Re: [asa] "Certainty" in Theology

From: <>
Date: Thu Jun 07 2007 - 19:48:57 EDT

I think that the certainty of faith and its basis must be consistent with little children or mentally disadvanted persons being full partakers.  I think this has to be the determinative consideration.  I don't think little children or the mentally disadvantaged have the full capacity for scientific evaluation, and so certainty must come somehow along the lines of Van Tilian presuppositionalism.  I know of no other alternative.  This is also in line with the idea (found in Lutheranism?) that even an unborn baby can have faith. 

What then is the value of empiricism and reasoning to our faith?  More to the point, does the Bible tell us that we are supposed to find God through these things?  Well, I think the scientific endeavor is included in the commissions to "cultivate the garden and keep it" and to "take dominion over the earth" and therefore it is part of how we serve and glorify God.  I also think that careful reasoning about science is important to clear away doubts and may enhance an existing faith.  And God may choose to speak to us and melt our resistance away through our examination of scientific evidence (or for that matter, through our interaction with a painting or a poem).  But I don't think reasoning or empiricism are at the essence of how we come to the certainty of faith, otherwise those unable to fully participate would be at a disadvantage.  I think that the effort to build a basis for certainty in reason and evidence is perhaps a mirroring of the modern epistemology of science, and therefore is as mistaken as the mirroring of polytheism by God's people who once lived amidst polytheist cultures.  Ultimately God, not modern humans, wrote the rules and He loves the little children too much to put them at a disadvantage.

But could it be a two-tier system, in which children have a true basis for certainty apart from reason and empiricism, but adult scientists must find certainty some other way?  Naw, I doubt it.

If McGrath and others have already fully dealt with these aspects and I am merely exposing my ignorance, then I offer my apologies in advance.  :)


-----Original Message-----
From: George Murphy <>
To: David Opderbeck <>; Terry M. Gray <>
Cc: ASA <>
Sent: Thu, 7 Jun 2007 8:24 am
Subject: Re: [asa] "Certainty" in Theology

A few delayed comments on this:


1st, the translation of asphaleian in Lk.1:4 should be considered.  There is a long tradition, going back to Tyndale, of rendering this "certainty."  But RSV & NRSV have simply "truth," which is not just a modern innovation:  Douay-Rheims has "verity."


2d, espcially in the RC tradition one speaks of "the certainty of faith."  As a look at even old very scholastic RCs (e.g., Tanquerey) indicates, this is understood in some senses to be weaker and in some senses stronger than the certainty with which truths can be known by natural reason.


3d, in the Small Catechism Luther concludes the explanation of each article of the creed with (as all good boys & girls memorized in confirmation class) "This is most certainly true" - Das ist gewisslich wahr.  It's perhaps significant that, while Luther was certainly willing to talk about certainty in connection with theological facts propositions, those explanations of the creed have a existential focus - i.e., what does this mean for me? 



----- Original Message -----

From: David Opderbeck

To: Terry M. Gray


Sent: Wednesday, June 06, 2007 4:33 PM

Subject: Re: [asa] "Certainty" in Theology

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:

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"?


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 Thu, 07 Jun 2007 19:48:57 -0400

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