On ‘Doubt, Faith & Certainty’ by Prof. Anthony Thiselton

This is a short introduction by Professor Anthony Thiselton to his book ‘Doubt, Faith & Certainty’ taken from EerdWord, the official blog of Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

The exquisite word ‘bumptiousness‘ makes a rare but welcome appearance!

Anthony-ThiseltonI wrote this book because there is a deep pastoral and practical need for it. Too many people blame themselves for any kind of personal doubt whatever, when not all doubts in every situation are necessarily wrong. Absence of any doubt often excludes genuine self-examination and thinking. Such people also tend to think of faith, like doubt, as one particular thing, rather than what faith is, namely a variety of different things. There are also many kinds of certainty, including psychological and objective certainty. Moreover different areas of life may promote different kinds of certainty, whether in medicine, law, or Christian faith.

These pastoral needs, however, cannot be adequately addressed without careful academic study. This necessitates a careful understanding of the varied biblical, theological, philosophical, and popular meanings of all three separate terms. Further, it is impossible to discuss doubt, faith, and certainty without careful philosophical inquiry into how these terms have been, and still are, used in philosophical debate. From the ancient Greek and Renaissance sceptics, through Descartes and Locke, to sophisticated discussions in Wittgenstein, Plantinga, and others, what faith, reason, and certainty consist in cannot be taken for granted.

If any single thesis arises from this book, it is that none of these three key terms has any one meaning or use, but each frequently depends on a variety of different uses in different contexts. Many misunderstandings and misleading arguments can be avoided if we take into account the differing contexts of each varied meaning. In some situations, we rightly understand doubt as absence of firm faith. For example, Jesus rebuked the disciples, “You of little faith, why did you doubt”? (Matthew 4:31). In very different situations, complete absence of doubt may indicate not so much firm faith, as unwillingness to undertake critical self-examination. This can lead in practice to arrogance, cock-sureness, or even bumptiousness. My children were temporarily put off by a pastor who never could admit doubt about anything whatever. Pastoral guidance from someone who has never experienced doubt can seem brittle and unreal. Probably we all know of someone who fell away from an extremely firm faith to a surprising degree of scepticism. In 2011 John Suk wrote a moving account of the damage done to his personal faith by consistent refusals to entertain any kind of doubt (Not Sure: A Pastor’s Journey from Faith to Doubt).

Nevertheless, the meaning of doubt is immensely sensitive. At the opposite end of the spectrum, many liberals seem to take pride in doubt. Some tend to see a pastor’s main job (certainly a theologian’s) as simply to formulate critical questions, rather than to establish firm foundations for faith and reason in which we may trust. But James condemns “double mindedness” (James 1:16; 4:8). Jesus addressed Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (John 20:29). Yet Thomas’ journey into faith was also a thoughtful questioning of adequate evidence. In secular philosophy Socrates believed that doubt was usually a starting point for arriving at valid knowledge, rather than mere opinion. We simply cannot generalize about doubt.

Faith also clearly varies in meaning. Every Christian believer is justified by faith, where this especially means an acceptance and appropriation of the grace of God through Christ. In the Old Testament Abraham is regarded as a major model of faith. Paul writes, “I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers . . . nothing else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39). Yet in my more detailed discussion of faith in this book I have elaborated thirteen distinct meanings of faith in the biblical writings. We may only think of the supposed contradiction between Paul and James in the New Testament, which is not at all a contradiction once we understand the different contexts, to see the importance of grasping the different meanings of faith.

Certainty also invites a careful a set of distinctions. Even in everyday life, there is a world of difference between seeking “certainty” in clinical medicine, in the sciences, in legal disputes, and in Christian theology. Heisenberg, Dirac, and most recently Polkinghorne have shown how the world of quantum physics has replaced a quest for certainty with acceptance of probabilities. The complex observations by Wittgenstein in his book On Certainty, together with “truth” only by definition in Descartes, and Locke’s critique of psychological certainty (i.e. simply intensity of conviction), must be examined. These bring us finally to seek to unravel issues about “certainty” in Plantinga, and in theology to compare the role of eschatological certainty and the work of the Holy Spirit in epistemology,


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Anthony C. Thiselton is professor emeritus of Christian theology at the University of Nottingham, England. His many other books include A Shorter Guide to the Holy SpiritSystematic Theology, and Life after Death: A New Approach to the Last Things.

2 thoughts on “On ‘Doubt, Faith & Certainty’ by Prof. Anthony Thiselton

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  1. I do understand why people can struggle with doubt (about God and metaphysical reality in general), I just tend not to. Sometimes the thought will pop into my head, ‘What if there is no God or Jesus or what have you.’ I tend to view these thoughts with a great deal of scepticism, mainly because I’m aware that holding onto belief is very hard in the socioeconomic of the modern West, and even when it is adhered to, it is subsumed into just another “lifestyle” choice. I just remind myself that nothing need exist, but it does, so, why?
    My main problem isn’t faith as a mental activity or orientation of the mind/heart, but my actions which don’t always tally with my beliefs. Too often I behave as though there is no God, and this, more than the behaviour itself, bothers me no end. Is my belief just a surface affair, masking a more fundamental indifference or atheism?

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