Hyper-certainty as overcoming creaturely being

That’s as good a continental philosophy title as one could find.  There is a valid point, though. This morning I was listening to James K. A. Smith’s lecture on contingency and relativism (given at the Horton Wiley talks, available on ItunesU).   He raises a good point that we often forget when facing claims by Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism.  Anchorites (a term I use incorporating Rome and East) come up to Protestants and say, “Yeah, well you can’t give a completely certain account of the canon,” or “what good is an infallible bible without an infallible interpreter?”

Hidden in these questions is “if you can’t know with absolute certainty, then all is despair.”  Smith asks, rightly, why should we accept these Cartesian standards of justifying knowledge-claims.  God created us as finite beings.  As finite, we are contingent.  As R. Scott Clark stated so well, “We shouldn’t seek for illegitimate religious certainty.”

Is the claim for absolute certainty an attempt to transcend being and finitude?  Is this not the donum superadditum in action?

Published by J. B. Aitken

Interests include patristics, the role of the soul in the human person, analytic theology, Reformed Scholasticism, Medievalism, Substance Metaphysics

7 replies on “Hyper-certainty as overcoming creaturely being”

  1. There are more kinds of certainty than Cartesian certainty – no EO believer would agree that canonical certainty is the same as mathematical or Cartesian certainty. Smith seems to have the habit of not really allowing for a lot of nuance when it comes to issues like these.


    1. Smith isn’t dealing with EO in his treatise, nor is he linking everything to Cartesian certainty (though he does explore that in his most recent book). Those were simply applications that I made. EO guys come up to me and tell me if I can’t give complete certainty for the canon then I am left with pure arbitrariness .


  2. Okay – I don’t much care about the canon issues, so I’ll leave that to the side. You said that Smith asked why we should accept Cartesian standards, which is why I replied that certainty doesn’t necessarily equal absolute or mathematical certainty. I’m questioning whether or not what he thinks is hidden in these questions is in fact hidden there. I don’t think it is. So to answer your final question in your post, I wonder why being contingent is a problem for having certainty. I don’t see much reason to think it is. Sure, crude forms of Cartesian certainty have problems. It doesn’t follow that to have certainty is to transcend created-ness (granting all that continental stuff for the sake of argument).


  3. “Is the claim for absolute certainty an attempt to transcend being and finitude?”

    No. Absolute certainty is given to us in Scripture. We may waver regarding our acceptance of what is absolutely certain, but that is sin.

    It is absolutely certain that I am made in the image of God.
    It is absolutely certain that God is my creator.
    It is absolutely certain that I am a sinner in need of redemption.
    It is absolutely certain that Jesus died for the sins of his people.

    Our inability to trust what has been revealed to us shouldn’t be confused with an ontological absence of absolute certainty. There is no surer basis for any knowledge claim than the Word of God.

    So when I am asked if I know some Scriptural truth with absolute certainty, I can say “Absolutely!”

    Think of it this way:

    Scripture tells me I can be absolutely certain that all who are drawn by the Father will come to Christ.

    Some finite creature, a man, tells me that I cant have absolute certainty.

    Either God is correct, or the finite creature is.
    But if God is not correct, then he is not God.
    And if the creature is correct, then he is incorrect; for if absolute certainty is impossible, then this absolutely certain claim (viz. that absolute certainty is impossible) is also uncertain.

    Smith’s position, from I’ve seen, is not Biblical. It seems to me to represent a general tendency of many Christians to adopt non-Christian philosophical presuppositions that are not only unnecessary for thinking about epistemology but also inherently irrational.



    1. Hello Hiram,
      Smith’s position has some inadequacies–I don’t dispute that. I was simply noting the convergence between some of his comments and what Scott Clark said on the Quest for Illegitimate Epistemological Certainty.

      EDIT: Another way to say it is this: The Reformed hold to ectypal knowledge; creaturely knowledge. Jesus has this knowledge in his incarnate state. This is what the Reformed divines call theologia unionis. To overcome this knowledge and have a more-than-human-god-type-knowledge is to abandon Reformed epistemology and embrace the chain of being.

      Does that mean Smith is right on everything? Of course not.


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