The Revelation of the Inscrutable God

John Owen on the Glory of Christ: Chapter 5 parts 1-4


What may be known of God, is, – his nature and existence, with the holy counsels of his will. A representation of them unto us is the foundation of all religion, and the means of our conformity unto him – wherein our present duty and future blessedness do consist. For to know God, so as thereby to be made like unto him, is the chief end of man. This is done perfectly only in the person of Christ, all other means of it being subordinate thereunto, and none of them of the same nature therewithal. The end of the Word itself, is to instruct us in the knowledge of God in Christ. That, therefore, which I shall now demonstrate, is, that in the person and mediation of Christ (which are inseparable, in all the respects of faith unto him) there is made unto us a blessed representation of the glorious properties of the divine nature, and of the holy  counsels of the will of God. The first of these I shall speak unto in this chapter – the other, in that which ensues; wherein we shall manifest how all divine truths do center in the person of Christ and the consideration of sundry things is necessary unto the explication hereof.
1. God, in his own essence, being, and existence, is absolutely incomprehensible. His nature being immense, and all his holy properties essentially infinite, no creature can directly or perfectly comprehend them, or any of them. He must be infinite that can perfectly comprehend that which is infinite; wherefore God is perfectly known unto himself only – but as for us, how little a portion is heard of him! Hence he is called “The invisible God,” and said to dwell in “light inaccessible.” The subsistence of his most single and simple nature in three distinct persons, though it raises and ennobles faith in its revelation, yet it amazeth reason which would trust to itself in the contemplation of it – whence men grow giddy who will own no other guide, and are carried out of the way of truth. “No man has seen God at any time; the only-begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has declared him:” John 1:18; 1 Timothy 6:16.

2. Therefore, we can have no direct intuitive notions or apprehensions of the divine essence, or its properties. Such knowledge is too wonderful for us. Whatever is pleaded for an intellectual vision of the essence of God in the light of glory, yet none pretend unto a possibility of an immediate, full comprehension of it. But, in our present state, God is unto us, as he was unto Moses under all the external manifestations of his glory, “in thick darkness.:” Exodus 20:21. All the rational conceptions of the minds of men are swallowed up and lost, when they would exercise themselves directly on that which is absolutely immense, eternal, infinite. When we say it is to, we know not what we say, but only that it is not otherwise. What we [deny] of God, we know in some measure – but what we [affirm] we know not; only we declare what we believe and adore. “Neque sensus est ejus, neque phantsia, neque opinio, nec ratio, nec scientia”, says Dionys. De Divan. Nomine,1. We have no means – no corporeal, no intellectual instrument or power – for the comprehension of him; nor has any other creature:- “For that which is God” (the essence of God) “not only have not the prophets seen, but neither the angels nor the archangels. If thou wilt inquire of them, thou shalt hear nothing of the substance of God, but only hear them say, ‘glory to God in the highest.’ If thou askest the cherubim and seraphim, thou shalt only hear the praise of holiness, ‘The whole earth is full of his glory,'” says Chrysostom, on John 1:18.

That God is in himself absolutely incomprehensible unto us, is a necessary effect of our infinite distance from him. But as he externally represents himself unto us, and by the notions which are in generated in us by the effects of his properties, are our conceptions of him: Psalm 19:1; Romans 1:20. This is declared in the answer given unto that request of Moses: “I beseech thee, show me thy glory:” Exodus 33:18. Moses had heard a voice speaking unto him, but he that spoke was “in thick darkness” – he saw him not. Glorious evidences he gave of his majestatical presence, but no appearance was made of his essence or person. Hereon Moses desireth, for the full satisfaction of his soul, (as the nearer any one is unto God the more ernest will be his desire after the full fruition of him,) that he might have a sight of his glory – not of that created glory in the tokens of his presence and power which he had beheld, but of the untreated glory of his essence and being. Through a transport of love to God, he would have been in heaven while he was on the earth; yea, desired more than heaven itself will afford, if he would have seen the essence of God with his corporeal eyes. In answer hereunto God tells him, that he cannot see his face and live; none can have either bodily sight or direct mental intuition of the Divine Being. But this I will do, saith God, “I will make my glory pass before thee, and thou shalt see my back parts:” Exodus 33:18-23, etc. This is all that God would grant, viz, such external representations of himself, in the proclamation of his name, and created appearances of his glory, as we have of a man whose back parts only we behold as he passeth by us. But as to the being of God, and his subsistence in the Trinity of persons, we have no direct intuition into them, much less comprehension of them.
3. It is evident, therefore, that our conceptions of God, and of the glorious properties of his nature, are both in generated in us and regulated, under the conduct of divine revelation, by reflections of his glory on other things, and representations of his divine excellencies in the effects of them. So the invisible things of God, even his eternal power and Godhead, are clearly seen, being manifested and understood by the things that are made: Romans 1:20. Yet must it be granted that no mere creature, not the angels above, not the heaven of heavens, are meet or able to receive upon them such characters of the divine excellencies, as to be a complete, satisfactory representation of the being and properties of God unto us. They are all finite and limited and so cannot properly represent that which is infinite and immense. And this is the true reason why all worship or religious adoration of them is idolatry. Yet are there such effects of God’s glory in them, such impressions of divine excellencies upon them, as we cannot comprehend nor search out unto perfection. How little do we conceive of the nature, glory, and power of angels! So remote are we from an immediate comprehension of the untreated glory of Gods as that we cannot fully apprehend nor conceive aright the reflection of it on creatures in themselves finite and limited. Hence, they thought of old, when they had seen an angels that so much of the divine perfections had been manifested unto them that thereon they must die: Judges 13:21, 22. Howbeit, they come infinitely short of making any complete representation of God; nor is it otherwise with any creature whatever.