Inspiration and Incarnation

Inspiration and Incarnation April 30, 2008

I’ve finally had a chance to take a closer look at Peter Enns’s controversial Inspiration and Incarnation and wanted to jot down a few comments. (I’ve known Pete since my seminary days, but I’ll call him “Enns” here to maintain a measure of scholarly decorum).

The book has a number of useful themes and emphases. He states a central point at the beginning: “The problems many of us feel regarding the Bible may have less to do with the Bible itself and more to do with our own preconceptions.” Throughout the book, Enns insists that we should work out our doctrine of Scripture by looking at Scripture itself, not by seeing how well it measures up to some prior conception of what a “holy” or “perfect” or “divine” book should look like. Enns also wants to learn hermeneutics from the New Testament writers, rather than complaining that they don’t conform to proper (which is to say, our ) methods. His discussion of “God changing His mind” is good, and his notion that Scripture should be read “christotelically” is helpful. His incarnational model is sound as far as it goes, and much of what he tries to capture with that analogy has long been emphasized by the best evangelical scholars.

But this leads to a more critical comment. Enns, I think, has created a rhetorical problem for himself.

He emphasizes a number of times that “both liberals and conservatives . . . assume that something worthy of the title word of God would look different from what we actually have.” There’s a crucial truth here; and certainly there have been important commonalities between liberal and evangelical theology. And I’m all for trying to identify and challenge the underlying false assumptions shared by opponents. (I have made similar points about Protestant and Catholic views on sacraments.) But, again, the best evangelical scholars have not worked from some preconceived notion of a perfect text but from the evidence of the Bible itself. Enns is not always so radical as his “beyond conservative and liberal” would suggest.

He also comes up against rhetorical difficulties because many of the “problems” he addresses are problems only if one has the preconceived notions about the Bible that Enns is challenging. The differences between the slave laws in Exodus 21 and Deuteronomy 15 are fairly easy to reconcile; Enns points out that “these slave laws demonstrate diversity precisely because they envision different scenarios .” Regarding the differences between Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5, Enns asks “Why would God’s revelation of his Ten Commandments, the bedrock of his law, have any differences?” But this “diversity” is a problem only to someone who believed that the Bible recorded fixed, eternal rules that permit no variation. Many of his examples of “diversity” or “tension” are similar, and Enns knows that these are truly problems only on the basis of false assumptions about the Bible. He often describes things as “problems” that I don’t think he really regards as problems. He’s implicitly adopting the position he’s trying to refute, and describes them as problems because they are problems for that viewpoint. If I’ve understood his intention, it would be clearer if he reminded us of that point more often in the book.

A more substantive problem, I think, is the way he deals with the ANE data that provides his context for his “incarnational” understanding of Scripture. He writes in the conclusion, “our expectations of the Bible must be in conversation with the data, otherwise we run the very real risk of trying to understand the Bible in fundamental isolation from the cultures in which it was written.” Sure enough. But the “data” don’t just come to us, pre-interpreted and just there. They have to be interpreted, as Enns knows. And I wonder whether Enns has interpreted the “data” from the ANE within a Scriptural framework or in some other way.

For instance, he acknowledges the possibility that the similarities between Genesis and ANE creation and flood stories (which are undeniable) might be accounted for by arguing that “the Israelite stories were actually older than all the ancient Near Eastern stories but were only recorded later in Hebrew.” He dismisses this as a “theory,” and says that one “would need to assume that the biblical stories are the pristine originals and that all the other stories are parodies and perversions of the Israelite original, even though the available evidence would be very difficult to square with such a conclusion.” He admits that it could have happened this way, but says that “it would be very difficult for someone holding to such a view to have a meaningful conversation with linguists and historians of the ancient world.” This amounts to arguing in “hypothetical terms” and might be “an excuse for maintaining a way of thinking that is otherwise unsupportable.”

This is not Enns’s best moment. Yes, of course, the view he presents is a theory; but isn’t his reconstruction of the history of the Hebrew language also a theory, a hypothesis? Might not further evidence demand a revision of his reconstruction? And the only real argument (in this paragraph) against the theory is that it makes dialog with other scholars difficult. Surely, that’s true; but how this counts against the truth or falsity of the position is hard to see. But my main question is about his framework for assessing the evidence.

Let me play the know-nothing fundamentalist: If one assumes that Genesis 1-11 is history – that there really was a flood, for instance – then the very widespread flood stories from all over the ancient world are perfectly understandable. Everyone wrote about it because it happened. Dittos for the creation stories. Let me play Milton: God (or Raphael!) explained the creation of the world to Adam, Adam told his sons, someone wrote it down and got it wrong, someone else wrote it down under divine inspiration and got it right. And so through the early millennia of human history, certain features of the creation story persisted. There are common stories because they happened. It seems to me that Enns’s reconstruction implies (and assumes, not proves) that Genesis 1-11 is not a factually account of ancient history (witness his dismissive rhetoric about “pristine originals”).

Enns would respond: Leithart, you arrogant modernist! Modern factuality is not the concern of the biblical writers. Genesis 1-11 shows clear signs of being mythical, since it has so many similarities to ANE myths. He defines myth not as “made-up” but as “an ancient, premodern, prescientific way of addressing questions of ultimate origins and meaning in the form of stories.” His characterization of ancient thought is highly questionable, and could have been taken straight from a late nineteenth century anthropology text: “Ancient peoples were not concerned to describe the universe in scientific terms. In fact, to put the matter more strongly: scientific investigation was not at the disposal of ancient Near Eastern peoples . . . . There is virtually no communication with those outside your immediate location. There are no mass media. The light you have is from the sun, moon, campfire, and perhaps lamps. You are a simple hunter or herder, working each day so you can live another.” But surely someone built the pyramids. Babylonians could predict eclipses, Sumerians developed calendars and irrigation systems.

That aside, though, the question is whethe
r the people of the ANE believed their myths. Did they believe Gilgamesh actually existed? Did they think about myths the way that Enns does? Or did they think that myths described the world as it actually is? If they believed their myths described the world as it is, then the “incarnation” of Genesis in a “mythic” framework doesn’t finally answer the question of whether its author believed it recorded things that happened and people that existed. Saying that Genesis employs the mythic worldview of the ANE might be quite compatible with also saying that Genesis records things that actually occurred. To put it another way: Were ANE people sophisticated enough to distinguish between imaginative stories that captured truth about the world, and a record of historical events?

I have any number of other quibbles and questions, and I’ve already gone on too long, but one final point. He shows that the NT writers operated with some of the same hermeneutical assumptions as other writers in Second Temple Judaism. I have several questions and criticisms about how Enns deals with this issue.

First, he denies that the NT use of Jewish interpretive methods are an “accommodation” to the first-century Jewish context: “There simply is no indication of this anywhere in the New Testament.” It’s not clear to me, though, how he can tell when accommodation is happening and when it’s not. What are the indications that the early chapters of Genesis are accommodated to the ANE context? How are those indications any different from those in the NT?

Second, appealing to Second Temple interpretations seems to short-circuit the most interesting aspects of NT interpretation. Paul says the Rock followed Israel through the wilderness, and Enns finds texts that make similar claims. Paul Christianizes this tradition, to be sure, but doesn’t do anything brand new. Fine; but where did the Second Temple interpreters get it? Did they just make it up? Or, did they find something in the Hebrew text that led them in this direction? (I think so: Yahweh is the Rock of Israel, and He’s the one struck by Moses’ rod.)

Third, had Enns explored the logic of Second Temple interpretation more fully, he might have been able to split the difference between his view of NT interpretation and that of other evangelicals. He says that the NT writers were not trying “to remain consistent with the original context and intention of the Old Testament author.” They were instead showing what the OT means now that Christ has come. But perhaps there’s a logic to NT interpretations that both respects the original meaning and intention of the text and also recognizes a Christotelic dimension. (Paul’s allegory on the two wives of Abraham in Galatians 4 is, I’d argue, consistent with the way the Abrahamic narratives foreshadow the future history of Israel.)

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