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Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament Paperback – July 1, 2005
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About the Author
Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) has served as an adjunct professor at Eastern University and Fuller Theological Seminary and previously taught at Westminster Theological Seminary for fourteen years. He is the author of Poetry and Wisdom, Exodus Retold, and Exodus (in the N.I.V. Application Commentary series).
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For those interested in hermeneutics Enns also gives incredible insight into how the New Testament authors were influenced by Second Temple interpretive traditions when quoting the Old Testament (such as when Jude quotes the book of Enoch). It is a fascinating read to say the least, and extremely insightful. And Peter Enns's proposition that the incarnation of Jesus is analogous to the human and divine particularity of the Bible is a compelling one. This book may be a challenge to some, but Peter Enns writes with genuine humility and a heart that seeks intellectual honesty for the honor and glory of God. I highly recommend this book.
"That the Bible bears an unmistakable human stamp does not lead to the necessary conclusion that it is merely the words of humans rather than the word of God. To those who hold such a position the question might be asked, `How else would you have expected God to speak? In ways wholly disconnected to the ancient world? Who would have understood him?' And to those who fear the human stamp as somehow dirtying the Bible, marring its perfect divine quality, I say, `If you wouldn't say that about Jesus (and you shouldn't), don't think that way about the Bible. Both Christ and his word are human through and through.' In fact, it is precisely by having the Son become human that God demonstrates his great love. Is it so much of a stretch, then, to say that the human nature of Scripture is likewise a gift rather than a problem? . . . It is somewhat ironic, it seems to me, that both liberals and conservatives make the same error. They both assume that something worthy of the title word of God would look different from what we actually have. The one accents the human marks and makes them absolute. The other wishes the human marks were not as pronounced as they were. They share a similar opinion that nothing worthy of being called God's word would look so common, so human, so recognizable. But when God speaks, he speaks in ways we would understand." (pp. 21)
While I can give a resounding "Amen!" to the above statement, I have mixed feelings about this book overall. On the positive side, I am deeply grateful for Enns' willingness to tackle some of the most challenging aspects of approaching scripture, summed up in these three points (pp. 15-16):
1. The Old Testament and other literature from the ancient world. Why does the Bible in places look a lot like the literature of Israel's ancient neighbors? Is the Old Testament really that unique? Does it not just reflect the ancient world in which it was produced? If the Bible is the word of God, why does it fit so nicely in the ancient world?
2. Theological diversity in the Old Testament. Why do different parts of the Old Testament say different things about the same thing? It really seems as if there are contradictions, or at least large differences of opinion, in the Old Testament.
3. The way in which the New Testament authors handle the Old Testament. Why do the New Testament authors handle the Old Testament in such odd ways? It looks like they just take the Old Testament passages out of context.
These are important questions for any serious student of the Bible - or most religious texts - to ask; questions surrounding the uniqueness, integrity, and interpretation of scripture, respectively. Does scripture need to be unique relative to the literature and writings produced in the same time period in order to be considered scripture? Must the message of the scriptural narrative be unified, free from contradictory views? Is there a problem with Biblical writers taking scriptures out of their historical context in order to make theological arguments? These questions are at the heart of Enns' book.
Unfortunately, while Enns' analysis of these issues is fascinating, his proposed solutions are not entirely satisfactory (at least from an academic point of view). I recognize that Enns is trying to reach a particular audience - namely, conservative Evangelicals - and, as such, must analyze the Bible in a way that is still palatable for a conservative readership. However, as an unfortunate result, he tends to reach watered-down conclusions, as seen in these select statements:
"What makes biblical historiography the word of God is not that it is somehow immune from [subjective interpretation]. It is God's word because it is - and this is how God did it." (pp. 66)
"[W]hen we observe what the apostles did with their Scripture [i.e., taking Old Testament passages out of context to make theological points], we can only conclude that there must be more to Christian biblical interpretation than uncovering the original meaning of an Old Testament passage." (pp. 160)
Without oversimplifying too much, Enns' arguments appear to boil down to this: the Bible is true because it is from God, regardless of the evidence we may find to the contrary - in fact, any suspect evidence we find should challenge us to refine our perspective about God; contrary evidence is not a litmus test to know whether the Bible is true or not. Enns may be right: a conviction that the Bible is true may only come through spiritual means - a "gift of faith", as he says--, and not through academic study. I just can't help but feel that this kind of reasoning is untenable, apologetic, and terribly convenient. These are answers that may satisfy a conservative Christian who already believes that the Bible is true, but are frustrating for the more intellectually inclined who are still investigating.
This was my biggest frustration with the book, but I don't want to end on a negative note. I still found this book very much worth reading. I love the incarnation analogy that Enns uses throughout the text - that the Bible is a work of the human and the divine working in tandem, just as Christ was both of God and of man. "Revelation necessarily implies a human context. When God speaks and acts, he does so within the human drama as it is expressed at a certain time and place and with all the cultural trappings that go along with it. This makes revelation somewhat messy, but it does not seem to work any other way" (pp. 160-161). The book provides a wealth of research and insight to show that the human mark on the Bible is not something to be rejected, but rather embraced. "[The Bible] was not an abstract, otherworldly book, dropped out of heaven. It was connected to and therefore spoke to those ancient cultures" (pp. 17). The kind of God that works through a human context is not only more realistic, but also more compelling.
Despite my misgivings with the proposed solutions, Enns should be thanked for initiating this kind of dialogue. These are questions about scripture that all of us who are religiously inclined should and need to consider. I would hope that more religious communities would take note and engage in the conversation - even those not of the Evangelical tradition.
The metaphor of incarnation (referring to Scripture) is not perfect, as he admits, but I do think it helps us give substance to a reality that is difficult to understand. While I am not sure Dr. Enns has convinced me of everything he believes, this book is on a very short list of the most influential books in my life. As a student and simply as a person seeking the truth, I am thankful for Inspiration and Incarnation. I have learned from it intellectually and spiritually.
After reading this book I have read a couple others by Pete Enns, and I look forward to his most recent book, The Sin of Certainty.