Continuing my struggle through the relationship faith and doubt have, I turned my attention to Greg Boyd’s Benefit of the Doubt: Breaking the Idol of Certainty (2013). Boyd is a scholar and local pastor (in Minnesota!) who has written many books on faith. This book spends the first third poking holes at “certainty driven” faith. That is, people who are seeking absolute conviction in their belief system. He gives 9 reasons why this type of faith is damaging and unbiblical. What he believes it boils down to is this type of faith is more concerned with the feeling of rightness than seeking true faith. And when we put a feeling above truth (or anything for that matter), Boyd argues we have turned to a form of idolatry -hence the title.
He spends the next third contrasting certainty-seekers with those who accept doubt in their faith. They are ok to answer “I don’t know” to a number of questions, and they embrace doubt as an opportunity to grow rather than shun it. This is a much more biblical model of faith -highlighted in Israel’s wrestling with God (alongside the Goshen and throughout history).
The biggest difference he can find between these two approaches is the first appeals to a contractual agreement between us and God. We will believe hook, line and sinker what is taught us (and never question it) and in return God will bless us with eternal life (most expect a good life now too!) When times of difficulty arise, certainty seekers appeal to God by listing how they’ve kept their end of the bargain, and why isn’t he keeping his?
Doubt-accepters, on the other hand, don’t appeal to the contract because they know they have not kept their end. They haven’t bought into everything, so if God will only bless the “obedient” ones (i.e. total believers) they don’t stand a chance. They appeal instead to the covenant, a more relational component.
Boyd spends the majority of the book laying a groundwork for the difference between these views: contractual and covenental. For many, scripture is the foundation. Yet scripture is so vast, spanning centuries, genres, authors, cultures, etc. -including images of God. Sometimes God is seen as a warrior, a judge, a shepherd. So there are times God intentionally punishes, blesses, etc. And if the foundation of our understanding the character of God is scripture, these conflicting images will often be the sources of our confusion. For example, something bad happens to you. Is this God punishing you? Is he testing you? Is it something to learn from? Boyd counters this foundation stealing from Paul -the foundation of our faith is Christ alone. That is, the best picture we have into the heart and mind of God is in the ministry, specifically the cross, of Jesus. So there were times God revealed himself as a warrior, but his true character is a self-giving, sacrificial servant. So when those bad things happen to us, we don’t wonder if God is causing our plight because that’s not his nature. He doesn’t exist to punish us.*
Boyd’s focus on putting Christ at the center of scripture and foundation of our faith is a strong point in the book. Rather than excel at biblicism, he calls us to know the person of Christ. Scripture helps us identify his character, but it isn’t limited to scripture. He often reverts back to the metaphor of marriage to describe our relationship with God. For certain-seekers, faith is based as a contractual agreement: I will say or do the thing my church teaches is the essential thing to say or do and then I’ve got a golden ticket into heaven. You promised God! Growing a relationship, growing in faith isn’t a priority -we just want the prize at the end of the game. Rather, biblical faith is covenantal. We are connected to someone over our lifetime to grow -not just as individuals but as a committed pair to each other.
Where Boyd got a little confusing is where he strayed off topic. This is a heady book, and the three sections are connected, but the strands holding them together get pretty loose. Maybe it was all tied together and I zoned out (a real possibility), but the second and third sections unpack so much more than dealing with faith and doubt. He gives an entire new understanding of what faith in God really is. Still, it is to be commended he gave a new place to land (even if I have my doubts). It always bugs me when an author spends a whole book deconstructing something and then leaves you with a mess to clean up by yourself. Boyd challenges certainty-seeking (and doubt-shaming) by calling the church to focus more on Christ instead of biblicism. That is a strong foundation to run with.
*This is a different view from what many of us were taught: the Bible is the perfect Word of God. It has no errors and means exactly what it says. Boyd counters this with 2 points: Jesus is the Word of God, not scripture. And the Bible is perfect for what God has called it to do -that doesn’t mean it has to be historically accurate. (For another view similar to this one, look at my review of Enns’ book)