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[Common Places] Pro-Nicene Theology: Ineffability in Scripture

Categories Theology Common Places

psalm 40 from st albans psalter.jpgOur current series, Pro-Nicene Theology, offers doctrinal and exegetical entries to the key tenets of basic Trinitarian orthodoxy as developed in the early centuries of the church. For introduction to the series, see this first post.

It seems odd that the doctrine of divine ineffability should be found among the crucial presuppositions of trinitarian theology. To confess God’s ineffability is to confess that God exceeds, eludes, and finally escapes our statements about him. That confession would seem to be a conversation stopper, or at least an objection preemptive enough to shame any lecturer into quietly filing away his or her notes for a learned discourse on the Trinity. Clever philosophers of religion have even observed that if something were absolutely ineffable, we could not say so, because that would be saying enough about it to prove we could say something about it. What kind of theologian would call God ineffable and then go on to make all sorts of particular claims about the three persons, their relations and processions, their essence and mutual indwelling? The answer is that a trinitarian theologian would do this, and as Michael Allen has shown with reference to Gregory of Nazianzus’ Theological Orations, the move is typical of pro-Nicene theologies.

The Biblical Paradox of Praise

It is also biblical, picking out a vital theme from scripture and rendering it more explicit for a particular task, even raising this biblical theme to the condition of methodological self-awareness for trinitarian theologians. We would not expect Holy Scripture to give an analytic rendering of this theme, and it doesn’t. The rather abstract word “ineffable” does not occur (to say nothing of John Hick’s bloodless replacement term, “transcategorical”). What the prophets and apostles have to say about what cannot be said is in a register more doxological than doxastic; it can be gathered from their instruction about praise.

“Great is the Lord,” says the Psalmist, immediately adding the corollary: “and greatly to be praised” (Ps 145:3). The repetition of the adjectival “great” in the adverbial “greatly” highlights the need for our praise to correspond to its object. And though that verbal repetition is more a phenomenon of the entrenched tradition of a lovely English translation (the Hebrew original does not play on repeating a word here; nor do Septuagint or Vulgate), it felicitously expresses the biblical notion of praise. We are called to praise God, to respond verbally in a way that answers to his goodness, corresponding to it.

But how could our praise correspond to such an object? The same Psalms that summon us to speak greatly of the greatness of God also press us from the opposite direction, admitting the impossibility of the task: “his greatness is unsearchable.” Another Psalm (106:2) bids us to “give thanks to the Lord” just before demanding, “who can utter the mighty deeds of the Lord, or declare all his praises?” And Psalm 40, rejoicing not only in salvation but in the fact that the God of salvation “has put a new song in my mouth,” sings of the unsingability of God’s works:

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. (Psalm 40:5)

God’s deeds and thoughts are unfathomable (“unsearchable”), unutterable (“who can utter”), incomparable (“none can compare”); unenumerable (“they are more”); inenarrable (“than can be told”); and inexplicable.

But Scripture places us before another ascent, even steeper. All of God’s actions, including even the most characteristic and telling interventions he makes in establishing his covenant, are only the divine ways with the world. Behind those ways rises up the majesty and mystery of God’s own identity, with whatever reserves and recesses are proper to it. “Behold, these are but the outskirts of his ways,” cries Job after reviewing God’s work in establishing the cosmos, “and how small a whisper do we hear of him” (Job 26:14). Stumped by the unspeakable greatness of what God does, surely those who are called to praise him must be double stumped by who and what he is. Why not conclude, with Job, “I lay my hand over my mouth” (Job 40:4), and leave it there?

Trinitarian Revelation

The short answer is that according to Holy Scripture, God did not leave it there, but revealed something more of himself, and revealed it differently than might have been expected. In the fullness of time, the Father sent forth the Son and the Holy Spirit, both of whom are articulate witnesses of God; they are the divine self-witness in person. The characteristic voice of the New Testament is a praise of God for making himself known in this uniquely intimate way as he accomplishes a long-promised salvation. “No one has seen God at any time; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known,” says John 1:18. “No one knows the Father except the Son, and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him,” says the Jesus of Matthew 11:27.

In passing from the documents of the Old Testament to those of the New Testament, we often see rhetorical questions (“who can declare,” “who has known the mind of the Lord?”) given eschatological answers (“the Son has made him known,” “we have the mind of Christ”). Proverbs (30:4) seems almost to be joking when it asks, “Who has established all the ends of the earth? What is his name, and what is his son’s name?” But the New Testament is in dead earnest when it responds with confidence that we know the name of his Son.

Theologians have scrambled to keep up with what Scripture affirms about the ineffable Trinity, and have offered various helpful conceptual paraphrases of this central canonical claim. Hilary of Poitiers developed his pro-Nicene doctrine of the Trinity in terms of testimony, arguing that “He whom we can know only through His own utterances is a fitting witness concerning Himself” (Hilary of Poitiers, On the Trinity, 1:18). John of Damascus opened his treatise On the Orthodox Faith by collating the New Testament’s most striking statements about the Son and the Spirit revealing the Father and concluding, in high apophatic style, “the Deity, therefore, is ineffable and incomprehensible.”[1] John Calvin promoted the doctrine of the Trinity to the place of a capstone in his treatise on the knowledge of God (Institutes, Book I, chapter 13), and Karl Barth gave the doctrine a post-Kantian inflection in his talk of God’s primary objectivity (the Father standing over against the Son and Spirit in the unobstructed light which is the divine being) as the deep background of his secondary objectivity (God standing over against human knowers in the light of revelation). Perhaps the Platonic Kantian colorings of some of these ways of talking are not as attractive to us as they were to the theologians who propounded them. But their very diversity of idiom seems to be an indicator that they are bearing manifold witness to a crucial deliverance of the biblical witness.

Ineffability is not properly a divine attribute, for surely God is capable of being eloquent about himself even to himself. The Father corresponds perfectly to the Son as the Son perfectly explicates the Father in the Spirit of truth. When we consider divine ineffability, we are rather thinking about the nature of theology, the limits of speech about God, and of the possibilities of praise. Trinitarian theology is a sustained attempt to speak worthily of the ineffable God, in a doxological response to the way he has made himself known ultimately in the Son and the Holy Spirit. Its task is to correspond to God’s self-correspondence, blessing the God who has blessed us in the beloved, greatly praising the greatness of the triune Lord.


Fred Sanders (PhD, Graduate Theological Union) is Professor of Theology in the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University in La Mirada, California. Author of numerous books on Trinitarian theology, he has most recently written The Triune God in the New Studies in Dogmatics series.


Common Places is a regular column on the Zondervan Academic blog with a focus on systematic theology. The loci communes or “common places” of Christian theology, drawn out of the Scriptures and organized in a manner suitable to their exposition in the church and the academy, have functioned historically as common points of reference for theological discussion and debate. This column will focus upon the classical loci of systematic theology, not as occasions for revision, but as opportunities for entering into the ongoing conversation that is Christian systematic theology. We invite you to join and dialog with us on the first and third Thursdays of every month. For more about Common Places, read the column introduction.

Our current series, Pro-Nicene Theology, offers doctrinal and exegetical entries to the key tenets of basic Trinitarian orthodoxy as developed in the early centuries of the church.

Michael Allen and Scott Swain, editors


[1] John of Damascus, Writings, trans. Frederic H. Chase Jr. (Washington, DC: Catholic University Press, 1958), 165.

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