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Confessions: Audaciously Asserts Something About Which He Knows Nothing

When I listen to a Christian brother who doesn’t know about natural philosophy and gets something wrong, I look on him and his views with forbearance, as long as he doesn’t believe anything inappropriate about you, Master, the creator of everything. I don’t consider it a problem for him if by chance he lacks knowledge… It is a problem… if he thinks what he says belongs to the essential structure of religious instruction, or if he obstinately and audaciously asserts something about which he knows nothing.—Saint Augustine, Confessions 5.9

In times past, the pastor-theologian was considered an authority on ecclesial and theological matters, not because they had a blind trust, but because people understood the idea of expertise. You would not trust a pastor to give you medical treatment, or a physician to give you legal representation, or for a lawyer to give you financial advice, or an economist to give you epidemiological information, or an epidemiologist to give you dental treatment, or a dentist to give you ophthalmological treatment, or an ophthalmologist to give you Biblical teaching. Everyone has expertise and we lean into expertise, and we trust those experts and their peers to hold each other accountable in disseminating trustworthy information.

In America there has been a growing suspicion of experts and this same suspicion has spread into the church. Members trust what they read on the internet more than what the pastor says. People trust their ideas more than what is taught by the clergy. And I understand this sentiment, especially among protestants; ignorance is what allowed the Catholic church to abuse its members. By claiming that only priests could be trusted to interpret the Bible they created a system where they could manipulate the masses through ignorance.

I do not believe that people studying for themselves is a problem. But I do believe there is a problem when people think they can be authorities on Scripture without having developed proficiencies required to understand. You can only get so far in Biblical study without being proficient in at least Hebrew, Greek, Latin, church history, and historical theological thought. For example, if you are going to drive to a remote beach without paved roads on the other side of a rocky and hilly hillside, a Toyota Corolla will only get you so far before you get stuck. You are going to need a Four Runner or a Land Cruiser to go the rest of the way.

There is a humility that comes with recognizing limitations. The person arguing that they could arrive to our metaphorical beach in a Toyota would sound like a fool. However, this is what is happening today which is why there is so much deception and one of the reasons there is division in the church.

The world of Augustine was not much different. Mani, an ignorant man, had spewed nonsense and people believed it. Augustine was not fine with Christians not fully understanding science but he could be patient with them. He could teach them. But what he had no patience for was for Christians who said religious things authoritatively while lacking knowledge.

The reason he had no patience for this was that by Christians doing this they are following in the footsteps of Mani: Spewing misinformation with authority and deceiving people. “Mani had the gall to make his followers think they were following not a human being like any other, but your own Holy Spirit” (5.9.3).

There is wisdom in recognizing our limitations lest we deceive ourselves and others down the path of destruction.

Lord, teach me how you want me to live. Then I will follow your truth. Give me a heart that doesn't want anything more than to worship you.—Psalm 86:11 NIRV

Living Word, grant me the humility to know my limitations, and wisdom to be self-aware.

Note: These are my daily reflections as I go through Saint Agustine's Confessions. Unless otherwise noted, I am using Sarah Ruden's translation of the original text, and the NIV.


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