Of Two Minds: Some Thoughts on Inspiration and Incarnation

Peter Enns has written one of the most fascinating and controversial books in the last ten years of evangelical theology. I used to think the works published by the open theists were the stuff that fractured things in half, but with Enns, considering the state of my mind (!), transcends all of that. His book Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament divided the faculty at Westminster Seminary, PA where he taught and produced a debate that has been recognized by numerous scholars from various sectors, some of which have published articles in three major theological journals. Many people I respect, both in the laity and the ivory tower are deeply divided over what to think of Enns’s ideas about the nature of Scripture.

To be up front, I have been sympathetic towards Enns. Anyone who ruffles the feathers of the Reformed establishment is usually someone I like, though I have been guilty of a crass “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” outlook on in the past. I have held off on reading his book, because I have been more interested in what other people are saying about it. Ever since Enns left Westminster I have shied away at giving an official opinion. Hopefully in this “review” I can offer an informed one.

A prefatory remark I need to say, there is no way I can review this book to my satisfaction (5 pages single spaced is enough!). There is simply too much to cover and I cannot in good conscience write a simple blog post to represent all it says very well. This I believe is one of the primary problems with talking about this book as it has been a challenge to even some of the finest scholarly minds to get it all hammered down the way Enns intended. (If you are interested in reading them see this page.) Instead, I will try to reflect on it as the kind of reader Enns had in mind when he wrote it: the well-informed layman who finds himself challenged by the oddity of the Old Testament in light of critical reading.

Enns covers three broad topics in what he calls “the problem of the Old Testament:” (1) the common features the Pentateuch shares with ancient Near Eastern creation myths and legal codes; (2) examples of theological diversity where different passages seem to say things contrary to one another; (3) the method by which New Testament writers cite and quote OT passages in their writings. Each of these is a challenge for students of the Bible because they have been taught to expect certain qualities of how the text should be. For example, we expect the Bible to be unique in its revelation of creation origins and moral laws, that the Bible’s message ought to be unified and coherent, and that the NT writers did “good Bible interpretation” by citing the Old Testament in ways that represents what the OT passages were originally talking about. Because the Bible does not live up to any of these expectations many lose their confidence in it, and go directions that end up harming their faith.

Enns proposes a solution to this by utilizing what is called the “incarnational analogy” that makes the comparison between the nature of Christ and the nature of Scripture. We confess that Christ is both fully human and fully divine, not a fraction of one or the other. So too with the Bible it has a divine and human nature, neither of which can be eclipsed by the other. As Christ is sinless, the Bible is errorless, and as he was situated in a time and place, so were the biblical writers. For Enns, God’s revelation necessarily entails accommodation to human modes of communication. Thus, we should not be surprised when the Bible behaves the way it does in that it reveals a God who uses the cultural and literary forms of the day to communicate its truth.

This is all well and good. Much of this I have believed for a long time, and have applied it in a broad sense. But Enns does not allow you to take the broad view, and rehearses example after example of how each of the problems listed above impacts our views of Scripture.

To be sure, I have never found the commonalities in ancient Near Eastern literature to be distressing. In fact, I have found them to helpful in that they corroborate Genesis and the Mosaic Law as normal to the worldview of ancient peoples. They show that there was an agreement over the special place humankind had in the cosmos, that there was a fall of some sort, and that there was a catastrophic flood that killed a lot people. Ancient peoples may have been very superstitious in their thinking, but they were not so primitive as to be incapable of understanding themselves or their past. It seems quite possible that there could be a history accurately understood by biblical writers that was perhaps garbled by pagan ones.

Enns does not make things so easy. If one considers the above notion in depth and admits that there is a mythic element to Genesis (especially chapters 1-11) then one has to conclude that the writer(s) sincerely believed they were writing true history though in fact what they were saying was fanciful. But no matter, because this is simply part and parcel to God accommodating to the ancient Near Eastern worldview to communicate a very radical truth: that there was only one God. This truth was so radical—like saying there are is a multiplicity of gods ruling from Mt. Olympus today—that there was no need to overturn the mythical worldview. According to Enns God was content to adopt this understanding of the world in order to preserve the greater truth of monotheism.

The second problem Enns focuses on is theological diversity. Here we are introduced to a number of things that seem inconsistent with one another. For example, there is the citation of Exodus 20:5 and Ezekiel 18:19-20. After reading these one has to wonder if the child of idolaters is innocent or guilty. Enns offers his own comments suggesting that Ezekiel was confronting an abuse of the Exodus theology which was being used to skirt personal responsibility, but this only serves to highlight his point: what is revealed in Scripture must be interpreted in light of its intent and circumstances, and that is of course is situated in different contexts. Nevertheless, we still don’t really have an answer and Ezekiel’s passage certainly conflicts with the doctrine of inherited guilt that is often deduced from Romans 5.

Moreover, the plethora of examples from the OT that can be cited to show God tests people to find things out, reacts with grief to human sin, or changes his mind in response to prayer are things that deeply conflict with a classical theism that sees God as timeless, immutable, and impassible. Yet God is content to allow his people to think that he can be related to in these ways.

The third problem is the most complex. How people in the NT use the OT is how we would never accept today. Enns gives us an example from Luke 34-38:

Jesus replied, “The people of this age marry and are given in marriage. 35 But those who are considered worthy of taking part in the age to come and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage, 36 and they can no longer die; for they are like the angels. They are God’s children, since they are children of the resurrection. 37 But in the account of the burning bush, even Moses showed that the dead rise, for he calls the Lord ‘the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ 38 He is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.”

The thing about this citation is that there is nothing in Moses’s declaration that proves the resurrection. Identifying YHWH as “’the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” is simply a way of identifying of who he is and who he is known by. It does not say anything about the resurrected state of the patriarchs themselves. It looks as though Jesus is just playing fast and loose with the text, right? This is where things get interesting, because the response from the teachers of the law was “Well said, teacher!”

In light of this (and numerous other examples), we find ourselves in a dilemma:

(1) We can defend the apostles and Jesus from the charge that they would have failed hermeneutics class by arguing they were actually being consistent with a grammatical-historical reading.

Or

(2) We can acknowledge that their setting allowed for the kind of liberties with the text, but carefully discern what the limits of these liberties could be today.

Enns makes the cases that the setting the apostles and Jesus worked in was one that allowed interpreters to take liberties with the texts in order to better understand themselves. The Chronicles were written precisely for this reason after the exile. This common approach to Scripture was shared by the apostles and Jesus and should be shared by us as well. This last premise is controversial, because it goes against the good sense of interpreting the Bible by looking for what the original author intended. Enns does to give us much in the way of figuring out how to do this, but he says we must do it or admit that we should not be following the apostles at least in their handling of the Bible.

What is difficult about this book is that it starts with the phenomena of the text and moves to a general theory of inspiration. Its appeal to the incarnation as an analogy for how Scripture behaves is at times puzzling, but it should be understood broadly. Obviously, it breaks down when we consider that the incarnation is one person with two natures while Scripture is of one nature (i.e. inspired) written by two persons (human and divine). But the point seems to be that God condescends to our level to communicate himself to us, thus revealing yet another facet of his love.

As for the debate over this book, I think Enns’s critics get a couple of things wrong. He does not mention “postmodernism” once in his book, though it appears that he touches on some its themes. These, however, have more do with criticizing the hubris of modernism than teasing out implications of postmodern theory. Rather, Enns is more interested in the fact that both evangelicals and liberals expect the Bible to behave a certain way and flatly say “one can discern the difference between truth and error by using modern standards of reasoning and modern scientific analysis.” Nor does Enns challenge inerrancy directly as an “anachronistic idea that must be overturned in light of “new ANE discoveries” or “certain aspects of postmodern thought.” Despite the charge of double-talk, Enns does not claim to deny an “absolute point point of reference” to which we can interpret the Bible and then claim to see from one during his study of theological diversity. He affirms that there can be a degree of objectivity found between the extremes of becoming slaves to our cultural context and jettisoning our context altogether. Calling Enns a “postmodernist” is simply inaccurate.

However, the critics do make some points I agree with. The book was written with the laymen in mind, but it will speak more to scholars who are familiar with the extrabiblical material Enns introduces and the nuanced ideas about the nature of Scripture Christians have held over the years. I have a college level theological education and this book was not easy to read by any means.

Enns also tends to blur basic tenets of reason (law of noncontradiction, identity) with modernist ideas of precision in history and science, and therefore seems to imply that premoderns of the Bronze Age either had no idea or no value of them whatsoever. This gives the distinct impression that the ancients thought they were writing true history but God knew they were not.

Nevetheless, Enns makes some good points. All of the issues he raises in his book are difficulties Christian scholars have to deal with. The burden to furnish a paradigm that addresses these difficulties rests on everyone who holds to a high view of biblical inspiration and authority. To fail in this regard to is to provide a good reason to go down the road of liberalism so well expressed in the 19th and 20th century by Bultmann and Strauss. For many Bible students today the traditional Reformed/evangelical views of Scripture simply do not address these problems very well. Certainly, I can agree with that.

In the end, I must confess I am of two minds with regard to this book. The Bible student in me thinks what Enns has done is adequate and helpfully delineates a synthesis in which these problems can be addressed. Ideas about the “perfection” of the Bible and expectations of it can take a backseat to what the Bible actually is and who its ultimate author is like.

However, the philosopher in me was left disappointed on several accounts. The law of noncontradiction is foundational to the doctrine of inerrancy whether we think it is “extrabiblical” or not. Scripture’s own self-attestation—its human form and marks of diversity—are not sufficient to demonstrate inerrancy in any meaningful sense without the law of noncontradition making the necessary distinctions between truth and error. By focusing more on the phenomena of Scripture than the doctrine of Scripture, we are not given any tools to avoid the conclusion that some of the cases he presents can easily be understood as contradictions. For example, what did Nathan actually say (2 Sam 7:16; 1 Chron 17:14)? Certainly both cannot claim to be “exactly what Nathan said.” If revelation necessarily entails accommodation, the pressing question becomes at what point does God’s revelation limit its accommodation to human behavior? Does God allow himself to accommodate the conflicting memories of his creatures? It certainly seems odd if this is so, and we certainly cannot know what exactly Nathan originally said.

With these criticisms in mind, though, one can thoroughly enjoy Enns’s book. Biblical literacy includes raising our awareness of how the Bible behaves and how difficult some of its methods and texts can be for modern readers. Amazingly, the Bible is still a fairly easy book to understand if one is simply searching for the basic story (creation, fall, redemption, future judgment/blessing). This unity among the stunning diversity is something to be admired and treasured and motivates further research into the depths of the Bible’s teaching and literature. I can only be thankful to Peter Enns for making me a more discerning reader of the Bible.

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7 thoughts on “Of Two Minds: Some Thoughts on Inspiration and Incarnation

  1. Nick Nick says:

    As someone coming out of the Reformed camp but who also spends more time in modern biblical scholarship than anywhere else–and who appreciates it deeply!–I have a lot of appreciation for Enns’ book, too. I would disagree at a few other points, but I think he is helpfully pointing out how unhelpful many modern evangelical (artificial) constructions of inerrancy are when they are forced on the text and become a grid that the Bible has to conform to. If anything, I think Enns’ biggest shortcoming is his inability to communicate helpfully to those coming out of more fundamentalist backgrounds and who are not aware of the findings of modern biblical scholarship. Enns tends to come across as condescending at times towards these views, and sometimes (in my impression) seems to not be aware how big a gulf there is between him and the average American Christian reader in terms of what he knows about the text and theology of the Bible. But this is a conversation that needs to continue, and the fierce, hostile reactions against Enns (not everyone by any means, but many for sure) need to cease. Good review, brother!

  2. Chris E says:

    I read the book, and while it was helpful on the first topic – of which I knew little about, the treatments of the other two topics seemed to be a little weak to me. Partly because in each case there are other explanations that bear up.

    All this left me a bit bemused when the reformed camp behaved as it did, and I see the recent publication of the Kenton Sparks book has lead some to declare there is a new war to be fought about inerrancy.

    I think there has been an unhelpful divide between the theology college and the layman on this topic – and certainly the definition of ‘inerrency’ in the Chicago Statement is not something that someone would come up with unprompted.

  3. We studied the Chicago Statement in college and it is not the easiest to understand the first time reading through. I think I can affirm it when all the qualifications are properly understood, but that is just it: what is a PROPER understanding of them? Enns’s book reveals the amount of assumptions that go into them, and the Reformed camp, it seems, was pretty uncomfortable with his understanding of them.

  4. Chris E says:

    Actually, I tend to disagree that the real problem is the assumptions behind a proper understanding of what inerrancy actually means. Nor is it that there are a range of interpretations of what it means.

    The real problem is that the range of possible interpretations is greater at a scholarly level than it is at the level of the average church goer. Peter Enns didn’t seem to be saying much more than what others – Kline etc. – had already alluded to.

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