The Meanings of our Words: Reviewing Anthony Thiselton’s “Doubt, Faith, and Certainty”

doubt faith and certaintyIs faith mainly intellectual assent or heartfelt trust? Does the presence of doubt signify unbelief, or is it a sign of honest, mature reflection? Will certainty always remain elusive? In Doubt, Faith, and CertaintyAnthony C. Thiselton takes up a host of questions like these for the sake of developing more nuanced and healthy ways of understanding these closely related theological concepts. 

Of course, crafting better definitions sounds like a rather dry exercise, and Thiselton does stray into the weeds at times, but for him it’s done out of a practical desire to provide some help and solace for those grappling with these concerns in real life. Though Thiselton seeks to address all kinds of readers in this book, some will most likely struggle with his writing style. At times it can be quite dense and technical, so nonspecialist readers shouldn’t be surprised if they happen to find themselves turning to a dictionary of philosophical terms every once in a while. The book’s structure is fairly straightforward, though, and his overarching thesis isn’t too hard to grasp:

This book carries a simple message. On doubt, it argues that while some degree of doubt in some circumstances may perhaps be bad, in different situations doubts may stimulate us to fresh thought and questioning. In fact, the message remains the same for doubt, faith, and certainty: none of these terms has a uniform meaning, or has a uniform function in life. They have a variety of meanings. (p.vii)

Ruminating on Doubt, Faith, and Certainty

For a large number of Christians, doubt is conceived of mostly in negative terms. It’s something to be avoided or—if that fails—ignored. Doubt, Thiselton points out, is often defined simply as a lack of faith or trust, and those who experience it often find themselves being looked down on as “faithless, vacillating, and wavering” (p.1). Now, it cannot be denied that doubt does sometimes shows up in Scripture with negative implications, but Thiselton insists this isn’t the only perspective to be found in the biblical writings (p.3). In other parts of the Scripture, especially in the Psalms, candid expressions of doubt and questioning show up on a regular basis (pp. 40,54). They’re just part of the life of faith.

Speaking on a more general level, Thiselton argues that, “Doubt… may be the beginning of self-criticism and may set us on the path toward a more authentic view of God” (p.5). It seems to me that one of the more important parts of intellectual (and indeed spiritual) growth is learning to ask good questions and cultivating the ability to sit with those questions even when satisfactory answers seem absent. The meaning of doubt therefore depends on context. It can function both as an irritating splinter lodged beneath the skin and as an impetus for renewed questioning and spiritual growth. The main thing, he explains, is for readers to remember that “those who entertain doubts should not assume that all doubt is bad or condemned by God. Doubt and questions may open the door to new insights and to a needed reappraisal of faith or belief” (p.viii).

As we noted earlier, Thiselton thinks the meaning of faith also depends on context (a glimmer of insight into his writing style can be gained by noting that he prefers to describe faith as a “polymorphous” concept) (p.10). He agrees with theologian Gerhard Barth that there is no “uniform concept of faith” in the New Testament, but in regards to the widespread contrast between seeing faith either as belief or trust, Thiselton contends that the New Testament authors happily blended these two categories together (p.64). Why then are they seen as competing definitions? Hr points readers to a linguistic explanation for this.

He explains, “While the Greek (pistis, pisteuo) allows for an easy merger of the two concepts, Latin readily distinguished between faith (fides) and belief or believing (credo)” (p.65). Since many of the works that have proved most influential in the Christian West were written in Latin (for example, Augustine’s writings), this distinction is part of that legacy, according to Thiselton. Keeping this history in mind, he affirms both belief and trust to be important dimensions of faith. In summary, he seeks to persuade readers that faith is a many-sided concept. From beginning to end, though, he also maintains that, “Its many-sided meanings do not detract from its remaining a gift of God through the Holy Spirit, which demands total appropriation, self-involvement, and commitment” (p.92)

In his discussion of certainty, Thiselton moves most deeply into explicitly philosophical waters. From his perspective, delving into certainty involves both studying relevant biblical texts and reviewing the long history of philosophical debates regarding the nature and possibility of certainty, including the writings of giants like Rene Descartes and Ludwig Wittgenstein (pp.11-12; 95). Obviously, this is no small task, and it may be in this area that his attempt to provide brief summaries of centuries of philosophical/theological discussion become most complex. At one point, he notes that, “Some writers argue that in all practical contexts of life certainty verges on being an illusion” (p.100). This is a sentiment I frequently find myself leaning towards. It also seems fairly consistent with the perspective Thiselton ends up taking towards the possibility of certainty in this present age.

In the book’s final chapter, he candidly observes that, “In the present, human kind is fallible and uncertain” (pp.127-128). He expresses hope that on the last day, knowledge and certainty will be provided, noting that, “Many of the parables of Jesus speak of the ambiguity of the present, which is to be resolved int he future” (p.135). In general, Thiselton’s approach to certainty brings to mind the words of Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (13:12, NRSV)

Conclusion

Thiselton’s approach to doubt, faith, and certainty is for the most part a healthy one, even though keeping up with him can be a challenge. His background in hermeneutics and enviable familiarity with the history of Christian thought shows through in this book. It allows him to survey a wide swath of theological and philosophical perspectives, sifting through these past discussions to give current and future reflections on doubt, faith, and certainty firmer conceptual ground to stand on. There may be more accessible titles on doubt and certainty to be found (such as Peter Enns’ newest book), but for those of a philosophical bent, Thiselton work here makes for a sharp and worthwhile conversation partner.

Disclosure: I received this book free from Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. for review purposes. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. 

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