Ray Ortlund on Certainty, Openness, and Theological Wisdom

I loved this post below from author and pastor Ray Ortlund, and asked his permission to share it on my blog. It’s a great reminder that we need to examine ourselves and correct ourselves. We who are truth-oriented, or in Ray’s words, “all certainty,” when it comes to every area of theology, need to go out of our way to affirm grace and choose humility. We who are grace-oriented, or as Ray says, “all openness,” need to go out of our way to affirm God’s revealed truth and anchor ourselves to it.

Thanks, Ray, for this helpful post.  —Randy Alcorn

Certainty, openness, and theological wisdom

By Ray Ortlund

Some Christians seem “all certainty.” Maybe it makes them feel heroic. But they see too few gray areas. Everything is a federal case. They have a fundamentalist mindset.

Other Christians seem “all openness.” Maybe it makes them feel humble. But they see too few black-and-white areas. They have a liberal mindset—though they may demonstrate a surprising certainty against certainty.

The Bible is our authority as we sort out what deserves certainty and what deserves openness. For example, 1 Corinthians 15:1-4 defines the gospel of Christ crucified for our sins, Christ buried and Christ risen again on the third day, according to the Scriptures, as “of first importance.” Here is the center of our certainty.

From that “of first importance” theological address, we move out toward the whole range of theological and practical and worldview questions deserving our attention. The more clearly our logic connects back with that center, the more certain and the less open we should be. The further our thinking extrapolates from that center, the less certain and the more open we should be. When a question cannot be addressed by a clear appeal to the Bible, our conclusions should be all the more modest.

The gospel requires us to have high expectations of one another on central doctrines, unmistakable views and obvious strategies, and it cautions us to be more relaxed with one another the further we have to move out from the center.

Building our theology and worldview is not like pushing the first domino over, which pushes the next over, and so forth, down the line—each domino of equal weight and each fall equally inevitable. Rather, building our theology and worldview is more like exploring a river. We start out at the mouth of the river. It is wide. There is no decision to make. But then we start paddling up-river. As each tributary forks into the river, we must decide which way to go. Indeed, it may eventually become difficult to distinguish between the river itself and a tributary. But many decisions must be made along the way, not every one equally obvious.

This is why we need a map of the whole, noting the main features of the topography, such as 1 Corinthians 15:1-4 provides. There are other scriptures that help us globalize our biblical thinking in this way. For example, Exodus 34:6-7 is quoted multiple times throughout the rest of the Old Testament. Clearly, it is an atomically weighted passage that other biblical authors treated as a sort of theological North Star for guidance. There are other passages meant to help us improve our overall theological wisdom and a fair-minded sense of proportion and legitimate expectations of one another.

A church or movement may desire, for its own reasons, to define secondary and tertiary doctrines and convictions as important within their own ministry. That’s okay. But then it’s helpful to say, “We know this isn’t a dividing line for Christian oneness. It’s just a decision we’ve made for ourselves, because we think it will help us in our situation. We realize that other Christians will see it differently, and we respect their views.”

May we become more certain where we’ve been too open, and more open where we’ve been too certain, according to the totality of Scripture. And where it seems helpful to provide further definition on our own authority, may we do so with candor, gentleness, and humility.

This article first appeared on The Gospel Coalition, and is used by permission of the author.

For more on this topic, see Randy’s book The Grace and Truth Paradox.

Photo by Julien Lanoy on Unsplash