In an uncertain time, in an uncertain world, where the epistemic foundations of knowing have been undermined by post-modern philosophies of meaning (its all in the eye of the beholder, we create our own meanings. Objective reality does not break through our cloud of unknowing), it is only natural that there have been deep seated needs expressed for certainty, and perhaps especially religious certainty. Consider the cartoon below.
Where I see this lust for certainty on overdrive is in the conservative portions of the Christian Church, not only in Evangelical Churches but also in Orthodox and Catholic circles as well. It takes different forms. The lust for certainty in Fundamentalist and Evangelical circles tends to lead to rigidity about Biblical interpretation and so doctrine or theology. This often takes the form of cock-sureness about salvation.
The talk about eternal security is a good example. But alas, the NT talks about Christians having the ability to commit apostasy, to commit shipwreck of one’s Christian faith, and as John Wesley once said, you can’t make shipwreck of a boat you were never on. The truth is, we are not eternally secure until we are securely in eternity. Until then we have reassurance from God and grace sufficient to stand, but we have to live on the basis of faith every day, not on the basis of some certainty or an ironclad guarantee.
The lust for certainty tends to take a different form in non-Protestant Churches. It focuses on dogma, on ritual, on ecumenical councils, on the infallible ex cathedra pronouncements of the Pope, and so on. And unfortunately the drive for certainty in these ways leads to distortions of church history. For example, it is simply not the case that everything we hear in the Nicean and Chalcedonian credal formulations can be found in the Bible or even comports with and agrees with the Bible on important matters such as Christology. These creeds sometimes import into the discussion neo-Platonic notions of the impassability of God, or nice distinctions about the two natures of Christ, and so on.
The lust for certainty causes us to either fixate on the Bible or church tradition and dogma as the final resting place in which we can find certainty on matters of faith and practice.
But alas, for all this, at the end of the day, it is to God that we should look for reassurance of salvation, and for hope for tomorrow, and for strengthening of faith. As Paul says, as for today, now we see through a glass darkly, now we only know in part, which is why more humility is called for in discussions of all things pertaining to the faith.
As I like to say, God only reveals enough about the truth and about the future, to give us hope. He does not reveal so much that we need not live by faith every single day. He just doesn’t, and actually we should be thankful for this, because it drives us to depend on God every day, and not merely on our Bibles or our church traditions.
It is our living relationship with God that must be our final port of call in the desire for assurance about things. God longs for us to relate to him through prayer, and love, and worship. Through these things we get strength for the day and bright hope for tomorrow. And of course the Bible and our traditions are aids in our journey. But the goal of all such aids is not merely that we might know the Bible or know our traditions, but that we might know God! Here I would simply point you to the classic book by J.I. Packer— Knowing God which still has much to teach us, whatever faith tradition we may be a part of. I do not agree with everything Packer says in the book, but there is a rich treasury of insight in there.
It’s time to stop putting the dog back in dogma, whether we are Protestants, Catholic, or Orthodox in persuasion. It’s time to lay the lust for certainty on the altar, and accept that God alone is the fixed point in an ever turning world, not my understanding of God, not some ironclad guarantee of salvation, not some certainty that ‘we are the one true church with the one true dogma’ or ‘we have the one true version of the Bible’ and so on.
Let me be clear that I am not suggesting that there are not many things we can know with a high degree of certainty. There are. We can know our Redeemer lives. We can know that God’s Word is a lamp unto our feet and light to our paths.
We can have assurance of salvation, and claim the promise that no force in the world outside of ourselves can rip us free from the strong grasp God has on our lives, or separate us from the love of God. Salvation cannot be lost like one loses a pair of glasses. It cannot be stolen from us. It can only be cast away by a conscious, total rebellious rejection of what God has already done in one’s life— as Hebrews 6 and other NT texts remind us. Only so can one wrench one’s free from the grasp of the Almighty.
And there is a reason why God deals with us that way. Love must be freely given and freely received. It cannot be predetermined. Our relationship with God is a relationship between beings who have some real power of contrary choice. God does not make us an offer we can’t refuse. That would be manipulation and compulsion and coercion, not something freely given and freely received. Christ relates to his church like a groom relates to his bride– with a covenant freely committed to by both parties, and lived out on the basis of love and self-sacrifice.
And so it is that even in a post-modern world, when anxiety about God and our knowing God or having a relationship with God is high, we must not sell our birth rite for a mess of flower petal soup, even if it has the smell of tulips and five good ingredients.
Read through Hebrews 11 and the beginning of 12, and see that all the saints have had to live by faith, and had to give up on the lust for certainty. The reason is, the Christian life is a life where we recognize we are not the master of our own fate, or the captain’s of our own souls. The Christian life involves surrender, not control of our fate, our faith, our theology. The Christian life involves trusting God and his guidance every day.
As Hebrews 12 says, “since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the trailblazer and completer of faithfulness, who for the sake of the joy set before him endured the cross, disregarding it’s shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of God.”
The Christian life is like a race, not like a math test on which it is possible to score a perfect score or get all the answers right. The runner knows they must run to the end of the race and finish the course. It is not certain when they set out that they will do so. But a runner who follows the lead of the Lead Runner and has trained for the arduous nature of the race can have confidence he will finish. And this is because Jesus is running with us, every step of the way.
In 1993, when I ran the Boston marathon, I got down to the last two miles and was barely trotting, running on fumes alone. Even with all the cheering (I remember the BC students on the above ground MTA train rolling down the windows and cheering us on), I still had to finish the course without them carrying me, but I kept repeating, ‘Are you running with me Jesus, are you running with me Jesus’. He was, and I finished, and fell into the arms of my best friend Rick. They wrapped me in NASA foil, and totally exhausted I had a silly smile on my face.
I had moved on faith that I could finish, and I did when many didn’t on that hot day. I was not certain in advance that I would get there, to the Prudential tower and cross the finish line. Not certain at all, but I had faith, and I persevered…. and best of all Jesus was running with me, showing me the way, the truth, and the life.