The Necessity of Doubt

Yesterday I blogged a video of Peter Enns defending his view of Genesis 1-3.

Jason, an online friend of mine, blogged on a conversation that has been going on between Enns and Kevin DeYoung over DeYoung’s opposition to Enns’ book. I have watched the whole interchange with peripheral glances since the matter really doesn’t mean too much to me.

But one of Jason’s observations got me to thinking. Here is what Jason wrote:

I do wonder if he [Enns] realizes the amount of doubt that his approach throws upon the Scriptures…People are pushed into unreasonable doubt by the subtle attacks upon the veracity of God’s Word. Enns thinks that he is supporting God’s Word, but the reality is that his approach gives much ammunition to those who oppose God’s Word. It is a capitulation to the philosophy that science trumps Scripture.

Before I begin, I want to say that I think Jason raises a valid point, and it needs to be considered. This is not a criticism of his position at all. What got my gears moving was the words “unreasonable doubt.”

Like me, Jason is recovering from extreme fundamentalism, where the concept of doubt was not just frowned upon. It was outright condemned. Against that framework of training, it is easy to see Enns’ ideas leading down a slippery slope.This is an argument I have heard a lot and it basically goes like this:

If you question this, you call everything else into question. You might end up rejecting everything.

I have struggled with this question for years, and I don’t claim to have an answer to the dilemma. When is it ok to doubt and when is it not? When is it ok to be open to dialogue with people who disagree, and when is it dangerous?

Rob Bell addressed this question in Velvet Elvis and he compared this type of thinking to theology as a brick wall and contrasted it with a view of theology that sees theology as a trampoline. In other words, some people believe everything has to fit together perfectly or it will fall apart while others believe that the core of the idea is to experience the theology, and pieces don’t have to be perfect in order to work. He puts it this way:

If the whole faith falls apart when we reexamine and rethink one spring, then it wasn’t that strong in the first place, was it?

This is because a brick is fixed in size. It can’t flex or change size, because if it does, then it can’t fit into the wall. What happens then is that the wall becomes the sum total of the beliefs, and God becomes as big as the wall…one of the things that happens in brick world is that you spend a lot of time talking about how right you are. Which of course leads to how wrong everybody else is. Which then leads to defending the wall. (Velvet Elvis, p 27)

I actually think Bell’s illustration of a trampoline is a horrible one because theology is not simply for bouncing on but for living in. It does not equate to the brick building model at all.

Instead, I think we need to think of competing models of creating theology or interpretational schemes in terms of either brick building or steel construction.

Consider the Monadnock Building in Chicago, Illinois. At 16-stories, it is the tallest brick construction building in the world. It is the absolute edge of construction with brick. You simply cannot build a taller building out of brick and mortar.

At the base, the walls of the building are six feet thick and when completed, the building sank two feet into the ground. The builders actually waited to pour the sidewalks until the building itself had settled.

When you build with brick, there are tolerances you cannot go past with any amount of engineering. The building will won’t flex or move without breaking.

Contrast this type of construction with the marvel of steel construction. Towering over the city of Dubai at 2,723 feet, the Burj Khalifa is the tallest steel skyscraper in the world. It is eleven times as high as the Monadnock Building.

Steel isn’t stronger than brick. It is simply more flexible and lighter. It can bend without breaking, and as a result, it can handle the stresses of higher construction.

A theology constructed of steel components is no less thoughtfully put together than one built of brick. Engineering and careful construction are still required.

The way I see it, we need to build our thinking like a steel skyscraper rather than with brick. We should not be afraid of doubt, because doubt is what fuels innovative thinking and deepens faith – when the framework of belief can handle it.

I will be the first to say that I am far more comfortable looking down from a short brick building than I would be looking out 2,700 feet up! But the reality is that our theology must be able to ascend above and deal with the buffeting from science and philosophy. It must interact with those disciplines, even though sometimes the things that come out of them are adverse to our beliefs.

People like Peter Enns don’t bother me because I think the arguments he builds are often just different brick buildings, hanging together and severely limited by their own weight. True biblical theology should be made of better stuff, outlasting competing views based on the science or philosophy of the day.

I don’t know. What do you think?

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11 thoughts on “The Necessity of Doubt

  1. The whole issue is unreasonable doubt.
    There is certainly good cause for examining and reexamining our views. Honest questioning should lead to learning.
    Enns, however, brings into doubt the very veracity of God’s Word; though he professes to uphold the authority of Scripture.
    I should doubt myself. I should not doubt Scripture. I should doubt my interpretation enough to be willing to modify it in the face of facts that show that I’m wrong. I should never doubt that Scripture itself is true.
    Enns leads us to the latter, which is unreasonable.

    • But doesn’t “I should doubt my interpretation enough to be willing to modify it” applies more than doubting that the Scripture itself is true. I haven’t read Enns’ book, but from what I have heard from him, he would agree that he believes the Scriptures to be true. He is simply grappling with two sets of truths and trying to come up with a meaningful compromise between them. I don’t think he gets the answer correctly, but again I haven’t read the book yet.

      The Scriptures must be true as they were written, and not necessarily as we read them. By this, I mean that we filter the Scriptures through an awful lot of cultural differences from those who first received them. If Genesis 1-3 was never intended to be taken the way that we take it, then we must be willing to adapt our own thinking to the way it was received initially.

      If Paul’s use of Adam-based thinking was never intended to be taken the way we take it, if his original audience would have received it differently, then we must adapt to the text and not the other way around.

      I’m not saying I agree with Enns, but I think our framework needs to be more steel and less brick. Our interpretational schema in the modern/postmodern era have become heavier and heavier with new brickwork to support their awkwardness, and I think we need to rebuild with steel.

  2. I understand what you’re saying, but then Scripture testifies that it is inspired of God, thus true. That means the Spirit of God was at work in giving us the Scriptures. There is also the promise of the Spirit guiding us into all truth. When we consider the preponderance of evidence regarding the interpretation of the creation accounts, we find that God has guided us and given us a pretty strong consensus in spite of the few who allegorized the Scriptures.
    If we take Enns’ approach, we rule out the work of the Holy Spirit.

    • I disagree that Enns’ approach rules out the work of the Holy Spirit. To illustrate my point:

      The text of Genesis 1-3 are assuredly ancient. We know from archaeology and comparative linguistics that Hebrew did not emerge from proto-Canaanite until around 1000 BCE. What was the account originally written in? When was it translated? How was it transmitted until that time? Was it inspired before in the original language or was it only inspired when it was translated to Hebrew? Could inspiration allow for the redaction of the text by later hands, since there is some indication of that in the text (things like, “It is called ___ to this day” or “it was then called __” indicate later hands)?

      The question of inspiration dealing with a book like Genesis, which is itself an anthology, is far more complex than inspiration when dealing with something like one of Paul’s letters. Fundamentalism oversimplifies literal interpretation to the point that it becomes restricted. This is a dangerous tendency to be avoided if we are to read the texts as they were originally written.

      • Enns’ parallelomania is that to which I refer.
        I’ve no doubt that there was a redaction in the days of Ezra, and that it was Divinely sanctioned.
        If all Genesis is is another ANE myth, that does rule out inspiration and the work of the Spirit; because it is the work of men alone just as Enuma Elish, etc.

      • Again, I have not read Enns’ book, so I don’t know how he does his “parallelomania” but it doesn’t strike me as anything new. It is something I have heard before – a million times, it seems.

        It still doesn’t rule out the work of the Spirit. The Psalms and Proverbs contain enormous quotes from other Near East cultures. Job is not primarily a Hebrew composition. The books of Daniel, Ezra and Nehemiah take massive quotes from non-Hebrew sources.

        There’s no reason, in my mind, that you cannot use the works of other Near East cultures to illuminate the role of the Genesis narratives in the lives of the original audience. That does not mean we necessarily restrict the Genesis narratives by what we have learned from other literary source (which I gather is what Enns does – and I guess I’m just going to have to read this book); but it does mean that we have to temper our very modernist view of the narrative as our knowledge of original context is expanded.

  3. I think we’re talking past each other. I’m not denying the presence of allusions to ANE concepts. I am denying that Genesis borrows from ANE concepts or literature in the sense that Genesis has its basis in them. I am also denying that there is as much parallelism between Genesis and ANE literature as Enns seems to believe is there. The OT presents such a distinct picture that it is folly to claim that there is borrowing or parallels between it and ANE literature. The OT simply uses various ANE concepts to demonstrate that YHWH is not at all like the gods of the nations. In other words, the various similarities are all for the purpose of illustrating the vast differences.
    I’m speaking of what I’ve read online from Enns and those who gather around him. I’ve yet to read the book.
    I think I shall read it once I’m done with looking at some older books on ANE literature and culture.
    I’m looking at Pritchard’s Anthology at the present. I think it’s something that you would find extremely interesting.
    Anyway, the whole thing is quite interesting and educating, whether we fully agree or not.

    • Pritchard is an okay place to start although he is a bit – selective – in the texts he choose to highlight. I took a course on Ancient Near East literature back in undergrad and had to read it as the text.

      I would recommend Bill Dever’s What Did the Biblical Writers Known and When Did They Know It?.

      • I have Pritchard’s Anthology as well as his other book (in Logos), the title of which I cannot recall.
        That’s my starting point. I have a number in Kindle and Google books that are in line, too.

  4. Coming a bit late to the conversation, but it seems to me we need to clarify in what sense the bible is true. Do we have to accept a concept of inerrancy that declares all of the bible including the first eleven chapters of Genesis is a factual historical account? And I have expanded it beyond chs 1-3 for good reason. Modern scientific methods (from a few fields) have argued that the human species never could have dropped below 1000 people and produce this level of genetic variation in the amount of time they speculate we’ve been around (or else we would have mutated ourselves out of existence). Thus not only is the creation account problematic, but also the Noah account.

    Leaving that aside for now, what do we do with the creation account? The truth is there are two accounts. The second one (ch. 2) does not even follow the same time line as chapter 1. In chapter two man is made first, then plants and vegetation (day 3 in chapter 1), then animals (which seem to be before man in chapter 1) and then finally woman. So which one is the historical one, and is the other one not really inspired? This is a serious problem and we need to be careful to not gloss over it. So, does that mean we swallow full blown nineteenth century liberalism, in the form of the now spurious Wellhausen-Graf hypothesis (JEDP authors)? Well it doesn’t have to mean that. This is where ANE parallels come in handy. If the writer of Genesis (let’s say Moses) was using an already present form, then this particular issue is solved. But that requires us to understand Genesis 1 and 2 as something not fully historical in all of it’s details.

    So what? Is there any indication anywhere in Genesis 1 and 2 that they were meant to be taken as historical accounts? It seems that Genesis *does* makes some significant changes to other ANE literature. The world is created and ordered and purposed, not accidental or a result of a slain God. The world is God’s Holy Temple that He built for himself; He doesn’t need someone else to do it and isn’t limited to a single location. Also there is no manmade idol, he creates humanity to act as his image (we can connect directly to God without the proxy of an idol). It can be true, even inerrant, without meaning to be historical (or even scientific). The question that often gets ignored in this debate is what was the intent? What did the authors (including God) mean for Genesis 1 and 2 to convey? It would seem odd that they would mean anything prior to chapter 11 to be historical in the sense we use it today (a sense that was alien to human knowledge prior to the seventeenth eighteenth century). I don’t know, maybe I’m rambling, but for me the historicity/scientific accuracy of the early chapters in Genesis is a separate question from their inspiration, authority, infallibility, inerrancy. I don’t think you can say this about much else of the bible, but it does seem that at least there these are not the same question (and it’s a mistake to conflate them). So I guess my main point is, is questioning the historical/scientific accuracy even a form of doubting these early chapters, or is correcting a problem?

    • Hello Trey!

      First of all, welcome to the conversation. All are welcome and respected.

      These are some great questions for discussion, and they are a lot of the reason that I think we need to approach our interpretation of passages like Genesis 1-11 with a healthy self-criticism, an understanding that our perspectives are tainted by rationalism in many ways.

      I will say that I am very cautious in playing the “scientific evidence” card only because this argument is deeply rooted in our belief in the superiority of the modern mind, which extends from the Enlightenment philosophers who invented the idea of a modern mind anyway.

      The human genetic code has a way of surprising us when we think we have it under wraps. Just as an example:

      For a long time, we thought that homo neanderthalensis was distinct from homo sapien, and that the superior species wiped out Neanderthal. Now it is becoming increasingly clear that Neanderthals were intermarried into modern humans and we carry their genetic code today. Perhaps they weren’t all that distinct at all.

      I use this as an illustration that scientific evidence can be extremely misleading. We sometimes act as if it is the absolute measure of truth, but the reality is that most of it – when dealing with ancient humans and the modern understanding of genetics – is based on tenuous evidence.

      Does that prove a literal flood or historical Adam? No, but it casts doubt on the way scientific evidence is sometimes used to disprove the possibility. This is why I remain somewhat ambivalent on the subject.

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