I was teaching Revelation in Adelaide, Australia. At one point, one of those present asked a question about an ambiguous portion of the text. “This is how I understand this passage,” I said, “but I am not certain that is what it means.”

“You ought to be certain!” the man replied, clearly shocked. “Certainty breeds baptisms!” He was certain about the passage, though in my view certainly wrong, and he used that certainty to persuade people. I wasn’t favorably impressed, but then, I’ve never been one to favor the salesmanship approach to soul-winning.

I have encountered this attitude at both ends of the continuum. Traditionalists are certain about preventing women’s ordination, and compassionates are certain about immigration law–just to cite an example on each extreme. The list, for each side, is long, and apparently supported by otherwise ambiguous scriptures, but scriptures about which they are certain.

How can this be possible? Because their certainty does not come from the text, but from outside the Bible altogether. It’s classic misuse of the Bible. Instead of studying the entire Bible, and coming to a conclusion from the biblical evidence, they start with a conclusion and go searching for evidence, which the Bible readily yields on a multitude of topics.

This is sort of like suspending a roof in mid-air, and finding materials to prop it up, rather than building a foundation, and then building a house based on that foundation. But it happens all the time. People are certain about a wide range of topics they believe are supported by the Bible.

Now, don’t get me wrong. There are Bible truths we can rely on. But certainty is another matter. We are not saved by certainty, but by faith.

We too easily forget 1 Corinthians 13:9

For we know in part and we prophesy in part,

As I indicated, pointing this out to either Traditionalists or Compassionates earns one a great deal of ‘righteous indignation’ and scorn. Clearly, to question these beliefs makes one a Philistine.

Why is it so upsetting? For one thing, it disturbs their illusion that simply holding such a belief, whether on women’s ordination or immigration or whatever, separates them from the morally unwashed: it undermines their feelings of superiority, which of course actually conceal deep insecurity.

Secondly, it threatens to undermine their entire world view. If such an obvious thing turns out not to be correct, what else that they rely on might be in danger? This leaves them with two choices, neither of which they want. Either they must reexamine perhaps every one of their beliefs, or they must simply go into denial and shout all the louder.

The Bible is a fascinating Book. On the one hand, it paints a world in striking black and white, good and evil. What is disconcerting is that God sometimes relates to that world in what appears to be shades of grey.