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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  • Zach

    Great Post! Particularly in regard to epistemology and acting (particularly from a Christian perspective) I’ve always found Reinhold Niebuhr to be top dog; having and not having the truth, the struggle for justice, etc (I have to admit I find the late Niebuhr top dog in most things). What’s your take on Niebuhr? Do you recommend/have found helpful a Christian ethicist who covers this topic well (the extent of our knowledge and how we should act, i.e. ethics)?

    • I find Niebuhr helpful. A recent Niebuhr-like treatment of Christian social ethics is Making the Best of It by John Stackhouse.

  • K Gray

    Two topics relating to certainty: spiritual knowledge and other knowledge.

    Spiritual knowledge – “Now faith is being sure [assurance] of what we hope for and certain [conviction] of what we do not see.” I do not know Greek so maybe someone else knows whether or not this approximates certainty.

    • Ben

      Thanks Kay for bringing this verse forward. It’s a dangerous road to say we can have no certainty about things. I agree in terms of our personal opinions but not on the issues that are “God-breathed” certainties. This is where, in my opinion, guys like Rob Bell and Brian Mclaren become stumbling blocks. They claim we can have no certainties on the afterlife and things like practicing homosexuality being a sin when the Bible says with absolute authority and certainty that we can. Jesus said, unless your righteousness surpasses the pharisees you WILL NOT enter the kingdom of heaven. And then goes on to explain the righteousness that will include us in the kingdom. The Apostle Paul lists sins and says you can be CERTAIN that these WILL NOT enter the kingdom of heaven. The Apostle Paul also makes it clear that anyone who does not have the Holy Spirit does not belong to Jesus. Jesus makes certain qualifications of those who are His disciples and those who are not. – Jn. 8 Where the Bible is clearly authoritative on issues we are prideful to contradict and I’m surprised by the support of those who come in Jesus name, contradicting Jesus authority, and using Scriptures completely out of context to support whole chapters of their books.

      • Oh, please.

        • K Gray

          Professor Olson, do you have any comment on Hebrews 11:1? Also, Jesus promises, and Paul explains, the Spirit will disclose truth to men, as taken from God’s mind. If God chooses to reveal and disclose certain truths, and grants spiritual knowledge, wisdom and understanding more and more (to those who have), should mature Christians remain less-than-certain of those things, e.g. Jesus will return? Maybe this is an issue of semantics. That’s why I was asking about the Greek in Heb. 11:1, for example.

          Ben – Truth for today: Jesus is risen! 🙂

          • Perhaps it is an issue of semantics. I don’t know any human being who, in the deepest recesses of his or her thoughts, doesn’t occasionally have a doubt about something revealed.

        • Ben

          Don’t you have to be certain enough to be willing to die for your faith? If we’re certain of Jesus, which comes from certainty in His teachings, which comes from certainty in the Bible…it seems we do. “And we have something more certain(then Peter’s witness of the transfiguration), the prophetic word…knowing that no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” – 2 Pet. 1

  • Jerry L


    We certainly can agree on this point. A belief in our own fallibility would go along way towards solving many of the useless arguments we have regarding issues of theology. I am always leery of pronouncements from the left, right or middle that they some how, outside of clear scriptural mandate, know the mind of God on a particular issue, this usually results in my asking for a clearly laid out argument from scripture.

    It is also why I think many Evangelicals/Post-Evangelicals/Liberals/You Name the Group, fail us when they don’t also look to the wisdom of nearly 2,000 years of church thinking on many these very same issues, while I am confident that the catholic (small c intentional) church has not always been right or in a position to speak to every issue a little attendance to the wisdom of the whole church might have saved us many an argument. This is one of the reasons I am ill at ease regarding arguments about, capital punishment, just war and many other topics. I can’t fail to listen to Yoder any more than I can to Agustin.

  • Aaron

    “Dan Taylor’s The Myth of Certainty and Lesslie Newbigin’s Proper Confidence.”
    – Agreed, great books!

  • This is my favorite post from you thus far. You have managed to capture something that has always been true for me that I have never thought to articulate, but is at the heart of much of my interactions with other people.

    One of the things that I have been working on in my life is actually taking those risks of commitment that you are talking about. Because I recognize the possibility of being wrong, it therefore means that I often don’t want to act, and I usually prefer decisions that are reversible or at least alterable.

    But what I have become aware of over time is the need of decisiveness(and I mean ‘need’ in the literal sense). This has driven me to take more risks, and to be comfortable walking out on even important issues confidently on probablies and maybes.

  • Thanks for this–I love your differentiation between proper confidence and absolute certainty. I wonder if this debate relates to James Smith’ ‘The Fall of Interpretation’ arguing that hermeneutics is pre- not post-lapsarian as an element of human finiteness not human sin?

  • Dr. Olson, I’ve not read Taylor or Newbigin’s books, but I’ll have to add them to my list. A couple of summers ago, I took my Wednesday church crowd through Alister McGrath’s book “Doubting” which includes a marvelous chapter entitled, “Doubt and the Vain Search for Certainty.” The church responded very well to the study. Not only is it freeing to recognize that having faith is not the same thing as being certain, but, like you wrote, it also helps us to live with more humbly with one another.

    • I’m sure you’ve heard this, Taylor, but I’ll put it here anyway (for others’ benefit). Fred Buechner wrote that “Doubt is the ants in the pants of faith–it keeps in moving.”

  • Joel Naranjo

    I completely agree with you, dr. Olson. For long time i’ve struggled with the issue of certainty, and come to the conclusion that epistemological humility (that would be a fancy way to put it) is actually a christian virtue. But I’m not that sure that the Bible doesn’t say anything about it. When I read passages like Proverbs 9:8 or 21:11 I see that a mark of the wise is willingness to be corrected. And this would imply that the wise is willing to recognize the possibility of being wrong, and therefore would be open to listen closely to other people opinions, to ponder them and even change his mind if there are good reason for it. I’m not sure many people have passages like this in mind when it comes to theological discussions…

  • Adam L

    Hey Dr. Olson!

    Great post!

    I was wondering if you could speak more about why you exempt the writers of scripture from fallibility. I can understand the logic when it comes to Christ (who is God), but I’m not sure how that could be claimed of non-divine beings (such as authors of scripture).



    PS – Great blog! Wow, I didn’t even realize you had one!

    • Hi, Adam. By faith I accept that God granted the prophets and apostles special inspiration that resulted in infallibility in matters pertaining to salvation. If others have also written or spoken infallibly on such matters (or any other matters) I’m not aware of it.

  • James W.

    How certain is certain? Its only relatively certain, and, yes, fallibly certain, and yet certain. When it arrives, it comes as a gift from God. I have searched my whole life for certainty. It arrived through my baptism with the Holy Spirit. It came as a great surprise, and it is my life’s watershed moment. It happened when I struggled to let go of my heart’s attachment to worldly things, and when I asked Him to fill me with His Spirit. I now carry with me the gift of certainty concerning God’s love for you and me and the presence of his Holy Spirit in our lives.

  • dopderbeck

    I know this is an old post, but I agree with your general conclusions and I am a huge Newbiggin fan. I’m curious though about this: 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.

    Since you aren’t a Biblical inerrantist, I’m not sure what you mean here, with respect to the “writers of scripture.” Surely they were fallible human beings, as even Paul himself acknowledges (1 Cor. 16). And surely Jesus in his incarnate humanity was fallible, without sinning (a carpenter missing the nail and hitting his thumb, for example, isn’t a sin).

    • rogereolson

      You’re serious, aren’t you? Okay, by attributing infallibility to Jesus and the writers of Scripture I only meant they did not fail, as the rest of us do, to communicate truth needed for salvation and Christian living.