“I Don’t Know”…”I Might Be Wrong…” : Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
“I Might Be Wrong…”
These are two phrases that you don’t hear very often, especially in the church… especially from church leaders.
Throughout most of my adult life, I have been involved with two disciplines, theology and history. Of the two, I tend to prefer history. History, at its best, is based upon facts. We may interpret the subsequent meaning of the facts, but we begin with the evidence which establish the facts themselves. For instance, we may debate motivations and effects of the New Deal in America in the 1930s, but we can agree that they were formulated by FDR, a person who was born on January 30, 1882, in Hyde Park, New York. Through documents, contemporary accounts, news articles and the like we can trace his life and career. Now, we may disagree as to the interpretation of that career, but we begin with the facts. Moreover, we continually search for new facts and new evidence to assist us in our understanding of the man and of the era. As a result, there are numerous points of reference allowing us to say, “I know…”
Theology is a different discipline.
Augustine defined theology as “reasoning or discussion concerning the Deity”. The medieval scholastics defined the term as “what is taught by God, teaches of God and leads to God”. Some delineate theology into specific areas, such as “biblical theology” (those theological constructs derived from Scripture) or “historical theology” (the development of theology throughout history or in particular historical eras) or even “natural theology” (what we learn of God or deduce about God from the natural world). Now, in all these disciplines, there are some facts, some documents and, occasionally, some evidence, but much is drawn from philosophical constructs, human reason, and interpretation. Hence, in the Christian world today, there are numerous “systematic theologies” all with varying strengths and weaknesses. Additionally, there is much we do not know. For instance, those who engage in biblical theology begin with a collection of documents written in a variety of ancient languages. These documents include historical accounts, poetry, memoirs, letters, visionary narratives and much more. The dating of many of these documents is disputed, and they have come down to us in a variety of collections. Now, although I have a high view of scripture and believe that they “contain all things necessary to salvation”, there is clearly much we do not know.
Why is it then that we are so hesitant to say, “I don’t know”?
Somehow, I think we equate “faith” with “certainty”. To say, “I don’t know…” or “I might be wrong…” appears to many people not to be a simple statement of reality, but somehow an admission of doubt or a lack of faith. Yet, there are some instances and circumstances in life (and, indeed, in scholarship) that should compel us to say that we don’t have the answers. More than once, I have met with a bereaved family who instinctively ask the question, “Why?”. Now, when I was very young in ministry, I thought that I needed to formulate a reasonable response. After all, I was a member of the clergy. My job was to provide answers. Yet, I realize now that I was wrong. Often there are no easily understood reasons or answers. Often it is simply a tragedy to which we can only respond, “I don’t know…” and then offer the comfort and solace of which we are capable.
This seems like heresy to some. Yet, when I read the chapter on faith in the Letter to the Hebrews, I note that faith is not about knowing why this or that happens in our lives, but rather it is the assurance that despite evidence to the contrary, God is somehow, in ways that we cannot see, providing something better for us. Yet, we have no assurance that we will understand it at the time, or even in this life. Much is left as a mystery, without explanation, without the certainty that we seem to crave.
My approach to scripture and, indeed, historical theology, is similar. There are things we know and, quite frankly, there are things we do not know. I think that we would be wise to admit our limitations. I remember once having the opportunity to talk with C.F.D. Moule, one of the great New Testament scholars of the twentieth century. In my research, I had come across an idiomatic phrase in the Gospel of John that was perplexing me. It was important as this phrase was used by Athanasius in his defense of the divinity of Christ. I asked Prof. Moule what he thought of the phrase. After all, Moule had authored ‘An Idiom Book of New Testament Greek’ which was the authoritative guide to the subject. He patiently listened to my question, and then replied, giving me several opinions as to what other scholars had said about the passage. We he finished listing these various views he said, “As for myself, I don’t know, it’s something I’m still contemplating…” It wasn’t the answer I was looking for. I wanted certainty. I wanted an authority to answer my question. Instead, I was left with numerous opinions, all of which could not be right, and a mystery.
“I don’t know…” “I could be wrong…”
When I was younger these phrases were seldom uttered, especially from the pulpit, especially as a pastor or as a newly ordained priest. There is a culture in the church at large that wishes to turn church leaders into “The Answer Man” or “The Answer Woman”. Now, certainly church leaders should be grounded in Scripture, Church History, pastoral care and the other basics of their profession and calling. We do not, however, know it all. For all of us, laity and ordained alike, there is much that is a mystery. There is much we do not know. We would be wise to admit it.