The Sin of Certainty (Peter Enns) -- Review
THE SIN OF CERTAINTY: Why God Desires our Trust More than our “Correct” Beliefs. By Peter Enns. San Francisco: Harper One, 2016. 230 pages.
The book of Hebrews declares that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1). The author of Hebrews tells us that our spiritual ancestors received approval for their faith, even though they could not see their hopes come to fruition. To live by faith is to trust your life to a God who remains unseen. Nevertheless, many of us have a need more certainty than this. There is a need on the part of many for a bit more definition of the faith. That leads to a desire for what Peter Enns calls “correct” beliefs. Whether those correct beliefs emerge from Scripture or from tradition, they offer a sense of certainty. Peter Enns learned the hard way that this can be dangerous. Thus, he concluded that the search for certainty is in itself a matter of sin.
Peter Enns is a bible scholar who got in trouble with the seminary where he did his own seminary work and then where he taught for fourteen years. He got in trouble because he voiced opinions that didn’t accord with what the administration and at least parts of the constituency of the seminary believed to be correct. Even though the opinions he published were no different from what he had taught in class, now that they were out there in public they were no longer acceptable. Ultimately he was forced to resign his position at the seminary that nurtured his own faith and provide him a work environment he loved. What that resignation did was free him to deal with long-standing doubts and questions, and it allowed him to be more open to the leading of the Spirit and to the findings of critical biblical scholarship. The seminary’s loss, is the broader Christian community’s gain. As an aside it is interesting that Enns never names the seminary in the text of the book. You’ll only find mention of Westminster Theological Seminary in a note at the end of the book (and who reads the notes?).
The title of the book is evocative. How can the search for certainty be sinful? Don’t we want to be certain of our faith. Don’t want to let go of doubt, and just believe? Enns discovered that this might not be true. In fact, focusing one’s attention on correct doctrine can take ones focus off of God. That doesn’t mean that doctrine and belief doesn’t matter. It’s where you put your focus. As far as I can tell from reading this book, and I’ve yet to read his other books, Enns remains a committed evangelical. He allows more nuance to his beliefs. He no longer reads Genesis is history, but I don’t think he’s changed his view of the Trinity or Jesus being divine. In fact, I think he believes that these are important aspects of the Christian faith, but the goal can’t be doctrinal conformity. So, while his theological horizons have definitely broadened, he remains an evangelical at heart. Beliefs do matter, but not at the expense of one’s relationship with God.
The book is very personal. It has the feeling of being a theological memoir. That is, the message he wishes to share is rooted in his own experiences moving from the doctrinal certainty that formed his faith to a more open evangelical vision. I think that central message that Enns wants to share with us can be summed up in this sentence from early in the book. He makes it clear that he’s not rejecting the life of the mind. He wants to be a thinking Christian. He wants us to go deep theologically. However, here’s the problem. It is “the unspoken need for our thinking about God to be right in order to have joyful, freeing, healing, and meaningful faith” (p. 21). The italicized words of emphasis are his. In other words, joy is understood to derive from “trusting our beliefs rather than trusting God.” Why do we do this? We do this because in a world of uncertainty many want something unchanging to hold on to, even if it is a doctrine. Since God is unseen, doctrines are easier to trust. The problem emerges when our certain faith is challenged. It might be science. It might be a natural disaster. It might be the illness or death of one close to you. But once the cracks in our certainty emerge, we may not know what to believe any more.
What Enns discovered over time was that faith is more than the transfer of information. It’s more than an intellectual exercise. It’s that trust in God that enables one to navigate the difficult times of life. Enns addresses the challenges to certainty, whether it is science, critical biblical scholarship (the Germans), or life’s realities. Being an Old Testament scholar he takes us through the Psalms, Ecclesiastes, and Job, all of which give voice to complaint and doubt. In other words, the Bible itself gives us permission to ask hard questions of God. Of Ecclesiastes he writes: “It paints for us a picture of what faith looks like when all you thought you knew about God and how the world works is ripped from you, when certainty vanishes like a vapor” (p. 80). So Enns discovers that the end of faith is not a “what” but a “who.” Faith is something we do rather than simply affirm intellectually. It is, ultimately, he offers surrendering one’s all to Jesus. As to the question of content. Yes, content is important, but it is not the end all. Content is understood in the context of trust. Ultimately, he discovers that this not all bad! In fact, it’s quite good. It allows us to get of the house, so to speak, and meet new people. He discovered during his doctoral work that Jews interpreted the same scriptures in very different ways than he had been taught. That was an eye opener, and a faith enhancer.
The problem that Enns uncovers for us is not only the spiritual danger to the one seeking certainty, but the danger posed to others. He has a section titled “when Christians eat their own.” When we need certainty we tend to try and make others conform to those beliefs. When the need for certainty is absolute then on challenges will be acceptable, and thus the challengers must be defeated. He writes that “a faith that eats its own not only drives people out but also sends up a read flare to the rest of humanity that Christianity is just another exclusive members-only club, and that Jesus is a lingering relic of antiquity, rather than a powerful, present-defining spiritual reality; a means of gaining power rather than relinquishing it” (p. 141). Many of us have experienced this demand for conformity. Like Enns I lost my teaching position years ago because my theology was considered too liberal, even though I didn’t think it was outside mainstream evangelical thought.
As Enns nears the end of the book he moves from responding to the challenges posed by those who require doctrinal conformity, to cultivating trust in God. He tells the story of how his own faith emerged stronger through difficult times. He tells the story of his daughter’s struggles with stress and an eating disorder, that ran parallel to his own stressful situation at the seminary. Through their struggles they emerged with stronger trust in God, even though they let go of their need for certainty. He discovered that worship was central to such a journey. He discovered that Jesus’ own experience of suffering could be a guide for his own life. He also discovered the mystical traditions, that allowed for one to enter darkness and emerge stronger in faith.
This is a very good book. It’s very personal. It’s accessible, which is not an easy task for those who are by training scholars who write for the academic guild. While at points there is a feeling of repetition, I think Enns wants his audience to understand the spiritual benefits of letting go of certainty. As I read through the book I asked the question of intended audience. I believe that his audience is first and foremost those who find themselves caught between the life of doctrinal conformity (and thus the need for certainty) and increasing numbers of questions about the faith that had defined their lives up that point. It is an invitation to move through one’s doubts and questions into trusting God with one’s life. In many ways, I’m no longer the primary audience of the book. Once I would have been there, but like Enns’ own experience, I had begun to question the doctrinal certainty as early as my closing years of college. Though my own journey from certainty began long ago, I can resonate with his journey. I think many others can as well. My sense of the book is that Enns wants to invite fellow evangelicals to let go of the need to make sure everything fits perfectly, and embrace God fully. That means letting go of needing the Bible to answer every question. Some questions can only be answered in relationship with the Creator. That is a message we can all benefit from.
Reposted from Englewood Review of Books.