Extra Nos

No, extra nos isn’t what drifters need to get ahead in underground motorsports. It’s a Latin expression meaning “outside of ourselves”. This was a vital element in Martin Luther’s theology (as well as others). It comes to mind as I reflect on a recurring theme in the weekly questions from a broadly evangelical parachurch Bible study that I attended.

There is occasionally a question framed something like this: are you certain that you have eternal life?

I get concerned, because I get the sense from the context that the question is asking people to go rooting around inside of themselves looking for some sort of subjective experience or phenomenon as the evidence and grounds for being certain or assured. I get concerned that it’s really asking about my certainty in my certainty.

Thinking charitably about it, lurking behind the questions is the Apostle John’s words of assurance: “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life.” (1 John 5:13)

And yet, what I suspect can happen is confusion and supplanting of self-awareness for knowledge. At its worst, it’s navel-gazing or morbid introspection. There’s a healthy place to be had for being aware of the subjective evidences in our lives. But delving inside of ourselves and looking for verifying evidences in our actions is not actually exercising our faith. If we become aware that we are lacking something within and are lacking evidences in our actions, then that should immediately drive us outside of ourselves to Christ. What we need was accomplished in Christ and comes from Christ outside of ourselves. The void of uncertainty inside can only be filled by that which is outside of ourselves — the person and benefits of Christ. Faith looks to Christ and leans into Christ; it’s the only thing it can do in this respect.

This sort of inner scrutinizing for assurance can be an individual and internalized variant of what Dr. R. Scott Clark, if I understand him corectly, refers to as QIRC (the quest for illegitimate religious certainty) and QIRE (the quest for illegitimate religious experience).

Dr. Peter Leithart has also commented, “When people talk about a transformed nature as the thing that provides assurance of salvation, I think they’re looking to something other than God for security.”

We mistake our awareness of the presence of a feeling or sensation about a thing with knowledge of a thing itself. (Is this because evangelicals are neck-deep in Modernistic epistemological categories, and we think we’re being biblical?) We mistake epistemos for gnosis — substituting scrutinization of a thing for intercourse with a thing. We want to be aware of the presence or sensation of something, and we think that’s what it means to be certain, i.e to ‘know’ something. This is looking intra nos — inside of ourselves. The problem is that it’s rather dark and unknowable in there.

It was a happy outgrowth of my understanding of the Hebrew yada and the Greek gnosko that’s helped me slowly learn to read ‘knowing’ language in the Bible afresh as experiencing, loving, approving, accepting, indwelling, communing. This sort of knowing is not particularly self-aware; it’s caught up in the doing and is turned away from scrutinizing one’s self. This sort of knowing can be thinking certain things, but it’s not thinking about our thinking of certain things. As soon as we’re thinking about our own thinking, we’re no longer thinking of the outward thing we were thinking about. There’s a sense in which our self-reflection about assurance is the furthest thing from being assured. “Knowing you have eternal life” is something I don’t think we’re particularly self-conscious of. It’s a quality of the heart that comes about in the midst of practicing righteousness, of loving in deed and truth.

We do need to be engaged in self-reflection, in judging ourselves, in proving ourselves, in making our call and election more sure, and so forth. Just be forewarned that in our times of grief, crisis, doubt, and despair, seeking for awareness or certainty within us of the presense of assurance is a pit we fall into. We don’t find assurance by looking for assurance. As Luther taught, we find assurance by looking extra nos to Christ. Looking to Christ, trusting and resting in his goodness and accomplishment, is what will restore joy and confidence, and produce assurance and gratitude, which fuels good works.

P.S. If rigorously (or, to borrow an adjective from Mitt Romney, “severely”) Reformed people had a sense of humor (which they/we don’t), one that was as robust as their/our doctrinal policing, it would probably strike them/us as hilarious that I cited R. Scott Clark and Peter Leithart in the process of making a point. It’s okay. “We’re Calvinists. We don’t smile. We don’t laugh. We’re not funny.” :-p