Have you heard the phrase: I don’t understand, but I believe? Such a statement might seem trivial or even satisfactory at first glance. After all, we don’t understand many things in one sense yet have faith in another. Most cannot explain how the Sun works, but that hardly instills doubt in its existence and rising. On the other hand, can one believe precisely that which they do not understand? Can I believe (P) if I do not at all comprehend (P)[1]? No, not reasonably in this strict sense. But comprehension is rarely black and white; it comes in shades. Yet, when our understanding is vague, so is our belief. When we find ourselves in this position and want to express ourselves, we should pause, reflect, and consider our next steps.

Though we might encounter vague belief in many areas of life, I want to focus on the Christian experience. How does it impact our faith and ability to share with others? As I consider where vague belief crops up, two topical areas emerge: inter-biblical and extrabiblical. The former involves internal conflicts and antinomies in the Bible. The latter concerns biblical interpretations that conflict with knowledge outside the Bible. I want to look at both and offer a way forward that facilitates growth and helps us effectively communicate with others. Let’s start with antinomy.

A biblical antinomy is where two reasonable interpretations of Scripture appear contrary or contradictory. For example, God elects the faithful with overwhelming force that the will cannot resist. Yet we must also make a genuine response of faith, a free decision of the will to repent and trust Christ.[2] The former sentence says free will plays no role in salvation. The latter says it does. This antinomy has been debated for over 400 years and continues today. Some reject one of these interpretations outright and take a firm position. Others acknowledge the conflict and fall into vague belief. I remember discussing this particular antimony with a trained theologian over dinner. He concluded: “Yes, these are contradictory ideas, both true. It’s a mystery, yet I believe.” Do you believe two contradictory statements can both be factual? I asked and received the same answer.

Some biblical scholars deal with the problem of antinomy by seeing it as a matter of apparent contradiction. Human inadequacy leaves enough obscurity to give the impression of conflict, even though it’s not objectively there. If we had the full knowledge of God, our interpretations would be more precise, and such anomalies would dissolve. Other scholars appeal to the limitation of human logic. They say God has access to a more excellent logic that resolves contradiction. Both camps often appeal to Isaiah, for example:

My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the Earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.

These scholarly solutions to antinomy take a significant burden off us. We may assert problematic doctrine confidently while dismissing any apparent conflict since, ultimately, it’s not real. But is this a good strategy? How can we trust our interpretations with this attitude? How does an appeal to our fallibility give us confidence in the various doctrines composed of antinomy? If we are poorly exegeting, that is a problem. If we are doing a sufficient job, why does the antinomy remain? We cannot have it both ways.

But what about a higher logic? This perspective is outright mistaken. The notion that God’s logic can resolve contradiction fails to understand that the principles of logic are not human inventions any more than man invented 2+2=4. Logic, like mathematics, finds its grounding in the very nature of God. We discovered logic, not invented it. There is no superior logic that makes a proposition and its negation true, any more than you can make 2+2=5 using a higher math. Both solutions appeal to mystery at best and are mistaken at worst. Internal antinomy is a real issue, requiring a real solution. But what about difficulties from knowledge outside the Bible?

Extrabiblical conflict occurs when an outside source of knowledge contradicts or is contrary to what the Bible says. A good example would be a literal interpretation of Genesis describing our world as a few thousand years old rather than several billion, as science confirms. These are contrary views, where both cannot be true. I have had several conversations that end in something like: “Yes, I understand science says the Earth is old, but the Bible says it is young. It’s a mystery. I don’t understand the conflict, but I believe it is young.” Vague belief is not the inevitable outcome in such scenarios. It depends on your view of authority.

Some dismiss the scientific perspective and treat the young-earth interpretation as authoritative and overriding. This tack is a matter of fundamentalism versus science, a topic I am not touching here. But those who dig deep into the age of the Earth often see a resounding consensus between cosmology, astronomy, geology, archeology, paleontology, and even anthropology. The mountain of evidence is so overwhelming that one must either reconsider how to interpret Genesis, dismiss science wholesale, or appeal to mystery. Landing on mystery inevitably takes us right back to vague belief. How could one accept an overwhelming consensus from science along with a contrary biblical interpretation? They both cannot be correct. So, we must choose a side or hold opposing views in tension.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with holding conflicting ideas in tension per se. Sometimes, this tension is entirely reasonable, especially if it is merely for a season. The test of first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind simultaneously and still retain the ability to function—or at least, so says F. Scott Fitzgerald.[3] Holding views in tension is undoubtedly better than deceiving oneself and pretending no conflict exists. However, belief remains vague until the dissonance resolves by landing on a position. Relieving the tension frees us to share confidently. It also opens us up to being wrong, which can be good. That’s right; being wrong is sometimes a good thing.

Choosing a side might be the right strategy, even if you are unsure. We know endless skepticism deadens the soul. That’s the wrong road. An approach similar to Karl Popper’s falsification principle is to make a choice and see how it holds up over time. Failing forward can be an effective way to grow in many areas of life. However, these strategies are primarily pragmatic, where the error cost leads to a measurable benefit. But does the same apply to theological difficulties? For example, it isn’t easy to see how jumping on the Calvinism bandwagon without reasonable grounds benefits anyone. If you are in error, how will you fail forward? It’s hard to say, and perhaps a better strategy is needed.

How do we deal with contrary ideas held in tension and the vague belief it produces? There is no one answer to every situation. But we can cultivate certain attitudes that are helpful in our journey as professing Christians:

    1. Holes—recognize that our Christian worldview is organic, a work in progress, full of holes and conflicts. No person, pastor, or denomination has the perfect theology or doctrine.[4]
    2. Humility—because we do not have the perfect worldview, remain humble when expressing it—especially the unclear parts.
    3. Hearts—do everything in love and for the encouragement of others (believers and unbelievers). Highly debated doctrines are often divisive and discouraging internally and externally.
    4. Hesitation—gauge your confidence in an assertion so that it tracks your ability to articulate. It is not good to tell others what you believe if you cannot put it into cohesive words. Pausing, reflecting, holding our tongues, and listening is frequently better.
    5. Hunger—pull something off your shelf of antinomies and extrabiblical conflicts, dig deeper, and try to resolve any difficulties.

Cultivating the above attitudes regarding vague belief helps us in a few ways. We become more teachable. After all, how can we be taught if we have all of the answers? It helps us listen more and talk less while focusing on solid matters. Our speech benefits the community of believers and is less likely to lead to disputes. When communicating with unbelievers, the above strategy is more effective. Well-reasoned and articulated aspects of our faith will go further than unclear statements. If the listener asks questions, you will be far more effective if you understand what you claim to believe. Finally, keep struggling. Vague belief is unsatisfactory if a more fabulous treasure is out there waiting for you to dig deeper. So if you want to say, “I don’t understand, but I believe,” stop, reflect and reconsider.

[1] You will recall P is a placeholder for any propositional statement
[2] Though I'm no Calvinist, I'm unconcerned with which view is correct here. I'm only concerned with the fact a conflict exists. Our will is involved (W), and it is not the case our will is involved ~W. The propositions (W and ~W) are contradictory, and both cannot possibly be true.
[3] February 1936 "Esquire" magazine
[4] God does, of course, but even those who see the Bible as His perfect word must rely on human methods of interpretation and the execution of those methods to build a systematic theology. There is plenty of room for human error.

  

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