On the Limits of Theological Knowledge

book shelves in a room close up photographyOne of the more important aspects of theology, in my opinion, is a healthy understanding of the limits of theological knowledge. There is a tendency for many to approach theology as something that can be mastered. This would be the feeling that once you get all your theological ducks in a row you will be set, or that you can approach theological controversy with an expectation that one side has all the answers. I find this problematic for at least two reasons: it is arrogant and it misses the entire point of theology.

I just finished reading an incredible book by Steven Duby, God in Himself: Scripture, Metaphysics, and the Task of Christian Theology. I’m not going to review Duby’s book. I’ll leave that to someone else. But, his chapter on the knowledge of God helpfully situates our knowledge within a greater superstructure.

From a human perspective, we understand that our understanding was marred by the fall (the noetic effects of sin). But it can be helped to understand the things of God by the Spirit through regeneration, illumination, and ultimately glorification. Also from this human perspective, we normally use the “crutch” of tradition (church history and the communion of saints) to help.

While it is helpful to think about human understanding within the large timeline of creation, fall, redemption, and glorification, this is not the only perspective from which to view human understanding. This is where Duby is helpful. His first chapter discusses knowledge of God within an even larger theological superstructure. These are the layers he provides, each of which builds on the previous:

  1. Theological knowledge has the divine purpose of communion with God. The divine purpose of theological knowledge is communion with God, which recognizes that God is complete in himself but yet wills that created beings can know something of him, which is primarily made known in Scripture;
  2. God is known in self-revelation through wisdom. The object of theological knowledge is God himself and is dependent on God’s initiative in revelation. Importantly, this revelation is not just to give bare information but to bring glory to God and restored fellowship between God and his creation. The way this looks in the life of the Christian is wisdom.
  3. The limitations of finitude. The limitations and incompleteness of theological knowledge are important to realize. Where one sits on the timeline of the history of revelation will affect theological knowledge (we sit between what the OT saints knew and what the blessed in heaven know). Likewise, where one sits in regard to redemption will affect theological knowledge (unregenerate, regenerate, or glorified).
  4. Not hidden but a pilgrim understanding. Despite limitations in knowledge, God is not a hidden and unknowable God (Deus absconditus). Rather, a recognition of the pilgrim nature of our understanding can lead to a healthy understanding of the knowledge of God.

In other words, Duby’s work locates theological reasoning within a divine framework, not just the human perspective (which is encompassed in Duby’s third point). The greater superstructure Duby points to is God’s being (the divine ontology). Duby is not the first to do this, others such as John Webster, Kevin Vanhoozer, Matthew Barrett, and Scott Swain have done similar work recently. And this really points to the much older “basic theological principles” of principium essendi (principle of being), principium cognoscendi externum (the external principle of knowing), and principium cognoscendi internum (the internal principle of knowing).

In a blog post I can only drop this bit of theology. To comment and explicate how these all fit together would take a seminary-level theology course. But I hope you can see at least the skeleton of what is being said: The Triune God in himself gives the base meaning to all reality, which is ultimately found in God alone. Thus, God has a purpose within himself for humans knowing him. To accomplish this purpose God has revealed himself through various means, and scripture is our primary access point at this time. It is at this juncture that the limitations of human understanding enter. Yet, we are not left alone because the Spirit works through regeneration, illumination, and the communion of saints to help us have theological understanding. All of which, of course, is so we can have a relationship with the Triune God.

When we understand theological knowledge within this greater framework, at least a few observations can be made.

First, we should lay aside the prideful notion that we can build an impregnable theology. This is not to say that we cannot be firm in our convictions, but we must realize that there are serious limitations to our theology. Which is nothing less than what many wise theologians will say. The three most comforting words in a theologian’s arsenal that they can give in response to tough theological questions are: “I don’t know.” And that is a good thing because we worship a God who is altogether different than we are. Yet he has made himself known, and for a reason.

Second, God makes himself known for us. As Duby pointed out, the purpose of theological knowledge is communion with God. The point is not merely to get your theological ducks in a row. The point is to grow in communion with the object of theology, which is God himself. Theology is no less than head knowledge, but it is so much more.

Third, from our human perspective, an understanding of historical theology helps here, both to give a robust theology and to guard from painful wandering. The categories put in place by those who came before us are not simply dry, scholastic bones. They are careful reflections on the way we can understand God. We do not have to constantly reinvent the wheel. And we neglect these carefully constructed safeguards at our own peril. The character of historical theology as memory is essential.

Fourth, the theological disciplines should all be done within this framework. Systematic and historical theology along with biblical studies are all encompassed by this overarching reality. That has often given me much food for thought, especially as I consider what a theology of historical theology looks like.

All that to say: Duby’s book really got me thinking. That is what the best books do. And these are only a few meditations on one chapter. Yet hardly anything is more important in theological reflection than remembering our own limitations and that the point of these reflections is to bring us to closer communion with God.

Review: A Little Book for New Historians by Tracy McKenzie

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Robert Tracy McKenzie, A Little Book for New Historians: Why and How to Study History (IVP Academic, 2019), 115 pages.

In this little book, Tracy McKenzie contributes to IVP’s “Little Book” series by giving a helpful introduction to the study of history from a Christian perspective. On the one hand, this short work can be read as a classroom textbook in the sense that its readers will be challenged to do history and do it well. In part one, McKenzie walks the reader through a basic definition and understanding of history before discussing the need and the benefits of historical training. In part two, McKenzie walks through the best practices that accompany history done well.

On the other hand, this book can be read as an invitation for transformation. In a sense this is the well-discussed difference between getting training and getting an education. I’ve completed a lot of school and one thing that has helped is my test-taking ability. True and false questions, multiple-choice, short answer, and fill in the blank can all “be beaten” in my thinking (which doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use them). I learned at an early age that being good at taking tests will translate quickly into getting good grades. But that doesn’t always mean that I’ve learned as much as my grade shows. It’s also why essay assignments were more difficult, they force you to think and show that you are thinking. In history class, it is easier to discuss dates and names than it is to discuss what we think went on, how we can defend our understanding of the past, and what wisdom can be gleaned from our endeavor.

This difference between training and education is the key to good history. McKenzie calls this historical consciousness. “Historical consciousness isn’t information we possess or a skill that we practice, It’s a mindset that changes how we see both ourselves and the world” (39). If we do history well we better ourselves by learning to loose ourselves from the tyranny of the present and listen well to the wisdom of the past. The personal takeaway is that the skills learned in this sort of education easily transfers to nearly every other endeavor we can imagine. “The academic study of history is less a gateway to a particular occupation than a stepping stone to lifelong learning” (35).

This leads me to think about of how this impacts Christians, which McKenzie discusses in a couple chapters. Studying church history means that we will learn dates and names from the Christian past, but it is more important that we learn to think better and learn to learn from the deceased among the communion of saints. They will seem odd and hard to understand because of our distance from them. We need to learn patience, humility, and the need to suspend judgment until we can weigh the various pieces of data within the suggested interpretive scheme. One simply cannot do history well without the famous “five C’s of historical thinking” of change over time, context, causality, contingency, and complexity (88). These critical thinking skills prove helpful in many arenas. They make one a better and more conscious thinker in general. It is no surprise that history majors in college go on to a great variety of successful careers. And for the Christian-would-be-historian, McKenzie says the one who employs these skills well “should expect to increase in historical knowledge, thinking skill, and consciousness, but you should also hope to grow in humility, charity, and wisdom” (105-106).

Sound thinking about the past means that “hot takes” or the “gotcha” quote tweet are not what we are after. Patient thinking, humble wrestling with people and ideas very different than our own, and cautious conclusions are just a few of the traits we are after. For someone interested in learning what history is all about, this book is as good a place to start as any. Its wit, brevity, and smooth prose make it easy to read through. And for the more experienced historian, the same qualities make this truly a refreshing refresher course. I will return to this book again for sure.