Thursday, April 02, 2009

My Theological Education Or Between Doubt And Certainty

Faith exists somewhere between and beyond doubt and certainty. If all you have is certainty, you have no need of faith. If all you have is doubt, you don't see the need for faith. Faith is what happens when you have reasons to doubt, reasons to be certain, and, in that situation, choose to trust.

Last year, a friend and I were reflecting on our theological educations. During our undergrad, we both attended the same school, Canadian University College, for four years—an experience that left us with more questions than answers. Later, as pastors, we both wrestled with those questions, finding answers to some and putting others on the shelf.

Now we are doing our Masters of Divinity at the flagship seminary of the Seventh-day Adventist church in Andrews University and having the very different experience of being provided with more answers than questions. In some ways this is frustrating, because we know when a professor is oversimplifying facts or minimizing the weaknesses of the traditional Adventist position. But in other ways it is liberating to discover that others have found the same answers we came up with or, better yet, to be given novel solutions to questions we had left unresolved.

Anselm said that theology is faith seeking understanding (fides quaerens intellectum). If this is true then the goal of theology must be to simultaneously explore doubt and shore up certainty. This, of course, is an impossible task. During that conversation with my friend I realized that institutions of theological education tend to favor one or the other.

I realize that it is not good PR to characterize my alma mater, Canadian University College, as a institution that offers a theological education promoting doubt. But remember, doubt is not the opposite of, but a prerequisite to faith, for where there is no reason to doubt, there is also no reason to have faith. In fact, doubt was just what I needed at that point in my Christian experience.

For example, I came out of high school believing that there were no major questions about the Bible that I could not answer, and that if a question about the Bible were to come up that I did not have the answer to, I would be able to look at the Bible and Ellen White's writings and find that answer with relative ease. In short, I had a high degree of certainty about the world, my life, and the way things ought to be, and as a result, I was not very open to God bringing anything new into my life. Questions, doubt, and uncertainty were what I needed to restore balance to my faith.

This stands in contrast to my experience prior to entering seminary. I invested a great deal of time during my ministry reading material by those who emphasize the doubt side of faith, who presented me with more questions than answers. Confronting these questions is well and good, but faith requires a healthy level of certainty in order to function. And as a pastor, I need to have answers that prompt faith for those who are struggling with doubt in their spiritual life.

The mission of the MDiv program at Andrews University is to produce competent pastors, and what that means in the context of theological education is pastors who are certain of what they believe. One would expect the church's flagship seminary to be dedicated to promoting certainty, and there is definitely a place for that, considering the significant doubts Adventist clergy and academics are known to harbor or even promote.

But consider the implications of pursuing certainty of belief as an absolute. David Koresh is an extreme example of what can happen when a religious leader's certainty leaves no room for doubt. A pastor who is big on certainty will find it difficult to practice humility or patience and may end up damaging their church with their rigidity and inflexibility.

Perhaps it would be better if pastors left the seminary with some doubts intact. Because, for all the good certainty can do for a pastor, it is in realm of our doubts that God has room to grow us. I prefer to be more like Job, and less like his three friends.

As I look back on my admittedly incomplete theological education, I see a new reason for certainty in my faith. On my path God has provided my faith with just what I needed when I needed it. Doubt tells me to chalk it up to happenstance, but I choose to trust my creator to continue to guide my life.

And, I am glad that neither those institutions and individuals which promote doubt nor those which promote certainty are able to exclude the other from our church's system of theological education. I'm not saying a thousand theological flowers should bloom within Adventism, but the current institutional mix has been good healthy for me and others I've encountered. So maybe it's a good thing that we have the ATS and ASRS, but it's an even better thing that they're on speaking terms.

I'll sign off with one final thought for you to comment on: The opposite of faith is not doubt or certainty; it's disobedience.


  1. Touche, touche. In my opinion this article is right on the mark. Have you thought about presenting it at the ATS/ASRS meeting this November?

  2. Interesting insights Dave. I can definitely relate to what you said about struggling to find answers and the resulting doubts from that engagement having to be placed on a shelf.

    Problem is, my shelf is getting quite full, especially in regards to EGW and the issues surrounding her. Seems the traditional, pat, canned, rehearsed answers and explanations provided by the White Estate don't cut it anymore. If anything, it has created even more of a mire that we will forever be trapped in as a denomination until we finally face up to the hard truths and start doing some serious damage control. We already have almost a whole generation of young SDA's who have no use for EGW and we are doing nothing to help that situation. Graeme Bradford provided some good answers and solutions, but his balanced, reasonable approach to her is being unfairly criticized and ripped to pieces by certain segments of the church. Very sad.

    The journey goes on...

  3. Great article Dave. I agree with you on virtually every point.
    You're comment about your time at CUC, "doubt was just what I needed at that point in my Christian experience" is a good one...for you. Not everyone would fall under that category and some have had their faith destroyed precisely because it seemed to them there was NO certainty after their time there.
    The questions raised at CUC need to be raised but to neglect presenting the positions that the church has arrived at on the issues is unacceptable. By all means, raise the questions, present the conclusions the church has arrived at, and THEN let the students decide if they are sufficient or not. To present only the doubts without the answers is despicable.
    And Mike, your comment, "Graeme Bradford provided some good answers and solutions, but his balanced, reasonable approach to her is being unfairly criticized and ripped to pieces by certain segments of the church. Very sad..." is very much a minority view my friend. Bradford's approach is anything but "balanced and reasonable" simply becuase he is presenting a false dichotomy.
    The issue isn't whether or not we are to be subject to Ellen White the person, it is whether or not we, as uninspired individuals, are to be subject to inspired counsel.
    Bradford's position is a typical, liberal straw man. Set up a false position and then knock it down. Bravo Mr. Bradford, well done!
    What's sad is how certain segments of the church have been duped by his straw man argument and actually think it has merit. Very sad.

  4. it is interesting getting a MDiv from a university based divinity school as I have...instead of getting "more answers than questions" we ended in the exact opposite position where it seemed as though we received nothing but questions....I distrust certainty that has not gone through the dislocation of uncertainty.

    Because of this, I distrust much of that which is characterized in Adventism as "liberal vs conservative." Pro EGW, anti-EGW. "pro Sanctuary, Anti sanctuary." Both sides often seemed mired in the certainty that comes from "modernity." Even much of our conception of "post-modernity" is nothing but warmed over "modernity." the end...can faith even exist in the midst of full certainty...whether that certainty is given to us from our "liberal" or from our "conservative" brothers and sisters?

  5. Dave,
    Thanks for your thoughts. My faith was also tested by doubts in my undergrad education, and I still have to deal with those doubts. Now, at Andrews, I too am having nearly the opposite experience with doubt and certainty. The certainty pervading the hallowed halls is both refreshing and sometimes a little choking (when a healthy dose of SELF-doubt seems to be absent).

    I truly appreciate the Bible based, honest conversations that often take place in the seminary. I have been blessed by and grown from the solid presentations on the trustworthiness of the word of God and inspiration.

    I guess my strongest reaction to your article would be "Praise God" that He has sustained me, and continues to sustain me, through, despite and maybe, just a little bit, because of my doubts.