Benefit of the Doubt

Many learn that the best faith is certaintist faith, that doubt is the worst kind of failure, and that when in doubt one should pluck up the courage to believe. Greg Boyd, in what will surely become a standard point of departure for conversations about faith and doubt, Benefit of the Doubt: Breaking the Idol of Certainty, calls the problem “certainty-seeking faith” and contends there are any number of problems with this kind of faith. Before the problems, a brief description of “certainty-seeking faith.”

What do you see as the problems with certainty-seeking faith? Or do you think it is a problem? Is faith certainty? Or is certainty faith no longer faith?

The more psychological certain you are, the stronger your faith; the less certain, the weaker your faith. If something is not happening right — like a healing — the problem is weak faith. So he uses the image of the mallet slammed down at the county fair onto a device that tosses a ball up a pole — and if you hit it hard enough the bell will ring. Some think of faith this way: if you have enough of it, the bell of certainty and success rings. (Good analogy.) If this is the case, there is no one with enough faith to bring peace to the Middle East, an end to AIDS or healing to someone for whom you and others are praying. Boyd will present a more biblical understanding of faith, but that’s for a later post.

When we doubt are we failing to believe or is our faith being challenged?

Boyd’s argument is that God gave us minds; when our minds discover something that doesn’t fit the solution is to think through it; if we don’t think through it but bury that which doesn’t fit, we create cognitive dissonance; that’s painful. Some pound the mallet harder hoping to drive the faith ball higher; others think. Boyd says if we don’t think we don’t have biblical faith. We are in the quest for “certainty-seeking faith.” He’s right (in most cases).

Here are the eight problems with not thinking rationally but instead of plucking up courage to believe something we have doubts about. (He does mention the amygdala [seat of "fight or flight" in the brain] here, and there’s no doubt that certainty-seeking faith is at times amygdala-fired faith and not genuine faith. Hence why some get so mad when someone doubts what they are believing, showing the “believing” one’s faith is actually under challenge and “fight” is the only way … instead of backing up in the brain to thinking processes. Anger-shaped faith is amygdala-shaped faith.)

1. A virtue in irrationality: rational people sort out evidence, etc, and then conclude reasonably. Some though create a virtue of believing in spite of the evidence. (Science faith discussions are noted by this.) Certainty-seeking faith seeks for more certainty than evidence we know — and may choose to avoid, ignore, or suppress — permits.)

2. It creates an unChristlike God: Boyd always asks what kind of God our faith pictures, and if that God is the God we know in Jesus Christ. The certainty-seeking God is what Boyd calls an “Al Capone God,” one that thinks if we have enough faith God will heal, otherwise God takes them out.

3. Certainty-seeking faith is magic, not faith. It believes if we have enough faith … and now faith is magical, it is behavior that triggers the deity’s action on our behalf. It is doing something that creates favor with God and divine powers.

4. It is inflexible. It is an all-or-nothing package; doubt any of it and you lose the whole. Each bit represents the whole.

5. Certainty-seeking faith creates a learning phobia. Or, avoid studying some topics for fear of where it might lead your mind; be anti-intellectualist and populist for fear the intelligent approach will create intellectual problems. This is a phobia of learning. This is not right and it is not the way God made us. Boyd is more afraid we don’t use our minds than that we use them too much! To learn you must suspend some of what you believe; to get behind something you must get behind it; all genuine learning means some bracketing in order to examine.

6. It leads to hypocrisy. Frequently we assume we are right and that others are “arrogant.” What this often reveals is hypocrisy: namely, we are arrogant about our beliefs and unwilling to examine them just as we are accusing the so-called arrogant of. It is good, he argues, for Christians and non-Christians to question their beliefs.

7. Certainty-seeking faith is dangerous — to the world and to others. Certaintist faiths create murderous wars and trade in violence often.

8. Certainty-seeking faith is actually afraid of faith. It is not seeking truth but seeking the feeling of certainty. This is a self-serving quest.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Orton1227

    It is a stellar book. I loved it. I’ve come to learn that struggle and honesty (Boyd uses “authenticity”) is what God wants most, because it reveals the commitment to the relationship. Correct doctrinal beliefs, and the relentless pursuit of them, pushes you further away.

  • http://prodigalthought.net/ Scott Lencke

    I’ve read a few posts from others on this book, including his interview on Rachel Held-Evans’ blog. I really appreciate these thoughts.

    I believe through the strong pulls of modernism and post-Enligthenment approaches, we believe truth is empirical propositions that can always be proved. And if it isn’t proved yet, or there seems to be some kind of contradiction, it’s because the knowledge is to high for us or we haven’t found enough evidence yet to support our presupposed conclusions. I think this is very dangerous, just as dangerous as some kind of postmodern anti-realist extreme. But the church in the west took up this approach to the faith hook, line and sinker.

    I think the pendulum is swinging back towards a more healthy center than the strategy of the first half of the 20th century.

  • Rick

    “Correct doctrinal beliefs, and the relentless pursuit of them, pushes you further away.”
    Really? We should not have any beliefs that are correct?
    Or are you saying we can know some things sufficiently, but those things may be limited, and should not be expected to be known exhaustively?

  • Orton1227

    Sorry, that was poorly worded. My intent was to say that it’s damaging to us and other when our primary pursuit is correct doctrinal beliefs, up and down the spectrum, rather than engaging in the relationships we have with God (which would include, but is not solely, pursuit of correct beliefs) and others.

  • Taylor G

    Everything Boyd writes makes sense. Seriously, it does. But for some reason a big part of me wants to push back. A couple weeks ago in church we read about the water at Meribah in Bible study and I thought to myself, “Damn, I’ve never seen water come out of a rock. This is ridiculous.” What is Boyd telling me to do here? The text is clear: a miracle happened. No amount of thinking/feeling is going to make this easier and If I can’t believe water came out of a rock then I can’t believe Jesus was raised from the dead. All this to say I like Greg Boyd, I like how he thinks and will look forward to reading the book but I am just a bit skeptical in the end (he would probably like that). Sometimes you just gotta slam the mallet – every pastor/teacher/parent knows this.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Taylor G

    Do read the book, and you’re right, skepticism is allowed, encouraged and even necessary. However, mallet slamming is probably not necessary, according to Boyd, if faith is covenant faith rather than contract faith. This very helpful contrast runs throughout the book, as I’m sure Scot will point out in later posts. As Boyd puts it, contract faith is between people who don’t trust each other, covenant faith is between people who do trust each other. The difference is transforming.

  • CJ Pankey

    I will definitely have to read this book. I wonder if he is aiming for a “hope-seeking faith?”

  • Rick

    “it’s damaging to us and other when our primary pursuit is correct doctrinal beliefs, up and down the spectrum, rather than engaging in the relationships we have with God (which would include, but is not solely, pursuit of correct beliefs) and others.”
    Well said.

  • AHH

    Sounds like a worthwhile book, but at least in the points above he seems to leave out what may be the most important factor in my mind, which is personality types.

    Some people just seem to be wired to come to certainty easily and stay there, to see things in simple black and white. Others of us wrestle with doubts, find certainty elusive, and live in nuance and shades of gray. Most Evangelical churches tend to lift up the former type as the ideal and marginalize (or even push away) we shades-of-gray people.

    So the church needs to recognize that we more reflective and less certain people can be a vital part of the Body, but do so in such a way that still includes the more “certain” people. If a church spends all its time in doubts and shades of gray and never affirms those whom God has given more certainty in their faith, it would be exchanging one problem for another.

    [LATE P.S.] When this sort of topic comes up, I feel compelled to mention two great books for those of us who can’t live at the level of certainty that much of Evangelicalism expects. The Myth of Certainty by Daniel Taylor and the less introductory Proper Confidence by Lesslie Newbigin.

  • Phil Miller

    Kind of reminds me of something one of my engineering professors said. Engineering is based on scientific principles, and it’s applying those principles in the real world. In school we often analyze a problem from every possible angle because, well, we have the luxury of time to do that. We can be certain the answer we come up is with is correct because it’s been analyzed to the nth degree. In the real world, however, we often have to make a decision before be we have all the facts, and we have to live with that decision. If we didn’t do that, nothing would ever get done.

    In a way I think theology can be like that. There are some things where we do have to take a leap of faith and decide we’re just going to believe them. That doesn’t mean we bury our heads in the sand, but I do think it means that there does a time where we just decide to listen to the voice of God. My one friend who owned his own electrical company once joked to me, “in every project, there comes a time when you have to shoot the engineer for the sake of the project”. I wonder if sometimes there aren’t instance where the church needs to “shoot the theologian” for the sake of moving forward… :-)

  • http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/ Lothar Lorraine

    I’m an agnostic Christian, which means that I don’t know if there is a God or not but I choose to hope there is one.

    Several Evangelical pastors told me that my lack of belief was due to my intellectual pride and to my refusal to be convinced by apologetic arguments against evolution and for the inerrancy of Scripture.

    I told a young pastor it is impossible for me to believe that God commanded the massacre of babies and pregnant women as written in the book of Joshua.

    He answered me that this was due to my SINFUL PRIDE.

    The overwhelming majority of Evangelicals think that if people die as unbelievers, they will suffer eternally in hell.

  • http://morechrist.blogspot.com K.W. Leslie

    I’m not sure whether I like the term “certainty-seeking faith,” because I don’t see anything wrong with wanting more evidence and confirmation behind the things we believe. Sometimes the Holy Spirit puts those doubts in us because he’s trying to keep us from going astray.

    The real problem is when people dismiss those doubts, ignore evidence and confirmation, and go whole hog towards the things we want or prefer to believe. That’s when we exchange faith for wishful thinking, and claim we have certainty when we really have no such thing.

  • Andrew Holt

    This book sounds amazing! I’ve come to believe that certainty is the enemy of wisdom. When we become certain, we shut down internal and external discussion/reflection, which prevents us from growing spiritually, emotionally, and mentally. We become wise by remaining open to exploring long-held beliefs from new perspectives, and reinterpreting our experiences based on new input. By shutting ourselves off from these voices, we keep ourselves trapped in a state of arrested development. I can’t wait to read this book!

  • labreuer

    “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”

    As long as we define ‘humility’ as “having the right confidence in the various things one knows”, this is a scientifically obvious statement. If you think you know things better than you do, you’ll be less able to see mistakes and, as misunderstandings amass, ability to learn new things diminishes. On the other hand, if you don’t have as much confidence in things as you ought, you’ll be unable to learn new things as quickly, or perhaps not at all. The kingdom of heaven is entered into by conquerors.

    I think a central, and not-always-identified contention here is that what constitutes “justified true belief” differs from one person to the next. It’s a big discussion in philosophy (see the Gettier problem), and it’s of the utmost importance in life. The atheist says that we can’t have justified beliefs in God. The fundamentalist says all of his beliefs are fully justified. How each of us decides this issue determines a lot about his/her life.

  • http://neyhart.blogspot.com/ Jennifer

    I’m in the middle of this book and I am loving it so far.

  • John Haselton

    I started reading the book over the weekend. It is very challenging to me because I come from a very “certainty seeking” church. Some of that is no doubt due to the strong Calvinist heritage. But I have enjoyed reading this and having some of the doubts I have had, but not been able to express, laid out in such a clear manner.

  • Shane Scott

    I have been reading this book over the last few days. I think the overall approach is spot on. I think many of us who come from a background committed to a high view of Scripture can easily fall prey to the “house of cards” fragility he discusses. There is a subtle yet profound difference in seeing Jesus as our ultimate and final authority rather than Scripture. Thanks for the post!

  • Susan_G1

    Hmm, so this phenomenon has a name? Here I just thought it was fanaticism.

    I admire people of deep, true faith and I honestly wish I was more like them. What I’ve seen of this “certainty-seeking faith” is doubtlessly influenced by where I mostly interact with these people: in the ER, ashamed that their faith has failed to heal them, having unnecessarily suffered physically for months or years, and worse psychologically, and even worse, at the hands of people who are supposed to love them. I am sorry to say this has looked a lot like other kinds of abuse.

    Several years ago, a young woman came in for chest pain she thought was a heart attack (her mother was along.) Neither she nor her mother wanted the problem to be what it was, PTSD with a severe panic disorder. They thought it was demons. The patient had been an MK in Central America. On a field trip with five teens and their youth pastor, they were all kidnapped and the youth pastor killed by the kidnappers. The teens had to stay in the van with the body for hours while negotiations for their release were taking place. Since then, she hadn’t been sleeping well, had developed agoraphobia, tics, and “spells”. The family came back to the US for Christian counseling, which was delivered in the form of being told to pray harder, spend more time with Scripture, lots of laying on of hands, casting out, etc. It had been over two years. God was surely with me that morning, as the ER was empty, I had two uninterrupted hours (a small miracle in itself) with this woman/her mother, and I knew the spiritual lingo that gave me a bit of credibility. The patient left the ER with an SSRI, an anxiolytic and an appointment with a psychiatrist. I have remained in touch with this family. With medications (later discontinued), a great counselor, and an experimental treatment for PSTD (EMDR), she is doing well.

    Almost all of the points made about this kind of faith can be seen in this story. I wonder if we are even talking to the same God, the “certainty-seekers” and I. What kind of God would allow this girl to experience this trauma, and then allow her to be tormented by demons afterwards to strengthen her faith? How does it come to be that Western Medicine, hopefully recognized as something of a science, plays so little a part in God’s dealing with the brokenness of creation? I see science as a great tool to cope with a broken creation, yet many Evangelicals see it as simple arrogance.

    I like and admire Greg Boyd, and I hope this book allows many to become more engaged with the (unfortunately) more frightening aspects of real life. I think when that happens, real life becomes something more beautiful as well.

  • http://fromplatestograce.tumblr.com/ David Marshall

    I don’t think not having faith that water came out of a rock is equivalent to not believing that Jesus was raised from the dead. I understand the premise, but I feel like that’s a huge jump? Maybe I’m wrong. I think you’re right in wanting to push back, though; I enjoyed the book thoroughly, but it doesn’t mean I agreed with everything.

  • LorenHaas

    I am currently reading this book, but much of the material is covered in Boyd’s “Faith and Doubt” sermon series he preached at Woodland Hills Church in MN. It is a fine example of his teaching style:

    http://whchurch.org/sermons-media/sermon-series/faith-and-doubt


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