“Breadth and depth” is a term used to denote the knowledge expected of applicants for the Civil Professional Engineer exam. The morning exam tests for general engineering knowledge over a wide area (breadth), while the afternoon exam wears you out in one area like structural or water resources (depth). I took an online class on structural connection design last fall from Dr. Bill Thornton, one of the leading experts in the world in that area, that reminded me of this distinction. While he is a very capable engineer in general, I probably would not have signed up for the class if he had been teaching on concrete design, or timber design. I’m sure he could’ve taught me a thing or 2 in those areas as well, but the draw of his class was that he has devoted much of his long engineering career to one specialty, structural steel connection design, and become a world-renowned expert in that area. He has exemplified having a wide general knowledge base and a thorough specialty knowledge. What lessons are there for us here?
While academic and professional learning is beneficial, and striving for the higher end of the spectrum is admirable, there is an area of learning that can yield rewards far beyond one’s career, even into eternity. In Paul’s final letter before his execution, he tells Timothy to “be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth.” But how do you handle accurately something with which you aren’t familiar? Your first time using any new tool, toy, computer program, or any other unfamiliar item is often pretty clumsy. How do you get better? You study it and practice it. So then, as Christians charged with the solemn responsibility to “go and make disciples of all nations”, we have to ask ourselves, are we striving to develop “breadth and depth” in our spiritual knowledge? It seems there is a spectrum of different degrees of knowledge possible, both in the secular sense (like Dr. Thornton’s career) and in the spiritual sense (like our daily walk with Christ):
- Shallow knowledge over a narrow area – Are you an “amateur Christian?” Is this Christian life just a Sunday hobby for you? John 3:16 is powerful, but the Bible is an inexhaustible gold mine of truth being overlooked if that’s as far as you’ve explored your beliefs. God will not be a hobby for anyone!
- Shallow knowledge over a wide area – Are you a “jack of all trades and master of none”? Do you know a lot of different Bible stories and comforting verses, but only scratched the surface in terms of meaning, significance, and connection? All those separate stories are joined up below the surface as part of God’s big story. Dig deeper!
- Deep knowledge over a narrow area – Are you a “specialist”? So fascinated with eschatology (end-times), angels, or some other narrow field that you’ve neglected all other areas? Focus on an area of study is great for growth, but just like an athlete that only trained one arm or one leg, unbalanced growth isn’t necessarily good. Diversify!
- Shallow knowledge over a wide area & deep knowledge over a narrow area – Are you a “hybrid”? Both a specialist and a generalist? Have you dived in and become an “expert witness” in one area (i.e. the historical reliability of the New Testament), but are still able to answer general questions outside that area? Great! Now pick a new area to grow in!
- Deep knowledge over a wide area – If you’re in this boat, quit reading my blog and start your own! This level of knowledge is a rare and special blessing not to be kept to yourself, so start applying all that knowledge! Every generation needs a Charles Spurgeon, or a C.S. Lewis to shed God’s light on all different subjects in profound ways. Is there a point where you’ve “made it”? No, not this side of heaven. But like I said earlier, God’s Word is inexhaustible, so never stop learning!
So which one are you? More importantly, which one will you become? “To whom much was given, of him much will be required.” Here in America, one can easily, relatively cheaply, and with zero risk to one’s life, accumulate a biblical reference library that many preachers in other countries couldn’t amass in a lifetime, and might very well die for if they did. We have multitudes of Christian radio stations that are illegal in other countries. The internet has opened the floodgates of study materials, podcasts, blogs, curriculum (often free), and even online degree programs. We have more ability to study and understand God’s Word and share with others than humans have had since Jesus was here to ask in person. We are… without excuse.