A Man’s Got To Know His Limitations

do ya punkFor some reason, theologians don’t often get associated with the Christian virtue of humility. It’s ironic that studying the infinite Creator of all things, when undertaken without prayer or community, can lead to a puffed up and inflated sense of self. The greater the subject, the greater the pride when you feel you’ve mastered it, I suppose. In any case, this is one of the reasons I so enjoy running across encouragements to humility in theological exploration.

Yesterday I ran across a particularly fantastic example in Augustine. In one section, he takes up the question of whether God’s sovereignty implies an eternal creation. In other words, if we say God is eternally sovereign, does that require him to have been eternally creating something alongside himself to be sovereign over? Wouldn’t that be another co-eternal? Or how does the fact that God created time itself affect the question? In other words, if God created time along with the world, there’s a way in which you could say there’s never been a time where he hasn’t been sovereign Creator, but that’s because there was no time “before” he made time.

Confused yet?

At the end of a couple pages of this, Augustine wraps up his discussion like this:

And so I return to what our Creator wished us to know. What he has allowed wiser heads to know in this life, or has reserved for the knowledge of those who have reached their fulfillment in the other life, that I confess to be beyond my powers. But I thought I should discuss this question, without reaching any positive conclusion, so that my readers may see what questions they should refrain from tackling, as dangerous, and to discourage them from thinking themselves capable of understanding everything. Instead they should realize that they ought to submit to the wholesome instruction of the Apostle, when he says, ‘In virtue of the authority given to me by God’s grace I say this to all your company: do not be wiser than you ought to be; but be wise in moderation, in proportion to the faith which God has allotted to each of you.’ For if a child’s upbringing is adjusted to his strength, he will grow, and become capable of further progress, but if he is strained beyond his capacity he will fade away before he has the chance to grow up. (City of God, BK. XII.16)

There’s so much I love about this passage.

First, the fact that he did all of that in order to sum up and say, “Don’t try this at home, kids.” Now, this can sound a bit arrogant. But what have to see here is a humble vulnerability in the theological process in which Augustine is exposing his own finite understanding in the process of stretching himself to the limits of his own powers. It’s not easy for a teacher to say, “I don’t know.” All too often, the temptation is the fake a certainty you don’t possess, or hastily land on a conclusion just to have an answer for those who look to you for insight. Augustine refuses to play the expert at the cost of the truth.

With a pastoral heart, he decides to engage the difficulty that he knows might trip up some of his more inquiring readers should they wander down certain paths. The flipside is that he still discusses the issue. It’s this odd movement of saying, “Alright, I’ll go here with you if only to show you that going here might lead to trouble.” It’s not the simple wave of the hand that dismisses such questions as foolish or entirely off-limits, but one that humbly acts as a guide to the theologically perplexed.

Finally, Augustine’s example at the end is one of both caution and invitation. If you press too deep beyond what it is given to you to know at this point, beyond your spiritual and intellectual powers, you might hurt yourself. But the point isn’t to warn against theological study, but about taking care so that you may continue to proceed at the pace of growth the Lord himself intends. There are times when, for the sake of growing in a healthy knowledge of God, it is okay to say, “I’ll put this question aside for now and return it at some future point. I trust that God will continue to reveal himself to me in ways that are appropriate to me in areas that I can handle right now.”

As Dirty Harry put it, “A man’s got to know his limitations.”

Soli Deo Gloria

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