Divine Mystery, Apophaticism, Kataphaticism, and Doxological Dialectics (Or, “Be Humble and Hush”)

“It is meet and right to hymn Thee, to bless Thee, to praise Thee, to give thanks unto Thee, and to worship Thee in every place of Thy dominion: for Thou art God ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible, ever existing and eternally the same, Thou and Thine Only-begotten Son and Thy Holy Spirit. Thou it was who didst bring us from non-existence into being, and when we had fallen away didst raise us up again, and didst not cease to do all things until Thou hadst brought us back to heaven, and hadst endowed us with Thy kingdom which is to come. For all these things we give thanks unto Thee, and to Thine Only-begotten Son, and Thy Holy Spirit; for all things of which we know, and of which we know not, and for all the benefits bestowed upon us, both manifest and unseen. And we give thanks unto Thee also for this ministry which Thou dost vouchsafe to receive at our hands, even though there stand beside Thee thousands of Archangels and ten thousands of Angels, the Cherubim and the Seraphim, six-winged, many eyed, soaring aloft, borne on their pinions.” ~Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom


The True God who gives witness of Himself in Sacred Scripture is at once incomprehensible and knowable. His self-revelation through the inspired Scriptures and through the Incarnate Son truthfully expresses His identity and nature but it does not, indeed it cannot, exhaustively explain all that He is to mere mortals. Finitum non capax infinitum. To speak of God’s ineffability is only to acknowledge that He ultimately eludes, exceeds, and escapes anything that we can say of Him.

A quick perusal of the Psalms, or the Prophets, or the writings of Paul reminds us that doxology is fundamentally concerned with majesty and might grounded in God as Mysterium Tremendum. Psalm 145 testifies that “His greatness is unsearchable.” Psalm 106 bids us to “Give thanks to the Lord,” just before we are asked, “who can utter the mighty deeds of the Lord, or declare all his praises.” Is is is infinity that argues for ineffability and incomprehensibility. Psalm 40 provides us with a portrait of these doxological apophaticisms. A “new song” has been placed into the mouth of the “sweet singer of Israel,” yet the song which his heart has been tuned to sing is practically unsingable.

“You have multiplied, O Lord my God,

Your wondrous deeds and your thoughts toward us;

none can compare with you!

I will proclaim and tell of them,

yet they are more than can be told.” (Ps. 40:5)

The wondrous deeds of God and His tender thoughts toward His people are unfathomable (unsearchable); unutterable (who can utter); incomparable (none can compare); innumerable (they are more); inenarrable (“than can be told”); and indescribable.

Job would argue that when we have witnessed exquisite displays of His majesty that we have only traced out the “fringes of his ways.” Like the woman with the bloody issue, we have reached out and touched Omnipotence but in our hands we find only the hem of His garment. Having considered the mightiest of deeds as but the outskirts of God’s glory, Job continues,”and how small a whisper do we hear of him” (Job 26:14). Paul echoes these same sentiments as he concludes his great treatise on divine election in Romans 9-11, “O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out” (Rm. 11:33).

While we shouldn’t consider ineffability or incomprehensibility to be divine attributes (the eloquence of the Triune God is such that each Person knows and is known perfectly within in the life of God), we should understand such terms with regard to the limits of human language, the nature of theological inquiry, and the boundaries of creaturely blessing. This means that we adopt something of a doxological dialectic: we speak forth the unutterable works of God and we do so, like Job, with our hands upon our mouths.


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