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?


How do we read Genesis 1-3?

Peter Enns, a professor of Old Testament and New Testament Studies at Eastern University, has written a book that is getting a lot of press time in the Christian blogosphere. The book, entitled The Evolution of Adam, attempts to reconcile the Genesis record with modern scientific thought, as well as explain the apostle Paul’s use of Adam in explaining Jesus’ work.

Let me begin by saying that I haven’t read Enns’ book, so this post is not a critique of his work. Instead, I want to plant some seed ideas on the subject and perhaps broaden our perspective on the question of how we read the creation stories in Genesis 1-3. Here is a brief video of Enns speaking on the subject, and then I will make some comments.

This might get me in trouble with my fundamentalist brethren, but I am ambivalent on whether the Genesis 1-3 record is historical fact or not. Officially, my position is “It could be.” My limited studies into the literature of ancient peoples leads me to believe that the authors of the Genesis record were focused on their own place in the world system and not on creating a science textbook. They wrote in a very poetic, measured way that seems to be more related with an understanding of the way the world is as opposed to the way that it came to be.  In other words, it was not as important to them that Adam be the historical, biological father of all mankind. What was important is that we can all see Adam and Eve’s sin in ourselves.

That being said, I have no real reason to doubt that there wasn’t a historical person. You can’t prove a negative. That’s why my position is “It could be.” I don’t think people who believe Adam is a historical person are ignorant or foolish or unscientific; and I don’t think people like Enns are heretics or apostates.

As always, the truth is in the tension. I avoid eliminating possibilities, even those that make me uncomfortable (and to be frank, dismissing Adam makes me uncomfortable). We find the greatest richness of the Scriptures when we study them in light of multiple possibilities rather than in ironclad dogmatism.

But that’s just me. I am comfortable with the tension of not really being able to be certain. What do you think?