A Controversial Take on the Bible: Reflecting on and Responding to Enns

So the last few weeks we’ve been working through Peter Enns’s Inspiration and Incarnation—if you haven’t been able to follow along, subscribe or find those posts here. In this final chapter, Enns summarizes his previous arguments and offers a succinct reflection.

To begin, Enns reminds his readers of the parallel he is wanting to draw between Christ and the Bible. Just as the relation between the divine and human is mysteriously present in the person of Jesus, so is it present in the pages of Scripture. Moreover, it is up to each new generation to wrestle with the meaning of this sacred mystery.

Enns then reiterates his arguments from the last three chapters. First, Scripture is not totally unique in all of its content, but it is unique in that it is the only incarnate communication of God. Second, the theological diversity of the Bible does not mean the Bible lacks integrity, but that it fosters complex theological conversations. Lastly, the New Testament’s use of the Old shows that Christ is the climax of all Scripture; he is not in all Scripture in a superficial sense but in some deeper way.

With this in mind, Enns ends his book by stating that Scripture’s primary purpose is to be “a means of grace”—i.e. it imparts the gospel—and he hopes his readers will grow from this idea. While he fears that many in his intended audience may approach his reevaluation with suspicion and dread, he hopes they will read with humility, love, and patience.

Section Break

Now that we’ve finished the book, let’s spend some time here at the end analyzing it and handling its vision.

I’ll begin with a qualifier: I get that the book is trying to cover a lot of ground and that it is directed at a more general audience (probably conservative students going into seminary), but even so, Peter Enns’s Inspiration and Incarnation offers a middling exegesis of the biblical text that leaves something to be desired. There are a few places where I outright think his interpretation is faulty, but more often I find that he presents a single interpretation, plausible as it may be, as the only interpretation—and that certainty is what really limits the book. Enns is trying to persuade an evangelical audience of his way of seeing things, and if he truly wishes to do so, he must grapple with an evangelical reading of the text.

More specifically, I didn’t care for the section on the New Testament’s interpretation of the Old Testament (the chapter discussed last week). I thought he was too gentle with the apostolic authors’ appropriation of Old Testament prophecy. I think there is more to be said there—there is more tension between how the early Christians handled Scripture and how we handle it than Enns conveys. I don’t think it can be so easily dismissed on account of a “Christotelic” interpretation as he suggests.

But beyond these, my only other criticism begins to bleed over into accolade: I don’t think he went far enough with his model of inspiration. Enns is not a philosopher of religion or a theologian, so it may be beyond what he recognizes as his expertise—but he never truly explains the foundation or the merits of paralleling God’s Word incarnate and God’s word inspired. This is a beautiful analogy that has the potential to more fully inform American Christianity’s understanding of the Bible. I only wish that Enns had given them more of what it could mean.

Beyond some of his particular arguments which I found less than perfect, I greatly sympathized with Enns’s overall argument. When we step back and reexamine the Bible, in light of its historical context and its various parts in relation to each other, we begin to see that some of our older assumptions about the nature of Scripture no longer stand.

If we depend on the uniqueness of Scripture for its authority, then we will find ourselves playing a God-of-the-gaps shell game.

If we smooth over its corners and ancient conversations, then we lose the complexity and trajectory of the original text’s multivalent voice.

If we force the inspired writers to match our modern standards of authorship and interpretation, then we dismiss the humanity of God’s (second) greatest communication with his creation.

Overall Enns does a good job of addressing a difficult issue with a lot of emotion and faith tied up in it. He proceeds with pastoral care for the students he likely envisions reading his words. And in so doing, he delivers a much-needed case for a much-needed change.

4 Comments

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  1. Can you explain: “If we force the inspired writers to match our modern standards of authorship and interpretation, then we dismiss the humanity of God’s (second) greatest communication with his creation?”

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    • That’s the basic argument of the 4th chapter (last week’s post).
      You and I and most everyone we know reads the Bible in a specific way: the grammatical-historical method – where you try to read and understand the Bible by analyzing exactly what the text says (which includes its context/genre/grammar) so you can know exactly what the author meant (in his historical context).
      The authors of the Bible seem to not use that same method when interpreting other parts of the Bible. They take quotes out of context to serve their (admittedly righteous) ends. This way of interpreting is typical (coincidentally or not) of other authors around the same time as the Bible was being written.
      This could be a problem because it defies what we understand good, faithful reading to be, or it could not be a problem because it simply exemplifies that the authors of the Bible were not writing as if perfect scribes but as humans of their time, limited to the same beliefs and styles of their time.

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  2. I would like ot reiterate some of the things you said. I believe you have made some great points.

    You said, “Just as the relation between the divine and human is mysteriously present in the person of Jesus, so is it present in the pages of Scripture. Moreover, it is up to each new generation to wrestle with the meaning of this sacred mystery.”

    I don’t have a problem when someone identifies a mystery. But I believe mysteries are there to be understood, even solved. In the sense of Scripture. Yes, Scripture leaves a lot to mystery, but one of the purposes of Scripture is REVELATION. And Revelation inherently diminishes Mystery. Therefore, I do not believe the mysteries of Scripture is something that we should celebrate. Instead, we should look to Scripture for answers to life and godliness… not an endless discussion about mysteries. As a side note, this difference in handling Scripture is in personality. According to Myers-Briggs model, Enns would be an “N”. As for me, I am a strong “S”. (I encourage you to look up what those mean.) Therefore, perhaps his audience is to keep “N” folks interested in Scripture…. While “S” folks like me would have trouble seeing any concrete points that Enns is trying to make.

    You said, “I don’t think he went far enough with his model of inspiration.”

    I got the same impression. While he brings a lot of things into question, I didn’t get the impression that he had a lot of answers. I find it pretty frustrating when people get on their soapbox and explain why certain things have been done poorly… but then this same person doesn’t have a solution with which to move forward. As you said, I also really, REALLY like Enns’ overall argument. I agree with you: I think Enns should have spent more time explaining a path onward with his Scriptual model. I’m left with the question, “How does Enns’ model help me become a stronger/deeper/better Christian?”

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