A Controversial Take on the Bible: Inspiration and Incarnation

One of the most important voices in popular Christianity today is that of Peter Enns. Author of several bestselling books—including The Evolution of Adam and The Sin of Certainty—Enns has received polarized reactions from the Christian community, being both the subject of widespread praise and the target of condemning attacks. He and the movement he represents have asked challenging questions of evangelical Christianity—questions that deserve to be answered.


Enns entered the religious spotlight with his 2005 publication Inspiration and Incarnation and his subsequent firing from his tenured position at Westminster Theological Seminary a few years later. Since that time, much of Enns’s work has dealt with the same topics and themes he brought up in Inspiration and Incarnation, the topics and themes that have brought him personal hardship as well as countless criticisms. It is these themes and this book that I want to wrestle with over the next few weeks.

The book is only five chapters long, and if you’d like to follow along, I plan on dealing with a chapter per week. Additionally, Enns has another more recent and easier-to-read book entitled The Bible Tells Me So… where he deals with a lot of the same issues. I invite you to pick up a copy of either book and deal with the contents yourself—don’t just rely on my critique.

Section Break

In his first chapter, Enns lays out his reason for writing Inspiration and Incarnation. He says that even though he identifies as an evangelical Christian, he believes that evangelicals have been unable to deal with contemporary difficulties in Christianity and biblical studies. Though he doesn’t state them specifically, the difficulties he likely has in mind—the ones countless Christians have been forced to face—are those regarding criticisms of the Bible’s inerrancy and the relation between secular/scientific knowledge and traditional Christian claims.

He notes that evangelicals’ inability to handle these issues isn’t entirely unreasonable as it is nothing new. Christians have been dealing poorly with change for a long time (think of the Church’s reaction to gentlemen like Copernicus). Enns, however, thinks that we can do better. We have to stop relying on ad hoc defenses—dealing with problems as they arise—and instead embrace a fundamental shift in how we understand the Bible.

Enns organizes his argument into three parts, which he’ll delve into over the course of the following chapters: the Old Testament and other literature from the ancient world, the theological diversity of the Old Testament, and how the New Testament handles the Old Testament. Across these three parts, Enns intends to deal respectively with the uniqueness of the Bible, the integrity of the Bible, and interpretation of the Bible.

Before he begins these discussions, though, he sets out what he thinks will be the answer to all the issues he raises: Christ.

For Enns, what is required is understanding Jesus Christ as our analogy of inspiration. This idea he bases on the simple fact that the only other thing we consider fully God and fully human in addition to Holy Scripture is the man Jesus of Nazareth.

That said, it has often been the case in Christian history that people have raised Christ’s divinity above his humanity. This is one of the earliest Christian heresies, docetism, the belief that Jesus only seemed human.

But we mustn’t let that happen in our conception of Christ or of the Bible. If Christ only seemed to be human, he could not truly atone for sins, and if the Bible were only divine it could not truly communicate with its human audience.

To remind us of its humanity, Enns briefly goes over some of the earthly characteristic of the biblical text: the Bible was written in (not particularly special) human languages; the Old Testament religion is consumed with temples, priests, and sacrifices just like every other ancient religion; the surrounding nations also had prophets that communicated the divine will; Israel was ruled by kings similar to other nations; the Jewish legal system looks a lot like those that predate it.

He doesn’t really go into those points too much, saving them for later chapters. He does, however, remind us that there are many unhealthy ways to view the Bible. Those on the far-left focus on the similarities between the Bible and the ancient world (and make a big deal of it), while conservatives fixate on its uniqueness. He ends the chapters by telling us that there’s a better analogy for what the Bible is, and that’s Christ.

Basing anything faith-related on the template of Christology sounds tempting to me. But at this point, Enns hasn’t said anything specific. He’s still got a few chapters to build his case, and so we’ll hold off on any conclusions.

I know my audience and I know that they are coming from two different places on this subject, and so for that reason I want to be fair as we progress. These issues are tricky and in many ways central to our faith. I hope that you’ll subscribe or follow along as we deal with them in the coming weeks. Pick up a book if you get the chance, and let’s see what we think of this controversial take on the Bible.

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