IM Book Review: The Sin of Certainty

Clay on Shale

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.

Rachel Held Evans

Sooner or later we all find ourselves faced with some serious challenge to how we think about God. Don’t we all eventually come to a crossroads where familiar beliefs don’t work very well and we just don’t really know what we believe anymore? Even if we have never verbalized it to ourselves (let alone to others), don’t we all at some point have a nagging background noise of doubt, a deep undercurrent of cognitive dissonance, where what we were once certain about evaporates like a dream?

• Peter Enns

• • •

One reason I appreciate Pete Enns so much is because he is not only an outstanding Old Testament scholar but also an honest brother who is willing to talk about his life and matters of faith in down-to-earth terms. Pete has been on a journey from belief to trust, and he writes about it in his new book, The Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires Our Trust More Than Our “Correct” Beliefs.

This is a “wilderness journey” that should ring true to many who read Internet Monk; I know I can relate to it intimately.

When I left congregational ministry eleven years ago, my familiar and comfortable world was turned upside down. The experience brought to the surface a host of nagging doubts that I had suppressed regarding many aspects of the evangelical world in which I had lived for decades. The social structures of that world, which had kept me upright and functioning for a long time, had been withdrawn. I was down and I was out. In the wilderness. In many ways I still am. I find myself less certain about any number of things; less willing to pronounce dogmatic “answers” or certitudes about God or life. I am also less impressed by the oh-so-serious guardians of the right who do express such surefire convictions, less willing to accept that their “truths” are as unambiguous and authoritative as they claim, more convinced that their bold assertions are rooted in something other than “the clear teaching of the Bible.” I’m much less patient with that attitude and approach than with those who hunger and thirst and are curious, open to mystery and discovery.

I also find I’m more at peace, more patient with and accepting of the dissonances of life, less frantic about having it all together in a neat package tied up with a bow. I can even laugh at myself a little bit. Perhaps that’s why I resonate with Pete’s book and the journey it describes.

The big idea of The Sin of Certainty is the difference between “belief” and “trust.”

Enns notes how Christians talk, using these terms. We discuss what we believe in. We say whether or not we believe that. We focus on what we believe.

“What” and “that.” Almost as a reflex, believing is a “thinking” word, a word to describe the content of our thoughts: I believe that God exists (and atheists don’t believe that), I believe that God created the world (not random chance), I believe that Jesus is God’s Son (and not just another Jewish carpenter), and so on. Church creeds and ten-point statements of faith emphasize content, thoughts about God to be listed and agreed with. (p. 93)

Trust is different. Trust is a “who” word, not a “what” word. We trust God. Trust is a covenant word, a relational word, a word about personal devotion, faithfulness and active loyalty.

Like God the Father and God the Son, we are also called to be faithful. On one level, we are faithful to God when we trust God. But faith — pistis — doesn’t stop there. It extends, as we’ve seen, to faithfulness toward each other — in humility and sacrificial love.

And here is the real kick in the pants. When we are faithful to each other like this, we are more than simply being nice and kind, though there’s that. Far more important, when we are faithful to each other, we are at that moment acting like the faithful God and the faithful Son.

Being like God. That’s the goal. And we are most like God not when we are certain we are right about God, or when we tell others how right we are, but when we are acting toward one another like the faithful Father and Son. (p. 101f)

Don’t mistake Peter Enns. He insists repeatedly throughout the book that he is not making an absolute divide between sound thinking and trusting God. Faith (believing, trusting) has real content, and after all Enns has devoted his professional life to learning about the Bible and about God. However:

What I’m after here is how faith [is] taught and modeled — as a preoccupation with correct thinking, which feeds on the mentality that knowing (especially the Bible) is central to faith. That message [has been] as clear as a bell. Knowing what you believe places faith on solid, unshifting ground. At least that was the plan. (p. 31f)

That background didn’t prepare Pete Enns for what he encountered — life. As he lived into his thirties and especially into his forties, life got messy. He discovered that simply “knowing what he believed” was not adequate for what life threw at him. “Sooner or later,” he writes, “that tank runs empty.” Enns found himself living in the Wisdom books of the Old Testament, especially Psalms, Job, and Ecclesiastes. The laments and sayings in these writings make the poignant point that “answers” for the vagaries of life are not enough; in fact, in most cases they are not available, even to those who are wisest and most certain in their beliefs. If there is a “what” to believe, humans are too limited to grasp it.

Furthermore, the fact that these books (and other such texts) are in the Bible should cause us to stop for a moment and ask something profound. Is it possible that it’s God himself who wants me to question, to wonder, to doubt, to accept uncertainty? Perhaps that’s the way of wisdom, the path of trust. Perhaps the way is made by walking, not through understanding, at least in the way we normally conceive it.

I was listening to one of Michael Spencer’s podcasts the other day that included his comments on the Gospel text in Matthew 11:1-6. This is the passage where John the Baptist, having been thrown in prison, sends messengers to Jesus and asks him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

Here’s what Michael said:

At one time John was apparently very certain about Jesus. This is the person who baptized Jesus and the Spirit revealed to him, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” This is the one who said of Jesus to his own disciples, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”

…So here’s a guy who was at one point very certain about Jesus, and now, under different circumstances, seems to develop some real doubts and questions. “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” Those are questions of which John was quite certain at one point.

And I was reflecting on this as somewhat descriptive of that concept of our personal faith journey. Many of us come from traditions that say, well, the way it’s supposed to happen is that you are baptized as a child or you come into the church as a child, and you simply grow in your faith through different experiences, through Christian nurture, Christian education, and you grow into a mature Christian from that initial being brought into the faith as a child.

Those of us who are from more evangelical, revivalistic traditions have that whole “Damascus Road” experience thing — getting saved out of an experience of being lost. That is how we conceive of a faith journey (or at least we’re told we’re supposed to)….we’re supposed to experience a great turnaround and grow from there.

I think both of those models do a lot to describe an ideal that just hardly ever occurs. What you see there with John the Baptist I think is much more likely to be what many of us go through. That is, at one time in our lives we’re very sure of some things and at another time we’re not sure at all. The fact of being convinced doesn’t mean we’re always convinced.

So, what do we do when certainty flees like that? Well, John went to Jesus with his questions. In Peter Enns’s terms, when his “beliefs” got shaky, he exercised “trust.” When he couldn’t lean on his own understanding, he leaned on Another.

Trust is not marked by unflappable dogmatic certainty, but by embracing as a normal part of faith the steady line of mysteries and uncertainties that parade before our lives and seeing them as opportunities to trust more deeply. (p. 205)

One of my biggest complaints against the religious status quo is that it often leads us away from being fully human rather than helping us move toward a more realistic, fuller human experience of life in this world, with all its delights and all its debris.

I highly recommend this book as an antidote to the often undiagnosed spiritual malady of trusting our own thoughts about God rather than trusting God. Pete Enns will guide you through recent church history to explain why and how we came to intellectualize faith. You’ll swim in the mysteries of the biblical Wisdom books with him. You’ll hear his own personal stories of distress and doubt, and how they helped him on the journey from belief to trust. As always, his writing is conversational, breezy, often funny, and consistently honest and generous. You won’t feel alone anymore.

The Sin of Certainty deserves an honored place on my shelf of post-evangelical books. What Pete is really writing about here is the theology of the cross and how it opposes one aspect of the theology of glory — an insistence on the “winning” quality of dogmatic certainty as the mark of strong faith.

Blessed are those who can say, “I don’t know,” or better yet stay silent altogether, as they commit themselves into the care of a merciful God.

• • •

10264065_10152213440783985_7844465472437492341_oThe Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires Our Trust More Than Our “Correct” Beliefs
By Peter Enns
HarperOne (2016)

44 thoughts on “IM Book Review: The Sin of Certainty

  1. I think this is the truth which the evangelical notion of a “personal relationship with Jesus” is trying to represent (albeit in a very flawed and incomplete way): That it is not enough to believe in Jesus (as in believe some things about Jesus that are true), you actually have to trust Jesus. And trust is something which flows out of a relationship.


  2. Humility is born of uncertainty as well. Know-it-alls are not kind and not humble. This weakness is His strength!

    It only took 25 years of God constantly pulling my theological rugs out from under me for me to learn that little lesson. 😉


  3. Ben, absolutely the promptings of God’s Holy Spirit can be confused with the promptings of our ego. That was one of the things I learned on my own in the Charismatic Church just by observing others and my own inner workings. As you can imagine, it was not taught from the pulpit, tho it should be. At the same time, after I moved on from the Charismatic scene, I never heard mention of God’s Holy Spirit much in a Lutheran pulpit aside from lip service in the Creeds. It is possible to get better at distinguishing inner promptings for yourself but never to the point of scientific certainty. Worth working on as a life project.

    In my experience, it helps a lot to be familiar and comfortable with God working as Spirit in order to be familiar and comfortable with God working in nature as on a walk in the woods. Certainly nothing unusual about it from God’s point of view, which apparently is not based on systematic theology. Mystical tradition in all religions, including Christianity, would hold that God is beyond our understanding and beyond words. That is taken as given, a starting place for truth. That does not mean that you cannot know God in the way you speak of.

    The main point of the mystical tradition is to know God in this way, and this awareness seems to be growing by leaps and bounds as this century unfolds. If you think there is push back here about recognizing God as Holy Spirit in real life, try mentioning centering prayer as a spiritual discipline for seeking truth. It’s all good.


  4. Enns put some humorous ‘study guide’ questions on his blog the other day. Such as,

    Discuss the logical fallacy of Enns being certain that certainty is a sin.

    Enns clearly has issues. discuss how, if he were in the room, you would shame him


  5. Thanks Charles,

    I have had experiences which i interpreted at the time as ‘being led by the holy spirit’. I felt very strongly that I had to do something. And then there were the times when i thought the HS was prompting me – might just have been my own anxiety, my own inner responsible child.

    But yesterday, when i went for a wander in the woods, and I sat down on the grass and watched the trees, I had a sense that, i don’t have to do anything here. These trees are just swaying in the breeze, and all I have to do is watch. i don’t have to learn or achieve. I also had a sense that, I no nothing about god. Nothing at all. And that’s alright.

    Some of the answers to my first thread have suggested that ‘god is beyond our understanding’. Is that not an easy way out? A way of avoiding asking the question, ‘what is god’, or if god is real, by saying ‘it’s simply beyond my understanding’?

    or maybe it’s something that you ‘know’ in another way, not through rational means.


  6. I should say prayers of supplication stem from life’s uncertainties. Prayers of worship, contemplation and adoration are a little different.


  7. No one is comfortable with uncertainty but without it we are stagnant. No need for growth and really no need for the Holy Spirit. Prayer is birthed from the seed of uncertainty. Humility is born of uncertainty as well. Know-it-alls are not kind and not humble. This weakness is His strength!


  8. Great quotes from the fathers, Christiane. Thank you. I especially like Irenaeus’ take on Jesus’ parable of the treasure in the field. Looking at scripture as a place to search out Jesus is a lot healthier (and more safely removed from bibliolotry) than trying to make the Bible the fourth member of the Holy Trinity.


  9. Without Christ as the ‘lens’, fundamentalists lost touch with the early Church’s understanding of ‘God’ as seen through Our Lord, Who is the fullest revelation we have of ‘who God is’:

    “Irenaeus writes from the 2nd century:
    “If one carefully reads the Scriptures, he will find there the word on the subject of Christ and the prefiguration of the new calling. He is indeed the hidden treasure in the field — the field in fact is the world — but in truth, the hidden treasure in the Scriptures is Christ. Because he is designed by types and words that humanly are not possible to understand before the accomplishment of all things, that is, Christ’s second coming.”

    Origen writes from the 3rd century:
    “[Christ’s words] are not only those which he spoke when he became a man and tabernacled in the flesh; for before that time, Christ, the Word of God, was in Moses and the prophets. …[their words] were filled with the Spirit of Christ.”

    Hilary of Poitiers writes from the 4th century:
    “Every part of Holy Writ announces through words the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, reveals it through facts and establishes it through examples. ..For it is our Lord who during all the present age, through true and manifest foreshadowings, generates, cleanses, sanctified, chooses, separates, or redeems the Church in the Patriarchs, through Adam’s slumber, Noah’s flood, Melchizedek’s blessing, Abraham’s justification, Isaac’s birth, and Jacob’s bondage.”


  10. I know that a lot changed for fundamentalist-evangelicals when the Southern Baptists removed this phrase from their 2000 ‘Baptist Faith & Message’:
    ““The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ.”

    Once that was done, perhaps a great deal of the fundamentalist world lost touch with a valid understanding of ‘God’.
    There is no doubt that the removal of that important phrase was done so that man-made criteria could be put into place in order to interpret sacred Scripture WITHOUT reference to Christ. Hence, the new fundamentalism we find in the practitioners of the term ‘inerrant’, where men’s interpretations of sacred Scripture depart from using the lens of Jesus Christ for meaning. Know wonder Kent Dobson said “‘we don’t even know what we mean by god anymore’.”



  11. We really don’t “know” God. We only perceive slivers of who He is and TRUST that our vision and knowledge will be sufficient to be in His favor.


  12. Ben, I’ve been to St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Cadillac twice. They are between pastors along with a bunch of small Episcopal churches up north here, and I’m still waiting to see how things play out for my own concerns. They were talking about going to a 5:00 pm Saturday service, which would work for me, but not their usual 9:00 am Sunday service, especially twenty miles away. Thanks for the suggestion. It may still work out.

    I went to Mars Hill once when Rob Bell came back to visit. Only thing approaching a mega-church I’ve ever been to, but I would guess it was not much like the ordinary mega-church. I was impressed favorably, tho not enough to drive forty miles regularly. I was living downstate then toward South Haven. I liked the music, which struck me as genuine praise music as opposed to what gets called “worship” these days, if that distinction makes any sense to anyone besides me. I really liked Rob Bell, was happy to experience him.

    I’ve been thinking about this post and the responses all day. I cannot remember a time in all my life when I did not believe in God, but I distinctly remember the time when I was about 16 and looked around me at the people in the Presbyterian Church where my folks took me, and I thought if these are Christians, I don’t want any part of it. But I never doubted God’s reality. I think one thing that helped me avoid the post traumatic stress disorder so many here ended up with from the Evangelical Church is that I was not indoctrinated as a child, brain washed to call it what it is. I would say 60% of my total Christian education so far was from Evangelical sources and I would do it all over again. Early on I learned three steps forward, two steps back. Still works. Also I was fortunate after saying yes to Jesus as an adult to be led to a Foursquare Church where the Holy Spirit of God was assumed to be real and operative, but there was no dogma attached like in the Assembly of God Church across town. You can’t talk about the Holy Spirit here without a lot of push back. You can’t even say I was led to this church, you have to say I was lucky enough to find it. I depend on God’s Holy Spirit day by day, minute by minute. My guardian angels too. It’s all good.


  13. Rick, I need to re-read that book. I remember getting a lot out of it about ten years ago.

    Thing is, it’s not God I’ve been disappointed with lately. It’s church. Which, I’ve been told, is the bride of Christ, therefore to be disappointed with his bride is to be disappointed with Christ himself, which may in fact be a sin.

    I’ll have to check on that.

    Pretty much anything by Yancey is well worth reading.


  14. Yes. I would think that the Baptist’s doubt springs from depression rooted in his OT understanding of God. God is usually portrayed as the conqueror over sin, allowing evil nations to destroy eachother and chastising Israel. John confronts evil in the ruling power & God doesn’t back Him up. Jesus allows his inprisonment.

    I think a lot of us acknowledge we have doubts arising from pre-conceptions that get smashed. Even Elijah & other prophets went through it. However, that is where they are confronted to change their scope of reference. God responds with His nature of love & transcendence, He shows both that love is His concern rather than power. Sometimes that love is sacrificial. Sometimes love destroys the evil.


  15. Peter Enns’s is mixing up and combing Gospel passages concerning John the Baptist, like Christians do in their nativity plays where they don’t distinguish Matthew’s tales from Luke’s.

    But viewing this question of The Baptist’s doubt in a more scholarly fashion, one can’t help but notice that the Baptist in the fourth Gospel has no doubts at all, even knows that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world right from the start. In fact everyone in the first chapter of the fourth Gospel knows who Jesus is, and Jesus spends the rest of the Gospel telling people who he is, without telling a single parable about the Kingdom of God, but instead talking about taking about himself. And when Jesus is arrested he says I am he, and everyone falls down.

    Compare the earliest Gospel, Mark. Mark implies that only Jesus saw the dove descend at his baptism, while later Gospel writers change that. And in GMark Jesus tells people to keep quiet about his messiahship. Very different from the fourth Gospel. Also it is in Mark where the Baptist expresses his doubts, and Mat. And Lk. Get that from GMark. But you won’t find such doubts in the fourth Gospel, nor Jesus telling people to be quiet concerning who he is.


  16. Yes, I know the doubt you speak of, Ben. Some days are very like the scene at the beginning of Perelandra, by C.S. Lewis, when he feels as if he is walking through a gale-force head wind of doubts and fears.

    This sounds like a good book.


  17. I’m pretty sure God is bigger than whatever box we put Him in, including the box we interpret from the Bible.


  18. Definitely putting this book on my list to read. Very helpful post. I’ve known a lot about all the whats and thats and doctrines for a long time, and I’ve had a similar journey to what this post discusses. As I grow older I just trust more, or at least try to, and lean much less on attempts to understand or make sense of every detail. And that’s OK. The doubts really get to me sometimes, and that’s OK too.

    All this makes me an outside to a very large swath of U.S. evangelical culture, but I’m probably not going back to that culture at this point anyway.


  19. Does anyone else have a different kind of doubt? (I don’t want to suggest, ‘a bigger, more impressive, more radical doubt’ cos its not).

    I mean, doubt that god is real. No comprehension of what that thing ‘god’ actually is. (seriously, what is it?) A notion that we could just give up the word god once and for all.

    Kent Dobson (until recently pastor of Mars Hill Michigan) said whilst announcing his resignation that ‘we don’t even know what we mean by god anymore’. That strikes a chord with me.


  20. It sounds like some of Enns’ themes match up some of what Philip Yancey wrote in “Disappointment with God.” In particular, this:

    “That background didn’t prepare Pete Enns for what he encountered — life. As he lived into his thirties and especially into his forties, life got messy. He discovered that simply “knowing what he believed” was not adequate for what life threw at him. “Sooner or later,” he writes, “that tank runs empty.” Enns found himself living in the Wisdom books of the Old Testament, especially Psalms, Job, and Ecclesiastes. The laments and sayings in these writings make the poignant point that “answers” for the vagaries of life are not enough; in fact, in most cases they are not available, even to those who are wisest and most certain in their beliefs. If there is a “what” to believe, humans are too limited to grasp it.”

    Yancey’s book helped me through and out of my spiritual desert several years ago. I’m sure Enns’ will help people who’ve found themselves in the desert or wilderness.


  21. I’m right there with you, Jimbo. Ecclesiastes was one of the first books I read as a Christian, mainly because some of the words in it were lyrics from a song by the Byrds, and it instantly became a favorite. It has always helped me see the Bible as “trustworthy,” for if a book like Ecclesiastes is in it – with its cynicism and honest angst – then certainly it can be trusted.


  22. I once mentioned to a friend at church that I was really enjoying Philip Yancey’s “Disappointment with God” and how it was really helping me through some things and she commented, “Oh, I would never be disappointed with God.”



  23. “Anybody who can give unconditional assent to everything the Church teaches is either a saint or a lunatic.”

    Al Kimel- AKA The Pontificator


  24. The only thing I’m certain about is the Good News that through Jesus Christ God forgives my sin and makes me His own. Any doctrine which clouds or distorts this existential reality I reject. All other philosophical and theological issues may be important, but but always open for discussion.


  25. I think the primary responsibility of dogma is to hold before the poor, miserable sinner a God who is worthy of our trust.

    I think the most important question for us to be continually asking our theology is “How is this Jesus a God who heals, forgives, and saves?”

    We have lots of answers to this question already, even though we will never “figure it out.” It is the mystery to be wrestled with, and this inquiry is a path of learning, and as we learn, hopefully, greater trust.

    As a theological conservative, I am staunchly committed to the “know what you believe and why you believe it” approach. I can defend what I believe the Bible teaches in a good amount of detail. None of that makes it easier for me to be more trusting of God when I walk through the valley. But it does keep as the object of my trust a God who is tender and compassionate. This is essential to the kindling of hope.

    I am certain about what I believe, in the sense that, I can articulate it clearly and accurately. But no amount of that kind of certainty erases all doubts, suspicion, and questioning. This is why we don’t close the book.

    I think there is a place for confidence in our dogma, which is different from the certainty Enns critiques: It is the firm assurance that we know who this God we trust has revealed himself to be in Jesus, that we have some grasp on what he has done for us men and for our salvation, and we are prepared to attest to it with humility. We can even defend the detailed specifics with solid reason and interpretation. The problems start when questioning is silenced, because this suggests an insecurity about the doctrine under investigation. Confidence in our dogma openly welcomes question and conversation.

    Just be honest about your doubts, and don’t be a pastor in our synod if you don’t like the answers we already have agreed on and maintained unity with. There’s plenty of room for questioning in the wider church, and we all need the courage to become the “separated brother” when our journey of investigation requires it. How much conflict in Christendom could be spared if more were simply willing to say “Of course we are still brothers, but my honest convictions leave me in a place where my current affiliation is not sincere.” Finding a new home is a path of greater happiness than foisting one’s uncertainty upon a group of disciples who are perfectly content with the answers they have.


  26. How many of you out there have had to deal with Absolute Smug Certainty in Christians? Spiritual Giants who have NEVER EVER doubted or questioned since they said the magic words, just the Constant Continuous Absolute Certainty of KNOWING they are Saved (and YOU’RE NOT, O Ye of Little/Lukewarm Faith)?


  27. I’m occasionally asked by my fervent evangelical friends what my favorite book of the Bible is. I get strange looks of concern–you alright, dude?–when I tell them it’s Ecclesiastes. The most acceptable answers are any Pauline epistle (bonus points for Romans) followed by the Gospels. If you insist on going OT it should be Genesis because of how clearly it lays out the literal details of creation.


  28. Immediately the father of the child cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!” Mark 9:24.
    This is where I’m at most days. And I’ve come to appreciate it, rather than fear it.


  29. Enns found himself living in the Wisdom books of the Old Testament, especially Psalms, Job, and Ecclesiastes. The laments and sayings in these writings make the poignant point that “answers” for the vagaries of life are not enough; in fact, in most cases they are not available, even to those who are wisest and most certain in their beliefs.

    And is it any coincidence that (apart from the Minor Prophets) these are the books one is least likely to interact with in the evangelical world, apart from trite prepackaged selections from the “favorite” (read least introspective) psalms?


  30. I feel your pain, humanslug. I feel your pain. Maybe all moments are God moments, though we only receive some of them as such; it’s just that God only packages them the way we like them once in a rare while.


  31. I often surprise myself at how fickle and changeable I am when it comes to matters of belief and trust and faith. There are those all-too-rare GOD MOMENTS, when I am basking in His presence and all my doubts and uncertainties are temporarily banished. In those moments, I know that He is there, and I know that He loves me. Then there’s most of the time, when, at best, I’m just maintaining a minimum of faith and, at worst, I’m not even sure God exists at all. And it’s strange that even the memory of those God moments becomes more and more vague and questionable as time passes — kind of like the intense dream you remember in detail shortly after waking up, but which you can scarcely remember at all just a few hours later. And then God arranges another meeting with me, and my faith is once again resurrected from the dead.
    Maybe that’s what He is trying to get through my thick skull — that even the strongest of faiths (like branches cut off from the vine) will die without direct and continued connection with Author and Finisher of that faith.
    Or maybe all this Jesus and God stuff is slowly driving me insane.
    In case it’s not obvious, I could definitely use a God moment about now.


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