Saturday, October 04, 2014

Book Review: The Bible Tells Me So by Peter Enns

Peter Enns is an apologist. His apologetics program went public in 2005 with the publication of Inspiration & Incarnation. In it he sought to defend against what he saw as an inadequate doctrine of inspiration in evangelicalism. At first, it was largely well received. Then it wasn’t well received. Then Enns lost his job.[1] This inspired Enns to further his apologetic pursuits more openly. In 2012 he published The Evolution of Adam, where he sought to remove evolution as an obstacle for Christian belief. I disagreed more with his method than his conclusions, but appreciated his honesty in addressing the topic.[2] Outside of these two books, the project has continued at various conferences and counterpoint exchanges.[3]

The Bible Tells Me So continues the apologetic subset of his writings. Whereas other works have been aimed at academics or at least a well-read laity, TBTMS is aimed at the mass public.[4] From the start, Enns paints his position as a via media between two extremes.

On the one hand are those who read the Bible as an “unerring rulebook,” a “heavenly instruction manual,” or “Truth downloaded from Heaven.”[5] For Enns, this position is untenable. He suggests that if Christians read early biblical stories as they do non-biblical literature, they would seem like folktales or something from the “Syfy channel.” Furthermore, he asks how someone, in our day, can condone Old Testament ritual laws of sacrifice? He even says that some laws are “just plain weird.”[6] He states that some biblical stories are “barbaric” and “hard to defend as the Word of God in civil adult conversation.”[7]

On the other hand, by implication, are those who throw out the Bible altogether. Enns makes clear that he writes as a Christian for whom the Bible continues to shape his life and faith, because he meets God in its pages.[8] According to Enns, TBTMS presents a way forward for Christians uncomfortable with these aspects of the Bible. He suggests that reading the Bible should not cause “stress” from “having to smooth over mass floods, talking animals, or genocide.”[9] In response to this dilemma, he seeks “to assure people of faith that they do not need to feel anxious, disloyal, unfaithful, dirty, scared, or outcast for engaging these questions of the Bible, interrogating it, not liking some of it, exploring what it really says, and discerning like adult readers what we can learn from it on our own journey of faith.”[10] He suggests a “riskier path” that comes through following the methods of interpretation he will outline in the book.[11]

Enns addresses a real problem. How should Christians respond to a Bible they don’t fully understand? When the Bible produces questions, readers should seek answers. Where should they turn? Enns points out the tragedy of Christians who are too shamed by their questions to ask their pastors for fear this will only increase their shame. Churches must address this real problem. Questions need answers, and Christian leaders should seek to provide them instead of shying away from them or even shaming those who ask.[12]

The stress-inducing problem, according to Enns, comes from misguided expectations placed upon the Bible. He consistently describes the Bible as too wild and unruly to live within our expectations of it. For Enns, the Bible documents the spiritual journey of people. Furthermore, it is an inspired story. Their story is defined by their worldview, including their historical setting, expectations, hopes and fears. It “preserves ancient journeys of faith.”

Enns focuses on three primary issues that can cause problems for modern readers. First, God’s extermination of the Canaanites. Second, the problem of the Bible containing conflicting data and contradictory theologies. Third, his contention that “what the Bible says happened often didn’t.”[13]

Enns first considers the extermination of the Canaanites. After clearly presenting the biblical texts and setting of the Canaanite extermination, he illustrates the struggle for modern readers. He states, “Westboro Baptist Church might get giddy over a god like this, but they’re wacky.”[14] As a response, he contrasts Jesus’s graciousness toward a Canaanite woman against YHWH’s call for Canaanite removal from the land. He interprets this contrasts to mean that, “Jesus was against [the Canaanite extermination].”[15] After arguing against typical evangelical responses, he gives his own. His solution is to deny a straightforward interpretation of the text. He states, “God never told the Israelites to kill the Canaanites. The Israelites believed that God told them to kill the Canaanites.”[16] Therefore, the authors of these passages are interpreting events as divine even though they were not.[17] After all, “Israel was an ancient tribal people, and they thought and acted like one.”[18] Enns supplements his argument by stating that the archaeological record lacks indisputable evidence for the Canaanite extermination.[19]

His response to the Canaanite dilemma underscores the books title. Evangelicals have got it all wrong. They read these texts as historical narratives correlating to true events, and the Bible can’t always live up to this expectation. Thus, they are defending something that can’t be defended. Instead, according to Enns, the Bible should be read as a series of stories that interpret Israel’s cultural-historical memory through the perspective of later authors. Events happened, later generations interpreted them as divine, and creative writers described the events in this way, even putting words into God’s mouth. In reality though, God never commanded these events, God didn’t lead Israel into battle, and most likely some of the events never occurred at all. For Enns, the reader shouldn’t struggle with these texts because they never happened. These texts are a “quest [by their authors] to experience God in the present, a sometimes volatile and catastrophic present.”[20]

Enns applies his hermeneutic to the gospels in order to show that it reduces the stress of his second issue–conflicting data and contradictory theologies in the Bible. He argues that each gospel tells a different story, with differing perspectives that each highlight individual aspects of the events. Each author provides something unique, even if it conflicts at points with the other gospels. They were not necessarily concerned with historical accuracy, but primarily with responding to the cataclysmic, life-changing event of Jesus. These unique perspectives are the paradigm for modern believers, who “always have and always will meet Jesus and see him from where they are and...experience Jesus differently as a result.”[21]

After discussing the gospel perspectives, Enns moves back into the Old Testament to argue for divergent perspectives throughout the Bible. For Enns, these diverse, even contradictory, perspectives highlight the humanness of the text. Just like the gospels, they present the world through the life and times of the author. Thus, the texts are concerned with issues of their author’s time and not always the events they recount.

This gets to the heart of the matter. What really happened in Israel’s history? This is Enns’s final big issue to address. For Enns, most of the Old Testament comes from the time of Israel’s monarchy or later. Thus, most of it focuses on Israel’s monarchial years and situations pertinent to that time. According to Enns, the stories of Israel’s pre-monarchic past are shaped in a way that speak to the current events of the author. So for instance, the bad Babylonians in Genesis (think tower of Babylon) foreshadow the bad Babylonians of the exile. The origins of nations who warred with the Israelite kingdoms are explained in the stories of Genesis. This method of interpretation even works on the pivotal event of the Exodus. The Exodus story “has some historical basis,” but many “historical problems” if read as history.[22] This isn’t a problem on Enns’s hermeneutic, because its still a story of national origins that inspired the people, and “as a story—well. Watch out. It carries serious punch, which we miss if we focus on the historical angle.”[23]

Enns brings all of these discussions together to look at how Jesus read his Bible. It should be highlighted that Enns has already discussed the problems before tackling Jesus’s view of the Bible and not vice versa.[24] He states that Jesus is “bigger than the Bible.”[25] Jesus used the Bible for his ends and didn’t interpret it using modern conventions. Jesus added laws, reinterpreted older laws in unexpected ways and applied verses and stories to himself that didn’t originally speak about him. Jesus used ancient Jewish interpretive methods. According to Enns, this would get an “F” in most modern Bible courses. This is understandable for Enns, because Jesus was fully human and bound by his historical setting.

At this point, and in full apologetic fashion, Enns discusses the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus with the intent of showing how it changed everything–including exegetical practices. This disruptive, history-changing event created such an impact that the New Testament writers rethought history and interpreted the Bible in fresh ways. For instance, the gospels of Matthew and Luke focus on Jesus as the fulfillment of Scripture, but according to Enns, it’s not because Jesus was foreseen by the Old Testament authors, but because the cataclysmic event of Jesus’s resurrection caused his Judean followers to reinterpret their sacred texts. The old laws are subsumed under the law of love, and the old national boundaries are destroyed to bring in all peoples. Jesus changed everything, including what God said in the Bible and how his followers interpreted those words.

Enns concludes the book by encouraging readers to stop stressing out, love Jesus and read the Bible as a raw narrative that reveals “history” through the eyes of ancient people. Jesus was real, raw and fully human and so is the Bible. Therefore, let’s not expect more from it than we’d expect from a real, raw and fully human Jesus. When God shows up, things get messy and its in the “challenges,” “unevenness” and “strangeness” of the Bible that we will see God at work.[26]

I hope that these paragraphs accurately portray Dr. Enns’s intentions with TBTMS. It’s at this point that I offer one critique.[27] My main critique is this–by arguing from modern problems to Jesus’ interpretation of the Bible, Enns undercuts Jesus’ own use of it. If, instead, we begin with Jesus’ view of the Bible and then address the problems our final destination will differ from Enns. None deny that Jesus used Jewish exegetical methods, but Enns doesn’t mention that Jesus viewed Scripture’s authority extending to historical characters, events and passages, even laws that Enns has already stated were “weird.”[28] Jesus refers to the institution of marriage from Gen 2, Noah, Abraham, Lot, Sodom and Gomorrah, various events from Moses’s life, the wilderness wanderings and Exodus events. Jesus never refers to them as “a model for our spiritual journey,” but assumes their historical reality.[29]

If Enns holds that Jesus’s words are divinely inspired and accurate, then his hermeneutic falls apart. Jesus speaks highly of the very words of Scripture, not just their narratival meaning. He claims that the written word “cannot be annuled” (John 10:35, NRSV). Responding to the traditions of the Judeans that had been added to the text, Jesus says that they have made “void the word of God” (Mark 7:13). They have not voided subjective interpretations of the divine, but God’s very words. In referring to the Ten Commandments, Jesus says, “God said” (Matt 15:4). Jesus’s frequent references to Moses, Isaiah, Daniel and others betray his firm belief that their words were not words that “Israel believed that God told them,” as Enns has argued, but the very words of God. Thus, Jesus speaks clearly saying that David wrote Psalm 110 “by the Holy Spirit” (Mark 12:36). This understanding of Scripture continued into the early church.[30]

At this point, one wonders whether Enns might view Jesus’s understanding of the Bible as seeking to interpret God through an ancient lens.[31] Enns might respond, as he implies in I&I, that Jesus’s humanness extended to his understanding of history and even his understanding of Scripture. You could deduce from this view that Jesus’s own views on history and the nature of Scripture are not paradigmatic for believers today. The reality is that this hermeneutical move cuts so deep that it undercuts any definitive statement about Jesus and allows his interpreters to craft a Jesus of their own image, discarding any aspect of Jesus’s teaching and character that make them uncomfortable.

In the end, the modern believer struggling to find answers should continue her search. If she came to me, I would suggest that she avoid Enns’s “riskier path,” and instead turn toward the older path of Christian & Jewish exegesis.[32] The path requires that you hold to Jesus’s teaching that the authority of Scripture extends to every jot, tittle and verb tense. Only the naive would deny that this path has difficult stretches, requires deep thought on certain topics and that the path to some destinations are yet hazy awaiting further light in the future. But, this is a path that has long been trodden by many, and this great cloud of witnesses assures us that the path will reach its proper destination.


Apologetics 315 Book Reviewer G. Kyle Essary served as a church planter in Asia from 2006-2013, and is now pursuing a Ph.D. in Old Testament studies in order to return to Asia and better teach how the Old Testament points to Jesus.


[1] Enns served on the faculty of Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia from 1994-2008, when the seminary and Enns came to a mutual agreement for him to resign. He had previously been suspended earlier in 2008 for Inspiration & Incarnation (hereafter abbreviated I&I) and the ensuing discussions and controversy.

[2] My views have changed somewhat since reviewing that book, but the review can be found at Amazon, here: http://www.amazon.com/review/R33IS29FISQX9J/ref=cm_cr_dp_title?ie=UTF8&ASIN=B006T46QTA&nodeID=283155&store=books

[3] The dialogue between G.K. Beale is well-known and can be found online. One such conference put into book form can be read in The Bible and the Believer (2012). Recently, Enns has become a voice urging evangelicals to drop the doctrine of inerrancy altogether. This can be seen in his contributions to the recent Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy (2013).

[4] This is seen in that it rarely takes any biblical knowledge for granted. The book also uses extremely simplified grammar, often using sentence fragments or short, pithy sayings. In many ways the book’s style resembles the writing one might find on a popular blog. An example can be found in his “Author’s Note” on his preference of translation. He states, “The Bible translation I use throughout the book is the New Revised Standard Version. Just because. I like it.” Hereafter The Bible Tells Me So will be abbreviated TBTMS.

[5] Kindle edition, loc. 107–08.

[6] Ibid., loc. 126, 135.

[7] Ibid., loc. 142.

[8] This is a crucial point that will be addressed near the end of this review.

[9] Ibid., loc. 175.

[10] Ibid., loc. 373-75.

[11] Ibid., loc. 435.

[12] At this point, I could excessively rant about the failure of seminaries to produce biblically literate ministers who read the original languages and faithfully teach the Bible to their congregations, the failure of churches to expect an educated clergy and not merely an encourager, or the failure of contemporary preaching to prepare Christians to understand the Bible. Alas, this isn’t the place.

[13] Enns, loc. 420.

[14] Ibid., 600.

[15] Ibid., 660.

[16] Ibid., 786.

[17] ANE stands for Ancient Near Eastern throughout.

[18] Ibid., loc. 837.

[19] As with all archaeological data, it must be interpreted and Syro-Palestinian archaeology receives more focus, argumentation and dispute than other locales due to its association with the Bible. Thus, the results and interpretations are diverse and varied. Almost all are in agreement that the archaeological record disputes the “early date” of the Exodus. As Enns points out (as does the book of Joshua) only a few cities were thoroughly destroyed around the “late date.” As the Bible teaches, the Canaanites were not exterminated competely.

[20] Enns, loc. 1096.

[21] Ibid., loc. 1265.

[22] Ibid., loc. 1630-40.

[23] Ibid., loc. 1665-66.

[24] This is significant and will be highlighted in the critiques at the end.

[25] This is the title of chapter 5.

[26] Enns, loc. 3320.

[27] If this were a more thorough review it could critique various other issues, both minor and major, but I think they would distract from the fundamental critique.

[28] Enns, loc. 135. The best short introduction to Jesus’s view of Scripture is still John Wenham’s Christ and the Bible.

[29] Ibid., loc. 420.

[30] Obvious examples are 2 Tim 3:16, where the written texts are called “God-breathed.” Furthermore, 2 Pet 1:21 where it says “men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”

[31] This would obviously create Christological issues that this review cannot address.

[32] Enns, loc. 435.

5 comments :

BallBounces said...

The book sounds like a smooth re-hash of liberal talking-points. What is the supreme authority? Our "adult" sense of what is reasonable, good and proper.

"… Enns discusses the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus with the intent of showing how it changed everything–including exegetical practices."

Yes, but as soon as we adults determine among ourselves based on our own criteria that crucifixion is barbaric and God would never authorize it (cf. Canaanite extinction), and/or that the physical resurrection of Christ defies science or is unnecessary and in the same league as a talking snake, then it never happened either.

The problem is authority and the magisterial vs. ministerial (Luther) use of reason.

Drew said...

Peter Enns is about as far from an apologist as you can get. He defends Scripture in a way that German Liberal scholarship did in the nineteenth century: by accepting what secular history tells him and reinterpreting the Bible to fit that view. He is a wolf in sheep's clothing.


Ex N1hilo said...

There is a concept that was utilized by Karl Barth in his theology; although he was not the first to hold to it. The idea is that there are two different types of history. The first is represented by the german term "historie." Historie is the collection of events that actually occurred in the past. The second is represented by the term "geschichte" (geh-SHISH-teh). Geschichte is history that is "real" to religious people in that it is highly significant to us. It gives depth and meaning to our lives--although its events didn't actually happen in time and space. It seems to me that geschichte is practically synonymous with "mythology."

Anyway, the view of many of the leading theologians of the modern era has been that Adam and Eve are part of geschichte, not historie; Abraham and Moses likely were geschichte. Jesus probably existed in historie; but things like the virgin birth, miracles, and bodily resurrection are certainly part of geschichte.

People and events in geschichte are said to be valuable because they teach us truths about life, morality, and God. But they didn't really happen.

Were I to conclude that the theory of historie and geschichte was valid; I would be done with Christianity. This is because it makes Jesus out to be a liar; or at best ignorant of the historicity of the Scriptures. We cannot afford to go there.

Ex N1hilo said...

To clarify, let me say that I didn't intend to accuse Barth of denying the historicity of the resurrection. Nor do I deny that he believed in Jesus as his Lord and Savior. My point is that this dichotomy between Historie and Geschichte, which Barth is famous for, has been used by many to deny such historical events as the resurrection of Christ.

QED 0AD said...

Erp, sorry for the messed up apostrophe there.... Try again:

>>"On the one hand are those who read the Bible as an “unerring rulebook,” a “heavenly instruction manual,” or “Truth downloaded from Heaven.”"

So Enns pretends like the conservative alternative to his position is the naive fundamentalist variety you might run into while hiking the Appalachian? So I guess the more conservative critics of Enns like G. K. Beale believe the Bible came down from Heaven? Very funny Peter Enns! But it's nice to know how honest he is....

Whether or not Enns is a wolf in sheep's clothing, he is certainly preying upon the ignorance of his readers here.

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