Making a commitment to God is not easy. This is especially true with skeptical people. I am not talking about skeptics out there. To put it another way, I am not talking about unbelievers. I am talking about skeptical Christians. I am talking about those of us who continually second guess ourselves. We don’t really trust ourselves. And, just as importantly, we don’t trust others. The alternative options to our faith, while not necessarily compelling, are overwhelming. What if I am wrong? is a haunting thought. This thought puts up road blocks, yield signs and detours all over the highway of our spiritual life. We are perpetually terrified about being wrong.
What does this look like? Maybe we used to read the Bible with great faith, but now pause at every turn, thinking Can this really be true? During worship at church, we sing the songs, but we have to work ourselves into a place where hope is present in our voice. We still teach our children about the principles of the faith, but guilt fills our hearts, since we don’t know if it is really true. We pray to God, seeking some indication that he is really present and really loves us. We long for the “faith like a child” that we remember having in the past, but somehow, we cannot get it back. We are just too skeptical. What if we are wrong?
I am a master of theology. I kid you not. I have a degree (somewhere in my office) which proves it. It says “Master of Theology Degree.” But this is quite the overstatement. Yes, I went to seminary. Yes, I did pretty well and won some awards (those are somewhere in my office too). But I certainly don’t consider myself a master of theology. Nor have I mastered any one aspect of theology. There will always be people out there who know more than me and there will always be factors that I have not considered. In a very real sense, even though I am a “Master of Theology,” I am frequently skeptical of the beliefs I hold dear. More importantly, while I have learned to use and embrace my skeptical nature, I don’t want to be this way.
There are many things that I know almost nothing about, which intrigue me nonetheless. Architecture is one of them. Carpentry is another. Forensics is another thing that interests me, but not enough for me to make any moves in that direction other than watching the television series “Bones.”
Then 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 anatomy and psychology are both areas in which I have some knowledge, 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, yet I 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.
Now there are some things that I know really well, and about which I am confident (for the most part) in my knowledge. Systematic theology is one of these. Church history is another. That said, there are particular areas of theology which I feel even more qualified in than others. Issues in prolegomena are what I spend most of my time in these days (I know . . . sounds boring). Also, I don’t think there are many people who are as well versed as I am in the use of the Greek word huper by amanuenses in the Oxyrhynchus Papyri (and there are probably fewer who care!).
However, even with those things that I know most about and on which I feel qualified to teach, I am hesitant to call myself an expert (much less a “master”). Why? Because I live with the reality that there is more information out there that can further increase my understanding. I also know that there are people who are better trained in these subjects, who don’t come to the same conclusions at which I have arrived. You have heard the saying, “I am a jack of all trades and a master of none.” That is how many 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 be someone who knows more. There is always going to be something we don’t know.
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.
This issue is actually more complex than it might sound. I fear that what you may be hearing is that people believe they have to be the smartest person on a particular subject in order to believe this or that about an issue. In reality, the noncommittal 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, or evolutionary biology. As a result, I become 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 believers or unbelievers, were following too much of an ideology for my goal of being definitive to be realized. There remained too much information yet to be discovered, whether physical or philosophical, for anyone to be definitive. However, the fact remains that there are both people who know more than I do, and information that has yet to be found by anyone which can disturb my 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 prevent 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. These men come to differing conclusions about some things involved in textual criticism. But I can be informed by both of them. I can have access to their scholarship without having to personally acquire their level of scholarship. They, along with many others, have written very accessible works on textual criticism which provide 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 to be the top experts in the world. Couple this with the fact that they, like all people, don’t have a completely holistic 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 our 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 uncertainty, 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 issue presents the most important reason why many doubt God. On many occasions we believe there are people who know more than us, or we believe there is some “secret” information out there that would change everything, resulting in the case that we perpetually suspend our belief. When it comes to the “God question” and the issues surrounding Christianity, there exists no secret silver bullet on the side 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 tend to go in 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, their 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, which may help alleviate your fears.
I think we get the idea behind this third cause due to people who give their testimony about how they started studying in college or graduate school, and subsequently lost their faith. We are prompted to think about What are they learning that I don’t know that is causing them to no longer believe? What faith-killing information do they now have that I don’t (because I am not educated enough)? Then again, the tide turns both ways. There are smart people who receive 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, because it is not my intent to convince an unbeliever to become a believer simply because of his “fear of the unknown.” The evidence for both sides is clear and easy to understand. There is no fine print. Simply put, there is no information out there in any area that the really smart people have which is even slightly detrimental to Christianity. If it were, they would write about it. But their writings contain nothing new. Every objection to Christianity 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!). Uncertainty does not have to paralyze your faith. Even a small amount of belief is enough to make a commitment each day.
More to come . . .
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]