Theology in 3D

Theological Humility

Theological Humility (Part 1): Limitations of Knowledge

Layton Talbert | September 20, 2019
Old Testament, Theology

This first of a brief three-part series explores biblical examples and principles of cultivating theological humility. I know of no better model of what it looks like to learn theological humility than Job.

What’s intriguing about God’s initial reply to Job (Job 38:1-5) is the repetitive hammer-blow of the Hebrew word for “knowledge.” More literally, it reads like this:

  • V. 2—Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
  • V. 3—Gird your loins like a man; I will demand of you, and you shall make me know.
  • V. 4—Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Declare if you know.
  • V. 5—Who has laid the measures of it, if you know?

And then in 38:18, Have you perceived the breadth of the earth? Declare if you know it all!

God proceeds to interrogate Job’s knowledge of (let alone his control over) areas of cosmology, oceanography, meteorology, geology, and astronomy (Job 38), before moving into the field of zoology and questioning Job’s awareness of (let alone his ability to care for) lions and ravens, mountain goats and wild donkeys, oxen and ostriches, horses and hawks, behemoths and leviathans (Job 39-41). God peppers Job with nearly 80 separate questions.

The divine interrogation puts on public display the deficiencies of Job’s knowledge—and, by implication, our knowledge—of God and his ways. All our scholarly commen­taries and systematic theologies can fuel the subtle supposition that we, too, have God pretty much figured out and can explain all his past actions, pigeon-hole all his present doings, and predict all his future plans in minute detail.

To be sure, the Scriptures comprise a foundational body of truth that is both accurate and adequate, of which we can be certain and should be convinced. But even when we speak what we know is true and right and revealed, if we’re honest we have to confess with Job that we are speaking of things we’re not big enough to fully comprehend, things too wonderful for us to fully understand (Job 42:3). In short, we do not know as much as we think we know, and only a microscopic fraction of what there is to know.

It is delusional to suppose that we have at our command all the facts about an infinite and eternal God. Even Job understood this, at least theoretically (Job 26:14). The word “outskirts” denotes an edge or a corner of something, a boundary line, a coastline. What we can discern from God’s self-revelation are the mere coastlines of the continent of the mind and character of God (and even “continent” is not a big enough word).

An Analogy

Imagine landing for the first time on the 17th-century American continent—let’s say the lower Carolina coast (I’m prejudiced). You have no inkling of the size of the “island” where you just planted the first imprint of a European shoe. In reality, you are perched on the bare edge of a continuous landmass over 3,000 miles wide and 9,500 miles long. How much do you understand about this continent based on what you can see from the bay where you’re anchored or from the beach where you’re standing?

Suppose you forge your way inland 5 miles, or 50 miles, or 100 miles to get a better idea of what this new country is like. Standing in the vicinity of what would eventually become Columbia, SC, you would have covered 3% of the distance to the Pacific shore … but only along a single, tiny, linear corridor that would leave you ignorant of the first 100 miles inland in Florida or Virginia or Maryland or Maine—all of which are very different from each other. Even allowing your survey route a one-mile wide swath, giving you at least some visual experience of one hundred square miles, we could calculate your total “knowledge” of the North American continent (which covers 9.4 million square miles) at .00001%. Not very impressive.

So let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you made it all the way across the three thousand miles to the opposite edge of the continent. Now you really know America, shore to shore, right? But again, allowing one mile as an average “breadth of experience” for your survey route, you still would have gained minimal familiarity with a grand total of a meager .0003%. And how well would you know even that .0003% based on your experience? How many lives would you need to begin to exhaust all there is to know and experience of this fragment of the earth’s surface called North America?

Granted, you would see and experience and learn a vast amount of valid and verifiable truth about this continent. You would certainly know way more about America than the guy who pitched his tent in Charles Towne and stayed put. But your technical intellectual and experiential index would still hover somewhere between “Total Ignoramus” and “Massive Ignorance.”

As real, and tangible, and valid, and verifiable as what you have seen is, you are experiencing a minuscule fraction of an unimaginable stretch of vast and varied terrain yet to be explored: massive and multiple mountain ranges, trackless prairies, impenetrable jungles, mammoth lakes, mighty rivers with deafening waterfalls, swamps and deserts, flora and fauna yet unknown to mankind.

How much do you think there is to know about the ways and works of the infinite God who spoke all this into existence? Even what we know of him are the mere edges of infinity, the bare boundaries of eternity, the outskirts of his ways.

God is the infinite and unexplored Continent (Paul would say “unsearchable,” Rom 11:33). God’s Word is the map that only outlines—adequately and accurately, yet finitely—the mere coastlines of his character, the boundaries of his being, the edges of his ways.

Back in Job 26:14, the word “whisper” is actually a major term for speech (dabar). But there are all kinds of speech, and “whisper” nicely captures the Job’s nuance of minimal communication. We might object, “Yes, but Job was speaking prior to written revelation. We have the whole Bible now. Surely that’s more than a ‘whisper,’ isn’t it?”

Is it?

The NT confirms the fact that God is more complex and more glorious than our Bibles can possibly communicate. More on that next time.


4 responses to “Theological Humility (Part 1): Limitations of Knowledge”

  1. Geon Kang says:

    When does the unknown be better than knowing?
    I want to differentiate unknown into at least four classes:
    (A) temporal unknown
    (B) eternal unknown
    (C) local unknown: unknown to individual/small humanity
    (D) global unknown: unknown to all humanity
    For example, RSA cryptography is (A)+(C) provides an internet security system.
    So what will be the biblical examples of the unknown is better than knowing?
    Case1: (A)+(C)
    Case2: (A)+(D)
    Case3: (B)+(C)
    Case4: (B)+(D)
    Thank you in advance.

  2. Geon Kang says:

    I want to know why we have different degrees of limitations?
    For example, it is well known that 4 Dimension is impossible to visualize for human beings but we can still study 4 Dimension through mathematics to know how many vertexes are in 4 Dimensional objects and so on. I think there is knowing and not-knowing co-existence for (almost?)everything.

    Thank you in Christ.

  3. Hey Geon. Some tentative examples in each case would be:
    Case 1: gospel/individuals (2 Cor. 4:3-4); resurrection/ disciples (Lk. 9:35, 18:35)
    Case 2: mystery of Gentiles & Jews in one body (Eph. 3:3-6); seven thunders (Rev. 10:3-4); assuming that ignorance of this info is temporary (?), and technically John would be the sole exception to global ignorance, since he obviously knew what the thunders communicated since he was about to write it down.
    Cases 3-4: Dt. 29:29? But once we start talking eternity, I don’t know how to identify these possibilities since we have no way to know what we will not know in eternity; we will not be omniscient (I think that’s a purely divine attribute), though perhaps that only means we will be incapable of holding all knowledge simultaneously and eternally, not necessarily that there will be any individual things we will be incapable of knowing. I.e., I don’t think we don’t know enough to know that.
    The part of your question I don’t know how to answer (because I don’t know exactly what you mean) is, “When is the unknown better than knowing?” But if I’m understanding your intent correctly, I think I would say (a) if we do not know but something that God intends us to know (via revelation), then knowing is better than not knowing, but (b) if we do not know something because God has chosen to withhold it from us, not knowing is better than knowing because all of God’s revelatory decisions are wisest and best.

  4. Geon Kang says:

    “If…God has chosen to withhold it from us, not knowing is better than knowing because all of God’s revelatory decisions are wisest and best.”

    Yes.

    “My faith is not built on arguments of logic or reason, it is built on one thing—revelation.”-Fyodor Dostoyevsky

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