The more we learn about a topic, the greater our confidence in our abilities. Yet as in many fields, the more we learn about theology, the more we should grasp that the topic is too vast and too high for us to understand. Scripture itself provides a sufficient but specific revelation that fits our created and so limited capacities.
As Paul says, “we know in part” because see theological truth through a dim mirror (1 Cor 13:12). John likewise admits, “what we will be has not yet appeared” since we have yet to enter the beatific vision of God (1 John 3:2). We simply must admit that we have partial yet sufficient revelation about God and his creation that should simultaneously make us confident in what God has revealed to us and humble in our conclusions due to our limited capacities.
Reflecting on this limitation, we must take to heart the following three guidelines for thinking theologically.
First, discern what God has revealed and what remains mysterious
The Old Testament was full of mystery, even the Gospel of Jesus was unknown in its details until the cross (cf. Rom 16:25–26). Speaking of the future, Moses writes, “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law” (Deut 29:29). Daniel too must seal up and hide his prophecy until the end times (Dan 12:4; cf. Rev 10:14). Revelation then does reveal but it also conceals.
While the books have become unsealed because of Christ, not all truth has yet come into sharp clarity. As noted, Paul calls our knowledge partial and him. John awaits for the appearing of our future transfiguration, yet he simply does not know what that means exactly. He can affirm that “we shall be like him” (1 John 3:2) yet this similitude cannot precede further due the limits placed on revelation and our capacity to understand.
The book of Revelation carries with it almost as many interpretations as there are verses in the whole book. And yet, the core of the message of Revelation is obvious: despite the travails that the church faces, Christ will return to set things aright. Yet as Sergii Bulgagov has noted, some of the details of revelation will not be revealed until a later period of time.
Second, deny what is impossible but be wary of affirming too much
Theologians have often gravitated towards a negative or apophatic theology. In other words, they find it much easier to say what God is not than what he is. It is obvious that God has no body, that he is outside change and time, and so on. But the converse: to specify exactly what his incorporeal existence is like seems impossible.
The reason is this: we exist with fleshly bodies as we change through the passage of time. Our existence has some similarity to God’s but only a similitude. We do not have the capacity to understand God’s existence as God knows himself.
Reformed theologians spoke about God’s archetypal knowledge (as he knows himself) and his ectypal knowledge (as he reveals himself). The first kind of knowledge is impossible for us to grasp, but God accommodates himself to our capacity through revelation so that we can truly know him, albeit according to our capacities as humans.
Apophatic theology then safeguards against infelicitous positive theology. We must never say that God is like us but simply better. Thus, we might be tempted to say that God lives forever in time, changes perfectly, or has a cosmic body. These affirmations transgress the borders of our ability and attribute creaturely attributes to the only immortal God “who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see” (1 Tim 6:16).
Some positive (kataphoric) theology is possible. God reveals himself to be good, just, and holy. We must affirm those things. We can affirm that the Father and Son relate to each other as Father and Son. Yet we cannot then impute humanly statements about bodily birth to them. Instead, we must affirm apophatically that the Father bore the Son atemporally, without change, without passion, and without body.
Third, seek nevertheless to know God and stretch out to him
Despite the mystery of the economy of salvation, prophets still sought to know “what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories” (1 Pet 1:11). Moses yearned to see the face of God.
One reason why God leaves some truth mysterious is because he wants us to search it out as part of the process of sanctification. To know God is eternal life (John 17:3), yet that knowledge continually grows and grows as our capacity to understand incrementally grows in our pursuit of the vision of God.
This drive to know God has led Christians for centuries to think out loud, pray for hours upon end, and do theology. It is good and right to do so. Yet we must be careful that we discern what can be dogmatically affirmed (i.e., Christ died, was buried, rose from the dead) and what should remain as merely probable or opinion.