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Modern Reformation: Thinking Theologically

Expressing Doubt from the Pulpit: Experts and Amateurs

Published Friday, March 4, 2022 By Caleb Miller

One thing that puzzles newer preachers and teachers, and more than a handful of seasoned ones, is this: given a high view of biblical inerrancy and authority, and therefore a high level of confidence in the resurrection of Christ, power of the Spirit, and goodness of our Heavenly Father, what should preachers do when preaching or teaching on a topic or passage that causes them personally to doubt some aspect of God’s truth? Supposing we diligently study a passage and come away with a foreboding contradiction, or a concern rather than any clear answer to our question in preparing for a sermon or lesson, what then? Do we scrap the preparation? Choose another passage? Stubbornly charge through anyway, without mentioning the parts that cause us to hesitate? Start a file in our notes called “problems for a later date”?

This is a particularly potent question at this time, when in both the evangelical and confessional communities a public reframing or “deconstructing” of faith over a range of issues is becoming trendy—in some cases leading to healthy confrontation of corrupt practices, and in other cases dysfunction to the point of deconversion. Is it wise as preachers or teachers to let those we are charged to shepherd and teach know about our own struggles to understand or make sense of a biblical text or our own life experiences, or should they be concealed?

Consider the following statements from two well-respected scholars in the evangelical world. Up front please note that I find both statements compelling. I find both authors trustworthy. I nod in agreement when I read them and suspect the majority of those reading this essay will as well. Yet when set side by side, these quotes seem, at least formally, to contradict one another.  

Concerning the subtle habit of undermining Scripture in our lives, as reflected in sermons and lessons, D. A. Carson writes:   

In its ugliest form, the preacher says something like this: “Our passage this morning, Luke 16:19–31, like quite a number of other passages drawn from the life of Jesus, depicts hell in some pretty shocking ways. Frankly, I wish I could avoid these passages. They leave me distinctly uncomfortable. But of course, I cannot ignore them entirely, for after all they are right here in the Bible.” The preacher has formally submitted to Scripture’s authority, while presenting himself as someone who is more compassionate or more sensitive than Jesus. This is as deceptive as it is wicked…

Speaking candidly about Old Testament passages he finds troubling and hard to explain C. H. Wright admits:

There is something about this part of our Bible that I have to include in my basket of things I don’t understand about God and his ways. I find myself thinking, “God, I wish you had found some other way to work out your plans.” There are days I wish this narrative were not in the Bible at all (usually after I’ve faced another barrage of questions about it), though I know it is wrong to wish that in relation to the Scriptures. God knew what he was doing – in the events themselves and in the record of them that he has given us. But it is still hard. (86)

Wright’s admission certainly seems to embody the very language Carson warns strongly against. There are times when I read these quotes side by side and think Carson is wiser to caution against deep and public expressions of doubt. Other times I think Wright has captured the overall biblical ethos better.

I’d like here to suggest that Carson and Wright are accentuating different aspects or nuances of the same overall picture. There is, of course, no unwritten rule saying that Carson and Wright must agree—only contextual clues that suggest both authors are making claims that are more careful than block quotes might at first appear. It is not as though Carson is reluctant to address difficult questions or that Wright is notoriously prone to timidity and skepticism. Both men have considerable experience fielding difficult and open-ended questions while maintaining an unrelentingly high view of the trustworthiness of the Bible. Both have waded into controversial waters at times with quality scholarship. Both have resisted easy or dismissive answers on many occasions.

There is also a timeline to consider. Wright’s admission was published in 2008; Carson’s rebuke came almost a decade later in 2017. To my knowledge there are no indications that Carson had Wright specifically in mind (the annoyance Carson is giving voice to seems fresh, not the kind of complaint that takes nine years to put into print). There is also the difference in intended audience: Wright is speaking to the weary thinker in a book tailored toward those wrestling with tough questions; Carson is speaking primarily to the young upstart preacher in a journal specifically geared toward seminary students.

Surely there is room in this context for complementary perspectives. But how are we to find it when caught between a busy preaching schedule and a nagging doubt?

Guiding Questions

C.S. Lewis, in his Reflections on the Psalms, noted how the most helpful insights to lingering questions are at times passed along from one amateur to another. The master of any given subject is “very likely to explain what you understood already, to add a great deal of information you didn’t want, and say nothing at all about the thing that was puzzling you.”[1] Meanwhile fellow students can assist one another with the immediate concerns. 

Carson and Wright have inspired me to reflect more deeply on what it means to be faithful (both in the sense of being well-informed/accurate and in the sense of being authentic/relatable) in the navigation of difficult or controversial passages. If I have understood their guidance and the context of their statements, there is no ultimate contradiction in their words.

I sense Lewis’ insight at work in the interplay between Carson, Wright, and those of us who have not yet devoted decades of our lives to serious research, but still have tasted doubt while holding a position of ecclesiastical or declarative authority. Experts such as Carson and Wright weigh in on whether acknowledging doubt is advisable from the pulpit or similar context, but it is plain enough to see for the amateur as well as the expert that preaching faithfully in a world devoid of iron-clad certainty is not a zero-sum game. Life experience provides enough to see that. It is not a question of always expressing doubt or never doing it. A consistent practice of avoidance, or refusal to admit concerns publicly, especially from the pulpit, gives the impression in the long run that doubt and uncertainty are things to be shamed and ignored, perhaps even feared, rather than patiently and pastorally addressed out in the open. If doubt itself becomes something to be feared, it becomes nearly impossible to tackle a problem authentically.

On the other hand, a consistent practice of acknowledging any and all uncertainties, rehearsing each and every last unknown, especially from the pulpit, can lead to its own crippling disaster. If doubt is something idealized and venerated, a near-weekly occurrence and constant refrain demonstrating “authenticity,” telling our congregation so regularly that we actually nurse private doubts about the reliability of the biblical testimony, they will invariably begin to follow our lead. They will begin to lose confidence in the Scriptures, in us, or both.

But these twin failures do not fit neatly along some linear continuum. There is no magic ratio. Carson is calling out a certain practice as subtle yet deceptive and wicked, no matter the frequency; it will do us little good to simply engage in it only occasionally and think we have avoided the danger. Meanwhile Wright exposes a sentiment that is all-too-common for people who seriously study the Bible.

If we simply look for a “balance” or a “moderate” position between the two imagined poles of always or never expressing doubt publicly, which is one way to sort of blend the sentiments expressed by Carson and Wright, I believe we will be disappointed and perpetually frustrated. It is of course true that I, like many others, have witnessed examples of both equal and opposite failures: some who essentially abandon their congregants to wade through a sea of unyielding questions without any help, and others who stubbornly refuse to acknowledge difficulties even when asked directly by a sincere person struggling to make sense of a theological matter. Both of these failures can signal a lack of awareness, an unwillingness to endure through the vague or uncertain or apparently contradicting details to discover possible solutions or come alongside someone in a struggle, uttering the sometimes-dangerous and other-times-liberating words: “I don’t know.”

What the amateur needs help with in all of these considerations (speaking from experience) is help seeing biblical patterns and priorities. Since this is more than a binary choice, what considerations should guide this decision so that we understand the occasions upon which it is appropriate to express our doubts?

Taking cues from the interplay between Carson and Wright, in what follows I have identified five questions to guide preachers and teachers with a high view of Scripture more specifically as they navigate difficult texts and come to grips with their own doubts:

  1. What is the biblical pattern with regard to the doubt we might express?
  2. Have we truly given God the benefit of the doubt in this instance?
  3. How have we positioned ourselves in relationship to God and the text?
  4. What have we spent the most time or energy saying?
  5. What are the unique needs of those we are called to teach?

In a subsequent post, I will expand on each of these questions, as I think thorough answers to these questions will help the “amateurs” among us untangle the tight knot of uncertainty.

If (1) we are unaware of the greater biblical pattern, (2) we are only offering a knee jerk reaction, (3) we have portrayed ourselves as more compassionate or considerate than Jesus, (4) we have spent the bulk of our energy on controversial or vexing topics, or (5) we are only pouring more fuel on the proverbial fire of “deconstructing” the faith of our congregants, expressing doubt will probably do more long-term harm than good. The key word in this list is “or” – expressing doubt is inadvisable if any one of these conditions are met.

Yet, though they might be rare, there are scenarios where such expressions are advisable. The Christian life is marked by faith, hope, and love, and deeply informed by the fear of the Lord. It provides peace that surpasses understanding, and joy in the midst of great sorrow, rather than a strict, ironclad epistemic certainty or the removal of all sinful proclivities. Acknowledging that from the pulpit is not only advisable, it is sometimes necessary.

Caleb Miller is a US Army chaplain and has written for Themelios and From the Green Notebook.

[1] C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (San Diego: Harcourt, 1958), 1.

  • Caleb Miller

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