Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Is Certainty Hubris?

The new humility is doubt, except about certainty.  You can without doubt and yet with humility reject certainty.  However, if you are certain, be assured, today it must be hubris.  I was recently searching for something I had published online, and came across an exchange about this in a comment section with Phil Johnson, leader of Team Pyro and executive director of Grace to You.  This is the subject of the give-and-take.  I'm going to take you through the little conversation with some play-by-play commentary.

To Phil from Kent:  You are essentially with discernment drawing lines on what is culturally unacceptable and worldly in the way of contextualization. That's what I'm hearing from the other side. I think we should be drawing lines. These things in culture do have meaning. This is what David Wells is saying in his books if I'm reading him right. This does impact the gospel in a bad way, a negative way, and sometimes the gospel is just downright changed to fit into something, as you would say, "uber-hip." 

Here's what I notice though. You totally pooh-pooh people who do the same thing, if they are at the right of you. You mock them, ridicule them, in your own inimitable way. Now if Spurgeon is to the right of you, you don't do it to him, but you do it to living, breathing people. In one recent article, for instance, you bring up how that some woman got after you when you were in college at a fundamentalist college, probably Tennessee Temple, and she told you your wire rim glasses were worldly, or something like that. You threw all cultural separatists under the bus with your very, very strange example. It is an example of a rhetorical device, a kind of broad brush. You will likely deny it, but it is true. 

However, you don't like the line (and neither do I) that Mark Driscoll crosses and many others that are either emergent or very fond of them. I agree with you. 

The big HOWEVER is that it comes off as very subjective because of the way that you accept your social and cultural standards but you don't accept theirs. I agree that theirs are wrong, but why are yours right?

Phil chose out one line of those many upon which to concentrate his reply.

To Kent from Phil:   Kent: "I think we should be drawing lines." 

I don't. I think we should observe the lines God draws for us in His Word. That's pretty much the answer to all the questions you asked.

In my opinion, that's a snarky answer.  God draws all the lines.  We draw none.  I answered.

To Phil from Kent:  Phil,  

Very succinct. Let's assume that I meant draw lines at God's Word. So what is "fleshly lust" and "worldly lust" and "be not conformed to this world" and "the attire of a harlot" and "strange apparel" and "uncleanness" and "inordinate affection." Do you make applications there or are we UNCERTAIN about how to apply Scripture? I used caps to help you understand one of my points. 

Scripture, for instance, doesn't tell me that I can't have a Ronald McDonald-like clown dance around and sing the gospel like a Gilbert and Sullavin musical? So that means it's fine?

God draws all the lines.   Sure.   But what defines corrupt communication?  Do we have to draw that line?  Phil draws his line at certain language, certain four letter words, and is dogmatic in areas the Bible says nothing about. Of course we do, in application to Scriptural principle.  Phil knows this.  He is just getting smoked out on the inconsistency.  He replies.

To Kent from Phil:  Kent: 

My complaint with postmodernists and Emergents is that they tend to treat Scripture like nothing in it is clear and certain. My complaint with you is that in practice you tend to treat all your opinions and personal preferences as if they had unshakable biblical authority.

Virtually everything is clear and certain in your mind. The pomos' pathological uncertainty is in part a reaction to the unwarranted hubris of the rigid fundamentalist perspective you represent, and vice versa. 

Your argument starts with the same presupposition as the postmodernists, but you turn the conclusion on its head. They seem to think if we can't understand and be certain about every point of truth, we can't really know anythingfor sure. You likewise treat certainty and understanding as all-or-nothing propositions, but come to an opposite conclusion, loathing to admit that there's any uncertainty or ambiguity about anything you believe. I reject the presupposition, as well as the erroneous (albeit opposite) extremes that both you and the postmodernists' take it to. 

I would stand instead with Peter: "Some things in [Scripture] are hard to understand" (2 Peter 3:16). And I stand with the Westminster Confession: "All things in scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them" (1:7). 

...and if you can't find principles in Scripture that clear up the question of clown church for you, even in the absence of any explicit statement on the issue, you need to study Scripture more and seek a fuller understanding of it. There are scores of questions like that (some more subtle, some less so), and the answers to the various questions range from crystal clear to not quite so clear. We're not all going to agree on the answers to every question, but that should not preclude our discussing them carefully, and it certainly doesn't mean the person with the most rigid ideas should be the person who decides for everybody else, just because is perpetually cocksure that he is always infallibly right.

What do you think of some of Phil's language to me, his descriptors of me?  Where does God draw the line on "clown church."  He doesn't, of course.  He expects us to draw that line.  So does Phil, despite his first comment.  What a strange explanation for postmodern uncertainty Phil has.  It reminds me of Daniel Wallace's explanation of Bart Ehrman.  He blames the uncertainty of postmodernism on the certainty of Bible believers.  And Phil, of course, is certain that this extra-biblical speculation is the truth.  Ironic.  Phil's moderate uncertainty is a better friend of the postmoderns.  Does that seem strange to you?  I answered.

From Kent to Phil:  Phil, 

That was an absolutely rhetorically loaded few paragraphs. And you're dead wrong. You have brought up the point of due process. Due process deals with the point, but you instead say these things, inventing most of what you wrote: 

"you tend to treat all your opinions and personal preferences as if they had unshakable biblical authority"---(name one, I mean it)"unwarranted hubris""cocksure""the person with the most rigid ideas should be the person who decides for everybody else""rigid fundamentalist perspective""infallibly right" 

I repudiate as strongly as possible every one of those rhetorical techniques. Also you intimate that I have some predetermined standard and then look for principles later to back them up. I've preached expositionally for twenty years now through most of the Bible exactly because I don't believe in that. 

You intimate in the first paragraph of your comment that it is people like me ("fundamentalists") create pomos. No way. . . .  I think pomos are created the same way we see false teachers in Scripture are created. They won't hear His voice (John 10).

You say that you draw the line at the Bible. Beautiful. But yet you know that my Ronald McDonald example is wrong when the Bible says nothing about it. How? Principles. Which is exactly how we draw our lines. You can't have it both ways. You are drawing lines. You are getting criticized for it. God does expect us to judge culture. And we can be sure that it is wrong, despite the fact that some things are hard to be understood (in the context Paul's eschatological passages, which you can understand being difficult to Peter still). Some culture is going to drag down the name of Christ, to blaspheme Him and consequently affect the gospel. Do you understand that you are saying that those to the left are uncertain and I'm rigid because I'm on the right of you? You are perfectly balanced. How about let's just see what is Scriptural? I'm all for that. 

Not everybody to the right of you is some kind of raving, knee-jerk, with one blood shot eye in the middle of the forehead. Do you understand that this sounds just like what you are name-calling me and us? I call that carnal weaponry. Let's be all for using Scripture to judge the culture, eschew ourselves of some and hold on to the other. 

Now about wire rim glasses and flared pants....

Maybe I don't need to write much, because I answered it in the comment section to Phil's blog post.  The Peter passage about the 'hard to be understood' Pauline eschatalogical passages is used by both postmoderns and evangelicals like Phil in order to draw a truck through.  I'm saying Phil can't have it both ways.  He can't apply Scripture where it is silent and claim approved certainty and then accuse others of being too certain.   This is where I think Phil and others should look at historic theology.  What have Christians been sure has been a valid application of Scripture, and then why did those applications erode.  It was because of worldliness and the acceptance of it.  The worldliness, however, is part of the church growth methodology of Phil's and other evangelical churches.  They got where they were by both using and approving their own new measures and worldly behavior and worship.  Just a few days ago, Phil wrote the following:

We've had a standing challenge for six years for our critics to point out actual examples (with cut-and-paste quotes, not a skewed paraphrase) showing where they think we have breached the bounds of taste, propriety, Christian charity, or good manners.

The complaints-to-substance ratio currently stands at about 500:1. 

So I'll add another aspect to that challenge: I'll apologize and eat a worm if you can show one example where I have published watchblog-style criticism consisting of raw passion or verbal hysterics instead of rational or biblical arguments.

So what do you think?  Did we meet Phil's challenge?  He breached the bounds of at least Christian charity and good manners.  And there was no biblical argument, just speculation.


Jonathan Speer said...

I think his challenge has been met sufficiently based on his baseless name calling alone.

On a completely related note, I also think a good question for him to answer would be the following:

Based on what portion of scripture or scriptural principle are certain brothers in Christ to be labeled with his multiplicity of rhetorically critical labels for "fundamentalists"?

Kent Brandenburg said...

Hi Jonathan,

I agree with you. Thanks for dropping by.

And Anonymous,

I didn't print your comment as you requested, but I wanted to answer some of what you wrote.

First, my numbers are not down. Comments down, yes. Numbers, no. Numbers are up---but who cares? They are the highest ever. Recently I wrote a post about a Sharper Iron post, which had not received comments for 2-3 weeks. After I wrote that post, that Sharper Iron post received now 150-200 comments and moving toward 3,000 views. Interesting lack of interest. Comments are down, I believe for three reasons. 1---Recent posts haven't been the type of ones that people would comment on. I already knew that. And I don't get atta-boy comments like some blogs do. Second, I do think that I haven't been getting the very negative comments that cause comment sections to explode. Perhaps they're afraid. :-D (I knew that would fit your narrative) Third, people like to have their comments appear immediately and they don't here, so that causes less commenting.

Regarding my Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism, demonism, series, which you couldn't follow. Fine. I'm open to someone saying they can't follow that. My wife followed it fine and she is a welcome critic. It's something that dawned on me in the series I'm preaching from 1 Corinthians at our church. The point Paul made about Corinth, no one would know if it weren't in the Bible---you can't see the demonic activity. But he opens our eyes to what the issue is. You can deny it, but I believe it is true. There are others that notice the evangelical/fundamentalist problem like I do---read dissidens at Remonstrance sometime. There is overlap between the two, especially in this area of methodology and worship.

Kent Brandenburg said...

One more thing to Anonymous---something I thought of while I was preparing my study in Luke tonight. You would judge the unpopularity of my blog to be evidence that what I was saying was off or wrong. I don't judge things like you do. Your type of judgment is more in the realm of modern or postmodern type of judgment or criteria.

During His entire life, Jesus said the things that made people want to kill Him and very few would even believe His message. You might criticize Him, if you were around in His day, because He obviously didn't understand what was going on or He would have changed that strategy.

d4v34x said...

Bro. B.,

Don't you want to be known openly? Come on! Show yourself to the world!


Still reading every word, btw.

d4v34x said...

Although I will point out that intimation cannot really be name-calling as the latter really has to be express.

Cocksure was the closest he came to actual name calling, and I don't really feel its out of bounds even if it's inaccurate. He probably wouldn't take it as name calling if someone used it on him.

Terry McGovern said...

I'm still reading. :)

Kent Brandenburg said...

Thanks readers! Atta boys all around!


His comment was just a shot with no proof, which is the standard fare I would get at Team Pyro whenever I commented there. And I thought I was really trying to be nice.

Phil will not admit that he, just like us, goes outside of the Bible for his minor or second premise, that is, to draw his lines.

How can he conclude, judge, it to be hubris? And cocksure, yes, he is calling me arrogant. I would say, fine, but you've got to give some proof for it. Certainty doesn't seem to be proof enough. Everybody less certain is then elevated to a place of humility. Is that a biblical position? Where do we get that? It seems to be made up.

philipians2511 said...

I'm still reading. :^P

Respectfully Submitted,

Bro Steve

Gal. 2.20

Joshua said...

I don't see decline here at all. If anything, I think your consistency in writing over the last years is starting to reap rewards.

The only demise that I've seen has been the Jackhammer blog. I'm still hoping you'll finish the Calvinsim series off over here. I was going through that study with a brother from work who was still thinking about the Calvinism issue, and it was a real blessing.

As for attaboys, I have read everything written on this blog, including the stuff posted before I found it. It has been no end of encouragement and growth to me.

I still remember the day when I was reading your old posts and it finally clicked regarding the non existence of the universal church. Suddenly the NT made so much more sense, as did separation.

All this is to say don't stop. I believe the Lord is using you to help others. I am grateful to Him for it.

Kent Brandenburg said...

Hi Steve,


Hi Joshua,

I really did want to do something on Calvinism at some point and started it there, but I didn't think I could carry the load of writing at two places as I was. The two other guys had essentially dropped out and so I was writing two blogs. I have found a rhythm here with twice a week, Monday and Wednesday with Thomas Ross on Friday. I'll perhaps finish that series here.

Thanks for your comment! Hope we meet some time.

Joshua said...

Pastor Brandenburg,

I thought after a while that it would eventually become too much to maintain both. I was really hoping Pastor Mallinak would continue because I enjoyed his writing also (and the way you guys handled disagreements!).

Just a suggestion, so feel free to ignore, but might be nice if you each wrote a final piece for that blog. Just to lay her to rest and wrap things up. Amazing how easy it is from a keyboard thousands of miles away to recommend work for other people!

I think we will meet actually. I have traveled to your area once before with my Pastor, and that will probably happen again some time in the next 5 years. If it happens again, then I'll extend my trip and make the drive to El Sobrante, assuming I can get used to driving on the wrong side of the road.

And if that doesn't happen, my wife wants to visit the US for our 10th wedding anniversary, so 2017 will be the very latest.

Looking forward to it!

God bless,