Re: [asa] "Certainty" in Theology

From: D. F. Siemens, Jr. <>
Date: Wed Jun 06 2007 - 16:54:29 EDT

My quickie answer is that one has to be aware that one has to distinguish
popular speech from technical. Luke is not dealing with concepts arising
in a technical context, to the best of my knowledge, centuries later.
Similarly, I do not hesitate to declare "I know whom I have believed" but
would not claim absolute certainty in a journal article. Technical
articles are special. I recall one where the author declared that in the
paper "city" would mean something other than the breadth of definitions
in a normal dictionary. In a normal scientific article, I expect error
bars with the measurements, but I do not accuse the reporter of
falsifying results because he does not include standard deviations.
However, sometimes the popular reports fail to indicate sufficiently the
limitations. This is not new. I recall my zoology professor telling about
his experience while getting blood samples from rats while he was a
student in the '30s. He was approached by a chap in a white coat who
asked a number of questions. But the student was in trouble the next day
when there was a headline in the local paper, "Young scientist nears cure
for malaria." I'm not sure whether this was even before anyone knew
whether the growing merozoite was inside or outside the red corpuscle.
And we're still looking for a cure.

Another way to look at matters is to recognize that there are tacit
restrictions on what we say and write. These depend on the situation. For
the most part we get along well, but occasionally there are reasons to
ask which conventions are being followed.

On Wed, 6 Jun 2007 20:27:25 +0200 "David Opderbeck"
<> writes:
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

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 17:14:58 2007

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