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.” WHAT THE WHAT? 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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