Contingency and Certainty

I heard a quote the other day that positioned contingency and certainty as mutually exclusive. I have a feeling that the quote sounded quite normal and natural to many of those who heard it, yet I found myself questioning the validity of such a categorical distinction. I’ll throw out an example first, and then some reflections on the inner workings of both the mistake as well as its appeal.

One way of approaching the topic is to ask, “Do the elect have to have faith to be saved?” Perhaps this example highlights the difficulty of the question I am posing. Of course the elect have to have faith, but once viewing salvation in terms of election, it is rather difficult to admit contingencies, such that what contingencies exist are often overlooked in the name of certainty.

Here’s the issue. Certainty is often tied to people’s perception of outcomes, while contingency is often associated with means. Properly understood, providence gives an account of contingent means while lending certainty based on the promises of God (e.g. all things work to the good of those who love God). I would guess, however, that many people struggle with God’s providence allowing for, or even supporting, the free choices of men. Likewise, I would guess that their notion of certainty is tied to God’s decree and His immutability, without leaving room for God’s providence to factor in the contingency of other agencies with whom God has endowed with free will. Thus, the notion of a contingent outcome being entirely certain is a poor fit for their thinking.

I would further argue that such an approach is entirely unnecessary and unwarranted by the scriptures, but is a natural bias that might evolve from a particular emphasis in one’s thinking. That is, if one slices and dices historic reformed theology to emphasize the various theologies of God, his decrees, his election, etc. without also emphasizing a solid understanding of the agency of man, the covenant of God, the means of grace, etc., it is quite easy to lose sight of the contingency of the life each of us lives. But the fact that one does not emphasize the doctrines that help us give a proper account of contingency does not in any way remove the contingency from one’s life. Thus, one is at risk to make such category mistakes as viewing contingency and certainty as mutually exclusive.

2 Comments

  1. mark
    Jan 19, 2002

    Jay, I should have linked this when I commented on Engelsma’s attack on Lillback. I think it applies. Don’t you?

  2. Jay
    Jan 19, 2002

    I hadn’t read the review until a few moments ago. Engelsma seemingly presents a strawman of the position I was calling into question, in the sense that he takes it to such an unexplained extreme.