The Vanishing Gnosis
1 Corinthians 13:8-10
Charity never fails: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease…

How can knowledge ever vanish away? As long as there are sentient beings in the universe, so long must there needs remain the objects of the emotional faculty; as long as there are intelligent beings, so long must the objects of the intellectual faculties survive. The imperfect knowledge of yesterday may become less imperfect to-day, and may approximate to fulness of knowledge to-morrow. Unless we can conceive of a life — the higher life — without consciousness and intelligence, we cannot conceive how there should ever come a time, or ever exist conditions, when (for personal beings whose personality is not annihilated) knowledge should ever vanish away. Of all men that ever lived the apostle was the last man who would have put forth so dreary a view of the future state as his words at first sight seem to indicate. To him the blessedness of the life beyond the veil was supremely desirable, because in the spiritual world darkness and error would vanish, not light and knowledge. Who is content with the utmost range of knowledge attainable by creatures such as we? Who would care for a life where the yearning to know would find itself without an object? But how if this word γνῶσις, which our translators have rendered by the word knowledge, connote an idea which its English representative fails to convey? How if the γνῶσις of the apostle has proved untranslateable because we have never seriously studied its history, and so have failed to grasp its meaning? What then? Then may not a more careful scrutiny get rid of the difficulty which the passage as it stands represents? Nay! May not that passage contain the enunciation of a great law which the Church of Christ, by losing sight of, would be sure to suffer serious damage? Now it would be unadvisable to attempt anything like an exhaustive examination of the use of this word by St, Paul, or of the meaning it may be found to bear in the several passages in which it occurs. This much, however, is apparent to any careful reader of the Epistles, that the word γνῶσις was a term which was very familiar to St. Paul's readers, and that it was an ambiguous term of whose ambiguity the apostle on occasion did not disdain to avail himself. He speaks of a γνῶσις which is none other than the beatific vision which the saints of God have dreamt of, and which is the object of their loftiest hopes. But he speaks of a γνῶσις, too, which does not deserve to be called such. He speaks of a γνῶσις which will admit of no addition and no imperfection in its fruition, and of a γνῶσις which is by no means inseparable from the notion of childish dependence, of defective methods in arriving at it, even of a certain measure of empiricism. Nor is this all; it becomes evident on further examination that this ambiguous term was used at times to connote not merely intellectual apprehension, but a formulated summary of conclusions arrived at, the result of speculations which, when thus formulated, the intellectual faculty was required to accept as an authoritative setting forth of truth. In other words, this γνῶσις was a summary of dogmatic teaching which might be imperfect in its statements and yet serve a worthy purpose, though essentially limited in its view, and intended only as a step in the right road; or it might be not only imperfect but dangerous, delusive and mischievous, because it expressed conclusions arrived at from assumptions which were mere dreams, and so would necessarily be a γνῶσις falsely so called. In the one case it might be a Christian γνῶσις, which was good as far as it went. In the other case it was a competitive γνῶσις which its supporters set up as antagonistic to any expression of Christian belief, a summary of theosophic or mystical dogma with no real basis of truth on which to stand. Yet of both one and the other, the first being partial and so inadequate, the second being erroneous and so having no real vitality, the apostle says — "As for knowledge it shall vanish away." But is not this the great law abundantly observable in the history of all science in its various branches? Is it not the fact that in the department of pure mathematics the science of algebra slumbered for centuries, and when the awakened intellect of men resumed inquiries which for ages had been laid aside, the new discoveries or the new methods compelled the new thinkers to use new formulae, such new formlae being necessitated by established facts on the one hand and becoming the very conditions of progress in the apprehension of truth on the other? The dogma of yesterday had served its purpose, it expressed elementary truths which the childhood of the human mind had arrived at, but that which seemed final yesterday became antiquated or rudimentary to-day. When men are brought face to face with new truths, or with new aspects of truth, or compelled to investigate truth from a new standpoint, that moment they are compelled to resort to new expressions, to adopt new formulae, that is, to enunciate new dogmas, the old knowledge is in process of vanishing away. But truth is one thing, dogma is another. The formulae may suffer change, but the truth formulated changes not. But here it may be suggested that a distinction must be made between such truths as are formulated in theological dogmas, and those which are arrived at by the methods employed in the exact sciences. In fact so loose is our language and so vague is our vocabulary when we approach the discussion of questions in which our religious convictions and sentiments are supposed to be concerned, that nothing is more common than the assumption expressed or implied that scientific truth and what people call Divine truth are in some mysterious way moving as it were in different orbits, in different planes, and that what holds good of the one does not at all hold good of the other. What! Is not all truth Divine — all or none? Yes, and is not all truth a truth of science — all or none? — truth, that is, which is once formulated with sufficient precision for the logical faculty to exercise itself upon, however much or however little the higher reason may have helped us to embrace it before we had learnt to express it in scientific terms? It is in vain to attempt to evade the question which is being more and more rudely forced upon us. The question, Is there such a science as theology? science based upon axioms which are indisputable, requiring postulates which are reasonable, pursuing its inquiries according to strictly logical methods, engaged upon the investigation of facts and their correlation, weighing the significance of conflicting testimony, and fearlessly hailing the discovery of any new law? Is it a science whereby our race may hope to advance to the apprehension of some eternal truths? a science not one whit the less a science because it has a domain of its own? If not, it is hardly worth our while to trouble ourselves about it. Though even then observe, that the facts of the spiritual life remain. On the other hand, if it be a science, no matter in what stage it may at any moment be said to be, then assuredly it is only what we should expect, that this same story which history has to tell of other sciences should be found to be true of this one also. And that is exactly what we do find. Take whatever science you please, music, medicine, astronomy, and what is more certain than that that science has arrived at a certain point and then has ceased to be studied by competent students, and its further advance been arrested for centuries; the dogmas of such science, formulated a thousand years ago, being accepted as absolutely true, and assumed to have something like finality. For ages astronomers assumed that the sun moved round the earth — that was at any rate a dogma about which there could not conceivably be any dispute — a dogma above all others which could claim for itself catholicity, and stood alone as answering the most rigid conditions of catholicity. For ages the formulated science of architecture helped men to raise up to heaven those stupendous structures which are likely to last as the wonder and envy of mankind as long as the race lasts. And yet into that formulated science the very conception of the properties of the arch never entered. What appear to us the elementary truths of the science had no place in the early dogmas of architecture. In all these instances we are met by the historic fact that every science which deserves to be called such has had, must have, its periods of growth and rapid development, and its periods of torpor and repose. Men have grown weary or despairing of solving certain great problems, and have thrown them aside to deal with others. Then the tide has turned, and they have gone back with fresh enthusiasm and reawakened curiosity to the old difficulties, prepared themselves to attack them, perhaps from new points of view, perhaps according to new methods. And then new discoveries have been made, sometimes the results of patient years of research, sometimes by a flash of what we call genius, and sometimes they had been forced upon those who, by earnest toil and seriousness of aim and greatness of purpose, have put themselves into the attitude or receiving new truths and qualified themselves for expressing those truths in formulae which were necessary expansions of the development from previous dogmas. The time had come for the old γνῶσις to vanish away! And now another question comes to us. Granted that theology too is a science. In what stage may we venture to say that we find it now? The more we reflect upon it the more do we find ourselves compelled to acknowledge that theology, as a science, is, and has been for long, in a condition of torpor; it is, as it were, taking its repose, it has gone to sleep. But if theology as a science may be said to be asleep, even though it be exhibiting no signs or evidence of awakening activity, slumber is not death, it need not even imply exhaustion; it may be only heathful repose before the dawning of a new day. Even though they would persuade you that the old theology has received its quietus and the old dogmas are moribund or dead, be not afraid. It is the great law that every γνῶσις when it has served its purpose must vanish away, but only to be replaced by another γνῶσις which shall be grander and larger and more profound than that which we possess. Be not afraid to say the theology of the fourth century may not have been the theology of the second, nor the theology of the sixteenth century the theology of the twelfth, and peradventure the theology of the twentieth century may be very, very different in its dogmas and its formulae from anything that we can conceive of now. This science, too, may find another Copernicus to whom God may grant strange revelations, revelations, or if you dislike the word, discoveries, such as come to the holy and humble men of heart, guileless and true, such revelations as may perforce necessitate revolutions in our methods of investigation, in the terminology we employ, in the calculus which may be placed at our disposal. At least assure yourselves that imperfect light is better than darkness, and cloudland a better region to live in than chaos.

(A. Jessopp, M.A.)

Parallel Verses
KJV: Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.

WEB: Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will be done away with. Where there are various languages, they will cease. Where there is knowledge, it will be done away with.

The Limitations of Knowledge
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