Book Review: Peter Enns’s The Sin of Certainty

Peter Enns. The Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires Our Trust More Than Our “Correct” Beliefs. New York, NY: HarperOne, 2016. (230 pages, including notes and index)

Now available at Amazon and your local Christian bookstore (hopefully).

I couldn’t put this book down — twice. I read Peter Enns’s The Sin of Certainty a few weeks ago with the intention of writing my review the next day. Of course, life does not always go according to plan. So, the other day, I picked the book up again just to look for some pithy quotes before I began writing but before I knew it I was back into this book in the way one normally gets engrossed in a good novel.

Peter Enns writes with an engaging style that makes the challenging ideas accessible to the average reader, even those who do not normally read non-fiction.

A Faith Journey:

I think what drew me into the argument of this book is the personal and autobiographical narrative that is woven throughout and gives shape to the text. In The Sin of Certainty, the reader is taken on a journey. The journey is from faith to faith.

That might not sound very exciting. If I begin to walk out my front door and my child asks me where I am going, then it might sound odd if I respond, “I’m going home.” Yet, Pilgrim’s Progess, The Chronicles of Narnia, and The Hobbit or There and Back Again by Bilbo Baggins are all stories about leaving home and returning home.

Now, I am not suggesting that The Sin of Certainty is in the same league as these works. Still, I think that Enns tells a story that will be all too familiar to many North American Evangelical Christians. I say all too familiar because this book is for the secret and not so secret doubters that live among us and worship alongside us.

On the one hand, this book is for those who are either afraid to ask questions (or sometimes even have questions) for fear of being considered substandard Christians and those who wittingly or unwittingly asked questions that resulted in hurtful reactions and broken relationships. In telling his story and confronting what he calls “the sin of certainty”, Enns may be giving voice to many Christians who are afraid to ask questions, express doubt, and challenge presuppositions for fear of being censured, losing their jobs, losing their community, or, indeed, having their salvation questioned by other Christians.

To these, Enns is saying, you are not alone and historically the Church has been a place where one can have doubts, ask questions, and reform one’s faith. Doubts and questions are not the antithesis of faith but can be a proving ground for enriching your faith.

On the other hand, this book is for those who are preoccupied with correct thinking. Yet, sadly, I suspect that those readers have already pegged Peter Enns as a “compromised Christian” and will throw the baby out with the baptismal water. Hopefully, this book will still be in print when these individuals have their own doubts and crises of faith

The story Enns tells is one of disillusionment. Now, being disillusioned can be frightening and disorienting. Nevertheless, while being disillusioned coincides with crisis, a crisis can be what JRR Tolkien called a eucatastrophe. A eucatastrophe is a good catastrophe. That’s why I describe this as a journey from faith to faith. A lot can happen between leaving home and returning home. What Enns narrates is a journey from a safe place (like Bag-End)where one’s faith was received as a Statement of Faith and all that was required is a basic assent and a signature on the appropriate line through what Enns likens to a “dark night of the soul” and into an understanding of faith with roots deeper than a mere assent to doctrine. Enns resists saying that his faith is stronger as if  everything has been fixed and all the problems are solved and all the “uh-oh” moments are a thing of the past.

I won’t say my faith is “stronger” — that implies that the uh-ohs have been fixed or conquered, which is the opposite of what I am saying. I mean my faith is more real, more textured, three dimensional, and without the constant fear of being wrong playing in my head or that God is disappointed in me for not acing a multiple choice theology exam. (11)

On this journey, Enns addresses many of the kinds of issues that are currently raising doubts for many Evangelicals. For instance, the growing evidence of evolution, violence in the Christian Scriptures, and modern biblical criticism are the kinds of challenges that confront Christians in the media. In this book, Enns does not try to help the reader to develop the proper apologetic argument to respond to such challenges. Rather, the point of this book is to say that it is okay not to have all the answers. It is okay to have doubts and questions.

In support of this claim and the theme of the book, Enns draws the readers attention to the many instances in the Bible where people of faith are living in and expressing uncertainty. Moreover, both the Biblical texts and Christian tradition model ongoing and rigorous dialogue about God and the world. Scripture itself can be unsettling.

So, what is “the sin of certainty” that gives this book its title? Moreover, what is Enns suggesing when he says that God desires our trust more than our “correct” beliefs? Does right doctrine (aka orthodoxy) not matter?

What Enns is not saying:

I’m not saying that the life of the mind and working toward forming deeper thoughts about God are all bunk. The life of faith and the life of thought are not opposite ends of the spectrum. (21)

Or again, rightly placing the emphasis on trust, Enns writes, “Believing is a ‘who’ word.”

Of course, believing is never empty of content the Israelites trust God because of what God has done for them, namely delivering the Israelites from harm (Egyptian slavery and Babylonian captivity being two big examples). But when we come across the idea of believing in the Bible the focus isn’t on what but who. Not content of thinking, but trust in a person.(93)

Enns confesses periods in which he questioned whether he was a Christian or could continue to call himself a Christian. Yet, throughout this book Enns is reflecting theologically on his Christian pilgrimage. So, Enns is not embracing some kind of Cartesian methodological doubt, nor thankfully is he is simply repackaging Brian McLaren for the 21st century, nor is he promoting a sentimental emotivist religion (what Eugene Peterson might call “Baal worship”). In my reading of Enns, he continues to write to those who identify themselves as Evangelical Christians. Yet, this book is also for those who have found themselves thrust out of the fold and or inwardly seem to be on a journey away from the fold. This book is a call to re-evaluate what one understands by faith and to dig deeper into one’s faith. A friend of my at Regent College used to speak of these seasons of doubt and uncertainty as walking into the wind (the Spirit).

What Enns is saying:

It is so easy to slip into “right thinking” mode — that we have arrived at full faith. We know what church God goes to, what Bible translation God prefers, how God votes, what movies God watches, and what books God reads. We know the kinds of people God approves of, God has winners and loser (sic), and we are the winners, the true insiders. God likes all the things we like. We speak for God and think nothing of it. (159)

The kind of certainty that Enns is describing is the kind of certainty that the disciples have about what the Christ can and cannot do. Sometimes they are so focussed on their ideas of Christ that they miss what he is actually doing in their midst.

This kind of certainty says that God cannot do anything new. He protected the Temple in the time of Isaiah and so he will protect it in the time of Jeremiah. It is the kind of certainty that leads to caring more about memorizing T.U.L.I.P. than to caring for people. It is the kind of certainty in which people mistake the Bible for God as if John had said, the Word became text, instead of the Word became flesh. It is the kind of certainty that cringes at and causes others to cringe at words like evolution, myth, and homosexual. Taboo topics.

Preoccupation with correcting thinking. That’s the deeper problem. (18)

It is a sin because it is idolatry. Although Enns speaks of his discovery of “dark night of the soul” tradition, he might also have been led to the not unrelated apophatic tradition which reminds us that all our speech about God is limited and necessarily fails to “capture” God. Speaking of the Creator God, Pseudo-Dionysius reminds us “the theologians praise it by every name — and as the Nameless One.” (I’ll admit that I myself cringe to see God referred to as “it” here. But others cringe at “she” and others at “he”.) The point is that God is by nature incomprehensible. So, for Christians to be so certain of who and what God is, of what God can and cannot do, of who God will and will not associate with, is already to have forgotten something very significant about God’s nature.

Individuals, communities, and institutions that are preoccupied with certainty of this sort often have gatekeepers or guards and most of those gatekeeper are self-appointed. What is their role? Are they there to keep me safe, to protect me, from the dangerous world outside?  If I am afraid to see what will happen if I try to venture outside the familiars walls,  to stretch my legs, to stretch my mind, then I may already have an answer. The walls that someone erected around me in the name of keeping me safe turn out to be prison walls that keep me from following Christ and growing in faith.

Those most concerned with slippery slopes have often stopped climbing the mountain themselves. Are they really concerned that you will slip back down or are they concerned that you will slip by them?

In a chapter, aptly titled, “When Christians Eat Their Own”, Enns draws attention to an all too common practice among so-called Evangelical (Gospel) Christians.

Under the high-lofted banner of “defending the gospel,” back room politicking, gossip, maligning the character of their enemies, lying, vengeance, and even destroying people’s livelihoods are excused as regrettable yet necessary tactics in their holy war (battle metaphors abound) to route out traders harboring unbelief. And such casualties, unfortunate as they are, are nevertheless deemed necessary when truth is compromised and the gospel is at stake.

But it seems for some the gospel is always at stake. They have mistaken their own thinking about God with the real thing they have become so enamored of their own self referential God talk and believe their own propaganda that they can’t tell the difference. (142)

If the Temple and the Torah can become idols, is it really that surprising that our thoughts about God can become idols too. Jesus challenges the Pharisees when he says, “The Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath.” When the Sabbath becomes an idol it is used to burden people rather than give them rest.

J.I. Packer always begins his theology classes by singing the doxology. “Theology is for doxology,” he instructs us. So, when I treasure my doctrine more than I treasure my fellow human beings, my doctrine (however true and right) has become an idol. As it is written, “Let us make humankind to be our image” not statues, not rulers alone, not the Bible, not Sabbath, not Torah, not the Sun, not life-sized Arks, not Statements of Faith, but human beings are made to be God’s image — God’s living icons.

While this book isn’t for everybody, I suspect it is for more Christians than one might at first guess. If you yourself are not preoccupied with correcting thinking, I bet you know someone who is (especially, if you are an North American evangelical). This book may just be the breath of fresh air that you or that person needs.

Other Books by Peter Enns:

The Bible Tells Me So. . .

The Evolution of Adam

Inspiration and Incarnation

Related Posts:

Peter Enns’s Inspiration and Incarnation Part I

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2 thoughts on “Book Review: Peter Enns’s The Sin of Certainty

  1. Seems to treat a similar theme found in a book by Daniel Taylor, The Myth of Certainty: Trusting God, Asking Questions, Tasking Risks which I found very insightful some years ago. Taylor, in alternating chapters of this book illustrated the plight of what he termed “reflective Christians” by means of a saga featuring Alex Adamson, a fictional professor at a Christian college who struggles to find acceptance at his own college (“too liberal; troublemaker; questions everything”) and the secular academic world in which his professional colleagues are reluctant to take his scholarship seriously (“too religious, too conservative, etc.”) The “reflective Christian” option is often (frequently?) a courageous and lonely, yet ultimately freeing choice to make. I’ll be looking to read Enns’ book.

    Liked by 2 people

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