Uncertainty

Creative Commons: Horia Andrei Varlan

Creative Commons: Horia Andrei Varlan

In this blog post, I wanted to look in a bit more detail at a quote I posted on Twitter on Saturday the 4th. The quote was as follows:

“Interpreting the bible is very interesting, but we don’t really know what it means.”

This prompted a response from an old friend I know from university, asking me what I thought of it. I replied as follows:

“Kind of agree. I aim to declare with boldness that which I acknowledge I might be wrong about.”

This prompted a response from a Methodist follower of mine to say

“Then we are lost”

I stated at the time that I would then aim to put a little more nuance on this in a blog post. So this should hopefully add a little more flesh to the matter, though it is by no means my final word on the topic.

First, a little on the context. This came up at a monthly bible school I have recently started attending at the church I’ve settled at after having moved house last year. The overall discussion was about the Magi, with a significant portion devoted to whether or not they were Zoroastrians. The point at this stage in the discussion had been about Jewish eschatology and how a good many intelligent people had ideas about how and when the Messiah would come, but what actually happened, even though it fitted up with the Old Testament prophecies, still came rather unexpectedly. Therefore, though we have a wealth of ideas about christian eschatology, ideas of heaven, hell, resurrection and annihilation, it might well turn that we have all got a little bit right most mostly wrong, and that what we expect will be radically confounded. It was at this point that the original quote came in.

Quoting things on Twitter is fraught with danger, as the brevity of that medium necessarily entails curtailed explanations. I posted the quote almost at a whim (something I do far more often there than on this blog), but it highlighted a strand of thinking that often runs through my head; that being what I expressed briefly in my follow-up. To expand upon it, I would draw a dichotomy between humility and hubris. Humility says, “I might be wrong.” Hubris says, “I am right.” Of course, just about any human who holds an opinion does so because they think they are right. But it is one thing to think you are right and another to state categorically that you are right.

So I hold many opinions on a variety of topic – some of which get written about here, some of which it may be wiser to refrain from – and in each of these I think I’m correct. But to think that I am so well-informed, intelligent and wise to think that I understand all things perfectly would be absurd. I have been wrong about a great many things before and I think it is probable that there are views I hold now which will turn out to be wrong. Of course, I don’t at this time know which ones they are.

So when I use the word “know” I mean an epistemological certainty. Those things that I “know” are really very few. For all other things, one might consider some sort of scale of doubt. I might be pretty sure about some things. For example, I would have no doubt that the main colour of the laptop on which I am writing this is red. That is something I am happy to say I know. I am pretty sure of the contents of my fridge at the moment. I last looked in it a few hours ago and could quite happily run off a list of what’s there; yet I might make a mistake. I might have miscounted the tubs of yoghurt, for instance, or forgotten to put the sweet chilli sauce back in the fridge after using it for tonight’s dinner.

So when it comes to something like christianity, I am constantly revising my views in light of new evidence or a new perspective. Because I believe the great commission, I am an evangelical. It is right for the church (as a whole) to educate people about the gospel. And we do not do it with a spirit of timidity, but that doesn’t mean it is to be done with a kind of bolshie arrogance. To try to sell christianity as something that ‘has all the answers’ is to not only mislead others, but is a lie to oneself. I can say ‘this is what I believe and this is why’ and even state ‘I believe, to the best of my understanding, that this is true’ but I cannot go so far as to state my beliefs are unequivocally perfect and complete. And if they are not, then I must, out of honesty, confess that I might be wrong.

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12 responses to “Uncertainty

  1. I agree about being humble over our interpretation, but disagree that this means we can’t know what the Bible means. Here are some fuller thoughts on my blog:
    http://blog.calebwoodbridge.com/2014/01/can-we-be-certain-what-bible-means.html

    • My point wasn’t really that “we can’t know what the Bible means” – I try to balance the ideas of apophatic and kataphatic theology. Heading too far down the road of “[we can’t know]” leads to mysticism and I agree with Barth in taking a dim view of it.

      To use an analogy, specifically a picture, I’m saying we can have a pretty good idea of the picture’s overall shape, the colours used, etc. But when we try to paint God’s picture, no one person can get all the details spot on. As a Church (big C, all christians) we might get somewhere close, even if we focus on different bits of the picture and may look at one another from different ends of the giant canvas.

      Paul probably sums it up best for me:

      For now we see in a mirror, dimly,[b] but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. (1 Cor 13:12, NRSV)

  2. I think I’m inclined to agree with Caleb (by the way Caleb, if you’re reading this… I have a feeling your parents know my parents from a way back. It’s a small world).

    To get back to the original post, I think one thing you (Sipech) don’t mention is that of degrees of certainty. Can we be sure of some things more than others? And is there any way of arbitrating between interpretive approaches?

    Mike Ovey (principal of my theological college) has blogged about the Pilling Report over the past few weeks – I think this post as part of that series about the hermeneutics of suspicion is relevant.

    • Unwittingly, I think you’ve demonstrated my point very well. You say:

      I think one thing you (Sipech) don’t mention is that of degrees of certainty. Can we be sure of some things more than others?

      Yet in the original post I said:

      So when I use the word “know” I mean an epistemological certainty. Those things that I “know” are really very few. For all other things, one might consider some sort of scale of doubt.

      which I would take to be equivalent. So you seem to have got the general gist, but missed one detail. That is how I view our understanding of the bible. I can’t hold the whole library of 66 books in my head, so it is inevitable that I focus more on some parts than on others at times.

      I’ve tried reading a little about Pilling, but as it is just for a denomination that I am not a part of, it’s a bit hard to get into. I might also refer you to my comment in reply to Caleb.

      • Sorry if I misread your post. I was just thinking in terms of what we know within the bounds of theology: can we, for example, be confident in the Nicene Creed? Or at least, have a reasonable degree of confidence?

        I guess I’m not sure what purpose you are trying to serve in this post. As far as I know no-one is arguing that Christianity has all the answers.

        In terms of Pilling – the blog post I linked to is talking about Pilling’s methodology, which I think has a wider implication than the Pilling report itself.

        • Interesting that you mention the Nicene Creed. I wrote a mini series just over 2 years ago on how to define a christian, including a piece on creeds, which you can read here.

          • Thankyou for that. It does help to see where you’re coming from.

            It seems to me one of the differences in our approach is a pessimistic vs optimistic view of epistemology. (I’ve not studied epistemology, I’m sure there are technical terms and views on this!)

            You seem to be saying that we can’t know anything for sure, therefore we need to be careful in ever claiming that we are right.

            I think I would take an optimistic view, so whereas I agree with your basic premise that there are some things we cannot know with 100% certainty, we do nonetheless have a sufficient grasp of the truth to say that some things are right and wrong. In particular we can trust in God and his revelation.

            I guess we may disagree sometimes on what things exactly we can be confident about, but this is why I go back to the historic creeds and confessions of the church: these are things which the church has largely agreed upon for the last 1600 or so years, which has to say something.

            As you might have suspected, I disagree with some of your assessment of the Nicene creed (with the exception of the word ‘catholic’ – it is confusing, although I think this does mean people need to be educated rather than trying to find a new word).

          • It seems to me that the Bible is both pessimistic and optimistic about our ability to know truth. We are finite creatures, not the infinite creator, so true but finite knowledge is part of God’s good design for us as human beings. But sin brings deception and uncertainty; our ability to know is distorted by self-interest and by suppressing the truth in unrighteousness. But then God reveals himself to us, and helps restore our ability to know. Neither rationalist certainty nor postmodern despair regarding truth does full justice to our situation.

            I think the Biblical narrative commits us to a critical realist view of truth. I believe the Bible teaches that there is independent, objective truth (hence “realist”) but also that our ability to know is finite and fallible (hence “critical”). As such, by faith in God and with his help to think carefully, we can have true knowledge of reality, but our understanding always needs to be open to revision.

            Francis Schaeffer made a helpful distinction between exhaustive knowledge and true knowledge in “Escape from Reason”:
            “It is an important principle to remember, in the contemporary interest in communication and in language study, that the biblical presentation is that though we do not have exhaustive truth, we have from the Bible what I term true truth. In this way we know true truth about God, true truth about man, and something truly about nature. Thus on the basis of the Scriptures, while we do not have exhaustive knowledge, we have true and unified knowledge.”

  3. I’m closer to you than other commentators, Spiech. I think we’ve got a lot wrong over the centuries and in some sections of the church have not been good at accepting that.

    One nuance I would add is that we can have clarity within the context of our current knowledge base. So, I know that word a had this meaning in 1st century and so this is the meaning we should be using today. Clarity is available. However, new research into 1st century could unearth a slightly different meaning and we would therefore need to adjust.

    In this respect while I may be clear today I might have to change my mind tomorrow.

    The work being done in Pauline studies is a classic case in question. Old clarities are having to be rethought – or least need to be if we ar to maintain some intellectual integrity.

    • The constant shifting of meanings is at once a nuisance and a source of great interest. Am about a quarter of the way through Paul and the Faithfulness of God at the moment, which is emphasising all sorts of unexpected things. Interestingly, some of the rhetoric used seems to indicate Wright wants to be “post-new perspective”, though with your recent look at “post-christendom” and our culture’s obsession with “post-modernism” and our economy being described as “post-industrial”, I’m wondering a) what might a “post-financial” world look like and b) might we reach a “post-post” perspective, or will we just loop back on ourselves. But those will be for future blog posts.

  4. Thanks for the follow up – much appreciated.
    When I read the comment on twitter I was worried, but that context is very helpful; I did my best to read it without presumption or panic on your behalf, and I think that what you have said is very reasonable.
    It would be very easy to take what you’ve said and push it into a closely related context and cause you to be saying something quite different and quite worrying, but that would be unfair of me.
    Who knows, I might have a response of my own at some point, but the cogs turn ever-slower.

  5. I’ve had thoughts!
    http://noodlesandjesus.blogspot.co.uk/2014/01/known-unknowns.html
    More of a corollary than a response, but thank you for getting me thinking.