The Unknowable God

You cannot know God – but you have to know Him to know that. – Fr. Thomas Hopko


Fr. Hopko’s small aphorism is among my favorites in contemporary Orthodoxy. Besides the fact that it sounds humorous – it states one of the most profound paradoxes within the Orthodox faith. This fundamental truth is stated in a variety of ways: we say that God cannot be known in His Divine Essence while affirming that we may know Him in His Divine Energies. We cannot know Him, yet we must know Him.

The deepest proclamation of the Church is that the God who cannot be known has made Himself known to us in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, the God/Man. What could not be known has now been given to us.

There are a number of existential realities that flow from these simple statements – and they are worth considering:

  • What do I know of God rather than about God?
  • Is the God I know more than my own personal projections?
  • Is anything required of me in order to know God?
  • Is there anything beyond myself and my own efforts required to know God?
  • What relationship does this have with the story of Jesus Christ?

The difference between knowing about God and actually knowing God should be obvious. The child of a famous man may not know much “about” his father – but unlike people who know “all about” his father – he is one of the few who actually know him. The difference is far more than a matter of degree. One kind of knowledge is utterly derivative – it can be obtained without any contact with the person involved. I noticed the strangeness of this when some 15 or 20 years back, Bugs Bunny, the cartoon character, celebrated his fiftieth “birthday,” accompanied with major magazine articles and analysis. Of course, all of the learned discourse was about someone who does not exist (at least in the usual meaning of the word). Thus there is a form of theology and religious thought that does not require belief in God (of course, both are false forms theology). Theology that begins with an assumed point of revealed knowledge and then proceeds to build upon that purely through the efforts of human reason is little better than theology without belief in God. God is not an axiom to be assumed as though He were a mathematical formula.

Of course when I say, “I know God,” the question remains, “Am I in delusion?” How do I know whether my experience is anything other than my own inner projections? St. Peter wrote, “Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation” 2 Peter 1:20. The same applies generally to our experience of God. Does what I know of God agree with the experience of the Church throughout the ages? Though such knowledge of God cannot be described as “objective,” it is, nonetheless, an intuitive perception that is communal. It is not simply that I know God, but that we know God – and we bear witness that we know the same God.

The Hebrew verb yada (forgive my lack of a Hebrew font) means “to know,” but is frequently used in passages such as “Adam knew his wife and she conceived….” It is a deeply intimate word that implies union as well as knowledge. It is not a passive form of knowledge. English does not have a verb to allow us to distinguish between passive and active knowledge. We have a verb, to ignore, that implies an active form of ignorance. Knowledge of God, however, assumes activity on our part – it is not a passive revelation, but a cooperative knowing. Thus Christ, in making Himself known to the rebellious Saul (soon-to-be the Apostle Paul), says to him, “It is hard for you to kick against the goads.” He indicates that Saul has been repeatedly confronting Christ, but also repeatedly ignoring these efforts on God’s part. Paul’s response to the light that he sees and the voice that he hears is straightforward, “Who are you Lord?” There is a ready recognition of the power of the revelation, and by naming it “Lord,” a recognition that he is ready to surrender. Our own participation in the knowledge of God presumes that we are actively giving our hearts to Him.

The kind of knowledge we seek of God, is not only active on our own side of things, but is active on God’s side as well. The perfection of such knowledge is described by St. Paul with the words, “Then we shall know even as we are known” (1 Cor. 13). God is active, living and free. He is not an inert object forced by His own existence to be available to our will. God makes Himself known to us as gift. Thus an open heart, a willingness to be patient, and a respect for the Gift and the Giver are required of us.

There is another important action that is inherent in knowing such a God. It is the essential part of an apophatic life. The Church refers to its theology primarily as apophatic, meaning “that which cannot be spoken.” We know, but we cannot always put into words what we know. In the same manner, there are many things we think we know (including things about God) that simply are not true. We believe them because we’ve heard them and assume them to be true. There is a vast amount of Christian teaching that is based on hearsay (and heresy) than on true and living knowledge of God. Thus there is sometimes the necessity of a form of Christian agnosticism (admitting what we do not know) trusting the good God to make known to us what we need to know. I have seen a great deal of inner healing when people admit that false images that have haunted their life in Christ are indeed just that – false images. What you learned in Sunday School or Freshman Philosophy (or Seminary for that matter) may not always be correct (or may have been misunderstood).

God is a good God, who desires to make Himself known to us. He offers us Himself in the God/Man, Jesus Christ. The heart of the Christian gospel is that the God who cannot be known has made Himself known in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Thus we do not know a God before Christ, or beside Christ. St. John says, “The only Son who is in the bosom of the Father – He has made Him known (in the Greek – “He has exegeted the Father”). Thus we begin with Christ, incarnate, crucified and risen. The claim of the Apostolic witness is that Christ is the only exegesis of the Father.

We cannot know God – but we have to know Him in order to know that. Glory to God for His infinite mercy!


  1. I cannot thank you enough for posting this, Fr. Stephen. Glory to God for All Things!

  2. Father Stephen,
    Thank you for this, it is lovely and true.

    It seems to me that even such words as we have in English that reference this kind of true intimate knowledge have been subverted or drained of meaning through abusive cultural practices. Things that wear away at the intimate mystery of what it means to be human make it difficult to communicate about God as mysterious or intimate. This makes me wonder about the missiology of the Church in our place and time. There must already exist aspects of the life of the Church which can speak intensely to this vacuum of meaning. Just as icongraphy’s renewal is responsive to society’s abuse of images so there ought to be, either extant or in seed form, a response to these abuses of knowledge and intimacy. Can you speak to this?


  3. Victor,
    For one, the patience (generally) of Orthodox missiology is of great help. When working with inquirers and catechumens and know that I am “teaching” and that they are “learning” something, but the words are almost secondary. It’s the frequent attendance at services and paying attention to the questions that arise from within from those experiences that matters. It is beginning to fast and slowly learning to pray. It is also significant unlearning and renunciation of false images. Somewhere during all of that, things begin to happen. The priest needs to be listening to the hearts of those he works with.

    It is also one of the reasons that I “experiment” with words and images (such as my “two-storey” and “one-storey” accounts) simply to break through the fog of culture.

    Also, very important, is the use of books that are not so much on ideas, but are narratives (such as well-written saints lives) are things like the Fr. Arseny books. Being narrative, they tend to be able to get around the rationalist shield that dominates the modern mind. Stories and images in sermons are important for the same reason. Your observations of the problem are spot on.

  4. I remember the day of my first Holy Communion. At the moment of receiving Christ I knew he was with me, not in words, but really there. This happened at a time when I barely understood anything else about the liturgical rituals of the Mass. All I knew each time I participated in Mass is that I looked forward to Communion eagerly. Now I understand so much more about the liturgy, but Communion is still the climax. Through the decades this experiential knowledge has been transforming.

  5. Your essay is spoken with deep awareness and humility, and I thank you for that. I see it as analogous to the vision Ezekiel had when he was led out across vast amounts of water and coming to the point of a river that he could not cross except by swimming. Then he is led back to the bank and sees how the waters provide all life-giving elements for his benefit.

    For now I give thanks that we have each other to probe, strive and wade for God, and we can look forward to that day we do begin to know more and more of Him.

    I enjoyed the swim with you and the posters.

  6. No child puts this kind of thought into how he knows his father or mother. He just knows. He requires no validation from anyone else. Indeed, he could go his entire life without ever once questioning whether he knows his parents rightly. To dissect it would be to introduce a harmful element to the relationship (and possibly a lifetime of paranoia and therapy). Isn’t it sufficient to simply know? It requires no examination or judgment.

  7. My friend Aphy said that same thing sort of. That there is some things about God that should remain a mystery and shouldn’t even be pulled apart by humans to be examined even with our limited understanding and that its pointless and kind of vulgar in some ways. (kind of her words)
    Im inquirer into Orthodoxy and alls i want to know is, what God expects from a person so, that kind of “knowing” is all that i think someone needs. Like who wants to actually know God??? Surely once you know him you reduce him until there isn’t anything mysterious at all left??

  8. Poppy,
    Christ says, “And this is eternal life, that they might know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent” (Jn. 17:3). This is the very heart of our faith. It does not mean to understand God or to comprehend God, but to know God in such a way that we dwell in Him and He in us.

  9. JC Shores,
    I think I made this point about a child’s knowing – and contrasted it with the sort of rational examination that people often mean by knowing.

  10. Thank you Fr.,

    This makes good sense to me. Parable, narative and story all require a kind of trust not required in philosophical thought experiments. Thought experiments and other purely propositional exercises are pretty much self-contained, not requiring a narrator as anything but “source of code”. Even where there are actors in these exercises they represent less than what they are (sort of the opposite of an icon).

    I’m also appreciative of your mention of patience, a virtue. The whole of our missiology ultimately is relational and theandric, respecting both our nature and God’s. The polemical and ‘logical’ method is actually less than human and easily opens the mind to delusion as it operates in the realm of the passions. We seldom think of logic as a passion and I don’t know whether it’s properly described as such but it seems part of that family. Not that logic is evil but that it is part of the created order as it pertains to necessity and therefore mechanism.

  11. That´s that main reason I became orthodoxy. For a decade I was studying the One God from a Jewish, 1st Ct Jewish-Christian perspective to how moderns may comprehend God. It wasn´t until I studied Orthodoxy (before I haven´t read anything) when one of the Orthodox writers wrote, “We will never knew the essence of God the Father”…only His energies.” It was like a hammer hitting me over the head….everything fell into place…God, the Father..the reasons for the incarnation, suffering, death, resurrection and ascension. The resurrected and living God-Man and the Holy Spirit from the Father. What a change came for this Lutheran college & seminary trained pastor who for years knew of Jesus and the forgiveness of sins. Now, through the Eucharist…the Body & Blood…it becomes a living reality of fellowship with the Living One.

  12. Could you tell me which icon is being reproduced here? It’s a wonderful image. Thanks.

  13. CB,
    The icon is a picture of the Theotokos on the icon screen of my parish (St. Anne, Oak Ridge, TN). It is Our Lady of Vladimir, this copy painted by Dmitry Shkolnik. The photo poorly reproduces the colors.

  14. Thanks. I’m obviously showing my ignorance:

    “Our Lady of Vladimir (Russian: Владимирская Богоматерь) is one of the most venerated Orthodox icons. Regarded as the holy protectress of Russia, the icon is displayed in the Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.”


    “One of the most exquisite icons ever painted …”


    I like the copy. Again, thanks.

  15. Poppy (if I may)

    You can spend an eternity trying to paint a picture or write an icon of “He (who) has exegeted the Father” (if I may).

    And that simply, is the point.

  16. “The heart of the Christian gospel is that the God who cannot be known has made Himself known in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Thus we do not know a God before Christ, or beside Christ.”

    Admittedly, I read the Old Testament as one who was baptized into Christ. But the acts of God in the Old Testament in and of themselves reveal a glimpse, at least, of God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Especially the book of Isaiah the Prophet. Zechariah, too. And the Psalms.

    Is this not knowledge? Or does the law- apart from the Gospel of Christ- stand between us and real, experiential knowledge? (Knowledge in its full sense)

  17. armsopenwide,
    I think the OT cannot be read apart from the NT by a Christian. We think we see what we do not see. Those who use a nistorical approach and think they can begin with the OT and read forward to Christ generally get very confused about who God is. Read backwards.

  18. We cannot think that we know God (man’s thoughts simply cannot capture the essence), but rather, we know that we are known by (and in) Him — and thus we live and move and have our being. Glory to God!

  19. Andrew,
    The fathers teach that indeed we may know God in His energies, and fully participate in His Divine energies. We can’t really know the essence of anything, I would think. There are others, using slightly different language that say that we can know God as person, as in knowing the 2nd person (Christ) and through Him we know the Father. This is also taught by the Eastern fathers. I like Hopko’s, “We cannot know God, but you have to know Him to know that.”

  20. I am really struggling with this. It situates God in the “Otherness” of God, But how is God ineffible, yet effible? I am new to this concept, and it’s challenging me and making my brain hurt! If God is unknowable, how do I rest in him and enjoy him forever? How do I relate to God if he is “Beyond Being?” If he is “Beyond existence” How do I relate? The questions are not rhetorical, I want to know! It’s causing saddness in my Soul, because I don’t want God to be Beyond my ability for relationship with Him.

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