Tag Archives: benefit of the doubt

Benefit of the Doubt

http://www.amazon.com/Benefit-Doubt-Breaking-Idol-Certainty/dp/0801014921/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1378440591&sr=8-1&keywords=Faith%2C+Doubt%2C+and+the+idol+of+certaintyGreg 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.


Q&A with Pastor Greg Boyd, Part III

Greg Boyd is co-founder of Woodland Hills Church, an evangelical fellowship in St. Paul. He is also president of ReKnew.org. Greg is a pastor, theologian, and author of more than a dozen academic and popular books.

I have been personally challenged, encouraged, and inspired by Greg’s work for many years now. So, I asked Greg if he would share his Kingdom vision with my readers. He was gracious enough to answer some of my questions about his ministry at Woodland Hills and talk about his upcoming books.

It’s my desire that you will find Greg’s ministry intellectually honest and spiritually refreshing in today’s fractured and dry evangelicalism.

Did you read Q&A with Pastor Greg Boyd, Part I and Part II?

This is the final installment in a three-part interview.


Greg, before your massive Crucifixion of the Warrior God with IVP comes out, I’m told you have another smaller worker coming out with Baker called Benefit of the Doubt: Dismantling the Idol of Certainty.

What is the release date for this book?

Greg: I believe it’s scheduled for Spring of 2013.

What led you to write this book?

Greg: A number of factors led me to write this book. First, I find that most people today hold to a concept of faith that assumes that a person’s faith is as strong as they are certain and free of doubt.

So in this model, certainty is a supreme virtue and doubt is the enemy. This prevalent model is wreaking havoc with people’s heads and with the church!

For example, several months ago a lady came up to me after church and told me that, while she loves Jesus and believes the Bible is the Word of God, she struggles with some of its violent stories. They don’t seem to be something God would inspire. She was worried that her doubts were causing her to lose her salvation.

I met a couple last year who wondered if the reason their daughter wasn’t healed was because they “lacked faith” when they prayed — meaning, they couldn’t make themselves certain their daughter would for sure be healed when they prayed. Think what a burden that would be to carry around!

This idea that your faith is as strong as you are free of doubt is a form of psychological torture for some people!

On top of this, this model of faith encourages people to TRY to make themselves certain and to TRY not to doubt, which in turn creates a culture of closed-minded people who view challenges to their faith as threats and who are afraid of reading books or listening to speakers who might challenge their views. (With heaven and hell riding on how certain you remain, why would you risk being open-minded?).

I’m convinced this is one of the reasons Barna’s research shows that Evangelicals have a reputation for being intolerant and ignorant.

Another negative aspect of the equation of faith with feeling certain is that it presupposes a strange, if not malevolent, picture of God. I have always wondered what it was about “faith” (understood as striving for certainty) that made God value it so highly.

Why would God leverage salvation or a daughter’s healing on the degree to which a person can convince him or herself that something is true? What is virtuous about this? In fact, what is rational about this, for rational people usually allow the strength of evidence and the persuasiveness of arguments determine their degree of certainty for a particular belief?

The ability to make yourself feel certain about a belief for which there is insufficient evidence and argumentation is an ability that simple people and delusional people tend to possess while people who are rational or naturally skeptical tend to lack. This difference is natural because people simply possess different sorts of minds.

But why would God leverage everything in favor of simple and delusional people and be so prejudiced against grounded, inquisitive or skeptical people? And what kind of God would put parents in a position where the fate of their daughter is dependent on how certain they can make themselves feel that their daughter will be healed? It’s cruel!

Over the years I have grown increasingly suspicious that there was something “off” with this wide-spread model of faith. And my research over the years increasingly confirmed my suspicion.

As I argue in Benefit of the Doubt, the contemporary model of faith is very different from the way Scripture understands faith.

The modern concept of faith is a PSYCHOLOGICAL concept, while the biblical model is COVENANTAL.

Faith in Scripture isn’t about striving for certainty: it’s about being willing to commit to a course of action — to a way of living — in the face of uncertainty. And while the modern concept makes people run away from doubt, the biblical model encourages us to embrace it.

Another thing that motivated me to write this book is that I’m deeply grieved by the astounding number of young people — especially college kids —  who are walking away from the faith because they become convinced that it is no longer tenable.

So far as I can see, the main reason this is happening is that young Evangelicals are taught to embrace their faith as a sort of “package deal.” To be a Christian means you have to hold a an assortment of different beliefs, as though each were equally important.

I call this way of embracing faith a “house of cards” model of theology. If one card gets knocked out, the whole edifice of faith comes crashing down.

This model was tenable in the past when a Christian could live most of their life and never confront sincere and informed people of other faiths or never have to confront serious objections to their faith. But it is no longer tenable in the world we live in today, a world that is much smaller, much more complex and much more ambiguous than the world people lived in up until fifty to a hundred years ago.

This is why the “house of cards” theology forces many to leave the faith.

I had a discussion on a plane with a guy several months ago who told me he was forced to conclude Christianity wasn’t true while taking a course on the Bible in a secular university. A book he was assigned to read presented archeological evidence that convinced him the story of God’s people conquering the promised land was not historical.

I asked him, “Why on earth did you reject a relationship with Jesus because of that?” His response was that he had always assumed that believing every story in Scripture was divinely inspired and historically accurate was simply part of what it meant to be a Christian.

I include a lot of personal stories in Benefit of the Doubt, one of which is my loss of faith in college. I had the same “house of cards” experience as this man. According to the teaching I’d been given in the Pentecostal Church I was “saved” in,  the first two chapters of Genesis had to be scientifically accurate or, as one preacher put it, the whole Bible is a book of lies.

Unfortunately, my first course in college was a class on evolutionary biology. I fought hard to defend my faith by reading every book I could find on creationism, but it wasn’t long before I felt I had no choice but to concede there was at least some truth to the theory of evolution.

Consequently, I rejected the Christian faith and thereby embarked on the most existentially excruciating year of my life before I began to slowly work my way back into a much less rigid form of Christianity.

In Benefit of the Doubt, I offer people an alternative to the “house of cards” way of embracing faith. It’s a flexible model in which (among other things) our faith isn’t leveraged on the historicity of every particular story, or any particular story of the Bible.

In fact, in the model I propose, the intellectual foundation of our faith isn’t rooted in Scripture, but in the historical Jesus, based on what I believe are strong historical-critical considerations.

Hence, in the model I propose, one can feel comfortable entertaining doubts about every belief they have, so long as they are sufficiently convinced of the Lordship of Christ (based on considerations I prove in the book) to commit to acting in a certain way – viz. to living as though Jesus is Lord, which includes cultivating a relationship with him.

How is this book on faith and doubt different from other books on the subject?

Greg: At the risk of sounding immodest, I believe there are four things that sets Benefit of the Doubt apart from other books that address faith and doubt.

  1. Benefit of the Doubt exposes the unbiblical, irrational and idolatrous nature of the certainty-seeking faith that most people embrace today in a way that has not been done before.
  2. I am not aware of any book that fleshes out the biblical nature of faith the way I do in Benefit of the Doubt.
  3. This book is very unique in the way it empowers readers to cultivate an intellectually grounded, confident, vibrant relationship with Christ while embracing doubt about any number of beliefs.
  4. And finally, not only does Benefit of the Doubt help readers not be afraid of doubt; it empowers them to see how doubt can and should play a positive role in their life.

David: You have recently presented the basic message of this book to Woodland Hills as you finished the first draft.

How have the folks at Woodland Hills responded to this message?

Greg: The feedback I’ve gotten from both the attenders and the podritioners (our 10-15,000 weekly podcasters) of Woodland Hills Church has been simply overwhelming. Many have found my way of reframing faith and doubt to be absolutely liberating.

In fact, I’ve had a dozen or so people tell me that the way of embracing faith that I propose has been a life-line that has kept them from losing their faith.

From the feedback I’ve received, it seems the most important distinctive of my approach has been the way it shifts the intellectual foundation of the faith from the Bible to the historical Jesus.

I encourage people to not believe in Jesus because they believe in the Bible, but to believe in the Bible because they believe in Jesus.

In my view, the Bible is inspired to serve as the foundation for what we believe, but it was never intended to be the foundation for why we believe.

In my view, the Bible is far too vulnerable to serve as this foundation. That is, there are far too many problematic aspects to Scripture to make our faith dependent on this book.

It should never be the case that a person’s faith hangs in the balance on whether or not (for example) the conquest narratives are anchored in history, or whether or not the story about Samson is historical or legend (or a thousand other disputed aspects of Scripture).

By contrast, the case for believing that the historical Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God is very compelling (on this issue, see P. Eddy, G. Boyd, The Jesus Legend [Baker, 2007).

When a person’s faith depends on Scripture, every one of Scriptures problematic features becomes all-important and the foundation of their faith is constantly vulnerable as a result.

But when a person’s faith depends only on the historical Jesus, the problematic aspects of Scripture become irrelevant.

From the feedback I’ve gotten, this has been the most liberating aspect of my model of faith. My prayer is that many others will find that Benefit of the Doubt helps them cultivate a vibrant, Christ-centered faith in our increasing complex, ambiguous and doubt-filled world.

David: Thanks, Greg! I appreciate you taking the time to share.


If you would like to hear more from Greg Boyd, check out his website & blog and sermons! Interested in his books? See his collection of academic and popular writings at Amazon. Thanks for reading!

D.D. Flowers, 2012.

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