Sin of Certainty (Enns)

Having just purchased the Kindle edition of this book ($12.99) for my Memorial Day reflective reading, I’ve only finished chapter 1 and already find much fruit for reflection.

Here is a quote from that chapter:

Peter Enns: Let me say again that beliefs themselves are not the problem. Working out what we believe is worthy of serious time and effort in our lives of faith. But our pursuit of having the right beliefs and locking them up in a vault are not the center of faith. Trust in God is. When holding to correct thinking becomes the center, we have shrunk faith in God to an intellectual exercise, a human enterprise, where differences need to be settled through debate first before faith can get off the ground.

Here is a broad challenge that I don’t think leaves any of us in this forum unscathed. It is easy to hear in this a targeted and thus deflected criticism of those fundamentalists over there or this or that person who is a few notches more “conservative” than we are on origins issues. But (similar to what @deliberateresult has challenged me with recently), how do we who pride ourselves in trying to attend to the full spectrum scientific knowledge along with theological revelation, and who have begun to settle ourselves comfortably into the theological terrain so furnished (as we like to rehearse to everyone who will listen) by reading both of God’s books – his works and his Word; – how do we escape this need to have God in just yet another box that is still largely of our own fashioning. (I’m competing with the Apostle Paul again for longest run-on sentence. I think he may still have me, though.)

I could ask for thoughts, but this very forum by its nature and activity here is part of the belly of the beast challenged in this. In other words, I guess I’m suggesting along with Enns that we won’t think our way through it – or rather it may be of spiritual danger to us to fancy with conviction that we have. But does this tread on the much-needed resurgence of a (hopefully!) emerging tradition to worship our Lord with all our mind? Yes, I do get it, that I should not confuse my mental image of God with the actual living God. But yet … my mental image of God, flawed as it must necessarily be, is still going to be all I have access to (at least on my terms). And maybe that last parenthetical after-thought is the key. The actual living God does have more than full access to me and the world I live in. There is much to learn to trust in that. And that, I think, might be a fair summary of Enns’ main thesis in this book as far as chapter 1 reveals.

May you all have a reflective Memorial day.


@Mervin_Bitikofer How do we escape this need to have God in just yet another box that is still largely of our own fashioning.

Peter Enns work has stimulated some very worthwhile discussion on this Forum. In choosing a career in science, I realized I ran the risk of depending too much on human intellect to make sense of God’s marvelous universe–to put Him into one of the ‘explanatory boxes’, like physics and biology. On the other hand, the intellect that He bestowed on mankind is the most exalted gift we can imagine, and it would be a gross insult not to use it to its fullest. So I look at is this way: we should take the path of materialistic naturalism as far it can take us before we take the jump into the cold stream of Faith. This may give us a clearer conception of what God’s purpose for us actually is. For example and for me at least, I am hazy about the two concepts of ‘going to Heaven’ and ‘Christ’s Second Coming in a cloud from Heaven’. Could the Second Coming actually be the improvement in earthly existence that could potentially come from a combination of medical science (that would alleviate much of physical ailments) plus a much improved social science that would thoroughly incorporate Jesus’ command to love one another (even your enemies). In one case we would be waiting (more or less) for Jesus to come, and in the other we would be working diligently to hasten His (non-physical) arrival as mankind’s Savior. The news media these days clearly informs us that it is more likely that we need saving from ourselves rather than saving from Satan (or is that saying the same thing?)
Al Leo

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I will have to read that book. I like Pete Enns. Was sorry to see him get booted, but apparently he is doing well now.

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Well, I think ‘haziness’ is pretty much standard fare regarding eschatology. Thinking that we’ll help usher it in with science still sound suspiciously more like our work than God’s. But who’s to know how God will bring it about? That fact that we can [indeed are called to!] work hard to live out Jesus’ teachings, while trusting that God has management of the universe in hand is already plenty to keep us busy.

You would/will like this one too. His humor makes it a delightful read.

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Mervin, this is (one of) the problems I had in my presentations to our parish Confirmation Classes: I had gotten into the habit of polishing the reasoning of my arguments to other scientists, and I was poorly trained to reach these young adults by spiritual persuasion. So I ended my presentation with Bernadette Fowler’s “O God, You Search Me” based on Psalm 139. My grandson prepared a video for U-Tube using some of his photos.

O God, You Search Me
By Bernadette Farrell
From Psalm 139

O God, you search me and you know me
All my thoughts lie open to your gaze.
When I walk or lie down you are before me:
(Lower Yosemite Falls)
Ever the maker and keeper of my days.
(Tunnel View, Yosemite

You know my resting and my rising. (Lisa)
You discern my purpose from afar, (Kauii)
And with love everlasting you besiege me: (Hawaii sunset)
In ev’ry moment of life or death, you are.
(Waianapanapa black sand, Maui)
Before a word is on my tongue, Lord, (Sunrise, Cucamonga)
You have known it’s meaning through and through.
(Leo’s back yard, a hummer sampling the Agapanthus nectar)
You are with me beyond my understanding: (Half Dome)
God of my present, my past and future, too.(from Clouds Rest)

Although your Spirit is upon me,
(from Mt. San Berdino. towards Baldy)
Still I search for shelter from your light.(Heart L. Horsetail falls)
There is nowhere on earth I can escape you:
(Thompson creek trail, San Gabriels)
Even the darkness is radiant in your sight.
(Slot canyon, Ariz)

For you created me and shaped me, (Mt. Rainier woods)
Gave me life within my mother’s womb.
(Mt. Baldy ski hut trail)
For the wonder of who I am, I praise you:
(Silver Falls trail, Ohanepecosh Rainier)
Safe in your hands, all creation is made new.

Al Leo

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Bingo! Well described.

Having completed this short book, I’ll reaffirm my initial reaction at the beginning that this is a very worthy challenge to Christians.

I did experience some frustration in a few of his middle chapters as he characteristically portrays Christianity in the worst possible light while presumably giving its antagonists all the most scientific voices – a form of charity I suppose? Or maybe it could be compared to Elijah allowing the prophets of Baal to use the dryest wood and best circumstances on their side, and dousing the altar with water and the worst circumstances when it was God’s turn. Enns seems to go out of his way, I guess, to show that if theism can survive this, then it is good to go. Apparently, modern Christianity is supposed to shrivel up and evaporate at the first seemingly random tragedy that occurs to someone (as if theism has never had to deal with any such thing before – which Enns himself spends a chapter or more pointing out of this very book). It is typically never addressed why theodicy is suddenly such a fatal problem for Christianity now where it has never been before. Perhaps this state of affairs says more about our modern Christianity than it does about theism more generally and historically.

But I digress … and I do so quite badly, wanting to lapse back into those same tired apologetic arguments and theodicies that Enns quite rightly is castigating in this book. It all amounts to me (and many of us) wanting to trust our own understandings/arguments about life and Scriptures more than just trusting God. So while many Christians may have trouble accepting Enns on various grounds, they should at least agree with his central thesis: We need to trust in God.

Enns: Preoccupation with correct thinking. That’s the deeper problem.
It reduces the life of faith to sentry duty, a 24/7 task of pacing the ramparts and scanning the horizon to fend off incorrect thinking, in ourselves and others, too engrossed to come inside the halls and enjoy the banquet.

But while Enns mourns this state of affairs, having experienced it personally, his work does end up being a positive exhortation (not just a new ‘answer’ or ‘to-do’ list, mind you) toward something we do need to do: trust in God. Which, according to Enns, is often a more faithful translation of the oft chosen phrase: ‘believe in God’, which makes it sound like a mere intellectual exercise. The latter is so easy to do compared to the former, which may do much to explain why so many of us spend so much effort and focus so exclusively on that intellectual zone. As Enns says of himself (and as is true of nearly all of us I’m sure) we need to move toward a life of trust, and yet paradoxically we won’t be doing that under our own steam because we are much more comfortable with our perceived certainties. None of us wants to yield control any more than we have to. And that’s when God steps in, scary as that may be.

I really appreciate Enns’ hard challenge to our contemporary Christian idol worship.


I have experienced a similar frustration reading Enns and pretty much every book I’ve ever read from the progressive end (Brian McClaren, Rachel Held Evans, Donald Miller, Jim Wallis, Tony Campolo). I keep wondering if they are mad at me, because in many ways I presume I belong to the subculture they are throwing under the bus, though I have not experienced nearly the same level of wounding as they evidently have, so I can’t really relate to their level of angst over what seem to me at times to be rather petty grievances.

But if you can get beyond the tone, lots of good thoughts to ponder…


It seems we could grant to Enns that he is eligible for this petty grievance given what he has gone though professionally over these very issues. But also given his involvement here at Biologos and other books he’s written, he should be able to stop focusing so much on the particular brand of thinking that he has obviously left behind (or is still trying very hard to leave behind?). Perhaps it is an issue of always wanting to circle back to our old habits that obviously – these must be the spokespersons for Christianity? Or alternately, we recognize that this is how most people today identify Christianity, and therefore we are always obligated to meet them at that point?

I wouldn’t take it too personally, but of course I don’t really know your situation. If you identify with the so-snubbed subculture, you certainly are not afraid to critique it where necessary!

It is a shame that so many won’t ever read him at all. Is that his problem or theirs?

So maybe … we need more writers who, instead of getting kicked out of this or that organization and having wounds to lick, there should be some group whose thoughts “gently developed and emerged” even while they still fellowship and are warmly welcomed among their culture of origin, that genuinely celebrates and affirms its full spectrum of voices from the most conservative to the most reformative to the most radical; letting them all come to the table as first class citizens.

Okay, I’ll stop fantasizing now. I’m just happy to have folks like Pete (and happy that God is using Him through experiences that fall a mite bit short of my [and probably his] fantasy).

You may or may not be aware that many 17th century English Puritans regarded the rise of Baconian science as a harbinger (among many others) of the 2nd coming/Millennium that would of course follow on Cromwell’s republic. Their dreams were shattered with the return of England to non-Puritan royal rule, and I agree with Merv that our science likely has as little eschatological meaning as theirs did. I wish I could give you a reference for this, but it was long ago that I read some history of the English Civil War and I can’t even remember the title now.

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No, Preston, I was not aware of this bit of history, but not too surprised. Sometimes I let myself get overly optimistic in the progress science is making in overcoming the physical ills of mankind; e.g. fighting disease, striving for renewable energy sources etc. But then I look at the social problems in today’s world–overpopulation, tribal loyalties, jihadists, etc–and I come back to earth, and realize that it may literally take Christ returning to earth from out of the clouds to actually establish his kingdom.

Another subject: Were you able to connect to my U-tube link? If so, how did you like Bernadette’s hymn? It has an unusually powerful effect on me.
Al Leo

I must admit that I have not read Enns’ book.

I did go on the website to try to get a feel of what it is about. I also read an essay by Mark Noll about the problem of Fundamentalism.

From what I gather Enns attacks the Gnostic streak in American Christianity. Gnosticism says that one must have right knowledge to be saved. Conservative Protestantism based its right knowledge on the Bible, and reacted very defensively when “science” came up with ideas such as “higher criticism” which attacked the authority of the Bible.

As a result Conservative Christianity believed that it had to make a choice between the Bible and Science and it chose the Bible, and from this came Fundamentalism. On the other hand Liberal Christianity looked at the same situation and decided to choose Science, and out of this came Modernism.

While I reject Fundamentalism, I also reject Modernism too. This is a false choice between the Bible and Science and the people who refuse to make it are the ones who are faithful.

God is not looking for people with right knowledge, even though knowledge is undoubtedly important. God is looking for people with the right relationship to God and to others.

Conservative evangelicals confuse “theology” with faith. Having a conservative theology is not having faith in God. Trusting is Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior is having faith in God and this is a relational matter, which is also made evident by a caring relationship with others.

Enns points out that evangelicals base their salvation on this kind of right knowledge found in the Bible. This is false faith because we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, not the Bible. It should be pointed out that many Liberals find their faith in science and good worksism, which also has some merit, but is not the Christian gospel.

One of the points that Mark Noll makes is the acceptance of the Univocal Meaning of words as opposed to the allegorical meaning of communication, which was accepted by both science and conservative Christians. That is what they mean when they talk about the literal meaning of the Bible.

They accepted the false dichotomy as did most people that something was fact or myth. The difference was that they believed that the whole Bible was fact, while other believed that the whole Bible was myth. Again those who accepted a middle position that the Bible included a whole range of truth, allegory and fact are more nearly correct, even if “theologically” wrong.

Univocalism means that conservatives must use the Bible as a Book of science. Univocalism confuses the Word of God with the word of God.

One aspect of this problem that Noll did not bring up is Relativism. Relativism is part of the postmodern world. Relativism has been justified by in the minds of many by Einstein’s Theory of Relativism. Relativism is anathema to conservative Christianity WITH GOOD REASON. Relativism has been accepted by many liberal Christians. If Enns rejects the absolution nature of knowledge, he could be guilty of theological relativism.

However there is a way to reconcile liberalism with liberalism by pointing out the relational nature of God, humans, and the universe…

Oh yes, I wasn’t trying to imply that conservative Evangelicalism doesn’t deserve to be raked over the coals in some areas, I just think you should major on the majors. Mishandling theological issues with tenured professors would make my list of majors. I didn’t even have Enns in mind with the “petty grievance” comment, it was more a general frustration with the post-Evangelical, anti-fundamentalist, hipster crowd. I grew up in a very liberal area and worked most of my adult life with a pretty liberal crowd, so I am a bit jaded to the other side of the spectrum too. (And my Evangelical experience was tempered by the fact that my church growing up was pretty diverse politically, socio-economically, and even theologically, and it was not very authoritarian or legalistic at all.) When all these wide-eyed young adults discover that their right-wing Evangelical/Fundamentalist background isn’t the only game in town, I have found there is often a steep pendulum swing to an equally uncritical embracing of whatever the left has to sell, which is irritating. It’s not like the religious right has a monopoly on hypocrisy and judgmentalism and sacred cows, you can find plenty of that stuff in the NPR granola crowd too. This is totally a tangent from Pete Enns, though he is quite the hero among the ex-Evangelicals of that group.

I think there is definitely a sense among many more free thinking Christian academics that the last decade has seen an increasing level of fear and boundary vigilance in Evangelical institutions, and there is a bit of a turf war going on over who gets to define the center and who gets to police the borders.


Bruce Benson had a good post on the perceived move back toward fundamentalism in evangelical colleges of late. (My husband took philosophy from him at Wheaton, before he mysteriously disappeared…) I think it is this kind of academic climate that Enns and others are right to critique.

[quote] So one needs to know the culture of the institution in order to know how its principal documents have been interpreted and what the entailments are as a result. But then we are right back to the situation found on secular campuses, namely that there are unwritten codes about what you can and cannot say. Since they are unwritten, a faculty member has to figure them out by asking colleagues (who may or may not be forthcoming, often out of fear). So, not only is discussion limited by explicit statements, it is likewise limited by all of the implicit statements that go along with them. And one may not find out what those implicit statements actually are until one has already said something that conflicts with them. But by then it may be too late. If you add into the equation that the doctrinal statements of most evangelical colleges take quite a lot off of the table for discussion to begin with, then it is hard to think that evangelical colleges really have as much intellectual freedom as might be ideally desired for an academic institution, regardless of its religious affiliation

…Still, my question boils down to this: are evangelical colleges at risk of sliding from neo-evangelicalism to something like “neo-fundamentalism”? In other words, are evangelical colleges (or perhaps evangelicals in general) making a retreat from the world and embracing a new sort of solitude?..I’m not asking whether evangelical colleges are explicitly moving to neo-fundamentalism. Instead, I’m asking whether, given the ways in which they are responding to the world around them, neo-fundamentalism is actually the direction they are heading even without realizing it or intending to do so. Further, and perhaps this is where the real rubber meets the road, if they are sliding toward neo-fundamentalism, does this mean that they are becoming culturally irrelevant as a result?[/quote]

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zThis is also exactly the type of thing that faculty tenure is supposed to help deal with: taking unwarranted pressures off of the professor so that they can then presumably pursue intellectual inquiry with greater freedom. But do private and/or religious higher education institutions do this “tenure thing” in the same way? Apparently not —or else maybe all these folks in question (or who “mysteriously disappear”) just weren’t yet in that privileged category.

The other side of the question (when tenure protects activities that most agree don’t deserve such protection) is also a live one. Are there legitimately quarantined intellectual explorations that we ought to be scanning the horizons for and maintaining vigilance against at a Christian institution? And if so, who gets to decide what qualifies? The devil is certainly in that little detail!

This can’t be anything new, though, perhaps the fervor surrounding it is. I remember my own dad entertaining comments from one of his own friends (some forty years ago maybe) about how a certain “liberal” college nearby was poking and prodding Christian faith and entertaining radical ideas in ways that it shouldn’t. And he did have an interest since my sister was attending there. But I don’t remember him (or anybody else) making noise about trying to get people fired or get the college to tighten up. I’ll bet those pressures were there, though; I wouldn’t have been privy to them as a child at the time. Some people are more activist about these things --and when they have these same inclinations, then trouble is brewing. But if it is their money (be it tuition or donation) that supports said institution, it could hardly be expected that such moneys have no strings attached.

What a dilemma!

Reminds me of the time Descartes went into a bar. The bartender asked if he wanted a drink. He replied, “I think not” and disappeared.

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Al, I did find the hymn and enjoyed it very much. I was struggling to follow the lyrics with my NASV until I noticed you put them in your post. Very well done. It might be worthwhile to put the lyrics as sung on the Youtube page, since lots of people are like me in having trouble sorting out lyrics as I hear them.

I read this three times, but I finally got it. HA! (It’s been a long week.)