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Po-Mo Modernism & Epistemic Incertitude: a “chastened” epistemology

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Post Written by Stephen T. Hague

Post-Modernism (PoMo) claims epistemic humility in contrast to the arrogance of Modernist certitude. A “chastened” epistemology it is asserted is not moral or philosophical relativism, but recognition of our finitude. Such recognition is certainly a biblical virtue; the question is, does it lead logically, and necessarily, to incertitude?

Disagreements [even serious] on matters of interpretation, assumptions that even if the Bible itself is clear we ourselves cannot claim certain understanding, and struggles over the “hard to understand” texts, are not a certain foundation for PoMo claims of epistemic incertitude or humility. Humility is certainly a virtue, but claims of humility certainly are not, well… humble. The epistemic humility of PoMo foundation-less-ism may actually be epistemic arrogance since it declares the ultimate indeterminateness of the world, the world called into being out of nothing and declared good by its Creator. PoMo incertitude is an epistemological denial of what God himself has declared is epistemologically certain.

More serious is the theological irony in Postmodernism’s rationalistic denials of both rationality and intellectual certitude about the most vital and important matters of life and death. As a result of Postmodernism, “Claims that a text has meaning that can be interpreted and communicated today are viewed with deep suspicion.”1 Theological incertitude seems to be the center-piece of the PoMo creed, a creed intolerant of all other dogmas of like absolutism. Such dogmatic rejection of certitude and confidence in the revelation of God, and the knowledge of God, may unwittingly lead to uncertainty about the gospel and how (even whether) to evangelize. Indeed, such a dogma may remove the foundations for our faith.

Faith says, “I understand what the Bible teaches, and I believe.” True faith understands and believes the doctrinal content of the Bible. When Peter doubted Jesus, “Immediately Jesus stretched out His hand and took hold of him, and said to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?'” Mtt 14:31 (NASB). The nature of doubt is to have incertitude in what God has said and done. In contrast, belief is illustrated “when the men of that place recognized Him, they sent word into all that surrounding district and brought to Him all who were sick” (Mtt 14:35, NASB). They had reliable cognition and recognition that Jesus was the One who could and would heal their diseases, bringing the infirm from the surrounding district to Jesus. The recognized, believed, hoped, trusted, and acted.

In Matthew 15:10, “After Jesus called the crowd to Him, He said to them, ‘Hear and understand.'” He assumed their full cognition and understanding, though their (Pharisees’) reaction was offense at Jesus’ words. Their understanding led to unbelief. That is why Jesus then exhorted his disciples, “‘Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if a blind man guides a blind man, both will fall into a pit'” (Mtt 15:14). Blindness in this case is the chosen path of incertitude, or epistemic “humility.”

In contrast, even though often “dull” in understanding, the disciples eventually affirm, “We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God” (Jn 6:69). This is true faith that starkly contrasts with the PoMo [leap of] faith in epistemic incertitude. Such incertitude is simply unbelief. It is most ironically akin to Modernist rationalism which said that we cannot truly know, thus we cannot fully believe. The PoMo foundations of incertitude – the “hermeneutics of suspicion” – are but the shifted sands of Modernist doubts. True faith “is being sure [assurance/substance, NASB] of what we hope for, and certain [the conviction, NASB) of what we do not see” (Heb 11:1). Further, “Without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone that comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him” (Heb 11:6).

The hermeneutical implications here are profoundly significant; for us to understand, it must be explained and interpreted. This frequent theme in the Bible indicates that God expects us to understand, assent, and believe. God requires our cognitive certitude from belief and faith. True humility says “I know and believe your words, O Lord.”

John 4:25 — The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”

Acts 28:23 — They arranged to meet Paul on a certain day, and came in even larger numbers to the place where he was staying. From morning till evening he explained and declared to them the kingdom of God and tried to convince them about Jesus from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets.

See also Matt 13:36; Matt 15:15; Matt 16:21; Mark 4:34; Luke 24:27; John 4:25; Acts 2:14; Acts 8:31; Acts 11:4; Acts 17:3; Acts 18:26; Heb 5:11; Rev 17:7

“I am inclined to think that post-modernity is actually bringing forth a variant of modernity rather than a radical break from it. Post-modernity is really just modernity stripped of the false hopes that were once supported by the straw pillars of Enlightenment ideology; the illusions that once rendered modernity at least tolerable for many people. Their faith in the idea of progress proved to be the last Western superstition, and now it has died. But the essential impulses that brought modernity into being still remain. Post-modernity is proving to be the unfolding of the final stages of modernity.” Wells, p. 216 (See D.Wells, God in the Wasteland, pp. 214ff.)

1 Charles Scobie, “Biblical Theology and Preaching,” Out of Egypt, Bartholomew and Thiselton, p., 451.

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