Knowing the unknowable God
Hugh Binning (1627–1653) was a young minister who also taught philosophy at the University of Glasgow. He was a prolific author and popular preacher with a gift for clear teaching.
23 Mar, 2023

When we think of God, it is alarmingly easy to fall into the trap of thinking that God is just another kind of creature – of course the best and greatest and most impressive in whatever dimension you consider, but ultimately just another creature. This line of thinking is something we should resist, because God is altogether other. He is in reality completely beyond us and above us, a different order of being entirely. We can truly know Him, but in order for this to be possible He has to accommodate Himself to us and make Himself known to us in ways that we can grasp. Hugh Binning highlights and underlines God’s transcendence in the following updated extract. He uses God’s self-description, “I AM THAT I AM,” as the basis for emphasising from various points of view that we must at all points maintain in our minds the distinction between the Creator and the creature, between God and everything else in existence. Only once we sense the littleness of our understanding are we in a position to start to learn who and what God is.

The chief point of saving knowledge is to know God. And the starting point of the true knowledge of God is to discern how ignorant we are of Him, and to find Him beyond all knowledge.

In Exodus 3:14 the Lord gives a definition of Himself, but such a one as is no more clear than Himself to our capacities. It is indeed a short one, and you may think it does not say much. “I am.” What is there that may not say the same? The least and most insignificant creature has its own being! Yet there is more majesty in this simple style than in all others. Let creatures compare with creatures – let them take superlative styles – let some of them be called good, and some better, in the comparison among themselves. But God must not enter the comparison.

No comparisons are valid

Paul thinks it an odious comparison, to compare present crosses to eternal glory (Rom. 8). But how much more odious it is to compare God with creatures! Call Him highest, call Him most powerful, call Him most excellent, almighty, most glorious in respect of creatures – and all you do is abase His majesty, bringing it down to any terms of comparison with them, seeing He is beyond all the bounds of understanding. All these terms only express Him to be in some degree eminently above the creatures. As some creatures are above others, so all you do is to make him the chief of them all, as some creature may be the head of one line or kind under it. But what is that to His majesty? He speaks very differently of Himself. “All nations are before him as nothing, and they are accounted to him less than nothing” (Isa. 40:17).

Certainly you have not taken up the true notion of God, when you have conceived him the most eminent of all beings as long as any being appears as a being in his sight, before whom all beings conjoined are as nothing. While you conceive God to be the best, you still attribute something to the creature. You imagine only some different degrees between beings who differ so infinitely, so incomprehensibly. The distance betwixt heaven and earth is but a poor similitude to express the distance between God and creatures.

All created things are inconsequential

Now, if you could imagine something that is less than nothing, then could you begin to guess at the vast distance between it and a being. So is it here: “Thus saith the Lord, All nations, their glory, perfection and number, all of them, and all their excellencies united, do not amount to the value of an entity, in regard of my majesty. All of them are just like zeroes. Join never so many of them together, they can never make up a number, they are nothing, and less than nothing.”

So then we ought to conceive of God, and to attribute a being and life to him, in such a way that all created beings vanish out of our sight. The glorious light of the sun, although it does not annihilate the stars, yet it annihilates their appearance to our senses, and makes them disappear, as if they didn’t exist. There is a great difference between the stars in the night, some lighter, some darker, some of the first magnitude, and some of the second and third, some of greater glory, and some of less. But in the day time all are alike, all are darkened by the sun’s glory. Let the glorious brightness of God shine once on the soul, and in that light all these lights shall be obscured, and all the differences between them unobserved. An angel and a human, a human and a worm differ much in glory and perfection of being: but O, in God’s presence there is no such reckoning on this account. All things are alike, God infinitely distant from all, and so not more or less. Infiniteness is not capable of such terms of comparison.

This is the reason why Christ says, “There is none good but one, even God.” Why? because, in respect of His goodness, nothing deserves that name. Lesser light in view of the greater is a darkness, and lesser good in comparison of a greater good, appears evil. How much more then shall created light and created goodness lose that name in the presence of God’s uncreated light, and self-sufficient goodness!

God’s self-sufficient perfection is absolute

This is why the Lord names Himself in this way, “I AM,” as if nothing else was. “I will not say,” He says, “that I am the highest, the best and most glorious that is; that assumes that other things have some being and some glory that is worth taking account of. But I am, and there is none else. I am alone. I lift up my hand to heaven, and swear I live for ever.” There is nothing else that can say, “I am, I live, and there is none else;” for nothing has its life of itself. No one can boast of what they have borrowed, and is not their own. As if a bird that had stolen from other birds its beautiful feathers, was to come out and argue with them about beauty. Would they not straight away every one pluck out their own feathers, and leave her naked, to be an object of mockery to all?

Even so, our breath and being is in our nostrils, and that depends on His majesty’s breathing on us. If He was only to hold in his breath, as it were, we would vanish into nothing. “He looketh upon me and I am not” (Job 7:8). That is a strange look, that not only looks man out of countenance, but out of life and being. He looks him into the first nothing-like existence, and then can he say, “I live, I am”? No, he must always say of himself in respect of God, as Paul says of himself in respect of Christ, “I live, yet not I, but Christ in me.” “I am, yet not I; but God in me: I live, I am, yet not I but in God, in whom I live, and have my being.” There is no other thing beside God that can say, “I am,” because all things are borrowed drops of this self-sufficient fountain, and sparkles of this first light. Let anything intervene between the stream and the fountain, and the stream is cut off and dried up. Let anything interpose between the sun and the beam and the sunbeam vanishes. Therefore this fountain-being, this original light, this self-being is the only one who deserves the name of being. Other things to which we give those names are nearer nothing than God, and in regard of His majesty, may more fitly be called nothing than something,

You see then how profound a mystery of God’s absolute self-sufficient perfection is infolded in these three letters, “I AM,” or in these four, “JEHOVAH.” If you ask what God is, nothing occurs better than this, “I AM,” or “HE THAT IS.” If I should say He is the all-mighty, the only wise, the most perfect, the most glorious, it is all contained in that saying, “I AM THAT I AM.” For that is really to be: to be all those perfections simply, absolutely, and as it were solely. If I say all that, and reckon out all the Scripture epithets, I add nothing. If I say no more, I diminish nothing.



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