Sunday, November 10, 2013

Benefit of the Doubt by Greg Boyd

In his new book Benefit of the Doubt, Greg Boyd seeks to show the reader the difference between Biblical faith and Certainty Seeking faith, which at its core is idolatry. Boyd argues strongly against the model of faith that says “the more psychologically certain you are, the stronger your faith is. In this conception of faith, therefore, doubt is an enemy.” Boyd says that this model of faith is “gravely mistaken” and damaging to the believer, the Church, and the mission of God. He has multiple objections against certainty seeking faith including how it makes a virtue of irrationality, it makes God in the image of Al Capone, replaces faith with magic, requires inflexibility and thus creates a learning phobia, tends towards hypocrisy, creates the danger of certainty and leaves the one with certainty seeking faith only concerned with their belief being true, not having a true belief, and, finally, that certainty seeking faith is idolatrous. If that list doesn’t whet your appetite to dive into this book, I am not sure what will!

Boyd’s general admonition and apparent motive for writing is that the believer should doubt, meaning that the believer should consider other truth claims and seek to know whether he/she is right or wrong and should be applied by all. If the Christian claim is true it will be proven true even under scrutiny. If the Christian claim is false, then the believer should desire to know that more than anyone, regardless of the cognitive dissonance this will assuredly bring. If, as Socrates said, the unexamined life is not worth living, then Boyd is right in saying that this “applies to faith as well”. The unexamined faith is not worth believing.”

While I wholeheartedly agree with Boyd’s point of the dangers of certainty seeking faith and the need to doubt and to examine, there were many parts of this book I struggled with greatly. It seemed, oftentimes, that Boyd was embracing pluralism and submitting Scripture, God’s revelation of Himself to us, to culture and to our experience. Boyd’s handling of the book of Job is at times simply horrible.

He begins early on by making the claim that God was surprised when Satan appeared in Heaven and uses Job 1:7 as his evidence of this surprise. He then goes on to show how Satan forces God to act via his cleverness and God’s apparent inability to keep control and His motivation not to lose face after being unwittingly challenged by His enemy. I cannot find a translation that even comes close to indicating any of this. I really wished that this was the extent of the butchering of Job, but Boyd takes aim at God’s sovereignty(not surprising) but does so in a way that is very unfaithful to the text (very surprising). Boyd looks at the statement by Job that the Lord gives and the Lord takes away and says that this is a “misguided conviction”. He says that people are “arrogantly misguided” if we ever “blame God (as Job did) when tragedy strikes.” “Blaming God” in the sense of Job’s words in 1:21 and 2:10. Boyd claims that God rebukes Job for making these statements. Boyd uses some real emotional, heart wrenching examples as to why one cannot attribute these things to God and how offended he is when people use these verses to draw comfort, but he refuses to address the immediate context which refutes entirely his premise. The author of Job, immediately after each statement, anticipating a negative response, cuts it off with the statement, “In all this Job did not sin with his lips.” The author of Job seemed to know how shocking these statements would be to the human mind, the sinful, self-loving, rebellious human mind. So he cuts the argument that Boyd raises off before it can even be raised…unless of course you just ignore completely those statements. This seems to be the approach Boyd takes, and it is well beneath a scholar of his repute.

I did love a definition of faith that Boyd offered. Faith is not “psychological certainty” but “trusting another’s character in the face of uncertainty.” Amen! For his example of this he offered Jesus as He suffered through the garden of Gethsemane. He showed how Jesus, who had perfect faith, struggled in the garden and begged for another way to be offered but in the end submitted wholly to His Father’s will, knowing that His Father was and is worthy of perfect trust and allegiance. Boyd offers that this is true faith, and I would wholeheartedly agree. “So whether your struggle is with doubt, confusion, the challenge of accepting God’s will, or any other matter, the fact that you have this struggle does not indicate that you lack faith. To the contrary, your faith is strong to the degree that you’re willing to honestly embrace your struggle.”

Boyd spends a lot of time attacking penal substitutionary atonement and attributes its existence to lawyers becoming theologians and attributes to it almost all the ills that face Western Christianity…this seems like an exaggeration, but not so much. I found it slightly amusing that Boyd would attribute the lack of faith-led works in the life of a believer to the belief in penal-substitutionary atonement, seeing as how the Reformers and the Puritans wholly held to this view…and we all know how lax those Puritans were in pursuing personal holiness!! The false dichotomy Boyd creates between accepting a legal view of salvation and a fruitful Christian life is laughably absurd and somewhat offensive.

Boyd concludes the book by looking at how a Christian should deal with a modern, pluralistic world and Scripture. He makes some very interesting arguments, abandoning a house of cards model of Scriptural authority for a concentric circle model and submitting all revelation in Scripture to the revelation in the God-man, Christ Jesus. Boyd says one of the keys is not basing your faith in Jesus on the Scriptures but rather basing your faith in Scripture on the person Jesus. While he gives some examples of how one could come to faith in the person of Jesus apart from Scripture, I think his examples are flimsy and do not take into full account the fact that apart from the revelation of Scripture, we today would have no understanding of the revelation of the person. We receive our revelation of the person of Christ in the revelation of Scripture. To act as if we could, and should, come to faith in Christ apart from the Scriptures seems misguided.

That reservation, although a large one, aside, I was greatly intrigued by how Boyd dealt with all revelations being in submission to the ultimate revelation in Jesus Himself and how this impacted how we deal with certain debated points (the historicity of Jonah, evolution, global deluge, Samson, the character of God in the Old Testament, etc…). Essentially, the point of revelation is to point us to Jesus Christ and Him crucified and inerrancy is only important as it deals with that specific revelation of God’s character. Boyd labors intensely to deal with the violence of God in the Old Testament. It is especially troubling to him and he feels a genuine need to go beyond the surface reading and, in some way, rescue the character of God from the plain reading of the text. This is imperative in a system that, while claiming to submit all Scripture to the person and work of Christ, actually quite often submits all Scripture to the experience and opinion of men. Not once,as best I can recollect, in this book does Boyd even offer the argument that instead of doubting the Scriptures when conflicted with experience, reason, science, visceral reaction, etc…, that the reader should maybe doubt his or her experience or reason or science or visceral reaction. The doubt always seems to be placed at the foot of Scripture and Scripture seems required to conform, rather than vice versa. Boyd trumpets this throughout as a new way to look at Scripture, but it really seems like the same old way that unbelievers have always looked at it. The unbelieving heart is probably not the best role model for faithful, Biblical exegesis. Boyd seems to feel that appealing to mystery in these hard texts is a cop out, that it is not genuine faith. I think that maybe it would be a more humble and more faithful way of dealing with hard texts that we all agree are troublesome to one degree or another rather than feeling the need to be absolutely certain about what they do or do not/cannot mean.

Boyd is a great writer. This is an easy read that really makes the reader think. While I disagreed with much of this book, I would recommend it to any discerning reader to have his views on many things challenged, to be led to doubt, and to find that the truth of God and the faith He gives to believers can and will withstand much scrutiny and much doubt.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher through for review purposes.