Come To the Wrong Conclusion, or Wrong To Come To a Conclusion?
The complaint often made against Christians is not so much that we've come to the wrong conclusion about life and reality, but that it's wrong to come to a conclusion. The hidden nature of the universe is beyond our reach, some say; we can have our private faith or beliefs about God, but we can't have genuine knowledge. It's an affront to God (if he exists) to suggest that we know anything for certain about him. We put God in a box, we package him up in a container sized comfortably enough for us to handle--which is just wrong.*
There is a measure of truth there, worth dwelling on for a while before considering how it is nevertheless distorted. Recently a group of middle school girls in our church youth group asked me to explain how it could be that God had no beginning. At that age most young people are just awakening their earliest capacity for abstract thinking. At one point I was trying to explain to them that there was no such thing as time until God created it. But of course "until" there was such a thing as time, there was no such thing as "until," so I said God exists "outside of time." These middle-schoolers just would not follow me into that world of metaphor. They wanted a concrete answer; they kept saying, "but how...?" In the back of my mind there was the thought, "there's no logical contradiction in this doctrine, and it's Biblical, so I can accept it." But the girls were right--the concept is far beyond me. God himself is far beyond me. Isaiah 55:8-9 is surely an understatement:
"'For My thoughts are not your thoughts,
Nor are your ways My ways,' says the LORD.
'For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
So are My ways higher than your ways,
And My thoughts than your thoughts.'"
My college friend John said he thought we would spend all of eternity learning more about the true nature and greatness of God, and we would never comprehend it all. I'm sure he's right. The mysteries of God's love, his creativity, his holiness, his wisdom, his justice, his purposes, his eternal nature--all of these call us to worship him in profound awareness of how small and inadequate we are before him. God prohibited images being made of him because no self-contained, created thing could be a true picture; and if we think our teachings about God are complete sculptures of him, we are idolaters and we fail to worship the true God.
Knowledge of the true God can never lead to a triumphal, "I've got it all figured out!" But does that mean we can know nothing about God? Is it idolatry before God, or arrogance among men, to say that we know something about God? Here my mood shifts slightly as I write, from worship to thankfulness toward God. He could have cloaked himself forever in complete mystery, but he did not. He has revealed himself through acts in history, especially through Jesus Christ. As Francis Schaeffer used to say, our knowledge of God (as given through his Word) is not exhaustive but it is true. For example, in the statement, "God is a person," "person" surely means far more than we can comprehend; but that does not mean it means less than what we know. What we know about persons--they have mind, emotions, will, and so on--may be truly said about God, though it does not exhaust all the truth of God's personhood.
The Bible--the same source that warns so gravely about idolatry--says we can know God. Consider first these words from Jesus (emphasis in all these quotes is added by me):
"But Jesus answered [religions leaders who were challenging him], You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God'" (Matthew 22:29).
"And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent" (John 17:3).
"'If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also; and from now on you know Him and have seen Him.' Philip [one of his close followers] said to Him, 'Lord, show us the Father, and it is sufficient for us.' Jesus said to him, 'Have I been with you so long, and yet you have not known Me, Philip? He who has seen Me has seen the Father; so how can you say, "Show us the Father?"'" (John 14:7-9).
Far from teaching God as unknowable, Jesus rather rebuked his challengers and even one of his followers for not knowing. Jesus himself was the clearest revelation God has given of his character so far, and what is true of Jesus is true of God. He was compassionate, he was loving and winsome, he was powerful, he was wise above all other teachers, he stood firmly against all religious pretense, and he stood firmly for truth when others would twist it. Much, much more could be said about this most remarkable person of history. We cannot grasp all of who he was, but we can know some things truly about him.
Consider also what his followers wrote. Luke the historian wrote in Acts 4:8-10:
"Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, 'Rulers of the people and elders of Israel: If we this day are judged for a good deed done to a helpless man, by what means he has been made well, let it be known to you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead, by Him this man stands here before you whole.'"
Paul's prime purpose was to know Christ, not just cognitively, but also not less than that (Philippians 3:7-11):
"But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith--that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead."
And later in 2 Corinthians 4:6 he said,
"For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ."
And finally (though there are dozens more of these we could look at if we had time), there is this from Peter (2 Peter 1:3-9):
"His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ."
If there is a charge that it's an affront to God for Christians to claim to know about him, that charge is based on a foreign ethic, one that comes from outside Christian sources. Our founder, Jesus Christ, and his immediate followers made it clear that knowledge is both possible and necessary.
If there is a belief that God is so Other--so wrapped in mystery--that we can never say anything definite about him, that contradicts what he has said about himself.
If there is a belief that we belittle God by talking about what he is like, by describing him, that belief itself belittles God terribly, for it denies him the capacity to do what we humans do all the time: to communicate truly about himself. He created us in his image. Whatever else that means, it's hardly a stretch to suppose that it included making us such that he could communicate with us.
I do not want to follow this where some have taken it, into an idolatry of doctrine. A thinking Christian is foremost a worshiping Christian, and if our thoughts do not take us to an edge of immense wonder, they have taken us the wrong direction. But as we look across that horizon, we do not stand in ignorance. We know some things about God--not exhaustively, not without worship and wonder, but yet truly. He intended us to know him, and he himself has made it possible.
There is another error lurking here that I can only name for now. I'll be coming back to it soon, when I review J.P. Moreland's Kingdom Triangle. Here it is: "Yes, yes, you Christians can believe all that, and you can call it "knowledge" if you insist, but it's knowledge of a much lesser sort than ordinary knowledge. It's really opinion, or faith, or belief, not real knowledge." There are real problems with that, but I'll let it dangle there for now.
*There is another related charge against Christians: that in a pluralistic world it's arrogant for us to conclude that our beliefs are better than others'. I can only acknowledge that complaint here, for there is no time to address it this time; I've approached it previously and will undoubtedly do so again. Similarly, I have not taken up the apologetic task in this post of showing that what I've quoted from the Bible is trustworthy. (I've also worked on that elsewhere and expect to do it again.) My purpose here is more limited; it is just what is contained in the body of the blog post above.
Posted: Sun - June 17, 2007 at 07:08 AM |