[asa] "Certainty" in Theology

From: David Opderbeck <dopderbeck@gmail.com>
Date: Wed Jun 06 2007 - 14:27:25 EDT

This is indirectly related to faith science questions -- it's an
epistemological question that underlies many faith science-discussions.

I'm trying to understand the concept of "certainty" as it's used in
Christian theology and religious epistemology. In Luke 1:4, for example,
Luke says he is writing to Theophilus so that Theophilus can "know the
certainty [*aspheleon* -- security, certainty] of the things [he] has been
taught." In the debates about epistemology that presently are swirling
through American evangelical Christianity, this concept seems to be
something of a rallying point: there is real Truth, and it can be known
with "certainty," insist the conservatives (See, for example, the recently
released statement by the "Gospel Coalition," a group headed by D.A.
Carson: http://www.stevekmccoy.com/GospelCoalition.pdf; Focus on the
Family's "Truth Project" also falls into this vein, I thik.) On the other
side of the ledger, "emerging" / "missional" voices in evangelicalism stress
a "proper confidence" rather than "certainty" (drawn in many ways from
 Leslie Newbiggin's lovely book "Proper Confidence").

I suspect most of us with a bent towards studying faith-science questions
would experience some discomfort over the proposition that our faith claims
can be known with "certainty." I'm guessing many of us would also be
uncomfortable with the label "postmodern" and might shy away from the
"emerging church." Most of us probably are "critical realists" of a sort
-- with the "critical" part meaning that we would reject claims to
"absolute, final certainty" based on human observation and reason.

In fact, I think this move towards *critical* realism is a key apologetic
move for many of us. It leaves breathing room for the ambiguities caused by
serious reflection on faith-science questions, and frees us from the radical
Cartesian skepticism that seems to infect some of our atheistic
antagonists. I note, for example, that Alister McGrath spends an entire
chapter in his wonderful little book *"Doubting"* debunking the notion that
"absolute certainty" is possible or is required for faith. McGrath says:

Being human places limits on what we can see, know and understand. We need
to understand what those limits are because in the end, doubt arises partly
on account of our unrealistic expectations about certainty. We think that
we ought to be able to prove with absolute certainty that certain things are
true -- for example, that God exists. But it's just not like that.... We
can commit ourselves to the great worldviews of our time without having to
wait for absolute proof -- proof which, by the very nature of things, is
never going to happen.... Let's be quite clear: Nobody can prove
Christianity with total certainty. But that's not really a problem. The
big questions concern the reliability of its historical foundations, it
internal consistency, its rationality, its power to convert and its
relevance to human existence. You can totally commit yourself to the gospel
in full confidence, as a powerful, credible, and profoundly satisfying
answer to the mystery of human existence. (Doubting, pp. 21-27)

I also note that Newbiggin's book "Proper Confidence" that I mention above
is essentially an application of Michael Polanyi's cricitical realism
regarding the scientific enterprise to the sphere of theology.

And yet, the tradition and the Biblical witness seem to employ some concept
of "certainty."

Can some of you theologians and philosophers help clarify for me what
exactly is meant by "certainty" in a theological context? Surely it can't
mean "absolute certainty" in a Cartesian sense, or else, it seems to me,
faith is impossible. I like to think Luke is saying to Theophilus: *"I am
writing to secure with this written witness the truthfulness of what you,
Theophilus -- and what you, Church -- have heard about Jesus."* I like to
take this as a statement primarily about the authority of the inscripturated
apostolic witness rather than a statement about inherent human capacities
for "certain" knowledge. I'm even leaning towards the view of the Van
Tilian presuppositionalists that this is a transcendental "certainty" rather
than a logical or rational certainty. But the Van Tilians seem not *critical
*enough too me -- it seems like a sort of fideism, which calls something
"certain" without it actually being so.

Dave S., George, Terry, anyone?

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Received on Wed Jun 6 14:27:57 2007

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