“The need for certainty,” writes Biblical scholar and professor Pete Enns, “is sin, because it works off of fear and limits God to our mental images. We’re trusting ourselves and disguising it as trusting God.” Enns, the author of books like Inspiration and Incarnation and The Evolution of Adam, recently spoke to a crowd gathered to hear about his latest book, The Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires Our Trust More than Our ‘Correct’ Beliefs. In the book, Enns talks about how what God really desires–trust and intimacy with us–is often thwarted by our modern, rational obsession with intellectual conviction.
At the Newbigin House of Studies, we continue to work together to create a big-tent kind of place where people of all backgrounds can come together to grapple with questions of faith. Recently, Enns came to San Francisco as part of the Newbigin Conversations for the Common Good. He spoke with Rev. Dr. Scot Sherman about the ways that our contemporary post-modern moment makes demands of our faith that might have been unrecognizable to people centuries ago. Specifically, Enns said, our modern era demands certainty in a way that can end up robbing us of the faith that God requires of us, faith in a God bigger than our own ability to understand.
Enns was quick to point out that certitude itself isn’t the problem. “Most Christians at points in our lives feel a sense of certitude, confidence in things,” he said. “The problem is when that goes away, you used to know exactly what you believe and you could explain it really well to everybody else, and then life happens, and then you’re just not sure about what you believe anymore. What do you do when that happens?”
Christians have a hard time agreeing on how we best read the Bible, Enns said, and pointed to how a handful of factors in the 19th century contributed to this variety of perspectives. First of all, the church had to contend with the scientific findings of Charles Darwin, whose theories of evolution presented a challenge to Christians who believed that God had created the world all at once, and quite recently. Secondly was the growing field of Biblical archaeology, which “unearthed creation stories from the ancient Babylonians and Assyrians and Egyptians and Canaanites that are similar,” Enns said. In other words, Genesis wasn’t without some parallels in other cultures, which unnerved some Christians. And thirdly, the work of German Biblical scholars began to show that the Old Testament was not written “way back early on in the story of Israel, but probably way later, toward the end.” Much of the Pentateuch, for example, was probably brought together around the 5th or 6th centuries BC, about 1,000 years after Moses’s existence.
“Those were difficult pills to swallow,” Enns said. “You can see camps dividing between the liberal bad guys, who were saying we have to work with this information somehow. On the other side you have the fundamentalists, who were resisting those changes. On a broad sociological level, that’s exactly the sin of certainty.”
Modern Christians, Enns argues, have spent too much time defending their own points of view about the Bible rather than understanding its cultural background. Our need to be certain has overshadowed our need to be faithful, and it is this call that The Sin of Certainty tries to make.
The conversation resonated with the crowd gathered to hear Enns, and we hope–whether you agree with Enns or not–that it resonates with you in some way, too. Consider joining us for the upcoming events in our conversation series.
Laura is a writer and editor living in San Francisco. She also works part-time at City Church SF as the communications coordinator.