On Christian Certainty: Epistemic Certainty & Doubt

The main objective of this post is to interact with the Biblical teachings on the issue of doubt within the context of Christian apologetics. For some, the idea of epistemic certainty is not only an impossibility, but it is also one of the most arrogant claims anyone could make. For others, skeptics in particular, knowledge requires certainty, and because certainty is impossible, knowledge then, is viewed as impossible. The Encyclopedia of Philosophy says, Certainty has been taken in philosophical usage either as a state of mind or as a relational property of statements or propositions. The former is known as psychological certainty and the latter, logical certainty. It is obvious that whatever is certain is also known. However, the converse that whatever is known is certain is not the case. In our culture, doubt has been extolled as a virtue. Christians leaving the faith (so-called) have made statements that they are honestly following wherever the evidence leads. And it just so happens to lead away from Christian belief. It is true that in the field of philosophy, doubt is often admired as a virtue. And it is also true that many Christian apologists, and even Christian philosophers today, are not alarmed when some professing Christians express doubts about the basic claims of Christianity, such as the virgin birth, or Creation ex nihilo, or some of Christ’s own miracles. But is that an appropriate response to a professing Christian’s admission of doubt?

 

Where does the psychological phenomenon of doubt begin? What is the root of doubt? What is doubt? According to the dictionary, doubt is the feeling of uncertainty, a lack of conviction about something. Atheists claim that they lack belief in God. In other words, they lack conviction that theistic belief, and Christian belief in particular, is true. But doubt cannot arise in a vacuum. Doubt is not something that just is until the appropriate amount of evidence comes along to remove it. Doubt is the opposite of trust, the denial or withholding of reliance. However, doubt is not groundless. It is not the case that doubt is simply anchored in nothing. That would be absurd. A person only withholds trust in one belief because they have a great degree of confidence in other beliefs. And those other beliefs either inform the person’s doubt about a belief or a person’s trust in a belief. What this means is that the question of doubt regarding particular beliefs is really a question about their ground for doubt, or their beliefs that serve to give room for and ground doubt or that serve or give room to trust. Those beliefs are the beliefs that prop up and give room for other beliefs. We call these presuppositions. Every doubt has, at its foundation, a presupposition. And where Christian belief is concerned, and belief about God is concerned, every doubt has its roots in the presupposition of human autonomy. What I mean by human autonomy is the belief that men are not absolutely and totally dependent on God for all things. The denial of human reliance on God for all things is the necessary precondition for doubt.

 

James 1:6 says, But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways. Recently, Andy Stanley has promoted the point of view that Christians ought to be free to doubt some parts of the Bible, such as the virgin birth for example. Indeed, there are numerous accounts of events in the Christian Scripture that are fairly arduous to the modern senses and even offensive to the modern intellect. The point of view Stanley is taking is that these events or records are obstacles to faith and we should allow for their removal so that people don’t throw Christianity out altogether. Apparently, this is Stanley’s solution for those leaving the faith. It is the secret sauce of North Point Community Church as Stanley seeks to create a community where unchurched people love to go to church. In other words, Stanley has created a community of people who are free to doubt whatever parts of the Bible they wish, well, except for the resurrection…for now at least. But James has a remarkably different description for those who doubt. He calls the doubter a double-minded man who is unstable in all his ways.

 

The Greek word translated doubt is διακρίνω. The word falls within the semantic field of holding a view, a belief, trust. It means to think that something may not be true or certain. Here is means to be uncertain, to be at odds with oneself. The word is a compound of κρινω which is the word for judge. There is clearly a judgment, an evaluation, an analysis, and finally a decision bound up in this word. No one doubts without making a decision to doubt. And that decision is an expression of trust in the autonomous human’s ability to determine what merits belief or trust and what does not. To doubt one thing is to not doubt another. The decision to doubt A is always a decision not to doubt B. The atheist decides to doubt God’s existence because he has no doubt about his empiricism or scienticism, etc. To lack doubt in God is not to lack doubt in the one thing you should: yourself.

 

James tells us that the doubter is double-minded. The word is δίψυχος is from the same semantic domain as διακρίνω but from the sub-domain of “Believe to be true.” It has to do with being uncertain about the truthfulness of something. It is unattested prior to NT writings and is only attested in Christian writings. The only other place it appears in the NT is James 4:8, Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Here it is associated with sinners and impure hearts. That is not virtuous company.

 

Finally, James tells us that the doubter is ἀκατάστατος (unstable) in all his ways. This word falls within the semantic domain of control, rule. The word pertains to having to do with being unable to be controlled by something or someone. The word appears twice in the NT and once in the LXX. James 3:8 references the tongue that no man can tame or control. In the LXX it is rendered from the Hebrew סער transliterated, sʿr. You would pronounce it something like sa-ar. The sense of this word is closely associated with a storm, a strong wind, to be blown away. As I write, Irma, a category 5 hurricane is moving close to the east coast of Florida with winds around 200 mph. This is the image that comes to mind when I think about the instability that James says is associated with doubt. It is not a pretty picture. And it is anything but virtuous. There is a lot more to this subject of epistemic certainty. Volumes of books have been written about the subject. It is a highly complex subject in the field of philosophy. However, theological speaking, biblically speaking, the idea of knowledge, of certain knowledge, is more closely concerned with the ethical nature of refusing to trust God. Refusal to affirm the truth of God’s Word is a sin for which all human beings are culpable.

 

One final point demands attention. There is a difference between doubt and discernment. 1 John 4:1 commands every Christian: Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. The Greek word δοκιμάζω is rendered test in this verse. It falls within the semantic domain of “trying to learn.” Here is means attempting to learn the genuineness of something by examination and testing. It simply means to make a critical examination of something. This leads me to the conclusion then that not all doubt is sinful. It depends on what it is one is doubting. To doubt me may not be a sin, but to doubt God is. To doubt my promise is not the same as doubting God’s promise. To doubt God’s word is to trust my own. Sinful doubt is the product of misplaced trust. It is the product of human autonomy. The standard by which everything must be tested is God’s word. God’s word is the only infallible rule of faith for the Christian. This does not mean it is the only authority in our lives. But it does mean it is the final authority and if any other authority contradicts Scripture, it must be rejected as authoritative at all. Every claim must be tested against that which should never be doubted: Scripture.

 

If everything is doubted, nothing is. Unless there is certainty about something, there can be no doubt about anything. There is no uncertainty without certainty. Descartes was right, at least about something, even if he was mostly wrong about everything else. James, writing for God to us, tells us in no uncertain terms that doubting God’s word is anything but virtuous. Anyone who belittles doubt or worse, extolls doubt, regardless of their station is life, is disputing with God.

 

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