On an Apologetic for Doubt

C. Michael Patton is hardly my favorite blogger, as you might have guessed by now. The reason I have him in my RSS feed is because the sorts of things he typically says are symptomatic of what is wrong with most of non-confessional “Calvinism.” What I’ve dealt with most from him, of course, is the subject of “doubt”. The subject of doubt, for some reason, seems to be a fascination with Mr. Patton. As one who is focused on the apologetic implications of theological stances, his “advice” on this subject often horrifies me. Case in point: “On Talking to Those who Doubt.

What always strikes me hardest about Patton’s posts is that he spends entire posts writing about doubt, yet never defines it exegetically with precision. In preparation for writing this post, I went back and read through all of his posts tagged “doubt”, and couldn’t find where he specifically defines the word “doubt”, nor a single instance where he does an exegetical study which defines it. He does plenty of topical studies, but with little to no exegesis. In the majority of his posts on the subject, I’m surprised to find a single reference. For instance, take this excerpt:

“It has been well said that unbelief, not doubt, is the opposite of belief. Doubt is the bridge from our current faith to perfect faith.” [1] Please examine the context of this quote for any exegetical basis for this statement. Feel free to range the extent of the article, in fact. You will also notice that even Patton states that doubt is something sinful; “Christians doubt. No, not always. But Christians do doubt. Christians doubt because their faith is not perfect. Christians doubt because we are fallen. Christians doubt because we live in a confusing world that breeds misinformation, impossible expectations, depression, pain, suffering, sin, and skepticism.”[2] So, if the *cause* of doubt is imperfection, fallenness – sin; then is doubt not sinful? As I’ve argued previously, there is no Biblical warrant to consider doubt as anything other than a form of unbelief. I also argued that doubt is, in fact, neutrality.[3] Again and again Patton presents “doubt” as something in between belief and unbelief. What is this, I ask, except an affirmation of neutrality?

Since I critiqued Patton for not giving an exegetical treatment of doubt, I’ll provide one, albeit somewhat truncated. I’ve been meaning to do this for quite some time, but other matters have interceded. First, here are the words used for “doubt.” The NASB only gives a few instances of a word translated “doubt” – Matthew 14:31, 21:21, and Mark 11:23. The word in 14:31, διστάζω, is also used in Matthew 28:17 as “doubtful”, so we’ll add that to the list. The word translated as “doubt” in Matthew 21:21 and Mark 11:23 is διακρίνω – it is also used in Matthew 16:3 (but in a different context, as we’ll see), several places in Acts (10:20, 11:2, 12), as well as in Romans 4:20, 14:23, 1 Cor 4:7, 6:5, 11:29, 31, 14:29. It is also used in James 1:6, 2:4, as well as in Jude 1:9, and 22.

Although there is a risk of falling into exegetical fallacies here, I should point something out about these two words. You will notice that they look similar – but that is only superficially accurate. In the latter case, we have a compound word – with the prefix “dia”. This is a preposition – similar to by, or through – not as in “two”. It is akin to “dis” in Latin, in that it denotes a division into parts. In the former, however, we do have “dis” as the root – this time in Greek – for “twice” or “double” as the root of our word. The word means “to stand in two ways”, implying “uncertainty which way to take.”[4] Let’s take a look at Matthew 14:31 first.

But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.” Peter said to Him, “Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water.” And He said, “Come!” And Peter got out of the boat, and walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But seeing the wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Immediately Jesus stretched out His hand and took hold of him, and said to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind stopped. And those who were in the boat worshiped Him, saying, “You are certainly God’s Son!” – Matt 14:27-33

Obviously, this is the passage which relates Christ’s walk on the water of the Sea of Galilee, and Peter’s abortive attempt to do the same. Christ’s remark to Peter follows him sinking, and Christ’s rescue of him. Note something here – he tells Peter that he has little faith, not that he has none. But let’s think through a few things at this point. Faith is a gift from God, correct? Hence, Peter’s faith is not of himself – it is a gift of God. (Eph 2:8-9) God gives to all a measure of faith. (Romans 12:3) So, the first thing we have to ask is this – is Christ rebuking Peter for that which he has no control over? For having too little faith? Hardly, because Matt 17:20 and Luke 17:6 tell us that even faith the size of a mustard seed is sufficient to move mountains, or plant trees in the sea. Then, our next question should be; what is Peter faulted for? Well, the text says it clearly. “Why did you doubt?” What was Paul told elsewhere? “My grace is sufficient for you.” (2 Cor 12:9) If, then, the faith granted to Peter was sufficient, why did he fail? According to the text, it was because he doubted. Does this sound like something we should encourage, then? Does Scripture tell us to encourage the cause of failure? See, what we see here is precisely that – a failure. Peter failed, because Peter doubted. So, what is doubt? Doubt, I will submit to you, is the consideration of unbelief on an equal footing with belief. It is indecision between the two, when God presents it as a binary set. It is something specific to the believer which paralyzes them, and renders them powerless – it is pretended neutrality, a false consideration of the nature of belief and unbelief which is itself a subtle form of unbelief. Why do I say that? Was it belief in Christ which Peter was exercising when he began to sink? Of course it wasn’t. So was Peter believing, or unbelieving while he sank? I think we’re forced to say that Peter was unbelieving. Thus, in doubt, we sink – and therefore, doubt is a form of unbelief. Now, the objection may be made – “but Peter was told he had faith!” Of course, this is true. What is not being accounted for in this objection, however, is the dual nature of the believer. The new and old man of the believer are at war, are they not? (Romans 7) So, when these two natures are at war, what happens when the old nature wins out for a time? The old man is ascendant, and unbelief comes to the fore, while the new man is still in possession of belief, albeit a temporarily suppressed belief.

So, where do we get this? Romans 1, and Mark 9:24. In Romans 1, we read of the truth being suppressed in unrighteousness. Suffice it to say, for the point of this argument, that this old nature has not passed away as yet. It still strives to suppress that truth in unrighteousness, and to hold down faith like a murderer attempts to hold his victim’s head beneath the water. If you wish to look over my discussion of the suppression of the truth, you can find it in my treatment of Romans 1. In any case, it is plain to me that we cannot view this subject simplistically. There are two natures in view, with two mutually exclusive goals – and they both must be accounted for when we speak of “doubt.” The new man does indeed believe – but as with Peter, if the old man gains ascendency, the faith he possesses is held under, suppressed, in favor of unbelief. We see this principle fleshed out in Mark 9, as well. The man cries out; “I do believe! Forgive my unbelief!” Are we to believe that this man is both believing and unbelieving? Yes, we are. However, not at the same time, nor in the same way. His spirit is crying out “believe!” and his flesh is crying out “doubt!” He is vacillating back and forth between the two, and begs forgiveness for His unbelief. I can see it now, though – the objection will be made that it isn’t doubt that he is asking forgiveness for. It is unbelief! Doubt isn’t a sin! It’s something common to us all!

Sin is common to us all. Pride is common to us all. Self-reliance, self-determination, self-assurance, self-sufficiency – all common to us – and just as commonly sinful. Doubt, again, is the consideration of belief and unbelief as equal states to be chosen from. To consider them as such is to consider two unequal states as actually equal. To consider sin as equal with righteousness, wrong as equal with right, darkness as equal with light. It is dragging God down to our level, and usurping His throne as the judge as to what is right, proper, or reasonable. We are merely repeating the sin of Adam by doing so. The serpent’s goal was to provoke man to think neutrally. When the choice is made under those conditions by a fallen man, the choice is inevitably evil. We are sinful, by nature. If we give up the field before the fight even begins, we are doomed to lose. Let’s take the word itself, and view it in light of another passage. The word means “to stand two ways”, does it not? Tell me – the insistent injunction of Ephesians 6 is to “stand” – is it not? How familiar are you with 1st century battle tactics? When you “stand” as a member of a unit in a Greco-Roman army, you stand in ranks. You do not stand alone. You stand facing the same direction, and have responsibilities to the man to your left, as the man to your right has to you. With the shield on your left arm, you are responsible for protecting not only yourself, but the right side of the man on your left, as he uses his sword or spear. The man to your right is responsible for doing the same for you. As such, you do not have the luxury of “standing two ways” – it is not a luxury at all. It is death. For you, or for your cohort. If you turn aside, break ranks, or something similar, you leave an opening in the rank – an opening which will be quickly widened, due to your carelessness, and lead to even more carnage. You can’t stand with one sandal on, and one sandal off. You can’t stand facing one direction one moment, and another direction the next. You can’t stand to the left when everyone else is standing to the right. You can’t have it both ways, Christian! You are to stand, and you are to stand fully armored, as you are commanded. Part of that armor is… the shield of faith. You don’t have an option for whether you bring it or not. You have a place in the ranks. You don’t have a choice about whether the shield is supposed to be on your arm, covering the man to your left as well as yourself. The “right and left hand” references are in some small part due to this concept. The man to your right, you trust implicitly – because he is the one who guards you. You consider the one on your left hand worthy of protecting, because you have placed him on your left. If you tell me “it’s okay to doubt” – you’re telling me that I can’t trust you. That you don’t consider it to be your duty to protect me! You’re telling me that not only do I not want to be anywhere near you in a battle, but that you are not intending to do your part in it. That I should watch for breakthroughs in your section of the line – and that you don’t think that’s a problem. Let me tell you this right now – it’s a problem.

Let’s look at the more common word now, and examine Matthew 21:21.

Now in the morning, when He was returning to the city, He became hungry. Seeing a lone fig tree by the road, He came to it and found nothing on it except leaves only; and He [!] said to it, “No longer shall there ever be any fruit from you.” And at once the fig tree withered. Seeing this, the disciples were amazed and asked, “How did the fig tree wither all at once?” And Jesus answered and said to them, “Truly I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what was done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and cast into the sea,’ it will happen. And all things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive.” – Matt 21:18-22

The word here is διακρίνω – and the sense here is “to be at variance with yourself”. To doubt. As already mentioned, this is a compound word – dia and krino. The primary semantic domain of “krino” is judgment – the sense here is that you’re judging divergent ways, and can’t decide which – that you’re opposing yourself. You are, in microcosm, a house divided – unstable – double-minded – a self-oppositional judge.

Now, first thing to note. Can they do any of the things Christ says they can do – if they doubt? No, it expressly says that they can do so only if they do have faith, and if they do not doubt. Doubt, then, is antithetical to faith. Can you say to the mountain “Be taken up and cast into the sea” while in doubt? Nope. Can you pray in doubt and expect it to be granted? Nope. What does that tell us about doubt? 1) God doesn’t grant prayers from doubts, but from faith. 2) God doesn’t act with doubt as the means. What does that say about the position which puts forth doubt as one of the means of grace? I’m sure they’d be nonplussed by that description, but the way they speak of doubt is essentially the way that confessionally Reformed Christians speak about the means of grace. For instance: “When a Christian begins to doubt their faith, it can issue a warrant for our hope, purpose, foundation for living, and even our sanity.” Or how about this – “what we must realize is that any type of true intellectual engagement—any time we seek to love God with our minds—this requires an assumption of some doubt.”

So, is it true that in some sense, faith presupposes doubt? Absolutely not. That seems to be the sense that Patton wants to convey to us – but nothing could be further from the truth. Faith, as given by God, is perfect. It is sufficient, and it is capable of doing precisely that which it was intended to do. It does not depend on an imperfection in itself, nor does it depend on it’s own lack to be intelligible. On the contrary, imperfection presupposes perfection. A lack presupposes that which is lacking. This idea is looking at the subject completely backwards. We may as well say that righteousness presupposes sin! That is just plain ridiculous. If we are to have faith, we must have it without any doubting. Note Romans 4:20. “Yet, with respect to the promise of God, he did not waver (διακρίνω) in unbelief but grew strong in faith, giving glory to God” – he did not “doubt” – or “waver” – in unbelief. It seems to say fairly clearly that doubt is squarely within the realm of unbelief, does it not? James 1:6 tells us to ask in faith – without any doubting. Why? Because the one who doubts is like the surf of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind – but look forward a few verses. He is “double-minded” – and “unstable in all his ways.” Does this look like something which “issues a warrant for our hope”? Does loving God require instability, and double-mindedness? Certainly not. Finally, let us consider Jude 1:22. We are told to have mercy on those who are doubting, per some translations. Others render it in the other sense – as discerning between those to have mercy for, in varying ways. We’ll consider it in the former sense; if we are to have mercy on them, then what they are doing is by its very nature unworthy of it, is it not? You do not have mercy in response to that which is right. You are merciful in response to that which is wrong. Yet, don’t neglect what is said to follow. Some, save with fear – pulling them out of the fire! You don’t have time for dealing with them over a great amount of time – yank them back first! We should fear for them, because their position is fearful.

Which brings us to the next point. There is a common theme in Patton’s discussion of the topic of doubt which centers on whether we should be “afraid to express doubts.” He says that God doesn’t fear doubts. He says, further, that we shouldn’t fear them either. The problem with his treatment is that he seems to consider doubt as both something positive and negative. Patton on the one hand doesn’t want us to doubt; “Feeling alone in a time of doubt amplifies the power of the doubt unnecessarily.” “All doubt will be done away with one day.” On the other hand, he asserts that doubt is presupposed by faith, somehow. “[A]ny type of true intellectual engagement—any time we seek to love God with our minds—this requires an assumption of some doubt” In fact, it’s something we shouldn’t be ashamed of. “If John the Baptist doubted, I don’t think anyone should feel too ashamed when they doubt.” So, if John sinned, we shouldn’t be ashamed if we sin? I don’t think that follows. Do you? If doubt is something that will pass away in perfection, then why should we say that we need doubt in order to have faith? If, in order to seek God, we have to assume that God might not be telling the truth, this seems like jumping headfirst into the rabbit hole. We have to deny it in order to affirm it. A truly strange series of events, by any measure.

On the contrary, we affirm that faith is the gift of God – that the reason doubt will be abolished is because it is a function of sin, not of sanctification. The eradication of doubt is part of the mortification of sin, and clinging to that doubt is symptomatic of love for the world. To doubt is to be unstable, double-minded. This is for children, as Paul tells us in Eph. 4:14. James tells the double-minded to purify their hearts later on in chapter 4. Are we to think that he’s speaking of someone else there? Note also that Jude uses similar imagery, although much harsher, to describe the false teachers.

These are spots in your love feasts, while they feast with you without fear, serving [only] themselves. [They are] clouds without water, carried about by the winds; late autumn trees without fruit, twice dead, pulled up by the roots; raging waves of the sea, foaming up their own shame; wandering stars for whom is reserved the blackness of darkness forever.

They, too, are unstable, carried about, at the mercy of wind and wave. These, however, are doubly-dead, not merely double-minded. Who do they entice, according to Peter? Unstable souls. Mentioned later, these same untaught, unstable souls twist the Scriptures to their own destruction. This is a warning. Those who doubt are unstable. Those who are unstable are those who are led away by false teachers. The answer to doubts is not to accept them as valid, to encourage them as something to be embraced, and lead to sanctification – doubts are to be addressed, they are to refuted, and are to be responded to. We must be merciful to those who have doubts – but we are not to allow that mercy to be untempered by truth. We speak the truth in love. We do not water down the truth in order to more “fully” express love – but we are not to be lacking in compassion for the sake of truth, either. We must give a balanced, loving, truthful answer for the hope that is within us. We cannot, however, give this answer from our doubts – but from faith and to faith, which is at war with the doubt in their souls. We cannot speak to doubt as we speak to faith. We must be in opposition to doubt, but mindful of it, and aware of its provenance. Doubt is not the basis for faith. It is the breeding ground for all kinds of unbelief. Only in the corruption of doubt does unbelief grow and mature. Faith is that which is perfect. Doubt is the fallen battleground where unbelief asserts itself over sinful men.

Stand, and guard to your left.

  1. [1]http://www.reclaimingthemind.org/blog/2010/11/dealing-with-doubt/
  2. [2]http://www.reclaimingthemind.org/blog/2010/04/memorize-these-two-verses-and-call-me-in-the-morning-or-dealing-with-doubt-part-2/
  3. [3]http://www.choosinghats.org/2011/01/certainty-possibility-and-you/
  4. [4]Vine’s, διστάζω

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