Not too long ago, I received a review copy of Peter Enns’ newest release, The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It. Thanks to HaperCollins for the book!
As with most books, the subtitle easily identifies the thesis of this work. Enns takes issue with a strongly conservative, evangelical approach towards defending Scripture, or perhaps even more, his challenge goes out to all who embrace the word inerrancy as an apt adjective describing the nature of Scripture.
I actually think that, to understand Enns’ theological views and perspectives, one needs to know his story. It is a tough one, one that stirs empathy in me. What is that story?
Peter Enns was a graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary (maybe the flagship Reformed-Presbyterian seminary in America). He received his MDiv in 1989, and after finishing an MA and PhD at Harvard, he was hired back at Westminster in 1994. He taught both Old Testament and Hermeneutics (how to interpret Scripture) up until 2008. With the 2005 release of his book, Inspiration and Incarnation, in which he argues for an “incarnational” understanding of Scripture, controversy began to stir at Westminster. What the book taught, which is what he taught in class for his 14-year career at Westminster, left some of the seminary administration questioning whether the book fell within the confines of the Westminster Confession of Faith. That’s important for Westminster Theological Seminary.
After 2 years of faculty meetings, headed up by seminary president, Peter Lillback, the faculty voted 12-8 confirming that Enns’ book was within the confines of the Westminster Confession. However, the situation was referred to the Board of Trustees who, in the spring of 2008, voted 18-9 to suspend Enns from his position following the May graduation of 2008. Beginning August 1, 2008, Enns and Westminster decided to part ways. Interestingly enough, following the Board’s vote against Enns, 9 trustees resigned.
You can read a bit more of his story here.
Again, knowing this – and especially after reading Inspiration and Incarnation myself (my in-depth review here: part 1 and part 2) – I can understand Peter Enns’ frustration, if not outright anger, at overly conservative, evangelical Christians not allowing space within academia to grapple with difficult theological questions and positions. Though this little snippet is beyond the purview of a book review, I will say that, reading of the situation (and knowing these types of scenarios have continued within evangelical theological academies), I can understand the somewhat “reactionary” or “frustrated” mode found in much of his writings, even 6 years post-Westminster. This is, at least, my analysis of Enns’ current approaches after reading both his books and blog. And he continued to dissociate himself from conservative Christians with the release of his The Evolution of Adam (which I read but did not review).
Enter in his newest release to stir the pot: The Bible Tells Me So. I’ll come back to Enns’ situation later.
The premise of the book is that the Bible does not actually behave as nicely as many think it should or claim that it does. We have a Bible that offers a lot of tension, challenges, inconsistencies and contradictions. To argue Scripture doesn’t is to simply glance over what we actually find within the text or maybe, worse yet, to see it and then deny it.
In the first section of the first chapter of the book, entitled When The Bible Doesn’t Behave, Enns lays out the predicament with a summary statement as such:
Taking the Bible seriously enough to read it carefully, as many Christians can testify to, can generate more than its share of uh-oh moments. The Bible can become a challenge to one’s faith in God rather than the source of faith, a problem to be overcome rather than the answer to our problems.
The Holy Bible, the sourcebook for spiritual comfort, guidance, and insight, makes you squirm – or at least fidget. It just won’t do to make believe otherwise. In fact, it’s good to come clean about it and clear the air. The question is what to do about it. (p6)
Those “uh-oh moments” will continue to arise in the world we live today, one in which the superficial retort, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it,” doesn’t satisfy those who are willing to dig just a little deeper beyond the surface.
Enns then spends the majority of the book highlighting many of the challenges within the biblical text – differing order of events with the creation accounts of Genesis 1 and 2; narrative accounts in the Old Testament not lining up with archaeological discoveries (the exodus, Red Sea crossing, conquer of Jericho, etc); divergent details in parallel accounts such as a) Samuel/Kings and Chronicles and b) the Gospel accounts.
For example, here’s one scenario in which the biblical account and archaeological evidence do not exactly line up: Of the 31 Canaanite towns listed in Joshua, we are told 16 were destroyed (as detailed in Numbers, Joshua and Judges). But of those 16 towns destroyed, only 4 at the most show actual signs of violent destruction at or around the time when Joshua and his army would have attacked (see p59 of the book).
What does one do with the biblical text and archaeology?
Here might be some evangelical responses when faced with such scenario?
We don’t trust archaeology. At all!
Well, archaeology can get it wrong. God’s word cannot.
Well, that’s what archaeology says now. But once we have all full and final info available to us, it will support the biblical account.
Something to that effect.
Or when it comes to thinking through the science available to us in the 21st century and engaging with Scripture, we express a grave distrust of much of science as well (though, perhaps, we continue to take medicine, visit the doctor, trust much of the general knowledge around what’s out there in the cosmos, etc).
These kind of approaches are problematic for Enns. And for me as well.
There’s a sense in which it seems we’re not being honest.
So, what is Peter Enns’ answer on how to deal with challenges and even contradictions, both between two portions within the biblical text and between archaeological (or scientific) discoveries and the biblical text? I’d summarize it with two points.
1) The Bible comes to us within an ancient context.
Yes, the Bible still speaks today. But it was not some abstract text that dropped out of heaven. It did not form within a vacuum. It was penned within a very ancient culture. This means we need to let it’s “history” telling come to us out of an ancient context. Our 21st century methods of historiography are foreign to the ancients. They were not so much focused on journalistic fact-reporting, but rather they were shaping an account to teach. Teaching about Yahweh, the God of the Hebrews, was priority numero uno. And whatever measure was needed to teach about Yahweh would be taken. It doesn’t mean outright deception was the point. It just means that propositional, post-Enlightenment perspectives on history-reporting fall well outside the confines of the ancient world, that same world of which the Hebrews/Jews were part.
So if you’ve got a little (or a lot of) tension between the biblical account and what archeology reports, ala the situation of how many towns were actually destroyed by the Israelites in Moses’ and Joshua’s time, one can find a bit of solace (at least for me) knowing that the account is being “exaggerated,” if you will, because there is a didactic (instructional) approach being taken – who ultimately is Yahweh in regards to the other Mesopotamian gods? Even a more conservative perspective as found in Paul Copan’s, Is God a Moral Monster?, recognizes the exaggerated narrative.
2) The Bible is not so much one book but rather a library of books.
In our effort to defend Scripture, and especially declaring that Scripture is one harmonious whole, we have failed to give credit to the fact that the Scripture actually has multiple voices. And multiple voices don’t always agree – which we are happy to note to some extent, as in the Gospel account’s reporting of Jesus’ teachings. But the reality is that some of the voices do disagree.
Is David the perfect guy that Chronicles portrays him as or does he partake in some pretty nasty actions throughout Samuel and the first few chapters of Kings? Why does Genesis 1 say that animals were created, then male and female, but Genesis 2 tells us God created man first, animals second, and only then did he create woman?
I’m aware of the normative approach to such questions (Google them if interested). But I find greater consolation knowing we’re engaging with a multi-volume book with multi-varied voices helping us to ultimately know the one true God summed up in Jesus Christ.
So this is how I’d summarize the thesis of Enns’ newest release, as well as boiling down his answers in digestible bits to such challenges that arise.
Back to the personal story of Peter Enns.
Again, I recognize I’m doing a little pastoral, or psychological, reflection on a man’s story. This is probably overstepping the bounds (and it’s definitely overstepping the book review bounds). But I simply offer some reflections after reading his writings over the past 5 years.
I don’t know Peter and I’m not proposing I’ve figured him out. But what I sense is that, as Enns began engaging with some of the critical scholarly issues that actually exist out there, he was actually looking to forge a way for Protestant evangelicals to healthily undertake such studies. This did not call for a rejection of Christ and the central tenets of our faith (nor abandoning the belief in the God-breathed, theopneustos, nature of Scripture). But it did call for moving on from some of the formulated answers we’ve been throwing out for some time now, which also meant being committed ultimately to the pursuit of truth (all truth is God’s truth), even when it “hurt” or made us uncomfortable, rather than a commitment to a particular perspective of the Christian faith, namely a more conservative Reformed Presbyterianism.
But his desire to pave a way for good academic, scholarly work within the evangelical world, definitely a worthy project, ended up biting him on the backside in the Westminster episode of 2006-2008. And I think he’s still feeling the effects of this some 6 years later.
Therefore, while I agree with much of the scholarly approaches Peter Enns takes, I would only find myself encouraging a more pastoral, maybe less cynical, approach to the issues. While many of the “progressives” will be cheering from the sidelines, Enns could have an opportunity to better draw in more conservative evangelicals who are in, let’s say, seminary and for the first time are engaging with these issues.
You’ll never be able to draw in certain sectors of the faith. In the end, some will not truly want proper scholarship, especially if it means working through the tensions of the Bible as it sits side by side with such fields as geology, biology and archaeology. However, there are plenty (like myself as I began to read such works as Inspiration and Incarnation) who could become enriched with such scholarly efforts, all to help evangelical theologians properly engage within the 21st century world today. That more “pastoral,” or sensitive, approach could open the door.
Thanks for your interesting review and take on Peter Enns and his recent book. I too – provoked by some of your own older blog writings – have felt the need to re-examine what exactly I think about the inspiration and inerrancy of scripture.
Explanations of the nature of scripture that depart from the strictly conservative viewpoint are therefore of interest to me, – obviously if I accept Enns’ foundational thesis that the bible is not as square on all sides as I might otherwise like it to be.
Concluding therefore that our cultural history has caused me to look at scripture through glasses other than the ones worn by the ancient writers, is a credible and sobering thought – but I must confess that such an explanation, fails to resolve (at least for me) the tensions you describe!!
E.g the Deuteronomy / Joshua account of the journey and conquest of promised land: I recall how much the little details (e.g. noting the very many unheard-of places that they journeyed through on their way), was something that impressed me deeply. This was because such detailed record keeping of seemingly incidental details, says to me that the writer is writing this as real eye-witness history rather than as merely a retrospective story deliberately embellished for the purpose of teaching spiritual truth.
No matter how much I try to remove my post-enlightenment glasses, I can’t seem to get past this difficulty- not only here, but also in numerous other places throughout the OT. Do I need another visit to my optician??
The book of Job, however, is not like Deuteronomy / Joshua. I can easily accept that this looks and reads like a carefully crafted writing, based in part (I would like to think) on a true story, but where historical details can be separated from the main narrative without doing violence either to the truth of the teaching or the sensitivity of ones conscience!!