July 1977 · Vol. 6 No. 3 · pp. 60–65 

Now We Know in Part

David Ewert

One of the great lessons of life is to learn our limitations. The Greeks called the failure to recognize one’s human limitations hybris, and warned that the arrogant overstepping of human boundaries brought with it the wrath of the gods. When it comes to the understanding and interpreting of Scripture there are also certain limitations which we must keep in mind. If the great apostle Paul felt these limitations keenly, then surely we have all the more reason to recognize our limitations. I want to mention several of these limitations, which we should continuously bear in mind as we study and teach the Bible.


It may sound sacrilegious to speak of the limitations of Scripture, but we must remember that what we have in the Bible is part of what there is to know about the deep things of God. God is much greater than His revelation in the Scriptures.

There are many subjects to which the Bible does not address itself directly, for the Bible is a religious book and is essentially the story of how God provides for man’s salvation. This does not necessarily mean that when a twentieth century question is not specifically answered in the words of the Bible, that the Bible has nothing to say to it, for there are in the Bible underlying and pervasive truths which give us perspectives from which to view questions that arise from time to time in the church’s history.

We should, however, not treat the Bible like an encyclopedia, where one can turn to the appropriate page and find information on the subject in question.

When Galileo looked at the heavens, churchmen condemned him, because the Bible, they said, taught a geocentric universe. They even {61} found a verse to chastise him, “Ye men of Galilee (that sounded like Galileo) why do you gaze into heaven?” Not recognizing that the Bible is not a book on science, that is, not acknowledging the limitations of Scripture, the church was wrong.

Even our Lord spoke in given historical contexts, and it is not always obvious how His teachings are to be carried over into our modern situation. For example, our Lord’s attitude toward divorce and remarriage is rather clear. But when we ask what place and ministry there is in the church for those whose marriage has failed, the answer is not so readily available. The Gospels are not primarily “manuals on pastoral care.” It is for this reason that the church must search together for a way to come to a consensus and humbly say, “at the moment this is how we understand the Scriptures.” Such positions, however, are open to revision and change at a later date.

David Field illustrates the limitations of what is revealed in Scripture by the picture of a car driving on a country road in a dark night. The driver has the headlights on and can see the way and can reach his destination safely if he doesn’t drive too fast and if he is content not to look at the surrounding landscape. “Like headlights, God’s revelation is strictly functional. Its aim is the very practical one of imparting enough information to enable any man to live in a godly way. There are other things we should like, but do not actually need to know, and on these the Bible is often silent. Beyond the light is darkness, and the wise student is the one who is careful, theologically speaking, to drive within the limits of his lights.”

Sometimes this is called the sufficiency principle, meaning that God has given us sufficient light for our life, our mission, our calling, our salvation, but not enough to satisfy our curiosity on many matters. We shall have much learning and unlearning to do on the other side.


We have less difficulty admitting to this limitation, I am sure. Even the apostles themselves admit that their understanding of certain things was fragmentary: “We know in part.” This does not mean that we cannot trust the revelation they have given us, but they confess that the full revelation of God’s mysteries is reserved for the next world.

Those who take pleasure in unraveling the mysteries of the Book of Revelation should not overlook what John, the writer, says at the outset. He humbly confesses that he is sharing with his readers only “as much as he saw” (1:2). He too did not see everything. And when, for example, he could not peer into the secrets of the sealed book, he wept—until the Lamb broke the seals.

Paul makes it very plain in 1 Corinthians 2 that without the help of {62} the Spirit of God we cannot comprehend the things that God has revealed. Our minds are too finite and too darkened by sin to grasp fully what God has revealed.

At this point we should voice a word of caution, for it happens at times that devout people think their spirituality is the magic key which unlocks every door of the Scriptures. All they need to do is to open the Bible and pray and all is plain. And no one dare question their insights. Some time ago I received a letter from a man who disagreed with something I had written. Since he did not have much schooling he put me in my place by quoting the words of Jesus: “Thou hast hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to babes” (Matt. 11:25). Aside from the misuse of this Scripture, the implication is that heart-piety (which presumably I do not have) would have taught me better. But even Luke, the inspired Gospel writer, confesses at the beginning of his Gospel that he had taken pains in searching out the records and putting the materials together in the order that he did.

We must, therefore, keep our minds open to new insights and discoveries. An open mind, however, is not necessarily an empty mind. Some people attend schools of biblical learning, take Bible courses, attend Bible conferences, but look upon all of these experiences as survival tests—always grateful that they have come through them without having to change their minds.

Let us humbly recognize that there are truths in the Scriptures which have baffled the greatest minds for centuries, and so it is only the part of wisdom to confess our own limitations. Behind the comprehensible there always stands the incomprehensible.

We look “by means of a mirror into a riddle,” says Paul. Therefore, at times it is much better to say, “I don’t know,” than to give a slick solution. There is, of course, no virtue in being agnostic where God would have us certain. Humility and openness for new truth does not mean that we are not diligent in searching out the Scriptures, or that we do not have deep convictions. But we always recognize the limitations of our understanding.


Our Lord by His use of parables illustrates how hard it is to get certain truths across to human listeners. In spite of this very vivid method of teaching He had a lot of explaining to do in private. Repeatedly He marvelled at the dullness of His own disciples who would ask Him, privately what in fact He had meant with a given parable. And if the Master Teacher found it hard to get His teachings through thick skulls, how much more we!

Paul repeatedly confesses the limitations of the language he uses. “I {63} must speak after the manner of men,” we hear him “complain.” His rich use of metaphor is a further illustration that the truth he was proclaiming was too profound for the language-vehicle to carry. Think only of the many figures of speech he uses to proclaim the great truth of redemption!

We all know that between us and the Bible there are formidable linguistic barriers. How often we go astray in our interpretation because we fail to capture the nuance of certain words. Or, take the great cultural barriers between us and the world of the Bible (and even the culture of the biblical world is not uniform; it varies from the Canaan of the Patriarchs to the Rome of the Caesars). At times we thought we were biblical when all we were doing was imitating first century Palestinian customs.

The ability to quote biblical passages and familiarity with biblical phraseology is no guarantee that we understand what the writer meant. While we deplore the inability of many of our church members to find their way about in the Bible, the ability to quote verses is no indication of one’s understanding of the message of Scripture.

The fact that supra-earthly realities have to be portrayed in human categories puts certain limitations on communication. The Genesis writer conveys to us the great truth that God created everything by describing His creative activity within the framework of a work-week. How should John describe the glories of heaven for us but by using earthly imagery which we can understand.

Not only are there limitations of communication from Bible to reader, but we have problems communicating biblical truths to one another. Paul suggests in 1 Corinthians 2:13 that we need the help of the Spirit of God, not only in understanding, but also in communicating the things of God.

Of course, language is not the only barrier to communication. One of the more formidable barriers is prejudice. Any claim to objectivity must in itself be partially dishonest since it presupposes an impossible standard. The only redeeming factor in this matter is that we are at least in a measure aware of the color of glasses with which we read the Bible.

Another way of blocking communication is by pigeon-holing people, either by the schools they have attended or the schools where they teach. How they personally responded to the teaching they received at the schools they attended is of no interest to their critics. It is not always easy for us to accept a person for what he is, without attaching a label to him.

Those whose calling demands that they speak in public or write (as I am doing now), know how easily people misunderstand and misconstrue what is said or written. In chapter 12 of John’s Gospel, people {64} heard a voice from heaven and some thought it thundered and others that an angel spoke—but they all heard the same voice.


I had a professor at Wheaton College who insisted that in theology “if it’s true, it isn’t new; and if it’s new, it isn’t true.” So many ideas which seem to have been discovered by this generation, have been tried before—and many have been found wanting. Professor Woolley of Westminster Seminary writes, “Church history saves so much time by avoiding a lot of unnecessary, and sometimes tragic, experimentation.”

If, then, we espouse certain theological views and positions, we should seek to test them in the context of history. In history we can see what happens with lopsided Christologies, anthropologies and eschatologies, to mention only a few. The pendulum is constantly swinging, and we should be aware of that.

How old, for example, is dispensationalism? Post-millennialism is almost dead today in evangelical circles, and yet it was probably the most popular view at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, espoused and propagated by Matthew Henry of commentary fame.

Moreover, the theological agenda changes from decade to decade. We are asking questions of the Bible today which we did not ask fifty years ago. Some things that seemed very important to me as a young man I no longer consider worth dying for. On the other hand, there are things which are more important to me now than they were when I was a youth.

John Mackay (in Christian Reality and Appearance, p. 38f.) compares theological formulations to a telescope or microscope. “Individual dogmas in a theological system correspond to the lenses in both telescope and microscope. These lenses need to be cleaned from time to time. They must sometimes be reground or replaced, to give the instrument greater potency. There are occasions, also, when the position of the lenses must be readjusted and when even the telescope as a whole must be reshaped. While instruments like these are to be used continuously and should be accorded all honor, while they should also be made available for the admiring gaze of spectators who have become entranced by their achievements in opening up new worlds of physical reality, one thing must be avoided. These servants of science must never become mere museum pieces to be studied and admired and even idolized. Their instrumental servant role must never cease. So must it be too with Christian creeds and confessions. Woe to the worldwide Christian community, when ideas about God take the place of God himself, when allegiance to ideas about Him, takes the place of allegiance to Him . . .” {65}


We want to have convictions. But we want to hold these convictions with charity. We want to state our convictions clearly. That makes for healthy dialogue, and that is how we grow. We must put forth an effort to understand what the other person is saying. We must learn to cooperate with genuine believers who do not agree with us in every aspect of biblical interpretation. We want to avoid majoring in minors. We want to be aware of a holier-than-thou attitude when expressing our theological convictions. If someone never changes his mind, it may not be that he has remained true to the faith, but only that he has not grown. We should not give the impression that we have all the answers. “For our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect; but when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away.” And so we want to keep on learning and growing, until the day breaks when all shadows will flee away.

David Ewert is Professor of New Testament at the Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, Fresno, California.