“How can a Christian claim to know anything?”
originally wanted to explain how Christians can admit to the use of subjectivity in biblical interpretation without slipping into subjectivism or relativism. However, I have been accosted by a much more extreme topical question which must be addressed: “How can a Christian claim to know anything?”
We become confused by this question because it clothes itself in the appearance of light. Those who doubt our knowledge emphasize their humility before God and their belief in the brokenness of humanity. The doctrines of depravity and noetic effects of sin are no enemies to this tribe of doubters; they believe that the most holy and humble Christian should admit their metaphysical and spiritual inability to know anything.
False ideas often have a parasitical relationship with the truth and this concept of humility fits the bill. In order to distinguish the parasite, we must have a thorough understanding of the host and therefore, we must understand in what respects we should be humble about our knowledge.
We need to recognize the difference in knowledge type between God and us. God has comprehensive knowledge while we have apprehensive knowledge. Every piece of knowledge is connected to every other piece of knowledge and there are many non-contradictory perspectives on the same idea. For example, there is the idea of “1+1=2.” At first, it might seem that we have the same idea of “1+1=2” as God does since we can do basic math. But there are two ways in which this is a mistake.
First, few of us understand the nature of numbers (e.g. 1, 1, 2), operators (+) or equivalences (=) well enough to recognize our ignorance about what is actually happening in this equation, but we have seen our math major friends work through seemingly simple math questions and invoke very complex math. And we can at least imagine how this might work. Numbers cannot exist without context. “1” is nothing without “2” and without the whole host of the real number line. But we know a variety of other things about these numbers that make a difference to the equation. That “1” is a positive number and a real number. These aren’t just “random associated facts” about the number “1;” these facts matter to being able to verify that the equation is correct. If those 1s were negative or imaginary, we wouldn’t be getting “2” out of the whole affair. These facts aren’t even complicated (imagine what people who really know math could think of).
Second, and quite differently, there are many perspectives on “1+1=2” that are distinct but united. For example, we have been discussing the mathematical aspect of “1+1=2” because it is most apparent, but there is also the cultural symbolism of “1+1=2” (something like “the perfect example of something easy”). The cultural-symbolic significance of “1+1=2” is not the same as the mathematical significance of “1+1=2,” but importantly these are related concepts, unified in the object itself (“1+1=2”). The mathematical significance does not exist apart from the symbolic significance, though they relate to each other differently.
So when we say God knows “1+1=2” comprehensively, we mean that God knows all of the perspectives, contexts, uses, nature and inter-relationships of “1+1=2.” In contrast, when we say we know “1+1=2” apprehensively, we mean that we know some things about “1+1=2,” but we neither know everything about “1+1=2” at this moment, nor do we project we could ever know it. But this said, we do not slip into relativism. We do know particular things about “1+1=2,” such as its cultural significance and mathematical validity.
Now these particular bits of knowledge might be critiqued along the same lines. “What about the different perspectives on the mathematical perspective for ‘1+1=2?’ How can you be sure of its validity if those perspectives are also partial?” This is not a complete fallacy; since we are positing the interrelationship of all knowledge, there is a sense in which one must know everything to know anything.
It is at this moment that the doctrine of revelation breaks through the obscuring mists. Since God is omnipotent to create beings capable of receiving successful revelation and to actually reveal knowledge to these beings, we need not fear when we imitate and obey God (which includes logical deduction, as we see throughout Scripture) in our thinking. God has revealed knowledge to us, with us in mind, so when we make this knowledge the cornerstone of our thinking, all of our partial perspective and hesitancy is transformed by being grounded in fixed objects which we do not comprehend but which we believe, because the One who has spoken is God.
For example, we might not totally understand all of the mathematical theory behind 1+1=2, but we can tell from Scripture’s use of numbers, its testimony to God’s regular government of creation and its endorsement of the natural faculty of logical deduction that “1+1=2” is true. And from facts like these we may boldly ask questions like “How is it that ‘1+1=2?’” instead of remaining in quiet skepticism. Of course, if an alternative theory that takes account of those same biblical principles discovers that 1+1≠2, deciding between the theories will be a matter of which is more faithful to God’s Word (broadly conceived as all of the Truth He has revealed to us).
This does not yet get us as far as explaining how we can have subjectivity involved in our interpretations of Scripture without risking relativism, but hopefully this article has outlined the first step in developing that argument. Our metaphysical limitedness has been overcome by God’s revealed Word.