True Knowledge

by August Pieper
translated by Caleb Bassett
The Flammarion woodcut

The name of this article is “Wahres Wissen” or “True Knowledge.” It was taken from the Theologische Quartalschrift, volume 21, number 4. It is a speech delivered by Prof. August Pieper at the opening of the new seminary school year on September 10, 1924. In his speech/sermon Prof. Pieper addresses a new phenomenon at that time, namely the rapid spread of scientific ideas. Back then a disturbing trend was underway in which the world was placing their trust in scientific research as the one, sole, infallible truth of the world. Pieper illustrates the folly of trusting in the human mind to provide us with absolute truth. He is by no means rejecting the study of science; in fact he makes sure to note that we can discover the riches of God’s creation through such observation. However, he emphasizes that at all times science and human knowledge must bow at the feet of the Scriptures which testify to the truth revealed in Christ. His words are encouraging to us who live in a world that laughs at our true knowledge while touting their false conclusions as absolute truth. Prof. Pieper’s words also speak well to us today as we study for the ministry.

It is useful to note a few things about the translation. I have added the (German) behind several words when it helps to clarify the thought. I have tried strike a middle road between literal and idiomatic translation. I have often changed word order and broken sentences into smaller pieces to make the text more appealing to the English ear, while at the same time preserving much of the German emphasis. There are many footnotes in this translation. Many times I seek to clarify a translation with footnotes. Also, Prof. Pieper quotes many Bible passages in his text, but he does not always provide a reference. Wherever this is the case, I have indicated the Scripture reference with footnotes. The bold text is representative of bold text in the original copy.

To him who was pleased to reveal the truth of Christ in our hearts through the testimony of his Word, and who promises eternal life to those whose faith apprehends the benefits of Christ’s death and resurrection, be praise, thanks, honor and glory, now and forever. Amen.

Nothing in the world is valued more highly than knowledge. Morality is of less importance to today’s civilized man. The fear of God has completely lost credit among both the educated and uneducated. The world today lies1 on its knees before the method and results of so-called exact research, which in the end would put us on the bottom of the naked facts of nature, history, and the disposition of the human intellect, and would destroy every delusion and superstition, and would make man as the free and happy lord of “creation.” In knowledge, as they suppose, lies the source of all things good, glorious, and prosperous.

And nobody has more respect for knowledge than our youths, who in the apprehension of their inexperience exhibit a childlike trust to the demand of the scientific profession for the possession of truth. Through the acquisition of knowledge they hope to soar up to freedom, power, honor and prosperity. Hence we see even today in our country, a rush, which we have not experienced up until now, of our maturing youths to the constantly increasing places of learning.

Now it is true, there is in exchange for (um) knowledge something extraordinarily great. In fact, it is everything: Freedom, power, glory, righteousness, and prosperity. Only thereupon does it matter that our knowledge is a correct, true, and solid knowledge, which corresponds to the factual reality and the true necessities.

That, however, is not the modern, natural knowledge of the world. The claim of so-called science that it possesses the absolute truth is false.2 Therewith, not all knowledge of the phenomena of matter and the mind should be condemned by the human intellect. The fact that I exist and that the things around me are something real, or the fact that I live and that in the external world steady powers truly exist, or the fact that between you and me there exist direct connections, these are facts directly expressed with our personal existence, about which I can say: I know that. There is still an entire range of such indirect areas of consciousness which we cannot meddle with here. Beyond that there is still only a subjective, relative, true knowledge, which is taken from the nature of our scientific apparatus (Erkenntnisapparats), our scientific method (Erkenntnismethode) and from the interest of our mind.

Our scientific apparatus (Erkenntnisapparat) is not arranged (zugeschnitten) on an absolute understanding; upon a comprehension of reality, the connection, the unity, the source, and the goal of all such things which do not stand in our immediate conviction. - We remain in contact with the things outside of us exclusively through our five senses. If these are destroyed, then all recognition of the external world ceases. When our senses of smell and taste come to use only in small volume, then all of our knowledge rests only on a threefold sensory perception. These change into perceptions and into intellectual notions, concepts, judgments, and conclusions through the intellectual power of interpretation; that we call understanding. But moreover, the fact that this is strongly limited on both ends is apparent among the unbreakable laws of a sharply limited understanding, which enclose all aspects and thoughts in its narrow borders and make all knowledge into a human subjectivity. It is to Kant’s merit to have shown that all of our observations take place in the inborn “categories” of space, time, and number, and that all of our thoughts are governed by the inflexible laws of identity, opposition, decision,3 and causality. Therefore not only is all our understanding narrowly limited, but is also qualified4 right from the start, and is truly tainted by man. No claim can be made upon universal value or upon complete certainty (Absolutheit), it is human, subjective, and so severely relative that no single, absolute, and universally valid tenet can be set in place. So-called science suffers with the unavoidable5 fundamental error of the absolute standardization regarding principles of human reason, of the perfection of the human scientific process, and of the universal validity which lies in its form, and therefore these are necessary assertions for it.6

But also the process in which human understanding takes place is so clumsy and fallible that the report of one, sure, human knowledge simply cannot be. All our knowledge which is given directly to the human mind is perceived solely on various (diskursivem) paths, namely that it is obtained by perceptible and intellectual observations, by counting, comparing, separating, joining, judging and concluding. And this path is unsure on every step of the way, and at the end, the so-called induction is always a leap into the unknown. It is always a conclusion from an incomplete inductive thought to a universally valid law, which is always treated as infallible, but never proven; each time it is a surreptitiously obtained proof by analogy. The fundamental tenet of science concerning the absolute, universal efficacy and constancy of the so-called laws of nature has been contrived in this way, which would make each miracle impossible. But it is solely assumption and superstition (Aberglaube). In the same way we have come upon the mounting theory of evolution, the canals and population of Mars, and a thousand other results of “science.”

In addition to this comes the undeniable fact that our understanding is more or less clouded by subjective interests. All our cognition affects our interest as pleasing or displeasing. We so eagerly hold as true that which pleases us, and explain as untrue or non-existent that which disturbs us in the satisfaction of our own fruits. We are always inclined to avoid drawing a completely self-evident deduction, and we deny7 the obvious and simply undeniable facts as soon as they disturb our quiet. We are completely unafraid to disavow and gainsay in the name of science the reality of such perceptions, which for the human consciousness are indelibly recorded, but are troublesome for our flesh. We deny the knowledge of God, the absolute binding force of the moral law, conscience, sin and guilt. We rather make ourselves into descendants of the ape, as if we recognize our primitive divine semblance with its moral responsibility, since by the great original sin we wish to be God ourselves and are not able to break away from that desire.

In summary,8 “science” goes beyond those things concerning the proof of the appearances and the human experiences. From important things it concludes the general. It is audacious on the basis of partial research of the universally valid. It speaks of unbreakable natural laws which are established with an inadequate scientific apparatus (Erkenntnisapparat). This misleads them through an unsure, faulty and mistaken method to a prejudice of false interests. Although it boasts of absolute knowledge, science is more illusion than truth. Science does not deserve the honor which it demands and which ignorance pays to it. But it will stay that way with them, just as Goethe had his Faust say, “that we can know nothing genuine.” And as Haller says, “No created mind can penetrate into the inner things of nature.” Or take what Kant proved concerning the impossibility of the perception of the thing on itself, and regarding the subjectivity and relativity of all human knowledge. Or what the Apostle himself better and authoritatively points out relative to the Christian knowledge-even more concerning natural value-with these words: “For now we know in part,” and “now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror.”9

But on account of this we need not become agnostics and pessimists for long and with the despairing Pontius Pilate say, “What is truth!” Across from him stood a greatness who declared with divine authority and convincing power, “In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of the truth listens to me.”10

Yes, truth and knowledge are one and the same.11 From the beginning God has cared for this; namely that everything about him and what he has done be explained enough and expounded properly, and also that his truth be conveyed to our soul (Geist). Of course, this knowledge of the truth is also no absolute-only God has that-no finite being will ever know the intrinsic nature of created things; their number and their end; their deepest, most basic foundation; their innermost unity and their final, most distant boundary. “Who has understood the mind of the Lord, or instructed him as his counselor?”12 It is there that all created knowledge has an end. Just as when man’s first desire for absolute knowledge brought death and destruction over all of creation, in the same way absolute knowledge of God, of his nature and mind, and of his full glory, would destroy (vernichten) all creatures. “You cannot13 see my face. For no man who sees me will live” (Exodus 33:20).

Nevertheless, there is a true, perfectly sure, saving and blessed knowledge. This knowledge is adequate for all things, the mind, principle, coherence, and design. It is suitable and proper for the human soul. This knowledge truly enlightens the ignorant and makes fools wise. It takes up all doubt, drives away all fear, quiets our longing, and fills the poor heart of man with the peace of God that surpasses all understanding. Yes indeed, this knowledge takes the shattered sinner’s heart aloft to heavenly bliss and indescribable jubilation. This knowledge despises the world with all its wisdom, power, honor, goodness and desire. It laughs at death and mocks hell. It goes its way through life upright, sure, and joyful in the power of God, and if necessary seals the truth of God with death. This is the knowledge in possession of which Paul triumphs: “For I am convinced that neither death nor life…will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”14

That is the knowledge “of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6) which continues, “That they know you and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (John 17). Jesus Christ is the truth. He says, “I am the way and the truth and the life.”15 That is this truth, that blessed secret: God revealed in the flesh; having become obedient to death on the cross; given over willingly for the sake of our sins; resurrected at his pleasure for our justification; ascended to heaven; sitting at the right hand of God as the Lord of all things and as head of the Church, his body, which he fills with all the fullness of God and leads to glory with himself when he comes to judge the living and the dead. Jesus Christ, the sinner’s savior, is the truth. He is the visible image of the invisible God, made by God as the firstborn of all creation, in whom, through whom, and to whom all things are. He is the one who is before all things and in whom all things exist; the head of his body the Church; the head and predecessor of all; the first to rise from the dead. It pleased God to fill him with all the fullness of the Deity and to reconcile all things through him, that he might make peace through his blood on the cross and bring us blameless before God in faith and immovable in the hope of the Gospel. He, in whom all things should be concentrated-whatever is in this and the future world-he, in whom we have salvation through is blood, namely the forgiveness of sins, he is the truth. He is the beginning and the end. He is the source and the goal and the means of all the purposes and ways of God.

The entire physical and spiritual creation revolves around him and shouts praise to him. All of history pivots around him and bears witness of his glory. He is the Holy One of Israel and the Light of the Gentiles. He is the peoples’ happiness and your soul’s salvation. Jesus Christ-made for us by God to be wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and salvation-he is the truth. Apart from him there is no truth. Apart from him the entire creation is an unintelligible book and all of history is a meaningless chaos. He who does not know Christ is condemned to eternal blindness, endless sin, enmity with God, and everlasting destruction

The question is how we come to the knowledge of the truth and to the knowledge of Christ as the truth.

You come16 here not from paganism, rather out of your parents’ Christian homes and from Christian upbringing and education. You have already found the way to Christ; you want to become more acquainted with him here and see him more clearly. Above all you desire this so that you yourselves may go to him all the more surely, and then clearly proclaim him to others. I scarcely need to make you mindful of the Word of the Lord: “Search the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me.”17 It has pleased God to bind all knowledge of truth, salvation, and Christ to his revealed Word, the Scriptures. Christ is not standing for you in nature, nor in the human mind, nor in history. All three testify-each upon its own wisdom-of the glory of God. But regarding him who is the way and the truth and the life they know nothing and speak nothing by themselves. In order to bring us to knowledge, the eternal Word had to become flesh and the everlasting truth had to become human words. That is the Holy Scriptures, God’s distinct revelation in human word. That is God’s Word. And now he says, “Search the Scriptures!” It is for this reason that you have come here, and that is exactly what we do in this place. You hear about various disciplines. But each branch of study teaches the Word, or it teaches to bring the Word to the man.18 History teaches the course of God’s world from the Word to understand God’s ways. The direct study of the Scripture out of the original text (Grundtext) also remains, and in this way one of the greatest essentials remains. Scripture, all Scripture given by God, is God’s own, infallible witness of Christ. All prophets testify concerning him that through his name all who believe in him shall receive forgiveness of sins. All apostles bear witness concerning him that salvation is in him and no other. They also testify that no other name has been given to men whereby we can be saved. And Christ has himself shown, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”19 For this reason your way goes to the knowledge of the truth in and by the Holy Scriptures. There is no other foothold (Griff) in addition to the Scriptures. This is the task placed before you by God: That you demonstrate all diligence and the highest faithfulness in the study (Studium) of the Holy Scripture.

But in addition to this there is something important to pay attention to. God has so inexplicably bound all knowledge of Christ on the study of the external Word and to the same he has given the infallible promise of the knowledge of the truth. At the same time it is true that we are not able to believe in or come to our Lord Jesus Christ out of our own judgment or strength. Natural diligence or human gifts, no matter how great they may be,20 do not lead to the true knowledge of Christ; otherwise the professional, “scientific” theologians would be the enlightened Christians, while in reality Christ would become stumbling stone and a rock of offence, on whom they would be dashed to pieces. Our Lord says, “no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled him.”21 Christ is not truly apprehended with pure grammatical-historical Scriptural research, or upon pure, human, wandering ways. The true knowledge of Christ does not rest on human intellectual operations, nor on human learnedness, insight, calculation and correct deduction, rather it is direct, like the knowledge of man before the fall, and comes to us by intuitive ways. God’s Word reveals to us well the formal, spiritual predecessors in the men by his conversion, spiritual collapse under the law, new hope on the grace based on the basis of the Gospel; but at the same time it remains according to the words of the Lord: “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”22 The recognition of Christ is not a mental-mechanical, logical incident, rather it is a spiritual event which nobody understands or explains. Every time it is a miracle from above, indeed from the Word and through the Word, but nevertheless it is worked directly by God, a face-to-face revelation of God in our hearts. Concerning this Paul says in Galatians 1, “But God…was pleased to reveal his Son in me.” In addition to diligence in the study of Scriptures everything depends on the pleasure of God whether he leads us to the knowledge of his Son or not. And it has pleased him to conceal such things from the wise and smart, and to reveal such things to the lesser ones. The way to the knowledge of Christ is shut with the door of humility. The arrogant oppose God; but to the pious he gives grace. And in addition to humility must come the prayer for the Holy Spirit, which has the promise, “If you then, though you are evil, know hot to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”23

May God give you grace in such a way that you recognize the wisdom of the world as folly and know Jesus Christ as the truth. Study the Word of God with never-tiring fervor, but do not expect the knowledge of the truth from your skill and your own effort. Instead expect it as little children from God’s gracious pleasure. Never let the earthly sun rise over you without praying, “Lord, open my eyes for me that I see the marvels in your Law.” Then you will see the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. Amen.

  • 1. The word could imply “lies dead or ill.”
  • 2. Literally, “The claim of so-called science for the possession of the absolute truth is false.”
  • 3. The German text says, “des Entweder-oder” and literally means, “either-or.” It indicates the consideration of options.
  • 4. Verb also indicates “modified” and “fitted.”
  • 5. The German rendered here as “unavoidable” reads, “verhängnisvollen” and indicates “destined” or “fated.”
  • 6. In other words, if science does not make the aforementioned claims, then it becomes powerless. It has no choice but to claim possession of absolute truth.
  • 7. “We deny” has been added to aid the thought of the German text and does not represent a specific German word. It is a continuation of the “nicht ziehen” idea from earlier in the sentence.
  • 8. German scholars will find it amusing that the sentence started with the word “kurz” continues for eight more lines. For the sake of English clarity I have broken the sentence into smaller pieces.
  • 9. 1 Corinthians 13:9, 12
  • 10. John 18:37
  • 11. “Ja, es gibt eine Wahrheit und eine Erkenntnis derselben.”
  • 12. Isaiah 40:13
  • 13. The German reads, “kannst nicht.” It implies that we have no ability to see God.
  • 14. Romans 8:38, 39
  • 15. John 14:6
  • 16. “Sie kommen…” Here Pieper begins to specifically address his audience, specifically the seminarians. However, his words ring true for us today.
  • 17. John 5:39
  • 18. Indicates the young man studying at the seminary.
  • 19. John 8:32
  • 20. The German idiom “kein noch so großer” is applied to both the “diligence” and “gifts” and means “no diligence/gifts however great lead…”
  • 21. John 6:65
  • 22. John 3:8
  • 23. Luke 11:13