Doubt as a Christian Virtue

Donald T. Williams
Wednesday, May 2nd 2007
Jul/Aug 2006

Agnosticism is, in a sense, what I am preaching. I do not wish to reduce the skeptical element in your minds. I am only suggesting that it need not be reserved exclusively for the New Testament and the Creeds. Try doubting something else. – C. S. Lewis, “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism”

English professors find irony irresistible, historians find it unavoidable, and theologians find it inescapably persistent in trying to move beyond itself to the level of a Chestertonian paradox. The fact that I am a bit of all three may go a ways toward explaining my title: “Doubt as a Christian Virtue.” Most believers understandably view doubt as a straightforward Christian vice. After all, the New Testament tells us that we are saved by faith, that we walk by faith and not by sight, and that faith is the victory that overcomes the world. By contrast, the modern world unambiguously translates faith as gullibility and sees doubt, if not skepticism, as the infallible indicator of intelligence and sophistication. To a literary-minded and historically-grounded theologian, the absence of irony on either side is a sure sign that somebody has missed something.

No Christian can doubt that faith in the right things is a virtue, nor that doubting them can be a problem. Anselm’s Fides quaerens intellectum (“Faith in search of understanding”) and Augustine’s Credo ut intelligam (“I believe so that I may understand”) are the indispensable foundations of intellectual life for people who have put their faith in Christ. But by the time these principles had reigned supreme for a millennium and half, it should not be surprising that faith had attached itself to many objects unworthy of it. Even Christians are not supposed to believe everything-false prophets, for example. But how do you identify them? Faith has to be in the right object to be biblical faith, but how do we recognize that object? Protestant appeals to Scripture and Catholic appeals to the teachings of the church can both seem circular to people who think they have reason to doubt the trustworthiness of either authority. So it was perhaps inevitable that a reaction would eventually set in, and, given the history of human folly, not surprising that it should be an overreaction.

Modernism has assumed doubt as an intellectual virtue, and postmodernism has only extended the range of what is considered doubtful. This project seriously begins with Descartes (1596-1650), the seventeenth-century rationalist who first proposed systematic doubt as the most reliable path to enlightenment. Since people manifestly believe many things that are unproven at best and false at worst, why not try to doubt everything in search of those clear and plain ideas that would remain when doubt had done its worst? The one proposition Descartes found that could withstand this onslaught was his own existence, because in order to doubt that, he had to be there to do the doubting.

There once was a man named Descartes
Who asked, “Where should Philosophy start?”
He said, “If I can doubt it,
I’ll just do without it.
Now, that ought to make me look smart!”

So he doubted the clear and the plain
To see what would finally remain.
‘Twas thus he found out
There was no way to doubt
The doubt in the doubter’s own brain.

“I exist!” then with joy he concluded.
“On this point I cannot be deluded:
Even though it sounds dumb,
If I think-ergo sum!”

To this day he has not been refuted.

Building on this foundation, Descartes managed to conclude that the rest of the universe and God also existed. (I pause to let your sigh of relief exhaust itself.) But two subtle changes occurred in the process. First, doubt as such had replaced faith as such as a virtue-patently as inadequate simply in itself for that role as faith had been. And second, the whole edifice of human knowledge and wisdom was henceforth rested not on the living, creative, and revealed Word of God but on the fragile foundation of the flickering consciousness and fickle rationality of the fallen human individual. It is hardly astonishing that such a structure should develop some severe cracks and eventually shatter as modernity gives way to postmodernity, which has honestly recognized the fragments without being able to do anything about putting them back together. Apparently, doubt too has its limits.

Though they seem at first to be enemies, faith and doubt need each other if either is to be healthy. There is the irony. Now we need a concrete example of the principle at work if it is to be meaningful. Martin Luther in his struggles makes a good one.

Luther was not a modern. He did not doubt God’s existence, but rather his goodness, his benevolence, his love. Bainton gives a fine summary of the confusing “tensions which medieval religion…induced” in many people: “God was portrayed now as the Father, now as the wielder of the thunder. He might be softened by the intercession of his kindlier Son, who again was delineated as an implacable judge unless mollified by his mother.”

Luther threw himself wholeheartedly into the prescribed rounds of piety and discipline of monastic life, the most serious form of the spiritual quest to escape the implacable Judge’s wrath available to him, and found it incapable of producing peace or confidence in his acceptance by God. A modern might have shoved his sin under the psychological rug and pretended that a benevolent God could ignore it, but Luther knew both the Scriptures and his own heart too well to go that route. So he practically killed himself with fasting, he drove his confessor crazy, and all he had to show for it was doubt, anguished guilt, and fear. On a pilgrimage to Rome he climbed Pilate’s stairs on his hands and knees repeating the Lord’s Prayer on each step and kissing the step to boot, hoping that such observances would help to atone for his sins. And then he stood on the top step and asked, “Who knows whether it is so?” If the imminent prospect of a very untheoretical Hell is at stake, such a sentence is devastating. So Luther says of himself, “I know a man who has gone through such pains that had they lasted for one tenth of an hour he would have been reduced to ashes.”

It was the anguish of such doubt that drove Luther with such desperation to the Scriptures, and which partly enabled the light of justification by faith to break through the spiritual fog that had so long overlaid them. The light broke through not only from the crucial doctrine of Romans and Galatians but also from the cry of dereliction from the cross: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Luther’s own struggles with feeling abandoned by God allowed him to identify with Christ and to plumb the meaning of this experience. Luther knew that he felt forsaken because he deserved to be. Christ, on the other hand, could only have felt so in his identification with us in our sins. Here was a surer basis for acceptance by God than anything man could do for himself! On the cross, wrath and love were reconciled at last.

Luther came to understand something of the role of his doubts in making possible his assurance. It was part of what led him to his “theology of the cross.”

God works by contraries so that a man feels himself to be lost in the very moment when he is on the point of being saved. When God is about to justify a man, he damns him. Whom he would make alive he must first kill… Man must first cry out that there is no health in him… When a man believes himself to be utterly lost, light breaks. Peace comes in the word of Christ through faith.

Cartesian doubt without faith is sterile, indeed futile, for one must trust in the validity of the rational processes of one’s own mind even to conclude that one’s doubt proves one’s existence. Augustine’s Credo ut intelligam is ultimately inescapable, no matter how hard we try. On the other hand, faith without doubt in a fallen world is untested and hence runs the risk of being misdirected at worst or shallow at best. But Luther realized that the depths of despair need not be reached merely because doubts come, for even Christ had his moment of asking, “Why?” Therefore, we may ask too, and come to realize that we can honestly trust in Scripture, and indeed in God, only when our doubts have been at least acknowledged, if not satisfied. That is why the greatest saints are often those who have learned the paradoxical skill of doubting faithfully. They are not typically people of unassailable faith, but rather people who have learned to pray like the man whose son Jesus healed on his way down from the mount of transfiguration. “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief” (Mark 9:24).

Though Satan threatens always to deceive
And oft the veil seems heavy on my face,
Lord, help mine unbelief, for I believe.
I’ve seen through every subtle wile he weaves
And would with all my heart your truth embrace,
But Satan threatens always to deceive.
The tyranny of sight gives no reprieve,
More garish than the glimmers of your grace;
Lord, help mine unbelief, for I believe.
The evidence is there; I do perceive
It clearly and myself can make the case,
But Satan threatens always to deceive.
The certainty you help me to achieve
Can sometimes disappear without a trace.
Lord, help mine unbelief, for I believe.
It’s all so plain! How deeply you must grieve
To see me still in doubting Thomas’ place.
Since Satan threatens always to deceive,
Lord, help mine unbelief, for I believe.

Our Lord’s positive response to this prayer, his serene lack of the slightest tendency to be put off or made insecure or defensive by it, may be the greatest comfort honestly doubting Christians can receive. As we learn to doubt faithfully, we will find that he answers it still.

1 [ Back ] In his article, Dr. Williams cites C. S. Lewis, "Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism," Christian Reflections, Walter Hooper, ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967), pp. 152-166; and Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther, (New York: Mentor Books, 1950), pp. 21, 38, 47, 63. All vianelles are original works of Dr. Williams.
Wednesday, May 2nd 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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