On the tracks the large beast rumbles through the night, and I am up with a sudden renewal of what seems a two-month cold. (It moves from the sinuses into the throat, and fades, and lunges back, and I’ve never had something this bothersome before.) These days and troubled nights I’m working on a paper to do with preaching and wondering how to go about the conclusion. I want to tell my teacher he is wrong.
On the other hand I realize that isn’t the point of the paper. And with that I realize I don’t so much want to tell him he’s wrong or include that in the paper; that is the distraction of something I want to figure out, perhaps several things.
It has to do with how one has convictions. Does one have convictions because one has carefully and rigorously examined each one from the bottom up? I think to think that one would have to be rather shallow or stubborn. I know George Whitefield was an earnest fellow and before his ordination he carefully went through the 39 Articles and Scripture and Matthew Henry and made sure he had all of his convictions straight. There is no reason to doubt the sincerity of a man like Whitefield, nor his competence to understand doctrines, to study Scripture, or to make the connections. I’m skeptical, nevertheless, because I know we humans are easily blinded when our activity has a desired outcome. This business of having convictions isn’t a simple thing.
What is there to be skeptical of? In a way nothing. Why should Whitefield not be a committed Anglican? Why not think about these things carefully before rather than later? What is wrong with being earnest? In that way, nothing.
But my question is about the human nature of convictions. Convictions, after all, do not exist independent of the subject holding them. I think there is much to admire about George Whitefield, and much to wonder about. I think the quality of the person—and once it is put that way who can disagree—has something to do with the convictions held.
I think about my doctrinaire professor, Lord Voldemort. His religion is built on the assumption that on the whole the conclusions of the acknowledged learned of his civilization are right. Creationism is not a consideration, the miracles of Scripture have little factual basis, Scripture itself is a witness to God’s bursting into the world in the past, but it is not God’s Word. Scripture has been found out to be in part a hoax. Neo-orthodoxy (a term you don’t hear people using nowadays) is an attempt to keep a supernaturalist religion along with the anti-supernaturalist skeptical attitude which is believed essential to scientific knowledge.
That last is interesting. Neo-orthodoxy I believe coordinates two kinds of knowing, separating the noumenal from the phenomenal but endeavoring not to let the phenomenal absolutely override and utterly crowd out the noumenal. In order to do this, the noumenal needs to have strict doctrinal buttressing that assures its place. I believe he thinks of doctrine as that which safeguards the possibility of something not phenomenal in human experience, and this is the divine.
I think he is as doctrinaire as we can be. Why, for example, do I not believe what he believes? One of the strands of difference is that he subscribes to the theory of evolution. I have never been taught about evolution at all. It does not make me a Creationist, but it makes me skeptical—I can’t see how it would work. I could read about it, find out. The problem is that I really don’t care. I have nothing but indifference, and I can’t help viewing intense degrees of concern over the matter as doctrinaire, on both sides. In fact, I’m inclined to think the theory of evolution will be another passing intellectual fad, but either way, I’m not invested. I don’t mind telling Lord Voldemort I’m a creationist, just to assert I am not with him. I would be leery of being aligned with Ken Ham, on the other hand. There are things I’ll argue about, but this is not one the point of which I grasp.
Lord Voldemort is doctrinaire as a result of lots of higher critical conclusions. In that sense, we live in parallel universes: he has one set of explanations and conclusions, I an opposite set. I’m confident his are based on making wrong assumptions more than mine are. When those who have the spirit and zeal for apologetics get going, they tend to focus on the other’s wrong assumptions. But is it altogether clear that I don’t have any? It doesn’t unnerve me. I am not worried that I’m going to lose what I have. No doubt the amount of errors I have at this point will one day appall me. One looks back on one’s previous ignorance wondering how one managed. What provides clarity in this situation is that I know I clearly could not manage on what he does, or even on what I did before.
We grow convictions and we hold to things, we then get exercised and we do not get exercised. Our context shapes us and so does the desired response. But is it always clear to us why we desire? We are strange beings even to ourselves, and that for me is a conviction.
When I was interviewed for Southern Seminary I was asked about being a Baptist, among other things. I’m a Baptist by conviction, I had to be persuaded of it, and thanks to Westminster and several other factors am now a confessional Baptist. Confessional does not mean that you simply think confessions are a great idea. It means that you subscribe to one, take it seriously, study it like Whitefield did, make sure you know what it is about and what that means. A Reformed Baptist should be confessional, which includes Sabbatarian observance, Covenant Theology, classical theism. Not because these are arbitrary theological markers. They are part of a system of doctrine that represents a coherent interpretation of Scripture. You don’t make up your own privately coherent approach. Being confessional has meant for me understanding that you can’t selectively discard elements such as the covenant of works. Some do, I know that, but the question then is what does it leave them? It seems a different way of understanding everything, which in turn seems a departure from the confession. (I am not here denying such persons are Reformed Baptists, I am merely illustrating the confessional mentality.)
I was asked about being a Baptist and I said I was one for now. Because the real question for me always remains, how do I sort out what is conviction properly earned and what I will discover to have been convenient for me to believe because of my circumstances? These things surely are sortable. I do not say I have no convictions: I have many. But I want to make space for the utter silliness of man. It is part of our dignity really to have convictions; it is also part of our condition to get mixed up about them and go on being so for long periods of time. At least, it is part of mine.