What Do I Know?
Socrates is associated with the following quote “I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.” When it comes to matters of faith, I do not normally quote Socrates, or any other unregenerate man (no matter how famous they are or esteemed they may be). However, Socrates may have actually gotten this one right, to a degree at least. Some may chalk it up to false humility, or subtle pride, but Socrates is correct in his assessment that the more we understand that we lack any real knowledge, wisdom, or understanding of our own, the wiser we become. Sadly, I have every reason to believe that even his knowledge of this fact, was not true knowledge, but only a superficial grasping of it (and can any of us really say any better of ourselves in our flesh?).
The longer I am in Christ, experimentally, the more I see that I know very little indeed of anything that I once thought I knew; this simple fact is humbling, very humbling, but it is also very fleeting from my memory, so the pride remains. Nonetheless, I strive to remember that what I do truly know, I know only because of God and His mercy (in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge as we read in Colossians 2:3). What I know, I know because of God the Father who is the giver of every good and perfect gift (including knowledge, wisdom, and understanding – James 1:17); what I know, I know because of God the Son who is made unto me Wisdom (I Corinthians 1:24, 30); and what I know, I know because of God the Holy Spirit who guides me into all truth according unto the measure allotted to me to understand and trust in His word (John 16:13).
Nonetheless, even this knowledge is small, shallow, compared to the depths of what true knowledge and understanding entails; for we all know in part, we all see through a glass, darkly (I Corinthians 13:12). As a result, I both love and hate knowledge. I love the knowledge that God works in me by His grace. The occasions in which such knowledge is granted seemingly appears few and far between; but when it does come, I am thankful for it. I am thankful for every morsel of understanding He gives me as He opens up His word to me and causes me to see beyond the dead letter of it (i.e. the printed letters and words alone). This mercy and blessing is by no means a daily occurrence; in fact it is not often that I can say “this I truly know of the Lord.” However, I can say here that my ignorance, my small glimpse into my own lack of knowledge and understanding, is indeed of the Lord.
In my daily exercise of faith, what I experience far more often is that which I hate. I know hate is a strong word, but it fits the reality. I indeed hate the heady, carnal, notionalistic “knowledge” that so often flows from the workings of the old, natural, man in my mind. I know that I am not alone in this influence, it is the common reality of man (regenerate and unregenerate alike), but this truth gives me no comfort. This pride-inducing knowledge is that very knowledge that the old man of the believer has in common with the unregenerate elect and the reprobate. This knowledge germinates in our own minds, but most often stems from the words and writings of others. This knowledge causes us to become puffed up and to engage in all manner of strife and division. This knowledge also easily deceives us, even when the facts believed, or assented to, are right.
How often it is, that we think we know something simply because we have been “taught” it, or even worse, because we have “heard” it somewhere and trust the source, thinking that they “must be right.” We hear something, read it, and then we parrot it back (often with the same level of true apprehension as the birds from whence the verb derives) and we think that this equates to real knowledge — or even worse, real wisdom and understanding. We think that because we can repeat what someone else has said, we have achieved something. We think that because we can sound authoritative and clever whilst doing so, we honestly have arrived somewhere and know a little something. I hate this kind of knowledge; particularly, as it applies to things religious or spiritual; yet this plague affects me just as it does every other man, if not more so.
And how does this form of mindlessness manifest itself, especially as it pertains to religion? Consider the following: I am a Credo-Baptist; but I am a Paedo-Baptist; I sing psalms; yet, I sing hymns; I wear suits; no, I wear pants; I drink wine with moderation; I avoid wine with detestation; I will only sprinkle; I will only immerse; I will interpret this passage my way; then you may go your way for having a different interpretation.
We don our armour of carnal knowledge and go to war over things that we often do not even truly understand. We think we understand it because it is something to which we have always assented; we mistake passive assent with true belief and understanding. Thus we continue the manifestations: ‘Why, I come from a long line of of Free Presbyterians, and I from the Reformed Churches, and I from the Particular Baptists, and I from Reformed Baptists, and I from Independents or Congregationalists. Or perhaps they say blindly, we’ve always been premillennial; we’ve always been amillennial; we don’t allow children to play on the Sunday Sabbath; we don’t believe in a Sunday Sabbath; we’ve been doing it this way for this long; we’ve been doing it that way for even longer. I am of Paul; and I of Apollos; I am of Cephas; I am of Christ. I believe in a lone elder; I believe in a plurality of elders… The list goes on and on.
It is as if we say ‘let us separate and tear down each other over these things; Gospel unity, as experienced in this life, is a foolish notion anyway; like life, it is but a dream. We are better off in our own little groups; we do not need to reexamine what we believe because we have always believed it – as have many other godly men of old, the most godly even; they cannot all be wrong , and it is prideful to suggest that they are. Leave us to stick to our pet doctrines; we take pride in them. After all, those doctrines make us who and what we are and it is better to be associated with our group than to be polluted by those other believers, or even pretenders, over there who are not as enlightened as we are.’
With that being said, I do not mean to suggest that everyone who holds to any of the right doctrines mentioned above, or others not listed, holds to them carnally, erroneously, or ignorantly. As stated above, God does teach His people and He does lead them into Truth. When taught of God on a matter, we will believe His truth; there is nothing wrong with sharing with others what we know and believe due to Him. We are a mixed bag; holding to both God-given truth and holding to the beliefs of others that we co-opt, deceiving ourselves into thinking that these beliefs are our own, stemming from our own critical thought and reasoning, when they are not.
Thus, my issue is not with having opposing views and stances; the issue is whether we are holding to those views because we are taught of God or if we are doing so because we are taught of men. The issue is also how we use that God-given knowledge, especially when interacting with the brethren. Surely, most everyone will say “I am taught of God on these things;” however, quite often, they may very well be wrong. We must aim to be like the Bereans, who in receiving the word with all readiness of mind, searched the scriptures daily to see whether the things proclaimed were so (Acts 17:11). Proverbs 18:13 declares “He that answereth (rejects, turns away) a matter before he heareth it (literally, heareth it intelligently, attentively, and diligently), it [is] folly and shame unto him;” therefore, let us walk carefully as God enables, striving to hear and understand the stances of others for the edification and growth of the people of God.
Consider also how easily we fail to realise that we might be right for all of the wrong reasons (and wrong for better reasons than some who are indeed right). We can be right simply because we, like beasts, mimic what others have to say and run quickly and rashly to tell others. We want to show off what we “know” when in fact we are right in these instances simply because we believe others who are right, and we believe them simply because we esteem them and think that they can say and do little wrong. We may assent to the fact that they are sinners just like us, but in action we follow their traditions, by-laws, commentaries, confessions, catechisms, and other such works almost as if they were Gospel truth (quite often, the almost can be omitted). We see that others may be wrong who at least, though the efforts are carnal and vain, strive to read, research, and understand matters. Though they may be wrong, they are more noble than those who strive to teach men by simply acting as playback devices for the thoughts and notions of others. Again, I am not trying to imply that I am immune to this folly that is so common to all men, at least to one degree or another; this is something that we all must guard against.
Nonetheless, do we ever wonder why we are so prone towards thinking that we truly know something when we do not? Why are we so apt to mimic and replay the beliefs of others, engaging in heated debates over those things that we barely understand? I believe it is because we forget that we are exhorted not to think [of ourselves, or others] more highly than we ought to think, but to think soberly (Romans 12:3), in lowliness of mind, esteeming others better than ourselves as we seek to be of the same love experimentally, [being] of one accord, of one mind while letting nothing [be done] through strife or vainglory (Philippians 2:1-3).
These exhortations often fall on deaf ears; we are also prone to forget that “evil (i.e. natural) men understand not judgment: but they that seek the LORD understand all (Proverbs 28:5).” We forget that man must “Trust in the LORD with all [their] hearts; and lean not unto [their] own understanding (Proverbs 3:5) if they are to have any semblance of right knowledge and understanding.
We forget that no matter how emphatically we claim to know these precepts, we naturally “know not, neither will [we] understand; [we] walk on in darkness (Psalm 82:5, Psalm 53:3-5).” We ourselves are beasts, and as brute beasts we speak evil of the things that we understand not and what little we do know naturally, we corrupt ourselves therein (Ecclesiastes 3:18; II Peter 2:12; Jude 1:10) with debate, strife, contention, backbiting, etc. If anyone is tempted to think that only the unregenerate man is described above, let them be more formally introduced to their old man for a season (Ephesians 4:22, Romans 7:14-25), and the sin that flows from him. Then they will not be so quick to redirect these words towards others, being overly focused on motes instead of their own beams (Matthew 7:3-5). God indeed restrains us from acting out these evils to the extent of the reprobate; he grants us wisdom, restraint, and repentance. However, if one cannot recognise these evils in their own hearts and minds, then they have not been given an eye to see themselves as they really are. But God empties His people, and they will be made to see it in due time.
In light of the above, I must concur with John Warburton (wishing that I had his direct quote in front of me) when he expressed his lament that he wished that he had learned nothing concerning religion before he was regenerated so that all he learned was learned in a state of regeneracy, as God enabled and caused him to learn. We carry so much religious baggage over with us when we learn notionalistically; and yet, even regeneracy is no guarantee that our learnings will always be, or will even often be, of God. Our knowledge and understanding of His Gospel will be real; we will not believe in counterfeit gospels nor will we be ignorant of the doctrines of free and sovereign grace that make up key precepts of the Gospel. Yet we will often be ignorant of the non-Gospel (what some call non-essential) doctrines; not yet being taught of God concerning them. As a result, we will often be quick to pick up the beliefs of those who proclaimed the Gospel to us (thinking that if they were faithful concerning the Gospel, the Doctrine of Christ, then they must be correct regarding these other doctrinal issues as well).
As a result, on these non-Gospel issues, we will quite often have the understanding of the earth, earthy. Like Mr. Warburton, we need to ask ourselves “Am I now writing of things only learned in theory, or do I know experimentally what the sweet effects of this precious oil are?” If it is all theory, then we will stick to our guns and fight the (not so) good dogmatic fight until God arrests us and causes us to see the truth if He so wills. He will either cause us to see the reality of our error (unto correction and repentance, turning from the error) or else He will cause us to see the reality that even in our correct stance, we did not really understand the truth as we ought to have understood it, or needed to understand it. When He works that work of repentance in us, we will see the folly even in our right understanding and will beseech God for his mercies and forgiveness.
Yet when God does grant us truth, we ought to proclaim it peaceably (humbly and prudently, with everything in its season, done decently and in order). We ought to proclaim it, and defend it against error – for truth is indeed precious. Yet whether proclaiming, defending, distinguishing, etc, remember that God both warns and exhorts us as follows: “13 For, brethren, ye have been called unto liberty; only [use] not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another. 14 For all the law is fulfilled in one word, [even] in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. 15 But if ye bite and devour one another, take heed that ye be not consumed one of another. 16 [This] I say then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh…. 22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, 23 Meekness, temperance: against such there is no law.24 And they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts. 25 If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit.26 Let us not be desirous of vain glory, provoking one another, envying one another (Galatians 5:13-18, 22-26).”
No matter what the debate, disagreement, or controversy pertains to, may it be that God reminds us of these exhortations and causes us to walk in accordance. May we strive in His strength not to lean unto our own understanding, but to prayerfully seek His through His word. Let us strive to see our own blindness and natural folly in light of the perfect wisdom and omniscience of God. Let us also seek to patiently hear others, considering the matter as fully as possible, aiming to esteem others better than ourselves as we strive to not think too highly of our own selves in these matters. Remember that these words are written just as much for my sake, and the sake of my family, as they are for yours — we all need reproof, correction, encouragement, exhortation, and instruction in righteousness through His holy word.
May God’s blessings be upon all that are His,