For example, I’m currently working on a sermon for the 2d with James 1 as my text, and James positively and unambiguously emphasizes God as generous. Now, no doubt God is incomprehensibly generous! But part of the wonder of God’s self-revelation in Christ is that we are given ways to express the ultimately inexpressible.

    • Totally agree, of course, Mike. What I find in the West, however, is totally the kataphatic approach you describe – even to the point of not realising the apophatic within our tradition. I hope, from time to time, to redress this imbalance which has cost us dearly. Blessings.

  3. Cataphatic, apophatic…how many religious leaders receive education and training outside their own apologetics and ‘church party line’ which even uses these words?

    ‘all men in their praying, self-deceived, address
    the coinage of their own unquiet thoughts’ Lewis wrote, yet how often are his own writings used out of loving, self-experiential context to try to convince people one ( largely political ) position over another?

    I call it ‘priest swinging on a rope’ from the sermons I have heard here in the US about the High Priest of Israel entering the Holy of Holies once a year with a rope tied to them to pull them out in case they saw God and died…a later legend not in the Bible.

    Not that there’s any problem using legend, mythology or revelatory lessons to teach people: most of the Bible is exactly that.

    So long as we recognise what we are doing and teaching and receiving.

    ‘The church of Christ and its members are sometimes as it were asleep; the wise as well as the foolish virgins all slumbered and slept; and this is the case with them, when grace lies dormant, or there is a non-exercise of it; an indifference to the duties of religion, or at most a contentedness in the outward performance of them; an unconcernedness about sins of omission and commission; and little or no regard to the glory of God, and the interest of religion. Such a spirit arises from the prevalence of the flesh, or corrupt nature; from the heart being over charged and surfeited with worldly cares; from a weariness in spiritual exercises, and a cessation from religious ones; from keeping carnal company; and from its being a night-season: great and many are the dangers such are exposed unto, and the church of God by their means; which is liable to be filled with hypocrites, and over-run with errors and heresies ; for while men sleep, the enemy sows his tares; (Matt. 13:25) such are personally exposed to every sin, and snare, and temptation; liable to have spiritual poverty and leanness brought upon them; to lose their spiritual peace, joy, and comfort ; and to be surprised with the midnight-cry wherefore it is high time for them to bestir themselves, and awake out of sleep; (Rom. 13:11) Christ calls upon them to this purpose, and says, Awake thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead; shake off thy lethargy; throw off thy dead companions, and converse no more with them who have been the means of bringing on this sleepy, drowsy frame, and Christ shall give thee light; (Ephes. 5:14) pray, as well as thou canst, that the Lord would quicken thee, that thou mayest call upon his name. (Ps. 80:18) ( John Gill 1697-1771 )

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Rev. Bosco Peters Welcome to this ecumenical website of resources and reflections on liturgy, spirituality, and worship for individuals and communities. It is run by Rev. Bosco Peters.