Profitable Discourse

The Pursuit of Theological Clarity

CERTAINTY & HUMILITY


“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  

CERTAINTY & EXPRESSION

    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 STORY OF CERTAINTY & SKEPTICISM

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. 

CONFIDENCE, COMMITMENT & TRUST

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

Conclusion

    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.

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