How do we know that what we say of God is actually accurate about who he is? How do we know what God is like? Well, in answer to this question, there are functionally two answers.

1. Bottom-Up Reasoning – this view says that whoever God is, we can say true things about God just by virtue of our own intuitions and reasoning. This view functions by asking these sort of questions as a means of saying accurate things about God: a good God wouldn’t do X, Y or Z, why? because those things would contradict what I believe is good. Or, that a loving, or reasonable, God surely could not be able to do X, Y, or Z. I would not believe a God who does those things. Really, this view assumes that, fundamentally, God would think, exist, or reason just like humans would. That by virtue of reasoning on our own, we would discover that God would approve of the things that we would approve, and disapprove of the things that we would disapprove. This view argues that human reason or intuition, per se (on its own) could track God’s thoughts, character, and being. Theology could be accurately done by self-reflection.

This view thus also assumes univocal reasoning – that words predicated of us must apply in exactly the same sense when applied to God.

Let’s use a couple of examples: think about the word love. In today’s cultural climate, the word normally entails a sentimental approval of whatever our beloved wants to do. It says that if you truly love someone, you would not judge him or her, no matter what he or she chooses to do. Love, in this view, normally means tolerance and respect for the person’s “right” to do whatever he or she wants to do.

Now let’s apply univocal reasoning to the word love: if that’s what love means to us (by our own intuitions or self-reflection) then it must mean the same way when we apply it to God. If God is love, then, he would never be a judging God – never a God of wrath. He is a God with sentimental tendencies, and wants everyone to be happy irrespective of whether or not they live in a “moral” way. It assumes that God is in the same level of being as us, and thus our self-constructive definition of love must also be the definition under which God is bound.

In this view, then, we can reason from the bottom-up (from self-constructed definitions to God) toward true theology. God is, after all, only higher from us in degree, and not in being. So the definitions that bound us must also bound God in the same way – he is higher only in that he can manifest that self-constructed definition of love in a better way.

Is there a different view of how we could know accurate things about God? There is:

2. Top-Down Reasoning

Fundamental to a Christian understanding of reality is the conviction that there are two levels of being: God, as the creator, and everything else as created by God. In other words, whatever that exists that is not God is created by God. God is the only one who is necessary, independent, and self-sufficient, whereas everything else is dependent, contingent, or necessary only by virtue of God’s prior decision. God’s being is fundamentally different from everything else – there is a “distance” of being between the two.

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God’s eternity is an eternity, for example, that goes beyond time and space – God is eternal even prior to the creation of time or space. It’s not as if his eternity is just an endless duration of time, nor a static existence within space – He is eternal. It’s an eternity that transcends our spatio-temporal categories. God is not divided into parts, yet in His undivided self there exists real distinctions within the Persons of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The personal distinctions within the Trinity, however, does not compromise the basic fact that God is One. Surely, this reality goes beyond human understanding.

This distance, then, between God and us poses for us a problem: how do we say anything about this God, the true God? How do we know him at all? His being is fundamentally different than who we are as creatures.

Well, for sure, according to this view we cannot know God by virtue of reasoning from the bottom-up. Reasoning from the bottom-up in an attempt to say true things about God will only produce a picture of god much less than the true God – it will be fashioning god according to our level of being, and never getting at who God is, as he really is.

So, the only way we can know God is if God condescends, and freely so. In God’s voluntary condescension, he communicates to us who He is. Instead of applying our perceived definitions of love, for example, we must wait until he defines for us what kind of love he exemplifies. Instead of assuming that our definitions would apply to God in the same way, we know that he might define them in a way that we would not expect.

In this view, then, God communicates to us analogically – because he communicates to us in human language, we can know him truly, though, precisely because he communicates to us in condescension, and in human language, we would never know him exhaustively. So, God’s love may have an analogy in human love, but it may never be constrained to that definition. It is a love that is defined primarily by himself, and not by us. This is made even more clear when we consider that our intuitions is tainted by sin, and could be radically mistaken.

In the first view, we can know God by self-reflection (reason alone). In the second view, self-reflection is insufficient at best or totally wrongheaded at worst; instead, we can only know God by virtue of his revelation. And that revelation is found in the Scriptures.

Let’s use another example: think about the word presence. I am present here on my seat. When I am present here, no one else could be present right where I am. I have exhausted this space. My “presence” and another human person’s “presence” is the same kind of “presence.” That’s why no one else can be present where I am.

But God’s presence is a different kind of presence than my presence. Though I am present here, the Bible teaches us that God is present exactly where I am too. His presence does not violate my presence. He is present everywhere. Yet at the same time God’s presence is analogous to my presence: he really is here where I am – He is never far away.

Think, also, about the word cause. On a creaturely level, I cannot cause someone to do something in a guaranteed manner. I may try by persuasion, or by negotiation, but I cannot ensure that I would effectually cause people to do things. If I could, then I would be making them robots. But God’s causation is not the same as our causation. God could cause all things to come to pass, including all human creatures, without violating their wills, personhoods, or making them robots (Prov. 21:1; Lam. 3:37-38). But his causation remains analogous to our causation.

So, when we meet those who claim to know God – it is a worthwhile question to ask – how do you know that God? and if no appeal to divine revelation is made, then a sound follow-up question or challenge might be: how do you know that the god you believe in or reject is the true God, how do you know that what you believe God has to be really is how God is like?

The only path to true theology is dependence, therefore, on his own revelation – from the Christian view that revelation is found in the Bible.

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