This entry is part 2 of 9 in the series: ‘The Sin of Certainty’ (Enns)
Chapter 2 – How We Got Into This Mess
In the second chapter of The Sin of Certainty, Peter Enns sketches what he thinks are the historical roots of the evangelical pro-occupation with right thinking.
He begins by observing that we do not become Christians by working things out rationally, and then coming to a decision, but by other means. This being the case, then the emphasis which many Christians place on ‘knowing what you believe’ is misplaced. Sunday services reflect this emphasis, with their lengthy, didactic sermons. But such knowledge proves inadequate in the face of the sheer messiness of life.
The idea that the Bible could be a certain guide for what we believe received four damaging blows in the space of just a few decades in the second half of the 19th century:-
(a) Darwinism. The view that God created all living things with a simple, “Let there be…” was challenged by the Darwinian doctrines of common descent and natural selection (plus billions of years). Christians felt forced to say, “The Bible is right whatever science may say.”
(b) Archaeology. The notion that Genesis presented a unique story of origins (creation, the first humans, and the flood) was challenged by the discovery that other ancient nations had similar – and even older – stories of their own.
(c) Biblical criticism. It was traditionally believed that Moses had written most or all of the first five books of the Old Testament. But scholars, examining the different literary styles and theological perspectives of the Pentateuch, concluded that these books were the result of a centuries-long period of development. This view challenged both the historical accuracy and the theological reliability of the books in the question.
(d) Morality. On the one hand, the Old Testament God condones slavery (Exodus 21:20f; see also Ephesians 6:5f; Colossians 3:22; Titus 2:9), while on the other hand, God seems to take a much more humanising approach (Exodus 21:2; Deuteronomy 23:15; cf. Colossians 4:1; Ephesians 6:9; Galatians 3:28). Evidently, the Bible gives conflicting moral guidance.
[Comment: if one accepts that there are two contradictory perspectives on slavery in Exodus 21 – explained, no doubt, by the existence of two different sources – then one would have to argue for two different sources in, say, Ephesians 6. Enns’ argument doesn’t work.]
The response of conservative Christians to these challenges was to enlist in ‘the battle for the Bible’, patrol its boundaries, and not worry too much about the inevitable casualties, if only the faithful can be provided with intellectual certainty.
We must add to all these 19th-century reasons for the intellectualisation of faith the implications of the 16th-century Reformation. Martin Luther challenged the authority of the (corrupt) Roman church by asserting the authority of a divinely-inspired Bible. It thus became essential in the Protestant church to ‘get the Bible right’. Trouble is, by translating the Bible into the vernacular and placing it in the hands of the many, there wee nearly as many interpretations of the Bible as there were Bible readers – hence the multiplicity of (often warring) denominations. This freedom to read the Bible independently then led to a freedom to read it independently of any church tradition – and so modern critical scholarship was born.
The fact is that the Protestant preoccupation with ‘getting the Bible right’ has been futile. Whether it is modernists ‘attacking’ the Bible’s trustworthiness or fundamentalists ‘defending’ it, both are failing to ask the right question: Is the Bible actually set up to give the kind of intellectual certainty both these groups are looking for? Or should we perhaps recognise its own diversity and seek to trust God rather than believe Scripture?
Enns concludes:- ‘I believe that the Bible does not model a faith that depends on certainty for the simple fact that the Bible does not provide that kind of certainty.’