Certainty is Idolatry

Certainty is Idolatry October 14, 2013

Here’s the argument: we are born with an ache and yearning to find love in the unconditional love of God, and we find this yearning in our desire for “more” and the idea of Sehnsucht; this yearning is to enter into the love of God — the trinitarian community love of Father, Son and Spirit; this love is seen most clearly in the cross of Christ — Calvary; in that revelation we see pure divine love for us. Yet, our sinfulness distorted our yearning and turned into forms of idolatry. We are addicted to idols.

This is the central theme of Greg Boyd, Benefit of the Doubt: Breaking the Idol of Certainty.

The key orientation, certainty, is found in a number of ways — craving the next experience, sexual satisfaction, more possessions, peak experiences, etc.. But his concern is the Idol of Theology and Scriptures, and his favored text here is John 5:39-40:

You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.

His point is that love of knowledge of Scripture was the tripping point; to quote JI Packer, they knew about God but didn’t know God. There is confidence in knowing about Scripture and the Idol of Certainty is when that knowledge becomes the center — our theology, our beliefs, our creeds, etc.. It is rooted in a false view of God: that God loves diligent Bible study more than people. [I have often pondered this: Will there be Bible study in the kingdom? My conclusion is No. What we seek after in the Bible will be realized in the kingdom. The Word will be Present. May I suggest that if you think we will need Scripture study in the kingdom then you may be in Boyd’s mind with the idol of certainty in theology and Scripture.] Certainty-seeking faith is the same as the opponents of Jesus in John 5. That is, they certainty is in what they know about God more than in God himself — as the Person.

Now to two powerful quotations from Boyd:

If I am anxiously striving to make myself feel certain that all my beliefs are true, fearfully avoiding anything that might cause me to doubt them, and fearfully suppressing any doubts that I may already be experiencing, doesn’t this indicate that I am not getting my core need for love, worth, and security from the God who is revealed on the cross? (69)

From the opposite angle, then:

As long as a person remained confident enough in the belief that Jesus is the true revelation of God that they can get their life from him… would then ever be afraid of confronting ideas that might cause them to doubt any of their other beliefs? (69)

It all comes down to this: Is this about the authority of Scripture or the authority of the God of Scripture? Do we engage God in Scripture or do we engage Scripture? There’s a difference. One taps into the idol of certainty, the other into God.

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  • Awesome, I love the reference to John. Peter Rollins looks at uncertainty quite intensely and accords it a central role in the gospel. Just interested in your interpolation on no Bible study in the kingdom to come. I’m not sure if I would agree, for two reasons. Firstly, reason is God-given and something we should celebrate, even in the kingdom to come. Secondly, Scripture is a record of salvation history and the kingdom to come will not just be present but based on history, i.e. history is valuable! Of course, Jesus is the Word and the central means of revelation, no doubt about this, and Scripture will be accorded its proper place, yet materially, humanly, I think it holds lots of importance! Double of course, there will be no elitism arising from exclusive access to study!

  • NateW

    Yeah, great stuff. I first encountered this concept in the writing of Peter Rollins too. There is SO much freedom in finally understanding that it is not what I know but who I am known by. Faith that this is true if me and of every other person opens the door to new levels of grace, peace, love, and hope.

    1 Corinthians 8:2-3
    If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, he is known by God.

  • Josh Steele

    I think the first Boyd quote is missing a verb: “am not ___ my core need for love”
    Is it “seeking”?

  • LT

    >>>>Is this about the authority of Scripture or the authority of the
    God of Scripture? Do we engage God in Scripture or do we engage

    In terms of the theology of the Bible, it is impossible to separate these two. There is no propositional knowledge of God apart from the Scripture. To speak of engaging God without engaging Scripture is to speak of something the Bible knows nothing about. We can know something about God from general revelation, but we need special revelation to give it any meaning.

    John 5 provides an interesting point, and one that is actually counter to the one Boyd is making. Yes, they searched the Scriptures, but as Jesus said, "These testify about me." In other words, their problem was not that they should have sought a person rather than the Scriptures, but that they should have seen Jesus in the Scriptures. Jesus does not condemn their searching the Scriptures; he condemns their failure to believe what the Scriptures actually said.

    The quote from page 69 concerning belief in Jesus making doubt possible about other things is, again, a misdirected quote. While the idea behind it may be noble, it doesn't ring true with Scripture. It asserts a canon within a canon, of sorts. Why would we believe Jesus and not believe the rest of it? All that we know of Jesus, at least savingly, comes from Scripture. So it appears a sort of irrational leap to assert we can believe part of it as trustworthy but it's okay to doubt the rest of it. On what rational basis (theological or philosophical) would we assert such a thing?

  • Phil Miller

    All that we know of Jesus, at least savingly, comes from Scripture. So
    it appears a sort of irrational leap to assert we can believe part of it
    as trustworthy but it’s okay to doubt the rest of it. On what rational
    basis (theological or philosophical) would we assert such a thing?

    This wouldn’t have necessarily been the case for the earliest Christians, would it? All they knew of Jesus would have come from the proclamation of the Gospel message handed down from the Apostles and other Christians.

    I actually don’t think Boyd is making any statements regarding the trustworthiness of Scripture in general (I haven’t read this book yet – I’m just going from excerpts and my knowledge of where Boyd is coming from in general). But reading Scripture without knowing God is little more than an academic exercise. Indeed, there are people who Scriptures better than the average Christian who haven’t really encountered God.

    The idea of a “canon within the canon” isn’t really all that new or controversial, imo. Certainly, I would think almost any Christian would admit that there are certain parts of Scripture that are more critical to the understanding of the Gospel than others.

  • scotmcknight

    LT: You say “To speak of engaging God without engaging Scripture is to speak of something the Bible knows nothing about.” Not sure Boyd says that. The issue is engaging God in Scripture or engaging Scripture (with little reference to God). I think that is what Boyd is focusing on. It’s not an either God or Scripture but a Scripture that leads us to God vs. a Scripture that creates a flat text. I suspect Boyd would really like your example because it leads to the Person. But maybe Greg will speak into this situation some more….

  • KentonS

    I Love the post, I love the responses, and I love how it brings Peter Rollins into the conversation. Rollins says the opposite of faith isn’t doubt it’s certainty. It sounds like Boyd is saying the same thing.

    I have a question. I buy into all of that, but how would Boyd/Rollins respond to the criticism that Heb 11:1 says that faith is certainty, and something can’t be it’s opposite?

  • Ray

    I’d like to think that instead of having to rely on reading about God’s encounter with, say, Abraham, we can just go get coffee with Abraham and hear his story directly.

    In all seriousness, you do make some goods points, both about reason & history. How this will all work in new heavens & earth, who knows.

  • Rick

    “Is this about the authority of Scripture or the authority of the God of Scripture? Do we engage God in Scripture or do we engage Scripture?”

    As N.T. Wright wrote:
    “If we think for a moment what we are actually saying when we use the phrase ‘authority of scripture’, we must surely acknowledge that this is a shorthand way of saying that, though authority belongs to God, God has somehow invested this authority in scripture.”
    Also, part of this, especially the idolatry of individual interpretation of Scripture, is the idea of control of what Scripture says. If I can control what it says, I can have certainty of what I want to believe. Therefore, I also don’t have to turn over control to Another (God).

  • scotmcknight

    I don’t know — they’d have to speak themselves — but I suspect it has to do with the meaning of the word “certainty.”

  • Andrew Holt

    1 Corinthians 13:12 is an important verse to remember in this pursuit of certainty: “Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” We have to learn to be okay with uncertainty, with not being able to figure everything out, and not having an answer for everything. Intellectual humility is a vital part of following God well.

  • AHH

    The rest of 1 Corinthians 13 is relevant also — particularly 13:2 in this context.
    If we pursue and even obtain certainty but do so without love, we have nothing. Which I think characterizes some who pursue and defend rigid boundaries of certainty in their interpretations and theological systems.

  • Andrew Holt

    This is especially relevant for parents! The dark side of fundamentalism is certainty without love, which violates Paul’s command to “not exasperate your children.” How many children grow into adults who turn away from God for this very reason?

  • Keith Schooley

    I’m not sure if “certainty” is the best word for what it is Boyd correctly suggests we should be avoiding. I don’t think it’s wrong to be fully convinced of something. I would say that the problem is dogmatism. An unhealthy focus on dogma, precise articulation of doctrine, taking theology as a sport (or war) at which to beat others: these are the problems that it seems Boyd wants to call by the term “certainty.”

  • Trin


    1. they (Jews) searched the scripture (tenakh) to be sure Jesus was the promised Messiah. Then, if convinced, the following applied:

    2. the Spirit is now IN them / us

    3. we are now IN Christ

    4. this puts us INTO the eternal, triune relationship of love. Scripture directs us to it/testifies of it, but is not it.

  • Brian Metzger

    “certainty” and conviction or being convinced are not the same thing. One is about facts the other is about our interpretation of facts and/or feelings.

  • Ah. White evangelicals continuing to have conversations that minorities would dismiss as out of hand as silliness.

    If Boyd or Rollins or the like are to be understood correctly, they miss the fact that their own words are being twisted and then “doubt as certainty” becomes a new idol in and of itself. The one thing I have experienced in evangelicalism as of late in the (white) “missional/hipster Christianity” circles is that doubt is some sort of “right of passage” to be elevated above the pointed words of Christ. God may welcome your questions, but there is never a space in Scripture where Christ applauds doubt. Rather, he elevates certainty in his person and admonishes doubt.

    Which brings us to Scripture. If you cannot have certainty in Scripture we cannot have certainty in God, as Scripture is the testimony of this Christ we are called to have confidence in in the first place. If you erode the efficacy and essential nature of the testimony, then we have no basis for belief. Some would argue that we still have our (disparate) experiences with God, but if we have no certain place to determine truth from falsehood in regards to these experiences, then we are left adrift. In this sense, dogma is a necessary and a good thing.

    The issue here is that Boyd and Rollins wax philosophical and their readers tend to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Without certainty in Scripture, you cannot have certainty in God. Without certainty in God, you cannot have certainty in Scripture. However, if all Scripture is god-breathed, I can place full certainty in its veracity and efficacy in communicating to me the words and purposes of this God.

    The question of “Who’s interpretation of Scripture is correct?” is really what seems to be scaring most of the people when certainty is suggested as a possibility. This will always be something the church must wrestle with. But, the extreme response of claiming that “certainty is an idol” shoots the faith in the foot, causing Christians to limp along.


    NOTE: African American churches and Hispanic churches are not having these discussions and would categorically deny “doubt as virtue.” The conversation assumes a “spiritual anemia” on the part of Christians who believe in the authority of Scripture and continues the trend of silently accusing people they have no intention of inviting into an “ongoing conversation.” The only reason I can engage as an African American is by virtue of my religious education at the hands of white missional theologians who applaud the “shift to the global south” while ignoring the reality of their suburban, white privileged positions.

  • Andrew Dowling

    “White evangelicals continuing to have conversations that minorities would dismiss as out of hand as silliness.”

    And who appointed you as “minority spokesmen”? If you disagree on a theological level, then state it. But to try to paint this as a “privileged liberal white people” vs minorities who align with more fundamentalist views is not only widely inaccurate (many black, Latino, Asian men and women are on board with Boyd’s views of celebrating the questions, along with white people sharing your viewpoint) but is what people do when they feel insecure over their own position.

    Doubt is not a right of passage; its a reality that affects 99% of faith adherents, black, white, brown, and purple.

  • Luke Breuer

    The fear of God can be of help, here. Too much certainty is pride. “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” God wants us to believe things with the right amount of confidence; failure to be confident when we ought is cowardice, but overconfidence is pride and if God really loves us, he’ll find some way to ‘break through’ the overconfidence. This could mean allowing some tragedy to strike, a tragedy which is enough to snap us out of our wrong-headed certainty.

    Now, we must always be careful when asking why a tragedy happened. Job is an excellent lesson in this that many people (Christian and non-Christian) repeatedly refute by believing in retribution theology. Furthermore, we know from 2 Cor 1 that God sometimes lets us experience trial and tribulation so that we can comfort others. Sometimes pride sets the tragedy up to happen itself, with no need for God to do anything!

  • Phil Miller

    In the African American church I was part of, I would say that a discussion like this may not really be the norm, but neither is it a faith based on intellectual certainty. Actually, I’d say it’s kind of the other side of the spectrum. It’s a very experiential faith. I imagine my pastor would say that knowing the Word is useless if you haven’t experienced the Father’s love in a real way.

  • attytjj466

    Idolatry is a loaded term. I think we can agree that certainty does smack of arrogance and ignorance. God’s Word is Truth. But to get there we must navigate interpretation, contextualization, launguage, culture, all through the span of thousands of years. Thus humility and awareness of what we can ‘t know perfectly. But the Holy Spirit can and does give us confidence and assurance and confirmation of some essentials: Jesus is Lord, we are children of God, the HS lives within us, the Father loves us and saves us.

  • Name a few large primarily minority denominations who are publicly on board with the kind of ideology and are aware of Boyd and Rollins. I’d be interested in your experience here. This is my area of expertise/study and would like input from a majority voice about this. You take issue with my taking issue. Is my POV not accurate. Give me examples or large minority congregations/denominations that ascribe to “doubt as virtue” and “certainty as idol.”

  • True. In the African American church, theological scholarship is [generally] NOT the norm. However, the idea of “doubt as virtue” is not a concept I would say is normative either. Again, the opposite. Many African American traditions are steeped in spiritism and emotional experiences with God. So, in that sense, there would be a connection point to Boyd and Rollins. However, what the AA church is often faulted on is relying on emotions and experience and not having a solid theological grounding, leading to all sorts of heretical teachings and practices. Despite this, being “plain readers” in many ways, they see the words of Christ disdaining people’s doubt and calling for (proven) faith in him as a reason NOT to question the role of certainty.

  • Andrew Dowling

    ? This is theological side-talk. No denominations that I know of have anything about “certainty as idol” ingrained in any formal documentation, be it “progressive” white or black churches.

  • pastordt

    Amen. And thank you. And thank Greg Boyd, too.

  • Thursday1

    I haven’t read Boyd’s book, but I have noticed a tendency to valourize doubt in certain corners of the Christian world. The thing is, not everybody doubts. It’s not a universal thing. Nor are people who lack doubt necessarily spiritually immature and vulnerable to losing their faith when it is challenged. Some people simply have the presence of God in their lives to such a degree that they don’t really doubt.

    On the other hand:

    1. We shouldn’t pretend to certainty we don’t have.
    2. We shouldn’t chase certainty and feel like we have failed as Christians if it not given to us. Faith without doubt is something of a gift.
    3. People who lack certainty should be welcomed in the church and not treated as pariahs or potential traitors.
    (3a. Though I do think that people who are struggling a with significant doubt should not be in teaching or leadership positions in the church.)

    On a last note, contra people like Pete Rollins, certainty about the existence of God is not necessarily a comforting thing.

  • Thursday1

    Yes, we do have to get rid of this idea of doubt as a virtue. It may not be the worst thing in the world, but it is not necessary.

  • Bill Norton

    What does Dr. Boyd provide that’s significantly different from or better than Os Guinness’s works on doubt, or Alister McGrath’s book or the book Boyd’s former colleague at Bethel U., Dan Taylor, The Myth of Certainty?

    If the quest for certainty is idolatrous, does that make sinners of certainty seekers?

  • NateW

    Calvin, don’t you think it would be more profitable to frame this as being a matter of differences between various culturally inherited ways of thinking instead of according to race?

  • That’d be a troubling solution. The reason I say this is because what tends to happen is that conversations such as these tend to inform a sort of theological slavery where those who hold to an altogether different theological understanding–especially one based on a less scholarly/philosophical foundation–become the whipping boys of superior white-imagined theology. It gets us nowhere to avoid the implications of what this thinking does. If it is right, we must take into account what it means in practice.

  • NateW

    I wonder if talking about “doubt” in this context isn’t a matter of “becoming all things to all people,” speaking to those for whom knowledge is fundamentally a matter of provable, factual, objective propositions using terms (“doubt,” “certainty”) that are understandable in that context, but that don’t work as well outside that. These terms are good for those at a certain stage in their faith, but must be adapted and changed as one matures.

  • Phil Miller

    I think there are different motivations for doubt. If a person simply is coming from a position of extreme skepticism, that type of motivation is different than someone who is experiencing doubt because of the blows that life has dealt them. In any case, I do think that it’s a good thing to tell people that they are allowed or even expected to experience such things in life. If we pretend that we are certain even though we aren’t, we soon become hypocrites. I have often thought that those who preach the loudest are trying to convince themselves more than anyone else.

  • NateW

    Have you read Peter Rollins? My apologies if you have, but it doesn’t sound like it to me.

    Rollins is not promoting a scholarly/philosophical/”white” theology, but he is talking to those who do. He is not speaking against those who have a

  • I’m jazzed to see the Mcknightmeister giving airplay to Greg Boyd’s new book. Greg’s book made my top 100 best Christian books ever written list. Boyd is phenomenal in so many ways; I deeply respect the man.


    Psalm 115:1

  • Thursday1

    Yes, one should prepare believers for the possibility of doubt, and tell them that they shouldn’t pretend to a certainty which they don’t have.

  • I JUST finished his newest book. I review books for a living.