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Certainty Not (another one of those pesky pre-biblical theological decisions)

Certainty Not (another one of those pesky pre-biblical theological decisions) April 19, 2011

Some time ago I wrote here about two important theological decisions the Bible does not help us solve.  The first one was nominalism/voluntarism versus realism (with regard to whether God has a nature) and the second one was whether the church of the New Testament was the church in embryo or the mature church.  Where a person comes down on these issues inevitably influences much of his or her theology, but the Bible does not directly (or perhaps even indirectly) tell us what the right view is.

Another such pre- or extra-biblical theological decisions every thinking Christian makes and that influences his or her theological thinking is whether certainty is a human possibility.  I often find myself bemused about a theological discussion or debate and then figure out that my lack of understanding my debate partner’s point of view relates to our different views of certainty.

I am a fallibilist; some Christians aren’t.  That is, I believe, because of our finitude and fallenness, all human beings are fallible all of the time with exceptions of Jesus Christ and the writers of Scripture.  I admit it is possible that some other human persons have infallible revelation, but I doubt it. 

I am also convinced (fallibly!) that finite and fallen human beings are not capable of certainty without an immediate, supernatural gift of certainty.  And I don’t think I know anyone who has that and I’m alway suspicious of claims to it.

Two books have been especially helpful to me in this regard: Dan Taylor’s The Myth of Certainty and Lesslie Newbigin’s Proper Confidence.  These are excellent, small treatments of the subject of certainty from a Christian perspective.

Taylor’s is a semi-autobiographical, narrative-shaped discussion of certainty.  In place certainty the author recommends that we settle for the risk of commitment.  Newbigin says “Christian faith is not a matter of logically demonstrable certainties but of the total commitment of fallible human beings putting their trust in the faithful God who has called them.” (99)

I believe we can have blessed assurance and proper confidence in God and God’s revelation, but absolute certainty that transcends all possibility of being wrong is normally unavailable to mere mortals, at least in this life.

We have all experienced THINKING we knew something FOR SURE and then finding out we were wrong. 

Does denial of certainty amount to lack of commitment?  No.  Commitment takes on special significance in the absence of absolute certainty.  In the absence of certainty I must sometimes take the risk of commitment to a cause, but I CANNOT take another person’s life based on my uncertain “knowledge” of their guilt (to use one example of the practical implications of my epistemology).  Neither should anyone, because no one has that kind of certainty.

Am I absolutely certain that capital punishment is wrong?  I can only say that I am as certain of that as I am of almost anything I believe.  But of course my certainty falls short of absoluteness.  To claim absolute certainty about anything is, my opinion, tantamount to claiming to have God’s own knowledge of it.

Lack of absolute certainty requires humility and humility requires circumspection in all decisions and actions.  Taking another person’s life when you could be wrong about their guilt is, I believe, a sin.  (That’s not the only reason I think it’s a sin, but it’s one reason.) 

On the other hand, lack of certainty does not paralyze; putting someone in prison for life without the possibility of parole when you think they deserve death is an act the risk of commitment in the face of lack of absolute certainty.  It leaves open the possibility of reversal of judgment if it should turn out that the person was not guilty (however unlikely that may seem).

That is just one case study in proper confidence rather than absolute certainty.  I am always a little afraid of people who claim to have absolute certainty about anything.  I’ve known too many people who claimed to have “the mind of God” (and really seemed to believe it!) who went off on crazy crusades involving absurdity and/or abuse.  A strong dose of intellectual humility, rooted in acknowledgment of their own fallibility, would have saved the world around them a lot of trouble.

None of this means we shouldn’t act.  What it means is, as we act, we should be aware that we are taking a risk and that God is both our judge and the giver of mercy when, by his light and help, we do the best we can.


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