A Certain Uncertainty
A Certain Uncertainty
As a teacher of philosophy, one of my responsibilities is to address the theme of skepticism, which is best understood as a series of doubts about the prospects for acquiring reliable knowledge. For purposes of everyday thought, skepticism can be characterized as the view that we as human beings, cannot be certain of this, that and the other thing. The eventual result of skepticism is relativism, which is the conclusion that no specific set of moral practices can claim superiority over any other. A person may claim to prefer one set of practices over another, but such a claim is essentially a feeling with no ground outside of itself. What feels right is right — for me, but perhaps not for you.
One of the difficulties with skepticism as a philosophical position is that it cuts the ground out from under itself. In my introductory philosophy class I sometimes dramatize the difficulty faced by skepticism by acting out the role of the skeptic. I raise my voice, turn red, pound on the lectern, and shout with great conviction: "Nothing is certain!" Then I stare at the students, and wait. Usually there are a few who spot the difficulty, for they ask, "Are you certain of that?" They understand the dilemma at the heart of skepticism: it represents a certain uncertainty.
The problem, you see, is that skepticism is self-refuting: if nothing is certain, we cannot be sure that the skeptic is correct when he claims that we can't be sure about anything. To listen to the skeptic is to reject what he is telling us. Dogmatism, which is the logical opposite of skepticism, does not encounter such a difficulty.
Some of the professors in our Reformed colleges are also telling us, of late, that this, that and the other thing is not certain anymore. The skeptic's dilemma came to mind for me recently when I was in conversation with one of them. The subject was the book of Genesis. My conversation partner was expounding the theme that the Bible is not sure — in effect, not clear — on this and that point which Reformed theology regards as important. And if the Bible is not sure what right do we have to be sure? He suggested that we should devote our attention to "witnessing" instead of quibbling over questions that can never be settled.
What struck me as I listened to him is that the one thing he was indeed certain of was his own uncertainty. And he projected that uncertainty beyond himself. The Bible was also uncertain, and so I should be uncertain — because the Bible is. That much was clear to him.
The question which philosophers like to address to the skeptic ("Are you really certain that nothing is certain?") needs to be raised in this situation as well. When we do so, we are asking a question of a different order. One of my cardinal distinctions in introductory philosophy is between first-order disagreements and second-order disagreements. The first-order variety are of such a nature that the two parties to the disagreement could agree on what could be done to settle the dispute between them. If the dispute concerns the approximate number of jellybeans in a huge goldfish bowl, both parties would agree that it would be a simple — if time-consuming — matter to empty the bowl and count the jellybeans one by one. The disagreement in this case is of the first-order variety. But in many cases two people who disagree cannot agree on a method for settling the issue. Such disagreements are philosophical in nature. Positivism is, among other things, the view that there are only first-order disagreements, and that all disagreements can and should be settled by empirical and scientific means. The questions that might appear to be left over are not real questions at all. The opponents of positivism, of course, maintain that there are also some legitimate disagreements which must be understood as belonging to a different category — the second-order, philosophical disagreements.
Is the book of Genesis clear and certain in what it teaches regarding creation and the origin of man? Or is it deliberately obscure and enigmatic? In this pair of questions we have a fine example of a second-order disagreement, which we might also call a hermeneutical difference. An individual may claim that he is not sure what Scripture means to teach via this or that verse: I also have some verses about which I am somewhat uncertain. Yet I do hope to make some progress eventually in my understanding of those verses, and I do believe that patient, careful Bible study enables us to improve our understanding of such verses. But to make these admissions is not to say that Scripture itself intends to communicate nothing specific in the verses we find difficult. Neither does my own uncertainty regarding a given verse entitle me to state that the person sitting next to me in the pew ought also to be uncertain regarding that verse — or that if he is certain, he ought to be ashamed of himself for being so dogmatic. Perhaps we need to say to those who are so certain about their uncertainty, "Speak for yourself, John."
One of the things that distresses me most about skepticism as applied to the Bible is that it is ultimately so pessimistic about careful study of the Bible. If "Scripture itself is not certain," as some of our leaders and teachers would now have us believe, what incentive is there to engage in careful Bible study? Have we not always maintained that the Bible is a carefully constructed book which repays careful study? Isn't it essentially a liberal approach to Scripture to suggest that the closer one looks, the vaguer it becomes, as if the ultimate author were not one Person but various humans (the Yahwist, the Elohist, and so forth) engaging each other in battle and expressing contrary viewpoints? And what happened to the doctrine of the perspicuity (clarity) of Scripture?
I believe that the difference between first- and second-order disagreements can help us understand our current predicament in the Christian Reformed Church and can shed some light on the nature of hermeneutical differences. We now have people serving in leading positions who claim personal adherence to cardinal doctrines but go on to say that one cannot be certain of the standing or authenticity of those doctrines. They were taught those doctrines in their childhood and have never surrendered them, but they are reluctant to see those doctrines "imposed" on a rising generation. Thus one might be personally convinced that the evolutionary account of human origins is mistaken, but does such personal conviction justify limiting the freedom of another believer or teacher or minister to hold a different view, or perhaps to declare the entire matter unsure? If the Bible "is not certain," do we have any right to be "doctrinaire" by imposing our ideas on those who listen to us as we teach or preach?
In this line of reasoning, a dangerous subjectivism has crept into our community. The views which one holds personally do not have a firm foundation. In effect a person who talks this way is saying: "I happen to have been taught this and that, when I was young and too immature to think for myself. But because the Bible itself is 'not certain' about the matter at hand, we should not limit others in what they teach and preach." Confession here becomes mere opinion. "This I (happen to) believe — but then, I could be wrong." In other words, I am certain that I should be somewhat uncertain.
There is a connection between the doctrine that the Scriptures speak clearly (which was stressed during the Reformation era) and the traditional Reformed practice of exercising discipline in the case of office-bearers who go astray. Without a doctrine of the clarity of Scripture, the discipline of office-bearers on doctrinal grounds cannot avoid seeming arbitrary. In time it will fall away altogether.
Is there any reason to be fearful on this score, any reason to suppose that we will hear more and more expressions of uncertainty regarding what the Scriptures actually teach? I can think of one, and it is probably the issue of the hour in our churches, namely, the misunderstanding of general revelation according to which the claims made by scientists are supposed to be viewed by us as grounded in God's "general revelation in creation." Once we take this step, we wind up with so much revelation, part of which seems contrary to what Scripture teaches (hence the traditional clash between the Bible and science), that Scripture gets branded unclear. The further we go in this direction, the less light we will acquire from Scripture and the more our certain uncertainties will multiply. Of this we can be sure.
Add new comment