Faith, Doubt and the Idol of Certainty: An Interview with Greg Boyd

“The quest to feel certain becomes an idol when a person’s sense of significance to God and security before God is anchored not in their simple trust of God’s character, as revealed on the cross, but in how certain they feel about the rightness of their beliefs.” – Greg Boyd 

Today I am just thrilled to share an interview with theologian and teacher Greg Boyd, whose new book, Benefit of the Doubt, releases this week.  Greg is the co-founder of Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, Minnesota where he serves as Senior Pastor, speaking to thousands each week. He has authored or co-authored 18 books and numerous academic articles, including his best-selling and award-winning Letters From a Skeptic and his recent books Repenting of Religion and The Myth of a Christian Nation. Greg has also been featured on the front page of The New York Times, The Charlie Rose Show, CNN, National Public Radio, the BBC and numerous other television and radio venues. 

What I love about Greg’s work is his commitment to both intellectual integrity and faithful obedience. His books always challenge me to not only think, but to act. And his latest, Benefit of the Doubt, is right up my alley…and likely many of yours too…for it tackles issues related to faith, doubt, certainty, and obedience. I think you will find many of Greg’s thoughts here helpful and profound. Enjoy! 

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Rachel: First of all, thank you so much for this book.  I really related to your personal experience with doubt and found myself underlining paragraph after paragraph of Benefit of the Doubt, praying your words would reach those who need it the most.  To start off, tell us a little of your own story. What triggered your first doubts about your faith?

Greg: Thanks Rachel, I appreciate the opportunity to talk.  I don’t know if I can say when I first had doubts about my faith, because my faith has pretty much always been accompanied by doubt.  But it was a prayer meeting I attended twenty-some years ago that first got me questioning the very concept of faith that most Christians embrace today.  A dozen or so other people and I had gathered to pray for a young man who had been diagnosed with brain cancer.  At the beginning of the meeting the lady who owned the house we were in stood up and read Jesus’ statement, “according to your faith it will be done to you.”  She then told us that if our faith was free of doubt, this young man would be healed. The implication was that if we doubted, he would not be healed. 

As we entered into prayer for this young man, everyone in the room felt pressure to try to make ourselves certain that this man was in fact going to be healed. As I share in my book, after a couple of minutes of praying the image of the Lion on the Wizard of Oz suddenly popped into my mind and I saw him saying, “I do believe, I do believe, I do, I do, I DO believe!” just as he does in the movie.  It occurred to me that this was exactly what we were doing. We were trying to talk ourselves into becoming certain, as if faith was a sort of psychological gimmick.  And it made me wonder what kind of God would leverage the life of a young man on how well we were to perform this psychological gimmickry, and about a matter that, if we’re honest with ourselves, we can’t be certain of.  It seemed like we were caught in a cruel, twisted joke! 

This motivated me to begin to seriously question whether the notion that our faith is as strong as we are free of doubt is really an accurate understanding of faith. The Benefit of the Doubt is really the outcome of that line of questioning that began in that prayer meeting so many years ago.  

 Can you explain what “certainty-seeking faith” is and why you claim that it's a problem today? 

 “Certain-seeking faith” is the sort of faith that people were trying to exercise in the prayer meeting I just talked about.  It’s the assumption that a person’s faith is as strong as they are free of doubt and that striving to have a “strong” (viz. doubt-free) faith somehow pleases God. I’ve found that this is how most Christians today think about faith, and it causes far more damage than most people realize (I spend two chapters in my book fleshing out these problems).  In fact, I argue that this misguided model of faith is at the root of most of the struggles believers have with the Christian faith and behind most of the negative things non-believers associate with the Christian faith. 

Among other things, as I stated earlier, this model reduces faith to a psychological gimmick in which people try to convince themselves that their beliefs are true beyond what the evidence warrants.  Thoughtful people legitimately wonder why God would consider this ability virtuous, to the point of leveraging people’s eternal welfare on it!  So too, this model makes thoughtful people who have perfectly reasonable doubts feel guilty and rewards people who either lack the concern or the intellectual curiosity to question their beliefs by making them feel like they have “strong” faith.  

On top of this, those who embrace “certainty-seeking faith” tend to become narrow-minded, for honestly trying to see things from other peoples’ point of view might lead them to question their faith and thereby jeopardize their “salvation.“ In fact, this model can easily lead people to develop learning phobias, for if you dare to read broadly and learn to see things from other people’s point of view, you might uncovering facts that could shake your certainty and thus displease God. I’m convinced this explains why Christians, especially conservative Christians, have a well-deserved reputation in the broader culture for being narrow-minded.

You go so far as to claim that certainty-seeking faith is “idolatrous.”  That is a huge claim, especially since this is the kind of faith most Christians today embrace! Can you explain it further? And how can we break free from it?

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In the book I make the case that we are created with a core need to feel fully alive, unconditionally loved and worthwhile, and ultimately secure, and God created us with this need because he wants to meet it, and is the only one who can actually meet it.  An idol, I argue, is anything we use in place of God to meet this core need. While many people try to meet this need with the idols of wealth, power, success, sex and other such things, many Christians try to meet it with the idol of certainty-seeking faith. The quest to feel certain becomes an idol when a person’s sense of significance to God and security before God is anchored not in their simple trust of God’s character, as revealed on the cross, but in how certain they feel about the rightness of their beliefs. This form of idolatry is a danger whenever people assume (rightly) that they are saved by faith while also (mistakenly) equating faith with their sense of certainty.  For it means they now feel “saved” – uniquely significant and secure before God – on the basis of their psychological certainty. 

As I show in Benefit of the Doubt, the only way to get free from this without falling into some other form of idolatry is to realize that biblical faith isn’t about feeling certain, but about a willingness to commit to living for God in the face of uncertainty.  We need to accept that uncertainty is simply part of what it means to be human and to trust that God’s love for us, revealed most perfectly on Calvary, isn’t dependent on how certain or uncertain we feel.  The God revealed on Calvary isn’t a God who is impressed with people’s ability to make themselves feel certain that their beliefs are right.  He’s rather a God who simply wants us to trust him, in the face of uncertainty, by lovingly laying down our lives for him in response the way he has lovingly laid down his life for us. 

What difference do you see between ‘faith’ and ‘belief’?  And why do you believe this distinction is important?

 As I define them, “belief “ is an opinion about something or someone, while “faith” is a willingness to commit to a course of action on the basis of that opinion.  When I married Shelley, my wife, I had to first believe a number of things about her, but I only became married to her when I demonstrated faith by being willing to commit to living the rest of my life as her husband. 

The most important thing for people to realize about this is that salvation is not merely about beliefs that people hold.  James tells us the demons “believe,” but it does them absolutely no good (Ja 2:19).  Salvation is rather about entering into a marriage-like, covenantal, relationship with God through Jesus Christ by exercising faith. And whereas one might measure beliefs in terms of how certain or uncertain a person feels, the measure of faith is simply about how willing one is to trust God’s character and how faithful a person is in living out the covenantal relationship they have with the Lord, despite the uncertainties they may have.  

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 in trusting his character and in living in relationship with him, regardless of whatever level of certainty they have, or don’t have.

In the book you write that, “God enters covenants, not contracts, with people.” Could you share a little about how the court-of-law framework of theology has affected how we read the Bible? 

This is a very important point that I spend a lot of time on in my book. Whereas a “contract” is a deal between parties, a “covenant” is a commitment that involves the parties themselves.  Contracts involve exchanging money, work or possessions, while covenants involve a commitment of our life. And while covenants are rooted in people trusting one another, contracts are only necessary when people don’t trust one another. So too, while contracts are about what different parties can get from one another, covenants are about what different parties pledge to give of themselves toward one another.   Buying a car or house involves a contract: getting married involves a covenant.  

Unfortunately, while covenants permeated the lives of people in biblical times, western culture is entirely contractual. Indeed, marriage is the only remaining covenant we have, and people today are unfortunately increasingly viewing even this in terms of a contract.  Because of this, most contemporary western Christians interpret Scripture’s covenantal concepts as if they were contractual, and as I show in Benefit of the Doubt, this has fundamentally screwed up our understanding of a number of theological concepts in Scripture. 

Can you give us an example? 

Sure. Consider the way most Christians think about “salvation.” They think of it primarily in legal and contractual ways. God the Father is the judge, we are the guilty defendants, and Jesus is our lawyer.  In this view, the Father was going to send us to eternal prison (hell), which we deserved, until Jesus stepped in and worked out a strange deal with the Father in which he somehow takes on our guilt and our punishment, while we are acquitted, assuming we can believe these things are true with a requisite degree of certainty. 

It’s of course true the Bible uses some legal metaphors to describe salvation, but as I demonstrate in my book, the primary framework, and the framework in which even the legal metaphors should be understood, is covenantal.  This dramatically changes everything! Understood as a covenantal concept, salvation, isn’t about a deal that takes place between us and God. It’s rather about entering into a marriage-like relationship with God – a relationship that involves us pledging ourselves to him in response to the pledge of himself he offered us on Calvary. So too, whereas the legal model was focused on belief and therefore didn’t involve our character transformation as a central consideration, the covenant model is all about character, for its anchored in faith, and as I’ve said, covenantal faith is about our willingness to trust another and to live in a trustworthy way in relation to another. 

You can also see the significant difference between these two models of salvation by the sorts of questions they inspire. If a person is thinking in terms of the contractual model, there are all sorts of legal-type questions that need to be addressed. For example, since salvation is a legal deal, it makes sense to wonder if the deal can be “undone” (the debate about eternal security)?  If it can’t be “undone,” it makes sense to wonder what, if any, are the negative consequences for living in ways we know God disapproves of?  

On the other hand, if the “salvation-deal” can be undone, it makes sense to wonder what are the precise legal conditions that would undo it? Is the “salvation-deal” undone if a person fornicates, for example, and dies before they can repent? And (here’s one I’ve found Christian engaged couples ask frequently), what exactly does it mean to “fornicate”?  How close to “vaginal penetration” can you get before you “cross the line?  In the contractual framework, it naturally makes sense to want to get away with as much as you can without “crossing the line,” for contracts, recall, are predicated on a lack of trust and are about what individuals can get from one another. 

The mindset behind these questions makes perfect sense in a contractual, court-of-law framework, but that make no sense whatsoever in a covenantal framework. No one in a remotely healthy marriage would ever wonder about how much they could get away with before their spouse would divorce them, for example.  And if a spouse ever did wonder about this, it would simply reveal that he or she was already dishonoring their covenant.  For one only resorts to contractual thinking when the covenantal pledge to give of oneself to another and to trust and be trustworthy toward another is absent. 

In this light, and in light of how pervasive the legal paradigm is in contemporary Christ thinking, is it any wonder we see so live covenantal trust and trustworthiness in the lives of professing Christians today?  

You acknowledge that one of the greatest challenges confronting people who believe the Bible is “God’s Word” concerns the violent portraits of God in the Bible. and you spend a whole chapter on this topic. What advice do you have for people who are deeply troubled by these portraits?

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There are three things I share in Benefit of the Doubt about this incredibly important topic.  The first is that I attempt to show that the revelation of God in Jesus Christ isn’t just one revelation among many others in Scripture. He is rather depicted as the supreme revelation that culminates and surpasses all others. God spoke in many different ways in the past, the author of Hebrews tells us, but in these “last days” he has spoken “through the Son.”  And in contrast to all that came before, the Son is “the radiance of his glory” and “the exact representation of his being (hupostasis, meaning “essence,” Heb. 1:1-3).  This is why Jesus could say such radical things as; “If you see me, you see the Father” (Jn.14:9) and could claim that all Scripture points to him (Jn 5:39-45; Lk 24: 25-7; 44-7). What this implies, I contend, is that, whether we can explain the violent portraits of God in the OT or not,   it would be unfaithful for us to ever allow anything we find in the OT to compromise what we learn about God in him. 

Second, I argue that as the NT depicts it, the cross sums up and supremely expresses everything Jesus was about.   This is why John said, on the basis of what he learned about God from Jesus, that “God is love” (I Jn,.4:8) and then defined the kind of “love” that God is by pointing us to the cross (I Jn 3:16). God’s very essence, in other words, is cross-like love. On the one hand, this increases the problem of the OT’s violent portraits of God, for the cross reveals a God who would rather did for his enemies than use his power to crush them.  So we have to wonder, how do portraits of God commanding genocide or causing mothers to cannibalize their babies point to the enemy-loving, non-violent God revealed on the cross?!  On the other hand, however, I argue that the cross itself holds the key to solving this problem, which leads to my third point. 

The cross reveals that, out of his covenantal faithfulness and unfathomable love, God is willing to stoop to bear the sin of his people and thereby take on an appearance that reflects the ugliness of their sin. Yet, in doing this, God reveals his true nature, for as we look upon the God-forsaken, guilty-appearing criminal on the cross, we know that it was God who voluntarily stooped an infinite distance to become this for us.  Now, if the cross reveals what God is really like, then it reveals what God has always been like. And this means we should read Scripture with the awareness that God has always been willing to stoop to bear the sin of his people and take on appearances that reflect the ugliness of their sin.  

I thus suggest that we should read all Scripture “through the lens of the cross,” and when we do this, we can begin to see how even the most horrendous portraits of God in the OT bear witness to the God revealed on the cross.  The cross reveals God to us only when we look past the surface appearance that reflects the ugliness of our sin and discern in its depth our gracious God stooping to bear our sin and take on this ugly appearance for us.  In this light, I suggest we should read Scripture always asking, where else might we find that God is revealed not by how he appears on the surface, but by what faith can discern as we look past the surface to discern God humbly stooping to bear the sin of his people? 

My short answer to this question is that, whenever we come upon portraits of God that, to one degree or another, fall beneath the beautiful, non-violent portrait we are given in the crucified Christ, we should assume that the revelatory content of these portraits is, to this degree, not found on the surface of the portrait itself, but in what faith can discern happening beneath the surface as it beholds God stooping to bear the sin if his people.  Hence, I submit that the ugliness of portraits such as the one of Yahweh commanding his people to slaughter “everything that breathes” or of causing mothers to cannibalize their children reflects the ugly, fallen, culturally conditioned hearts of his people, not God himself. What rather reveals God is that, out of his covenantal faithfulness and unfathomable love, he was willing to stoop to bear the sin of his people by being willing to take on this literary appearance in the inspired record of his covenantal activity (viz. the biblical narrative). 

You are such a prolific writer and theologian, and you’ve written about everything from open theism, to Satan and demons, to politics (The Myth of a Christian Nation is among my most often recommend books), to the problem of suffering. What’s next on the horizon for you? What are you feeling most passionate about right now? 

Right now I’m in the final stages of a massive research project I’ve been working on for five years that develops and defends the thesis I just outlined in response to your previous question.  It’s entitled The Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Reinterpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross. To say I’m “passionate” about this topic  is a massive understatement! I’ve been absolutely obsessed with this Scripture’s’ violent portraits of God, for I believe these portraits constitute one of the biggest reasons why many abandon the faith while many others refuse to take the Bible as God’s Word seriously. It’s also the primary reason why most Christians today refuse to accept that God is altogether as beautiful as he’s revealed to be on the cross and/or that God is unconditionally opposed to all violence.  

Because I’m proposing a new hermeneutic, I needed to make my case as airtight and as comprehensive as possible, which is why the book has taken me five years to research and write and has now evolved to over 600 pages! But non-academics need not worry, because I plan on following it quickly with a much shorter work that will capture the gist of my argument, but without all the scholarly material that’s packed into the larger academic book. I hope to have both finished by the beginning of 2014 which means they should be published (by InterVarsity Press) by the end of 2014. 

 When it comes to theology, you seem to have a curious mind and an explorer’s heart. How do you handle the inevitable criticism that comes along with that? 

I make it my primary goal of every day to get all of my “life” – my core need to be loved, to feel worthwhile, and to feel ultimate secure – from what God thinks about me as revealed on the cross.  I believe this is the most fundamental objective for disciples of Jesus.  To the extent that Christ is our “life,” we don’t need to be trying to get “life” from what people think about us, or from any other potential idol I might latch onto.  But to the degree we don’t get all our “life” from Christ, we can’t help but try to get it from what people think about us, or from some other idol.  This is sheer bondage.  Only to the degree that all our “life” is from Christ can we live in true freedom.  And only to this degree can we “die to ourselves” and live out the radical call of the kingdom to imitate Jesus by lovingly sacrificing ourselves for all others, including those who would identify themselves as our “enemy.”

Thanks so much for asking such great questions Rachel! Keep up your great Kingdom work! 

Thanks for this profound and thought-provoking responses, Greg. You are ALWAYS welcome here! 

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Be sure to check out Greg’s new book, Benefit of the Doubt. And if you haven’t found Greg’s ReKnew site, you’re missing out; there are tons of great resources, articles, and discussions there. And if you’re interested in hearing Greg speak on the topics covered in this interview, consider participating in the upcoming ReKnew conference on Faith, Doubt, and the Idol of Certainty, September 27-28 at Wooldand Hills Church in St. Paul, MN. 


 

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