Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Is it Possible to be Theologically Certain?

Uncertainty has become a reigning virtue. Sandy Ikeda is a professor of economics at Purchase College, SUNY. Understandably, he is troubled by the religious and sectarian violence perpetrated by those who are certain that they are right:

  • Today in the Ukraine, in Gaza and Israel, in Syria, in South Sudan, and in far too many other places around the world, deadly violence ruins lives and sickens the heart.
And the violence should sicken the heart. However, he identifies certainty as one of the contributing problems:

  • For what it’s worth, in my religious tradition there’s a saying:  Nothing is what you think it is. Because of the narrowness and limits of our perceptions, there’s an inevitable disconnect between what we think we know about the world and the way things actually are, between what we see and what is actually the case. That, of course, causes problems. But it gets much worse if we refuse even to acknowledge that the disjunction exists, and if we cling to the belief that in at least some part of our belief system we are absolutely, unshakably right. The more certain we feel about what we know, and the more we think we’re certain about, the worse it gets. 
Certainly, certainty about things that don't warrant our certainty - certainty about falsehoods, for example - is a problem. However, we should not make the mistake of rejecting all forms of certainty because of the dangers of only some kinds of certainty. In fact, only by having certainty can we reject the dangerous varieties of certainty. (We must be certain to reject ISIS and “racial cleansing.”) For example, without the certainty about the goodness of truth, love, and justice, we cannot say that genocide is absolutely wrong. Nor will we be able to take meaningful action against it!

To lack any degree of certainty narrows and degrades our lives. It condemns our necessary decision-making to a matter of merely how we feel.

To illustrate this - if you are mugged, should you go to the police? It depends upon what you believe about justice and human culpability. If you do not known what to believe about justice and objective moral guilt, you will have no certainty about what action to take. Instead, your uncertainty will leave you in a confused state and your neighbors in a vulnerable condition with a mugger running free.

Of course, there are many areas of legitimate uncertainty - what will happen to me and how others will respond to me - but this shouldn't mean that the entirety of our lives must be buried in uncertainty!

Although I had been plagued for years by doubts about the existence of God and whether He really loved, I am glad that I never resigned myself to the belief that certainty about these questions was not possible. When we aren’t confident that we are loved by God, we crave the love and approval of others, even to the point of resenting them when we don’t receive their unqualified approval.

Instead, certainty about the Gospel of Christ is of the highest importance. In fact, this was the central issue of John's letter to the church:

  • We know that we have come to know him if we keep his commands. Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person. But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them. This is how we know we are in him: (1 John 2:3-5)
One way that we can KNOW that we are in Him is by whether or not we endeavor to keep His commandments.

Meanwhile, many of the Emergent or Postmodern Church insist that certainty about God – theological certainty - is not possible. Pastor Brian McLaren reflects this skepticism He claims that, among other things, we cannot ever be certain about our interpretation of Scripture:

  • How do “I” know the Bible is always right? And if “I” am sophisticated enough to realize that I know nothing of the Bible without my own involvement via interpretation, I’ll also ask how I know which school, method, or technique of biblical interpretation is right. What makes a “good” interpretation good? And if an appeal is made to a written standard (book, doctrinal statement, etc.) or to common sense or to “scholarly principles of interpretation,” the same pesky “I” who liberated us from the authority of the church will ask, “Who sets the standard? Whose common sense? Which scholars and why? Don’t all these appeals to authorities and principles outside the Bible actually undermine the claim of ultimate biblical authority? Aren’t they just the new pope
McLaren inflates the problems of interpretation, claiming that he is certain that we can’t really interpret Scripture with any degree of certainty without first having a proven method of interpretation. (While he denies that we cannot be certain, his many books declare that he is certain about a number of things!)

However, a little common sense plus a handful of experience might shed some light on this “problem” of acquiring certainty.  We engage in easy-to-understand conversations all the time, without a proven system of interpretation. When I ask the attendant to pump me $20 of “regular,” he knows exactly what to do. No confusion; no need for a proven method of interpretation! Why should it be any different when interpreting the Bible?

When I read the “50 mph hour” speed limit sign on the highway, I’d like to believe that it means “65 mph.” However, I know what it means. In fact, this interpretation is further corroborated when the highway patrol tickets me for doing “65.” Interpretation doesn’t pose any significant problems, except for those who are trying to derive an interpretation which the text cannot support.

Likewise, we have numerous ways to corroborate our interpretation of Scripture. Any one verse has many corroborating verses. We call this “Scripture interpreting Scripture.” Of course, some passages can be difficult to understand (2 Peter 3:15), but this doesn’t mean that much of it isn’t quite plain. Besides, we have many aids – pastors, teachers, commentaries, concordances - to help us understand.

Scripture was also written to be understood. Therefore, Paul instructed that his epistles be taken to many churches to be read. Never did Paul insist that a Doctor of Theology be present to provide the definitive interpretation.

There was never any indication that any of the Apostles ever suggested that their listeners first required a proven system of interpretation before they could understand the teachings of the Apostles. Had McLaren instead written that much of Scripture presents us with interpretative difficulties, many of us would agree. However, he is skeptical about all interpretations of Scripture. If only he was equally skeptical about his own conclusions!

Today, it has become fashionable to believe that we cannot be sure of anything regarding the biblical faith, perhaps apart from the requirement to love. McLaren rhetorically asks, “How do ‘I’ know the Bible is always right?” suggesting that none of us can know. One noted theologian wrote:

  • Any worldview—atheist, Islamic, Jewish, Christian or whatever—ultimately depends on assumptions that cannot be proved. Every house is built on foundations, and the foundations of worldviews are not ultimately capable of being proved in every respect. Everyone who believes anything significant or worthwhile about the meaning of life does so as a matter of faith. We’re all in the same boat.
However, such a stance is logically self-defeating. If it is true that we believe as we do simply based on blind and baseless faith, then this above statement is also a matter of blind faith, and therefore it disqualifies itself.

More importantly, the Bible disqualifies uncertainty! Many verses contend that the evidence serves as an incontestable basis for an assured faith:

  • Then the LORD said to Moses: "How long will these people reject Me? And how long will they not believe Me, with all the signs which I have performed among them (Numbers 14:11)?
According to God, there was no excuse for Israel’s uncertainty and unbelief. He made certain truths, like the resurrection, abundantly certain:

  • After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. (Acts 1:3)
God does not tell His people to “just believe.” Instead He has provided many unassailable proofs for the faith. This doesn’t mean that we don’t struggle with doubts and uncertainties. Nor does it mean that these struggles are opposed to the faith and must be suppressed. Nor does it mean that God cannot bring great good out of such struggles. He certainty does!

However, the Emergent, Postmodern skeptical Church places too much emphasis on the journey and the search and minimal emphasis on the object or the goal of the search – certainty and assurance regarding biblical truths. Emergents normalize and idealize the journey at the expense of the cognitive rest and assurance at the end of the journey. They even claim that assurance is only possible for those who do not think deeply about things.

Faith had been such a struggle for me – someone weak in faith and rich in skepticism. It tormented me that I couldn’t find peace in believing, which others seemed to have found. I therefore would have welcomed the Emergent message that certainty isn’t possible. It would have given me a sense of peace in knowing that I was okay and not a “Christian” misfit. Fortunately, I found little encouragement that skepticism would be my ultimate resting place, the goal of my searching.

Instead, I learned that joyously living the Christian life is not possible without a high degree of certainty. I needed to know that God loved me with a love that transcended understanding (Eph. 3:16-19) and that He had forgiven and cleansed me from all of my sins. I needed the God-confidence often mentioned in Scripture:

  • Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. (Hebrews 10:19-22) 
We require confidence in order to draw close to our Savior and to know that He has drawn close to us. As long as I doubted His love, I could not feel grateful towards Him. Instead, I felt contempt for Him, not knowing with certainty that He truly loved me.  And whenever I felt condemned by my feelings, I felt that God was also condemning me. I needed to know that He wasn’t condemning me and that my feelings were only that –feelings. And that is the very place where Scripture comforted me:

  • Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:1)
I needed to be confident about this, since overwhelming feelings were telling me that I was under condemnation. I therefore can totally embrace Paul’s prayer for the church:

  • I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. (Eph. 3:17-19)
Having the knowledge of God and His love for us isn’t an option. Without this knowledge, we will not be “filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” Without this confidence, we will not be able to persevere:

  • So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded. You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised. (Heb. 10:35-36; Jer. 7:7)
Without confidence in the promises of God, I wasn’t able to persevere. Even having this confidence, I struggle. However, without it, I couldn’t even begin to struggle.

Paul associated rejoicing with knowing:

  • We also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance. (Rom. 5:3)
Without this knowledge - this confidence - we cannot glory in suffering. We can only glory in the midst of suffering because we are confident that God has a glorious purpose for it (Rom. 8:28). Lacking this confidence, I suffered additionally from obsessive and crippling ruminations.

Doubting Thomas would have told the skeptics something about certainty. He doubted that Jesus had risen from the dead until Jesus visited him and showed him the wounds in His hands and side John 20). Then, he worshipped Christ with all the certainty in the world.

This lesson is very simple - Our Lord can easily remove doubt and provide certainty. This lesson about the need for theological certainty is also vital to our lives. It was only with this certainty that Thomas was enabled to carry the Gospel to far-off India and to his eventual martyrdom.

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