Augustine and the undoing of arguments toward ignorance

slight knowledge

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

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.


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Knowledge vs understanding

Martyn Lloyd-Jones

There is nothing new about not believing in God; it is the oldest thing in the world to deny Him. This is what I find so pathetic, that people think it is clever not to believe in God, that it is modern, that it is something new, that it is something wonderful! But here is a man, King David, writing all this a thousand years before Christ—nearly three thousand years ago—and there were people saying then, “There is no God”—just what clever people are saying today, those who try to argue that they are saying it in terms of some latest esoteric knowledge that they have been given and that other people still do not have. But is it not clear that this has nothing at all to do with knowledge as such?

No; it is a question of understanding, and that is a very different thing. Men and women may have a lot of book knowledge, but that does not mean they have understanding or that they have wisdom. They can be aware of many facts, but they may be fools in their own personal lives. Have we not known such people? I have known men in some of the learned professions; I would take their opinion without a moment’s hesitation because of their knowledge and because of their learning. But sometimes I have known some of those men to be utter fools in their own personal lives. I mean by that, they behaved like lunatics, as if they had not a brain at all. They have behaved in exactly the same way as a man who never had their educational advantages and who had none of their great knowledge. They drank too much even as a less educated man did; they were guilty of adultery even as he was.

There is all the difference in the world between knowledge—an awareness of facts—and wisdom and real understanding. Though people may have great brains and may know a number of things, they may still be governed by their lusts and passions and desires, and that is why they are fools.… They are men and women who listen to their hearts, their desires; they are governed by what they want to do rather than by true understanding.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Seeking the Face of God: Nine Reflections on the Psalms, 14–15

Book Review: The Gospel and the Mind by Bradley G. Green

The Gospel and the Mind by Bradley G. Green

Title: The Gospel and the Mind: Recovering and Shaping the Intellectual Life
Author: Bradley G. Green
Publisher: Crossway (2010)

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)

In The Gospel and the Mind: Recovering and Shaping the Intellectual Life, author Bradley G. Green proposes a two-part answer to this challenging question. He argues that:

  1. The Christian vision of God, man, and the world provides the necessary precondition for the recovery of any meaningful intellectual life.
  2. 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:

  1. 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)
  2. 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…]