Augustine and the undoing of arguments toward ignorance

slight knowledge

If you say you understand God, it’s not God you understand. You’ve probably heard or read something like this in dozens of books, sermons and lectures over the last 1700 years or so (but with a renewed vigor in the last 20). Usually, it’s used as an argument against certainty, especially about our knowledge of God.

To say we know anything about God is presumptuous some suggest. Wouldn’t it be better to admit just how little we know? Turning to Augustine, some even seek an ally, for, as he wrote:

We are speaking of God. Is it any wonder if you do not comprehend? For if you comprehend, it is not God you comprehend. Let it be a pious confession of ignorance rather than a rash profession of knowledge. To attain some slight knowledge of God is a great blessing; to comprehend him, however, is totally impossible.[1. Augustine, Lectures on the Gospel of John, as quoted in Reformed Dogmatics, vol 2, 48]

But is Augustine truly an ally—is he the undoer of their arguments? For to be sure, one who would argue that we can exhaustively know God’s thoughts and intentions, his character and his being… those who suggest such things are speaking too quickly (and foolishly).

But a lack of comprehension—our inability to fully and exhaustively know God—does not mean we cannot know something. Remember that, even as Augustine said it is impossible to comprehend him, “to attain some slight knowledge of God is a great blessing.” Which means: there is something of God that is knowable.

What Augustine reminds us of is our ability to apprehend God. To grasp something of him. And certainly, this is no arrogant thing to say, for God desires for us to know him. Were that not the case, he would not have revealed himself to us, in creation, in his written Word, and most fully in the person of Jesus Christ.

In creation, we see God’s creativity, his love of beauty, his precision and attention to detail, among other things. In the Bible, we are given his character and declared will, his plans and purposes for this world and its inhabitants. And in Jesus, we see all of what has been known of God in the abstract—his justice and mercy, compassion and commandments—most fully and tangibly expressed. Do we understand it all fully? Of course not. It is far too much for us. But to grasp something of God—to begin to understand what he reveals to us—is a great blessing indeed.


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