One of the most common objections made to the absolute claims of Christianity is that Christians are arrogant. Christians are arrogant to claim that they are right; arrogant to claim others are wrong; arrogant to claim that truth can be known. Unfortunately, in the midst of such accusations, no one bothers to ask which definition of humility is being used. Over the years, the definition of humility has undergone a gradual but nonetheless profound change. Especially in the intellectual community. In the modern day, humility has basically become synonymous with another word: uncertainty. To be uncertain is to be humble. To be certain is to be arrogant. Thus, the cardinal sin in the intellectual world is to claim to know anything for sure.
Of course, this shift presents a real problem for Christianity. Christians believe that God has revealed himself clearly in his Word. Thus, when it comes to key historical questions (Who was Jesus? What did he say? What did he do?) or key theological questions (Who is God? What is Heaven? How does one get there?), Christians believe they have a basis on which they can claim certainty: God’s revelation. Indeed, to claim we don’t know the truth about such matters would be to deny God, and to deny his Word. (This doesn’t mean, of course, that Christians are certain about everything; but there can be certainty about these basic Christian truths).
Thus, for Christians, humility and uncertainty are not synonymous. One can be certain and humble at the same time. How? For this simple reason: Christians believe that they understand truth only because God has revealed it to them (1 Cor 1:26-30). In other words, Christians are humble because their understanding of truth is not based on their own intelligence, their own research, their own acumen. Rather, it is 100% dependent on the grace of God. Christian knowledge is a dependent knowledge. And that leads to humility (1 Cor 1:31). This obviously doesn’t mean all Christians are personally humble. But, it does mean they should be, and have adequate grounds to be.
Although Christians have a basis on which they can be humble and certain at the same time, that is not necessarily the case with other worldviews. Take the atheist for instance. He is quite certain of a great many things (contrary to his claim that one cannot be certain of anything). He is certain either that God does not exist (hard atheism), or certain that one cannot know whether God exists (soft atheism). And, in his critique of Christianity, he is quite certain that Christians are mistaken in their claims to be certain. In essence, the atheist is claiming, “I know enough about the world to know that a person cannot possibly have a basis for certainty.” That in itself is a pretty dogmatic claim.
But, on what is the atheist basing these far reaching claims about the universe? His own finite, fallen, human mind. He has access only to his own limited, knowledge. So, now we should ask the question again: Who is being arrogant? The Christian or the atheist? Both claim certainty on a great many transcendental issues. But one does so while claiming to be dependent on the person who would know such things (G0d), and the other does so dependent on only themselves. If either position is a posture of arrogance, it would not be the Christian one.
No doubt, the atheist would object to this line of reasoning on the grounds that he rejects the Bible as divine revelation. But, this misses the point entirely. The issue is not whether he is convinced of the Bible’s truth, but rather the question is which worldview, the Christian’s or the atheist’s, has a rational basis for claiming certainty about transcendental matters. Only the Christian has such a basis. And since his knowledge of such things is dependent on divine grace, he can be humble and certain at the same time.
For more on 1 Corinthians 1:18-31 and the issue of Christian knowledge, see my recent sermon.
I’m not sure I would agree that “humility” has come to mean “uncertainty” among the critics of faith. What I think they’d like to see is simply more of a willingness to admit that “certainty” doesn’t always imply “correctness”. In other words, when the Christian makes a truth claim with absolute certainty and someone asks, “Well, could you be wrong?”, to answer “No” is considered arrogant.
I know I’ve had situations like this with my wife, albeit over things infinitely more trivial than the truth of the Gospel. For instance, once we disagreed over which actor played a certain part in a movie we’d both seen several years ago. I was absolutely certain it was A and she was absolutely certain it was B. Neither of us was willing to admit that we might possibly be wrong; that’s how certain we each were. Obviously, though, only one of us was correct.
So, as a believer, when I’m asked, “Could you be wrong?” I answer “Yes”. Not because I’m uncertain, but because I acknowledge the limits of certainty. That said, the believer should follow up that admission by pointing out that he or she is “more certain” about the truth of Christianity than about anything else in life.
Michael Kruger says
Thanks JPH. Appreciate your comments. I agree that certainty does not eliminate the possibility that someone is wrong. But that possibility does not require the belief that certainty cannot be attainable. Just because Christians could be wrong does not mean there are good grounds for thinking they are wrong. The two are not the same.