When Certainty is Wrong

Hendrick ter Brugghen - The Incredulity of Saint Thomas (Public Domain)

Hendrick ter Brugghen – The Incredulity of Saint Thomas (Public Domain)

(This was originally published in The Banner, Nov. 20, 2000, pp. 33-35)

Have you ever asked yourself if you are truly saved? How can you be certain that Christianity is true? How can we be sure that the Bible is true and that God exists? If such doubts come across your mind from time to time, you are not alone. Every believer faces some form of uncertainty about faith at some point.

Many books have been written to address those questions, for example, Josh McDowell’s best-seller Evidence That Demands a Verdict (Here’s Life Publishers Inc., 1979). Most of them aim to provide logical, scientific evidences to support the Bible’s truth and, in so doing, to give Christians a sense of certainty in their faith.

I admire and respect the works of these Christian authors, but I fear that the form of certainty they offer may not be entirely biblical. Our modern idea of certainty differs from the Bible’s concept of “being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (Heb. 11:1).

This will be clear when we look at what modern certainty is and compare it with biblical certainty. We will see how the modern idea of certainty has affected Christian practices and attitudes.

Modern Certainty

During the 16th and 17th centuries many Europeans saw their age-old beliefs shaken by the discoveries of science. For example, the news that the earth revolved around the sun shook the worldviews of many. Some were even led to doubt the Bible as God’s Word, since the Bible talks about the sun, not the earth, moving and standing still. As a result, skepticism and even outright atheism grew.

Faithful Christians at the time tried to combat the rising skepticism by searching for a ground of certainty – something that even the greatest skeptic could not deny is true.

The 17th century French philosopher Rene Descartes was one such Christian. Descartes thought he had found that ground of certainty, captured in his famous phrase, “I think, therefore I am.” In other words, even if I think that everything is uncertain or that everything is doubtful, the fact that I am thinking means that I, at least, must exist. I cannot doubt that I am doubting!

What Descartes did, however, was to place certainty in the human individual’s rationality. Even though Descartes went on to logically prove God’s existence from this ground of certainty, he shifted the focus from certainty in God’s Word to certainty in ourselves.

Descartes’ method is the backbone for modern ideas of certainty. The modern saying “I’ll believe it when I see it” implies that “I’ll believe it when I can rationally prove it (or when I have good evidence for it).” We can be certain of a truth only when we can prove it to the satisfaction of our minds, through proper use of our reasoning powers. And the proper method of using our reason is often the scientific method. And this method demands that in order to believe anything, we must have empirical proofs for it. That is what modern certainty teaches us. Our minds become the judges of what is true and what is not.

Now the scientific method is not wrong in itself. It’s very beneficial when we use it in scientific observation. But when we use it uncritically in all areas of life and regard it as the only correct method of reasoning, we turn it into an idol.

Effects of Modern Certainty

When Adam and Eve ate the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they were not only rebelling against God’s command; they were also trying to be wise like God.

Instead of trusting and obeying God’s directions, Adam and Eve wanted the ability to decide for themselves what’s right and wrong. They wanted to use that knowledge to be independent, self-reliant – to do without God. They wanted to be gods unto themselves. But doing without God is spiritual death.

Modern certainty repeats the same mistake. It encourages us to use our human reason, which is not bad in itself, as a ground of certainty apart from God. If you think about it, a ground of certainty on which all your other beliefs rest acts very much like an idol. Isn’t God supposed to be our final ground of certainty, our one firm foundation?

Yet the modern idea of certainty has strongly influenced our understanding of faith. Christians are not immune from the idea that “seeing is believing”.

Granted, this idea is not entirely new since the Bible records that Thomas refused to believe the resurrected Christ until he saw him for himself (John 20:24-31). But only in our modern age has this idea become accepted as the only proper way of believing. Josh McDowell’s writings, for example, sometimes come across as if our faith rests on historically proving the truths of the Bible.

Yes, we should be intelligent about our faith, but our faith does not rest on our human reason’s ability to prove the facts of Christianity. Our faith rests, instead, on God’s promises and faithfulness.

Under the influence of modern certainty, however, some theologians have defined faith in solely intellectual terms. For instance, Charles Hodge, professor of theology at Princeton Seminary in the late 1800s, wrote in his Systematic Theology that faith is “an intelligent reception of the truth on adequate grounds.”

Hodge claims that the Bible never asks for faith “except on the ground of adequate evidence” (vol. 1, p. 53). The Princeton school has influenced many evangelicals and probably not too few Reformed Christians since Princeton was a self-confessing Calvinist seminary.

This way of understanding faith often leads to seeing belief as a two-step process. The first step is that of gathering and weighing the facts to see whether they are true, and the second step is to believe only those facts that are proven to be true. McDowell, for example, writes that when he became a Christian, it was a “step into the light” rather than a “leap into the darkness” because he weighed the evidence and found that it leaned toward Christ as the Son of God.

When we are accused of exercising “blind faith,” it means that we have failed to implement the first step. Many evangelicals, therefore, try to defend the credibility of the Christian faith by gathering facts to support it. But this means that we rest our certainty on the facts of Christianity rather than on the God of Christianity.

John Calvin argued that striving to build up firm faith in the Bible by giving rational proofs is “doing things backwards.” For Calvin, “the testimony of the Spirit is more excellent than all reason” (Institutes Book I. vii. 4). The Holy Spirit can give us a sense of assurance that our human reason cannot.

If instead we rely on gathering as many indisputable facts as we can to prove to ourselves that we are right, what do we do when it comes to the question of whether we are truly a child of God? We start looking for evidences of true faith in ourselves: Do we pray fervently enough? Do we read and study the Bible enough? Do we show the fruits of the Spirit? Do we evangelize enough? Do we love God and our neighbor enough? Ultimately these questions show that we base our certainty on ourselves, on what we do or don’t do. Instead, our certainty should rest on God’s promise that anyone who trusts and obeys (even imperfectly) is saved.

Biblical Certainty

In John 14 Thomas asked the Lord, “How can we know the way?” Jesus replied, “I am the way and the truth and the life” (vv. 5-6).

Thomas probably expected a set of directions from Jesus. But Jesus points to himself as the answer. Christian discipleship does not mean following a set of principles or directions for living; it’s a personal response to a personal calling, a relationship with a living Lord.

As with any relationship, certainty cannot be gained by empirical proofs. There are no scientific standards to measure how reliable a person is. The only way you can know if I am reliable, for example, is to trust me first and then see how I live up to that trust. At most, you can conclude that I am a trustworthy person by what other people say about me and about my past actions. But, then, you still have to trust other people’s testimony, which you cannot verify with any certainty. There are always risks involved.

In John 8:31-32 Jesus said, “if you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” His statement is totally opposite to what modern certainty teaches.

Jesus says that obedience and trust will lead us to truth, and that truth will give us freedom. But modern certainty teaches that we are first free – free to doubt and free to investigate the facts – and that this freedom will help us discover the truth, which we will believe and obey. But this teaching fails to recognize that we are not born free; we are born in bondage to sin.

When God called Moses to lead his people out of Egypt, God assured Moses that he would be with him by giving him a sign: “And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain” (Exod. 3:12). But what kind of sign is that? It’s definitely not one that could give Moses any certainty in the modern sense. There is no empirical proof. In fact, the sign depends on Moses’ trust and obedience.

In other words, Moses will know that God will be with him when, after carrying out the mission, Moses will come back to the same mountain to worship God. To simplify: Moses will know that God is trustworthy by trusting God! Is it any surprise that Moses asked for further signs and reassurance (Exod. 4:1)?

Biblical certainty is not a scientific or rational certainty. It is more like a deep confidence in a person whom we know is trustworthy because he has not betrayed our trust. The certainty of our faith does not rest on human reason but on God: “I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him for that day” (2 Tim. 1:12). Notice how Paul’s confidence rests on God’s faithfulness and not on some demonstrable facts or proofs.

Growing Certainty

Once we begin to see the myth of modern certainty, we should worry less about our faith. It is an illusion to try to find absolute certainty. For example, before our wedding day I could not prove to myself beyond a doubt that may wife loved me the way she said she did. And neither could she be absolutely certain of my love for her. So when we said “I do” to each other, we both stepped out in faith.

It was not blind faith, since we had some good reasons to trust each other. Nonetheless, we were still taking risks, leaving ourselves vulnerable to hurt and betrayal. But having loved her as my wife for the past three years [this was written back in 2000 – we are married for almost 18 years now in 2015], I am convinced that she does love me.

Our relationship with Christ is like that. We cannot absolutely prove to ourselves that God is real and that God truly loves us. But the more we trust and obey God, the more we love God in return, the more we will experience Christ’s love for us, the more we will enjoy the testimony of the Holy Spirit and be convinced that God is faithful and trustworthy.

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About Shiao Chong

Editor in Chief of The Banner, official magazine of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC). Formerly CRC Campus Minister serving at York University in Toronto, Canada. (All postings here are my personal opinion and does not necessarily represent the views of the CRC or of The Banner.)
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4 Responses to When Certainty is Wrong

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  2. I like the myth of the lazy professor. I also think it’s amazing that we live in a world where we honor people like Scott Walker who make their livings noticing what the rest of us are not doing. Republicans are proof that black holes exist.LikeLiked by 1 person

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