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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament


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As the apostolic writers dealt mostly with moral and spiritual matters, they usually spoke of ignorance in a sense that was not merely intellectual. Thus (Ephesians 4:18) the ignorance of the Gentiles was associated with vanity of mind, darkening of understanding, alienation from God, and hardening of heart, in a way that linked it to the deeper faculties of the soul. Even νοῦς is the faculty for recognizing moral good as well as intellectual truth, and διάνοια includes feeling and desiring as well as understanding. Ignorance arose, according to the apostles, as much from the condition of the conscience and the spirit as from the state of the mind (cf. 2 Timothy 3:7). Holding this conception, the apostles taught that ignorance sprang either from the state of the heart or from lack of the Christian revelation. The latter condition was much dwelt upon, for to all the apostles the Coming of Jesus Christ was the shedding forth of so great a light that all who had not seen that light dwelt in darkness, while they insisted also that light sufficient was given in the world to learn about God, if only men had not been led away by evil desires (Romans 1:20). Thus arose the ignorance of God (Acts 17:23), the yielding to lusts (1 Peter 1:14), the rejection of Jesus of Nazareth (Acts 3:17), and, in St. Paul’s own experience, the persecution of the followers of Jesus Christ (Acts 26:9).

The double source of these sins of ignorance led to God’s method of dealing with them. As they arose from evil in men, they were not left unpunished by God (Romans 1:28); but, as they were done in ignorance of the full revelation, they were ‘winked at’ or ‘overlooked’ by God (Acts 17:30), or in the forbearance of God were passed over (Romans 3:25). This passing over (πάρεσις) did not exclude punishment, and was not equivalent to forgiveness (ἄφεσις); but it prepared the way for repentance (Acts 3:19) and for the receiving of the mercy of God in Christ Jesus (1 Timothy 1:13).

The densest ignorance came to those who had heard the gospel of Christ and had persisted in rejecting it, for on them the curse foretold by Isaiah was abiding (Acts 28:26). Such people, whatever their superficial knowledge might be, were walking in such darkness that they were content to live in sin and to be guilty of hatred of their brothers (1 John 3:6; 1 John 2:11).

Even in the experience of those who had come to a knowledge of Christ as Saviour and Lord there existed much ignorance.

(1) If Christ Himself knew not the day of the Great Appearing, it was not to be wondered at that the times and the seasons for the coming of God’s Kingdom in glory were hid from His disciples (Acts 1:7). It is evident from some of the apostolic writings (cf. 1 Thess.) that many believed that the Great Day was to come almost immediately, and were totally ignorant of the delay that was to ensue.

(2) Another subject of which there was much ignorance was the state of the dead. The apostles in their eschatology did little to dispel the darkness connected with the present condition of the dead. Sometimes they referred to the blessedness of those ‘with Christ’ (Philippians 1:23), sometimes to their quiescence in a state of sleep (1 Corinthians 15:20), and sometimes to the activities carried on (1 Peter 4:6), but the intermediate state was comparatively uninteresting to the Apostolic Age, as their main thought centred in the Resurrection and the Parousia. Even with regard to these great events of the future there was not always assured knowledge; disciples of Christ were not only doubtful of the Resurrection, but even opposed to its teaching, and St. Paul laboured to dispel their ignorance; while many sorrowed about their brethren who had passed away as if they had lost the opportunity of being present at the Parousia of Christ, not knowing that both those asleep and those alive would then together meet the Lord in the air (1 Thessalonians 4:15).

(3) According to the apostles, ignorance could never be wholly eliminated from Christian life, while the circle of knowledge must be constantly enlarged. The apostles were never content to leave even the humblest Christians in a state of ignorance, and one indication of this desire may be found in the phrase that recurs so often in the Epistles of St. Paul: ‘I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren’ (Romans 1:13; Romans 11:25, 1 Corinthians 10:1; 1 Corinthians 12:1, 2 Corinthians 1:8, 1 Thessalonians 4:13). But the apostles acknowledged that ignorance was found even in the most mature Christian experience. Thus they taught that there had been revealed to all Christians the great end of their life, viz. the perfecting of salvation, but they indicated that there was constantly shown a real ignorance of what was needed at any particular crisis in life. Hence Christians knew not what to pray for as they should at particular moments (Romans 8:26), but in this ignorance the Holy Spirit helped within the heart by unutterable groanings. Still further, Christian experience was limited by its own capacity in face of the boundlessness of the Divine attributes. The apostles proclaimed that the love of God was made known pre-eminently in the life and death of Christ, but there were depths in God’s love that could never be fathomed by human knowledge. Christians knew that love, but even at the end they had to confess their ignorance, for it passed knowledge (Ephesians 3:19). The apostles had no hesitancy in believing in a real knowledge of God, but they declared that a complete or exhaustive knowledge lay beyond even the most mature Christian experience. The only thorough Agnosticism spoken of by the apostles was such as certain Corinthians were in danger of, according to St. Paul, and was associated with their low ethics, their heathen intimacies, and their disbelief in the Resurrection. These characteristics were liable to produce a persistent ignorance of God (ἀγνωσία θεοῦ, 1 Corinthians 15:34) which was shared with the worst of the heathen and from which they could be saved only by being aroused from the stupor of pride and sensualism.

D. Macrae Tod.

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These files are public domain.
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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Ignorance'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

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