Volume 41 - Issue 1

The Art of Imperious Ignorance

By Michael J. Ovey

Earlier this year I found myself lured from the secure theological fastnesses of north London to a consultation on one of the hot topics of our day. One delegate listened to the contributions about what relevant biblical passages meant and then commented that s/he still did not know what the passages meant and the explanations offered just didn’t do it for him/her. The passages were unclear. I was surprised in one way, because I thought the explanations had been nothing if not clear. Unwelcome very possibly, but not unclear. The response, though, was not a disagreement in the sense of offering an alternative explanation which should be preferred for better reasons. This was not direct disagreement but something much more oblique. It was a disagreement that took the form of declaring that the passages were not clear.

Of course, in another way this is no longer a surprising response to attempts to explain passages from the Bible or synthesise them—over the years one has heard it in regard to God’s knowledge of the future, predestination, God changing his mind, same-sex marriage, the role of women, etc. The Bible is unclear, it is said, and so we must be content not to know. We must be ignorant. In that sense I think we are observing an argumentative move that is perhaps increasingly common.

In this article I want to argue that the claim to be ignorant on the grounds that something is unclear is actually quite ambitious. More than that, it can be an imperious claim that exercises power over others without, at times, the inconvenience of reasoned argument. No wonder it is so popular.

Please note, I am not suggesting this is always the case and that every claim of unclarity is manipulative and power-driven, but it is worth thinking through how such claims can be.

By way of illustration, take the pro-Arian Creed announced at Sirmium in 357, which marked a new phase in the Arian controversy as Arian opposition to Nicene trinitarian theology became more overt. For our purposes the relevant part of the Creed comes just after it outlines a prohibition on using the terms homoousios (one and the same substance) or homoiousios (of a similar substance). The Creed states:

Nor ought any exposition to be made of them [sc. the terms homoousios and homoiousios] for the reason and consideration that they are not contained in the divine Scriptures, and that they are above man’s understanding, nor can any man declare the birth of the Son, of whom it is written, Who shall declare His generation? For it is plain that only the Father knows how He begot the Son, and the Son how He was begotten of the Father.1

Does this not sound very pious and indeed very evangelical to avoid using terms that are not in the Bible and remember that the generation of the Son is too wonderful to declare (enarrare) so no-one should declare (enarrare) it? In other words, it is not clear and we do not know, so we should not speak of the generation of the Son. How would you have reacted to this if I had not already primed you that Sirmium 357 was ‘pro-Arian’? I suspect that many of us would be struck by what could be a humble, pious caution in speaking of God.

Yet Hilary of Poitiers, Athanasius of Alexandria, and other supporters of the view that the Son is truly a son hit the roof over Sirmium 357. Hilary describes it as Blasphemia, blasphemy. Why does a profession of ignorance generate such an extreme reaction? Amongst other reasons, in Hilary’s case, precisely because of the claim of ignorance.

Hilary decodes the claims of Sirmium 357 for us. First, there was the element of compulsion. For him this was an ignorantiae decretum—a law of ignorance, aptly translated ‘Compulsory Ignorance Act’.2 The language repays attention: decretum implies serious binding decision, that is to say, not just a confession of one’s own lack of knowledge but a decision that others do not know either. The term has legislative connotations. To that extent the framers of Sirmium 357 were not just saying they did not know about the Son’s generation, they were saying no other human being could either. What initially sounds like a pious caution emerges as coercive.

Secondly, Hilary notes an absurdity in the idea that one tries to compel people not to know something. He comments scathingly of the decretum: ‘just as if it could be commanded or decreed that a man should know what in future he is to be ignorant of, or be ignorant of what he already knows.’3

The absurdity here is in attempting to legislate the internal knowledge of others. It is one thing to demand silence, but quite another to demand ignorance.

Thirdly, Hilary sees that the law of ignorance actually stops a particular proposition being made. Because we are bound to be ignorant about the Son’s generation, we cannot declare that the Son is ‘of God’,4 and if we cannot speak at all of the Son’s generation, then how do we say the Son really and truly is a son, since generation is inherent to the relation of fathers and sons. At root, by preventing us speaking of the Son’s generation, the framers of Sirmium are preventing us from speaking of the Son as truly son. Coercive ignorance masks a positive theological position—that one does not have to say the Son is truly a son. This, of course, opens the door to admitting Arianism with its view that the Second Person is a creature rather than truly Son as being just as orthodox as Nicene theology which insists the Son is truly son. A little ignorance can go a long way.

Two things emerge quite painfully from Hilary’s observations on the Compulsory Ignorance Act of Sirmium 357. First, the coercive nature of the claims to ignorance or unclarity. There is something strongly unilateral about the claims of Sirmium 357: why should something that is, allegedly, subjectively unclear to me be judged by me as unclear for you too? Secondly, there is the way those coercive claims were far from value-neutral but actually carried strong agendas of their own.

However, there are other elements in play in the declaration of ignorance or unclarity that make it an extraordinarily attractive move in today’s debates. Naturally it plays well with a postmodern mood that tends to value scepticism, but more than that it can offer the attraction of not needing to have a reason for my position. At its worst, I can declare something unclear and then pursue my own line without needing to provide reasons for it—after all the issue is unclear. Declaring something unclear can maximise my freedom of action because it tends to remove an issue from the field of common debate. In its way, it is strongly individualist.

More than that, some of the claims about unclarity or ignorance leave unspecified what counts as being clear enough for actions to proceed or decisions to be made. It is sometimes quite revealing to ask ‘how clear do things need to be?’ or ‘What would make things clearer for you?’ But without knowing what counts as ‘clear enough’ or what considerations would clarify, the task of discussing something with someone claiming ignorance or lack of clarity becomes remarkably thankless. Again, the tendency here is to remove an issue from discussion.

Yet most attractive of all is that the claim of lack of clarity or ignorance allows one to pursue one’s own position quite dogmatically while appearing to be very undogmatic. After all, the claim of ignorance looks as though it advances no position, but vitally it tacitly asserts that one’s opponent’s position cannot be decisively asserted—it is forever only a possibility, not a certainty on which one could base action or decision. There is something very rewarding in being a closet dogmatist while appearing to be the reverse.

This in turn raises two questions, one more philosophical, the other more theological. Philosophically, how do I move from my observation about my own understanding that I find something unclear (fundamentally subjective) to the proposition that something is unclear for everyone else too (something universal)? After all, I frequently have the experience that a text from my children is subjectively unclear to me, but laughably clear to others versed in the texting argot of today’s youth. Of course it can be a mark of genuine epistemic humility to recognise one does not know something or that something is unclear to one. But it can be an important mark of epistemic humility too to concede that others may have understood something that I have not, rather than insist that if I do not see something no-one else has or even could either.

Theologically, however, even more is at stake. Thus the claim of John 1:18 is that God has been made known by the incarnate Son and Word. This looks very like a claim that God has actually made himself known and at least at the objective level revealed himself. Given this, what should I make of the claim that knowledge of God is unclear and uncertain? After all, for the uncertainty claim to work here, I have to tread very close to the proposition that God did not successfully reveal himself. Do I think God tried to reveal himself and failed? Or do I think God never revealed himself? Here again the claims of ignorance seem extraordinarily imperious—after all the kind of knowledge I would need to support the claim that God has failed to reveal himself or that God never revealed himself seems to be that I have an independent non-revealed knowledge of God and therefore can weigh the claims of revelation. This, of course, was one reason why Hilary and Athanasius thought the Arian claims of ‘ignorance’ they encountered were in fact simply arrogant. Perhaps I should be more ready to adapt another of Hilary’s thoughts, that when faced with God’s revelation in the Bible, I should point less to a defect in the text (lack of clarity) but more to a defect in my understanding (subjective limits). Perhaps we should be less certain that parts of Scripture are ‘uncertain’.

[1] Hilary of Poitiers, De Synodis 11 (NPNF2 9:148).

[2] De Synodis 10 (NPNF2 9:147).

[3] Ibid.

[4] De Synodis 10.

Michael J. Ovey

Mike Ovey is principal of Oak Hill College in London and consulting editor of Themelios.

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