Ineffable, all-surpassing, incomparable, unimaginable and incomprehensible

325We’d like to mention five New Testament passages in which a vision of and appreciation for divine transcendence is explicitly at work.

EXULTING IN A JOY THAT’S INEFFABLE. “Ineffable” just means “indescribable” or “unspeakable.” Some object to the idea of God’s being ineffable. But it does not mean nothing can be said truthfully about God. It means no speech about God can exhaust him. God can’t be “contained” or “reduced without remainder” to what we can say. And it’s a biblical idea. In addition, we are able to experience this ineffability for ourselves in some small measure. In 1Peter 1, Peter describes the suffering believer as “rejoicing with a joy unspeakable.” Now just look at that. We “rejoice” (or “exult”) with/in a joy which is “unspeakable” (or “ineffable”) while others persecute or harm or do us violence. Here we have an experience of transcendent joy in suffering.

KNOWING LOVE THAT SURPRASSES KNOWING. In Ephesians 3 Paul prays that we “know that love which surpasses/transcends knowing.” Surely we can appreciate the transcendent at work in Paul’s thinking here. Do we “know” God’s love intimately? Experience it genuinely? Of course, yes. Paul says as much: “…that ye know God’s love….” Nobody suggests an understanding of transcendence that denies this.

But this love also “transcends” (“surpasses” or “exceeds”) our very real knowledge and experience of it. That’s Paul as well. Here we must at least recognize that God exceeds our experience of God, not just in the sense that God is “more of the same” (like a bowl of a single flavor of ice-cream so large we’ll never eat our way through it; not just immeasurably more of what is known), but he is something unimaginably more — more diverse, more surprising, more astounding, more satisfying, more novel, more unimaginable, more ineffable, more than our present experience contains without denying it — always exceeding our experience and knowledge without falsifying them.

DESTINED FOR A GLORY THAT IS INCOMPARABLE. In Romans 8.18 Paul writes that “no present sufferings are worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us,” the glory that will thoroughly define us when our embodied selves are properly glorified by the beatific vision, the vision of God’s glory. What surprises are in this passage. How is it that our experience of God’s glory will render all conceivable suffering incomparably beside the point, not even worthy of being compared to the experience of God? Is God really that beautiful? Is the beatific vision really that defining?

If no present suffering can possibly compare to the joy that shall be ours by virtue of this vision, what does this say about the God who always perceives his own beauty, about the very joy and delight God presently gets from seeing himself? And if the glory which God now is shall transcend all our sufferings when we participate in it, what must be the case about God’s present transcendence of all suffering in light of the fact that he eternally is this glory? Augustine describes God as perfectissima pulchritudo et beatissima delectation, “the most perfect beauty and the most blessed delight.” And that’s exactly how Greg Boyd envisions God’s essential necessary experience in Trinity and Process. God doesn’t have to wait (as we do) for the eschaton to bring his experience of glory to fulfillment. He is that glory now.

joy1CONCEIVING A FUTURE THAT IS UNIMAGINABLE. In 1Corinthians 2 Paul discusses the wisdom of God’s plans which went unperceived by the world but which we believers presently enjoy. In vv. 9-10 we get this same transcendent embrace. Our experience of God in the eschaton is something which “no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for us…” similar to Romans 8. God exceeds our wildest imagination. And yet he says these things have been revealed to us by the Spirit who searches our hearts. So we have unimaginable things in store for us which are also revealed to us. Does the sense in which they are revealed to us (v. 10) falsify the sense in which they remain unimaginable? As always, describing the experience of God’s transcendent presence, we’d have to say, “Yes and no.”

GUARDED BY A PEACE THAT’S INCOMPREHENSIBLE In Philippians 4.7 Paul promises that the “peace of God which passes all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” We open theists stress the importance of divine ‘vulnerability’ (and that has its place). However, here is a passage that describes that about God which because it is not vulnerable is able guard our hearts and minds, and that something is “God’s peace.” This regards transcendence specifically. God has a peace (or rather is a peace) which surpasses comprehension/understanding, and this peace can guard one’s mental and emotional life. And though we have passages that describe our future enjoyment of this in its fullness, here we are told that this peace which defines God can come to define us in our present experience, and the transcendent enjoyment of it is beyond comprehension.

It is the experience of God in the above terms (as ineffable joy, as all-surpassing love, as incomparable glory, as unimaginable hope and as incomprehensible peace) which the term “transcendent” seeks to capture in describing God and our experience of God. While God is truly experienced, and truly God is experienced, God nevertheless always exceeds our wildest imaginations and purest propositions — not simply in the quantitative sense as being “immeasurably more of the same” as if we repeat what we comprehend of him eternally, but in the transcendent sense of always carrying us beyond our own categories. God will forever be the categorically new, and in this sense he is always categorically other.

(Pictures here and Scot Saw’s Transcendence here.)

3 comments on “Ineffable, all-surpassing, incomparable, unimaginable and incomprehensible

  1. Schmid Manuel says:

    Tom, thank you so much for your Blogposts – you guys are great! I’m just working on my dissertation (PhD-Thesis) on Greg Boyds theological and philosophical approach… and I am currently enjoying and struggling with »Trinity and Process«. Your insights and critical comments help me a lot! Hope to see you again sometime (we met at the open conference 2013)! Manuel


    • tgbelt says:

      Hi Manuel! I’m so glad we got to meet when you were visiting. Dwayne and I would love to stay in touch and learn of the progress of your dissertation. I wish more people would read Trinity and Process. It’s not light reading, true. But it has some great insights we think. But as you can tell, there’s been a real shift in Greg’s thinking since he wrote it.


  2. […] ‘reasons for grieving’ = God’s state of mind), proved to be too much. At the same time, the biblical plausibility of such a view of transcendence strengthened my confidence as well. Transcendence as apatheia (as […]


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