Don’t Put God in a Box
God in a box. We’ve all heard it. Don’t do it under any circumstances. Do not put God in a box!
I get the sentiment, kinda. The saying seems to be trying to tell people, “God can do anything, literally anything. So don’t put limits on him. Let him do what he does.” But even this smells strangely like putting God in a box. What? God can’t do something unless you give him permission? That seems sort of like a box, doesn’t it? I find that a rather bizarre sentiment.
You Must Put God in a Box
Many years ago, a thought occurred to me as I heard someone say this for the umpteenth time. We all put (or rather, have) God in a box. Not that we capture him or somehow keep him from being God, mind you. That’s ridiculous. Rather, I’m talking about the way we think about him. In fact, I believe this is inevitable. Indeed, it is necessary for finite beings to do this.
Why? Because God is infinite. He is infinite in power, infinite in knowledge, infinite in love, infinite in holiness. As the Shorter Catechism puts it, “God is a spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in His being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.” Three transcendent adjectives modifying seven condescendent (“with us”) nouns.
Because God condescends to us and indeed became like us in Christ, we can understand something of what He is like, so long as we learn from Him through His word. But because God utterly transcends us as the infinite, eternal, and unchangeable God, we really can’t comprehend that any more than we can comprehend an infinite set of numbers.
Therefore, by definition, we all must put God in a box. We must do this in order to understand something of who He is. This isn’t wrong, necessarily. It is inevitable. How else could we think about something so totally Other?What if we came to the realization that we must put God in a box (in our thinking about Him) because He is infinite, but also understood that the goal of the Christian life is never to keep that box the same but always to move to greater… Click To Tweet
God and the Nesting Dolls
And yet, it can very much be a hindrance, perhaps sometimes even quite a bad thing, to have God in a box. It depends upon the box, where it comes from, and whether it stays the same size. What do I mean, stays the same size?
Another thought occurred to me as I heard that person say, “Don’t put God in a box.” This time, an illustration came to my mind—in the form of nesting dolls. Do you remember what those are? Those old beautifully painted wooden Russian dolls of decreasing size placed one inside the other? Each one is always slightly to almost totally different, depending on the set.
What if we came to the realization that we must put God in a box (in our thinking about Him) because He is infinite, but also understood that the goal of the Christian life is never to keep that box the same but always to move to greater and greater clarity about who He is as He has revealed himself to be in His word? What would this look like?
It seems to me that it would look a lot like bigger and bigger nesting dolls (One can imagine this both from the outside, looking at the dolls as we normally think of them, or from the inside as if we were the tiniest doll in an ever-expanding dome of them). If our view of God when we are first saved is that smallest of all the dolls, the one that goes inside of them all, then the goal would be, through the study of God’s self-revelation, to build and paint a bigger doll that the first one could go into. Because God is infinite, this would have no end. We would always be expanding our doll size (i.e., our box). And our craftsmanship would also continue to develop into greater and grander beauty.
The highest minds of the church, from Moses to Solomon to Ezra, to Paul to Peter to John, to Justin to Irenaeus to Augustine, to Calvin to Luther to Edwards … each of these stalwarts of the faith spent a lifetime painting and crafting and honing newer and bigger dolls that reflected their understanding of who God is. They were not stagnant in their thinking about God. Nevertheless, they were still human, liable to error, but also given to creativity and new thoughts as they got to know their Savior as he explained himself to them in the Scriptures.
No one man’s dolls look identical. This is because God is infinite. But they all have a set of dolls that you know are depicting the same God because their source is the Word as taught to them by the same Holy Spirit.
But this isn’t just the domain of geniuses. Each of us can and should be crafting them, as God gives us the ability—as long as our blueprint comes from His Word. So don’t be afraid of having God in a box. Rather, be afraid that your box is coming from a source that isn’t the truth about who He is or that your box is always saying the same size. That’s not the box of a Christian.
Who knows what God might do if his people threw away the “Don’t put God in a box” proverb and adopted the more positive, “Make bigger and better and truer and more fabulous nesting dolls” as they develop into more mature disciples of Christ?
 For a fascinating study of this, see Robert L. Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (Nashville: T. Nelson, 1998), Chapter 7: The Nature of God.
Douglas Van Dorn is a pastor at the Reformed Baptist Church of Northern Colorado in Boulder, Colorado. He is a graduate of Bethel College and the Denver Seminary. Doug is the author of several books to include the best selling Giants: Sons of the Gods and Covenant Theology: A Reformed Baptist Primer. Doug is married to Janelle and together they have four daughters.