The Lust for Certainty


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.

Forward Thinking on ‘Reading Backwards’– The Interview, Part One
Man Shoveling Snow in Lexington while Break Dancing
Forward Thinking on ‘Reading Backwards’– The Interview Part 3
Forward Thinking on Reading Backwards’– Part Six
  • Andrew Potter

    Excellent. I would agree with the analysis of the problem and the desired solution. One possible disagreement I have is the seeming juxtaposition of certainty and faith. I would suggest that faith and certainty are not at odds with each other, rather true certainty requires faith.

  • anton

    Wow! So well said. In the catholic church I feel there is too much tradition that is not biblical. plenury indulgence for one.

  • Myron Williams

    many years ago a friend with a Ph.D. from Aberdeen in New Testament suggested I read Dan Taylor’s book “The Myth of Certainty.” it was a suggestion which brought me to face to face with many of the issues about which you write. the book is worth reading and thinking about, as is your blog posting.

    thank you for your honesty, your transparency, your reminder, and above all your faithfulness.

  • Betty Johnson

    Excellent. Thank you again.

  • Michael Fox

    Yes, but are you certain?
    Wow. Among the finest of your writings.
    Thank you. I will contemplate this message and its implications for some time.

  • Derek Kitterlin

    As a methodist, and I do not mean a member in the denomination founded by the Wesley brothers, rather I mean philosophical position within epistemology that is opposite of the particularists, I often find myself seeking to equate knowledge and certainty. I see this around me also within the Christian church. It seems to me the pseudo-stability present within our individual relationships, our collective gatherings, our capitalistic economy and other situations/events in our lives compels us to seek certainty somewhere. Post-modernity has only compounded this problem.

  • Anthony Le Donne

    thank you, Ben.


  • Simon L Smith

    While I have doubts and questions, only one area of uncertainly really *gets* me… and that is infant salvation.

    Before I lost my 2 year old son I was uncertain – but it was not personal. Not that it is personal the uncertainty did not magically go away.

    Thank you for this.

  • Tory Baucum


    Do you the recent Rise of Calvinism in terms of this lust for certainty? It strikes me as an epistemologically insecure group of folks…..shoring up an inadequate biblical paradigm


  • Ben Witherington

    Tory I would say this is a contributing factor to that rise,but not the only factor. The Passion movement has a lot to do with it when it comes to the young…. and Chris Tomlin drawing them in to Louie Gigglio’s gigs. BW3

  • Michael

    I think I understand what you are getting at Dr. Witherington. However, I think too little appreciation for revelation can result from too much of an emphasis on faith. We must recall that it was the Logos of God incarnated as man, inviting us to personal faith. It was a communicative part of God. Intelligible. Rational. Understandable.

  • Rick

    As C. Michael Patton has pointed out, there is a difference between certainty and confidence.

  • David

    I had a question for clarification where I will lean on your socio-historical expertise. You stated: “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.”

    I am curious about the nature of bridal covenants among the Jewish people in the ANE. Were they mutually agreed upon by the bride and groom, or were they arranged marriages where the bride had limited choice in the matter?

  • Francis Ritchie

    Ben, thank you for this. I would put my hand up and confess I was once an addict of certainty and too often still am. I like think that I ‘know’. My journey last year took me on a wild ride with my faith though (a couple of visits to Israel/Palestine were the catalyst) and the place where I landed was reflected in Job’s words when confronted with the awesomeness of God “Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know.” (Job 42:3b) and was left in the place of silence Job talks of in 40:4-5.

    I have been amazed at how having my certainty ripped away has been incredibly freeing and opened up a whole new, sometimes scary, but deeper path with God. There are still things I firmly believe but my faith has become more about my proximity to God than about making sure I have all the right doctrine memorised.

    With that in mind I recently said this in a post on my blog where I confessed being a bit of a know-all “The further I go, the less I know and the bigger God gets. The more I discover how small I am, the more I wonder and marvel at Him. The more the know-all part of me gets out of the way and I get comfortable with saying “I don’t know”, the better.”

  • Diana Trautwein

    Thank you for this lovely piece, Ben.

  • ben Witherington

    Hi David: You can’t generalize about ancient marriage covenants. Some were arranged marriages, and some were not. Even when there was an arranged marriage, a bride could opt out before the betrothal in many cases. BW3

  • Brian

    Hey Ben, is it just me or did the cartoon get replaced with a photograph? Also… great post :)

  • Randy

    The saints did not give up any lust for certainty. Nobody is thinking of a certainty that does not require faith. It is choosing an object of faith in a non ad hoc way. If 100 denominations use the same bible-only principles and can’t agree on what the gospel is then we have a problem. Once we know which faith is the true Christian faith then we are more than willing to embrace it. You don’t do anything to solve this problem.

    You assume that knowing God and running the race are opposed to knowing which faith is the authentic Christian faith. I don’t see that at all. Knowing the true prophets from the false prophets will help you know God and run the race. What is the alternative? To just blindly follow the tradition you are raised in?

  • mickey

    yes, where is the cartoon? :-)

  • ben Witherington

    WordPress is having issues. they say it will be fixed after Easter…. maybe then the cartoon will magically rise from the dead :)


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  • Bob Mounce

    Your article reflects the mindset of the freshman in a Christian college who has suddenly learned from his professor that the world view he inherited is not all that sound. Wow! It takes the average student several years to catch on that certainty about uncertainty is a bogus claim. You ARE certain about what you have written, are you not?

  • Pete

    This is the kind of speculative nonsense that comes from anyone without a high view of Scipture. Not understanding assurance of salvation is not understanding the Gospel (which by the way, is noticeably absent from from these dribblings). You go ahead and treasure your uncertainty and embrace your perceived free will, while the redeemed rest in sovereign grace of God. …what a waste of digital space!

  • Billy Watson

    Dr. Wittherington,

    Thank you for this excellent piece. The trite responses from those who disagree only go to demonstrate the depths of our lust for certainty. So much damage is done to the cause of Christ when we lack the humility of our convictions, and the irony of bullying others in the name of Christ (which is what certanity in the arena of faith inevitably leads to) is beyond oxymoronic.

    I am reminded of the words of a few other great thinkers here: Meister Eckhart’s prayer, “God rid me of ‘god’,” is a powerful reminder to me that I commit idolotry when I substitute my understanding of who God is for the reality of who God actually is. Augustine’s observation (paraphrased poorly I am sure, but meaningful to me nonetheless) that “If you can understand ‘it,’ ‘it’ isn’t God,” ought to give all of us who speak in God’s name at least a sprinkling of humility for what we claim to know about the One who is more and greater than we can ever conceive. And I have long strived to trade in my certainty for Newbigin’s “proper confidence.” All of these, of course, are mere echo’s of Paul’s dim looking glass, which you have already cited.

    Thank you again for a wonderful, edifying post.

  • Jeff

    Bob Mounce,

    Dr. Witherington was referring to the “lust for certainty” not so much “certainty” by itself. Though I thought the “race” analogy broke down a bit. Our Christian life is not like a race in the sense that in a race even an experienced runner can trip and fall and break something unable to continue whereas that would not happen in our Christian walk. Barring any trips or accidental happenings one can be certain as one can be that one will finish the race.

    But I know what Dr. Witherington is getting at. Maybe a marriage analogy would be better. In the Christian life we can be certain that the Lord will never be unfaithful, but we can be, and so it is pointless and quite telling about one’s heart if one insists that there is no way they will ever be divorced. The best thing we can say about this is that lusting for certainty is a sign that one is full of pride. Pride comes before a fall, because you are blind!

  • roselyn drake

    Great essay! googled certainty and faith because I wondered why fellow Bible Study colleagues had such different world views and thinking desire for certainty was involved and discovered great clear statement of the issue. Thank God for the Internet!