Greg Boyd on doubt and the Christian life–it’s unavoidable, biblical, and healthy

Today’s post is an interview with Greg Boyd over his most recent book Benefit of the Doubt: Breaking the Idol of Certainty. It was pleasure to read and I think many people will be helped by his approach—and I don’t mind saying he and I are on the same page on the heart of the matter (e.g., here, herehere, here, and here).

Readers should expect from the book far more than Boyd’s take on doubt. I saw here a far-ranging book that casts a vision for the Christian life in general—doubt serving as something of an irritant to bring a good many things to the surface. It’s one of those books that needed to be written, and Boyd, as a pastor and trained biblical scholar, pulls it off.

How is doubt a benefit?

Many today assume that doubt is the enemy of faith–as though a person’s strength is as strong as they are free of doubt. I argue that this common model of faith today is neither biblical nor healthy.

A biblical model of faith isn’t about trying to feel certain about your beliefs but being willing to commit to living a certain way despite the fact that you’re not certain.

When we embrace a biblical model of faith, we no longer need to squelch doubt. To the contrary, we will find that doubt can sometimes prove beneficial in helping us grow spiritually and in keeping us honest in our relationship with God and others.

So doubt is a normal part of Christian faith and life?

Yes. Unfortunately, however, because many have bought into the unbiblical idea that a person’s faith is as strong as they are free of doubt, to pressure to suppress doubt and to act and speak as if they were certain is considerable.

If you happen to belong to a community of people who act and speak this way, it’s easy to feel like an “outsider” and to even be treated like an “outsider” if you dare to admit your doubt. In reality, it is simply impossible to be certain about most important matters of life. Every significant decision we make in life is shrouded in uncertainty.  It’s part of what it means to be a finite and fallen human being, and its arrogant, foolish, and idolatrous to pretend otherwise.

Now we are getting to a major point in your book, your criticism of “certainty-seeking faith,” which you claim causes spiritual damage and is the root of most of the negative things non-believers associate with conservative Christianity. Can you explain what you mean?

“Certain-seeking faith” is what results when people assume that a person’s faith is as strong as they are free of doubt and that this kind of “strong” faith pleases God. This is an unhealthy model of faith because (1) it reduces faith to a psychological gimmick in which people try to convince themselves that their beliefs are true beyond what the evidence warrants, and (2) it presupposes an ugly, petty mental picture of God as One who leverages people’s eternal welfare on their ability to successfully engage in this psychological gimmickry.

The certainty-seeking model of faith is also inherently irrational, and therefore tends to drive away thoughtful people who have perfectly reasonable doubts while rewarding people who either lack the concern or the curiosity to question their beliefs by making them feel like they have “strong” faith.

Those caught in this unhealthy model will also tend to become narrow-minded and insulate themselves from further learning, for honestly trying to see things from other peoples’ point of view might lead them to question their faith, and on the certainty-seeking model of faith, this means they could potentially jeopardize their “salvation. “

How is Job as a model of biblical faith, as you explain in your book?

God loves honesty above pious sounding language.

Despite God’s earlier rebuking of Job for speaking out of ignorance (chs. 38-41), such as Job accusing God of being a ruthless adversary who tortured him for his own amusement (e.g. 16:12-13; 30:20-22), God still commends Job in 42:7 as speaking “right” about him, in contrast to Job’s friends. This forces the question, what was God saying when he commended Job for speaking “what is right”?

The answer, I believe, is that the word “right” in Hebrew (koon) has the connotation of being straight or in alignment with some standard.  What God was commending Job for was not how accurately he spoke, for his words at times bordered on blasphemy.  He was rather commending Job for how honestly – how “straight” — he had spoken.

Whereas Job’s friends spoke out of their fear and in self-serving ways, as religious people frequently do, Job spoke straight from his gut. And it was this kind of faith that ultimately vindicated the character of God against Satan, whose challenge in chapter 1 of this book had led to Job’s ordeal in the first place.

Explain the distinction you make between “faith” and “belief.” 

“Belief “ is an opinion about something or someone, while “faith” is a willingness to commit to a course of action on the basis of our belief.

Salvation is rather like entering into a marriage-like, covenantal relationship with God through Jesus Christ by exercising “faith” (James 2:18-26). Whereas one might measure beliefs in terms of how certain or uncertain a person feels, the measure of “faith” is simply about how faithful a person is in living out the covenantal relationship they have with the Lord.

Sadly, many today think that people are “saved” simply because they espouse certain beliefs, apart from any consideration of how they live.  This is why research demonstrates that the vast majority of Americans admit to believing in Jesus (and a host of other Christian things) while also demonstrating that this belief has very little impact on how they actually live.

It also explains why so many mistakenly think God is impressed with our level of certainty over our beliefs, when in fact the only thing that means anything to God is how faithful his people are living in relationship with him, regardless of the level of certainty they have, or don’t have.

You advise people to believe in the Bible because they believe in Jesus, not the other way around. What do you mean by this, and why do you feel it is important?

The number one reason why young people today are abandoning the Christian faith and why other people can’t take the Christian faith seriously has to do with problems they have with the Bible.

For example, as most freshmen taking a course in “The Bible as Literature” at a secular University learn, the historical accuracy of some biblical stories are questioned by many scholars, and its hard to deny that the Bible contains some apparent contradictions and some material that seems to fly in the face of modern science.

I argue that if we structured our faith the way the earliest Christians did, these problems with the Bible would pose no threat to our confidence in Jesus being Lord and even to our confidence that the Bible is the inspired Word of God.  The reason these problems destroy the faith of so many today — as it did my own faith for a while —  is because evangelicals today don’t structure their faith the way they earliest Christians did.

The earliest disciples didn’t believe in Jesus because their scripture (the OT) proved to them that he was the Son of God.  They were rather convinced by Jesus’ claims, his unique life of love, his distinctive authority, his unprecedented miracles, his self-sacrificial death, and especially his resurrection.  Once they believed in Jesus, they looked for him and found him in their scripture. But they never would have been convinced that Jesus was Lord had they started with scripture alone.

Unfortunately, most evangelicals today are taught to do the opposite.  They base their faith in Jesus’ Lordship (as well as everything else) on their belief that the Bible is the inspired Word of God. This is “unfortunate” because this way of structuring our faith leverages everything on the perfection of this book, forcing the Bible to carry more weight than it was ever meant to carry. Every single problem people find with scripture now threatens to undermine their faith.

Explain what you mean by contrasting a “cookbook” view of the Bible and a “novel” view of the Bible.

A “cookbook” model assumes everything in the Bible is equally authoritative—like when you read a cookbook, it doesn’t matter where you find the recipe you’re looking for. The location of the recipe is irrelevant to its meaning.

Things are very different when you read a detective novel, for example.  For in a detective novel, things that mean nothing early on may take on great significance by what transpires later on. The story gets reframed as riddles get solved and further clues are unveiled as the story unfolds.  It’s important for us to realize that the Bible is an unfolding story, and not entirely unlike a detective novel.  As the story of God’s interactions with his people unfolds,  we learn more and more what kind of God we’re dealing with and what his plans are for humanity.  And the story culminates, in an extremely surprising way, in Jesus Christ.

On the one hand, Jesus fulfills all the promises made in the Old Testament, which is why Paul says that all God’s promises are “Amen” in Christ (2 Cor. 1:19-20). Yet, he fulfills these promises in a way that hardly anyone saw coming. For example, no one expected the Messiah to come as a humble servant, to inaugurate a kingdom that transcended all national boundaries, to command people to love their enemies rather than to conquer them, to allow himself to get crucified at the hands of his enemies, and to then rise again on the third day!  So the Bible is an unfolding story with a remarkably surprising twist in the last chapter!

In fact, I submit that the story of God that we find in the Bible is a lot like the movie “The Sixth Sense” or “The Book of Eli,” in which the last minute of the movie reframes the entire movie.  When Jesus shows up, everything that preceded him gets reframed and must be re-read in light of what he reveals about God and God’s expectations of his people.

What this means for us is that, to understand the Bible correctly, we must read it like the story book that it is, and we must read all of it in light of its surprise ending.

As I show in Benefit of the Doubt, acquiring this perspective on the Bible allows us to begin to make sense of some of the more offense parts of the OT (such as the portrait of God commanding genocide) while freeing us to not stumble over many of the things people today stumble over (such as minor discrepancies or historical inaccuracies found in Scripture).

  • http://jesuswithoutbaggage.wordpress.com/ jesuswithoutbaggage

    It seems to me that a blind faith that requires no doubt is a faith in authority.
    I have found that demands of blind faith are often requirements of those who dominate others, want to sell them something, or otherwise benefit personally from the faithful—those who say ‘Trust me!’ (I am an authority).
    These are not the requirements of a loving Father but of an exploiter or manipulator.

    • Susan_G1

      Tim, I hear what you’re saying, but allow me, please, to relate a different perspective.

      Cliché: when I was young, “blind faith” was most often exemplified as a blind person being told to jump from a window of a burning building. He can’t see the safety net. His is a leap of faith. But that faith is a call to safety, freedom and life.

      Jesus’ call to faith doesn’t hinge on believing the Law; it frees us. We are simply asked to believe. What happens to us afterwards may be a corruption of His greatest commandment, but it doesn’t diminish that we can’t have 100% certainty in Jesus, and that this unbelief, this doubt doesn’t condemn us. We are set free to pray without guilt, “Lord, I believe, help Thou my unbelief.”

      • http://jesuswithoutbaggage.wordpress.com/ jesuswithoutbaggage

        Interesting! Though I was raised to have blind faith in what I had been taught about God, Jesus, and the Bible, I never heard it put the way you describe it.
        I do believe in Jesus, but it is not because I held onto my faith in authority. Instead, I questioned everything and, as a result, my faith in Jesus is more solid than it ever was.
        If one never questions what they believe, their beliefs are not their own–they are the beliefs of some authority.

  • NateW

    I REALLY appreciate the Bible-as-Novel approach. I’ve been reading a lot of literary novels lately (Currently Joseph Conrad) and can understand better than before what it means to approach the Bible like one of these rather than like a cookbook full of authoritative recipes.

    This doesn’t mean that I don’t think that the bible is the inspired word of God, just that it is a different kind if word. It’s a shift in my perspective (what I see the bible as), not in what the bible is (it’s not divinely inspired). It’s not that the bible is not inerrant, it’s that I used to have a severely limited understanding of what it is meant to say and thus what constituted an error.

    I fear that progressive Christians are often too quick to throw out the baby with the bathwater, while Greg Boyd does a great job here of straining out the soiled water while swaddling the baby.

  • http://www.naturalspirituality.wordpress.com/ Howard Pepper

    I agree with much (but not all) of what Boyd says here. One weakness in the overall good analogy of taking the Bible more like a novel is that the “ending” is far from clear… who wrote it and where does it appear, specifically? (I don’t think he’d say the last-appearing book in the NT, Revelation, but maybe.) One of the core aspects that I find remaining unclear, after literally many thousands of hours of biblical and theological study, is this q.: “Which of the earliest Jesus-followers (not yet “Christian”, unless you call Paul that, probably legitimately) believed Jesus’ death was a martyrdom and his resurrection a vindication of his rightness (or righteousness)? And which believed it to be an atoning sacrifice? And which perhaps saw it as both?

    Among the former group (I’d say the Jerusalem Apostles and their converts, at least the Jewish ones, were here), Jesus seemed (to them) to remain a human Messiah, though taken to heaven soon to return. For Paul (and at least “John” and apparently Luke, among the Gospel writers, maybe Mark and Matt. also), Jesus’ incarnation and sacrifice signaled his divinity. This was indeed a (understated) “stumbling block” among Jews, and I think for good reason.

  • dfrese

    Basing one’s soteriology on Job? Sketchy.

  • Preston Garrison

    The point about regarding the Bible like a novel reminded me of an encounter I had years ago. I met a guy on an airplane, and, seeing my Bible, he told me the story of his life. He had felt bad about some particular sins in his past, and being in a military situation that left him a lot of time to kill, he read the Bible “like a paperback novel, straight through, seven times.” As a result he had prayed for forgiveness and found his life changing greatly. Amazing how some people find out everything really essential with the Bible and the Spirit. He didn’t even need a scholar to tell him to read the Bible like a novel.

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

    „A biblical model of faith isn’t about trying to feel certain about your beliefs but being willing to commit to living a certain way despite the fact that you’re not certain. „

    I like that. For me, faith (in the broad sense) means „hoping in something highly desirable while the evidence is unsufficient and it has NOT been
    shown to be utterly implausible“.

    „The earliest disciples didn’t believe in Jesus because their scripture
    (the OT) proved to them that he was the Son of God. They were rather convinced by Jesus’ claims, his unique life of love, his distinctive authority, his unprecedented miracles, his self-sacrificial death, and especially his resurrection. Once they believed in Jesus, they looked for him and found him in their scripture. But they never would have been convinced that Jesus was Lord had they started with scripture alone. „

    I agree with this, but as I have pointed out several times, I don’t view any reason to limit God’s revelation to the (Protestant) Canon:
    http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/2013/09/20/when-did-god-pick-up-his-wife/

    • James

      Yes, the early disciples started with Jesus (his claims, miracles, etc.). But they started their journey as faithful Jews soaked in their own scripture–making it easy for them to locate Jesus there too. Later followers committed themselves to the lordship of Christ in light of (Spirit illumination) his story written down. That story is the surpise addendum to Hebrew scripture we value so highly today. 2000 years after the Christ event, we must be even more intentional in linking Jesus to scripture. Canon is vital to faith. Otherwise, we ain’t got much clue as to the parameters of our so called Christian experience.

      • http://www.naturalspirituality.wordpress.com/ Howard Pepper

        James, I understand your reasoning quite well, having argued for it myself for many years, with lots of study behind it. But one of the things I didn’t have depth knowledge about or think through is the “canon” of scripture you mention. The traditional Christian teaching on it (in most if not all denominations, branches, etc.) is misleading and often downright ignorant. Have YOU studied much on the canonization process, on the other non-canonical but very early literature that was taken as authoritative for a long period (varying by locality but often widespread for certain works)? Who ended up determining the canon, when, and how?

        Have you pursued issues of not just writing in the name of a noted person, but true forgery, which pertains to several books of the New Testament? And related issues of “inspiration and authority”? I know it can be unsettling, but it must be faced to move to a mature kind of faith.

        • James

          Yes, I am quite aware of the canonization process (as much as we know). I still think we must contend with scripture, mysterious as God’s revelation within it is. Do you believe in the incarnation? Do you fully understand it?

          • http://www.naturalspirituality.wordpress.com/ Howard Pepper

            “Canon” is directly tied to the idea of orthodoxy and heresy, as you probably realize. Without an authoritative and agreed-upon canon it is very hard to adequately define and then “fight” heresy, at least over a broad geographic area (tho the proto-orthodox and various Jesus-following sects were doing it already before the later-canonized books were finished — end of 1st century, to stay on the early/conservative side, based on various concepts of their “authority”).

            To me, “the parameters of… Christian experience” you refer to, based on the range of texts considered authoritative in different locales over at least 3 centuries, plus the diversity and often ambiguity within what was eventually canonized, have to be seen as very broad… and much more diverse than “orthodoxy” has provided for since about the 4th century. (I.e., orthodoxy, connected pretty closely to canon, came to be agreed upon for human/cultural/political reasons, having almost nothing–not “completely nothing” [beyond my scope]–to do with whatever God may have revealed to Paul or the later NT writers.)

  • Susan_G1

    This is such an important message on so many levels. I am extrapolating here, but doubt, not only in faith, but in your ‘religious beliefs’ allows for the shedding of tyranny by the oppressed, the shedding of inerrancy for faith God’s creation, the shedding of cognitive biases in exchange for something simpler and truer: ” the measure of “faith” is simply about how faithful a person is in living out the covenantal relationship they have with the Lord.” Not a way of seeing the Bible, not submission to church leaders when it hurts, but following Jesus. Amen to that.

  • Jacob

    I’ll have to read the book and write a more robust argument later, but this was my response:
    In no way should doubt be an indicator of spiritual health, and it cannot be called “healthy”. The very idea runs contrary to the apostles’ teaching and purpose for writing: “These are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ the son of God.” -John 20:31 Doubt is distrusting God, and while I certainly find myself doubting Him during periods of time, I know that is wrong. If God is the creator(Gen. 1:1), my savior(John 3:16-20), then I want to always be striving towards Christ in prayer that the Holy Spirit will continue to open my eyes to see Jesus. Doubt is not healthy, it is sin––part of the curse, separation from our maker––but praise God that he is in the business of forgiving us and teaching us and remaking us to overcome our doubts and fears and wickedness! This is why he came––to seek and to save the lost(that’s us). Doubt does not help us grow closer to God––ever. JESUS himself is the one who overcomes our weakness and strengthens our hearts.

    • jbento

      You are right…You should have taken your own advice and read the book before wtiting a review. Reading a book before reviewing it is considered mandatory in the circles I travel in. Arguments should be informed, robust or otherwise.

      Read the book. Your points above might just be exposed as idolatrous.

      Bleesings

  • http://debunkingchristianity.blogspot.com/search?q=j.+m.+green&max-results=20&by-date=true J. M. Green

    This quote from Boyd:

    “Once they believed in Jesus, they looked for him and found him in their scripture. But they never would have been convinced that Jesus was Lord had they started with scripture alone.”

    sounds like he is endorsing confirmation bias as a spiritual practice.

  • Andrea Day

    Thank you for posting this interview. I am interested in reading his book. I really agree with what he said how the problem many young evangelicals have in their faith is with the Bible. I went to conservative evangelical bible school from elementary to college, and frankly, I am a little sick and tired of the Bible. It just was portrayed in a very narrow way, and placed on a higher pedestal than God in some ways. I also felt uncomfortable having to justify the more offensive parts of the Bible as if my integrity as a Christian depended on me accepting as absolute truth every story in it. Still formulating my ideas on these things, but this was good to think about.

  • Jerry Fausz

    “The earliest disciples didn’t believe in Jesus because their scripture (the OT) proved to them that he was the Son of God.”

    This statement is simply incorrect. The Gospel of Matthew was written primarily to the Jews to convince them of who Jesus is through connection to prophecy. Jesus himself pointed out that the writings of the Old Testament were a “witness” to who he is. Peter’s sermon at Pentecost establishes the fact of what was happening using a prophecy of Joel and establishes the persona of Jesus by referring to Psalms. Phillip “preached Jesus” to the Ethiopian nobleman starting from the prophecy of Isaiah. Paul said that the Berean christians were “more noble than those at Thessalonica because they searched the scriptures to see if those things were so. Etc.

    The problem with the Bible is not the Bible. If you think that, I challenge you to just simply read it. The problem is how the Bible is presented by so-called “seminaries” and other religious organizations (and by articles like this).

    Jerry L. Fausz, Ph.D.


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