blog post

Certainty and Doubt

Christians have looked warily at postmodernism for some time now.  Its amorphous nature has never been appealing, and its candy-shop variety of metaphysical conclusions has been hard to accept.  Sure, one can enjoy certain aspects of so-and-so’s post-structuralism, or rejoice in what’s-his-face’s view of textual analysis, or delight in another fellow’s critique of modernism’s epistemological arrogance, but Christians have long had issue with accepting “postmodernism” as an overarching system of thought.

It is now vogue to challenge the “modernist” view of the mind, knowledge, and certainty.  I totally agree with this program, because most “modernist” epistemologies are, indeed, arrogant, and fundamentally flawed.   But, unfortunately it’s also vogue to categorize historic, Christian views of knowledge as “modern”, suggesting that it is arrogant, blind, or even sinful to be “certain”.  I’d like to suggest, at the least, that God calls Christians to arrive at certainty through the Scriptures.  It is not modernism that gives Christians the belief that they can achieve epistemological certainty, but Scripture.

The Content of Our Certainty

That said, this article is not going to focus on overarching epistemological certainty. Rather, this will focus on how a person can become certain that Jesus is who He says He is.  I’m distinguishing these primarily because, while entirely reasonable, a Christian’s view of Jesus is based in faith.  This faith is a supernatural gift from the Holy Spirit, and exceeds rationality.  Faith isn’t given to someone out-of-context.  As Paul puts it, “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rm. 10:17). God’s typical pattern is to endow the gift of faith to someone when they read or hear the Bible being read or preached.    While reason can lead us to conclude that so-and-so book is well written or logical, only the Spirit of God can lead one to conclude that the Bible is God’s Word.  He “testifies” to one’s mind that the Biblical author’s testimony is true, and these two witnesses (author and Spirit) enable one to render the verdict that Scripture is God’s Word (Jn. 3:32, 5:32, 8:18; Rm. 8:16; Hb. 10:15).  This article addresses the next step: Now that a person believes in Christ, how certain can they be about who He is?

We’ll look at a number of passages that explain the nature of certainty, but I just want to point out that a Christian seeks to be certain of specific things.  He wants to be certain of “the things [he] has been taught,” (Lk. 1:4), of, “God’s mystery, which is Christ,” (Col. 2:2), of, “the gospel,” (1 Th. 1:5), of, “hope” (Hb. 6:11), and of, “faith” (Hb. 10:22).  These are all roughly synonymous to mean that the Christian seeks to be certain of what the Scriptures say about Jesus.  While Jesus is, indeed, a mystery (Col. 2:2), He is a mystery we can know intimately, and with certainty.

The Basis of Our Certainty

In Luke 1:1-4, Luke explains his purpose for composing yet another gospel narrative,

1 Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, 2 just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, 3 it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.

Luke’s basic reason for writing another gospel is so that “Theophilus”, likely a patron of this expensive scholarship, may be certain about what he has been taught (v. 4).  The fourth verse is ἵνα ἐπιγνῷς περὶ ὧν κατηχήθης λόγων τὴν ἀσφάλειαν.  Those two bolded words are important, and roughly translated they mean, “in order that you may know with certainty about the things you have been taught.” So, according to Luke, certainty is a type or quality of knowledge.  The word that Luke uses for certainty is ἀσφάλεια (asphaleia), which ranges in meaning from “stability of a circumstance” to, “stability of an idea” to, “restriction of movement such that there is security.”  So, for example, Luke uses this word again in part two of his account, the Acts of Christ through the Spirit, in Acts 5:23, “We found the prison doors securely locked…”.  A basic analogy to certainty is then that of the door to a home (as opposed to a “foundation”, so commonly employed in today’s epistemology arguments).  If your home is built on a solid foundation, then you are protected from having storms wash away your belongings, but if any robber can come and kick down your door then your possession are still insecure.

What This Means:

1. Certainty isn’t Arrogant

If Theophilus had sinfully or arrogantly pursued “certainty” about his belief in Jesus, I think Luke would have had quite a different introduction.  What purpose would an additional narrative serve?  “While, dear Theophilus, you pursue certainty of these things about Jesus, I can only provide you a competing narrative that you must accept in opposition to those other stories.” As it is, though, Luke’s introduction reveals his attitude towards certainty.  Certainty isn’t arrogant or presumptuous, but a godly attitude and mindset.

2. Certainty Ought to be Pursued

A Christian doesn’t necessarily begin with complete certainty.  Yes, initially a Christian will have certainty in general, like a single lock upon a door, but as they grow they will learn how to better barricade that door.  Luke suggests that after having built a home upon the foundation that Christ tells us to build upon (Lk. 6:47-49), we are to strengthen the stability of the door so that we might be secure against thieves and robbers.  The problem is that thieves and robbers come and attempt to break down the door.  Perhaps the lock has been loosened, and now you’re not sure what to do.  You’ve become uncertain about what you’ve been taught.  Now you must go through a process to arrive at certainty again.  This means that doubt, much beloved by postmoderns, will likely be included in the journey to certainty.  But doubt itself is not the goal, nor is doubt even desirable.  This is intimately related with the doctrine of assurance of salvation.  The Scriptures are clear: a person may lose their assurance or grow weaker in their assurance for a number of reasons.  While this is the case, the authors of Scripture repeatedly encourage their congregations to pursue assurance (Hb. 10:22).  Similarly, when we are challenged, we ought to pursue certainty about the things we’ve been taught about Jesus.

3. Certainty Can be Attained

I hope it’s apparent that if certainty couldn’t be attained, Luke would have no reason to state that this is his chief goal in his work.  The fact is that while certainty can be attained, the Scriptures speak of various levels of certainty for the Christian.  The Christian who has lost his certainty may regain it, and grow in it.  For an example, let’s look at the verse I just mentioned in passing: Hebrews 10:22,

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.

The author of Hebrews uses one vital word: πληροφορία (plerophoria). It generally means, “A state of complete certainty.”  This certainty isn’t presumption, and it isn’t arrogance, but it is the conclusion of filling up something.  Just like a cup can be filled to the brim, so too our certainty can be fully filled.  The author of Hebrews argues that this is the ideal situation: he wants his readers to have this complete certainty.  Though the moon may not be full, it can become full, and this is something we ought to expect. This is the standard and goal that the authors of Scripture maintain we can indeed attain (Col. 2:2; 1 Th. 1:5; Hb. 6:11).

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