On Certainty in the Christian Life

Reading through Vanhoozer’s Drama of Doctrine a couple of years ago, I made a mental note of his discussion on certainty in the Christian faith. I loved the book, but was wrestling over his critique of absolute or apodictic certainty in the faith. After all, aren’t we certain that God exists and that our sins are forgiven in Christ?

Concerning certainty, the Reformed scholastics have much to say, especially in the light of Descartes’ “clear and distinct” standard of truth. For example, Turretin notes that there are three species of certainty 1) mathematical, 2) moral, and 3) theological (Institutes, II.iv.22).

Mathematical certainty (a.k.a. metaphysical certainty) has to do with things known by nature and things demonstrated by nature. For example, 1 + 1 = 2. This is metaphysically or mathematically certain: you can see and prove it and it is known by nature.

Moral certainty has to do with truth that cannot be demonstrated, but are so clear that all sensible men agree upon them. For example, we know that Abraham Lincoln was the president of the U.S. during the Civil War.

Theological certainty has to do with the truths that cannot be demonstrated or known by nature or empirical evidence, but truths that are founded on things divine – i.e. revelation. Scripture is this revelation, and it does not belong to the mathematically certain category, else faith would not be required. Neither does Scripture belong to the moral certainty category, else our faith would simply be historical assent, much like our assent to the fact that Lincoln was the president during the Civil War. We are theologically certain, however, that God is God and that Jesus died to save his people from their sins. Saving faith carries with it a “certain certainty.”

R. Muller describes the Reformed scholastic teaching of certainty this way: “Since God is neither a natural principle nor a thing that can be known immediately through itself, but rather is known through his self-revelation, theology has its own species of certainty, related to the way of knowing that is specific to theology: faith. This definition, although not at all polemically stated, does have a gently anti-Cartesian edge in its denial of mathematical certainty” (PRRD, I.412).

Of course, this has everything to do with our finiteness, sinfulness, ectypal and analogical knowledge, and our “pilgrim” theology. We are not gods, nor do we have God-like archetypal and univocal certainty. Yet what we have is sufficient – theological certainty, or certainty of faith that “God is” and that the gospel is true for us.

This is helpful for our own wrestlings in the Christian life; it chases sinful doubts, and it frees us up from trying to attain mathematical certainty for things divine. It is also quite helpful for apologetic purposes, as we can show skeptics who want “proof” that they are pressing Christianity into wrong categories – categories that they themselves keep distinct in their daily lives.

Thanks, Scholastics!

shane lems

sunnyside wa


4 comments on “On Certainty in the Christian Life

  1. Andrew Compton says:

    Excellent . . . Thanks again for bringing Turretin and KVH into dialogue. It is always so fruitful when we see their interrelationships!

  2. CW says:

    Ultimately, all knowledge is simply justified belief. Even things I’ve actually seen or heard are only beliefs, justified by mere trust that my senses are serving me correctly, and that I’m seeing and hearing the same thing as everyone else. In this perspective, I know nothing (my kids would agree); my ‘knowledge’ that 1+1=2 is an empirically justified belief just as my ‘knowledge’ of God is justified by the internal dwelling of the Holy Spirit. Conversely, I can be just as certain of God’s existence as I can that 1+1=2.

    MR had a good pull quote from Bonnhoefer a couple of issues ago – “A God who can be proven by the created is merely an idol” (paraphrased). Without the illumination of the Holy Spirit, we have no hope of truly knowing God, as nothing that is created can fully justify such a belief. Yet, in the light of the Spirit, we can see all creation clearly evidencing the Creator.

    This all underscores Calvin’s brilliance in Book I by pointing out we can’t know ourselves without first knowing God, and that we can’t know God without first knowing ourselves. Knowing this (or more correctly, believing this), it makes it painfully obvious why the wisdom of the world is so screwed up.

  3. Mike G. says:

    Knowledge is perhaps more precisely defined as a justified true belief. To count as knowing something, for it to be more than mere opinion, it must first and foremost be true. How can you know something that is not true? Also, you can’t believe something that happens to be true by dumb luck. Perhaps I might believe that I will win the lottery tomorrow, but even if I do win it, we can’t rightly call that knowledge. We must be justified rationally in our beliefs for it to rightly be called knowledge.

    But now enters the problem of justification in knowledge. After all, everything offered as justification for a belief must itself be justified. For example, if I look outside and see that it is sunny, then I know it is sunny. My justification comes from the sensory perception of sight. But the validity of sight itself must also be justified. And that justification must also be justified, and so on ad infinitum. This infinite regress of justification proves problematic to philosophers, and many of them have worked awfully hard to try to come up with some other way to describe knowledge.

    But we Christian theists need not feel vexed by such problems, knowing ourselves to be creatures. If an infinite chain of justification is required for knowledge, then all we need to say is that knowledge must be grounded in God’s revelation.

    After all, if God is infinite, then can’t he have an infinite capacity for justification, and can’t all justification ultimately end with him, the infinite one? Doesn’t he know all the answers to every possible question that can begin with the word “why” ad infinitum?

    So then, God is the only one who can possess infinite justification for his knowledge, if you will. And if God does not lie, then what he says to us is trustworthy and true. Our justification for our knowledge can end with the justification that the Lord has revealed it to be so.

    And we need not cease with special revelation, but we can also claim such justification with regard to general revelation. For didn’t the God who speaks to us in Scripture also speak the world into existence? Isn’t the universe in some sense what God is saying? Isn’t light a matter of God saying, “Let there be light”? Don’t the heavens declare the glory of God? Isn’t the universe God’s self revelation too?

    So then, if our justification for our justified true beliefs is grounded in God’s revelation, then that is all the justification we need, for it is based on and founded on God himself, who possesses infinite justification, all the answers to all the questions that begin with “why”.

    There is therefore no problem of certainty, for we are certain that what God says is true, whether he says it in Scripture or in the creation. There is our certainty.

    And of course, being fallen, the element of uncertainty comes in the form of our wicked hearts, which are slow to believe all that he has spoken, and often misinterpret what he has said as a result.

    Since we cannot plumb the depths of our own depravity, therefore we cannot fully discern the degree of our inability to interpret the Word of God. Nevertheless, we have been promised in Scripture that the Spirit is with us to help us, to guide us into all truth.

    Epistemology cannot be divorced from theology. We cannot divorce epistemology from the doctrine of revelation, or from the doctrine of the indwelling, sanctifying Spirit, for it is these things upon which our understanding of epistemology must be based.

    Unbelieving philosophers have no doctrine of revelation, no doctrine of the indwelling Spirit. Thus they are left floundering to explain how we can have any claims to knowledge at all. At the end of the day, they have given up on claims of infallible/certain knowledge, and embraced relativity. They suppose that we create truth for ourselves, and that we should just live in our own little world.

    Well, so be it. Add one more aspect to the fallen condition. But as for us, this is not our world, it is our Father’s world.


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