Knowledge first and foremost: baby King David vs. adult St. Thomas

19 Dec

related posts: Forgiveness free and true: the crux of the Reformation, the essence of the Christian life,  Babies in Church: the arrogance of the infant (a), and (b)

When we speak of what it means “to know”, what are the most important things that can and should be said?

I have been discussing the issue of knowledge and certainty, or “certitude”, with RC apologists.

Here is a section from the Catholic encyclopedia on certitude:

Metaphysical certitude is that with which self-evidently necessary truth is known, or necessary truth demonstrated from self-evident truth. The demonstrative sciences, such as geometry, possess metaphysical certitude. The contingent fact of one’s own existence, or of one’s present state of feeling, is known with metaphysical certitude.

For theologians such as Thomas Aquinas, this metaphysical certitude – along with the teachings of the Church – can alone be called knowledge in the strict sense – they are absolutely immune from doubt. All other things, since they are “contingent”, are “opinion” – even though this opinion may be something that, practically speaking, is either immune to doubt or should not be doubted (i.e. it is “certain” in a different sense).

First of all, this elevation of metaphysical certitude  seems wrongheaded to me.  If we can talk about “scientism” we can also talk about “metaphysicism” (also, considering the “laws of nature” to be more certain than the occurrence of well-known events in history – since “the laws of human nature” are “subject to occasional exceptions” – seems wrongheaded as well).

Second, when presenting theology for Christians especially, all philosophical discussions about certainty should take a back seat.

Why?  What we are to know and in fact already know in part should start with essential Christian doctrine.  My argument builds on truths like those exemplified in Psalm 22:

“…you are he who took me from the womb;
you made me trust you at my mother’s breasts.
  On you was I cast from my birth,
and from my mother’s womb you have been my God.”

Note that when we are talking about the faith of the little ones (the foremost example now being the baptized) we are not really talking primarily about matters of the intellect, but rather personal trust in Another.

Note that David can assert that he trusted the Lord at His mother’s breast.  In which case, did not David know the Lord – really and truly – even then? (in a John 17:3 kind-of-way, of course: saving knowledge).  It seems clear that he did, for we can’t trust a person without knowing them to some extent.  Here then, we see that it is personal trust in God that pertains to the highest knowledge.  This seed of knowledge is then continually developed in us by wise teachers.  We come to understand how Christian doctrine, the Scriptures, and the Rule of Faith are those things that continually nurture us in the world, that make sense of our relationship with God, and keep us from going “out of bounds”.

Presumably any older, well-socialized (i.e. non-feral) child could readily determine the items of “metaphysical certitude” discussed above with little guidance.  On the other hand, it would take more guidance for even an older Christian child to understand – and then recognize as true – what is said to be essential Christian doctrine (RC apologists talk about how “the certitude of faith” is even more certain than the metaphysical items discussed above – an unquestioned adherence to Roman Catholic dogma is in view here).

Nevertheless, is not the only reason that we have any knowledge in the world at all because of the love of God – because of His design for us, as well as His continual involvement with us? And is not the faith that is passed on to cradle Christians from the beginning meant to be that which guides us as regards all other kinds of knowing?

I think so, in spite of what Thomas Aquinas might say or how he might want to frame things.

Why is this all so important?  In RC theology a person may have a “moral certainty” that they are in a state of grace – but this can only be determined by evaluating of one’s own [moral] character and conduct – not by clinging to the external Promise alone (of course after calling what God calls sin “sin”– ie. that thing and those particular things which separate us from Him).  As Cardinal Cajetan (who I believe was the foremost Thomist scholar of the day) told Luther, “one could never be certain that one’s contrition was sufficient to effect the forgiveness one hoped to receive” (Scott Hendrix, Luther and the Papacy).  Some in Rome may insist that Trent, when it dealt with this issue, did not mean what Cajetan meant, but I have yet to see convincing evidence of this (for example, in this Catholic Encyclopedia article, the moral certitude that might at first seem to be real knowledge of some kind eventually comes to be coupled with “practical certitude”, and this seems to involve things that were previously labeled “opinion” in the article…so, is this opinion something that is immune to doubt or should not be doubted or not?). Regarding Aquinas himself, he may have well thought that Christians could have real certainty (knowledge?) that they were on firm footing in their relationship with God (i.e. a “state of grace”), but he also laid the groundwork for the intricate labyrinth of the Roman penitential system that brought Luther to the brink of despair.

But what was the answer Luther finally found and clung to?  As I wrote before:

In sum, there is nothing greater than the certainty – the knowledge of eternal life – that the received Promise creates in the individual believer.  Here of course we are not talking about mathematical certainty, or that certainty which can be derived from axioms or discerned patterns (based on repeated experiments and observations), but rather personal certainty, personal knowledge – knowing a Person.  And borrowing the language of law courts, one may believe that one’s parents truly love them ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’, but the Promise brings us into a realm beyond even that – into the realm of a loving and secure relationship that exists ‘beyond a shadow of a doubt’.

To enter, become like a child, not a philosopher.

Photo credit:


Posted by on December 19, 2011 in Uncategorized


Tags: ,

3 responses to “Knowledge first and foremost: baby King David vs. adult St. Thomas

  1. CD- Host

    December 28, 2011 at 3:43 am

    My comment under the Christmas greeting was meant for here.

    I quoted you

    Presumably any older, well-socialized (i.e. non-feral) child could readily determine the items of “metaphysical certitude” discussed above with little guidance.

    And then responded:

    I couldn’t follow which doctrines / statements have metaphysical certitude that a non-feral child will know? And just to save a round, when you list these off are they things: Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims would accept, and if not why aren’t they able to determine these things?


    Anyway been following your comments on called to communion and your revised diagram. I agree with your imperial church and earlier breaks. The only difference is I’d meld your diagrams, those earlier branches they don’t list play important roles in the development.

  2. Nathan

    December 29, 2011 at 4:32 pm


    Thanks for the comments. I’ll engage more later after the new year.


  3. Nathan

    January 2, 2012 at 5:14 am


    These are the things I had in mind, the things mentioned in the Catholic Encyclopedia article I quoted from:

    “The demonstrative sciences, such as geometry, possess metaphysical certitude. The contingent fact of one’s own existence, or of one’s present state of feeling, is known with metaphysical certitude.”

    I had said “with little guidance” meaning some guidance.

    All this said, I am not sure I know my own present state of feeling with metaphysical certitude. : ) Geometry and my own existence are sure though. : )



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: