Re: [asa] "Certainty" in Theology

From: David Opderbeck <>
Date: Wed Jun 06 2007 - 16:33:14 EDT

Thanks Terry. For some reason, the phrase "full persuasion and assurance,"
as the Westminster Confession puts it, doesn't bother me at all, while
"certainty" does. Does "certainty," in theological terms, simply mean "full
persuasion and assurance?" Maybe my mind is stuck in some kind of rut, but
"certainty" to me means "unquestionable absolute indubitability."

So, if you lean Van Tilian, can you also accept the quote I gave from
Alister McGrath? Is McGrath talking about one kind of "certainty"
(Cartesian) and Reformed epistemology / presuppositionalism talking about
another (inward and Spirit-generated)?

On 6/6/07, Terry M. Gray <> wrote:
> David,
> From the Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 1:
> V. We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the Church to an
> high and reverent esteem of the Holy Scripture.[10] And the
> heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty
> of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole
> (which is, to give all glory to God), the full discovery it makes of
> the only way of man's salvation, the many other incomparable
> excellencies, and the entire perfection thereof, are arguments
> whereby it does abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God: yet
> notwithstanding, our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible
> truth and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the
> Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts.
> Fideism? Or the operation of the Holy Spirit? I agree that some Van
> Tillians have certainty about things that they should not, but the
> fundamental certainty is created by the Holy Spirit. Have you seen
> Bavinck's "The Certainty of Faith"?
> TG
> On Jun 6, 2007, at 12:27 PM, David Opderbeck wrote:
> > 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:; 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?
> ________________
> Terry M. Gray, Ph.D.
> Computer Support Scientist
> Chemistry Department
> Colorado State University
> Fort Collins, CO 80523
> (o) 970-491-7003 (f) 970-491-1801

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Received on Wed Jun 6 16:33:59 2007

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