my interview with Brian McLaren (part 3)

my interview with Brian McLaren (part 3) September 30, 2014

McLarenToday’s post is the third and final installment of my interview with Brian McLaren. As you may recall, Brian asked me three questions about my book The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It and I in turn asked him three questions. We are posting the exact same post on each other’s blogs simultaneously.

As I’m sure many of you know, Brian’s latest book is We Make the Road by Walking: A Year-Long Quest for Spiritual Formation, Reorientation, and Activation52+short chapters that give an overview of the biblical story and a fresh introduction or re-orientation to Christian faith. 

Brian’s 3rd question:

What is your biggest hope for the book? What would success look like?

Besides getting me interviewed by Brian McLaren and the book having a bright canary yellow cover I can use as a night-light, my biggest hope for the book is to help people see that their faith does not rest in “holding on” to the kind of Bible that they know deep down they simply can’t hold on to.

I want to give them permission to decouple the viability of their faith from the perceived need to base that faith on a problem-free Bible. I hope my book offers a different set of expectations about what the Bible is and what it is there to do for us that makes sense to them on their own Christian pilgrimage.

I hope those who read the book will be challenged and/or encouraged to feel the freedom to think about God and their lives in communion with God in ways they might not have expected. I can’t define what that is, of course.

For those for whom the Bible has become an obstacle to faith rather than a source of faith, I hope they will be able to take a deep breath and know there is no need to keep staring over the cliff’s edge and consider jumping. Get back on the path and keep walking.

I hope for those who have left the faith to see that maybe the faith they left was a false faith, a parody, a form of Christianity where the Bible was loaded with false expectations of scientific or historical accuracy and absolute moral mandates, and they walked away from the faith because they rightly couldn’t reconcile that non-negotiable expectation with their own reason and experience.

I want people to honor and respect Scripture as a God-sanctioned companion on their faith journey, but without thinking of the Bible as an owner’s manual or complete how-to book. I want them to see that honoring and loving the Bible does not mean living with the constant pressure of having to “get the Bible right” or suffer the consequences of a touchy, nit-picky God if they don’t.

Rather, I want them to look on their faith in God as source of joy, love, contentment, comfort, and hope, and the Bible as book that, in its own ancient and sometimes odd ways, informs and models that faith for them.

Pete’s 3rd question:

With three 20-something offspring, I have had all sorts of occasions to reflect on how “dominant evangelical culture” has not supplied them with a compelling story, one that connects with and helps them make sense of the world they live in. In a word, the almost exclusive focus on maintaining orthodoxies (“being faithful to the past”) has come at the expense of delivering a viable faith for them on their life journey (“being faithful to the future”). In your traveling and speaking, I’m sure you engage a lot of people with similar perceptions. I’d love to hear you comment a bit on what you think it means for the church to take responsibility to be “faithful to the future” and not just the past. 

Wow. That is a truly important question. I often tell the story about a conversation with a parent whose son had come out as gay shortly after one of my adult kids came out. “If I accept my son as a gay man,” he said with tears, “I feel I am rejecting my father, who will never be willing to accept my son. If I accept my son as a gay man, I feel I am rejecting my father.” In being faithful to our ancestors, we can betray our descendants.

That’s one reason I love Jesus so much. As I try to explain in WMTRBW, his statement, “I have not come to abolish the Law and Prophets, but fulfill them,” addresses this problem powerfully. The ancient tradition was a path, a way of dealing with realities in the time and place where it arose. It set people on a trajectory whose intent their descendants had to discern. Jesus understood that sometimes overturning the tradition was necessary to fulfill its intent.

So, focusing on food taboos might have been essential at one point in their history. But now, he said, it’s time to realize that what goes into a person isn’t what matters; it’s what comes out of a person that matters. Similarly, sacrifice and a temple to house it had their social and spiritual function in the past, but the time had come to realize that neither temple nor sacrifice really mattered. What God desired was compassion, not sacrifice … and the Spirit was available everywhere, not just on this or that temple on this or that mountain.

Religions and people that don’t understand and fulfill the intent of tradition become brittle and reactionary, backward-looking and fearful of the present and future. Religions and people that understand what Jesus meant by fulfilling the tradition become creative and wise guides into the future. I think that’s what people like you and I are trying to do, Peter – understand our tradition, understand its highest and best intent, and seek to live out and extend that intent into our own present and future.

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  • Andrew Dowling

    Good discussion and answers. Ya’ll need to go on a speaking tour of evangelical colleges! 🙂

    On another note, I’m assuming you’ve seen CT’s review of your book? Wow . . .the critic states you get “contradictions” wrong without saying how, in regards to Jesus and the Bible of course uses the expected quote of Matthew 5:17 completely out of cultural and textual context, and then at the end, after saying previous authors had “already spoke of the Bible not being a rulebook” as if all of the evangelicals already understand that . . .basically says he doesn’t like your viewpoint because it doesn’t allow the Bible to be a rulebook! (paraphrasing: “I don’t know what the Bible becomes after it’s longer my inerrant “how to” . . .I don’t get all of this ‘spiritual journey’ stuff).
    You can’t make this up.

    • BHB

      Agreed. Notice how the reviewer referred to him as a “theologian?” What’s up with that?

      • peteenns

        I just take that as short hand, though odd for CT. In the popular world outside of evangelicalism, “biblical scholar” isn’t as familiar as simply saying “theologian.”

        • Interestingly, the same writer penned a response to the ‘aha’ moments series on The Gospel Coalition site not long ago, and acknowledged the difference of opinion on inerrancy, but concluded:

          “At our best, both those who reject inerrancy (like Enns) and those who affirm it (like me) are calling for humility when it comes to Scripture.

          Many of the “aha” scholars are pointing out a rather closed-minded arrogance that can afflict those with a more traditional view of the Bible: “The Bible is true, and we’ve always read it like this, so we’re right, so we don’t need to read your fancy-pants scholarship, so ha.”

          I’ve been on the receiving end of that sort of response myself, and their challenge absolutely needs to be heard and acted on.”

          I ‘know’ him from a previous church affiliation, and he’s one of the best of the reformed evangelical charismatic academic thinkers and communicators, although my perspective is much more Enns-like than Wilson-ish.

          You 2 really should meet or talk, you’d like each other and it would be a fascinating, engaging and enjoyable conversation.

          • Daniel Merriman

            Thanks for the link.

          • Andrew Dowling

            Here’s the significant except from Wilson’s piece:
            “Belief in the truthfulness of the Bible, then, like belief in the truthfulness of Christianity or materialism or anything else, is provisional—scholars hold to it (or not) on the basis of the evidence they’ve seen. Affirming the Bible is true, just like affirming the Christian creeds, is a statement of current conviction: “Based on what I know now, I believe that the Nicene Creed/the New Testament is correct, when properly understood.” It doesn’t prevent individuals from researching carefully, nor from abandoning or adjusting their commitment if the evidence takes them that way”

            I don’t know how Wilson can honestly believe that. If I’m not mistaken, all of the scholars in the series would no longer claim the Bible inerrant save 1 or 2. If your presupposition is the Bible must not have errors, and you find what by any objective definition amounts to an error, how does that not force an honest “adjustment of commitment?” if your commitment is an inerrant Bible? Wilson seems to avoid the cognitive dissonance by swallowing all of the (rather ridiculous, in my humble opinion) apologetic answers to any issues brought up (judging by his reply about Mark 2:26 and that of only the genealogies and day of crucifiction present ‘substantial challenges’ to inerrancy) . . .he says inerrantists will always admit their “multiple solutions” . . of course they will! Since their solutions to these issues are often incredibly weak/fanciful, they’ll allow for as many as possible as long as the solution is not “the biblical author was wrong about this.”

            That is not being honest and is making a charade of scholarship, which is what inerrancy does.

          • I agree, although I do note that Andrew Wilson carefully chooses to use the word ‘truthfulness’ rather than ‘inerrant’, which would make it more easy to find common ground, but I’d still like to hear Wilson and Enns in dialogue about this.

            Wilson’s comments (albeit in 2 short reviews, e.g. on Mark 2:26 or the inconsistency in the Leviticus regulations about dead animals) can read as dismissive, whereas in person I think he would fill out his critiques better, and generate a clearer understanding of both positions.

            For what it’s worth, I can’t for the life of me work out why some people defend the concept of Biblical ‘inerrancy’, even though that largely modern concept, related to post enlightenment historical and scientific methods, never appears in the ancient C1st (or earlier) texts. Inspiration is a much more nuanced, relational and incarnational (c) concept, with God’s purposes miraculously being revealed through the weak and imperfect humility of human flesh and finite words. I find that much more awesome than the thought that God in effect dictated a perfect mistake-free document from heaven.

            My friend Andrew Wilson keeps returning to the conventional conservative logic that “if Jesus saw scripture as ‘unbreakable’ (c) then so should we’, but this begs so many questions [*] that a dialogue between the 2 about the nature of scripture and revelation would be extremely helpful.

            [* Questions begged IMHO:
            1: Jesus’ words and handling of scripture only reveals his attitude to the Old Testament. Why should we assume the same rules for the full canon that we have but he didn’t?
            (NB: For the record I do, but it’s a question worth reflecting on.)

            2: Jesus’ words and handling of scripture is set within the context and limits of the original C1st Palestinian audience. When he quotes scripture as reliable, how do we know that he and his audience understand the nature of that reliability the same way us modern westerners would tend to if using the same words? Isn’t this simplistically presumptuous, and overlooking a huge language barrier?

            3: How can you regard Jesus as having a modern style concept of the inerrancy of the OT, when he saw fit to quote sections and apparently deliberately leave out vital elements, such as vengeance in Luke 4, and to take revealed OT laws and undermine and update them in the Sermon on the Mt? Are we sure our hermaneutics are the same as his, when he seemed to feel free to take the OT as a foundation on which he could build creatively, rather than set in stone as an unchanging museum piece preserved behind glass?

            4: Is all scripture of equal authority?
            Random e.g. Leviticus 27 and Romans 8.
            If not, how do we set our hermaeutical grid?
            i.e. Is it enough to say it contains no mistakes so it’s all equally true and that’s that?

            5: Do Christians, followers of Jesus, need to give the same merit to the OT that Jesus, a C1st Palestinian Jew did, or do we follow (e.g) Hebrews in closing down some areas as of the foundational past?

            6: Do we take Jesus or scripture to be the highest revelation of God?
            I know that the obviously correct answer to this implies the conundrum that our revelation of Jesus is from recorded NT scripture, but the answer has a huge bearing on hermaneutics, and whether we allow Jesus’ principles, as applied by Paul in his cultural context, to have a higher authority than the OT and Paul:
            e.g. Should we interpret everything chronologically backwards through time via Pauline theology, or should we follow Paul’s example of applying Jesus’s teaching into his world, by applying Jesus’ teaching into our world, rather than following all of Paul’s instructions literally and closely?]


          • peteenns

            You’ve just deconstructed your friend 🙂

          • I don’t think he’d feel deconstructed, nor lost for answers!

            I called him ‘my friend’ as we have met, spoken, and dialogued, and he’s a gracious person to agree or disagree with. Even when I haven’t been.

            More importantly, I know he’s excellent at pastorally caring for those in his care and orbit. I’m not in the same church group as him any more, but he’s still very approachable. We don’t know each other well, but I’d regard him as a distant friend.

            He can cope with it, he’s extremely able and likeable.
            I’d genuinely like to hear the 2 of you covering these things together – you won’t agree, but the midrash will be revealing and good natured.

          • Daniel Fisher


            If interesting, here are a few of my own thoughts to the questions you raised. I find your questions very thoughtful, I hope these answers are similarly thoughtful and contribute to the dialogue.

            One initial thought/question – I am not sure I understand the idea that ancients had categorically different understandings of the concepts of “truth” and “falsehood.” They instinctively understood laws of non-contradiction, lies, falsehoods, truthfulness, and the like just like any of us, no? How many lies are recorded in the OT? Anyone who read the OT even in the 1st Century would have recognized that the Hebrew Midwives, or Rahab, stated things that were contrry to “truth.” Where comes this idea that they had categorically different concepts of truth and falsehood than we have?
            to respectfully give some thoughts to your specific questions:

            1: Jesus’ words and handling of scripture only reveals his attitude to the Old Testament. Why should we assume the same rules for the full canon that we have but he didn’t? …

            Well, I’d be fascinated if you know of anyone who, based on that observation, believed in an inerrant OT but NT that lacks such! As for why we assume the same rules, it is in part because he had promised the same holy Spirit to be leading us into all truth, the same holy Spirit that he understood to have inspired the OT, and the recognition from the later apostles of various writings (Paul’s letters & gospel of Luke at minimum) as “Scripture”.

            2: Jesus’ words and handling of scripture is set within the context and limits of the original C1st Palestinian audience….

            I’d suggest it not a matter of whether the same “word” is used, but whether the idea/concept of reliability/trustworthiness/truthfulness/accuracy is being used, regardless of the actual words involved.
            I’ve never seen any treatment or analysis of Jesus’ words that convinces me that he was, all along, really trying to communicate that OT Scripture was not really supposed to be believed as literally true, i.e., that Jesus was trying to teach people to think about the Bible a viewpoint closer to Peter’s or similar…. if that really had been Jesus’ intent, to tell his followers to understand the Bible in (more or less) the same way that Peter and others are suggesting…. then I would submit that Jesus was a horrible communicator in this area.

            3: How can you regard Jesus as having a modern style concept of the inerrancy of the OT, when he saw fit to quote sections and apparently deliberately leave out vital elements, such as vengeance in Luke 4, and to take revealed OT laws and undermine and update them in the Sermon on the Mt….

            This is a question of interpretation – many of us don’t see his words as undermining the OT law – especially given that Jesus introduces the section of his sermon that could easily be (mis?)understood as “undermining and updating” OT laws with a very clear clarification/qualification (have not come to abolish them, anyone who teaches anyone to neglect the least of these laws will be called least in the kingdom, not the smallest jot will disappear…)…. given the numerous, repeated clarifications and qualifications, I think the position is well justified that Jesus was clarifying and furthering the full intent of the OT law, rather than simply tossing it. I think most of us don’t dispute that he wasn’t abolishing those laws against adultery and murder by his “but I tell you…” words.

            Unless we think that Jesus’ introductory remarks for this section were given so as to lead us to conclude that he himself should be called “least” in the kingdom of heaven?
            Additionally, EVERYONE selectively quote Scripture, this never necessarily means one doesn’t believe in what you didn’t quote, so much as it just wasn’t important to your present purpose.

            4: Is all scripture of equal authority? Random e.g. Leviticus 27 and Romans 8….

            I fear I’m not seeing what point you’re trying to make from Lev27 and/or Rom8, might you clarify? If you’re talking about the various changes to the way God does things, this doesn’t imply any change in authority as much as a limitation on the duration of certain commands – we have that even in the military – particular orders are said to “remain in effect” for certain times or durations or when certain conditions are present – this doesn’t suggest that these orders carry less authority than those without such (either explicit or implicit) conditions.

            Directions for how to build the tabernacle were to be absolute, even though the plan was eventually for a temple, rules sacrifices were absolutely authoritative, even though they were temporary duration until the final sacrifice was revealed, etc. This was the challenge for the council in Acts 15, to try to understand which parts of God’s laws were inherent morality for all time, which were wise, and which were intended as civil or ceremonial laws specifically for Israel and simply weren’t intended to apply to the gentiles entering the church.

            5: Do Christians, followers of Jesus, need to give the same merit to the OT that Jesus, a C1st Palestinian Jew did, or do we follow (e.g) Hebrews in closing down some areas as of the foundational past?

            Not sure exactly what you mean… I would dispute that Hebrews or anyone else “closes down” any area of the foundational past, depending on exactly what you mean by “closes down.” As previously mentined, I would not call Solomon’s temple building “closing down” the rules about constructing the tabernacle/tent of meeting, so much as “fulfilling” it, and fulfilling the very intent of the previous laws. I find both Jesus and the other NT authors doing the same, taking the unchanging principles of the OT and then applying them to the new situation. The sacrificial system in Hebrews, for instance, is assumed to be absolutely correct, authoritative, and teaching us something absolutely true and authoritative about the very nature of sin, atonement, etc. – even if it proved to be temporary. But if it wasn’t authoritative and absolutely true in what it taught us, then the author of Hebrews couldn’t have used it as an authoritative basis/foundation/explanation for what Jesus *actually* accomplished, no?

            6: Do we take Jesus or scripture to be the highest revelation of God….

            Well, if you’re able to ask Jesus to come to my church next weekend and speak to us, I’ll gladly lay aside my Bible and just listen to him alone, acknowledging that I would far rather have Jesus as the full revelation (and so much more) from God than the Bible.

            But, since I have not yet been able to have direct access such as to hear Jesus’ direct words myself, I have no issue “settling” for a second-best revelation, the very kind that Jesus seemed to think was pretty life-giving. “Man does not live on bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord,’ after all.

            As for following Paul or Jesus… why not both? Your question here suggests there is an actual conflict, dichotomy, or contradiction between Jesus and Paul, where I see different emphases. Two people can say very different things and they can still be two sides of the same coin, facets of the same gem, etc. rather than having to be inherently contradictory. I’m not sure any particular command or the like where I have to choose between the two of them?

          • Andrew Dowling

            Those are good questions Jez.

          • peteenns

            I had a similar reaction, Andrew. I also don’t think he has reflected much on the “social” context of inerrancy that lies at the root of why “smart people” are inerrantists (one of his point in his TGC post). They aren’t inerrantists BECAUSE they are smart but for other reasons that need to be (and regularly are) exposed.

    • peteenns

      I read it and I certainly don’t expect CT to throw me a parade. The review was poor, though, in my opinion, largely because it perpetuates the very same kind of circle the wagons rhetoric that creates problems for people of faith whose eyes begin to opened by reading scripture. (Note for example that the contradictions in the Law are “easily answered.” Really?)

      • Daniel Merriman

        Pete, I read the book and some of the points made by Wilson are fair. I think you did spend more space setting up why other reading strategies are wrong, and coming back to that critique, than was warranted. You could have been clearer as to why a book that is just plain weird (your phrase) and filled with contradictions and downright error is worthy of being authoritative. For the record, I read I & I shortly after it came out and before it became so controversial and loved it. I still do.

    • Daniel Fisher

      Andrew, I read the review you noted – if I can re-paraphrase, my impression is more that the reviewer agreed that the Bible is not a rulebook…. but he doesn’t like Peter’s viewpoint because it doesn’t allow the Bible to contain ANY rules from God whatsoever. Hence the basic conclusion of his piece, that the book “pushes so hard against the idea that the Bible tells you everything that he leaves you wondering if the Bible actually tells you anything. ”

      This seems a legitimate criticism – it matches the very question I posted a few pages ago, as I observed the same concern – ultimately, given this perspective, can the Bible tell us ANTHING authoritatively true, or is it just a glorified yes man, stroking our ego so to speak when we find a historical record of other people that believed the same things we happen to? Any absolute values seem that they must come from elsewhere, and only then may (or may not) be additionally affirmed by the Bible.

      But if so, then the reviewer’s basic observation seems valid – that this perspective leaves us with a Bible that can (authoritatively) command us absolutely nothing… and thus a Bible in which God is not in any direct sense commanding or declaring anything.

      • Andrew Dowling

        But Daniel, why does a lack of perfection equate to not being able to trust anything? To me that’s a strawman. If we only ever trusted people who had never told a lie, then we wouldn’t really have anyone to trust. The fact that Lincoln, King, Jefferson etc. all had personal moral failings doesn’t mean no-one should’ve ever listened to what they had to say on morality. One can go on and on.

        • Daniel Fisher

          That is fair – and if the suggestion at hand was that the Bible was a mixture of God’s truth and human perspectives about God, then we’d be in a position to try to weed out the truth from the fantasy. Or if all the Bible ever claimed to speak about was matters of history and various morality.

          But when the topics presented are things that no mortal CAN possibly see or know anything about – things that REQUIRE a divine perspective – i.e., God’s perspective about sin, God’s very character, his nature, his attributes, how he feels about sin, his plan and requirements for salvation, etc., etc…..

          Humans CANNOT know those things without some kind of direct revelation from God. So if the Bible is nothing but “How God was understood by the ancient Israelites” or a record of the “spiritual journeys of people long ago”, and does NOT in some form or fashion contain God’s direct, relevetory, inspired, revealed truth about who he is, the nature of sin and salvation, etc., then I cannot and ought not trust what ancient Israelites or other people long ago thought about such things.

          Or to borrow from C.S. Lewis: “If there is [a God] it is so probable as to be almost axiomatic that the initiative lies wholl on His side. If He can be known it will be by self-revelation on His part, not by speculation on ours.” So, if the Bible is exclusively speculation on the part of the Israelites and other ancients, and contains absolutely no self-revlation on God’s part, then there is no reason for me to trust the Bible about anything whatsoever it says about who God is and what he does or doesn’t find moral.

          In other words, sure, I might trust some things that Lincoln and Jefferson thought about some things even if they occasionally lied about some things. But if Jefferson had written specific details about the nature of the alien beings that inhabit the Andromeda Galaxy, I would not trust anything he said about that – since there is no way he could know anything about that topic.

          So if the Bible is nothing more than a record of ancient people’s speculations about God, all while God did not actually reveal anything to them by means of some direct, authoritative, and dare I say inerrant revelation of even some form or fashion…. on what basis should I believe that their perspective or ideas about God are any more correct than a hypothetical Jefferson’s views about alien life in the Andromeda Galaxy? If God has not actually, directly spoken in some form of actual revelation, then the Bible could thus not be any more or less authoritative to me in what it claims about the nature of God and various other mysteries than the Qu’ran, Augustine’s Confessions, or last week’s New York Times.

          • I suppose raising this point will further “muddy the waters” of a complex situation, but… there is also the question of sources and FORMS of revelation. And the need to still discern them, even if two (or more) people agree God has self-revealed (and/or “commanded”). For example has God’s self-revelation come ONLY through a “chosen people” (Abrahamic/Jewish and then Christian)?

            The Bible itself speaks of “general revelation” (in different words), so there is that aspect, and determining how far it goes, esp. if and where it may conflict with “special revelation”. But further, on what basis are we to conclude, if anyone does so validly, that God revealed “specially” only through Israel (plus Apostles, etc.)? On what basis do we rule out the Vedas or Lao Tzu, or other sources (even if they do not mention Yahweh?) Or is “chosen people” perhaps part of a circular argument created by struggling-for-survival tribal peoples in a certain short time and small geography in all of human history? (Which is probably actually much longer than the 4000 or so years of written history… per archaeology that is lesser known.)

          • Daniel Fisher

            Howard, I concur with your general point (though probably not with your conclusion). But given what I understand to be Pete’s core or basic understanding of what makes the Bible “God’s word,” I.e., that it models faith for them, or in it we are able to witness the spiritual journeys of people long ago, etc….

            I fear that if Peter’s view of “inspiration”, or the Bible being “God’s Word,” is in some way not *more* than just a witness of ancient people’s views about God, I fail to see why the Vedas, Confucius, the Bhagavad Gita, or for that matter Augusine’s Confessions, the Didache, or Kierkegaard’s “Fear and Trembling” are not more or less “inspired” by God? I.e., I couldn’t find Peter as describing anything about the actual, objective idea of
            God’s inspiring Scripture that sets it apart for any other ancient witness to how people viewed God along their spiritual journey.

            General revelation is true and useful, but I would point out is pretty limited in communicating specific details about God’s character. In fact, if left to general revelation alone, looking at the lion-eat-antelope survival-of-the-fittest world, I’m not sure how we could reject the “God as the most supreme violent warrior” that Peter seems to find so objectionable.

      • BHB

        Your, or your summary of the reviewer’s, sticking point seems to be that Pete’s book is fundamentally flawed. It somehow goes too far because you say it upholds a view of the Bible that doesn’t allow it to contain ANY rules from God whatsoever.

        Note 1: The part about it not containing ANY rules from God whatsoever isn’t something I remember Peter Enns saying, so I assume this is your interpretation of where Pete’s thinking leads to.

        Note 2: I assume that you are using the term “rules” in a broad sense here which would roughly correspond to other terms like truth, ethics or perhaps moral vision/message?

        If you would be willing, I’d appreciate it if you could be a little more clear on what exactly it was that Pete said which–to borrow the phrase from Christian Smith–“makes the Bible impossible?”

        Pete ends his book with a concise summary of his entire argument in 265 words. Here are two quotes pulled from that summary:

        “The Bible is an ancient book and we shouldn’t be surprised to see it act like one. So seeing God portrayed as a violent, tribal warrior is not how God is but how he was understood to be by the ancient Israelities communing with God in their time and place.”

        “The Bible presents a variety of points of view about God and what it means to walk in his ways. …In reading the Bible we are watching the spiritual journeys of people long ago.”

        Do these two quotes from Pete go too far? Would accepting the view of the Bible Pete offers in these two quotes make the Bible impossible for Christians to use to follow God?

        Thanks for any light you can shed on this matter. I feel that we can have a more fruitful discussion if we can root it in Pete’s own words.

        • Daniel Fisher


          Thanks for the thoughts – I’m not trying to suggest that Peter’s thesis is inherently flawed (although, admittedly, I disagree with his conclusion/thesis insofar as I understand it). He is most entitled to his perspective and views. I was only observing that the reviewer’s basic point seems accurate: that Peter’s thesis seems to entail a complete lack of divine authority/direction/declarations/commands in Scripture.

          I’m not sure exactly what you mean by the language of “going too far” here. I think I would simply observe that Peter’s perspective, if I understand it correctly, is certainly beyond either the traditional evangelical perspective (the Bible is God’s self-revelation) or even the neo-orthodox perspective (the Bible is a record of God’s self-revelation and/or contains his self-revelation). This is merely an observation, not an accusation of “going too far,” as Peter is perfectly free to embrace whatever perspective of these things as he desires.

          So, as to the quotes – the first – God being portrayed as a violent, tribal warrior is, thus, an (erroneous) perspective of long dead people – but does NOT reflect in any way *GOD’S* perspective about who he is. Presumably, then, this is true about ALL biblical perspectives about God, no? Thus, if I follow correctly, NOTHING in the Bible actually reveals *GOD’S* perspective about who he is – every verse instead is merely the perspective (or better, the speculation) of those long dead people that may or may be right – but NOTHING in the Bible portrays *GOD’S* perspective.

          And again, the final quote – the Bible presents a variety of points of view about who God is – but (presumably, if I read it right) – *GOD’S* perspective is in fact not one of them – but only the perspective(s) (or, again, if God hasn’t revealed, then we should simply call it the speculations) of those long dead precursors in a faith relatively similar to ours, who again may or (more likely) may not be correct in their view of God.

          In short, the Bible is strictly, entirely, and exclusively human, but not divine, perspective(s) about who God is and what he commands. As such – if the Bible does not in some way include God’s own self-revelation about his being or character, then these human perspectives recorded therein can be no more than baseless speculation.

          And as such, if my understanding is correct, then I would agree with your words – that “accepting the view of the Bible Pete offers in these two quotes make[s] the Bible impossible for Christians to use” – not so much simply to follow God, but to even know who God is in any meaningful way whatsoever. Is he just? is he a vindictive, tribal warrior? Is he compassionate, tender, and loving? Who knows? Every perspective in the Bible that affirms any of those perspectives is simply the baseless speculation of people who had no more or less access to the objective facts about God’s character than myself, Queen Elizabeth, or Osama bin Laden.

          Now, I may happen to disagree with that basic thesis, and I would be quick to point out that this is radically different than the perspective of most of Christian History, from the Church Fathers, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, etc., etc., etc. (and I would suggest the perspective of the Bible itself…) But this is not meant as a critique of Peter’s perspective so much as an observation. I was noticing that the reviewer mentioned above seems to make that same observation – and regardless of what side one takes, I am only suggesting that his observation – that Peter’s perspective/thesis seems to entail (and of course correct me if I am mistaken) that God’s perspective is NOT one of those perspectives one can find in the Bible – seems to be accurate – and that nothing in the Bible therefore reflects any actual, objective, inspired, revelatory, direct command or declaration from God.

          Thus the perspective in the review, that Peter’s thesis leaves the reader wondering if the Bible tells us *anything* (any declarative, objective fact about God, or any authoritative, absolute command from God) seems accurate, unless I am missing something.

          • BHB


            If you haven’t read it I’d recommend you go read Peter’s
            book for yourself. In the book he never argues that scripture is absent of
            divine revelation. Nor does he say that any passage of scripture, including the
            violent portrayals of God, tells us NOTHING about the divine. What he does say
            is that if we look closely we will find that scripture doesn’t often work according
            to our expectations. These set of expectations we place upon scripture he
            refers to as a “rulebook/handbook” approach to the Bible. In contrast to that
            he argues that we should view scripture as a story and recognize that God lets
            his people tell the story for him. Ancient, tribal people speak in an ancient
            tribal way and that shouldn’t surprise us.

            The reviewer protests that his view isn’t a rulebook view of
            the Bible, its more nuanced than that. I don’t want to speak for Peter on his
            own blog, but I’m sure he’d also protest that his view doesn’t throw out ALL
            divine revelation from scripture.

            From here I suppose the argument can descend into claims and
            counter claims over which camp is making the Bible impossible, but that gets
            old pretty fast.

            Peter Enns has won me over by the strength of his arguments
            made from biblical scholarship (and Christian Smith makes a similarly strong critique of Biblicist interpretation from a sociological perspective).

            Peter’s arguments do deconstruct a widely accepted
            theological system for how we handle the Bible. That may make you
            uncomfortable, but as Andrew Dowling is fond of pointing out, just because it
            messes with your theological system isn’t a valid reason for dismissing the
            evidence offered.

            If there is another argument out there that does a better
            job than Peter at honestly engaging with the Biblical scholarship while leaving
            your preferred theological system intact that is great. But I’m still waiting
            to hear what exactly that is.

          • Daniel Fisher

            BHB, Thanks again for the thoughts – I have read the book and enjoyed most of it whether I was in agreement or not, as Peter is an engaging writer.

            If Peter clearly stated that there is anything in the Bible that is direct, absolute, authoritative, and hence unquestionable revelation from God, I fear I missed it, if you could point me to any quotes that show such I’d be quite interested. My impression was that, since the same inspiration process that gave us the violent bloody warrior God (which was erroneous) gave us everything else in the Bible, then nothing the Bible says about God is direct, objective truth about him from him, and thus nothing in the Bible is more (or less) inherently or objectively trustworthy than the idea he commanded destruction on the Canaanites. I still find everything he said leading to the basic idea that “the descriptions of God in the Bible that are true are the ones I agree with.” – I at least could find no basis therein for distinguishing those false, abhorrant perceptions of God from the acceptable ones except that we like the one and not the other.

            In other words, as you mentioned, ancient tribal people speak in an ancient tribal way; but then again, 1st century Palestinians spoke in a 1st century Palestinian way and 21st century moderns spoke in a 21st century modern way. What inherently gives any of us more or less access to truth when asking about whether God is or is not violent as described in the OT… Our modern sensitivities and preferences? Because they were tribal, they were wrong about God being violent, and because we are 21st century Westerners, we are right about them being wrong? If God actually revealed himself as such to the ancient tribal people, then if we disagree, we are wrong. If he neither directly revealed this fact to them nor to us or anyone else, then it is anyone’s best guess.

            The closest I found him to come to acknowledging some absolute revelation was perhaps that he seems to give a certain deference that Jesus’ interpretation of the OT law is “the” correct view (even though I don’t agree with his take on the Sermon on the mount). But that itself led to perhaps my biggest confusion with the book, and why I still resonate with the aforementioned reviewer:

            I understood Peter to have been trying to argue that the Bible shouldn’t be understood as a rulebook in any sense since Jesus in some form or fashion felt free to *disregard* or otherwise re-interpret the previous “rules.” But he didn’t seem to notice, or comment, on the glaring point that remained – that Jesus replaced the old rules with new… RULES.

            If Evangelical Christians are guilty of seeing the Bible as containing lists of rules, perhaps this is at least in part because the Bible records Jesus as giving us lists of rules?

          • Daniel Fisher

            As for “another argument” at honestly engaging the Biblical scholarship – I can’t speak for your experiences, but so much of what Peter wrote in the book was slammed in my face in numerous ways in my inerrancy-affirming institution. It made me look hard and strong at every passage that challenged the simplistic notions of the simple “God’s little rule-book for life”. So much of what Peter describes in his book I agree with 110% – the books written with different perspectives from Kings & Chronicles, the different emphases of the gospel writers, the completely different focus and emphasis about God from Proverbs & Deuteronomy against Job and Ecclesiastes. These were all thrown in my face (kindly) in my grad school, and made short work of any remaining bibliolotry, simplistic view of the Bible, or the like that I admittedly entered seminary with. But while I agree with so many of his basic observations and his critiques of larger evangelical views of the Bible, I diverge regarding his conclusions. The school I attended similarly looked at all this information, but I found it simultaneously maintained justice to the view of the Bible as being actual revelation and therefore being, in at least one real sense, a rulebook.

            That is in fact the biggest disagreement I had with Peter’s book at core – he is convinced that if we approach the Bible honestly with open eyes, we won’t see it as a “rulebook.” But did the author of Leviticus view his work as a rulebook? Exodus? Dueteronomy? Proverbs? The prophets? The sermon on the Mount? Paul? Psalm 119 certainly seems to have a certain “rulebook” view of the Law, even if so much more than “just” a rulebook. I think it is safe to say that the authors of all these works would have perceived themselves to be writing literature that was- at least in part – rule books…. even if they were so much more, they were not less.

            Most thoughtful evangelicals I know personally don’t view the Bible as being (or containing) a collection of rules because that conforms to their preferred system…. they perceive it as such because the Bible presents itself as such.

            So in my school, both these perspectives were upheld – a trust in the direct, relevetory nature of everything the Bible said and communicated and affirmed about God and his actions and character, alongside an “eyes-wide-open” approach to all the various challenges and potential difficulties.

  • More good stuff… Thanks! I’m grateful for both your work. I slowly found my way to a less literalist and traditional faith before you two were “on the map”, but still been inspired and encouraged by hearing things like above.

    Education alone can’t be the full answer but we need to work on all the levels of education from Sunday School to Bible studies to Christian Higher Ed to Seminary and in-service training for pastors…. People grow mainly when someone is “calling” them to a more mature level of both understanding and application of love and faith.

  • Derek

    Good stuff. Peter, I am just trying to reconcile your position with the seeming importance doctrine plays in the role of the church. For example:

    a) “Beloved, while I was making every effort to write you about our common salvation, I felt the necessity to write to you appealing that you contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints.” Jude 1:3.

    b) They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Acts. 2:42.
    How would you respond here?

    • peteenns

      I don’t equate what has come to mean church “doctrine” with either “faith” in Jude or “apostles’ teaching” in Acts.

      • Could you please explain, from your point of view, the difference between faith/apostles teaching and what we now call “doctrine”?

        • peteenns

          One example that might make my point is that today, the Trinity is core matter of church doctrine 101, but that is hardly the point of faith/doctrine in these passages. Same with “doctine of Scripture.” My sense is that doctrine/faith would center on Jesus asGod’s messiah who died and rise for Jew and Gentile alike rather than doctrinal statements we have today.

          • Thank you for the explanation.

  • I want to thank Peter for tackling the issue of unhinging one’s faith from the need to have an error and human-free Bible – by the theological insight that the Bible can be human and divine working together in a messy partnership of love.

    Further, thank you for making clear that the development of faith can be seen right in the Bible and that is ok.

    I have never heard anyone say, as Brian does, that Jesus understood that sometimes overturning the tradition was necessary to fulfill its intent. That is clear and freeing.

    • James M

      No Evangelical should have any problems with the words “Jesus understood that sometimes overturning the tradition was necessary to fulfill its intent.” That thought might serve as a fundamental justification for the Reformation.

      What is a tradition of a totally inerrant Bible, if not a tradition that functions in a very similar way to pre-Reformation tradition ? How is an infallible Bible different from an infallible Church ? The objections, and the apologetic, are much the same. The locus of infallibility is as external in the one case as in the other. One could even argue that the dogma of the total inerrancy & infallibility of the Bible is not only a betrayal of justification by faith alone in Christ alone, but is a relic of pre-Reformation Catholicism, a foreign body that Evangelicals badly need to shed. IOW, the “magisterial Reformation” was not radical enough – whether because it was too Catholic, or too much influenced by Renaissance humanism & learning, it persisted in hanging on to the Bible, and compounded the problem by using the Bible as a sort of paper Pope. If Tradition, or a tradition, monopolises attention instead of directing our attention to Christ, it becomes an idol, whether it be Catholic – or Evangelical.

      The question arises – how far does one take this radicalism ?

  • mark

    Just started reading my copy of “The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It.” I’m enjoying the amusing style, but was amazed to read this phrase on p. 31:

    “the Christian God of the Old Testament”

    Huh? Is that really what Peter learned from his years at Harvard studying with Jewish professors? That the “God of the Old Testament”–or of the Tanakh, or of Israel–is a Christian? Is best understood in light of Christianity? Presents the same view of God that we find in the early Christian writings?

    And this comes after Peter warns the reader against “coming to the Bible with expectations it’s not set up to bear.” (p.8) I’d say expecting to find a Christian view of God validated in the “Old Testament” is placing a pretty heavy burden on that ancient library! How about coming to “the Bible” with presuppositions that “the Bible” can’t bear? I suppose I should’ve been ready for that strange expression about “the Christian God of the Old Testament,” since on p.6 (and elsewhere) Peter refers to “the Christian Bible.” And yet … I know that Peter also refers to “the Bible” as “a library,” which strongly suggests that it isn’t one book–as strongly as the expression “the Bible” suggests that it is one book.

    But then again, why shouldn’t I have expected something a bit more penetrating, more challenging? After all, on p.25, shortly before that reference to “the Christian God of the Old Testament,” Peter, rightly, points out that the “biblical writers often disagree, expressing diverse and contradictory points of view about God …” Contradictory views of God. But it’s still the “Christian” God. The Christian God of the “Old Testament.”

    Don’t get me wrong. I like a lot of what Peter has to say, and I certainly agree that an understanding of the ancient Israelite scriptures is helpful and even necessary for a proper understanding of the writings of the early Christians. What I’m not nearly so sure about, however, is that a “seamless garment” approach to “the Bible”–that library of “diverse and contradictory points of view about God”–is proper or does justice to the various books in that library. Then again, perhaps if we treat the “Old Testament” as a collection of Israelite texts rather than as a Christian book we may find a more coherent view of God within that portion of the library, or at least we may find a degree of development framed by the disagreements. And maybe, viewed from that perspective, the clearly differing view of God that we find in the early Christian writings–but one that is largely self coherent within that portion of the library–may take on new meaning within a universalist perspective.

    What I’m saying is something I’ve said before. Peter needs to step back a bit and look at where he is, to move on from his concerns about “inspiration” and begin grappling with “the Bible” in terms of revelation and what that means. Part of that would include recognizing that “the Bible” isn’t, or shouldn’t be, “the main way for Christians to learn about God … (p.3)” After all, the ancient Israelites didn’t learn about God by reading “the Bible,” they learned about God, pondered God, and then started writing books.

    • peteenns

      I appreciate the comment Mark. Don’t over read, though–or perhaps try reading it through another set of lenses rather than your own.

      My only point in that little “offending” phrase is to make sure people see that the God of the OT is the “Christian God”–meaning that the God who acts in the OT is their God, too, and not the “bad God” one is “fixed” in the NT. I think I’m making that point clearly here and elsewhere.

      Another way of putting it is that the (diverse, ancient, library of books) IS the “Christian Bible,” and common readers of the Bible need to hear that.

      I other words, I am not writing to your specific concerns but much broader ones. And re: you offense at p. 3, remember that Christians do in fact HAVE a Bible and it IS the main means by which they learn about God, regardless of how anyone might think about that.

      • mark

        Peter, you state several times (for example, p.9) that we should regard “the Bible” as part of our “journey.” I have no problem with that, but what I’m suggesting is what I regard as a “much broader” concern–that an important way in which “the Bible” presents us with a journey is that it exemplifies the journey of universal mankind toward God. From this standpoint, we should not be worrying about the contradictory views of God, but rather we should be examining the development of Israel’s view of God. I think that’s precisely what Mark S. Smith undertakes in his work, showing how the Israelite view of God evolved from a typically West Semitic one (a view which you clearly share) toward a rather unique view that could be called something like a more universal, single creator God. Just as the medium may be the message, the development may be the revelation.

        If we adopt this approach, there is no problem of “Marcionism” in recognizing the Christian view of God is simply not the view of God we find in the Israelite scriptures. That is not to say that these views are unrelated, but it does raise the question of what is involved in that relationship. My contention is that this issue is the whole point of these ancient writings as “revelatory.” What is revealed is not the incidentals of who smote whom, etc., but the development of the an understanding of God’s identity until–for Christian believers–God’s identity is fully revealed in the person of Jesus: he who sees me has seen the Father.

        This approach, IMO, allows us to do justice to the complexity of the Israelite scriptures as they are in themselves–without reference to Christianity–while at the same time providing Christian believers with a handle for dealing with the essential relatedness of their faith not only to the Israelite experience but also to the experience of all cultures. (Mircea Eliade and Frank Cross, in a few of his essays, provide valuable conceptual tools for coming to grips with this broader perspective.) Tx for your patience.

        • peteenns

          I either agree with or am sympathetic toward everything you say here, Mark. At least I think so 🙂 The “Marcionite” charge is especially common and dubious.

          • mark

            Oh, the feeling is quite mutual–as of page 36. 🙂 That’s why I said Tx for your patience–a bit of preemption there.

  • Geoff

    I just read all three of the Q&A blog entries, and I guess I have a more general thought/pondering: if I find myself questioning some “sacred” concepts like Sola Scriptura, how should I then live (among other Christians, within the church and without)? Do I hide my controversial views?

    I’m fairly certain that, even living in a large metro area, it would be hard to find others to discuss these things; and perhaps that’s one of the Internet’s great values (besides its primary one of NSA surveillance).

    I recently forwarded my first Enns exposure (“Jesus didn’t read his Bible like we do”) to a few friends, and one of them replied with various warnings and “be careful, my bro.” I really think I risk most of my Christian relationships by removing God from his box, ha ha! But it’s worth it, even if I have to edit myself at church.

    • Daniel Fisher

      For what its worth, I’d suggest that it is far more noble to be honest about what you believe and be real with your friends than simply depend on dishonesty to maintain those friendships. If they are genuine Christian friends, they will love you regardless of disagreement. If you are needing to be fake to maintain a friendship, then you probably need different friends anyway.

      One thought – if I may be so bold – the phrase “removing God from his box” is far too overused, and non-descript – especially as the one who utters the phrase simply claims (often without justification) the theological high ground in whatever argument. Point is, EVERYONE thinks there are some things that God cannot or would not do – therefore it is useless rhetoric for that person’s opponent to claim that this is “putting God in a box”. For example, Pete in his book is quite adamant that God could not or would not have ordered the genocide of the Canaanites. He is firm in his understanding about (as you mention above) the specific way that Jesus read the Bible. How useful is it as an argument if I simply claimed that Pete is thereby “putting God [or Jesus] in a box”?

      Point is, your friends probably see you putting God in a box just as much as you think they have him in one – and in actual reality, there are some things God has done, and some he hasn’t; there are some adjectives that accurately describe him, and some that don’t. in other words, there IS a “box” or boundary of some form or fashion. Pursuing truth shouldn’t consist of suggesting we don’t have some box, but determining if our “box” accurately corresponds to the reality of who God is. Thoughts?