The most dangerous directions taken in history were undertaken by people who had a high level of certitude for both their views and choices. This is true of dictators and tyrants, as well as religious zealots, including some Christians.

There are several ways that we seek to justify what we believe. One is by using what we think is a reliable process. Another way is to show that the world is a more coherent place because of what I believe than it is without the truths that I believe. A third way, and the one I often question in my teaching, is to argue that what I believe is inferred from previous beliefs about how things seem to be right now. This is the approach of classic foundationalism. Foundationalism seeks to build one’s beliefs upon a basic stucture that is foundational for everything else. It understands that there are indubitable beliefs from which further propositions can be inferred to produce a superstructure of known truths. Traditionally foundationalism forms beliefs about our sensory experience and then these beliefs are used to provide the basis for a superstructure of faith that is built upon the established foundation. But are these "beliefs" that make up this foundation infallible as is often claimed? That is always the sixty-four thousand dollar question.

In philosophy there are four sources of knowledge (traditionally speaking): sensation, memory, introspection and reason. When we make reason central, and in a way that leads us to believe that we know "the truth" as a complete system of humanly stated ideas, danger always lurks. For this reason many Christian philosophers and theologians are suggesting, now more than ever, that there are several types of certitude that have become graven ideologies (cf. Bruce Benson’s book, Graven Ideologies

[IVP], for some great insight on this subject). I happen to agree with this warning.

The most dangerous plans in history were carried out by people who were very certain of both themselves and their actions. Do you recall Saul of Tarsus persecuting devout Christians? Do you recall wars carried out in the name of Jesus Christ, the man of peace? Do you recall the church putting people to death because it was so certain that it was doing God’s will?

Beware of the type of certainty that is built on a false foundation. Anyone who says "I know" should always say so with a great deal of humility about both their knowing process and the conclusions they reach about what they know. This does not mean we should become relativists. And it does not mean we should be filled with deep inner doubt. It simply means we should not make a system of belief into the "truth of God."

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  1. Jeff Downs July 1, 2005 at 6:41 am

    “Anyone who says “I know” should always say so with a great deal of humility about both their knowing process and the conclusions they reach about what they know.”
    Can you be “certain” that your comments on certitude are certain?

  2. Gene Redlin July 1, 2005 at 9:33 am

    so we throw out the if-then of foundational thinking. I suspect we have to tear several books out of our Bibles: Certainly everything written by Paul. Over 250 times the apostle Paul says “if then”.
    I don’t plan to. I think others shouldn’t either. We must have foundations to build our faith on. Those foundations must be sound and certain. Jesus even talked of the dangers of building on Shifting Sand.
    Proper sound unquestionable foundations are essential. Start with the Apostles and Nicene creeds. The Catechisms. They seem to be pretty sound. Build from there.
    John, don’t discourage people from establishing and building on things they believe.
    IF they are sensitive to the teaching of the Holy Spirit they will come more and more in line with where the Father wants them to be. That’s what the phrase From Glory to Glory is all about. Stop reading so many books.

  3. Craig W. Booth July 1, 2005 at 10:26 am

    I am less comfortable, or perhaps unfamiliar, with your Scriptural basis for this notion of uncertainty that you have put forward. From which parable or epistle have you developed this theory?
    As I contemplate Scripture, I do find a fair number of calls to become certain about teachings of the Word, knowing from whom they have been delivered, and removing double-mindedness from our faith.
    Perhaps if you could elaborate on those Scriptures which give foundation for the need for uncertainty it would help me better understand your post.

  4. Rich Vincent July 1, 2005 at 5:00 pm

    Craig, How about “we know but in part” or “we see through a glass darkly”? Paul said, “I know whom I have believed,” not that I’m certain that I’m absolutely right. His knowledge was personal, which involves an inherent risk in believing in the trustworthiness of the revealer. The knowledge of faith is NOT about certainty, but trust in another.
    John, enjoy this quote from David Mills: “The truth that we know can be called objective, absolute, universal, as long as we recognize that those adjectives describe the truth itself, and not our knowledge of it.”
    And John, I grow increasingly frustrated by modernity’s hold on evangelicals, and the inability – or unwillingness – of evangelicals to admit it. Lesslie Newbigin’s awareness of the “cultural captivity of the gospel” is all too apparent in contemporary theological discussion, especially by those who believe they are untainted by cultural contamination. Those most unaware are usually the one’s most affected.

  5. Craig W. Booth July 2, 2005 at 4:26 pm

    Hello Rich! What has it been, ten years I think? Jane says “hello.”
    “We know but in part” and “we see through a glass darkly” are interesting phrases, but I don’t think they apply to “certitude” as much as to omniscience. Perhaps I am wrong, but I think Paul was saying, “we don’t know everything and what has been revealed is limited by our finite ability to comprehend the infinite.” To me, this is somewhat different than becoming convinced of certain absolute truths (e.g. God created, Christ lived, died, resurrected, etc.).
    Paul most often did seem certain of his theology. He said he could even render an opinion on matters which were not revealed by Christ and be considered a trustworthy servant of Christ. That is, his teachings and even his opinions could be trusted.
    If this “certitude” theory is centered on cultural elements, like church service order, liturgy v. open ministry, and the like–matters not even addressed by Scripture–then we have little basis for being “certain” that “our way is the right way.” But if the theory encompasses statements of Scripture (e.g. Christ arose on the third day) then I am at a loss to understand how we permit uncertainty to attain a foothold.
    Does any man know everything? No. Does any man understand the entirety of God’s Word? No. Must we always be studying and growing in knowledge and godliness? Yes. Just as we should always be testing our salvation against our love for God and others, we should constantly be testing our “knowledge” against the Word to see if we understand accurately. As long as we are willing to give up error for truth and ignorance for understanding, we grow. Yet, I have the uneasy feeling this is not what is meant by “certitude v. uncertainty.”

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