The great English New Testament scholar F. F. Bruce counseled his readers to avoid being dogmatic about issues. If one is right, he pointed out, dogmatically defending one’s position does not make it any truer nor is it likely to convince others. It usually has the opposite effect. If one’s position is mistaken, being dogmatic can only be harmful.
F. F. Bruce understood that even the brightest of us still “sees through a glass darkly” and only the best of us remembers that fact and holds positions humbly. Only God sees things as they are - and we are not God. Though we can see things truly, we cannot see them wholly. To insist that we do is to make fools of ourselves by making believe that we are equal to God.
As I write this, I am looking over the top of my computer screen, out the window and across the road at a barren elm. What I see is a vase-shaped, leafless tree, jostled slightly by the wind. Its trunk has a bald spot, where the bark has fallen away. I know that morel mushrooms sometimes grow around dying elms in the spring. I know that splitting elm for firewood is a lousy job.
Yet there is more about that tree that I don’t know than I do. I do not know how old it is. I do not know how deep its roots are. I do not know its molecular structure. I cannot see its atomic bonds. I don’t know what the squirrels that chase each other through its branches sense when their feet grip its bark. I don’t know the degree to which it contributes to the replenishment of the ozone layer. I know some things about that tree, but I do not know it as God knows it.
The tree serves as a basic example of the limits of my knowledge. More complex examples would include politics, economics, philosophy, metaphysics and personal relationships, to name a few. My knowledge, even when true, is always limited - usually more limited than I realize. This is true of all our race, a fact the wise do not forget.
God intends to greatly expand the limits of our knowledge one day. St. Paul, who wrote, “Now we see through a glass darkly,” immediately added “then” - in a future age - “we will see face to face. Now we know in part. Then we will know, even as we are known.” Imagine what it would be like to look at the elm tree and take it all in - the feel of its bark on squirrels’ feet and the structure of its atomic constituents. Perhaps that awaits us.
Until then, we are in great need of what St. James called “the wisdom of humility.” We are still children, in terms of our development as eternal spiritual beings and our understanding of the world. We have not yet matured.
My grandson Phin is a bright 4-year-old. One day in the Spring, he saw a bug on the ceiling at his house and wanted to catch it. His mom said, “I’ll have to vacuum it up.” Phin asked, “How does it get up there?” My daughter-in-law, thinking he was talking about the bug, said, “They fly.” Phin looked at her in amazement and said, “Vacuums fly?”
I’m pretty sure the same kind of thing happens to us. Because our knowledge of the world around us and the God above us is limited, we assume things to be true that are not and vice versa. This is certainly the case when it comes to biblical knowledge. While we can know the meaning of the Bible truly, we cannot know it completely. Some of our interpretations will likely be as far off base as Phin’s interpretation regarding flying vacuums.
The same is true in other fields of knowledge, whether physics or biology or cooking or sports. We can know many things truly - this assurance is vital - without knowing anything completely. This calls for a broad curiosity about our world, a deep humility about ourselves and an unfailing respect for our peers.
Shayne Looper is the pastor of Lockwood Community Church in Coldwater, Michigan. His blog, “The Way Home,” is at shaynelooper.com.