ANTHONY THISELTON’s distinguished academic career began with the publication of his Ph.D. thesis, The Two Horizons, which sought to establish a proper dialogue between biblical interpretation and the philosophy of knowledge. This latest book distils a lifetime’s study of the basis of Christian confidence, in the light of the long-term tradition of philosophical reflection on human knowing.
This is set in a theological frame offered by Kierkegaard and Bonhoeffer, who warned against false cultural certainties that could readily become idolatrous.
Thiselton sees doubt as potentially a catalyst to authentic Christian belief, and often a stage on the particular Christian pilgrimage to which we are called. He points out that the original meaning of “sceptic” was “inquirer”. He draws attention to biblical figures for whom a period of doubt, and often accompanying depression, were crucial to their witness to God’s purposes.
Yet there is no praise of doubt as such in the Bible, but, rather, a calm acceptance that it is part of our human lot, on our journey of faith.
For Kierkegaard, the dilemmas of faith and doubt could be resolved in this life only in the trans-rational experience of worship. Newman had similar concern to avoid too much reliance on the intellect as such, with his assertion that “the faith of the simple is as certain as the faith of the educated.” Faith, for Newman, and endorsed by Thiselton, arises from a synthetic judgement that gathers up such fragments as the beauty of nature, pangs of conscience, and the experience of forgiveness.
Interesting connections are made with Pope St John Paul II’s influential encyclical Faith and Reason, and also with the modern Barthian theological tradition. In his treatment of certainty, Thiselton discusses at some length Wittgenstein’s approach, which had long ago featured in The Two Horizons. Alvin Plantinga — the latest recipient of the Templeton Prize — has established this view of certainty on a more systematic philosophical basis.
A final section explores the hope of a fullness of knowledge, beyond this life, when we will know as we have been known, as St Paul puts it. Only the Holy Spirit can finally lead us into all truth.
This is a fine book. Thiselton’s style, as always, is to rely on a plenitude of references to other thinkers, and, for those who are not familiar with the history of philosophy and theology, this will make parts of the book a somewhat challenging read, despite his avowed aim to write for a wide audience.
For others, this will be a rather moving distillation of the work of one of our leading biblical scholars, who has always sought, through his immense interdisciplinary scholarship, to serve the wider life of the Church.
Dr Peter Forster is the Bishop of Chester.
Doubt, Faith and Certainty
Anthony C. Thiselton
Church Times Bookshop £15.30