A Guide to Examining the Way We Believe So That What We Believe Will be Secure
There are so many things that I don’t know about. Yes, I have a master’s degree in theology from a four year program. A masters degree! Yes, it was very in depth. And yes, since I graduated almost a decade ago, I have keep up my studies very intently. But I feel like I know less today than I did when I first began. It is often said that a pastor has to be an expert in more areas than in any other profession. He has to know history, psychology, grammar, leadership, biology, geography, archeology, hermeneutics, Greek, Hebrew, English, literature, logic, cosmology, rhetoric, paleology, sociology, ethics, marraige, substance abuse, and, yes, even politics. I modify this a bit. A pastor is perceived by many to be an expert in more areas than any other field. Sometimes this perception goes to our head and we begin to think of ourselves as masters of all areas. This is far from the true.
In every area I listed, I am but a novice. In many of these, I am just knowledgable enough to be dangerous. Most others, if they were honest, no matter how many degrees they hold, are masters of very few (if any) things. In just about every area of life, we rely heavily on the expertise of others.
Think about this. When you read your Bible, my bet is that you don’t personally translate every passage from the original Greek or Hebrew. You rely on the translation of others. Your confidence for this translation comes from what I have called “referred conviction.” You simply trust the people who translated it. For the few that do translate the Bible yourself, my bet is that you don’t use a self-constructed Greek or Hebrew text. You probably use a critical text that came by way of another’s expertise. My point is that no matter how you slice it, you are standing on the shoulders of others and your position is only as stable as those who are holding you up.
We need to be careful about getting too high on ourselves. In our individualistic maverick society, we value individualism. But knowledge, understanding, and wisdom are not individualistic. No one is really that smart. Most of us are filled with referred intelligence and conviction.
Thus far, we have argued that faith is made up of three primary things: content, conviction, and consent. Right now we are zeroing in on conviction. Conviction, as we are talking about it, is the intellectual aspect of our faith. This conviction is made up of three things: rational, real life experience, and that which has been referred. Our conviction meter looks like this:
Let’s spend some time on “referred conviction.” The Reformers called it firmitas.
Our faith is going to be filled with understanding and conviction that relies on other people. I am content to know that 99.9% of the world’s information is beyond my ability to have “expert” knowledge of, much less a first hand conviction about. There are not too many things that I can be an expert in. But there are experts out there, both contemporary and historic. There are reliable sources that can be found. There are reliable people. In fact, Christians believe that finding a reliable access to the ultimate source for referred conviction is ideal. This ultimate source is Jesus Christ as revealed in the Scriptures. We will expand on this more later. For now, we have to realize that in order to get to the ultimate source of reliable conviction, we often have to lean on others.
My library is filled with books from sources that I trust. From New Testament background commentaries to histories of the Reformation, I have to rely on the research of others in my own research. The closest that I have ever come to contributing to one of these areas with an original study was when I did some graduate work in the Oxyrhynchus Papyri. What is that? I am glad you asked! The Oxyrhynchus Papyri is a large group of manuscripts dating from the first-century to the fourth. It was literally a trash dump of letters, receipts, and other documents found in Egypt in the 1940s. My goal was 1) to study the characteristics of an amanuensis (scribal secretary) in the first century (how much liberty did they have in their style?) and 2) how did they use the Greek word huper (“for,” “on behalf of” or “in stead of”). I was trying to correlate this with the use of huper with the doctrine of substitutionary atonement (Rom. 5:6, “Christ died huper [on behalf of] the ungodly”). While the study was incredibly interesting and while I can speak with some degree of personal authority and conviction with this particular topic, it is so narrow that I rarely get any chance (much less find the need) to share this with others.
Again, no matter what your field of study, no matter what your IQ, the point is not whether you stand on the shoulders of others, it is whether or not those shoulders are trustworthy. We should not refer our conviction blindly to anyone, but we do have to concede that we need others. Knowledge is a community thing. Therefore, conviction is ultimately going to involve community.
Two Sources of Referred Conviction:
(I refuse to create two more sub-meters here even though I could!)
1. Contemporary Referred Conviction
Contemporary referred conviction comes by way of contemporary testimony. This is represented by those people who we have some degree of contact with, either through extension (books, articles, lectures, podcasts, blogs, and other resources) or through personal engagement (parents, friends, professors, pastors, etc.). They are those who are living today.
2. Historically Referred Conviction
Historically referred conviction comes by way of historic testimony. These are those who have gone before us. For Christians, we believe in the “Body of Christ.” We believe that each Christian contributes in some way to this body. What many are unaware of (especially in Protestantism) is that the Body of Christ is made up of people who are both alive and dead. We call this the communio sanctorum or “the communion of saints.” We still stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us. Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Luther, Edwards, Lewis and a thousand others who are all gone, but they are all still card-carrying contributing members to the Body of Christ. Therefore, they are all resources for our referred conviction.
As with everything, there are ways that we can go wrong. Let me expand on a couple.
Notice here, while both rational and real life (evidence) conviction meters are high, there is no referred conviction at all. This is why the overall conviction meter does not rise much.
Arrogance is defined as the display of superiority and self-pride. The arrogant person thinks too highly of their own thoughts and convictions. What they say and believe is right, no matter what others think. The Proverb says “The way of the fool is right in his own eyes” (Prov. 12:15). We need to be careful here since some of the greatest revolutions have taken place because certain individuals rightly go against the grain of their culture. Think of Athanasius, Martin Luther, Martin Luther King Jr., William Wilberforce, and, even, Jesus himself. Where would we be without them? However, they were not truly mavericks since they only went against the grain of contemporary society. All of them appealed to a common good, common sense, and had historic referrals under their belt.
The type of person I am talking about has little or no concern for what any other people say, contemporary or historic. Their conviction is based only on their own ingenuity. They don’t have any desire to ask for the help of others. I have seen many Christians who study their faith in such a way. They don’t need commentaries, books, advice, and certainly don’t need to consult history. They and the Holy Spirit have it all figured out. There is no such thing as the communio sanctorum for them.
It gets really bad when these types of people start churches and call on others to join them in their supposed “new” understanding. They are more often than not oppressive and authoritative. They hardly encourage their people to seek outside guidance. Wisdom comes only when people are bowing to them alone. Their thoughts and convictions come from no other authority than themselves. We have a fancy name for this type of person: “cultish.” They start “cults.”
Worse yet, many of these will claim this is the essence of the Reformers ideal of sola Scriptura (“the Scripture alone”). “Me, myself, the Holy Spirit, and the Scriptures,” they will say. “That is all I need. I have no other authority or reference. My conviction is my own. My interpretation is my own. If it differs from everyone else, living or dead, I am not concerned.” But the Reformers did not mean that the Scripture is our only source of authority or that private interpretation was ideal, but that the Scriptures are are ultimate source of authority and that we need to have our own conviction.
What do you notice here. Look hard. Rational and real life experience (evidence) is completely absent. However, referred conviction is very high. But having referred conviction near one-hundred alone does not move the big conviction meter up much. Why? because there has to be a balance.
There is only so long that we can rely exclusively on referred conviction. Of course it is this way when we are children. We refer to mom and dad’s beliefs. But there is a time when we need to graduate from a belief of our parents, pastor, denomination, tradition, and culture. Some people never do. Every conviction they have is simply referred conviction from these other sources. I call this “outsourced conviction.” Sometimes these sources are good, sometimes they are not so good. This type of person does not question the sources nor put them to the test. Thus, their conviction is in no way their own.
I find this quite a bit in belief systems which attempt to keep their people from “free thinking.” They never encourage asking questions or expressing doubts. Fear is the motivator to keep their people in check. When this has been found present in Christianity, personal Bible interpretation is usually discouraged. “Just let us take care of that for you,” they say. “We are the professionals. If you start to think, you will really mess things up.”
This type of methodology does keep things more tight. It does ensure a certain type of unity. And it does recognize the importance of referred conviction. But, in the end, this is what the Reformers of the sixteenth century rebelled against. It is the method that the Reformers reformed! The institutionalized church of the day required that people refer all of their beliefs to them. The tragedy that this produced then is the same as what it produces today: no one has real conviction. And remember what happens to your overall belief meter when the conviction is this low? It can never raise much.
If we want our faith to be strong, there must be a balance. We need to assess whether we are relying too much on untested sources or if we are going maverick. Concession has to be made that there is no way to have conviction without leaning on the conviction of others to a large degree. Those who don’t lean on others are denying the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. The Proverbs say “The way of the fool is right in his own eyes.” That is the fools path. But the path of wisdom concludes this Proverb: “But a wise man is he who listens to counsel” (Pro 12:15). We must spend our lives attempting to find trustworthy resources, surrounding ourselves with wise advisers and friends in every area.
There are so many things that you and I both don’t know much about. But this does not mean our conviction concerning these things are illfounded.
Do you have people in your life that you trust and can refer to in specific areas of belief?
Are there great saints of the past that you lean on in specific areas of belief?
Describe a church that does not listen to the voices of the past at all?
Describe conviction that is based only on the conviction of others?
Is this referred conviction meter high or low for your faith? Please explain.
C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger.
Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I’m a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. He can be contacted at [email protected]