The Sin of Certainty is a confessional book about how biblical scholar Peter Enns came to understand “belief” and “faith” less in terms of facts and knowledge, and more in terms of trust and love. Many Christians, Enns says, place being “correct” about God at the center of faith, which sets them on a shaky foundation that sometimes results in crisis and loss of that very belief. Enns speaks from personal experience here. He’s encountered what he calls “uh-oh moments,” times when what he thought he knew no longer seemed viable in the least. Such moments may be God’s way of inviting us to a more nuanced, closer relationship, breaking down the barriers of certainty in order to let faith flourish within our messy human lives:
“I feel it is part of the mystery of faith that things normally do not line up entirely, and so when they don’t, it is not a signal to me that the journey is at an end but that I am still on it” (154).
Like his previous book which I reviewed here, The Sin of Certainty is very conversational in tone. Its nine chapters are divided up into sections with pithy titles like “Thanks for Nothing, Walt Disney,” “Parts of the Bible We Don’t Read In Church (But Should),” and “Ever Have One of Those Decades?” The often meandering chapters exemplify the unsettled seeking many people undergo as they reevaluate their faith. But the book has an underlying structure that can be divided roughly into three parts (which tend to intermingle throughout): history, exegesis, and theology.
First, history. Enns describes how Christians became preoccupied by correct thinking through the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with the rise of Darwinism and biblical criticism, things that rocked status quo ideas about Christianity. Enns describes but doesn’t debunk particular criticisms here, explaining that to offer quick answers risks rescuing our misplaced certainty with more misplaced certainty (150). He wants to help readers understand faith more in terms of trust, to “decouple our faith in God from our thoughts about God. That way faith doesn’t rest on correct thinking” (16). Not that the content of our faith is unimportant:
“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” (22).
“Belief and faith always have content—a what. But a faith that looks like what the Bible describes is rooted deeply in trust in God (rather than ourselves) and in faithfulness to God by being humbly faithful to others (as the Father and Son have been faithful to us). That’s basically it—though it’s anything but easy” (115. See also the section on p. 187, “Honoring Your Head Without Living In It”).
When certainty is privileged, people become tense about their beliefs, over-protective, and some begin to rigidly police the beliefs of others. By contrast, Enns says strong faith is not faith free of uncertainty, but rather a resolved willingness to keep seeking, learning, and growing (25).
Next, exegesis. Enns discovers in the Bible—especially the Hebrew Bible, his specialty—passages that model a faith that isn’t rooted in certainty or knowledge. The preacher in Ecclesiastes, many of the Psalms, Job, and other passages are highlighted where people express doubt and even anger toward God. The Bible, Enns argues, models a complex variety of approaches to faith. This takes pressure off today’s believers who otherwise feel they must be certain and dogmatic in order to justify their beliefs:
“Feeling like God is far away, disinterested, or dead to you is part of our Bible and can’t be brushed aside. And that feeling—no matter how intense it may be, and even offensive as it may seem—is never judged, shamed, or criticized [in the Bible] by God” (60).
Enns’s exegesis helps him discover different voices in the Bible, making room for a variety of experiences—including frustration and doubt—within the life of faith, in the experiences of believers. “The Bible,” he writes, “is less an instruction manual and more an internal dialogue, even debate, among people of faith about just who this God is they are dealing with” (70). Enns says he didn’t hear nearly enough of this in his years at church.
Finally, drawing on the New Testament Enns outlines a theology of faith patterned after the death and resurrection of Christ. Paul speaks of believers dying to themselves and being raised in Christ, of being “conformed to the image of God’s son” (Romans 8.29). Jesus speaks of taking up one’s cross and following him (a cross is something you die on, Enns says, it’s not just a weight exercise). Enns suggests that for many people, faith itself undergoes this transition of death and resurrection repeatedly: “Doubt signals that this process of dying and rising is underway.” For many, it happens naturally. People don’t need to seek it out; doubt isn’t “cool, hipster, or chic. Doubt isn’t a new source of pride…Doubt is sacred,” an instrument God may use to pull a believer away from their misconceptions, a way to teach Christians how to reach out to each other with greater love and support (164).
The book concludes with personal stories of Enns wrestling with family problems and work difficulties over the past decade or so, a period when in the midst of his own crushing doubt he discovered deeply rooted Christian thinking about God’s absence, about the “dark night of the soul.” The believer’s time of despair is like Christ crying out on the cross, “Father, why have you forsaken me?” Paul tells believers they’ll “share in Christ’s sufferings” (Philippians 3.10), and that in suffering with him “we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8.17). While Enns acknowledges there are greater and lesser degrees of suffering in the world and that doubts don’t take top billing, it provides an opportunity to commune with Jesus in a way that will ultimately turn our hearts outward to others who are in pain:
“When we are in despair or fear and God is as far away from us as the most distant star in the universe, we are at that moment ‘with’ Christ more than we know—and perhaps more than we ever have been—because when we suffer, we share in and complete Christ’s sufferings” (200).
The Sin of Certainty is a much-needed and striking critique of contemporary Christian culture. It has a lot to offer Mormons who similarly prize certainty, though not always about the same things as our Christian counterparts. (Patrick Mason’s Planted: Belief and Belonging in an Age of Doubt is a helpful LDS companion to Enns’s book. Full disclosure: I edited that one.) Enns’s book is an invitation to re-center one’s faith. If believers place trust in the image of God they have in their own minds, they risk creating an idol that overshadows the true and living God who is knowable in part, but who is ultimately beyond any human’s full comprehension. Remaining open to that living God requires an extraordinary amount of trust, but learning to exercise this kind of trust is the only way to stop committing the “sin of certainty.”
P.S.— Listen to my MIPodcast interview with Enns about his previous book The Bible Tells Me So here. I’ll talk with him about The Sin of Certainty in an upcoming episode.