Arrogance and Certainty

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Andrew Sandlin asks why, if I do not believe my observations and pronouncements to be on a par with Scripture, I speak as confidently as I do. In this confidence, Andrew sees the hallmarks of religious arrogance. My answer to this (in brief) is that the Bible teaches that when the bugle blows indistinctly, no one prepares for battle (1 Cor. 14:8). Peter says that the one speaking needs to speak a certain way. “If any man speak, let him speak as the oracles of God“(1 Pet. 4:11). Preaching provides an obvious example. I know that my sermons are not infallible, inerrant, or in any way to be considered on a level with Scripture. I know that, down in my bones. And yet, I am commanded to speak as the oracles of God. The pulpits of America need to thunder with far more examples of “Thus saith the Lord” and far fewer examples of “It seems to me.” There is no necessary connection that Scripture makes between “an absence of disclaimers” and “religious arrogance.” Interestingly, Andrew is maintaining that we may only say what Scripture says. He notes this when he acknowledges that the Bible doesn’t say anything about my personal arrogance, but the striking thing to note is that Scripture also doesn’t say anything about the standard he is using to make his determination. Where does the Bible say that humility is characterized by professions of relative proneness to error?

All this creates an interesting scenario. A number of times in my ministry I have been confronted with a situation where a biblical obedience would make me look arrogant, and I knew that this is how it would make me look beforehand. But what is better? Disobedience that looks humble, or obedience that looks arrogant? When I first started thinking about Peter’s requirement as it applied to my own preaching, I knew that to speak this way would provoke the question in many hearers, “Who does he think he is?” But far better to have people in the congregation asking the question than to have God asking it. “I told you how to preach, Wilson.” “Yes, but speaking as the very ‘oracles of God’ could be taken by some in the listening audience as exhibiting an epistemic hubris. I don’t want people thinking I am arrogant.” “Yes, but if you don’t speak the way you are told, you will in fact be arrogant.”

Let’s come at this another way. Isaiah pronounces a woe on those who call evil good and good evil, and so on (Is. 5:20). One of the ways contemporary evangelicalism has fallen into this woe has to do with this very matter of defining arrogance and humility. (I am illustrating the general climate here; I am not saying that Andrew is doing this specifically.) In our day a man can preach for twenty minutes straight, pacing between two plastic ferns, and his personal life is as open and transparent as the pulpit he keeps walking past. He talks about himself the entire time, his experiences, personal anecdotes, foibles, etc. and the net effect on many is that such a man is so humble. Another man, a hairy Tishbite like John Knox, gets into the pulpit and tries to preach the truth as it would have been had he never been born. How does he come across? As proud and arrogant. It seems incontestable to me that in our subjective times, men who proclaim an unchanging and objectively true word (and remember how our debate started as Andrew’s response to my attack on postmodern denials of objective truth) will be thought arrogant. Men who just go with the flow will be thought humble.

My point about Andrew agreeing my views on satire was clearly not to say that we agree on applications, but rather to say that we generally agree in principle. This discussion was provoked by my assault on postmodernism in the church, a postmodernism that denies the reality of objective truth. It was not provoked by our jibe in Credenda of several years ago that compared Joe Morecraft’s “heresy trial” to a box of macaroni and cheese. The current context involves what I believe to be genuine apostasy.

But with regard to Joe Morecraft, how would I answer Andrew’s question there? I do not believe Morecraft to be apostate, heretical, etc. If he came to worship at Christ Church, he would certainly be welcomed to the communion table. At the same time, we were willing to make fun of what he did, so where do we get off? The standard, as we have worked it out from Scripture, is that religious pomposity and arrogance is fair game. The eternal destiny of the one exhibiting the arrogance is not in question. Some of the Pharisees with wide phylacteries, flowing robes, and lengthy prayers were saved people, or blood-washed, to use Andrew’s term. Jesus still made fun of them. When the arrogance is overt, then the idolatry of that arrogance may be publicly attacked with biblical weapons. When I hear about a Sunday evening service being turned over to professional wrestlers, I don’t have to refrain from satirizing it because the people involved are born again. Born again or not, they are making a travesty of the worship of God, just as Joe Morecraft made a travesty of biblical justice and judicial procedures. But at the same time, when the person in question is in the position that Joe Morecraft was in, such a response should not be done lightly at all. So when we were condemned as heretics, without evidence cited, without anyone talking to us, and without clear understanding what our actual positions were, the first thing we did was attempt to communicate with Joe privately before our church issued a public response of any kind. Joe flatly refused to work with us on it. Consequently, the only reasonable thing that was left for us to do was to explore the matrix between modern Southern Presbyterianism insta-mix heresy trials and Kraft mac in a box.

Andrew makes the point that if I am in fact religiously arrogant, this would make me fair game. And the answer here is that “yes, it would.” If I were in fact an arrogant man, and someone came after me with an admonitory cricket bat, I would deserve whatever I got, good and hard. No double standard here.

Another point is a curious one. Andrew says that although I am religiously arrogant, I am not a suitable candidate for satire because, as he put it, “He loves Jesus; he follows Jesus; he reads Jesus’ Word; he spends time on His knees; he cares for his flock.” But religious arrogance is not a bagatelle. If it is there, it necessarily corrupts the whole. The assessment would have to read more like this: “He loves Jesus (but in his arrogance, not really). He follows Jesus, but in his arrogant heart he is actually fleeing Jesus. He reads Jesus’ Word in order to twist it in that arrogant way he has. He spends time on his knees, just like the Pharisee in the Temple. He keeps up the appearance of caring for his flock, because religious arrogance does not really care for others.” In short, in the Bible arrogance is never a trifle. Because of the contradictions in what Andrew was saying here, I am not sure what Andrew believed himself to be accusing me of — but in my vocabulary, arrogance is the most serious charge that could ever be leveled at a Christian minister. Because of how Jesus treated the arrogant, I would not take a false charge of adultery or embezzlement any more seriously than I am taking this. The fact that Andrew is a fellow minister in same CREC presbytery simply underscores the fact.

My intention is not to perpetuate a fracas here, but I do believe some important underlying issues are driving all of it, and they do need to be addressed. Andrew says that he believes that I am religiously arrogant because of various factors that he has cited. He is apparently assuming that his assessment exhibits epistemic humility because he is willing to say, in the next breath, that this could be wrong. But the Bible does not define humility this way. In the gradations of certainty that Andrew has on his dial, he was certain enough to make the claim in public, and then post it to the web. There is an important theological point here, one that I made in my post on the epistemology of blood. Lack of certainty is not measured by a calculus of “admitting the possibility of error.” That (ironically) is a philospher’s game that modernity taught us. Action (not theory) is the measurement of certainty. The feelings of uncertainty that we may have are ultimately irrelevant. Let’s go back to the example I used in an earlier post about certainty in the jury room. I may have all sorts of emotional second thoughts about a conviction, but if I vote to convict this means that my certainty is measured in my action.

If I were as uncertain about someone else’s arrogance as Andrew sounds about mine, I certainly wouldn’t have taken the show on the road. Andrew is willing to poke me in the nose, but this is somehow okay because he is not absolutely sure he should have done it? But at this point, I might ask, with hands muffling my question, “Why’d you do it then?”

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