01 February 2010

Can You Be Humble and Certain at the Same Time?

by Phil Johnson

I was re-reading a couple of our comment-threads recently and decided to cobble together (and slightly re-edit) some of my own comments to make the following post. It deals with a timely topic I've been thinking about this week, and I didn't want these thoughts to stay buried in an old comment-thread. I originally wrote these remarks in response to someone who complained that I don't change my mind enough, and I don't concede enough to people who disagree with me in our comment-threads.

his blog is not a place where we just think out loud. The stuff we write about tends to focus on a few (mostly important) issues we have thought a lot about and studied with some degree of care—mostly things we're pretty passionate about. Our opinions on such matters do tend to be fixed enough that it would take a lot more to change our minds than the musings of some fresh-faced high-school graduate who is just reacting in the comments section of our blog to an issue he has never before devoted 20 seconds thought to untangling.

But we're not dogmatic about everything. On many theological questions, you could barely even get me to offer an opinion. For example, if you asked me for a thorough account of how the Holy Spirit's ministry in the New Covenant differs from His role under the Old Covenant, I'd let someone else answer the question. Although it's a question that interests me, I haven't really studied it in careful detail, and I'm not going to be dogmatic. I have no interest in most debates about eschatalogical timelines, and even though I'm a committed Calvinist you'd have a hard time provoking an argument with me about the extent of the atonement.

In other words, my dogmatism and feistiness are limited to relatively few issues—mostly essential gospel truths and a few lesser truths with very serious ramifications. Of course those are the same things I tend to blog about most. If you're looking for a blog where ambivalence, uncertainty, backpeddling, and indecision are valued more highly than clarity and firm beliefs, there are plenty of blogs like that out there. It's a very popular thing to be wobbly nowadays. But that's not authentic humility. Search the Scriptures and see for yourself. I can't think of a single verse in the Bible that equates humility with vacillations of the heart and mind. In fact, before you can be truly humble you must at least be certain of your own fallenness and guilt.

I know people who undergo seismic paradigm-shifts in their thinking every three years or so, like clockwork. When their friends don't follow every wind of change, they tend to get really upset. In fact, the blogosphere sometimes seems dominated by people like that. They celebrate their own doubts and then blog nonstop about the recalcitrance of Reformed opinion. It's not that they have different convictions; they simply hate all conviction. They are cocksure in their own uncertainty.

Who is more "arrogant"? Someone who refuses to compromise even when popular thinking shifts against him, or the guy who never really settles on any truth and yet constantly argues about everything anyway—not because he himself has stumbled on something he is certain about, but merely because his contempt for other people's strong convictions is the way he justifies his waffling in his own mind?

The issues of uncertainty-as-humility and pathological paradigm-shifting have come up at our blog (and in the comments) many times over the years. I could name several fairly well-known quasi-evangelical pundits who think constantly renouncing whatever they themselves said just last year is the very essence of "humility." There are even whole blogs devoted to this notion, suggesting that everyone's "spiritual journey" ought to be filled with hairpin twists and turns (contra Colossians 1:23; Ephesians 4:14, and a host of other passages that urge us to be steadfast in the faith).

I know already that someone will reply to this post by pretending I've said it's always wrong to change your mind. For the record, that's not even close. What I am saying is that people who are prone to undergo regular seismic worldview-level paradigm-shifts every other year or so probably shouldn't fancy themselves fit teachers or be chronically argumentative until they have stood firm in an opinion for at least five years or thereabouts.

Once more: Scripture never commends people for the "humility" of claiming they're not sure what's true and what's false, or that it's impossible to clearly understand what God's Word actually means. The Bible never encourages us to remain unanchored about what we believe and celebrate our doubts—especially while we're functioning as teachers of others. Jesus referred to that as the blind leading the blind, and He indicated that it's a Really Bad Thing.

Phil's signature


donsands said...

Good post. Thanks for the encouragement.

I know whom I have believed, and we knoe that He causes all things to work together for our good, those of us who love Christ, and were called, justified, and glofified according to His purpose.

Have a grace filled day.

DJP said...

If you're looking for a blog where ambivalence, uncertainty, backpeddling, and indecision are valued more highly than clarity and firm beliefs, there are plenty of blogs like that out there

If I may tag up: I'd observe however that they are pretty doggoned resolute, fixed, and unyielding about their irresolute straying compromise over critical matters. On the subject of their precious right to waver, they are unwavering.

Anonymous said...

Good post Phil

Its in my experience far better to stand firm in what you do know than fiddle with stuff that are of little consequence anyway.
I have shifted from an Armeina view to calvinist view in the last five yeats ( Methodist to Baptist) And I found that difficult enough. Uncertainity I tell you is overrated.

SammyBoy said...

What I'm looking for in a conversation is not waffling, ambiguity or "being blown about by every wind of doctrine". What I'm looking for is conversation with a person who is firm in their stand, but willing to speak in the graciousness that comes from acknowledging the role of such things as inference, opinion and human reasoning in coming to our convictions. That graciousness is oftentimes sorely lacking here, as in other blogs on all sides of the issues.

Mary Elizabeth Tyler said...

We are always trying to convince the gainsayers, aren’t we? I wonder why we worry about them so much? Are they the measuring stick for truth? Not hardly. But there is a craw that they seem to get under. I don’t apologize for standing fast for truth anymore (never did actually) or worry about making concessions, or soft-peddle a doctrine just for the sake of appeasement, and that is what I love about all of you authors here. You all stand fast.

God’s truth is a surety, how could we not claim it as such? I am like you, Phil; I seem to only debate the essential truths, and there are so many out there who feel the same way.

Good article!

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Anonymous said...

Phil, my philosophy Professor has been yammering about this for awhile now. He maintains that you can't be certain and be humble at the same time.
This was especially funny because of the way he put it, to paraphrase:
"It's interesting that our society tries to push for certainty, this does NOT produce humility."
Of course I asked him if he was CERTAIN about that...


Saying that certainty produces arrogance is like saying because you know your car will start that that makes you think it's better than your neighbor's car.

Thanks, and God bless.

David Rudd said...


Thank you for pointing out the true humility is being honest about what you don't know... That's a very misunderstood concept.

And you made the case well that humility and certainty not only can co-exist, but MUST co-exist.

Unknown said...

a certain well-known theologian once wrote in commentary on John 3:11, "as Christ...recommends to us the certainty of his doctrine, so he enjoins on all his ministers a law of modesty...that no man may allow himself to speak any thing but what he has heard from the Lord."

Tom said...

I agree with you...

On second thought, maybe I don't.

donsands said...

"That graciousness is oftentimes sorely lacking here" -Sammy

Any of us can be lacking in graciousness at times.

To say it is "oftentimes" here is stretching it quite a bit don't you think.

Discussing on blogs is different than face to face remember. There's a counterbalance we need to consider when we can't see one another, nor hear one another's voice.

Teampyro is a blog team which teaches and speaks the truth in fear and love, and encourages, admonishes, and edifies the people of God, and is a light to unbelievers as well.

One other thought, a short rabbit path, if that's okay.
The fear factor is greatly missing in those who teach and preach today, especially in the pulpits. Yet, the three who teach here have a reverance for the Word, and for the Lord, which I think fortifies our love, and makes our joy genuine.

"Serve the Lord with fear,
and rejoice with trembling."

"Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing [warn, reprove mildly] one another in all wisdom"

FX Turk said...


Ask your prof. how he receives the diagnosis of his own doctor -- for example, does he take the medicine the doctor prescribes?

It seems to me that's an example of being certain (you take the prescription to the Pharmacist; you take the dosage prescribed as often as he tells you to) and also humble (you don't decide for yourself what to do about your problem).

I'd be curious as to how he works that out since it's an example not found in the classroom but in the world you have to actually live in.

Mary Elizabeth Tyler said...

Jordan, that is a notable-quotable. Really like that one!

But Tom, not so sure about your statement about having second thoughts, having second thoughts turned Ruth into a pillar of salt. LOL!

DJP said...

having second thoughts turned Ruth into a pillar of salt.

...or Loticia.


Mary Elizabeth Tyler said...


Is Loticia anything like orthoborg? I fail to find either in the dictionary. LOL!!!

And I second what donsands said in his second post. "Teampyro is a blog team which teaches and speaks the truth in fear and love, and encourages, admonishes, and edifies the people of God, and is a light to unbelievers as well."

But I will add that you have to buy DJP's dictionary of lost, antiquated and infrequently used made-up words, or much is lost in the translation.

I hope you know I am just kidding. :)


Don said...

I am decidedly uncertain

Phil said...

sounds very arrogant Don.

Canyon Shearer, DMin said...

I'm a MacArthurite on this topic. The two quotes I'm going to share are very close to his exact wording, but it's ironic that I'm not totally certain these quotes are exactly how he said it, both were on Larry King Live:

"Don't be so open-minded your brains fall out."

and when told, "You're so close-minded," he responded,

"You have no idea."

Anonymous said...

Great post Phil. Much appreciated.

bassicallymike said...

Thanks for not being wishywashy!

And as Spurgeon said in his "A Defense of Calvinism",
Constant change of creed is sure loss. If a tree has to be taken up two or three times a year, you will not need to build a very large loft in which to store the apples. When people are always shifting their doctrinal principles, they are not likely to bring forth much fruit to the glory of God. It is good for young believers to begin with a firm hold upon those great fundamental doctrines which the Lord has taught in His Word.

Nash Equilibrium said...

Brian McLaren: "Certainty is greatly overrated."

Teachers' Manual: "Evidently not"

DJP said...

That's what I'm talking about!

Nash Equilibrium said...

So if the noise level introduced into the Word of God by inference, opinion, and human reasoning is so loud that you can never draw a firm conclusion, of what use is the Word of God? I think that is the type of uncertainty that Phil is discussing here.

Robert said...

What is sad is that people who are highly regarded for knowing the Word have fallen into this trap for some reason. I can point to Tony Evans and Billy Graham as two examples of people who have stated that people do not have to know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior in order to go to heaven. A plain reading of John 14:6-7 shows that no one can get to heaven unless it is through Jesus. And that is something that I think we can all be certain of, while hopefully remaining humble enough to realize that it is only by the grace of God that we come to know Jesus.

Also, God is the One Who circumsizes our hearts of stone and gives us hearts of flesh. Again, Scripture tells me this, so I am certain of it. But how can THAT make us arrogant or proud? There is NOTHING that we can lend to this process and there is no merit on our part...just God's grace.

In the end, I think this goes straight back to the liberal "theologians" who question the authority of Scripture or whether we are able to understand it. That logical end of that type of thinking would set us back to pre-Reformation times and leaving the Bible in the hands of clergy to interpret for us, which is the work of the Holy Spirit!

Sorry for the rant, but I can not stand to see the Word of God so maligned by people who do not want to conform to the truth of the Word.

Rob Bailey said...

The following surely does not describe any of us: Now the man Moses was very meek, more than all people who were on the face of the earth." Num. 12:3 Yet his unwavering commitment following the Law of God is the reason we have the book of Deuteronomy.
And Moses summoned all Israel and said to them, “Hear, O Israel, the statutes and the rules that I speak in your hearing today, and you shall learn them and be careful to do them." Dt. 5:1
Even through Numbers, over and over again, you will find the phrase "Moses did as the Lord told him."
Just as the Lord took Moses' disobedience with the rock seriously, Moses took the seriously the men who yoked themselves to Baal. Serious as in execution. He is a good example of someone who fit the humble/certain bill very well.

Solameanie said...

Here we go about "tone" again. AAUGH!

Now that I've had my stroke, I think true humility is borne out of being confident in the Object of our faith and His Word. The Apostle Paul didn't boast in His own considerable knowledge. He boasted about Christ and His matchless grace. He also was capable of getting very, very testy with unbelief, rebellion and stupidity. And his being testy had nothing to do with haughty self-righteousness.

Anonymous said...

I dont even think one can appreciate graciousness if they see, human reasoning as a key element in coming to our convictions.

It's better to have a great conversation with an athiest about cars then try to pretend to talk about truth and gospel while subjecting it to the filter of human reasoning.

Nash Equilibrium said...

Didja ever notice that those who are "uncertain" are only uncertain about areas where the Bible conflicts with what's currently cool?
I mean, do you ever see someone being uncertain about whether we should love our neighbor as ourselves, as the Bible says? Or one of these uncertain ones being uncertain about whether we are supposed to help the poor, as the Bible also says? Or are they only uncertain about whether homosexual relations are wrong, as the Bible says?
What they are uncertain about shows who they are trying to please - and no one is fooled except those who want to be fooled by it.

Jim Pemberton said...

Good post.

We have to consider that if God desires to communicate with his fallen creation he would know that he needs to be conditionally perspicuous. And the condition is this: if a sinner desires clarity of truth, then he must necessarily submit his sin for judgment for such is faith. If a sinner fails to have faith out of fear for judgment, then one will not desire the truth. Therefore, the method of God's communication must be such as to be unclear to such to their own condemnation.

Therefore, God's communication must be both clear and unclear depending on the desire of the sinner, for such desire is where truth is manifest.

And, therefore, submission to God requires humility and results in certainty. It is false humility that is uncertain.

Bob said...

I couldn't agree with you more. When I used to read you on the Theology List, I was certain I was reading someone who really believed what he was writing and knew what he was talking about. It is precisely that that encouraged me to investigate such claims.
I tire of some of my commentaries who will simply give several viewpoints on the text at hand. I want to scream, "please tell me what you believe!".

Unknown said...

Amen to Reformed and Renewed on uncertainty being overrated! We suffered under teaching for the past almost 5 years that gradually ate away at our firm underpinnings, questioning all kinds of important doctrines, and regularly blasting at the 5 points of Calvinism. We've seen people go from certain to confused during that time. My dh and I got so fed up with the constant attack on our solid ground by a pastor who is anything but humble - we decided we had no choice but to move on.

We have recently moved to a church where the teaching is done with power AND humilty, and the Bible is not abused; it is refreshing to say the least. Team Pyro has helped us along often during the recent church agony stage, with solid, biblical certainty delivered with humility, wit and whimsy - thank you for that!

I seem to remember that Jesus was a rather outspoken, certain kind of fella, and do we suppose He had a humility problem? or that He has moved with the (postmodern) times and will support the new righteous-vacillation?

Grateful for the work He gave you,

candy said...

We are a people of absolutes, living in a world of relativism.

Reminds me of a poem.

The fog comes
on little cat feet.
It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.
Carl Sandberg

Unfortunately, it does not move on, it takes residence and tries to settle in and permeate everything.

Sam said...

Yes of course. Truth is to be spoken not in a unfeeling and repulsive manner but in love [‘truthing in love’- Eph 4:15]

Anonymous said...

Lol, Frank, I don't think my professor would answer that. He actually at oone point told me point blank that he didn't have to be certain about things.....while still maintaining that he was certain about it!

It makes my head spin.

bchasteen said...

off topic but, something I don't have knowledge of the greek to answer myself...pisteu┼Źn in Jn 3:16 is a continuous present action but some people have said that this can not be something continual b/c e.g. John the Baptist could not have been baptizing people forever. Does the participle mean that John was characterized as a baptist? When we say one believes in Jesus, doesn't the way the greek is constructed require us to say that, "whosoever believeth in him" means that the one believing (present continual action), is not condemned?

Blogger won't let me delete my own profile. said...

Thanks Phil. You have no idea. This was a very timely post. As a conservative evangelical I have been going back and forth on lots of issues and it's refreshing to hear hard-liners like yourself explain that your not through and through dogmatic, just on issues you have thought out so much for so long.
Anyway, I appreciate it and I would say more if I had the time.

Merrilee Stevenson said...

I was reminded of a story you've probably heard before, about a man in a boat who receives a radio signal while at sea in the dark of night. The signal demands that he change his course. They go back and forth, even to the point of using a threatening tone, and he continues to refuse to submit to the commands. Finally, he says that he is a captain of a naval destroyer ship, and that he will not move. The private first class replies that he operates a light house.

Of course the moral of that story is that once a person comes face to face with the Truth, he must submit to its demands or else be shipwrecked. But it also shows that when you know the Truth, you don't need to be high-and-mighty or self-inflative (no pun intended) to convince others. You may have to repeat yourself, put up with a lot of huffing and complaints and even threats from others. But if they ever recognize the Truth, you will be the stable one to guide them in the Truth.

I am thankful for the stability and consistency that I've seen demonstrated here on this blog, and find it to be edifying. It's good to be in the light house.

Unknown said...

My first though was that only the humble can truly be certain about great Biblical truths. Such as: 1 John 5:13 (ESV)
13 I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life.

Rachael Starke said...

Over the weekend, we had a work friend of my husband over for dinner. He hates all organized religion, capitalism, George Bush, and absolutes. Yet he loves my husband and loves spending time with him.

As we'd prayed, conversation got serious pretty quick and our friend laid down the usual gauntlet about the "arrogance of exclusivity and Jesus being the only way to God". My dear husband said "Then take those things up with Jesus! He said them all! We believe He's God so we believe what He says!"

Later in the night, he picked yet another tangential issue and I managed to say "hey, if you put a gun to my head and tell me to cling to [the tangential idea], by all means. Let's put the gun down and talk. But if you put a gun to my head and tell me to deny that Jesus is God and the only way to Him, then, friend, pull the trigger."

He was silent, for the first time, for thirty seconds. And he hugged us both when he left (after midnight).

It's ironic that an unbeliever can recognize being faithful to Jesus as loving sincerity, but a professing believer will see it as arrogant.

Brad said...
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Brad said...
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ltlgeorge said...

"Tanks Mac" - Outdated quote from an old cartoon. None the less sincere.

donsands said...

"..but a professing believer will see it as arrogant."

I heard Erwin McManus speak on John 14:6, and he he didn't particularly like the way some Christians say, "Jesus is the only Way to heaven." He would explain that we say it like we have the exclusive right, and he went on about it in a way that was awkward at best.

I think what has pushed some of the Erwin's away has been the Fundamental culture in the church that will go out and sing Victory in Jesus right in the unbelievers face, and there may be truth there, but also an underlying self-righteousness.

The problem with those who want a more gentle and less certain gospel is that they believe they have the true way, and they lump all others in with the Fred Phelps's.

That's sort of how I see it.

The truth that Jesus is the only Way, Truth, and Life, is awesome news for sinners, because all sinners are welcomed to Come to Christ, as He said, "Come unto Me all you who are heavy laden, and burdened down, and I will give you rest."

BTW, Wonderful testimony Rachel.

SammyBoy said...

to donsands - - I'll stand by "oftentimes", although I must admit that it's a somewhat nebulous term itself, so maybe that illustrates the point made in the post.

also to strategem -- I wasn't talking about never drawing a firm conclusion. If you've ever come to a certain firm position on a doctrine or passage of scripture, and then learned better thru someone else's influence or teaching, does that necessarily mean you were wishy-washy or uncertain before? Thank God Apollos didn't just say, "Sorry, A & P, but I'm standing firm on my convictions about this stuff. Here's where you're wrong . . ."

donsands said...

"I'll stand by "oftentimes", although I must admit that it's a somewhat nebulous term itself, so maybe that illustrates the point made in the post." -Sammy


Rick Potter said...

"That's what I'm talking about!"

You crack me up Dan!


truth mission said...

I used to be uncertain; but now I'm not so sure.
Seriously, a good, pertinent and needed article.To believe God's word is the basis of humility;to question Him is the bedrock of arrogance."Did God really say?" is a question that has led to a few problems in history!!