This entry is part 1 of 9 in the series: ‘The Sin of Certainty’ (Enns)
Peter Enns stands in a rather long line of scholars, teachers and leaders (including James Barr, Dave Tomlinson, Brian Maclaren, Robert M. Price, Bart Ehrman, and Steve Chalke) who have, to a lesser or greater extent, turned their backs on the evangelical faith which once nurtured them. In some cases (Ehrman) it has finished up in agnosticism. In others (Price) in doubting whether the Jesus of the Bible even existed. In still others (Tomlinson, Maclaren, and Chalke) there remains a clear profession of Christian faith, while important theological and moral tenets have undergone drastic revision. Into this last, ‘post-evangelical’ group falls Peter Enns. In previous books – including Inspiration and Incarnation, The Evolution of Adam, and The Bible Tells Me So – Enns tells us how, in his opinion, the Bible must be read as a much more human document than evangelicals have supposed it to be.
In his recent book The Sin of Certainty (HarperOne, 2016), Enns spells out in a more personal way how he has reached the conclusion that ‘correct thinking’ about God is actually the enemy of ‘trust’ in God. I’m going to summarise the book, chapter-by-chapter and as honestly as I can. I’ll add some comments of my own from time to time.
Chapter 1 – I don’t know what I believe any more
Enns tells us that as a seminary professor from an evangelical background he was caught off guard by a Disney movie in which a god who damns people to hell when they die is pitted against a god who is ‘too busy’ running the world to go around damning people. Enns tells us that the thought occurred to him that the second opinion was probably right. And that led to a process of doubting, of change, and of maturation.
There are others, too, whose sense of certainty and security is upset. But they are afraid to share their doubts with their fellow-Christians, because of the risk of criticism or even rejection. But we’ve all had moments when our cherished beliefs about God have been shaken, and we need to face up to them.
As a professor in a small conservative seminary Enns found that his and others’ views were coming under increasing scrutiny. In the end, he left, and at first there was a sense of relief and release. But then, with no reassuring ‘confession of faith’ telling him what to believe, there set in a season of uncertainty. His conclusion was that ‘knowing about God’ had been overrated, and needed to be replaced by ‘trust in God’.
Our thoughts about God are seriously inadequate. They are too conditioned by internal need and outside pressure. The sense of certainty they engender is misplaced. History shows that groups of Christians have been ‘certain’ about different things, and have ended up despising each other…or worse. Preoccupation with correct thinking reduces the life of faith to sentry duty, to patrolling the boundaries to check who’s ‘in’ and who’s ‘out’. But isn’t God by very definition beyond what we can ever comprehend? Aren’t our images of God just so many idols? And isn’t certainty sinful precisely because it works off fear, rather than trust?
Let’s be clear that there’s nothing wrong with thinking about God, or even seeking to think correctly about God. But the whole intellectual exercise has become toxic when it involves a need for certainty. For it means trusting our own beliefs rather than trusting God.
The invitation, then, is to reorient our faith so that is defined by whom we trust rather than by what we believe. I can be in a close and loving relationship with my wife, for example, even though I have mistaken beliefs about her; and the same applies to my relationship with God. Actually, God wants us to give up our need to be right, and welcomes it as a step of faith. It’s another part of what Jesus calls ‘dying’ and ‘losing’ our lives. It’s a sign of courage and humility.
The dichotomy that Enns presents at the beginning – between a God who ‘sends people to hell when they die’ and a God who is ‘too busy running the universe to do that sort of thing’ is misguided and misleading. Nevertheless,
We can wholeheartedly agree that
(a) We should not confuse propositional knowledge (knowledge about God) with relational knowledge (knowing God), or privilege the first kind of knowledge over the second.
(b) Authentic relational knowledge can co-exist with flawed propositional knowledge. Indeed, our knowledge about God is always incomplete and is subject to correction and revision.
(c) Evangelicals tend to value correct thinking too highly, and to spend too much time ‘patrolling the boundaries’ in order to determine who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’ as defined by such ‘correct thinking’.
(d) We should permit ourselves, and one another, to acknowledge our doubts and uncertainties, and prayerfully expect God to use these very things to bring us to greater spiritual maturity.
It does not follow, however, that
(a) Doubt and uncertainty are, in and of themselves, Good Things.
(b) Propositional knowledge and relational knowledge are unconnected. Relational knowledge depends on, and is nurtured by, propositional knowledge. Knowledge of my wife and knowledge about her are not nearly so distinct as Enns would have me suppose. I trust her precisely because of what I know about her. Conversely, she knows that I cannot be trusted (to remember people’s names, for example) because of what she knows about me.