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My fellow blogger Dana VanderLugt posted a thoughtful piece on Saturday titled “No Easy Answers.” Her post received a number of appreciative comments but when I posted the link to her blog on Facebook, I received some pushback from a couple of people who worried Dana was throwing the whole of having a sure and certain faith under the bus of radical doubt. Actually the piece makes clear that her primary focus on not always trying to claim radical certainty for our every view was not something like what we profess in the Apostles’ Creed. Rather I thought it was clear she was pointing to other issues related to synodical pronouncements as well as a welter of issues we have been dealing with in recent years in the pandemic and such.
She also quoted a line from Richard Rohr—which set off heresy alarm bells for some—to the effect that if we make faith out to be complete certitude, then it’s not really faith anymore. It’s fact. It’s infallible knowledge. I don’t know much about Rohr but have read some things he has written with which I quite thoroughly disagree (he met with Pope Francis last week—wonder how that went). But even a gauzy Christian or possibly even a heretic—if such he is—can still get some things right and on this point Rohr is onto something (at least on a limited bandwidth).
One commentator on my Facebook posting of Dana’s blog quoted Hebrews 11:1 as a counterbalance to what he called Dana’s “disturbing” blog: “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” And along with that I would quote from the Heidelberg Catechism from Lord’s Day 7:
True faith is
not only a sure knowledge by which I hold as true
all that God has revealed to us in Scripture;
it is also a wholehearted trust,
which the Holy Spirit creates in me by the gospel,
that God has freely granted,
not only to others but to me also,
forgiveness of sins,
These are gifts of sheer grace,
granted solely by Christ’s merit.
Taken together Hebrews 11 and Q&A 21 set out some boundaries for us. Faith is confidence but it is a confidence fraught with hope and involving things we cannot actually see. That makes sense. As Paul wrote in Romans 8, the hope produced by our faith is by its very nature something we do not at present possess or are able to see. If we had the object of hope in hand, we would not still be hoping for it. We’d have it. If you hope your father’s heart bypass operation goes well and then it does, the next day you don’t have that hope anymore nor do you need it. You have reality instead. Hope disappears when you get what you hoped for (or even when you don’t).
The Catechism adds trust to the equation and trust is also something you need only when you cannot be 100% sure. As Richard Mouw once illustrated it, if my son is accused of having done something bad around 10pm on a Friday night but he assures me he did not do so, then I trust him (provided his character and his past actions give me some warrant for this trust). I don’t really know but I trust. But if I myself had been with my son at 10pm on Friday, then I don’t have to trust he did not do the bad thing of which he is accused—I will know he didn’t and so no trust is needed. Hope and trust are tinged with the possibility we could be wrong or something will never come to pass as we had hoped.
But the Catechism also uses the word “knowledge” in its definition of faith and that is important but again note two things: First, this knowledge comes as a sheer gift and not via something we achieved or proved or tumbled to on our own. Second, note the scope of this knowledge as being what God reveals in Scripture (and then in particular things related to our salvation). Now let’s stipulate that what is revealed in Scripture is a lot. But let’s also stipulate that faith in what God reveals in the Bible does not mean we know just everything about life and the world and society and the issues of the day. This faith-based knowledge does not get imported into every opinion or idea we hold as followers of Christ.
And let’s admit that applying even the knowledge of Scripture is not always easy and that across its 2,000-year history, the church has done its level best to apply Scripture to various issues and ended up now and again getting it solidly and squarely wrong.
There are many things that do not encroach anywhere near the core of our Christian faith that we are right to hold lightly, that we are right to question and allow others to question, that we are right to allow a certain amount of doubt to enter the picture.
But in our culture right now almost everything is 100% this way or that way but there’s nothing in the middle. What’s more, pausing long enough to scratch one’s head to wonder about something is seen as weakness. In this age Christians who get caught up in all this turn to the Bible and try to force Scripture to yield iron-clad answers that can lead people to stake down a position on this or that issue with 100% certitude.
At the 2022 January Series at Calvin University Dr. Sujin Pak delivered The Stob Lecture sponsored by Calvin Theological Seminary in honor of Dr. Henry Stob. Pak is an expert in the history of biblical interpretation and noted that church history is punctuated by periods when there was a quest for utter certitude about everything. In these times biblical exegesis tended to wrap itself into knots in an effort to make the Bible yield “the right answer” on a range of topics that had nothing to do with salvation, the identity of Christ, and other core matters. But Pak sadly noted that those periods were the very same ones that led to violence, to pogroms, to Crusades, to Inquisitions, and just generally to a complete withering of the love and grace of Christ Jesus.
We teeter on such a time now. Or perhaps we have already tipped into it. Since the recently concluded Synod of the CRCNA, some of us are aware of social media posts and post-synodical debriefing videos that made it clear that having won what some see as a solid victory for orthodoxy, now is the time to plan next steps. Now is the time to take all our right answers and all our certainty and use it to go after—as one pastor put it—“the rot” in CRCNA schools and institutions and agencies.
Because when we are absolutely certain about everything, perhaps we need not worry about the verse that says “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”