Should faith be ‘certain’?

Dave Tomlinson is a well-known author who came to fame with his book The Post-Evangelical in 1995—reprinted in 2014 as an SPCK Classic! The book was launched at Greenbelt, and Tomlinson talks of himself as a ‘progressive orthodox’, language which might characterise the Greenbelt movement. His latest book is Black Sheep and Prodigals: an antidote to black and white religion, and my eye was caught by the strapline used to promote the book: ‘If you’re blessed with spiritual certainty, this book may not be good for you!’ You won’t be surprised, dear reader, to know that I couldn’t resist making an observation in response, and the short dialogue that followed was enlightening:

IP: Did Jesus suffer from ‘spiritual certainty’?

DT: a) I’m not Jesus; b) but yes absolutely Jesus experienced doubt and uncertainty which can be seen in the temptations, Gethsemane and other places in the gospels. If he hadn’t lived with uncertainty the notion of incarnation would be a nonsense!

IP: a. I’m not Jesus either, but Jesus offers himself as a model for the new humanity.
b. he lived with uncertainty…but even a brief reading of the gospels seems to suggest that he had a spiritual certainty to go with that that you appear to have a problem with…?

DT: He had an obviously profound sense of calling, commitment and passion but that’s different to certainty. I see certainty as the opposite of faith, doubting is part of faith. To doubt and question is human; if Jesus didn’t wrestle with doubt he wasn’t human and as I say, belief in the incarnation would be nonsense. Basically Ian, I can’t see that certainty has anything whatsoever to do with faith or Christianity; I reckon it’s greatly overrated! As Benjamin Franklin said, nothing in life is certain except death and taxes. Uncertainty is good for the mind and the spirit too – it keeps us open to new possibilities, new insights, new experiences. It stops religion from ossifying and turning into rigid beliefs and traditions. From cover to cover the Bible is packed with instances where God overturns certainties, saying in effect’ So you think you’ve got it sorted, eh….!

Interestingly, I think there are several areas where I would offer enthusiastic support for Tomlinson’s rejection of certainty. The first is in the question for intellectual foundationalism in belief, something that evangelicals and others have suffered from, where there is a quest for an objective truth ‘out there’ which cannot be questioned and on which the architecture of a faith system is constructed. This has been a popular quest since the advent of modernism, but it is futile, since it transfers faith from God and what he has done to whatever foundation one decides to erect faith on. The second kind of certainty I would want to reject is the kind of monolithic certainty about one particular tradition which says that I have nothing to learn from people with whom I disagree. This isn’t really a certainty of belief, but a simple closedness to learning from others, and (as I think Tomlinson would agree) often springs from a fragility rather than a confidence in one’s own beliefs.

But Tomlinson’s formulation has some serious problems. At a practical level, people do value ‘traditions’, and not just as a refuge from an ever-changing world. Traditions can create a life-giving framework that nourishes and teaches, and it seems to me no accident that one of the areas of church growth is amongst those with a strong sense of tradition. In terms of the biblical story, clearly God is constantly challenging the false certainties we find in the people of God (and others)—but it is not clear that God replaces certainty with uncertainty, as Tomlinson wants to. Rather, the old, fragile certainty is replaced with a new sense of certainty—and often one that carries God’s people further and more confidently than they were before.

The need for certainty and confidence in what we belief is stamped all over the New Testament. Paul is certain of what he has been taught and in turn teaches to other (1 Cor 15), and the writer to the Hebrews is clear that continuing ‘in Christ’ depends on ‘holding firmly to the end our original conviction’ (Heb 3.14). But Hebrews goes on to highlight two important aspects of this certainty. The first is that it is relational certainty in the first instance, rather than a kind of propositional certainty—that is, it is the kind of certain confidence we have in a relationship rather than a formula. Secondly, it is an eschatological certainty, one that looks in hope to the future on the basis of the (partial view) that we have in the present. ‘Faith is being sure of what we hope for, and certain of what we do not see’ (Heb 11.1). But being both relational and eschatological, our confidence in God still has a certainty that is enough to carry us in the face of life’s biggest questions. On Monday I led a service of the interment of ashes, and I spoke these words:

We have entrusted our brother/sister N to God’s mercy, and we now commit his/her mortal remains to the ground: earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust: in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ.

We don’t ask for absolute, propositional certainty of what we belief—only enough certainty to allow us to face death and even to die for. If that is not the kind of faith we have, then it is a different faith from the one we find in the NT. (If you are unsure of that, just read Revelation 2 and 3.)

I actually find Tomlinson’s approach profoundly disintegrating, in two important ways. The first is that he actually detaches Christian faith from the person of Jesus. In another extract from the book, posted on Facebook, he offers:

My Practicing Resurrection Easter Note to Self

1. Look beyond the darkness of present circumstances, and lean toward the light; never let gloomy times define who you are;
2. Ask questions and doubt fearlessly, but never forget that life is a mystery;
3. Remind yourself often that doing what you know to be the right thing is a way of winning even when you lose;
4. Bring hope and laughter into places of tears and despair, but never try to give ‘answers’ when you don’t have them;
5. Actively oppose prejudice, discrimination and oppression wherever you see it, even when it makes you unpopular;
6. Care for the earth and its creatures, and live in the best possible way that all may flourish;
7. Where there is conflict, do everything you can to spread peace and reconciliation; and learn to apologise as naturally as breathing.

They look great on the page—but try reading them out loud to someone. They contain some good advice—but they quickly begin to sound like not much more than slogans from a self-help guru. And they have little connection with what actually happened at Easter. The events of the resurrection were not concerned with good advice and looking at the world in a certain way, but about the fact that God has done something, and what God has done in Jesus is the thing that makes all the difference. Without the thing God has done, the change in outlook is unwarranted and without the power to change us.

In his new introduction to the reprint of The Post-Evangelical, Tomlinson contrasts the fixed closedness of a sterile orthodoxy with an openness to new and ongoing revelation by the Spirit of God. But what he fails to notice is that the closure of the canon of Scripture is intimately related to the status of Jesus as the final revelation of who God his is—his last Word on the matter. If we think that revelation can add to Scripture, then we are ultimately denying that Jesus is God’s revelation of himself.

This disintegration, this fragmentation, then makes itself felt in his approach to what it means to be human. In one of the chapters of the book, (and in an Easter sermon based on it) he argues that the empty tomb is a distraction, and that real Easter faith is about the existential experience of transformation. But the New Testament never countenances such a divide between the material and the personal, between objective fact and subjective experience. In his long exposition of the resurrection, Paul notes that ‘if Christ has not been raised, we are of all people to be pitied!’ (1 Cor 15.16–19). For Paul, resurrection was bodily or it was nothing, and the tomb in which Jesus ‘was buried’ must now be empty.

Tomlinson does offer a serious challenge to evangelicals—and in fact anyone wanting to live out orthodox Christian faith: will you allow space for genuine expressions of doubt and questioning exploration? Though I think his remedy is seriously mistaken—fatal even—his diagnosis clearly resonates with many. He quotes Rowan Williams describing an orthodoxy that is:

pre-packed, pre-determined, watertight, a comprehensive ideology. This sort of orthodoxy stifles thought and distorts perception. it allows no real conversation. It is a monologue. No critical element is permitted. The reason there is no conversation in this kind of orthodoxy is that actually everything has already been said, and all that is left to do is repeat it.

I have no interest whatever in that kind of orthodoxy. I do want a conversation—but I want a conversation that leads to greater certainty, not less, one that understands why the canon is closed and focusses on the person of Jesus as the full revelation of who God is.

The other thing that evangelicals can learn from Tomlinson is to be a bit more interesting! A glance at his church’s website suggests an engaging, creative and even quirky community; sometimes we evangelicals are just a bit dull and earnest!

But I think Tomlinson might have a few things to learn from the evangelicals that he has decided to leave behind. He notes (again in the introduction to The Post-Evangelical) that 24% of readers of Third Way magazine identified themselves as ‘post-evangelical’.

The magazine recently closed.

Offering people great self-help slogans might scratch the itches of today, but it isn’t going to last into the challenges of tomorrow. We do need good experiences in our faith, but they are good experiences that spring from good teaching. If we abandon the teaching, we have nothing to offer the next generation for their own experiential encounter with God.

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14 thoughts on “Should faith be ‘certain’?”

  1. So “progressive orthodox” is a synonym for “anti-orthodox”, or “post orthodox” then?

    A person cannot make any claim to orthodoxy if they remove either Jesus and/or a ‘physical’ resurrection from the Easter story. Paul clearly knew this, and labored the point in his letters. Reducing the Gospel to a spiritual experience, as per Crossan, Borg and others, is to fatally weaken it, (or even to turn it into some form of Gnosticism) and so while I might share some sympathy with a rejection of a dogmatic orthodoxy (which I think is a parody anyway), I think your critique here is right on the money.

  2. Certainty or lack of it is on a sliding scale. Depending on the topic being discussed, vastly different levels of certainty are appropriate and possible. When e.g. Dave T starts saying that certainty *itself* is bad (NEVER MIND WHAT THE TOPIC IS) -and this is indeed a common error that lies at the root of much faulty thinking- we know immediately that the level of (a) generalisation and (b) ideology being employed is unacceptable and we need pay no further attention.

    As for faith, there are only 2 verses that spring to my mind (anyone: do add others if you can) that emphasise the lack of certainty within pistis: Hebrews 11init. and 2Cor. 5.7. The former speaks in terms of evidence (in other words this is a rational process) and the latter is very similar to the former in the point that is being made.

    In other parts of the NT (and pistis/pisteuo is incredibly common in the NT: Pisteuo 99x in John alone) -pistis is a concept that is neither precisely our ‘faith’ nor our ‘belief’. But this failure of Greek and English to map onto one another hre is a serious matter, because it was from the New Testament that Christian talk of both ‘faith’ and ‘belief’ derived and derives. We think we are speaking Christianly when we use these 2 English terms but we rarely are.

    In Greek there is only one term; in English there are 2 which are significantly different. So whatever the Bible says about pistis, it is speaking in terms foreign to us.

    Pistis is never (even in Heb 11, 2 Cor 5) used for believing things which are less than likely to be true – that would be an odd and inadvisable thing to do! It is used for trusting and committing oneself to people (and therewith truths) which have a track record of being trustworthy. I do not know anywhere where pistis is used for something deemed less than 50% likely to be true, just as one does not speak of ‘doubting’ things which are more than 50% likely to be true.

  3. What I find odd is why Dave Tomlinson doesn’t appear to include any equivocation of his own in his Easter ‘note to self’. He seems very certain of all his maxims listed there. So is he really living as uncertain, or is he just seeking to replace Christian orthodoxy with his own post-modern certainties?

    This is a typical strategy in post-modern thought. Deny all moral and factual certainties, then somehow magically erect an edifice of your own on the top, supposedly based on the principle of uncertainty. John Rawls did it, Bernard Williams did it, they all do it. Somehow uncertainty issues forth in the post-modern code of living (tolerance, equality, environmentalism), from which there can be no dissent. It’s all balderdash of course, but it’s the great public ideology of our times.

    For my part I can’t understand what’s supposed to be wrong with propositional truth. It goes back way beyond modernism, to Aquinas and the scholastics, Anselm, Augustine, the Stoics (think Logos) and Plato. Christianity, and the Bible, is infused with the idea, and the church has always been eager to establish what it believes about God and about the world and state it in propositional form. Faith is more than propositional truth, but it is not less than it. Truth is one of the great goods of life, which God has purposed us, as his rational creatures, to seek, and it is a thing of great joy and blessing. The truth sets us free.

  4. Well said, Will. Intellectually, it falls at the first hurdle. As some intellectually capable individuals have held it, they must therefore have held it for more sinister / ideological / wish-fulfilment reasons, hoping that the rest of us would not be intelligent enough to notice their dishonest ulterior motives.

  5. Greg Boyd is another writer who sounds like he’s similar. He wrote a book called ‘Benefit of the Doubt’ (my review here). It’s almost elevating doubt to be a spiritual discipline! It just seems so transparently absurd – the post evangelicals never seem to have any doubts about whether (e.g.) women should be ordained, or whether same-sex marriage is good, or whether Jesus was a pacifist. (I read somewhere an article about post-evangelical ‘orthodoxy’ – those are the new bedrocks of new progressive orthodoxy which most would accept).

  6. I think of all the Christian movements I have ever seen, Post-Evangelicalism gets the palm for being the most mixed-up and ill-thought-through, not to mention being culturally conformist and seeming to have a chip on its shoulder. And the least similar to anything that has ever passed as Christianity.

    You cannot define a movement by what you are not. We have seen enough of protest movements lately to realise the fallacy of ‘anything would be better than the present status quo’. Think of all the amazing positive things that they could be defining themselves in terms of, and they sitll choose to give themselves a negative name.

    The name ‘Anglican’ however is not inspiring either, in that it sounds parochial rather than thinking big: the whole point of Christianity is its new and exciting internationalism; and most heresies seem to me to stem from importing one’s familiar culture to too great an extent. (Of course the historic roots of the term refer quite innocently to a particular settlement that just so happened to center on England.)

  7. Interesting that last evening I was reading a piece in Christianity Today (May issue), which starts:

    Amid the decades-long decline in mainline
    Protestantism in North America,
    researchers in Canada recently found
    an “elusive sample” of congregations
    whose growth has bucked the trend.
    The key characteristic these exceptional
    Anglican, Presbyterian, Lutheran,
    and United churches had in common?
    Evangelical theology.

    and then proceeds to report two pieces of research and reference others. The conclusion seems to be that those churches which offer conviction about the person of Jesus and the reurrection have a greater appeal that those which do not. That of course does not prove that they are right; but it does suggest that these ‘certainites’ offer a hope which other ‘uncertainties’ do not.

  8. Thank you Ian, this is helpful. I have found in local ministry that encouraging questioning, discussion and an openess to talk about faith, warts and all, is vital if we want people to feel welcome and able to be part of a Christian community long term, through the highs and lows of life. We have just followed the ‘When Faith Gets Shaken’ DVD with Patrick Reagan through Lent, which I thought was an excellent example of genuine wrestling with faith (and gently prodding/correcting ideas about what God’s sovereignty means in relations to human suffering) while still pointing to Christ as comforter, redeemer and friend (much like many of the Lament Psalms).

    I agree with you that we need to reiterate and encourage further certainty both in relational certainty (which for me is the profound truth that ‘God loves you’ and that love is stronger than death, can redeem broken situations and is always stronger than the love you will have for God or others) and eschatalogical certainty (the hope of full redemption and restoration in the future). Without building this certainty in others and ourselves we leave people with a moral philosophy that only really sustains when we feel good about it and ourselves.

    These certainties don’t have to be expressed in complicated, convoluted ways – although as pastors we want to expound those biblical truths to people in greater depth, I have seen people of all backgrounds, ages and stages of life and faith grasp ‘God Loves Me’ and ‘God is making all things new’ in wonderfully profound yet simple ways. I would never want someone who is on a journey of faith in our church community to doubt God’s faithful covenant love for them (I realise that they may well doubt it in difficult times, but my response would be to encourage them of its reality, not to further doubt God’s love).That also helps me as it puts the weight on God and not on me.

    These are my thoughts 🙂 I think this book is a good example of popular theology reaching a wider audience though, and there are things we can learn from the openess of discussion and wrestling with faith as well as the creativity involved.

  9. Ì entirely agree with Dave Tomlinson in his belief that Jesus, in the flesh, suffered some doubts; “Now my soul is troubled….”. Jesus was not immune to doubt, otherwise; what would have occasioned his cry from the Cross:: “My God. my God; why have you forsaken ME?” ( “Me, of all people?”).

    It was surely important that Jesus was as prone to human weakness, including doubt, as any of us who believe in God. Otherwise, he may just not have been ‘fully human’ while, at the same time being Son of God. This is the great paradox of the Incarnation, for which cold human logic has no answer. If there were no room for doubt in Jesus, then he may never have benn ‘fully human’.

  10. Another thing, Ian. Do you not believe that, for faith to be a possibility, there must always be the accompanying possibiity of doubt? The real key is the exercise of hope – as Saint Paul so clearly tells us. And, remember, Jesus himsef spoke of future revelation: “When the Holy Spirit comes, he will LEAD YOU into all the truth”. Do you think the Holy Spirit remained static in his teaching role after the Canon of the Scriptures was pronounced so long ago?..

  11. Fr Ron is right, the Spirit would lead the apostles into all truth – and that truth of which Jesus promised they gained and wrote in their gospels and apostles which the church has treasured and translated and transmitted. Anything that negates this truth is anti Spirit for the Spirit will not contradict himself. Jesus, having said the Spirit would lead us into all truth, immediately adds “he will Glorify me” – the Spirit does not lead us into confusion and doubt but makes much, makes more of Jesus – greater deeper knowledge and experience of him whom we believe. Paul wrote ‘I know whom I have believed’ – that strikes me as the work of the Spirit – the Spirit never leads us into unbelief. Paul prayed for the Ephesians to receive more of the Spirit ‘that they might know’. The Spirit does not lead us into a cloud of unknowing but out of a cloud of unknowing into knowing.

  12. After interacting with Dave a little on IME and attending a wedding he took, I came to the conclusion he’s a really nice guy who genuinely loves, listens and engages with people. Yet in reading his more recent books it seems he has moved a long way from even post evangelicalism. His bad Christian’s manifesto was absolutely dreadful. He espoused universalism, pluralism, it was anti evangelism, he undermined the importance of the historic creeds – all in print. How he can in good conscience remain an Anglican minister is beyond me and why no one in authority has pulled him up on it is also beyond me. He needs to go and read his ordination vows again. Really really sad.

  13. As someone who is part of the Post Evangelical crowd, I wish to state that my reason for being in that group is because I am not a black and white, dualistic thinker and it is not wired into my personality. When my experiences of life didn’t match with the conservative evangelical ideology I was hearing each Sunday I began to ask questions and quickly discovered that there was no space to work through those questions. Over a decade later I am beginning to return to an evangelical church because I have learnt to sit with mystery and have spaces elsewhere to sit with the uncertainty of life and faith.
    Please can those of you who are able to believe and think with such certainty give some space for those of us who are not wired that way.


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