Certainty Not. (A Guest Post)

What follows is a guest post by Austin Fischer, Teaching Pastor at Vista Community Church, Belton, Texas. Austin is a seminary graduate with strong interest in theology. As always with guest posts, I have to say that “The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Roger Olson.” However, I wouldn’t put this here if I didn’t agree with its basic message. These are Austin’s words, so I am going to let him respond to comments about this message.

 

Certainty Not

 

“Theology is the study of God and his ways. For all we know, dung beetles may study us and our ways and call it humanology. If so, we would probably be more touched and amused than irritated. One hopes that God feels likewise.”[1]

 

Pretention and Certainty

“And you think your stuff doesn’t stink.” The adage may sound crass, but the problem it highlights is crass: pretention. There are few things more repulsive than pretention. The teenager who knows it all, the sports fan who has never lost an argument, the theology major who has unlocked all the mysteries of the universe. An hour locked in a room with any of the aforementioned persons is enough to make the strongest heart weak.

 

And lots of things go into pretention: pride and projection, arrogance and insecurities, knowledge and ignorance. But at its very core pretention, especially theological pretension, feeds on certainty. We become pretentious when we get certain, when we become convinced that there is simply no way we could be wrong about this, when we cannot see any truth in alternative positions, when we can no longer feel the weight of dissenting voices and as such seek to squelch them out.

 

But of course when it comes to theology, certainty is impossible. Finite human beings are trying to make sense of an infinite God. We always know God subjectively, never objectively. Perhaps the most certain thing we can say about God is that we cannot be certain about anything. This is not to say we cannot be confident, that we cannot have good reason to believe what we believe. But it is to say that certainty will always lie just beyond our grasp. Certainty? No. Confidence? Yes.

 

Bad Tone and Bad Theology

In my estimation, the tone of modern American evangelical theological rhetoric belies a furious, but ultimately impossible and misguided attempt, for certainty. Allow me to speak from my context and experience. The Young, Restless, and Reformed movement and its vast web of associated organizations (The Gospel Coalition, Sovereign Grace Ministries, Acts 29 Network, Passion Conferences, etc.) have experienced amazing growth and gained incredible influence. And yet for many who have ears to hear, it often strikes the shrill chord of pretention.

 

I used to be young, restless, and Reformed. I understand why people embrace five or four point Calvinism. I see how they look at Scripture and think it teaches unconditional election and irresistible grace. And I see how they find any sort of free will theism problematic. Where do free decisions come from if not from God? How else do you translate Romans 9? I get it. I get how they could think it stinks.

 

What I don’t get is how they don’t smell, well, their own stink. How is God good, just, or loving in creating people for eternal damnation for sins he ordained they commit? Is Calvinism truly Christocentric? Are the emphases of the Gospels the emphases of Calvinism? How do we make sense of the numerous places in the Bible that implore us to make decisions on the apparent assumption that we actually can? How is human moral responsibility coherent in a determinist framework? I’m not saying there are no answers to these questions. I am saying that to me (and many others) they all stink.

 

I’m okay with acknowledging that some of my answers to difficult questions stink (or will stink to others). And I’m okay with it because while I hold my beliefs with a great deal of confidence, I know I cannot hold them with absolute certainty. Many in the YRR (and especially its leaders) just don’t seem to be able to smell the scent they’re putting off. They are just…so…certain. And they seem to think this certainty is a sign of knowledge and authority. Perhaps it’s just a sign of bad theology.

 

Transcending Transcendence

What is perhaps most ironic is that Calvinist theology has traditionally placed a heavy emphasis on the transcendence of God. God is said to be so beyond human comprehension that we have no right to call into question his goodness, justice, or love, even in light of his reprobation of some. God operates on a plane for which there is little or no analogy. But if God is indeed so transcendent, how can they be so certain of the truth of their beliefs? Is TULIP an exception to God’s transcendence? Free will theism is often accused of belittling God’s transcendence, of forgetting how holy and other God is. And yet Neo-Calvinism appears to do far worse: it attempts to transcend God’s transcendence. This lies at the heart of theological pretention and the culture of certainty for where transcendence is honored, certainty and thus pretention are deflated and humility blossoms.

 

Though I disagree with Calvinism, Calvinism isn’t the real problem. The problem is theological pretention, which has become a dangerous bedfellow of Neo-Calvinism. Theological pretension needs to be challenged but not merely because it is bad manners. It is bad theology. It is theology that attempts to transcend transcendence. And bad theology produces bad disciples.

 

Theological Reconciliation

 

In a recent edition of Christianity Today, John Piper was asked about theological reconciliation. Borrowing from Frances Schaeffer, Piper suggests that theological reconciliation might look like throwing love bombs over the walls between us instead of hate bombs. Hmmm. While throwing love bombs over walls is certainly preferable to throwing hate bombs, I would think tearing down the walls (or at least making nice, big doors) would be more helpful for theological reconciliation. And to state the obvious, the throwing of bombs over walls would seem to assume we couldn’t get together in the same room, which is a shame. Messages taped to hurled bombs (podcasts, books, conferences, tweets) don’t exactly scream reconciliation. They scream, “I’m certain about this so you better come over here.” This shouldn’t be a surprise though. Reconciliation isn’t important in a culture of certainty.

 

This is further fleshed out by Piper’s remarks regarding his infamous “farewell Rob Bell” tweet wherein he explains what he meant:

 

When I watched the video of Rob Bell that was put up on Justin Taylor’s website, which was, I think, a link to his book on hell, my issue there was not primarily his view of hell. It was his cynicism concerning the Cross of Jesus Christ as a place where the Father atoned for the sins of his children and dealt with his own wrath by punishing me in his son. Rob Bell does not admire that. He doesn’t view the Cross that way, as a penal substitution. I consider that the essence of the Cross and my salvation, and the heart of God for me, and that ticked me off royally…And so, there’s a point for “Thus far, no further, farewell.” There are other points where we ought to be cultivating all those courtesies.

 

First, Bell doesn’t deny penal substitution in the video. He implicitly criticizes a certain understanding of penal substitution (some would say a caricature) wherein a select few are saved from a bloodthirsty God by the intervention of Jesus. But more to our point, Piper seems to indicate that he is willing to say “farewell” to people who don’t share his particular understanding of penal substitution or view it as the “heart of God”.

 

Does he realize how many Christians he is saying “farewell” to? Is he aware of just how many orthodox, evangelical Christians don’t consider penal substitution the “very heart of God”? But that’s the thing. He probably does know, he just doesn’t care, and he doesn’t care because he’s so certain he’s right. As noted above, theological reconciliation will never be organic in a culture of certainty. The same could be said for humility, which lies at the root of theological reconciliation. What will be organic in a culture of certainty is pretention, and its seeds are currently blooming for the whole world to see.

 

And while I am hesitant to pull the Jesus card here, I just can’t help myself. Piper claims throwing love bombs and sending “farewell” tweets is justified because Jesus was “really hard on certain theological differences.” And I suspect at this point Mark Driscoll would chime in and note that when Jesus comes back (taking a breather from his eternal MMA cage match with the Holy Spirit) he will have a sword, a tattoo, and is coming for blood. But to state the obvious, none of us are the resurrected Messiah come back to judge the world; therefore we don’t use swords or throw bombs.

 

Additionally, I can’t help but notice that Jesus’ anger was almost exclusively stoked by people who were pushing for theologies of exclusion, theologies rooted in pretention (Jesus’ diatribe against the Pharisees in Matthew 23 and the cleansing of the Temple stand out). So if we insist on throwing love bombs, how about we at least throw the bombs Jesus threw?

 

A Way Forward: More Transcendence

 

Of course everything I have noted about neo-Calvinism could be turned the opposite way. Neo-Calvinism certainly hasn’t cornered the market on pretention. But the simple fact is that in American evangelicalism, neo-Calvinism now has the microphone and the world is listening. What does it hear? I think it hears some good things, but I’m afraid it also hears pretention.

 

If I may make a bit of a pretentious suggestion myself, I would encourage the Young, Restless, and Reformed movement (and especially its leaders) to take transcendence more seriously. Don’t treat TULIP like the one exception to God’s transcendence. Don’t just tolerate dissident voices but understand that you need them (just like they need you!) because you can’t be certain you’re right. Invite “them” to speak at your conferences, request their presence on your boards, and perhaps cease creating private clubs where they’re not allowed.[2]

 

If you do it, I have no doubt you’ll lose followers and probably lose influence. But you’ll also gain something invaluable, both for yourself and for your followers and for the whole world: humility. You can beat the humility drum all day long but it will never stick in a culture of certainty. So what will it be…power or humility, influence or reconciliation? Jesus could be trusted with both. I’m pretty sure most of us can’t.


[1] Fredrich Buechner, Wishful Thinking, 112.

[2] The Gospel Coalition serves a striking case in point. The organization claims to represent the deep and broad evangelical consensus regarding the truth of the gospel (see their Preamble). One can’t help but catch a whiff of pretention here and this whiff is no doubt reinforced by the fact that there is not a single free-will theist of any sort on the Gospel Coalition council or staff. Apparently the deep and broad evangelical consensus of the gospel does not need the voice of free-will theism.

  • Aaron

    The paragraph regarding the problem of transcending transcendence is brilliant.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Did you know that dung beetles (enough of them) can reduce a huge pile of steaming pachyderm do-do to nothing in about 30 minutes? During this thirty minutes, they spend a lot of time fighting over the little spheres they make in which to lay their eggs (before burying the ball). And, the winners are those with the highest body temperature, which usually means the ones that recently flew into the site (flying makes beetles very warm).  A well-warmed up smaller beetle can usually win the battle and take a ball from a not-so-well warmed up beetle. In this case, cool is not good. The reason why so many scarab (dung-beetles) designs are found at ancient Egyptian sites is because the ball-rolling behaviour reminded the ancients of celestial things – hence, scarabs were considered sacred.  There is probably a great lesson in here somewhere, but, for now, just thought that you might like to know.

    For more on the wonderful world of God’s free-spirited six-legged and other works, check out Bernd Heinrich’s autobiographical book “The Snoring Bird” .

    Now, I’ll settle in and read your article, but this little aside could not be resisted!

  • Bev Mitchell

    Well said Austin. You have spoken with a boldness that the occasion demands. Let’s pray it has the desired effect.

    If there is to be a theology exam at the Last Judgement, we will all fail. The enlightenment thinkers taught us to count the number of teeth in the horse’s mouth, rather than derive the answer from first principles. The  real comes to us first through experience, then through reason. Reason is most effective when employed to explain experience. Some appear to think we must not reason from experience, because they believe we can’t trust our experiences. However, the Apostle Paul had an amazing experience first, then spend three years in the Syrian desert figuring out how to explain what had happened. The Incarnation is the single greatest experience human beings have ever witnessed. If we could learn to begin there, and to return there often, we could then learn to be less sure of ourselves and more dependent on our Creator.

  • http://notdarkyet-commentary.blogspot.com/ Charles Kinnaird

    Rev. Fischer has a point about the stink of certainty. When I was in a Baptist university back in the 1970′s I became aware that those of the fundamentalist stripe were constantly having to shore up their certainty just to have what they thought was a solid place to stand. They feared any questioning or intellectual inquiry. I don’t follow John Piper, and I’m not sure what he means by “love bombs,” but it sounds like aggression (using militaristic terminology) under some guise of loving intent. Does he mean he wants to show love only in order to bring the other over to his point-of-view? Traps like that don’t sit well with the one being “bombed.”

    I know Robin Meyers is coming from a completely different vantage point from evangelicals, but I recently heard him say that it is more important to be loving than to be right. The older I get, the more I consider ethics to be a vital part of how we live our lives – more important than what we believe or what group we belong to. How we treat others, and with no ulterior motive other than to desire what is loving and just for them, is a true mark of our spirituality.

    • rogereolson

      Miroslav Volf makes the same point in Exclusion and Embrace. It’s more important to be loving than to insist on the rightness of our own position to point we are not even willing to embrace the person we consider wrong.

  • David

    1. I disagree with your suggestion that any kind of certainty is *impossible* because God is infinite. After all, you seem to be certain that God is infinite. And you could, at least potentially, be certain about many other things as well.

    2. But I do get your larger point that Calvinists sometimes have an intellectual arrogance problem. I don’t know if this excuses it, but I think that is a reaction – perhaps an overreaction, but at least a reaction – to a culture that has the opposite problem, a culture that will boast that it knows-nothing-for-certain and not worry too much about that. And that’s worse. People who think they know the truth for certain at least care about knowing the truth. People who boast of their uncertainty don’t care at all.

    • Austin

      Hey David…the first observation is the obvious one I open myself up to, but I’ll stand firm by it. I’m not “certain” that God is infinite. I am deeply confident of it and will fight over it and would perhaps say “farewell” to someone over it but I’m not certain. Hence I said that perhaps the thing we can be MOST (excuse the caps but I can’t bold) certain about is that we can’t be certain about anything as it pertains to God.

      As to the second point, I completely agree that Neo-Calvinism is reacting to what it perceives as a drift away from objective truth in culture. But I’d point out, as Dr. Olson has recently, that this seems to be a bit of a caricature of postmodernism. Additionally, I’m simply not sure that boasting of your certainty is any better than boasting of your uncertainty.

    • Steve Dal

      David
      That is nonsense.
      ‘People who think they know the truth for certain at least care about knowing the truth. People who boast of their uncertainty don’t care at all.’ Many of these people don’t care about the truth at all they are more interested in controlling others to the extent that they create what they believe should be orthodoxy. Their very traditions demonstrate this (Synod of Dort – TULIP is a classic example) The goal is simple. To introduce credible alternative hypotheses. In the case of Calvinism there are many. I also think many Calvinists are lazy. They take the easy path by accepting a dubious theology that asserts they are the ‘elect’ (wrong) and therefore saved rather than grappling with the fact that we simply do not know what the ‘meaning’ of much scripture is and that indeed some of it is confusing and contradictory and we can never settle on a final meaning. Which is meaningful in itself.

  • Jordan Litchfield

    Thanks for a provocative post and one that we need to hear. One question: you asserted that “We always know God subjectively, never objectively.” Are you objectively certain about that? (Sorry, couldn’t resist! :D )

    William Lane Craig (an Arminian) in his book Reasonable Faith maintains that the witness of the Spirit is not just subjective, but also an objective experience of God himself. This seems pretty accurate to me, but what are your thoughts?

    • Austin

      Touche!…along the lines of my response to David, am I objectively certain that we always know God subjectively? Of course not…however I am confident this is the case.

      As to Craig, I’ve never read anything by him so I don’t think I’m in a great position to comment. But, I suppose part of the issue regards what exactly it would mean to have an “objective experience of God.” I have had what I would consider profound experiences of God but I just don’t know what it would mean to claim I’d had an “objective experience” of God that circumvented my human-ness…which seems, to me, to be what is implied by an objective experience.

      • Jordan Litchfield

        That is what I understood “objective experience” to mean. So then, if we follow this line of thought, does this mean that the Spirit’s witness in Rom. 8:15-16 is only subjective and not also objective – that God has not transcended our human-ness to reveal himself objectively to us? If the answer is that it is only subjective and therefore not certain (in an absolute sense), are we suggesting that our claim to know God is similar to knowledge based on probability – a.k.a., that I will drive safely to my destination because the likelihood of an accident is very low; or better, that I will not confront aliens today due to the extreme likelihood (not absolute certainty) that they are not going to stop by (let alone whether they exist).

        Hopefully I’m not being confusing. It just sounds to me that if we accept that there is no objectively certain knowledge of God (not ‘about’ God, but knowing him) then we are assuming that our senses are accurately reflecting reality to us because that is the most probable conclusion. I’m okay with this if that’s the way it is, I’ve just never thought of it that way.

        • Austin

          You lost me at the aliens. Just kidding. I don’t see anything in Romans 8:15-16 implying an objective experience in the sense we have described. I’m not ruling it out, I just think it’s not in view. And I probably wouldn’t say it is “only” subjective in a timid, “who knows what we’re really experiencing way.” Paul’s conversion is perhaps an even better example as it’s probably as close as we get to an objective experience. But again, Paul’s human-ness didn’t disappear during that encounter with the risen Christ nor do I see any reason to believe God circumvented it in some way. He experienced the risen Christ as a human, which for me makes some level of subjectivity inescapable.

          As to the question of whether or not we know (experientially) God with certainty or probability, I think it is best to go with the latter so long as we note that probability is not mere logical probability. It is probability in a holistic sense, one that comes from profound experiences as well.

    • John Inglis

      I don’t think WLC would consider himself an Arminian, though he does say he is not Calvinist. He does say that he is a Molinist, which he seems to distinguish from Arminianism.
      J

      • rogereolson

        Right. I was thinking the same thing. If he’s an Arminian, he’s a different kind of Arminian than I am.

      • Joshua

        He identifies as (more along the lines of) Wesleyan in a Q&A following his debate with the late Christopher Hitchens. That being the case, he shouldn’t have a problem with being called an Arminian, but being that he’s also a Molinist, it’s hard to say – Molinism has more in common with divine determinism than Arminianism, in my opinion.

        • rogereolson

          You are talking about William Lane Craig. I agree.

      • Jordan Litchfield

        Thanks for the correction.

  • Tom

    Thank you for your article.

    “And so, there’s a point for “Thus far, no further, farewell.” There are other points where we ought to be cultivating all those courtesies.”

    How would you say we should discern when to say goodbye and when to discuss?

    To use a real life example, yesterday I sat through a sermon in which we were taught that the tomb of Jesus was not necessarily empty on the third day. Jesus did not eat or talk to His disciples as described in John and Lukes gospels. In fact, these accounts were added to the Gospels in order to be taken metaphorically, to show that God isn’t disgusted by the flesh. To me, this seemed a very clear moment in which I had to say goodbye. If I lose the resurrection, I lose everything. Talking to the preacher afterwards, they informed me that they still believed Christ was risen, just not in a physical way. I left anyway as I thought they were redefining the meaning of resurrection to the point where it was meaningless, plus they seemed to be saying the gospels were misleading, etc.

    Obviously no one in the Calvinism/Arminianism debate is doubting the resurrection but I am thinking about where we draw the line as Christians and would be interested to hear your views. If the Neo-Calvinists have drawn the line too tight, where should we draw it instead?

    • rogereolson

      I’ll allow Austin to respond when he wants to and can. As for my opinion…that’s an essential of Christianity (bodily resurrection of our Lord). But I think a lot of people get “bodily” mixed up with “physical” as if there’s no difference. That was one of Paul’s main points in 1 Cor. 15–that there can be different kinds of bodies and Jesus’ resurrected body was a “spiritual body”–something the Greeks had trouble conceiving of. Apparently many still do have that trouble. In other words, the tomb was indeed empty, but Jesus’ resurrection was the resuscitation of a corpse (like Lazarus’). It was a transformation to an entirely new mode of existence. IMHO, for what it’s worth, I don’t consider a person who denies the empty tomb a Christian. However, I wouldn’t say “farewell” to them, either. I would say “Let’s keep talking about this” (while I go to a different church).

      • Tom

        Thanks Roger for the reply. It’s very helpful.
        To make it clear would it be right to say that Jesus resurrection was a resurrection of the body that was laid in the tomb (it still had the scars of the cross after the resurrection) but that body was transformed into a new type of body.
        Either way, if someone is denying that Jesus was on the road to Emmaus (saying instead that the disciples instead had a spiritual experience of Jesus like we do in prayer today) or that no one touched Jesus after the resurrection (as opposed to Johns account in his Gospel) then it would seem they are denying a physical element to the resurrection that the Gospel writers want us to believe and view as vital.

        • rogereolson

          To me “physical” implies “material,” so I prefer to speak of his resurrected body as a “spiritual body” (with Paul in 1 Cor. 15), but a body nonetheless.

          • Bev Mitchell

            We still have much to learn about the ‘material’ and practically everything to learn about the relationship between ‘spiritual’ and ‘material’. The creation that is now groaning, will become, one day, exactly what God wants it to become. In advance, the resurrected Son became exactly what the Father wanted him to become. Maybe there is not, should not be, will not be, the great gulf that we imagine between the spiritual and the material. In any event, the final version of creation will be an eye-opener, to say the least. :)

          • Tom

            Ok, I’m saying physical because I want to say definitely t hat Jesus could/was touched by his disciples and could eat as that is what is being disputed at my church. The preacher was saying that 1 Cor 15 meant that we don’t need to believe those things as a spiritual body is so different from a physical one.
            Perhaps we have a wider issue of the way we view spiritual things as being unable to make contact with the physical world?

          • rogereolson

            To me the issue is a simple one. Empty tomb or not? A person who believes the tomb was genuinely empty such that the body of Jesus was transformed believes in the resurrection. A person who does not believe in the empty tomb (or thinks it was only empty because someone stole the body) does not really believe in the resurrection. How we describe the body that rose is secondary. But the reason this matters is that I know professors whose jobs have almost been lost because they dared to deny that Jesus’ raised body was “physical.” (About fifteen years ago this happened at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and in the EFCA. It turned out right for the professor because, of course, Paul calls the resurrected body a “spiritual body,” not a physical one.)

          • Steve Dal

            Hang on
            Jesus showed the disciples his ‘hands and his feet’ and they gave him something to eat and he ate it in front of them Luke 24:39… Sounds like his real earthly body was resurrected.

          • rogereolson

            But not his dead body merely resuscitated (as in the case of Lazarus). He also walked through doors or walls.

      • Ryan

        Dr. Olson,
        Did you mean to say Jesus’ resurrection was *more than just* the resuscitation of a corpse?
        This is a helpful point to consider. I was definitely checked by N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope against thinking of our future hope of resurrection in purely spiritual terms. But in our reaction to this trend we need to be careful not to overreact to the point of thinking of our future resurrection in purely physical terms either.

        • rogereolson

          Yes.

      • Casey

        Roger,

        I think you meant to say that “Jesus’ resurrection was *not* the resuscitation of a corpse (like Lazarus’).”

        • rogereolson

          That is what I meant.

      • http://hereiblog.com/ Mark

        I am confused about your comment, Dr. Olson.
        You said:

        In other words, the tomb was indeed empty, but Jesus’ resurrection was the resuscitation of a corpse (like Lazarus’). It was a transformation to an entirely new mode of existence.

        I read that as if you are saying the Jesus’ body was like Lazarus’ in the first sentence, but then His body was unlike Lazarus’ in the second sentence. Also, when reading those sentences in the context of you saying that, “Jesus’ resurrected body was a “spiritual body”” adds more confusing to what you’ve stated.

        Would you mind clarifying?
        Thanks.

        • rogereolson

          I accidently left out “not” between “was” and “the” in the sentence you quote.

    • Austin

      Great question Tom. I think there is actually a pretty broad, strong consensus as to when to say “farewell”, though I would agree with Dr. Olson in noting that saying farewell need not mean we stop discussing. I think some of the creeds in particular provide this consensus…bodily resurrection, Trinity, full humanity/divinity of Christ, Christ dying for our sins (without equivocating this with a single atonement theory). I think these are things we say farewell over. And of course, I think the consensus of the early creeds are also the consensus of Scripture.

      What seems to be happening in Neo-Calvinism is a narrowing of “orthodoxy” and a broadening of issues they are willing to say “farewell” over.

      • rogereolson

        And “farewell” usually means “this is the end of our relationship unless you recant.” I don’t see that as necessary over doctrinal differences.

      • Tom

        Thanks Austin.

        So we could say that there are beliefs which are basic to Christianity (i.e. the things listed in early creeds) which we should expect to find amongst all Christians, if someone doesn’t believe in them then it’s not right to call them a Christian.

        Then there are beliefs which are particular to a denomination, e.g. exact view of church governance, view of predestination, etc. If someone doesn’t believe those things and can’t agree with then then it would be right for them to say goodbye to the denomination but not OK to say the denomination is not Christian. Similarly, the denominations can ask its members preachers and ministers to agree/teach these things or else suggest that they would be better off in a different church.

        Would you agree?

  • Ivan A. Rogers

    Austin wrote: “But the simple fact is that in American evangelicalism, neo-Calvinism now has the microphone and the world is listening.”

    While I endorse much of what Austin wrote, I take exception to his above statement. In fact, it is not true that “the world is listening” to the neo-Calvinists. Truth be told, the “world” doesn’t even know (or care) what an evangelical is, much less what a “neo-Calvinist” is. To make matters worse, most Christians don’t know what a neo-Calvinist is. Nor (gasp!) do they know what an Arminianist is. For that matter, most Christians are screwed up in their understanding of these high-flouting theological designations. They’re just satisfied to know that Jesus loves them and they love him back.

    • rogereolson

      Perhaps Austin was referring to the TIME magazine cover story a couple years ago that listed the new Calvinism as one of the top ten ideas shaping the world today.

    • Austin

      Hey Ivan…I agree that most of the world doesn’t know or care. It’s rhetorical nuance :) !! If you wanted a strictly literal statement there it would be something along the lines of, “In American evangelicalism, Calvinism has the mic and a stunningly high percentage of the population–especially Christian population–is listening.” And as Dr. Olson noted and the TIME magazine article points out, I think you are slightly underestimating the influence, for good or bad, of evangelicalism in general and Neo-Calvinism in particular.

  • Dean

    What makes me particularly interested in the YRR movement among young American Evangelicals is how similar our experiences seem to be when we first encounter it, and I feel like I’ve heard and seen this play out the same way over and over again. I grew up in a theologically vacuous, small Evangelical family church in Southern California where there was very little emphasis on studying the Bible or any doctrinal or theological instruction. Things didn’t change much in college either, in fact, I didn’t even know what the creeds were until my late 20s and this is coming from someone who “grew up in the Church” and was baptized at 14. So you see, when you encounter folks from the Neo-Reformed tradition with this background, you quickly become enthralled over how seriously these people take the Bible and when you add all the versus, as it happens, all the equations balance out and you get TULIP, it’s just so obvious! On top of that, the emphasis on sanctification is very appealing, especially for my socially conservatives friends because it basically affirmed for them that even though you got your Bible wrong, you were still on the right track all along in terms of your “walk”. Finally, you throw in a little “masculinity” and you have a great recipe for drawing young Evangelicals, particularly men, thirsty for a theology that emphasizes the primacy of the Bible, epistemological certainty, “moral” living, and isn’t afraid to kick ass and take names to boot. This is all just from my limited personal experience and how I’ve seen friends and acquaintances respond as well.

    What is odd to me though, is that I had to read Rob Bell’s Love Wins to even question that the notion of double predestination might be abhorrent. It certainly disturbs me as a well-educated professional who prides himself on being informed, well-read and able to think critically to have to read a book written by a celebrity pastor (for mass consumption) to make me question an idea I got from some other celebrity pastor. That probably means I need to read the Bible more, but something tells me it is symptomatic of a deeper problem in Evangelical Christianity today.

    • Bev Mitchell

      Dean,
      You make some excellent points. I am sure that you describe the context and perspective of many brothers and sisters, whether or not they have fallen for the full metal Calvinist line or not. There has to be room for the simple servant of the Lord who has heard the Good News and is allowing the Spirit to work in his or her life for the great benefit of those met daily. Good theology is so important, and bad theology is so destructive, but the touch of God on a willing heart can work wonders with, without or in spite of their theology

    • Austin

      Great observations Dean…especially the diagnosis of what has made the YRR so enthralling to many young males. The celebrity pastor phenomenon, especially in the YRR, deserves to be looked at more closely as well because I think it says something we need to listen to.

  • gingoro

    As a moderate calvinist the only one of the high calvinist’s like John Piper, Don Carson, R.C. Sproul, John MacArthur, Albert Mohler, Tim Keller etc that I read now is Tim Keller and that only sometimes. I have read many of the rest and do not find them profitable to read any more as they tend to be into divine determinism ie meticulous providence. Rather I am reading Scot McKnight and NT Wright as I find them spiritually more helpful.

    IMO if many of the high calvinists explained clearly their understanding of the Soverignty of God they would loose many of their followers. Meticulous providence does not leave much room for human significance and meaning.

    These issues should not separate the church of Christ as they are secondary matters! Of course if one believes in meticulous providence and preaches it then it must be true since God has ordained what one does. Seems somewhat circular to me. (Sarcasm)
    DaveW

    • Bev Mitchell

      Secondary, yes. Yet, the idea that God does evil things, regardless of the reasons we might speculate exist to justify this, is close to blasphemous. Even if it were correct, a horrid offspring of this kind of thinking is ‘the end justifies the means’ excuse that some use to justify all kinds of bad behaviour, slander, lying, selective presentation of evidence, misrepresentation, and general bearing of false witness. Further afield, it can make us blind to great abuses visited upon others, in our name, because our cause is so good, or the ends we envisage are so grand.

    • http://boastingweakness.blogspot.com/ Matt Richard

      I’ve never met a “moderate Calvinist.” Does that mean you are not into determinism, but affirm predestination?

      • rogereolson

        It can mean several things. Millard Erickson calls himself a moderate or modified Calvinist because he doesn’t believe in limited atonement and explains predestination using middle knowledge (which is supposed to join free will with deterministic sovereignty). Or it can mean a TULIP Calvinist who isn’t out to demean non-Calvinists as not fully Christians (Rich Mouw).

  • http://highroadkokko.blogspot.com Bruce Kokko

    Thanks for an excellent essay. It seems to me one thing Paul was excited about was how Jesus had torn down the dividing walls. I agree with you, let’s keep them down. Great post!

  • EDH

    What exactly do you mean by “spritual body”? Do you believe Jesus’ body was physical in some sense? The disciples were able to touch him.

    • rogereolson

      Everything turns on what “physical” means. Paul called Jesus’ resurrection body and ours “pneumatikos.” I don’t see how to reconcile that with materiality.

  • Scott C

    Well that requires some explanation. Are you saying Jesus does not have a physical body? Does this refer to his post-resurrection body or pre-resurrection body as well? If it is not physical what is it? Is it a non-corporeal spirit? Would he convey his presence via some sort of apparition? If he had a physical pre-resurrection body was that body annihilated somehow in the resurrection and he went back to his pre-incarnate non-corporeal existence or was the resurrection body somehow transformed into this “spiritual body”? What exegetes would hold to your view? Sorry for all the questions.

    • rogereolson

      “Corporeal” simply means “bodily.” It doesn’t necessarily mean material (which is what I take “physical” to mean). His pre-resurrection body was most definitely physical; it could die. His post-resurrection body was definitely not physical because it was immortal, incapable of death. But it was a body and not a phantom. In 1 Cor. 15 Paul is striving to get his readers to open up to there being more kinds of bodies than just “physical” or ghostly. Jesus post-resurrection body had substance, but was not composed of matter–at least not as we know it.

  • Steve Dal

    Roger
    This was such a good post. More please.

    • rogereolson

      I have invited Austin to be my youthful alter ego and contribute here occasionally. I expect we’ll read more by him here.

      • Beakerj

        Brilliant! I’d love to see a whole new generation of thinkers & writers who are not afraid to take on Calvinist thinkers & ideas, & put to death the idea that the rest of the Christian world doesn’t really have anyone of their theological calibre. I regularly give thanks for you Roger.

        • Steve Dal

          Beakerj
          One of my problems with Calvinists is the fact that very many of the Calvinist theologians I have read are ordinary. I think they bridge their interpretative chasms with assertions that are dubious at the best of times and completely arguable. Here in Australia there are very few if any young restless Calvinists. It just isn’t a big deal here.

  • Scott C

    So what about the new heavens and the new earth? Will that be non-material as well?

    • rogereolson

      The closest I can come to describing it is “spiritualized matter.” But that would not be matter as we now know it. The analogy is always to Jesus’ bodily resurrection. He could eat but also walk through walls.

  • Scott C

    BTW, my Webster’s New World dictionary defines corporeal as: “having the nature of, the body; physical; bodily; not spiritual.”

    • rogereolson

      That’s why I warn students not to use ordinary dictionaries for understanding theological concepts. No secular dictionary is going to have the concept “spiritual body” in it. That’s what Paul called resurrection bodies in 1 Cor. 15. “Corporeal” comes from the Latin for body. A scholar’s “corpus” (body of scholarly writings) might exist only digitally and therefore not physically (in any ordinary sense). It would still be his or her “corpus,” right?

  • J.E. Edwards

    Here’s a blog post of a skeptic that went (and spoke) at Together 4 the Gospel. Certainly, arrogance is possible in the best of men (and women), but this is a pretty good take. I know he’s reformed, but even he felt what this blog post (on Roger’s blog) was feeling. He did, however, come away with a different attitude. Hope this is helpful. God Bless.
    http://www.reformation21.org/blog/2012/04/t4g-made-me-look-like-a-girlym.php

  • George

    If Austin is correct (as to handling differences, breaking down walls, etc.), shouldn’t our Lord have invited at least one Pharisee and/or one Sadducee to be part of the twelve?

    • rogereolson

      Surely you didn’t get from Austin’s post that he thinks a church should have no boundaries. I didn’t read him that way.

      • George

        No, I didn’t get “no boundaries,” but I did decidedly “get” that in place of walls we should be entering into more dialogue with our position’s critics — not throwing bombs (love-kind or otherwise) but more of a drawing together. But why that? That I don’t understand. If I am a Calvinist (please note the “if”), it doesn’t follow that I need to (or even that it might be profitable to) further debate with my Arminian counterparts. We have made our choices based on our respective understandings of Scripture. Austin’s thesis seems to be about a pretentious attitude and subsequent (or underlying) arrogance. But what if I’m not arrogant? What if I’m a humble Calvinist? (Or is that an oxymoron to those applauding this thesis?) What if I want to be left alone to believe and teach my understanding of Scripture on the topic — and I promise not to be arrogant? What I was responding to with the suggestion that Jesus perhaps “needed” a Pharisee was what I felt was being proposed, namely, that both sides had to continue “talking” — maybe to reach some kind of detente (?).

        • Austin

          I appreciate your point. I’d only add that I think a continual dialogue (not that I think this is a conversation you need, much less want, on a daily basis) will always be helpful and we’d all be better off for it. You can certainly choose to be left alone but I think you’d (and we) would be better off if you didn’t. The deeper issue is that of becoming so calcified in your position that you seek to squelch other positions. As to Jesus, I think he does indeed choose a Pharisee (Paul), but I would also note that if anyone didn’t need “the other side”, it was Jesus…and we’re not Jesus.

    • Austin

      I thinking choosing Paul sufficed nicely.

  • Benoit

    Only pretentious want to call others pretentious. Others are pretentious, because they disagree, or would disagree, with my pretension.

    • rogereolson

      Seriously, now. You can’t really think that. You’ve never met someone you thought was being pretentious (without being pretentious yourself)?

    • Austin

      And only liars want to call others liars and only thieves want to accuse other of stealing…I just don’t see how this line of argumentation (anyone who calls others something is merely projecting there own flaws and insecurities onto them) is helpful, much less accurate.

  • Gerhardt Zabel

    Excellent article Austin,I pray that it would have a positive effect.I think you might have the beginnings of an interesting book.I too liked the paragraph on “transcendence” and the exhortation to take transcendece seriously.The only thing I would change a bit is the subject of “certainty”,Christians in their PERSONAL WALK with God can feel very” Certain “(Job-”I KNOW my redeemer liveth” ,Paul- “For we KNOW that God causes all things..” Rom. 8)

  • http://www.jonathantaylormartin.wordpress.com Jonathan

    Hey Austin, old friend here! Long time no see! Congratulations on your position in the church and on getting married!

    I was reading through this post and understood some things, but then also felt a little confused about other things.

    I understand disagreeing with someone about what is true, and healthy discussion about these disagreements are always good. I think writing about these disagreements and differences are always good, thought-provoking, and can make for healthy, needed conversation. I think that those that have any form of “public ministry” or who publicly teach and speak on what they believe should be held accountable for what they say. I think it’s good to weigh and evaluate these things. That being the case, I can appreciate your discussion on how you disagree with the neo-Calvanist’s “certainty” on certain issues.

    What I’m confused about is the definition of pretentious in this article. I’m truly not trying to be pretentious by saying this, but the definition of pretentious is to try and impress by making something of greater importance than it really is. Based on this definition, I would say that the Pharisee’s were definitely pretentious. Trying to elevate and build themselves up as being greater than they are…and Jesus totally called them on it.

    However, I have a hard time seeing pretentiousness as “certainty” if that certainty is a genuine belief. Maybe it’s seeming pretentious because the nature of truly and passionately believing one thing means that you also are discrediting other beliefs? And maybe that discrediting of other thoughts and beliefs seems to be an elevation of self? But that’s not really what is happening when someone believes something enough to make a case for it. Even in this post you are discrediting someone else’s views and beliefs because you genuinely disagree with them…but I wouldn’t say that makes you pretentious. I would just say that makes you passionate about what you believe. If I were to disagree with you on some points, surely that would be alright (even to disagree with you passionately), but for me to call you pretentious would be taking the disagreement to another level.

    I guess I feel that to call someone pretentious is a judgement of the heart…and an especially hard judgement to make of someone you don’t really know. I think Jesus was able to do that with the Pharisee’s because He was/is God. However, I don’t see any of the disciples or Paul making any of those judgement calls on the “Pharisees” after Jesus…because they aren’t able to truly and accurately evaluated the heart like Jesus. (I admit may be totally off on this by the way on this last point and just be unaware of some scripture, but nothing is coming to mind off the top of my head).

    In regards to seekers and influence…isn’t the goal for people to seek to know the Truth? It’s one thing for “one side” to say, “I disagree with some of the things they are believing and don’t believe them to be True.” It’s another thing entirely to attack the basic character of the other. THAT is what I think is coming off as pretentious. THAT is why I think people are turned off to both Calvanists AND Emergents. It can’t just be that we disagree…if that were the case, we could truly seek the Truth together. Instead, we attack each other’s character because to attack the other sides character, to demonize them, is seemingly one of the easiest ways to rally support and gain influence. Example: Politics – they spend thousands of dollars to attack character rather than really dealing with the differences in thought. The backlash of this “easy influence” is that the whole thing turns into a public circus and everyone involved is seen by many as a joke.

    All this to say, I’m just confused about what is defined as pretentious. I just don’t think that certainty is pretentious. Certainty can be a lot of things (crazy, dumb, foolish, flat-out wrong), but I don’t think it’s pretentious. It’s only pretentious if you don’t think they are genuinely certain, which in that case, I don’t know that we could ever make that call from such a distance. I feel that if we begin to call certainty pretentious then we accidentally also say that we are not allowed to really believe and fight for anything as true. On a theological note, many believe that it is pretentious to believe with certainty that there even IS a God. I feel that I could easily find a blog post on how pretentious people of faith are for believing and being vocal the existence of God. However, I know a lot of people who are certain that there is a God and in there certainty they prosthelytize…but their prosthelytizing isn’t evidence of their pretentiousness, but is rather evidence of the genuine faith and certainty. The perception doesn’t equal the reality. Should we be afraid of that perception of being pretentious and not speak to what we believe is certain? That is the question I found myself asking.

    • rogereolson

      I want Austin to respond, too, but, as the owner of the blog, please allow me to step in and speak only for myself–not Austin. I think it is pretentious for anyone to pretend never to have any doubts about something as uncertain as the mind of God. To claim that a theological system is absolutely above and beyond doubt or question is pretentious to me. I think only God can have absolute certainty beyond any doubt. Can there be something like “unintended pretentiousness?” I think so. That’s what I assume Austin is criticizing. Not that YRR folks set out to be pretentious but that some come across as pretentious without even knowing it. For example, the YRR student (not where I teach now) who told me “Professor Olson, you’re not a Christian because you’re not a Calvinist.” That betrays an impossible certainty about the rightness of Calvinism as the gospel itself. Maybe arrogant would be a better word? But the reason I allowed Austin’s use of “pretension” to stand is that it fits his point–that absolute certainty that excludes all doubt is a God attribute, not a human one. I will confess that whenever I hear a preacher or evangelist or Christian teacher speak who always comes across as absolutely certain (not just confident) of everything he (rarely she) says and never even hints at simply struggling with doubt as a human being I run away as fast as I can. If Jesus came among us and spoke (as he did to the disciples in bodily form) in a way that I could not doubt it was he, I wouldn’t call his truth claims pretentious because he’s God, but for anyone else to speak that way seems pretentious to me because they’re not God. I realize this will sound “old school,” but Bill Gaither has a wonderful little song entitled “I Believe; Help Thou My Unbelief.” You can see/hear it on youtube.

  • Austin

    Hey Jonathan! Thanks for the congrats and I think you made some good points. Here is where I’d push back. As to the definition of pretension you gave (“trying to impress by making something of greater importance than it is”), that’s not how I would define it and I don’t know that I’ve ever seen it defined exclusively in that fashion (though I’m sure it also carries that sense). I, and I think many people, do indeed associate it with the notion of arrogantly trying to impose one’s self and/or one’s claims, often because you are certain about them.

    Towards the end of your reply, you said, “It’s only pretentious if you don’t think they are genuinely certain, which in that case, I don’t know that we could ever make that call from such a distance.” I appreciate your point here, but I would point out (as Dr. Olson has) that I don’t think anyone can be genuinely certain when it comes to discerning the mind of God. I’m not even sure what that would mean. They may be genuinely certain they are certain, but they certainly aren’t genuinely certain. Therefore, I don’t have a problem calling anyone pretentious who is advocating a position in a way that implies they are certain about it (which is of course seen especially in trying to squelch other voices out).

    As to your fear that calling certainty pretentious will undermine our ability to really believe and fight for anything, I would agree that it might have that effect on some people, although it need not. Rather the primary effect I think it would have is–as I noted in the essay–to make humility an organic part of theology. Another way to say this is simply that if we stopped treating our theological constructs as the exception to transcendence, we would realize absolute certainty is always beyond our reach and theological reconciliation would be more of a norm than an exception.

    • rogereolson

      Applause!

  • http://www.jonathantaylormartin.wordpress.com Jonathan

    Well, here is what I do understand. I understand being frustrated about wounds and hurts caused under the banner of a certain group. I truly sympathize with that, just as I sympathize with non-believers who are write-off Christians in general because of past wounds or hurt. I hate that a few have the potential of spoiling it for the many! It’s just a burden and frustration of groups of people being like “one body.” Also, like I said before, I understand simply disagreeing with the points another group of people are making.

    I’m still not sure I understand the level of confidence assumed here that qualifies for the pretentious and arrogant category. Especially for public figures, I don’t think that it works to assume that they “are pretending not to have any doubts about something as uncertain as the mind of God.” Who can know the mind of a man, but the spirit of that man? (1 Cor. 2:11) Public figures and public voices are going to speak with confidence. For example, this whole post and comments ooze with the kind of confidence that I think you are calling “pretentious.” However, I don’t think you are being pretentious, I think you are being confident in your stance and what you believe to be true.

    I may be wrong, but it sounds more like this to me:
    1.) There are disagreements on points and issues
    2.) Frustration, hurt, and bitterness is stirred when it feels that one side just “writes-off” the other
    3.) 1 & 2 are getting mixed together

    It just seems to me like this type of response is an attempt to hurt and wound out of being hurt and wounded. For example, what exactly is the difference between Piper saying “farewell” to Bell and you saying “farewell” by “running away as fast as possible from people you find to be pretentious in their certainty?” They both seem to me like equally wrong responses. No grace. No “believing the best” (1 Cor. 13). No attempts to sort out truth. No attempts to really help the body. Just “holy cow! THEIR screwed up!” Instead of grace, we are going to spew frustrations and stir bitterness and separation. They both carry an attitude of “those idiots,” and again I submit that THAT is what is coming off as pretentious.

    How can they not smell their stink? Well, how can we not smell our own? Because we are so focused on the stink of others. We give lip-serivice to the fact that we are all stinky, but in truth, we think their stink is worse.

    Jesus didn’t react to the pharisee’s the way He did because they were certain…He reacted to them the way He did because they were phonies! They were hypocrites! Saying one thing publicly while doing another privately. Acting like their hearts where in one place when they really were in another.

    Look, I just don’t think that being confident or “certain” about something is THE problem. Again, I think people can be certain without being arrogant or pretentious (on purpose or accidentally). A mentally disabled person can be genuinely certain that they can fly without being arrogant or pretentious. He would just be wrong. And that wrongness wouldn’t stir up frustration in us, but rather sympathy and a desire to help him know the truth as best he can. This being a site for many different faiths, I would say another example is that someone could be certain that their faith or religion is the one way just as I am certain that mine is the one way. Does that automatically make us both pretentious? No. If I don’t approach them with sympathy and grace in the midst of my certainty then that is a wrong response to our differences and might just be arrogant and pretentious…or it might reveal fear and doubt on my part. It doesn’t mean I have to potentially agree with them…it just means I don’t write them off as a person because of what they are believing. Sometimes, I think we, as Christians and people in general, are bad about writing people off…and on the flip-side sometimes I think we as people wrongly perceive disagreement as an automatic write-off.

    The only reason I commented in the first place was because I truly just think it’s dangerous to label “certainty” as equal to “arrogance” and/or “pretentiousness.” If we can’t decidedly be certain, for example, that what the Bible is true and that it along with the Holy Spirt reveals to us the mind and heart of God, then we have nothing to stand on. It’s okay to be certain, it’s just how you treat others in the midst of your certainty. That’s why following Jesus is the best because He calls us to love even our enemies…even the ones we are certain we disagree with.

    • rogereolson

      I suspect what Austin is talking about is the attitude one not only feels but hears expressed from many in the YRR camp that non-Calvinists are either not Christians or are unworthy of being heard. I have myself been told I am not a Christian ONLY because I’m not a Calvinist–by YRR people. More commonly I am told I’m not an evangelical because I’m not a Calvinist. But another element Austin may be referring to transcends the YRR phenomenon and is witnessed in many religious (and other) groups that are so sure they’re right they trample on people with whom they disagree–misrepresenting their beliefs, implying they are dishonest or harbor secret heresies, attempting to destroy their careers and professional reputations. All of that goes on in today’s evangelical movement and most of it comes from the Calvinists. (Which is not to say all Calvinists engage in those habits.)

    • Austin

      I’m not sure if this response was to my response or Dr. Olson’s but I’ll assume it was a response to mine. I have never found psychoanalysis to be helpful in theological discussions, and to be honest that’s what I’m hearing in the “all these things are being said from a wounded place because the one speaking has had his/her feelings hurt” beginning to your response. But I’ll just leave that at that…

      I agree that certainty is not synonymous with pretension and arrogance and don’t believe I made that equivocation anywhere. What I said is that theological pretension feeds, primarily, on certainty…and that when it comes to God, certainty is impossible. When this fact takes hold, humility and theological reconciliation become organic. That’s the argument in a nutshell.

      You’ve consistently noted that people can be genuinely certain when it comes to God and I just don’t know what you mean. As I noted above, I think people can be genuinely certain they are certain, but they certainly aren’t genuinely certain. To use your example of a mentally handicapped person, we wouldn’t hold their false belief in certainty against them because they (apparently) would not be expected to know they can’t fly. But to state the obvious, the people I am claiming we should hold accountable for theological pretension are essentially theological professionals (pastors and theologians) who have no excuse for thinking they can be certain in their knowledge of God. To make your illustration more applicable, if a sane and stable pilot decided to jump out of his plane because he was certain he could fly, I would have no problem calling that pretentious, along with a few other words.

      What do you mean when you say you are certain about the things you believe? What are the grounds of your certainty? These are the operative questions.

  • http://atdcross.blogspot.com/ Nelson Banuchi

    Austin Fischer said that “the tone of modern American evangelical theological rhetoric belies a furious, but ultimately impossible and misguided attempt, for certainty.”

    I could not agree with him more. Please see, if you have time, my reflections on uncertainty: http://atdcross.blogspot.com/2012/02/however-uncertain-life-may-be.html

  • Gerhardt Zabel

    I read this in todays devotional “My utmost for his highest”-Oswald Chambers- and thought it might be appropriate here.

    Gracious Uncertainty
    . . . it has not yet been revealed what we shall be . . . —1 John 3:2

    Our natural inclination is to be so precise—trying always to forecast accurately what will happen next—that we look upon uncertainty as a bad thing. We think that we must reach some predetermined goal, but that is not the nature of the spiritual life. The nature of the spiritual life is that we are certain in our uncertainty. Consequently, we do not put down roots. Our common sense says, “Well, what if I were in that circumstance?” We cannot presume to see ourselves in any circumstance in which we have never been.
    Certainty is the mark of the commonsense life—gracious uncertainty is the mark of the spiritual life. To be certain of God means that we are uncertain in all our ways, not knowing what tomorrow may bring. This is generally expressed with a sigh of sadness, but it should be an expression of breathless expectation. We are uncertain of the next step, but we are certain of God. As soon as we abandon ourselves to God and do the task He has placed closest to us, He begins to fill our lives with surprises. When we become simply a promoter or a defender of a particular belief, something within us dies. That is not believing God—it is only believing our belief about Him. Jesus said, “. . . unless you . . . become as little children . . .” (Matthew 18:3). The spiritual life is the life of a child. We are not uncertain of God, just uncertain of what He is going to do next. If our certainty is only in our beliefs, we develop a sense of self-righteousness, become overly critical, and are limited by the view that our beliefs are complete and settled. But when we have the right relationship with God, life is full of spontaneous, joyful uncertainty and expectancy. Jesus said, “. . . believe also in Me” (John 14:1), not, “Believe certain things about Me”. Leave everything to Him and it will be gloriously and graciously uncertain how He will come in—but you can be certain that He will come. Remain faithful to Him.

  • http://www.jonathantaylormartin.wordpress.com Jonathan

    Cool! Thanks Austin and Dr. Olson for talking this through with me. I’m understanding better how you guys are seeing things. I also talked through this with a few friends just to try and get a better understanding on my end as well. I think that having a tone of humility in how we teach/speak/debate about things is really important but really hard when passions and convictions are stirred. I can see that you guys just fundamentally disagree with those who might feel certain about particular things when it comes to theology and that it frustrates you that they assert a level of “certainty,” or confidence, in the way they speak/teach/and debate about these things they believe to be true. I understand that sometimes in the fight for Truth we forget about the people. Sometimes the Truth is going to “step on toes”, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t still be aware of or care about the toes we are “stepping on” as we confidently express things we believe to be True. I’m still not persuaded that “certainty” equals arrogance and pretentiousness…however, I do agree that when we let what we believe to be certain allow us to feel at all superior to “those other guys,” our certainty has led to the arrogance you are talking about…and I agree that that is not good.

    • rogereolson

      May I suggest a good read on this subject? I’ve recommended this book several times before. It’s by a former colleague of mine. The title is The Myth of Certainty. Another similar book (more philosophical) is Proper Confidence by Lesslie Newbigin.

  • Steven Porter

    The disagreement with Jonathan resides precisely in a distinction between the terms ‘certainty’ and ‘confidence’. It is something akin to the difference between knowing in the biblical sense (which acknowledges faith as constitutive aspect of knowing) and the modern empirical sense (which sets supposedly universal ‘facts’ in opposition to personal ‘beliefs’). As Roger suggests, Lesslie Newbigin explores this distinction as an important aspect of his critique of the religious skepticism of the modern West. And, I might add, he does so as a Reformed theologian who views the sort of certainty Austin criticizes as deeply problematic on biblical, philosophical, and even scientific grounds.

  • http://www.billyymcmahon.wordpress.com billy mcmahon

    this is really good. i’ve wrestled with the concept of “love bombs” for quite some time, feeling like there’s something wrong with it but have never been able to find the words. incredible job of articulating that


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