Fitting the Ocean into a Teacup

We, who have God and conscience on our side, have a majority against the universe.

Frederick Douglass

A friend once described theology as trying to fit the ocean into a teacup. I like that. While we can’t fit the ocean into a teacup, we can fit ourselves into the ocean. In the same way, our theology can’t fully capture God. But our theology can and should be big enough to capture us.

It’s sad that some reduce God to something they can manage, control, and fully comprehend. Don’t settle for a mini theology, a sketchy view, forcing your beliefs of God into a shape that no longer fits the Bible. We have to let the mysteries of the Bible speak for themselves and not try muzzle them to make ourselves more comfortable. If you could make perfect sense of God, he wouldn’t be that impressive, would he? If you could understand God, you would, well, probably be God. That would be the sketchiest view of all, wouldn’t it?

While we can’t comprehend everything about God, we can form true beliefs about him. We can start with a big picture then worked our way down to narrower principles. We begin with a God who exists, who is personal, and who has revealed himself in Scripture. Then we consider how the triune God is independent of time, space, matter, and energy. As the author and apologist William Lane Craig likes to say, “God is the source and sustainer of all reality that exists outside himself.”

Framing the Argument

In braving the rapids of orthodoxy, we’ve seen how God is a mystery too great for words. Yet he is a mystery revealed within boundaries, the contours of which we can trace in the Bible. The orthodox view of God flows through the banks of Scripture.

We can allow these truths to frame our view of God and keep us from wrong views. And even though people have run aground on one bank or the other, we should allow the tension between God as one and God as Trinity to form how we think about him. Yet our aim isn’t only to avoid sketchy views.

Our theology is more like standing on a bridge with a sense of awe about the current as its waves crash beneath us. This isn’t a burden we have to bear; it’s a wonder we get to behold. Yes, there are boundaries, but they are more like a frame showcasing a beautiful painting—one that we adore but can’t fully control. Who exactly is God? How do you answer this ocean-in-a-teacup question?

There’s a solution to this God-sized problem. It’s surprisingly simple. Throughout the history of the Christian church, leading thinkers have sought to keep believers from sketchy views of the triune God with a doctrine called Divine Simplicity. Theologians debate over how to best define and apply this doctrine, but I’ve found it to be a helpful tool in thinking about all that we see about God in the Bible. I once heard a funny illustration about our attempt to make God something less than who he is: “God is either God or he is not, in the same way a pregnant woman cannot be kind of pregnant.” There is no “kind of God” in the same way as there is no “kind of pregnant.” It’s an all or nothing situation.

God is God. We never see half God, or kind of God, or little God versus big God, or angry God versus happy God. God is always God. He is one, and he never changes. We can accept him or reject him, but we cannot compartmentalize or redefine him. All that we see about God in Scripture is true of God.

What if God Was Like Us?

In the following paragraphs I’ll outline some implications of this as it relates to our goal of keeping our thoughts about God well centered in the stream of orthodoxy. We need to carefully consider the sorts of ways the Bible talks about God, that if misunderstood, can get us off track.

Look at the illustration of a black and white television set. Even if hooked up to a device to play a full-color movie, the picture would just come out in shades of gray. No matter how vibrant the content you’re broadcasting to the screen might be, the television has limitations on what it can display.

Again, this is the kind of situation we are in with God. As amazing as he is, we don’t have categories to fully make sense of him. After all, he’s in a category of his own. That’s why God communicates to us using language we can understand, for our benefit, even though such language can surely never fully capture all of who he is.

If God is to communicate to us in ways we can understand, he’s going to have to condescend to us, to stoop down to our level, and use human language and terms. And since the inspired biblical authors are humans themselves, they are going to use language familiar to them and their original audience. This is simply how communication works.

Figurative language

We should always take the Bible seriously, even when we recognize parts that are not intended to be understood literally. For example, when the psalmist says the “mountains skipped like lambs” in Psalm 114:4, no one reads that to mean the landscape was moving around in some whimsical kind of way, bouncing up and down, on the particular day the psalm was written. It’s poetic language.

We receive the Bible as it was given to us. If an author uses an expression in a nonliteral way, we need to seek to understand that and respond accordingly. We can often figure this out by looking at how different forms or expressions are used elsewhere in the Bible. For the most part, this is pretty straightforward as we read the Bible.

For example, in Genesis 5, Moses says Enoch “walked with God.” Here it doesn’t mention a garden like in the opening chapters of Genesis. It merely says Enoch walked with God, and God took him (Genesis 5:21–24). The focus is on relationship, on spiritual intimacy between God and Enoch. Since the apostle John says no one has ever seen God, we know this talk of God walking with people isn’t to be read literally but instead relationally (John 1:18). Enoch wasn’t looking over at God as they walked along. God had an intimate relationship, a friendship, with Enoch.

We can be God’s friends too. We sometimes use this same kind of language, don’t we? We might talk about someone we consider to be a faithful Christian and refer to their “walk with God.” When we do that, we’re using human terms to point to a greater reality.

Anthropomorphic language

Sometimes the Bible describes God in human terms too. This kind of language is called anthropomorphic. This big word means “man” and “form.” We see this kind of language when God is talked about in human forms. God isn’t a human, but he’s communicating with humans, so he does so in ways they understand. His language is an expression of love.

To revisit the walking example, we know what it means to “walk.” Unless we’ve suffered from a birth defect or tragic accident, we’re able to use our legs and feet. So when Moses says God “walked” in the garden of Eden, should we think that God had feet like we do? Does God have legs? No. We should see that Moses is communicating to us in a way we can understand using anthropomorphic language.

When Isaiah describes that God’s “ear” is not deaf that he cannot hear, and his “arm” is not so short that he cannot save, is he really implying God has ears and arms (Isaiah 59:1)? Of course not. We have biblical passages making it clear God is spirit and not something material (John 4:24). Thus, we interpret these anthropomorphic passages as pointing to a deeper reality by using language humans can relate to.

Anthropomorphic language is common in Scripture. That means we have to be careful and cautious in making sense of the language about God that sounds really human. We must understand passages containing anthropomorphic language, considering what we know to be true about God.

Incarnational reality

Now all this changes with Jesus. The scandal of the incarnation is that the second person of the Trinity, the Son, took on human nature, flesh, and literally walked among us. This is clear in the text. We’re not wondering if the apostles really meant Jesus was a real person or if they were using anthropomorphic language. It’s clear they were being literal. But that’s very different from the Old Testament references to God.

One thing to keep in mind, particularly with the Old Testament passages, is the difference between something that is descriptive versus something that is prescriptive. For example, it’s one thing if I described how someone took a particular pill and got better. I’m describing what they did—descriptive. That’s not the same thing their doctor did for them though. Their doctor prescribed the pill for them—prescriptive. That’s why we call it a prescription.

Just because I described how a pill helped them, I’m not prescribing for you to take the same pill. That would be an example of confusing description with prescription. In a similar way, if an Old Testament passage describes something like God having ears, legs, or hands, that is altogether different than other passages that clearly prescribe what we are to believe about God. The distinction between description and prescription can be a handy tool when studying the Bible.

Prescriptive. If you know the Ten Commandments in Exodus, you likely remember that in the second commandment God clearly told his people not to make images or idols depicting him. And yet some Old Testament passages describe God in human terms, giving us a mental image of God walking. Are such passages violating the second commandment? No.

In such cases, the authors aren’t trying to get us to think of God in material ways. They are communicating truths about God using anthropomorphic language so that we can better understand. Their goal is not for us to think God stands six foot two and walks on legs and feet.

Descriptive. There are plenty of passages that clearly prescribe what to believe about God: that he is one, that he is a spirit, that he exists as Father, Son, and Spirit, etc. We view the descriptive passages in the Old Testament through the lens of the prescriptive passages that teach us what to think about God. If we take the descriptive passages too literally, we will not only miss the point, we will move away from the main current in the stream of orthodoxy.

We have to let the prescriptive passages, the clearer teachings about what we are to believe, inform how we make sense of the descriptive passages. We have to let what we can understand illuminate the parts we may find more difficult to understand.

Excerpt adapted from Sketchy Views: A Beginner’s Guide to Making Sense of God © 2023 by Daniel Dewitt. Used with permission of New Growth Press. May not be reproduced without prior written permission.

Sketchy Views

Sketchy Views: A Beginner’s Guide to Making Sense of God

Everybody has beliefs about God. There are a million ways to get God wrong, but there’s only a narrow path to getting him right. In order to understand God, we have to go back to the Bible, but that can be overwhelming if you are new to theology. Daniel DeWitt’s Sketchy Views is a beginner’s guide to making sense of God. 

About the author

Daniel DeWitt

Daniel DeWitt, PhD, is a senior fellow at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, MO, where he leads the Center for Worldview and Culture and teaches courses on theology, apologetics, and C.S. Lewis. He is the author of multiple books, including Jesus or Nothing, The Friend Who Forgives, and Sketchy Views, and posts regularly at He and his wife, April, have four children.

Add Comment

Recent Posts