The Boundaries of Knowledge

12186041-the-concept-of-producing-knowledge-man-Stock-Vector-knowledge-brain-motivationWe all spend much of our lives attempting to discover, move, accommodate, or ignore boundaries.  Toddlers want to see how many times Daddy will pick the spoon up off the floor.  Children wait to see what will happen if they make Mom call their name one more time.  Teenagers push against deadlines and curfews as hard as they can.  As adults we are often absolute masters of manipulating boundaries to our personal advantage – expert at framing issues and events to our own greatest good.

But whatever our outlook on boundaries or the contexts in which we experience them, we all have boundaries in our relationships, in our careers, in our talents and abilities, and even in our lifespans.  We are a bounded species in every sense of the word.  Moses understood how important recognizing boundaries was; he leads us in asking God to “teach us to number our days” (Psalm 90:12).  In the same way, we need to become aware of our boundaries in other spheres of experience and activity.

Not the least, we need to know the boundaries of knowledge itself.  What can we know – about ourselves, our universe, and ultimately God.  In suggesting an answer to this broad question, I want to offer you three voices: one scientist and two theologians.

Francis Bacon, in his Novum Organum, introduces the subject of philosophy with a rather bold statement:

“Man, as the minister and interpreter of nature, does and understands as much as his observations on the order of nature, either with regard to matter or mind, permit him, and neither knows nor is capable of more.”[1]

William G.T. Shedd, the noted nineteenth century theologian, reiterates this with respect to what the Christian can know about God.

“Man, as the minister and interpreter of revelation, does and understands as much as his observations on the order and structure of revelation permit him, and neither knows nor is capable of more.”[2]

In both cases, the point is made that we are essentially interpreters of what ‘is.’  We do not create reality, rather we describe it.  And our descriptions of what ‘is’ can never outpace our observations.  And so the boundaries of what we can know are in fact set by what actually ‘is’ and by what we can observe.  Our skill in interpreting what we observe will determine how closely our knowledge reflects reality.

This invokes a real limitation to what we can know.  For instance, speculating on parallel universes that are by definition beyond the reach of empirical validation is, in a word, silly. It makes for good science fiction, but the emphasis must fall on the ‘fiction.’  If we could in any way observe them or otherwise positively demonstrate their existence using scientific methodology, they would therefore be a part of this universe.  But acting as if you know beyond a shadow of a doubt what your spouse’s or neighbor’s motivation was in not saying “good morning” yesterday is actually just as silly!  You see, whenever we live as if our capacity to know and our knowledge itself is unbounded, this creates a terrible mess in our lives, our families, and our communities.

It also creates a mess in our relationship with God.  In Deuteronomy 29:29 Moses writes, “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever.”  There are things about God that we cannot know.  While we do have true knowledge about God, that knowledge is always bounded by what he has revealed concerning himself.   We know about God those things that are necessary to our relationship with him.  It is certainly not the case that we know everything about God that there is to know – or that we might want to know about him.  If we should choose to let our imaginations run wild with theological speculation concerning the person and work of God in a manner that goes beyond his revelation of himself in scripture, we will have found the quickest route to idolatry.  We may be sure that we are worshiping a God we ourselves created rather than the God who created us.

Do you want to “know better?”  Stop mere speculation with respect to the world, other people, and God himself!  Start observing.  Listen to your spouse, spend time with your kids.  Study nature.  And with respect to God, immerse yourself in his Word.  I am in complete agreement with something John Calvin insisted upon in the definitive edition of his Institutes of the Christian Religion (1559):

“The best limit of sobriety for us will be not only to follow God’s lead in learning, but, when he sets an end to teaching, to stop trying to be wise.”[3]

Your Pastor

Bob Bjerkaas


[1] Francis Bacon, Novum Organum, Aph. 1.  Cited by Shedd

[2] William G.T. Shedd, Homiletics and Pastoral Theology (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1893), pp. 2-3.

[3] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.21.3.

This entry was posted in Academic, The Bible, Theology and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *