Have you ever heard it said that it’s arrogant for someone to claim that he knows God? Did you have a response, or did you find this claim put you on your back foot? Or is it a thought you’ve wrestled with yourself? As a young man, I struggled with this claim, since those who made it had a point. If God is the infinite being I believe Him to be, and if my mind is small and feeble as I also admit, on what basis dare I claim, with my limited capacities, to have certain knowledge of Him? On the face of it, it does seem a bit outlandish.
This unsettling question usually comes from agnostics. Neither atheists nor theists, agnostics claim that we cannot have any certainty about whether God exists and, if He does, what God is like. This claim resonates well with our current culture for several reasons, not least among them that it appears to be a humble position. It makes me think of the memorable words of the adorable Ray Boyd in the 1996 film Jerry Maguire: “The human head weighs eight pounds.” Yes, what chance does an eight-pound human head have of knowing an infinite God? The agnostic seems well positioned to charge the Christian with an overinflated sense of his own intellectual capacities.
In response, many Christians retreat to less assertive and more subjective statements about God such as, “This is how I experience God,” or “This is what God is like for me.” On a few occasions in my younger days, I made this move in conversations with agnostics. They had put me on my back foot. In that moment, I didn’t know how to speak with conviction about God without appearing to be, well, arrogant. Perhaps you’ve found yourself there as well.
But I later came to see that there is more to the agnostic position than meets the eye. In fact, the agnostic doesn’t occupy humble ground at all. Underneath the claim that our little minds are not able to know God lurks a strident claim about God: namely, that God is not able to reveal Himself to His creatures.
The Scriptures do not tout our ability to know God but rather God’s ability to reveal Himself to the creatures He has made. Jesus declares, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will” (Matt. 11:25–26). This passage emphasizes the smallness of our own capacities—we are like “little children”—but it also emphasizes the greatness of God’s ability to reveal Himself to us. In the next verse, Jesus emphasizes that we can know God because God can make Himself known: “No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Matt. 11:27). The Father and the Son also generously provide us with the help of the Holy Spirit in our knowledge of God: “Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God” (1 Cor. 2:12).
It’s truly a beautiful thing to ponder the wisdom, goodness, and power of God by which He makes Himself known to us. As parents reveal their minds and hearts to their infant children through a thoughtful and often marvelous combination of sounds, expressions, and words, all sensitive to the child’s lesser capacities, so God, John Calvin said, “is wont in a measure to ‘lisp’ in speaking to us” (Institutes of the Christian Religion 1.13.1). And precisely because God’s power and wisdom are infinite, His ability to reveal Himself to His human creatures (with heads that weigh a mere eight pounds) far surpasses our ability to reveal ourselves to our young children. We praise brilliant writers and teachers who can explain lofty truths in ways that even simple minds can understand. How much more should we praise the infinite personal God who can speak about Himself and His ways in a manner we can grasp!
This is not to say that our knowledge of God is exhaustive. But neither is our knowledge of other people, nor even of ourselves. Nonetheless, the limited knowledge we have of ourselves and other people is real, and the same is true of the knowledge God gives us of Himself. Here we distinguish true knowledge from exhaustive knowledge. While we do not have exhaustive knowledge of God, we can have true knowledge of what He has revealed. “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever” (Deut. 29:29).
Circling back to the agnostic, all this means that it is the agnostic, not the Christian, who finds himself in a predicament. First, the agnostic’s claim that we cannot know God even if He exists rests on a claim that is not humble at all, for he proudly asserts what God cannot do (reveal Himself to His creatures). To make matters worse for himself, the agnostic has also fallen into a self-contradiction. He cannot make an absolute claim about what God cannot do without having some knowledge about God, which is the very thing he denies one can have. What appears on the surface to be a humble and consistent position is, in its foundations, both proud and self-defeating.
The agnostic rightly recognizes that the knowledge of God is not something we could attain by our own meager powers. But the knowledge of God is something God can give us if He so wills. Everything rests on His ability to reveal Himself. Yes, we can know God, all because God can—and God has—made Himself known to us.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on January 20, 2021.