There are many things that I know almost nothing about but intrigue me nonetheless. Architecture is one of them. Carpentry is another. Forensic psychology is something that interests me, but not enough to make any moves in that direction other than watching the television series “Bones.”
There are some things that I know just enough about to be dangerous. Paleography is one. Playing the guitar is another. If you ever hear me playing, you would understand the danger. Human physiology and psychology are both areas of interest that I have some training in, but if I were to attempt to teach on these things, I would look pretty weak to the trained eye.
There are some things that I know pretty well, but am still timid about my knowledge. For example, I study exercise and nutrition. I have been certified twice as a weight trainer. However, I have not kept up on these areas well enough to be sure of my knowledge about the latest issues and understandings. I could (and have) held exercise and weight training seminars that were good enough to pass muster with the audience, but would not contribute anything to experts in the field.
Then there are some things that I know really well and feel very confident about my knowledge. Systematic theology is one of these. Church history is another. But there are particular areas of theology which I feel even more qualified for than others. Issues in prolegomena are what I spend most of my time in these days. Also, I don’t think that there are many people who are as well versed in the use of the Greek word huper by amanuenses in the Oxyrhynchus Papyri as I am (and there are probably fewer who care!)
However, even with those things that I know most about and feel qualified to teach on, I am hesitant to call myself an expert. Why? Because I live with the reality that there is more information out there that can further temper my understanding. I also know that there are people who know more than me about the issues who don’t come to the same conclusions I do. You have heard the saying, “I am a jack of all trades and an expert in nothing.” That is how most of us are. We cannot all be experts in every area of life. While some of us may know a lot about many things, there will always going to be someone who knows more.
For some, this reality paralyzes their ability to commit. Due to the fact that there is someone out there that possibly knows more than they do, they are unable to have a confident faith.
The issue is really more complex than it might sound. I fear that what you may be hearing is that people believe they have to be the smartest people on a particular subject in order to believe this or that about an issue. In reality the non-committal attitude is due to the fact that there may be yet-to-be-found information out there, whether discovered or undiscovered, which can change one’s understanding.
I don’t know much about science, geography, cosmology, and evolutionary biology. This makes me very timid when people ask me to be definitive about these subjects, even when they relate to the Bible. I used to spend quite a bit of time in these areas, hoping to orient myself enough to formulate an informed and definitive opinion on the issues involved. However, after a while, I backed off on such lofty goals, knowing that I did not have the time. I also came to find that the “experts” in these fields, whether believer or unbeliever, were following too much of an ideology for my goal of being definitive to be accomplished. There was still too much information yet to be discovered, whether physical or philosophical, for anyone to be definitive. But the fact remains that there are both people who know more than I do and information that has yet to be found by anyone that can disturb conclusions.
Again, there will always be people who know more than you. I don’t ever encourage anyone to be an expert in everything. This is impossible. However, the fact that someone knows something you don’t should not keep you from being confident in your faith for a few reasons:
1. Referred Expertise.
Just because you cannot be an expert in every area does not mean that you cannot be well informed by experts in these areas. For example, I know enough about textual criticism (the science and art of reconstructing the original text of Scriptures from the manuscript evidence) to teach on it. However, Dan Wallace knows much more than I do about the subject. So does Bart Erhman. Both of these men come to differing conclusions about some things involved in textual criticism. But I can be informed by both of them. I have access to their scholarship without having to acquire their level of scholarship on my own. They, along with many others, have written very accessible works on textual criticism which provides me with a justified basis for my faith, whichever direction it turns. Even though you may not be able to become an expert in this or that area, you can be well informed by those who are truly good and intellectually honest scholars in the areas relevant to your belief.
2. Uncertainty Principle.
I will talk more about this later, but suffice it to say for now that we all have to live with some degree of uncertainty based upon our ignorance. Even Dan Wallace and Bart Erhman don’t have all the information about the discipline in which they are both considered top experts in the world. Couple this with the fact that they, like all people, don’t have a completely wholistic understanding of how their conclusions might be influenced by other areas of study. However, this is the way we live in every area of life. There is nothing that we do or believe which is based upon the prior acquisition of infallible and exhaustive knowledge. We function off the “sufficiency principle.” All we need is probability in order to be justified in our beliefs. If the information that we have points to the probability of one conclusion over another, then our belief in that conclusion is justified, even if we may be lacking some data. If you get into your car and drive, you have demonstrated this point, even if you had the tires checked by an expert! There will always be some uncertiantly, but this does not mean your non-belief is justified.
In the end, God is the only one who has access to all the data and therefore is the only one who is infallible in all his understanding.
3. Undue Credit Given to the Unknown.
In my opinion this is the most important for those who are doubting God. Many times since we believe that there are people out there who know more than us—since we believe that there is information in some secret place that would change everything—we suspend our belief perpetually. When it comes to the God question and the issues surrounding Christianity, there is not some secret silver bullet on the team of unbelief that only those with an IQ of 120+ can understand. Don’t let words and phrases like “Greek mythology,” “second-temple Judaism,” “redaction criticism,” “psychological obscurantism,” or “Ancient near-east creation narratives” get you down. While a lot of smart people do go the direction of unbelief with these issues, there are also some very smart people who go another direction which ends in belief.
You also need to understand that there is not really anything new out there. There is nothing new about the “New Atheists.” They are just making old arguments in a new way. Ninety-nine percent of the time these issues are issues that are revitalized and sometimes repackaged. Become a good student of church history and you will find this to be the case and your fears will subside.
I think we get the idea behind number three due to people who give their testimony about how they started studying in college or graduate school and lost their faith. We begin to think What are they learning that I don’t know that is causing them to no longer believe? What information do they now have that I don’t (because I am not educated enough) which is a faith-killer? But again, the tide turns both ways. There are smart people who get the same education who not only remain believers, but actually strengthen their faith due to their belief that the evidence against Christianity is even weaker than they thought. Minus the “smart,” this describes me. The more I engage in the supposed “unknown” the more I am convicted of the truth of Christianity. The more I hear about alternatives to the existence of God and the resurrection of Christ, the more I am convinced, due to the weaknesses of the alternatives, that the battle is not on an intellectual front, but a spiritual one.
Conversely, we need to be careful here as I don’t want the unbeliever to become a believer because of this “fear of the unknown” either. The evidence for both sides is clear and easy to understand. No fine print. Simply put, there is no information out there in any area that the really smart people have that is detrimental to Christianity in the slightest. If it were, they would write about it. But their writings contain nothing new. Every objection to Christianity can be and has been answered for two-thousand years. This does not mean you will be compelled to accept the answer, it just means that your belief will not lose justification based on some “unknown.”
Your doubt does not need to hang on this issue. Does someone know something you don’t? Of course. Do they know something that is detrimental to your Christian faith? No. Don’t let heavy-handed tactics manipulate or scare you. (And don’t use heavy-handed tactics to manipulate others into belief that Christianity is true either!)