Evangelicals, Academia, & Inerrancy: Enns’ “Inspiration and Incarnation,” 10 Years On

Evangelicals, Academia, & Inerrancy: Enns’ “Inspiration and Incarnation,” 10 Years On October 12, 2015


Note: this post is a contribution to the Patheos Book Club discussion on the recently published second edition of Peter Enns’ Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament. Thanks to Baker via Patheos for the review copy.

But the LORD God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:9)

Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” (Mark 5:30)

“Divine condescension knows but one impassable boundary: it can never go so far as to impair or put in doubt the holiness and truth of God…” (Augustin Cardinal Bea, The Word of God and Mankind, 193)*

Much has happened in the academic and theological world of evangelical Christianity in the decade following the original publication of Peter Enns’ Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament; and it’s my pleasure here to review and reflect upon its second, 10th anniversary edition.

As Enns notes in the preface, the main new features of this edition are a reflective postscript and a “modestly expanded bibliography.” Although beyond this, Enns writes that any revisions are “slight indeed and are largely for clarification,” truth be told the publication of its second edition couldn’t have come at a better time. In retrospect, the original publication of Enns’ book itself seems to have been the opening salvo of a major current in evangelical theology over the past decade; and—especially in light of subsequent (and indeed ongoing) events—the issues it explores, and the appeal that it makes to its intended audience, are relevant now more than ever.

Inspiration and Incarnation was written to explicate and indeed endorse what Enns calls a “progressive inerrantist” or “genre inerrantist” view of the Bible. Although there are several facets to this, one of the more unique ways that Enns speaks about inerrancy here is not as some quality inherent in the Biblical texts themselves, but rather as something of a conviction and/or openness that the believer brings to the texts¹—a trust that “whatever the Bible does” (no matter how seemingly problematic), it is nonetheless an expression of God’s will.

More on point, what this suggests for Enns, then, is that “things like historical inaccuracies, myth, and theological diversity in Scripture”—things that we might associate with the products of quintessentially human processes of fallibility—”are not errors needing to be explained away or minimized but, paradoxically, embraced as divine wisdom” (x).

Enns finds, in this tension, an analogous concept/model that is indeed at the very heart of Christianity: the Incarnation, in which the transcendent God of our universe becomes “fully human” as Christ (while, mysteriously, also retaining his full divinity, too), in the language of the Epistle to the Hebrews and of subsequent orthodox Christology.² Enns explains that “[i]n the same way that Jesus is—must be—both God and human, the Bible is also a divine and human book” (5).

Before going any further, it should be noted that Enns would later reiterate—in an early response to criticism by (inerrantist) Gregory Beale—that Inspiration and Incarnation was intended “neither an academic treatise nor a systematic theology,” and that “its aim is [merely] to reach a lay evangelical audience for which the human element of Scripture . . . presents an obstacle to confessing that the Bible is God’s Word.” Nor was the Incarnation model intended as an “innovative theological move” (166), as Enns emphasizes in the postscript to the new edition.

In this regard, things like Pope Benedict XVI’s apostolic exhortation Verbum Domini are welcome additions to Enns’ new expanded bibliography. For example, in Verbum Domini we read, among other things, that

The Dogmatic Constitution Dei Verbum takes up this ancient tradition which holds, as Saint Ambrose says, that “the body of the Son is the Scripture which we have received”, and declares that “the words of God, expressed in human language, are in every way like human speech, just as the word of the eternal Father, when he took on himself the weak flesh of human beings, became like them”. (§18)

For the record, Ambrose wrote in the 4th century AD. To this we might add the apt description of Lawson, on the 3rd century theologian and exegete Origen of Alexandria, that “[i]f the Logos in His Incarnation is God-Man, so, too, in the mind of Origen the incarnation of the Pneuma in Holy Scripture is divine-human.” Boyarin writes—on Origen, vis-à-vis Luke 24:27, 32—that “[b]oth the incarnate Logos before the Crucifixion and the resurrected, but embodied, Logos afterward provided the disciples with the only possible and true interpretation of Scripture.”³

(For more on all this, see recently Wood, “Origen’s Polemics in Princ 4.2.4: Scriptural Literalism as a Christo-Metaphysical Error.” For a recent Catholic exploration of Scriptural inspiration and “incarnation,” see the articles in the special issue of Letter & Spirit, “For the Sake of Our Salvation: The Truth and Humility of God’s Word”—esp. Crehan’s “Verbum Dei Incarnatum and Verbum Dei Scriptum in the Fathers.” Atkinson notes that “the Catholic magisterium solemnly affirmed this strict parallel between the nature of Scriptures and the nature of Christ.”)

In any case, with such a model in mind, in Inspiration and Incarnation Enns seeks to explore three Biblical problems in a fresh way—issues which have “not been handled well within evangelicalism.” He illustrates these problems by three questions: 1) “Why does the Bible in places look a lot like the literature of Israel’s ancient neighbors?”; 2) “Why do different parts of the Old Testament say different things about the same thing?”; 3) “Why do the New Testament authors handle the Old Testament in such odd ways?”

Enns’ devotes three chapters to each individual issue here, which together constitute the bulk of the book. In the first of these, “The Old Testament and Ancient Near Eastern Literature” (which, properly speaking, is chapter two), he explores the challenge that the texts of ancient Israel’s neighboring cultures present to the idea of the uniqueness and truth of the Biblical narratives. Here he focuses on three different subtopics represented in Biblical literature: “Creation and the flood” (explored in conjunction with the Babylonian creation epic Enuma Elish, and the epics of Atrahasis and of Gilgamesh); “Customs, law, and proverbs” (the Nuzi tablets, the Code of Hammurabi, Hittite treaties, and the Egyptian Instruction of Amenemope); and finally, issues involving early rulers of Israel and its history, focusing on the ancient inscriptions in various languages related to Hebrew which elucidate the historicity of the Biblical narratives here.

Considering some of the issues which have come to even greater prominence over the past decade, several points of this chapter stand out. Noting that “[a]ncient peoples were not concerned to describe the universe in scientific terms” (29),⁴—and using Abraham as a representative of Israel in its Near Eastern context, who “shared the worldview of those whose world he shared”—Enns reiterates that we should not be surprised to find Israelite literature similarly formulated “in mythic categories” (42). Consequently, addressing the Primeval History (chs. 1-11) in Genesis, Enns writes that

It is a fundamental misunderstanding . . . to expect it to answer questions generated by a modern worldview, such as whether the days [of creation] were literal or figurative, or whether the days . . . can be lined up with modern science, or whether the flood was local or universal. The question that Genesis is prepared to answer is whether Yahweh, the God of Israel, is worthy of worship. (44)

Here, Enns is in close agreement with fellow evangelical Old Testament scholar John Walton, who’s also done much in the past couple of decades to situate Genesis in its ancient mythological context. (Over 30 years ago, Willem A. VanGemeren had spoken of a common “evangelical demythologization” of certain aspects of Genesis.) In even more recent times, Walton has emerged as one of the most prominent exegetes of the creation narrative of Genesis in particular. Criticizing popular harmonizing interpretations of the (seven) creation days, he writes from a perspective in which

the nature of the days takes on a much less significant role than has normally been the case in the views that focus on material creation, in that they no longer have any connection to the material age of the earth. These are seven twenty-four-hour days. This has always been the best reading of the Hebrew text. Those who have tried to alleviate the tension for the age of the earth commonly suggested that the days should be understood as long eras (the day-age view). This has has never been convincing. (The Lost World of Genesis One, 91)

In this, both Enns and Walton dissent from a harmonizing strategy not only popular among conservatives, but among progressives, too—those who might be attracted to an interpretation that’s overtly science-friendly. By contrast, however, Enns writes that “[w]e do not protect the Bible or render it more believable to modern people by trying to demonstrate that it is consistent with modern science” (44). Despite (rightly) resisting this, though, Enns’ incarnational model attempts to salvage the concept of the divine inspiration of the Biblical texts by suggesting that God “enters their world”; and “[t]his is surely what it means for God to reveal himself to people—he accommodates, condescends, meets them where they are” (44-45).

Much of what appears in the final section of Enns’ second chapter is in fact the focus of the next chapter (“The Old Testament and Theological Diversity”); so let these comments cover that, too.⁵ The issue addressed here is “diversity” in the Biblical texts, including the problem of contradiction. Enns begins this chapter by discussing two different extremes in how this diversity has been handled. On one hand, Enns suggests that “some critical biblical scholarship” has proceeded as if the Bible is “full of contradictions and, hence, a quaint record of conflicting human opinions.” In response to this, however, there has been “evangelical counterattack,” which asserts that “such diversity is not there, involves only minor issues, or can be resolved in theory at some future time.”

Enns suggests that both of these actually share a core assumption that “God’s word is incompatible with diversity at the level of factual content and theological message,” and characterizes this (in his opinion erroneous) perspective as one in which “diversity implies inconsistency” (75). In keeping with his broader theme, however, Enns’ view is that this diversity itself is a sort of divine strategy—that “God himself is pleased to allow the tension to stand” (74).

The chapter explores several examples from the laws of the Torah (74-84), as well as issues of ethnicity and the nature of God himself in the Old Testament, to elucidate Biblical diversity. While in some cases, he makes a case that there is no substantive “inconsistency”—because of the different social or historical situations presupposed by these texts, etc.—in others the distinction between “diversity” and (genuine) “inconsistency” seems to have less utility. (And it could certainly be even confounded further, if one was less selective with the material dealt with, or more critical.)

Of course, this becomes problematic in light of the fact that the original criticism Enns sought to challenge here was “If [Biblical material] is inconsistent, that would mean God is inconsistent” (75). As suggests above, Enns seeks to view Biblical diversity as something integral, illustrating God’s diversity; but if we accept that at a certain point the lines become blurred, and things cross over into genuine “inconsistency,” don’t we have a serious theological problem?

I’ll return to that in a minute; but to take a second to explore a bit more how Enns frames the issue of diversity: this is expressed most cogently toward the end of chapter, i.e.

God reveals himself throughout the Old Testament. There is no part that gets it “more right” than others. Rather, they get at different sides of God for ancient audiences. Or, to use the well-worn analogy, the different descriptions of God in the Old Testament are like the different colors and textures that together combine to make a portrait. In keeping with the incarnational analogy, we can appreciate that the entire Bible, through and through, has that human dimension. So, for the Old Testament to speak of God as changing his mind means that this is his choice for how he wants us to know him. He speak about himself in ways that reflect our ability to understand. (95)

Of course, although Enns is speaking about how this is the “intention” of God specifically for us—a 21st century audience, almost all of whom have easy access to the “entire Bible”—even the New Testament authors had inherited a complete Old Testament canon; and, furthermore, not only did early Church theologians find a sort of overarching (mainly Christological) unity to the OT, but some specifically found a unity through diversity.⁶

Why, though—if God indeed chose to present himself to the believer through the texts—did he do it in some of the counterintuitive ways that Enns isolates? For example, in contrast to the understanding of God that would come to dominate philosophical and scholastic theology, and still dominant today—the threefold omni- God, unchanging, etc.—the God of the Old Testament “finds things out, he can feel grieved about things that happen, he changes his mind” (95). In short, here it’s clear where Enns comes down on what’s traditionally known as the problem of divine impassibility—or at least where he comes down on this issue in its Biblical guise. Yet the seeds of the former are certainly found in the Biblical texts, too; and Enns writes that to discard one or the other here would be to “set aside part of God’s word in an effort to defend him, which is somewhat of a self-contradiction.

Yet the focus on God sort of “speaking through” the texts to believers in this way connects with some major unsettled theological issues—both about the nature of God in general, and also, more specifically, Christological, involving questions about the Incarnation. But here we might highlight a certain ambiguity when Enns suggests “this is [God’s] choice for how he wants us to know him,” in light of some of the counterintuitive facets that Enns has pointed out: does God actually change his mind or regret things that he did, or does he simply want us to think that he does those things (or did do them at some point) for some reason—even if this might not be ultimately “true” in such a straightforward way?

If the latter would seem implausible, this was in fact precisely one of the issues that was struggled with in the early Church, even among the most important “framers” of orthodox Christology itself, especially of the 4th century. These people, like Athanasius, were uncomfortable with some of the ways that Jesus was portrayed in the gospels, i.e. as lacking knowledge; but through their conviction that Christ truly was “fully God”—with all the necessary qualities of who and what God is—and through creative exegesis of the gospels (figurative readings, allegoresis), they could sort of reframe those instances in the gospels where Christ appeared to have very non-God-like qualities, and instead suggest, for example, that he was sort of pretending to lack knowledge, for the sake of the narrative audience (or the later reading audience).⁷

That being said: again, despite that Enns has made some headway toward acknowledging Biblical tensions (and indeed “contradictions”) and some of the problems posed by this, to my mind there’s still a sort of elephant in the room here—one that, up until this point, has not been adequately addressed by Enns. This is that, to the best of our understanding, there’s little discernible difference between a text that merely appears to be “inconsistent”—and yet this is somehow mitigated (or prevented from truly being so) by this notion that God is somehow using these tensions in order to demonstrate his diverse nature, or to otherwise compel the believer toward some belief or another, etc.—and a text that really is contradictory and genuinely not divinely inspired.

Of course, such a charge might seem obvious or even passé coming from an atheist like myself; but it seems to be precisely the sort of charge that the incredulous non-progressive evangelicals who are Enns’ target audience could make, too. (One subsequently used, conversely, to issue a flat-out denial of Biblical tension or error, as otherwise this would collapse the distinction between [inspired] Christian and [non-inspired] non-Christian traditions.)

But there’s another sense in which Enns can actually bypass this issue:

Is the fact of diversity fundamentally contrary to the Bible being the word of God? My answer is no. And the way in which we can begin to address this issue is to confess at the outset, along with the historic Christian church, that the Bible is the word of God. That is our starting point, a confession of faith, not creating a standard of what the Bible should look like and then assessing the Bible on the basis of that standard. (96)

It is this and similar considerations which can organically lead us into Enns’ final chapter, and really set up for some of the ultimate takeaways from Enns’ book and the wider theological issues it explores.

The fourth chapter of Enns’ book—covering the third issue explicated earlier—is entitled “Old Testament and Its Interpretation in the New Testament”; and the introductory heading here is “Do New Testament Authors Misuse the Old Testament?” (103). To open the chapter, Enns suggests that the problematic way that the Bible in general can be interpretively (ab)used by, say, modern preachers, is analogous to some unusual interpretation of the Old Testament that we find in the New Testament itself: for example, an individual verse is more or less completely isolated from its context and used to make some sort of theological argument that simply could not have been in the mind of the original author (no matter how dimly), or otherwise strains credulity.

This becomes even more problematic when we realize that this sort of context-insensitive interpretation was both (apparently) used in his earthly ministry by Jesus himself, according to the gospels (cf. Mark 12:18-27, esp. v. 26), as well as used to justify claims made by the gospel authors about Jesus: i.e. that certain aspects of Jesus’ life were prophetically predicted in the Old Testament, and that he indeed fulfilled these.

Again, Enns’ target audience here is mainstream conservative evangelicals; and—following his proclivity for giving things in groups of threes—he lists three lines of argumentation that these evangelicals have used in order to explain (or, more accurately, explain away) this unusual exegesis: 1) that the NT authors are “actually respecting the context of the Old Testament text they are citing”; 2) in citing and alluding to these OT texts, they are not even really intending to make any interpretive claim proper (they’re “just alluding” to them?); and 3) in the end, it doesn’t even really matter how bizarre this early exegesis seems to us, because it was ultimately divinely inspired (by virtue of the fact that it appears in the Bible itself, and presumably comes from apostolic authority), and this is enough. (We moderns have no such authority, and consequently must yield to them.)

Much of this chapter is occupied by looking at Biblical interpretation throughout the texts of Second Temple Judaism (106-121), and specific examples of New Testament texts interpreting the Old Testament or other Second Temple traditions (122-141); but the salient issue here was raised at the very beginning—one that, in many ways, seems to be one of the central conundrums of Enns’ entire venture, and of evangelical and indeed Christian worldviews in general.

On one hand, Enns thinks that the three lines of argument that mainstream conservative evangelicals have used here (listed above) “will not stand up to critical examination” (105). Yet at the same time, the third of these arguments suggests that New Testament scriptural interpretation is a “function of apostolic authority,” and that it is ultimately authoritative for Christians who trust the Biblical witness—something that Enns naturally agrees with.

Enns revisits this later in the chapter. To not be persuaded by this apostolic exegesis would be “admitting that the New Testament authors were misguided”; yet, if evangelicals care at all about ensuring that their beliefs and trust are justified, “it would have to be explained what it is about apostolic authority that would justify their handling of Scripture in such odd ways.”

Enns seems to address this most directly at p. 148f.: evangelicals should, above all, come to appreciate the sort of underlying ideology that these apostles had in their exegetical pursuits; and this is authoritative because evangelicals share, with them, the same ‘”eschatological moment,” that is, we too live in the postresurrection universe’. Consequently, he affirms that

A Christian understanding of the Old Testament should begin with what God revealed to the apostles and what they model for us: the centrality of the death and resurrection of Christ for Old Testament interpretation. (148)

But how does trusting the apostolic witness connect with or answer “what it is about apostolic authority that would justify their handling of Scripture” (emphasis mine)? What makes their interpretations valid and authoritative, and not, say, some more critically-informed interpretation that we might have access to today?

I think Enns has raised some vital questions that need to be asked. Further—much as Enns did when reiterating that the mythology of Genesis cannot and should not be harmonized with modern science—Enns has rightly implicated some of the pseudo-critical principles that evangelical scholarship has relied upon: e.g. “Defend the apostles against the accusation that they are practicing the faulty hermeneutics of Second Temple Judaism and argue that the New Testament’s use of the Old Testament is essentially in harmony with grammatical-historical exegesis” (147).

But in another sense, the only thing clear to me about how Enns really answers “what it is about apostolic authority that would justify their handling of Scripture” is just how unclear the answer is. Yet I can’t help think that the direction that Enns’ answer is pointing—to the extent that an answer can be discerned at all—is much the same as one that appeared in the previous chapter: that evangelicals must “confess at the outset, along with the historic Christian church, that the Bible is the word of God,” and therefore that this apostolic interpretation is automatically justified. And yet this seems like it might lead one directly to the last of the three common evangelical conclusions that Enns suggested are unsustainable, where no matter how bizarre or seemingly unwarranted this interpretation might appear to be, it is made logical and warranted by virtue of its divine inspiration.

But then what of Enns’ genuine acknowledgment of the problems of apostolic exegesis? It’s interesting in this regard that, in a response article specifically to this chapter of Enns’ book, published in the journal Themelios, (mainstream inerrantist) Gregory Beale charges that

Enns answers the question ‘did Jesus and the apostles preach the right doctrine from the wrong texts?’ with a resounding ‘yes’

Beale’s article spawned a response from Enns, and then a surrejoinder by Beale; but it seems to me that Enns indeed comes perilously close to suggesting that there is little that justifies New Testament apostolic interpretation itself other than it had the right idea of finding Christ as the central mystery of the OT, even if it went about it in ways that were largely arbitrary if not simply disingenuous (or “wrong”). Further, in his surrejoinder, Beale writes that “Enns . . . believes that the New Testament writers’ belief in Christ, especially in his death and resurrection, gave them christotelic lenses that changed their interpretation of the Old Testament so much that, unless one was a Christian, one could not read the Old Testament in the same way” (19, emphasis mine).⁸

In all this, this resembles the sort of fatal circularity of faith that I mentioned in my previous post (though, there, specifically in conjunction with Catholicism). How do we know that Jesus was the true Messiah, and indeed God in the flesh? Because the New Testament’s witness (and interpretation) is true. Yet how can we trust that the Bible is accurate here? The answer to the latter must in some way involve Jesus being the Messiah and being God, and ensuring that this fact is recognized: which (at least for Protestants) is primarily made known to the believer through the Biblical witness—for Enns and others, itself modeled on the Incarnation.⁹

I wonder, though, if the (mostly hidden) subtext of Enns’ chapter here is not actually a carefully-measured agnosticism; that we simply no longer have any basis for saying, one way or the other, that apostolic interpretation—the one that secures Jesus as Christ—is justified in any real sense of the term. If this is at all on point, interestingly this would be similar to the ultimate conclusion of the (also controversial) book The Violence of Scripture: Overcoming the Old Testament’s Troubling Legacy—written by Eric Seibert, another scholar at a conservative Christian university, Messiah College—which is incredibly honest in its conclusion that the Old Testament supports positions which are (in any context) simply immoral, but then ends by hinting that this issue is more or less unanswerable.

(Seibert has in fact made several guests posts on this issue on Peter Enns’ blog on Patheos, i.e. here.)

I end on a note acknowledging Enns’ honest and open-endedness here, because it’s precisely these qualities which made Enns’ book such a sensation in the evangelical world—and which cost him, too.

At the time of its publication, Enns had been teaching at Westminster Theological Seminary for well over a decade. Inspiration and Incarnation would prove to be a landmark in Enns’ career, and in fact change its course. Although slightly exaggerated, his book “caught the attention of the world,” in the words of Peter Lillback, the President of WTS. In so doing, however, it soon became asked whether Enns—in taking some of the positions that he did in Inspiration and Incarnation—was in violation of the Westminster Confession of Faith, to which WTS and its faculty adhere.

Because of this,

Lillback initiated a series of regular faculty meetings (“Faculty Theology Fellowship”) to discuss Enns and his book. Those meetings, moderated by Lillback, took place over a two-year period and led to the preparation of two written reports, at Lillback’s direction, to aid the faculty in determining whether or not Enns was in violation of his oath. (Source)

Despite initially favorable results from the committees that produced these results, though,

On March 26, 2008, the Board of Trustees at Westminster Theological Seminary voted 18-9 to suspend Enns from his position effective May 23, 2008. Though the faculty voted 12-8 that the work falls within the parameters of the Westminster Confession of Faith, the chairman of the Board said that a majority of the members on the Board at that time felt the book was incompatible with the Confession.

In the wake of this, there was a spat of similar controversies, all centered around intellectual freedom and Christian universities. This reached its crescendo with the high-profile sackings or departures of teachers from several different Christian universities and seminaries: Bruce Waltke (Reformed Theological Seminary); Christopher Rollston (Emmanuel Christian Seminary, more here); John Schneider (Calvin College); Michael Pahl (Cedarville University); and mostly recently, Thomas Oord (Northwest Nazarene University), and J. R. Daniel Kirk (Fuller Seminary).

It’s interesting how several of these controversies similarly centered around these scholars’ views on the book of Genesis, traditional Christian views of creation, and science—recalling Enns’ own discussion on the matter (something explored in much more detail in Enns’ subsequent The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins).

Waltke’s sacking came in the wake of a video posted by the BioLogos Foundation, which largely focuses on the relationship between Christianity and evolution; Pahl’s after the publication of his book The Beginning and the End: Rereading Genesis’s Stories and Revelation’s Visions; and Oord’s was widely thought to involve his openmindedness on evolution—and see the controversy around John Schneider’s departure, too. (Finally, cf. the case of Richard Colling from Olivet Nazarene University, involving his teaching on evolution.)

What might the takeaway be here? Ten years on, what does Enns’ Inspiration and Incarnation have to say about this?

In Enns’ postscript, he writes

The mythic nature of Genesis is not analogous to a sinful Jesus (and therefore “error”). Rather, it is analogous to the olive skin, bearded face, and sandaled feet of Jesus of Nazareth, the languages he knew, and his limited knowledge (e.g. not knowing when the end would come, string theory, Bach, or Grench). Jesus’ humanness participates fully in its various historical settings. In neither can the “human” be pushed aside. (176)

But, again, it is precisely the issue of the extent of the human Jesus’ knowledge (or ignorance) that has been a sharp point of contention for centuries. In fact, for those branches of Christianity like Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, for whom the dogma of the first few ecumenical councils is binding, it is significant here that the Second Council of Constantinople formally condemned the idea that the human Jesus lacked knowledge—which, as such, guarantees its doctrinal irreversibility in those traditions.¹⁰

Considering also that the some of the same orthodox traditions also demand a certain literal historical core to the Genesis creation narratives—for example, an actual Adam and Eve to whom every living human is genetically related—then things like the “mythic nature of Genesis,” in the way that Enns understands it (which, again, is explored further in his The Evolution of Adam), are actually much more problematic to Christianity “as a whole” than Enns might acknowledge—at least insofar as adherents of these orthodox traditions account for the largest number of Christians on the planet.¹¹

Of course, Enns’ Inspiration and Incarnation is directed toward (Protestant) evangelicals, not the orthodox. But there’s an important sense in which I think Enns’ arguments here are aimed at an audience of much the same mindset as those who adhere to traditional orthodoxy. And just as orthodox ecclesiastical institutions have safeguards in place to ensure that ministerial authorities and other related (official) organizations adhere to orthodox traditions—something that can be compelled by force, if need be—so Protestant institutions have this, as well; and as seen, both of these have used the full force of their authority to enforce assent (or, rather, to silence dissent).

As I suggested in my most recent post here, in a funny way there are aspects of a similar authoritarianism that have been internalized, as well. Institutional “infallibility”—long-standing institutions that are thought to be in possession of “ultimate truth” on at least certain major matters of religious doctrine—becomes mixed up with or indistinguishable from a notion of personal infallibility. At the end of the day, it is each individual person who is ultimately responsible for the sentiment of “I cannot be wrong” (even if only by virtue of the idea that their favored religious tradition cannot be wrong); and, at worst, they are cognitively incapable of thinking otherwise.

With this in mind, I think Enns’ Inspiration and Incarnation will be most effective for those evangelicals who are somewhat on the fence on issues of the relationship between Christian truth and (“secular”) critical research. But, although it seems pessimistic, I think it’s an unavoidable fact that the minds of many conservative evangelicals simply cannot be changed. Countless examples where no amount of warranted evidence can compel someone to do so bears this out. (See my post here for more.)

As mentioned earlier, Enns had emphasized the apologetic intention of the book, “to reach a lay evangelical audience for which the human element of Scripture . . . presents an obstacle to confessing that the Bible is God’s Word.” But I think there’s a very important sense in which Enns’ work is not simply oriented toward ensuring that evangelical faith is not threatened by Truth, but also in protecting Truth from religion, too. Enns has done an invaluable work here in appealing to let critical research be critical research.

But, again, for some of the intended audience, there are cognitive barriers to (accepting) this at the personal level; and there are also ideological/political barrier to this on the institutional level.

Is there anything that can be done to break these barriers?

There’s a point at which, as a sort of good faith mediator between two positions, you can only give up so much in concession before your own position is no longer principled (or perhaps not even coherent!). I wonder, then, that if there’s a certain point where, in a last ditch effort, we have to drop the carrot and pick up the stick.

Here I often think back to the infamous Ken Ham / Bill Nye debate over evolution—about the choice of Nye, and the event itself. Being a beloved educator, such that Bill Nye is, can go some way toward fostering “good will,” even across the aisle. But I also think that Nye was far too polite to his opponent; and I think that crucial opportunities were missed, that could have been used to more effectively reveal Ham as someone whose core ideology is in fact antithetical to civilized society. But beyond this, was the debate even a good idea at all? There was a widespread sentiment in both scientific and skeptical circles that the mere fact of humoring Ham’s views in debate gives his position an undeserved legitimacy (if only of one being worthy of public discourse) in the first place.

What does this mean in the real world, relevant to Enns and the broader context in which his work has come to importance?

If you’ll permit a few words of personal (and somewhat radical) sociopolitical sentiment, about a possible world here: if Christian universities cannot be trusted to foster an environment of intellectual integrity on their own, then let them do this at the expense of their accreditation—or perhaps even at the risk of more drastic governmental oversight. Divest from other organizations and societies that have unreasonable demands in terms of their members affirming, say, vulgar inerrancy (the Evangelical Theological Society might be precisely one of these); and appeal for academic or quasi-academic publishers to stop publishing works that affirm this.

On a more individual level, perhaps it’s time to start being more bold about embracing highly non-traditional forms of Christianity. This, of course, extends as far as to questioning the Incarnation itself—which, needless to say, would complicate things about Enns’ overarching thesis. On one hand, Enns’ is an honest and poignant attempt to deal with the Bible on its own terms, and is theologically sophisticated, to be certain. Yet—following a lead that began to gain steam in the 1970s, with John Hick, Maurice Wiles, Michael Goulder, et al., and which might have ignited a more widespread theological revolution were it not stifled—there’s much room to think that the traditional notion of the Incarnation itself obfuscates more than it elucidates.¹²

In summary, then, I wonder if Enns’ project, carried through to its natural end—whether compelled to do so because of evangelical probing and objections, or due to more secular ones (or both, in tandem!)—paves the way for radical conclusions; ones more radical than is suggested by Enns’ measured prose. Yet the journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step; and I wonder if Enns’ wasn’t the necessary—if not ideal—opening salvo.

⁂       ⁂       ⁂


* Bea continues “Hence the absolute necessity of the inerrancy of Scripture, because of which it may ‘teach firmly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted written down for the sake of our salvation’ (no. 11).”

[1] “The problems many of us feel regarding the Bible may have less to do with the Bible itself and more to do with our own preconceptions” (3).

[2] Hebrews 2:17

[3] “By Way of Apology: Dawson, Edwards, Origen,” 210. Discussing all of this in the context of Torjesen’s Hermeneutical Procedure and Theological Method in Origen’s Exegesis. Boyarin continues

It is not only that ‘in the taking on of flesh the Logos makes himself comprehensible to all those who wear flesh,’ a formulation that sounds almost Athanasian in its seeming automatic nature, but that in taking on flesh, he could speak the magic language directly to human flesh and thus make himself and his other incarnation in Scripture comprehensible to all those who speak human language, for he is the Divine, magic language made human language. In the Incarnation, the Logos ‘offered himself to be known,’ in a way, I would add, that nothing but a physical body and voice can be known. (211)

[4] In Beale’s surrejoinder, he characterizes Enns’ view here (perhaps slightly polemically) that they “thought they were recording history but they were wrong.”

[5] I found the second section here to be one of the weaker. Enns admits that the Nuzi tablets are not very relevant for his overarching thesis; but even beyond this, several arguments are unclear. For example, at one point Enns suggests “What makes Israel’s laws revelatory is not that they are new . . . but that these are the laws that were to be obeyed in order to form Israel into a godlike community” (45). Yet doesn’t “revelatory” precisely imply novelty? And, besides this, don’t other ancient law codes also carry a divine imprimatur and imply that they, too, are uniquely suited to the people they govern?

At several other places in this section, Enns seems at pains to emphasize the importance of the perception of God himself being the source of Israelite legal and wisdom traditions—again, in which God uses to “make [Israel] into a certain kind of people”; but also constituting, for them, a certain sense of “God with us” (the meaning of the name Emmanuel, later applied to Christ)—yet to me, this does little to address the problem of uniqueness.

[6] Michael Cameron writes, about Augustine, that

“There is one God of both Testaments” (Mor. 1.17.30), he wrote: a God who adapted its different parts to the different needs of its readers, just as a physician gives a patient first one medicine, then another, according to need. Scripture’s different characters may be good or bad, its authors may use different strategies and words, and its texts may show haps and contradictions; but everything converges upon the divine voluntas (Doc. chr. 2.9.14). (“Augustine in Scripture” in A Companion to Augustine, 204.)

We could also connect this with a sentiment expressed elsewhere by Augustine (and authors), where the presence of (apparent) contradiction is actually to be understood as something of an intended signpost for the reader/hearer, designed to draw them to some deeper spiritual understanding.

[7] Enns acknowledges what’s at least a tangentially related issue, when discussing one possible explanation of the fact that, in the Bible, humans seem to be able to influence God’s decisions, etc.: “from a philosophical point of view one can answer this quite simply by saying that God may act as if his actions are contingent, but in reality they are not” (94). As for the exegesis of Athanasius, related to this, see my quotations here. For the topic more broadly, cf. the work of Kevin Madigan, The Passions of Christ in High-Medieval Thought, and his “Christus Nesciens? Was Christ Ignorant of the Day of Judgment?”

[8] Beale suggests that, in his responses, Enns has not “advanced the argument much beyond what I said in my reviews” and at several points “offers no substantive response.”

[9] The biggest problem, from the perspective of someone like myself who doesn’t have a theological dog in this particular fight, is that both sides that Enns speaks for here—conservative evangelical (inerrantists) and progressive evangelical (inerrantists)—must engage in the same sort of special pleading so that the Biblical text can always remain “true” (based on their respective understandings of what the Bible needs to be like in order to justly deem it so). while at the same time never quite penetrating to the epistemological warrant for Christianity itself… again, at least not in a non-circular way.

[10] Price, The Acts of the Council of Constantinople of 553, Volume Two, 194. For patristic exegesis, again see the work of Kevin Madigan, as well as my post here.

[11] And, indeed, that these traditions have been the ones that have insisted the most vocally on their absolute truth, for centuries now.

[12] Even some of the more traditional perspectives represented in contemporary academic theology have struggled to affirm its coherence: cf. the work of Stephen Davis, Inwagen, Leftow, Michael Rea, Richard Cross, Oliver Crisp, Swinburne; not to mention the issues that have come to light in the recent evangelical “subordinationism” controversies.

In light of some of the things discussed earlier in this view, I think of something Thomas Weinandy once wrote in First Things, on the problem of divine impassibility. He actually suggests, at one point,

It follows . . . that God is said “to change His mind” or is portrayed as undergoing differing emotional states precisely because, as the transcendent God, He does not change His mind or undergo emotional changing states.

To say that this is inane and indeed disingenuous nonsense would be generous. Yet it’s precisely the sort of corner one is pushed into when dogmatically bound to certain theological/metaphysical constructs.

John Montgomery:

Whenever we reach the point of affirming on the one hand that the Bible is infallible or inerrant and admitting on the other hand to internal contradictions or factual inaccuracies within it, we not only make a farce of language, promoting ambiguity, confusion, and perhaps even deception in the church; more reprehensible than even these things, we in fact deny the plenary inspiration and authority of Scripture, regardless of the theological formulae we may insist on retaining. . . . I must—if only on the basis of common sense—protest the idea that “error can’t affect inerrancy.” This is like saying that the presence of corners can’t affect a circle. (Lutheran Witness Reporter: Great Lakes Edition, May 22, 1966, 7, quoted in )

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