Review: ‘Benefit of the Doubt’

Benefit of the Doubt

I didn’t realize it until I was two-thirds of the way done, but Greg Boyd’s latest book Benefit of the Doubt: Breaking the Idol of Certainty is organized in roughly the same way as my own spiritual journey.

Published by Baker Books in 2013, Benefit lays out Boyd’s view of what’s wrong with certainty-seeking faith and how it differs from honest, covenantal faith as found in the Old Testament saints as well as Jesus himself. Part 1 examines the drawbacks of certainty-seeking faith, including the fact that it focuses more on ideas about God than God Himself. Part 2 explores what a healthy faith in Christ looks like and how honesty, doubt, and wrestling with God are essential to a person’s trust in Him. Part 3 is devoted to exploring the foundation of Christianity itself and how to better interpret the Bible as someone who is more focused on the Person than the ideas surrounding Him.

As Boyd points out various idols in people’s lives, he uses Ch. 3 to eventually reveal that certainty itself can be an idol—in this context, something we use to satisfy the hunger that comes from not having the life of God (60). Boyd argues that people’s ideas about the Bible can become an idol (the understatement of the century) before he pinpoints the problem with certainty-seeking faith:

“The things that make certainty-seeking Christians feel loved, worthwhile, and secure before God—that is, the thing that assures them they are “saved”—is that they feel confident they believe the right things with a sufficient level of certainty. Doesn’t this mean that it is their certainty in what they believe about God, rather than God himself, that is their source of life?” (69)

The consequences of this vary, and Body does a good job of pointing them out, but one of the side effects of this type of faith is never letting one’s self question already-held beliefs (which is why you have so many young Christians who won’t ever listen to what their science teachers say about evolution, for instance). In another chapter, Boyd writes that part of the problem comes from the West understanding relationships in contractual terms as opposed to covenantal ones (114), the latter of which involves trust between the two people making the covenant.

“… faith is about trusting in the beautiful character of Christ as our heavenly husband, about being transformed from the inside out by the power of his unending love, and about learning how to live in the power of the Spirit as a trustworthy spouse who increasingly reflects his love and his will ‘on earth as it is in heaven’” (121).

Using biblical figures like Jacob, Habakkuk, Job, and, of course, Jesus himself, Boyd argues that we need an “Israelite”-type faith that is willing to wrestle with God and take Him to the mat when the questions get tough, a faith that makes room for doubt and is “grounded in authenticity that is therefore unwilling to sweep questions, doubts, and complaints under a pious rug to avoid the pain of cognitive dissonance” (90). Boyd also notes that Jesus’ most profound example of his faith is found when he cries out because he feels God has abandoned him (107).

I mentioned this is parallel to my journey. Under my previous understanding of faith, I had what Boyd calls a “house of cards” approach to Christianity (157-158). In addition to actually believing in Jesus, I had thought there were several things necessary for a person to really be saved: the inerrancy of Scripture, a literal six-day creation, and so on. From my perspective, this is how a lot of evangelicals are raised—and it’s no surprise that a good many of them renounce their faith as they get older. As I grew up, I was able to keep my faith in Jesus even while changing my views on many of these ideas. Even still, much of what Boyd says in Part 2 resonated with me. I had arrived at a lot of his conclusions, even if we’ve taken different roads to get there.

Perhaps it’s because I’m in this stage now, but Part 3 of the book was the most exciting third of the text for me. It’s exploration of how to faithfully interpret Scripture in light of the person of Jesus especially hooked me, because this is the question I ask myself on a regular, even daily, basis. Boyd also convincingly argues that our faith in Jesus should precede our faith in the Bible, not the other way around.

“The earliest disciples certainly believed the Old Testament was inspired, but they never based their faith in Christ on this. They used it extensively, but only as a means for pointing people to Jesus, whom they already believed in for other reasons” (163).

Chapter 9 may be my favorite of the entire book, because it is here that Boyd deals with the question of the Old Testament’s violent portrayals of God (a subject that has been the cause of no little amount of spiritual unease for people). Boyd argues that since Jesus is the full revelation of God, he supersedes all other portraits of the Divine. Because of this, we should read Scripture as if we’re reading a novel in which the twist ending forces you to rethink the story up until that point (183). Boyd writes that a “cross-centered” approach to Scripture allowed people like Origen to affirm the truth of those passages without saying that God actually committed those violent deeds (190).

“The challenge we face is … to show how these violent portraits actually point to Jesus. And since I maintain that the cross is the quintessential expression of everything Jesus was about … our challenge is nothing less than to show how portraits such as the one in which God commands the merciless slaughter of women and infants bear witness to the God who gave his life for enemies while praying for their forgiveness on Calvary. If ever we need to embrace an honest ‘Israelite’ faith that has the audacity to wrestle with God, it’s here!” (ibid.)

Any other narrative that “[calls] into question the loving and nonviolent character of God” is “unfaithful to Christ” (192). When we read Scripture through the “lens of the cross”, the “something else” going on in these passages is “the same thing that was going on when on the cross God stooped to become our sin and our curse and to therefore appear not only far less beautiful than he actually is, but to appear guilty, though in reality he is beautiful in sinless” (193).

Boyd uses the rest of the book to tackle interpretations of particular passages that seem to support a certainty-seeking faith, as well as explaining what we can trust God for.

Overall, this is a good book that I’d recommend to someone who’s begun wrestling with the tougher questions of their faith. That said, it’s a good read for anyone at any stage of faith if, for no other reason, than it will get you to re-evaluate in whom or what you’re placing your faith.

Publisher: Baker Books

Release Date: September 2013

Pages: 273

Note: I received a copy of this book as part of Baker’s blog review program. I am not paid or obligated to give it a favorable review.