Reviewing Pete Enns: Is the Bible Just Humans Updating God as it Goes?

Reviewing Pete Enns: Is the Bible Just Humans Updating God as it Goes? August 6, 2019

Part 1: On Wisdom

By Geoff Holsclaw, a pastor and professor. See his free How Did We Get the Bible?

At some point in my childhood I remember hearing the story in the Bible of King Solomon’s asking God for wisdom (1 Kings 3). I really wanted wisdom—but probably not for the right reasons.

God comes to Solomon in a dream and says that he can ask for whatever he wants and God will do it.  Because he is a young and inexperienced king, Solomon asks for a wise and discerning heart.  God was so pleased with this humble request that God also granted him riches and honor.

For years after hearing this story I remember praying every night for wisdom, asking God to give me a wise and discerning heart, just like Solomon. Early on I’m sure this was more pragmatic than pious.  I really just wanted the riches and the honor, and thought wisdom would be the divine shortcut. But by my teenage years I started to realize the value of wisdom, and how it didn’t always make life easier. In fact, wisdom sometimes makes life harder.

Peter Enns’ new book, How the Bible Actually Worksat its best seeks to place us on the hard, but rewarding, path of wisdom. Enns seeks to grow us in maturity so that we might take up wisdom as our “sacred responsibility.”

But in the end, it is unclear whether it is God’s path of wisdom or our own that Enns is leading us on.

In this two part review of his book I want to start with what I appreciate about Enns’ approach the Bible (and there is much appreciation).  In the next post I’ll raise my criticisms (about equal to my appreciation).

A Diverse Book of Wisdom

Enns is writing for the barely or formerly Christian who are trying to hang on to some semblance of faith in God and trying their hardest to give the Bible a second chance.  By writing a popular book, rather than an academic treatise, Enns seeks to pastor those who feel duped by a church that preached a simplistic understanding of the Bible.

Enns starts from two foundational assumptions.

The first is that God is not a helicopter parent, micro-managing our lives.  Instead, God is like a wise parent who wants us to grow in maturity and gain the skills necessary for life.  God is not hovering over us offering moment by moment direction and meting out real time punishments for infractions. Rather, for Enns, God is like a wise parent who gives freedom and responsibility so that we can learn to handle life like “mature, well-functioning adults” (13).

The second assumption—based on the first—is that the Bible is not a rulebook or instruction manual for life. A helicopter parent would spell everything thing out in detail and make sure nothing goes wrong. And a helicopter God would give us a sacred book “full of clear, consistent, unambiguous information” to follow (14).  But God didn’t give us a Bible like this.

The way the Bible actually works, according to Enns, is that it “leads us to wisdom rather than answers” (to quote the book’s subtitle).  And it does this leaving by ample room for pondering, debating, and thinking amid its ancient, ambiguous, and diverse covers.

Don’t Answer A Fool, Except When You Should

Enns turns to the book of Proverbs—the wisdom book par excellence—as a guide for understanding the whole Bible.

Near the end of the book is one of my favorite pair of proverbs.

Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will be a fool yourself.

Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes. (Prov. 26:4-5)

In back to back proverbs we get contradictory rules.  If we read Proverbs like a clear cut rule book, then which one of these do we follow?  Knowing which rule to follow requiring understanding the situation (Should I correct that foolish answer or ignore it). And understanding a situation and knowing how to response properly is what wisdom is all about.  That’s why the book of Proverbs placed these right next to each other, so that we would start learning how to discern different situations and learn how to responded to them.

Reading individual proverbs as if they were just rules to be followed would ruin your life.  But instead of rules they are more like building blocks—the raw materials—from which we build wise lives.

And this isn’t just how the book of Proverb help us become wise.

Enns claims that this is how the entire Bible works.  The whole Bible cultivates wisdom in us by offering diverse situations and different perspectives on God, humanity, and the world.

What About the 10 Commandments?

It might be objected, however, that there are plenty of rules in the Bible. And rather than cultivating wisdom, these rules demand obedience. There are the big ten commandments, for instance.

But Enns notes that severals of these commandments are not really that straightforward.  What does it really mean not to have any other gods “before” Yahweh.  Does that mean none at all? Or just make sure Yahweh is first?

And how do you know when you’ve taken God’s name in vain and when you haven’t?

Jesus ran afoul of those who thought he wasn’t keeping the Sabbath holy in the right way.

And what about honoring your father and mother?  How do you really know when you’ve do it or not?

Not stealing and not murdering seem easy enough to understand. But how do you know when you’ve cross the line from admiring to coveting?

Enns claims these laws are ambiguous because their goal is to cultivate wisdom in us, the ability to know how to apply them creatively in the complex situations that come up in our complicated lives.

And in this I think Enns is on to something. If we just think of the Bible as full of rules and answers then we are going to be disappointed and disillusioned.

But if we see the Bible as the long and complicated story of a relational God interacting wisely with humanity, and longing for humanity to gain the wisdom that leads to life, then the twists and turns of the Bible become an opportunity to grow in our love and knowledge of God—and ourselves.

Updating For A New Context

For Enns, it’s not just that our lives require wisdom because they are complex.  But wisdom is required because our lives are complex, and they are changing.  Because of this we need to exercise wisdom in updating faith for new circumstances.

The Bible, for Enns, models this kind of updating, adapting, or “reimagining” as he most often calls it (I’m not sure why Enns didn’t call it contextualizing, which is the term that would have clearer I think—perhaps he thought it too jargon for a popular book).

Exodus and Deuteronomy

One example of reimagine God’s laws are found in Exodus and Deuteronomy.

The book of Exodus talks about the treatment and release of slaves. But the book of Deuteronomy has more humane laws concerning slaves.

Another example concerns the rules about Passover. In Exodus the lamb is to be roasted, not boiled. And the Israelites prepare the lamb in their own homes. In Deuteronomy the lamb can be roasted or boiled. And the celebration must be in Jerusalem.

In this and many other ways Enns claims that “Deuteronomy reimagines God for a new time and place.  Deuteronomy is, in other words, an act of wisdom. For the past to have any spiritual vitality in the present, it had to be reshaped for the present” (87).

Samuel/Kings and Chronicles

Enns also turns the two long histories of the Old Testament of 1-2 Samuel and 1-2 Kings, and 1-2 Chronicles.  Why two histories that retell much of the same material? What is going on here?

Enns sees Samuel-Kings as written just before or during the Babylonian exile as an attempt to answer the question, “How did we get into this mess? What did we do to deserve exile?” (108).  The answer is that the kings and leaders had led Israel astray into idolatry. Israel is being punished because of the sins of the kings, which is why it spends so much time telling the stories of the various kings, and whether they were evil or not.

The history in Chronicles, written well after the return from exile, is not answering the question of why the Exile, but the question, “Is God still with us?” (108).  Enns points out that rather than pinning the exile on sinful leaders, that the Chronicler places responsibility on all the people—it is much more collective in handing out blame.  The moral of the story is that God is with Israel to the degree that the entire people stay faithful to God.

This retelling of Israel’s history is “nothing less than one big act of reimagining God, of accepting the sacred responsibility to creatively retell the past in order to bridge that past to a difficult present” (109).

For, or Against, Nineveh?

Lastly, is God’s word, delivered by the prophets, a word of condemnation or compassion?

The prophet Nahum received a message of condemnation.  Speaking of Nineveh, Nahum 3 begins with “Woe to you city of blood…” (v. 1) and ends with “Nothing can heal you; your wound is fatal” (v. 19), and everything in between is destruction.

But the prophet Jonah, who seems to concur with Nahum, is forced to watch God show compassion to Nineveh amid their mass repentance (Jonah 4).

On the one hand, God is punishing those who punish Israel, making God especially concerned about Israel (Nahum).  On the other hand, God seems concerned about extending mercy and compassion to all people, if they would only repent (Jonah).

The presence of both Nahum and Jonah in the Bible forces us to wrestle with who God really is and to grow in wisdom about how to live accordingly.

Cultivating Wisdom, and Love

In the next post I will critically engage with Enns’ idea of the Bible update, adapting, or reimagining God as it goes along.  But for now I want to express appreciation that Enns connects wisdom, maturity, and the Bible.

Any careful reader of the New Testament knows that maturity is the goal of discipleship, of being conformed to the image of Christ.

This is the reason that diverse gifts are given to the church, “so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:12-15).

Indeed, this maturity comes through the wisdom of God in Christ, the “one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ. To this end I strenuously contend with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in me” (Col. 1:28-29).  This wisdom that works maturity in us the wisdom of God hidden in Christ (1 Cor. 2:6-7).

This wisdom and maturity comes not through the Bible not as a rule book, but as something that cultivates wisdom in us as we grapple with its meaning.

Enns is aligned with the ancient wisdom of Augustine who claimed that “the Bible was composed in such a way that as beginners mature, its meaning grows with them.” (Confession, 3.1).  The difficulties in the text are there to turn our pride into humility as our hearts and minds are trained in wisdom.  

Augustine puts it even more strongly.  For him, reading the Bible is no longer necessary once God had fully cultivated faith, hope, and love in us (On Christian Doctrine, 1.39). In other words, once we are mature in Christ, the Bible is no longer necessary.  In this way, the difficulties in this ancient text are not first off problems to be solved, but opportunities to grow.

Likewise, Enns invites us into a biblical complexity that cultivate wisdom, a complexity that is both more honest that we get from literal, fundamentalist approaches, and more helpful.

Next Time

In the next post I’ll engage with Enns’ larger claim that  the “entire history of the Christian church is defined by moments of reimagining God to speak here and now…Reimagining the God of the Bible is what Christians do” (156).

My concern is that this reimagining of God all too focused on humanity—how humanity thinks, feels, imagines God to be—and leaves almost no room for how God has revealGod to be.

Indeed, Enns seems to have turned the Bible into what humans reimagine God to be, and has totally lefts aside whether the Bible reveals God in anyway. But that is for next time.

And for why I think we should still read the ancient document called the Bible, check out my free—and brief—ebook on How Did We Get the Bible?


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