The Sin of Certainty: Peter Enns’ journey from belief to trust

Sin of CertaintyLike most seminary professors in the 1970s, Bill Treadwell wrote a lot of stuff on the blackboard, but I only remember two of them.  The first day of class, he strode to the board, picked up a piece of chalk and wrote “350”.  Bill was an enormous man back then and wanted to get the inevitable question out of the way.

The second thing I remember Bill writing was prefaced by a spoken lead-in, “Church people don’t like a . . .” Then he wrote an enormous question mark on the board.

Peter Enns’ latest book is written in praise of question marks, especially those that crowd our minds when God goes missing.

In The Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires our Trust More than our “Correct” Beliefs, Peter Enns argues that certainty (especially the theological variety) is inappropriate, dangerous and unbiblical.

The Eastern University Professor of Biblical Studies begins with an intellectual argument (given what we know, certainty is inappropriate) and demonstrates how doubt figures prominently in often-overlooked portions of the Old Testament.  Finally, he explains how his own painful experience drove him to his radical conclusions.

In the nineteenth century, Enns says, Christian orthodoxy absorbed four body blows (Enns calls them “uh-oh moments”) within a brief span of thirty years.

First came On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin, a thesis that called the biblical account of human origins into question. At the same time, scientists were discovering that the universe is infinitely older and more expansive than the biblical narrative would have us believe.

Then archaeologists started discovering documents from cultures older than the Bible and concluded that biblical narratives from Noah and the flood to the shape of biblical law were borrowed and adapted from Israel’s neighbors.  This speculation called the direct inspiration of the Old Testament into question.

Then German academics started digging around in the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible). These documents, they concluded, were clearly the work of several authors and were probably cut and pasted into their present form during the Babylonian captivity.

So we have Darwin, archaeology, and now the Germans–three hard punches landing square on the jaw of the Bible all within about a thirty-year period of the nineteenth century, and the Bible was down for the count.

Then, in America at least, the plain reading of scripture failed to answer the slavery question.  With abolitionists and pro-slavery preachers using holy writ to bolster their positions it became difficult to argue that God’s word spoke with one voice.

The point is that the Bible gives conflicting moral guidance, which caused for everyday people a different kind of crisis of faith than the one caused by Darwin, archaeology, and some Germans.  It’s one thing for the Bible to be wrong about the long-ago past (as difficult as that was to process), but it is far worse for the Bible to be of no use to us here and now when we actually need it to tell us what to do.

These developments should have taught Christians that you couldn’t “prove” the basic doctrines of orthodox Christianity by a simple appeal to the Bible.  Instead, we must trust God in the face of evidence that doesn’t point in the direction of traditional Christian orthodoxy.  Christians should have weighed the evidence presented by Darwin, the astronomers, the archaeologists and the German biblical scholars, embraced their most compelling arguments and made their peace with uncertainty.

But that isn’t what happened.  Instead, evangelical Christians decided that the only way forward was to say no to modernity.

This is why we see such a preoccupation with the transmission and preservation of knowledge among evangelical and fundamentalist churches in America today–the reason they “do church” the way they do.  They have been living in intellectual reactive mode for generations to defend the intellectual certainty that they believe the Bible needs to provide.  That is why Bible churches and colleges continue to thrive.  That is why such a premium is placed on Sunday school, long lecture-like sermons, and reading the right books and keeping away from bad ones.

As I’m sure you are aware by now, The Sin of Certainty will soon be numbered among the bad books that good Christians should avoid.

Nineteenth Century Christians doubled down on certainty, Enns believes, because they were children of the sixteenth century Protestant Reformation that replaced the authority of the Church with the authority of Scripture.  During the fundamentalist-modernist controversy of the early twentieth century, both sides tended to believe that the Bible was empirically and demonstrably true, or it was a hapless relic of a pre-scientific age.

Enns says it was a mistake to view the Bible as a perfect book laden with factual information.

Rather, in all its messy diversity, the Bible models trust in God that does not rest on whether we are able to be clear and certain about what to believe.  In fact, the words “belief” and “faith” in the Bible are just different ways of saying “trust”  and trust works, regardless of where our knowing happens to be.

The middle section of the book is a quick tour of the parts of the Old Testament American evangelicals typically avoid.

Enns begins with the Psalms.  Some psalms praise God for how wonderful everything is.  Others admit that things have gone terribly wrong but the psalmist thanks God in advance for making things rights.

But there is a third species of psalm that says, in effect, “Things are terribly wrong, I am at the end of my rope, and to make things worse, Oh Lord, you’re nowhere to be found.”  Consider the author’s vernacular translation of Psalm 88:

O Lord, I have been on my knees to you night after night.  I am so troubled, and in so much agony, I feel like I have one foot in the grave, in deep and dark places.  I am absolutely without hope, including in you.  You really don’t seem to care.

Actually, let me be blunt: you’ve abandoned me and so this is all your fault.  You’re the one who makes me feel like this.

You’re even the one responsible for my friends looking at me like I’m some sort of freak show.

Even so, all night and all day I’m on my knees praying, still calling to you for some relief–I’m desperate.  But you keep on hiding.  I’m in absolute pain and the only friend I have is darkness.  Thanks for nothing.

If we talked this way in church, Enns says, we would be quickly silenced or subjected go a “protect-you–from-atheism intervention phone chain faster than you can say ‘Bill Maher’.”  And yet we find protests of this sort throughout the Old Testament.  This suggests that

These expressions of abandonment aren’t godless moments, evidence that something is wrong and needing to be fixed.  They relay the experiences of ancient men and women of faith, and were kept because those experiences were common–part of being an Israelite and therefore valued.  For us they signal not only what can happen in the life of faith, but also what does happen–what we should expect to happen.

And then there are the “imprecatory” psalms that ask God to smite the psalmists enemies in this life (the Old Testament knows nothing of an afterlife).  Jesus taught us to love and forgive our enemies, so Christians are barred from repeating this kind of prayer, Enns notes.  But we should follow the psalmists example.  Despite the fact that he was being harassed and oppressed on every side, “the psalmist enters the sanctuary; he moves toward God, not away from God–a movement toward trust when all the evidence is against it.  That was the only option open to him.”

Enns concludes the exegetical portion of his book with extensive treatments of the “preacher” of Ecclesiastes and the trials of Job. (It should be noticed that Enns doesn’t use technical terms like “exegetical”, “imprecatory”, “hermeneutical” or “eschatological”.  This is a book for ordinary folks.)

Ecclesiastes boils down to this: “Trust God even when you don’t know what you believe, even when all before you is absurd.”

Job takes things to the next level.  “My life is leaking out of me,” he tells God.  “Why aren’t you true to your own promises?  If we have to play by your rules, Oh Lord, why don’t you?”

Significantly, God never answers Job’s questions.  That’s because “The Bible isn’t a Christian owner’s manual.  God remains shrouded in mystery, inaccessible, beyond our mental reach.”  You can trust this kind of God, but you will never understand him.

Believing that God is Immortal, Invisible and Only Wise is okay, Enns admits, but it is so easy that even a demon can do it.  Trust is about being “all in.”

We miss what the biblical writers were after if we think of belief and faith as “correct thinking” words.  They are deep and hard words, more than we might have been led to expect.  And they are beautiful words that move us deeper into the presence of God.

Trust is what happens when life makes no sense, and God has vanished.  “A faith that promises to provide firm answers and relive our doubt is a faith that will not hold up to the challenges and tragedies of life.  Only deep trust can hold up.”

Peter Enns
Peter Enns

Professor Enns is the product of a very conservative corner of American evangelicalism and therefore he managed to avoid any serious encounter with agnosticism, atheism, non-Christian religions or the physical sciences until he did doctoral work at Harvard in the early 1990s.  He was surprised to learn that most of the non-Christians he encountered were genuinely nice people.  He also discovered that his Jewish professors in biblical Hebrew didn’t read the ancient texts like the Adam and Eve narratives in Genesis the way Enns had learned to read them.

Returning to Westminster Theological Seminary (his alma mater) as a professor, Enns attempted, gingerly at first, to loosen things up a bit.  Everything was fine at first, but when the professor drafted a peace treaty between Charles Darwin and Christian orthodoxy things got ugly fast.  His fellow professors were supportive, but the administration tightened the screws until Enns had no choice to resign.  His experience is depressingly common in the tortured world of evangelical academics.

Under the high-lofted banner of “defending the gospel,” backroom politicking, gossip, maligning the character of their enemies, lying, vengeance, and even destroying people’s livelihoods are excused as regrettable yet necessary tactics in their holy war (battle metaphors abound) to root our traitors harboring unbelief.  And such casualties, unfortunate as they are, are nevertheless deemed necessary when truth is compromised and the gospel is at stake.

The contrast between the kingdom life Jesus talked about in the Gospels and the actual functioning of the religious community was breathtaking.  “We can’t make Bible difficulties, the modern world, pain and suffering, or contact with other religions go away.  But we can stop being mean and ugly.  Anytime we want to.  If we want to.  And we need to.  Jesus says so.  And the gospel really is at stake.”

Enns says we should thank God for the messiness of the Twenty-first century world.  “The challenges of modernity have shaken our sense of certainty and, in so doing, pushed us toward trust.”

If we let them, “uh-oh moments” can produce “Ah-ha moments” in which we discover that God is, mercifully, infinitely bigger than our ideas about God.

It is so easy to slip into “right thinking” mode–that we have arrived at full faith.  We know what church God goes to, what Bible translation God prefers, how God votes, what movies God watches, and what books God reads.  We know the kinds of people God approves of.  God has winners and losers, and we are the winners, the true insiders.  God likes all the things we like.  We speak for God and think nothing of it.

But uh-oh moments remind us that rationality doesn’t know what to do with God.  “I don’t think the Christian faith is fundamentally rational,” Enns says, “by which I mean it cannot be captured fully by our rational faculties–and in fact, more often than not, confounds them.”

In fact, Enns says, all our idolatrous ideas about God must be extinguished, and the sooner the better.  That’s one reason why the New Testament describes salvation as a kind of death.  “God wants us dead, or better: God wants us to get used to the need to die, not once, but as a pattern for our lives.”

Which is why Jesus talked about taking up our crosses and following him.  The idea isn’t that crosses are heavy and difficult to lift; the idea is that “you take up your cross to die on it.  That’s the point of crosses.”

So Paul says “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” (Galatians 2:19-20).

The life of Christian faith is more than agreeing with a set of beliefs about Christ, morality, or how to read the Bible.  It means being so intimately connected to Christ that his crucifixion is ours, his death is or death, and his life is our life–which is hardly something we can grasp with our minds.  It has to be experienced.  It is an experience.

Enns closes The Sin of Certainty with two stories from his personal life.  He talks about the utter helplessness he experienced when he was unable to “fix” a gifted but emotionally troubled daughter.  Only by turning to God in childlike trust was he able to keep moving forward.

Throughout the time of struggle for me and my family, never was I preoccupied with lining up my thinking about God.  There was no time for that, and it would have been out of place anyway.  I was too busy surviving.

Enns was forced out of Westminster Seminary just as his daughter, through a combination of medical intervention and wise counsel, was getting her life back.  At first, with the long struggle with the seminary behind him, everything was terrific.  Then reality set in.  He was an out-of-work professor with no prospects.  His faith community, the only community he knew, had rejected him as a heretic and an outcast.

For the first time in my Christian life, I really wondered deeply whether it was worth it all, whether there actually was a God, and what it even means to speak like this.  I mourned that I might never be able to sing a Christmas song again, go to church, pray, or even care about any of that.

As he moved through his dark night of the soul, Enns gradually let go of his inherited preoccupation with right thinking. “These experiences have drawn me out of my safe haven of certainty and onto a path of trusting God–not trusting God that my thinking is correct or soon would be, but trusting God regardless of how certain I might feel.”

Enns was fed by the Hebrew Scriptures during this dark period, which drove him to what some might consider an odd conclusion:

Christians today have more in common with the Israelites wandering through a lonely and threatening desert or exiled to a hostile land than with Paul and most other New Testament writers.  The Old Testament doesn’t speak in the booming voice of imminent triumph.  It speaks of generation after generation of the faithful and not so faithful, of successes and failures, of God’s presence and God’s absence.

But this dark night gave Enns new insight into the “dying with Christ” passages that dot the letters of Paul.  Suffering drives us to the crucified Christ.

When we are in despair or fear and God is as far away from us as the most distant star in the universe, we are at that moment “with” Christ more than we know–and perhaps more that we ever have been–because when we suffer, we share in a and complete Christ’s suffering.  And we don’t have to understand that to know we should like it.

In a brief concluding chapter, Enns argues for “adopting and intentionally cultivating in Christians a culture of trust in God, rather than raising up soldiers for holy wars.”  Maybe then, the world will see Christ in us and the mysterious God of the Bible will be revealed to the world.

So, what’s the takeaway?

The Sin of Certainty is yet another volume written by post-evangelicals for post-evangelicals.  While Enns will be dismissed as a “liberal” scholar by the evangelical establishment he is another animal altogether.  Post-evangelicals share much with their liberal kin, but they retain a passionate commitment to biblical authority, in general, and to the centrality of Jesus, in particular.  There is a passion in this subset of American Christianity that you rarely find among academic theologians who are tempted to approach biblical scholarship and Christian theology as in-house parlor games.  To quote Rachel Held Evans,

When you grow up believing that your religious worldview contains the key to absolute truth and provides an answer to every question, you never really get over the disappointment of learning that it doesn’t. It’s a lonely, frightening journey and most of us are limping along as best we can.

Post-evangelical writers like Peter Enns, Evans, Brian McLaren and Christian Smith (to name just a few) agree that the doctrine of biblical inerrancy makes the Bible “impossible” (to use Smith’s arresting term), but they continue to take the Bible seriously because they take God seriously.

Post-evangelicals disagree on many side issues, but, like Mr. Enns, they have made their peace with question marks.  Christians who share the journey from evangelical piety to post-evangelical ambiguity will embrace most of Enns’ conclusions as therapeutic restatements of the obvious.  But how many post-evangelicals are there, and outside this limited demographic, who else will define theological certainty as a species of sin?

Post-evangelicals grow up born-again, emerge from adolescence as true believers, attend graduate school in some branch of the humanities (or read omnivorously from the restricted list on our own) and discover that the certainty we imbibed as children doesn’t bear up under scrutiny.

After a decade or so of floundering, the typical post-evangelical emerges on the far side of doubt with a renewed passion for the teaching of Jesus and a profound respect for mystery.

How many Americans have walked that lonesome valley?  One hundred thousand?  Five hundred thousand?  A million, tops?  Whatever the number, there are few American cities big enough to support a church rooted in an emerging post-evangelical consensus.  For this reason, post-evangelicals frequently wind up on the Canterbury road to Anglicanism or make their peace with the Protestant mainline.

But mainline Anglicans, Lutherans, United Methodists and Presbyterians rarely demonstrate the spiritual earnestness you find among the post-evangelicals.  The difference is real.

The post-evangelical world is more virtual community than gathered community.  That’s fine as an interim arrangement, but if Enns really wants to build a “culture of trust” dedicated to the gracious mystery of Jesus, an evangelistic strategy is needed.

If the post-evangelicals are onto something, how can we communicate our theological and ecclesiastical vision to 20 and 30-somethings who like Jesus but are repelled by television Christianity?

When my wife Nancy and I describe our kind on Christianity to our sons (who grew up as witnesses to our lonesome valley passage), they remind us that hardly anyone in the many churches we have worked in as pastors shared our religious vision.  Moreover, thirty-something boys have visited a smattering of megachurches in the DFW area and report that old-school evangelicalism, filtered through the gauze of Christian contemporary praise music, reigns supreme.  Our sons have concluded, therefore, that Nancy and I have recreated Christianity in our own image and are thus on our own.

I could point to the dozens of post-evangelical authors who agree with me.  But my boys don’t care about the books; they want to see a church that shares the earnestness and openness their parents bring to the table.  And I can’t point to a single one.

Professor Treadwell was right: church people hate question marks.  Sometimes we hate question marks because question marks because we fear we won’t agree on the answers.

And sometimes we hate question marks because we know our beliefs won’t pass empirical muster.  The “Christian worldview” championed by conservative evangelicals rejects the prevailing scientific consensus on a wide range of issues from the age of the earth to the genesis of homosexuality to global warming.  As a consequence, millions of young Americans are growing up in a cultural cocoon in which the questions that drove Peter Enns to his knees never come up.

Young people who come of age outside the evangelical cocoon are often forced to choose between believing what they know ain’t so and rejecting the Christian option altogether.

I realize that there are hundreds of moderate ex-evangelical churches that have exchanged culture war hostility for a vague, non-partisan tolerance that dodges the tough questions.  The teaching of Jesus are celebrated in these circles but it has also been domesticated to the point of irrelevance.  Few moderate evangelical preachers dare to speak honestly about the Bible from the pulpit.  We preach a nice Bible (focusing on the bits about grace) and ignore the nasty Bible (holy war, “the ban”, defense of slavery, patriarchy and the rest).

This sort of post-evangelical lite boasts a fair number of non-virtual congregations, but are we winning converts?  Do we have a gospel to preach?  Attendance figures suggest we do not.  We aren’t fundamentalists anymore, but do we proclaim a compelling alternative?  I think not.

I enjoyed The Sin of Certainty.  Most true post-evangelicals will as well.  It’s our kind of book.  But what about the 27 year-old woman who identifies Christianity with the remorseless verities of the religious right?  Will she read this book?  Probably not; she moves in the wrong circles.  But if she did read it and found it convincing, where would she find a living expression of the “culture of trust” Enns talks about?

You see the problem.

Perhaps I should lighten up.  Why should I, or Peter Enns, or Rachel Held Evans or anyone else in the virtual post-evangelical community care if millions of Americans are attracted to the various brands of fundamentalism on offer in America?

Won’t most people go on hating questions marks.  Billy Graham discovered that his preaching took on a new power when held aloft an inerrant Bible.  The proof was in the pudding.  So why should post-evangelicals like me object?

We object because American evangelicalism has silenced Jesus.  Young Americans who grow up outside the evangelical tribe like Jesus but dislike Christianity.  Pope Francis inspires hope because, unlike the religious self-promoters they encounter on television, Francis speaks the language of Jesus.

American evangelicals silence Jesus through an indiscriminate worship of the Bible.  If every word in the Bible is equally God-breathed, Jesus gets one vote just like everyone else.  If the genocidal holy-war theology of Joshua and Samuel or the ethnic barriers of Ezra and Nehemiah can’t be squared with the radical forgiveness, non-violence and enemy-love Jesus taught, we split the difference.  Joshua reveals the wrath of God; Jesus reveals God’s mercy, we say, but both are equally real.

And when we are confronted with an immigration crisis or the rise of militant Islam what do we do?  We go with Joshua.  Joshua is consistent with an imperial America; Jesus is not.  So we go with Joshua and we assert that Yeshuah must agree with Joshua because Jesus is God, Joshua spoke for God, ergo, Joshua speaks for Jesus.

This kind of biblical interpretation explains, in large part, why Jesus doesn’t stand a chance in most of our churches.  He is welcomed as a Savior; but rejected as Lord.

We need a post-evangelical kind of “Christian worldview” rooted in the moral logic of Jesus and the witness of the Hebrew prophets.  We need to say, without hesitation or apology, that at many points Jesus and Joshua cannot be harmonized.  Jesus got God right all the time while Joshua did not.

In short, the Bible is a contentious debate between contending theologies and Jesus picks the winners.

If post-evangelicals can cobble together a simple red-letter hermeneutic applied with unflinching honesty, we can build churches with a distinctive biblical witness; we can create the culture of trust that Peter Enns is advocating.

We have yet to reckon with the God revealed in Jesus Christ.  For the sake of those who know only the compromised, stuttering Jesus of American evangelism, that needs to change.  We need a new kind of church, a new kind of gospel and a new kind of preacher.  To quote the Apostle (Romans 10:14,15)

How are they to call on one in whom they have not believed?
And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard?
And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?
And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent?
As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”






6 thoughts on “The Sin of Certainty: Peter Enns’ journey from belief to trust

  1. I felt as though you were speaking directly to me and I can’t wait to read this book. As an “inactive” American Baptist pastor, not currently serving in a called pastorate, I have been wrestling with many of the issues Enns addresses. But I think I may have found the congregation you fear does not exist! I’m so excited to share your review with my pastors and hopefully, to engage the congregation in a discussion group around the book. Thank you!!

  2. Your book review and the book itself appears to me to be an accurate picture of Christian churches and community today. Good work.

  3. The last part of your post is SO VERY TRUE of our experience. It is so hard, so lonely. If so many of us are out there, why can we not find one another locally?

  4. At various points in this review, I felt as though you were speaking directly to me. I have ordered the book and cannot wait to read it. I have shared your review with my pastors, and hope we me soon start a discussion group. As an in active American Baptist pastor, who grew up in a fairly moderate church, I really resonate with many of the points you make. No, in my 40s, I believe I just may have found a congregation which is striving to be and become the type of church you believe may not even exist. It’s an exciting time.

  5. Alan – excellent review and commentary. I believe that “post-evangelical” is a subset of the coming post-Christendom that Stuart Murray and others have written about.

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