The remaining discourses, on the attributes of God Viz. his Goodness. His mercy. His patience. His long-suffering. His power. His spirituality. His immensity. His eternity. His incomprehensibleness. God the first cause, and last end. By the most reverend Dr. John Tillotson, late Lord Arch-Bishop of Canterbury. Being the seventh volume; published from the originals, by Ralph Barker, D.D. chaplain to his Grace.
Tillotson, John, 1630-1694., Barker, Ralph, 1648-1708, publisher.
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SERMON XIV.* The Incomprehensibleness of God.


Canst thou by searching find out God? Canst thou find out the Al∣mighty unto perfection?

IN treating of the Properties and Perfections of God, I shall at present consider that which results from the infinite exellency of his Nature and Perfection, com∣pared with the Imperfection of our understandings, which is common∣ly call'd the Incomprehensibleness of God. This you have expressed here Page  378 in the words of Zophar, Canst thou by searching find out God? &c.

There is no great difficulty in the words; Canst thou by searching find out God, potesne pervestigare intima dei, so Castalio Translates it, Dost thou know God intimate∣ly, and throughly, within and without? Canst thou pierce into the center of his Perfections, and dive into the bottom of them? and, Canst thou find out the Al∣mighty to perfection? Canst thou find out the Almighty, usque ad ul∣tima, to the very last and utmost of him? so as thou canst say af∣ter a thorough search and enqui∣ry,

There is no Perfection in God beyond this, There is nothing of him now that re∣mains to be known; this he is, and no other; that he is, and no otherwise; this he can do, and no more; hither doth his Know∣ledge, and Power, and Wis∣dom reach, and no further.

Page  379Canst thou do this? These inter∣rogations have the force of a vehement negation; as if he had said, no, thou canst not; God is unsearchable, he is Incomprehensi∣ble.

The two Questions in the Text seem to be only two seve∣ral expressions of the same thing. The first Question is undoubtedly general, concerning the Nature and Perfections of God in gene∣ral; Canst thou by searching find out God? Canst thou by the most diligent search and enquiry come to a perfect Knowledge and Un∣drestanding of him?

The second Question may seem to be a particular instance to the general truth implied in the first question; he seems to instance in his Power; as if he had said, God is unsearchable, and then had instanced in a particular Perfecti∣on, the power of God. Canst thou by searching find out God? Thou Page  380 canst not comprehend the Divine Nature and Perfections in gene∣ral; Canst thou find out the Al∣mighty to Perfection? Consider par∣ticularly his Power, and see if thou canst know the utmost of that. But I rather think that the latter Question is altogether the same in sense with the former; and that the Attribute of Almigh∣ty, which is here given to God, is used by way of description, and not intended by way of in∣stance. Canst thou find out the Al∣mighty, that is God, to Perfection? Which way soever we take the Words, it is not much material; we may ground this Observation upon them.

That God is Incomprehensible.

This term or Attribute is a relative term, and speaks a rela∣tion between an Object and a Faculty, between God and a Created Understanding; so that the meaning of it is plainly this, That no Created understanding Page  381 can comprehend God, that is, have a perfect and exact knowledge of him, such a knowledge as is a∣dequate to the Perfection of the Object: Or thus, the Nature and Perfections of God are above the understanding of any of his Creatures; it is only his own in∣finite understanding that can frame a perfect Idea of his own Per∣fection. God knows himself, his own understanding commprehends his own Perfections: But he is In∣comprehensible to his Creatures.

Indeed there is nothing more obvious than God; for he is not far from every one of us, in him we live, and move, and have our Being; there need no great search to find out that there is a God; An eternal power and Deity are clear∣ly seen in the things which are made, as the Apostle tells us; but the manner of the Being, and Pro∣properties, and Perfections of this God, these cannot be comprehend∣ed by a finite understanding. I Page  382 shall prove the Doctrine, and then apply it.

First, For the proof of it. I will attempt it these three ways.

I. By way of instance, or inducti∣on of particulars.

II. By way of conviction.

III. By giving the clear reason of it.

I. By way of instance. And I shall give you instances both on the part of the Object; and of the Subject, or the persons who are ca∣pable of knowing God in any de∣gree.

1. On the part of the Object. The Nature of God, the Excellen∣cy and Perfection of God, the Works and Ways of God are a∣bove our thoughts and apprehensi∣ons. The Nature of God; it is vast and infinite, Job 36.26. God is great, and we know him not. Job 37. Page  383 23. Touching the Almighty, we cannot find him out. Psal. 145.3. His greatness is unsearchable.

The Excellencies and Perfections of God; his Immensity, 2 Chron. 2.6. The heaven of heavens can∣not contain him: The Eternity of his duration, from everlasting to everlasting he is God. We cannot imagine any limits of his presence, nor bounds of his duration: The infiniteness of his knowledge, Psal. 147.5. his understanding is infi∣nite. When we think of the Wis∣dom and Knowledge of God, our best way is to fall into admirati∣on, Rom. 11.33. O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and know∣ledge of God!

Where the Scripture speaks of those Perfections of God, which the Creatures do in some mea∣sure and degree partake of, as his Goodness, and Power, and Wis∣dom, and Holiness, and Immor∣tality, it attributes them in such a peculiar and Divine manner to God, as doth exclude and shut Page  384 out the Creature from any claim or share or title to them, Matt. 19.16, 17. Why Call'st thou me good; there's none good but one, that is God. 1 Tim. 6.15, 16. Who is the blessed and only potentate, who only hath immortality. 1 Tim. 1.17. The only wise God. Rev. 15.4. For thou only art holy. In so inconceivable a manner doth God possess these Perfections which he Communicates, and we can on∣ly understand them as he Com∣municates them, and not as he possesses them; so that when we consider any of these Divine Per∣fections, we must not frame No∣tions of them contrary to what they are in the Creature, nor must we limit them by what they are in the Creature, but say, the Good∣ness and the Wisdom of God are all this which is in the Creature, and much more which I am not able to comprehend; the transcen∣dent degree, and the singularity of these Divine Perfections, which are communicable, is beyond what we are able to conceive.

Page  385The Works of God, they are like∣wise unsearchable; the Works of Creation and of Redemption. Job 5.9. Which doth great things, and unsearchable, marvelous, things past finding out: And then he in∣stanceth in the Works of God, Job 26.14. Lo these are part of his ways: But how little a por∣tion is heard of him? and the thunder of his voice who can un∣derstand? So that he tells us ex∣presly, we cannot find out the Works of God, we do but know part of them. The question which he puts, Job 37.16. Dost thou know the wondrous works of him that is perfect in knowledge? can only be answered by the words of the Psalmist, Psal. 104.24. O Lord how wonderful are thy works! in wisdom hast thou made them all. The work of Redemption: In this there shines forth such Wisdom, Mercy, and Love, as our under∣standings cannot reach; this work is called the Wisdom of God in a myste∣ry, hidden Wisdom,〈 in non-Latin alphabet 〉, Page  386 1 Cor. 2.7. The Mercy, and Grace, and Love of it is called, the riches of Gods mercy, the exceeding riches of his grace, Eph. 2.4, 7. Now Riches is when you cannot tell the utmost of them, pauperis est numerare, Eph. 3.18, 19. That ye may be able to comprehend with all Saints, what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and heighth, and to know the love of Christ which passeth knowledge. When we have the largest appre∣hensions of this love, so that we think we comprehend it and know it, it passeth knowledge; yea the Effects of God's Power and Love which he manifests in believers are unspeakable; for he is able to do for us exceeding abundantly above what we can ask or think, accord∣ing to the power which worketh in us, Eph. 3.20. The Peace which guards their souls passeth all un∣derstanding, Phil. 4.7. Those Joys which fill their hearts are not to be expressed. 1 Pet. 1.8. We read of Joy unspeakable and full of glory. The Happiness which Page  387 they hope for is inconceivable, 'tis that which eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, nor hath entred into the heart of man, which God hath laid up for us.

The Ways of God's Providence, they are not to be traced, Psal. 77.19. Thy way is in the sea, and thy paths in the great waters, and thy footsteps are not known. Ec∣cles. 3.11. No man can find out the work that God maketh from the beginning to the end. We are but of yesterday, and know nothing. When we look upon Gods Pro∣vidence, we take a part from the whole, and consider it by it self, without relation to the whole se∣ries of his Dispensation; we can∣not see the whole of God's Pro∣vidence at one view, and never see from the beginning of the Works of God to the end; there∣fore our knowledge of them must needs be very imperfect, and full of mistakes, and false judgments of things; we cannot by our petty and short-sighted Page  388 designs, judge of the Works of God, and the Designs of Provi∣dence; for our ways are not as his ways, nor our thoughts as his thoughts. but as the heavens are high above the earth, so are his ways above our ways, and his thoughts above our thoughts, Isa. 55.8, 9. The ways of God's Mercy, Psal. 103. As the heavens are high a∣bove the earth, so great is God's mercy. Psal. 139.17, 18. How precious are thy thoughts unto me? how great is the sum of them? If I should count them, they are more in number than the sand. And the ways of God's Judgments; the se∣verity and greatness of his Judg∣ment is not known, Psal. 90. Who knoweth the power of thy an∣ger? And who may stand before thee when thou art angry? And the Rea∣sons of his Judgments are unsearch∣able, Psal. 36.6. Thy Judgments are a great deep. Rom. 11.35. How unsearchable are his Judgments, and his ways past finding out! These are the Instances on the part of the Object.

Page  3892. On the part of the Subject, or the persons capable of know∣ing God in any measure. The per∣fect knowledge of God is above a finite Creature's understanding. Wicked men they are ignorant of God, and full of false apprehen∣sions of him; the Scripture gives this description of them; they are those that know not God, 2 Thess. 1. Wicked men are so far from knowing God to Perfection, that they have hardly any true know∣ledge of him; for as the man him∣self is, so will God seem to be to him; the Idea and Notion which men have of God, is but the pi∣cture of their own complexion. To a true knowledge there is re∣quired likeness; a Man's mind must be like the thing he would understand; therefore the Apostle tells us, the natural, or animal man, doth not receive the things of God, he is not capable of them, because his mind is unsuitable to them, he is 〈 in non-Latin alphabet 〉, full of body, and he cannot relish spiritual thingsPage  390 even those Natural notions which wicked men have of God, they are strangely tinctur'd and obscured by the temper of the man; they are lux sepulta in opacâ materiâ, light buried and hid in matter and dark∣ness, in the blackness of a soul and impure heart; so that there is no question of them, whither they comprehend God or not.

But good men they cannot find out God, they have some false ap∣prehensions of him; all their ap∣prehensions are dark, have much of obscurity in them; they know God to Salvation, but not to Per∣fection; in this life we do but know God in part, that is, in compari∣son of the knowledge which our natures are capable of.

But I will instance yet higher; the Angels and the Spirits of just men made perfect; tho' they have true apprehensions of God, yet they do not arrive to perfect knowledge of him, they cannot pervestigare ultima, know the utmost of God; the Cherubims themselves Page  391 are continually looking at the Mercy Seat. To which the Apostle alludes, 1 Pet. 1.12. when he tells us, the Mystery of God's mercy in the Gospel was a thing which the Angels desired to pry in∣to. In Heaven that which is in part shall be done away, that is, our know∣ledge shall be perfect as our Natures are capable; but it shall be finite. When we shall see God face to face, that is, have an immediate vision of him, and see him as he is, that is, not hav∣ing our understandings tinctur'd by any lust or passion that may darken our mind, or misrepresent the Ob∣ject; for the Apostle tells us, we shall see him, because we shall be like him; yet then we shall have short and unadequate apprehensions of him, we shall still retain our limited Na∣tures and finite understandings.

II. By way of Conviction. Dost thou know perfectly the nature of a finite Spirit, the Perfection and the Power of an Angel, how being immaterial they can act upon matter, and move that which can make no resistance to a Spirit? Page  392 Dost thou know how they can move themselves to a great distance in a moment, and dart themselves from one part of the World to a∣nother? Dost thou know how man is formed in the lowest parts of the earth, as the Psalmist expresseth it; and the curious Frame of our Bo∣dies is wrought from such rude Principles in so dark a Shop? Canst thou give an account how the Soul is united to the Body, by what bands or holds a Spi∣rit is so closely and intimately con∣joyned to Matter? Dost thou know how thy self understandest any thing, and canst retain the di∣stinct Ideas and Notions of so many Objects without confusi∣on? Dost thou know the least parts of Matter, how they are knit together, and by what Ce∣ment they cleave so fast to one another, that they can hardly be separated?

Now if the Creatures be so un∣searchable, and the knowledge of these be too hard for thee; is not the Page  393 Creator of them much more In∣comprehensible, who possesseth all these Perfections which he com∣municates, and many which can∣not be communicated to a Crea∣ture? If in Natural and Sensi∣ble Things, maxima pars eorum quae scimus, est minima pars eorum quae nescimus, how much more is it true of God, that our ignorance is more than our knowledge; when the whole Earth and all the Crea∣tures bear no proportion to him? Isa. 40.15, 17. Behold all the Nations of the earth are as the drop of the bucket, and as the small dust of the ballance; all nations be∣fore him are nothing, and are ac∣counted to him less than no∣thing.

III. By shewing you the clear Reason of it, which is this, the disproportion between the Faculty and the Object, the finiteness of our understandings, and the Infi∣niteness of the Divine Nature and Perfections. God is greater than our hearts, and therefore as he Page  394 knows more than we do, as the Apostle reasons, 1 John 3.20. so he is more than can be known by us; he is too vast an Object for our understanding to entertain, for our minds to receive Thou may'st as well mete out the Heaven with a span, and mea∣sure the Waters in the hollow of thy hand, and comprehend the dust of the earth in a little Urn, and weigh the Mountains in some Scales, and the hills in a little Ballance; as think to circumscribe God in the narrow limits of thy thoughts, or to bring that which is infinite within the compass of that which is finite.

And there is not only the vast∣ness and greatness of the Object; but the Glory and Resplendency of it does so dazle our sight, that we cannot perfectly see it, 1 Tim. 6.16. He dwelleth in light which no man can approach unto, whom no man hath seen, nor can see. As God is too big, so he is too bright an Object for our understandings; the Page  395 presence of his Glory overpow∣ers our minds, and bears down our Faculties, and conquers our understandings.

I come now to apply this Doctrine of the Incomprehensi∣bleness of the Divine Nature. If the Nature, and Perfections, and Ways, and Works of God be Incomprehensible, and past find∣ing out,

I. It calls for our Admiration, and Veneration, and Reverence. These are the best apprehensions of him, that is Incomprehensible; a silent Veneration of his Excel∣lencies, is the best acknowledg∣ment of them. We must admire what we cannot apprehend or express, Zach. 9.17. How great is his goodness, and how great is his beauty? The best way to celebrate the praises of God, is that which Nehemiah useth Nehem. 9.5. And blessed be thy glorious name, which is exalt∣ed above all blessing and praise.Page  396 When ever we speak or think of God, we necessarily detract from his Perfections; but even this ne∣cessity is glorious to him, and this speaks his Perfection, that the highest finite understanding must have imperfect thoughts of him.

We should make up in Reve∣rence and Veneration what we fall short of in knowledge. Reve∣rence is an acknowledgment of distance; by our reverence of the Divine Majesty, we should best awe our hearts, in a sense of the distance which is between his infinite Nature and Perfection, and our finite apprehensions. Worldly greatness will cause wonder, the thoughts of Earthly Majesty will compose us to Reverence; how much more should those ex∣cellencies which are beyond what we can imagine! Isa. 6. you have there God represented sit∣ting upon his throne, and the Sera∣phims about him, which are de∣scribed to us as having each six wings, and with twain they cover Page  397 their faces. Creatures of the bright∣est understanding, and the most exalted purity and Holiness, co∣ver their faces in the presence of God's glory, they choose rather to venerate God than look upon him

II. This calls for humility and modesty. The consideration of God's unsearchable Perfections should make the haughtiness of man to stoop, and bring down his proud looks, and God alone should be ex∣alted. The thought of God's Ex∣cellency should abase us, and make us vile in our own eyes, it should make all those petty Excellencies that we pride our selves in to vanish and disappear. Those trea∣sures of wisdom and knowledge which are in God, should hide pride from man. It should hide those little parts and gifts which we are so apt to glory in, as the Sun hides the Stars. When we consider God, we should be so far from admiring our selves, that we should with an humble thankfulness wonder Page  398 that God should regard such in∣considerable nothings as we are. Psal. 8.1, 3, 4. O Lord our God, how excellent is thy name in all the earth! who hast set thy glory above the heavens. When I consider the heavens, the work of thy fingers, the Moon and the Stars which thou hast ordained; what is man, that thou art mindful of him? or the Son of man, that thou vi∣sitest him? He that considers the Glory of God, and the greatness of his Works, will think so mean∣ly of himself, that he will be a∣stonisht that God should mind him or visit him. This is a noble strain of humility in David, by which he acknowledgeth that the great∣est King of the Earth, how con∣siderable soever he may be in re∣spect of men, is yet but a pitiful thing to God.

When we speak to God, we should do it with great humility, Eccles. 5.2, 3. Let thy words be few, for God is in heaven, and thou upon earth. We should say Page  399 to God, Job 37.19. Teach us what we shall say unto thee, for we cannot order our speech by reason of darkness. And when we think or speak of him, we should do it with great modesty; we should not rashly pronounce or determine any thing concerning God. Simonides being ask'd what God was, desired one days time to consider, then he desired two, and then four. The more we think of God, the less peremptory shall we be in defining him. He that considers that God is Incompre∣hensible, will not pretend to know all the ways of infinite knowledge, and the utmost of infinite Pow∣er, and all the Reasons of God's Ways and Providences. He that rightly values his own short un∣derstanding, and the unlimited Perfections of God, will not be apt to say, this God cannot do, this he cannot know, such ways are not agreeable to his wisdom. He that knows God and himself, will be modest in these cases, he will 〈 in non-Latin alphabet 〉, abstain from all Page  400 peremptory pronouncing in these matters; he considers that one man many times differs so much from another in knowledge and skill of working, that he can do those things which another believes im∣possible: but we have pitiful thoughts of God, if we think the differerce between one man and a∣nother, is any thing to the vast di∣stance that is between the Divine Understanding and our ignorance, the Divine Power and our weak∣ness, the Wisdom of God and the folly of men.

III. The Incomprehensibleness of God's Perfections calls for the highest degree of our affection. How should we fear this great and glori∣ous God! Psal. 90.11. Who knoweth the power of thine anger? even accord∣ing to thy fear, so is thy wrath. Fear is the most infinite of all our passi∣ons, and fills us with the most end∣less jealousie and suspicions; God's wrath is greater than our fear, according to thy fear so is thy wrath.

Page  401How should we love him, when we are astonisht with admiration of God's goodness, and say, how great is thy goodness, and how great is thy beauty! Behold, what manner of love the father hath bestowed upon us! How great should our love be to him! What manner of love should we return to him!

This calls for the highest degree of our Faith. With what confidence should we rely upon him, who is able to do for us exceeding abundantly above what we can ask or think!

To conclude, This requires the highest degree of our service: How should our hearts be enlarged to run the ways of his commandments, who hath laid up for us such things, that eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, nor have en∣tred into the heart of man!