Loss of Certainty Among Evangelicals
A Sad Story
Two centuries before Christ, the Greek mathematician and inventor Archimedes experimented with the lever. He declared that he could “move the earth” if he had a place to stand somewhere in the cosmos. People need a certain place to stand, a point of reference beyond the self.
I was surprised to hear a fellow staff member make glowing comments about a book that assails certainty of biblical truth. He even recommended that book to our leadership. He possessed little perception of what that book taught. This staff person assumed it was a book about congenial relationships, but it had to do with lack of certainty about truth.
Some forms of the emergent church reject certainty of truth. This group reacts skeptically against evangelicals who assert certainty. These people feel betrayed by the belief that we can know something for sure. They want to distance themselves from what they deem is judgmentalism that comes from certainty. They believe in a more “generous orthodoxy” devoid of discernment. For
them, coming to belief is a quest for truth rather than arrival at truth. These people want to be non-judgmental about truth, so they blur such ideas as eternal punishment and homosexuality. They cannot assert that homosexuality is wrong by going to extant statements of Romans 1. Thus, their thinking lands on the ash heap of relativism; that is, truth is relative to the individual but does not stand independent from individual perspective. This becomes a serious problem in presenting the gospel.
Denial of Certainty
Adherents to this movement curb their generosity toward evangelicals who
hold to final truth. They tolerate almost any movement except evangelicalism. They are cynical and condescending toward those who think they have certainty about truth.
The greatest problem with this type of the emergent church is that it accepts a philosophy (postmodernism) that runs rampant through academic and pop culture. This philosophy rejects the idea that anyone can come to ultimate truth. Those who hold to this view assume that because general culture does not accept the idea that someone has the truth, they themselves cannot be perceived as having the truth either. Instead of critiquing this culture from a biblical viewpoint, they adopt the viewpoint. In other words, they have bought into
the assumptions of this belief system, which is ironic in that this belief system claims certainty of sorts—that is, the certainty that nothing is certain! In one sense they cannot critique this assumption about reality because they do not have anything certain by which they can evaluate it.
The Word of God refutes the idea that people cannot come to ultimate truth. The Bible presents universal and absolute truth; it positions itself as mutually exclusive with other beliefs. There is no middle ground on this issue. Christian- ity places itself in conflict with the idea that humanity does not have a place to stand in the universe. The belief that “man is the measure of all things” (Protagoras) is a polar opposite to the Bible. If we say “everything is relative” and “there are no absolutes,” then those statements themselves become absolute.
Absolute truth is what is true of God and his creation. He and his Word are immutable (Hebrews 6:17–20). Truth does not begin with the individual but with revelation from God. That is the Christian’s place to stand. Holding to this conviction is no more arrogant than belief in uncertainty. Christian revelation rises above finite man to God, who transcends culture. He existed before the universe and culture. He speaks with clarity and certainty. God knows exhaustively. Humans cannot know exhaustively.
The Bible itself makes no claim for exhaustive knowledge. It allows that other sacred books such as the Koran can make accurate statements, but they do not contain ultimate truth. The Word of God is as inerrant as God is; it, therefore, makes accurate claims to truth. Both academic and pop beliefs hold that it is impossible to come to certainty about truth. This skepticism denies ability to come to absolutes. Those who hold to uncertainty replace truth with pluralism, pragmatism, relativism, and other current popular philosophies. A subjective view of life is paramount in these days. But these people are certain about doubt! Because self is subjective, doubt pervades all knowledge. To know that one does not know is a universal fact; one has to know that he or she does not know in order to doubt. Subjective thinkers, who start from the premise of the self, believe there is no universal truth that all can accept. To them, no objective truth outside the self exists, and eternal truth is not an option. They preclude transcendent truth. They also abandon the principle of contradiction (that
is, that A does not possess the predicate of B). But doubt, to be meaningful, presupposes the absolute validity of the principle of contradiction. Either there is truth or there is not. Both cannot be true. If both were truth and its contradictory opposite, then doubt would not make sense. Most skeptics can see that a thing cannot be and not be in the same sense at the same time.
Unending doubt is at the core of many modern evangelicals. They will not assert some things as true and other things as false. Second Timothy 3:7 nails the fallacy of those who are always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.
Issue at Stake
In this book I hope to appeal to those committed to Scripture to take heed of evangelicals who try to domesticate the gospel. The Word of God requires that we gain great discernment about this issue. Scripture does not arbitrate its approach to false doctrine. It declares exclusive truth in no uncertain terms. We need leaders to reach those around them without denuding a straightforward approach to the message in evangelism.
We do not want to set contending for the gospel (Jude 3) in opposition to contextualizing the gospel (1 Corinthians 9:19–23). The purpose of the emergent church in contextualizing the gospel is a worthy end but not at the cost of the gospel itself. Accommodation of the message to current widespread ideas in culture weakens the gospel message. We cannot equate being humble about what we know personally with being uncertain about truth. However, we do need to approach people on their approachable side.
Christian leaders need to speak truth with confidence out of a sense of certainty about the gospel message. The gospel message itself is at stake because some today water down its truth. Effective evangelism is also in jeopardy. The reason Paul said, “I am not ashamed of the gospel” is that it is the gospel, not a method, that wins people (Romans 1:16). He did not proclaim the testimony of God in “lofty speech or wisdom [philosophy].” Paul decided to know nothing among the Corinthians “except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:1–2 esv). Paul was clear about his message, and he would not allow methodology or philosophical, theological ideas move him off that focus.
It is clear that the most aggressive evangelistic success, whether in local churches or in large parachurch movements, comes from a burning conviction about the certainty of the truth of the gospel. Method does not bring passion for the gospel; only the gospel message itself impassions people to share the claims of Christ.
Conviction about the certainty of what we believe motivates Christians to share the gospel. Believers who do not share the gospel are indifferent and nonplussed about giving out the gospel because they do not engage with the reality of its message. The perspective of belief and the conviction of certainty about that belief are two different things. Certainty brings contagious conviction about distribution of the gospel. This brings courage to share when otherwise we would stay in our evangelistic shell. Certainty means there is no tentativeness or ambiguity about presenting the gospel. Those who are uncertain about truth do not disclose their faith boldly.
Recently I spoke to over 900 pastors in Canada about the hidden dynamic behind church growth, which I believe is strong certainty and conviction that Christ and his finished work is the answer. The positive response among pastors to that presentation was huge. Many pastors had not given serious consideration to that issue. Paul made the powerful point that Christ’s love for us motivates us to live for him (2 Corinthians 5:14–15 esv):
For the love of Christ controls [constrains, motivates] us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.
I identify with and understand the contextualizing issues that concern those who want to reach this generation for Christ. We surely want to present the gospel
in approachable and understandable terms to our generation. However, method should never overcome message. We can find methods appropriate for our times and still keep the message central and foremost. The message is what motivates Christians to boldly share their faith.
Certainty Comes from Clarity of Scripture
The doctrine of the clarity (perspicuity) of the Bible has been a longstanding foundation of evangelical belief. If we read the Bible in a normal sense as we read any other literature, we can know what it says. God makes his Word essentially clear. Obviously there are isolated unclear passages but, as a whole, God communicated the Bible clearly. All people are accountable to that clarity.
Certainty comes from clarity. Where the Bible is unclear, there is uncertainty. If the Bible is essentially unclear for the most part, then there is no certainty in much of what it asserts. That is why this new type of evangelical (or, better, postevangelical) always seeks after truth but never arrives. They can never be sure that what they assert is true. This has a significant impact on evangelism. Why ask people to trust Christ’s death for their sin if that central fact is not certain? One person who has made such thinking popular among evangelicals is Brian McLaren, whose book A New Kind of Christian was, sadly, honored with an award of merit by Christianity Today. The “new kind of Christian” he talks about is unsure and uncertain of what to believe (except for a few basic beliefs). With that tentativeness, such a Christian will not be forceful in sharing the gospel.
Diminishing doctrine to opinion or personal perspective carries unintended consequences. Reducing truth to personal perspective has devastating implications on the authority of the Bible. If we reduce every opinion to subjective equivalence, then no one possesses authority in message. All opinions hold equal validity. The central assumption is that tolerance is central to every viewpoint. Tolerance is central except for those who are certain about a universal truth claim. What appears as charitableness or being civil toward others leads to assault on the claims of Scripture.
Truth-claims of Scripture are exclusive. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). That is an exclusive statement. The Holy Spirit makes another exclusive truth declaration in Acts: “Nor is there salvation is any other” (4:12). That excludes Mohammed or Buddha; it also excludes secular assumptions. Exclusive truth runs counter to the prevailing idea among postevangelicals.
Propositions of Scripture are sinister to those who claim that the Bible is unclear and without certainty. These people criticize those who claim certainty as having “truth captured, stuffed, and mounted on the wall.”1 Certainty to them is “downright dangerous.”2 They redefine humility as willingness to accept doctrinal uncertainty. Tolerance is equal to humility and is their ultimate doctrine. By establishing such a doctrine, they have no way to define heresy.3
Avoiding heresy demands separation of truth and falsity. The text has authority over the interpreter, not the interpreter over the text. How can we “avoid vain babblings” and contradictions if there is no clarity to distinguish between the two? Paul challenges Timothy to guard the faith:
O Timothy! Guard what was committed to your trust, avoiding the profane and idle babblings and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge—by professing it some have strayed concerning the faith. Grace be with you. Amen. (1 Timothy 6:20, 21)
If relativism were true, then the universe would hold contradictory conditions. This is impossible if there is a God. Opposites cannot both be truth; this denies the law of non-contradiction. We cannot be both right and wrong at the same time. We cannot be both completely dry and wet at the same time. It is impossible to have a stick with one end. We cannot say, “I am absolutely certain everything is relative.” It is no longer relative if there is something certain. God cannot exist and not exist at the same time. We can only find something wrong if something is true. God’s Word is the ultimate standard by which we measure truth.
The idea that we need air to breathe is true to all people everywhere at all times. Gravity works the same way everywhere on the planet. If I claim that 2+2 is 5, it would not be consistent with reality or truth. For something to be true, it must be true at all times. Mankind cannot arbitrarily establish what is right or true. Truth is always conformity to fact and what truly exists. God functions in the realm of absolute, total truth all of the time. That is why Jesus said, “Your word is truth” (John 17:17).
We need to understand important terms as we address this issue:
Certainty is lack of doubt about some state of affairs. Certainty admits degrees. Evangelicals do not affirm certainty about all things exhaustively. A proposition is certain if no other proposition has greater warrant than it does.
Absolute certainty is lack of any doubt. The Bible presents its thoughts with certainty, not tentatively (Luke 1:4; Acts 1:3). God’s Word is the criterion for truth. Certainty comes by an act of God through the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:4–16; 1 Thessalonians 1:5). Absolute certainty is the supernatural foundation for knowledge.
Postmodernism is a catch-all term that covers many ideas. At its base, post-modernism is belief in plurality: no one can come to ultimate truth because people come to truth from their own perspective.
Postconservatism is belief in postmodernism by evangelicals who are sometimes called “postevangelicals.” This is the belief system behind those in the emergent church who want to soft pedal truth.4
Emerging church is a broad term describing churches that seek to contextualizeize the gospel by method to postmodern philosophy. Not all emergent churches are postconservative in philosophy but are what we call “doctrine-friendly” or “truth-friendly” churches.
Emergent church is a particular term for an official network of contextualizers committed to postmodern Christianity. All their thinking is emerging; they do not claim certainty of truth. They deconstruct previous evangelical thinking about certainty and other essential doctrines of Scripture. They emphasize narrative theology rather than propositional truth. Presentation of Christianity is by missional living rather than by statements of the gospel. They presume that historic evangelicalism is non-authentic, not involved with non-Christians, obsessed with doctrine, and not operating by Christocentric living.5 This group is not “truth-friendly.”
Coherent truth is the basis of the emergent approach to reality, wherein facts and objective truth are not necessary and only a general coherence of an idea is needed.
Correspondent truth is the view that truth must correspond to facts, objectivity, and reality.
Missional is the term used for attempting to incarnate the gospel with personal and community testimony rather than presenting the gospel through propositions. Postconservatives use the word “missional” in the sense of “improving society now.” It is a way to correct society’s evils.
Proposition is that which corresponds to truth; it is the meaning of a declarative sentence. It is not an encounter, event, or personal experience. Biblical propositional assertions correspond to facts and reality.
Spiritual formation is not what evangelicals call sanctification, but it is rather the means whereby emergents use disciplines such as mysticism to make them feel closer to God. This is a non-biblical, extra-biblical idea. Many evangelicals use this term for sanctification and confuse terminology in doing so.
Foundationalism is an approach to reality that builds beliefs on givens. In the case of the Word of God, Christians build their beliefs on givens in the Bible. Emergents want to “rethink” everything. They do not operate on givens. It is important to distinguish the foundationalism of the Enlightenment from the foundationalism of the Bible. Biblical foundationalism does not rest on rationalism or empiricism but on the law of non-contradiction, the validity of the law of causality, and the reliability of sense perception. Without foundationalism
we cannot establish truth by categories. Without the law of non-contradiction, it would be impossible to communicate adequately with others. Certainty does not require total understanding to know something for sure. To reject foundationalism is to reject rationality.
Some in the emergent church believe that absolute truth exists but that we can never secure certainty about it. They claim that we cannot possess exhaustive personal knowledge of it even by the Bible. However, no honest evangelical claims to hold to exhaustive knowledge. There is a difference between exhaustive knowledge and certainty about an aspect of knowledge. The Bible affirms that humans are capable of distorted knowledge, but it also assumes we can know something for sure.
Many forms of Christianity deny the substitutionary work of Christ on the cross. Postconservatives seek to affirm all forms of Christianity including the Orthodox and Roman Catholic versions; they want to break out of the “evangelical ghetto.” This is an attempt to be irenic rather than elitist and critical. I suppose postconservatives would preclude writers of the Bible who thoroughly attacked false doctrine.
The radical form of the emergent church is a church of conformity, not transformation. True transformation requires going against the prevailing opinions of culture. The gospel has the power to transform any “post” idea. It is truth of Scripture that sets distinction between ideas. To reject the substitutionary death of Christ for our sins, inerrancy of Scripture, or forensic justification will eviscerate the power of the gospel. This has enormous implications on the nature of evangelism in our day.