Early Christian Thinking: Confident Doubt

Let’s go back 1,800 years to one of the earliest Christian apologetic writings. There is a very interesting writing, The Octavius of Minucius Felix, which can be dated to 160-250A.D. In this document, the opponent to Christianity is a man named Caecilius. He is said to speak these words, which are surprisingly similar to what is often said today:

Accordingly, if you sit in judgment on me, as a person who is new, and as one ignorant of either side, there is no difficulty in making plain that all things in human affairs are doubtful, uncertain, and unsettled, and that all things are rather probable than true. Wherefore it is the less wonderful that some, from the weariness of thoroughly investigating truth, should rashly succumb to any sort of opinion rather than persevere in exploring it with persistent diligence. And thus all men must be indignant, all men must feel pain, that certain persons–and these unskilled in learning, strangers to literature, without knowledge even of sordid arts–should dare to determine on any certainty concerning the nature at large, and the (divine) majesty, of which so many of the multitude of sects in all ages (still doubt), and philosophy itself deliberates still. Nor without reason; since the mediocrity of human intelligence is so far from (the capacity of) divine investigation, that neither is it given us to know, nor is it permitted to search, nor is it religious to ravish, the things that are supported in suspense in the heaven above us, nor the things which are deeply submerged below the earth; and we may rightly seem sufficiently happy and sufficiently prudent, if, according to that ancient oracle of the sage, we should know ourselves intimately. But even if we indulge in a senseless and useless labour, and wander away beyond the limits proper to our humility, and though, inclined towards the earth, we transcend with daring ambition heaven itself, and the very stars, let us at least not entangle this error with vain and fearful opinions [like religious beliefs]

We’ll look at one of his juiciest quotes today (and another tomorrow):
“There is no difficulty in making plain that all things in human affairs are doubtful, uncertain, and unsettled, and that all things are rather probable than true.”

Can you see the error? He claims it is easy to clearly explain human affairs regarding knowledge. Then he claims that human affairs are doubtful, uncertain, and unsettled. Furthermore, he states that all things are rather probable than true.

Let’s say we take him at his word. If what he says is correct, then we should understand his own position to be rather doubtful, uncertain and unsettled! But we should by no means think his position is reasonable, certain and settled!

On the other hand, we can respond by saying, “All you’ve done is made very eloquent assertions. But you haven’t given us the actual evidence or arguments for the truth of your position, which you claim is easy to provide. So why should we believe your rhetoric?”

Finally, we can also say, “I have found it to be more reasonable to have a trusting attitude towards reality.”