Wrestling with the Word

I resonate with Peter Enns’ personal story which he reviews briefly in the first chapter of The Bible Tells Me So. For a long time I believed in the inerrancy of Scripture. But increasingly, I found this standard evangelical doctrine dying the death of a thousand qualifications. Like Enns, I couldn’t simply ignore the questions I was facing. But unlike Enns, I come out rather differently at the end.

The book under review can be seen as a popular summary of Enns’ earlier and controversial book, Incarnation and Inspiration (2005). I was intrigued with its thesis. The Bible, like Jesus, must be interpreted as having both divine and human origins. Over the years I have become more willing to admit that the Bible was written by fallible human beings. And yet, I also want to say that the Bible is inspired by God. 

In The Bible Tells Me So, Enns maintains that the Bible is primarily a record of “ancient journeys of faith,” and these journeys then become “models for us on our own journeys.” My worry here is that this description of the bible is very human-centred. Where is God in this description? And what about revelation? I want to say that the Bible is both human and divinely inspired. Without an equal emphasis on the divine we are simply left with the feeble spiritual gropings of human beings who create their own gods.

The first big issue of the book concerns Israel’s invasion of Canaan, described in chapter 2. Enns explains that this chapter is “so dreadfully long” because the Canaanite genocide is a key problem for “sincere readers of the bible” and “contemporary atheists.” But sincere readers of the Bible don’t need an exhaustive description of Israel’s barbarous conquering of Canaan. Or, is Enns mainly concerned about gaining credibility with contemporary atheists?

Enns gives another reason for his preoccupation with Israel’s extermination of the Canaanites. He uses this story to drive home a key point for understanding many other parts of the Old Testament: “the ancient Israelites’ tribal mentality about themselves, their world and their God is reflected in what they wrote.” The chapter concludes with Enns’ solution to the embarrassment we feel about God telling the Israelites to kill the Canaanites: “Canaanite genocide is . . . not a historical account of something about God.” “God never told the Israelites to kill the Canaanites.” According to Enns, the Israelites only believed that God told them to do so. Note again how human-centred all this is.

“God likes stories,” Enns tells us in chapter 3. But stories of the past are always told for a purpose – “to persuade, motivate and inspire.” They are built on “imperfect memories,” and there is a good deal of “creating” and “inventing” going on to accomplish this purpose, with little concern about the original story being true. But if the events in the past never happened, how can recounting them provide encouragement to people living in the present? Enns also falls prey to an either-or fallacy: he assumes that Israel’s stories of the deep past cannot be written with both purposes in mind – to record the past, and to help us to cope with the present. Furthermore, there are limits to creative license, and Enns needs to pay more attention to defining these limits. If we allow too much creative license, we will end up with the entire Old Testament as fiction. 

Enns reminds us repeatedly that we must not impose modern criteria of historiography on ancient texts. “Getting the past ‘right’ in a modern sense wasn’t high priority” for biblical writers, according to Enns. This doesn’t mean that biblical writers were “trying to pull a fast one” or that they were being “sloppy.” Such accusations arise out of “modern thinking relying on modern rules of history writing.” But where is the evidence for these claims? I would suggest that ancient biblical writers were concerned about historical accuracy. Enns also assumes that we moderns are more “enlightened” than the ancients, and therefore we have more rigorous rules for history writing. This is post-Enlightenment nonsense.

In chapters 5 and 6 we move onto the story of Jesus. Enns goes out of his way to highlight how “utterly new and unexpected” the story of Jesus was. “JESUS WAS CRUCIFIED on Good Friday and raised from the dead on the third day, on Easter Sunday.” It nearly sounds as though we are here finally dealing with real history. But Enns focuses instead on how difficult it would have been for a first-century Jewish audience, shaped by its ancient story, to accept an executed and resurrected messiah.

So what do the New Testament writers do to overcome this problem? They reinterpret the Old Testament so that they point to a messiah who suffered, died and was raised from the dead. Jesus himself engaged “in a bit of creative biblical interpretation” to make the Old Testament point to himself. The Gospel writers too “do some creative reading” of the Old Testament. Paul too had “to rethink and transform his tradition and his scripture.” But there are limits to the creative reading and transformation of the scripture. Maybe, just maybe, the Old Testament does in fact point to Jesus. Here again, Enns fails to make room for genuine revelation and prophecy. 

We are still left with the question as to whether Jesus was actually crucified and resurrected. I expect the crucifixion is an historical event for Enns – hence the capital letters in the quote noted earlier. But what about the resurrection? Enns tends to skirt the question of the historicity of Jesus in the concluding chapters. To get his views on this question, we have to go to an earlier chapter (ch. 3). Here we are again told that if we read the Bible as a book that has to get history “right,” then “the gospels become a crippling problem.” Why? Because the Gospel writers give us very different portraits of Jesus, each one offering his own perspective. Most scholars, we are told, think that Matthew “created” some of the scenes surrounding Jesus’ birth to “shape” his story. Enns also suggests that trying to create a harmony of the four gospels so as to yield one true and coherent story is a mistake. Instead, Christians get at the real Jesus by “faith.” 

There you have it. The story of Jesus too is a record of subjective experiences, and is accepted on faith. What is so misleading is that in the final chapters Enns gives the impression that he is treating the story of Jesus as history. Even in his earlier treatment, he contradicts his rejection of harmonizing the gospels by suggesting that Matthew, Mark and Luke “are likely following the flow of history more than John.” Really! I thought any attempt to read the gospels as a way to get history right was a mistake. You can’t have your cake and eat it too, Peter Enns.

Enns reminds us repeatedly to read the Bible on its own terms. “You can’t just make the Bible mean whatever you feel like making it mean. You have to stick with what the text says.” I agree. Unfortunately, Enns does not follow his own advice. Indeed, at one point he says, “we’re all free to put the pieces together as we think best.” So, each to his own! A truly post-modern and relativistic approach to the Bible! If you don’t like the gospel according to Peter Enns, create your own.

Enns sums up and gives us some practical advice in the final chapter. We need to accept the Bible for what it is “with wrinkles, complexities, unexpected maneuvers and downright strangeness.” “This Bible is worth reading and paying attention to, because this is the Bible God uses . . . to point its readers to a deeper trust in him.” Some good advice. And, I like the God-centredness here – finally! Unfortunately, much of Enns’ earlier analysis undermines the possibility of accepting the Bible as God’s word. I therefore cannot recommend his book.

  • Elmer Thiessen is a semi-retired philosopher who lives in Waterloo, Ont. His most recent book: The Ethics of Evangelism: A Philosophical Defense of Proselytizing and Persuasion. Paternoster and IVP Academic, 2011.

You just read something for free.

But it didn’t appear out of thin air. Writers, editors and designers at Christian Courier worked behind the scenes to bring hope-filled, faith-based journalism to you.

As an independent publication, we simply cannot produce award-winning, Christ-centred material without support from readers like you. And we are truly grateful for any amount you can give!

CC is a registered charity, which is good news for you! Every contribution ($10+) is tax-deductible.

Similar Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *