Link to Part 2.
I was considering buying a hardback copy of City of God by Augustine on Amazon.com and my eyes glanced down to the reviews section. A semi-well-known atheist blogger wrote an eloquent review of the book; explaining why Augustine just isn’t worth reading. One of his arguments stuck out to me: Augustine isn’t worth reading because he is just regurgitating the same old popular Christian arguments developed by folks like Josh MacDowell. Yes. The guy had no clue that Augustine died over a millennium before Josh MacDowell was ever thought of. He wrote a very polished-sounding review without even bothering to skim Augustine’s Wikipedia page, and he spent a few more comments defending himself from more knowledgeable folks who took him to the woodshed for his arrogant stupidity. It might be tempting to point the finger at the arrogance of atheism, but I wish I could say that we Christians were always better. I wish I could say that we Scripturalists were always better. I wish I could say that I was always better.
Knowledge vs. Thinking We Have Knowledge
How many times do you find yourself desiring to ‘think you know’ rather than desiring to ‘know’? Maybe this is too general too make any sense. Let me try a few examples. Have you ever gone looking for quotes from well-known or well-respected people for the sole reason of finding support for your position on something? Perhaps you went to the early church fathers to support your views against the infallibility of the pope. You didn’t slide out your well-worn copy of Volume 8 of Schaff’s ANF and look for a quote you underlined during previous study, and you didn’t have time to read carefully to get a well-rounded perspective of the varying beliefs of the early church on the topic, perhaps you just assumed that they would believe what you believed and you quickly snagged some quotes to support it. Or, better yet, you found an article online arguing for your perspective based on arguments from the early church, and you cut and pasted the quotes and argument right out of the article. I’ve done this before, and I don’t think it helped me know what the church fathers believed. Rather, it let me think I knew what the church fathers believed. The Catholics think they have support from the early church, the Eastern Orthodox think they have it, the Protestants think they have it, and even the Jehovah’s Witnesses think they have it. If two parties on opposite sides of a battle are defending the exact same stronghold from the inside, it is fitting to conclude that one or both teams don’t actually know what stronghold they are in and who is in it. In the case of the battle over the church fathers, many people don’t take time to study enough develop the basic understanding required to make statements about the early church. What’s the problem? I think this is the problem: People would rather think they know than take the time necessary to really know. In addition, near and dear to this desire is the desire to make other people think that we know. We use the church fathers and we use others around us to stroke and affirm our positions rather than bearing the toil necessary to gain the knowledge.
Here is another example. Sometimes I have made the claim: The bible is not clear on issue X. Careful, this is quite hard to justify. Some of us just lob such statements out there like softballs, and if nobody smacks them out of the park, we figure we can keep pitching them. To me, this seems not to be the way of the lover of wisdom, because he would see that it is just the classic fallacy of appeal to ignorance. Maybe the bible is clear and perspicuous while my head is too foggy to see it. Why didn’t I just say: I’m not aware of any clear passages on issue X? I think it’s a good question. Was it because I thought I knew more than I did, or because I wanted to convince someone that I knew more than I did? Some people have even gone so far as to name irresolvable paradoxes contained in the Scripture. So cavalierly they say “nobody understands how God can be 3 persons and 1 being, how human responsibility can be reconciled with predestination, or how Jesus could be both God and man. These things are beyond human comprehension.” This seems astoundingly arrogant, and quite hard to support. Even If one could prove that nobody in the world can solve the paradox, and if he could prove that nobody who ever lived solved the paradox, he still wouldn’t have made his case. Even if he could somehow know that nobody ever will solve the paradox, he still wouldn’t have proven that it was beyond human comprehension. Lodged in this claim is something nearing a claim to omnipotence, but we hear these types of claims so much that we are getting numb. When we come upon a problem that we don’t want to take the time to figure out, or that we don’t want to admit ignorance on, we can still save face by saying “nobody can know” and, once we’ve convinced ourselves that nobody can know P, we don’t have to pursue knowledge of P; content with thinking we know rather than knowing. We’ve turned our ignorance into an opportunity to claim more knowledge for ourselves.
Do you know Joe Greek? He is the guy who can’t read Greek but has a lot to say about it. Some people think Joe Greek just wants to show off and make other’s think he is smart, but, perhaps, he has the more admirable aim of wanting to be confident that his ESV translation of John 1:1 is the correct one. So, he reads The Forgotten Trinity by James White, which has an entire chapter devoted to the translation of John 1. James White is a good scholar and his arguments in this chapter sound quite convincing. After reading this, Joe thinks he knows that the ESV correctly translates John 1:1. He has achieved contentedness in his ignorance. Even with his knowledge of James White’s explanation, he still couldn’t tell the difference between a good translation and a bad one. He didn’t learn Greek, he definitely didn’t read the counter arguments to James White because, after all, it took him 3 re-readings of the chapter to obtain 60% comprehension of the chapter, and he wouldn’t to as well if he read scholarly rebuttals. Yet, he still claims to be able to tell us how he knows that John 1:1 is translated correctly. Joe got what he wanted. He fulfilled his desire to think he knows what he didn’t take the time to know.
I’m sure you can vent a few more examples. People make all kinds of statements about what “the Greeks” believed, “the philosophers believe,” “the Arminians believe,” as if they all believed the same thing. Sometimes, when we take time to actually understand what they believe, we find out that those statements are inappropriate and it is better to comment on what a given member of the class believes. It sounds like we are much more knowledgeable when we say “the Greeks believed…” than when we say: “Parmenides believed…” I don’t think that it is always inappropriate to say “the Greeks believed…” The claim could be appropriate if we have read enough of the Greek literature, but I think we are in much less danger of deceiving ourselves when we use humble, and more accurate, language.
How many times have you rebutted the views of someone whom you haven’t taken time to read and understand? Do you talk about what’s wrong with Plato, Aristotle, or Kant? Have you read them? When you are in an email or blog discussion with someone, do you scour the internet for people who support your position, so that you can just parrot their arguments? Isn’t it just as easy to find deceptive arguments as it is to find good ones? I think it is. The libraries and internet are full of feasts for people who wish to think they know rather than to take the time to know.
Maybe you like to debate about the Clark/Van Til Controversy; a topic close to the heart of many readers of this site. How many people, with whom have you discussed, have actually read a few of the works of Clark and a few of the works of Van Til? Dare I offer 10% as a guess? How many have even read the full text of The Complaint and The Answer? Yet these folks pretend they can tell you, with deadly accuracy, exactly what is wrong with Cornelius Van Til and/or Gordon Clark. Recently, I had a lighthearted conversation with an apologist who is into Sproulian Classical Apologetics, and who thinks that Gordon Clark’s apologetic is for those who just can’t think as well as the rest of us. Turns out, the guy had never read any Clark and demonstrated his misunderstanding clearly. I offered to discuss a certain chapter of Clark, on which he agreed to read and comment. Minutes later, he fired back a response that he had read somebody’s summary of the chapter and he began to list more criticisms of Clark. He read just enough so that he could think he knew what he didn’t actually want to take time to know.
I’m not suggesting that it is wrong to talk about things we don’t know. No, talking with others is part of the way we learn things. I’m suggesting that we should stop trying to feel like we know what we don’t really know. Instead of saying: “Kant believed that human experience was like sausage coming out of a sausage machine,” we should say: “According to source X, Kant believed…” or “I think that Kant believed…” If I talk like I know what I don’t know, I am speaking falsehood. But worse, if I’m pursuing a desire to “think I know” instead of a desire to “know,” I’m essentially pursuing self-deception.
Isn’t it wicked? So close to the biblical goal of knowledge acquisition lies it’s sickening opposite. Thinking we know what we don’t know is not just ignorance, it is proud ignorance. Why study at all? We start off ignorant, and we study to be arrogantly ignorant; mummified in our false understanding by the arguments we have marshalled around us, we lie entombed in a dungeon so deep and dark that nobody can bring us out. Then, in order to feel confirmed, we compile followers; confidently embalming them in the same plausibilities which seal and preserve us in our own ignorance. I’d rather put down my books and stay ignorant, rather than burden the world with my egotistical stupidity. Let us pray that the Spirit of truth will lead us into the truth.
Although I can point the finger at lots of people, I need a solution for me. I struggle in this area and I think I have developed a healthy, but intense, fear self-deception. Perhaps I can offer a solution that is helping me grow in this area, and hopefully you can offer some other helpful tips in the comment box. Here is my proposed three-step solution:
- Read Plato
- Seek a Biblical perspective on knowledge
- Test yourself
In the next post, I’ll break down these 3.
 I’m attempting to be sufficiently general in this example without providing judgement on the specific situation. Usually, I think it is better not to speak of “the church fathers” but to speak of what an individual church father said, and that only after having done enough primary source reading to guard against misrepresentation of the person being cited.
 A pastor told me that Christians should not be on “witch hunts for error in themselves.” I agree that we should drop the “witch” part of the hunt for error. Isn’t hunting our hearts for error an important part of seeking to know things? If I’m seeking to know God, the real God not my own personal conception of God, don’t I need to be on a hunt for errors in my thinking? I want my conception of God to be as close to Scripture as possible so it seems to me that I need to work out the errors.