Feinberg, Skepticism, and My Journey

This year, I read the two main sections of John S. Feinberg’s book Can You Believe It’s True?. It has actually been very helpful for me personally. He has well defended Christianity against both postmodern and modern skeptics. As a rebuttal to postmoderns, he defended the correspondence theory of truth and the possibility of a universal reality. As a rebuttal to modern skeptics, he defended the possibility of defending Christianity in an objective sense that leads to absolute subjective certainty.

The key conclusion of Feinberg in his discussion of modernistic skepticism seems to be that we can not achieve logical certainty about the dogmas of theology or common sense or other things. It is here that he identifies with the way D. A. Carson would say in various writings (I think The Gagging of God is likely at least one place) that we may not know everything, but we can know some things truly. Then, he uses the concept of what he calls subjective certainty to show that we all regularly, when we are using our mental faculties properly, have absolute subjective certainty about these things. What we base these things on can vary, and I’ve written elsewhere about that idea. There are a few insights I can add to Feinberg’s presentation that help me fit it in with other reading.

On the one hand, what he calls subjective certainty is the absolute and infallible faith in God as called by Dennis W. Jowers and H. Wayne House in Reasons for Our Hope (esp. ch. 6). The topic of objective certainty as discussed by Feinberg links with the motives of credibility, as they are called by House and Jowers. In House and Jowers, they explain that one can have infallible faith in the Bible in the Word if they have a motive or reason to consider such belief as credible though not certain in what Feinberg calls a logical sense. In Feinberg’s terms, objective certainty is based on sufficient evidence. House and Jowers add to this by pointing out the ideas of (1) sufficient motives of credibility, especially concerning that the Bible is God’s Word and therefore a source of infallible knowledge and (2) the need for an absence of anything that overrides these motives of credibility for infallible faith to stand. Feinberg calls these doubts the kind of things that just push us to the point of saying that we can’t hold something except tentatively or not at all (188-189).

Where Feinberg does not totally answer the situation is how to determine the percentage of certainty. I see two potential paths on this. For one, the insight of Alvin Plantinga’s Reformed epistemology, is that for some they can come to a faith in God without having evidence at all. Many lay persons I believe are in this place, and they somehow are able to manage what Plantinga calls “defeaters.” Alternatively though, back on the reasoning side, it is at this point that the psychological aspects of faith may come in. For different people, what may be sufficient for them may not be sufficient for another. But, I can qualify though that the goal always should be that everyone holds beliefs with subjective certainty on the basis of sufficient objective certainty, even if we don’t entirely know what precisely is sufficient. People may believe on the basis of something less than sufficient evidence or without evidence at all , but then grow as a Christian to believe the evidences for their faith. Feinberg implicity seems okay with the idea that the Spirit is what brings a person to that point of subjective certainty that has to do with the infallible faith. Once the Bible is accepted, one has a literary work where we can derive literary evidence that is indeed sufficient for objective certainty that should lead us to subjective certainty about God’s truth about many crucial matters (like the gospel, His plan for Israel and the coming Kingdom, the spiritual life, etc.). This idea of sufficient literary certainty was explained to me helpfully in an article by David Mappes (for a copy, see 20 Mappes–Certainty in Hermeneutics).

I have struggled with issues in my faith as I’ve been an adult. But, an article by Thomas A. Provenzola titled “Epistempic Eucatastrophe: The Favorable Turn of the Evidence” (in Feinberg’s festschrift Building on the Foundations of Evangelical Theology eds. Allison and Wellum) furthers what Feinberg had to say. He suggests the Lord may be behind our drive to see evidences that further ground us in the truth. This is supported by an idea he cites that there is a difference between generative grounds of a belief and sustaining grounds of belief. I seem to be lacking something to bring me to subjective certainty about a couple of key areas, but this is more of my attempt to seem further evidential grounds of a sustaining nature. Maybe the Spirit is at work through my working through the evidences, and there is need to recognize a less than perfect system that is still warranted of absolute believe based on a sufficient motive of credibility.

I can continue to work through my questions about canon. I can also continue to carefully deal with Bible problems, following Geisler’s suggested approach which fits with both Feinberg’s and House/Jowers’s underlying epistemology. I should aim at settling questions using Feinberg’s approach to settling proof. Feinberg’s method as developed in Can You Believe It’s True? is this:

  1. Clarify the dogma under examination.
  2. Clarify what position must be proved to establish the dogma as true.
  3. Search for arguments and evidence that support the position to be proved. The criteria for these arguments are: (1) Truthful, and (2) Relevance to the issue,
  4. Identify the degree to which the argument or evidence proves the case. The implication is that if it has not proven the case sufficiently, then go back to the preceding step and seek to add more evidence (Feinberg is a cumulative case apologist).

With his approach, I must add to it a healthy perspective that we can have a sufficient amount of evidence and to carefully doubt the doubt that the evidence I may have is not sufficient. Feinberg notes in conclusion of Part One that “[I]f one thinks the case for Christianity [or the Bible I would add] isn’t strong enough to be believable [again in an absolutely subjectively certain/infallibly believed way], don’t think a stronger objective case is easier to build for a non-Christian worldview.” (194) He views himself as a mild foundationalist, an idea that has been referenced in multiple places. He has helped clarify that it seems in this form, the point is that yes certain ideas are basic and foundational but the procedure by which we justify any belief, basic or not, is where the point of emphasis is. This study this year has been helpful in trying to better orient my efforts to ground my faith. The approach here does not conclusively violate the absolute certainty that we all should strive for, and it also does account for how people like myself may have grown up and came to faith in a Christian home but still need to work through questions. These questions must be resolved based on evidence, and not any fideistic method.