The Theology of the Text: What Does it Mean to Have Certainty in Scripture?

This article is the ninth in the series called “The Theology of the Text,” designed to cover the topic of the text in short, accessible articles.

The Theology of the Text: What Does it Mean to Have Certainty in Scripture? 

The most important experiential practice for a Christian when they read their Bible is believing that what they are reading are the words of God. This requires certainty that the words on the page are the right words. In the first place, if certainty means, “I know 100% that these words are original based on evidence,” then nobody can have certainty in any word in the text of Holy Scripture, because humans are not omniscient. There is no observable, continuous stream of manuscripts dating back to the first century and the originals are gone. So if certainty is a term that is defined by what one can prove based on empirical science, certainty is impossible. 

That being said, the amount of certainty a Christian has in the words of Holy Scripture is not determined by what they can prove to be original by way of manuscript analysis. If this were the case, there is not one line of Scripture that Christians could safely be certain in. Yet the Scriptures present the reality the they are the means that God is speaking to His people today. When Christians read a translation which faithfully and accurately sets forth the immediately inspired original languages, that translation too is inspired. Not by virtue of the translators, but by virtue of the words accurately setting forth the immediately inspired text. If this were not the case, then every Christian ought to learn Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek so that they can read God’s Word. Assuming that the translation is accurate to the original languages, Christians can, and should have certainty that those words are God’s words. 

Many people today have issues with the word “certainty,” despite God saying that certainty is expected for a Christian. 

“These things I have written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God; that ye may know that ye have eternal life, and that ye may believe on the Son of God.” 

1 John 5:13

“And we desire that every one of you do shew the same diligence to the full assurance of hope unto the end.”

Hebrews 6:11


“Wherein God, willing more abundantly to shew unto the heirs of promise the immutability of his counsel, confirmed it by an oath: That by two immutable things, in which is was impossible for God to lie, we might have a strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold upon the hope set before us. Which hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and stedfast, and which entereth into that within the veil.” 

Hebrews 6:17-19

Saying that one cannot be certain about the Scriptures is the same as saying that one cannot be certain about their salvation. Certainty then, is something that Christians can have, not by virtue of their own knowledge, but because God gives that certainty and faith. Salvation is of the Lord from beginning to end, and so is the preservation and reception of His Word. So any certainty that the Christian has in Scripture, or anything pertaining to faith of the True God, is worked in the believer by the Holy Spirit. That is to say, that having certainty in the Word of God is an act of the Holy Spirit working in the believer, not empiricism. The certainty of the Scriptures is not based on the certainty of the person reading them, it is based on the fact that the Scriptures themselves are the “only sufficient, certain, and infallible rule of all saving knowledge, faith, and obedience” (LBCF 1.1). Christians can have certainty because the Scriptures themselves are certain. 

When a Christian approaches the text of Holy Scripture with the mindset that they cannot be certain that a verse is or isn’t the Word of God, he is really saying that the Word of God itself is not certain. If it is the case that the Word of God is only certain to the extent that it can be proved to be the Word of God by empiricism, then the Word of God is uncertain, and the church has no rule of faith. Theologically and practically this must be the case. That being said, it may be helpful to describe the kind of certainty that Christians have towards the words of Scripture. The kind of certainty that a believer has in the Scriptures can be divided into two categories, functional and experiential. The first is derived from observation, and the second is worked in the believer by the Holy Spirit. Both proceed forth from faith, and should not be separated from one another.

These categories are necessary due to the fact that some have taken issue with the terminology “absolute certainty” because it seems to imply that one must be omniscient or perhaps they believe that one particular edition of Scripture has been reinspired. Since neither of these are true, “absolute certainty” in this sense is not based on a person being omniscient or believing in reinspiration. In order to bring clarity to the conversation, terms such as “functional certainty” or “maximal certainty” have been employed in the place of “absolute certainty” to explain that while a Christian cannot “prove” the certainty of the Scriptures, he has no reason to doubt every line. 

These qualifiers may serve to prevent pointless, circular conversations regarding the nature of certainty. The point is this – the Scriptures do not say to be “as certain as you can be,” they say “All Scripture is given by the inspiration of God.” If Christians cannot be certain about something given by God, I’m not sure what they can be certain of. In any case, distinguishing between certainty which comes from within a man’s reasoning and certainty which comes from the work of the Holy Spirit may be helpful. In this sense, observational certainty may be called functional certainty, and certainty given to the believer by God may be called experiential certainty. Both work in harmony, and are a function of each other. A Christian believes the Scriptures are the Word of God by the work of the Spirit, and can observe that God has preserved those Scriptures in time by simply looking at God’s providential work in history.

Conclusion

All Christians are to read the Bible, knowing it is the Word of God. They are to let the Scriptures examine them, try them, refine them, teach them, and build them up. The real question to answer as it pertains to certainty then is not, “Can I prove that my certainty in Word of God is warranted?” The appropriate question is, “What reason do I have to doubt that this is the Word of God?” There are many cases where it is appropriate to doubt that something is the Word of God, like Homer’s Iliad or the Shepherd of Hermas, for example. In the case of the received canon of Holy Scripture, however, Christians have no good reason to doubt the canon and text which has been received by the people of God and vindicated in time.

In the 21st century, the extant evidence does not provide enough insight to begin to do this. This is the purpose of functional certainty. The functional certainty that a Christian has in the Received Text then is not derived from the evaluation of extant data, it is a warranted certainty which is derived by simply looking at what God has done in time with that text. The most important kind of certainty that a Christian is commanded to have is certainty while reading the Scriptures. This certainty is worked in a believer by the inward illumination of the Holy Spirit. This is what is meant by experiential certainty. The Christian knows he is reading the Word of God because the Word of God is certain. The first is observational derived from the subject, the second is supernatural derived from the object, and both proceed from faith and are necessary to have certainty in the correct Scriptures. 

21 thoughts on “The Theology of the Text: What Does it Mean to Have Certainty in Scripture?

  1. Is certainty more than an emotion?

    Do you believe we are commanded to have emotions, and if so, is that even something we can really control?

    “Christians have no good reason to doubt the canon and text which has been received by the people of God and vindicated in time.”

    Do you really believe that?

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  2. I think “error” is the most plausible explanation for some texts. The synoptic problem, moral problems, historical problems, theological problems … if you want, we could discuss this. That’s not really your interested in though, is it? From what I’ve read, you seem to be more interested in a top-down view of inerrancy that starts with a conception of how God works and deducing inerrancy from that, no?

    Which is why I asked the question about certainty. Do you think it’s more than a feeling/emotion?

    —–

    “Christians have no good reason to doubt the canon and text which has been received by the people of God and vindicated in time.”

    The feeling of certainty seems unwarranted given that the “people of God” are not historically identifiable, and “vindication in time” is ambiguous. Traditional catholicism includes additional texts, and modern critics reject several texts. “Vindication in time” might just be the accepted tradition from the 16th to 19th centuries.

    —–

    I’m not really looking for an argument here. I just don’t follow this version of reformed/presuppositional people.

    Back to that original question, if certainty is just a feeling, and we cannot control our feelings, why worry about this?

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    1. //“Christians have no good reason to doubt the canon and text which has been received by the people of God and vindicated in time.”

      The feeling of certainty seems unwarranted given that the “people of God” are not historically identifiable, and “vindication in time” is ambiguous. Traditional catholicism includes additional texts, and modern critics reject several texts. “Vindication in time” might just be the accepted tradition from the 16th to 19th centuries.//

      Could you respond to this Taylor?

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      1. While this back and forth has been good, I have no interest in discussing the Scriptures with an unbeliever. The carnally minded man cannot discern spiritual things. No offense to the gentlemen interacting on my blog, I just don’t feel it profitable to engage with somebody who doesn’t even believe there is a church, or a Bible.

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      2. //The feeling of certainty seems unwarranted given that the “people of God” are not historically identifiable, and “vindication in time” is ambiguous. Traditional catholicism includes additional texts, and modern critics reject several texts. “Vindication in time” might just be the accepted tradition from the 16th to 19th centuries//

        I’m a reformed christian, and I totally get that. I’m just not sure how to respond to Ben’s attack here. Don’t feel the need to make this reply public. It would be helpful to see a theologian like yourself take this down. Feel free to email me the response if you want to avoid further responses. No pressure.

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      3. I have no problem responding to you, however! I would say the people of God are identifiable. If orthodoxy as we know it is used as a gauge, we can easily track both adherence to, and departure from that benchmark in every century. One of the reasons the Reformation is so significant is because it was a time of theological vindication of all of the historic orthodox doctrines of the Christian religion. The Canon, Text, and Doctrines were all wrestled over, and solidified (with a few minor variations, such as church gov and infant baptism) during this time. It isn’t until the late 18th century and onward that we see massive theological shifts starting to happen again (Methodism, Revivalism, the cults, etc.). While one might take the perspective that theological vindication simply represents a blip on the map of church history, orthodoxy can be traced in every century of the church. The Reformation is significant because of the maturity and overwhelming adoption of orthodoxy outside of the Roman church. Hopefully this helps, thanks for your comment!

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  3. “These qualifiers may serve to prevent pointless, circular conversations regarding the nature of certainty. The point is this – the Scriptures do not say to be “as certain as you can be,” they say “All Scripture is given by the inspiration of God.” If Christians cannot be certain about something given by God, I’m not sure what they can be certain of. In any case, distinguishing between certainty which comes from within a man’s reasoning and certainty which comes from the work of the Holy Spirit may be helpful. In this sense, observational certainty may be called functional certainty, and certainty given to the believer by God may be called experiential certainty. Both work in harmony, and are a function of each other. A Christian believes the Scriptures are the Word of God by the work of the Spirit, and can observe that God has preserved those Scriptures in time by simply looking at God’s providential work in history.”

    This is what I’m talking about. Certainty is the feeling about the claim that the bible is true. You distinguish two ways to get this feeling, empiricism (functional) and mysticism (experiential).

    Do you think the bible is saying “believe the bible is true.” Or, is it saying “have the feeling of certainty.”

    I hope this helps clarify my question. Feel free to correct my interpretation!

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      1. I’m asking if certainty is a feeling about the belief you’re asserting. In the way you frame preservation, there isn’t any room for doubt. In your opinion, is that okay?

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      2. No, certainty is not a “feeling.” A feeling is something that moves you from one state to another, like happy, sad, etc. Certainty is not a feeling. As far as “Is that okay?” I’m not sure how to answer that because I’m not saying that certainty is a feeling.

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      3. I think certainty is a feeling. At least in the way we use the word. I feel unhappy about the weather. I feel certain that the universe is expanding. Certainty isn’t a quality of an expanding universe. Certainty is a quality about me – my strong conviction.

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      4. Just because you feel that certainty is a feeling doesn’t make it so. Words matter, and have definitions. We should use those definitions.

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  4. But isn’t certainty an emotion? If the Holy Spirit provides the emotion of certainty, it may be justified. That doesn’t change that certainty is just an emotion.

    People have been certain about plenty of silly things (geocentricism, a flat earth, that nothing is certain). Being certain about a belief, doesn’t prove that it’s true.

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    1. I’ve never heard of certainty presented as an emotion before, no. Perhaps you’re thinking of tranquil, at ease, or something similar?

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    2. The same would apply to you, of course.

      “God says that He preserved His Word, and will continue doing so. It is a matter of “Thus saith the Lord,” not emotions.”

      How do you know when the lord saith?

      Like

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