The Case Against Certainty-Seeking Faith: Part 2

Paul McMullen —  February 7, 2017 — 1 Comment


This post continues looking at Gregory Boyd’s 9 objections to what he calls certainty-seeking faith. The bullet points below correspond with objections 7-9. Boyd takes a whole chapter to work through #9, so I’ll spend a bit more time explaining it.

The Case Against Certainty-Seeking Faith

  • Feeling over-certain in your beliefs is the cause of religious extremism and acts of violence in the name of God.

It’s an interesting point, and certainly relevant to our time. Boyd contends that this wouldn’t occur if people were more doubtful and humble. But can’t we just be humbler? Does doubt have to be the reason we don’t kill each other?

  • The end goal of certainty-seeking faith is for the believer to feel good about themselves. It’s self-serving rather than primarily concerned with truth. “The goal of believing the truth and the goal of feeling certain you already believe the truth are mutually exclusive” (pg.51). Boyd presents the case that rational pursuits of truth involve individuals weighing available evidence in a highly ambiguous, uncertain world.

I agree that the pursuit of certainty can take the place of pursuing truth itself. However, I feel Boyd discounts the role that God and other people play in the formation of our faith. He portrays the rational search for faith as an individual endeavor for evidence using one’s reason. The reality of faith is much more nuanced and is certainly dependent on others. Others shape the soil in which we respond to the evidence – as does the Holy Spirit. In which case, our faith can be more “certain” to the extent that it is relationally supported. The longer and more intimate our relationship with God, the more trusting we become of him and the more certain we are of at least some of our beliefs (e.g., God loves us). As people we look up to and trust pass along their beliefs to us, those beliefs seem more trustworthy. In fact, we believe Jesus when he says something like, “if I go to prepare a place for you, I will come back again,” because it’s Jesus saying it. If I tell my child to stop before entering the street, even if he can’t see the car that’s coming, I hope that he will trust me rather than testing my words for further evidence. Then again, I hope he will test other things I teach him so that he will have a “faith of his own.” Perhaps Boyd will examine these other facets of faith-building after he finishes making the case against certainty. 

Boyd saves his ninth objection to certainty-seeking faith for all of chapter 3. (For the sake of space, I won’t set it within a bullet-point.) Here he makes the case that this type of faith ends up being a form of idolatry. That’s right. He doesn’t just think it’s incorrect; it’s idolatrous! To get here, Boyd lays some groundwork by going back to humanity’s greatest need. He points to the German word Sehnsucht as the best attempt to describe the basic human condition. Sehnsucht, Boyd says, “expresses a deep longing or craving for something that you can’t quite identify and that always feels just out of reach” (pg., 56). Boyd clarifies that humans are looking for unconditional love, unsurpassable worth, and absolute security. These three experiences are what make us feel “fully alive” (pg. 57). And we were made for this Sehnsucht to be met by God alone through Christ.

Boyd zeroes in on the crucifixion as the ultimate place to experience this connection with God. He walks through several New Testament Scriptures and themes to make this case (cf., Romans 5:8; 1 John 3:16, 4:8; the emphasis of each of the Gospels, 1 Corinthians 2:2; see pgs.60-62).

Boyd uses the Garden of Eden story to describe idolatry as seeking life in anything other than God because we are acting on a false image of God. Eve has a false image of God because of the serpent’s lie. From that beginning, “we have all internalized lies about God that have caused us to mistrust him and therefore to look elsewhere to find life” (p.63). Idolatry can take many forms. Of particular interest, the religious leaders in Jesus’ time made biblical knowledge and orthodox belief their idol. Jesus didn’t quarrel with their orthodoxy, but with the way in which those leaders tried to find life in being correct.

“Jesus didn’t quarrel with their orthodoxy, but the way in which those leaders tried to find life in being correct.”

Boyd strikes at the heart of certainty-seeking faith when he says that “the way we believe what we believe can transform what we believe into an idol” (66). If certainty about our beliefs is our measuring stick for finding life, then we have idolized certainty about our beliefs.

Boyd argues that if we are finding life in Christ crucified, then the threat that other beliefs might be wrong shouldn’t rob us of that life. For those who object saying that Christ crucified is a belief in itself that one must be certain of, Boyd argues that the belief is a means to the relationship. And so, the relationship is what one bases faith on, with a reasonable confidence in the belief (Christ-crucified) that led to that relationship.

Boyd makes a strong case that certainty-seeking faith is idolatrous. What he says about the religious leaders of Jesus’ day really strikes the point home to me. And I appreciate what he says about Christ-crucified being the central belief that leads us to an encounter with the life-giving God. I’m afraid he’s splitting hairs when he emphasizes the Christ-crucified belief apart from any other Christian doctrine that would lead to a relationship with Christ. If I don’t feel reasonable confidence in the testimony of the apostles, how can I feel reasonably confident in the crucifixion story? Yet there are good reasons to feel confident in the crucifixion story they testify to. (If you doubt that there are good reasons, try N.T. Wright’s trilogy: The New Testament and the People of God,  Jesus and the Victory of God, and The Resurrection of the Son of God. It’s thick reading, and may take awhile.)

He also splits hairs when he distinguishes certainty & confidence. The degree of confidence one has about anything is on a spectrum that, I believe, ebbs and flows with time, experience, and the evidence one encounters. How is this different than certainty? What I understand his point to be, however, is that the beliefs themselves are only a means to finding life. So all one needs is a reasonable confidence (or certainty) in the Story of Jesus (centering on the cross) to access the life-giving relationship with God. It is the relationship that gives life, not one’s certainty about the beliefs. This is why people who have developed an intimate relationship with God through Jesus are less shaken by challenge to their beliefs. Their faith does not rest ultimately on correct beliefs  in and of themselves, but on the tangible spiritual relationship they have with God. This is the difference between religion and the Way of Jesus, as the earliest followers called it. 

What do you think about Boyd’s last three objections? Do you find his case convincing?

Paul McMullen


I've worked with new churches and church plants since 2005. I enjoy writing, teaching, and small group conversations.

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  1. Wrestling Match « In the Storyline - February 15, 2017

    […] the last few posts, we’ve worked through Gregory Boyd’s objections to “certainty-seeking faith.” For many […]

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