Greg Boyd sent me a copy of his most recent book, Benefit of the Doubt: Breaking the Idol of Certainty (Baker Books, 2013). Thanks, Greg!
The book came out in September and I finished it last month. I apologize for the delay on the review. I’ve been trying to keep up with reading, writing, daddy duties, and preparing to move across the country. It’s a challenging time right now.
If you follow the blog, you know that Greg is a friend and mentor of mine. So, I’m a little biased. I’ve read almost everything he’s written, and I’m a faithful podritioner at whchurch.org.
However, no matter how I might feel about someone, I always try to read with an open heart and mind. If anything, my relationship with any author simply means that there is a level of experience and trust there that allows me to more easily consider new ideas, while still being able to read critically.
I never always agree with everything anyone says. Unless it’s Jesus, of course. But I have found that I agree with Greg on many things.
This book is no exception.
Here is the publisher’s summary of the book:
“In Benefit of the Doubt, influential theologian, pastor, and bestselling author Gregory Boyd invites readers to embrace a faith that doesn’t strive for certainty, but rather for commitment in the midst of uncertainty. Boyd rejects the idea that a person’s faith is as strong as it is certain. In fact, he makes the case that doubt can enhance faith and that seeking certainty is harming many in today’s church. Readers who wrestle with their faith will welcome Boyd’s message that experiencing a life-transforming relationship with Christ is possible, even with unresolved questions about the Bible, theology, and ethics. Boyd shares stories of his own painful journey, and stories of those to whom he has ministered, with a poignant honesty that will resonate with readers of all ages.”
I didn’t realize how much I needed this book. Not only does Greg speak to my own experiences of shifting beliefs, and agonizing doubt about a number things over the years, it also makes sense of the certainty-seeking faith held by others close to me who think I’ve gone off the deep end.
Greg says that many Christians think faith is feeling certain about everything, therefore doubt is the enemy of faith. These folks can’t handle any ambiguity. Doubt is sin. Everything in the Bible is black and white.
Those with certainty-seeking faith get their life from feeling certain about right beliefs. Greg believes that their salvation is even wrapped up and hinges on believing the right things, and feeling certain about them.
“Believing that one’s salvation depends on remaining sufficiently certain about right beliefs can cause people to fear learning things that might make them doubt the rightness of their beliefs. It thus creates a learning phobia that in turn leads many to remain immature in their capacity to objectively, calmly, and lovingly reflect on and debate their beliefs.” p.76
Having grown up among conservative evangelicals in the South, this is something I’ve seen over and over again. The very people who say they want to learn seem almost incapable of processing anything that challenges or contradicts what they were taught and believe in their church.
Greg says that certainty-seeking faith is a self-serving quest. He writes, “Though certainty-seeking believers claim to care about believing the truth, they are actually only concerned with enjoying the secure feeling of being certain while avoiding the pain of doubt” (p.52).
Benefit of the Doubt is an honest glimpse into Greg’s own journey of faith and doubt. He talks about how he was an atheist as a teenager, came to Christ in a fundamentalist church, lost his certainty-seeking faith in college, and discovered a faith built on the foundation of a living Christ.
Greg learned to embrace doubt as a part of a covenantal (relationship based) faith with Christ. Ultimately, biblical faith is found in a person, not in any particular belief found in or about the Bible.
He writes, “The all-important center of the Christian faith is not anything we believe; it’s the person of Jesus Christ, with whom we are invited to have a life-giving relationship.” He goes on to say, “Rather than believing in Jesus because I believe the Bible to be the inspired Word of God, as evangelicals typically do, I came to believe the Bible was the inspired Word of God because I first believe in Jesus” (p.159).
Greg is calling for a restructuring—a new model of faith. He calls it the “Concentric Circles” paradigm (Figure 8.1 on pg. 171).
At the center is belief in Jesus Christ, the first circle is dogma (what has traditionally been understood as orthodox Christianity), the second is doctrine (different ways the church has interpreted dogma), and the third outer ring is the realm of opinion (different ways of interpreting doctrine).
“Identifying the center as the intellectual foundation of the faith, and sole source of life, and by distinguishing it from all other beliefs, this model allows hungry people to enter a relationship with Christ and participate in the life he gives without requiring them to first resolve a single other issue.” p.173
Greg believes this model “creates space for people to think on their own” and that it does so “without watering down the traditional definition of historic-orthodox Christianity.” Doubt is allowed, even beneficial.
Yes, but what about all of the verses that seem to make doubt an enemy of faith (e.g. John 20:27; Mark 11:23; James 1:6; etc.)? Greg addresses each verse that has been used to uphold the certainty-seeking model of faith.
“You may end up disagreeing with me, which is fine, but your convictions will be more refined and stronger for having done so. On the other hand, you may end up embracing a kind of faith that is more secure precisely because it is free of the need to feel certain. You may discover a way of exercising faith that is more vibrant precisely because it empowers you to fearlessly question, to accept ambiguity, and to embrace doubt. And you may end up agreeing with me that this way of doing faith is not only more plausible in our contemporary world and more effective in advancing the kingdom, but it is also more biblical.” p.32
If you feel beaten down, overwhelmed, or turned off by certainty-seeking faith, and you want to understand how doubt is an essential part of real covenantal faith, I highly recommend reading Benefit of the Doubt.
What Others Are Saying
Here is what others (that I respect & trust) have written:
“If you’re a Christian who wrestles with doubt or you know someone who does, Benefit of the Doubt is one of the best books ever written on the subject.”–Frank Viola, author of God’s Favorite Place on Earth; blogger at www.frankviola.org
“Benefit of the Doubt is a deeply personal yet profoundly theological look at the important role of doubt in the Christian faith. Prepare to feel a little less crazy, a little less alone, and a lot more challenged to take the risk of following Jesus with your head and heart engaged. Boyd is the best sort of company for the journey.”–Rachel Held Evans, blogger at www.rachelheldevans.com; author of Evolving in Monkey Town and A Year of Biblical Womanhood
“If you ever wrestle with an inner skeptic (like me) or regularly interact with skeptics, this book offers hugely helpful insight into the benefits of doubt and how to leverage doubt in deepening our trust in God. I predict many people who read Benefit of the Doubt will find it profoundly life-changing.” –Bruxy Cavey, teaching pastor, The Meeting House; author of The End of Religion; www.bruxy.com
“Boyd has gotten used to exploring new territory, and in this book he dives into the issue of doubt and certainty–and recovers the lost treasure of Christlike humility and childlike wonder. Enjoy.”–Shane Claiborne, author, activist, and lover of Jesus; www.thesimpleway.org
That’s plenty of reason to read this book!
* Listen to Greg’s interview on the very funny, The Drew Marshall Show.
D.D. Flowers, 2013.
November 14th, 2013 at 7:26 am
Yeah, I agree wholeheartedly! Have been slowly reading it for a couple of weeks now.
November 14th, 2013 at 8:33 am
Thanks for your insightful review. I’ve been wanting to get this book, and seeing this review prompted me to move from “wanting” to “doing!” 🙂
November 14th, 2013 at 10:13 am
Awesome! I’ve succeeded. 🙂
November 14th, 2013 at 9:58 am
“idol of certainty?” This feels like a straw man argument. I am a conservative evangelical in the south, and I am not really comprehending the argument Boyd is making. (I don’t appreciate the shot at us, either.)
For example, the following quote seems to be a distinction without a difference: “Rather than believing in Jesus because I believe the Bible to be the inspired Word of God, as evangelicals typically do, I came to believe the Bible was the inspired Word of God because I first believe in Jesus” We would know very little about Jesus without the Bible, so coming to know Him requires a level of trust in the Scriptures as God’s Word to us. I get the “preaching value” of saying, “I believed in Jesus,” but do you really know Him without the Bible? No.
Dealing with doubt and uncertainty and our finiteness is certainly an important part of a life of faith. I just don’t see people who worship certainty.
November 14th, 2013 at 10:03 am
Sean, I was making an observation, not taking a shot at anyone. It’s true. I don’t know how you can deny that.
How is Boyd’s argument a “straw man” attack? Please explain. Are you seriously saying that people can’t know Jesus apart from the Bible? Think about that one, bro.
November 14th, 2013 at 10:25 am
What is an example of someone worshipping certainty? I have never seen it.
Yes, I am seriously saying you can’t know Jesus without the Bible. Has he revealed Himself in dreams or visions or other ways at times? Yes, initially. But that always drives one to the Scriptures. Why are Chinese Christians willing to risk their lives for copies of the Scriptures? Because they are the testimony of the life and work of Jesus. Outside the NT and the early church fathers, there is very little known about Him. It is God’s chosen method of revelation. What are you trying to say? We can have a mystical communion with HIm without reading or knowing the Scriptures?
November 14th, 2013 at 10:30 am
Sean, do you not see the point that some folks operate out of a certainty-seeking model of faith, and that this is an idol?
I do believe Jesus can reveal himself apart from the Scriptures, but that’s not a slam against Scripture. Greg is simply attempting to put Scripture in its proper place—in subordination to the LIVING WORD, JESUS.
November 14th, 2013 at 10:40 am
No, I don’t see that. What does it look like?
Scripture’s proper place? The God-breathed Word? The law in which meditation causes us to grow like trees by the river? Subordinate is not the right word. Here is what Jesus said, “If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. But if you do not believe what he wrote, how will you believe what I say?” John 5:46-47
November 14th, 2013 at 10:48 am
Sean, in v.39 Jesus said the Scriptures speak of him, point to him, elevate him.
I’ve described some of what it looks like in my review. The book describes it in more detail. This is merely a brief review. If you want more, get the book. 🙂
November 14th, 2013 at 10:52 am
Exactly. We need the Scriptures to know Him — just like the travelers on the road to Emmaus.
I won’t be reading this any time soon. Not to be too harsh, but I haven’t liked much of anything you have posted on Pastor Boyd. I can’t agree with his theological approach.
November 14th, 2013 at 10:55 am
Sean, could it be that you are actually putting on display the very attitude Boyd challenges? Think about it. You engage in my review, and then you tell me you don’t like Greg’s theological approach, nor will you read his book? I don’t get it.
November 14th, 2013 at 12:11 pm
Well, I like you and I can make time for your blog. I have too much other reading and writing to do to add very many other things. My bar is high for adding anything. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t read someone with whom I disagree. However, I have become much more careful with my time. I could be interested in all kinds of things, but not all are equally profitable. I thank you for giving me enough information to understand this “theological oddity” of “openness” so that I can focus my energy on other things.
You know, I am still reading your recommendation of NT Wright’s book Surprised By Hope. I was very engaged with that and then got pulled away onto something else. Now, it is hard for me to re-enter his line of argument. (That’s not his problem; it’s mine.)
And, hey, if I’m the poster boy for the certainty-worshipper, well, I’ll live with it. But the more I study the Scriptures, I do learn more, but I also ask more questions. I don’t doubt God, His Word, my salvation, or any of that. But I certainly don’t claim to have all the answers. I trust Him even when I cannot see the way or the reason.
November 14th, 2013 at 12:27 pm
Thanks, Sean. I understand. And you do know I appreciate you reading my blog. 🙂
It just sounded like you were being critical when you weren’t really interested in understanding Boyd’s claims to begin with, since you already find him suspect.
November 14th, 2013 at 11:11 pm
Thanks for this review David. I really appreciate it!
November 14th, 2013 at 11:12 pm
Thanks for editing such a great book! 🙂
December 13th, 2013 at 10:29 am
I’m glad I came across your blog! Thanks for the review!
December 15th, 2013 at 3:35 am
To my delight, you referred to Greg Boyd as a mentor. Greg was my pastor while I lived in St. Paul. I love his writing…and him. He always hangs out on the speaker platform after sermons…I have sat with him several times to discuss the sermons. In 2008 God told me to go to Woodland Hills after I told Father, “I am not going to church any more until you put me where You want me…and then two months later He whispered, four days in a row, “Greg Boyd” so I made a bee line. The “eaglette” had landed.
December 15th, 2013 at 9:34 am
Thanks for sharing that, Lindy!