A recent rabbit led me to a trail upon which an old, forgotten (by me) book had been assigned by its author for a systematic theology class back in 2002. A portion of it had to do with "cognitive rest," or the coming to a certain position “because of the presence of something very much like a feeling . . . . It is the sense that now one can commit himself to the belief, that he can 'live' with it” (John Frame, Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, 152–53). Regarding Christian belief, coming to a cognitive rest “is achieving a ‘godly sense of satisfaction’ with the message of Scripture” (153). Cognitive rest means no more struggling against the truth but rather embracing it.
In the end, cognitive rest, wrought by the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit, is not new revelation but rather “the Spirit’s work [that] illumines and confirms the revelation already given” (156).1 Professor Frame concludes this brief discussion with the recognition that it does concede “some truth to the subjectivist position: I cannot regard any belief as justified unless it accords with my subjective inclinations . . . . Thus the godly sense of satisfaction may be defined in terms of Scripture. What satisfies me is what I believe Scripture warrants. Or it may be defined situationally as a feeling that I have understood the facts. The three perspectives are one!” (161–62).
This last sentence is of course an example of the main reason why many disagree with tri-perspectivalism: all the perspectives are said to collapse into the existential.
But maybe the good professor feels the weight of the inevitable relativity inherent in any human society, and thus tri-perspectivalism is an attempt to (re)construct an institution worth handing down, namely, a foundation for thinking and acting in this modern world? I'd suggest tentatively that those who kick hard against these goads are those who see the radical contingency of this present world and yet refuse to think that they are affected by it, that their deductive dogma renders them untouchable. Maybe the tri-perspectivalist has gone through an epistemological crisis—which crisis actually enabled tri-perspectivalism to begin with? What crisis would that be?
In a word, it is pluralism. Pluralism brings along with it the imperative of many choices, and along with that comes—necessarily—uncertainty. How do we face the notion that everything we do and believe is historically located, that the institution of religion itself is socially constructed and therefore unable to be known with any epistemological certitude? While this modern world seems to actually create the necessity of a presuppositionalism or fideism, I have yet to see the correlation between tri-perspectivalism and a presuppositionalism of the more dogmatic sort. In other words, tri-perspectivalism does not allow for the mere dogmatic (and axiomatic) assertion (of Christianity) for which many presuppositionalists are known.
Still, the question remains: with respect to the Christian faith, can anything be known without even a hint of doubt? Most Christians would say yes. Some might say the Word of God is certain (a certainty wrought by the internal testimony of the Spirit, no doubt). When it tells us something clearly, that something we are to hold with certainty. Also, it does appear that doubt is castigated at some points in Scripture—for example, those instances in Scripture where “unbelief” is found wanting as an excuse on Judgment Day.
Peter Berger (I know, I know) writes in “Protestantism and the Quest for Certainty” that pluralism affects us deeply in relation to how we believe (not what).2 “Pluralism ensures that socialization processes are not uniform and, consequently, that the view of reality is much less firmly held. Put differently, certainty is now much harder to come by." At any rate, Berger argues that the Reformation inadvertently created this situation. How? Because of its principle of individual conscience ("Here I stand . . ."), which carried with it the potential for an ever-expanding variety of Christian groupings. “History is always the arena of unintended consequences." Eventually, every religious tradition had to come to terms with the simple fact that it no longer controlled a captive population of adherents. The modern is faced with a plethora of choices, one of which is leaving a particular tradition only to try on another. Thus, nothing can be taken for granted any longer, which essentially means that all claims to truth are relativized. However, we are not left with a crass open-ended and unchecked relativism, nor are we forced into some variant of “absolutist retrenchment.” There is a middle way, and it expresses itself in “prototypically Protestant . . . language: . . . sola fide.” Berger argues further that once we recognize this situation, attempting to construct taken-for-granted institutions in this modern world would, over time, be difficult to fake. To him, the Protestant principle of sola fide implies a rejection of all absolute claims, “ipso facto of all offers of restored taken-for-granted certainty. It insists that the believer should live by faith alone—and that, by God’s grace, this is actually possible." The reader may see how this substantiates, for example, Esther Meeks’ view of certainty (that it cannot be without doubt), as opposed to Frame's tri-perspectival answer to the certainty question: Some things are to be known without doubt, because the Bible tells us that in some cases doubt is wrong. But consider the following from Berger, which I should “know” to be misguided, yet feel otherwise (I quote him at length):
Conventional Christian language maintains that there is a contradiction between faith and lack of faith, belief and unbelief. The implication is that unbelief is sinful. This has never been very persuasive to me. God has not exactly made it easy for us to believe in him, and, it seems to me, a just God will not hold it against us if we don’t manage the exercise. Be that as it may, it seems more plausible to me to propose a contradiction not between belief and unbelief but between belief and knowledge. If we know something, there is no reason to believe; conversely, if we say that we believe something, we are implying that we don’t know. A world that is taken for granted is one in which people know (more accurately, think they know) what is true; they don’t have to believe. Putting the contradiction in this way, one must then ask: Just what do we know when it comes to religion?His answer is simply that what we affirm, we must affirm modestly and with no pretense of certitude. We ought to be a people “unsure of [our]selves, groping for a few glimpses of truth to hold onto, even where it seems that the roof is about to fall in.” The reason behind this posture is the paradox between Christ and culture. While Christians believe in the resurrection of Jesus and in his glorious return, that glory is obviously not yet. “The triumphant Christ is still coming; we are still in the aeon of the kenotic Jesus." The church therefore pronounces this coming triumph, yet it still bears the marks of Jesus’ kenosis.
I find this hard to deny. We gaze upon the conquered Promised Land, yet we wander in the wilderness, exiled, and in great need of repentance. Nonetheless, contra Berger, is there not even one object in which we can place our confidence that nudges up against something like certitude? Is it not this message of coming triumph? Whatever one’s views about inerrancy, are not the promises of God through Jesus the singular item that mysteriously comes to be believed with little doubt precisely because of God’s gracious call? Maybe everything else contained in the annals of historic, Christian orthodoxy should be under “permanent reflection,” but the coming triumph? So what if, for example, the kingdom of Solomon was greatly exaggerated, that doesn’t mark the difference between sheep and goats. What makes one a Christian, apparently, is personal trust, flowing from Word and sacrament, in he who is “able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted” (2 Tim. 1:12). In short, it is he who trusts and obeys God's Christ by the power of his Spirit. Anything resembling certainty with little or no doubt must be found there—yes, through (not in) the institution of the church, the religious experiences she gives, and the authority of the sacred text she proclaims.
To be sure, we still must exercise faith through such institutions (for such is the means by which beliefs and values are transmitted from generation to generation3), but taking them for granted is untenable is this modern world. All of them have been weakened: the certainty of church institutions by historical scholarship and the social sciences; the certainty of inner experience by psychology and the sociology of knowledge; the certainty of the biblical text by the findings of biblical criticism. Tri-perspectivalism perhaps attempts to prepare us for this very feeling of vertigo that comes when we are faced with the weakening of our beloved taken-for-granted institutions. Berger’s theory of the social construction of reality does much the same thing, though perhaps more consistently. Could the two be close cousins? Both, after all, are able to relativize the relativizers. Both undermine dogmatic assertions by recognizing the role of self and situation in the gaining of “knowledge.” Both affirm the existence of an absolute (i.e., the truth) that is knowable only through (to use a once-familiar phrase in Frame's classes) the participation of the other perspectives. Both force us to take a stand in the face of pluralism and place our trust in Providence, even while we approach most things as milquetoast “uncertainty-wallahs.”4
Our faith, then, is that God is really and truly present in the world, whether we receive him or not (much like the the proclamation of his Word and the administration of the sacraments). The same can be said for the other institutions mentioned above (the church, the experience, the text). The hope is held but cautiously. As a community of imperfectly glorified people, can we do much better? Maybe in the end sola fide does stand as the only non-Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox answer to this peculiarly modern situation. But while Saint Paul had much to distrust, underlying this contingency was a trustworthy God: “I know in whom I have believed.” I think we can say this too, while at the same time recognizing that our tradition is not immune to criticism, or put another way, to the relativity intrinsic to any social construction. To pretend that it can be immune, is nothing more than entering the world of self-delusion. This is not the Emersonian disdain for any and all institutions; rather, this is a simple affirmation that God, and God alone, is sure. All else is subject to change.
What other option is there in this time between the times?
1 Similarly, Kierkegaard wrote that there is “only one proof for the truth of Christianity—the inward proof, argumentum spiritus sancti.” He then cited 1 John 5:9–10 to substantiate this. ↩
2 From The Christian Century, 115.23 (Aug 26, 1998). ↩
3 In case the reader is wondering, so Berger: “Yes, such institutions . . . can survive—and sometimes they show a surprising vitality." All this means is that our choices must be deliberate. No longer can we unthinkingly ‘go with the flow.’ ↩
4 This idiosyncratic phrase is Berger’s way to describe himself and others who by free choice belong to “weak” religious institutions, that is, those institutions that are not founded upon taken-for-granted verities, and which are entered and left voluntarily. See also my description above about Christ being in paradox with culture. ↩