Monday, April 02, 2018

'Absolutely incomprehensible’

'Absolutely incomprehensible' - A surprising expression to find John Owen using. The context is the following:

Herein consists the excellence  of faith above all powers and acts of the soul – that it receives, assents unto, and rests in, things in their own nature are absolutely incomprehensible’. (50)

This is from Owen’s A Declaration of the Glorious Mystery of the Person of Christ – God and Man (1679), (Works I.) Chapter three of the book, ‘The Person of Christ the most ineffable Effect of Divine Wisdom and Goodness’. ‘[O]f all the effects of the divine excellencies, the constitution of the person of Christ as the foundation of the new creation, as ‘the Mystery of Godliness,’ was the most ineffable and glorious’. (45) Owen links present faith in the mystery of the Incarnate Son to the blessed vision.

I shall only say, that those who are inconversant with these objects of faith – whose minds are not delighted in the admiration of, and acquiescency in, things incomprehensible, such as is that constitution of the person of Christ – who would reduce all things to the measure of their own understandings, or else willfully live in the neglect of what they cannot comprehend – do not much prepare themselves for that vision of these things in glory, wherein our blessedness doth consist. (52)

This isn’t simply the exaggerated language of a grumpy late Puritan, soured and disillusioned by political failure and defeat. Owen was following the logic of the Definition of Chalcedon, (451) which set forth the two-natured character of the person of the incarnate Logos. In two paragraphs, propounding the mystery of the Incarnation.

[We also teach] that we apprehend this one and only Christ – one Lord, only begotten – in two natures; [and we do this] without confusing the two natures, without transmuting one nature into the other, without transmuting one nature into the other, without dividing them into two separate categories, without contrasting them according to area or function. (Leith, Creeds of the Churches, 36)

Notice two features of this language. First, these expression set out the apprehension of the ‘one and only Christ’.  Not comprehension, but apprehension. This is borne out by the fact tat there follow a number of negative statements. The two natures are ‘without confusion’, without transmuting one nature into the other, without dividing them, and finally without contrasting them according to area or function. This is negative theology, setting out what the consequences of the Incarnation does not have, rather than providing a positive account of the mystery of the Incarnation. This language safeguards that mystery it does not explain it.

In referring to the incarnation as ‘absolutely incomprehensible’ Owen used the two words with deliberation. By that phrase he did not mean ‘entailing a self contradiction’. The Puritans and Reformed Orthodox were hot on the principle of non-contradiction. No sound doctrine contained one.  Rather, if something is absolutely incomprehensible to us then we cannot, as finite beings with limited comprehension,  understand it. Not even partially. We cannot get our minds around it. It is a fundamental feature of the Creator creature relationship that the finite cannot encompass the infinite. So then if something is incomprehensible we cannot understand or get around our minds round what is infinite. If incomprehensibility is due to a failure on our part to understand what a ‘black hole’ or what an ‘enzyme’ is, then to the extent that we understand these terms then our comprehension is increased. These are cases of what we may call ‘conditional' comprehension or incomprehension. We start to comprehend these terms when some competent person explains them to us. You might say that we cannot ever comprehend anything fully. We may all too obviously misunderstand a detail or an implication, and so our understanding is pretty good though not complete, functionally sufficient. What Owen meant by attaching ‘absolutely’ to ‘incomprehensibility’ is that there are states of affairs that we shall never fully understand. Not even in heaven, since our finitude is essential to us.  Of course in this plight we may resort to non-literal descriptions. So Calvin when referring to the Incarnation spoke of God ‘clothing’ himself with our nature. We are in a state of absolute incomprehension when the attempt to put into literal language that the infinite and eternal God is in union with a human nature fails. Here it is not a case of being short of a detail or details, but that the very idea of an infinite being taking on a finite nature is will be beyond us. That state of affairs is absolutely incomprehensible or, in another of Owen’s expressions, it is ‘ineffable’.


What might be called the theological sensibility of Owen is very different from that which is generally current in evangelicalism. For him, the Christian faith pivots on a mystery. No effort is made to qualify it in any way. By contrast, the current temper is to attempt to iron out the sharp edges of divine mysteries by devising ‘models’ of this and of that mystery. The very presence  of mystery in the faith seems to rankle. The presence of mysteries in the gospel, particularly the mysteries of the triunity of God and the incarnation of the God-man, seem to get in the way, and it is the task of apologetics n ‘Christian scholarship’  to create  human analogies which will  sugar the pill. Owen had met such people.

Some would have all things that we are to believe to be levelled absolutely unto our reason and comprehension – a principle which, at this day, shakes the very foundations of the Christian religion. It is not sufficient, they say, to determine that the faith or knowledge of anything is necessary unto our obedience and salvation, that it seems to be fully and perspicuously in the Scripture – unless less the things so revealed  be obvious and comprehensible unto our reason…(50)

So we find efforts to treat the God-man,  is that the mystery of the Incarnation comes to be understood along Nestorian lines, or Apollinarianism, or Kenoticism or Arianism, or some variant of these. Some favour a ‘Christology from below’, others a ‘Christology from above’ some even seek to offer an account of a materialist Christology, it now being passé to employ the character of an immaterial spirit. Others venture the thought that when Jesus died God died, and was dead for three days. There are even advocates of a non-incarnational incarnation, for 'incarnation' is a word which is to be used metaphorically rather than one that expresses the literal truth. It may be that the scholar thinks he has a novel insight, but the novelty will as likely as not turn out to be one of the above, or some combination of these features.


Owen links the ineffable mystery of the Incarnation with what the apostles have to say. It is understandable that in those who lack faith the Incarnation is ‘absurd and unreasonable’. ‘But where this faith is, the greatness of the mysteries which it [the Incarnation] embraceth heightens its efficacy, in all its blessed effects, upon the soul. Such is the constitution of the person of Christ, wherein the glory of all the properties and perfections of the divine nature is manifested and shine forth. He links this with apostolic passages such as ‘Beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, we are changed into the same image, from glory to glory’. (2 Cor. 3.18)

The glass wherein this glory is represented unto us – proposed to our view and contemplation – is divine revelation in the Gospel. Herein we behold it, by faith alone. And those whose view is steadfast, who most abound in that contemplation by the exercise of faith, are ‘changed into the same image, from glory to glory’ – or  are more and more renewed and transformed into the likeness of God, so represented unto them. (51)
That which shall, at last, perfectly effect our utmost conformity to God, and therein, our eternal blessedness – is vision, or sight. ‘We shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is’ (I Jn. 3.2) Here faith begins what sight shall perfect hereafter.  But yet ‘we walk by faith, and not by sight’ (2 Cor. 5.7)  But yet ‘we walk by faith , and not by sight:’. (2 Cor 5.7) And although the life of faith and vision differ in degrees – or as some think, in kind – yet have they both the same object, and the same operations, and there is a great cognation* between them.  (51)
 (*cognation - relationship by descent  from the same ancestor  or source.