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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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Dr. Enns overstates his case at times, to be sure. By the time he gets around to voicing his more conservative views, he has lost a good part of his conservative audience. I am sure that by now he wishes he had taken a different strategy, for example fleshing out where he is conservative first, then introducing more thorny issues for serious and advanced students of the Bible. I would discuss inerrancy in two halves: how the doctrine came to be formulated, and what the Bible's own self-testimony is. Discuss areas where our understanding can be improved, showing all the while his commitment to the Bible's authority as the word of God, and not merely containing word from God hopelessly mixed in with human error. The incarnational model demands that we accept Jesus as fully human, yet in so being He is without sin. So too the Scriptures. Yes they are fully human, yet they together become one fully divine Word. There are many things that we confess God to be. We say that God is omniscient, so by definition Jesus "ought" to be omniscient. Yet He clearly says that He is not. There are things that only the Father knows.(Matthew 24:36, Mark 13: 32) This does not mean that Jesus wasn't divine. He claims authority to forgive sins, which according to Isaiah belongs to God alone ( Mark 2: 1-12 and parallel accounts; cf. Isaiah 43:25). In Isaiah 43: 11, 12 God declares, "I, I am Yahweh, and there is no Savior but Me. I alone declared, saved and proclaimed, and not some foreign god among you. So you are my witnesses." Yet Jesus' own name, meaning "Yahweh saves", declares unequivocally both His divine nature and mission. ..."and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins." (Matthew 1: 21) If Jesus is his people's savior, then he either is God incarnate in human nature or the divine declaration in Isaiah 43: 11,12 is a lie. There can be no merely human savior.
Returning to Dr. Enns' book, when we flesh out Biblical testimony regarding the incarnation (a task that he only barely outlines, and it has unfortunate consequences for the reception this book has received), we often come up with surprising data, such as Jesus' confession that He was not omniscient, as the Father is. This data must be fully engaged into our understanding of Jesus, along with His equally clear equations of Himself with God ("I and the Father are one, "He who believes me, believes the Father". "The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath", "In order that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins, I say to you, take up your mat and walk", "Before Abraham ever was, I AM.")
It is unfortunate that Dr. Enns fails to flesh out what his incarnational model means, and having failed to construct an outline of it, quite frankly it falls apart.It fails to outline the points of comparison between scripture as human and Christ as human, scripture as divine and Christ as divine. An even deeper comparison that is overlooked is Scripture as word of God and Christ as the Word of God. Again, a systematic theologian would undertake this task better. In fact, why not collaborate with a systematic theologian and expand the book?
I found numerous logical errors and inconsistencies in the book. I fail to see, for example, why similarities with Ancient Near Eastern literature, and the fact that some ANE literature predates the Bible tells against the Bible's unique authority (something Dr. Enns appears to agree with). So I am not sure what he is implying by his comparisons. Evangelical scholars do not think of the Bible as dropping out of the sky. On the Biblical model anyway, don't we think that the human race has a common origin, and that stories close to the Fall event would have been more accurate at the beginning and gradually become distorted over time? And there would normally be preserved truths even as stories became distorted, or there would be nothing to distort. The older ANE literature could easily preserve truth that the Biblical authors later used.
Dr. Enns rightly says that the uniqueness of the Bible lies in its proclamation of the One living and true God, Yahweh, as being the creator of the world. Its uniqueness is not a private history dropped out of heaven to Israel alone, but His unique self-disclosure in and through Israel to the larger culture of which Israel was a part. Again, this is not well-developed in the book. And here is where biblical theology, Dr. Enns' specialty, has made great contributions to our understanding. In fact, some of the comparisons between later Old Testament history and ANE literature in Dr. Enns' book were highly enlightening and informative. Examples that come to mind the Siloam Tunnel and Mesha inscriptions.
What does seem to be deficient in the book are comparisons and contrasts. Almost all of the argumentation is regarding similarities between the Old Testament and ANE literature. But what of the contrasts? I have a hard time believing that the major difference between the Bible and other comparable stories is solely that Yahweh is behind it all.
I happen to have worked with flood stories (I refuse the term "myths" or "legends" for the same reason Dr. Enns expresses dislike for such terms, that they are understood as "fairy tales", having little or nothing to do with fact--I prefer "foundational stories" to keep value-judgments out of the term).
Stories regarding the flood are common not only to the Bible and ANE literature, but are a worldwide phenomenon, common to every continent but Antarctica, including island chains such as Hawaii. There are many commonalities, such as that the flood is caused by a God or gods, or at times a conflict among the gods. A man is often instructed to build an ark on which a few people and various animals are delivered. Sometimes, not always the flood is seen as divine wrath on humankind--one exception is where the flood is seen as a result of a war among the gods. Many times the ark is said to settle on the peak of a tall mountain, sometimes named in flood stories as a locally known peak among the native people who preserve the story. The dimensions of the ark vary widely. It can range from a large raft to dimensions that far exceed those reported in the Bible.
But there are also contrasts. One strange example has the god urinating on the earth, thus causing the flood.
The Bible account has some remarkable and unique features. To be sure, that it is attributed to one God, as opposed to many or one among many gods, is outstanding, but that is not all. An outstanding feature is that in places it reads like a ship captain's log, reporting the rise and egress of the flood waters over many days. This is rare if not unique among flood stories. It records both immense amounts of rain and geological upheaval as sources for the waters that flooded the earth. This is not so in all flood stories, and surprisingly, it is a common misconception even today that the flood was due entirely to rain.
To say the least, I am skeptical that that the only meaningful contrast between ANE literature and the Bible is that Yahweh is the protagonist of the Bible.
Even with my objections, I commend Dr. Enns for his efforts. I would like to see an expanded edition of the work that lays out the incarnational
model more clearly, laying out more precisely in what sense he sees the human and divine elements played out in Scripture.
If I were him, I would be careful about loud calls for doctrinal "reform", especially if you are not very clear as to what the reform will entail. It is a good effort in calling us to think. However I am not sure that that he is in any sense clear as to where we should go. That being said,calls to overhaul long-standing theology and doctrine sound too much like he is going in directions the church has gone before, and suffered for it.
I hope Dr. Enns will take this as a friendly, not hostile review of his work. He undertakes a huge task. Quite honestly, a collaborative effort
between Old Testament scholarship, New Testament scholarship, systematic theology and Christians with a good grasp of philosophical logic would be necessary to cover an issue this important.
I would like to see laid out before the reader both good and bad attempts at harmonization in Old Testament and New Testament scholarship.
I would like to see laid out before the reader both similarities and contrasts between the Old Testament and Ancient Near East literature, and if there is literature beyond the Ancient Near East (as is certainly the case with the Great Flood narratives), comparisons and contrasts made there as well. To do comparison without contrast gives the reader an unbalanced picture of the full reality of the situation. To emphasize contrasts without due attention to similarities will also give the reader an unbalanced picture. Even including a companion volume that would give advanced students access to the documents so that they can make their own comparisons would be worth the effort. I realize that I suggest an enormous work. But the issue virtually demands it.
I felt a little short-changed by the end of the book. I don't believe that the goal was accomplished. I felt that I had good answers to many, if not all of his concerns. I am sure that many conservative scholars who have read this work feel the same way. Yet no such direct engagement with this scholarship is made in the book as far as I can see, and, frankly, I don't see how that is possible. At least this began to happen with subsequent reviews and replies, but I fear that the communication process has since deteriorated, and for that I am deeply grieved. The issue deserves better on all sides.
Dr. Enns would benefit much, were he to consult a good analytical philosopher, like Alvin Plantinga, not to make his book impossibly technical, but to clear away confusion, and to make his points more clear.to both everyday and more advanced readers.
Ludwig Wittgenstein said it well. "What cannot be stated clearly must be passed over in silence." This little volume is far too short to state clearly what needs to be said on this issue..
Traditionally, inerrancy has entailed acknowledging human agency, but denying that such agency introduces error. Yet what of discrepancies which seem to say otherwise? Are they errors? Are they part of the human element of Scripture that must be accepted? Enns appears to me to be deficient in delineating what inerrancy is, and what inerrancy isn't. Unfortunately, Dr. Enns is a biblical theologian, whereas this has traditionally been the domain of systematic theology. That is precisely where Dr. Enns gets himself into trouble with his more conservative peers; he steps out from his own domain into territory that is not his own. Granted, systematic theologians need to deal with the hard and messy data that biblical theologians often uncover, but it cuts the other way as well; how does all this fit together with the Bible's self-testimony that it IS the word of God.
And sadly today, too many theologians of all stripes are deficient in their training in logic, to spot, sift through, and clear up confusion. The result is too often sloganeering in place of careful, reasoned dialogue, where good reasoning and progress in the truth prevail.
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.