Glorying in Uncertainty in Modern Protestantism

Glorying in Uncertainty in Modern Protestantism February 6, 2016

(Dialogue with a Calvinist)


Photograph by Jef Poskanzer (3-13-08)  [Wikimedia Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license]
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(11-11-09)* * *

This is from a combox at the Protestant blog, Growing Grace-full, under a post called “Epistemological Modesty.”

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Protestantism tends towards what I have called the “cult of uncertainty.” It is by no means clear to me at all that making uncertainty a benchmark of exceptional humility is a successful or even sensible endeavor. Nor is it, I think, a biblical outlook (to put it very mildly).

It seems that whenever I get a Protestant to a place where fundamental starting premises are / need to be examined, they have better things to do and the relevant questions continue to be unanswered. ‘Tis a pity.

Lastly; for the life of me I swear that I fail to comprehend why simply believing in faith (with reasons and plenty of scriptural back-up) in an authoritative Church and a particular set of Christian doctrines, is outrageous hubris.

Can someone explain this to me? Thanks!

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[Steve Z.: a Reformed Protestant who is a deacon at the Christian Reformed ChurchScott Clark speaks of the “quest of absolute certainty,” and it always seems to me to be the affliction of the Catholic apologists.

Are you saying that it is impossible to achieve the certainty of faith, or certitude, in theological / spiritual matters? Are we not certain, e.g., that God exists, or that the Holy Trinity is true, or that we are saved by God’s grace alone, or that Jesus died on the cross for our sins?

Well, I think to say “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth” is quite different from, “I know for a fact, beyond any doubt whatsoever that God exists and ain’t nobody gonna tell no different!” True, the fool says in his heart there is no God, but the fanatic says I see something nobody else does.

If you draw an extreme contrast for rhetorical purposes, that will impress some folks, but it is not fair argumentation. I still don’t see how simply adopting the beliefs of Catholicism amounts to arrogance and hubris.

There are many complexities here. It is not a simple discussion, either epistemologically or in a broader philosophic sense or biblically.

But how is it epistemologically different for the Catholic to say, “I believe in faith in an infallible Church that God set up and that He specially guides and protects.” There is such a thing as “the Church” that is presupposed in the NT. It’s not just a community club or the Elks or suchlike. It is a thing ordained by God, that has authority.

Now, we understand that Catholics and Protestants look at ecclesiology and authority differently, but what bothers me about this whole discussion, is how Catholics are accused of arrogance, for simply taking the principle of faith further than the Protestant does. You say we are arrogant and triumphalistic. But from our perspective it looks to us that Protestants lack faith in God’s promises and provisions for His people. You provide Scripture for all your distinctives; so do we for ours. They all have to be dealt with in some fashion.

“I know for a fact, beyond any doubt whatsoever that God exists and ain’t nobody gonna tell no different!”

Belief in God is a pretty established, solid position for all Christians. It is as close to certain as we get, I think. It depends on how one decides “doubt.” Is His existence exceedingly certain? Yes. The Bible teaches us that all know that He exists. It presupposes this. It’s most clearly expressed in Romans 1:19-21. Is it arrogant to take that passage at face value, too, and assert that atheists know that God exists? I think not.

Does it mean that a Catholic or any Christian must take a view where there is no conceivable instance where we might be convinced otherwise? No. I have written many times that I can conceive such a scenario, but I have never come remotely close to changing my mind, as a result of many of my own debates with atheists. I’m just not convinced. But that is different from saying that I could never possibly be convinced otherwise. What can we know with absolute certainty? Again, it depends on how the terms are defined. I’m pretty certain that I exist and that the universe exists, and that my computer and my fingers exist as I type this, and that I am having these thoughts (Descartes). Knowing that God exists is a bit less certain than that, but not by much. The certainty comes about by many converging, accumulated evidences.

True, the fool says in his heart there is no God, but the fanatic says I see something nobody else does.

And that is how you view the Catholic position? We’re not saying that. We’re saying that there is an issue of authority to be reckoned with, and that Scripture, history and reason all have to be taken into account. Both Orthodoxy and Catholicism believe in an authoritative (infallible) Church, but Protestantism doesn’t. You guys brought in the new view. The fathers certainly didn’t think as you do. I have tons of quotes from Protestant patristics scholars that back me up on that. So the burden of proof is on you to show us all otherwise. And I think it has not been shown and that sola Scriptura is a desperately illogical and unbiblical position.

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No one has taken a crack at answering the sincere questions I asked in my first comment above. If it is not hubris and arrogant and triumphalistic, etc., etc. to believe firmly in these things and not doubt them, why does it automatically become so when a Catholic dares to have faith enough to believe that God guides what we believe to be His established Church, protecting her from error?

Fair question. I think the difference may be that the Protestant speaks in short hand when he says “I have infallible assurance”; he doesn’t mean he has absolute certainty. he means he has unshakeable faith (which includes doubt).

I don’t know what this means. Faith by definition means a thing that falls short of absolute proof. I don’t see how Catholics and Protestants differ all that much in this respect. We have faith in things. I think it is a reasonable faith and not contrary to reason, but it is still faith, and faith is not identical to reason (which is the fallacy in much of the Protestant argumentation against Catholic infallibility: it reduces even faith to mere logical propositions, as if it is not distinct and something more, and supernatural, and a mystery of grace as well).

The Catholic means he has absolute certainty.

I don’t think we believe it in the manner in which you are presenting it. We have the certitude of faith. As I stated above, it is an exceedingly complex discussion, and folks are at different levels of understanding. If you want to get all intellectual and philosophical to the max about it, then I would HIGHLY recommend that you read Cardinal Newman’s An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent. It’s available online.

This will explain how a thinking Catholic regards theological truths, and their relation to faith, and help many Protestants to get past the caricature level in seeking to understand our positions.

If it helps, this Protestant finds the Catholic system quite attractive.

I find many elements of Protestantism quite attractive, too, which is why I was a fervent evangelical for 13 years, and retain many great aspects of that faith to this day, insofar as they are not contrary to Catholicism (which is a great deal of stuff).

It must be nice to not have any doubt in the here and now.

We have a reasonable assurance of faith and the certitude of faith. It doesn’t follow that there is an utter absence of doubt at all times. People struggle with various truth claims, and in understanding things. That is the human condition: psychologically and subjectively and emotionally. But we all come to adopt one position over another. Hopefully, we have adequate reasons for doing so, and are always open to discussing those and overthrowing them where necessary.

I’m quite willing to become a Protestant again if I am persuaded to do so, just as I was persuaded to become a Catholic. It just has never happened in fact. I have found the arguments severely wanting in every head-to-head comparison I have done (and I have over 500 debates posted on my blog).

Just because one has not in fact been convinced of something, it doesn’t follow that they believe they never possibly could be convinced in any possible world.

But the attraction is far outweighed by the fact that I find such hubris more disingenuous to the human condition as I know it.

I don’t see the hubris. You obviously do, so I am trying to figure out why you and other Protestants do. What I do know for sure, as a result of my work as an apologist, is that Catholicism is often very poorly understood, and that frequently what is being critiqued is a straw man and a caricature. The same thing often happens to Calvinists as well, and evangelicals, from various quarters. All the more reason to talk things through and reach a greater mutual understanding, especially those of us who regard each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. It’s imperative.

Those who think I am not even a Christian are not worth my time bothering with anymore. Been there done that.

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Why is one thing intrinsically different from the other? I don’t see it. We can have an honest disagreement, but why do value judgments as to supposed glaring subjective faults have to enter into it? What is possibly accomplished by adopting that opinion?

In effect, the argument is, “if one doesn’t accept our own Protestant distinctives, and deny the infallibility of the Church and the pope, then by that very fact they must be arrogant and full of hubris. How dare someone assert Catholic truth claims!!”

Yet if the Protestant claims that uncertainty has to be espoused in order to save oneself from arrogance, then that itself is a claim of certainty: enough to condemn someone who differs with it. And that is self-defeating, as mentioned above. If uncertainty is such a supreme value, then to consistently hold to it would require one not to condemn another view, because to do so presupposes that there is a truth that can be known; therefore, the condemner is manifestly as arrogant as the one he condemns as arrogant (and arguably hypocritical too).

The modern mind seems to conceive of the opposite of faith as doubt, but it’s actually sight; doubt is a necessary and implicit aspect of faith.

That’s the exact opposite of the truth, according to Jesus, Paul, James, and Jude: all of whom pit doubt against faith as antithetical or opposite things:

Matthew 14:31 (RSV) Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “O man of little faith, why did you doubt?” (cf. 28:17)

Matthew 21:21 And Jesus answered them, “Truly, I say to you, if you have faith and never doubt, you will not only do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, `Be taken up and cast into the sea,’ it will be done. (cf. Mk 11:23)

Romans 14:23 But he who has doubts is condemned, if he eats, because he does not act from faith; for whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.

James 1:6 But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for he who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind.

Jude 1:20-22 But you, beloved, build yourselves up on your most holy faith; pray in the Holy Spirit; [21] keep yourselves in the love of God; wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life. [22] And convince some, who doubt;

You’re forgetting that Protestants read Scripture in relation to Scripture.

So do we. Everyone has to do that. That’s why I produced so much Scripture above. God has spoken.

Yes, there is a sort of pitting of faith against doubt.

And this is your answer to all that (ostensibly perspicuous) Scripture?

But there is also the Pauline view that we live by faith and not by sight.

Yes, of course. Faith is not the equivalent of reason. But Paul (above all others in the NT) was very, very sure of what he believed. He didn’t talk at all like Peter Berger and other Protestants today who glory in doubt and uncertainty and existential ambiguity.

I know you think we have a love affair with doubt,

It’s more like an intellectual malady. Misguided; the wrong path . . .

but the posture on doubt is actually in a higher service to faith.

Please show that from Scripture. And if it isn’t there, why should anyone believe it, from Protestant premises? You are providing subjective opinions out of your head. I have provided (along with my own subjective opinions) a lot of objective Scripture that has to be dealt with in some fashion.

Moreover, you realize, of course, that faith will disappear in the next age, to be replaced by sight (maranatha!).

Indeed. But then why would doubt be a foretaste of that, rather than a high degree of certitude of faith?

So it isn’t as if faith is so great anyway. Faith is a facet of this passing age.

Because it will pass does not mean it is not important now. We have God’s revelation precisely so that we can know the truth, and in turn live the Christian life by God’s grace with as much confidence as someone like the Apostle Paul exhibited.

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The Protestant outlook is at ease with mystery,

No problem there.

discomfort, tension and the ability to simply say, “I believe, help me with my unbelief.”

The problem is that Protestants are also at ease with contradiction, division, and a sort of fetish for uncertainty, as if this is a glorious rather than scandalous thing. Contradiction means someone (by the laws of logic) is believing falsehood, and that is not a good thing. If you think it is, biblically speaking, then please show me where God ever desires that we doubt and believe in falsehood: as if the search for truth (ultimately unattainable, so it seems you are saying) is more important than the truth discovered with the eyes of faith, with the aid of God’s grace.

The Protestant “cult of uncertainty” or “non-quest for certainty” is well illustrated by a citation from Lutheran sociologist Peter Berger, used in the post at Growing Grace-full:

Epistemological modesty, he suggests, is part and parcel of bearing the marks of Christ’s kenosis. I’ll conclude with a final thought from Berger in an interview published in The Christian Century (29 October 1997, pp. 972–78):

The basic fault lines today are not between people with different beliefs but between people who hold these beliefs with an element of uncertainty and people who hold these beliefs with a pretense of certitude. There is a middle ground between fanaticism and relativism. I can convey values to my children without pretending a fanatical certitude about them. And you can build a community with people who are neither fanatics nor relativists.

My colleague Adam Seligman uses the term “epistemological modesty.” Epistemological modesty means that you believe certain things, but you’re modest about these claims. You can be a believer and yet say, I’m not really sure. I think that is a fundamental fault line.

So for Berger (I know a little about him; I have six of his books in my library), certainty is the equivalent of “pretense” and “fanaticism.” What a nice touch. But Protestants are not, alas, relativists, in attacking certitude. Rather, the more sophisticated among them are moderately uncertain: the golden mean between “fanaticism and relativism”: the theological analogical equivalent of wishy-washy political moderates and swing voters, who never seem to be able to make up their mind (thus they were enamored of President Obama in 2008 and now — jolted by economic reality — are much less so). I submit that this folly is a very steep, greased, slippery slope.

Of course, if it isn’t already obvious, Berger is a theological liberal. He makes this clear himself in the same interview cited above. Note again closely how he regards truth claims:

I haven’t changed my theological position, really, since I wrote A Rumor of Angels. In my early youth I was sort of a neo-orthodox fanatic of a Lutheran variety. I don’t think I was a fanatic in a personally disagreeable way, but intellectually I was. And then I got out of that. Since Rumor of Angels the only reasonable way I can describe myself theologically is as part of a liberal Protestant tradition.

My most recent book–Redeeming Laughter, about the comic in human life–takes up directly from where I ended in A Rumor of Angels, referring to humor as one of the signals of transcendence. I think it’s a very important signal. To talk of signals of transcendence betrays a liberal position, for it excludes almost by definition any kind of orthodox certainty. If you are certain in terms of the object of your religious belief, you don’t need any signals–you’ve already got the whole shebang. This is the only position I’ve found it possible to hold with intellectual honesty, and I doubt that is going to change.

. . . I don’t think it follows that what is needed is a return to orthodoxy. . . . The history of Protestantism has shown . . . that you can have real faith without being in some sort of narrow orthodox mold. That is the challenge to liberal Protestantism.

. . . No tradition can be taken for granted any more. To pretend that it can is, in most cases, a self-delusion.

Schleiermacher was lucky in that he still had a church with a strong religious substance with which he could enter into dialogue. In liberal Protestantism in America we are not so lucky. There is nothing much there to enter into dialogue with.

I’ve been saying for years that this currently very fashionable fetish for uncertainty is a species of postmodernism or liberalism, and sure enough, here comes Berger to exactly confirm my analysis. The sad thing now is that many thinking evangelical or Calvinist Protestants are now adopting these liberal, skeptical modes of thought without being aware (or so it seems) of where they derive, or how contrary they are not only to Catholicism, but even to their own Protestant traditions (folks like Luther and Calvin).

The New Testament (which is, remember, a bit of an authority for the Christian) , on the other hand, doesn’t offer the slightest hint of doctrinal relativism (to any degree), permitted differences on anything other than non-doctrinal matters such as what food to eat. It has not the remotest trace of the current (not historic) Protestant fascination with doctrinal diversity and subjective struggle, or the notion of “primary vs. secondary” doctrines; with the latter up for grabs and entirely optional.

Instead, what is found in the New Testament is a constant, unchanging casual assumption (above all in St. Paul) that there is but one truth, one faith, one commandment, one doctrine, one teaching, one message, one gospel, etc.

I have dozens of texts compiled that deal with these things, having included them in my last published book. Here are some more texts that I didn’t collect in my book Bible Proofs for Catholic Truths, that teach assurance, being sure, assured, certain, confident, knowing, etc., in direct contradiction to this glorying over uncertainty as if that is required by a misguided notion of “humility” (epistemological or otherwise):

Genesis 15:13 Then the LORD said to Abram, “Know of a surety that your descendants will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs, and will be slaves there, and they will be oppressed for four hundred years;

Job 8:6 if you are pure and upright, surely then he will rouse himself for you and reward you with a rightful habitation.

Job 11:18 And you will have confidence, because there is hope; you will be protected and take your rest in safety.

Psalm 23:6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.

Psalm 85:9 Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him, that glory may dwell in our land.

Psalm 119:86 All thy commandments are sure; . . .

Proverbs 11:18 A wicked man earns deceptive wages, but one who sows righteousness gets a sure reward.

Proverbs 11:21 Be assured, an evil man will not go unpunished, but those who are righteous will be delivered. (cf. 16:5)

Daniel 2:45 . . . A great God has made known to the king what shall be hereafter. The dream is certain, and its interpretation sure.

John 21:24 This is the disciple who is bearing witness to these things, and who has written these things; and we know that his testimony is true.

Acts 2:36 Let all the house of Israel therefore know assuredly that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.

Acts 12:11 And Peter came to himself, and said, “Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hand of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting.”

Romans 6:6 We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. (cf. 6:3)

Romans 6:9 For we know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him.

Romans 8:28 We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.

Romans 8:38-39 For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, [39] nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 14:14 I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for any one who thinks it unclean.

1 Corinthians 15:58 Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.

2 Corinthians 1:7 Our hope for you is unshaken; for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort. (cf. 4:14)

Ephesians 1:9 For he has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ

Ephesians 1:18 having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, (cf. 3:3, 10)

Ephesians 5:5 Be sure of this, that no fornicator or impure man, or one who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.

Philippians 1:6 And I am sure that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.

Philippians 1:14 and most of the brethren have been made confident in the Lord because of my imprisonment, and are much more bold to speak the word of God without fear. (cf. 1:19)

Colossians 1:9 asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding,

Colossians 2:2 that their hearts may be encouraged as they are knit together in love, to have all the riches of assured understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, of Christ,

Colossians 4:12 . . . that you may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God.

1 Thessalonians 1:4 For we know, brethren beloved by God, that he has chosen you;

1 Timothy 1:15 The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. . . .

1 Timothy 3:13 for those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith which is in Christ Jesus.

2 Timothy 1:12 . . . But I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me.

2 Timothy 2:11 The saying is sure: If we have died with him, we shall also live with him;

Titus 1:9 he must hold firm to the sure word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to confute those who contradict it.

Hebrews 3:6 but Christ was faithful over God’s house as a son. And we are his house if we hold fast our confidence and pride in our hope.

Hebrews 3:14 For we share in Christ, if only we hold our first confidence firm to the end, (cf. 4:16)

Hebrews 6:9 . . . we feel sure of better things that belong to salvation.

Hebrews 10:22-23 let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. [23] Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful;

Hebrews 10:35 Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. (cf. 10:19)

Hebrews 13:18 . . . we are sure that we have a clear conscience . . . (cf. 13:6)

2 Peter 1:19 And we have the prophetic word made more sure. . . .

1 John 2:3, 5 And by this we may be sure that we know him, if we keep his commandments.. . . but whoever keeps his word, in him truly love for God is perfected. By this we may be sure that we are in him:

1 John 2:28-29 And now, little children, abide in him, so that when he appears we may have confidence and not shrink from him in shame at his coming. [29] If you know that he is righteous, you may be sure that every one who does right is born of him. (cf. 4:17)

1 John 3:2 . . . but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.

1 John 3:14 We know that we have passed out of death into life . . .

1 John 3:18-19, 21 Little children, let us not love in word or speech but in deed and in truth. [19] By this we shall know that we are of the truth, and reassure our hearts before him. . . [21] Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God;

1 John 3:24 All who keep his commandments abide in him, and he in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit which he has given us. . . . (cf. 4:13, 16; 5:2)

1 John 4:6 . . . By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.

1 John 5:14-15 And this is the confidence which we have in him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. [15] And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have obtained the requests made of him. (cf. 5:19-20)


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It’s not arrogance and unmitigated gall to assert that a particular position is self-defeating or circular or profoundly self-contradictory.

It’s just, well . . . logic. Logical critiques have to be overcome by logical argumentation from the advocate of the position being critiqued, that must attempt to demonstrate to the critic that his logic is somehow faulty.

You guys think various things about Catholicism (blind faith and so forth; oftentimes the idolatry or Pelagian or half-pagan charges, too). It is no more arrogant for us to critique your system than it is for you to critique ours.

But in any event, this whole uncertainty business is NOT historic Protestantism. THAT much is certain (pun half-intended). I contend that it is a product of post-Enlightenment theological liberalism. The case of Peter Berger, that was brought up in the original post, illustrates this perfectly.

If someone wants to go that route, that’s up to them, but we mustn’t pretend that such a view is in the heritage of historic Catholic orthodoxy or the “magisterial Reformation” tradition of Luther and Calvin, or “evangelical” by any reasonable definition of that term. It is not. Francis Schaeffer (a huge influence on me) wrote much about this.

Liberalism doesn’t come from that. It comes from merging Enlightenment skepticism and later Higher Criticism with Christianity, to the great detriment of the latter.

It’s the same mentality that has led to Episcopalianism accepting practicing homosexual bishops, and the ELCA recently adopting the same thing for clergy, and PCUSA voting to remove fornication from the roster of sins, and all the mainline denominations sanctioning childkilling.

That’s NOT the way to go. I should think that serious, tradition-minded Catholics and Protestants alike could unite in opposition to destructive theological liberalism, just as C. S. Lewis said that those in the center of their own faith traditions are closer to each other than traditionalists and so-called “progressives” in any given communion are.

Thus I feel far closer in spirit (by far) to a Calvinist who actually believes in that system and rejects theological liberalism than I do to a Catholic “progressive” liberal dissident.

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We clearly have different and important premises driving our conclusions. You juxtapose faith with doubt,

That wasn’t me; I merely cited Jesus, Paul, James, and Jude. If you don’t agree with their conclusions (that seem quite perspicuous to me), then you need to give us an interpretation of those passages that goes toward your direction. I’ve yet to see that, so I have no reason to not interpret the passages as I have been doing.

You brought up this point, remember, claiming that this perspective was strictly a modern one. I showed, I think, that it was quite ancient and quite biblical!

I juxtapose faith with sight.

Thus far, you have based that on one scriptural passage, as if it trumps all of the scores of passages I have brought to bear on this. It doesn’t. They all have to be harmonized somehow, unless you deny that the Bible is inspired and infallible. I would say there is a sense in which you are right here, too, but it isn’t the whole ball of wax.

(That’s as different as sola ecclesia and sola scriptura, the formal difference between Rome and Geneva.) 

We don’t believe in sola ecclesia. We believe in a “three-legged stool” of Bible-Church-Tradition. We think the Bible is infallible just as [some of] you do. So it ain’t sola ecclesia. But Protestants do hold to sola scriptura by denying infallibility to the Church (and Tradition).

This may begin to explain why you don’t see the hubris I am contending is inherent in Catholicism.

I don’t see it because it doesn’t follow from mere belief in an infallible Church, that I must be arrogant and full of triumphalism and hubris.

I can understand why you perceive the Prot as “lacking in faith,” but instead of crying foul I think I’m more inclined to say that this is because you have resident within your formula the assumption that faith is the same as certainty.

It’s not absolute certainty, as you are making it out to be, as if this is our position. It is a very high degree of certainty: reasonable enough to allow rational people to accept it in faith.

I have an infallible faith that a place called England exists. But I’ve never been there to actually see it, so I can’t say that I have certitude that it exists, only faith. I am certain that I have ten fingers and toes because I have seen them. Certainty requires sight, faith doesn’t. It requires doubt, else it wouldn’t be faith.

Yet the Bible pits doubt against faith. I will go with Scripture, thank you, if it clashes with your view.

It is interesting that Paul, having actually seen the risen Lord, yet defined the Christian life as one of living by faith and not by sight.

He defined it in all kinds of ways. You have focused on 2 Corinthians 5:7, which in context refers specifically to seeing God in heaven. We don’t see that now, and have to have faith that we will get there eventually. Paul expresses similar eschatological thoughts in Romans 8:18-25; 1 Corinthians 2:9 and 13:12; 2 Corinthians 4:18; and 1 Timothy 6:16.

That is but one specific application. It can’t be expanded to encompass all shades of meaning of “faith” in every instance. There is more to it than that. So your use of this one passage does not wipe out all the passages I have submitted as also relevant to this discussion.

Pentecostals also tend to forget that on his deathbed he asked for books—this from a man who wrote inspired texts.

He liked to read and learn. So what? What does this have to do with Catholic epistemology?

Paul was assured in a way that neither you nor I are afforded, yet he told us we were to live by faith and not by sight. The taxonomy is faith/sight, not faith/doubt.

Dealt with already . . .

I’m not saying “faith isn’t important now,” and I’m not sure how an adherent of sola fide could be construed as being that cynical about faith. It’s the only invisible instrument we have to the Lord (visible being the church). That “it will pass” isn’t the same as “it isn’t important.” The former just means to put even faith, like our very natural lives themselves, into perspective. But I can see (pun intended) why one would think the two are the same if one also thinks faith is the same as sight and juxtaposes faith to doubt.

Whatever. I remain unpersuaded of this view. I don’t think you have overcome what I have brought to the table. Nothing personal. I just think it is a woefully inadequate and incomplete viewpoint with lots of problems insofar as Scripture has something to teach us on the subject.

[Chris Donato, the Protestant blogmaster] . . . in short, to convey your decision on these matters as somehow wholly transcendent, somehow laden with 100% certainty seems kind of funny to me, at best unrealistic, at worst irrational (or maybe hyper-rational?).

As I mentioned in the post, if I were to become Catholic, it’d not be as a result of my coming to 100% certainty with respect to Catholic ecclesiology but because I’d think Catholic ecclesiology made the most sense, was the most plausible structure, in this world.

Exactly. That was how I looked at it: it made far more sense and was more plausible (once both sides were heard) than any other system I knew of, based on numerous cumulative evidences.

Bryan [Cross] and other Catholics may feel differently about that, but this is my own take. Faith is not a matter of absolute, 100% certainty anyway. It’s not philosophy. That’s why this whole discussion of epistemology might be fun and interesting, but again, it overlooks the fact that faith (including Catholic faith) is not philosophy (as I pointed out years ago in dealing with these same objections from folks like Eric Svendsen).

[Bryan Cross: whose paper Chris Donato originally replied to] Of course faith is not philosophy. But that does not mean that our discussion of epistemology in relation to this point is merely “fun and interesting.” An error in philosophy leads to an error in faith, because grace builds on nature. The Church has said this numerous times. What is known by faith is known with more certainty than what is known by natural science, because of the authority of the divine source of that which is given to us by faith, even though the object of faith is not presently seen, which allows faith to be subject to doubt. The greater certainty of that which is known by faith is precisely why it is rational [and not irrational] to walk by faith and not by sight.

Hi Bryan,

I hold to the certitude of faith, of the sort advocated and explained by Cardinal Newman in his Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, and his notion of the “Illative Sense.”

I wouldn’t say that this is “100%, absolute certainty” in a philosophically “airtight” sense, but it is exceedingly, exceptionally certain and excludes doubt of the sort that our Protestant friends seem to glorify and pride themselves (?) in possessing over against us arrogant Catholics. :-)

The certitude of faith is of a different nature than mere scientific or logical knowledge, which is one of the difficulties in this discussion, because the Protestants who argue in this fashion appear to be reducing the knowledge that comes by faith and the work of the Holy Spirit in us to mere philosophy.

With the eyes of faith, this is certain knowledge, as Cardinal Newman states, that Christianity must be:

. . . positively acknowledged, embraced, and maintained as true, on the ground of its being divine, not as true on intrinsic grounds, not as probably true, or partially true, but as absolutely certain knowledge, certain in a sense in which nothing else can be certain, because it comes from Him who can neither deceive nor be deceived.

(Ch. 10: “Inference and Assent in the Matter of Religion”)

There is a large sense in which this thinking is similar to Calvinist presuppositionalism: knowledge of the things of God are innate and supra-rational. They transcend reason and are more worthy of assent than scientific knowledge, as you say.

In other words, when Chris refers to “100% certainty” I think he means it in a different sense than I mean by the certitude of faith and Cardinal Newman’s take on the whole thing. He probably means it in a different sense than Bryan does, too, though I can’t speak for him.

My position, in any event (that I have argued countless times now) is that Protestant ecclesiology and epistemology is always self-defeating in the end, when its premises are closely examined, and that the Catholic notions of authority and belief are not logically circular at all. They require faith — much faith — but they are not logically circular or practically impossible to implement and live out, as Protestant systems always are in the end.

This doesn’t mean that a Protestant can’t live out a profoundly Christian life in service to God: only that their system (especially the rule of faith: sola Scriptura) is ultimately incoherent and inconsistent.

Having once been a “Calvinist presuppositionalist,” influenced by the works of Van Til, Bahnsen, Frame, etc., I can tell you that the Catholic position (and Newman’s) is not at all like Calvinist presuppositionalism. Calvinist presuppositionalism is fideism based on philosophical skepticism, as I argued here. In matters of faith, the notion that knowledge of the things of God is innate would be both rationalistic (denying our animality) and reduce faith from a supernatural virtue to a natural virtue. 

I don’t want to sidetrack the discussion on Chris’s blog of our CTC article, so I’ll just leave it at that.

I said it was similar in a sense, not identical.

The Bible assumes that men know that God exists, which is why it never bothers to make theistic proofs. The closest it comes, I think, is Romans 1, which might be construed as a primitive teleological argument.

Moreover, when I say “innate” I am not saying it is merely natural. It is innate via God’s supernatural power. God puts the knowledge of Himself in us.

I don’t think we disagree all that much. I followed the link to your article on fideism. You stated the following in the combox:

The same power (i.e. intellect) by which we reason discursively from premises to a conclusion is the same power by which we apprehend or understand intelligible truths, including the truth of the first principles in the order of knowing. These first principles are not obtained by fideistic leaps in the dark; they are naturally known to be true by all humans (through the intellect), even when they can’t be consciously articulated.

This is what I believe is the case with regard to knowledge of God. Belief in God is what Alvin Plantinga calls a “properly basic” belief. I believe that knowledge of God is supernaturally infused in us even before we set out to do theistic proofs. And that is essentially consistent with Blessed Cardinal Newman’s argument in Grammar of Assent and (I believe) also with Pascal.

I agree again with what you say about Alvin Plantinga (I’m rather fond of him) in the same thread:

There are some important differences between Plantinga’s position and that of the Thomistic tradition, but there is plenty of common ground. Plantinga seems to use this term “deliverances of reason” for beliefs that are prior to experience or independent of experience (Cf. WCB, p. 146), or deduced from them. Aristotle and Aquinas argued that all our knowledge, including first principles, comes from experience, through our senses. But Plantinga does grant that “perception” (as another rational power) gives us knowledge, and that “perceptual beliefs” are “basic”. (See WPF, 5) That’s sufficiently close (for my purposes) to what I’m arguing in this post, concerning the falsity of fideism. In other words, with respect to the basicality of perceptual beliefs and “deliverances of reason”, Plantinga is on the side of Aristotle and Aquinas, and not on the side of fideism.

So see, we’re not far apart at all. I just don’t articulate these matters as well as you, since I am not studying for a doctorate in philosophy as you are. :-)

But I’m no fideist anymore than Plantinga or Cardinal Newman are. You said it, and I agree with you that there is much common ground between all these great thinkers.

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