“Epistemological modesty sounds so compelling, so humble, so godly. After all, which of us wants to claim we have the corner on truth? How can we really know we are right and someone else is wrong? Though such “humility” seems so right on the surface, a quicksand foundation lies beneath it.”
Every society has a rulebook, but living in one’s birth culture creates a blind embrace of its practices, norms, and expectations. We believe certain things about speech, social cues, and even driving habits with little awareness of what we prize or why we prize it. Behavior witnessed outside the cultural rulebook tilts us off center, leading us to a myriad of responses including inexplicable indignation. Identifying underlying cultural assumptions often requires an international friend or a sociologist to hold up a mirror before our eyes. Even then we may resist its telling reflections.
The theological world is no different. There is much to celebrate in recent studies of ancient languages, Ancient Near East culture, Second Temple Judaism, and biblical theology. Volumes of publication have informed the Church usefully. But for all the good, theology possesses its own contemporary rulebook, which has adopted a number of fallacies. I hold up a mirror here for us to reflect on three of the most common ones.
Fallacy 1: All theology is tentative
Like a riptide sweeping away even the Michael Phelpses of theology, a societal vortex has snatched every confident voice from theological discourse. Theological statements, it is contended, never can be certain.
Such claims of theological uncertainty range from the mildly humorous—“Put 10 theologians in a room and get 17 opinions on a doctrine or a Scripture text”—to the sophisticated—as represented by the former Protestant turned Roman Catholic, sociologist Christian Smith, who sees in Protestant theology a “pervasive interpretive pluralism.” Smith’s fancy shorthand expresses a desperate determination: the incompatibility of theologies, such as Arminianism and Calvinism, mandate theological uncertainty.
Evidently, we cannot trust our Bible, but not because, as classic liberalism argued, the Bible itself is untrustworthy. Rather because we are. The arguments go like this: “Bible reading requires Bible interpretation. Humans do Bible interpretation. Humans produce disparate interpretations.” The conclusion? “All theological conclusions are inherently provisional.” The logic is formulaic: Same Bible + Different Conclusions = Uncertainty.
Battle weary, yet longing for a foothold, most conservative Bible students stumble through the fog, hoping to land somewhere close to the truth. But in the journey, the demands for “epistemological modesty”—that allegedly essential framework for contemporary theological discourse—swallow all confidence whole. Inconclusiveness offers the only socially acceptable posture toward biblical doctrine. Some have even argued that the very desire for certainty exposes psychological dysfunction. Certainty is impossible; longing for it is personal weakness. So if you seek theological certainty, you may elicit an additional diagnosis for the next DSM: the PTCD—Professing Theology as Certain Disorder.
For Smith, the apparently irreconcilable difference between Protestant theologies issued him divorce papers, so he left his Presbyterian heritage and wed himself to Rome. Our goal here is to critique neither Rome on authority and certainty, nor Smith on his new theological marriage. But note well. He has grossly (and confidently) overstated the disparate character of various evangelical theologies.
Yet we must ask whether his representative theological skepticism is necessary. Is all theology really tentative, inconclusive, and provisional? Should we operate at all times with a hermeneutic of doubt? Am I warped if I want certainty?
Epistemological modesty sounds so compelling, so humble, so godly. After all, which of us wants to claim we have the corner on truth? How can we really know we are right and someone else is wrong? Though such “humility” seems so right on the surface, a quicksand foundation lies beneath it.