Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Does studying the Bible lead to doubt?

I am not sure who Jason Boyett is, but his mini essay on doubt caught my attention the other day. Jason reminds me of so many people including myself. Jason grew up being taught to believe particular things about the Bible. But as Jason studied the Bible he began to realize that things did not always line up the way he had been taught. The Bible does not always live up to its billing. At times you run across stuff that doesn't seem to line up and the deeper you dig the murkier things become. In the end, some of the stuff that you were studying and thought to be "true" leads you to doubt.

On June 28 2002 I graduated with a PhD in New Testament. This was the culmination of nine years of postgraduate work that had taken my wife and me on a long and circuitous journey that we had not anticipated. According to the commonly accepted view, I should be an expert in my field. Unfortunately, the degree makes me feel that much more incapable of articulating much of what I think and believe.

When I began my theological education I endeavored to gain the tools I believed were needed to be an articulate defender of the faith. What I discovered, however, was that much of what I had come to believe and been taught by well-meaning individuals was either incorrect or situated on a precarious set of evidence. This taught me to question things that I encountered and to probe tradition and doctrine for accuracy. This was, after all, my life’s goal. What I found as I studied and probed these questions was not satisfactory answers on which to build an unassailable faith, but more questions! The more I studied the more I was forced to question and the less I discovered answers. For me it became a cycle that threatened to undo the very task I had set out to accomplish in the beginning. Instead of becoming a defender of the faith I was beginning to resemble more and more its detractors. It was not that I wanted to (nor do I yet) discard faith. The problem was that my expedition had led me to realize just how frail and, to be quite honest, implausible much of the doctrine of Christianity is, at least in the form it had been delivered to me. The ultimate question that arose from my enquiry (and remains until this day) is what I am to do with this thing called ‘faith’ and how does it affect me as a human being?

There are some who would read what I have just written and conclude that I have become one of the many casualties of a (liberal?) theological education. A particular encounter in my ‘pre-educated’ life seemed to predict such an outcome. My wife and I had served in a church for a few years. As we were preparing to leave and begin my seminary training I received the usual jokes about attending ‘cemetery’ and becoming too smart for my own good. One individual in particular warned me in an almost conspiratorial tone, ‘be careful brother, too much of that stuff can be dangerous and cause you to take your eyes off of God’. I assume that he meant I would lose my faith. In some ways I think he is right. My education has been extremely dangerous to my faith, at least in terms of how I was taught to think and believe. On the other hand, I have come to a point where I have learned to question so much that I find faith is required of me now more than ever before. For me doubt is the essence of my faith and I am like the man who said to Jesus, ‘Lord, Help my in my unbelief!’

So where does all of this lead me? To that which I find unexplainable and unacceptable. In other words, it leads me to faith. My doubt is the essence of my faith. The fact that I find many things about Christianity not only implausible but outright impossible means that I have nothing on which to base my relationship with God but Faith. Thus how can I believe in the resurrection of Christ and other seemingly impossible, unexplainable and even perhaps unhistorical doctrines and traditions? I do so by realizing that this is where faith begins. An honest person will admit ignorance in such cases. A person of faith will find ignorance as a basis for belief. There is a lot that I am unsure of. One thing I am sure of, I believe in God and I hope that, like Abraham, I will be able to have faith that God will do what He has said He will do.

What about you? Where have your studies led you?


  1. In my own casual studies, I find that the more you discard the piles of shaky doctrines and fads that have accumulated over the centuries, the more real the parts that remain seem.

    I guess there's the fear that once you've studied it all, you'll find none of it holds water, but you can't just stop looking for the truth because it's not what you wanted it to be.

    It's also liberating to know that I can be a Christian without toeing the lines I was told I had to toe regarding Creationism, tongues, end times, heaven and hell, and a thousand other things.

  2. refreshingly honest and a truer picture of faith that the unthinking certainty that is often peddled as such, although maybe not so unnecessarily obscurantist as Pete Rollins and his current philosohical celebration of doubt...

  3. Thanks for your honesty, John. For me, the journey has not been as much about the faith I have lost (although that is part of it), as it has been about the faith that has found me. I think too many people get lost in the middle; it's hard to push through the deconstruction and allow the Spirit to form your questions into a more trusting faith. I like to say; if there were no doubt, there would be no need for faith--real faith that acknowledges our limitations and chooses to trust God anyway.

    It reminds me of Matthew 10:39; "Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it."

    Sometimes you have to let something go before you can discover what it really is. This is part of the journey of growth; letting go in order to receive again. It's hard, and it's not an instant sort of deal. It takes time, but it's worth it.

    Thanks John!

  4. As a new student in the study of the New Testament, I thank you for your post! Although I have only taken a few courses (3 of them yours)I have learned that quite a bit of what I had learned was incorrect, inaccurately translated, or more steeped in tradition than in scripture. Even some of the scriptures which had been a great help to me throughout my life, repeated over and over in times of need, have come into question. But this deepening of knowledge and the questioning of ideas that we once had accepted as given, is a process of growth and transformation. I am trying to mature in knowledge of God's Word as I am trying to mature in my faith; it is growth which is often slow and sometimes painful but ultimately positive and powerful.

  5. My thoughts on this subject go from one extreme to another. I think how we are to have “faith like a little child”, and there are few things more annoying than a child constantly asking, “but why? Why? Why?” Just like a parent/child relationship, I realize there are many things that do not make sense to me and I have to accept this.
    However, I look at that reasoning and think “Is that an excuse?” If I were starting a religion, the first thing I would say is “Trust me! Even when you don’t understand – just do what I say” (I mean, if I were an evil dictator) ha

    As a loving parent, I can see where faith is a valid request. As an evil dictator, I could really misuse that faith.

    God is a good father – that is where I return.


  6. Thanks for your honest reflections, Dr. Byron.

  7. Hi, John,

    very well written post. Honest and wise. I have appreciated your comments since I have stumbled on your blog recently. I have been trying to convince Dr. Hawk to start blogging. Maybe your steps will inspire him to follow.

    You write, "My doubt is the essence of my faith and I am like the man who said to Jesus, "lord, help me in my unbelief." Might I probe that statement a bit?

    1.I wonder if Mark 9.24 is about the man overcoming his unbelief or about him being able to trust Jesus with the little faith that he has. It seems to be linked with his desire to risk banking on Jesus rather than challenge of intellectual doubt.

    2.Newbigin, picking up on Polanyi writes, "If we consider what is involved in learning to know anything, we will see that knowing has to begin with an act of faith. We have to trust the evidence of our eyes and ears...we have to begin by trusting those who undertake to teach us. there is no other possible way to begin." He goes on to say that doubt does have a place in helping us to critique and revise what we learn. Yet he concludes, "It follows, therefore, that, while both believing and doubting have necessary place in the whole enterprise of knowing, believing is primary and doubting is secondary. The contemporary opinion- very widely held- that doubt is somehow more honest than faith, is an entirely irrational prejudice. It is a form of dogmatism which is entirely destructive." [The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society, 20] From reading your post, I get a sense of hermeneutic of suspicion being given primary role in your journey of faith. You write about having learned to question "so much". It appears that the consious disposition to question matters of faith is essential to you. Am I correct in that assesment? How does that stand in dialogue with Newbigin here?

    3.What doe it mean that "doubt is the essence" of your faith?

  8. This, John, is a beautiful post. And the comments only add to its beauty. Thanks so much.

    When a child asks "Why? W-h-y-y-y-y?" until the good parent begins to lose patience, the ultimate response is, "Because I sad so!" And that is usually good enough-- eventually.

    This answer comes, sometimes, from God, as well. And it is good enough.