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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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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 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 that 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.
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 at 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.
Enns is a Professor of Old Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary. Westminster is a Reformed seminary with a commitment to Biblical inerrancy. Thus, Enns writes from within a Warfieldian concept of Biblical authority and a Reformed epistemological stance.
Enns tackles several difficult questions for Evangelicals who take the Bible seriously but who also recognize that "all truth is God's truth." These include the stories of creation and the flood and their similarity to ancient near eastern (ANE) myths, the sometimes imprecise, non-linear nature of Biblical history, and the way in which the New Testament Apostolic authors often took Old Testament passages out of context and infused them with new, spiritualized meanings. Contrary to many popular efforts at addressing these problems, however, Enns avoids the temptation to propose strained harmonizations that purport to explain away tough questions.
Instead, Enns' central thesis is that we must approach the Biblical text as an incarnational text. Jesus, as God incarnate, is God's ultimate self-revelation to us. The church has long recognized the error of minimizing either Jesus' human or divine natures. We are not surprised that Jesus experienced human limitations such as tiredness, thirst, pain, and even fear, because he truly was fully human, even as he was fully God. This antinomy is known to us by the gift of faith and is not fully comprehensible to our human minds.
In similar fashion, Enns argues, we should not be surprised that the Biblical text reflects the human contexts in which it was created. The Bible is not a disembodied instruction manual; it is an incarnational text, by which God entered the world of his people and spoke to them in terms and through stories and symbols they could understand. Here Enns hearkens back to Calvin's view that in scripture, God accommodates the limitations of human reason and understanding, and presents Himself in language people can understand.
Enns' application of this concept to the creation and flood stories, I think, is particularly helpful. I'll quote his summary at length:
"Therefore, the question is not the degree to which Genesis conforms to what we would think is a proper description of origins. It is a fundamental misunderstanding of Genesis to expect it to answer questions generated by a modern worldview, such as whether the days were literal or figurative, or whether the days of creation can be lined up with modern science, or whether the flood was local or universal.... It is wholly incomprehensible to think that thousands of years ago God would have felt constrained to speak in a way that would be meaningful only to Westerners several thousand years later. To do so borders on modern, Western arrogance....To argue, as I am doing here, that such biblical stories as creation and the flood must be understood first and foremost in the ancient contexts, is nothing new. The point I would like to emphasize, however, is that such a firm grounding in ancient myth does not make Genesis less inspired; it is not a concession that we must put up with or an embarrassment to a sound doctrine of scripture. Quite to the contrary, such rootedness in the culture of the time is precisely what it means for God to speak to his people.... This is surely what it means for God to reveal himself to people - he accommodates, condescends, meets them where they are."
I think Enns is exactly right about this. Understanding the incarnational nature of the Biblical text is a fundamental step towards a more robust Evangelical intellectual commitment in light of our present scientific outlook.
In terms of postmodern epistemology, I do not believe Enns could strictly be described as a postmodern thinker. However, the Westminster tradition of presuppositionalism seems to underlie some of Enns' argument. It seems to me that there could be some potentially fruitful cross-polinization between presuppositionalism, Reformed Epistemology, and some postmodern epistemologies. Indeed, Enns provided a back-cover blurb for John Franke's The Character of Theology, which suggests to me that Enns' is sympathetic to the "postconservative" Evangelical commitment to move away from a modernist, "scientific" approach to the Biblical narratives.
This commitment on Enns' part shows through most clearly, I think, in his discussion of Apostolic hermeneutics. As Enns correctly notes, the Apostolic New Testament writers often used Old Testament texts in ways that would give Evangelical exegetes indigestion. The Apostles often incorporated methods and presuppositions indigenous to their Second Temple Jewish context, and sometimes borrowed concepts and phrases from apocryphal books popular at the time such as 1 Enoch. As a result, the Apostles often read Old Testament passages out of context and applied them in ways not suggested by historical-grammatical exegesis.
Evangelical commentators tend to explain these instances by arguing that the meaning found by the Apostles was inherent in the original text, or that the Apostles had special authority to reinterpret the texts. Instead of these strained approaches, Enns proposes that these are examples of the incarnational nature of the text. The text came to us through a human community, which included some of the presuppositions of Second Temple exegetical methods.
This suggests that the text is to be received and understood in community. As Enns states,
"But biblical interpretation is a true community activity. It is much more than individuals studying a passage for a week or so. It is about individuals who see themselves as a community that reaches far back into history and extends to the many cultures across the world today. Truly, we are not islands of interpretive wisdom. We rely on the witness of the church through time (with the hermeneutical trajectory set by the apostles as a central component), as well as the wisdom of the church in our time--both narrowly considered as a congregation, denomination, or larger tradition and more broadly considered as a global reality, all of which involves the direct involvement of the Spirit of God.... Such a journey is not always smooth. At times what is involved is a certain degree of risk and creativity: we may need to leave the main path from time to time to explore less traveled but promising tracks. To be sure, our job is also to communicate the gospel in all its simplicity, but that does not mean that biblical interpretation is an easy task--the history of the church's interpretive activity should put such notions to rest. Biblical interpretation always requires patience and humility lest we stumble."
Once again, I think Enns is exactly right here. Too much Evangelical theology is about mechanically drawing the "right" set of systematic propositions from the Biblical texts, as if they were scientific journal articles. Propositions and systematics can be helpful, but we must remember that the Biblical texts at their heart are narratives given to living communities, each guided by the Holy Spirit within their particular historical and cultural contexts, and each joined to the broader community of the Church throughout the ages.
In short, there are many riches to be mined from this book, and I recommend it heartily.