We Can Be So Right and Still Be So Wrong: My Theological Journey from Certainty to Discovery

We Can Be So Right and Still Be So Wrong: My Theological Journey from Certainty to Discovery January 21, 2015

Jeff Clarke IMG_0280

*Guest Post by Jeff K. Clarke. He offers guest insights here on the Pangea Blog from time to time. I hope you enjoy!

My theological journey has less to do with changes made to specific categories, though many such changes have occurred, and more to do with the posturemood and style in which I engage in the theological task.

In the past, my approach to theology and biblical studies could have been characterized as a strict, letter-of-the-law type attitude, that was determined to create the perfect, airtight theological system by seeking to ensure that every ‘t’ was crossed and every ‘i’ dotted.

As a result, I became very rigid in the way I approached theology and left little room for viewpoints that seemed, in my view, to color outside the lines. I was quick to judge theological ideas that did not fit neatly into my system and came to define people as either ‘in’ or ‘out.’

My theological posture was very rigid and often aggressive. I came to view Christian experience as suspect, holding out little possibility that it could add anything beneficial to my well-defined belief systems. I was all too eager to throw around words like heresy and heretic the moment I encountered what I thought was unorthodox theology.

In his book, Reformed and Always Reforming, Roger Olson briefly outlined the relationship between theological conservatives and fundamentalists as having

“a tendency toward harsh, polemical rhetoric and angry denunciations or ad hominem arguments when writing about fellow evangelicals with whom they disagree.”

Sadly, this was true of me.

For instance, in biblical studies, I came to prefer propositional truth statements over story, Paul over Mark, and didactic passages over poetry. As a result, I became fascinated with finding certainty in everything and came to approach theology with a highly defensive posture. Defend and conquer were my themes.

That all changed, however, when I met Clark Pinnock back in 1999. Though I later developed a deep appreciation for many of his views, the most valuable lesson I learned from him had to do with the way I actually did theology.

My journey was similar to his in that we shared a move from certainty to discovery; an openness to let our guard down and listen to what other voices different from our own could teach us. As a result, the biggest change for me came in my attitude and approach.

The results have been worth the risk. I no longer believe that I’ve arrived, but seek to be constantly aware of what is happening around me. While I feel confident in where I am today theologically, my posture is less concerned with certainty and more about being confident I’m on the right path. The rigidity has given way to openness; the certainty to discovery.

I came to share what Roger Olson described as a “spirit of adventure but not unfettered theological experimentation.” I became comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity.

Quoting Olson again, I came to realize that “absolute truth is what God knows,” and “our grasp of truth is always from a certain finite perspective and infected with finitude and fallenness.” As a result, my response should be characterized by humility, not arrogance.

In the end, this is what the pursuit of truth should be for all of us –

  • We should be confident of where we are, but open to where we could be; ever learning, growing and searching for truth, wherever it leads us.
  • We should see the task of theology as unfinished, ever open to exploration and reformation.
  • We should relinquish our constant demand for certitude and embrace our finitude.
  • We should remember that not everything in life is black and white and that some things are a mixture of both.
  • We should open ourselves up to embrace a posture of openness and humility, realizing that we are all in process and have yet to arrive.

In essence, our position should change from standing to walking – from immobility to mobility.

Some may criticize you for being a moving target, but so be it. I would rather be engaged in an exciting journey, full of expectation and surprises, than standing still.

And besides, this is far more fun!

What journey have you been on? I’d love to here about it.

References: Roger Olson, Reformed and Always Reforming: The Postconservative Approach to Evangelical Theology. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007.


Jeff K. Clarke is a blogger and an award-winning author of articles and book reviews in variety of faith-based publications. He blogs regularly at  Jesus (Re)Centered – informing | impacting | inspiring. He is on Twitter and Facebook

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Frank6548

    I’d rather stay on the firm foundation of Christ instead if blowing the wind.

    • gimpi1

      Then how can you learn or grow? What if you’re wrong? If you never doubt or question, how will you find out?

      • Frank6548

        Who said I never doubt or question? What I didn’t do, what I didnt need to do, what any follower of Christ doesn’t need to do is look elsewhere for answers. Faith is required to be a follower of Jesus.

        • Uber Genie

          Oops! Faith is not a way of knowing! It is trusting in a relationship but has nothing to do with Epistmology. We trust in who he says he is due to warrants such as his miracles, fulfilled prophecy, and resurrection.

          In 1900 Max Planck submitted a paper on quantum theory in Berlin. There were many troubling aspects to his theory but it also explained more phenomena than the standard model. Scientists like Einstein adopted the model because it best explained the data.

          Scientists of Planck’s day could be said to have faith in quantum theory. Just like Christians, they were able to grow in their knowledge and understanding over time. Now the analogy breaks down on many fronts and I don’t want to extend it further. But to say we gain no new knowledge, or spirituality for that matter, by insinuating that knowledge and faith share the same continuum.

  • Jerry Lynch

    In my process, I have come to see that how I believe is at least as important as what I believe. Is it as a little child? The firm foundation of Christ, for me, is love, not knowledge; it is surrender, not self-improvement. Wonder, I feel, is an equal of faith or at least one of faith’s best qualities. A God of endless height and depth and breadth demands a heart and mind continually open to eternal mystery. Yes, this openness is blowing in the wind, for “the wind of spirit blows wherever it pleases” (John3:8) and needs the tithers of our certainty unsecured.

    Change is always a mystery and a surprise and in some ways truth is always new, for as we (hopefully) mature in Spirit, by grace, each fresh nuance revealed is like a whole new species of understanding. What came before seems like nothing more than a stumbling in the dark. And this repeats itself…if we become as a little child. No one has a firmer hold on truth than a child’s open hand.

    • charlesburchfield

      This is truly beautiful man! I am glad I made your acquaintance tonight on the other blog. I look forward to reading more of your posts.

      • Jerry Lynch

        Thank you. Extremely kind. Look forward to possible friendship.

    • Ken Steckert

      Staying with the child analogy – No one has a firmer hold on trust than a child’s open hand.

  • DC Rambler

    This is the best story I have read on this site.. Thank you ! This issue drives me bonkers..
    And the thing is, those who are most certain feel that all the information that they have been told is true and have never thought to challenge it. Oh, and everything you think is wrong..

  • Jim Caldwell

    Thanks Jeff. Great post (probably because it resonates with mine!). I went to Regent in 1974 because Clark Pinnock was coming to teach there. My reason was he was the defender of all things about a very conservative view of biblical inspiration. Little did I know he had reformed in his thinking around that. He helped shift some very rigid ways of thinking in me that still has me on an adventurous journey of faith. Semper reformanda.

  • Brandon Roberts

    Nice post

  • “our grasp of truth is always from a certain finite perspective and infected with finitude and fallenness.”

    This is so true! We would all do well to walk with humility and an openness to actually listen to our brothers and sisters. Who knows… we just might learn something from them! 😉

  • While I understand the desire for certainty that is almost genetic in reformed theology, I have always thought that too much certainty leaves the bigness of God out of our thinking.

    We cannot compromise on essentials of the faith. That is clear. But there are so many issues of theology beyond those that we need to always begin from humility when proclaiming what the Word teaches. God does not change, but he does change minds.

    Thanks for this piece. It is well written and I wholeheartedly agree. I also appreciated Clark Pinnock – both in hearing him speak at Fuller and at Regent.

  • hmmm?! enjoying some Saturday morning reading.

    I hear you saying, “it is not so much WHAT one believes, as it is HOW one believes? Western, propositional thinking leads to ungodliness; and Eastern, experiential insight leads to enlightenment…” I am sure that I am oversimplifying and also misusing some constructs?! But, my eyeglasses are this color.

    You do seem to be consistent in NOT reasoning your way to this position! though, I doubt you’d call it a position: more of a perspective, or compass-point. But, you still seem to be “doing theology”?! It is difficult to get out of a rut.

    Re-reading the Gospels this new year confronts me with the role of the Spirit in so much that was Jesus and his early disciples?! I am not a charismaniac; I “feel” they are settling. But, “there is more”, to quote the holiness preacher that I regularly hear teach. I have a formal, academic, polemic-oriented background; but, there is within my DNA (physically and spiritually speaking?) that which calls me to the hills and trees! Sometimes after an evening of Bible-reading, I go out and stare into the starry night.


    thanks for the chat.

  • Uber Genie

    Hard to know where to begin commenting. Well-written post. If your target audience is to immature and intractable individuals say (Pastor John MacArthur) then bravo! I think Jesus said in Matt. 29 ” the arrogant and intractable will always be with you.”

    However, what about millennials, or genX, y,z etc.? There is an entire generation that wants to absorb theology by watching 2-min Youtube videos, or reading 140 character tweets from pastors optimizing their personal brands. You might want to bound those individuals from extending your argument to eliminating objective truth.

    Clearly your post was about your journey from rigid to developmental. It is pitch perfect, and how all knowledge progresses. But one doesn’t discover these truths usually until grad school. You might want a disclaimer next time suggesting something on the order of “epistemological limitations in Christian theology” followed by but we do know some things Christ, the atonement, gospel, etc.

    Another post about how one approaches these subjects based on evidence from scripture. Many clear passages as opposed one or two obscure references. Hermeneutics and the process of systematics would be helpful to those in our culture who want to equivocate, and render the text meaningless.

    • Michael Sei Davis

      Entire generation?

      I think this statement captures the essence of what you’re saying: “Hermeneutics and the process of systematics would be helpful to those in our culture who want to equivocate, and render the text meaningless.” I agree.

  • The Bohemian

    A very wise place to be. Knowing that there are many things that we can’t know for a certainty, enables us to discover truths that we otherwise would not have discovered. I’ve been on that path since I was in a very young adult. I wobble sometimes. I don’t always feel as charitable as I should towards those with very harsh theological and social views.

  • parishioner

    uh…..where are you going? do you know? if you do, it’s not arrogant to say so.

    at times this sounds a little too much like, “there is no destination; there is only the journey.” people who insist on that usually do not tolerate those who remember that Jesus said otherwise. I hope you’re not among them.

    for the christian, the destination is the father. he walked with humanity before the fall, and the whole point of the crucifixion is reconciliation of that intimacy between us and our creator, our heavenly father. it’s always “higher up and further in!” to quote c.s. lewis’ the last battle. we are supposed to be always learning, and growing closer to him. the holy spirit is a living “deposit” of our redemption, and we are betrothed to the Bridegroom who is comng soon!

    there are things we can know for sure; let’s not come up with a false defintion of humility. keep in mind it is satanism which declares, “nothing is true; everything is permissible.”