Profitable Discourse

The Pursuit of Theological Clarity



    Countless battles have been waged on a particular expanse in the vast landscape of religious thought—within this expanse lies the question of determining the truth or falsity of theological beliefs. And though this has a long and complex history, I want to draw our attention to a modern proposal whose influence has expanded dramatically in our present age. According to this proposal, theological beliefs ought to be judged on the basis of their moral impact. This proposal emerges from a deeper philosophical assumption, which is that the truth or falsity of beliefs is less important than the impact beliefs have on someone's life.

     Now while it's clear that this proposal has a number of obvious benefits, I am nevertheless convinced that it's deeply flawed. But before I present my arguments, let's look at this position more closely. The philosophical assumption behind this proposal is essentially part of a pragmatist epistemology, which essentially means a theory of knowledge whose highest values are usefulness and utility. The primary argument is that one ought to be less concerned with the correctness of a belief and more concerned with the practical ramifications of a belief—and this is actually very helpful. It has the benefit of immediately eliminating the philosophical partition between theoria and praxis, between orthodoxy and orthopraxy, between beliefs and practices. Both ideas, values, and convictions on the one hand, and habits, actions, and practices on the other ought to be conjoined into a holistic vision of epistemology and ethics. 

     The problem, however, is that this position ends up eliminating the partition not by bringing epistemology and ethics together, but by absorbing epistemology into ethics. Yet for many Christians, especially post-evangelicals, progressives, and liberals, who all rightly oppose fundamentalism and value intellectual humility, this seems almost automatically true. I'll admit it isn't too difficult to criticize some parts of rigorous theological traditions for all too often manifesting in platitudes instead of hard action. And if you've grown up in such a tradition, the path to the pragmatist framework can practically be traversed in a single step. Therefore, this proposal has proven very attractive to many—yet I’m not sure it’s a helpful way forward.


     The proposal with which we're concerned is that beliefs ought to be judged on the basis of their moral impact, which is to say that the impact a belief has on someone's life is more important than the belief itself. It seems clear to me that this proposal faces three insurmountable problems: first, it's self-referentially incoherent and circular; second, it's impossible to demonstrate; third, it forces one into the fallacy of affirming the consequent.

1. It is self-referentially incoherent and circular

     The first problem is that this position fails on its own terms. This becomes clear once one realizes that this position, “that beliefs ought to be judged on the basis of their moral impact,” is itself a particular belief. And if the claim “all beliefs ought to be judged on the basis of their moral impact” is itself a belief, then it ought to be judged on the basis of its moral impact—but it can't be. See, actively believing only those beliefs which produce the greatest moral impact is one ordeal, but believing that those beliefs which produce the greatest moral impact are the correct beliefs is an entirely different ordeal. One is concerned with immediate moral pragmatism, the other with general truth. One can’t move to the latter from the former, one can only assume the latter to move forth into the former. At some point one has to provide some sort of justification for why the claim “all beliefs ought to be judged on the basis of their moral impact” is even worthwhile, and this is where the problem emerges. This is because if its justification is based on its moral impact, then the argument assumes its conclusion and thus engages in fallacious circular reasoning. But if its justification is based on its being true, then the argument’s very thesis itself is denied.

     Look at it like this. Let's say it’s false that the impact a belief has on someone's life is more important than the belief itself. If it's false, then we shouldn't believe it, we shouldn’t judge other beliefs accordingly, and we shouldn’t live accordingly. But let's alternatively say it's true that the impact a belief has on someone's life is more important than the belief itself. If it's true, then we should believe it, we should judge other beliefs accordingly, and we should live accordingly. But do you see the problem? If this is granted, then the primary motivation and justification of this very belief would stand in direct contradiction to its conclusion—namely, one would believe it not on the basis of its moral impact but on the basis of its truth. Yet to proceed from this foundation (beliefs are judged by their truth value) and then turn in the opposite direction (beliefs are judged by their moral impact) is like cutting off the wings of a jet plane while it’s still rushing down the runway—it'll never get off the ground. Therefore, this proposal rests on the inescapable horns of a dilemma between circular reasoning and self-referential incoherency. And this only intensifies as we address its further problems.

2. It is impossible to demonstrate

     The second problem for this proposal is that it’s impossible to demonstrate, meaning that while it seems possibly true in general that all beliefs ought to be judged by their moral impact, this becomes increasingly difficult when analyzing specific beliefs and practices. This is essentially an epistemological form of a long-standing and potent critique against pragmatist ethics.

     Here’s how the critique works: in order to determine whether a belief is virtue-producing or positively-impactful, one must demonstrate that the belief is what philosophers call optimific. To claim that a belief is optimific is to claim that it produces actions whose benefits outweigh their drawbacks. So to determine whether a belief is optimific, one must 1) discover its benefits, 2) discover its drawbacks, 3) determine the balance between benefits and drawbacks, and 4) determine whether the benefit/drawback balance is greater than any other similar belief. Thus if one wants to prove the conclusion of this proposal with regard to any actual belief, they must know 1) all possible and actual actions proceeding from the belief, 2) all possible benefits and drawbacks of these actions, 3) all the associated options to be considered, and 4) the overall value of all options in light of all circumstances. Only then can they compare these differently-valued options to each other in order to decide which action is optimific and therefore whether or not the belief in question is optimific. This is an incredibly difficult task to say the least. And therefore, since endlessly existent criteria make it nearly impossible to establish that any belief is satisfactorily virtue-producing, this proposal provides an unworkable epistemological and ethical theory. 

     To see how see how this might be the case, let me show what one would need to accomplish in order to successfully determine the correctness of a given belief on the basis of its moral impact. It’s a three-part problem:

A. One must obtain and defend detailed and accurate statistics that are nearly impossible to obtain.

     Say you think penal substitutionary atonement ought be rejected because of the lack of positive moral impact it produces. Maybe you grew up in a morally toxic environment at a church who held this belief. But while your story might be emotionally resonant, it might also be a gross mischaracterization of Christians at large. Many who hold to PSA might be radically virtuous individuals, and PSA statistically might thus be proven so virtue-producing as to be judged correct and in need of acceptance. Thus many beliefs which you currently reject might actually produce the greatest positive impact in their category, and thus ought to be accepted. See, you need to know what kind of people PSA produces all over the world, all throughout history, with all things considered. In fact, what if recent statistics demonstrate that PSA has ceased to be produce positive moral impact but also that its surplus of historical moral impact will outweigh all its drawbacks, all things considered, until we reach 2200 AD? Unfortunately, you’d lose your justification for rejecting it (and would only be justified in 2200, should it persist in having a negative impact). 

      Also, which examples of moral impact should be cited as flowing from rejecting PSA (in exchange for say, the Moral Example Theory of Atonement)? Let’s say this decreases anxiety, decreases one’s inclination towards violence, and increases one’s positive perception of those unlike them. In order to justify the rejection, one has to prove, with actual statistical data, that these actions and dispositions flow from rejecting PSA and not from anything else (or not predominantly anything else). What if someone shows a decrease in their inclination towards violence, but because of their belief that God will bring about true justice and not because of their rejection of PSA? Or what if someone shows an increase in their positive perception of others, but because of their belief that Jesus calls them to love others as he loved them and not because of their rejection of PSA? I discuss this further below, but the data and calculus required for this decision making would be overwhelming.

     There’s one more possible move here: perhaps, finding this proposal near impossible to demonstrate on the general level, you decide to turn it inwards so as to make it a theory that only prescribes one’s personal epistemology and ethics. This seems like a strategic move, since you’d both escape the need for required data and only prescribe beliefs according to your personal inclinations (to which you have immediate and generally accurate access). But this move comes at a cost–most seriously, you lose your purchase on contributing to any ethical discourse and you provide full moral justification for any belief (it actually begins to resemble forms of relativism). In other words, those who ascribe to PSA, or who think all homosexuals should right now go to hell, or who believe that America is God’s only chosen nation, all gain full epistemological justification and clearance so long as they cite these beliefs as producing positive moral impact. 

     Now maybe you could refute this. Sure, there are certainly a few individuals for whom these above beliefs produce positive moral impact, but by and large there isn't any positive moral impact being produced. But who says the ethical values by which you judge are themselves correct? Who says what “positive moral impact” or “virtue production” must be in order that a belief might attain correctness? See, if you argue that love, kindness, tolerance, &c., are the positively-impacting moral values because the belief that they are itself produces positive moral impact, then we’re back to the fallacious circular reasoning

     Let’s say someone who ascribes to the above beliefs argues that speaking the truth (for them, warning homosexuals of impending hellfire) is a far richer moral value than social tolerance? Or worse, what if they think not warning homosexuals itself must necessarily flow from a belief that doesn’t produce positive moral impact? You’re only way out is to move the theory back into the general and objective sphere, but then you return to facing the impossible task of demonstrating that any belief is actually correct. You couldn’t even claim that Paul’s Fruit of the Spirit is the guide to determining which beliefs produce positive moral impact, since someone could always claim that believing in a hermeneutic that dismisses some of Paul’s theology itself produces the most positive moral impact (and any Christian who rejects Paul views of women wouldn’t have much of a response). 

B. One must demonstrate that these beliefs will always be the best beliefs over time with their total moral impact measured and accounted for. 

     This is also impossible since no one can reasonably predict the causal relationship between and resultant consequences of beliefs and actions centuries or even generations into the future. This goes back to my discussion about how the proposal would work should statistics show that PSA’s overall benefits would outweigh its drawbacks until 2200. But furthermore, what if after a couple centuries of drawbacks, believing in PSA proved again to have produced the greatest amount of moral impact in the greatest amount of Christians, all things considered, a thousand years from now? One cannot determine whether or not this is the case, but the proposal requires such deliberation (unless one turns to the personal-relativistic version, which has its own problems).

C. One must demonstrate which beliefs work for which people at which time. 

     Identical beliefs will produce different actions and have different impacts on different people in different cultures, both at the same time and at different times. Let’s say the belief that God punishes sinners with some form of eschatological punishment is one which you think ought to be rejected on account of its lack of positive moral impact. Could it really never produce any moral impact? On the contrary, for someone who has been submerged in war and violence most of their life and has seen atrocities committed even against their own friends and family, the belief that God will finally achieve justice (through punishing sinners) might be the most powerful force in their life leading them towards hope and love and away from despair, anxiety, and revenge (see Miroslav Volf’s work for instance). 

     For some, this belief might have a negative impact and produce no virtue, while for others it might have a dramatically positive impact and produce much virtue–one has to determine when the belief is correct and incorrect, when it is to be accepted and rejected. Thus one must both be able to determine which individuals are properly disposed for which beliefs to produce which actions, and must be constantly updating their catalogue of which beliefs produce positive moral impact—since beliefs that produce positive moral impact right now might not in a generation and vice versa.

3. It forces one into the fallacy of affirming the consequent

     The last problem this proposal faces is that it necessarily forces one into the fallacy of affirming the consequent. Affirming the consequent is a form of reasoning in reverse—like reasoning that since you have a sore throat, then you must have the flu. This is fallacious since the flu is not the only cause of a sore throat–you might actually have a common cold. In the same way, one cannot reason that because someone performed some virtuous action, that they did so because of one specific belief–they could have performed it for any number of reasons.

     So in order to justify the claim that a belief ought to be judged by the merit of its moral impact, one must be able to draw a straight line from subsequent behavior to antecedent belief, but this isn’t possible. In order to do so, one would need to be able to demonstrate that the positive impacts on and virtuous actions of a person's life are either 1) only or 2) predominantly caused by a particular belief or by a set of beliefs while holding everything else in their life in consideration. Let’s say the belief that God as father loves all and punishes none is a belief considered to produce positive moral impact, and therefore to be correct. Let’s further say that many wonderful parents, whose virtue cannot be denied, are revealed as holding to this belief. Now what if in the course of conversing with one of these parents, we are surprised to hear them explain that the reason they love their children so well is not because of this belief at all. Rather, they claim, they love their children because their own parents were abusive and distant, and so the tremendous, ever-present force of reversing the trauma of their own upbringing is responsible for their virtuous actions. 

     Essentially, then, we’d need not only statistics but detailed polls and interviews in order to properly judge the relationship between beliefs and practices. And worse, we’d almost always have less virtuous actions than reasons why they came about. This would mean both that generalizations would forever be suspect and that it would prove tremendously difficult to determine which beliefs produced which actions (do they work at the soup kitchen because of belief A, B, C, or D?).

     Virtuous behavior can be produced by many other things than only a specific belief or set of beliefs. For instance, virtuous behavior can emerge from hypocrisy, or it can emerge more on the basis of emotion and intuition than on the basis of a belief. It could emerge more on the basis of random circumstance and implicit reaction than on reasoned, conscious, intellectual conviction. It could emerge from a complex arrangement of beliefs differing from person to person or else containing some beliefs that could be judged good and others poor. I could go on, but these all strike at the heart of the proposal.

     Therefore the proposal, in order to be of any practice guidance, must start somewhere in naming some beliefs as producing positive moral impact and others as not. But this project fails from the outset by affirming the consequent, in that the good behavior picked out in the process of determination could always have been produced by a different cause than the belief identified as its cause. This proposal, then, is forced into fallacious logic before it can even begin.

     With these arguments in mind, I think the first likely provides the clearest way forward. One must return yet again to a process of judging beliefs on the basis of their truth or falsity rather than on the basis of their moral impact. But as I mentioned at the outset, this needn’t cause anyone to establish yet again a separation between epistemology and ethics, between beliefs and practices. My larger argument is simply that the initial benefit of this pragmatic proposal should be taken seriously, so that our beliefs and practices receive balanced attention without one being absorbed into the other. 

     John Raines is a Master of Arts in Theology student at Fuller Theological Seminary, co-host of the podcast Reconstruct, and blogs at Profitable Discourse. He lives with his wife in Seattle, Washington.



“You shall not leave alive anything that breathes”

     A chilling order of elimination from the alleged God of love. What are we to do with this? Could the God of love ever command such a thing? Could this ever be reconciled with the teachings of Jesus? Our dilemma is that God issued an order in Deuteronomy requiring every single Canaanite to be killed; and that his wishes were later carried out by the military forces of Joshua. Genocide, we’re inclined to call it; an intolerable and indefensibly immoral act of slaughter. This is the issue by which we are currently confronted, and we would do well not to ignore it. 

    The problems for which this text could possibly be held responsible are great in number, yet I will attempt to specify those which bear the most significance. Some argue that this text resolutely ascribes iniquity to the God from whom virtue itself is supposed to flow. Others claim that this text is primarily an encapsulated expression of a culture’s rhetoric as opposed to an accurate historical or theological account. Still others insist that this text reveals a portrait of God which cannot be reconciled with the love of Jesus. Now I think I have somewhat of a solution to these problems, but it is not simple in the least. I do not want to pretend as if, in the end, this text does not really generate any problems, and yet I also do not wish merely to discard it as if the problems were insurmountable. The two primary avenues to which I am opposed are therefore an uncritical acceptance on the one hand and a rejection of the inspired text on the other. But let us not get ahead of ourselves. It is my desire to respond to the arguments put forth by those who view this text as a sort of decisive failure within Christian theology and Scriptural reliability, so that they need to be restructured as a result. And while I am thereby addressing all who reside in this realm, I will specifically respond to the arguments of the Old Testament scholar Peter Enns. This will provide us with a sensible and reasoned basis upon which a response might be made.

    I will begin with an investigation of the primary moral question, moving from there onto a critique of Enns’ alternative, and then will close with an attempt at a solution to the problem.



    “How is this event possibly compatible with God’s character?” Of the many questions that long for an answer, we might place this at the forefront. Yet this necessitates that we seriously investigate our moral theory, for only then can we begin to make sense of this. Can we justifiably charge God with immorality? Is there some moral structure over him, according to which he must conduct himself in obedience? Few of us, I am sure, would claim such a thing. Rather, we might say that our moral structure has its basis in the character of God, from which he makes pronouncements as to the way in which we ought to live. This sort of philosophic reflection is admittedly dry and at times seemingly cold, but remain with me for a moment. Certainly since God does not issue orders to himself, then God does not follow moral statutes identical to ours. Neither can he be held responsible to anyone, since responsibility presupposes accountability, and there is no one higher than God to whom he might be held accountable. This means, therefore, that while it is patently immoral for us to kill individuals on account of our own authority, it is not for God. It is not even murder to begin with; it is as though, since God is the creator and sustainer of all that is, life is his to do with as he pleases. But this certainly does not mean that God committed actions that were murderous and that we just cannot hold him accountable for them. But neither does this mean that, since God retains ultimate authority in moral matters, that he is therefore morally reckless and irresponsible. Let us not forget that he is the God of salvation as much as, or even more than, he is the God of supposed genocide.

    Yet some might say this moral theory with which we are presently concerned sounds too much like the divine command theory, and they might not ascribe to that. Do they not? If so, then they are required to relinquish one of the most powerful arguments against God’s having commanded the elimination of the Canaanites; namely, that Jesus commands us to love our enemies and not to kill them. That, my friends, is divine command theory and nothing less. They do believe it; except only the version they enjoy the most. But if such is the case, then this is no longer an issue about moral visions competing for the truth, but competing for our affinity. We become the authority by which moral statutes are established, rather than God. Christian morality might be elaborate and complex at times, but it certainly is not supposed to work that way.

    Therefore, if God maintains the authority to do as he pleases, then there is no moral problem regarding his killing the Canaanites. But let us not pretend as if it is that simple. The problem, at least in my analysis, immediately moves to the notion of God’s commanding the Israelite soldiers to be the instrument of his judgment. So though we might agree that it is morally justifiable for God to kill the Canaanites, it is not morally justifiable that he make the Israelites kill them. His commands amount to murder, do they not? Unfortunately, it still is not that simple. Since our moral duties are grounded in God’s pronouncements, then how could they be exempt in this case? Like I reasoned earlier, if someone kills another on their own authority, apart from God’s pronouncement, then they undoubtedly sin. But if they kill another on God’s authority, it is no longer sin. It simply cannot be. This does not make the problem any less disturbing, but it shows that God himself remains justified regardless of what apparatus he employs in accomplishing his purpose. But further than that, humans live in accord with God on the basis of his commands, and if God therefore commands a conquest, then, strangely enough, we might conclude that it is through conquest that they live in accord with him. One logical path out of this is to conclude that morality does not originate with God, but rather finds its source elsewhere, and that it is such that God can be judged according to it. Another is to conclude that God never commanded this and that he would not (but then what about the Flood, Abraham and Isaac, Uzzah, and the rest of the violence in Scripture?). But this does not make it much less difficult. As William Lane Craig rightly inquires, “Can you imagine what it would be like to have to break into some house and kill a terrified woman and her children? The brutalizing effect on these Israeli soldiers is disturbing.”1 This is very true, and while Craig and others contend that this is understandable on the firm grounds that, as soldiers, these Israelites were already well-accustomed to killing, I would like to try another route. 

    My problem with God commanding the Israelites to kill the Canaanites is that it simply causes so much suffering on the part of his people. I find myself honestly asking how in the world God could do such a thing to those whom he loves, and how he could possibly achieve good by doing so. I understand that it is not my place to be the judge of God’s actions, as if I might rest comfortably only when he has presented sufficient reasons, but that does not make the problem disappear. And yet I have realized something else, a strange aspect of God indeed. I ask how he could cause those whom he loves to suffer, yet immediately there flows into my mind the sufferings of Jesus, the sufferings of Job, the sufferings of the martyrs. Paul suffered in countless ways and even claimed, in his epistle to the Philippians, that suffering is granted by God to those who believe in him. Yet he always counts suffering as a source of joy and renewal. Job, in explicit clarity, experienced suffering because of God and yet as a result his relationship with him became more rich and intimate. Jesus as well, to whom was given the cup of wrath, was consciously subjected to suffering in accordance with the will and plan of God. Sure, some will object that “Job is obviously an epic parable” and “the gospel accounts got it wrong” implying that Jesus never suffered as described in them. Well I would need another essay to address the historicity of Job, but even if that is right, it still works in my favor, meaning the narrative claims it is within God’s constitution that he would cause those whom he loves to suffer. Maybe he did not do it in that historical instance, but parables, if you remember, are intended to convey theological truth. But what if the gospels got it wrong? Let us not get into the ensuing consequences, especially the fact that if the gospels cease to be reliable history, well then let us relinquish their supposed superior moral theory as exemplified by Jesus and just put them on the same level as the Old Testament: pick the one you like best, at the expense of any intellectual integrity. Therefore, as soon as one says, “God would never cause someone to suffer,” the testaments refute them. And the argument that suffering cannot serve as a means employed by God to attain some good also fails, since the sufferings of Jesus not only brought about good, but the greatest good ever wrought in reality. Indeed, such good as to cast the entire Canaanite conquest deep into its shadow. 

    I am not saying that this passage is not a problem. If we were not deeply offended by this passage, then something would be seriously wrong with us. The irony is that the very reason for which we have a problem with this Old Testament God is most likely because of the rich morality of this same God. The assumption of the sanctity of life, in reaction to which the offense is often generated, is actually a significant component of Yahweh’s revealed morality. Nevertheless, I believe that our emotions ought to be informed by morality, and not the reverse. The answer I am providing, therefore, is not necessarily satisfying nor does it even need to be. I am rather proposing that this might likely be who God is, whether we like it or not. In fact, as Timothy Keller so insightfully acknowledges, one of the primary ways we can be sure we have met the real God is precisely in those times at which we disagree with him; otherwise, we risk concocting a god ourselves who so conveniently happens to be the way we want him to be.2  So let us continue.



   Peter Enns, the Old Testament scholar with whose writings I will interact, has contributed extensively to this issue. I applaud him for his insistence on taking the Bible seriously, always considering relevant historical details, and being forthright about the problems he discovers in the text. I certainly agree with him when he says, “God does things in the Old Testament that cause theological problems for Christians, and so we have to think about what to do about them.”3 His conclusion to our issue takes the following form: “My own approach is simply to acknowledge that the Israelites were an ancient tribal people and thought of God the way other ancient tribal peoples did–as a fierce warrior who goes to battle with his people, assured of victory if they are on good terms with the deity but suffering defeat if not.”4

    Thus Enns’ primary argument, with which I will spend most of my time, is that the Canaanite conquest is simply an expression of Israel’s cultural rhetoric, which means that Yahweh is an historical portrayal of a tribal deity who achieves victory on behalf of his people. Out of the many ways in which I will respond to this claim, I would like to begin with examining the reasoning as to the validity of this judgment. Oddly enough, Enns’ justification for this conclusion is actually the weakest portion of his argument. He claims that it is justified because Israel’s view of God is not unique in the historical context of surrounding tribes. He writes, “Once we see that Yahweh’s actions toward the Canaanites are like that of the gods of other nations toward their enemies, the discussion cannot continue as before… Yahweh’s actions are not unique but seem part of an ancient way of thinking… we know that the rhetoric of a patron high god fighting for his people and insuring their military successes (and failures if they are unfaithful) is a common ancient manner of envisioning the activity of the divine realm…placing the biblical accounts of military conquests next to those of other ancient peoples leads to the following reasonable and commonly accepted conclusion: how Israel described God’s activities was influenced by cultural givens.”5

    I hope everyone else sees the problem with this argument. It isn’t one. Every time Enns formulates his thesis that Israel could not help but create a story reflecting a cultural commonplace, he just states it. He simply concludes that, since Israel’s stories resemble other cultures so closely, they must be understood as supposed fabrications instead of faithful accounts. But why must we conclude that Israel is not permitted to resemble other cultures? Or why must we assume that there is a conflict between inspiration and cultural resemblance? Where is the argument that traces reasons from the data to the conclusion? Enns seems to be implying, as he does elsewhere in his works, that if the Bible lacks uniqueness, then to the extent that it lacks uniqueness, its inspiration ought to be questioned. The conclusion being that if it is not inspired, then we ought to treat it as a product of potentially misguided human effort, similar to any other ancient work. John Frame responds to this line of reasoning in his review of Enns’ book, Inspiration and Incarnation. Frame discusses Enns’ concern that since Israel’s law resembles other ancient laws, we do not seem to have any reason to consider the law as anything more than Israel’s idea. But Frame responds, “God wanted his people to have a well-functioning legal system, geared to its life in its ancient environment. For this purpose, there was no need to re-invent the wheel. The Code of Hammurabi and other ancient codes addressed that same need, in similar cultures, and so it should be no surprise that God’s laws reflected the legal tradition of which Hammurabi’s Code was an instance. Moses, or some source he made use of, may well have found in a pre-existing set of laws, statutes that would fit Israel’s situation. The traditional doctrine of organic inspiration says that there is no contradiction between divine inspiration and human efforts to determine the right thing to say. The former often makes use of the latter.”6

    Enns continues this sort of thinking concerning the Canaanite conquest. I can hear him asking, “If the Israelite record of Yahweh resembles other cultural records of other gods, then how can we consider Yahweh to be special?” Why not? The other gods are false and Yahweh is not. Is it so strange to think that people would want their god to fight on their behalf, and that the true God actually did? Yahweh’s lack of uniqueness does not entail the falsity of any account recording him as such; the one does not logically flow from the other. If it was a cultural custom in Jesus’ day for religious leaders to die for their followers’ sins, would we then conclude that the narrative of Jesus was just an invention of an ancient culture? Enns would have to agree, in fact he is constrained to do so by virtue of his argument. But this is nonsense. And even if this were the case, our argument to the contrary would be simple: Jesus was really divine whereas the other leaders were not. Enns says there is an argument when there is none; he seems to just arbitrarily select one conclusion regarding a piece of data from which multiple conclusions could reasonably be drawn. One needs to argue from the data to a particular conclusion, but Enns curiously leaves this process out every time. 

    Theologian Kevin Vanhoozer approaches Enns’ view of the Canaanite conquest from another angle, writing: “What is Enns’ alternative suggestion? His solution to the problem of genocide is to read the texts as ‘the rhetoric of a tribal people’ that understand gods to be warriors who fight on their behalf. Is Deuteronomy 20 therefore true or false (or something else)? He doesn’t say…Can Enns, an Old Testament scholar, really be advocating a Marcionite view, according to which Yahweh (or at least Israel’s understanding of Yahweh) is time-worn, primitive, and obsolete, while the early church’s understanding of God is theologically developed and morally advanced? I was flabbergasted to see Enns chalk up the alleged lack of appreciation for the universal scope of God’s love in the Old Testament to ‘the ubiquitous tribal culture at the time.’ I am all for seeing development in the history of redemption, but I dispute any suggestion that the Old Testament reflects an inferior doctrine of God because its authors were part of a tribal culture. Talk about chronological snobbery.”7  The consequences of this chronological snobbery are quite troubling. For while many can be charged with chronological snobbery on account of giving precedence to a certain era’s perspective (the Reformation, anyone?), Enns does not argue as to the invalidity of the Israelites’ account but just assumes its invalidity since it is product of an ancient tribal culture. If this is how he thinks that ideologies develop and function, which is that cultures express societal ideas without any hope of being able to work outside of them, then what does this say about the New Testament writers or even himself? Enns might think Jesus and Paul have a more developed theological and ethical perspective, but surely their vision of the Christian worldview is completely at odds with much modern philosophy and scholarship. If their ideas were determined by their socio-temporal setting, being part of a pre-modern and pre-scientific culture like the Israelites’ were of a tribal culture, then should we not treat them as another form of ancient rhetoric?

    In addition to his primary thesis, Enns also argues that God’s motive as revealed in the text is not a morally sufficient reason for carrying out the Canaanite conquest. He writes, “Let’s be clear on the motive for why God wants the Canaanites annihilated…They are wiped out not because they deserve it more. The motive given in the texts is that any intermingling with the Canaanites runs the risk of turning ‘away your children from following me, to serve other gods.’ That is the reason.”8  He says that the conquest apparently had to occur because, “allowing any Canaanite to live runs the risk of leading the Israelites astray to worship other gods…God’s command, in other words, is not rooted in a moral judgment against the Canaanites’ unprecedented degree of sinfulness…They occupied the land to be given to Israel, and they had to be exterminated to prevent their impure, sinful behaviors from leading the Israelites astray to worship other gods.”9

    So while some might claim that God’s morally sufficient reason for carrying out the conquest is that the Canaanites were sinners, all of whom deserve just punishment, Enns argues that this passage is not about that. He rather claims it is about the Canaanites leading the Israelites astray, a charge for which they ought not be exterminated. But first, why is the conquest not permitted to be about both? He actually admits that both reasons are in effect when he writes, “True, other passages cite Canaanite sinfulness as the reason for God’s command (Gen. 15:16, Deut. 9:4).).”10  But if that is the case, then I am at a loss as to what is being argued. I understand that the problem sprouts from God’s apparent lack of moral justification for killing the Canaanites. But if sin is not a morally justifiable reason, then what is? Is there any place in either testament where God cites a greater reason for divine punishment than sin? Need there be another reason? Imagine a man who has committed murder. He is, morally speaking, guilty and deserving of punishment. But let us say his murder cannot be proven and that he is therefore never punished. Detectives watch his every move, and at the next slip, they arrest him on account of another crime. If he is punished on account of this new crime, is he no longer guilty of the previous one? Or if for this current crime he is shown to be framed, does his moral status suddenly change from guilty to innocent? It’s as though Enns’ is arguing that God can have only one morally sufficient reason for his actions at a time, each one canceling out the previous one! But the Canaanites are not portrayed as innocent, but as sinners like the rest of humanity. And this is not a case of abstracting the story and just applying systematic theological categories upon it so as to ignore the nuances of the text, as Enns warns about when he writes, “This is no abstract matter of ‘sinfulness deserves punishment.’”11 First, let us not naively assume that anyone can come to this text without a moral theory and certainly without a corresponding theological outlook. We might not all agree that the Bible conveys similar theologies at similar times, but we do agree that it conveys theology. It is therefore not speculative at all to say that the Canaanites were punished because of the way in which God deals with sin, as if that is a total mystery in the Bible. Jesus aligns with God’s way of dealing with sin, I might add, and we have no problem systematically applying his moral pronouncements to circumstances outside of his immediate contexts (in fact they are actually imposed upon this text by Enns, who views Jesus as a reversal of this pattern of exclusion and violence). Secondly, God said he would punish the Canaanites because of their sin. Don’t like systematic abstraction? Well, the story has it there for us. This means that even if one shows that God’s immediate reason for the conquest of the Canaanites was unjustified, God would still remain justified on the basis of other reasons, reasons for which he explicitly said he would punish them! The distinction turns out to be useless. Yet more than that, how ought we reason that luring Israel astray into idolatry is somehow not very sinful, or at least not deserving of punishment? As Timothy Keller remarks regarding this part of the issue, “God alone has the right to judge people—only he knows what they deserve and what they will do if not stopped.”12  And do we not know how reprehensible idolatry is, especially how sinful it is depicted in the Old Testament? The New Testament writers agree, by the way, and it might not be an overstatement to describe Paul’s entire ministry as the effort to turn individuals from idolatry to believing in Jesus Christ as God. But perhaps some might say, “Jesus would never punish someone for such a thing.” Really? Then I find it strange that he said, “but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.” Whatever grounds on which the objection is raised, those same grounds are foreign to either testament.

    Now some might say that, up until now, I have only spoken theologically and philosophically, but not historically. This might pose a problem, for after all, Enns is sure to declare that “the question, ‘Why would God command the Israelites to exterminate the Canaanites?’ cannot be addressed in an intramural theological back-and-forth,” but rather must include the implications of history.13  Yet he is being theological, contrary to his own advice. Vanhoozer realizes this when he writes, “Why is Enns in such a hurry to capitulate to the prevailing scholarly consensus? Theories, consensus opinion, and schools of thought all come and go. Christians are not to be blown about by every wind of academic fashion. I wonder: does he think, in light of the problem of evil, that we should concede that God does not exist?…Should we therefore reframe our doctrine of God to fit the prevailing extratextual ‘evidence’?”14  Vanhoozer, it seems, is concerned that Enns has already chosen, before any investigation, what his theological authority will be. This authority appears to be, in part, scholarly consensus; and it is this very assumption which Vanhoozer challenges. It shows that Enns already has theological predispositions upon which his beliefs are being formed, and those also need to be brought into the discussion. It’s unfortunate that they aren’t, because all too often Enns’ suggestion is that if one just looks at the history, they will see the answer clear as day. It’s as though he is saying, “See everyone, this part of the Old Testament is just an example of tribal rhetoric. So let us put away this silly business of treating it like unique revelation in the midst of other ancient documents.” But then also, Enns is just blatantly theological. His conclusion regarding the rhetoric of tribal Israel is not enough on its own; he always dismantles the conquest text by appealing to the ethic of Jesus and common decency,15  to which it stands in contrast. Do you see? The argument is not just that Israel wrote a piece of rhetoric, or else some might simply suggest that we should start reading the Bible that way as a hermeneutical advancement. The argument is that the rhetoric portrays a God contrary to Jesus; that is the argument. But that is also not historical but theological, as it clearly presupposes a moral standard which the God of the Canaanite conquest miserably fails to meet. So though Enns is entirely right to say this discussion is not just theological but historical, he himself also proves that it is not just historical but thoroughly theological. This brings me to my next point.

    I believe that the greatest argument against Enns’ thesis is, surprisingly, Jesus. This is because, while we apparently ought to see Yahweh as an abhorrent warrior god, Jesus devotedly loved and served him. He constantly refers to Yahweh not as a bloodthirsty tribal deity, but as his loving Father. Jesus says of him, “‘He who sent Me is true; and the things which I heard from Him, these I speak to the world….I do nothing on My own initiative, but I speak these things as the Father taught Me,’”16  and, “‘If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also; from now on you know Him, and have seen Him…Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father is in Me?’”17

    And Jesus not only accomplished his ministry as commissioned by his Father, but he also was crucified in accordance with the Father’s will and plan, as he prays in Gethsemane, “Father, if You are willing, remove this cup from Me; yet not My will, but Yours be done.” Now some will be eager to respond by arguing that Jesus did not conceive of God as he is portrayed in Deuteronomy, or that he did not know about this portrayal. Well he apparently did, since the text within which the Canaanite conquest is outlined is the same text Jesus constantly references in the Gospels, such as when teaches that we ought to love our Lord God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind, and love our neighbor as ourselves.18  So while one might object that Yahweh stands contrary to the ethics of the gospel, that very standard of ethics is derived from the same source as that from which the Canaanite conquest is drawn. It is also the same text from which Jesus argues that we might live by the word of God rather than by bread alone, and that we ought to serve and obey him fully. Jesus believed in Yahweh and loved him; he gave his life in accordance to the Father’s will and chose his Father’s will in place of his own.

    Therefore this is my argument: If Jesus loved and served this genocidal object of folklore as if he were God, then why believe Jesus? Surely we must not trust the Israelites due to their culturally-formed beliefs about God, so if Jesus had the same beliefs, then why trust him? Why is he completely oblivious to the atrocities that are so clear to us, most of all to Enns? Sure, Jesus certainly overturned violent patterns of thought by insisting that we love our enemies rather than exterminate them, but the problem lies not with the Israelites’ actions but with Yahweh’s command. Jesus explicitly says that we should love, serve, obey, and swear by the God of the Canaanite conquest, and that we should never put him to the test. And if we are to conclude that the conquest never happened, that God never said these things, that Yahweh is a formulation of societal rhetoric, then what does that say about Jesus who considered this God to be the basis of his mission and purpose? If we are to believe that Jesus was the real incarnate God and not a social fabrication of his time, then what does it say to conclude that he was just fulfilling the purpose of some ancient peoples’ invention? For anyone using Jesus in their argument, this is a serious problem.



     Returning to the outset of this essay, there is still one central objection that has yet to be answered. This is that, while God might have the right to act the way he did regarding the Canaanite conquest, it is not in accordance with his character that he would. Indeed, we have to consider how the violence of God’s actions in the Old Testament can possibly be reconciled with the ethics of the gospel.19  The way I will attempt to solve this will revolve around showing how the differences between Yahweh and Jesus are often far too overdrawn and simplified. Though this will have to be brief, in crafting a more comprehensive and exhaustive conceptualization of these two apparently opposing portrayals of God I hope to show that there is harmony with God between the testaments.


    In Genesis 15 we can see a glimpse of Yahweh’s unexpected grace and promise of self-sacrifice on behalf of those in covenant relationship with him. Abram is in the desert establishing a covenant with God, and he is commanded to split some animals in half and lay out a path between them through which to walk. Robert Alter, a great Hebrew scholar, elucidates the meaning of this covenantal practice when he writes, “Covenants in which the two parties step between cloven animal parts are attested in various places…The idea is that if either party violates the covenant, his fate will be like that of the cloven animals.”20  This is a beautiful moment, for when night falls God appears as a smoking flame and passes through the parts of the animals. Given the ancient ceremonial process of establishing covenants, Abram most likely thought he alone would walk through the pathway. This is because he was the servant and Yahweh the king, and the king was rarely required to take part in the ceremony. But in a shocking act of grace, God passes through without asking Abram to do so, and thus God adopts this fate on account of them both, essentially promising, “If I break my end of the covenant, let me be split apart like these animals. But not only if I, but even if you break your end of the covenant, still let me be split apart.”

    In Deuteronomy 7, we see Yahweh’s gracious disposition towards Israel, wherein he says, “The Lord did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any of the peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but because the Lord loved you and kept the oath which He swore to your forefathers.” This is unprecedented for ancient cultural understandings of the divine, for Yahweh explicitly excludes any attractive element of Israel as the reason for which he loves them. Rather, Yahweh insists that he just loves his people unconditionally according to grace. Indeed Yahweh actually states that he loves his people in spite of the fact that he has reason not to value them, since they are “the fewest of all peoples.” This is not the admission of a capricious deity, but of a loving God, whose disposition toward those whom he loves might be summarized by the following: “You are a people holy to the Lord your God, and the Lord has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth.”21

    In II Samuel 7, we see an exemplification of Yahweh’s grace and provision, and in an especially important way. Though Enns continually insists that “Yahweh’s actions are not unique but seem part of an ancient way of thinking,” in this passage we see a radical reversal. For the ancient tribes surrounding Israel during their time, relationships with deities were often transactional in nature, as Enns describes well when he writes that the followers of warrior deities were “assured of victory if they are on good terms with the deity but suffering defeat if not.” Following this pattern of thought, it was common for a king like David to render such services as building his deity a temple with the expectation that he would be assured further victory and success. Thus, being thoroughly enveloped in this ancient way of thinking, David decides to build Yahweh a house, having found it strange that the king of Israel dwells in a cedar home while the God of Israel dwells in an aged tent. 

    But Yahweh, unexpectedly and entirely out-of-character, refuses David’s offer, as if he were offended at the idea. He exhorts David, inquiring, “Are you the one who should build Me a house to dwell in? For I have not dwelt in a house since the day I brought up the sons of Israel from Egypt, even to this day; but I have been moving about in a tent, even in a tabernacle. Wherever I have gone with all the sons of Israel, did I speak a word with one of the tribes of Israel, which I commanded to shepherd My people Israel, saying, ‘Why have you not built Me a house of cedar?’”22  We find in this passage a rare expression in ancient thought, for not only does God refuse the transactional basis of relationship, but he also explains that he intended to humbly dwell within a tent like his people. This desire of Yahweh is his pre-Messianic embodiment of the incarnation, through which he believes that since his people dwell in tents and not luxurious homes, then he will dwell there with them. This is not the way ancient deity relationships were supposed to work. 

    But reaching further out of the pattern, Yahweh tells David that not only will he not permit him to build a divine house, but He will build David an even greater house. Yahweh is attempting to demonstrate that, in opposition to other deity relationships, his covenant is based on grace rather than mutual exchange. He reminds David that he raised him up from the time he was young, that he has since established him, and that he has sustained his people Israel; all on account of his grace. And in this passage Yahweh establishes the Davidic Covenant which anticipates the everlasting kingdom of Christ, still on account of his grace alone. David’s reaction to this unprecedented form of relationship is appropriate: “For the sake of Your word, and according to Your own heart, You have done all this greatness to let Your servant know. For this reason You are great, O Lord God; for there is none like You, and there is no God besides You.”23  So while we have already shown that Israel's resemblance to other ancient cultures does not cause any problems in the least, at crucial points in their history they bear no resemblance at all. Thus it is far too hasty to conclude that Yahweh is just a piece of ancient cultural rhetoric. Yahweh does not present himself as simply a warrior deity who fights for those who do good by him, but a loving and caring father who provides for his people even when they do not deserve it.


    Jesus, in providing supposedly the weightiest argument against the validity of the Canaanite conquest, stands in our minds as the moral exemplar of boundless love. But while of course he is, this aspect of Jesus is often usurped into the modern idea that judgment or sternness is irreconcilable with love. Yet Jesus refutes this conviction, not least in his Olivet discourse, which Vanhoozer rightly notes is “every bit as violent as the Old Testament”24  Within this discourse, which is set at the end of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says the following:

    “But when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; and He will put the sheep on His right, and the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world... Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels... These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’”25

    We must acknowledge here that the Jesus who apparently would never do anything consonant with Yahweh’s actions nevertheless declares unbelievers “accursed” and subject to “eternal punishment.” This is also not an instance of Jesus describing the Father’s decisions, but his own, as the just King who renders proper judgment.

    In the third chapter of John, Jesus says, “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.”26  So the Jesus who seemingly contradicts Yahweh says that anyone who does not obey him will be made an object of God’s wrath? This does not contradict Yahweh, it contradicts the picture of Jesus painted by those who would use him as an argument against the Old Testament. Earlier in Matthew, Jesus explains his parable of the tares among wheat by saying, “The Son of Man will send forth His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all stumbling blocks, and those who commit lawlessness, and will throw them into the furnace of fire; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear.”27  Again, this is more similar to the justice of Yahweh than to some flattened view of Jesus. Like Yahweh, Jesus believes that sin ought to be punished. Thus Michael Bird rightly says, “The God who smote the Canaanites is the same God who sent Jonah to Nineveh. The Jesus who told us to love our enemies is the same Jesus who will tread the winepress of the fury of God’s wrath in the future.”28

    Hence Yahweh directly prefigures the work of Christ, so that he ensures self-sacrifice, establishes an undeserved covenantal relationship, embodies incarnation, and loves graciously. And Jesus continues the unbroken pattern of Yahweh, zealously insisting that judgment be rendered, that sin be punished, and that obedience be furnished. These are not two different conceptions; they are the marks of the very same God.

    As I argued before, the reason why an argument against the Canaanite conquest by recourse to Jesus cannot work is because Jesus only loves and serves the God who is responsible for it. But more than this, he also loves others in the very same way that Yahweh did. Just as in II Samuel 7, Jesus became incarnate so as to live within the midst of those whom he loved. In love he established and fulfilled the Davidic Covenant as the true King and Son of God. Just as in Deuteronomy 7, Jesus did not pour out his love because his people were so great in number or pure in righteousness, but just because he graciously loved them. Just as Yahweh loved his people Israel though they were disobedient, so Jesus loved his people even while they were his enemies. And just as in Genesis 15, Jesus became the cloven sacrifice, lovingly taking upon himself the punishment of his people’s covenant violation. 

The Cross

    The Cross is the place at which God’s love and justice fully intertwine, and I believe that this will help us comprehend the unity of God between the testaments. In Jesus we not only find a love for Yahweh and the continuation of his work, but we find Yahweh’s violence wrought again, though in a radically different form. In Jesus, the violence of God is directed at the cross, so as to accomplish and fulfill what Yahweh’s previous violence anticipated. As in Deuteronomy 20, violence is wrought on the cross so that nothing is left breathing, as Jesus “breathed his last.”29 As in Deuteronomy 20, violence is wrought on the cross to deal with sin by clearing away a new holy space in Jesus for the people of God. As in Deuteronomy 20, violence is wrought on the cross to end the power and spread of sin, so that all who believe in Jesus become part of a new familial line impervious to the blemish of sin. As Vanhoozer writes, “The violence we see in the Old Testament, though real, is also typological, an anticipation of the bloody violence directed to Jesus on the cross, and thence of peace for all the nations.”30

    N.T. Wright has a brilliant passage concerning this difficult subject that is worth quoting in full:

    “We look back from our historical vantage point—and post-Enlightenment thought has looked back from its supposed position of moral superiority—and we shake our heads over the whole sorry business of conquest and settlement. Ethnic cleansing, we call it; however much the Israelites had suffered in Egypt, we find it hard to believe that they were justified in doing what they did to the Canaanites, or that the God who was involved in this operation was the same God we know in Jesus Christ.

    And yet ever since the garden, ever since God’s grief over Noah, ever since Babel and Abraham, the story has been about the messy way in which God has had to work to bring the world out of the mess. Somehow, in a way we are inclined to find offensive, God has to get his boots muddy and, it seems, to get his hands bloody, to put the world back to rights. If we declare, as many have done, that we would rather it not so, we face a counter-question: Which bit of dry, clean ground are we standing on that we should pronounce on the matter with such certainty? Dietrich Bonhoeffer declared that the primal sin of humanity consisted in putting the knowledge of good and evil before the knowledge of God. That is one of the further dark mysteries of Genesis 3: there must be some substantial continuity between what we mean by good and evil and what God means; otherwise we are in moral darkness indeed. But it serves as a warning to us not to pontificate with too much certainty about what God should and shouldn’t have done.”31

    Thus the story of Scripture is not about a blood-thirsty and capricious tribal deity, but about the loving and holy God who is so determined to defeat evil that he engages in violence; even to the point of becoming its victim.

     John Raines is a Master of Arts in Theology student at Fuller Theological Seminary, co-host of the podcast Reconstruct, and blogs at Profitable Discourse. He lives with his wife in Seattle, Washington.

1 William Lane Craig,

2 Though I know Keller has mentioned something along these lines, I cannot find it in any of his works. I guess he said it somewhere in a sermon or the like, but trust me, he said it.

3 Peter Enns,

4 Peter Enns,

5 Peter Enns,

6 John Frame, The Doctrine of the Word of God (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2010), 501.

7 Kevin Vanhoozer, Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy, eds., James Merrick and Stephen Garrett (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013), 134.

8 Peter Enns,

9 Peter Enns, Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy, eds., James Merrick and Stephen Garrett (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013), 107-108.

10 Peter Enns, Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy, eds., James Merrick and Stephen Garrett (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013), 108.

11 Peter Enns,

12 Timothy Keller,

13 Peter Enns,

14 Kevin Vanhoozer, Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy, eds., James Merrick and Stephen Garrett (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013), 134.

15 Peter Enns, Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy, eds., James Merrick and Stephen Garrett (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013), 105.

16 John 8:26, 29.

17 John 14:7-8, 10.

18 The ethic Jesus provides here is drawn from Deuteronomy 6, while Yahweh’s order of the Canaanite conquest is in Deuteronomy 7 .

19 Peter Enns,

20 Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses (New York: W.W. Norton & Co.), 75. In addition, many of the following Scriptural insights are indebted to the work Tim Keller, who first led me to the significance of these passages.

21 Deuteronomy 14:2.

22 II Samuel 7:5-7.

23 II Samuel 7:21-22.

24 Kevin Vanhoozer, Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy, eds., James Merrick and Stephen Garrett (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013), 135.

25 Matthew 25:31-34, 41, 46.

26 John 3:36.

27 Matthew 13:41-43.

28 Michael Bird, Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy, eds., James Merrick and Stephen Garrett (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013), 127.

29 Kevin Vanhoozer, Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy, eds., James Merrick and Stephen Garrett (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013), 232.

30 Kevin Vanhoozer, Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy, eds., James Merrick and Stephen Garrett (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013), 233.

31 N.T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God (Downer’s Grove: IVP, 2006), 58-59.


“A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed.” - Chesterton, Orthodoxy

    It’s as though each week anew one of my friends voices a fresh concern over the presence of theological certainty in our age. All too often, and sometimes rightly, they view this as a product of pride, a result of a closed mind, and a hindrance to respecting any different perspective. They instead beckon Christians unto humility, which they often consider to be both incompatible with certainty and a more accurate means of viewing reality. They long for a Christian attitude wherein one admits they do not have everything figured out, where one no longer claims to be certain about theological doctrines. For they ask, “Who are we to say we have figured it all out? Who are we to say we have found the final truth concerning some theological problem or issue?”

    Here is an old conflict renewed, one between humble open-mindedness as the herald of intellectual maturity and confident certainty as the sign of naive dogmatism. It describes a growing theological perspective, which mostly assumes that Christianity “is not a preconceived standpoint but a posture of exploration and questioning.”1 But is the structure of Christian thought and life to be guided by skepticism where the only constant is expected variation? Or conversely, should Christian thought and life be built around historically situated and hastily accepted doctrines to which there is admitted hardly a question? Neither of these furnish a comprehensive basis upon which we might move forward through this conflict. Rather I argue that both a proper confidence and a wise humility are necessary components for a thorough theological epistemology. 

    We first need to ask some questions, entertain some reflections, and bring ourselves to a greater understanding of the issue. This includes understanding the nature of certainty and humility, whether or not certainty is unattainable or inescapable, and whether or not humility can only exist apart from or else alongside of certainty. A careful analysis will also distinguish between the content about which individuals are certain and the ways in which this certainty is expressed. Next, we should understand how our assumptions about certainty and open-mindedness have developed through time, and how they can be understood today. Theologically, this has produced two main categories which are heuristically designated as fundamentalist and liberal, though the individuals who grapple with this issue usually fall somewhere between the two. Yet it is possible that neither the pursuit of objective certainty nor of humble open-mindedness seem to provide any promise, and I seek to propose an alternate route. This naturally leads into a sketch of the Christian picture of certainty, which I would much rather call commitment, confidence, or trust for reasons yet explained, and of humility, and how this might bring about some clarity. Our reflection ought to be grounded in a proper theological understanding, and I argue that both certainty and humility, both seemingly antithetical, are affirmed through a radical arrangement in the Christian perspective. Lastly, we should consider the implications this discussion might have for our daily life, through which I hope to discover how we might develop minds which are not only open to fresh insights but which also hold onto valuable beliefs with confidence.2  


    There is a growing desire for a humble Christian attitude of proper self-assessment in which one refrains from pursuing certainty on theological issues. The irony is that this desire often assumes what it denies: the speaker is certain of their conclusion, that they have gotten this right, and they are seldom open to reconsideration. Of course if the point is that Christians ought not make claims with certainty, then perhaps this one ought to be omitted as well. Or if they are supposed to admit that we cannot have figured out the truth regarding any theological issue, then perhaps they should refrain from claiming to have figured out the truth regarding this theological issue, namely, the proper attitude one must have before God and others. Of course none of us are without sympathy for this point of view, and indeed agree that a proper Christian attitude ought to be marked by humility; but we must pay attention to the details. I say this not only to discover possible slips of logic, but also to reveal the wider implications of such a position. If one claims to know the extent of human knowledge, the limits of its reach, the inaccessible incomprehensibility of God, the way in which we are to relate to him through faithful action over systematic certainty, the proper value system by which we prioritize epistemological categories, the solid line of differentiation by which some Christians ought to be praised for humility and others corrected for their error of certainty, then we must conclude that the speaker seems excessively certain about a great many things. The only seemingly logical conclusion is that the speaker’s own conviction ought to in turn convict them of their own misguided certainty. A proper application of their own principles would imply the necessary renunciation of their own position. Sure, they might respond by insisting we can be certain about some things and not others, but then that is what any ordinary theologian from any time in the history of Christian theology would affirm. The question thus shifts from “Ought we be certain or not?” to “About what ought we be certain?” and “How ought we express that certainty?”

    If we are to have any hope in understanding this issue, we need to establish a differentiation between the quality of certainty and the method or expression of certainty. Or between the object of certainty and the actions of one who is certain. The same holds of one who is uncertain or open-minded. We need to individually identify both right statements or beliefs and the behavior of those who adhere to them. If so, this means we will most likely find that some right beliefs are held proudly, and that some wrong beliefs are held humbly. We cannot any longer conclude that those who hold to their beliefs with prideful certainty are wrong, or perhaps more dangerously, that those who hold to their beliefs with humility are right; this avoids the issue completely. The change ought to be primarily affected towards character rather than content. How ought one present their convictions? Or their skepticisms?

    This is not necessarily comfortable, but yet it seems to be true. Imagine we have before us an aged gentleman whose life experiences have moved him into an ever-increasing position of equal respect for all religious traditions. Full of undeniable wisdom he tells us stories of learning empathy from devout Buddhists, of learning sacrifice from Christians, of learning respect from Muslims. He explains how his wisdom, knowledge, and character have been enhanced by the manifold riches of each individual from each religion he has encountered, and thus he reasons that we cannot really be certain about which one conveys the final truth. The safer, more humble, and more mature conclusion, he says, is that while each religion claims exclusivity of their own system or divinity of their own leader, one must come to see that they all equally, in their own way and with similar capacity, illuminate the truth of reality through their love and devotion. But imagine also with us the presence of a brilliant young woman who, though she is doubtless less experienced in life than the other, proclaims boldly the uniqueness of the risen Christ. She discounts the gentleman’s words with condescension, demonstrating at every point the weakness of his various conclusions, the irrelevance of his experience, the nonsense of his rampant pluralism. She casts off sympathy in exchange for designating absurdity; all in the precious name of Jesus. What is so obviously discomforting about this situation is the simultaneous, polarizing stances of admiration and revulsion we hold for both individuals at the same time and yet in opposite ways. How dare we dethrone the unfathomable God in Christ like the aged gentleman, and yet how dare we treat others with such heartless pride like the young woman? Who among us will concede that Christ is not distinctly divine, and who yet also would not look upon this gentleman’s life and witness with admiration and submissive respect? And who among us would deny the uniqueness of Christ as the risen Lord who loves us beyond measure, and who yet also would not look upon this woman’s inclination with justified disgust? In the most counter-intuitive of ways, we are forced to declare the falsity of the former’s claims and the truth of the latter’s. But not in even a breath’s moment later would we exhibit our unflinching support of the former’s disposition and our unapologetic rebuke of the latter’s.

    The first aspect upon which we might reflect is that though it does not seem apparent at first, both individuals maintain certainty. The gentleman has concluded, from his experiences and reasoning, that knowledge is an unfolding journey rather than a still set of decided positions. He has concluded that each system of knowledge or belief is one equal perspective amongst all others of the truth to be found in the universe. But these are conclusions about which he is certain or to which he is committed, contrary to his own instruction, or else he would discount them. What I mean is that if he was not already uncritically committed to the belief that knowledge was an unfolding journey rather than a still set of decided positions, then he would toss that exact decided position out with all others. Or if he was not already uncritically committed to the belief that each system of knowledge is one perspective among many, then he would admit that his is just one perspective and thus would cease to pronounce on the whole. Though he feigns humble uncertainty and wise non-commitment, he is actually entirely certain and committed; only about different issues than those of the religious adherents. This is a point I will constantly repeat and demonstrate throughout this essay: certainty is unavoidable, for even doubting our capacity to attain certainty is only justified if we certainly confirm our doubts. In a similar way, commitment is unavoidable, for even asserting that we ought not commit ourselves to particular conclusions is itself a commitment to a particular conclusion. The desire for a Christianity without certainty and commitment, for a Christianity without some things having been figured out, is thus a vain pursuit. The question, again, is no longer “Ought we be certain or not?” but “How ought we be certain?” and “How ought we express that certainty?”

    Second, we have to distinguish, like I said, between the objects of certainty and the actions of one who is certain. Or conversely, the objects of uncertainty from the actions of one who is uncertain. Though, as we have seen, it is an illusion to suppose pervasive uncertainty. And though we need to distinguish between objects and actions or qualities and expressions, we are not to conclude that these two categories are unrelated, parallel realms. On the contrary they are very closely related, but nonetheless they are not identical. They each influence one another and flow from one another, for knowing is a moral stance, and it thus bears upon the knower to act in particular ways. For being certain about something will imply you ought to express that certainty in a particular manner.


The Cartesian Persuasion

    Our problem with certainty began with the pursuits of Descartes who, in an age of skepticism much like our own, sought to discover an impenetrable foundation upon which to build undoubtable knowledge. This foundation was intended to be made up of entirely self-evident and necessary claims; ones to which no rational individual might admit doubt. His first step in pursuit of this was, interestingly enough, the adoption of the very skepticism against which he directed his efforts. By applying critical doubt to any and all claims to truth, Descartes began a process of determining which unique and indubitable claims could actually resist doubt and thus attain to certainty. Of course the result of this skeptical project produced his famous conclusion that even if doubt were completely pervasive and applied to all claims, it still must yet rest upon at least one untouched assumption: the existence of a thinking subject who serves as the agent of doubt. Descartes formulated this undoubtable and thus certain conclusion with his reflection, “I think, therefore I am.” For Descartes, doubt became the way to knowledge. The duality and separation between knowledge and faith and between the objective and subjective has largely descended from this line of thinking. Even today we are inclined to speak of facts and faith, of objective truths and subjective perspectives as categories either demonstrably proven or else emotionally expressed. 

    Following Descartes, the Age of Reason brought about a renewed trust in humanity’s ability to understand reality as it is, and thus soon brought about the supremacy of rationality over revelation. This anticipated the Enlightenment, which challenged orthodoxy anew, excelled in empiricism, achieved incredible scientific progress, and sought to build a foundation of clear, distinct, and universal knowledge. In the wake of Modernism, the seemingly successful certainty of the Enlightenment was questioned, and the masters of suspicion, Nietzsche, Freud, and Marx, tore gaping holes in the supposedly unified fabric of what the world considered truth. Methodological skepticism slowly gave way to a deeper epistemological skepticism, and methods and conclusions that were once held to be indubitable and true were revealed to be simply ploys of personal interest and the results of transient historical developments. The postmodern world has now turned the Cartesian critical method of doubt upon itself; it is suspicious of all claims to universal truth, and it deconstructs and resists ideological and social metanarratives. It has brought impressive challenges against our ability to obtain true knowledge by way of reason because of our inescapable situatedness and permeating bias. Yet some intellectual realms, such as scientific exploration, are still seen as operating relatively free from personal perspectives or psychological biases, and thus we still struggle, for example, with the divide between the unquestionable authority of science and the subjective disunity of religious traditions, between facts and values, between knowledge and mere belief. In the contemporary world of theology, our primary division now lies between the fundamentalist and liberal. The liberal perspective, with which we are primarily concerned and which denounces naive certainty in favor of mature humility, encourages us to be open to new truth, beckons us to explore reality, and invites us to consider the incomprehensible mystery of the reality which we attempt to understand. The fundamentalist perspective, which seeks for universal certainty, encourages us to abide in the truth, to guard against doubt, and to establish a firm foundation of rational assurance. These two perspectives, though no individual is a precise product of exactly either one but only leans one way, are those assumed when we speak of our present issue. When someone expresses their concern of theological certainty, they are usually referring to the Cartesian, or fundamentalist, sort of certainty we are discussing. Or when they express their longing for a Christian attitude of epistemological humility and skepticism, they are usually sympathetic to the theologically liberal position. Both of these perspectives, I argue, are misguided in their plenteous forms, not least because Cartesian certainty is simply unattainable and also because the most humble doubt relies upon unquestioned assumptions.

The Pursuit of Objective Certainty & Personal Knowledge

    From Descartes through the Enlightenment, those who seek for certainty have adopted a standard which will settle for nothing less than indisputable, objectively demonstrable facts; those untainted by one’s subjective commitments. This applies not only to the theological fundamentalist, but also to the scientist who holds no doubts against the principles from which they operate or to the philosopher whose deductions cannot be questioned. Yet this methodology generates a problem, namely that objective facts can only be believed to be certain with an act of personal judgment, which in turn threatens the justification of the belief by reason of its personal character. As philosopher Michael Polanyi explains, “the reflecting person is then caught in an insoluble conflict between a demand for an impersonality which would discredit all commitment and an urge to make up his mind which drives him to recommit himself.”3 Polanyi argued that epistemological inquiry necessarily includes precommitments. In other words, he reasoned that there was no such thing as impersonally, objectively discovered knowledge or truth, for in every act of knowing a living, personal agent makes a commitment to the validity of their discovery. For example, Polanyi argued that though Descartes thought he had applied the most critical and pervasive doubt to all claims on his way to discovering a sure foundation upon which reliable, indubitable knowledge could be built, he actually still had precommitments to which he admitted no doubt. One such precommitment was his assumption that a sure foundation of reliable, indubitable knowledge could in fact be found, accessed, and shared. This is no small claim, and indeed it is not immediately evident why anyone should accept it as true (and many do not). Descartes did not prove this claim, nor did he hold it with any justification or warrant; instead of discovering it as a result of his critical method of doubt, he uncritically assumed it to be true.

    A modern example of striving to attain this sort of certainty, and of the ensuing problem of pervasive commitment, can be witnessed in the correspondence theory of truth. This theory asserts that any statement is held to be true if it corresponds to reality as it is. Thus to say “p is true” is to say that it corresponds with the facts. But it soon becomes clear that this struggles to make any sense. Imagine p stands for “all men are mortal.” In order to determine whether or not “all men are mortal” is true, we need to recognize that our stating it implies a subjective state of belief and commitment, and we need also to establish an external relationship between the statement and reality. When our subjective beliefs align with the actual facts, then the statement to which we are committed is held to be true. But the only way to do this is if we succeed in finding some self-independent or impersonal means of recognizing an external correspondence between the statement and reality as it is. So we reason that, over here, we affirm a certain statement as a component of our belief, and then over there, we demonstrate this statement’s alignment with the facts in an objective, impersonal fashion. But what happens when we attempt to do this? Imagine we search for a correspondence between “all men are mortal” and the actual facts, and by way of evidence and reasoning we conclude that a healthy correspondence does exist after all. This ought not be our subjective state of affirming the statement, but our self-independent analysis of the statement and reality. The problem is that at the very moment we have observed the reasoning and evidence and declare that the statement aligns with reality, we have affirmed the statement as true. What is revealed is that there are not actually two separate steps in this confirmation process at all, but only one, and one without which we encounter contradiction. What I mean is that if correspondence to reality and our subjective commitments were really two separate states, then we should be able to hold to them differently. So we have established or discovered a proper correspondence between the statement “all men are mortal” and reality as it is; should we not then be able to say “I do not believe that all men are mortal”? Of course not, since this is patently absurd and a flat contradiction. Such a move would be to affirm and deny the same thing at the same time in the same manner, since affirming a correspondence between the statement and reality is the same as affirming the statement to be true. When we declare that some statement corresponds with reality, we are making a personal judgment and we are forming a personal commitment. Our perception of a statement’s correspondence with reality does not come to us from some impersonal, independent source, but from our personal evaluation. One can only discover something to be true by believing it to be the case. Describing a statement as true, then, does less to designate a particular quality of the statement as it serves to convey that the person uttering it believes it; though the statement might certainly correspond to reality.4 As Polanyi rightly explains, “according to the logic of commitment, truth is something that can be thought of only by believing it,” and thus we only discover the truth by means of personal commitment.5 This is the very break between the chasm of the subjective and the objective, between the skeptical and the certain. It is in this vein of personal commitment that we ought to understand the certainty with which the Christian might hold their beliefs to be true. But before we move onto an epistemological model based on personal commitment and trust and confidence, we need to consider the liberal conception of certainty and humility. 

Theological Liberalism & Inescapable Commitment

    The theological liberal, resting on the opposite ideological end of certainty, holds that it is impossible to attain certainty and arrogant to claim such a thing. They argue that certainty does not help us love God or our neighbor, that it does not help us take action and follow Jesus, that we need to remain open to shifting evidences and perspectives, and that we need to emphasize a humble life of spirituality over a certain system of doctrine. Now though there are a number of benefits to this perspective, as there is to fundamentalism as well, there are also a number of problems we need to consider. First, we cannot ignore the tremendous influence exerted upon the liberal perspective from philosophical postmodernism, ideological pluralism, and modern tolerance. For the liberal, a Christianity preoccupied with certainty is not only considered naive, but also inherently judgmental. Consider the opposite: without any preoccupation over certainty, which is to say with an admission of humble ignorance, the Christian both loses any ability to judge others as not thinking or living in line with Christianity and also cannot be held accountable themselves for the way they think or live (to a certain extent of course). Imagine for the moment, without minding whether or not it is true, the liberal insisting upon universalism, the theory that all individuals will at last be saved. No sooner does the conservative question the reliability of this claim than does the liberal respond, “By what process have you attained such certainty on this issue? How could we ever be certain about who will be saved and who will not? Neither of us has nor ever could have certain knowledge either way, and this is simply where I am on my journey of following Jesus.” The liberal can often consider themselves virtually free from any possible judgment, since of course if certainty is an impossibility then any system of set doctrines by which individuals are judged can only be a fluid group of ideas upon which measureless doubt can be cast. Humble uncertainty and doubt preclude the possibility of adhering to fixed doctrines. Similarly, the liberal loses any ability to judge others, for they could only do so if the criteria by which they judge remains unquestioned. As soon as they might invite their friend to alter their sexual orientation, for example, they will realize that their prohibitive theology or hermeneutic can itself be called into question. 

    The problem, which reveals itself all too often, is that this conclusion is actually very attractive. Many theological liberals thus find themselves propounding epistemological uncertainty not primarily as a result of reasoned exploration, but because they cannot bring themselves to label those who hold antithetical convictions. Many of those whom they might designate misguided, or wayward, or sinful are those whom they love, even their friends and family. On a very personal level, they often find something deeply troubling about driving wedge between themselves and others on the basis of beliefs, not least when their own beliefs have changed so drastically and when such attitudes have caused harm in their own life. This view is often strengthened by, and also often emerges from, the powerful influence of the indeterminacy of language and the deconstruction of universal truth claims from postmodernism, the impossibility of one true ideological perspective from pluralism, and the pervasive ethical value of tolerance. Not only does the theological liberal not want to judge or categorize others on the basis of their beliefs because of their position of humble uncertainty, but also because tolerance, acceptance, and pluralism are among the popular western philosophical values. Moreover, the liberal is well aware that what they believed when they were twelve years of age differs drastically from what they believed when they were eighteen, and that from what they believed when they were twenty-five, and that from what they now believe. This makes them feel (sometimes rightly) that they have no right to judge others on the basis of differentiation because such a flippant historical evolution of beliefs does not warrant such present certainty. This is the source of those who would deny that practically anyone in their twenties or thirties could have possibly discovered absolute theological claims, or to have “figured it all out.” But underlying this system is a terrible problem. The one speaking this must of course be towards the very end of life and not themselves in their twenties or thirties (though most unfortunately are), for unless this is the case then the conclusion they are sharing must itself be subject to the critique they offer (for they have supposedly discovered an absolute theological claim).

    Second, the theological liberal has not given up what is really an insufficient, even Cartesian, model of knowledge, certainty, and humility. As we have seen already, they are not as skeptical as they might seem. Their entire system of skepticism, of open-mindedness, of humble uncertainty, is itself seated on assumptions about which they are certain, such as to what extent our knowledge can venture, how much of God and his truth can be apprehended, and with what attitude we are to believe in him. They still operate under the assumption that it is they who discover knowledge inasmuch as it can be discovered, that it is they who formulate beliefs which may or may not grasp reality, and that it is their skepticism and doubt which should inform their search for the proper interpretation of reality. Whether they see the futility of their shifting beliefs in the effort to attain reliable knowledge, or whether they conclude that the pursuit of knowledge is to be given up in favor of mere belief, they remain the authoritative agent of interpreting reality. Even if the conclusion is radical skepticism, this (supposedly accurate) interpretation of reality emerges from the liberal’s epistemological evaluation. Leslie Newbigin insightfully articulates how God’s message in Scripture directly confronts these assumptions: “The gospel challenges the liberals’ thinking in the sharpest possible way, and perhaps this is the hardest thing for them to accept. It exposes as illusion the liberal picture—the picture of ourselves as sovereign explorers who formulate the real questions in a search for a yet-to-be-discovered reality. The gospel undermines our questions with a question that comes to us from the mystery we thought to explore. It is a question as piercing and as shattering as the voice that spoke to Job out of the whirlwind. It exposes our false pretensions. We are not honest and open-minded explorers of reality; we are alienated from reality because we have made ourselves the center of the universe.”6 This is the point at which Christianity actually undercuts the liberal assumption, namely, by requiring the surrender of one’s will, or in Polanyi’s language, by requiring personal commitment. Christ’s message calls us to abandon our self-will and instead to respond with gracious obedience to God. Christian theology is about understanding the God who calls and reaches out, who himself provides a narrative and interpretation of reality according to which we are to explore knowledge and love others. The response to God’s call is neither liberal rational evaluation nor liberal epistemological skepticism, but faith, trust, and obedience. As philosopher James K.A. Smith argues, “Christian theology should proceed from the primacy of God’s revelation in Christ and Scripture,” and our understanding of ourselves “must be shaped by the priority of revelation and the Christian tradition, not what a postmodern culture needs or is looking for.”7 Of course one must be sympathetic with the liberal’s doubt against their own shifting beliefs and perspectives and against humanity’s ability to attain reliable knowledge, but this unfortunately reduces theology to personal perception, apprehension, and interpretation. The possibility and extent of knowing God truly is simply not about one’s own history or beliefs, and it is not an issue which lies in one’s own hands or power. Rather, the Biblical narrative proposes something completely different: that the issue of knowing God is about graciously receiving an interpretation, perception, perspective, and revelation from precisely this loving God. This is because in the classical structure of epistemology, we are the one’s who find truth (or skepticism) and embody it. But in the Christian structure of epistemology, the truth comes down to us, and we serve the God of truth in trusting Him.8 The pathway of liberal theology therefore, like fundamentalism, fails to explain our problem sufficiently and still falls prey to a Cartesian conception of knowledge. As James K.A. Smith argues, the liberal epistemology of propounding and emphasizing uncertainty and humility “proceeds by accepting the Cartesian equation of knowledge with certainty; then, because such certainty is impossible, it must conclude that knowledge is impossible.”9 In other words, we need to reconsider an epistemological formulation outside of the boundaries determined by Descartes, and I argue that we ought to move into a post-critical philosophy which accepts neither a naive pursuit for absolute certainty nor a retreat into the realm of skeptical uncertainty. In the following section, I explain how if we turn to Scripture, with the guidance of Polanyi and Augustine, we can discover a fresh conception of certainty which both critically accepts, formulates, and revises knowledge while also remaining rich in humility. 


A Fresh Perspective

    The concept of Christian certainty operates from an entirely different perspective than that first laid down by Descartes and later embodied by fundamentalists, liberals, and others. When typical certainty is discussed, it is with reference to some true conclusion to which one has skillfully reasoned and against which no doubt can stand. But when Christians declare a true conclusion, such as “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!”10 they are not presenting solely the result of impenetrable and independent reasoning. Rather, they are confessing as they must the nature of the cosmic reality to which they have been illumined; a reality that is so, quite in spite of their believing it to be so. The Christian’s declaration is thus much less about being right as it is about the reality that Jesus is Lord.

    I argue that proper Christian certainty is not something primarily pursued and attained, but given and received. Those ideas about which we are certain are not ones predominately achieved through the use of our reason, but accepted in gratitude by the God from whom we have heard. Theology is then neither about attempting to find eternal truths of reason nor about accepting inescapable uncertainty, but about faithfully receiving and critically embodying the gifts of divine revelation. In other words, our certainty is the very expression of humility. In an absolutely radical rearrangement, rejecting Christian certainty is itself a position rightly marked as prideful rather than humble, for by this one asserts the results of their own thinking as a more accurate picture of truth than that given through the grace of God. It is for this reason I mentioned at the outset that the word certainty fails to capture the epistemological stance I am describing. The Christian remains convicted about the truth of particular claims because they trust the God from whom they were issued. Christian certainty, then, is much more akin to confidence, commitment, and trust than to any typical idea of certainty. For it is with certainty that one holds to a doubtless conclusion drawn from independent reasoning, but it is with confidence that one holds to a doubtless conclusion drawn from trust. To be sure, reason is always employed, but in the case of classic certainty it is used in pursuit of the truth, while in the case of Christian confidence it is used in the acceptance of revelation. 

    This means we ought rightly to contend both with those who claim to have it all figured out and with those who claim only to be on a fluid, open journey subject to exhaustive change at any point. We can only grasp at omnipotence without attaining, but this does not mean we can only grasp at thin air in the darkness. As Newbigin explains, “the locus of confidence is not in the competence of our own knowing, but in the faithfulness and reliability of the one who is known.”11 Christian confidence is thus not so much about having the right, specific, exhaustive set of beliefs, but about maintaining an intimate trust with the God by whom you understand the world and articulate your perspective. This implies that you both will not have a God’s-eye-view of the world, but also will affirm certain claims and aspects of knowledge as true. This epistemological perspective has its roots in the Augustinian formulation, about whom Polanyi says, “St. Augustine brought the history of Greek philosophy to a close by inaugurating for the first time a post-critical philosophy. He taught that all knowledge was a gift of grace, for which we must strive under the guidance of antecedent belief.”12 As argued above, Polanyi attempted to restore an epistemological perspective which acknowledged the process of personal commitment involved in the acquisition of knowledge. Rediscovering this line of thought in Augustine, he explained how Augustine “seems to acknowledge that you cannot expose an error by interpreting it from the premisses which lead to it, but only from premisses which are believed to be true. His maxim nisi credideritis non intelligitis [unless you have believed, you will not understand] expresses this logical requirement.”13 Therefore, as Polanyi reasons according to Augustine, “the process of examining any topic is both an exploration of the topic, and an exegesis of our fundamental beliefs in the light of which we approach it; a dialectical combination of exploration and exegesis.”14 Thus neither can we wish to attain objectivity, because our personal judgments and evaluations are included in epistemological activity, nor can we escape certainty or exchange it for humility, since we only arrive at epistemological conclusions through personal commitments which are held as if they were certain. Thus James K.A. Smith argues according to this Augustinian method that “we rightly give up pretensions to absolute knowledge or certainty, but we do not thereby give up on knowledge altogether. Rather, we can properly confess that we know God was reconciling the world to himself, but such knowledge rests on the gift of (particular, special) revelation, is not universally objective or demonstrable, and remains a matter of interpretation and perspective (with a significant appreciation for the role of the Holy Spirit’s regeneration and illumination as a condition for knowledge). We confess knowledge without certainty, truth without objectivity.”15

Confidence & Revelation

    Among the countless examples of ardent faith in Scripture, Abraham might most clearly embody personal commitment as a proper epistemological stance. In Romans the fourth chapter, Paul describes in detail Abraham’s faithful response to God’s gracious promise of making him a father of many nations. With regard to this great faith, Paul writes, “In hope against hope he believed, so that he might become a father of many nations according to that which had been spoken, ‘So shall your descendants be.’ Without becoming weak in faith he contemplated his own body, now as good as dead since he was about a hundred years old, and the deadness of Sarah’s womb; yet, with respect to the promise of God, he did not waver in unbelief but grew strong in faith, giving glory to God, and being fully assured that what God had promised, He was able also to perform. Therefore it was also credited to him as righteousness.”16 Though Abraham seemingly had great reason to doubt the promise of God and instead to formulate some new conclusion based on his own thinking, he refused to do. By this he avoided both the fundamentalist and the liberal position, deciding instead to formulate his commitments through the critical reception of gracious revelation. Instead of claiming certainty based on his own reasoning, or of rendering himself to skepticism based on his own reasoning, he confidently trusted God’s promise, placing his commitment in God rather than in himself. This is a mixture of certainty and humility, of confidence and gratitude, and of objectivity and subjectivity, for Abraham remained personally committed but in such a way that he trusted God who is the author of truth. This could well be the theological motif of Christian confidence: an unwavering trust whose assurance is based on the grace of the divine, a trust not in ourselves but in the God in whom truth finds its most sure expression. 

    But what would it be like if Abraham, unlike we have seen he tended to be, was like the supposedly humble, open-minded Christian whose concern was mentioned at the outset of this essay? While with him during the time Paul describes we might ask, “Abraham, we’ve heard it said of you that you are to be a father of many nations, and yet you and Sarah have yet to bear a single child. Surely these reports of you must be erroneous.” And he might respond, “Yes, yes, you know I have come to realize that, who am I to say whether or not God keeps his promises? I mean, in this vast world of incommensurable intellectual varieties concerning the nature of God, I am just an unlearned shepherd in the wilderness; who am I to say I have figured out what God is like? We just simply cannot know for sure, and I must remain open and sympathetic to various arising interpretations and perspectives.” Oh, what a different story it would have been for him had this been the case! But it fortunately was not. Instead Abraham said with trusting confidence, “God has spoken, and I will believe.” Of course one could hold that the example of Abraham has no modern application, he being an artifact from an ancient iteration of our current faith. But Paul explicitly asserts that his example does indeed matter, and in the greatest of all possible ways, for in the same way that Abraham believed in the God who would perform his promises so we believe in “Him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead.”17 The structure of both Christian confidence and humility lies in a faithfulness to God and a joyful, obedient reception of his message. Even in English, this deep aspect of the language of Scripture is somewhat lost, for to say “I believe” in our language usually only denotes the mental affirmation of a proposition, yet the Greek pisteuo means placing your confidence in something or relying upon it. This verb which permeates epistemological discussions and events in Scripture has its root in the concept of faith and confidence, and implies active devotion, reliance, commitment, and trust rather than merely intellectual assent.18 It is this stance we find behind the confident claims of Jesus, who spoke on the authority of his Father rather than purely on his own powers of reasoning, and whose confidence was rooted in his commitment to God. And it is this stance we find in Paul, who did not rely upon the persuasive words of human wisdom but the revealed wisdom of God by which we know the things freely given to us by him, for as he said, “we have the mind of Christ.”19


    Of course in light of these remarks many questions will arise, such as “How can we reach this sort of confidence?” and “About which exact claims to knowledge can we be confident?” Answers to these questions require we move even deeper into epistemology, and also beyond epistemology into hermeneutics and theories of interpretation, about which many volumes have been and could be written. Since such is far beyond the scope of this essay, a brief introductory foundation will have to suffice. As Smith along with Augustine has argued, the knowledge about which we might be confident is contingent upon the gift of revelation in Scripture and leads to a richer love for God and others. Confident, humble knowledge will emerge from a faithful, studious, collective, and embodied reading of and reflection over Scripture that is ultimately rooted in Christ, practiced in the church, and made manifest in love. This will be a matter of interpretation and perspective, and so exegesis and exploration should be guided and informed by Christ’s own confidence, character, and communication, it should be supported by deep historical, philosophical, theological, and literary analysis, and it should be materialized in one’s life in community through love. To be specific, a good place to start would be with a collective affirmation of an historic creed like the Nicene Creed; something which communicates the indisputable contours of revelation. Confidence in more specific issues ought to be the result of careful, faithful, consistent, charitable, and informed reasoning and living which emerges from Scripture and in terms of which God is more clearly understood, more rightly worshipped, and more deeply loved.

    So can anyone one in their twenties or thirties ever be certain about theological claims? Well of course they can, and not least because they must. Remember that even the skeptic, who in their humility is waiting until the end of their life to pronounce on issues with certainty, has already come to a number of certain theological conclusions just to warrant their skepticism. There is hardly any reason why a Christian of practically any age could not confidently conclude that Jesus is Lord, or that he is renewing the world having launched New Creation, or that the Scriptures testify to him. But the certainty, or the confidence, which a young Christian might have is rooted in trusting God and working through their understanding of him and his revelation. And since this is the case, it is not actually problematic to change or alter one’s beliefs, even though one might hold them with faithful confidence. For one no longer has to hold claims with a vicious tenacity as if the certainty to which they have reasoned must be bindingly true only in its current form and at all costs. The truth of the claims to which one holds are founded in God, not in one’s own powers, and thus it should be no surprise that as one grows to know God more intimately, their beliefs about him might also grow into a richer refinement leading to a deeper understanding. After all, our confidence is not solely devoted to a set of propositions, but finally to God. Our position can neither be one of an unflinching allegiance to a list of doctrines alone nor one which refuses to commit to anything for sure; personal commitment is pervasive, and our commitment is to Christ. In this way we can also admit doubt, and in fact invite doubt, as a way (just not the way) of knowing God more comprehensively and thus of loving him and others more accurately. Again, much of this is only of limited satisfaction as our journey through this issue could easily be guided by many thousands of pages of rich theological reflection. The point is that the certainty which we apply to our theological claims, and which therefore has its basis in interpretation, is not always concerned with producing right beliefs but with furnishing a genuine faithfulness to God and an expansive love for others. For Abraham had only what seemed to be an absolutely terrible interpretation of reality, claiming that an entire nation with the blessing of the divine would sprout from the barren womb of a couple whose bodies were approaching the grave; but this interpretation led to faithfulness, obedience, joy, love, and devotion. This is because, as those in Scripture understand quite well but we westerners all too often forget, we are not primarily thinking creatures but beloved children. God invites us into sincere worship, through which we can wrestle with doubt and ambiguity, before he requires right beliefs; or should we say, the right beliefs which we should surely seek ought to lead to our worshipping God more truly. Christian epistemology thus begins with revelation on the path towards confidence, and trusts in Christ as its primary guide. As Newbigin explains, “If we allow the Bible to be that which we attend to above all else, we will be saved from two dangers: The first is the danger of a closed mind. The Bible leaves an enormous space open for exploration. If our central commitment is to Jesus, who is the Word of God incarnate in our history, we shall know that in following him we have the clue to the true understanding of all that is, seen and unseen, known and yet to be discovered. We shall therefore be confident explorers. The second is the danger of the mind open at both ends, the mind which is prepared to entertain anything but has a firm hold of nothing.”20

    All of this means that confidence or commitment, taking the previous place of certainty, is not some irrelevant or impractical epistemological issue, but the very way in which individuals process knowledge. It is how they conduct themselves in life and establish a posture in existence, how their heart and mind rests on convictions about what it means to be human and to be part of this world. Beneath our every thought and action is a constellation of personal commitments about which we must be more or less certain, or else we would have no knowledge nor access to truth at all.

     John Raines is a Master of Arts in Theology student at Fuller Theological Seminary, co-host of the podcast Reconstruct, and blogs at Profitable Discourse. He lives with his wife in Seattle, Washington.

1 Craig Detweiler and Barry Taylor, A Matrix of Meanings: Finding God in Popular Culture (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 76.

2 Lesslie Newbigin, Proper Confidence (Grand Rapids: Wm.B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995), 2.

3 Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge (London: Routledge, 1962), 320. I am indebted to him for the following discussion.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid., 321.

6 Newbigin, Proper Confidence, 104.

7 James K.A. Smith, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 126.

8 Newbigin, Proper Confidence, 14.

9 Smith, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?, 120.

10 Abraham Kuyper, Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader, ed. James D. Bratt (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 488.

11 Newbigin, Proper Confidence, 67.

12 Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, 280.

13 Ibid., 281.

14 Ibid.

15 Smith, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?, 121.

16 Romans 4:18-22.

17 Unless, of course, you’d like to omit Paul as a valid authority on the subject as well, in which case we ought to just put away this theology business, grab a beer, and get on with our lives.

18 W.E. Vine, An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words (Westwood: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1940), 128.

19 1 Cor. 2:16.

20 Newbigin, Proper Confidence, 91-92.


    That to which theologians normally refer when using the term inerrancy is the quality of being free from all falsehood or mistake.1 But as of late, I have found that describing the Bible this way has become quite polarizing. I realized that depending on where I stood in the debate, I would either be seen as a liberal supporting an irreverent view of Holy Writ, or a conservative spouting off a petty dogma. But why does this theory matter? Why would someone attack it? Why would someone defend it? I think we ought to investigate this, for since in the life of a Christian the role and function of the Bible is no trivial concern.

     To say that every word of Scripture is true might seem understandable, but it has been criticized for simply being an acquiescence to modernist rationalism; a nervous need for everything to be precisely correct. Inerrancy, it seems, usually sprouts from what is considered to be a naively optimistic assumption that there is some common foundation of knowledge which is universally reliable and immediately accessible. But in rendering themselves to this view, supporters of inerrancy have allegedly imposed a category upon the Bible into which is was never supposed to fit. By asking “are all of its propositions absolutely true?” those in favor of inerrancy are accused of ignoring the Bible’s rich literary diversity and forcing it to answer their rationalistic demands, even if the answer happens to be “yes.” Critics say this is like asking if the orchestral suites of Bach follow the modern song structure of verse, bridge, and chorus. Sure, some of his works might fit into this category, but that is not the right question to ask.

    Yet I am not convinced that inerrancy is mistaken, but rather misconstrued and misunderstood. To begin rectifying this, I believe we need to follow two lines of thought. First, we need to understand inerrancy as cast within Biblical terms instead of modern rationalist terms. Second, we need to focus on the basic purpose of inerrancy rather than some highly technical version of it; one could argue all day about the nature of internal combustion engines while forgetting that a car is just supposed to get you somewhere. These, I think, will help one discover that inerrancy conveys trustworthiness and assurance more than philosophically exact precision, and that rather than being the authentication of a valid set of propositions, inerrancy is the confidence that when you read the Bible, you are able to know God.2

    I find it quite reasonable that we ought to consider the Bible in this manner, for it is the very way in which it was written. Let me bring to mind those famous opening lines of the book of John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us…full of grace and truth.”3  John of course composed these statements within the realm of Jewish thought, indicated not least by his retelling of the opening of Genesis, for “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”4 But John begins to share some profound ideas, for in the Jewish realm, God not only created the heavens and earth, but he spoke them into existence by His Word, for “God said, ‘Let there be light,’” so as to imply that the Word was with God and was God in the beginning. This is echoed throughout the book of Proverbs, in which the personified Wisdom speaks of itself by saying, “The Lord possessed me at the beginning of His way…From everlasting I was established, from the beginning…When He marked out the foundations of the earth; Then I was beside Him, as a master workman; and I was daily His delight, rejoicing always before Him.”5 So when John reveals that the word is Jesus, he is creating a picture in which the moment of creation features God declaring and Jesus creating.

    One might soon begin to see, as John is explaining, that the word is more than simply a sign or mark of a concept or idea. The word was considered to be that creative power through which the world was brought forth into existence; it is that principle by which God instilled purpose into the components of the world. In the minds of those who composed the Bible, the word was that by which God communicated with his people, established covenants between them and himself, and informed the way in which they ought to live so as to establish his word as something deeply reasonable, even something deeply personal. In Jewish history the word of God was considered not only to be a source of information, of course, but also a source of trust. The Psalmist speaks of this conviction when he writes, “The sum of Your word is truth, and every one of Your righteous ordinances is everlasting” and “The law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple. The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart…the judgments of the Lord are true; they are righteous altogether.”6 The words of God, then, are something far more intricate, relational, and nuanced than simple propositions, yet all the while they are considered to be free from error.

    God’s communication with the people of Israel was also always personal and direct, from “Thus saith the Lord” introducing his message hundreds of time, to the unbroken transitions from Humanity’s voice to God’s voice in the prophetic monologues. God not only communicated with his people, but he made his voice their own, so that the Scriptures were a record of the narrative within which God brought about his purpose through his people in the world rather than just some set of true propositional statements. Thus the author of Hebrews can draw upon this historical framework in order to present the narrative he expounds in Jesus by writing, “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.”7

    Hence just as “Thus saith the Lord” is the echoed and adored authority of the Old Testament which breathes life into the narrative, so in Jesus we find “it is written” as the authorization of his statements and a means by which he enriches and continues the narrative. And just as the Scriptures were considered to be the record of the story into which Jesus would come and the body of promises which in Jesus would find their accomplishment, so he describes some of these very Scriptures by saying “it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one stroke of a letter of the Law to fail,” and “the Scripture cannot be broken.”8 The apostles hold a similar attitude, both in regards to the Old Testament and to their very own words. Paul reassures and advises Timothy that “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching,”9 and Peter considers the Divine origin of Scripture a main priority when he writes, “But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.”10 To the Thessalonians Paul writes, “we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God,”11 and to the Corinthians, “my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.”12 All of these collective statements sustain the idea that the Scriptures themselves were considered to be inspired by God: trustworthy and true.

    Essentially, I am attempting to show us how the writers of the Bible themselves considered the nature of divine communication. There is an obvious nuance between their construction and that of the rationalists or foundationalists; between a confidence and trust in the speech of a personal God and just cogent textual precision. It is through this that one might rediscover the purpose for which inerrancy exists, which is that one might be able to confidently approach the Bible and know God in a way in which he has revealed himself to be known. When we speak of inerrancy then, we should not allow it to reduce Scripture to just a collection of true theological doctrines and ethical postulations,13 but rather allow it to express Scripture as the story of God within which we are supposed to follow his will and take part in his plan.

    In fact that is a major problem that has plagued the understanding of inerrancy for a while now. Individuals often assume that inerrancy somehow conveys a readily ascertainable status of precision, rather than simply truth. I actually wish with theologian John Frame that “we could be done with all the extrabiblical technical terms such as infallible and inerrant and simply say that the Bible is true.”14 But since such an alternative is not available, I hope a discussion like this will help generate a reconsideration. This is because precision and truth are not always so intimately linked as the rationalists might suggest, and this means we need a deeper understanding of how this relates to Scripture. For as Frame rightly teaches, if a student says 6 + 5 = 10, then their imprecision aligns with their not having told a truth.15 But if someone asks you how old you are, then providing the conventional response of how old you turned on your most recent birthday is by no means untrue, though it is certainly imprecise.16 Similarly, the statement “Seattle is about 1000 miles from Los Angeles” is necessarily imprecise, while yet being perfectly true. We should remember, therefore, that unlike what most modernists might claim, the Bible is written in ordinary language rather than technical language, so that inerrancy means “that the Bible is true, not that it is maximally precise.”17 

    So when reading the Bible, one ought to realize that the amount of precision needed to answer different questions relies upon the claims which the questions themselves require, so that we need “to know enough about the language and culture of the people to know what claims the original characters and writers were likely making.”18 This means that my inquiry as to the distance between Seattle and Los Angeles is different than a pilot’s. For in the case of the pilot, the answer “about 1000 miles” simply will not do, as the claim requires a great amount of precision. But in the former case of my simple curiosity, the approximation is appropriate, as the claim does not call for exactitude. Thus to understand inerrancy is to understand that the Bible makes good on its own claims,19 and not on the claims which those reading it might foist upon it. Inerrancy is therefore perfectly compatible with unrefined grammar, non-chronological narrative, round numbers, imprecise quotations and descriptions, the use of figures and symbols,20 differing parts and methods of speech, and a whole variety of speech acts. Thus it is an entirely inconclusive argument to say that since inerrancy posits exact propositional precision of the Bible, and the Bible does not contain such precision, that inerrancy is therefore mistaken.

    But still one might wonder, “What if the Bible is not inerrant?” Clearly, if the Bible is not free from falsehood, then it must contain some falsehood. If it is not errant, then it would be inerrant. But simply enough, if inerrancy is not true then we risk the conclusion that either God does not exist like we think he does (since our account of him is flawed) or whoever he is, we cannot accurately know him (since our pathway to knowing him is obscured). New Testament scholar N.T. Wright explains the importance of this when he writes, “We are, in short, only able to know the mind of God through the revelation of Jesus Christ in the scriptures; there are no promises of successful theological enquiry, but rather the reverse, for those who appeal over the head of the incarnate Son.”21 So those who claim that the Bible is not or cannot be inerrant must be able to ascertain the errors which presently exist in Scripture, which given our above clarity concerning ordinary language will prove to be an entirely different issue. They will also have to demonstrate how Scripture’s ideas concerning the nature of God, for instance, are wrong in comparison to the true nature of God, the latter needing to be derived from some other source. But what is the source from which they will draw? Another part of Scripture? But what if that has errors as well? These questions clearly need another essay of their own in order to be properly addressed, but they remain important for understanding the significance of our reconsideration.

    At the outset I claimed that it was too simple to say that inerrancy just meant “free from all falsehood or mistake.” But should we conclude that it no longer means this? I certainly think not, but rather insist that we clarify the accompanying implications. We ought to insist that God is incapable of error, not least because he knows all things and cannot lie, and therefore if Scripture is divine revelation, then it is certainly free from all falsehood or mistake. But as you can see, this ought to be rooted not in simple textual correctness but in the nature of personal, divine communication. Inerrancy therefore simply conveys the basic assumption that the Bible contains the ideas of God, not just the ideas of humanity. It claims that the Bible, on account of its divine origin, is true rather than utterly precise. Thus as such, the Bible can be read as more than just an existing historical record of some distant peoples’ past. Because of inerrancy, which is to say because the Bible is true, we can be confident that the family of God promised to Abraham is the one to which we belong, that the Jesus of history who died actually died for us, and that the restorative plan of God from thousands of years past is the same one we can take part in today.

     John Raines is a Master of Arts in Theology student at Fuller Theological Seminary, co-host of the podcast Reconstruct, and blogs at Profitable Discourse. He lives with his wife in Seattle, Washington.

1 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (1978) under the section in Exposition entitled “Infallibility, Inerrancy, Interpretation.”

2 I of course do not mean to revive a flat rationalist foundationalism therein, but rather hold to a more intricate and refined process by which one might come to the truth through reading Scripture. Instead of instantaneously attaining direct access to the divine, a critical and discursive dialogue must ensue between the reader and the text as revelation. This, in turn, requires much more epistemological refinement, which I hope to include in later essays. 

3 John 1:1, 14.

4 Genesis 1:1.

5 Proverbs 8:22-23, 29-30.

6 Psalm 119:160, Psalm 19:7-9.

7 Hebrews 1:1-2.

8 Luke 16:17, John 10:35.

9 II Timothy 3:16.

10 II Peter 1:20-21.

11 I Thessalonians 2:13.

12 I Corinthians 2:4.

13 Though, of course, it is filled with them all throughout.

14 John Frame. The Doctrine of the Word of God (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2010) 170-171.

15 Frame, 171.

16 Ibid.

17 Frame, 173.

18 Frame, 174.

19 Ibid.

20 Ibid.

21 N.T. Wright. Universalism and the World-Wide Community (The Churchman, Vol. 89, No. 3, 1975) 202.


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