Is It Arrogant to Claim to Know God?

In a debate with Rabbi David Wolpe in 2008, the late Christopher Hitchens inveighed against Wolpe’s claim to have knowledge of God:

By what right, rabbi, do you say that you know God better than they do, that your God is better than theirs, that you have an access that I can’t claim to have, to knowing not just that there is a God, but that you know his mind. You put it modestly, but it is a fantastically arrogant claim that you make — an incredibly immodest claim.

I was reminded of Hitchens’ objection, and similar ones in his exchanges with Douglas Wilson, when I saw the following tweet by proselytizing atheist Peter Boghossian (retweeted, presumably with approval, by Richard Dawkins):

I take it Boghossian doesn’t mean exactly what he says here, because as a matter of fact some people have made both claims. Rather, his point is that one cannot consistently make both claims. Why? Apparently because he thinks it’s inherently prideful or arrogant to claim to know God’s will. The same would go for the claim to know other things about God, such as his purposes for us and for the universe as a whole. And of all things what could be more arrogant than the claim of Christians to know God personally?

I’ve come across this objection before in various forms, but it’s founded on a non sequitur. Surely whether someone’s claim to know God is arrogant or boastful depends on how that person claims to know God. If Sally claims that she knows God because she’s smarter or more virtuous than other folk, or because she’s mastered the summits of spiritual meditation through years of self-discipline, that would certainly seem prideful. But what if Sally claims to know God only because God freely and graciously revealed himself to her? Indeed, what if Sally claims to know God despite her intellectual shortcomings and moral failings?

A Visit from Queen VictoriaDuring her reign in the 19th century Queen Victoria was in the habit of making visits (presumably unannounced) to the poor and sick in the working-class districts of London. Would it have been prideful for those she visited to say afterwards, “We’ve met the Queen!”? Would it have been arrogant of them to claim to know personal things about the Queen, such as how she likes her tea? Hardly. They were very fortunate, of course, but they had nothing to boast about. They hadn’t merited a visit from the Queen; they hadn’t secured a visit through their own efforts or virtues. On the contrary, all the effort and virtue were on the Queen’s side!

Christianity is a religion of grace from start to finish. According to the Bible, eternal life consists in knowing God through Jesus Christ (John 17:3) and eternal life is the free gift of God (Rom. 6:23). Even the faith by which eternal life is received is a divine gift (Eph. 2:8-9; Phil. 1:29). It’s a basic tenet of Christian doctrine that no one knows God on the basis of their own natural virtue or unaided self-effort. Indeed, the apostle Paul affirmed that all human beings possess a basic knowledge of God through natural revelation: they know that there is a personal Creator, that he has certain attributes, and that he deserves to be honored and worshiped (Rom. 1:18-23). And those who enjoy a saving knowledge of God only do so because God has graciously taken the initiative and freely revealed himself to them through Christ.

In this respect the exchange between Jesus and Peter in Matthew 16:13-17 is instructive:

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.”

The point is clear: Peter’s understanding of Jesus’ identity (and thus his knowledge of certain truths about God) didn’t come from any human source. It wasn’t based on natural human reason or experience, but rather on divine revelation. It was knowledge ‘from above’ rather than ‘from below’. Clearly Peter could take no credit for it!

“That’s all very well,” the critic might retort, “but you’re still claiming that Christians are special. You’re saying they have knowledge that others don’t. And knowledge of the creator of the universe, no less!” I don’t deny it. What I do deny, however, is that such a claim is inconsistent with humility. On the contrary, what Christianity teaches about knowledge of God encourages humility, precisely because such knowledge is a divine gift. Nor is the claim that Christians are special an occasion for pride or arrogance. The consistent biblical principle is that the people of God are special because they are chosen, not chosen because they are special (Deut. 7:6-8).

I suspect that lurking behind the original charge is a question-begging assumption about how knowledge is acquired. The assumption is that knowledge comes only through the active exercise of our natural cognitive faculties, such as reason and sense experience. From a Christian perspective, however, that is a terribly stunted view of human knowledge, for the anchoring principle of a biblical epistemology is that God has revealed truth to us. As Trevor Hart writes:

For the first eighteen centuries of the Christian era, while there were certainly different understandings of the precise nature and intermediate sources of revelation, and while revelation itself as a source and norm for theology was various correlated with other relevant factors, there was nonetheless general agreement that ‘revelation’ was both a necessary and a central feature of the religious and theological encounter with God. God was to be ‘known’, that is to say, and subsequently spoken of only as and when God rendered the form and substance of such ‘knowing’, establishing humans in a knowing relationship otherwise inaccessible to them. (“Revelation,” in The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth, ed. John Webster, Cambridge University Press, 2000, p. 37)

All this to say, the Christian position is that all knowledge of God comes through divine revelation (either general/natural or special/supernatural) and divine revelation is by its very nature a free and gracious act of God. (I’ll register but not defend here my conviction that the Reformed tradition has emphasized and developed this point more than any other stream of historic Christianity.) Knowledge of God is far from being the exclusive property of those who have exercised their natural intellectual abilities better than their peers (cf. Luke 10:21).

So is it arrogant to claim to know God? Does claiming to know the will of God fly in the face of humility? Not necessarily. It all depends on how that knowledge is thought to be acquired. No doubt according to many religions those who possess knowledge of God have some basis for pride, for they can take partial credit their knowledge. But Christianity isn’t one of those religions.

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