The Ineffability of God?

The soul runs over all truths, and all the same shuns the truths we know if someone tries to express them in words and discursive thought: for discursive thought (διανοιαν), in order to express anything, has to consider one thing after another; this is the method of description (διεξοδος) ; but how can one describe the Absolutely Simple(αρλουν)?[1]

Plotinus Enneads (V,3,17)

Ineffability has its roots in the Neo-Platonist attributes of the One, specifically simplicity.  Simplicity means the one is not compounded, it does not have parts. All compound things have parts and can be simplified into constituent parts.  Since all things came through the One, the One is the most simple of all.[2]  One purpose of ineffability in Plotinus is to stress mysticism.  God is not known through discursive thought but through theoria which is contemplation.  Contemplation is finding god in your mind, without any reasonable thought.  The stress is on mysticism and not revelation in knowing God.

The infinity of number, though there be no numbering of infinite numbers, is yet not incomprehensible by Him whose understanding is infinite. And thus, if everything which is comprehended is defined or made finite by the comprehension of him who knows it, then all infinity is in some ineffable way made finite to God, for it is comprehensible by His knowledge. Wherefore, if the infinity of numbers cannot be infinite to the knowledge of God,

Augustine, The City of God Book XII, Chapter 18[3]

God is ineffable because he is infinite.  Augustine believes the finite cannot grasp the infinite.  However, infinity is a common use in mathematics (calculus, set theory, geometry, fractals), in physics, cosmology, logic, computing, arts and cognitive sciences.  Infinity bears a relationship in Zeno’s paradoxes.  How can a person move in a defined distance?  There is an infinite number of points between two places.  How can  a person cover an infinite distance.  The answer is there are limits to infinity.  There may be an infinite number of points in any distance, but these infinite number of points is limited.

Theologically, ineffability refers to the transcendent characteristics of God that cannot be adequately expressed in human language…this is not to say that God can be expressed perfectly, completely, and comprehensively.  He cannot.  This is what is meant by “ineffable.”  Although God can be apprehended, He cannot be comprehended…

Norman L.Geisler, Systematic Theology: In One Volume (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2002-2011), 528-29

Now the expected redefinition of the term in modern theology.  Ineffable does not mean the inability to speak about something.  Ineffability means it is impossible to have exhaustive knowledge about God and speak about it.  There is some confusion is his definition.  Apprehend means to see an object but not analyze the object discursively.  Comprehend means to see an object and think about it discursively.  Comprehend does not mean to know something exhaustively. All persons operate on less than exhaustive or infinite knowledge in all things.

Is there anything that can be understood exhaustively?  Freud demonstrated that people sometimes do not even know their own mind exhaustively.  Most men do not understand their wives well, but certainly not exhaustively.  It is possible to know God.  In fact, God holds man responsible if they do not know him.

Why bother with this transparent redefinition.  Why does the modern theologian use the word “ineffable?”  Why not say God cannot be known exhaustively?  The only reason to use the word is to pretend some affiliation with the early church fathers on the topic of ineffability and to use the concept of ineffability to protect some other supposed attribute of God.

Roman 1:18-20

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse,

To be invisible does not mean to be ineffable.  The effects of the wind are observed, invisible to the eyes, but the wind is not ineffable.  Even the reprobate are able to understand God by physical objects observed in the world which are perfectly effable.  Paul uses words to explain the nature of god; invisible and powerful.

Plotinus explains the ineffable cannot be known discursively.  Discursive thought is the relationship of things to each other.  Since the One has no parts and is not in relation to anything else, it is impossible speak discursively about the One.

Discursive reasoning (Greek dianoia) is a form of critical thinking, a more literal translation is  “through reasoning.”  A common use is to examine both sides of a matter and make a reasonable conclusion.  Aristotle will contrast discursive reasoning with noetic thinking (nohsiV).  Noetic thinking (nohsiV) is viewing concepts through intuition.  Theoria or contemplation is to know god through mystical union with god.

Discursive knowledge builds from a series of premises to a final conclusion. The mind moves from one point to another seeking a logical relationship which finally leads to a conclusion.

The Greek word translated as method of description is diexodus. (διέξοδος) This is a compound word consisting of a preposition διέξ which means out or through and οδος which means place, way, or road.  It is sometimes used in profane Greek to be a way out of place.  When used in rhetoric diexodus is the course of the narrative or argument. 

for, ‘what discursive description (dièxodoc) can there be of the absolutely simple?’ Indeed, its simplicity takes its unity beyond unity: having no possible second term, it cannot even be called ‘one’. Far from being an exalted form of numerical unity, it is called the negation of all number; ‘the one’ must be regarded as a negative description, which can only tell us what the one is not, rather than revealing the truth of what it ‘is’.[4]

Plotinus Enneads

Plotinus logically applies the elementary rules of grammar to explain the principal of absolute simplicity.  A simple sentence has a subject, verb (is) and a predicate. The second term is the predicate.  A  perfectly simple one cannot be predicated.  On the other hand, even to say ‘The one is’, introduces a compound idea.  The first idea is of the one and second idea of “is” or the one exists.  This argument is just another form of two other arguments to be explained later:

God has no accidents.

God’s essence is the same as his existence.

Discursive thought is used in reading, for example, through reading Scriptures.  Perhaps dianoia in the full philosophical sense of argument is not used in the New Testament.  In the New Testament the word has a sense of a reasonable description as opposed to a noetic vision.  Discursive thought is used in conversations such as debates or lectures. It is through discursive thought that God is known and loved.

1st John 5:20

And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us an understanding (διάνοιαν), that we may know Him who is true;

Mathew 22:37

Jesus said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind(διάνοιαν).”

William James (1842 –1910) is often described as the most influential philosopher to have come from the United States and even the “Father of American psychology.”  He will devote a chapter in his famous book The Varieties of Religious Experience to the Mystical experience.  The first two essential elements of mysticism are ineffability and the noetic quality.  He explains ineffability as “no adequate report of its contents can be given in words.”  The noetic quality is framed as “states of insight into depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect.”[5]

The noetic experience is not limited to Neoplatonism.  There is a common noetic experience in other religions of the world, some of them, claim influence from Neoplatonism.  This common religious experience is shared by practicing Buddhists, Taoists, Sufists and even Catholic mystics like Meister Eckhart, St. Teresa of Avila, or St. John of the Cross.

On the cusp of the 3rd century CE two great scholarmasters—Nagarjuna in the East and Plotinus in the West—began the noetic nondual knowledge revolution for our species that is just now re-emerging as the new Noetic Revolution of the 21st century.

David Paul Boaz (Copper Mountain Institute)

Noetic process in Buddhism

The noetic process is technically known as cittavithi. Vithi means path or process and citta means consciousness.  All knowledge takes place in and through consciousness.

Cornelissen, M., Misra, G. & Varma S. (Eds.). Foundations of Indian Psychology: A Handbook, Vol. I. (New Delhi: Dorling Kindersley, 2011) 364

Ineffability and noetic thought are part of the mystical experience.  A concept may be ineffable because it is impossible to express the concept in words or because the concept is hidden by an elite group.  If the first definition is accepted, the mystical experience would be nonsense.  The noetic experience makes sense of the mystical experience.  The mystical experience is perceiving concepts in the mind apart from discursive thought.

Augustine is famous for his oxymorons and redundancy masquerading as spiritual piety.  One well known statement is God is ineffable because he is ineffable. These statements are an attempt to move away from rational thought about god and prepare a person for the non-rational ascent by contemplation.

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.

Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, [6]

“If I have said anything;” using Augustine as representative of the church fathers, does his definition resemble Plotinus more than Geisler?  Augustine does not believe he is able to speak about God in any way.  This is another example of paradox in Augustine.  He says a lot about God but he denies he can say anything about God.  This is a trick of the mystics to confuse and pretend to spirituality based on non-discursive thought.  This is also mentioned on my article entitled “Augustine on the Immutability of God.”

Biblical Support of Ineffability?

Certainly one type of ineffability is the secret.  Certain secret societies and mystery religions hide secrets from the initiated.  When theologians speak of the ineffability of God this is not the definition  in mind.

Theologically, ineffability refers to the transcendent characteristics of God that cannot be adequately expressed in human language…this is not to say that God can be expressed perfectly, completely, and comprehensively.  He cannot.  This is what is meant by “ineffable.”  Although God can be apprehended, He cannot be comprehended…

Norman L.Geisler, Systematic Theology: In One Volume (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2002-2011), 528-29

Not only does Geisler seek to redefine “ineffable” but he redefines “comprehensive.”  According to Webster comprehend means “to grasp the nature, significance, or meaning.”  Apprehend means to “to become aware of.”  The difference is the ability to notice something and be able to discursively understand it.  We apprehend shadows but when we notice the person standing in between the sun and the shadow we comprehend the shadow.  If the meaning is changed to express perfectly or completely this changes the meaning of ineffable.  There is probably nothing in the world that we can express completely.

At a Billy Graham crusade, I was acting as a counselor.  The “seeker” I was assigned was not really a seeker but an agnostic challenging my beliefs.  He claimed it was impossible to know God completely, so how could I believe in God.  My answer was it is not possible to know God exhaustively or anything else but we have sufficient knowledge of God to believe.  People  base their lives on sufficient knowledge not exhaustive knowledge.  For instance the football  lawn on which we are standing.  Have you examined underneath each square foot of the sod to determine if there is not a pit underneath  the sod.  Or do you walk on the sod knowing others have walked on it without difficulty.  Without digging up the ground and examining each square foot it is impossible to have exhaustive knowledge of the safety of the lawn.  However with sufficient knowledge we walk on the lawn not fearing for our safety.

Since these verses are often used to support the ineffability of God, we will examine each.  The first observation, is that none of the verses are talking about the transcendent characteristics of God.  If the above definition of ineffability is being defended then perhaps we should use the object of the discourse.

 

Deuteronomy 29:29

New King James Version (NKJV)

29 “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law. 

Does God have secrets from man that he has not revealed to us? Certainly, perhaps the greatest secret is the mystery of  Ephesians 3:3-6.

 how that by revelation He made known to me the mystery (as I have briefly written already, by which, when you read, you may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ), which in other ages was not made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to His holy apostles and prophets: that the Gentiles should be fellow heirs, of the same body, and partakers of His promise in Christ through the gospel,

God kept this secret from man until he revealed the secret to Paul.  This secret was not ineffable, in fact, Paul explains what the secret was: The Gentiles should become fellow heirs, fellow members of the body and fellow partakers of the gospel.  The secret is not ineffable is the sense of incapable of expression in human words.

Psalm 139:6

Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
It is high, I cannot attain it.

In Psalm 139, David explains God knows his paths, his ways and his thoughts from afar.  He knows his words before David says them, not since the beginning of the world, but before David verbalizes his thoughts.  David is unable to know some else’s thoughts paths and ways from afar.  This is too high for David.  The ineffability of the transcendent characteristics of God is not implied in this verse.  Even though David is able to verbally express the knowledge God has, he is unable to duplicate the ability of God to attain such knowledge.

Job 11:7

New King James Version (NKJV)

“Can you search out the deep things of God?
Can you find out the limits of the Almighty?

That God has deep things hidden from man and difficult or impossible for man to know is not disputed.  Certainly there are galaxies, mathematical, biological and chemical concepts  unknown to man.  According to the context these things are higher than the heaven and deeper than Sheol.  Fortunately God is in heaven and he sent his Son on earth in order for us to understand Him.  These are not the Geisler’s transcendent characteristics of God.

By the way, these are the words of Zophar.  What does God think of Zophar’s words?

Job 42:7-9

And so it was, after the Lord had spoken these words to Job, that the Lord said to Eliphaz the Temanite, “My wrath is aroused against you and your two friends, for you have not spoken of Me what is right, as My servant Job has… lest I deal with you according to your folly; because you have not spoken of Me what is right, as My servant Job has.”  So Eliphaz the Temanite and Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite went and did as the Lord commanded them; for the Lord had accepted Job.

Perhaps it is not good to use the words of someone whom the Lord castigates for their folly.  Is this proof of ineffability or the proof of the folly of ineffability?

Isaiah 55:8

New King James Version (NKJV)

“For My thoughts are not your thoughts,
Nor are your ways My ways,” says the Lord.

Ineffability is linked to the noetic vision of God in the mystics.  They look into their own minds and believe they see God.  God says that is foolishness.  Do not look into yourselves to see God but rely on his revelation of who he is.  God’s exhortation in the chapter is “Listen carefully to Me,” and “Seek the Lord.”  Both of these concepts require discursive thought.  This is contrasted by the parallel thought “ Let the wicked forsake his way, And the unrighteous man his thoughts.”

Again this is not a verse about the transcendent attributes of God and the verse encourages discursive thought about God.  There is none of the elements of ineffability in this verse.

Romans 11:33

33 Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out!

The word that translated  “past finding out” is from the Greek literally meaning “unable to track.” The root refers to animal tracks.  The idea is the person is unable to find the secret in the Old Testament.  The only other occurrence of the word is in Ephesians 3 referring the mystery.  This mystery was not revealed to the sons of man until Paul revealed it.  This secret was perfectly understandable in human words, it was a secret because it had not yet been revealed. This mystery is not ineffable in the sense of unable to express in words.  The context of Romans 11 convinces me that Paul is talking about the mystery of Ephesian 3.  However, whether one believes this or not, it is possible for something which is unsearchable and past finding out to be effable.

1 Timothy 3:16

And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness:

God was manifested in the flesh,
Justified in the Spirit,
Seen by angels,
Preached among the Gentiles,
Believed on in the world,
Received up in glory.

The secret of godliness is great but certainly this secret is expressible in human words.  Is not Paul explaining discursively what the secret is?  Again, I believe that Paul is talking about some aspects of the effable secret of Ephesians 3.  However this secret is viewed, Paul is able to speak discursively about the secret.

The Scriptures are a revelation about God, spoken and written discursively.  The ineffability of God is the favorite theme of the mystics who favor a personal mystical revelation about God.  Certainly when a person, especially a nonbeliever,  who seeks God inside his own mind and imagination is in danger.  Looking into one’s mind or heart to find God may lead to unintentional consequences.

Jeremiah 17:9

9 “The heart is deceitful above all things,
And desperately wicked;
Who can know it?

The mind controlled by a deceitful and wicked heart may not find God, he may find deception and wickedness.


[1] A. H. Armstrong, ed. and trans., Plotinus: In Six Volumes, vol. 5, Plotinus V, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, Loeb Classical Library, 1967-80). 133 (V,3,17)

[2] For there must be something simple (aploun) before all things, and this must be other than all the things which come after it, existing by itself, not mixed with the other things which derive from it, and all the same able to be present in a different way to these other things, being really one, and not a different being and  one; it is false even to say of it that it is one, and there is “no concept of knowledge” of it; it is indeed also said to be “beyond being”.  For if it is not to be simple, outside all coincidence and composition, it could not be a first principle; and it is the most self-sufficient (autarkeV), because it is simple and the first of all: for that which is not the first needs that which is before it, and what is not simple is in need of its simple components so that it can come into existence from them.  A reality of this kind must be one alone: for if there was another of this kind, both would be one.  For  we are certainly not talking about two bodies, or meaning that the One is the first body.  For nothing simple is a body, and body is what comes into being, but not the  first principle; and “the first principle has not come into being”.

A.H. Armstrong, ed. And trans., Plotinus: In Six Volumes, vol. 5, Plotinus V, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, Loeb Classical Library, 1967-2001).  P 141-3 (V,4,1)

[3] Phillip Schaff and Kevin Knight, eds, Augustine, The City of God, trans. Marcus Dods, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 2. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1887.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/120112.htm&gt;. Book  XII, Chapter 18

[4] A. H. Armstrong, ed. and trans., Plotinus (7 vols, Harvard University Press: Loeb Classical Library, 1966-88). See also M. Atkinson, Plotinus: Ennead VI (Oxford University Press, 1983).

[5] The words “mysticism” and “mystical” are often used as terms of mere reproach, to throw at any opinion which we regard as vague and vast and sentimental, and without a base in either facts or logic. For some writers a “mystic” is any person who believes in thought-transference, or spirit-return. Employed in this way the word has little value: there are too many less ambiguous synonyms. So, to keep it useful by restricting it, I will do what I did in the case of the

word “religion,” and simply propose to you four marks which, when an experience has them, may justify us in calling it mystical for the purpose of the present lectures. In this way we shall save verbal disputation, and the recriminations that generally go therewith.

1. Ineffability.—The handiest of the marks by which I classify a state of mind as mystical is negative. The subject of it immediately says that it defies expression, that no adequate report of its contents can be given in words. It follows from this that its quality must be directly experienced; it cannot be imparted or transferred to others. In this peculiarity mystical states are more like states of feeling than like states of intellect. No one can make clear to another who has never had a certain feeling, in what the quality or worth of it consists…

2. Noetic quality.—Although so similar to states of feeling, mystical states seem to those who experience them to be also states of knowledge. They are states of insight into depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect. They are illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance, all inarticulate though they remain; and as a rule they carry with them a curious sense of authority for after-time. These two characters will entitle any state to be called mystical,

William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature

(New York: Longmans, Green, and Co.1903) 366-367

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