On Being Uncertain, on theological issues

In a comment on a recent post here Robert Kan asked me,

How certain are you that a particular teaching in scripture is not relevant for us today because “times” have changed?

I think I surprised Robert with my reply, because he made no further comment on that post:

… The answer is: not at all certain. Christians come to different conclusions on many of these matters, and I don’t think one is objectively right and the others objectively wrong.

In practice each of us finds our own footholds on the slippery slope. I’m not sure that is a bad thing. It’s only a bad thing if we use it as an excuse to break Christian unity or start condemning others for choosing different footholds. Paul outlines the principles of the strong and the weak, and I think they may well apply here.

A clarification here: as the broader context shows, I am not denying objective truth in matters of fact, but rejecting only the objective status of positions on issues of ethics and morality.

In a further comment on the same post, Iconoclast helps me to unpack further Paul’s teaching on the strong and the weak, and how it applies in this case.

Austin and Allison FischerProbably independently, Austin Fischer has written a guest post at Roger Olson’s blog Certainty Not, in which he criticises the theological pretension (not “pretention” – Fischer mixes up the two spellings) of “young, restless and Reformed” neo-Calvinists:

And lots of things go into pretention: pride and projection, arrogance and insecurities, knowledge and ignorance. But at its very core pretention, especially theological pretension, feeds on certainty. We become pretentious when we get certain, when we become convinced that there is simply no way we could be wrong about this, when we cannot see any truth in alternative positions, when we can no longer feel the weight of dissenting voices and as such seek to squelch them out.

But of course when it comes to theology, certainty is impossible. Finite human beings are trying to make sense of an infinite God. We always know God subjectively, never objectively. Perhaps the most certain thing we can say about God is that we cannot be certain about anything. This is not to say we cannot be confident, that we cannot have good reason to believe what we believe. But it is to say that certainty will always lie just beyond our grasp. Certainty? No. Confidence? Yes.

Indeed. Sometimes it is good to be confident that we are right, especially concerning central matters of the Christian faith. But even here we need to avoid the kind of pretentious certainty which only repels others and divides the church. Probably more often we need to recognise that our own conclusions are provisional, based on our own limited understanding of the issues and of the relevant Bible passages.

And that implies that we should treat Christians who differ from us on these issues not as enemies to be defeated or as apostates to be shunned, but as our brothers and sisters in Christ. Concerning our attitude to them the world should be able to say, in the words quoted by Tertullian in the 3rd century (see also John 13:35),

See how they love one another.

10 thoughts on “On Being Uncertain, on theological issues

  1. I love this post. The longer I’ve been a Christian, the less certain I’ve become about things…there are probably only a handful of things that I’m certain about…there is a God; He loves me; Jesus is God; Jesus was crucified, died, & rose again; I need to follow Jesus. The rest are just details, in my book. I have strong feelings about other things, but ultimately I might not be right on those issues…and I think that’s okay. I don’t think that my salvation is in jeopardy. I don’t have a problem replying ‘I don’t know’ when someone asks me a hard question.

  2. Peter, thanks again for another thoughtful post. I can vouch for Rhea says about Jesus. If fact, I reckon Christ is the “missing link” for every theological issue there ever was. And everything that is of “value” ultimately points back to him. The more I gaze at him, the more I see of his life on earth, the way he lived, the way he died, affects my convictions and confidence. Perhaps most, if not all, of our doctrines could be formed from the perspective of how Christ revealed himself in the world. You know what, I think I’m beginning to really appreciate why Paul spoke so strongly in his letters about the issue of submission and authority, of which I have commented a bit on as you know. Whether that be submission to bosses, leaders, masters, husbands, parents, higher authorities, and yes, even each other, it really doesn’t make much of difference. I think this is Paul’s “gentle wisdom” of pointing us to a savior who submitted himself, even to death on a cross. If “submission” was good enough for Jesus, it certainly is good enough for me. Unless we are able to identify with his sufferings and servitude, we cannot share in his glory (Rm 8:17). If my convictions are not based on a practical theology like this, then I am little more than a “noisy gong or a clanging cymbal”.

  3. Thank you, Robert. While I don’t see submission as as central an issue as you do, I agree that it is important for the Christian life. What I object to is when it comes across as “you should submit to me”, whether from a church leader or from a husband. I see very little such teaching in the New Testament. Yes, occasionally Paul tries to enforce his authority as an apostle, but never arbitrarily, and more often he appeals to his readers to do what he has argued is right.

  4. Good stuff, Peter.
    I especially appreciate your quotes from Fisher on pretension and certainty and your final comments.

    I figure this. Huge gulfs have always existed among and between Christians on a variety of issues. Tom Wright, in Acts for Everyone, Part 2, notes the gap which must have existed between Paul and James the Just on Paul’s last trip to Jerusalem. Amen.

    Had Paul had a copy of I Corinthians or of Romans with him and had he given them to James, what would the Church Pillar and the tens of thousands with him who were “zealous for the law” have thought about “treat every day as though it was the same” or “neither circumcision nor uncircumcision matters at all; what matters is keeping God’s commandments…”? Not much, I reckon.

    The right hand of fellowship must quite often be extended to persons with whom we disagree on many things. Yet, somehow that is not to keep us from being of one mind and heart.

    If Phyllis Tickle is correct and we are moving out of rationalist/modernist Christianity (circa, 1500-2000) into an entirely new paradigm, then perhaps, because most of us will be less rationalistic about our faith, this will be less of a problem. Whether it is or not, if we will pray and work as we have all been commanded to work and pray, for the kingdom in which the will of God is done on the earth and if in that work we will work and pray for each other, then perhaps some of our differences will fall into the insignificant places where they deserve to be.

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