January 24, 2021

Pete Enns on trusting our beliefs more than trusting God

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One of the books I’m anticipating most in 2016 in Peter Enns’s The Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires Our Trust More Than Our “Correct” Beliefs, due out in early April. I believe it will be a great gift to those with the courage to question.

For several years now, Pete has been on a journey, a wilderness journey, a post-evangelical journey like many of us here at Internet Monk. His honesty, humor, and willingness to reexamine his faith has been a great example for me. Nor does it hurt that the guy is a world-class Bible scholar, whose insights on the First Testament have been enlightening and inspiring to me in my own studies.

I was privileged to receive a review copy of The Sin of Certainty from HarperOne, Pete’s publisher, and I am currently working through it. Expect a review soon. For today, just a taste of what he has to say in this fine book.

Personally, I can’t help but think about the big questions of life and my own faith in particular. I went through nine years of seminary and doctoral work in biblical studies, not just to avoid getting a real job, but because I am naturally drawn to thinking about what I believe and why. I also like talking about what I think and tossing ideas back and forth, which is why I teach, blog, and write books like this one.

So I hope we are all on the same page here. I’m not saying that the life of the mind and working toward forming deeper thoughts about God are all bunk. The life of faith and the life of thought are not opposite ends of the spectrum.

Rather, I’m talking about a deeper, subtler, even subconscious problem that definitely isn’t limited to Bible students or other sorts of eggheads but is part of the daily struggles of normal everyday Christians.

The deeper problem here is the unspoken need for our thinking about God to be right in order to have a joyful, freeing, healing, and meaningful faith.

The problem is trusting our beliefs rather than trusting God.

The preoccupation with holding on to correct thinking with a tightly closed fist is not a sign of strong faith. It hinders the life of faith, because we are simply acting on a deep unnamed human fear of losing the sense of familiarity and predictability that our thoughts about God give us. Believing that we are right about God helps give us a sense of order in an otherwise messy world. So when we are confronted with the possibility of being wrong, that kind of “faith” becomes all about finding ways to hold on with everything we’ve got to be right.

We are not actually trusting God at that moment. We are trusting ourselves and disguising it as trust in God.

• p. 20f


  1. Makes me think of “If you pray right” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xCIbp_7kfr8), except with “if you believe right”.

  2. The preoccupation with holding on to correct thinking with a tightly closed fist is not a sign of strong faith. It hinders the life of faith, because we are simply acting on a deep unnamed human fear of losing the sense of familiarity and predictability that our thoughts about God give us.

    For me, it wasn’t fear of losing unfamiliarity; it was also the fear that being wrong about theology would lead to eternal negative consequences. It was also driven by the belief (encouraged by some of those I emulated) that there was no middle ground between ultra-precise foundationalist theology and howling Lovecraftian nihilism.

    • Yes, because the end of wrong belief is hopping on the slide that goes straight to hell. I see it all the time; Christians who will only read light, religious books or watch only “pure” movies and not interact with those of other backgrounds due to a fear of challenging their minds & hearts. The only thing they feel they need to know about the beliefs and customs of other Christians and other religions is how wrong they are. Because if you learn more, well, that slide is enticing you…

      • Christiane says

        Hi SUZANNE,
        if those Christians ‘fear’ a challenge, they must have a very shallow faith indeed . . . better to believe in that which ‘casts out fear’ . . .
        I think a lot of fundamentalist exclusive behavior is based on fear or on inculcating fear into its membership. That goes so against the mission of Christ to ‘go forth’ into the world to love and to serve; but it also breeds a fear that is not ‘of Christ’ . . . keeping hidden in the Upper Room was a behavior of Christians BEFORE Pentecost, not something we should be finding 2000 years after the advent of the Holy Spirit, no.

        • Exactly, Christiane! Shallow faith will never deepen without being challenged. If your beliefs won’t hold up in the wake of a deeper and fuller understanding of life, then they’ve proven to be pretty useless. But I think many, many people are afraid to even consider that so they stay, hunkered down, in childhood Bible story mode.

    • “…it was also the fear that being wrong about theology would lead to eternal negative consequences.”

      Yes. I used to be preoccupied with that eternal negative consequence thing until I realized how yo-yo-ish my own beliefs are (and my own faith). Strong one day, weak then next, believing that the sinner’s prayer was the only way to God, believing that maybe Jesus makes heaven available to believer and non-believer alike.

      If my almost-daily wobbles impact my eternal place, then thank God for Jesus.

    • It’s ironic that even in some churches where faith in Christ and faith in Christ alone is preached as the way to salvation, out-of-line theology and/or church practice is treated like a damning error. It’s like some unspoken assumption that legitimate faith has to be framed in a flawless theological system. If you don’t have every single piece of the puzzle placed where they say it should be, then you’re in dire need of repentance and a tearful trip down front during an alter call. Of course it’s safer not to speak out about theological matter at all. Just nod your head at whatever the preacher says, give a convincing “amen” at every full stop, and you’re good to go.

  3. Not trusting too much in my own thoughts and beliefs, or the thoughts and beliefs of others (including both the others who wrote the Bible and those who have interpreted it, or in the traditions that mediate faith and the Bible, which also believe and think certain things), about God and faith is difficult, because it requires a high tolerance for silence and darkness and unknowing and being alone. Things in the world are already pretty dark and uncertain.

    Nevertheless, I’m trying to practice faithfully residing in the darkness and uncertainty. Some days I’m more successful than others.

    • Robert, thanks for your willingness to speak a little bit about this experience, and being willing to speak out of it. Having spent a long while under a similar shadow, you’ve managed many times to talk about grace in a voice I’m able to hear.

      It’s just a small thing. But if you like, take it as some small sign that whatever you are doing hasn’t returned void.

  4. As N. T. Wright pointed out, resulting in much fury from the Reformed folks in particular (especially John Piper), ‘one is not justified by faith by believing in the doctrine of justification by faith’ (‘What St. Paul Really Said’). When I read that statement (years ago) I smiled and my journey into the PEW began.

    • Randy Thompson says

      And to N.T. Wright, I say “Amen!”

    • Christiane says

      ” ‘one is not justified by faith by believing in the doctrine of justification by faith’ ”

      brilliant saying . . . now I see why N.T. Wright has so many fundamentalist neo-Cal critics

      • If one forces that belief I think it turns into works.

        • Christiane says

          well it does have that appearance, TED

          IF I choose to ‘believe’ the formula you say will save me,
          THEN I will be saved . . .

          and effect

          very logical, but as is the whole fundamentalist-evangelical salvation pitch, totally lacking in trusting the capacity of God to find infinite ways to save ‘those who are lost and confused and without a Shepherd’ . . .
          maybe it’s the very ‘logic’ of this system that gives it away,
          because when you think about it, the whole experience of mankind with God is filled with mystery and wonder . . . with compassion and mercy . . . and all of that gets ‘set aside’ with the ‘if you don’t believe in Christ personally, you cannot be saved’ crowd

          you have good point about that . . . maybe that is why words like ‘trust’ aren’t trusted among fundamentalists and words like ‘mercy’ are rarely heard in their fear-filled approach to proselytizing their version of ‘gospel truth’ ???

          I wish I could be more generous in my opinion of these folks, but I think they send more people away from God that they draw to Him . . . and they don’t realize it, which is sad for them and for those who are injured

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says


            Just when you have God All Figured Out, He comes in from a completely different direction with a completely different style. In Hebrew, the word for “Spirit of God” actually means “wind” or “breeze” — you never know when or from where it’s coming and you never know where it’s going, only what you feel as it breezes past.

    • I posted my excitement for this book on my FB page, of which I have a few Reformed friends. I’m quite curious to read their reactions to this. I can almost guarantee that I’ll hear something from one of them about it.

  5. We could also explore, if we run out of things to discuss, whether our faith is in God or our faith is in faith.

    I am being only mildly sarcastic.

  6. I remember coming to the scary conclusion, back in college where conflict and contradiction of thought abounds, that it just might be impossible to ‘know’ anything. I’m older and wiser now and nothing has changed. Love, knowing God the unknowable and unseen, is all that can be real in experience – knowing Him in the biblical sense (not ‘sex’) of unifying two beings without need of language. Enjoined souls. Knowledge of this and that fact is always subject to second guessing and alternative points of view. Little or nothing is certain about what we see, hear or have rumbling around in the little capsule propped up between our shoulders. It is the unseen and the unknowable that take silent root and even that must be reflected upon and checked to ascertain its veracity. “How do I know you Lord, or rather, how do you know me?” Silence, beautiful and rich. No fixed posts. No words. No noise. No beliefs. Simply communion. Enns is pointing to that. This whole thing eventually has to go past the bluster and the diction. They are insufficient to contain or explain. Words help us get there but then it goes beyond brain work and intellect as Paul so clearly states, “…and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge…but do not have love, I am nothing.” So my knowledge of the deepest mysteries of God and universe is fit for the heap without that completely undefinable and hardly explainable thing called love. It all hinges on something that cannot be dissected, bisected, controlled or directed.

  7. Randy Thompson says

    It has struck me for some time now, powerfully, that many and maybe most Christians have more of a relationship with their thoughts than they do with the Living Presence of the risen Jesus. This is what makes so many Christians fearful, angry, and defensive. Fearful, because any thought that disagrees with theirs is a threat to their relationship with their ideas. Angry, because “my thoughts” mean “I’m right!” (note the exclamation mark). And, finally, defensive. God certainly does not need to be defended, but our ideas do, often continually.

    Ideas do matter, but only as they point beyond themselves to reality, and it is reality that counts. Ideas serve my faith, but my faith is better described (in English) by the word “trust,” and trust is a verb with the eternally living and present God as it’s direct object.

    I suspect all this goes along with “developing a Christian worldview.” We have a worldview whether we like it or not. But, the more it is “our” worldview rooted in “our” ideas, the more easily threatened it is and the more insecure we feel. The only “worldview” that makes sense to me, and for which I don’t feel a great need for apologetics, is Jesus Christ, “the way, the truth, and the life.” That phrase certainly puts a lot of so-called Christian worldviews in their place, doesn’t it?!

    I’m looking forward to reading this book.

    • many and maybe most Christians have more of a relationship with their thoughts than they do with the Living Presence of the risen Jesus.

      Our thoughts are active and present. For many (and maybe most) Christians, God is usually very silent.

      • Randy Thompson says

        True, Eeyore, but God’s silence is not God’s absence. I’d prefer living in relation to a silent Presence than a mass of swirling concepts feeding off what I’ve just heard, what I’ve just read, or floating to the surface of my none too healthy imagination.

        And, it seems to me, that this Silent and Present God often makes His will and purposes known when we join him in being still and quiet, and seek to be present to Him. (How much of God’s silence is the result of our inability to be fully present to God?)

        And, regarding the by-laws discussion below, I wonder if there would be fewer prooftexts if the business meeting was viewed more as a prayer meeting with an agenda.

    • Randy, you have a good point. Where do we draw the line between defending the integrity of the bible and the honor of the Lord Jesus, and our mere interpretation of the bible and of the gospel?

      I was at a by-laws meeting after church on Sunday where some of us were arguing opposite sides of an issue using the very same bible verses. If there’s a “plain meaning” of scripture, it weren’t evident in those chapters. And this is among pastors, deacons, former deacons, all of us who take the bible seriously and love Jesus.

      I think we all need to take a step back and consider that something’s missing in the puzzle.

      Maybe we’re taking church too seriously.

      • “I was at a by-laws meeting after church on Sunday where some of us were arguing opposite sides of an issue using the very same bible verses.”


        My epiphany on “discernment” came in a similar situation, Godly people arguing about what they felt was the “Godly” way. I suddenly realized that we fight over things that God could care less about, and that much of what we attribute to “God wants this” is really nothing more than philosophical preference and there is no right or wrong.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Whenever I hear the words “plain meaning of SCRIPTURE” I remember Hal Lindsay. Whose “plain meaning of SCRIPTURE” included Gog & Magog being the USSR and East Germany and the demon locust plague of Revelation “plainly and SCRIPTURALLY” being helicopter gunships armed with chemical weapons (their stings) and piloted by long-haired bearded hippies.

        Gives you a little perspective when someone mouths those words for justification…

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        “I was at a by-laws meeting after church on Sunday where some of us were arguing opposite sides of an issue using the very same bible verses.”

        Kinda blows the credibility of those bible verses, doesn’t it?

  8. I remember someone very very important and all-powerful said something about childlike faith. For many, including myself in the past at still at times, where is that child-like faith?

    This is a great post and the comments are great. I am looking forward to this book by Enns.

    Greg, I loved the comment about faith in the doctrine of justification by Wright. But then again, if the Calvinistas didn’t have all that academia, what would they do?

    I also seem to recall that same guy I mentioned above talking about how the gentiles lord it over one another and we as brothers and sisters in Him should not behave that way.

    Oh well, I guess we just have to remember that some Christians love the fire and brimstone and lording it over others. I am just trying to find some balance in all of it. However, it seems that the loudest and the ones we hear about most are the ones beating the drum for faith in faith or faith in doctrines, not a loving God who willing sent His son to die on a cross for our/my sins that i might be forgiven and then proclaim that to others and disciple them.

    No, we have to have all our t’s crossed and i’s dotted. No wonder it was written that some always study and learn but never come to the knowledge of God.

    Oh well I have rambled on and semi-ranted enough, but I just wanted to chime in that this is a timely post for me.

  9. I would almost take Enns’ premise a step further. It’s been my experience that most people’s “beliefs” are in reality nothing more than “strong opinion.” So not only is it a sin of “trust in a belief,” it’s a sin of “trust in a strong opinion.”

    I learned the hard way that my awesome discernment in all things God was in actuality just opinion, and that my strong statements of “this is right and this is wrong” were nothing more than philosophical preferences and had nothing to do with right or wrong or even whether God preferred one way over the other. Very humbling experiences.

    • I’m even going to go one more step further. Most of people’s strong opinions are built upon OTHER PEOPLE’S STRONG OPINIONS! So it’s not just the sin of “trust of belief” or the sin of “trust in a strong opinion,” but it’s the sin of “trust in SOMEONE ELSE’S STRONG OPINION.”

      Lord have mercy…

      • Oh my word YES!

      • I notice that Enns avoids the use of the word sin in connection with the kind of error he’s talking about, the error and problem of trusting our own beliefs, trusting beliefs, rather than God. I think he must do that consciously; using the word sin in this context involves exactly the kind of threat and fear that loads having correct beliefs with such importance. We become afraid that if we get it wrong, we will pay the penalty of having sinned; and since that penalty may be too heavy for us to deal with psychologically, we find ways to shore up and reify the beliefs we hold in an impregnable fortress of so-called certainty. In this way we come to trust our beliefs above God.

        • It is an evangelical habit to invoke the word sin frequently; that invocation ties people up. Enns is trying to free people, hence he avoids the use of the word sin in this discussion.

      • Well, I see I got it wrong: the subtitle of Enns’ book is “The Sin of Certainty”.

        Still, I would suggest that use of the word sin in this discussion leads in the wrong direction, and to the kind of mindset that traps people in beliefs rather than freeing them to trust the living God. And I do notice that Enns does not use the word sin in the quotation included in the post.

        • Robert, I’m guessing that he chose to use the word ‘Sin’ in the subtitle specifically to tweak those who believe certainty is essential to ‘real faith’ (and perhaps make them rethink both that certainty, and ‘sin’).

          • I suspect so, too. I suppose it’s a two-edged sword. On one hand, it’s a smart move – it turns the force of the attack back on the attacker. You hit hard, you get deflected hard; you play nice, you just get tapped. Plus to a certain audience, avoiding the word too carefully raises their suspicions.

            On the other hand, given the frantic energy a nervous person may bring into a conversation of this kind, their anxiety can only be fueled by yet another suggestion (round 15,231- GO!) that they are missing some essential thought or experience that defines ‘true believer.’ Such a person may desperately need this particular game to end, but have a difficult time being the one to call it off.

            Inevitably this is going to hit some bulls-eyes *and* cut a few hamsprings.

  10. Maybe the need for authority figures is stronger for some folks than need for God. Tribal stuff, belonging.

    • Uga-booga. My club bigger than your club.

      • >>Maybe the need for authority figures is stronger for some folks than need for God.

        That seems to be a given. You can see it at work in the current political process as well. It seems to be a factor of both individual cultural influence and a characteristic of particular levels of growth and development. It is not helpful to condemn people because they are working their way thru a natural strong need for authority. We do it as children and we do it as peoples. At the same time it is not helpful for those with this need to be allowed to set the tone for those working beyond these concerns. This isn’t easy to work out.

        It seems to me that the very first step is for each side, the need for strong authority versus the need for intellectual and spiritual freedom, each to recognize the other as a valid way of proceeding thru life.. Easier said than done. By its very nature, the need for strong authority has great difficulty in validating other perspectives. It seems like people who have moved beyond this need for strong authority ought to be able to figure out how to communicate their own need without mutual bashing, but obviously this is not so.

      • turnsalso says

        But are your hands normal sized?

  11. I have been studying the Bible and theology for about forty years now. I do find it interesting in itself, but at this point I am mostly doing it to protect myself from preachers and Bible scholars and theologians. Often I take a “what’s wrong with this picture” approach. Sometimes, as with Peter Enns, I find a kindred spirit and this is encouraging. It can get pretty lonely looking at two thousand years of supposedly the best minds working supposedly in cooperation with the Holy Spirit telling you something that you know in your spirit isn’t right.

    The 60’s taught us to question authority. That was a big step forward even if it was misused and abused. I more and more find myself questioning so called Christian orthodoxy, especially as I see it disagreeing with itself. The need to proclaim orthodoxy and right belief in all its contradictions is already going strong with the so called Church Fathers. I think many of the so called Desert Fathers headed out to the boonies to escape this. Not for long.

    Orthodoxy points to the Nicene Creed as the great touchstone for the whole church. I point to its obscurity in Greek philosophical terminology, and its history of violence and double-dealing. I point to the Athanasian Creed as an example of this process taken over the cliff and I point to the Inquisition as an end example of religious authority unquestioned, dominionism uncaged. Thanks, but no thanks. It took two thousand years to get this far. Maybe we can grow up.

    • “I do find it interesting in itself, but at this point I am mostly doing it to protect myself from preachers and Bible scholars and theologians.”

      I’ve been doing this, too, but it wasn’t until you stated it in this way that I realized why I was doing it. I think Jesus pretty much preaches against being too rooted in theology and scholars.

      • I think the New Testament depicts Jesus standing in opposition to professional religious persons; what he would make of the contemporary biblical scholar who practices his trade at a secular university, I have no idea. The NT shows him making many statements and performing many acts that had undeniable theological implications; but his complete disregard for consistency where consistency would have involved ignoring human realities, and divine love, shows a complete disdain for systematic theologies.

    • The first wave of Desert Fathers were almost entirely laity, and they were certainly rejecting the ascending Christian civilization. Since they were were not priests, and they were in remote places, they had little to no involvement with Liturgies and Sacraments. They were seeking salvation in the wilderness, and they had turned away from the Christian city and world to do so, to escape civilized corruption and to purify themselves.

      Eventually, the movement they started was reabsorbed by the Church and orthodoxy; in some respects, their movement was co-opted. But that would not have happened if they had not, after a few generations in the remote places, turned back to the world. And I think they turned back to the world because so many seeking help and healing sought them out in the remote places, since they had become legendary for their holiness and wisdom; and at least some of them, the wisest, had learned in their prayerful struggle in the remote places that redemption is not won by oneself, nor is it given to hoard against the needs of others.

      So they could not turn the seekers away and continue to pursue only their own purification and salvation. They had to intentionally turn back toward the world with whatever wisdom and love they had learned, and welcome the wayfaring strangers who after all were their brothers and sisters. Thus started the great monastic houses and traditions, compromises with a world in need that will not go away. Yes, they were frequently co-opted as the the decades and centuries past; but the impulse that turned them back toward the world was love. We can learn much from them, not least something about their love for the world that they had originally thought to leave behind.

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