Almost all the advice we’re given today starts with some version of being true to ourselves. We should know our personality types, our strengths, and our gifts. There’s nothing wrong with any of these things, of course. In fact, it’s quite helpful. But if it’s where we start, aside from subscribing to a self-help methodology, we’re missing out on the bigger picture.
One of the reformers described that bigger picture this way: “Man never attains to a true self-knowledge until he has previously contemplated the face of God, and come down after such contemplation to look into himself.”1
Where Knowing Yourself Begins
This is the right starting point. If we really want to know ourselves, it starts by knowing God. When our attention is focused on ourselves, we can easily become puffed up or vain. We might see our strengths, but we struggle to see our weaknesses. We only get half a picture, and a distorted one at that.
Instead, we need to start with God, with his goodness, with his character, and his glory, because this helps us to get a better picture of ourselves. We need to know the One in whose image we have been made. To know God so we can know our need for him. To know God to know the character of the One who sacrificed all to meet our need.
Focus on Knowing God First
This is what protects us from pride and folly. From continuing the patterns of sin that have plagued us all our lives, and threaten to derail us in our faith. And while it might sound simplistic or even trite to some, it really is what helps us to live as we were meant to. To flourish as much as we are able this side of the new creation. If you really want to know yourself, start with knowing God.
John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion.[↩]
Almost every professing Christians I’ve ever met or read or heard speak somewhere has claimed to have a high view of the Bible. Seriously, regardless of the dividing lines, it’s been rare to ever see someone come right out and say we need to chuck the Bible. Even those who aren’t so sure you can really know what it says usually don’t go that far.
And for them, the problem usually isn’t a high regard for the Bible. Their problem is the baggage we all bring to it. The problem is our presuppositions—the ideas and opinions we bring to the table and read the text in light of, whether we realize we’re doing it or not. And because of our presuppositions, some ask, how can we really know we’re reading the text correctly?
Can we really know what the Bible says?
Can we have any certainty whatsoever about what the Bible is saying on any major point, or are we stuck with what amounts to personal preferences and opinions?
The old question (and weak answer)
This is not a new concern, obviously. It’s one that’s been raised for decades. In fact, there are dozens of books addressing it from all kinds of angles available at your local Christian bookstore (and more published every year). And this was one of the attractive qualities of what was once called the Emergent Church. Its voices made it feel safe for the average Boomer and Generation X-aged Christian to ask these questions. (Unfortunately, there seemed to be a bit less comfort with finding answers.)
The tendency was to embrace a transformed view of the Bible, seeing it as a multi-colored, multifaceted document. A book depicting one people group’s evolving understanding of God, if you will. One we couldn’t really trust, even if we respected and honored it, because who can say what it really says, given the difficulties of textual transmission, and early church politics.
Read it, yes. Respect it, definitely. But rely on it… not so much. You can’t know what it says.[1. This has been the drum Bart Ehrman has been beating since the 1980s, for example.] If we can’t know for certain our gospel articulations today are identical in meaning to those of Christ and the apostles,[2. As Brian McLaren outright said we cannot a number of years ago.] if we cannot know the Bible we have today contains the same message it did when its various parts were first written, we should not be so arrogant as to presume there is one correct meaning or interpretation.
We can have opinions, but not definite or certain knowledge.
The good news about presuppositions and God’s planning
Regardless of the fact that we most definitely all do bring our own baggage to the table (along with our coffee and phone for a lovely Instagram photo), we shouldn’t take jump on the relativism square of the ol’ conclusions mat too quickly here. Because here’s the thing: yes, we have baggage. Yes, we have presuppositions. But even so, we should be able to have some idea of whether or not we can know anything in the Bible with any degree of certainty.
And here’s the good news: We can. Why? Because God planned for our presuppositions, too.
See, what Protestants have historically believed about the Bible is summarized in the phrase sola scriptura—Scripture alone is our authority for doctrine and life. It is the norming norm, as it were. Other authorities, such as tradition, church leaders, and voices from outside the church are not invalid, but they don’t hold the primary place. They are subordinate to and corrected by the Bible. The Word of God.
And inherent in this idea of sola scriptura is the belief that, while yes we do have to take into account our presuppositions, Scripture is actually pretty clear in all the essential things it says. Maybe not equally clear in all areas (after all, Peter said some of what Paul wrote was hard to understand), but basically clear.
The fancy word for this is perspicuity. And, really, all this means is we believe the Bible is basically clear on the essentials—so much so that even our presuppositions (unless our presupposition is the Bible is impossible to actually understand) can’t even mess us up so badly that we can’t know who God is and what he has done with any reasonable degree of confidence.
Think about it: yes, presuppositions can be a problem. But what do Christians believe about God? Fundamentally, we believe he wants to make himself known to his creation. This means he’s not going to shroud himself in mystery to the degree that he is completely unknowable in any meaningful way. And he does make himself known. Creation practically screams of his existence, according to Romans 1. What can be known about him is plain to all—the problem is we are blind.
And that’s where we have some good news, too. Because God wants to be known—he wants his people to know him—he does something pretty radical: he gives us his Spirit. And the Holy Spirit, our comforter and helper, is the One who helps us to understand what we read in the Bible.
And this was God’s plan. This is how he planned to deal with our presuppositions. He sent his Spirit to live within us, to be our teacher. He is the one who helps us understand the Scriptures, gives us a desire to submit to what we learn within its pages, and works through it to transform us into the image of Christ.
And yes, this too, is a presupposition.
But it’s the kind I hope every Christian would want to have.
Growing up, I didn’t really think about whether or not there was a God. Matters of faith weren’t really an issue for me, mostly because I didn’t care. Generally I figured, like so many North Americans, that if there were a God like the one I thought Christians worshipped, he was a jerk who wanted to steal all my fun. I didn’t really know though. And I didn’t know if I could even know.
Like so many, I had bought into the spiritual wisdom of the world—that God (if he exists at all) is unknowable. Despite the protest of those who would say otherwise, you can’t really know him. You can’t know what he’s like, what he cares about or what he expects from us.
And because you can’t know, you don’t really have to worry.
But, again, like so many, I didn’t have an important category: that of revelation. I mean, what if this God who I couldn’t be sure existed, did something wild like told us about himself? And what if we could know about his character and his plans for the world? Wouldn’t that be something?
The good news, of course, is he has done exactly this. And he has done it in the Bible—the 66 books that make up the Old and New Testaments. In this book, we have an actual knowledge of God—and essential to that knowledge is knowing him as Father. As Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote:
What the Bible, and especially the New Testament, offers us is an actual knowledge of God. We are to know him as our Father. “No man,” says Christ, “cometh unto the Father, but by me.” So I can know God, not as someone who is far away in the distance, of whom I am frightened, a tyrannical someone who is set against me, but I can turn to him and trust him as my Father. “Ye have received the Spirit of adoption,” says the apostle Paul, “whereby we cry, Abba, Father” (Romans 8:15). In other words, we realize that God loves us with an everlasting love, that he is so concerned about us that the very hairs of our head are all numbered, and that nothing can happen to us apart from God and outside his will.[1. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Let Your Hearts Not Be Troubled]
This is such good news for us. God wants us to know him. He wants us to know him, in Christ, as our loving heavenly Father… And yet, it’s so easy to forget this, isn’t it? It’s so easy to revert to some other idea about God than what he says about himself.
I was reminded of this when I was trying to comfort my oldest daughter after work recently. Emily texted and let me know that Abigail was distraught because she was sure I was going to be mad that her bicycle’s inner tubes needed to be replaced. She remembered that I had cautioned her against riding her bike with flat tires (as it would risk damaging the rims), but my caution grew in her mind to a fear that I would be angry. She forgot who I am.
“Do I normally get mad about things like this?” I asked her.
“No,” she sniffled.
“That’s right. Although I’m not perfect, I try to be a reasonable person,” I said. “So you don’t need to be upset about this, and you don’t need to be afraid I’ll be angry. Even if you’d been riding on your bike with flat tires, I wouldn’t have been mad. Disappointed, maybe, but not angry.”
And then it started to click. Simply by acknowledging the fact that she knows I’m not someone who acts that way, she was able to see her feelings for what they were—real, but not based in reality.
And this is why we need to be reminded, again and again, of the character of God. This is why we need to continually fight the inclination to not read the Bible. Because even as we are prone to forget the character of our friends and family when fear takes control, we are even more prone to do this with God. We can so easily forget that he is our Father. That he, as Lloyd-Jones put it, “loves us with an everlasting love, that he is so concerned about us that the very hairs of our head are all numbered, and that nothing can happen to us apart from God and outside his will.”
That is the Father we have. That is the Father we can know—the Father who wants us to know him and really know him, through the everlasting love with which he loves us in Jesus Christ. So let’s take every opportunity to know him more.
There are some areas of life and the Christian faith where the smartest thing you can do is to hold your position with a certain… latitude. It tends to go wrong when you dig your heels in and you won’t recognize that there are other valid points of view. One that immediately jumps to mind is end-times theology, of course, but there are others. Granted most are typically of lesser importance in comparison to something like eschatology, like church polity or music styles. Things where we can disagree as friends, and don’t necessarily have to break fellowship with one another.
Getting this right tends to be tricky, as we all know. Many of us have read stories or have actually met people who’ve been involved in church splits over things that ultimately didn’t matter that much, or seen friendships dissolve over a misunderstanding. So it’s no wonder that there are many who just throw their hands up in the air and declare, “Maybe our problem is having positions.”
Bored with certainty
A while back, this was the approach of Shane Hipps, a well-known speaker and author, when he wrote about his views on the afterlife in the wake of the Love Wins scandal. He felt that, rather than having positions on things such as the afterlife (and most everything else for that matter), we should consider possibilities only. Because we haven’t died, we can’t know for certain what happens, or so the logic goes. If someone tells us something, or the Bible seems to say it, then it’s a possibility, as he put it. It’s what we believe might be the case. But it only becomes a position once we experience it.
This again came to the forefront in recent days as I read statements by Kent Dobson as he resigned from his post as teaching pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church (himself the successor to Hipps, who was the successor to Rob Bell). He described himself as always having been drawn to the “very edges of religion and faith and God,” and not knowing “if we know what we mean by God anymore.” He’s not drawn to orthodox Christianity, though he is very much drawn to the mainstream of culture as a whole.[1. Dustin Messer’s article on Dobson’s announcement is well worth reading, by the way.]
The views Hipps, Dobson and countless others express point to one conclusion: that certainty is boring, at least in the eyes of some. If you’re drawn to the edges of faith, or you believe that experience determines what is true, then it becomes borderline impossible to be certain about anything. Thus, having defined positions becomes a problem.
Of course, so does making a coherent argument for your position against positions.
False humility and logical fallacies
See, the difficulty with trying to live in the in-between spaces, to eschew firm positions and embrace possibilities, or whatever sort of language a person chooses to use, is the entire argument is built upon faulty reasoning—the notion that you can make a statement rooted in certain knowledge (even if that knowledge is faulty), all the while believing that certain knowledge is not something we can have.
It’s a nonsensical idea because everyone makes certain statements—everyone has positions. It’s just that sometimes our positions are wrong.[2. Case in point.]
When it comes to theology, when it comes faith, we can’t not have positions, particularly theological ones. After all, to say “God created the world in six days” is a theological position. Likewise, saying “Mankind came about via an evolutionary process” is also a theological position. Similarly, “It is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment” is a theological position, as is, “Salvation is possible for everyone, even if they don’t know the name of Jesus.”
Even to say “I don’t think we should have theological positions, just possibilities,” is a position. The problem is, it’s a nonsense. In the same way, being drawn to the “excitement” of the edges of faith isn’t really being bold and courageous—it’s just being worldly. And so is false humility.
Embracing humble confidence
Humility and confidence are not enemies. They never have been. Yet too often we see people—out of what I hope is a desire to be kind and loving, and seeking to create opportunities for people to know Jesus—treat them as polar opposites. And so, embracing a faulty line of reasoning, positions become possibilities, certainty becomes speculation, and truth becomes opinion.
But this is not what God wants for us. Whether we’re attracted to the edges or whether we’re firmly rooted in orthodoxy, he wants us to pursue a humble confidence—one that is rooted in the knowledge that all we can know comes from him. That understands we’re never going to get Christianity all figured out, or perfectly know the Bible. In fact, the longer we live, and the deeper we go in our faith, the more we realize how little we actually know.
But even so, he wants us to truly know him, to come to a greater understanding of him, and to be transformed by that knowledge (Rom. 12:2). This is why he inspired the Scriptures—to make us wise for salvation and to equip us for every good work (2 Tim 3:15-17). To no longer act in ignorance, but as obedient children to grow in holiness (1 Pet. 1:14).
This glorifies and pleases him greatly. And there is nothing more exciting, nothing more humbling, nothing more personally challenging—and ultimately, nothing more rewarding—than this pursuit.
If you say you understand God, it’s not God you understand. You’ve probably heard or read something like this in dozens of books, sermons and lectures over the last 1700 years or so (but with a renewed vigor in the last 20). Usually, it’s used as an argument against certainty, especially about our knowledge of God.
To say we know anything about God is presumptuous some suggest. Wouldn’t it be better to admit just how little we know? Turning to Augustine, some even seek an ally, for, as he wrote:
We are speaking of God. Is it any wonder if you do not comprehend? For if you comprehend, it is not God you comprehend. Let it be a pious confession of ignorance rather than a rash profession of knowledge. To attain some slight knowledge of God is a great blessing; to comprehend him, however, is totally impossible.[1. Augustine, Lectures on the Gospel of John, as quoted in Reformed Dogmatics, vol 2, 48]
But is Augustine truly an ally—is he the undoer of their arguments? For to be sure, one who would argue that we can exhaustively know God’s thoughts and intentions, his character and his being… those who suggest such things are speaking too quickly (and foolishly).
But a lack of comprehension—our inability to fully and exhaustively know God—does not mean we cannot know something. Remember that, even as Augustine said it is impossible to comprehend him, “to attain some slight knowledge of God is a great blessing.” Which means: there is something of God that is knowable.
What Augustine reminds us of is our ability to apprehend God. To grasp something of him. And certainly, this is no arrogant thing to say, for God desires for us to know him. Were that not the case, he would not have revealed himself to us, in creation, in his written Word, and most fully in the person of Jesus Christ.
In creation, we see God’s creativity, his love of beauty, his precision and attention to detail, among other things. In the Bible, we are given his character and declared will, his plans and purposes for this world and its inhabitants. And in Jesus, we see all of what has been known of God in the abstract—his justice and mercy, compassion and commandments—most fully and tangibly expressed. Do we understand it all fully? Of course not. It is far too much for us. But to grasp something of God—to begin to understand what he reveals to us—is a great blessing indeed.
What does the gospel have to do our intellectual life? While some would argue that it has nothing to do with it at all, it’s interesting to note that, “wherever the gospel goes, it seems to generate intellectual deliberation and inquiry” (p. 12).
Why? What is it about the gospel that it encourages deep thinking?
And why is it that, “when the gospel ceases to permeate and influence a given culture, we often see a confused understanding of the possibility of knowledge and the meaning of our thoughts”? (p. 19)
Is there a connection between the loss of the gospel’s hold on the modern world and the modern world’s increasing skepticism about the viability, purpose, meaning, and possibility of an intellectual life? (p. 21)
The Christian vision of God, man, and the world provides the necessary precondition for the recovery of any meaningful intellectual life.
The Christian vision of God, man, and the world offers a particular, unique understanding of what the intellectual life looks like.
Green supports his argument by examining five themes:
That the doctrine of Creation provides the necessary basis for any intellectual pursuit at all. “Without a robust understanding of creation and history, we cannot—ultimately—account for the nature of the intellectual life,” writes Green. (p. 50)
That a compelling vision drives the intellectual life. For the Christian, the vision (or “telos” as Green puts it) is that we will one day see Christ face-to-face and know Him fully even as we are fully known (cf. 1 Cor. 13:12). “With the loss of this sense of a telos . . . there has been a corresponding confusion in thought [that] leads ultimately to nihilism.” (p. 176) Read More about Book Review: The Gospel and the Mind by Bradley G. Green