Doubt, Faith, and Certainty. By Anthony C. Thiselton. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2017. 160pp. Paper, $20.00.
Thiselton is a professor at the University of Nottingham in England and is a well-known NT scholar. The title of this book caught my eye. I was interested in how Thiselton defined faith and whether he felt a believer could have assurance or certainty of eternal life.
Unfortunately, this book does not really deal with the issue of assurance of salvation. Instead it deals with faith and assurance in a philosophical way and how they relate to Christian living in a more general way. It can be safe to say, however, that Thiselton does not believe in complete assurance. When it comes to the meaning of “faith” and any “certainty” that accompanies a person’s faith, Thiselton says that there are a number of different meanings of both terms. In fact, he refers to the three terms in the book’s title as being “polymorphous” (p. 10).
Throughout the book Thiselton maintains that doubt is not necessarily a bad thing. We all have doubt in this life, but it does not mean that one has a lack of faith. Instead, it can be a good thing because it can lead to an attitude of humility and a deeper search for the things of God, as well as self-criticism (p. 3). It can “stimulate us to fresh thought and questioning” (p. vii). In fact, doubt can lead to faith (p. 2), as well as a more “authentic view of God” (p. 5). Thiselton says that the man who asks Jesus to help his unbelief (Mark 9:24) shows that doubt and belief can exist at the same time. The man believes but also does not believe (p. 44). The same thing can be said about the prophet Jonah in the book that bears his name.
Thiselton points out that in the Scriptures, and especially in the Psalms, there are candid expressions of doubt and questioning which show up on a regular basis (pp. 40, 54). They are simply part of the life of faith. While all believers have doubt, the “isolated” believer is more subject to it (p. 36). The more we are a part of a community of believers, the less doubt we are likely to have.
The book looks in depth at the different views of faith, doubt, and certainty among philosophers, psychologists, ethicists, and even medieval thinkers, including Catholic scholars (e.g., pp. 19ff). Thiselton has a long discussion on the role that reason plays in faith and concludes that reason does have a part in what a person believes. Faith can be seen as something reached with the help of reason based upon the “probability” of its being true (p. 58). He does not believe reason alone can bring a person to faith, but reason is a gift from God in order that we might believe (p. 74). The relationship between faith, doubt, and reason is very complicated (p. 92).
For Thiselton, certainty is intimately related to the “eschaton.” It is only when the believer sees God, will certainty be possible. Until that time, the believer must live with uncertainty and doubt. But this, too, is a good thing in Thiselton’s view, as it causes the believer to have faith in God’s wisdom and goodness and to patiently wait for the day when doubt will be replaced by certainty. Thiselton says that many of the parables of Jesus speak of the ambiguity and doubt that we have in the present, which is to be resolved on that future day (p.135).
As far as the relationship of certainty with the eschaton, Thiselton says we are to become what we are. In this life we are fallible and uncertain, but what the Christian will become is “provisionally” certain. Only in the light of the end does the revelation of God become fully understandable. The only way a Christian could have complete certainty now would require knowing all of history, which is impossible (pp. 127-28).
For Thiselton, only the kingdom of God provides certainty because it “cannot be shaken” (p. 137). In this life, certainty is distorted because of sin. A measure of distortion should not take us by surprise (p. 139). Simply put, certainty in this life is impossible because certainty is based upon sight.
Thiselton says in this life faith can mean many things. To claim to have certainty in spiritual areas may mask a “degree of arrogance” (p. viii.).
In some places, Thiselton does discuss the Scripture. He says that in the Bible, the word “faith” has at least thirteen definitions. It can be synonymous with John’s use of “abiding.” But in other places in the NT (pp. 10-11), it can also mean faithfulness and obedience as well.
There are also two types of certainty in a philosophical sense. There is a subjective certainty, such as when Paul says he is convinced of something (Phil 1:6). But Thiselton says there is an objective certainty, which the Christian can claim, based upon God’s propositions (p. 16). However, neither of these provides complete assurance.
When he gives the many meanings of faith, Thiselton is aware of the Lordship Salvation definition of saving faith, even though he does not call it that. He says that one use of the word faith involves “performance” (p. 42). I found it interesting that Lordship Salvation adherents would probably feel comfortable with this view of faith.
Readers of the JOTGES will find Thiselton’s discussion of faith in the Gospel of John interesting. He recognizes that John uses different prepositions with the verb “believe” and that the phrases mean to trust or believe “in” (or “on”) Jesus. However, he does not see the permanent reception of eternal life as a result of that faith. Instead, faith is a moment by moment thing in the Gospel of John (pp. 63-64).
Many will not accept one of the major premises of the discussions in this book. Thiselton does not accept that the Bible is the inspired Word of God, even though he does not specifically state it. Those who believe in the inspiration of the Scriptures can have certainty in this life, based upon what the Bible says. Those who believe in the inspiration of the Bible would not consider having assurance in the propositions of God as a sign of arrogance. For example, it is not arrogant for the believer to have certainty about having eternal life, because the believer takes Jesus at His word.
Others will certainly take exception with Thiselton’s view that faith and doubt can exist at the same time. James tells us that this is not possible and that the man who doubts does not believe God and should not expect to receive from God what he asks for (James 1). One can indeed have faith and doubt at the same time, but not in regards to the same proposition. The man in Mark 9 believed some things about Christ, but did not believe other things about Him. That is how he could have faith and doubt at the same time.
Thiselton’s many definitions of faith can be confusing. “Abiding” in John’s writings does not deal with faith. Instead, it speaks about having fellowship with God by keeping His commandments. This is not the same thing as believing something.
This book is not an easy read. It is heavy in philosophical discussions. It quotes from writers such as Plantinga, Pannenberg, Kant, Bultmann, and Aquinas. For readers who want to know what the Bible says as the result of exegesis about faith and certainty, this is not the book for them. However, if somebody wants to know how secular thinkers or theologians who do not have a high view of inspiration see faith and certainty, I would recommend this book.
Kenneth W. Yates
Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society