Reviewing Pete Enns: Saving the Bible, but Losing God

Reviewing Pete Enns: Saving the Bible, but Losing God August 19, 2019

Part Two: On Revelation (Part One: On Wisdom), a two-part review Peter Enns’ new book, How the Bible Actually Works

By Geoff Holsclaw, a pastor-theologian. Get his free How Did We Get the Bible?

A Bad Reviewer?

Cards on the table: I’m a pastor and a theologian by profession.  I occupy two positions that make me suspicious to someone like Peter Enns, especially when reviewing a book.  Not withstanding the gracious host of Jesus Creed, but many biblical scholars get antsy around pastors and theologians.

Pastors and theologians are perceived to have an agenda when it comes to the Bible.  They have a party line promote, a system to fortify, an ax to grind. Pastors and theologians are thought to stretch, bend, or bury the truth of the Bible in order to keep their systems and churches in order.

But biblical scholars just want everyone to read the Bible and be honest about what they find.  Biblical scholars position themselves as more truthful and less biased than pastors and theologians.

And to an extent this is true, unfortunately.

But I’m all for reading the Bible! Too many people just don’t know what’s in the Bible, and are then scandalized when people start showing them what’s really there.

Surprise! There really are tensions and contradictions, there really are acts of violence and ancient cosmologies. And when pop culture Christian leaders find this out they lose their faith (see Joshua Harris or Marty Sampson) and act like no one has noticed this before, that no one is talking about, that everyone is either a fool or a liar—everyone but them.

The Church HAS Noticed Before

Hello! The Church has noticed the difficulties the Bible presents and has been writing about them for like 1850 years.  Enns is not the first to call attention to the sprawling, rambling, and tension filled aspects of the Bible (I know he knows this, but some of his readers might not, and he doesn’t tell them).

Augustine hated the Bible at first—exactly because it didn’t make sense, it wasn’t well organized, it wasn’t eloquent or beautiful.  The Bible was coarse, confusing, and contradictory. For Augustine the Bible was a disgrace, a blight on landscape of truly great literature.

But Augustine eventually saw that his disdain came from his own pride, and that the Bible was composed in such a way to confront and convert our pride into humility, and to move us from immaturity to maturity, from foolishness to wisdom, from self-love to love of God and love of others.

So as a pastor and a theologian, I want to say, “Welcome to all you tired and weary, and you who need rest from a disappointing, constrictive, and confusing view of the Bible. Come out of your narrow fundamentalism, not into a loss of faith, but into a wider faith, a broad Church tradition that has honestly grappled with these issues for two millennia.”

Not About The Bible, but About God

But, after showing my appreciation for how Enns directs us toward wisdom, at the end of the previous post I noted by concern with his larger project (which comes to a head in the second half of the book).

I said, “Enns seems to have turned the Bible into what humans reimagine God to be, and has totally left aside whether the Bible reveals God in anyway.”

Not only does Enns invite us into a view of biblical complexity that cultivates wisdom (which is good), but he also invites us into what he repeatedly calls a “sacred responsibility” to reimagine God (update or adapt) for the here and now (which could be good if it wasn’t so one-sided).

In his own words, Enns says,

The God I read about in the Bible is not what God is like—in some timeless abstraction, and that’s that—but how God was imagined and then reimagined by ancient people of faith living in real times and places” (124-25, italics in original).

The sacred responsibility I’ve been talking about is really a call to follow this biblical lead by reimagining God in our time and place” (125, italics in original).

“The Bible does not leave us with one consistent portrait of God, but a collection of ancient and diverse portraits of how the various biblical writers understood God for their times” (153).

“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, italics in original).

One the one hand, I don’t necessarily disagree with these statements.  Except that they don’t say enough.

Certainly humans have always, in all cultures and traditions, reimagined and adapted what they think and believe about God.

But what exactly has God revealed to us (to ask a theologian’s question) and what does it mean for us (to ask a pastor’s question)?

My Childhood was a Lie

Let me illustrate the problem with Enns approach with a story from my childhood.

The best, and I mean THE BEST, cartoon in the mid-80s was Robotech. Better than He-Man, Transformers, or G.I. Joe, and those were good too.

Robotech was an earth-space-alien-robot adventure where humans pilot giant, transforming robotic vehicles (mecha). The story follows the heroes through three successive “Robotech Wars” against various alien invaders. Revell made Robotech model kits and Hasbro created the Jetfire transformer as a tie in to the Robotech universe (which was my treasured Christmas gift in 1985).

In a nostalgic moment last year I decided to revisit the bedrock of my childhood.  The second sentence on Wikipedia goes like this: “Robotech was adapted from three original and unrelated, though visually similar, Japanese anime television series to make a series suitable for syndication.”


Robotech was a LIE!

The one season of Robotech that ran in 1985, covering the three different “Robotech Wars/Invasion” was really three different Japanese animated series (totally different writers and illustrators) that America broadcasters and toy makers strung together in order to make money. To make money off poor suckers like me.

Through a couple well placed narrative voiceovers, a little tweaking of the overall storyline, and a couple changes of character names, three different stories became one big story.

Is this any different than the Bible?

Just a Library (of wisdom)?

Enns’ view of the Bible—in the end—in not much different than Robotech.

Enns’ view is that the Bible is essentially a human collection(s) of different stories (by different authors/editors) that have a common reference to “God”.  These “ancient, ambiguous, and diverse” stories, for Enns, represent the collective wisdom of people attempting to “reimagine” God for their here and how.

Emphasizing the process of “reimagining God” might sound like a way to save the Bible from fundamentalism, to loosen the strangle hold of literalism and absolutism, and to appreciate the diversity within the Bible.  And those are good things.

But without a doctrine of scripture/revelation (a theologian’s question) we haven’t really saved our connection with God (a pastor’s question).

The producers of Robotech “reimagined” three unrelated Japanese anime television series to make them consumable “here and now” for an American audience.  It seems hard to understand how seeing the Bible as a similar “reimagining of God’s story” is any less of a lie in the big picture.

At most the Bible is a library of somewhat successful and sometimes failed attempts at adapting God to the realities the here and now of the author.

Enns seems to save the Bible while losing God (says the pastor and theologian).

Staking a Claim, not Reimagining One

But while written and composed by humans, the Bible drives some stakes in the ground beyond the here and now of culturally engaged, wisdom informed, reimaginings.

Let’s look briefly at John 1 and Hebrews 1.

“In the beginning was the Word…and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” (John 1:1, 14)

The author of John certainly is reimagining the beginning of Genesis 1:1 and applying it to Jesus, who is the Word of God—the Word with God from the beginning.  And the author is appropriating tabernacle imagery (the very place of God’s presence) and applying it to Jesus.

Certainly these claims are made in history (the here and now of a contingently cultural moment). But they are claims that transcend history, that put Jesus in a different relationship to history and culture. They can’t easily be swept aside as “And that is just how John reimagined God to be.”

“In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. 3 The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.” (Hebrews 1: 1-3a)

The author of Hebrews claims that God spoke—not just humans reimagining things about God. But God spoke—in various ways, through people.  But now God has spoken by his Son—who has more authority than the prophets because he is both the creator and inheritor of all things.  Not only this, but in his speaking (his powerful word) the Son radiates God’s glory and represents God very being.

Again, these claims are made in and about history, and are wise appropriations of previous elements from the Bible.  But they also make trans-historical claims about Jesus, claims that transcend a merely human process of re-imagining God.

These passages claim that God came down and did, said, and revealed something. And our “sacred responsibility” isn’t just to continue the reimagining process, but to faithfully witness to these realities as if they are true for the whole world, all of reality.

Has God Spoken?

The question that Enns refuses to answer is, “Has God really spoken? Through his Son or in the Bible?”

He refuses to answer this as a theological question and as a pastoral question.

Theologically, if God has spoken then we can and should engage in theology, the task of asking who God is, what God is like, and how all this connects with all that is.  If God has not spoken then all we have is cultural anthropology, an ancient text, university research projects, and the projection of human values onto divine fantasies.

Pastorally, if God has spoken then we are not alone, abandoned within the angst of a life where all meaning, purpose, and significance is really just up to us. If God has spoken then there really is something stable and reliable in the world.  If God has spoken that life isn’t just up to me to figure out. If God hasn’t spoken, then pastorally my advice is to sleep in and skip my next sermon and don’t worry about that daily devotion time anymore.

We Need Revelation, Not Just Reimagining

To end, I want to offer the rudiments of a theology of God’s Word, of God speaking in and through the Word, the Son, and in and through the Bible (this is all filled out in section 3 of my “How Did We Get the Bible?”).

God’s Powerful Word: When God speaks, realities are created (Gen. 1:1; Ps. 29, 33; John 1:1-3; Heb. 1:1-3a).

God’s Promising Word: When God speaks, relationship are made that endure and overcome. This is “blessing” and “covenant” language (Gen. 1:28-30; 12: 1-3; Ex. 19).

God’s Prosecuting Word: The flip side of establishing relationships (promising) is naming when relationships are broken (and this goes both ways…that humans have a right to prosecute God when it seems God isn’t upholding his side of the relationship) (see Deuteronomy and all the prophetic books).

God’s Personal Word: Because deliverance is for God dwelling among us (Ex. 29:44-46; Ez. 37:26-28), God’s powerful word of promise always facilitates a personal relationship of presence between God and God’s people. This personal word, we come to find in the Son, was always a Word that was/is a Person.

God’s Pneumatological Word: God’s personal Word (the Son) is always spoken through the Breath of God (the Spirit) (2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Pet. 1:20–21). This is true of both scripture and the incarnation.

God’s Professing Word: While the pneumatological aspect of God’s word focuses on God speaking authoritatively through humans by the Spirit, the professing word is the word spoken by the Spirit through humans as a witness to God’s activity in history.

Yes, Wisdom! And Revelation.

Enns might have told us how the Bible actually works, but he has yet to tell us how God’s Word works.  He has given us wisdom, but foreclosed on revelation.

Conservatives focus too much on revelation. And Progressives focus too much on wisdom (and/or love).  What we need is both.

Only then will the church grow up into all maturity in Christ by the power of the Spirit to the glory of the Father.

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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  • Spot on, Geoff.

  • Iain Lovejoy

    There does seem to be a non-understanding of the Bible as a deliberate body of work. There seems to be a view among both progressives and fundamentalists that it is a sort of loose leaf portfolio with each section added sequentially to “the Bible” as is written or accepted into the canon.
    None of the sections of the Bible are intended to be an accurate record of anything. They are intended to set out what is revealed of God from the historical stories and other source material the writer used to compile the work. The whole thing itself as a body was compiled (and re-compiled) for the same purpose. The (in Jesus’s time relatively informal) canon that we call the “Old Testament” was a body of work selected and edited from innumerable other writings to reveal what God’s message to Israel was in the 1st Century AD. The NT + OT Bible we read today was again a body of work assembled in the first few centuries of Christianity intended to reveal the nature of God and Christ.
    The revelation pre-dates the work, and the work is supposed to convey it. In reading it, also, it plus God may bring more revelations.

  • DMH

    Thx for the review. I try to read a broad spectrum of people and Enns is one of them.

    Tensions, contradictions, violence, and cosmology- that’s what Enns is dealing with. Is that what you deal with in the download? Won’t have a chance to read it until later. Curious as to your take on squaring those things with inspiration.

    And for me, when it comes to inspiration, another item to be factored in are the other world religions.

  • I guess I don’t understand the hard dichotomy between “God speaking” and “people reimagining.” Any text we find in the Bible required a human being to think it. Even if they are bearing witness to historical events, they are interpreting and portraying those events according to their context.

    I also didn’t see anything trans-historical about the things in the article designated as trans-historical.

  • Geoff, an effective rejoinder to Enn’s presentation. You have focused on the heart of the issue… [As a side note, both Parts 1 & 2 have several language/typo mistakes.]

  • Thanks for writing this. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head: Enns doesn’t seem to want to concede that there is a place for theology beyond commenting on how different redactors understood their god and world.

  • Phil, thanks for the response. I appreciate it. I agree there shouldn’t be a dichotomy between God speaking and people reimagining. I believe that God is always partnering with humanity (that’s basically how I understand humanity being made in God’s image–that we are co-creators with God in bringing the Kingdom to bear on earth).

    I was hoping that my post was bringing balance to a side of the God/human equation that Enns was lacking. His talk about wisdom and reimaging are solely from the side of humanity. His project (even if he protests such a categorization) is to treat the Bible solely as a human artifact without exploring the possibility that the Bible (the events witnessed within it) is some way revelatory of God as God, not just “God” as humans imagine “God” to be.

    I was attempting to integrate a dichotomy that Enns has created (on the side of humanity and the neglect of God) and that fundamentalists have created (on the side of God to the neglect of humanity).

  • brad

    Super helpful, Geoff. Thanks for your work on this topic.

  • Tim

    Thanks for the review.

    It’s interesting to note that your main difficulty with Pete Enns mirrors my own. Namely, a complete refusal to answer or even recognize the import of foundational questions. In your case, what accounts for actual revelation in “God speaking?” And I have this growing sense of unease that the reason why Pete engages in this avoidance is to obscure the fact that he’s replaced one form of dogmatism with another.

    Let me explain.

    Pete has, as you’ve noted, taken on the role of an honest and critically-minded Biblical scholar. And, as this is his actual area of expertise, he’s quite good at it. In fact his scholarly view of scripture is almost entirely congruent with those of mainstream secular Biblical scholars.

    Now, most people who so fully embrace this view of scripture as Pete cease being Christians. Or simply never were. There are other sincere Christians, such as Scot here at Jesus Creed (from what I understand of what he’s written relating to this), who align with much of what Pete conveys, including various imperfect “imaginings” of God, but give far more weight to a coherent narrative ark of sorts and increasing actual revelation in scripture. So their faith makes some sense in this regard. For the life of me, Pete’s doesn’t.

    So what has Pete done to maintain his faith?

    He’s turned to the Christian mystic traditions. And the works of others who’ve attempted to glean from those traditions to offer a more apparently enlightened path to Christian faith.

    The problem is that the particular adaptation of these mystic beliefs and practices Pete’s taken replaces virtually every “pillar” of faith with only one single and highly tenuous foundation…one’s own “spiritual” experience as ultimately interpreted by one’s own idiosyncratic perspective. Pete of course would say he’s interpreting his experiences informed by the “wisdom” of scripture, the Christian tradition, and perhaps especially those Christian mystical traditions that have put him on this path. But these are all just influences. The foundation is Pete’s own spiritual qualia interpreted according to Pete’s own worldview.

    Which then suggests that a crucial question be asked. How reliable is that foundation? How trustworthy is it? To find an answer to that question, it might serve one well to compare their spiritual experiences to that of others. As well as to how they’re interpreted. Within one’s faith and across faiths.

    Yet Pete refuses to do this. He first objected to doing this as he felt it was unwise to be “too quick” in seeking certain kinds of answers and that there is a wisdom to some patience there. And he now refuses to do this as he considers even this question too uninteresting and lacking in profundity to even be worth it.

    Which had a convenient effect of ending any Socratic method Pete’s views can be tested with. Pete’s epistemology ends with Pete’s own spiritual experiences. And he firmly refuses to allow those to be questioned or compared as to their trustworthiness or that of his interpretations of them. That is Pete’s new dogma. The spiritually enlightened experiences and perspectives of himself and those whom he deems kindred spirits in his journey. It is essentially the dogma of a would be spiritual guru. Pete simply substituted one dogma for another.

  • Tim, thank you so much for commenting. Yes, I think you are right. My review as getting long as it was, but I think you are pressing into all the right areas.

  • Tim

    Thanks Geoff. This has come from some years conversing with Pete on his site. Which, frankly, has been a bit of a struggle. Given how Pete controls his discussions.

    So, if helpful, here’s some insight from a periodic commenter:

    Pete withholds posting of comments…such as our comments back and forth here….until he personally approves each one. And these approvals do not hinge on whether they’re simply civil & on-topic. For instance, if this discussion we’re currently having were on Pete’s site, there’s a good chance he would be closing out my response to you right about now with a rebuttal and not permitting any further dialogue he considers “unhelpful” that directly challenges issues Pete would rather not have examined too closely.

    In fact, if you go to the front of Pete’s blog page and navigate to his post on, “At the End of the Day, Here is THE Question that Keeps Coming Up,” you’ll see my dialogue with Pete and others that then lack any further responses from my end. Not because I didn’t provide them or that they weren’t civil or on-topic (they were & he’s never suggested otherwise). But simply because Pete didn’t find them helpful for where he wants to lead the conversation and manage the narrative.

    So, to have any real engagement with Pete or with Pete’s community, it often requires spurts and stops once he feels like he’s done hearing you speak and continues the narrative without you in it. A bit authoritarian in my view, especially coming from someone who was run out of a university for expressing views others didn’t want to hear. Which goes to further demonstrate I think the avoidance and obfuscation people are running into with Pete, and betrays a serious weakness in his approach.

  • fbcjoe

    I appreciate your review & you make valid points. Some unfair conclusions. However. I appreciate Enns book. I am very grateful for this book & It not only saves the Bible but it equipped me to help others not to lose God. It is a needed book. I was hoping that you can recommend it. There is more meat than bones in the book but digest only what you can.

  • Hi Geoff,

    Thanks for the explanation.

    Maybe the ambiguity is in the term “imagination.” You seem to be coming at the issue from the standpoint that “imagine” means “to make up or concoct out of whole cloth.” That’s a perfectly acceptable and probably the most common definition of imagine, so your response makes sense from that perspective.

    But I’m not sure that’s the sense in which Pete is using it. I’m still working my way through the book, so I could be wrong, but I get the sense that “imagine” or “reimagine” here means to conceptualize – to “image” something that isn’t concrete. A whole host of factors go into how the believing community conceives of God (including events that happen to them), but what we see in the Bible is that conception. God does not dictate in the Bible what He is like; human beings record their journey with Him, which includes events where God acts, but these events do not go uninterpreted. Their reflections and theological interpretations of those events are largely what we get.

    That’s what I believe he means to “imagine” and “reimagine” God, not necessarily that they are constructing ideas about God independently of their experiences with Him, like I might imagine a unicorn.

  • Tim


    If you’re looking to Pete Enns to define terms like this, I think you may be disappointed. For much of his scholarly discussions, he uses clear and definable language. Whereas in much of his theological and spiritual discussions he uses language far more vaguely and with much more room for (mis)interpretation. I don’t think this is an accident. As he often neglects to define his terms when prompted. And to some extent it may have served him well. In that if you don’t know what a person’s saying precisely, it’s hard to spot the weaknesses in their argument. And they can anyways retort back that you’re misunderstanding their point or not “getting” their profound insight. In short, it allows them to get by with obscurantism masquerading as profundity.

  • Bob Wilson

    I agree that Enns provocatively rejects evangelicals’ interpretation of what it means to say, “God Speaks” in the Bible. But I find his theme to be that taking seriously the reality of the Bible’s diverse writings with its’ competing and developing ideas leaves us no choice but the subjective effort to wisely choose what ideas will form our positions today and unavoidable open debate on how to best apply the Biblical tradition in our context.

    I do not see that “he refuses for Pete’s own spiritual experiences or interpretations to be questioned” (but believes the Christian community should expect to be a place where brethren seek to question and sort out such debated issues)! Thus to those who declare that actually “God has spoken in the Bible” in a way that is more “stable and reliable in the world,” but also “don’t disagree” with Enns’ account of how Bible writers complexly “reimagine the faith” in ways that do Not leave us a “consistent portrait,” his challenge is to explain the practical alternative that declaring two things in such apparent tension leaves.

    I.e. I’m not seeing what it means to say that Enns has “told us how the Bible actually works, but not how God’s Word works.” How can we have it both ways and separate how the Bible speaks from how God Himself speaks? For Enns account of the Bible’s actual nature seems to lead to the very kind of subjective uncertainty that his critics oppose.

  • Tim

    “I do not see that ‘he refuses for Pete’s own spiritual experiences or interpretations to be questioned’”

    I suggest trying to question them then. Especially in the larger context of the diverse spiritual experiences across humanity at large. And see what happens. Ask Pete what gives him confidence in his spiritual experiences and his own interpretations next to the diverging and often conflicting spiritual experiences and their accompanying interpretations amongst other devout, including those of other faiths. Ask that and see what he says.

    I have. Pete first replied that he found it wise not to be too quick to seek answers to such questions. Later he expressed he found such questions too tedious and lacking in profundity to warrant a response. And more than that, Pete won’t even engage in considering the implications of steering clear of such a question. Which is where I last left things off with him. So if that’s not refusing to have such a foundation questioned, what is?

    Best of luck.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Very helpful review, and your e-book that tackles the big questions around how we ended up with this particular set of ancient texts as authoritative scripture looks like it will be a fine read.

    I don’t read Enns’ book (or books) as restricted to solely human originated views of God or humanity. He does strongly emphasize the ever evolving human understandings of God, apparently to counter the readings that treat scripture as originating way too far out of the human sphere. It is also true, to my knowledge, that Enns has yet to present a full account of his view of divine revelation as it pertains to scripture. Nevertheless, I would not conclude that he sees only human activity/ideas underlying the bumpy journey in understanding of both God and humanity that we see in scripture, even if one has to read sympathetically and between the lines (and hopefully not uncritically). The same is somewhat true for his mentor’s excellent books on the OT (see for example, James Kugel’s “How to Read the Bible”, and “The God of Old”).

    Both God and humans do speak in scripture. I look forward to your e-book to see how you recommend that we handle this reality.

  • Bob Wilson

    Right, he may not suitably respond, or he sees engaging as you wish as “too quick.” I took him as advocating that his views should be questioned and that the church must have vigorous discussion of such questions because he explicitly urges that in his books. I.e. he admits to being fallible too.

    But since we agree that his perception of the Bible’s nature leaves subjective uncertainty that he can’t avoid about “confidence in his (or others diverging) spiritual experiences,” the heart of my question to Geoff also applies to you. How does the diverging nature of the Bible, and our often conflicting interpretations of them give you “confidence” in your own way of using it?

  • AHH

    I sympathize with the post and some of the comments pointing out that Enns is long on deconstruction and short on construction, not leaving us with much that helps us understand the historic Christian affirmation that “God speaks” (somehow) through Scripture.

    But what is the alternative? I’m not seeing anything constructive along those lines from those criticizing Enns either. If he is basically right about the way the Bible does and doesn’t behave (which the blog does not dispute), we can’t go back to the old conservative Evangelical assumptions about Scripture that effectively deny or minimize the human aspect of these writings. For example, “plenary verbal inspiration” has to be a non-starter.
    Our human-developed doctrines about how God “speaks” through Scripture at a minimum need to be adjusted (one might even say “reimagined”) in light of the Bible we actually have, rather than the pristine book that conservative Evangelicalism has trained us to expect.

    Can anybody recommend a good articulation of how God speaks through Scripture that does not hide its head in the sand regarding the very human behavior of the Bible that Enns points out (and that others have pointed out before him)?
    One book I read recently that struck me as a good effort on that front is God’s Word in Human Words by Kenton Sparks. As I recall, he mentions the venerable doctrine of “accommodation” quite a bit, and also speaks of “adoption” in which God takes up human writings into his revelatory purpose. The Spirit also plays a significant role for Sparks, as does the community. But it is heavier reading than Enns, too academic to help the average person in the pew.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Dr. Holsclaw,

    I have now read your excellent e-book. Using well selected texts, you have written an inspiring essay on how God can clearly be seen to be speaking through scripture. You show how this understanding has been true from the beginning of the Church, and before. You also allude to one of the most important apparent realities of scripture – that the Holy Spirit is a necessary part of making scripture speak, and sing, to us modern readers, and you clearly argue for a pneumatological foundation to the development of scripture and its canonization. This is essential, helpful particularly from a pastoral perspective, and it is not the approach taken by Enns.

    However, your selection of many favourite and crucial portions of scripture (often ones that Jesus himself used) skirts entirely the real issues that Enns is trying to address in his books. Many parts of scripture do not lend themselves to the good and true arguments that you make in the e-book. These large bits are often what Enns is trying to help people understand how to include as scripture. He may well not emphasize the role of divine inspiration enough, or even mention the pneumatological realities so evident elsewhere. Yet, these texts and scriptures many variations cause many to whom he writes no end of trouble, and his approach is obviously helpful to many.

    Just one example would be the so called horror texts. These are hardly inspirational on the face of it. At the end of a long line of other writers, it recently took Greg Boyd two huge volumes and an additional study guide to address these texts in one of the best efforts I have seen at keeping them in the fold (so to speak). Humans are often portrayed in scripture as having some truly uninspiring ideas about God. These have to be dealt with in any doctrine of revelation or divine inspiration. Some commentators here have raised this same point in different ways. When we take on the task of reading all of scripture and try to hold it all together as God’s word, it seems we must allow for much human thinking. That God suffers this is Boyd’s basic point, and this offers one good way to balance the list to deconstruction that many see in Enns’ approach.

  • Bob Wilson

    It’s repeated that Enns never answers concerning the Bible, “Does God really speak?” But what Enns’ raises is precisely what the Bible’s reality implies for defining “really.” I find he easily affirms that God “speaks” to us in and through the Bible. Yet that many here don’t see his view of how that works as qualifying for the modifier, “really.” It’d be helpful for those to delineate what kind of divine speaking positively counts for them as “really.”

  • Tim


    I fully agree with you that Pete Enns would be the first to admit he’s fallible. But any charge of infallibility isn’t what I alleged. It’s that he’s managed to practically insulate his supposedly spiritually enlightened views from any meaningful challenge in a rather dogmatic fashion. You’re either on the mystical bus with him or not. And if you’re not, he’ll typically dismiss you as someone guilty of some form of modernism or other bankrupt western worldview. Same as more traditional dogmatists dismiss challenges to their orthodoxy with labels of heresy rather than fully honest engagement with opposing views. You cast aside the challenger rather than engage the actual challenge. Which is the very machinery of dogmatism. And this is not just a little ironic by the way, given that per your point he wishes to see “vigorous” discussion of the ideas he proposes within the church, yet apparently the “vigor” he feels towards such fearless conversation quickly evaporates when he experiences his own spiritual views being questioned first hand. What’s good for the goose seems not to be good for the gander.

    Now, in answer to your question of how I explain the various diverse and often conflicting perspectives in Scripture? I explain them as being exactly what you’d expect to see from very human authors attempting to discern the divine without any actual divine revelation. Which yields varying perspectives over time from varying authors. With some convergence in that these authors participate in a continuous though evolving tradition. And some divergence as these authors have their own personalities, perspectives, cultural moments, etc. Which is what we see in Scripture. So does this provide a solid basis for faith? No, I don’t think so. But, honestly, neither do our own individual and often over-interpreted (purportedly) spiritual experiences that diverge and often conflict widely across humanity. For the simple reason that there is no good reason to privilege my own just because they’re mine over those of others who encounter just as powerful & transformative spiritual experiences that then point them in entirely different and often incompatible directions in other faiths. There’s just no epistemologically justifiable reason to make that move.

  • DMH

    Yes. Theology and any articulation of inspiration has to grow out of the text, warts and all. Instead, much of that project seems to overlay the text with alien philosophical categories or is selective with the texts it chooses to engage with.

    I just got Sparks book. Looking forward to reading it.

  • Hi Tim,

    Pete is actually a friend of mine, and I can assure you that his choice of language is not determined by the facility of throwing up a facade of profundity that the obscurity allows him to maintain.

    Talking about spiritual observations as opposed to scholarly observations will of necessity produce terms that are more vague, for anyone who is honest, anyway. Perhaps you should ask yourself what it is that causes you to assume the worst motives about another Christian.

    UPDATE: I shouldn’t have said “another Christian.” I saw one of your earlier responses, and I realize it was hasty for me to assume that you also were a Christian. Guess that’s what happens when you move too quickly in spiritual discussions.

  • Tim


    Well, I’m encouraged to hear that you think that. However, I’m not making the direct claim that Pete is intentionally being vague with his language so as to purposefully promote obscurantism as profound insights. I’m reasonably confident he truly feels his insights and those he shares with like-minded Christians are actually profound. It’s just his negligence in defining terms has this convenient effect. As it prevents his apparently “deep” views from being more directly and effectively challenged. And I don’t feel this is entirely accidental. As people often quite naturally take steps to prevent their views from being challenged. And given my experience with Pete, I certainly don’t feel he’s any exception to this.

    But I do feel I owe you an example.

    Let’s take the notion of trust. Pete has earlier expressed that his faith rests in trust with respect to God, not knowledge of God. Which is sensible to a point, if properly construed. But Pete is very vague about this concept. What does “trust,” as he’s using it, actually mean?

    Well, if “trust” means what it traditionally means, it can’t be that you trust “that” God exists. Because trust is something put “in” something. Not “that” something. I may trust “in” my wife that she’s faithful (and I do). But I don’t trust “that” I have a wife who is faithful. Because what would my trust be in then? It has to be “in” something. Maybe I could trust “in” God that he provided me a wife who is faithful. I could do that. But, again, the trust has to be “in” something. Not “that” something. So, how do you trust “that” God exists? What is your trust in? Pete won’t say. What does “trust” as it’s even being used here mean? Pete won’t say. And I don’t think it’s because Pete can’t say. I think it’s because he won’t say. Same as why he won’t say what “imagining” means when it comes to God. It’s such that he can allow these sentimentally laden terms to reside in this mystical space (which, granted, he does find authentic and viable) with all the “deep” hooks they have in our psyche, all the while preventing us from challenging the validity of such notions as he hasn’t defined them well enough for us to do so.

  • AHH, thanks for posting. Yes do need to attend to the text that we have in the Bible and not pretend that it something that it is. Enns is right about that. As far as how to build up a new paradigm or theology of Scripture, for it me it would mean not starting with Scripture. I start my theology classes at Northern by talking about the Resurrection of Jesus (a historical event that spills for all sorts of things…). I start with Michael Pahl’s “From Resurrection to New Creation” where he starts the process of theology with the statement: “In the beginning God raised Jesus from the dead.” This, and the incarnation, and the crucifixion, and then the discovery that God is truine, all these constituted the church before the Bible existed, and they should inform how we understand the Bible with the broader reality of “God’s Word” and God speaking. So that is the beginning of my constructive project I guess.

  • Bob, thanks for jumping in. In this post I was reviewing Enns most recent book, not his podcast or his blog. In this book I find no evidence that Enns “easily affirms that God ‘speaks to us” (as you say). Throughout his book his sentence construction always refer to what humans in the Bible say about God. He never talks about what God actually said or did. The only connection to history we get is the human production of texts. Enns never entertains the possibility that is some fashion God was actually doing and saying things in history. Yes, getting at history (what God has done or said) is messy and difficult, but it is still worth trying to do. Otherwise the Bible is just as important (or not) some other body of literature.

    I’m not looking for some easy going foundationalism to solve all our problem. But I am looking for more than the postmodern play of texts, interpretations, and wise adaptations. I haven’t seem more than the play of texts from Enns for quite a while.

  • Thanks so much for reading my ebook. I appreciate it. You are right that I don’t engage the issues that Enns is looking at. The difference between Enns and I isn’t so much on “HOW the Bible works” but on “WHAT the Bible is.” While Enns focuses on the first part, and say he has little interest in the second question, he still answers it in his book. His answers is that the Bible just IS a collection of wise adaptions of “God” by various human/communities. I answer (and I think we need to if we are just going to ultimately make ourselves the authority of our own realities) that the Bible is *in some way* connected to God’s own Word, that the Bible is connected *in some way* to God speaking and act for the benefit of humanity.

    You bring us Boyd and I think he is a much better, but more nuanced and difficult option than Enns. Boyd is trying grapple with God at work in history and reality, and yet these words in the Bible seem so out of place (and terrible–texts of terror).

    Also, Enns maximizes the interpretive difficulties in many spots to make his points that I think are a disservice to unsuspecting readers. Yes, Samuel-Kings is different than Chronicles, but there are good reason for this, etc.

  • Phil, thanks for pressing the use of “imagine”. I appreciate that. And I’m very open to the sense of “imagination” as opening up new possibilities of thought and action, that in a sense, we imagine our realities as open is part of what makes us creative and even in the “image” of God. So i’m all for the critique of modern rationalism and all that (Imagination and story are close cousins in this sense).

    But I’m not sure that his how Enns is using the word “reimagine”. He used that word pretty interchangably with “adapt”, “update”, and “evolve”. That semantic grouping, along with little to no sense that God is actually speaking/working, makes it hard for me to understand the difference between Enns’ view and Feuerbach’s view that “God” is just a projection of humanity’s values and commitments, updated-adapted-evolving-reimagined for contemporary, post-enlightenment, scientifically savvy Christians.

    I think there are other options for “saving” the Bible and I worry that those moving from fundamentalism via Enns will in fact in 5-10 years just wake up and say, “Screw it” to faith.

  • After reviewing some of your comments over on Pete’s site, I think this may be a matter of Pete not being able to give you the answers you want, not so much that he’s unable or refuses to answer your questions.

    I think in Pete’s writings that he’s been reasonably clear that one trusts in God and not facts about God, which I suppose would include the rote fact of existence. Your example looks more like a complex request for Pete to defend his semantics according to a framework that is meaningful to you, and I can understand him not having the time or desire to engage in a lengthy attempt to defend his use of terms in a manner that you might agree with.

    Pete won’t say. And I don’t think it’s because Pete can’t say. I think it’s because he won’t say. Same as why he won’t say what “imagining” means when it comes to God. It’s such that he can allow these sentimentally laden terms to reside in this mystical space (which, granted, he does find authentic and viable) with all the “deep” hooks they have in our psyche, all the while preventing us from challenging the validity of such notions as he hasn’t defined them well enough for us to do so.

    This is, again, an accusation that Pete is doing something intentional here for nefarious purposes. While I suppose we all struggle with ego and pride and I know Pete is not an exception to this, that’s not what’s going on here. He’s not being purposefully vague to avoid critique.

    I understand that you are frustrated that Pete is not devoting the energy to engaging with your questions and objections that you feel like your questions and objections deserve, but he also doesn’t owe you a given amount of effort. Because he has only been willing to invest a very small amount of time (by your lights) in responding to your comments, you have concluded the only possible reason for this is that he’s purposefully trying to shield himself from critique – so much so that you’re willing to go to another website and spread this accusation.

    This has the feel of a personal grudge to me. I raise critical questions and objections on this website all the time and, 95% of the time, the article author does not respond to those questions -at all-, and never once have I concluded that must be that they’re deliberately trying to escape my brilliant critique. They don’t owe me a defense or a clarification or any kind of response at all, and there’s all kinds of reasons why they might choose not to get into a big thing about their article because, as you can see, I like to type.

    I would encourage you to focus on the valid critiques you have to offer and drop the whole accusatory element.

  • Tim


    I feel that you misunderstand me. It is not that I expect Pete to personally respond to me at all. If he never responded to me once out of either a lack of interest or time, that would be entirely fine. For instance, Scot here on this site very rarely responds and my no means do I judge him for that.

    The thing is that Pete will actually close off conversation amongst commenters on his thread once it’s not heading in a direction he would like to see. Not for lack of civility or on-topic response. If you navigate to the recent post on Pete’s blog of, “At the End of the Day, Here is THE Question that Keeps Coming Up,” you will see that I was conversing with a gentleman by the name of “Newton.” He asked me a question, to which I responded. But you won’t see my response there, as Pete seemed it unproductive for his purposes to allow it to be posted. I’ll include it below in case you can find something so offensive about it that would warrant censorship:


    Thanks for the question! I’m sure you’re not alone in finding that your spiritual experience coheres with those of many other Christians in pointing to a God whose nature is consonant with certain portrayals of him in scripture. From Pete’s discussions on this topic I think we can safely say he does as well. And nothing I’m writing here disagrees with that.

    Where things go off the rails is when you expand out your envelope of comparison to those of other faiths who spiritual experiences point to a type of reality that differ not just slightly but rather dramatically from yours. Take Buddhists for example. Buddhists don’t believe that God has a personality. They don’t believe that God wants a relationship with you. They don’t believe that God is sovereign over you. They don’t believe that God is saddened when you sin or needs to forgive you. They believe in a force that you become one with.

    If I gave the same weight to all of the powerfully felt, and transformative even, spiritual experiences of mankind…from the 5-point Calvinist who experiences God primarily in terms of awe-inspiring sovereignty and power with the pleasure of turning his head away from granting grace to the unelected per whatever is his sovereign whim, to the divinity who loves all and would welcome all who answer when he calls God of the Evangelicals (but who is also super-concerned with what people do when they’re naked and wants gay people to forgo romantic love), to then the force of the Buddhists, to the many Gods of the Hindus, to wrathful Gods, peaceful Gods, etc., etc., I would have within my theology something that would make sense only to a lunatic. There would be no meaningful cohesion.
    That is what I’m meaning to convey. When I say you’d have essentially a schizophrenic and ultimately unchristian view of God. The only way to avoid this is to curate down those individuals to whom you compare and contextualize your experience with. Even if it is broader than Christianity. It needs to be pared down to at least that which is compatible in some way with Christianity.”

    Pete did not allow this to be posted. But did himself respond to Newton with this:

    Newton, I think you are right to be puzzled by that comment and I think you should trust your gut here. What I see you doing is respecting your experiences and trying to articulate them in ways that do not strive to make distinctions in order to achieve “coherence.” That very notion is a mental construct that invariably limits God by leaving to the side what we in our subjective intellect cannot categorize–or worse, think we can. You may already be there, but I’ve gained much wisdom from others who have thought deeply through this phenomenon–R. Rohr, M. Laird, T. Keating, T. Merton, R. Williams.”

    So, my issue is Pete’s behavior in shunting aside challenges and controlling the narrative in a fairly dogmatic fashion. Not that I expect him to respond to me personally. As I don’t.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Thanks for responding. I understand and sympathize with your concerns re the view Enns appears to leave out, or lets remain in the background. Not being a pastor, I can only imagine the challenges in bringing the many important things Enns has to say to believers who likely expect things to be phrased much like they have always heard them. BTW, do you find books like “The Lost World of the Torah” or “The Lost World of Scripture” by the Waltons less problematic in the pastoral context?

    Not to belabour the subject, but Boyd, also a part-time critic of Enns’ willingness to consider as human sourced some things long considered as coming more or less directly from God, adds an interesting and very positive note that illustrates the value of reading between the lines when considering Enns’ writings. From pg. 758 of Boyd’s humongous tome and with reference to outlandish scriptural depictions of God’s violence: “In the context of the ANE, this was simply how you offered up praise to a god, which means that Peter Enns is likely not far off when he claims that ancient Israelites ‘had no choice’ but to associate Yahweh with extreme violence.” And then in footnote 125 on the same page: “While he does not capture the sin-bearing theological significance of this, Enns points in the direction of the cruciform hermeneutic I am proposing when he notes that God ‘lets his children’, with their ‘limited gaze…..tell the story’ “. (Boyd here is referring to Enns’ earlier book “The Bible Tells Me So”).

  • Bob Wilson

    Tim, thanks for good answers to my questions about alternatives. I agree with you that neither the Bible nor Enns’ “spiritual experiences” provide the kind of “divine revelation” that secures “a solid basis for faith” in the sense that evangelicals usually assume that the Bible solidly does. While Enns obviously emphasizes the case for pursuing his own alternative, I think he’d agree with your and my ultimate conclusion here, and the subjectivity of both approaches.

  • Yes, I love John Walton. He is my go to guy on much of this.

  • Tim


    I think you misunderstood me.

    I don’t expect Pete to respond to me personally. The fact that he has on occasion and in some length is great. But it’s not expected. I don’t for instance expect Scot to respond to me here on Jesus Creed, and he often doesn’t. He’s a busy man. No worries. It’s the fact that Pete censors responses in replies to himself and even between conversational participants on his threads that I find much more problematic.

    That said, if you think I’m misrepresenting Pete’s conversations on trust for the purpose of settling some score, I’d point you to RJS’s article tilted “Trust” ( that references a video with Pete espousing some of his views relating to this. I made the same critique there, 3 years ago now, as I am here. So if I’m misrepresenting Pete’s dialogue regarding this subject it’s not for any nefarious purpose as this is an understanding I’ve had for some time.

  • Tim

    FYI – I posted an earlier longish response which I think tripped some filter…so if that posts I’ll remove it in favor of this one which is more apt I think.

  • Tim

    *removed by poster*

  • Barb

    Yes that’s exactly who Pete is writing for. Sorry theologians who already have all the answers, this is not a book for you. This book is also not about everything that Pete cares about, he’s written several books, hosts a blog and a podcast. Kinda unfair to criticize this book because he doesn’t include your favorite argument. “You” aren’t the audience . Part one of this critique started with an accurate description of Pete’s audience:
    “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.”
    Somehow that seems forgotten in part two.
    I also have recommended it to many people who are struggling with their faith.

  • Dennis

    Thank you, Geoff Holsclaw, for your two part review of Enns’ book How the Bible Actually Works. I’m in agreement with you. I wrote a book review back in March right after I read it:
    I think Enns describes a Bible which is not inspired (in the traditional Christian sense) and which does not tell us anything objective about God. In other words, it contains no special revelation from God. All we have in the Bible are accounts of people “reimagining” God with no way of objectively knowing if what they reimagine is true.

    Enns states that “the Bible does not leave us with one consistent portrait of God, but a collection of ancient and diverse portraits of how the various biblical writers understood God for their times. These biblical portraits of God are not there to test how clever we can be in making them all fit together nicely.” (153) What Enns is really saying is that we cannot derive any systematic theology from the Bible because that is not its purpose.

    I have been reading Enns’ books and blog for a while. In these, he mostly concentrates on “deconstruction,” i.e. showing how the typical Christian interpretations of verses are wrong because the ANE context is ignored. There is nothing wrong with this type of deconstruction, but at some point, Enns needed to do some “construction” of his own theology. He tried that in this book. Unfortunately, in my opinion, he failed because of his rejection of some key traditional Christian concepts such as inspiration and special revelation.

  • Jeff Y

    Thanks, Geoff! I think you have touched on Enns’ core problem; and I think that practically, he winds up subverting the scriptures and even Jesus. Yes, there are challenges and difficulties that we may never fully answer but I liken Enns’ perspective to an extreme postmodernist approach. But even to the biblical scholar, not just the theologian or pastor, Enns’ view is problematic. He often talks as though scholarship is in consensus with his view but numerous scholars, not just fundamentalists, do not speak of the Bible in so decidedly human a way as Enns does, including, among others, Stephen Chapman, Ellen Davis, Michael Gorman, Ben Witherington, Richard Bauckham, the late I. Howard Marshall, John Goldingay, John Walton, Joel Green, Ben Meyer, Anthony Thiselton, NT Wright, Richard Hays, Joshua Berman (cf his excellent and scholarly, Inconsistency in the Torah: Ancient Literary Convention and the Limits of Source Criticism), Temper Longman, Gordon Wenham, Richard Hess, etc. etc. None of those are “fundamentalists.” What I find irresponsible in Enns’ work is that 1) he speaks too loosely and, ironically, with too much certainty about debatable views, 2) he is constantly pitting his view of the Bible against the worst of fundamentalism, which turns it into a kind of ‘straw man’ or fallacy of false dilemma (either fundamentalism or my superior scholarly view). There is no nuance. It reminds me of navigating a river in a canoe and all you think about is avoiding the dangers of the banks on one side of the river, which will ultimately cause you to run aground on the other side! He speaks in generalities about “saving the Bible“ but I actually don’t think that’s what he’s doing. And I know many people who have read him and have ostensibly abandoned much of scripture as a result. Reminds me of Bultmann in that respect. The problem with talking about Jesus while simultaneously reducing the Bible to human imaginings or understandings about God is that it reduces scriptures to nothing better than the writings of Muhammad or Mary Baker Eddy or the latest modern prophet who claims divine revelation. And it subverts Jesus himself. I do believe we should start with the gospels as historical documents and seek to determine whether Jesus really did say what he said about himself and rise from the dead. But if he really did rise from the dead then that shifts the perspective on his words and life. Jesus himself elevated the Scriptures, both Hebrew and apostolic, to Holy Spirit inspired documents. That doesn’t mean that they are inerrant, nor that they were not historically situated, nor does it imply that there weren’t processes in their development; but as Steven Chapman has argued in multiple places those processes also don’t subvert the final product from being just what the Spirit of God wanted to say and that they are life giving breath from God, and serving – even today – as a counter to our own views. But that they are wisdom from God and that they are culturally and historically situated, does imply, rightfully I believe, that we must see them as wisdom and seek to apply the direction or trajectory of the Scriptures to our world today. They are pointing us to a more just and loving life which may manifest differently than in 700 BC or AD 45. But that is derived from the Scriptures themselves, meaning God himself is the one who instructs us to take that approach of wisdom, by his very revelation. Terence Fretheim has spoken well about this. Enns of course is perfectly entitled to his perspective. But I think he would do well to have a more humble approach with respect to recognizing that there is sound and reasonable scholarship that disagrees with his perspective on the Bible and even has reasonable responses to many of his “contradictions.” Instead he tends to engage in rhetorical dismissals of scholars and non-scholars alike who actually disagree with him. Even when they do so irenically. He did this in a recent Facebook post about a review on his book when he commented about the review by saying “Looks like I made somebody angry. Good!” That was a dismissive and condescending approach that does not express the humility of even many liberal critical scholars. Thanks again!

  • Tim

    Hi Phil,

    So……….this took a bit of digging as it’s been some time since myself and others had discussed with Pete this “trust” issue. It originally stemmed from a few things. In his book, The Sin of Certainty, Pete seems to advocate “trust” as the foundation of faith rather than knowing or belief. This then came up in conversation, his use of “trust” and what he means by it, on Pete’s thread discussing The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind ( A commenter by the name of Sheila told Pete that she thought he left the term “trust” undefined and that “focusing on ‘trust’ as if it itself is knowable” left her frustrated. And asked Pete to “walk us through your process of trust, how it works.” This instanced a back and forth conversation between herself and other participants, including myself, and Pete. We were trying to explore how trust replaces “knowing” as loosely defined as possible. Since that seemed to be what Pete was doing. And Pete had the energy to engage each of us, but never attempted to define or engage our questions on trust. He did, however, have the energy to label Sheila as coming from a place of fundamentalism for asking these questions. And myself as coming from a place of “foundationalism” for doing the same. Labels neither of us had earned by open-ended questions and really just asking Pete to walk us through what he was doing. This is what I mean by rejecting the challenger rather than engaging the challenge. So, back in May of 2016, Pete, myself, and others had a substantial conversation on this subject of “trust.” And I felt Sheila and I were trying in a very sincere and good faith effort to understand how Pete was using it.

    So that was where my example came from. And it was sincere.

    Now, if you think I’m missing something. And Pete really does not use “trust” in a way such that we trust “that” God exists, only that we somehow (what word should we use, “know” (Pete doesn’t like using that) “believe” (Pete doesn’t like that term either)…something something then) “that” God exists and then after that we trust in him? Whatever that is. Can you explain that to me if you think I’m misunderstanding something here fundamentally on Pete’s views there?

    Thanks Phil.

  • Bob Wilson

    I’ve taken classes with Walton and dialogued with him on the nature of Scripture. He certainly does not characterize it in the bold and troubling language than Enns does (and his school would sever him if he did), and I too love and respect him. But I perceive he generally agrees with Enns on what specific texts are saying, and why its viewpoint should not necessarily be held as authoritative for us. Thus again, if you and he largely agree with Enns on “how the Bible actually works,” it’s unclear to me how something like Enns’ provocative view of how God ‘speaks’ through a text that involves “human production” need not follow.

  • Bob, but why the either/or? We don’t have to choose between God speaks and the Bible is entirely inerrant in all it says, or the Bible has confusions/contradictions because it is a human production. I think we can say that 1) God speaks and has spoken, acts and has acted in a recordable way, 2) that our recordings (the witnesses of and witnesses to) that speaking/acting are varied, diverse, ancient and ambiguous.

    I’m not sure Enns is as clearly in the both/and category now as he might have been when he wrote “Inspiration & Incarnation”.

  • Hi Tim,

    I guess I’m not familiar with Pete’s deliberate acts of censorship, but if he does that and you’re a victim of it, I can definitely understand how that would be frustrating, although that would still be a separate issue from whether or not Pete is deliberately choosing to use vague language so that he cannot be critiqued.

  • I trip the filters here with some degree of frequency, so I get that. And sometimes it tells me my comments are in moderation, and the comments sort of vanish into the aether. I’m not sure how much all of that is related to Patheos, Disqus, or human agency, so I just assume I probably said something I shouldn’t. 🙂

  • Hi Tim,

    Thanks for the link to the comment thread.

    I’m not sure how you perceived yourself in that thread, but when I got to your comment, you came out of the gates swinging.

    While your garden variety evangelical may insulate their beliefs from critique by rejecting scholarship and science that doesn’t conform, Pete in his latest theological approach maneuvers to insulate his beliefs by making critique irrelevant.

    That is literally your second sentence – an accusation that Pete is deliberately trying to avoid challenges through maneuvering.

    Pete, on his part, responded to you with tact and did not use the charge of foundationalism to dismiss your objection out of hand, but instead proceeded to explain how your objection reflects a commitment to a foundationalist way of thinking – framing trust as a doctrine that Pete is now holding the line on and wondering how he can justify that claim over and against other claims of doctrinal/epistemological certainty.

    Now, you may disagree with that assessment of your question, but he’s not dismissing the questioner – he’s pointing out what he believes to be a fundamentally different epistemic starting point that generated your question. I think that’s something you might not have been clear on. He’s trying to say that your question doesn’t seem cogent to him when he is advocating dropping certainty in favor of trust, and your response is, “How can you be certain of that?”

    It’s sort of like a Bible scholar making an argument that “salvation” in the Bible is about being saved from concrete historical phenomena, and then someone saying, “Oh yeah? Well then, how do you get to heaven?” It’s a question that scholar can’t answer, not because the scholar’s position is incoherent or the question is itself incoherent, but the question becomes incoherent in the framework the scholar is proposing. If I’m making the argument that we should give up empiricism, and you ask how I can empirically justify that recommendation, there is no answer I can give you that’s going to work.

    I think a similar thing happened with Sheila, although the part where she asked what he thought about hell was probably answerable, and I don’t know if he would have saved himself some trouble by answering it or just invited more misunderstanding. He probably guessed the latter.

    Anyway, I’m not the right person to defend Pete’s views. What I am encouraging you to do is drop the narrative that, however much you think Pete fails to explain or defend his views, this is somehow a purposeful manipulation on his part.

  • Bob Wilson

    Dr. Holsclaw, thanks, we agree on both/and! And fired from his creedal employment, Enns is clearly now more open about the difficulties of the both/and position, but I see the distinction between how he and you each deal with both/and Scripture as less clear that you appear to.

    I argued, you don’t count “how” Enns sees God speak in and through the Bible as “really” speaking. You rebutted, “I find no evidence that Enns affirms God Speaks to us (as you claim he does).” But I’d cite his words, “Biblical writers make adjustments about How they were hearing God Speak…. they adapted the past to let God Speak in the present… (and) the Bible is a flowing stream that invites us to step in” (to this way of letting God speak to us; pp 79-82).

    I only see a matter of degree here, where you don’t define his way of seeing God and the Bible speak progressively and fallibly as ‘real’ speaking. Indeed, once you’ve agreed that its human component means it can contradict and err in what it says, I think we are on Enns path toward seeking to honor it but needing to pursue wisdom about how to best do that.

  • Tim


    Yes, I was and am making the assertion that Pete is avoiding challenges through how he’s maneuvering. Which is most certainly a critique of how Pete is framing his arguments. And in that very same comment you quoted, I discuss how just as your typical Evangelical Fundamentalist will consider challenges to their doctrine of inerrancy as out of bounds, Pete seems to consider challenges to his epistemology of trust as out of bounds. I saw it as a substitution of tactic to achieve the same effect of shielding belief/faith behind an impenetrable wall. However conscious or not such a move may be. So this very much falls within the very same types of critiques Pete makes of fundamentalists. And it is an attempt to get him to abide by his own standards. So by no means should I think such a critique ought be out of bounds. But, and this is important, it’s not a personal critique of Pete himself.

    More on this later.

  • Bob, thanks for pointing me to those passages. I’ll check them out again and see if how they might influence what I said. Thanks.

  • Tim


    So, I have a little more time to respond to the points raised in your comment now.

    Let’s start with this:

    “[Pete is] trying to say that your question doesn’t seem cogent to him when he is advocating dropping certainty in favor of trust, and your response is, ‘How can you be certain of that?'”

    I guess I’d say, Phil, that’s not actually my response at all. As I don’t advocate certainty. And I’m not asking for certainty. That’s part of why Pete’s accusation of foundationalism is so frustrating. As I’ve been quite clear on this.

    Such as when I expressed in a preceding conversation with Pete (

    “So what can we in a very broad sense “know” of spiritual matters? Not with certainty. Not with scientific precision. Just in any meaningful sense that connects with reality.”

    And such as I expressed in the conversation you’re discussing now:

    “For instance, you suggest that I am coming from a “foundationalist”epistemology. Foundationalism is of course a now defunct epistemology. We can never know something so certainly and comprehensively to have it serve as an unquestionable foundation.”

    “Every time I’ve engaged you on this I have asked you to essentially connect the dots for me. Walk me through what you’re doing and how this makes sense. Explain how this gives you confidence. In the broader context of human experience. I haven’t attempted to force you into any specific “way of knowing.” I haven’t asked you to abide by scientific standards of evidence. Or empiricist standards of evidence. Just keeping the door open to anything really. But so far you really haven’t. Except to say it doesn’t apply.”

    So Phil, to try to make the charge that I’m coming at Pete with some foundationalist or empiricist “starting point” requiring certainty or specific types of evidence or ways of knowing is completely unfair. I’m opening the door to anything at all that might count as warrant for a belief, no matter how fuzzy, subjective, intuitive, etc. Anything at all. Just asking Pete to try to address what’s going on that gives him any confidence at all in what he’s espousing as to what he thinks of God in a way that makes sense in the broader context of human experience. Else we’re just arbitrarily privileging Pete’s perspectives and experiences over others for no good reason at all (unless he provides one…which he hasn’t).

    Now, what Pete has done is be dismissive. To essentially dismiss me and those like me who are asking these questions (such as Sheila), as coming from different “starting points” that are foundationalist/empiricist/fundamentalist/etc., though they emphatically aren’t.

    Let me give you an example of why this is frustrating. Let’s say Pete were having a conversation with an Evangelical Fundamentalist on the many valid and scholarly issues Pete brings up regarding Scripture’s theological diversity, internal contradictions, unhistorical and propagandistic elements, and even misapprehensions about God. And the Fundamentalist said something like, “Well Pete, I don’t really see how I’m supposed to answer your questions. You see, we simply come from different starting points. I trust in God and his revealed word. And you don’t. See the problem there? There’s simply no way I can discuss these finer points in a way that you seem to demand within the framework of someone who a priori rejects the very trustworthiness of God upon which this truth stands.” Then Pete could (rightly) say, “That’s not fair. I do trust in God and his revelation but have a different view of what that amounts to than you do. And there could be some common ground for us to explore if you wouldn’t be too quick to dismiss me in this very unfair and undeserved manner.”

    So, that’s the same difficulty myself and others are running into with Pete. He’s taking our questions and maneuvering to frame them (unjustifiably) as arising from some apparently bankrupt philosophy or worldview such that the entire argument can be nullified based on its “starting point” alone without the actual substance of the argument or question being addressed.

    That’s a real problem. And, conscious or not, it does serve to perpetually insulate Pete’s views from legitimate challenge.

    But in any event, what I have a strong inkling is happening here is something like this. Pete has in fact, as I’ve suggested, adopted an epistemology of trust. That works something like this. Pete has experiences he believes to be spiritual. He’s been pretty clear about this. And he’s suggested that people “trust” these “God moments.” Something he clearly endeavors to practice himself. But he doesn’t seem to suggest that these individuals “trust” themselves to correctly judge as to whether these supposedly spiritual experiences are actually “God moments.” Rather, the “trust” seems to be in the “moment” itself. To “trust” the experience itself. But, and this is where the smuggling of the blurring of trusting “in” with “that” comes in…Pete seems to imply that the reason that the experience is “trustworthy,” whereas so many others are not, is that the experience comes from God whom you can “trust.”

    Now, work that out logically and you’ll see you’ve circularly boostrapped your way up to trusting “that” God manifested himself to you such that you can now put your trust “in” God. That’s what I have an inkling is going on here. But Pete won’t bring the clarity that comes with defining terms and explicating his epistemology to make that clear. Now, outside the epistemological concerns of blurring trusting “that” with trusting “in,” the other main concern is what happens when you apply this epistemology with humanity’s spiritual experiences at large? Across not just Christianity as a whole but all faiths? These “God moments” would no longer even loosely cohere in any direction that would point to trusting in the Christian God. Or any kind of personal God at all for that matter. They’d point in numerous varying, often conflicting, directions.

    So, what Pete does is quite simple here. He simply refuses to make that comparison. He simply refuses to contextualize his experience next to those outside his spiritual circle. And thus negates the problem by simply avoiding it altogether. And when I bring that up…you guessed it…the problem lies with the starting point of the person asking such (unwise, or now apparently simply banal or unprofound) questions. So, you dismiss the questioner. Rather than engage the question.

  • Peter Wolfe
  • Thanks. I’ll check it out.