What Can We Know And How?

During the Watergate hearings, Senator Howard Baker asked, “What did the President know, and when did he know it?” However important that question was in the politics of 1973, it remains an important question in theology today.

A friend writes to ask what Reformed theologians mean when they speak of humans having analogical knowledge.1 The question is whether we can know anything, even for a moment, the way God knows it. This question raises an even more fundamental question: What does it mean to speak of the distinction between the Creator and the creature?

These are fundamental questions because they are among the most basic questions of human existence, and if we get the answers wrong, those errors reverberate throughout our theology.

The short answer to the most basic question of the Creator/creature relation is that humans are nothing more or less than image bearers (Gen 1:26). We are analogues of the Creator, but we are not, and never become, the Creator. That would seem to be a fairly obvious truth from Scripture. After all, Scripture says, “In the beginning God. . . ,” and we are nowhere to be found until God says, “let there be . . . and there was.” We are the product of God’s Word. We did not participate in the act of creation. We did not help to plan the creation. We are creatures. This is what Job 38 is all about. When God asks Job, “Where were you when . . . ?” the answer is, “Nowhere.”

We reflect God. We are like God in certain ways, but we are not God. This will come as a surprise to the anthropomorphites (an ancient heresy from the period of the early church) such as the Mormons who think God the Father and God the Spirit have bodies. God the Son became incarnate, it is true, but before the incarnation he had no body, and only the Son is incarnate. This will also come as a surprise to certain evangelical theologians who postulate that perhaps the Mormons have a point.2

We do not exist on a continuum with God. We exist on an entirely separate plane from God. We are not on our way to becoming God or gods (this view has long been held in segments of the Eastern and Western Churches and is gaining in popularity among evangelicals and even among some Reformed folk). Yes, believers will be glorified, but glorification is not deification. Even Adam was not to be deified, but glorified. Deity is not something that can be transferred.

When we say that we are analogues of God, we are recognizing the vast differences between God and his creatures. Isaiah recognized these differences when he said,

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isa 55:8)

Moses said essentially the same thing in Deut 29:29: “The secret things belong to Yahweh our God, but the revealed things belong to us and to our children forever.”

To recognize this difference in kind of being that humans experience and that God is, Reformed theologians have said that the “finite is not capable of the infinite.” Even in glorification we always remain creatures. To emphasize this point, Cornelius Van Til (1895–1987) used to say that humans and God exist on separate, parallel planes. We are separate and unequal. This is why the classical Reformed theologians used to speak of archetypal theology as belonging to God and ectypal theology as belonging to humans. Johannes Wollebius (1589–1629) wrote,

True theology is called archetypal or ectypal. Archetypal theology is the knowledge by which God knows himself, which in reality is no different from the essence of God. Ectypal theology is a kind of copy (effigies) of archetypal theology which is first of all in Christ the God-Man and secondarily, to be sure, in the members of Christ. (Compendium, 1)

When Wollebius said “archetypal” he meant the original, the eternal, the divine, that which, by definition, only God has. When he said “ectypal” he meant the copy, the finite, that which humans can have. To say the same thing in a different way, a few decades later, the Reformed theologian Johannes Marckius (1656–1731) spoke of the “analogy” between God’s way of thinking and ours.

There are lots of folk who no longer accept these distinctions, and many more who do not know they exist. Many evangelical and many Reformed folk speak as if the only way to really know something is to know it the way God does. Think about this for a moment. What if we said that the only way to exist is to exist as God does. Really? Whatever the health gurus tell you, unless Jesus comes we are going to die. Not only is God not going to die, he cannot die. It is axiomatic in Scripture that God’s existence is different in kind from ours. “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the Word of our God will stand forever” (Isa 40:8).

We use analogies all the time with the understanding that the ultimate reality is much more complex than we can say to a given audience. When a relative is dying of cancer, one does not tell a three-year-old all the gruesome biological and medical details. We say, “So-and-so is very sick.” Is that statement true? Yes. Is it all the truth that could be said? No, but it is all the truth that can be said to a three-year-old.

To be an image bearer is to be like God; it is not to be (or become) God. If we are or become God, then we are not image bearers any longer. An image bearer is an analogue. It is like the sacraments. The sacraments are not salvation themselves; they are signs and seals of salvation. The Passover supper was not the actual deliverance out of Egypt; it was a sign and seal of deliverance.

It is also a great mistake to confuse God’s accommodated baby talk for what God knows in himself. This is another mistake that many evangelical and some Reformed theologians are making today. They relocate what God knows and when he knew it to Scripture. Then, they tell us what Scripture says and means, and voilà! They think they know what God knows and they know it the way he knows it.

Have you ever tried to argue with someone who thinks he knows what God knows, the way God knows it? That is the definition of frustration. How does one argue with infinite knowledge?

Well, moving God’s archetypal theology into Scripture is a nice card trick, but the problem with such a move is that Scripture is itself accommodated. It is not “what God knows, the ways he knows it” in himself. Revelation is what God wants us to know. To make Scripture “what God knows in himself” changes the nature of Scripture from an accommodation to a means of deification. That is just perverse. We do not ascend to God. God the Son, the Revelation, has descended to us (Eph 4:9) in the incarnation (Phil 2:5–11) that he might take us to his Father.

What do we know? We know what God reveals to us in creation and in Scripture. When do we know it? We know it when God reveals himself to us. We are always and only the recipients of revelation. We are never the originators of revelation. Further, revelation is always accommodated to human finitude the way a sane grown-up accommodates himself to a child. This is why Calvin said that God speaks baby talk when he speaks to us.[3] What God says to us in revelation is always true, but it is always finite. God is always true, but he is always infinite. That means that God understands what we know entirely (remarkably, some Christians postulate that God cannot know what we know because he is infinite!), but we can never understand things the way God does in himself—that is, when he is not, as it were, stooping over to speak baby talk to us.


  1. For more on analogical knowledge, see chapters 4–5 in R. Scott Clark, Recovering the Reformed Confession (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2008).
  2. See Clark H. Pinnock, Most Moved Mover: A Theology of God’s Openness, (Ada, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), in which he cites Mormon theologians approvingly.
  3. “God, in so speaking, lisps with us as nurses are wont to do with little children” (Institutes, 1.13.1).

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on the Heidelblog in 2009.


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