Peter Enns. The Bible Tells Me So… Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It. HarperOne: 2014.
Like many Christians raised in the church, I grew up singing “The B-I-B-L-E Song” in Sunday school:
Yes that’s the book for me,
I stand alone on the Word of God,
Back then life seemed so simple. The Bible was God’s inerrant revelation to mankind, relayed to the human stenographers word for word with the same immediacy and certainty as the Ten Commandments were given to Moses. The result is that every matter the text addresses — history, ethics, science, and of course theology — were a symphony of harmony, preserved from any hint of error.
Now that was a text on which one could stand. All else was sinking sand.
Enter Peter Enns…
Except that picture doesn’t reflect the reality. As Peter Enns puts it, “this rulebook view of the Bible is like a knockoff Chanel handbag–fine as long as it’s kept at a distance, away from curious and probing eyes.” (4)
But take a closer look at the difficulties and you might find yourself joining the countless Christians who have faced the dark night of the soul as a result. Some have emerged with a shattered faith (I speak with these folks regularly through my blog). Others weather the storm with a dose of cognitive dissonance and compartamentalization. Either way, it ain’t a pretty picture.
Enns offers another response in his new book The Bible Tells Me So. And as a respected biblical scholar and blogger extraordinaire, he is well suited to the task. But Enns’ ability to speak into this situation is not merely a matter of his CV. It is also borne of his own past existential struggles, and it is with these that he begins the book.
Enns’ account of wrestling with the Bible culminates in a moment during his PhD when he recalls listening to a Jewish professor describe how some rabbis in the second century before Christ had hypothesized that a water-giving rock had followed the Israelites for forty years in the wilderness like a giant, portable water fountain. Insane, right?
Then the professor observed that the Apostle Paul appealed to this absurd rabbinic theory in 1 Cor. 10:4 when he claimed that this rock was Christ. To some Christians this might have been little more than a curious piece of trivia. But to Enns, the effect of that revelation was earth-shaking. To accept that Paul, author of a large chunk of the New Testament, endorsed a bizarre belief which was the product of his age seemed to Enns to strip the Bible of “its designer power suit” and replace it “with off-the-rack sweatpants from Marshalls”. (18) In other words, far from the B-I-B-L-E revelation downloaded from heaven, the Bible began to appear distressingly ordinary.
This revelation initiated a crisis in Enns’ life. But rather than repudiate the Bible or compartamentalize the problem in order to maintain the traditional course, he decided to re-evaluate his expectations. And he concluded that the problem is not with the Bible per se. Rather, it is with our assumptions of what the Bible must be to constitute God’s word for us.
Once Enns had set aside those assumptions and resolved to accept the Bible as it comes to us, he found himself free to deal honestly with the difficulties as they appear in the text. That decision soon created a list of hard facts included the following: “God does a lot of killing and plaguing,” “What the Bible says happened often didn’t,” and “The biblical writers often disagree” (25). These are serious problems and Enns unpacks each of them in more depth.
Chapter 2 focuses on all that “killing and plaguing” with a special eye to the troubling genocide of the Canaanites. As Enns puts it, “this God is flat-out terrifying: he comes across as a perennially hacked-off warrior-god, more Megatron than heavenly Father.” (31) You might think things turn bad for the Canaanites at the beginning of Joshua. But Enns points out that the Canaanite curse extends back to the story of Noah. As the story goes, Noah’s son Ham walks into the tent and finds Noah drunk and passed out. When Noah sobers up, he responds by cursing Ham’s descendants who will later become the Canaanites. How are we supposed to take this? As Enns observes pointedly, “If we read this in another ancient book, we’d call it propaganda….” (34) With his open view of the Bible, Enns can freely admit that the Bible is not the exception to the rule: this is propaganda against the Canaanites. So then the next question: what’s it doing there? What was God thinking?
Enns spends the rest of chapter critiquing the B-I-B-L-E view that attempts to exonerate all the moral content in the Bible. To be sure, this leaves Enns with a big question, “why would God allow himself to be cast in the role of a majorly hacked off tribal deity if he wasn’t?” (62) This is part of his response: “These ancient writers had an adequate understanding of God for them in their time, but not for all time” (65). However, given the thorough nature of Enns’ critique of the anti-Canaanite propaganda, I think it is fair to ask, in what sense was this “Megatron” tribal deity ever an adequate understanding of God?
One of the points Enns makes in chapter 2 is that the archaeological evidence does not support the war narrative of Joshua. This theme of history diverging from the text takes the center stage in chapter 3. From the differences between the four gospels to the very different histories of Samuel/Kings and Chronicles, we find that “The biblical storytellers recall the past, often the very distant past, not ‘objectively,’ but purposefully.” (75) Once we appreciate the degree to which ideological purposes shape the telling of history, we will find ourselves liberated from the existential angst that every event relayed in the biblical narratives must correspond to a past historical event. Particularly fascinating in this regard is the way that Enns explains how the stories of Israel’s deep history in the Torah (e.g. Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel) are narrated to illumine the complex political situation of Israel centuries later. As Enns concludes, “Over the years I’ve grown more and more convinced that ‘storytelling’ is a better way of understanding what the Bible is doing with the past than ‘history writing.'”(128)
In chapter 4 Enns addresses the diversity of perspectives in the Bible. The following passage effectively summarizes the gist of the chapter:
“1. Proverbs 26:4: Do not answer fools according to their folly, or you will be a fool yourself.
2. Proverbs 26:5: Answer fools according to their folly, or they will be wise in their own eyes.
“In other words, (#1) Don’t mix it up with argumentative morons, or you’ll come down to their level. On the other hand, (2#) Get in the face of argumentative morons to put them in their place.” (137)
The lesson is that God included divergent perspectives in the Bible for good reason. When we attempt to flatten out those differences based on some B-I-B-L-E assumption about a unified perspective and an artificially imposed harmony among the authors, we end up imposing a foreign, procrustean bed on the text. The divergent perspectives are there for a reason, and we flatten them out at our peril.
The next two chapters focus on Jesus. In chapter 5 Enns notes how Jesus engages in creative exegesis of the Bible which wouldn’t pass muster in a hermeneutics class today. But no worry, for Jesus wasn’t speaking first to our time and place but to his. And “in Jesus’s day, such creative handling of the psalm to draw out a deeper meaning is perfectly fine.” (176) And while Jesus affirms the law of Moses, he also shows in his own challenging interpretation of it that sometimes following the Torah means “not following the script, but being creative and adapting the past to speak to changing circumstances in the present.” (182)
In chapter 6 Enns considers how the life, death and resurrection of Jesus revolutionized the early church’s understanding of the Bible and their own faith. The following passage on Paul captures the radical nature of this paradigm shift:
“To sum up: Paul says Torah was never central to God but only temporary, a placeholder playing a supporting role until Jesus came to replace it. Any normal Jew, hearing Paul describe Israel’s faith this way, would have thought he was having a nervous breakdown. Imagine today walking into your average church one Sunday and hearing a pastor say that there’s been a change in plans, and now the true way of following Jesus is to sing the praises of Allah and his one prophet, Mohammed. An emergency pastoral search committee would be convened before the closing hymn.” (223)
That puts the Damascus Road experience in a very different light, that’s for sure.
The final chapter (seven for those who are counting) concludes the book with a recap of the argument “in Exactly 265 Words (With Brief Commentary)” (231) followed by an inspirational pep talk on God’s penchant for open debate and discussion. God wants us to be free to wrestle with the Bible in all its humanity as we seek to follow Jesus Christ. There is a lot of wisdom in this section, including this warning to those who attempt to quash their growing doubts about the Bible for the sake of comfortable conformity: “if you stay where you are without any change at all, the pressure to either conform or keep quiet will work in you like a slow-acting poison.” (241) Amen to that. As I noted above, I interact regularly with folks who lost their faith because they never dealt with their own questions about the Bible.
Shall we wave Peter’s ennsign?
I have read many books critiquing the B-I-B-L-E while seeking to offer a healthier understanding of scripture. Many of those books are excellent, but none of them can approach Enns for sheer, infectious readability. This Bible stuff is serious business so it really helps that Enns handles it with his deft wit. For example, he begins his acknowledgement page thusly: “I’D LIKE TO ACKNOWLEDGE MYSELF. Writing is hard, and I’m wiped.” (265) Heh heh. Some people might find the Enns’ penchant for wry quips and provocative metaphors irreverent or off-putting, but I really enjoyed it. I haven’t laughed this much reading a book since Rod Burgundy’s Let Me Off at the Top! My Classy Life and Other Musings.
Enns isn’t just a joker, however. Behind the witticisms is a brilliant Bible scholar with a pastoral heart and a deep, pious love of the Bible. That’s why I so appreciated the personal narrative that kicked off the book. These are questions that Enns himself has lived out in his own life and it shows. While Enns is a first-rate (Harvard trained) scholar, this book is aimed at a general audience, and thus is not laden down with footnotes or scholarly references. That contributes to the book’s readability without sacrificing scholarly acumen.
All that said, I expect that many people will find themselves deeply dissatisfied with this book and in particular the doctrine of scripture offered within it. My first point in defense of Enns would likely focus on the deeply Christocentric tone of his bibliology. Enns’ view is Christocentric both in the sense that he stresses that the Bible is centered on Christ and points to him (237) as well as in the sense that that the Bible itself has an incarnational nature which parallels the incarnation of Jesus in key respects.
However, critics will likely remain dissatisfied with the radical nature of Enns’ proposal. And in key respects it is radical. While Enns is certainly committed to the historical nature of Christ’s life, death and resurrection, he sets aside the question of history for vast tracts of Israel’s story, including the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob), Moses, the Exodus, the giving of the Law, the occupation of Canaan, and so on.
What is more, while Enns spends more than two hundred pages discussing scripture, one is hard pressed to find a clear statement of Enns’ own doctrine of inspiration. Instead, one finds statements that will strike many critics as vague and understated. For example, he observes that the Bible is “the main way for Christians today to learn about God, the go-to sourcebook for spiritual comfort, guidance, and insight.” (3) This certainly is true. The question is why. What is it about this text that makes it unique? Later in the book Enns states: “The Bible carries the thoughts and meditations of ancient pilgrims and, I believe, according to God’s purpose, has guided, comforted, and informed Christians for as long as there have been Christians.” (234, emphasis added) This is a good statement and it is surely correct. But it is also inadequate for a doctrine of inspiration since Augustine’s Confessions would fit this description equally well. Once again we’re left wondering, what is it about the Bible that makes it unique? Just how does this incarnation metaphor function vis-à-vis scriptural inspiration and authority?
I also see Enns being vulnerable to the consistency charge. Enns lays out his operative principle when discussing the extraordinary nature of the stories of Genesis and Exodus:
“If we read these sorts of episodes outside of the Bible, from another ancient culture, we wouldn’t blink an eye. We’d know right away we were dealing with the kinds of stories people wrote long ago and far away, not things that happened, and certainly nothing to invest too much of ourselves in.” (4)
Based on that observation, Enns thinks we ought to be consistent and conclude that these biblical stories of deep history are best understood as a type of myth that helped form an ancient culture. Fair enough, but then one might reply that the ancient world also has many miracle claims, healers, teachers and messianic pretenders. So why accept the Jesus claims whilst discounting all the others?
The third and final concern comes not from the conservatives who fear Enns is on a slippery slope to heresy, but rather from those who might wonder why he hasn’t gone further yet. This brings me back to his claim that the tribal warrior conception of God was an “adequate understanding of God for [the Israelites] in their time, but not for all time”. As I noted above, one might legitimately wonder in what sense it could ever be adequate to understand God as a bloody and capricious “Megatron”. And if it can’t, then why not just toss the texts rather than attempt to retain them with a vague incarnational metaphor?
If the tone of this book is any hint, I suspect Enns would welcome these questions/objections. After all, he stresses that “debating each other, and debating God, is what God wants.” (242) Indeed, that’s why the diversity is present in God’s book in the first place. The name “Israel” means “he that wrestles with God.” And in this fine book Peter Enns has given us much with which to wrestle.