Certainty of Theological Knowledge

The question about the certainty of knowledge is important most especially in our time. Our contemporary era has lost any sense of certainty especially the religious and theological kind. Our age is rightly qualified as an age of uncertainty. No one is really sure about something. Any claim to certainty is nothing but an illusion. In presenting the material gleaned from Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics, Iwould like to present the subject under five sub headings:

  • the difficulty of the question about the certainty of knowledge
  • the existence of theological certainty and its relationship to other kinds of certainty
  • the objective and the subjective aspects of theological certainty
  • an assessment of the three proposed sources for theological certainty
  • and the need for revelation to attain absolute religious certainty

The Difficulty of the Question

The question concerning the certainty of knowledge, including theological knowledge is a difficult question. Bertrand Russell identifies that this question is the most difficult contemporary question. He asks, “Is there any knowledge in the world which is so certain that no reasonable man could doubt it?” (1973) This question, which appears simple to an ordinary man, is actually an enigma that puzzles numerous theologians and philosophers. Russell continues his assessment about this inquiry that such question, “which at first sight might not seem difficult, is really one of the most difficult that can be asked” (ibid.). Christianity, which claims to communicate the knowledge of God to man cannot escape confronting this kind of question. Christianity has its own theory of knowledge. Any theory of knowledge faces the question of certainty. Bahnsen in quoting another source points out “All important attempts at establishing a theory of knowledge grow out of the problem concerning the certainty of human knowledge”(1976).

Existence of Theological Certainty

Modernism assumes the superiority of science over religion in general and Christianity in particular in answering this inquiry about certainty of knowledge. However, in view of numerous recent developments in the manner human thinks, even scientific certainty is now being questioned. But still many would cling to the fact that science is a sure way to arrive at the certainty of knowledge. Granting this fact, two questions are proper at this point: Does another kind of certainty provided by religion in general and Christianity in particular aside from scientific certainty exist? What would happen if religious and theological certainty surrenders to scientific certainty? Our answer to the first question is affirmative. That is the goal of our study – to show that theological certainty exists! Bavinck answers the second question that once such thing happens, then, religion, Christianity, and theology loose their independence and become subordinate to other sciences (76).

The existence of theological certainty necessitates for the delineation of its uniqueness and connections to other types of certainty. Bavinck upholds that various “kinds and degrees of certainty” exist (77). He classifies at least five kindsof certainty. These are empirical, intuitive, rational, theological, and certainty based on someone’s credibility. Empirical certainty is a kind of certainty acquired by personal observation using the five senses. This is the certainty offered by science. Intuitive certainty is a kind of certainty, “which, in virtue of the peculiar organization of our mind, arises automatically and spontaneously without any compulsion and prior to all rational reflection”(ibid.). Examples of this are our acceptance that “a straight line is the shortest distance between two points, . . . that the laws of logic are reliable, that there is a difference between true and false, good and evil, right and wrong, beautiful and ugly, and so forth” (ibid.). These different kinds of certainty according to Bavinck have their respective distinctive from each other. He states “The certainty obtainable in mathematical science differs from that in natural science, and the latter again differs from that in history, morality, law, philosophy, and so forth” (ibid.). Concerning religious and theological certainty, Bavinck also affirms their distinctive quality. He continues, “Since religion is an independent phenomenon in a class by itself, we may expect that the certainty attainable in this area has a character of its own and is acquired in a way peculiar to it” (ibid.). Empirical certainty is not applicable to religion for the former deals with visible reality whereas the latter includes even the invisible reality. Rational certainty too is excluded for religion is innate to all human beings, and thereby proving the obvious is futile.

The Objective and the Subjective Aspects 

Objectivity and subjectivity of knowledge is another issue that cannot be avoided in the discussion about the certainty of knowledge. Bavinck claims, “Christianity meets these criteria” (ibid.). The objective aspect of Christianity is evident in its claim “that God reveals himself in nature and history” and ultimately in Christ (ibid.). Christianity “relates itself to the entire world and to all of history and nevertheless claims a distinct place for itself in this setting” (77-78). The subjective aspect of Christianity is clear in its relationship “with humanity, which was created in the image of God and even in its fallen state cannot forget or erase its divine origin, nature, and destiny” (78). Moreover, Christianity affirms the Pauline witness in saying that only those with the Spirit of God could understand the things of God (1 Cor.2:14). Regeneration therefore is essential to understand the revelation of God. John confirms this truth by saying that only those who decided to do the will of God will recognize that Jesus’ teaching is indeed from God (John 7:17).

An Assessment

Bavinck affirms the three possible sources for dogmatics and thereby for theological certainty. These are the“Scripture, the church, and the Christian consciousness” (78). Each of them has its proper place. However, in the search for theological certainty, history shows the crossing of boundaries laid on them. The Reformation is to be commended for its return to the priority of the “Holy Scripture and, along with the ancient Christian church, acknowledged it as the sole foundation of theology” (ibid.). Rome on the other hand, elevated the tradition of the church “to a level above Scripture, while mystics and rationalists alike draw the content of dogmatics from the religious subject” (ibid.). Bavinck laments about the attitude of numerous people towards authority in religion. He observed in his time that religious authority “has totally faded from view” and had been replaced by another kind of authority rooted in “subjective religion,” which made “the religious consciousness (conscience, feeling, reason, or whatever one wants to call it)” to be “the source and standard of religious ideas” (ibid.). Bavinck points out that “since Schleiermacher the whole of theology has changed, among orthodox as well as modern theologians, into a theology of consciousness” (ibid.). Bavinck names numerous theologians who uphold the priority of religious consciousness. For instance, he claims that theologians like Scholten, Schweizer, Biedermann, and Lipsius though working still “on the basis of ecclesiastical formulations but the final outcome is their personal faith” (ibid). He also cites thinkers like Martensen, Dorner, Hofmann, Philippi, and Frank who took “their point of departure” in theological formulation “in the consciousness of the believer” (79). Bavinck also quotes Schian who argues “that dogmatics had to take much greater account of human individuality for every dogmatician is subjective and can only articulate his own faith” (ibid.).

Response to the place of religious consciousness in theological formulation varies. One response is negation and sees nothing in it but chaos. Bavinck mentions Doedes as one who expressed this sentiment in the latter’s Encyclopaedia of Christian Theology. Doedes elaborated “the boundless confusion prevalent in dogmatics in light of its personal character” (ibid.). Bavinck response to the role of religious consciousness in theological formulation is one of both affirmation and negation. He accepts the fact that theological formulation is really personal. He says that “it bears as in the case of all scholarship the stamp of their authors” and it is foolish to refuse the fact that a theologian can never break away from the influence of his individuality (ibid). On the other hand, his negation centers on his emphasis about the distinction between individual influence and the freedom from all objective foundation. He expressed the danger that would result from the failure of recognizing this distinction by saying:

The acceptance of individual influence in dogmatics is entirely different from the notion that the dogmatician is free from all objective ties. Like every science, dogmatics is bound to its object and has its own source and norm. It is true that all dogmaticians will view and reproduce that object in their own way and their own language. However, if they look at and describe the same object, personal differences will contribute to revealing the richness of thought inherent in dogmatics.The personal character of dogmatics is not equivalent with the view that the content of faith does not matter. It is the will of God that we should love him also with the mind and think of him in a manner worthy of him. To that end he gave his revelation, the revelation to which dogmatics is absolutely bound, just every other science is bound to the object it studies. If dogmatics should cease to recognize such a revelation, then what is left, . . . is no more than the subjective and hence individual knowledge . . . But that would also be the end of dogmatics and of the Christian faith (79-80).

It is therefore indefensible to deny the existence of the objective aspect of revelation and proceeds to religious consciousness as its replacement. If such case is granted, it is not only that claims of Christianity are baseless but Doedes’ analysis of the endless chaos in theology is correct. Consciousness theology can never replace objective revelation in providing theological certainty for its nature contradicts a sound theory of knowledge. Again, Bavink helps us to see the impotence of consciousness theology in attempting this impossible task. Critiquing consciousness theology, Bavinck states:

Consciousness theology, which rejects Scripture and confession as sources of knowledge and seeks to derive all religious truth from the subject, is first of all in conflict with a sound theory of knowledge. We are products of our environment also in the area of religion. We receive our religious ideas and impressions from those who raise and nurture us, and we remain at all times bound to the circle in which we live. . . . Just as physically we are bound to nature and must receive food and drink, shelter and clothing from it, so psychically – in the arts, sciences, religion and morality – we are dependent on the world outside of us. Feeling is specially unfit to serve as the epistemic source of religious truth, for feeling is never a prior thing but always something, which follows later. Feeling only reacts to what strikes it and then yields a sensation of that which is pleasant or unpleasant, agreeable or disagreeable” (80).

The Need for Revelation

Based on the foregoing argument, it is therefore on the basis of revelation that an objective foundation of theological certainty is achieved. Christianity upholds this doctrine of revelation. Bavinck confidently declares that the way to theological certainty is attained only on this basis:

Since humanity’s entire weal and woe depends on religion, only that certainty will do that is absolute and obtainable by all, even the simplest of people. If religion is to be what it is said to be, viz., the service of God, the love of God with all one’s mind, heart, and strength, then it must be grounded in revelation, in a word from God that comes with his authority. Divine authority is the foundation of religion and therefore the source and basis of theology as well (77).

The doctrine of revelation is foundational to Christianity, to the church, and to the theologian. Without this foundation, Christianity would cease to exist and the quest for theological certainty is indeed an illusion. However, with revelation as the objective foundation of knowledge, the church has all the right to be confident that theological certainty is attainable.

Source: Reformed Dogmatics by Herman Bavinck


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