In this episode of TGC Q&A, Tim Challies and Tony Merida discuss the question, “What biblical questions can I answer with, ‘I don’t know’?” They address:
- “I” vs. “we” questions (:00)
- The inscrutability of God (1:55)
- Wrestling with suffering (3:26)
- Developing the “I don’t know” skill (4:16)
- Varying understandings in preaching (5:42)
- Don’t answer questions no one is asking (7:22)
Explore more from TGC on the topic of apologetics.
The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy.
Tim Challies: I think we need to distinguish between questions I cannot answer and questions we cannot answer. If I is saying, I just don’t have that knowledge, I may not have studied that issue, I may not be an expert in that, or I may just not want to tell you. So, I may not have the answer versus we do not have the answer, which is to say no person, no human being can know the answer to that question.
There are some questions that no human being can answer, but even then if we get into the we, when is it wise to say, “We don’t know the answer to that question.” Well, it could be that God has not made that clear to us, God has chosen not to reveal that. And so we believe strongly in God’s sovereignty. We believe strongly in human responsibility. We don’t know exactly how those two things work. We know they’re both true, we accept them both at face value, but that doesn’t mean we’ve totally conquered the relationship between them.
So we can say, “God just hasn’t revealed that.” Or we can say, “God has not revealed that yet.” That maybe there’s something, we don’t know. You read the book of revelation, we don’t know how all of that will come together. We know it’s true, but God may only reveal it at the time or looking back on it.
But then there’s that category, what we want to be cautious of is saying, “We cannot know that,” or, “No human being can have confident knowledge in something God has made plain.” So I think that’s where we have to be careful in that category.
Tony Merida: Yeah, I agree totally. I think when you talk in the realm of certainty, there are some epistemological questions that are raised. When we’re talking about specifics, like specific examples of what doctrines or beliefs, where we don’t have full knowledge. I think you’ve touched on some of them. Obviously the ways of God, we believe as Christians that, Paul says in Romans 11, that how unsearchable are his judgments, how inscrutable his ways.
So there’s clearly some things that we don’t know, because even Paul gets to the end of Romans 11 and says God’s ways are inscrutable. So the inscrutability of God is a glorious thought and makes God majestic as he is, as you think about his ways are not our ways, his thoughts are not our thoughts.
Tim Challies: It makes him not us, which is the kind of God you’d want to [crosstalk].
Tony Merida: Absolutely, who is inscrutable, yes. And that’s what he’s doing there in Romans 11, he’s worshiping this God who is inscrutable. You touched on it, but the return of Christ, Jesus says, “No one knows the day or the hour,” even though some apparently think they do know. Jesus says we, we don’t know. We won’t know. So that would be a clear example, I think, of an issue of the details. We know he’s coming, but the details around that, we don’t know.
And then I think there’s another thing that came to mind was just suffering, som aspects of suffering. We know we’ll suffer for righteousness sake, we can understand that. We can understand suffering because we did something stupid, the consequences of sin. But there are some aspects of human suffering in life that we just don’t have the answers and I think that’s one of the areas that people have the most difficult time with, I think.
Tim Challies: And we can be trite with that, I think. We can assume that something we’re going through, we know the reason for it, but often I think we’re just handing it over to God’s love, God’s sovereignty and saying, “I don’t know. Maybe this is a consequence of sin and God is chastening me as a son he loves, or maybe this is satanic attack, or maybe this is something else.” So we often just don’t know. So I think suffering is a strong example of where we don’t know.
And it strikes me that one skill every pastor, every Christian leader needs to have is the skill of saying, “I don’t know.” We want to be seen., I think pastors especially, want to be seen as the source of all knowledge. We feel less than if there’s questions we can’t answer, especially if they’re not that complicated questions, but having that ability to say, “I don’t know,” or, “I don’t know and I’ll find out,” or, “I don’t know when I’ll find someone who can answer your question,” is often far preferable to just refusing to acknowledge you don’t have that knowledge. You don’t know that the answer to that.
Tony Merida: Absolutely. Absolutely. I think there’s a certain epistemological humility that we have to have, even when we’re teaching the text sometimes, where the text is not clear, that it’s good to give people the fore views of this text, give your view, state why you have that view but there’s still a sense of humility of knowledge. And I think that also helps people think, I think that helps them to think Christianly rather than just be told what the answers are.
And obviously we’re not doing that with every doctrine because there’s great clarity on the big things. In fact, I like to say that God hasn’t answered all of our questions in the Bible, but he’s answered the questions we should be asking. He’s given us sufficient revelation concerning salvation and for that, we should be very grateful.
Tim Challies: Indeed. Now, I want to ask you a question. When you think about offering multiple views, so you come across a word and people might interpret it differently. You’re doing that work in this study, you’re reading the commentaries. When do you raise that to the attention of the congregation, the listener? Because I’ve often run into that. When is it important to say there are varying interpretations of this and when is it best just to pick the one you think best encapsulates the data and just go with it without maybe causing people to consider the various options?
Tony Merida: I don’t think we need to necessarily do that on every single thing because you could do that on so many bits and pieces of a text, because you could find some commentators saying X, Y, or Z and another one saying… For me it’s more of, if this is key to unlocking a passage and it’s going to have impact in sermons to come, or maybe you’re going through a series. So it maybe if you’re doing Ecclesiastes and there’s discussion about vanity, what does that Hebrew word actually mean? And that’s going to reappear over and over and over again.
Now on that one, I would probably try to come down on a position but I would personally show the views, and I just did it actually because we’re preaching Ecclesiastes for the authorship, but other things that are important as you keep going.
The authorship of Hebrews would be one of those where, does it determine how we interpret the book? I don’t think so. But people are going to ask the question, hear the views, and that’s one of those places where we can disagree and it’s not dividing us.
Tim Challies: I like what you said there, you said people are going to be wondering. I think that’s the key right there maybe, is don’t answer questions nobody’s asking because there’s things that can be interesting to you in the study. You solve those things and you go and preach them. If nobody in the congregation is interested, nobody’s getting sidetracked by that issue. Surely if you start and expositional series in Hebrews, everybody’s going to be asking who’s the author of this. And if not, they should be asking it so you can answer that one.
But there’s other thing, why would you answer that if nobody’s asking it anyways? You figure it out and then you just bring them a good sermon.
Tony Merida: Yeah, that’s good.