Source for Certainty—a Watershed Issue
In the Old Testament, Job declared at a culminating point in the book, “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God” (Job 19:25, 26 esv).
Job made a direct statement of certainty.
Certainty is manifestly important to God in the way he communicates biblical parlance. Attempt to marginalize certainty or its associated ideas is to blunt obvious declarations of Scripture. In the following paragraphs, I will focus on key biblical words for certainty to show how the Word of God asserts unequivocal truth. Later in the chapter, I will show how certainty rests on the person and revelation of God.
God makes it patently clear in the Bible that he expects us to take assertions of Scripture with certainty. Luke made this transparent in his prologue to the gospel of Luke. Luke wanted Theophilus to know something for sure: “That you may have certainty [ἀσφάλειαν, literally “no” and “fall”] concerning the things [literally, “words”] you have been taught” (Luke 1:4 esv).
The Greek word for “certainty” means a state of certainty with regard to a belief—being without doubt. These words will not fall or fail. The concept of certainty in the New Testament carries the idea of stability of statement— presenting facts, real circumstances. Luke’s statements through inspiration are reliable; we can count on them. The word “certainty” is emphatic in the sentence because of its position.
The certainty of which Luke speaks (κατήχηθης) came by teaching, by apostolic communication; it means “to resound; to teach by word of mouth.” The idea of this word is “received instruction.” Theophilus had learned some things from the apostles, but now Luke wanted him to have a factual account (the book of Luke) about what they taught. After Theophilus read the book of Luke, he would have a reliable account and certain knowledge of the truth of Christianity. The word for certainty (ἀσφάλειαν; Luke 1:4) is used again in Acts 2:36: “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified (italics mine)”
There was no question whatsoever about God making Jesus Lord and Christ; it was in the plan of God from eternity that Jesus would be the Savior. Luke viewed this as unshakable belief.
Later, in writing Acts, Luke says that Jesus presented himself after the resurrection with “many infallible proofs” (1:3). A proof is, in the Greek, a fixed sign, certain or sure token. It is that which causes something to be known as confirmed or verified. Jesus gave demonstrable evidence that he was alive. The word for “proofs” (tekmēriois) is a technical term derived from logic with the thrust of being demonstrative proof or evidence. The idea is proved beyond a doubt. This is exactly what postconservatives do not want to do—to prove something beyond doubt.
Yet another word group carrying the idea of certainty includes the words for “faith” or “to believe.” This group connotes “assurance, guarantee.” We find the verb form in 2 Timothy 3:14: “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it” (esv, italics mine).
Hebrews 11:1 gives another word (ὑπόστασις) for conviction: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (esv, italics mine).
The word “assurance” comes from the two Greek words for “stand” and “under,” and it carries the idea of a title deed or of realty that gives a guarantee. “Conviction” is something based on argument for truth or reality. This is how true faith operates.
The word “persuade” gives the idea of “confidence” in 1 John 3:19: “By this we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him” (esv, italics mine). The word “reassure” (πειθω, peithō) means “to convince.” It is possible for believers to become persuaded about something.
Speaking of Indubitable Certainty
Denial of certainty is a denial of God’s objective revelation. This way leads to the death of Christianity. If the Bible does not clearly reveal what God wants us to know, but is simply a hodgepodge of mystery, then it is not true revelation. It is a new form of Gnosticism. If God spoke, then he spoke with clarity and certainty.
Certainty is lack of doubt about a state of affairs. If I have no doubt that I live in Saint Cloud, Florida, then I am certain of that fact. There are two kinds of certainty: (1) logical certainty and (2) psychological certainty. Logical (epistemic, propositional) certainty rests on warrant or justification to believe a proposition.
There is no commonly accepted definition of the second kind of certainty. Certainty and doubt admit of degrees; consequently there are psychological levels of relative certainty. Logical certainty gives psychological confidence about a belief. However, psychological certainty must conform to objectivity so that it corresponds to logic. This keeps psychological certainty from resting on pathological understanding or arbitrary viewpoint.
Absolute certainty lacks all doubt. This is pompous to modern skeptical thinking because skeptics’ beliefs are never more than probable. Skeptics hesitate to resolve doubt. Classic secular philosophers sought to resolve this issue by philosophical foundationalism—the view that human knowledge rests on “basic” propositions. Current postmodern philosophers reject foundationalism in the latter sense but revise foundationalism to believe that propositions are capable of negation by additional knowledge. Thus, the trend by postmoderns is to reject absolute certainty. Can we know with certainty that the Bible and its claims are true? Paul says it is possible (1 Corinthians 2:4). Luke wanted Theophilus to know the “certainty” (asphaleia) of what the apostles taught (Luke 1:4), and in Acts 1:3 Jesus demonstrated his authenticity by “proofs” (tekmeria). These principles rest on the presupposition of special revelation.
Not all doubt is sinful, but doubt of what God says clearly in the Word is sinful. The Bible speaks of doubt with disapproval. Doubt impedes confidence of certainty:
Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14:31 esv)
And Jesus answered them, “Truly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ it will happen.” (Matthew 21:21 )
Doubt and Certainty
It is true that God accommodates his language so that finite human beings can understand something of who and what he is (anthropomorphism and anthropopathism), and that he speaks in images and analogies for this reason. Humans are limited to a degree of certainty because of finiteness. Evangelicals accept this limitation of human capacity for certainty because God confines absolute certainty to belief demonstrated by propositions of his revelation (1 Corinthians 2). Although we cannot be certain about everything, we can be certain about what God has revealed propositionally.
All honest Christians have doubt, but doubt is not the same as skepticism that questions everything as a matter of principle, or unbelief that deliberately rejects the authority of Scripture. Valid doubt arises from human finiteness— lack of a full grasp of reality. Doubt operates within the realm of certainty or uncertainty of presuppositions. Thus, faith and doubt are not mutually exclusive, but on the other hand, faith and unbelief are exclusive to each other.
There are indeed limits to our understanding of God, but this does not preclude an accurate, reliable, or certain understanding of God. God reveals himself accurately but partially to the limits of finite capacity. God accommodated revelation to the restricted limits of the human being. Although we cannot exhaustively comprehend God, we can know him with certainty. I can know by observation that I lived in Canada for thirty years, and I know a number of other places in the world where I have traveled, but I cannot know with certain knowledge the geography of other places where I have not traveled. Knowing God’s revelation is not an issue of being probably true. We can know it with certainty. Having faith in God’s Word is not faith without proof; what is at question is the nature of proof.
Confusion between Confidence and Total Certainty
There is much confusion between confidence and absolute certainty. It is possible to have certainty about the Word of God, even with fallible capacity. This is because the Word of God is the final standard of certainty. What God says is true because it is impossible for him to lie (Hebrews 6:18; Titus 1:2). Abraham believed God’s Word in the face of doubt (Romans 4:20–22); God’s promise took precedence over everything for him and he deemed God’s promise as certain. Therefore, we can have confidence or certainty about revealed truth although we cannot have complete certainty that explains everything about an issue.
God provides historical evidence, such as evidence for Jesus’ death and resurrection (Acts 1:3; 1 Corinthians 15). We are to place our confidence in that evidence because it comes from reliable apostolic preaching. Personal certainty comes from the tandem of (1) the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:4) and (2) the authority of God’s Word (vv. 9–16):
. . . because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. (1 Thessalonians 1:5 esv)
And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers. (1 Thessalonians 2:13 esv)
The Thessalonians obtained certainty from both the Word of God and the demonstration of the Holy Spirit. Christians of the New Testament era lived “in full assurance of faith” (Hebrews 10:22). Clement of Rome said that the apostles “went forth with the firm assurance that the Holy Spirit gives.”212 Certitude was characteristic of the apostles. Irenaeus made the point that we cannot have certainty without God’s initiative: “Without God, God is not known.”
Medieval Christianity, however, was fraught with uncertainty. Few believed that they had done enough works to gain eternal life. Early on, neither Luther nor Calvin could find release from the uncertainty of their salvation. The Reformation restored certainty because of trust in extant statements of the Word about justification by faith. Under the guidance of Calvin, Nicholas Cop, rector of the University of Paris, said, “God cannot be worshipped in doubt.” There was no grand “perhaps” in Calvin or his followers.
The finite capacity of human beings cannot bring us to sure knowledge of God. If we begin with man, the shifting sands of uncertainty will prevail. If we begin with the broad road, we will go nowhere. Finiteness constitutes the limitation of human beings. If we take the narrow road, we will obtain certainty of truth. Mankind’s only hope is that God would reveal himself, for God is the source of certainty. God gives us our faith by the power or demonstration of the Holy Spirit. Faith does not begin with self.
Indubitable Foundation for Certainty
In addition to the words for certainty we studied above, the New Testament sets forth a number of other Greek words such as the word translated “sure.” We will view these passages in running fashion.
Christians have a “sure” (ἀσφαλής) and steadfast anchor of the soul (Hebrews 6:19). The word of prophecy was “made more sure” (βέβαιος) than the personal experience on the Mount of Transfiguration (2 Peter 1:10ff); thus, it is a “more sure” (βέβαιος) word of prophecy. “Sure” implies something trustworthy that we can count on; we cannot trust something about which we are not sure. The Chris- tian is to hold certainty in his confidence: “And we are his house if indeed we hold fast our confidence [βέβαιος] and our boasting in our hope” (Hebrews 3:6 esv).
We are to hold confidence firm to the end (Hebrews 3:14). This word is used for the act of holding fast to the confidence (βέβαιος) that guards us against apostasy (Hebrews 3:14; 2 Peter 1:10). It is the “sure and steadfast anchor of the soul” (Hebrews 6:19 esv). The word group carries the idea of permanence and stability for faith. The essential idea of the word (βέβαιος) pertains to that which we know with certainty—known to be true, certain, verified. The verb (βεβαιόω) carries the idea of causing something to be known as certain, such as the gospel (Philippians 1:7). The idea is to prove something to be true and certain—to verify. Peter used this word validating the prophetic word: “And we have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morn- ing star rises in your hearts” (2 Peter 1:19 esv, italics mine).
Another form of this word (βεβαιωσις) carries the ideas of ratification, confirmation, corroboration, verification, making sure (Philippians 1:7; Hebrews 6:16). This word is a legal, technical term for furnishing a guarantee. Paul used this word in 1 Corinthians 1:6, 8 for keeping the Corinthians firm in faith. Paul’s imprisonment made a “confirmation” of the gospel (Philippians 1:7). It is important that a believer operate with a sense of verification of his faith.
The Greek word for “complete certainty” (πληροφορια) means “full or complete assurance” (Colossians 2:2), “full conviction” or “certitude” (1 Thessalonians 1:5), and carries the idea of being completely certain of the truth of something— to be absolutely sure, to be certain, complete certainty (Romans 4:21). The noun (πληροφορια) means “fullness” and “firm conviction, absolute certainty”: “… because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake” (1 Thessalonians 1:5 esv, italics mine).
The gospel came to the Thessalonians with complete certainty. The apostles reached a state of complete certainty, full assurance, certainty. The gospel team of Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy came with powerful conviction when they came to Thessalonica. They did not waver with doubt but came with clear conviction and willingly committed their eternal future to this message. If we are uncertain about what we believe, we will not convince others of our message. If we change our position with every fad or opinion poll that comes along, we do not have any message but the message of uncertainty. It is crucial to establish personal convictions. If people are unsure about what they believe, they will not commit to our message. Paul uses this same word in Colossians 2:2: “. . . that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ” (esv, italics mine). The “riches of the full assurance of understanding” is sound judgment about the great truths of Christianity. A person with full assurance of understanding no longer calls into question the Word of God. Doubt is no longer the central mode of operation. This believer embraces truth with high satisfaction in the object of his belief. Paul uses the verb for this word in Romans 4:21 (esv), being “fully convinced” that God was able to do what he had promised.
Another Greek word (πειθω) signifies “to apply persuasion, to prevail upon or win over, to persuade, bringing about a change of mind by the influence of reason or moral considerations.” This word carries the idea “state of certainty, trust, confidence.” Paul was sure that nothing could separate him from his salvation: “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38, 39 esv).
This kind of certainty gives stability to the Christian life. The believer is not to shift from confident belief: “. . . if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister” (Colossians 1:23 esv).
The believer is not to lose firm hold on truth: “You therefore, beloved, know- ing this beforehand, take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability [στηριγμός]” (2 Peter 3:17).
As we will see in Chapter Ten, in the study of 1 Corinthians 2:4, a key Greek word for certainty (ἀπόδειξις—we get the English word “apodictic” from this Greek word) means strictly “showing forth”; hence “demonstration, proof, evidence.” The word signifies pointing to something for the purpose of demonstration, proof. The Holy Spirit’s miracle-working power shows the reality of Christianity. A key word for “certainty” (ἀσφαλής) carries the idea of being unshakable, secure.
The Christian faith has an indubitable foundation—the Word of God. It challenges the idea that truth is always open and subject to change, for it is a belief not derived from other beliefs. God does not present his truth as a hypothesis or theory.
The Enlightenment was a posteriori in its approach to truth, and so it always carried uncertainty because it could never come to a universal or ultimate truth. Rationalism as an approach to truth was always finite and never capable of ultimate certainty. All credible philosophers accepted the idea that they could not come to ultimate reality. Christianity does not depend on finite humans as the source for truth but transcends the material view of the world; it is metaphysical (beyond the physical) so is a priori, from outside material time-space assumptions.
Postconservative postmodernism affects most doctrines of the Christian faith, but the essential idea of certainty about Christian truth is especially at stake. The central thrust of the Christian faith is that it is rooted in absolute, objective truth regardless of cultural trends. If Christians can only approximate understanding of God’s truth, then God’s revelation is ambiguous and faulty in its communication system. Our knowledge of God would be only probable or possible but not certain. Relativism weakens the authority of Scripture and reduces God’s propositional, informational revelation in lieu of open interaction. By beginning with human limitation as the starting point, postconservatives ipso facto put humans in authority over against propositions deduced from God. By assuming as their starting point the human delimitation of probability rather than the idea that God adequately revealed himself in propositions, they are lost in a sea of subjectivity.
If we begin with the idea that God adequately revealed himself in his Word, then we can come to a level of certainty about many things. When we abandon the idea that we can know truths beyond the narrative, then humans become the authority and we cannot come to propositional knowledge of God. This latter viewpoint is no longer evangelical because it rests on self-autonomy, and it lacks the “God has said” point of view. Its mentality is the viewpoint of Satan— “Has God said?”
Evangelicalism defines truth as objective (independently true) and absolute (not dependent on cultural context or finite man’s view of reality). Biblical truth does not exclusively rest in the mind of the beholder so that the interpreter’s context prejudices his view of reality. We can take the Bible at face value as over against the cynicism of postconservatism. There is value beyond the value the individual creates because God gave objective revelation. The tension in this issue is one of authority; does the authority reside in self or in the Word? There is no equivalence in terms of truth; either the Bible is true in counterdistinction to other so-called truths or it is not. The issue revolves around the question of whether man is the center or God and his revealed Word are the center.
If we are only able to approximate understanding of the Bible, then knowledge of God is only probable. What percentage of Christianity is true? Fifteen percent or fifty percent? We would have to honestly witness to an unbeliever with probability: “It is my estimation that Christianity is sixty-five percent true!” Probability would affect most doctrines of Scripture if we accept postconservative postmodern presupposition. This form of relativism produces a skeptical approach to Christianity and cannot produce a vibrant testimony to truth.
We can reduce this issue to the ultimate presupposition of method for approaching truth. Either we begin with limited human perspectives about truth or we begin with God’s revelation. If we begin with human viewpoint, then all that remains is our own devices and presuppositions, and we wallow in doubt. The presupposition of postconservatism is self-autonomy found in the dialectical process.
The believer, according to McLaren, must be “open to the perpetual possibility that our received understanding of the gospel may be faulty . . . including our tradition’s understanding of the gospel”; in true postmodern form, he says we “must continually expect to rediscover the gospel.”213 In other words, we must hold our understanding of the gospel tentatively because our perception of it might be wrong. If this view were true, then, if he were honest, he would have to say that there is a thirty percent chance that the gospel is true. Thus, gospel presentation would be tepid and uncertain. Who would believe that except the most amorphous types? As well, with this logic we should question the validity of Christ and the Christian tradition. It is duplicity to question perpetually a view of how people become Christians, and not question the very idea of the truthfulness of Christ. Dialectical thinking always questions whether there is a sun in the sky.
Truth by Definition Exclusive
Truth is by definition exclusive. There is a strong antithesis in North American culture today that asserts there is an absolute God out there, but that there is no such thing as absolute truth. This might be because of cultural uniformity in North America, a society that seeks approval in plurality.
If it is a practical impossibility to investigate the universe by considering all possibilities of all time both potential and actual, both qualitatively and quantitatively equally, and totally without bias, then we find mankind trapped in futile finiteness. Our finiteness precludes us from finding an infinite God. Only an infinite God can give universal and certain information about himself. He has done that through the revelation of the Bible. If there is an absolute God who brooks no other, then we can find universal truth from him if he reveals himself.
Contemporary people cannot choose between two incompatible lines of action because, for them, there are no absolute norms. Because these norms reduce to personal preference, there is no inherent authority without an absolute. The only important value is social harmony or tolerance. Reality is whatever people make it (solipsism). Postmodernism denies absolutes and holds to a divided field of knowledge. No truth can be final because this philosophy rejects the possibility of an objective basis for absolute truth. The group can come to no meaning except for the meaning the group creates for itself. This is belief that exists only in relation to other finite thinking. Truth varies with the situation.
The root of postmodernism is skepticism that denies truth except for the truth of postmodernism. It claims the exclusive right to hold to its assumption for coming to truth (presupposition). Postmodernism’s only absolute is that there are no absolutes. Subjectivism, relativism, humanism, and agnosticism are the result. This is a change in the way that people today approach truth. All of this preconditions people to skepticism.
Holding any truth as absolute is an unpardonable error to those who hold to a divided field of truth. They view those who assert truth as biased opinion holders. Bias is anathema to postmoderns. The reason for this view is their system of thinking, the very system by which their reason prohibits them from coming to absolutes.214 Their preconceived belief system traps them in finite presupposition. In this perception of things, there can be no categorical unity of truth but only disorder when it comes to conclusions about truth. This perception constantly changes within the confines of the finite. What is true today might be false tomorrow. Truth, then, is relative. The only fixed truth is that truth is not fixed.
If there is no truth, then no one can fix responsibility to anything because there is nothing upon which to base such a view. Values wallow in preferences of a group of people at a particular time. If there is no settled truth, then there is no coherence or purpose to life. People must live in a mass of meaninglessness. Academic freedom becomes the summun bonum, or final value, for approaching life. Preference for endless finite conclusions over discovery of truth stands as a first principle.
Certainty Originates in an Absolute God
The evangelical Christian holds to one absolute integrating point—God himself. Humans try to deny an absolute God and build a way of knowing on finite perspective. Human beings, then, become the integrating point for truth. Because people are finite, their conclusions about truth must be finite. There- fore, the very premise or presupposition of postmodernism precludes the possibility of an absolute God. This is a vicious cycle. All that remains is a world of absurdity. All is in flux and nothing is for sure. All this discharges relativism devoid of fixed truth and ultimate purpose for life.
God has no need of human beings (Acts 17:25). He is the cause of creation, so he is the uncaused cause of all things. Further, he is absolute. He has never learned anything because he has always known all things. He has never gone anywhere because he is always everywhere. There is no rock too hard for him to lift because he created, and thus transcends, any rock. God never miscalculates anything; he never naps; no problem confounds him; nothing is too big for God; his authority reaches to the actions and thoughts of people. There is no random universe with an absolute God. Man, on the other hand, can claim no pretense to autonomy for he is dependent on God for truth. He cannot come to truth independent from God, so the mind is not the ultimate regulator for determining truth.215 Denial of man’s right to autonomy is the greatest fundamental offence against finite man, who wishes to have the prerogative of infinite capacity for truth.
Postmoderns live in a vacuum of meaninglessness unless they move to an absolute God who can give them ultimate purpose and meaning. Because God is absolute, he transcends all other truth. He is unrivaled and unsurpassed supremacy—peerless. Everything has denotation and connotation.216 We cannot separate the ideas of God and good, because all good comes from God. An absolute God stands at the center of Christianity.
Not only is God absolute, he is a personal absolute. Because we are not absolute, we have a problem that confines us to the prison of finiteness. God’s absoluteness is transcendent (outside creation), but he is also immanent (in creation). As absolute, God is creator of all things, is over all things, assesses all things, and exerts power everywhere in creation. God also participates in time and space (Ephesians 1:11). He acted in history and he acts in our personal lives (concursus). However, if we define God only in relation to creation, then we limit him to creation.
God answers the problem of finite human ability to come to truth by reducing what he wants people to know by revelation, whether by the general revelation of creation or the special revelation of the Word of God. In doing so, he wants us to be certain that the message about Christ is true (Luke 1:4) and, therefore, to be sure of salvation (1 John 5:13). All of this presupposes that God revealed himself in his Word. Beyond what God does in his Word, the supernatural person of the Holy Spirit “demonstrates” the truth of the gospel to us (1 Corinthians 2:4; 1 Thessalonians 1:5). The Holy Spirit supernaturally gives credibility to the Word. In other words, he ignites our presupposition or fundamental belief in the Bible as true. This is not a natural situation but a supernatural state of affairs.
Moral or ethical standards imply an absolute standard. Truth produces ethical value; otherwise, from nothing, nothing comes. There is no distinction of authority from the perspective approach to the Word of God. The Bible presupposes its own authority in complete viewpoint. God is an absolute being who is all encompassing, uncaused, and unconditioned. Because God has no cause and he is the absolute being, all derivative and ensuing truth and morals flow from him. Because God is absolute, his moral absolutes never change. He cannot change himself, who is immutable. Therefore, God’s moral absolutes bind all people everywhere in every culture during every period. If God is God, no human being has the option to choose whether to be responsible to conduct life according these absolutes.
Humans can doubt, question, and even deny God’s absolutes; we can debate their validity or attempt to change them, but the only way we could change or do away with them is to do away with the absolute God.
No one can assign genuine guilt without a moral absolute. We could not then judge even the most corrupt person by any ultimate norm and would swim in relativism. If we attempt to adapt or accommodate Christianity to cultural norms, we destroy its unity of truth. The believer who carries biblical convictions should attempt to make society relevant to God, not simply make God relevant to society as postconservatives do. Evangelicals who adapt biblical truth to the prevailing culture without a clear understanding of the absoluteness of God tread on dangerous ground. They confuse method and message.
Christian ethics follow theology. Theology begins with the doctrine of God as its foundation because God exists in and of himself. God has no source other than in his being, whereas man has the source of being outside himself. There- fore, man cannot begin with himself as the starting point, for he is limited and thus finite. If he begins with a finite point, he must reach a finite conclusion. How can man straddle both relativism and the idea of an absolute God? Francis Schaeffer makes a telling point about this in The God Who Is There: “We are His people, and if we get caught up in the other methodology, we have really blasphemed, discredited and dishonored Him, for the greatest antithesis of all is that He exists as opposed to His not existing. He is the God who is there.”217
Self—the Center of Authority
The non-Christian who begins with self to determine truth has no hope because there is no adequate universal norm for finding truth. Such a person is lost in finiteness. This is especially true if one assumes the dialectical method (the scheme of antithesis). An unbeliever assuming autonomy from God is ensnared in this method. There would be no other choice than to begin with some form of a posteriori approach. One can never decide on what is true because the method itself precludes one from coming to ultimate or absolute truth. If human beings are finite, one cannot come to infinite truth by oneself. One needs an all-comprehensive reference point. Evangelicals who buy into this method end in postevangelicalism, a belief system without certainty and with a greatly weakened message.
D.A. Carson calls postmodernism “the bastard child of modernism” because it “shares its fundamental weakness: it begins with the ‘I,’ the finite self. In this sense, postmodernism, like the modernism that spawned it, is methodologically atheistic—or more generously put, it takes no account of God at the beginning of its deliberations.”218 This makes postmoderns argue in a circle and begs the question of whether gaining certainty is possible. They begin with the conclusion of autonomous self and argue from that premise, making it impossible to come to the transcendent God who reveals himself. The ultimate presupposition of beginning with the God who reveals himself resolves all finite perspectives by his omniscience.
If we begin with autonomous man, we will end with autonomous man, with our finite perspective, and can never arrive at certainty. That foundation is shaky, so it is no wonder postmodernism views God as a perspective of a given group at a given time. With this view, no group has any more validity than any other group. Postmoderns confidently assert that there is no way of knowing anything for sure. Any exclusive claim for truth is intolerant bias. Therefore, each group has its own finite story devoid of any universal certainty.
Postevangelicals try to soften the hard implications of secular postmoderns by allowing a place for objective truth. Once they introduce objective truth, they now have a dilemma. What is the origin of this truth? How do they arrive at it? Most postevangelicals soft-pedal even the most innocuous claim of truth. The reason for this is that truth is by nature exclusive, and that is exactly what they do not want, for they want others to perceive them as open and tolerant of other beliefs.
It seems to me that secular postmoderns would not be impressed with this woolly-headedness. They would ask, “Where do you get the unmitigated gall to believe in the certainty of Jesus Christ?” or “Why do you prefer to believe in the Bible?” Postevangelicals have no answer, other than “This is our perspective! We do not have certainty, but please join our little goody-goody two-shoes group and maybe somehow, some way, you might become a Christian by osmosis.” If postevangelical postmoderns begin with autonomous self, they end with finite perspective and lack definite answers for our day. Their postmodern system is devastating to the evangelical cause because Christianity rests on a truth claim of certainty—“I am the way, the truth, and the life.”
The issue of how we know what we know is true is at the heart of this whole issue (epistemology). The matter of how we know rests on the subject of which presupposition we choose to find truth. If we choose a transcendent God who reveals himself in concursive revelation, then we can have certainty about God. All that is in the Bible is true as to its record, but not all truth is in the Bible. The Bible does not speak to all fields of science, for example. Neither did God exhaustively reveal everything there is to know about himself. That will never happen because we would have to be infinite to comprehend everything there is to know about God.
The All-Encompassing Reference Point
Only an infinite, absolute God can be the all-comprehensive reference point from which we derive absolute truth and values. No one caused God to do or be anything; thus, God puts all creation in relation to himself and not himself in relation to creation. God is the only one who possesses absolute freedom; nothing binds God except that which is self-imposed, and he is not subject to any restriction other than self-imposed limitations.
Human freedom is a derived freedom, a freedom that comes from God. There- fore, we find our dignity in God. God does not exist for the sake of mankind but mankind for the sake of God. There is nothing greater than to make God the goal for humanity; that is where people find ultimate meaning and satisfaction. Philosophies that do not take God into account reduce themselves to the finite, a place without universal integration of knowledge. Finite philosophies are inevitably incomplete.
As God is the basis for blessedness, so life without God is the core of wretchedness. God’s purpose for life stands in stark contrast to the hopelessness of our society today. Postmoderns believe that there is no meaning to life except what the finite individual or group gives. They have no “metanarrative” or ultimate meaning.
The God who exists outside of creation, eternally by no cause outside himself, and who is the sufficient cause of everything, carries great purpose and mean- ing. A God-centered worldview affects judgment on the worth of life. This gives identity and purpose to time and space. His purpose gives integration to the structure of values. God’s infiniteness comprehends any contingency that we might face. Nothing surprises him. He gives meaning to all events, thought, and activity. Activity for its own sake is vacuous, but activity that ends in the ultimate purpose of glorifying God gives transcendent meaning to creatures of God.
An unchanging God cannot adapt to humans. The reality of an absolute God demands that we view life from his point of view. We cannot begin with the perspective of self—the human viewpoint. Divine viewpoint takes on a new field of view, for mankind is no longer lost in the despair of self or a group. We cannot have hope unless we move to a new center—God’s Word as the polestar of reckoning all values for life.
Inability of the Self to Determine Truth
If God is absolute and unconditioned by anything outside himself, all of human beings’ acts concur within his sovereignty and permission. Because God is completely self-determined, no other cause influences him. No one influenced him to create the universe. God’s ground of existence rests in himself, for he does not depend on anything outside himself. Thomas Aquinas said that God is the first cause, himself uncaused. This does not imply that God’s existence is grounded in his will. God is not his own cause! God is independent in himself and causes everything else to depend on him. This includes mankind’s ability to come to truth and certainty.
God does not depend on the universe in any sense. There was nothing to compel him to create. Creation does not complete God, for God exists for himself and is wholly sufficient to himself. Yet there is a difference between the outward and the inward constraint of God. Creation was a free decision by God. God decreed creation but he did not decree himself or anything about himself.
God freely relates to his creatures and creation but not because of any necessary relation. His incommunicable attributes (attributes that he cannot share with humans) emphasize his absoluteness.219 His communicable attributes (attributes that he shares with humans) stress his relationship with creation and mankind. God’s relationship to creation is by his plan and not from knowledge outside himself. God planned from all eternity to create the universe. He had prior knowledge to every fact that existed or ever will exist. Every fact of the universe has purpose because it fits into the unifying plan of God.
Because God’s plan to create the universe is eternal, and from an absolute being, it is perfect. An imperfect plan would imply a finite god who is not infinite and absolute. If there were a necessity to revamp God’s plan, it would not be perfect. God would have failed in some sense. God is an absolute category and cannot adapt to events over which he has no control. If so, he would be equivocal and conditioned upon some limitation within himself. Otherwise, he could not control the universe. He would have to rescue the ruins of his plan as he goes along, attempting to make modifications of an incomplete plan. He would have to concur with things as he finds them and extricate them from their mess. God will, however, ultimately vindicate or justify his permission of the existence of sin in the world.
God’s decree is his infinite, eternal, and immutable will concerning future events and their precise order and manner of occurrence within his creation. All events are then certain from eternity. The Westminster Shorter Catechism puts it pithily: “The decree of God is his eternal purpose, according to the counsels of his own will, whereby for his own glory he has foreordained whatever comes to pass.” Certainty is not arbitrary from God’s viewpoint.
Decree, and the certainty that it implies, is eternal. If God changed his plan by succession as crisis comes, he would be ignorant of contingency or powerless to do anything about it. God willed before he put his plan into effect, so his actions accord with absolute perfection. Psalm 33:11 says, “The counsel of the Lord stands forever, The plans of His heart to all generations [literally, ‘one generation after another’].”
God vetoes the plots and plans of international politics, and nothing can frustrate his plan; after setting forth God’s omniscience, the psalmist rues the futility of trust in human methods: “The Lord brings the counsel of the nations to nothing; He makes the plans of the peoples of no effect” (Psalm 33:10).
Human judgments and God’s plan stand in stark contrast. Human methods are finite, not absolute but uncertain and incomplete.
God’s decree is not conditional. Nothing ever placed God on the horns of a dilemma. He is not temporal or spatial, so he does not wait for contingencies before he makes a decision (Daniel 4:35). If any part of God’s plan would fail, then God would not be absolute or perfect. A perfect plan must stand in every respect. God provides even for the free choice and acts of people in his plan. Whatever God does or allows, he decrees to do or allow. Humans are, therefore, epistemologically under the sovereignty of God’s plan.
God knows everything perfectly. This includes concurrence with man’s freedom to go independent of him. This is his purpose for creation: the manifest glory of God. Everything about creation is about God; God is the source, sustainer, and goal of creation: “For of Him and through Him and to Him are all things, to whom be glory forever. Amen” (Romans 11:36).
God can express his communicable attributes to free agents who make free choices. God can love the creature because the creature has the choice to receive God’s love, making fellowship possible. The doctrine of providence means that God makes all events work out according to his plan. Concurrence is a corollary doctrine to providence. Concurrence means that human will has a range of freedom under God’s sovereignty. Freedom of will can operate only with God’s concurrence. God interpenetrates human will without stifling it so that he can preserve integrity of choice. Human beings can exercise our will within the sovereignty of God. Thus, God enables us epistemologically to make a transcendent choice, influencing us without intruding into our will.
Two extremes distort the doctrine of decree. On the one hand is fatalism, accepting everything as previously determined: there is no point to choice. On the other hand, some dethrone God from his superintendence over human will. This supposes humans have more choice than we do, and it excludes God’s superintendence over every thought and action. If we assume free will, there is certainty in God’s decree because God considered every contingency when he declared his decree. We sin only with God’s permission. God extends his concurrence to every choice of every person, even to the permission of evil. God works with every human choice to process his plan. Mankind epistemologically operates under God’s concurrence.
God varies his options for dealing with human volition: (1) he might keep us from doing what we would otherwise do; (2) he might use people, circum- stance, or inner compulsion to fulfill his purpose; (3) God might unilaterally annul our design; (4) he might make our wrath praise him; and (5) God might put no hindrances in our path. Through it all, there are no accidents in the plan of an absolute God. There is no chance or fate in God’s economy. He will guide his plan to its ultimate design. Therefore, we do not float on a sea of epistemological uncertainty, for God makes a way for us to come to himself.
God’s behavior toward people is not the result of change, chance, or uncertainty. Nothing we could or would do could change his purpose. God cannot change his attributes, but he can change the application of an attribute to meet the need of man. Nevertheless, his immutable, infinite, and absolute decree does not change. God moves the fulfillment of his plan toward his own glory. God’s ceaseless activity is toward that end. Creation carries God’s design.
Truth Fixed in the Absolute
Truth existed from eternity, so universal truth rests in the nature of God and not in the contingencies of creation. This fixes truth in the absolute. Biblically, the meaning of the universe rests in the intrinsic nature of God. Truth is intrinsic to the object of God himself. Reality is aimed at a definite end—God. God does not will truth because it is true. If this were true, he would be servant to truth. God wills truth because he is truth. God does not conform to a standard; he is the standard. He is a law unto himself! He is that because he is absolute and utterly independent. Creatures cannot be a law unto themselves because they are finite, limited, and dependent. God’s absoluteness means that nothing can affect him outside himself, for there is no sovereignty outside him. The essential problem for human epistemology is that it is finite and not absolute. God’s absoluteness secures absolutes for mankind. God’s truth is not unstable or relative. Humanity, of necessity, is epistemologically dependent upon God, if God is God.
God directs his will for its own sake because his will is the underpinning for reality. He is eternal, so his will is eternal. God’s will stems from his character; the purpose for humans and our ability to come to absolutes finds its source in who God is. From a biblical worldview, truth is not true because it is expedient or pragmatic. It is true because God is absolute truth, and not due to personal preference. Biblical truth inextricably connects with the essence of God.
God’s uncaused being determines the true end of creation. Because human beings are caused (i.e., a finite creature under the authority of the Creator), we cannot move beyond our finiteness. We have no way of knowing absolute truth other than through God’s revelation. Our finiteness restricts us to our limited world. We can measure truth only within certain limitations. When we violate God’s authority, we violate God’s essence and plan. The nature of negative volition toward God is a distortion of order and authority; it is no defect, but a violation of God’s will. Autonomy of humans makes finite self the center for authority, finds sufficiency in self, and moves independent of the sovereign, uncaused, autonomous God. Rejection of God’s authority in revelation is a problem of rebellion.
Absolute truth and norms come from an absolute God. Because God is absolute, truth has objective validity; truth is not relative to different people or different situations. Cosmos does not come from chaos. So long as human beings do not hold to the absolute God, we can fix no truth or value. Because God directs everything in the universe by a plan, all truth and standards rest within divine design. Only an infinite God can understand this; humans can understand it only in a fragmented sense. The human viewpoint is, therefore, distorted and incomplete. Only God can fully understand his plan. We know one thing for sure about this plan from biblical revelation—the purpose of this plan is for God’s own glory. The plan does not end in people or in a people-centered purpose. Truth rests on the foundation of the doctrine of God and his plan. Faith in the God of revelation molds viewpoint on life.
No Equivocation in Nature of Gospel Message
Why do we have the kind of salvation we do? Because we have the kind of God we do. The kind of salvation we have rests on an absolute God. The doctrine of salvation does not center on the problem of sin but on God’s absolute character. Sin contravenes God’s character of absolute righteousness. Only God can align us with his absolute righteousness because man by nature and action violated his perfect righteousness. We cannot attain absolute righteousness by operation bootstraps. How righteous does a person have to be in order to stand righteous before God? One would have to have the same righteousness that God has— perfect righteousness or, if you prefer, absolute righteousness. If God were to allow us into heaven without being as right in our standing as God is right, he would compromise his absolute character. However, no one is as right as God is right in himself by nature or action.
Paul employs the first three chapters in Romans to show that man is not as right as God is right: “As it is written: “There is none righteous [in reference to God’s righteousness], no, not one” (Romans 3:10).
Because no one is righteous as God is righteous, then none can go to heaven by being self-righteous. Paul then advances the idea that we can have absolute righteousness only if God gives it to us freely (Romans 3:21–5:1, especially 3:24). This righteousness originates in an absolute God and not in the person. God “justifies” (declares righteous) the believer into an absolute righteousness. The word “justify” is a causative verb meaning that God does the justifying or causing righteous standing before him. This is a forensic or judicial process whereby the believer has the veritable righteousness that God himself has (forensically). That is an absolute status with God forever.
The heart of the book of Romans defends the character of God (a theodicy). The first three chapters show how every person fell short of God’s character. The last half of chapter 3 through chapter 5 shows how God declares a believer right with an absolute God. Chapters 6 through 8 show the Christian how to live in the light of his justification. The ground for sanctification is justification. We can live the Christian life because we have absolute status with God forever. Chapters 9 through 11 defend God’s righteous purpose in dealing with Israel (a specific theodicy). The ensuing chapters of Romans show how to live out the truth of who God is.
If the Bible goes to such a great extent to establish a theodicy of God, why do postconservatives Christians minimize this great truth? They are afraid to be true to truth because they fear that postmoderns might deem them too narrow.
Man as the Gauge for Man
Truth based on the idea that man is the gauge for man can go no further than finite man in coming to reality. The existence of an absolute God establishes the absoluteness of truth by an objectively fixed order. So long as people reject the God of the Bible, they cannot have ultimate truth, ultimate meaning, or absolute norms. They can never reach an all-encompassing reference point (the ultimate metanarrative). What people ought to be depends on their location in God’s total scheme of things.
Ethics cannot escape truth. It is not possible to separate how we live from what we believe. When we define good with our own self as its end, we restrict good to mean what we can make of ourselves. This limits us to a natural view of truth. Truth founded in an absolute God produces transcendent meaning, God’s assessment on reality. This is a source of truth beyond the autonomous person, finite mind, or human reason.
All certainty rests on who and what God is.