In my discussions with fellow classmates on the subject of hermeneutics, I have upset some apple carts by saying that we can’t be cock sure of every doctrine, and as I explained in my previous post on hermeneutics, there are good reasons why we should question our convictions.
One classmate wrote that I was promoting a hopeless view, and that I was essentially saying that we can’t really know anything -for sure. My response is below.
Again, I am trying to chart a course between extremes, which I think is what is needed when we approach our understanding of scripture.
I would state that while scripture is always true and trustworthy, our UNDERSTANDING of it is not. I mean, even John MacArthur has changed positions on some doctrines over time. Why? Because while the scriptures may be inerrant, our understanding of them, and our understanding of the Holy Spirit’s illumination are NOT inerrant.
So I would distill a few observations from the fact that our limitations affect our accuracy:
- We can be much more sure of the central, essential doctrines of Christianity, like the gospel, because they are clear, and tradition (doctrine), reason, and experience all easily and firmly confirm them
- We can be much LESS sure about non-essential doctrines, and even when we have convictions, reason, and perhaps even some doctrinal tradition behind us, preaching such things merits a more circumspect confidence, with the attitude that, while we are currently convinced of the truth of our position, we are open to being persuaded otherwise
- We must allow room for being shown that we are incorrect, even on some non-essential but significant doctrines, like eschatology
- We can be sure that we will not understand all of the nature of God due to our limitations, which again calls for humility in the face of the infinite.
Such limitations are not necessarily a cause for hopelessness, but a cause for humility and dependence upon God. I also think that our compulsion to be able to know and explain everything comes from our need
- to be in control
- to know surely enough that we don’t need faith, and
- to feel secure that we are on a sure footing
But such things are not a life of faith. Our sureness comes not from what we can know, but the few things we are deeply convinced of (our salvation through faith), and intimacy with and trust in the One in whom we trust. As I like to say to those who ask me if I have doubt:
I have some serious doubts about God, esp. during hard times, but the things I *do* believe and have little doubt about keep me from discarding my faith. I don’t need ALL questions answered to keep moving forward with God, because the things I AM convinced of are enough for me to be willing to carry on, to doubt my doubts, and to wait for them to resolve as I mature.
Ambiguity and mystery are part of true spirituality – not that we can know nothing for sure, but that we can know a few things for sure, that we can develop deeper convictions about a widening sphere of doctrine over time, and with the confirmation of traditional doctrine, reason, and experience, and that some things may always be outside our grasp of this side of eternity.
I again think this is why the following aphorism is wise, if not essential (pun intended)
In the essentials, UNITY
In the non-essentials, LIBERTY
in all things, CHARITY
I also like this saying when it comes to doctrine and the knowability of spiritual things:
Many things in the Bible I don’t understand.
Many things in the Bible I only think I understand
But there are many things in the Bible I cannot misunderstand.