Theological Humility (Part 2): Limitations of Revelation
It is John’s considered opinion that the cosmos itself does not contain enough space to house the volumes required to record everything Jesus ever did (John 21:25). That’s another reason for theological humility—the profound limitations of revelation. (Part 1 explored the limitations of knowledge.)
Many think John was being hyperbolic. But at least two factors argue for taking his assessment at face value.
First, the statement follows hard on the heels of John’s sworn testimony that everything he has reported in his Gospel is absolutely trustworthy (John 21:24). To follow such a solemn assertion of reliability with a hyperbole—however acceptable a literary device—seems incongruous.
Second, John’s express purpose has been to convince his readers that this Jesus of Nazareth is none other than the eternal Word and Son of God (John 20:30-31), beginning with Christ’s role in creation (John 1:1-4). That being the case, how could a full record of all the works of an infinite Person throughout eternity possibly “fit” within the finite confines of the created cosmos.
What we possess in the Scriptures—wonderful and accurate and adequate as it is—is a fraction of what there is to know about God, his character, his personality, his works, and his ways. How can it possibly be otherwise? The current edition of the Oxford English Dictionary – the world’s most exhaustive collection of English vocabulary — consists of twenty volumes, each averaging 1100-1200 pages; for a total of 23,000 pages of words. That’s 16 times bigger than my one-volume, wide-margin, straight-text Bible of just 1400 pages. How can the moderately small book we call the Bible be anything but a fractional revelation of an infinite and eternal God?
God has revealed in the Bible a tantalizingly tiny percentage of what there is to know about him and his ways. That limitation of revelation should engender theological humility especially when it comes to speculating on matters that God has chosen not to reveal.
Theological humility is not theological agnosticism. What is clearly revealed we may and must affirm absolutely: “Those things that are revealed belong to us and to our children” (Deut 29:29b). It is the duty of faith to embrace confidently what God has said. But it is not faith to pretend that we can figure out “the secret things” (Deut 29:29a).
Revelation is a matter of divine discretion. That is the thesis of Deuteronomy 29:29. The axiomatic starting point of all theology is that we know nothing of God apart from his revealing it. God chooses what to reveal and what to withhold.
Consequently, revelation is partial. Revelation is reliable disclosure, but not full disclosure. “Secret things”are not nonexistent; they’re just hidden, concealed, withheld. That doesn’t mean they’re hard to find or difficult to figure out. It means they’re impossible to find or figure out, because God has decided to make them unknown and therefore unknowable.
The verse posits only two categories of truth or reality: (1) what is revealed and therefore may be known with certainty, and (2) what is concealed and therefore may not be known with certainty. Revelation is all about divine self-disclosure, but only partial self-disclosure. Scripture repeatedly drops reminders of the partial nature of divine revelation.
One of the clearest examples of divine concealment occurs, ironically, in the book of Revelation, when John tells us that he was not allowed to tell us something that he could have told us (Rev. 10:1-4). If God did not intend for us to know what the seven thunders said, why have John tell us that he was about to tell us but that God told him not to tell us?
The point is not just that he was forbidden to record a revelation he had received from God, but that he was directed to reveal that he was given a revelation that he was forbidden to share with us. It is a not-so-subtle reminder that God has not given us all the revelation that he could have, just all the revelation he intended to.
Theology that presumes to explain all the mysteries and fill in all the revelatory gaps divests God of his sovereignty to reveal or to withhold according to his wisdom and will. And he will not be divested: “It is the glory of God to conceal a thing” (Proverbs 25:2).