Christianity is all too often a day late and a dollar short on many things. And when it comes to the matter of conviction, once again evangelical writers and influencers are short-changing us.
Just as the secular culture is jettisoning uncertainty at a rate of knots, many in the Church are espousing its virtues, whilst pointing out the pitfalls of certainty in the process.
I say this in light of a new book by Peter Enns, (formerly of Westminster Theological Seminary) which I have yet to read, but which, if the reviews and comments about it are any indication, is another nail in the coffin of post-evangelical Christianity. In other words, his crisis of faith should be your crisis of faith too. What better way to use the skills honed in several decades of evangelical learning than to tear that down. Or better still, tear down the faith of your kids.
That’s right, according to Enns, and his many acolytes, there is only one big hairy sin left for Christians these days, and that’s the sin of certainty.
Whilst secularism hardens into deep certainty and conviction, growing more zealous by the year, the future hope for evangelicalism in particularly is, apparently, less certainty.
Enns’ new book “The Sin of Certainty: Why God Desire Ours Trust Not Our Correct Beliefs” is his latest work on his road away from a traditional confessional faith. And it’s a beautiful beguiling title. Until you work out that the Bible does not differentiate between trust and belief. But note that he said “correct” beliefs; which conjures up all sorts of Pharisaical and Puritanical nastiness, does it not?
A glowing review of his book can be found at Evangelicals for Social Action. This has been linked to Facebook. That review plus a list of comments on the FB thread, picqued my interest.
The review begins with nary a flush of embarrassment with this certain statement:
Children of evangelical parents are at risk. Raised with the belief that the truth can be cornered, they live in a world that suggests quite the opposite. As cultural pressures increase, parents and pastors double down. The kids feel torn and are left without meaningful onramps to a more open and humane framing of faith.
Woah, I see your problem! I mean, let’s do the time warp again. We live in a world that suggests that truth cannot be cornered? Please! We live in a world that is currently executing an agenda of deep truth and zealotry on all sorts of matters, especially in relation to ethics, sexuality, and the goal of life – personal fulfilment. Truth has been cornered and flogged into submission by the culture. Looks like someone missed that particular train.
Or this for example from the reviewer:
The book provides a meaningful “third way” between unflappable dogmatic certainty and relativistic skepticism. In philosophical terms, it is a welcome depiction of critical realism discipleship that avoids the arrogance of foundationalism and the skepticism of postmodernism.
Again I ask, What skepticism? In the 1980s at university perhaps. But even that skepticism about truth was directly pointed at one target only, the Christian framework of the Western world and the Western canon. That skepticism was a mere ruse. A well considered technique to raze the landscape in order to rebuild something different.
And what a rebuild! Out of the debris of post-foundationalism soaring brutalist tower blocks of zeal have arisen; gargantuan dogmatic constructions that dehumanise and overshadow anything to the contrary.
Universities are prime examples. The “what is truth?” meh of the 1980s has been replaced with a deep dark certainty in which, ironically, professors are fearful of their students – worried that the wrong word or an off-hand remark will have them hauled before the star chamber.
But what of Christian certainty? Why would Christians jettison certainty at precisely the time the culture is gearing up? The critical mistake made by the post-evangelical cohort is that certainty always equals pride, something the reviewer simply assume when he states:
The move from a confident, settled transcendent perspective to a humbler, exploratory transcendent perspective is a major frame shift.
In other words it’s not possible to be both confident in the gospel and humble about it at the same time. That, quite frankly, is nonsense. Indeed the opposite is the case – it’s completely possible to be uncertain and proud.
The Bible, (part of the problem for Enns in general in his books), encourages certainty. Hence we have Luke writing to Theophilus:
Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, 2 just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, 3 it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.
And Peter says to the church in 2Peter1:19:
And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.
Indeed the very gospel of John is written that:
… you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (John 20:30-31).
Notice how all three of these examples showcase that what is written is trustworthy? That what is written is certain? That is anathema to the Christian moving away from certainty and it’s a central plank to Enns’ other writings. (Have a read here for a generous, but critical review of his other work).
Even the flow of salvation history is the movement from less certainty in the shadow of the Old Testament to the more certain fulfilment of the New Testament. Hence we have Hebrews:
Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.
And that certainty will be even more certain when we see Jesus face to face. We are on a certainty trajectory, not having yet arrived – that is for sure -, but a trajectory in a direction nonetheless.
Now let’s be clear. Our certainty is in the person of Jesus. Our theological certainties are not ends in themselves, but a means to drive us closer to Jesus and find our certainty in him. But these go together. There would have been no apostolic witness, and definitely no apostolic bravery to spread the gospel news in the face of hatred, death and privations, if the apostles were not rock solid certain about it. And they were certain enough about it to write it down and call others to the certainty of it too.
It follows then, that when certainty in the biblical witness or the authority of that witness is removed, then there can be no certainty in Jesus. Full stop. This is blindingly obvious in the ensuing Facebook exchange.
ME: A good robust biblical argument against certainty would be welcome, but when the author and reviewer’s premise is the uncertainty of Scripture then there’s not even a platform for debate!
My FB Friend: I’m just not sure about scripture. I love it. It speaks to me but my faith sits in God a bit more than in scripture. I Do actually hold a high view of it. But certainty? Not too much of that here, Does God love me? Pretty certain.
ME: You are certain of that on the basis of?
MFBF: My faith ?
ME: Sounds suspiciously like love is love.
In other words I am certain on the basis of my certainty. That’s a circular argument. I have faith in my faith on the basis of my faith. At least he ended it with a question mark. Can’t be too certain about these things!
But do you see what that does? It does not do away with certainty, it simply removes it from critique, locking it away in a deep subjectivism that is unreachable and unteachable. It is impervious, hermetically sealed off from any word to the contrary. That is ultimate certainty right there.
The reviewer confidently (with certainty?) states that this is a book to give to your children if you want them to continue in the faith. Au contraire! This is a book that evangelicals on the way out of any definition of orthodoxy buy for themselves in the faint hope that they can hand on their Christian ethic to their children whilst jettisoning the theology. That proved to be a disaster for the liberal church of the sixties and seventies, yet in true “day late, dollar short” style, evangelicals are lining up and signing up.
The reviewer concludes:
Enns is a worthy exemplar for the coming generation. Out of the pain of his personal history has come a roadmap to a better, accepting, honest, and faithful evangelicalism. This book is an onramp to spiritual sanity.
Actually Enns has built an off-ramp that leads to an unfinished bridge that will leave your children’s faith a smouldering wreck in the bottom of a ravine. That’s where the real risk is. And that’s where the real sin is too.