Just a few months back, Peter Enns new book hit shelves, The Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires Our Trust More Than Our “Correct” Beliefs. Thanks to HarperOne for the review copy!
The book serves as a kind of “part 2” to Enns’ previous release, The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It, also from HarperOne. Whereas the former gets a little more into the critical scholarship of engaging Scripture, The Sin of Certainty, gets more into the personal story of Scripture, as well as into Enns’ own story. This I appreciated greatly.
Enns opens with a story of an “uh-oh moment” that took place while watching a Disney movie on a flight following a boring academic conference.
What is an “uh-oh moment”?
From that opening account, he offers: “Most Christians—I’d be willing to bet, sooner or later, all Christians—have unexpected uh-oh moments that threaten familiar ways of believing and thinking about God, moments that show up without being invited, without a chance to prepare for what’s coming and run for cover” (p7, emphasis his).
But he believes these uh-oh moments are also “God moments.” He adds, “They help us break down the religious systems we create for ourselves that sooner or later block from questioning, wondering, and, therefore, from growing” (p8, emphasis his).
How does this happen?
“In ways we do not even perceive, we all create God in our own image. We may mean well and we may be motivated by our devotion toward God. But even when these ideas about God have proven very helpful to us, they become a hindrance to growth when the cement dries” (p16-17).
In an effort to answer those who claim they are just following the Bible, [or even seeing Enns as the one who is creating God in his own image], he reminds us:
“No one just ‘follows’ the Bible. We interpret it as people with a past and present, and in community with others, within certain traditions, none of which is absolute. Many factors influence how we ‘follow’ the Bible. None of us rises above our place in the human drama and grasps God with pure clarity, without our own baggage coming along for the ride. We all bring our broken and limited selves into how we think of God” (p17).
On a side note, I think it’s fair to say that Peter Enns would also agree that he falls into creating God in his own image.
From this, Enns moves into the thrust of the book: that certainty is sinful. More importantly, our preoccupation with correct thinking overrides our ability to trust God. He goes on:
“When we grab hold of ‘correct’ thinking for dear life, when we refuse to let go because we think that doing so means letting go of God, when we dig in our heels and stay firmly planted even when we sense that we need to let go and move on, at that point we are trusting our thoughts rather than God. We have turned away from God’s invitation to trust in order to cling to an idol” (p19).
Let me go ahead and offer some side thoughts of my own. I have written a few times about the problem of evangelicalism being driven more by modernist, Enlightenment perspectives than the ancient ways of the biblical community. This creates all sorts of problems when it comes to Bible interpretation and our engagement with both those within the Christian community that think differently than us and those who are not believers. Arrogance and defensiveness can easily rise to the top.
What many don’t realize is that the Enlightenment pushed the western world to ultimately center truth in absolute, empirical objectivity—in that we, as broken humans, could reach that through pure reason. The church of the late 1800s and early 1900s led a valiant effort to engage some strongly liberal settings of that day. However, our views became more attached to Cartesian ideals than that of the ancient people of God. It drew us away from the reality that we have been handed down a “faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people” (Jude 3, emphasis mine).
Of course this faith has important tenets, central beliefs connected to it. But we are primarily working with a faith-trust in God and the living word, Jesus. Thus, our primary source of truth is not our intellectual ability to objectively understand Scripture, nor God, but our call to “hold the mystery of faith with a clear conscience” (1 Tim 3:9).
This is what Enns is reminding us of in The Sin of Certainty. For this, I recommend the book.
What’s more important than anything is that he gets very, very personal in the book. He shares his own painful journey—both of what led him to uh-oh moments in which God rearranged his trust foundation, but also what became known as the “Enns Controversy.” This was his own story as it relates to his published work, Inspiration and Incarnation, and how the Westminster Theological Seminary board voted to suspend him because of that work, though it was within the Westminster Confession of Faith, and especially within orthodoxy. Even the faculty’s vote was in favor of Enns.
I appreciated him opening up on all these fronts.
This book will be a good read for Bible students and entry level seminary students. It will give them an introduction into the challenges of dealing with Scripture within a scholarly context, but the hope is that it helps them see that their faith is not built on some level of empirical certainty gained through Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Biblical Studies or Systematic Theology. Rather their faith is to be a deep trust in and allegiance to the Mysterious One who is unfathomable, incomprehensible, of whom we see dimly in a mirror.