Is Uncertainty a Virtue?
Samuel Rutherford (c. 1600 – 1661) was one of the foremost Scottish theologians and apologists for Presbyterianism in the seventeenth century, playing a major role in formulating the Westminster Standards at the Westminster Assembly. He is best known for his many devotional letters and Lex, Rex–his seminal work on political sovereignty.
27 Jul, 2018

Increasingly, there is a subtle tendency to sidestep difficult and inconvenient issues by saying we cannot be certain about them. Of course, being non-dogmatic is thought to be a virtue in our culture. Yet it’s one thing to acknowledge a defect in our own understanding, it’s another thing to claim that for everyone else. Open questions and matters indifferent seem to have increased at the expense of the practical authority of Scripture. Sometimes muddying the waters means people feel free to take up a definite alternative position. For instance, where professing evangelicals want to support something like same-sex marriage. If they can make the Biblical passages seem unclear then they feel justified in their position. But where do such claims end in relation to God’s revealed will? What indeed are we saying about God’s ability to give us clear teaching?

Of course some parts of the Bible need more careful study than others to understand them in the right way. But this is different to saying that they cannot be understood. There can also be doubts and difficulties that we must work through but that is something different to making doubt an essential aspect of our belief. It is different to the idea that the Church must progress (claiming the leading of the Spirit) to believe things that are flatly contradictory to Scripture and to how former generations understood Scripture. One former evangelical has recently written a book called The Sin of Certainty to champion the conviction that striving for certainty is destructive. One may well ask how “certain” the author is about that conviction itself.

This idea of virtuous uncertainty is not in fact a biblical idea. God has given us “excellent things in counsels and knowledge” to make us “know the certainty of the words of truth” (Proverbs 22:21). “All Scripture…is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). We are meant to be able to handle it skillfully and in the right way (2 Timothy 2:15). We are not meant to “be tossed to and fro, and carried about by every wind of doctrine” (Ephesians 4:14). Our love abounds through knowledge not through ignorance (Philippians 1:9). Even in things indifferent “Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind” (Romans 14:5).

These issues are not in fact new. Samuel Rutherford had to counter a rising skepticism and we can learn a lot from the principles he draws from Scripture. He gives particular focus to the idea that it doesn’t matter what we believe as long as we believe what is necessary to be saved.

1. We Can be Certain About Things that are Not Fundamental

We believe with certainty of faith, many things which are not fundamental. For example we are not to be “ignorant of this one thing, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (2 Peter 3:8). Many (we may suppose) are in glory that died ignorant of this and without believing or. Or at least they died without any certainty of faith on this point: that with God time has no coexistence of duration whether long and short. Yet Peter asserts that it is to be believed with certainty of faith.

The Holy Spirit tells us of many historical matters in Hebrews 11. We believe these by certainty of divine faith but they are not fundamental. If we do not believe all that Paul and the rest of the apostles have written and Moses and the prophets have said we must take them to be false witnesses in saying, preaching and writing what is not true. Paul says so (1 Corinthians 15:15).

The apostles say, “we are witnesses of these things” (Acts 5:32). Now these things refer not only to Christ’s death and resurrection but also to points that are not fundamental. They include identifying the instruments of His death (verse 30; Acts 4:10 and Acts 3:26). The apostles and the Holy Spirit were witnesses of the truth of both fundamental and non-fundamental things (Acts 1:8). Christ said they were “my witnesses of these things” (Luke 24:48). These things are identified in verse 44, “all things that must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the Psalms concerning me”. This includes the sacrifices, types, and particular ceremonies that were shadows of Christ.

2. We Are to Examine the Truth to Gain Certainty

“Prove all things; hold fast that which is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21) means prove and search our the true meaning of divine truths. Having thus proved and believed, hold the truth. It does not mean believe it for a day and yield to the complete contrary tomorrow, and then find and yield to yet another contrary principle the day after. If this was so the Holy Spirit would be commanding doubting, doubting till we lose faith and find it again and lose it again in a circle.

If this was the case, then the Bereans (Acts 17:11) must examine their own examining and their own doubtings and believing, and so on to infinity. It would be as though when they find Christ to be in Paul’s teaching and Moses and the Prophets, yet they must still examine and doubt. As though they should only believe the teaching of the prophets, apostles, and the Holy Spirit with reserve, waiting until they ‘receive’ new and contrary understanding from the Holy Spirit.

This is to teach us to be carried about with every wind of doctrine. Believing the truth of Scripture (whether in fundamental or non-fundamental things), however, is to believe a truth, because the Lord (cannot lie or speak untruth) says so.

3. We Ought to Pray For Certainty

We should pray “Lord enlighten my eyes” but this is not a prayer for conjectural, fluctuating and changeable understanding. Such a prayer for new light, is not that the Holy Spirit would teach us to believe truths and falsehoods in a circle. Instead it is a prayer that God:

  • Would give the Spirit of revelation to see gospel truths with a clear revelation of faith;
  • That He would be pleased to cause the light by which we see the same ancient gospel truths to shine more fully, with a larger measure of heavenly evidence.
  • That our understanding may so grow that we see new deductions, consequences, and heavenly new, fresh conclusions from the former truths of God.

Skeptical faith desires God to give us a contrary new light so that we would believe things to be true which were formerly believed to contradictory to the Word of God. This would turn light into night darkness, the truth into a lie, and make the Spirit of truth the father of lies.

4. The Apostles Encourage Certainty

The apostles never urge us to know any truth of God with a reserve. The apostles and the Holy Spirit in them, urge us to know assuredly that Jesus is Christ the Lord. They exhort us to be rooted and established in the faith (Colossians 2:7). They urge us to be fully persuaded of everything both fundamental and historical concerning Christ. Luke wanted Theophilus to “know the certainty” of the “things most surely believed among us” (Luke 1:1, 4).In Hebrews 5:12-13 the apostle exhorts us to believe many points concerning Christ beyond the first principles of the oracles of God. He exhorts them to progress to maturity (Hebrews 6:1). 

5. The Word of God is Able to Give Us Certainty

The principle of uncertainty implies the Word of God is obscurity and dark, not able to instruct us in all truths. It makes a blasphemous charge against the Holy Spirit, as if He had written the Scriptures with the intention that we would have no assured and fixed knowledge. It would leave us not with faith but a mere probable opinion, a conjectural, dubious apprehension of truths, with a reserve to believe the contrary. This would be as though the Lord’s purpose was to make us all skeptics and die doubting.

The apostles command us to believe and be comforted in believing the truths which they themselves believed as Christians and as fellow citizens with us. Are we going to say that the apostles also believed with reserve? That would be blasphemous.

6. We Must Serve God with Believing Conviction

All our practice must be in faith, i.e. with a persuasion that what we do is according to the revealed will of God. If it is otherwise we sin (Romans 14:23) and are condemned in all we do. But if faith with reserve must be the rule of our practice, we can do nothing in faith.

Conclusion

Today we face those who claim to be “progressive Christians”. They tell us that inviting questions is more valuable than supplying answers and we should explore the truth rather than declare it. They seem very uncertain about what God’s Word says but very certain about what human opinion (especially science) maintains. They are ready to say that we can’t be sure that the Bible condemns same-sex marriage but move quickly to say that we can be sure that it is ok. They tell us that we shouldn’t judge others. But that in itself is to pass moral judgement on our conduct. Christ says it is necessary for reconciliation to point out what others have done wrong (Matthew 18:15). The tide of uncertainty is influencing some evangelicals in subtle ways and we need to recognise this so as to resist it.

Find out more about Samuel Rutherford and read other articles featuring his work.

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