Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Misplaced Certainty

There's been a lot of hand wringing about the lack of certainty in parts of the contemporary church.

At issue is a number of amorphous "movements" within Christianity, the most visible of which is the Emerging Church. One of the distinctives of these groups is a relaxed attitude about doctrines perceived to be not at the core of the Christian faith.

But many see this relaxed attitude as a threat to the Gospel.

In fact, there are many Christians who see almost every doctrine as crucial. They have a long list of teachings that they consider essential to Christianity. In other words, if you don't accept these, then you are not a true Christian:

  • A young earth and a 144-hour creation
  • A Bible that is free of any inaccuracies (from a modern scientific perspective)
  • A particular view of the schedule of the final days
  • Restriction of certain ministries to men
  • Total abstinence from alcohol
  • A particular theory of the atonement
  • A specific system of theology

There doesn't seem to be any lack of certainty here.

Unfortunately, these people cannot distinguish between

  • Their idea of God and God himself
  • Their interpretation of the Bible and the teaching of God's Word
  • Their apprehension of the truth and the objective, ultimate Truth.

Newbigin had something to say about this situation:

Fundamentalists are often dismissed as obscurantist or crazy fanatics, and some may be. Whatever their defects, they recognize the problem. If we cannot speak with confidence about biblical authority, what ground have we for challenging the reigning plausibility structure?

Lesslie Newbigin. The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. p. 97.

Their diagnosis is correct, but their solution is faulty.

But the fundamentalist case has been flawed. If the Bible is treated as a compendium of factually inerrant propositions about everything in heaven and earth, then it is impossible to explain both the contradictions between parts of the Bible and things we certainly know as the results of the work of science, and also the obvious inconsistencies within the Bible itself on factual matters. Even the most convinced fundamentalist who lives in the modern world has to rely at innumerable points on knowledge provided by science and not by the Bible.

Lesslie Newbigin. The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. p. 97.

Part of the problem is that fundamentalists have tried to make Christianity fit into a modernist plausibility structure. If the Bible is true, then they assume that it must satisfy the definition of truth in the reigning plausibility structure. In this view, any inconsistency betrays a lack of veracity.

But this idea of truth is not "self-evident" except in certain plausibility structures. In fact, a degree of inconsistency is often an indication of veracity.

In a court of law, for example. If four witnesses tell exactly the same story, without a single variation in detail, a wise attorney will quickly recognize that the testimony has been tampered with. In the real world, witnesses have slightly different perceptions of what happened.

Statistics has a term for a model that explains the available data too exactly: overfitting. With limited data it is difficult, if not impossible, to separate the noise from the data. Our understanding of God's truth always involves a degree of "noise," because we must process revelation through our limited reasoning capacity.

But many Christians crave certainty. Andrew Sandlin calls this Hyper-Realized Epistemology:

It's certainty, not faith in Jesus, that they're really after. Jesus helps them with their certainty addiction; He's a means to an end.

Our commitment is to the Truth, not to our version of the truth.

Our commitment is to God, not to our theology about God.

Our commitment is to the authority of divine revelation, not to our analysis of that revelation.

Certainty and humility do not need to be mutually exclusive.

  • We can be confident without being arrogant.
  • We can be open-minded without being tentative.
  • We can be gracious without being accommodating.

So what do you think? What would you put on the "short list" of essential Christian doctrines? What are some things that you think should not be open to debate? What do you think about the idea that the Bible might contain some "inaccuracies"?

Pastor Rod

"Helping you become the person God created you to be"


daniel the smith said...

Our commitment is to the Truth, not to our version of the truth.
Our commitment is to God, not to our theology about God.
Our commitment is to the authority of divine revelation, not to our analysis of that revelation.

Yes, yes, yes yes yes.

My "short list" is pretty short. I would say that belief in the divinity and resurrection of Jesus are all that is needed to get into the club. I'd also say that if you can't affirm the Apostles' or Nicene creeds, you need to have a good reason why (and no fair redefining the terms in the creeds until you can affirm them).

As far as inaccuracies: we don't burn the history books when we find out that maybe Washington's wooden teeth weren't necessarily so, and we don't even question his existence. Why would we throw out the whole bible when we find out that, e.g., I John 5:7 is almost certainly a later addition, or that maybe someone got the records of Solomon's stuff wrong? I'm just baffled by that "logic".

For your next post, can you discuss effective ways of communicating this to people? Like so they won't be worried about your salvation?

(PS I'm trying very hard, and so far I've avoided visiting those first few links)

Pastor Rod said...


Sorry about being a source of temptation for you.

Unfortunately, the people who are inclined to doubt your salvation are not likely to listen to reason.


Liz Clarke said...

I think that we all at some point seek "certainty" in many aspects of our life, not just of the church. Without it, we tend to either not believe or look for more certainty elsewere.

My "short list" would consist of information that we may not have, such as what "with certainty" is life after death, how can I be assured that there is a heaven? We cannot say with "certainty" the answers to these questions.

I think the idea that the Bible might contain some "inaccuracies" could very well be. The bible is a book put together by people that Jesus spoke to. Although, we are "die hard" Christians and would like to say that there are definitely no inaccuracies in the bible, we cannot say that with certainty.

I too crave certainty; and it is not my lack of faith, it relates to the type of person I am. I would like to see the church speak more and prepare us more to death. It seems to be such a quiet subject everywhere. Why is that?? I desire affirmation, but am aware that sometimes that is impossible

jeff franczak said...

Allow me to add a little humor to this discussion...

This dialog about stubborn “logic” is from the Peanuts cartoon strip on Apr. 11, 1990.

Maybe I like it because it’s poking fun at me and I don’t realize it.

Sally: Why are we going on a field trip when it’s going to rain?

Linus: What makes you think it’s going to rain? Our teacher said it’s going to be a nice day...

Sally: Field trips cause rain..

Next day’s strip: They are on the field trip and it’s raining...

M. Pease said...

Hi Folks;

I hope you aren't adverse to a stranger dropping by to opine.

I wonder if certainty and confidence are best lumped together? Perhaps I nitpick too much (well O.K. there's no doubt of it), but I believe that while certainty is rigidly tied to our "plausibility structure" or paradigm, confidence is a more relative term in that expectations are more flexible.

I believe that Scripture tells us that we can have confidence in the character and intentions of God, but we can't be certain of what he will actually do, or how, in any given circumstance.

My short list:
Trust God,
Do what is right,
Creation is good,
Our job is announcing the Kingship of Christ,
God's job is conversion and character upgrades,
Trust God!

I believe there should be no restriction on topics that arise out of a real desire to learn, but that Christians should be discerning on a case by case basis.

As to inaccuracies, though God has been weaning me from a literalistic reading of scripture for a number of years now, the idea is still as unsettling as it is unavoidable. I will trust that nothing of importance is in error.

Just to throw a monkey into your wrench works, I believe that scripture hints that life after life-after-death will be likely be pretty physical and located here on a fully reconditioned earth.

Pastor Rod said...


The problem with the "inaccuracies" is that allowing mistakes in one part of the Bible leaves us open to mistakes in the parts that really matter.

This is why the fundamentalists are so adamant that there can no inaccuracy of any kind in the Bible.

So we are left with these two extremes:
* The Bible is a human book that carries the imperfections of any human product.
* The Bible is a divine book that was "dictated" by God to contain exactly the words he wants it to contain and therefore is perfectly accurate.

Staking out a position somewhere in the middle is not so easy. But, in my opinion, it must be done.


Pastor Rod said...


I always liked Schulz. I have a book in my library called, The Gospel According to Peanuts.


Pastor Rod said...


Welcome. There are no strangers here.

Good point about certainty and confidence.

Yes, it is a lot easier just to keep saying, "The Bible has no mistakes, errors or inaccuracies of any kind." I do still make the distinction, however, between approximations and statements that are factually wrong. I think that most of the problem passages can be put in the first category. It is possible that all can be.

Thanks for your participation. We like new voices.


Anonymous said...

senovia bonner

I do not velieve the Bible has any inaccuracies. The way some people interpret the Bible may be inaccurate. My short list would include accepting Christ as my savior and following the word of God. It is not up to an individual to judge anyone. God is the judge