Christian Certainty: The Only Sin Left

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.

3 Comments

  1. Love this post Steve!

    I am also glad that I teach in the technical side of University rather than Liberal Arts, “truthiness” has little place in the design of real world objects. Probably as little relevance as it has in the growth of wisdom.

    Truth is truth, regardless of the level of our certainty. The scripture is a gift that allows wisdom and certainty to grow together. He will sit like a refiner of silver, burning away the dross (of relativism?).

    Kev

  2. Steve, like you, I have not read Enns book, but I wonder if he is aiming somewhere that Lesslie Newgin is in Proper Confidence and James K.A. Smith is in his recent work on imagination. Their critique is essentially that modern evangelicalism has been meshed with Enlightenment emphasis on reason, mainly as a historical response to be relevant to the changing culture of modernity. What they both argue is not the truthfulness of scripture but rather epistemology. When we rely upon reason and use our analysis of scripture to seal the deal, sometimes we lose the revelation of God in the sacraments, in creation, and in the arts. At the end of the day, Christ is not only the path to God but also the enfleshed and the Spirit guided Truth. Thus, even our reading of scripture is “enlightened” by God’s teaching us by his Spirit as Jesus said before his departure. I’d like to read him and see if there is some of that emphasis there. What I try to keep in mind as I teach is that the resurrection is not true simply because the Bible says it but that the Bible is true because Christ was actually resurrected and remains with us as our paraclete. I’d love to hear Bill Edgar’s take at Westminster as well. Thanks for your good wisdom and thinking about our culture and the way in which we can live our salvation to and for the world around us.

    1. Hi Ray
      Thanks for the thoughts on this. I love Jamie Smith’s work, and I think the reason I do is that he is fairly settled on where authority lies. I think that is Enns’ problem, he simply has shifted to the other side of the watershed on the question of authority. Not that he doesn’t give some good critiques, but I do think there is a certain straw man argument being set up, and even more so by his followers. hence you are either a strident convinced evangelical or you are a relativist, and lo here comes Enns to save us from these extremes. That is way beyond a caricature of modern evangelicalism, and in fact falls, ironically, into the same lack of nuance that many in the post evangelical tradition (can I call it that?) seem to exhibit.
      Still I am with Smith on the whole idea of we are shaped more by what we love than by what we know, and I guess that’s a corrective to us. But I rarely meet someone who is caricatured in the way Enns describes, and if I do they’re usually pretty lonely because no one will go near them!
      But yeah – knowledge for its own sake (as if that is our salvation) is a terrible place to arrive at. My concern with Enns and his ilk is that they are on a trajectory away from any authority in Scripture, and the only place left to put it is in oneself in our culture. If anything they are far more enculturated to the spirit of the age than those who they claim are merely Enlightenment thinkers. But I must read him thoroughly before I say more!
      Cheers for the wise thoughts

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