"Thou shalt not be certain"

In the lexicon of modern sins, 'thou shalt not be certain' seems firmly established as a cardinal offence. Mike Ovey looks at why this has happened and explores the sins of certainty and uncertainty.

"Forgive us for our sins of certainty." It was a certainly a striking prayer to hear at a communion service and I had little doubt who it was aimed at. I was not sure whether to be amused or take offence.

Nevertheless, there is something about the phrase that nags away at me: can certainty be a sin, and if so, when and how? Why is it that this person felt such obvious antipathy to conservative evangelical assurance?

We need to decode some of these sentiments because Paul the Apostle clearly tells us to renounce disgraceful, underhanded methods in our proclamation of the gospel (2 Corinthians 4:1 ff). We rightly see this as ruling out lying and deception for the gospel's sake, but if certainty is disgraceful or inappropriate, then we should renounce that too.

Certainty, Extremism and Fundamentalism?

So why might someone have misgivings about the notes of certainty that evangelicals and other Christians characteristically sound as they talk about Jesus and the instructions of the Bible? There are those, whether inside or outside the church, who point to the dangers of extremism.

After the Second World War, it was of real concern to understand what had made totalitarianism in its fascist forms possible, and this led to discussions of 'the authoritarian personality' by thinkers such as T.W. Adorno. From the 1960s it was becoming clear that religious extremism was not a thing of the past and the investigation of religious fundamentalism was a matter of genuine political importance.

certainty is not necessarily a virtue

It hardly needs saying that the murders of 9/11 in New York, or those of 7/7 in London, injected further deep unease about where some certainties could lead you. For better or worse, religious certainty is associated with extremism and that bête-noire of op-ed writers, 'fundamentalism'.

'Fundamentalism', though, can be a much misunderstood word in today's discussions. It's worth remembering that the Fundamentalism Project, which spent years in the 1980s and 90s researching the patterns of 'fundamentalism', moved away from a tight association of certainty with the kind of fundamentalism that led to 9/11, or that we can see in cults. Instead they suggested we think in terms of a fundamentalist scoring several ticks on a list of characteristics.

It is quite a long list. Those characteristics are: first, reactivity to the marginalisation of religion, especially secularisation; secondly, a selectivity by fundamentalists in picking out bits of their own religious or ideological tradition; thirdly, a moral dualism, so that the world divides into the light and the dark; fourthly, an absolutism and inerrancy about the fundamentals, whatever those might be; fifthly, a millennialism and messianism, where history ends in victory for the believer; sixthly, an elect membership; seventhly, the saved and sinful are separated by sharp boundaries; eighthly, organisation in the movement is authoritarian, with no loyal opposition, but often a charismatic leader; and ninthly, in terms of behaviour, the believer, with his or her time, space and wealth, is treated as a group resource.

There are several points of interest here. First, the list really catches quite a lot. Arguably, and with pleasing irony, secularist organisations qualify for characteristics 3, 4, 5 and 7, and perhaps even 1, 2 and 8. Secondly, for a Christian, there is a striking lack of charity or compassion for the sinful who are 'outside' the blessed community of light.

Thirdly, and importantly for present purposes, certainty is featured here in relation to some but not all the characteristics. Certainty is there over the fundamentals of the religion or ideology, over the course of history and over the division between those who are in and those who are out. But certainty by itself does not automatically guarantee fundamentalism.

In one sense, there is nothing startlingly new about that observation. But I don't think that means we can simply heave a sigh of relief and dismiss outright the misgivings that our surrounding culture has, because certainty is indeed completely consistent with some of these marks of fundamentalism. That in turn suggests that certainty is not necessarily a virtue.

Conviction politics is not automatically a good thing: look at the conviction evident in the old apartheid politics of South Africa. Conviction religion is not necessarily a good thing either, and perhaps I would do well to be less impressed by the certainty, passion and conviction with which a fellow-Christian says something and more aware that fears about fundamentalism are not always groundless.

Certainty and Arrogance?

However, we haven't yet thought about the genuine theological concerns behind the phrase "sins of certainty". The person who prayed the prayer was not, I think, simply wanting to argue for a multicultural democracy. Rather, I think the word 'sin' was being used with a real theological intention: certainty was in some sense associated with offence against God. Why might that be?

In fact, there can be a legitimate concern here for God's honour and glory. God is infinite in all his perfections and the words and descriptions that we have of him do not begin to exhaust him. In Psalm 131:1, David speaks of things that are too great and too marvellous for him, and the corresponding need for David and us is not to lift our hearts or eyes too high. If God is great in this kind of way, then the idea of being 'certain' that he is this or that seems presumptuous.

Here, of course, an evangelical wants to draw a sharp distinction between the words of scripture and other words that humans might speak. With regard to those other words, the fear of presumption and arrogance is very well taken. But the words of scripture are different, not because they have no human dimension to them, but because they have an authenticated divine dimension, authenticated ultimately by reference to Jesus himself.

Of course, I think this evangelical distinction between the words of canonical scripture and all other human words is right. I do, though, want to hear the warning that says it is perilously easy to confuse the words of God with my words, especially when my words are words about the words of God, as the sermons of evangelical ministers must be, and as the writings of evangelical theologians must be too.

In fact, it is not just perilously easy to confuse the words of God with my words, it is also perilously tempting. Naturally, we want people to be persuaded by what we say. We think it's right or we wouldn't say or write it, and it can seem an attractive short-cut to imply that there is not really a cigarette paper between our words and God's words.

Yet we need to be clear what this can involve. Not only is there the presumption of ascribing things to God that are the products of finite and fallen human speculation, there is also the presumption of speaking our words to others with a certainty that properly belongs only to the words of God, which amounts to lording it over others. This violates proper love of both God and neighbour.

At this point, the warning to us from those who speak of the sins of certainty relates to pride, especially the pride of intellect and domination.

Uncertainty and Arrogance?

Nevertheless, the evangelical also wants to pose a question back to those who see certainty as lying so closely to sins of pride and arrogance. Can sin also lie behind uncertainty?

Initially this seems an odd question because we are so used to hearing uncertainty associated with humility. The argument runs that it is humble not to be definite or assertive about God. As God is an infinite being, all we can be sure of are our own inadequacies to speak truly of him.

Can sin also lie behind uncertainty?

In a similar vein, it can seem humble not to be too definite about what a particular passage of the Bible really means. The truth or definite meaning of the Bible is too uncertain for us to rule anything out. In this way, uncertainty can come to have a chic value, something too subtle for the cloth-headed proponents of certainty to grasp. Being uncertain comes to be a badge of honour.

But does this kind of uncertainty that honours us also honour God? I am afraid it does not. There are several reasons. First and foremost, something that sets God apart from idols is that he speaks. Idols are silent and have nothing to say, but God speaks and his words declare the future (see Isaiah 45:21 and Jeremiah 10:5). This means that to treat God as a god who cannot speak is to reduce him to the level of an idol. The idea that God cannot say anything, or at any rate nothing that can with certainty be understood, does treat him like an idol. That may not be the open intention, but it starts to look like the result.

Now the reply to this might be that this is circular. It relies on something the Bible says to assert something definite about the God who inspires the Bible. So it is worth remembering at this point that a circular argument can be completely true. Technically, circularity is something that deals with the validity of an argument, not the truth of its conclusion. More importantly, this idea of uncertainty about God is in fact certain about one thing: it is saying we can be certain we cannot be certain. There is something that we know God is not, namely a competent communicator.

But we also know that an awful lot of human communication (not 100% it is true, but still a lot) is effective for its purpose: I can order the right pizza in Pizza Hut and in many of my conversations with non-Christians their point is not that they don't understand me, but that they don't agree with me. It is, to put it mildly, odd to think that God cannot do something his human creatures can, namely use human language for effective communication. It leads one again to ask whether he really is perfect, or all that different from idols.

Secondly, the biblical God is a God who makes promises. In particular, he makes promises about my future and how I may enjoy eternal life. If I am certain of my eternal destiny or the rightness of my actions just through my own speculations, then that does look like arrogance and presumption.

to treat God as a god who cannot speak is to reduce him to the level of an idol

On the other hand, if I refuse to believe a promise that God himself gives then there is an element of presumption there. For if he gives a promise which he intends humans to rely on and humans turn round and say that the promises are not reliable, they are dismissing what God says the promises are. It is a way of disbelieving and distrusting God.

At this stage, we can see that uncertainty is sometimes a way of not trusting and not relying. Obviously, humans are sometimes not trustworthy, so that uncertainty about their words and promises is entirely reasonable. But the biblical God is one whose word achieves what he intends, and who cannot lie (Titus 1:2). The problem of radical uncertainty is that it stops us trusting God.

Spiritually, this is deeply dangerous: it dishonours God and inclines us to rely on ourselves or our idols. Unfortunately, this is also deeply tempting, because I may prefer to rely on myself, with all the control and self-assertion that self-reliance suggests, than to trust God, with the humility and dependence that such trust suggests.

Thirdly, radical uncertainty inclines me to doubt Jesus: it makes me doubt that he is a perfect God who has taken flesh and who claims to have revealed things to me, notably the very name of his Father (John 17:6). He may not have revealed all things in heaven and earth to us, but he does claim to have revealed who God is.

Is it a sin to be certain of Jesus? Definitely not. Is it a sin to determine to remain uncertain of him and his words and will? Very definitely. Of course, certainty by itself can be sin. But so can a wilful uncertainty, and that is just as real a danger, and, I fear, a rather bigger one.           

© 2011 The Kingham Hill Trust
This article was first published in Commentary, a quarterly magazine published by Oak Hill theological college. It is published here by the kind permission of the author and the editor of Commentary.