Friday, October 18, 2019

Shades of assurance

1. Kinds of certainty

One of the perennial debates in Christian theology is the assurance of salvation. Let's begin by drawing some philosophical distinctions regarding different kinds of certainty:

There are various kinds of certainty. A belief is psychologically certain when the subject who has it is supremely convinced of its truth. Certainty is often explicated in terms of indubitability.

A second kind of certainty is epistemic. Roughly characterized, a belief is certain in this sense when it has the highest possible epistemic status. According to a second conception, a subject's belief is certain just in case it could not have been mistaken—i.e., false (see, e.g., Lewis 1929). Alternatively, the subject's belief is certain when it is guaranteed to be true. 

2. Objective certainty

i) In Calvinism, if true, or universalism, if true, salvation is objectively certain. If you're elect, you will be saved. Your salvation depends on God's unfailing will. Universalism is similar except in scope. On both positions, salvation is a sure thing. The outcome is guaranteed. 

ii) In most varieties of freewill theism, by contrast, salvation is objectively uncertain because you can slip in and out of salvation. You can gain it, lose it, and regain it. So at least up until the moment of death, your salvation is constantly indeterminate. 

iii) There's a question of whether universalism is consistent with freewill theism. In addition, postmortem salvation is becoming more popular. 

iv) In that respect, it's rather like whether you're genetically predetermined to develop a degenerative illness. You either are or you aren't. If you're tested, and the result is negative, that's a relief, but there's the risk of having a positive result, in which  case you might be better off not knowing in advance. So long as you're asymptomatic, you will enjoy peace of mind by not knowing. Ignorance is bliss.

v) In that respect, there's a fundamental difference between Calvinism and freewill theism. 

3. Psychological certainty

i) However, psychological certainty is harder to nail down regardless of the theological system. In freewill theism, psychological certainty is well-nigh impossible given the fact that you can slip in and out of salvation. The future is unpredictable. 

ii) And in both Calvinism and freewill theism, there's the possibility of false assurance. Indeed, that's commonplace. 

iii) Even universalism can't offer psychological certainty since a universalist may harbor nagging doubts that universalism is true. 

iv) According to the "free grace" position, justification by faith alone is sufficient for salvation. If that condition is met,  the assurance of salvation is a given.

The "free grace" position has a grain of truth. It's true that whoever is justified is heavenbound. However, the "free grace" position artificially detaches justification from other necessary elements of salvation by grace alone. 

And in any case, it suffers from the same problem as universalism: if it's true, then the assurance of salvation is warranted, but that doesn't forestall doubts and misgivings about whether it's true. 

v) As a rule, traditional Catholicism (Tridentine theology) denies that the assurance of salvation is ordinarily attainable. 

vi) Depending on the theological system, this relation between objective certainty and psychological certainty is like having an illness that is fatal unless you take the right antidote, only you don't know which antidote is the right one. Suppose there are three pills: two are the right antidote while one is the wrong antidote. You can only take one pill. If you take two, you will die from an overdose. It's nerve-wracking not to know which pill to take. Likewise, suppose you won't know for 48 hours if you took the right pill or the wrong pill? That's nerve-wracking, too. 

Still, your level of anxiety has no bearing on your survival. If you took the right pill, you will survive. What ultimately matters isn't your state of mind but what will happen. Even if you're robbed of the comfort of knowing you took the right pill, that's fairly inconsequential compared to whether or not you did indeed take the right pill. 

vii) In Calvinism, paradoxically, one of the elect might be wracked by self-doubt or even (due to clinical depression or mental illness) be convinced he's damned, only to be pleasantly surprised by what awaits him after he dies. Indeed, there's a special kind of relief and gratitude enjoyed by those who assume the worst, only to find out that the best lay in store for them. 

viii) Of course, it's possible for God to simply grant some Christians psychological certainty. Indeed, I think God does that in many cases. 

4. The burden of proof

In classic Protestant theology, the foil was traditional Catholicism. That studiously cultivated dread and foreboding about your eternal destiny in order to keep Catholics chained to the sacerdotal system. It compiled an artificial list of mortal sins. 

But once we clear away the manmade obstacles to the assurance of salvation, then that puts the issue in a brighter light. Is there a presumption that God is out to get you, even though you're a conscientious Christian who struggles with sin, yet you're staking everything on Christianity? 

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