A Desire to Know or a Desire to Think I Know? (Part 2 of 2)

Solution

In the previous post, A Desire to Know or a Desire to Think I Know?  (Part 1 of 2), I presented the problem that I will now try to solve.  Solve is too strong a word for what follows.  Perhaps it is an evolving solution or, rather, some suggestions and checks that have helped me better live out my Christian mandate to seek the knowledge of God.  The 3 step proposed solution was:

  1. Read Plato
  2. Seek a Biblical perspective on knowledge
  3. Test yourself

Read Plato

This point is, perhaps, a little bit facetious, or perhaps like a red herring to draw enemy fire; taking pressure off the stronghold.  In truth, I have benefitted greatly from the example of Socrates as portrayed in Plato’s dialogues.  Much like a Christian, Socrates worships truth, loves wisdom, and does everything he can to seek knowledge.  Unlike a Christian, Socrates did not know that in Christ Jesus are “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” (Col 2:3).

To understand the force of this worthy example, indulge me in a digression into the background and setting of the dialogues.  In Plato’s dialogues, there are men, called Sophists, who profess to be able to make people wise, virtuous, and successful through educating them.  Many people hated the Sophists because many of them were slippery political rhetoricians who used their talents to deceive, but many others thought that their wisdom was valuable enough to pay them large sums of money and become their apprentices.  I suppose some sophists were better than others.  One particular sophist, however, claimed no wisdom for himself, and took no payment from his followers.  This impoverished sophist walked the streets and marketplaces of Athens asking questions.  He would seek wisdom wherever he could find it, and he would also engage the wisest sophists by asking them questions. Usually his questions were so careful, so pointed, and so probing, that the sophist would be reduced to confusion and absurdity after trying to answer them.  Socrates would make foolish the wisdom of the wise.  And so, because of his ability to ask questions, Socrates gained the title of Sophist, but he never benefitted financially from being a Sophist and ended up being executed for his “sophistry.”

All this makes for interesting stories for Plato to embellish, but how does it serve as an example of how we should pursue knowledge?  In Plato’s Apology, Socrates explains the inception of his mission in life.  Chaerephon, a friend of Socrates, went to Delphi and boldly asked the oracle to tell him whether anyone was wiser than Socrates.  The oracle said that there was no man wiser.  Socrates’ response is very interesting and I will reproduce Benjamin Jowett’s translation below because, in the interest of the topic at hand, it is well worth a careful reading.

When I [Socrates] heard the answer, I said to myself, What can the god mean? and what is the interpretation of his riddle? for I know that I have no wisdom, small or great. What then can he mean when he says that I am the wisest of men? And yet he is a god, and cannot lie; that would be against his nature. After long consideration, I thought of a method of trying the question. I reflected that if I could only find a man wiser than myself, then I might go to the god with a refutation in my hand. I should say to him, “Here is a man who is wiser than I am; but you said that I was the wisest.” Accordingly I went to one who had the reputation of wisdom, and observed him—his name I need not mention; he was a politician whom I selected for examination—and the result was as follows: When I began to talk with him, I could not help thinking that he was not really wise, although he was thought wise by many, and still wiser by himself; and thereupon I tried to explain to him that he thought himself wise, but was not really wise; and the consequence was that he hated me, and his enmity was shared by several who were present and heard me. So I left him, saying to myself, as I went away: Well, although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really beautiful and good. I am better off than he is,—for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows; I neither know nor think that I know. In this latter particular, then, I seem to have slightly the advantage of him. Then I went to another who had still higher pretensions to wisdom, and my conclusion was exactly the same. Whereupon I made another enemy of him, and of many others besides him.  Then I went to one man after another, being not unconscious of the enmity which I provoked, and I lamented and feared this: but necessity was laid upon me,—the word of God, I thought, ought to be considered first. And I said to myself, Go I must to all who appear to know, and find out the meaning of the oracle. And I swear to you, Athenians, by the dog I swear!—for I must tell you the truth—the result of my mission was just this: I found that the men most in repute were all but the most foolish; and that others less esteemed were really wiser and better.

 

I will tell you the tale of my wanderings and of the ‘Herculean’ labours, as I may call them, which I endured only to find at last the oracle irrefutable. After the politicians, I went to the poets; tragic, dithyrambic, and all sorts. And there, I said to myself, you will be instantly detected; now you will find out that you are more ignorant than they are. Accordingly, I took them some of the most elaborate passages in their own writings, and asked what was the meaning of them—thinking that they would teach me something. Will you believe me? I am almost ashamed to confess the truth, but I must say that there is hardly a person present who would not have talked better about their poetry than they did themselves. Then I knew that not by wisdom do poets write poetry, but by a sort of genius and inspiration; they are like diviners or soothsayers who also say many fine things, but do not understand the meaning of them. The poets appeared to me to be much in the same case; and I further observed that upon the strength of their poetry they believed themselves to be the wisest of men in other things in which they were not wise. So I departed, conceiving myself to be superior to them for the same reason that I was superior to the politicians. At last I went to the artisans, for I was conscious that I knew nothing at all, as I may say, and I was sure that they knew many fine things; and here I was not mistaken, for they did know many things of which I was ignorant, and in this they certainly were wiser than I was. But I observed that even the good artisans fell into the same error as the poets;—because they were good workmen they thought that they also knew all sorts of high matters, and this defect in them overshadowed their wisdom; and therefore I asked myself on behalf of the oracle, whether I would like to be as I was, neither having their knowledge nor their ignorance, or like them in both; and I made answer to myself and to the oracle that I was better off as I was.

 

This inquisition has led to my having many enemies of the worst and most dangerous kind, and has given occasion also to many calumnies. And I am called wise, for my hearers always imagine that I myself possess the wisdom which I find wanting in others: but the truth is, O men of Athens, that God only is wise; and by his answer he intends to show that the wisdom of men is worth little or nothing; he is not speaking of Socrates, he is only using my name by way of illustration, as if he said, He, O men, is the wisest, who, like Socrates, knows that his wisdom is in truth worth nothing. And so I go about the world, obedient to the god, and search and make enquiry into the wisdom of any one, whether citizen or stranger, who appears to be wise; and if he is not wise, then in vindication of the oracle I show him that he is not wise; and my occupation quite absorbs me, and I have no time to give either to any public matter of interest or to any concern of my own, but I am in utter poverty by reason of my devotion to the god.[1]

 

In Socrates’ lifelong aim to find wisdom, this experience taught him that there is a certain wisdom in knowing what one doesn’t know.  He also realized that it is better for a man to know what he does not know, than to think he knows what he does not know.  The Oracle’s point was that, even though there were wise artisans, politicians, and sophists, they all severely overestimated their wisdom, thus Socrates was in a better place because he realized his ignorance.  Therefore, Socrates spent his days asking questions of the wise to see if he could learn from them, and if he found that they were not wise, he did them a favor by showing them what they did not know.  Socrates would do this by asking basic questions about the things these wise men claimed to know.  He asked the sophists who taught virtue:  What is virtue (for example, see Plato’s Protagoras)?  He asked the sophists who thought they had knowledge:  What is knowledge (see Plato’s Theateatus)?  He asked other questions such as:  What is love (see Plato’s Symposium)?  What is language (see Plato’s Cratylus)?  The sophists being questioned would sometimes provide long winded speeches, rhetorical masterpieces full of references to the Poets, but they would usually fail to meet the challenges Socrates posed. After becoming embarrassed, they sometimes would demand that Socrates answer the questions himself.  A characteristic reply of Socrates is found at the end of Lesser Hippias.

 

Now, that I or any ordinary man should wander in perplexity is not surprising; but if you wise men also wander, and we cannot come to you and rest from our wandering, the matter begins to be serious both to us and to you.[2]

 

In other words, I, Socrates, do not claim to know the answers to my questions, but I have come to be educated by you who claim to know.  Therefore, it is no shame to me that I cannot answer these questions but it is a shame to you since you claim to be wise.

 

Lest one think that Socrates was a universal skeptic, he need only read other dialogues such as Parmenides, or Phaedo to see that Socrates believed he knew some things[3].  However, the reason why Socrates is such a good example to the Christian believer is because, as a lover of wisdom, he avoided thinking he possessed wisdom where he really did not.  He saw that a person who thinks he is wise when he isn’t, destroys his chances of becoming wise.  We must be meticulously careful when we study, because the things we learn may serve as blinders to the actual truth; solidifying our belief in falsehood.  To desire to think you know what you don’t know is an ugly perversion of the love of wisdom – it is the love of being wise in one’s own eyes.

 

Before finishing with this example, I should bring out one humorous, yet important point in all this.  Some of our seminary professors, pastors, and bible study leaders think they are wise.  Perhaps they are wise, and perhaps they aren’t.  Like Socrates, learn from them.  But, if you perfect the art of Socratic questioning, they will probably kill you as the Athenians did Socrates.  Don’t get slaughtered by making it your mission to show other people that they aren’t wise.  Rather, formulate questions for them, questions which will help you gain wisdom, but don’t ever think you are wise or else you will stop asking the questions.

A Biblical Perspective

Socrates is a hero for the wisdom-lover, but why should we imitate Socrates?  The answer is that we shouldn’t imitate Socrates except where he acts consistently with the Word of God[4].  As the Good Samaritan is not to be followed on every point, neither is Socrates to be followed on every point.  In fact, Solomon is such a spectacular example of a lover of wisdom that we need not be concerned with Socrates anymore, and the Biblical admonitions on knowledge should cause Socrates’ example to be eclipsed by every Christian in his or her sprint to gain knowledge.  Since this article is meant to help us pursue knowledge and not to pursuing thinking that we have knowledge, a full exposition of the Scriptural teaching on knowledge is inappropriate here.  The Scriptures teach that knowledge is extremely valuable, that it is a means by which we are saved and sanctified, and that it produces good works.  Therefore, we should shun the pursuit of thinking we are knowledgeable to pursue knowledge itself.

Knowledge is Valuable

The Proverbs were given that we may find knowledge through them.

2To know wisdom and instruction,
to understand words of insight,
3to receive instruction in wise dealing,
in righteousness, justice, and equity;
4to give prudence to the simple,
knowledge and discretion to the youth—
5Let the wise hear and increase in learning,
and the one who understands obtain guidance (Prov 1:2-5)

Later in the chapter wisdom cries allowed in the streets for somebody to listen and be made wise

20Wisdom cries aloud in the street,
in the markets she raises her voice;
21at the head of the noisy streets she cries out;
at the entrance of the city gates she speaks:
22“How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?
How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing
and fools hate knowledge? (Prov 1:20-22)

The theme continues through the next chapter.

My son, if you receive my words
and treasure up my commandments with you,
2making your ear attentive to wisdom
and inclining your heart to understanding;
3yes, if you call out for insight
and raise your voice for understanding,
4if you seek it like silver
and search for it as for hidden treasures,
5then you will understand the fear of the LORD
and find the knowledge of God.
6For the LORD gives wisdom;
from his mouth come knowledge and understanding (Prov 2:1-6)

Need we anymore encouragement to take the greatest possible care that we find knowledge in our studies rather than self-confidence?[5]

Knowledge is a Means of Saving Grace

Probably we do.

But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— 10that I may know him and the power of his resurrection (Phil 3:7-11)

Saving grace is imparted to us through knowing Christ.  Ephesians 2 says that we are saved by grace through belief in Christ.  Paul told the Roman centurion that he would be saved if he believed on the Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 16:31).  Since nobody believes apart from the work of the Spirit, and since the Holy Spirit is the infallible revealer of truth – biblical truth being the object of our belief – not only do we believe God, we know God, and through this knowing, we are saved.[6]

Knowledge is a Means of Sanctification

Even more, knowledge is the means by which the Father sanctifies believers; conforming them continually into the image of our Creator.  Those who believe have “…put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (Col 3:10).  2 Peter 1:3 says that Christ has given us all things pertaining to life and godliness through knowledge.  If we want live more like Christ, we should learn more about Him and be transformed by the renewing of our mind in knowledge.

Knowledge is the Foundation of Good Works

John teaches that everyone who loves God keeps his commandments (1 John 5:3) and that everyone who knows God, loves (1 John 4:8).  I think this presents an unbreakable chain from knowledge of God all the way through to good works.  If we have no good works, we have no love for God.  If we have no love for God, we do not know Him.  Paul’s exhortation to the Colossians follows this line.

9And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, 10so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God (Col 1:9-10)

I believe that here and in the rest of the Scriptures, knowledge of God is the motivation for good works; works that are pleasing in God’s sight.

When we study to confirm our own opinions and not to honestly seek out knowledge, we make a mockery of God’s valuable gift of knowledge, by means of which we are saved and sanctified, and by means of which we do the works of the Spirit.  We must search ourselves carefully to see whether we are seeking knowledge, or are seeking to simply reinforce our opinions.

Tests

But how can we search ourselves?  How can we tell whether or not we seek knowledge as opposed to its perverted side-road?  In Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Christian and his companion moved to a softer greener path right next to the rough narrow road which led to the Celestial City.  What harm could it do since they could visually see the narrow road as they walked on the side path?  When it comes to my studies, the line between pursuing knowledge and pursuing thinking I have knowledge seems very blurry.

I confess that this will probably be the weakest portion of this article since I do not know an infallible exhaustive method.  I hope that you will come alongside me – pointing me to the Scriptures – to help me better identify what the right track looks like.  As I see it, we can evaluate our actions to see whether or not our heart is seeking knowledge.  Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks.  Along these lines, here are a few tests that I think are helpful.

Am I Praying for Knowledge?

The Holy Spirit is the one who guides us into the truth.  If we really care about knowing the truth, won’t we ask Him to reveal it to us?  If we don’t, perhaps we are ashamed to ask; preferring the pursuit of an apologetic for our own opinions.

Am I a Lazy Studier?

When approaching a topic to learn about it, am I approaching it systematically; desiring to gain a solid understanding of the issues before choosing sides?  Or, rather, am I approaching the research so that I can prove a point to another person, or just blatantly to confirm an opinion of mine?  Do I shy away from studies that are deep, technical, and time-consuming?[7]  Would I prefer to gain a 1-sided perspective from a favorite author than to balance my perspective with other hard-earned information?  This point needs emphasis because many of us fool ourselves into thinking we understand other people’s views when we have only read their critics.  That’s a side road that doesn’t lead to knowledge.

Am I Constantly Reading Scripture and Meditating On It?

We believe that God reveals Himself to modern Christians by means of the Scriptures through the illumination of the Holy Spirit.  To seek knowledge is to read, memorize, discuss, listen to teaching on, and meditate on the Scriptures.

Am I Over-Confident When I Debate Issues With People?

All discussions with other people are chances to learn.  Even if I’m right and my opponent is wrong, I can still learn a lot.  In extended discussions, rather than maintaining an unwavering focus on convincing the opponent of your position, why not apply your mind to developing a good understanding of where he is coming from.  Then, re-examine your own position alongside him, as if you were trying to disprove your position as fervently as he is.  Not only will this give you a better understanding of your own position, it will show you weaknesses in your thought, it will probably keep the discussion from getting heated, it will show that you grasp the weight of the arguments against your view, and it will show a godly example of someone who is really pursuing knowledge above his desire to be right.

Do I Listen Carefully to Those Who Disagree With Me?

Am I a good listener?  Do I find myself able to explain my opponents’ position to their satisfaction?  In cases where I have had the correct position, sometimes (dare I say more often than not?) my opponents’ position has been refuted simply by both parties coming to an understanding of what his position really was.  No argumentation required.  Since one of my interests is studying the will, one of my favorites is to ask free will advocates what they mean by free will (see Questioning Free Will).  It is usually an interesting discussion to have.  In one discussion, after we finally clarified my opponents’ definition of free will, he had serious doubts about whether or not he believed in it anymore.  He just didn’t see what he was really saying before in claim that men have free will.  Maybe we should be better at listening to our opponents than they, themselves, are.

Another question that relates to this one is:  do I listen and respond the way I hope my opponent will listen and respond?  This point struck me hard when I wanted my first Muslim friend to read the Bible and watch a few Christian youtube videos.  I had to be willing to read the Quran and watch his youtube videos.  Our God mandates us to seek truth, and we set a hypocrite’s example when we won’t even consider what somebody thinks is the most important truth in the world.  This isn’t to say that we should read everything anybody gives us without caution.  As we trade reading material with our opponent, we can’t make the error of neglecting to fully research the defenses of our own views.[8]

Does My Spouse, Father, Mother, Sister, or Brother Tell Me I Am A Know-It-All?

Unfortunately, the judgmental criticisms of our family members who don’t seem to understand us can be a good finger on the pulse of our motives.  Taking time to understand the root of the problems they see in me has been a valuable determiner of my motives for learning.  They can sometimes see that we just want to think we know things that we don’t really take time to know.

Do I Spend Significant Time Studying Views Opposite to My Own?

When somebody tells me that he put a book down because he realized that he was reading a “liberal”, an “Arminian”, a “lordship salvation advocate”, a “charismatic”, an “evidentialist,” a “pagan,” a “Post-modernist,” a “legalist,” a “Puritan,” a “fundamentalist,”  a “Clarkian” (Lord help us), or whatever the pejorative happens to be, I immediately suspect that this person is looking to be stroked and affirmed, maybe stretched a little bit, but not challenged and admonished.  I am not suggesting that we should immerse ourselves in “apostate literature.”[9]  I think this can be very dangerous for someone who does not possess a basic understanding of the philosophy underlying his own views. After someone thinks he has gained this understanding, then he must read opposite perspectives in order to test the consistency of his view.  Otherwise, he remains content in his perspective which may or may not be true; shirking his God-given privilege to seek after knowledge.  When you disagree with the author, read more carefully and take more notes so as to avoid misrepresenting him later on.

Am I Seeking to be Logical?

Logic is the means God has given us to make inferences from His revelation.  It is so easy to draw fallacious conclusions from Scripture which support our own opinions.  Logic is not defined by any human being.  Logic is just the rules of right thinking.  Logic is the way God thinks.  The only way man can perfect his use of this venerable gift of God is to be conformed in mind to Christ.  Logic is the image of God; and man’s mind conformed to it before the fall.[10]  As believers here on earth, we battle the flesh to conform our thought to Christ, but we often fail.  The pursuit of knowledge requires us to pursue clear-headedness and a right approach to what kinds of thinking are good and what kinds aren’t, what kind of inferences are valid and what kind of inferences aren’t.  This is the study of logic.

When I realized I needed a logic class, I was heavily involved in listening to debates.  Whenever the opponent of the position I advocated was speaking, I would get an uncomfortable feeling that he was right.  Then, when the advocate of my position would speak, I’d feel happy again that all my fears were resolved.  I came to the somber humbling conclusion that I didn’t possess the mental ability to discern good arguments from bad.  I wasn’t seeking merely to be affirmed in my own opinions, but I just didn’t possess the tools necessary to discern arguments.  What a punch in the gut, right?  Did you know that argumentation is an exact science?  Logic makes argument a cut and dried issue.  Arguments are either valid or invalid.  If somebody makes an argument that does not conform to the very narrow requirements of logical syllogisms, it can be automatically judged invalid.  You need these tools in your pursuit of knowledge.  It is a technical subject, but I think it will give you the tools you need to analyze arguments.

Conclusion

I wrote this post, not because I think I have cornered the market on how to pursue knowledge, but for two other reasons.  First, the Scriptures teach that knowledge is valuable, that it is a means by which mean may be saved and sanctified, and that it is our foundation for the good works in which God delights that his servants walk.  Knowledge is our highest ultimate end in our pursuit of our chief end to glorify God.  Second, I wrote this article because I see an ugly tendency in myself and in others to replace the goal of knowledge acquisition with a desire to think that we possess knowledge, and thus we draw ourselves and others away from our high calling, to know God.  The preceding have been my best attempt to expose this sin for what it is and give suggestions on how to fight it.

1Hear the word of the LORD, O children of Israel,
for the LORD has a controversy with the inhabitants of the land.
There is no faithfulness or steadfast love,
and no knowledge of God in the land;

6My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge;
because you have rejected knowledge,
I reject you from being a priest to me.

3Let us know; let us press on to know the LORD; (Hos 4:1,6,6:3)

 

 

[1] The Apology. The Dialogues of Plato translated into English with Analyses and Introductions by B.

Jowett, M.A. in Five Volumes. 3rd edition revised and corrected (Oxford University

Press, 1892).

[2] Lesser Hippias. The Dialogues of Plato translated into English with Analyses and Introductions by B.

Jowett, M.A. in Five Volumes. 3rd edition revised and corrected (Oxford University

Press, 1892).

[3] Plato has other purposes in these dialogues but they contain long monologues where Socrates presents his theories about things.

[4] I do not think Socrates had ever heard of the Hebrew Bible, so I infer that the Biblical virtues he possessed were only coincidentally biblical.

[5] In passing, it is worth noting that the knowledge in the previous passages is not found by searching within, nor is it found by viewing the outside world scientifically.  It is found by understanding and believing what comes from the mouth of God:  in our day, the Scriptures.

[6] The idea here is that some of our beliefs are not knowledge.  I believe that it is going to rain tomorrow, but this belief could be false so it isn’t justified.  Even if it rains tomorrow and my belief happened to be a true belief, my belief still wasn’t knowledge because it wasn’t justified when I believed it.  However, if the Holy Spirit produces a belief in me, I am always justified in believing it because He, the Spirit of Truth, produced it.

[7] Again, this isn’t to suggest that we need to gain a deep understanding of any issue that we want to talk or write about.  If we know little about a given topic, honest thoughts, speech, and writings should communicate that we realize our deficiency.

[8] I’ve found that debates can sometimes provide a good balance for me in researching both sides of an issue.  However, debates are usually very surface-level and they deal with broad issues.  It can be difficult to fairly consider my opponent’s position, because I don’t understand the particulars that influence his broader conclusions.  Sometimes emotions greatly affect the reasoning abilities of the debaters so it can be difficult to extract the best arguments for a certain position.  It is always wrong, even sinful I think, to conclude that a position is incorrect because certain people couldn’t provide arguments for it.  In my opinion, statements like “Arminians can’t answer question Q” are rarely warranted.

[9] To coin the Jehovah’s Witness phrase

[10] See I Am The Image of God

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