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

The familiar context in which these words occur gives a peculiar colour to them. St. Paul in his estimate of the most conspicuous endowments of a Christian, places knowledge — the progressive knowledge of observation and reflection — in contrast with love. He sets the intellectual over against the moral. He implies that the knowledge of which he speaks belongs to the present in its essence, while love belongs to the present only in its form. But in doing this he does not disparage knowledge; on the contrary he reveals it in its true nobility. Christ declared (John 17:17) truth to be the medium of man's consecration. Under the necessary conditions of life knowledge is the minister of love. I wish to consider the limitation of knowledge and not the destination of knowledge. "We know in part." The fact itself is one which we shall do well to realise more distinctly than by a general acknowledgment. When this is done I hope that we shall see sufficient reasons for holding that this necessary incompleteness of our knowledge, which is at first sight disappointing, is, when duly weighed, fitted to bring stability to the results of labour, that it satisfies the conditions of progress, that it offers hope in the face of the dark problems of the present age.

1. We know in part. This limitation is imposed upon us triply. Of all that is, of all that even we with our present faculties feel must be, we can know but a small fraction. Our knowledge is limited in range. And, again, our knowledge of that small fraction of being which is in any way accessible to us is bounded and conditioned by our human powers. Our knowledge is limited in form. And, yet once more, of theft which man could know, being what he is, if the personal powers and the personal experience of the race were concentrated in a single representative, what an infinitely small portion is embraced by one mind! Our knowledge is limited by the circumstances of life. So far the fact itself that we know in part is unquestionable and unquestioned. No one who ever presumptuously maintained that "man is the measure of all things," ventured also to assert that "all things" which he measures owe their being to him. No one who has considered the slow development of the powers which man now enjoys in what appears to us to be his maturity would be willing to admit that his faculties exhaust in kind or in degree the possible action of being. Our knowledge, I repeat, is inevitably partial in regard of the object, and of the subject, and of the conditions of its acquisition. In each respect an infinite mystery enwraps a little spot of light. But while upon reflection we admit that our knowledge is thus limited, we do not, I think, commonly take account of the momentous significance of the fact. Many of us who are ceaselessly busy with our daily occupations do not habitually feel it. Many who have distinctly realised it, deliberately put it out of sight. That which we cannot know in the way of earthly knowledge is for us, they say, as if it were not. St. Paul follows a better way. He teaches us to see that these mysteries, and the full sense of limitation which they bring with them, are an important factor in our lives. He rounds life off on this side and that, not with a sleep, but with the glory of the invisible. And is it not true that we are made stronger as well as humbler by lifting up our eyes to the sky which opens with measurable depths above the earth on which we are set to work?

2. We know in part. the fullest recognition of this fact is not only helpful but essential for the fulfilment of our several tasks. The practical or deliberate disregard of this relation of all our knowledge to the unknown brings with it urgent dangers. On the one hand we are tempted to make our own knowledge, our own thoughts, our own experience, an absolute standard. On the other hand we are tempted to apply a dominant method to subjects which do not admit it. There is no one, I suppose, who has not been sorely tried by both temptations. It requires a serious effort to enter with a living sympathy into the character of another man, or of another class, or of another nation, or of another course of thought: to feel, not with a sense of gracious superiority but of devout thankfulness, that here and there that is supplied which we could not have provided: to acknowledge how peculiar gifts or a peculiar environment, how long discipline or an intense struggle, have conferred upon others the power of seeing that which we cannot see. But it is to breadth of hope, to self-denial, to patience that we are called, as those who believe and seek to live as believing that we know in part. The immediate circumstances in which we are placed need, as we must feel, the exercise of such graces. There is on all sides an overpowering passion for clearness, for decision, for results which can be measured on demand. Art and history are trammeled by realism. A restless anxiety for fulness and superficial accuracy of detail diverts the forces which should be given to an interpretation of the life. We begin to think that when we can picture to ourselves the outside of things we have mastered them. So it is also in many respects with opinion. We are told that we must make our choice definitely between this extreme and that; that there can be no mean; that a logical necessity demands one precise conclusion or the other. In this way we lose insensibly the present consciousness of the great deeps of life. Portraiture becomes photography, and faith is represented by a phrase. The reflections from the mirror, the shadows on the wall of the cave, are taken for the realities which these fleeting signs should move us to seek. There is no outline in nature, however convenient or even necessary we may find it to draw one. A closer view of this one-sided and dominant realism, which is characteristic of our generation, shows what is at once its final issue and its remedy. For it is not fanciful, I think, to connect it with the great successes of the method of physical inquiry. We try, perhaps even without knowing of what spirit we are, to make the same method supreme over all knowledge. Meanwhile we are neglecting a different lesson which physics have to teach us and which we have not yet learnt. However paradoxical the statement may appear, physical study more than any other brings the invisible vividly before us. The world of the man of science is not the scene of conflict and disorder which we look upon with our untrained eyes, but an order of absolute law which he finds by the interpretation of a larger experience. He pierces beneath the seen to that which it indicates. So far he has read the thought of God. His partial knowledge is a sign for the moralist and for the theologian.

3. We know in part. We have seen that acceptance of this fact enables us to meet and to use the dangers and the lessons of limited views. The same words describe the process by which our efforts are made effective. We advance towards the limits of our attainable knowledge by the help of every fragmentary movement. We look upon the fullest vision of the truth in the combination of parts held separately. This is the Divine law of spiritual progress and of spiritual apprehension. It is not that any one mind or any one race can evolve the last deductions from the primal facts. The manifold endowments of the nations are made contributory in due order to the unfolding of the universal gospel. The history of Judaism and the history of Christianity prove the truth beyond doubt. Spiritual knowledge and with it spiritual life is furthered by the introduction into it of new elements from without. The seed which has the principle of life gathers from all around that by which the life is manifested in the fulness of its beauty. It has often been pointed out how every critical stage in the progress of earlier revelation was marked by the action of new races upon the people of God. Assyria, Persia, Greece, Rome, quickened fresh thoughts in Israel, and brought to light fresh mysteries in the Law. The Son of Man entered on the patrimony of the race made ready for His use. The course of Christianity up to the present time exhibits the accomplishment of the same law on a larger scale and with a more pervading application. Judaism was limited and preparatory. The Divine Presence was symbolised for the fathers by a cloud or by a glory. But Christianity is absolute and final. For us the Divine Presence is "the Word made flesh," "the man Christ Jesus." It is no longer any part of man, or any part of mankind to which the message of God is addressed or entrusted. The experience of our own lives offers an illustration of this growth through assimilation and loss. The unfolding of our separate powers is able to bring home to us what is fulfilled on a colossal scale in the broad history of human progress. One faculty after another is called into dominant activity, and yields in its turn to some fresh claimant. And here comes the trial of faith. We are tempted, as it may be, to linger with a vain regret round that which is ready to vanish away or to hasten prematurely the advent of that which is not yet mature. But the faith deals with all in a process of life. The conviction that every result, every triumph, every prize is given us to use and not to keep, saves us from the peril of stationariness and from the peril of innovation. He cannot rest who knows that the counsel of God is not yet accomplished.

4. And surely this paradox is the very joy of life. We know all: and we have still much to learn. Our strength is to feel that the end which is given to us is not yet gained. As long as there is movement there is hope. Because the central fact of our faith reaches to the utmost bounds of our being: because to the last our knowledge is limited, we bring together with loving reverence all that has been accumulated in the past, and we stand ready to welcome the new light which shall reveal the old treasures in fresh glory. It is not strange then that there should at all times be difficulties. Difficulties guide men to new regions of work for Christ's sake. We can feel, I repeat, in these different directions, in the spheres of personal life, of human fellowship, of cosmical dependence, how our partial knowledge witnesses to the existence of regions of vital energy not essentially unattainable but hitherto necessarily unexplored: we can feel that the darkest riddles of life lose their final gloom when we refuse to acknowledge that their solution must be found in the facts which we have been so far able to grasp: we can feel that the gospel of Christ incarnate and ascended deals with these latest questionings not by accident or by accommodation, but in its inmost nature: we can feel as the problems rise before us that our historic creed contains the answer to them, though it has not yet been drawn out, that our needs have not been left uncared for by eternal love, that it is through the sternest searchings of heart that the growing fulness of the truth is realised. The sorest trial of very many now is the sad suspicion that Christianity does not cover all which we know to be. Perhaps we have given colour to the fear by our own narrowness of sympathy. But from the first it was not so. And it is true still, true always, that our faith conquers not by the suppression or by the dissimulation of difficulties, but by interpreting them or by placing them in their right relation to what we see of the whole constitution and circumstances of the world. We do not then appeal to ignorance, but to the conditions of a partial knowledge: we do not transfer our hope to an imaginary scene, but find the pledge of its fulfilment in a completer revelation of this in which we toil and suffer: we do not offer any intellectual formulas as exhaustive and absolute, but we claim that now and at all times the faith should be regarded in connection with every human interest; we do not affirm the limitation of knowledge as a bar to inquiry, but as a bar to finality.We know in part.

1. The words are a consolation. No one has ever set before himself a high ideal of work for the truth's sake without sadly noting at the close of his labour the scantiness of his achievements. His difficulties, perhaps, have grown clearer, but they have not grown less. At last he finds himself left face to face with mysteries, which appear in the form of irreconcilable opposites. The fundamental mystery of his finite being responsible to the Infinite repeats itself in many forms. There is no escape from conditions of thought which he feels to be inapplicable to spiritual existences. Happy is he only when he knows that what he sees, what he can see, is but a fragment of that glory which all the powers of all the ages will not exhaust in its fulness. We inherit and we transmit our inheritance to others, with the slender accessions we have made. So it is that we are bound one to another, and while we contend to the uttermost for the truth which is given to us, we find a place opened for other labourers.

2. They are a promise. The knowledge is partial, but the object is not illusory. We may not he able to see much, but the appearances which we observe answer to something which is eternal. This conviction is sufficient to inspire us with hope. We are so constituted that we cannot but group together the scattered facts which come before us, and interpret them in some fashion. Looking to them we can cherish the signs of a wider order in the moral world which has not yet been realised.

3. They are a prophecy. Now we see in a mirror darkly, but then face to face. The mode of knowledge will be changed, but He who is revealed in many parts and in many ways is Himself unchangeable. Perfect knowledge now would be the sentence of spiritual death: "the whole can increase no more, is dwarfed and dies." But, let us thank God, we know in part; and we know Him that is true. We do not rest in what we are, or in what we can attain to, but in what God is, in whose imago we are made.

(Bp. Westcott.)

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 Imperishableness of Love
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