Christianity Today recently published a web review of Peter Enns new book The Bible Tells Me So. The reviewer, a fellow named Andrew Wilson, provides a fair-minded and balanced critique of Enns’ book, noting both its strengths while flagging its weaknesses. (That said, I find Wilson’s rating of the book at 2 1/2 stars out of 5 to be very low. In short, the review is better than the rating.)
Wilson concludes the review as follows:
“As I say, there is a good deal of interesting, humorous, and thought-provoking material in this book. Ultimately, though, he pushes so hard against the idea that the Bible tells you everything that he leaves you wondering if the Bible actually tells you anything. We are, of course, invited to ask questions of the Word of God. But we are also invited—even summoned—to tremble.” (emphasis added)
I recently discussed this review with a group of friends when one of them noted his dissatisfaction with Wilson’s review. Fair enough. But what caught my interest was his dissatisfaction in Wilson’s parting reference to trembling. I didn’t press him on the point, so I am not sure what precisely his objection was. But I think I have an idea.
The objection, I take it, is not to the idea of trembling before God itself. My friend recognizes the awesomeness and sovereignty of God and the fallen human condition as readily as the next Christian. So I am guessing that his problem is that the call to tremble has often been used as a rhetorical device to shut down or preclude or stigmatize important lines of questioning. And when allowed to function unchecked in that capacity, it becomes a recipe for abuse.
And it isn’t just trembling either. An entire host of warnings about matters as hellfire, punitive judgment, blaspheming the Holy Spirit, divine wrath, and the like, have often been invoked to shut down important lines of questioning. Like many Christians raised in a relatively conservative evangelical church, I did my share of trembling. Christianity came interwoven with fear. Fear of being “left behind”, fear of finding Jesus ashamed of you at his return, fear of going to hell, fear of facing the divine wrath, and the like.
And so we face a difficult balancing act. There is a place for trembling, there is a role for fear. At the same time, such language can also readily devolve into mere psychological manipulation where it is used to prop up problematic theologies, or decaying institutions or abusive leaders. So the challenge is to find the place to tremble while remaining aware of the potential for abuse.
In other words, we are, of course, invited to tremble before the Word of God. But we are also invited — even summoned — to ask questions.