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When God declares “I AM THAT I AM”, He is explaining to us, as best as human language can communicate, what He is.

Philosophy, and specifically that branch of philosophy known as metaphysics, studies the nature of reality. It breaks things down into their component parts, hoping to reach the final essence that makes up the substance of things – be they atoms, protons and electrons, quarks, or according to one branch of science, strings of energy. Similarly, metaphysics classifies things by relating them to things more general or specific: genus and species. A dining-room chair is a species of chairs, which is a species of seating apparatus, which is a species of devices, and so on. Eventually we reach an abstract, general genus of “created objects” or “things”. Philosophy does this kind of exercise to know what things are.

God is not a species of some more general category, “godlike beings”. Nor are there species of God: sub-gods, demigods, emanations of God. God cannot be abstracted or specialised into something else. He is what He is. Similarly, God cannot be broken down or divided up into more basic elements that will explain the nature or substance of God. As we have seen, God is simple, and not composed. Metaphysics can do its work on the created order. But when it comes to God, it will eventually bend back on itself into circularity. What is God? God is what God is. I AM THAT I AM.

God is not being deliberately evasive or coy, nor is He obfuscating, when He calls Himself I AM THAT I AM. God cannot explain what He is with reference to something He has made. True, He does liberally use analogies from the created world to explain what He is like: light, fire, water, etc. But these cannot tell us what He is. When it comes to the bottomless mystery of what God is, there can only be one answer: God is what God is. I AM precisely and only what I AM.

Theologians call this ineffability. Ineffable means “incapable of being expressed in words”. God as He is in Himself cannot be communicated in words, because words are part of creation, and are limited to the immanent, created realm. But when we seek to penetrate the transcendent realm of exactly what God is, nothing in creation corresponds to Him. We enter into entirely negative, apophatic theology, where all we can affirm of God is what He is not: not finite, not changeable, not complex, not dependent. But what He is, we cannot know. This is the meaning of God being in “darkness” or in “light unapproachable” (Ps 18:11, 1 Tim. 6:16). God in Himself can be known only by Himself. He is different from us, not as an archangel is different from us – by some finite distance of hierarchical complexity. No, He is infinitely removed from us when it comes to what He is. He is what He is.

This distance is also called the transcendence of God. What may be known of God by creatures, and what can be understood by analogy is the immanence of God. His transcendence is the infinite gap between Creator and creature, in essence and nature. “He had a name written that no one knew except Himself.” (Revelation 19:12)

Closely related to ineffability is the idea of holiness. While holiness also refers to moral purity, often it is used to describe the complete “otherness” of God. The seraphim around the throne are effectively proclaiming “Unique, unique, unique”. This “Godness” of God is His holiness. When God declares that His name is I AM, He tells Moses that he is standing on holy ground.

Actually, this ineffable, unique, holiness is good news for creatures who have been made to love discovery. Ineffable does not mean impossible to know. It means impossible to understand fully or express comprehensively. Therefore, there is a boundless ocean to discover in God, a cosmos of knowledge of the Holy One. We will never know Him as He knows Himself. But we will undoubtedly spend eternity exploring the nature of God. And as we discover more and more unutterable loveliness, we will agree that the best explanation of God is “I AM THAT I AM”.

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2 Comments

  1. Avatar David

    Luke Nickola

    “We enter into entirely negative, apophatic theology, where all we can affirm of God is what He is not: not finite, not changeable, not complex, not dependent. But what He is, we cannot know. This is the meaning of God being in “darkness” or in “light unapproachable” (Ps 18:11, 1 Tim. 6:16). God in Himself can be known only by Himself. He is different from us, not as an archangel is different from us – by some finite distance of hierarchical complexity. No, He is infinitely removed from us when it comes to what He is. He is what He is.” – an excerpt of Dr. David’s most recent post.
    Yet, we read in Jeremiah Ch. 9 vs 24a, God seems to be saying that He is knowable. Also, J I Packer writes that the ascendant purpose of man is to know God.
    Please assist!

  2. Avatar David

    David

    Luke,

    My last paragraph should answer your question. He can be known. We will spend eternity learning to know Him. But we will never know Him as He knows Himself. We will never be able to completely understand the essence of God. Were we able to, God would be contained within our own mental capacities, which would make Him finite.

    To put it another way, we will be able to keep learning of all that God has made immanent to us, or revealed to us. But what is transcendent is something that only God knows of Himself.

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