Belief does not come easy for me. I have a little “unbeliever” who has set up camp in the back of my mind, and he has no idea when, or how, to shut up. He is always questioning everything, from the stories I hear to the beliefs which tie me down emotionally. (I borrowed this idea from Daniel Taylor’s The Skeptical Christian. Taylor is possibly the most profound and honest writer I have ever read.) This unbeliever’s goal is to make me less certain about my beliefs and, in doing so, render me spiritually impotent and sterile. I have found many ways to tame this unbelieving beast, but I have also come to the conclusion that he will never totally shut up.
There are not many things about which I have absolute certainty. What I mean by “certainty” is very important here. I do not mean that there are only a few things about which I am convicted as to their truthfulness. Nor do I mean that there are just a few things I am obligated to evangelize. What I actually mean is that there are very few things about which I have indubitable knowledge of. (Perhaps the use of that word did not help…I just like to say the word “indubitable.”) Indubitability implies that one cannot be wrong. It is akin to infallibility. It is perfect and incorrigible conviction. However, none of us really have access to this type of certainty.
In dealing with doubters over the years, I have found that this reality has been the fountainhead for much anxiety in people’s faith. It is not that a lack of perfect certainty is the cause; rather, the cause is the belief that they are supposed to have perfect certainty. Once people begin to have doubts about their faith (or some aspect thereof), especially those who have grown up in very conservative traditions, many begin to doubt their faith altogether, thinking, “How can I have faith, if I have doubts?” It is not that conservative doctrines themselves are at fault; it is the idea that has been preconditioned into their thinking, that belief always and completely casts away doubt. The solution is very often as simple as convincing individuals that faith and doubt will always exist together, which is okay.
Some people say that they have no doubt at all, and they never have. I have difficulty believing assertions such as this, though I suppose they might be true for a very small number of individuals. However, at this point, I think it would be valuable for us to distinguish between “certainty” and “certitude” (Daniel Taylor introduced me to this concept, but I don’t know if the distinctions he made are embedded in the specific definitions of the terms). “Certainty” is the more objective type of conviction. It is the idea that one cannot be wrong due to conclusion of objective facts and evidence. “Certitude” is an emotional conviction that people have, which does not necessarily require evidence. It is the feeling of certainty, but not certainty itself. Most people I come across, who believe that Christians must be certain about their faith, are really talking about certitude. Certitude is good, but one can have certitude that is wrong. Therefore, people can have a strong level of “certitude” without possessing absolute “certainty” about it.
Let me put it another way: No matter how certain you believe you are about some truth, (assuming that it is true) God is even more certain than you are. Most people are comfortable with this idea. For me to say that God has greater assurance about what is true than you do is without question. Similarly, to say that you and I don’t possess perfect faith is generally acceptable to most of us. This allows you and me the opportunity to grow in our faith, and by doing so, grow in our conviction concerning this faith. Assuming this is the case, our “certainty” is not really certainty, but certitude.
As you must know by now, I like charts. Let me try this (those of you who have been through The Theology Program will be familiar with what follows). It’s called “The Chart of Certainty:”
Notice that we have a positive and a negative scale on this chart. Anything in the positive means that you believe it. Anything in the negative means you disbelieve it. The “0” represents neutrality. It is being agnostic (without conviction one way or the other) about the issue. A +10 represents a perfect belief, meaning that you cannot possibly be more convicted as to the truth of a matter. It is perfect, absolute, incorrigible, indubitable certainty. Being at a 1 means that you have conviction about this issue, but it is at the lowest possible level. However, a 1 is still belief. Another way to put it may be that a 10 is certainty, while 1-9 on the scale represent various levels of certitude.
There are very few beliefs (if any at all) that I am a 10 on. For example, I believe that 1 plus 1 equals 2, but that is an analytical truth. That is to say, as an equation, 1 plus 1 has to be, by definition, equal to 2. Philosophically or theologically speaking, I don’t think I am a 10 about anything. (Waiting for people to stop gasping . . . Now waiting for people to quit cursing . . .) I think I have prepared you for what follows. Right?
“What about the existence of God? Aren’t you a 10 there?” No. But neither are you. If you think you are, then you have missed the point.
“What about the resurrection of Christ? You talk about it all the time, as if it has been proven beyond a doubt. Aren’t you a 10 there?” Again, no.
I do have strong conviction about these things (and, therefore, certitude), but I can believe in these things more today than I did yesterday. I will always be able to grow with respect to these tenets of the faith. I suppose the closest I get to a 10 is when it comes to such questions as my own existence.
Let me adjust my chart a bit and see if this helps:
This is essentially the same chart with a “God allowance.” Only God can have perfect certainty, represented here by the 11. At this point, it gets easier for us (especially us children of the West) to let go of perfection and admit our imperfection. The 10 is as certain as humans can be. So, now, maybe I am a 10 with regard to my own existence. Then I might be an 8 or 9 with respect to my certainty as to the existence of God. From here, we begin to place all of our beliefs along this scale. When I disbelieve something, I can put it on the other side of the chart.
This way of thinking becomes even more beneficial when we place all of our beliefs along the scale. For example, I believe in the resurrection of Christ with less certitude than I do the existence of God. So perhaps, we put the resurrection of Christ at a 7 or 8. This is still extremely high and therefore, demands a strong conviction, but the rating on the scale could be higher. That is why I continue to study, pray, and learn. Similarly, I believe in the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture, but not to the degree that I believe in Christ’s resurrection, or in the existence of God. So let’s rate inspiration as a 6 and inerrancy as a 4. Again, relatively high and demanding great conviction, but not as high as they could be.
There are some things I believe, yet think the Bible could be clearer on these subjects. For example, as many of you know, I am a Calvinist who believes in unconditional election. However, there is some debate about this issue that causes me to have less certitude than I might otherwise have. Therefore, I would be a 3 with regard to this issue. I am also a pretribulational premillennialist. But I have more certitude about premillennialism than I do pretribulationalism (as an aside, I wish someone would add these words to spell-check!!). Therefore, with regard to premil (an abbreviation, so I don’t have to worry about the spelling), I am a 2. With regard to the rapture (another slight to spell-check), I am a 1.
I have received some rather ungracious banter from fellow pretribs due to my admission about being a 1 here. However, what they don’t understand is that I am a 1. It is not easy to get to a 1. It is not a casual leaning, but a definite conviction. That means I still believe it and I still have an obligation to preach it. I am not a 0 (undecided) and I am not in the negative column. However, there exists a greater possibility that I could be wrong here. The scale reflects my understanding of the issues involved. I would question anyone’s sincerity if they said they were anything above a 5 here. Of course, they could be a 10 in one sense, in that they are emotionally certain about it. However, emotional certainty means only that one has an emotional tie to a specific belief, and really wants it to be true. It’s somewhat like having an emotional tie to your college football team. When the ref calls a foul against your team, you are emotionally certain that your team is not at fault. But the reality is that you don’t know to the degree that your emotions do. The guy who cheers for the other team is as emotionally certain that your team is at fault. Both cannot be correct.
It is very important for the sake of our integrity before the Lord to allow our beliefs to exist in such a hierarchy. I often ask my students to take a test using this scale. They are to answer these questions, rating them according to the chart. You might try it.
How certain are you that . . .
- There is a God?
- Christ rose from the grave?
- God loves you?
- Christ is going to come and rapture the Church before the Great Tribulation?
- Christ is coming back to reign on the earth for a thousand years?
- Christ is coming back?
- God wants you to trust that He will protect you from all physical harm?
- God wants you to trust that He will protect you from all emotional harm?
- God wants you to trust in Him in every circumstance?
- the Bible does not have any historical errors?
- Adam and Eve were real people?
- there was really a snake in the garden?
- God created the earth in seven literal days?
- God created the earth?
- Christ paid for the sins of all mankind?
- Christ died for you?
- the Apocrypha (15 books in the Roman Catholic Bible) should not be included in Scripture?
- the book of 3 John should be included in Scripture?
- the book of Genesis should be included in Scripture?
- the gift of tongues ceased in the first century?
If you find yourself with too many 10s, 0s, or negative 10s, you are probably a victim of modernistic thought. If you are a 0 about everything, you are probably a victim of postmodernism. I believe that the most balanced, well-studied, and truthful believers are those who find a variety here.
But most importantly, knowledge of and permission to have such a scale in your beliefs is extremely important for the stability of your faith. Once you have permission not to believe everything to the same degree, those things that you do believe strongly carry with them a greater degree of honest conviction. We all have varying degrees of conviction about different aspects our faith; now let’s have the courage to admit it. Once we do, our faith will only get stronger.
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 Seminar (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]