Saturday, July 26, 2014

Divine Incompressibility in the Church Fathers

Marion demonstrates the deeply patristic pedigree of divine incompressibility:
Consequently the requirement to neither know nor name God in terms of presence traverses the entirety of Christian theology. (a) It appears in the Apologists of the second century - first Justin Martyr: "No one can utter a name for the ineffable God;" then Athenagoras: "Hear this, oh man: the form of God cannot be uttered, nor expressed and eyes of flesh do not have the power to see it." (b) Likewise, it shows up in the first of the Alexandrians - take the Christians, first Clement "the First Cause is not in space, but above space and time and name and conception ... For our interrogation bears on the formless and invisible"; "invisible and incapable of being circumscribed"; "the invisible and ineffable God." Then Origen: "God is incomprehensible and incapable of being measured." Consider also Philo, the Jew: "It is a great good to comprehend that God is incomprehensible in terms of his Being and to see that he is invisible." (c) And also Athanasius: "God is good and the friend of men.... By his nature, he is invisible and incomprehensible, residing beyond all begotten essence." (d) Basil clearly indicates the paradox with this remark: "[K]nowledge of the of the divine essence involves sensing His incompressibility." (e) And there is nothing surprising in the fact that Gregory of Nyssa should have repeated it almost word for word: "This is the true knowledge of what is sought [sc., seeing the invisible and incomprehensible God] - ; this is the seeing that consists in not seeing, because that which is sought transcends all knowledge, being separated on all sides by incompressibility as by a kind of darkness." (f) John Chrysostom parses it in a slightly different form: "All the while knowing that God is, he [Saint Paul] does not know what his essence is," for "the essence of God is incomprehensible." (g) Of course John of Damascus comes next: "No one has seen God. The only-begotten Son who is in the bosom of the Father has himself taught this. The divine is ineffable and incomprehensible" (h) Nothing different from Augustine: "God the highest, who is known better than knowing." (i) Nor from Bernard: "Non ea disputatio comprehendit, sed sanctitas: si quo modo tamen comprehendi potest quod incomprehensibile est." (k) Nor even from Thomas Aquinas, for whom seeing as "what God himself is remains hidden and unknown," it is necessary that man knows how to unknown. Thomas therefore comments on the principle advanced by Dionysius in perfectly appropriate terms: "[W]hat the substance of God is remains in excess of our intellect and therefore is unknown to us; on account of this, the highest human knowledge of God is to know that one does not know God." Without continuing ad infinitum with this anthology of citations, it seems legitimate to admit as a fact still to be explained that at least for the Church Fathers theology does not consist in naming God properly, but in knowing him precisely as what cannot be known properly - what must not be known, if one wants to know it as such.

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