Friday, February 8, 2008

Exploring the Limits of Our Knowledge

Responding to a question by a friend that has caused me to think quite a bit on a very difficult topic.

The question was basically "can humans grasp ultimate truth/reality?" From a Christian perspective, this ultimate truth or reality is said to be based or found in God. So the question is can humans comprehend God? If so, can we express this in words?

At one end of the spectrum we find the position that we have no ability to comprehend God in our human reasoning. Common lines of reasoning in Western Christianity are that God is above human reasoning or excluded from it (because he designed it, presumably). The Eastern Orthodox Church holds a similar view and ultimately resorts to using more mystical methods to understand God. These Eastern thinkers might be perfectly comfortable in making contradictory statements about God because our human reasoning cannot really comprehend Him. They also are much more comfortable with making statements like "God is not…" rather than attempting to positively describe God. More moderate views hold that God can be understood to a certain extent, but our knowledge is limited. The emergent church movement has a lot of this type of thinking in it.

The evangelical view (which is by far a minority position in Christianity) is that God can be understood (though even here we find limits). He has revealed himself in His word and so as far as His word describes Him we are able to understand Him (or at least make descriptive statements that make sense and do not contradict each other about Him). To do this we often must resort to using philosophy to refine our understandings. This is somewhat controversial, but I would argue that the "ultra-evangelical" idea that we can base our theology solely on the Bible is impractical. To interpret and understand the Bible, we must use some form of hermeneutics, itself a philosophical discipline.

Ultimately, I find problems with the idea that we cannot comprehend God. It seems actually a self-defeating position- to say we cannot have any understanding of God is to make a statement that shows understanding of at least some aspect of God's character (call it His mysteriousness). Further, to say that God is above or outside of human reasoning raises some serious issues. If God is not "subject" to the law of non-contradiction, for instance, then he could potentially exist and not exist at the same time!! That seems a serious flaw in the reasoning (unless you're an absolute relativist, which is also a self-defeating philosophical position). So it seems we have to have some ability to understand or comprehend God.

At the same time, I can readily admit there must be limits to that knowledge. We finite beings obviously cannot fully comprehend an infinite being. But this does not mean we cannot comprehend in part. The traditional evangelical view holds that we can understand God in a large way, and hence I have several very thick books on my shelf on "Systematic Theology." While I was basically raised on this understanding of God, I am highly suspicious of systematic theology. I think all the proof-texting that goes on by theologians tends to take passages of the Bible way out of their intended context to imply things they may not necessarily imply. To clarify, I do believe the Bible very clearly teaches (though perhaps not in a proof-text friendly form) some essential doctrines- the separation of man from God by sin, the deity and humanity of Christ, the death burial and resurrection, salvation by grace alone, the trinity, the return of Christ. Those seem pretty big and pretty clear. But a lot of more minor doctrines seem much less clear and much less spelled out. In those grey areas, I worry that proof-texting makes things too black and white, too cut and dry, and in some cases misses the point all-together.

So I guess that makes me a bit of a moderate evangelical. I think we can understand God to the extent that He has made Himself known in scripture, and perhaps more so based on philosophy. But I think perhaps we have overdone it in our quest for a simple, systematized understanding of God. There may be more mystery than some evangelicals want to admit.


  1. I think it is important to remember that there are at least two views here: (1) that the Bible's lessons are on/in morality), and (2) that through these lessons we can learn the nature of God (the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit). However, it is debated able about how much the Bible actually says about God's nature itself: we ‘read into’ the Bible to make suppositions about the nature of God. In other words, we learn what is expected of us and then speculate the nature of God from that (i.e., God nature must be…otherwise why would God ask…of us?). I have a feeling much of what we think we know about God's nature is supposition based on the Bible or other religious texts.

    I think you may be interested in a post that I wrote earlier today "Faith: What is it?". It has some points that touch on what you have wrote about such as people using philosophy: in my post it about how people use philosophy to prove God's existence.

  2. Hm... I think there may be a misconception here. Most of the Bible is not outright precepts or statements about "what is expected of us." The majority is in the form of narrative or descriptions of God's action in history, along with some precepts, and a lot of descriptive writing. These writings can contain moral elements, but at least in my understanding they are far more about the character of God than normal human behavior. Part of the assumption is that God's character will influence our behavior, but not much of the Bible is explicitly about morality or how we should behave.


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