Review: Benefit of the Doubt

Benefit of the Doubt by Greg BoydIs doubt a good thing when it comes to the Christian life? Doubt seems to be in vogue in certain circles these days – uncertainty about doctrine, uncertainty about the Bible, uncertainty about all sorts of things. It’s become deeply unfashionable to be certain about anything to do with the Christian faith (well, nearly anything … in my experience of such circles a belief such as the validity of women being priests/bishops/etc is often held with as much certainty as anything I’ve ever seen).

Anyway, I’ve been wanting to blog about this subject for a while but just haven’t quite had the right opportunity. However, back in January, fellow blogger The Alethiophile asked “What to read in 2015?” and suggested a sort of exchange – if you suggested a book for him to read, he would suggest one for you to read. I suggested to him “Taking God at his Word” by Kevin DeYoung, and he suggested to me “Benefit of the Doubt” by Greg Boyd. Well, I’ve just finished reading it, and it provides the ideal opportunity to talk about doubt!

The book is subtitled “Breaking the idol of certainty”, and – as you can imagine – his contention is that doubt is actually a good and healthy thing for the Christian. What I’m going to do in this post is to review the book itself, and then follow up in the near future with a blog post about faith and doubt. [I was going to do all of this in one post, but the review went on a bit. Sorry.]

Review: Benefit of the Doubt

I’ve never read any of Greg Boyd’s works before, but I have read one or two of his blog posts as well as a Q&A with Rachel Held Evans. As that link makes clear, he is a proponent of Open Theism and that is the main context in which I’ve encountered him. As I’ve mentioned here before, at college I studied the Doctrine of God, and wrote an essay arguing against Open Theism: simply put, I don’t think it is Biblical, and in fact is even unhelpful to people pastorally.

So, to be honest with you, I came to the book with fairly low expectations. It will come as no surprise, then, that the book basically lived up to my expectations. The thing I found the hardest, in fact, was that there are some helpful things within the book – but it’s all mixed up with some of the not-so-helpful things.

Given that I don’t want this review to go on forever, I’d just like to focus on two things I had the biggest problem with:

Note: references are to the Kindle location.

Problem One: The target

It’s very clear throughout the book that Boyd has his crosshairs aimed squarely at my part of the church. He talks disparagingly about ‘conservative’ and ‘conservative evangelical’ Christians throughout the book. His big idea is that conservative Christians strive for certainty in their faith – which he defines as working oneself up to a level of certainty in a psychological sense. According to Boyd, for conservative Christians the more certain you are the more faith you have.

If the strength of your faith is measured by the intensity of your psychological certainty, then the way to increase your faith is to try to push doubt aside in order to make yourself certain. And in this sense, exercising faith is something like a psychological version of the Strength Tester game. You are, in essence, trying to hit a faith mallet as hard as you can in order to send the faith puck up the faith pole to get as close to the certainty bell as you possibly can. (315)

The key thing is, certainty comes from within. You “make yourself certain”. This certainty is achieved by brushing aside doubts and ignoring the nagging questions that you have. Boyd contends that if conservative Christians were simply to be intellectually honest and allow themselves to ask those awkward questions, they would no longer be certain:

Though the people who exercise this faith are perfectly sincere, this model of faith motivates them to engage in a form of mental trickery as they artificially try to convince themselves of certain beliefs instead of basing their level of confidence on an honest and rational evaluation of the merits of these beliefs. It also causes some to avoid, or to at least not honestly wrestle with, facts or arguments that might shake their faith. (1233)

The main reason why Boyd believes that conservative Christians psychogically suppress faith is because he himself used to believe in that certainty-seeking way, but his naturally inquisitive mind was unable to answer the nagging questions which he kept coming up against. Because of his certainty-seeking faith, when he encountered difficulties in the Bible “I would feel pressured by my belief in inspiration to spin the data in a way that would instead support the narrative’s historical accuracy.” (191)

I hope that I have been fair to the book thus far. My key problem with his approach, which I bumped up against time and time again, was that this is a faith I simply do not recognise. I would consider myself to be a naturally inquisitive kind of person – I ask the awkward questions, I’m not satisfied with a “because it just is” answer. Many of the people I went to theological college (seminary) with were the same. Recently I read a book, co-edited by a former tutor at college, called Evangelical Faith and the Challenge of Historical Criticism. They write from a conservative perspective about a number of issues related to the historicity of the Old Testament. Similarly, I’ve had to prepare a few sermons on John’s Gospel recently, and it has struck me how carefully Don Carson in his commentary examines the historical nature of what John writes (John’s Gospel is infamous for being questioned historically). In fact, any decent commentary will deal with these kinds of questions, as well as numerous books – scholarly and popular.

Please don’t misunderstand me: I’m sure that there are many people who do not ask questions of their faith, who do resemble Boyd’s version of a ‘certainty-seeking’ faith. However, the entire premise or presupposition of Boyd’s argument seems to be that there are no answers to those nagging questions. According to his view, faith which does not have a healthy dose of doubt is simply not intellectually honest.

Problem two: Faith and Doubt

The second problem I have with the book is that Boyd is not very careful with his definitions of faith and doubt. From what Boyd says, the focus of the doubt he mentions is the Old Testament – i.e. the problem that he has reconciling God as revealed in Jesus with God as revealed in the Old Testament:

When the portrait of God revealed on the cross is placed alongside portraits of God commanding his people to engage in genocide (e.g., Deut. 7:2), and of God himself engaging in brutal violence (e.g., Gen. 6:7), along with portraits of God commanding people to stone a person who gathers wood on the Sabbath (Num. 32:36), as well as adulterers (Lev. 20:10; Deut. 22:22), fornicators (Lev. 21:9; Deut. 22:13–21), homosexuals (Lev. 20:13), and even children who are stubborn or who strike or curse their parents (Exod. 21:15, 17; Lev. 20:9; Deut. 21:18–21), the composite result is a self-contradictory mental portrait of God. (2997)

What he advocates instead is a ‘covenantal’, rather than contractual, understanding of God. The ‘covenantal’ understanding basically means trust in a person rather than trust in a set of doctrines or ideas (which he argues is idolatry). Trusting in a person means that you can struggle with doubts about the Bible, but that doesn’t jeapordise your faith because your faith is in God and not in the Bible. Boyd initially starts out by looking at the story of Jacob wrestling with God and sees this as a pattern for Christian faith – trusting God while at the same time struggling with Him. Seeing faith in a covenantal way means that we no longer put our faith in the Bible, because our faith is not in a book but in a person. This is liberating:

Yet, because my faith is no longer leveraged on the perfection of this book [the Bible], I can wrestle with this material in the secure context of a covenantal committed relationship with Christ. And precisely because my source of life is found in Christ, not my beliefs about the Bible, I am free to wrestle with difficult biblical material, as well as with any other theological conundrum, in an honest fashion that does not require me to force evidence or arguments in a preconceived direction. (2642)

Once again, I hope that this is a fair summary of his argument. I have several problems with all of this:

  • I think we are presented with a false antithesis between believing in God and believing in the Bible. I don’t think I essentially disagree with the covenant / contractual thing: I don’t think God accepts me because I believe a certain number of doctrines (although I do think some things are important enough to be essential). However, the reason I trust in the Bible is because it is God’s Word! My faith in God leads me to trusting in the Word he has given us. It’s interesting that Boyd seems to be going down a ‘Jesus vs the Bible’ route which I’ve discussed before.
  • Boyd’s Biblical examination of faith leaves a lot to be desired – I think he leaves several key texts unexamined, texts which might disagree with his thesis.
  • Similarly, I think his examination of doubt from a Biblical perspective is lacking. In particular, I think Boyd doesn’t define carefully enough what doubt actually is – he simply assumes that the doubt experienced by (say) Job is the same as the doubt he experiences when looking at bits of the Old Testament.

My subsequent blog post will examine faith and doubt and where I disagree with Boyd. Keep ’em peeled.

Summary

My general feeling about the book is that it lacks the precision or carefulness that it really needed (I do appreciate that the book is written for a popular audience, it’s not a systematic theology textbook, but even given that I feel the same). My hunch is that Boyd has decided he wants to write about certainty and doubt, and then gone in search of Biblical texts which support that idea, rather than building up a theology of faith/doubt from the start. It’s interesting that the first few chapters of the book take aim at ‘certainty-seeking’ faith, before Boyd actually gets around to talking about what the Bible calls faith.

Recently the principal of my former theological college wrote a blog post about Calvin as against Calvinists (or followers of Calvin). Although it is about a different subject, he said something which strikes me as being relevant:

And I am at my most unteachable when I hold opinions so deeply I am not aware even of holding them. The most uncorrectable systematic theologian is the one who denies he or she has a systematic theology.

I don’t think Boyd would deny having a systematic theology, but the methodology he uses when it comes to reading Biblical texts doesn’t seem to involve much of a systematic framework. And it seems to me that the presuppositions which Boyd has come to the Bible with – one of which I mentioned above – have implicitly shaped his theology in this book.

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