Knowledge, Certainty, Conviction and Doubt - Epistemology in Christianity

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Epistemology always rears its head on religious forums on which I've participated over the years. Epistemology is the branch of philosophy dealing with knowledge - what knowledge is and what it means to claim we "know" something.

Many times over the years I've been told that I say things that "don't sound very Christian." I keep responding, "This is really a matter of our differing epistemologies." Hence this blog entry.

To claim to have knowledge, we must have some legitimate basis for the claim. A legitimate basis is called justification or warrant. (As I'll discuss, knowledge requires more than mere justification, but it does require this. I can have justification for believing something that is, in fact, false. I am justified in believing it's 10:45 AM, but in fact the clock on which I always rely stopped 30 minutes ago and it's actually 11:15.)

The traditional formulation in philosophy is, KNOWLEDGE = JUSTIFIED TRUE BELIEF. With metaphysical belief systems like Christianity, it's the "TRUE" requirement that's the problem. As Christians, I believe, we have JUSTIFIED CONVICTIONS, not knowledge.

Famed Christian epistemologist Alvin Plantinga – one of the most celebrated philosophers of the twentieth century – says Christians can claim to have justification for their beliefs without any evidence whatsoever. He says we can claim to have justification on the basis of our internal sensus divinitatis (sense of the divine) and the internal witness of the Holy Spirit.

However, Plantinga agrees this doesn't mean our Christian beliefs are true, merely that they aren't irrational. "Justified" basically means "not irrational." It doesn't mean "true." (One problem I see with Plantinga's thinking is that a Hindu might equally claim a sensus divinitatis that Hinduism is true – or an atheist might even claim an internal sensus non-divinitatis!)

How do we determine if Christianity is true - or can we? Can we ever claim knowledge?

I believe there are threshold truth questions: Is materialism true? If it is, there is no god – materialism excludes anything supernatural. If materialism isn't true, there may be a god of some sort. (Not all atheism is materialistic - many atheists believe in life after death and some sort of spiritual realm.)

If we decide materialism isn't true, which ism is then most likely to be true - non-materialistic atheism, deism or theism? If we decide it's theism, which species of theism? (Christianity, of course, is a species of theism.)

These are all ultimate metaphysical questions. As a finite human being, I'm like a goldfish in a bowl trying to explain the reality outside the room in which the bowl is located. I can never really know to a 100% objective certainty whether materialism is true or false, deism or theism is true or false, or Christianity is true or false. I can only reach a level of conviction on these matters.

On each of these matters, I believe we reach a level of conviction through experience, observation, study, reflection and intuition. At some point, we reach a level of conviction that materialism is false, theism is true, and Christianity is likewise true. We have a rational, well-justified, defensible set of convictions. The more diligent our quest, the more solid our convictions are likely to be.

(Obviously, few people address these matters in a tidy order. It's usually more of a jumbled mess, but we do reach convictions on the critical questions.)

Christianity, of course, also includes the notion of revelation by God - in the Bible, in the person of Jesus, in the indwelling of the Spirit. However, I only believe and experience these things as revelations by God after I've reached a conviction that Christianity is true. An atheist might explain away my supposed revelations as the product of mental illness, delusion, wishful thinking or misperception. These revelations may strongly reinforce my conviction to the point where I can claim an "inner knowing" that Christianity is true, but a Jew, Muslim or Hindu can make the same sorts of claims and so we're really still talking about a very strong conviction rather than knowledge.

This being the case, I never claim more for my Christian beliefs than I rationally can. I don't play the "pretend certainty" game, even though I've had a startling born-again experience (as described in my first blog entry), several other paranormal experiences, and several complex life events I can only attribute to the hand of God. Convincing as they were to me, they all might be explained in other ways - including defects in my own thinking and perceptions. (Significantly, even Plantinga admits his epistemology only works with "properly functioning" mental faculties.)

Honesty compels me to admit that, remote as the possibility may seem to me, materialistic atheism, Buddhism or Hinduism might be true. Lots of very intelligent people who have engaged in diligent quests believe these things.

Honesty also compels me to admit that my understanding of Christianity might be only 73% or 48% true. Any branch of Orthodoxy, Catholicism or Protestantism likewise might be only partially true - or even far off-base.

I thus don't claim more for my Christian beliefs than strong conviction. I try to live as though they were true while accepting they might not be. I examine and question them continually, both because it's enjoyable and because my goal is to get as close to Ultimate Truth as I can in this lifetime. I don't think there is anything irreligious or un-Christian about this.

However, many Christians over the years have been offended – VERY offended – by my thinking. They KNOW Christianity is true, dadgum it, and my mere convictions are enough for them to call into question whether I'm a Christian at all.

Many Christians, like other believers and even atheists, were indoctrinated into their beliefs as children. Many Christians, like other believers and even atheists, hold their beliefs mostly on the basis of parental influence and cultural conditioning. Others went directly to Christianity as the result of a single mystical experience of some sort. Perhaps they simply heard the Gospel and had an "A-ha!" moment inspired by the Holy Spirit (as I describe in my own testimony!).

Many of these folks have never examined or questioned their beliefs. This doesn't mean they "aren't real Christians" or are somehow "lesser Christians." Many do claim "knowledge" or "certainty" they don't really have - not in any epistemic sense anyway - because they're afraid to confront what they actually do believe and why. This pretend certainty serves as something like a security blanket. That's fine - when they question my Christianity, I realize it's mostly just a defense mechanism.

To be clear, it's possible to be a perfectly good Christian with no understanding beyond Vacation Bible School or bumper sticker theology ("God said it, I believe it, that settles it"). No one – certainly not me – is challenging the reality of this sort of faith. The challenge is really in the opposite direction. Those who hold this sort of faith question believers like me. Despite all the Bible says about wisdom and knowledge, there is a deep vein of anti-intellectualism.

"Simply believing" is seen as a virtue. "Thinking about and questioning things" is seen as darkly suspicious and perhaps even an insult to God. (In my opinion, this often results in Bibliolatry - worship of the Bible as though it were some fourth member of the Trinity.)

I do have two concerns with this sort of faith: (1) Because it's an unexamined faith, it's prone to collapse (not always, of course) in the face of life's challenges, and (2) those who hold this sort of faith have difficulty defending it and may not fare well when challenged by nonbelievers – which is why so many young believers lose their faith when they enter secular colleges.

I recently finished the massive (1400-page) Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview by preeminent Christian philosophers J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig. Probably 85% has nothing directly to do with Christianity. The "philosophical foundations" are the foundations for any worldview, including atheism. They concern issues, largely ones of epistemology, that must be confronted to reach any set of convictions on ultimate metaphysical issues such as the existence of God or the truth of Christianity.

The basic quest is what Augustine called "faith seeking understanding." There is a reason Christian philosophers interact with non-Christian ones, Christian apologists attempt to defend the faith with reasoned arguments, and every branch of Christianity is swarming with theologians and scholars. There is a reason that Paul in Romans and the author of Hebrews attempted to explain the faith in an organized way.

The other knee-jerk response I tend to get is that honest questions and doubts are somehow un-Christian, not worthy of a "real" Christian. Sorry, but literally every mature Christian recognizes that questions and doubts are inherent in faith.

This is from Josh McDowell, about as solid an evangelical as there is (

Do “real” Christians have the freedom to doubt the existence of God, Jesus, and the truths of the Bible? Or should we feel guilty when our faith wobbles like Jell-O? Notes Paul Tillich, “Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith.”
God knows that we will have questions and doubts because we can’t see the big picture like He does. That’s why He repeatedly tells us, in His Word, to trust and chill (“Do NOT fear!”). But God also tells us to pursue the development of our faith. Doubt is a great motivator to fuel this pursuit.
God is not offended by our doubt. God designed us to seek truth, that we might grow in our knowledge of Him. So why do we feel that it’s bad, if not wrong, to question God, the Bible, and even our particular church’s stance on an issue?

Here is an excellent little Orthodox meditation entitled "Doubt is not unbelief," Doubt Is Not Unbelief - Orthodox Road:

Doubt is not the opposite of faith, but rather the vehicle by which we are challenged to go deeper into the Mystery that is true faith. Nothing keeps we true believers from struggling with uncertainty, for it is this very uncertainty that keeps us from complacency.

Lastly, this is from an article in Christianity Today entitled "Jesus was the God-Man, Not the God-Superman,"

What Jesus brought with him into our world was his godness, which included a deep trust and faith in his Father; part of what he received from us in his humanness was our ability to doubt—and doubt he did.
Doubt is a real part of human experience. And Jesus was so committed to entering humanity that he dared to enter human doubt as well.

Recognizing that we hold convictions, not knowledge or certainty … seeking always to deepen these convictions through study, reflection, prayer and communion … and accepting the inevitable questions and doubts – this to me is the path to a mature Christianity.
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