Faith vs Psychological Certainty

(SeanO) #1

I recently came across this talk by Greg Boyd on psychological certainty vs faith. As I understand it, he is an open theist and neo-Anabaptist, so I do not necessarily support all he teaches, but I found this talk very interesting. Here is his big idea:

Big Idea: Biblical Faith isn’t about trying to attain psychological certainty; it’s about committing to a course of action in the face of uncertainty

And here are some of his critiques of seeking psychological certainty in place of Biblical faith:

  • it offers a picture of God that is not like Christ because it makes faith seem like a game to have psychological certainty
  • it causes a phobia of learning because learning can cause doubt and certainty is the main goal
  • it sets people up to fail
  • certainty-seeking faith is idolatrous because it finds life in what you believe rather than Who you believe in

Here is his exhortation:

  • leverage everything on Jesus Christ and Him crucified (I Cor 2:2)
  • be okay with unanswered questions and ambiguity

What do you think about Boyd’s critique of certainty-seeking faith? Have you experienced it in the Church? How have you dealt with doubt in your own life?

(Anthony Costello ) #2


Greg Boyd is awesome and not so awesome at the same time. I love some of his teaching and much of his writing, but on other things, like his open theism and his pacifism…well, I’m just not down with that.

On this, however, I think he may be pretty close to the truth. I think total certainty is neither possible nor is it perhaps even desirable. If it were possible to have some kind of mathematical certainty about the core propositions of the Christian faith, then it would seem that faith itself would have to take on a whole new meaning. It might even imply some kind of coercion by God that would impinge upon our ability to love Him freely. I mean if we just had absolute certainty that Jesus was lord, and that we all go to Hell if we reject Him and that Hell is not a good place, etc., then I wonder in what sense we could live freely or, better said, that we could love him freely. __I haven’t had time to watch the video, but I imagine Boyd brings up the passage in James about the demons who believe, yet who shudder. In other words, certainty according to Scripture itself, does not seem to necessarily translate into love.

That said, I also think that one danger in the journey of faith is to become obsessed with defending or challenging the propositional claims of Christianity. Obviously this needs to be done to some extent since we are called to be evangelists to the world and, especially for those of us here, to use the tools and trade of Apologetics to do so. Yet, at the same time, I think to become an apologetics junkie, to give oneself over to a life of purely intellection with regard to truth claims, will ultimately rob us of the joy that is to be found in the practice of our faith. At some point we should probably just say to ourselves, in a meaningful way, I have enough to know that what I believe is rational and true, and even if I cannot know it with 100% certainty, I am going to love Jesus and even put my life on the line for him. This is the more Kierkegaardian turn in the life of faith, but one that I think must be made, lest we fall into the sort of Deism that can arise from thinking to much about stuff.



(SeanO) #3

@anthony.costello Yes, he did mention James 1:19 - “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that–and shudder.” And I think you summarized his second point well - ‘commitment to Christ in the face of uncertainty’. If we let prayer and worship fall to the wayside while pursuing our intellectual questions we do fall into a deism or agnosticism. Not to mention the error James warns us about - to have a faith that does not work since faith without works is dead.

These thoughts bring me back to one of my favorite verses - John 17:3 - “Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” The joy of the Christian life is in communion with God in the Spirit; not simply in the acquirement of knowledge.

When we are discipling others, how do you think we can help them avoid this trap?

(Brittany Bowman) #4

@SeanO, as someone new to learning about apologetics, I can share a bit on what has been helpful to me as I have been mentored here as I bumble along the learning curve of Connect. When my friends left the faith, I started taking a lot on just faith because I was scared if I looked too closely I would realize they were right. I was hurting when I stumbled across Connect, but I’ve realized here it’s a huge demonstration of faith to even ask questions. It holds God accountable to being omnipotent because it shows I expect to find an answer at the end of my research. In our communications classes, the biggest rule is that silence raises suspicion of trying to hide something. I have a huge pet peeve for talk shows that try to isolate Christianity from science, cultural issues, etc. If Christianity can’t explain those issues and compliment them, then it isn’t used to its full power. No one wants a religion that has to be shielded from the hard questions, at least I don’t.

Somehow I got signed up for Murray’s book launch, “Saving Truth,” on Facebook, which is how I eventually found Connect. My hands sometimes shook while I was reading it because of the pure clarity it brings to the topics Boyd discusses where Christians get riled up about. When Murray took time to explain those concepts, instead of hiding behind one or two verses like most Christians do, he was able to show Christianity for its full value even beyond those issues.

Perhaps one reason young people are leaving the church is because they don’t have a resource like Saving Truth. I know I would have had a lot less pain if someone in my little country church had established themselves as someone who was willing to research the hard questions with me. I really don’t hold a grudge against anyone. It’s a tiny church that in all sad reality very well could close soon. Everyone was trying to keep the doors open, without time to dig deeply. It reminds me of the story of Mary and Martha. Y’all have mentored me so much on here. If you met with the youth group in your church just once to tell them you’ll hang around in the lobby each week in case they have a question, it would make a world of difference for the next generation. As a young person, just knowing someone would be willing to study with me would have given me a burst of confidence in my faith. It wouldn’t have to be a big commitment, just to let them know you’re there if they have a question.

Thanks for sharing this video, SeanO!

(SeanO) #5

@Brittany_Bowman1 Those are great words of encouragement and counsel! Having more mature believers available on a weekly basis to answer any questions youth (or others) may have about the Bible after service is a cool idea that I have not seen implemented before. I’ll have to think if that is applicable at our Church. We have prayer teams who hang around after service - but how cool would it be to have a q&a team for those with deeper questions about the faith!

(Melvin Greene) #6

Fascinating discussion, @SeanO. I’m not at all familiar with Greg Boyd, or what all he teaches. Before I watched the video, I was rather dubious of Greg Boyd. However, after watching the video, I would have to agree with his synopsis of certainty-seeking faith. I’m surprised that he didn’t reference the Bible’s own definition of faith in Heb. 11:1 - “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” ESV

My thinking is that if there is absolutely no doubt in what you believe is true, or you have absolute mathematical proof of something, then it’s not faith, but knowledge. For instance, we all know 2+2=4. We know this to be true. There is no doubt that 2+2=4. We can show empirical proof that it’s true. Then there is no reason for faith, right? But, the Bible tells us that without faith it is impossible to please God. In my estimation, you can’t have faith without some doubt. I like what Boyd said about being willing to commit. You can say you believe something, but not willing to commit to it. I am reminded that a few months ago I made reference to a story I heard about having knowledge, but not willing to commit. The story was about a man walking on a tightrope over Niagara Falls with a crowd of people watching. He made several trips back and forth, then asked the audience if they believed that he could transport someone in a wheelbarrow safely across. Everybody in the audience said that they believed, but when he asked for a volunteer to ride in the wheelbarrow, for a long time no one raised their hand. Then finally one man raised his hand and he rode in the wheelbarrow across and back. This illustrated the difference in committing to your faith, or having the knowledge without wanting to commit.

One more thing I’ll add. I’m comfortable in not being able to understand everything. For example, I can’t explain the trinity. I don’t know how there is only one God yet 3 persons. But I believe it. I don’t know how Jesus is fully God and fully man at the same time. But I believe it. The God I believe in is infinitely bigger and greater than I. I can’t think for one moment that I would be able to understand everything about God.

(SeanO) #7

@Melvin_Greene Yes, the tightrope illustration is indeed a good one - it is not enough to simply believe that Christ is the way of salvation. Rather, we must follow Him as our Good Shepherd and accept His guidance and discipline, even when the way is unclear. We must be grafted into the Vine and remain rooted and firmly established in Christ, who is the Head of the Body. And on that road of faith many things may be unclear, but as we walk it our certainty of the love, goodness and beauty of God grows with each passing mile as we lean wholly into Him. There is nothing so life giving and glorious as the freedom of Christ - for freedom He has set us free! Freedom from sin, death and every snare of the world until one day we dwell with Him and, as Sam Gamgee says in Lord of the Rings, every sad thing will come untrue.

(Melvin Greene) #8

In the vein of what we discussed, @SeanO, I have a question that came to me while eating a snack. Actually, a lot of questions pop into my mind while eating. :rofl: If we accept the premise that with faith there will be doubt, or uncertainty, do you think the apostles, after Jesus was resurrected and after they received the Holy Spirit, still have doubts? After all, they were physically with him and touched his resurrected body, and watched him ascend into heaven. Surely their faith was more of a mathematical certainty. I don’t know. I mean they were only human after all. They all faced incredible hardships and eventually martyrdom. Well, except John. Do you think that they might have still felt a little doubt during the rough times? I understand this is purely speculation, of course. I’m just throwing it out there. Actually, I would welcome anybody’s thoughts on this.

(Roald Gerber) #9

Faith is always a great topic to discuss. I have not had time to watch the entire video. I will watch it when I get a gap.
I love the illustrations given already, they are very helpful. Thank you all. I often use the illustration of sheep. We see throughout scripture that Jesus is referred to as the Good Shepherd and that we are the sheep.
Sheep by nature are pretty dumb and need lots of guidance and left to their own devices would wonder off and get themselves trapped or killed. They get to know the guidance of the shepherd, often with the help of a sheepdog, helping to keep the sheep in line and following the shepherds lead. After a certain period a few things happen. The sheep will follow each other, and the sheep will follow the shepherd, because they would have built up the trust, that the shepherd and sheepdog are not there to hurt them but lead them to greener pastures. It is still however a process and the sheep often will try go their own way.

Is faith in Jesus not the same perhaps? And that the Holy Spirit is like the “Sheepdog”. I mean that as an illustration and mean absolutely no disrespect. As the trinity work in unison to keep us focused on Him, and leading us on straight paths, we begin to trust the Good Shepherd and Holy Spirit more and more as time goes on. We learn to hear His voice better. We learn to follow Him without delay and we learn to rely on Him fully even though we cannot see the future or know the shepherds every plan, we still follow him because we know by experience that he won’t lead us down the wrong path.

So in view of this topic. Is it not a case of EXPERIENCE & EVIDENCE brings about PSYCHOLOGICAL CERTAINTY leading to a deepened trust in facing uncertain future events?
Similar to some of us. We hear and see the evidence of the existence of Jesus as Savior, which creates and element of psychological certainty, we then believe and then confess.

I personally have more faith in God after all my years of knowing Him and is that not because of my experiences and evidence collected giving me that psychological certainty? Heb 11:1?
And is part of being a bride not to get to know her groom better, each and every day? Over years they get to know more and more, giving them certainty even in the light of an uncertain future.
I still have to have faith for things I do not understand. I was born again 23 years ago. I still have to step out in faith often but with a level of certainty knowing that God exists and that he will “Never leave or forsake me”. Like a sheep I follow my shepherd anywhere, even though I don’t know where or how or for what, but I know He has only my good at heart.

Am I on the right track? What are your thoughts?

(SeanO) #10

@Melvin_Greene Haha - yes, food can work wonders for the mind. As you said, I am not sure we can do anything beyond speculate about doubt. However, I think we can certainly say that they still had room to be wrong in their thinking. For example, Paul had to rebuke Peter in public:

Galatians 2:11 - " But when Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him in public, because he was clearly wrong."

And they had to call a council to address the issue of circumcision:

Acts 15:1-2 - Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” 2 This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question.

What do you guys feel the implications of these passages are? The example of Peter seems to make it very clear they could still fall into intellectual error after being filled with the Spirit. And they called councils to deal with difficult issues.

However, we also see that Peter references the transfiguration. I do not think the apostles lacked faith in the Gospel after what they had seen, but I do think there was room for intellectual doubt about other issues. And I think that is exactly the point Boyd is trying to make.

2 Peter 1:18 - We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain.

I John 1:1 - That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched–this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.

(SeanO) #11

@Roald_Gerber Let me know your thoughts once you have watched the video. I feel like you may be misunderstanding what Boyd means by the term ‘psychological certainty’. Using your Shepherd illustration, I think Boyd would agree that faith involves learning to trust and obey the Good Shepherd. But psychological certainty is not about where our trust is placed - it is about an ability to force our minds to remain utterly free from any intellectual doubt. Boyd claims we can trust in the Shepherd even if we do have some intellectual doubts and that faith is not about having every single intellectual question resolved - its about trusting in the Master.

Let me know your thoughts once you watch the video.

(Steven White) #12

Big Idea: Biblical Faith isn’t about trying to attain psychological certainty; it’s about committing to a course of action in the face of uncertainty

CS Lewis says something similar in Mere Christianity:

“Faith … is the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods* .

(Roald Gerber) #13

Absolutely. I realize I jumped into a conversation without all the facts. Will watch it soonest.

(Roald Gerber) #14

Watched the video and I agree, @SeanO and I think I am on track with my illustration. I think he is right, that we will have some doubt and uncertainty and that it will be impossible to ever have no doubt.
I think it was CS Lewis who said that as we read scripture and get new revelation that it will continually smash our previous ideas about Him and it should. We will always have difficult questions raising doubts but I do feel that the more we know God the more doubts diminish.

I agree with Boyd’s statement that we can have doubts and still have faith. As I mentioned, we as the sheep have no clue what lies ahead. Good, bad, rain, shine, persecution etc… Despite that we follow our shepherd even though we may have doubts, but as we follow over time we diminish our own doubts based on experience, however the journey and discovery is life long so new doubts or questions may arise on the road but the foundation of our faith remains the same. We have certainty because of who our Shepherd is but it does not mean we won’t have questions that potentially rock our ideas.

Am I on track? Or am I still missing the point? Thanks for the input

(SeanO) #16

@Narphi That’s a great quote from Lewis!

(SeanO) #17

@Roald_Gerber No problem - always feel free to jump in. We’re all learners here. Sounds on track to me. Praise God we can trust Him through all the seasons life brings!

(Carol Nagy) #18

I worked through this a bit over the past year or so when praying for healing for a seriously ill Christian brother. It was not that I doubted that God would heal him, but that it seemed as though when I was in prayer the way I was talking with God was wrong. I began to realize that for me to remind God of Scripture about healing, and telling him to heal, it was actually making me into the one whose will needed to be obeyed. It sounded blasphemous to me. So for a while I worked around how I could manipulate him into doing my will, in essence, without seeming to lock him into acting because of what Scripture said. Through that long (more than a year) time I had to throw out my understanding of what the words said and hold fast to knowing that he would act in the best interests of the brother because of the compassion and power of Jesus. In the end, that brother died (went home to Jesus) but I understood it better from the perspective of what I agreed to in following Jesus: he has rights to my whole life, whether to live or die, and how he calls me to live. So there are still a lot I don’t understand about some verses in the Bible, but I have seen enough of the character of Jesus to wait for the understanding. So yes, I think there is a lot to what Boyd says.

(SeanO) #19

@carolsong88 Thank you so much for sharing your story! I think that is a perfect example of a real life situation where we desperately desire God to hear us and it is so easy to fall into the trap that if only we had more faith He would hear us. But the reality is that He always hears us when we come to Him in faith - from the smallest to the greatest. And that there is hope in eternity no matter the outcome of our earthly situation. May the Lord grant you a spirit of wisdom and revelation in knowledge of Him as you seek His face!

(Jimmy Sellers) #20

This is a little off base but was Jesus ever certain about his faith? Was there certainty in what Jesus said

And he said to them, “Elijah indeed does come first and* restores all things. (Mk 9:12)

Is this a good example of faith vs certainty?

(SeanO) #21

@Jimmy_Sellers Could you elaborate a little more on what you mean? I do not understand how the passage about Elijah applies to the topic at hand.

I think we must be very careful here - the term ‘certainty’ is not quite the same thing as ‘psychological certainty’.

certainty - firm conviction that something is the case

psychological certainty - a ‘feeling’ of certainty - like when someone says - “Are you 100% sure?”

Based on these definitions, of course Jesus was certain about the reality of His mission and God Himself. We could say that in the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus experienced psychological uncertainty about the means of accomplishing His mission, but ultimately He submitted to the will of the Father. When He was tempted in the wilderness, Jesus did not appeal to His feelings - rather, He appealed to the Word of God. Jesus did not say ‘I feel certain’, which is psychological certainty, but rather demonstrated faith in God’s Word and in His relationship with the Father.

I think this verse from 1 John is helpful. 1 John was written to help us know that we are in a living relationship with Christ. John admits our hearts may condemns us - we may feel psychological uncertainty - but God is greater than our hearts. He is greater than our feelings. He knows all things so we can have faith even in the midst of the feelings or experience of doubt.

1 John 3:20 - “If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.”