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Faith, Doubt & the Idol of Certainty

Greg Boyd has a new book being published this month. It’s called Benefit of the Doubt: Breaking the Idol of Certainty (Baker Books, 2013). I’ll be reviewing the book in a couple of weeks. Stay tuned if you’re interested.

Greg’s ministry ReKnew is putting together its second event this year. This time it is to engage with the issues raised in his new book. Mark your calendars. On September 27-28th at Woodland Hills Church, ReKnew is hosting Faith, Doubt & the Idol of Certainty Conference.

Here’s what ReKnew previously posted on the book and conference:

Based on Greg Boyd’s new book, Benefit of the Doubt, Greg invites you to embrace a faith that doesn’t strive for certainty, but rather for commitment in the midst of uncertainty. Instead of assuming that your faith is as strong as it is certain, discover how your doubts can enhance faith and how seeking certainty is harming many in today’s church. Wrestle with your faith and experience a life-transforming relationship with Christ, even with unresolved questions about the Bible, theology, and ethics.

You may remember that ReKnew put on their first ever conference this past April in St. Paul. I was able to attend Open 2013 and connect with many like-minded folks. It was a great weekend!

If you’re looking to getaway for a stimulating conference, don’t miss this opportunity. You won’t be disappointed. Listen to Greg talk about the upcoming Faith, Doubt & the Idol of Certainty Conference.

Click here for more information and to register for the conference.

D.D. Flowers, 2013.

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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.

Q&A with Pastor Greg Boyd, Part I

Greg Boyd received his Ph. D. from Princeton Theological Seminary (1988), his M.Div. from Yale Divinity School (1982) and his B.A. from the University of Minnesota (1979). He was a professor of theology for 16 years at Bethel University (St. Paul, MN).

In 1992, Greg co-founded 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.

Some of his books include, Letters From a Skeptic: A Son Wrestles with His Father’s Questions about ChristianityThe Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus TraditionIs God to Blame?: Moving Beyond Pat Answers to the Problem of Evil, and the best-selling book The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power Is Destroying the Church, which led to a New York Times front-page article and several television interviews.

In 2010, Greg was listed as one of the twenty most influential Christian scholars alive today. He continues to challenge evangelicals with his theological ideas and Kingdom vision. His work is an inspiration to those evangelicals that believe a revolution is needed in the church.

Greg is a pioneering Christian intellectual and church practitioner. He is helping to bridge the gaps between the church & academy, faith & reason, theology & science, as well as confession & mission.

I asked Greg if he would be willing to 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.

The Q&A will come in three parts. Enjoy!

Hey Greg, thank you for taking time out to talk about your ministry at Woodland Hills, and to give us a sneak peak of your two upcoming books.

I must say that I’ve been personally impacted by the work you’re doing in the church today, and I think many evangelicals need to hear and understand your vision for the Kingdom of God.

I recently featured your book The Myth of a Christian Nation in a blog series of five books offering a new Vision for 21st Century Evangelicalism. Your 2004 sermon series The Cross & the Sword was the foundation for this book.

What is the core message you set forth in your sermons and in your book? 

Greg Boyd: Thanks for the invitation to dialogue, David. I appreciate your passion for the Kingdom and your desire to see Evangelicalism freed from its cultural imprisonment.

Well, the core message of my sermon series and book is simply that the Kingdom of God is not merely the best version of the kingdoms of this world. It’s a Kingdom that is “not of this world,” as Jesus said (Jn 18:36).

As the incarnation of God, Jesus perfectly modeled what it looks like for God to reign over a person’s life. So you can always tell where the Kingdom is present, because it always looks like Jesus.

Individuals and groups under the reign of God manifest the kind of humble, self-sacrificial love that Jesus demonstrated in his life, and especially in his death, when he freely offered himself up on behalf of the very people who crucified him, praying for their forgiveness with his last breath.

To the extent that individuals and groups lovingly sacrifice for others the way Jesus did, the Kingdom is present. To the extent that they don’t, it’s not. It’s really that simple.

Obviously, no nation, government and political party has ever looked anything like this. Indeed, given the power-dynamics of our fallen world, I don’t believe any nation, government or political party ever COULD look like this. And this is why we should never identify any nation, government or political party as being the kingdom of God, or even as a means of bringing about the Kingdom of God.

It’s also why we should never think any nation, government or political party is more “Christian” than another.

The Kingdom that Jesus inaugurated is altogether unique, and I believe that everything hangs upon God’s people keeping it unique, set apart, or “holy.”  The minute we start associating the Kingdom with nations, governments or politics, we water it down and compromise its distinctive beauty.

It’s my conviction that the job of Kingdom people is to live a Jesus-looking life that CONTRASTS with the world and thereby offers people who have open hearts an ALTERNATIVE to all the kingdoms of this world.

How has Woodland Hills Church changed as a result of this message? 

Greg Boyd: It seems to me that Woodland Hills turned a corner when I first preached the “Cross and the Sword” series.

While we lost around a thousand people as a result of this series, it helped us acquire a sharper vision of the Jesus-looking Kingdom we are called to be citizens and ambassadors of.

We’ve thus grown increasingly aware of how thoroughly American Christianity has been co-opted by American culture and how radically different the Kingdom is from what most Americans identify as the “Church.” Along the same lines…

we’ve come to a greater realization of how challenging it is to make authentic disciples out of American church attenders. 

This has in turn motivated us to explore strategies to help people wake up to the way they’ve been conditioned by things such as the individualism, consumerism, materialism, hedonism and triumphalism of American culture.

And its motivated us to put in place courses to walk people through this process and eventually get them plugged into missional Kingdom communities in which they worship, minister and share life with others in meaningful ways.

I’d also add that over the last five years Woodland Hills has increasingly come to see itself as a resource center for individuals and groups around the world who are waking up to this distinctive vision of the Kingdom.

So what would you say to those who are worried about the outcome of the presidential election?

Greg Boyd: I’d simply encourage them to place their trust where their trust ought to be: in JESUS. He is the King of all kings and the Lord of all Lords, and his Kingdom will last forever and ever!

Presidents, political parties, governments and nations come and go, but Jesus “is the same, yesterday, today and forever.”

While we should expect pagans to think that the future of the world is in their hands — this is why they seize whatever power they can to try to control how things unfold — children of God are called to place their trust completely in him and to aspire to be faithful to his call.

We are called to crucify ourselves, which means we are to die to living out of our own self-interest, and instead seek only to love, serve, and bless all people, including our enemies.

So long as we think it is UP TO US to fix the world, we can never love and bless those who oppose us.

Only when we realize that we are called to be faithful in living a Jesus-looking life while leaving all outcomes to God can love our enemies and refrain from violence the way Jesus commanded us to (Lk 6:27-35).

Q&A with Pastor Greg Boyd, Part II

D.D. Flowers, 2012.

Greg Boyd on Faith & Politics

Greg Boyd received his Ph. D. from Princeton Theological Seminary (1988), his M.Div. from Yale Divinity School (1982) and his B.A. from the University of Minnesota (1979). He was a professor of theology for 16 years at Bethel University (St. Paul, MN).

He is the founder and senior pastor of Woodland Hills Church, an evangelical church in St. Paul.

In 2004, Boyd preached a seriers of sermons called the Cross & the Sword that resulted in his book, The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Politics is Destroying the Church (Zondervan, 2006).

Woodland Hills lost about 1,000 members due to Boyd’s sermon series. But Boyd’s vision for the Kingdom of God has since gained an even larger audience. Here is Boyd in a CNN interview explaining his views.

Do you agree or disagree with Boyd? Do you see a problem with how the church has fused her faith with politics? What sort of changes does the church need to make in the future if she is to remain faithful to Jesus’ vision for the Kingdom of God?

D.D. Flowers, 2012.

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