05 August 2005

Certainty, Humility, and the Follower of Christ

In "Post-Conservatives, Foundationalism, and Theological Truth: a Critical Evaluation" (JETS 48 [June 2005]: 351-63), R. Scott Smith, on the apologetics faculty at Biola University, critiqued the recent works of Nancey Murphy (Professor of Christian Philosophy, Fuller Theological Seminary). Murphy has written a number of books which claim that the philosophical framework known as foundationalism, which Modernism and Evangelicalism presupposed, is fundamentally flawed. In defending foundationalism, R. Scott Smith critiques Murphy in ways I could only dream to do. His writing is clear, especially for the complexity of the topic, and his knowledge of the subject at hand incomparably outdistances my own.

However, in the opening paragraphs of his article he makes a concession which concerns me. Nancey Murphy claims that foundationalists have always required certainty for the basic (i.e. foundational) truths upon which all knowledge rests. But Smith responds "foundationalism need not require certainty" ("Post-Conservatives," p. 351). Now I am thoroughly unconcerned about the state of foundationalism as a philosophical movement, but Smith is not merely a foundationalist: he is a Christian. Yet as a Christian, he claims that the entire Christian faith "could be wrong. For example, it is possible that I am just a brain in a vat, and these sentences are just the result of the stimulation of 'my' brain by a mad scientist" ("Post-Conservatives," p. 363).

While I appreciate the damaging blows Smith deals to the post-conservative Christian philosophy of Nancey Murphy, here are my immediate concerns with his concession:

  • The inerrancy of Scriptures has been brought into question. The Scriptures' teaching on its own truthfulness excludes the possibility of error. The Scriptures do not present themselves as a set of documents whose propositions must be tested by external criteria in order to be accepted. The Scripture establishes itself as the criterion by which all other propositions are to be tested (see e.g. Acts 17:11).

  • The sovereignty of God over the realm of possibilities has been seriously compromised. The underlying assumption behind the "brain in a vat" scenario is that human imagination, not the Divine person and character, determines what is possible and what is not. Biblical theism concludes otherwise (e.g. cf. Matthew 19:26 with Hebrews 6:18).

  • The possibility of assurance of salvation has been obliterated. While assurance of salvation comes through various means, it rests on the basis of the truthfulness of God's promise. That is why the Westminster Confession said that "an infallible assurance of faith, founded upon the divine truth of the promises of salvation" belongs to Christians (18:2). However, if it is possible (however improbable) that I am only a "brain in a vat," then the very foundations of Christian assurance are hollow and brittle; instead of "an anchor for the soul, firm and secure" (Hebrews 6:13-20).

  • In the end everything we know about Biblical Christianity rests on the Authority's (i.e. the Triune God as revealed in the Protestant Canon) inability to err. Unfortunately for both Murphy and Smith (on this point they seem to be agreed), this inability means that traditional Christian theism lacks "epistemic humility" ("Post-Conservatives," p. 363). That is, Christians have had the arrogance to claim that they actually know something for sure.

    Now I grant that Smith's article was not about the need for epistemic humility, or humility in what we know; therefore, I should not expect to find any sort of defense of this definition of humility. Nevertheless it seems that the Biblical picture would indicate that certainty and humility are not mutually exclusive. Instead I would contend from the following points that certainty is a necessary part of Biblical humility:

  • In the same sentence Jesus calls himself humble and asks people to follow him as the way of salvation (Matthew 11:28-29; see also his exclusivistic claims in John 14:6).

  • Jesus taught those who would follow him to combine certainty and humility. We can dare to be meek only because we know beyond all doubt that the meek "will inherit the earth" (Matthew 5:5).

  • Christians throughout church history have evidenced obedience to this call to humility and certainty. While the world screamed with torch in hand that God is neither good nor powerful, humble Christians submitted to the stake and sang through the flames (see the certainty implied in Jesus' promises, Matthew 5:11-12).

  • Also, imagine the opposite of humility with certainty. What kind of humility is it which dares to remark glibly "Yes, yes, but you could be wrong," to the Creator of all that is and Determiner of all which can be?

  • I grant that Christians can be and have been some of the most arrogant people in the world. But we must not allow our feelings of guilt in this matter to lead us to allow the world to press us into its mold of thinking. Unbelievers, with their disdain for anyone who claims to know something for sure (Proverbs 1:7), do not define humility; the Scriptures define humility. The Scriptures call everyone to abandon making much of self (who certainly is not worthwhile), and to make much of God (who certainly is worthwhile). "Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord" (1 Corinthians 1:31). This is the start of Biblical humility.

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