The (Pete) Enns of the Matter

Screen Shot 2015-01-07 at 3.35.58 PMBy John Frye

Scot McKnight has recently posted on the presentations of the Five Views of Biblical Inerrancy. One of those presenters is Peter Enns. Peaked by these posts, I re-read Enns’ book The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending the Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It. I’d like to give my personal review of the book because if you take time to read the amazon.com reviews you will discover that Enns’ book is considered “garbage” all the way to “nothing short of a miracle.” This reminds me of how 1st century religious leaders reviewed Jesus.

Such a polarizing book needs some attention.

How many times have you been told, “Just be yourself”? Peter Enns says to the Bible, “Just be yourself.” In fact he says it even better like this, “The problem is [our] coming to the Bible with expectations it’s not set up to bear” (8). The Bible “doesn’t behave” the way it should; it is “the messy, troubling, weird, and ancient Bible that we actually have” (9).

Like Enns, I was born again into a conservative tribe of the Christian faith, went to a conservative Bible college and seminary which touted “a high view of Scripture.” I was introduced to the theological construct called inerrancy. Enns taught in a Seminary famous as a historical fortress for defending the inerrancy of the Bible. As a Harvard grad and esteemed Old Testament scholar working with the biblical texts, Enns began to discover realities that could not be kept suppressed in the inerrancy pressure cooker. Either a new pressure cooker needed to be designed to hold Enns’ troubling discoveries (which is the purpose of his book Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament) or portions of the Old Testament (and New) had to be strangely contorted to fit into the prevailing view of inerrancy. I find it fascinating that there are now five (or more?) views of inerrancy. Oh the wit of the evangelical minds!

Was I (and am still) jolted by Enns’ view of the Canaanite genocide texts? You bet. Am I intent on giving Enns a hearing? You bet. Why? An ancient heresy about Jesus was docetism. Jesus wasn’t really human; he only appeared to be, that is, real humanity was beneath the dignity of the divine. One reviewer of Enns’ book lamented that we have received a docetic Bible; it really cannot be fully human (as our evangelical bibliology affirms). Enns, through scholarly research in the literature of the ANE including the Bible, dares to point out the humanity of the Bible that does not square well with some evangelicals view of inerrancy. He was pink slipped as a tenured professor. Enns’ view that Yahweh as Israel’s warrior, tribal God ordering the genocide of an entire people (the Canaanites) is not historically accurate, yet still true to ancient Israel’s perception and relationship to God was just a jot and tittle too much. Even more, the contested biblical view of the fall of Jericho is not unique to Enns.

For me, Enns hits grand slams in his presentation of Jesus in the Gospels and Paul’s revisioning of Israel’s story as the Jesus story which becomes the story for the world (shades of N. T. Wright and Scot McKnight). I noticed some reviewers were upset with Enns’ presentation of Jesus “creative” use of the Old Testament, as well as Matthew’s and Paul’s. For example, it cannot be denied that Matthew creatively quoted and used Hosea in a way that would never have entered Hosea’s mind (Matt. 2:15-16; Hosea 11:1).

My oldest daughter, Leah, who was trained as a mechanical engineer and now teaches STEM classes, appreciated Enns’ book. She reacted, “Once I was able to look at the Old Testament as not actual factual history, it completely changed my perception of Christianity, especially modern Christianity. The need to believe that each word of the Old Testament is an historical fact is so damaging in my opinion. Makes Christians sound dumb. Looking at the Old Testament in the context of its time period and how/why/when it was written makes so much more sense. Also, Enns debunks the warmongering, baby killing version of the Old Testament God which I appreciated.”

I am glad for continuing theological exploration into the meanings of a non-biblical word like inerrancy (just as Trinity is a non-biblical word). Perhaps a more robust, expansive definition will prevail so that inerrancy isn’t used to “police” evangelical scholars. I close with three Ennisms:

“God is bigger than the Bible” (149).

“Jesus is bigger than the Bible” (170).

“For Christians, then, the question is not ‘Who gets the Bible right?’ The question is and always has been, ‘Who gets Jesus right?’” (227).

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