“What counts is not so much our knowledge of God as God’s knowledge of us. That is the syntax of salvation.” (Richard Hays)
“Whoever, therefore, thinks that he understands the divine Scriptures or any part of them in such a way that it [i.e., his interpretation] does not build the double love of God and of our neighbor does not understand [the Scriptures] at all.” (Augustine, On Christian Doctrine)
Christian theology has perennially drawn a tight connection between the doctrine of grace (see my last post here) and the only appropriate human response it seeks to produce: humility. Humility in God’s people is the simple, direct by-product of the grace we have received in Jesus. An arrogant Christian, we must forever and forcefully insist, ought to be a quasi-mythical figure—though unfortunately, many of us seem to pull off the incredible feat with ease (and that with great aplomb). Wisdom to counter such contradictory behavior is found in this passage from John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, arguably the most important theological tome of the last millennium (Calvin’s undeserved notoriety notwithstanding):
“A saying of Chrysostom’s has always pleased me very much, that the foundation of our philosophy is humility. But that of Augustine pleases me even more: ‘When a certain rhetorician was asked what was the chief rule in eloquence, he replied, ‘Delivery’; what was the second rule, ‘Delivery’; what was the third rule, ‘Delivery’; so if you ask me concerning the precepts of the Christian religion, first, second, third, and always I would answer, ‘Humility.’” (2.2.11)
The biblical emphasis on being “known by God” functions, by intention if not in actuality, to stir up a profound sense of humility in believers. To confess that what is fundamental about our existence is God’s knowledge of us—not our knowledge of Him, as necessary as that is—brings to our attention that what finally distinguishes us from those who do not share our faith in the gospel is nothing found in us. Rather, what is ultimately unique, valuable and noteworthy about us is precisely that which comes solely from God—namely, His loving, free acknowledgement of us in Jesus, the glad-hearted welcome that comes in spite of our prior treasonous dismissal of Him. Therefore, Christianity offers a potent solution to postmodernity’s well-founded anxiety: that all claims to absolute truth dissolve at some point into egotistical plays for power and control over and against the “other” who does not possess said truth. For those who really get that the gospel is a celebration of God’s utterly gratuituous act of redemption on our behalf—and never of our activity for Him—the only consistent attitude towards image-bearers who do not share our faith or embrace our worldview is humble, yearning brokenness. All truth subsequently spoken must arrive fully clothed with love, or else we are hypocrites.
One group of ancient Christ-followers who stood in need of such self-forgetful humility were the Corinthians. In I Corinthians 8, Paul begins with these surprising words:
“Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that ‘all of us possess knowledge.’ This ‘knowledge’ puffs up, but love builds up. If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, he is known by God.”
I cannot here delve into the specifics of the admittedly complex situation behind Paul’s rebuke (which is fascinating), but one thing is crystal clear: while the Corinthians are impressed with the significance of their own theological knowledge—a knowledge that serves to separate them from “weaker” brothers and sisters who do not possess such knowledge (8:7)—Paul is instead staggered by God’s knowledge of both the strong and the weak in Corinth, irrespective of doctrinal comprehension. Being known by God is evidenced (so Paul insists) not so much by our mastery or grasp of religious learning—an oft-perverted knowledge, to be sure, with a glaring tendency to draw attention to the cleverness of the knowers rather than to the beauty of Who is being known—but by unadorned love for God. And this love the weak can quite easily display in more abundant supply than the strong who are puffed up. C. K. Barrett is on target when he points out that “even in the Gospel man does not fully know God, and he ought not to deceive himself into thinking that he does; but God knows him, and this is the all-important truth.” (The First Epistle to the Corinthians, p. 308)
(Brian Rosner points to a curious anomaly in these verses: “Whereas we anticipate the active voice [i.e. we expect ‘they know God’ at the close of 8:3], Paul uses the fact that God knows them as a way of deflating the pride of the Corinthian ‘know-it-alls’.”)
To be known by God, then, is a devastating, glorious source of humility for those who have been awakened from the slumber of self-centeredness and freed from the slavery of self-congratulatory pride. For who sees anything different in us? And what do we have that we did not receive (I Corinthians 4:7)? There is ample reason the old boasting is outlawed for the new humanity.
Henry V (or at least Shakespeare’s portrayal of him) had it exactly right when, after the stunning victory on St. Crispin’s Day, he proceeded to forbid his English soldiers to boast of their victory over the vastly more numerous French army. He summons his warriors instead to chant Non Nobis and Te Deum—that is, the Latin translation of Psalm 115. “Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name be the glory.” Such must be the everlasting confession of those who have been known by God in Christ. For such, indeed, is the humility that adamantly refuses every vaunted boast of fallen humanity, excepting the single boast that takes its cue from the cross (Galatians 6:14). A boast of that sort can cause even the humble to rejoice at the sound of it (Psalm 34:2).