Tag Archive: Certainty

A Few Thoughts on People Who Say, “Praise God, I Have Never Changed my Beliefs”

i shall not me moved psalm 16One common refrain often heard in some corners of the Evangelical world goes something like this: Praise God, I have NEVER changed my beliefs. I am seventy years old and I still have the exact same beliefs I had at age twenty — fifty years ago. There is this idea floating on the backwaters of Evangelicalism that posits that change is bad, or even sinful. Pastors and congregants pride themselves in having held the one true faith their entire life, that their Christology, soteriology, ecclesiology, eschatology, rheumatology, and hamartiology is the same yesterday, today, and forever. These theological purists will also say that their behavior hasn’t changed either. The sins they were against in the 1970s are the same sins they oppose today. These “just like a tree planted by the waters, I shall not be moved” Christians believe that they love what God loves and hate what God hates; that their interpretations of the sixty-six books of the inspired, inerrant, infallible Christian Bible align closely with God’s mind; that thanks to the Holy Spirit living inside of them as their teacher and guide, they are spiritually mature people who feast on the meat of the Word of God, not the pablum most Christians eat. (1 Corinthians 3:1-3 and Hebrews 5:11-13)

In most spheres of life, learning new things and discarding old beliefs, practices, and ideas is desired and expected. Not in Evangelicalism. Evangelicals cherish certainty. The Apostle Paul told young Timothy the preacher in 2 Timothy 1:12, KNOW in whom I have believed. Pastors challenge congregants to have a know-so salvation. Is it any wonder then, that because a premium is placed on certainty it breeds arrogance and leads to people to think that their beliefs have never changed? Bruce, are Evangelicals who think this way glorying in ignorance? Yes, and the Bible gives them cover for their ignorance in Acts 4:13:

Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were unlearned and ignorant men, they marvelled; and they took knowledge of them, that they had been with Jesus.

For the Bible-believing Evangelicals, being considered unlearned and ignorant by the “world’ is a badge of honor.  What Evangelicals doesn’t want it said of them, they had been with Jesus?

Paul warns the church at Colossae in Colossians 2:8:

Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.

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Evangelicals are frequently warned by their pastors to beware of the philosophies, traditions, and rudiments of the world. Better to be ignorant and know Jesus than to have a PhD and go to hell. A quick survey of Evangelicalism reveals all sorts of beliefs that lie deeply rooted in certainty-driven ignorance. Creationism, King James-Onlyism, Rapturism, and Landmarkism, to name a few, require adherents to deliberately and resolutely tune out any data that contradicts their beliefs. Science tells us that creationism is false. Evangelical solution? Ignore science and by faith believe that what the Bible says in Genesis 1-3 is literally true. The same goes for King James-Onlyism, Rapturism, and Landmarkism. When Evangelicals holding these beliefs find themselves intellectually challenged, they run to the safety of faith, ignoring anything that shows their theological and historical beliefs are false. Charismatics and Pentecostals do the same. They KNOW that God works miracles, baptizes people in the Holy Ghost, and gives spirit-filled people the ability to do mighty works in Jesus’ name, including speaking in tongues. Believing that their interpretations of certain passages of the Bible is infallibly correct, these swing-from-the-chandelier Christians reject anything that suggests otherwise.

More than a few Evangelicals will object to what I have written here. While they will admit that there’s a lot of ignorance in Evangelical churches, their churches and pastors value intellectual pursuit, saying that learning is a lifelong process. While this sounds good, when these claims are more closely examined, what is often found is a pseudo-intellectualism. While these intellectual “giants” of the Evangelical faith do indeed read books and spend significant amounts of time studying — I know I did for most of the years I spent in the ministry — it is WHAT they read and study that is problematic. True intellectual inquiry requires following the path wherever it leads, leaving no stone unturned. Such inquiry requires people to meet truth head on, not retreating or attempting to veer around. As a former Evangelical pastor and now an atheist, I challenge Christians to carefully examine what they say they believe. Surely, any belief worth having can withstand scrutiny and investigation, right? Evidently not. When Evangelicals have doubts or find their beliefs challenged, what do they do? Many of them run to their pastors for encouragement and support. Keeping asses in the pews is crucial — no asses, no offerings — so when congregants come to them with questions and doubts, these men of God will often recommend for reading “safe” books written by Christian apologists or approved Christian authors. Some pastors, especially those who pride themselves in having three books in their library — Bible, concordance, and dictionary — will tell doubters to, by faith, cling to Jesus, read the Bible, and pray, reminding them that DOUBT is caused by Satan and his emissaries in the world.

Evangelicals who pride themselves in being “widely” read — commonly found among Evangelical Calvinists — do spend significant time studying and reading. It is what they read that is the problem. While these Evangelicals will, at times, venture beyond the safe confines of the Evangelical bubble, most of their reading and study is of authors considered orthodox. In other words, they only read books that reinforce their presently-held beliefs. While there is some lateral movement in Evangelicalism — Arminians becoming Calvinists, Baptists becoming Charismatics, Premillennialists becoming Amillennialists, Non-cessationists becoming Cessationists, and rigid, far-right wing Fundamentalist Baptists becoming generic Evangelicals — most believers continue to hold on to the peculiar beliefs of their tribe, sect, or church. Their theological pursuits rarely, if ever, take them beyond the safety of their current beliefs and practices. Rare are Evangelicals who are willing to risk losing their faith in their search for truth.

Is it any wonder, then, that a premium is placed on being steadfast in the faith once delivered to the saints?  Revered are men and women whose theological roots run deep and who can always give an answer about the hope that lies within them. As an Evangelical pastor, I learned early that congregants wanted certainty. They wanted a pastor who firmly stood on the Word of God and had unmovable, unshakeable faith. If I had questions and doubts about this or that belief, church members didn’t want to hear about it. Tell us the unvarnished truth, Pastor Bruce. The reason, of course, for such desires is that many Evangelical church members have a borrowed belief system; that what their pastor believes is what they believe. Years ago, my theology shifted from the Baptist theology of the IFB church movement to Calvinism. As I began preaching expositionally and teaching congregants what Calvinists call the doctrines of grace, I was shocked by how few church members had a problem with the seismic changes in my theology and preaching. Looking back on this now, I have concluded that what mattered to members was having a sense of community, having a church family to call home. Most of them were never going to read the books I did or spend hours a day studying the Bible. Unlike their pastor, who had a job where he was actually paid to read and study, they had secular jobs that demanded their time and attention. They also had families to care for. What congregants wanted most of all was assurance that they were on the right path; that what they believed squared with the Bible. They were willing to trust that what I said was true. After all, I was the man God had chosen to be their pastor. Surely God and his man had their best interests at heart, right?

I pity and feel sorry for Evangelicals who pride themselves in never changing their beliefs. Many Evangelicals are just like people who never travel far from home. They have never experienced the rich diversity that lies beyond their doorstep. Years ago, during my Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) days, a large group new people showed up one Sunday to attend our morning service. I thought, at first, which nearby IFB church had a split? This group was not, however, disgruntled Baptists. They were Methodists. Once a year their church cancelled a Sunday service so attendees could visit a different church. Their pastor believed it was good for church members to be exposed to the heterogeneity found in Christianity. I thought, what an odd and dangerous thing to do — exposing members to potentially heretical teaching. Of course, I was glad they came to Somerset Baptist Church — The Fastest Growing Church in Perry County. God brought them my way so I could teach them the TRUTHWhy, some of these Methodists probably aren’t even saved, I thought at the time. If they were really, really, really saved, they wouldn’t be members of a liberal church.  Later in life, I came to see how wise the Methodist pastor was; that attending a wide spectrum of churches is a cure for arrogant, self-assured Fundamentalism. The next-to-last church I pastored (for seven years) — Our Father’s House, West Unity, Ohio — used an advertising slogan that stated, The Church Where the Only Label That Matters is Christian.  As pastor, I was willing to embrace all those who claimed the name Christian — Baptists, Catholics, Episcopalians, Methodists, and Pentecostals, to name a few. The catholicity of Christianity was more important to me than theological orthodoxy.

I slowly came to realize that I didn’t know as much as I thought I did; that my theological underpinnings were just one of many ways of interpreting the Bible. I finally learned that I wasn’t infallible, and neither was the Bible. I suppose, had my experiences been different, my changed understanding of Christianity and faith might have led to mainline Christianity, liberalism, or Universalism. Instead, questions and doubts pushed me down the slippery slope Evangelical preachers warn about. Better to rest in certainty of belief and practice than end up like Bruce Gerencser, Evangelical pastors warn. Look at what happened to him! He is now, of all things, a God-hating, sin-loving atheist.  I may, indeed, be a cautionary tale, but I am here to tell readers that a wild, woolly, wonderful world awaits those who will abandon certainty of belief and allow intellectual inquiry to lead the way. Life becomes about the journey instead of the destination. Will you join me? (Please read Gone but Not Forgotten: 22 Years Later San Antonio Calvinists Still Preaching Against Bruce Gerencser and Ralph Wingate Jr Uses Me as a Sermon Illustration)

Christianity and Certainty

guest-post

Guest Post by Exrelayman

It seems to me that there are three approaches to certainty. These would be, science, philosophy, and faith. I will delineate what I mean by these terms and discuss their relative merits and weaknesses. I recognize that my use of these terms may not accurately reflect how someone else thinks about them, but I have tried to think clearly. How well I have succeeded in this I leave to the reader.

Faith basically means accepting that which cannot be investigated, that which you do not choose to investigate, or that which has been investigated with results contrary to the proposition accepted by faith. The strength of faith is that it requires little work to attain. You simply accept what you have been told, or accept that your own thinking about the matter is sufficient and true. A weakness of Biblical faith is that great apologetic effort is required to protect faith from facts (some support of this contention to follow). Another weakness of Biblical faith is that the emotions of hope and fear are used to inculcate and reinforce it, emotions being less reliable means of knowing than reason. A weakness of faith in general is that a bias is established in the mind in favor of the proposition believed, clouding judgment. So that, as is often observed, the person attached to a faith proposition tends to seek information confirming the bias, and downplay information that disconfirms it. Faith often attempts to use the other approaches to certainty for confirmation, but generally misuses them because of the bias faith entails.

Philosophy is simply thinking more in-depth about things than accepting what you are told, or believing your first thought about the matter in question. It uses logic and constructs arguments (in the logical sense, not the disagreement sense, although logical argument often is used in disagreement arguments!). Philosophy thus has the merit of using logic and order to organize the thinking. But philosophy as generally understood (or misunderstood) means thinking about things without empirical testing. Some will object, and say science is a branch of philosophy. This may well be technically true, but my usage here reflects a rather common view of philosophy: sophisticated thought not necessarily grounded in the tangible world. It is stronger than faith by virtue of using the tools of rationality, but weaker than science by being divorced from empirical confirmation.

Science is basically applied common sense. It should thrive in Missouri, the ‘show me’ state. It recognizes that we all have biases, and strives to minimize their effect using investigation and logic. (Of course science doesn’t do this, men thinking scientifically do.) Thinking in a scientific manner means subjecting the mental model to empirical test. It is thus stronger than philosophy (as used herein) by virtue of seeking confirmation in the real world. One observes some aspect of reality, or some proposition. One thinks, ‘how can I go about learning why that phenomenon occurs, or whether that proposition is true’. The thinking will then consist of, ‘If X is true, I would expect Y’. Examination of the real world seeks to observe Y or ‘not Y’. There cannot be certainty about X. Finding Y offers confirmation of hypothesis X. Finding Y repeatedly, while never finding ‘not Y’, is greater confirmation of X, but always some miniscule possibility of a ‘not Y’ result remains. Thus all knowledge is provisional, with the level of confidence proportionate to the amount of evidence. While this is true, vast, overwhelming quantities of evidence support most established science, so that withholding belief in well established science is not reasonable. Out on the frontiers of science, there is less confidence because the evidence is less.

But nota bene: in science, ‘not Y’ results have equal power and serve to disconfirm proposition X. More investigation is then indicated to attempt to learn if this investigation is flawed, or proposition X is flawed. One application of this principle to the faith proposition that there was a Christ who was crucified and resurrected approximately 30 AD is as follows. Earthquakes, and the resurrections of many dead saints are said to accompany this occurrence. If X is the proposition that these things occurred, then Y would be the expectation that they are so remarkable that some contemporary non-Christian historian or writer about natural phenomena would have noticed them and written about them. Since we in fact have ‘not Y’, proposition X has disconfirming evidence and is questionable. Though this be but one example (brevity for the sake of a blog post), instances of disconfirming evidence to Bible story elements are plentiful, to the extent that belief in the Bible as a reliably true document is not reasonable. The more so, as incredible rather than credible stories are predominant.

In recognition of many such weaknesses in Biblical accounts, and in response to enlightenment thinking, some Christians have resorted to ‘metaphor’ and ‘allegory’ to exculpate Bible elements that are clearly contradicted by real world observations. They then are apparently Godlike in their ability to rightly discern what is metaphor and what is not. The fact that other equally sincere and equally intelligent Christians divide the Word differently, so that Christianity disintegrates into myriad sects and factions, troubles them not. Those more scientific and skeptical entertain the proposition X, that if the Bible were a revelation of a God who wanted us to understand it and worship It, then Y, it would be clear and understandable, as evidenced by the one united church. We see instead ‘not Y’, another disconfirming evidence.

We thus observe that science works, and that as more and more scientific study is conducted on the world around us, hypotheses converge into one theory accepted by the vast majority of scientists. While as more and more people perform exegesis (or eisegesis) on the Bible, division of thought, and more and more sects, ensue. This is in contrast to the results of the most effective approach to knowing.

Why Do Evangelical Pastors Think they Know Everything?

know it all

Several months back, I asked readers to submit questions they would like me to answer. If you would like to ask a question, please leave your question here.

Scott asked:

More of a philosophical/mindset question. I subject myself to the local “Christian” Radio station from time to time and I’m curious as to why pastors preach on/think that they know “everything” once they become a pastor. I’ve heard a number blather on about science when I know 8 year olds with deeper knowledge. One radio show seems unable to have A) hosts who read more than the “Drudge Report” and watch Fox “News” and B) Show absolutely no interest in wanting to learn science, even at the “Buck Rogers” level. I know that I, like you, have a voracious interest in learning new things, old things and different things. What kills the curiosity in them?

I doubt you can find an Evangelical pastor who will admit he knows everything. In fact, most will likely strenuously object by saying that they are but a humble servant of the Lord, and only God knows everything. However, in many Evangelical churches, the pastor is viewed as an oracle, a divine answer machine, always ready to spit out the correct answer to every question.

When’s the last time you’ve heard an Evangelical pastor answer a question with I don’t know. Church members expect their pastor to know everything. They expect him to be able to answer any and every question. Pastors routinely counsel church members on spiritual matters and beliefs. If they stopped there, all would be well. However, many pastors are quite willing to answer questions and give advice on virtually any subject.

How does an Evangelical pastor get to the place where he arrogantly thinks that he is some sort of super-duper, always-right answer machine?

The Evangelical believes the Bible is the inspired, inerrant, infallible word of God. The Bible is a divine book breathed out by God and is meant to be read and understood. When people become Christians, the Holy Spirit indwells them (lives inside of them) and is their teacher and guide. Indwelt by the Spirit, Evangelicals read and study the Bible, finding everything necessary for life and godliness.

Some Evangelicals are called to be a pastor. This calling (some sects call it an anointing) comes from God. Every God-called pastor has been gifted by God to preach, teach, and lead the church. While most Evangelical pastors will tell you that they are first among equals, in real life the pastor is considered the king of the hill. He is the hub around which everything turns. No matter how many elders, deacons, or church boards a church might have, the pastor stands above them all. He is God’s man, chosen to lead the church.

Evangelicals value those who are successful, those who do great exploits for God. Go to a Christian bookstore and see how many books focus on success. Most church members don’t want to hear about their pastor’s failures. No one wants to hear their pastor confess that he looked at porn on Saturday night, drank two too many beers, or had a bitter fight with his wife. They want a man who is a pillar of virtue and righteousness, a man who is a shining example of what a successful Christian should be.

Having said these things, I want to now answer Scott’s question. The reason many Evangelical pastors think they know everything is because a supernatural God wrote a supernatural book and gave it to a man who has a supernatural calling to speak supernatural truth to Evangelical church members. The pastor is the mouthpiece of God, one chosen by God to speak on his behalf.  Since the church wants assurance of belief, the pastor is quite willing to give it to them. Since doubt is of the devil, the pastor papers over the doubt with the answers he finds in the Bible. As a pastor ages, reads more books, and studies the Bible thoroughly, he is more likely to answer a wider array of questions with “Biblical” answers.  As the church sees he is capable of answering their questions, they continue to bring the pastor more and more questions.

Evangelical church members wrongly believe that because their pastor went to a Bible college or a seminary, he is uniquely qualified to answer their questions. Rarely do they ask what the pastor studied in school. Members go to the pastor for counseling, not thinking for a moment about whether he is qualified to counsel them. Just because a man is a pastor doesn’t mean he is qualified to counsel people having mental health issues or sexual problems. In fact, the average Evangelical pastor doesn’t even have a thorough education on the Bible. Go take a look at a Christian college/seminary catalog and see what classes a prospective pastor takes. You will be shocked at how little they study the Bible before they graduate. Yet, when they start pastoring a church they are expected to KNOW what the Bible says and be able to answer EVERY question a church member might have.

Years ago, I preached several times for a friend of mine who pastored a Baptist church in Utica, Ohio. Every Sunday he would pass the plate, collecting an offering from the 20 or so people sitting in the pews. One Sunday he told me that when he didn’t have any money to put in the offering he would fold over a blank piece of paper and put it in the plate. He thought it was important to give church members the appearance of giving. As many former Evangelical pastors will tell you, perception is everything. My friend wanted to be perceived as a giver even when he had nothing to give.

So it is with pastors and questions. They want to be perceived as knowing everything. Older pastors become expert question-answer game players, often giving shallow, bullshit answers to any question they don’t have an answer for. Sometimes, pastors deflect hard questions by appealing to faith or saying God’s ways are not our ways. Most often though, Evangelical pastors are ready and willing to answer what questions come their way.

I am not saying that Evangelical pastors are not experts or knowledgeable about some things. They may be, but my challenge is to the breadth of their expertise and knowledge. Rather than worrying about perception, pastors would better serve their congregations by saying I don’t know or referring them to experts who do.

Scott asks, what kills curiosity in many Evangelical pastors? The short answer is…THE BIBLE. When a pastor views the Bible as the answer to every question, there’s no need to be curious. GOD SAID IT, I BELIEVE IT, AND THAT SETTLES IT FOR ME!  No need to study science because God mapped out the creation of the universe in Genesis 1-3. History becomes HIS-story. Instead of trawling the depths of human knowledge and experience, many Evangelical pastors stick to a handful authors that reinforce their beliefs. This breeds intellectual laziness.

Notes

Granted, many Evangelical church members are lazy and can’t be bothered with searching things out for themselves. They view the pastor as a divine Google, ready to spit out the correct answer to any search input.

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Certainty

certainty erich fromm

CERTAINTY

  1. The fact, quality, or state of being certain: the certainty of death.
  2. Something that is clearly established or assured.

SYNONYMS certainty, certitude, assurance, conviction. These nouns mean freedom from doubt. Certainty implies a thorough consideration of evidence: “the emphasis of a certainty that is not impaired by any shade of doubt” (Mark Twain). Certitude is based more on personal belief than on objective facts: “Certitude is not the test of certainty” (Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.). Assurance is a feeling of confidence resulting from subjective experience: “There is no such thing as absolute certainty, but there is assurance sufficient for the purposes of human life” (John Stuart Mill). Conviction arises from the vanquishing of doubt: “His religion . . . was substantial and concrete, made up of good, hard convictions and opinions. (Willa Cather).

Ah yes, Certainty.

One of linchpins of Christianity is certainty.

I KNOW in whom I have believed, said the Apostle Paul.

I have a KNOWSO salvation, is a line often heard on Sunday morning.

Doubt is of the Devil.

Saved or Lost.

Heaven or Hell.

Truth or Error.

Infallibility.

Inerrancy.

A supernatural God who wrote a supernatural book that speaks of a supernatural salvation.

You can know for sure_______

If you died today would you go to heaven?

If there is one error in the Bible then none of it is true.

Yet, for all the Christian-speak about certainty, real life suggests that certainty is a myth.

We live in a world of chance, ambiguity, and doubt.

Will I die today?

Will I have a job tomorrow?

Will I be able to walk a year from now?

What does the future hold for my spouse, children, and grandchildren?

Climate change?

War?

Environmental degradation?

Pandemics?

Who will win the Super Bowl?

Will my garden flourish?

Will I get lucky tonight?

Life is anything but certain.

Christianity offloads the uncertainties of this life to  a certain future in heaven with Jesus. No matter how uncertain the present is, we can, with great certainty, KNOW heaven awaits us.

One problem though…

No one KNOWS for sure there is a heaven.

No one has been to heaven and returned to earth to give us a travel report.

The heaven most Christians believe in isn’t even found in the Bible. Most Christians have a mystic, fanciful, syrupy,  non-Biblical view about heaven.

Grandma really isn’t in heaven right now running around praising Jesus. According to the Bible, Grandma is in the grave awaiting the resurrection of the dead.

I don’t know if there is a heaven.

I have my doubts, lots of doubts.

I’m inclined to think heaven is a state of mind.

We want to believe life matters.

We want to believe there is more to life than what we now have.

We want to believe there will someday be a world where there is no pain, suffering, or death.

But, what if there is not?

What if this is it?

What if we truly only have hope in this life?

Should we not make the most of what we have NOW?

Perhaps we should  we take seriously the Bible admonition not to boast about tomorrow because we don’t know what tomorrow will bring.

Heaven will wait.

Live.

You and I are given one life and it will soon be past.

Live.

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