Scholarship and Certainty
“At this point the reader who desires to follow us is expressly begged to discard, as far as he possibly can, any conceptions he may have formed of Pauline doctrine. Among all the innumerable Christians of the various churches, who believe that they share Paul’s views, there is to-day no single one who could be said to understand them in the sense in which they were meant; and the same is true of those who regard themselves as opposed to the apostle’s teaching. At most a few members of certain small societies approximate to a true understanding of it. But it is harder to interpret Paul’s doctrine to one who half understands him than to one who knows nothing about him.” 85
So wrote William Wrede 1907 in his short, though massively influential, book Paul in which he takes a solid stance on many things philosophical, theological, and Pauline. His statements are, and were, almost certainly untrue.
But is the problem with Wrede’s stance his brash certitude or something else? As a budding biblical scholar I am constantly under pressure to say something. In fact I am obligated to write some 80,000 words in a dissertation that is presumably going to affirm that some things about Paul are the case, and others, either by implication or direct assault, are not. How is that to be done without sounding like a pompous ass?
It seems that there are two deadly reefs that must be cautiously (my supervisor would say “cheerfully”!) avoided. The first, which Wrede appears to have struck, is that of total certitude to the exclusion of all other views. Within the post-modern (or rather, hyper-modern) milieu, this is the Great Sin, greater than which no others can be conceived. There is one certainty, and that is that there are no certainties. The fact that this statement folds back on itself to eat its own tail would probably delight the likes of Derrida and all who join in his “play.” However, this seems disastrously unworkable, and, in my opinion, remarkably lazy. This stance is the second shoal. Safe waters and smooth sailing, it seems to me, must lie somewhere else.
The existence of this “somewhere else” is possible to affirm as soon as one recognizes that both absolute certainty and absolute uncertainty are constructs of the Modernism we are now so quick to disparage. This is why I have increasingly come to prefer the term “hyper-modernism” to “post-modernism” for describing that broad stream of philosophy that dominated a good chunk of the 20th century. It dominates no longer, but in typical fashion, Christians are still trying to come late to philosophical party and have to pretend that it’s all something quite useful and new.
Wrede’s stance, and the hyper-modern reaction against it, can all be avoided if the standard called “100%” is rejected. Wrede has to assume that any and all currently held conceptions of the reader are totally false, and that therefore “true understanding” of Paul is only to be found by rejecting them all and turning to the elite for guidance. However, if the demands of “100%” are rejected, it is immediately apparent that I can hold all sorts of beliefs, about all sorts of things, of which I am certain, even if that certainty has its doubts, and even if those things aren’t the whole of reality. In other words, I can apprehend truth truthfully without making any sort of claim for a total comprehension of all there is to know past, present and future. These beliefs can be held with an open hand, out in the public, ready for extended conversation. They are mine in that I am holding them, but they are not me, and they are about something external. There are a lot of things about Paul that I only half understand, but that half-understanding is not therefore necessarily ‘false,’ or ‘subjective,’ and if I hold them in the right way they don’t stop me from learning and growing. I also don’t have to abandon all language of certainty, or stop affirming, even passionately, that what I believe is true. It does mean that I avoid the brashly arrogant stance that my place with “scholarship” allows me to make audacious claims about everything that everyone else believes about Paul. They might be wrong about a lot of things, but probably not everything, just like me.
 William Wrede, Paul, translated by Edward Lummis, (London: Philip Green, 1907), 85.
At some point I should have referenced Leslie Newbigin, who certainly influenced mythought, but there was never a proper place. I have also greatly benefited from conversations with my colleague Chris Brewer. Thanks to both!