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The Problem With Certitude
By David R. Currie,
Executive Director

Throughout the history of the church, there have always been those afflicted with the disease of certitude. They know the truth. Any who disagree with them are heretics.

Michael Sattler was killed by church members who had succumbed to the crippling effects of certitude. In The Anabaptist Story, Dr. William R. Estep records what happened to Sattler.

On a spring day in May, 1527, Michael Sattler was sentenced to death at the imperial city of Rottenburg on the Neckar River. The sentence read: Michael Sattler shall be committed to the executioner. The latter shall take him to the square and there first cut out his tongue, and then forge him fast to a wagon and there with glowing iron tongs twice tear pieces from his body, then on the way to the site of execution five times more as above and then burn his body to powder as an arch-heretic.

What terrible things did Michael Sattler do to be put to death in such a horrible and cruel way? To put it simply, he opposed the “Faith and Message” of 1527. He, wrongly, according to the religious authorities of his day, “taught, maintained and believed that the body and blood of Christ were not present in the sacrament” and “he taught and believed, that infant-baptism was not promotive of salvation.”

Baptists today agree with Sattler’s theology. But in 1527 he was a heretic. Church members said he did not believe the Bible. He disagreed with those in authority and power. And he paid for his faith with his life.

Most Baptists see what church members in 1527 called “absolute truth” as heresy in 2002.

In 2002, is anything considered to be absolute truth, which will be viewed as heresy 500 years from now?

The Bible is absolute truth. Our interpretations of the Bible are never absolute truth—and any who do not realize this are sadly deceived, laboring under a controlling illusion.

Consider the content of the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message. Statements of faith are the best people can do at the time they’re written. But using a “statement of faith” as an “instrument of doctrinal accountability” is both dangerous and evil. That’s precisely what the SBC is doing now, having identified the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message as that “instrument of doctrinal accountability.”

When the Southern Baptist Convention was formed in 1845, the founders did not adopt any creed of statement of faith, saying: “Confessions are only guides in interpretation, having no authority over the conscience.”

W.B. Johnson, first president of the SBC, explained: “We have constructed for our basis no new creed, acting in this manner upon a Baptist aversion for all creeds but the Bible.”

We recognize the wisdom of their choice, knowing that if they had written the 1845 Baptist Faith and Message, it probably would have included under the heading “The Christian and the Social Order” language like this:

In the spirit of Christ, slave owners should treat their slaves with respect and dignity. Slaves should be obedient to their masters.

Most likely, they would have cited scripture and verse at the conclusion of the section in the same way scripture and verse are cited in the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message. And they would have been perpetrating a malignant interpretation of Scripture by endorsing great evil.

The problem with certitude is that often what we are so certain of turns out to be dead wrong.

I am not opposed to doctrinal accountability on issues that matter. Employees of any SBC or BGCT institution or agency should affirm their belief that Jesus Christ was God in the Flesh, that the virgin birth of Jesus was reality, that the Bible is God’s inspired Word and our authority in matters of faith and practice.

But no Baptist, no missionary, no employee should be asked to affirm every word of a statement of faith written by others in order to work for Baptists—especially in matters that are not essential to salvation. Such non-essential matters include the role of women in the church and the structure of the family. The disease of certitude in non-essential matters is arrogant—and left untreated it will cripple the church.

Consider the probability that a hundred years from now most Southern Baptists will be very comfortable with both the idea and the reality of women pastors. This changed understanding will most likely start in rural churches where congregations cannot pay a full-time pastor.

For more than 20 years now, residents of rural communities have seen the local Methodist pastor do a good job of preaching and ministering—and in many rural Methodist churches, the pastor is a woman. Increasingly, Baptists understand Paul’s words to Timothy on pastoral qualifications as advice for a specific first-century culture rather than as a rule for the ages. They see God making that plain as He calls more and more women to ministry, gifting them so well that no one with eyes to see or ears to hear can deny their call.

The reality is that 99% of the women God is now calling have no radical agenda at all. They simply want to be obedient, to live out their call to preach the Word, visit the sick, baptize those who confess Christ as Savior, hold the hands of the dying and the bereaved, voice a prayer.

And yet, over this peripheral issue, which has nothing at all to do with salvation or reaching a lost world, we are firing seminary professors and forcing missionaries to leave their fields of service. The disease of certitude is hurting God’s work, hampering those God has called, crippling the church.

The problem with certitude is that often what we are so certain of turns out to be dead wrong. Some early Judean believers taught that no man could be saved unless he was circumcised. (Acts 15) The church members who burned Michael Sattler at the stake were sure they were right. Our ancestors were so sure the Bible taught they had the right to own other persons created in God’s image that they fought a war for that “right.” SBC leaders are so sure they’re right to require Baptist missionaries and seminary professors to affirm a faith statement written by someone else that they’ll fire them if they refuse.

Praise God, we do not burn our fellow believers at the stake anymore – though we may “tear pieces from the body” of their work or their reputations with the “hot tongs” of untruth. Paul Pressler told a Houston television interviewer in 1982, “In some of our Southern Baptist seminaries, not a single professor believes the Bible is the Word of God.” We may “cut out the tongue” of a long-term missionary whose witness on the field is silenced because he cannot in good conscience affirm the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message. We may “forge fast to the wagon” those whose freedom to follow God’s direction is hindered by required adherence to a human “instrument of doctrinal accountability.”

History—and our own experience—tells us that human beings are often wrong. We are sinful people, unable to fully comprehend the mind of God or the teachings of Holy Scripture. Those who forget this basic truth are guilty of arrogance. Imposing one’s own certitude on other believers in non-essential matters can become great evil.

May God have mercy on the souls of those who claim absolutely certain knowledge of His divine will—and on the souls of those who do not oppose both such arrogance and the evil it produces.

September 2002