The Apostle of Doubt vs. Calvin

Why I Lack Certainty about Christianity – C. Michael Patton:

Some people say that they have no doubt at all, and they never have. I have difficulty believing assertions such as this, though I suppose they might be true for a very small number of individuals. However, at this point, I think it would be valuable for us to distinguish between “certainty” and “certitude” (Daniel Taylor introduced me to this concept, but I don’t know if the distinctions he made are embedded in the specific definitions of the terms). “Certainty” is the more objective type of conviction. It is the idea that one cannot be wrong due to conclusion of objective facts and evidence. “Certitude” is an emotional conviction that people have, which does not require evidence. It is the feeling of certainty, but not certainty itself. Most people I come across, who believe that Christians must be certain about their faith, are really talking about certitude. Certitude is good, but one can have certitude that is wrong. Therefore, one can have a strong level of “certitude” without possessing absolute “certainty” about it.

Let me put it another way: No matter how certain you believe you are about some truth, (assuming that it is true) God is even more certain than you are. Most people are comfortable with this idea. For me to say that God has greater assurance about what is true than you do is without question. Similarly, to say that you and I don’t possess perfect faith is generally acceptable to most of us. This allows you and me the opportunity to grow in our faith, and by doing so, grow in our conviction concerning this faith. Assuming this is the case, our “certainty” is not really certainty, but certitude.

There are not many things about which I have absolute certainty. What I mean by “certainty” is very important here. I do not mean that there are only a few things about which I am convicted as to their truthfulness. Nor do I mean that there are just a few things I am obligated to evangelize. What I actually mean is that there are very few things about which I have indubitable knowledge of. (Perhaps the use of that word did not help…I just like to say the word “indubitable.”) Indubitability implies that one cannot be wrong. It is akin to infallibility. It is perfect and incorrigible conviction. However, none of us really have access to this type of certainty.

In dealing with doubters over the years, I have found that this reality has been the fountainhead for much anxiety in people’s faith. It is not that a lack of perfect certainty is the cause; rather, the cause is the belief that they are supposed to have perfect certainty. Once people begin to have doubts about their faith (or some aspect thereof), especially those who have grown up in very conservative traditions, many begin to doubt their faith altogether, thinking, “How can I have faith, if I have doubts?” It is not that conservative doctrines themselves are at fault; it is the idea that has been preconditioned into their thinking, that belief always and completely casts away doubt. The solution is very often as simple as convincing individuals that faith and doubt will always exist together, which is okay.

A response – and I won’t offer any further comment at this time…

We add, that it [faith] is sure and firm, the better to express strength and constancy of persuasion. For as faith is not contented with a dubious and fickle opinion, so neither is it contented with an obscure and ill-defined conception. The certainty which it requires must be full and decisive, as is usual in regard to matters ascertained and proved. So deeply rooted in our hearts is unbelief, so prone are we to it, that while all confess with the lips that God is faithful, no man ever believes it without an arduous struggle. Especially when brought to the test, we by our wavering betray the vice which lurked within. Nor is it without cause that the Holy Spirit bears such distinguished testimony to the authority of God, in order that it may cure the disease of which I have spoken, and induce us to give full credit to the divine promises: “The words of the Lord” (says David, Ps. 12: 6) “are pure words, as silver tried in a furnace of earth purified seven times:” “The word of the Lord is tried: he is a buckler to all those that trust in him,” (Ps. 18: 30.) And Solomon declares the same thing almost in the same words, “Every word of God is pure,” (Prov. 30: 5.)

But further quotation is superfluous, as the 119th Psalm is almost wholly occupied with this subject. Certainly, whenever God thus recommends his word, he indirectly rebukes our unbelief, the purport of all that is said being to eradicate perverse doubt from our hearts. There are very many also who form such an idea of the divine mercy as yields them very little comfort. For they are harassed by miserable anxiety while they doubt whether God will be merciful to them. They think, indeed, that they are most fully persuaded of the divine mercy, but they confine it within too narrow limits. The idea they entertain is, that this mercy is great and abundant, is shed upon many, is offered and ready to be bestowed upon all; but that it is uncertain whether it will reach to them individually, or rather whether they can reach to it. Thus their knowledge stopping short leaves them only mid-way; not so much confirming and tranquilizing the mind as harassing it with doubt and disquietude. Very different is that feeling of full assurance (“pleroforia”) which the Scriptures uniformly attribute to faith – an assurance which leaves no doubt that the goodness of God is clearly offered to us. This assurance we cannot have without truly perceiving its sweetness, and experiencing it in ourselves. Hence from faith the Apostle deduces confidence, and from confidence boldness. His words are, “In whom (Christ) we have boldness and access with confidence by the faith of him,” (Eph. 3: 12:) thus undoubtedly showing that our faith is not true unless it enables us to appear calmly in the presence of God. Such boldness springs only from confidence in the divine favor and salvation. So true is this, that the term faith is often used as equivalent to confidence.

John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.15.13

One note: “Certainly, whenever God thus recommends his word, he indirectly rebukes our unbelief, the purport of all that is said being to eradicate perverse doubt from our hearts.” “…the vice which lurked within” “the disease of which I have spoken” – This stands in SHARP contrast to Patton’s praises to doubt, doesn’t it? I sometimes wonder, as Justin commented earlier in our chat channel, whether Michael could turn a conversation about Cheerios or the latest movie into some sort of paean to doubt.



I thought I’d share some thoughts. I used to approach things myself the same way as you (maybe Michael has before as well). I believe that, in response to Michael, you express the great pitfalls of a more post-Enlightenment, modernist approach to life, knowledge, truth, faith, etc. I’d say emotional doubt & hardened unbelief can be distinguished. Such is what we see on the pages of Scripture in actual, real-life human beings. This is why the Psalms, Job and Ecclesiastes can speak volumes to the hurting, skeptical, struggling. This is why we walk by faith and not by modernistic, imperial, verifiable propositional data. I’m not sure this is going to help pastorally & practically by simply quoting a great reformed theologian, who quotes a smattering of verses, and think we’ve stamped upon it God’s given proof that he abhors us for any doubt and questions. It might be worth re-examining our own lives, the lives of the saints before us, and those we interact with even now. I’ve sent some encouragement to Michael as well. Be blessed.


Given my response was quoting a pre-enlightenment, Reformation-era theologian on the same topic Michael addressed, I think you’re more than a bit mistaken. Given that Michael is the one who is the evidentialist, also, I think your critique about modernism and empirical data is also misapplied. As I am the one who cited a historical theologian, who cited scripture in support of his position – and was a pastor to boot, unlike Michael or myself – I believe that pretty much runs the gamut of your objection, which continued on into theologians of the past, pastoral needs, etc. None of it applies. Thanks for the attempt, but I would suggest taking a bit more time to think through your responses in the future.


” Hence from faith the Apostle deduces confidence, and from confidence boldness. His words are, “In whom (Christ) we have boldness and access with confidence by the faith of him,” (Eph. 3: 12:) thus undoubtedly showing that our faith is not true unless it enables us to appear calmly in the presence of God.”

What of the one who struggles back and forth with doubt, such as myself. I know what is true and yet, something, presumably my flesh, is reacting against God. It isn’t from a desire to do, in fact quite the opposite I am trying to focus on His faithfulness but sometimes the doubts lead to despair. Would Calvin be saying that I have never had true faith or am I overreaching and misapprehending the meaning of the passage? The doubts come in seasons, sometimes there is peace and confidence other times despair and frustration, and almost desperation because the doubts that are there frustrate me, and I want that faith that is synonymous with confidence that Calvin is talking about. Hopefully the question is clear enough.


Maybe a good clarifier/addition to the question is, is the “confidence” constant surety all the time?


No, it isn’t. Your doubt certainly isn’t, is it? It is a reflection of the war in the “inner man.”


Well, here’s something that may clarify for you. Do we instantly become perfect in our Christian walk? Of course not! As Scripture says, “for if you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” – Note: It is a progressive thing – it happens over time. Technically, this is called “progressive sanctification.” Over time, we are made new – the old man is put to death by inches, while the new man is made alive in us. That citation is from Romans 8 – the chapter after Paul depicts the struggle between the old and new man. There are “two laws” waging war within – and the war is not won overnight. Your depiction above is rather in line with Paul’s, is it not? Calvin is saying that whatever the flesh might say, our assurance is found in God, not in ourselves. Whether we fail or not, God never does. He who began a good work in you will be faithful to complete it. Just keep this in mind – as with any other sin, it is “natural” to the old man. We cannot, however, mistake this for “natural” in the sense of a “positive” for the new. It is precisely that doubt which the Spirit will kill by the means He has provided, in His own time, for your good, and the good of others. That help?


Yes sir, that’s a good word. I appreciate your feedback.

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