“The Bible is diverse because life is”

It’s Monday! Today we continue our discussion of Peter Enns’ book, Inspiration and Incarnation, as part of our series on learning to love the Bible for what it is, not what we want it to be. (Have I mentioned how perfect this book fits into that theme? Five times already, you say? Okay, good.)

Anyway, last week, we talked about Chapter 2—“The Old Testament and Ancient Near Eastern Literature”—in which Enns tackles the difficult question of how to understand the Bible as special and revelatory when Genesis in particular looks so much like other literature from the ancient Near Eastern world. Today we move on to Chapter 3—“The Old Testament and Theological Diversity”—which addresses some of the tension, ambiguity, and diversity found within the pages of Scripture.  

Growing up in the conservative evangelical culture, words like  “tension,” “ambiguity,” and “diversity” were kept a safe distance from conversations about the Bible, which was, as God’s word, expected to be absolutely internally consistent. But early on, I began to notice conflict.  

Why did Chronicles present such a different account of King David’s reign than that 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings, often with specific details in direct conflict with one another? (See 2 Samuel 24:9 vs. 1 Chronicles 21:5, 2 Samuel 24:13 vs. 1 Chronicles 21:12, 2 Kings 8:26 vs. 2 Chronicles 2:22 for just a few examples.) Why does Proverbs 26:4 say, “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will be like him yourself,” while the following verse says, “Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes”?  Why are there variations in the all-important resurrection accounts?  How do we reconcile the Bible’s common deed-consequence pattern ("if you obey, you will be blessed") with the suffering of Job? Why does wisdom literature seem to present conflicting insights into the value of wealth? 

Invariably, I would be referred to Gleason Archer’s massive Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, a heavy volume that seeks to provide the reader with explanations for every conceivable puzzle found in the Bible—from whether God approved of Rahab’s lie to where Cain got his wife. (Note to well meaning apologists: it’s  not always the best idea to present a skeptic with a five-hundred-page book listing hundreds of apparent contradictions in Scripture when the skeptic didn’t even know that half of them existed before you recommended it.) 

The goal was always to either ignore or explain away these differences, or else the authority of Scripture would be threatened. Over time, I began to feel like I couldn’t read the Bible with my intellectual integrity intact, and my faith suffered as a result.  It is ironic, really. So concerned with protecting the authority of Scripture, I failed to submit to it. I failed to accept it for what it was, not what I thought it should be. 

Since then, I’ve been blessed to encounter Christian scholars like Peter Enns and John Walton, along with Jewish interpretations of Scripture that have shifted my perspective. I love how, when folks in the Jewish community confront Scripture, they don’t freak out over its conflicts and tensions, but rather engaged them—and with enthusiasm! I’ve learned from Christian scholars more about the historical contexts that influenced the way different scriptural texts were written.  And I’ve gone back to my English major roots which have helped me see Scripture as a collection of various genres—from poetry to history to  stories to philosophy to law.  I’m still struggling to make sense of much of Scripture, particularly the violent stories of the Old Testament, but this new perspective has helped me engage difficult texts with more heart and integrity. 

According to Enns, we would do well to learn a few things from the Jewish readers of Scripture whose emphasis in engaging the holy text is “not on solving the problems once and for all but on a community upholding a conversation with Scripture with creative energy.” In contrast, “the history of modern evangelical interpretation exhibits a strong degree of discomfort with the tensions and ambiguities of Scripture,” says Enns. “The assumptions often made are that Scripture should have no tensions and that any such tensions are not real but introduced from the outside, namely, by scholarship hostile to Christianity...It is a great irony that both the critical and evangelical options (as distinct from the Jewish model) take part in the same assumption: God’s word and diversity at the level of factual content and theological messages are incompatible.” 

Enns rejects this assumption, arguing that “a false assumption of how the Bible ought to behave stands behind this critical and evangelical view. As a corrective, one must observe how Scripturedoes behave and draw conclusions from that.” In other words, taking an apologetic and defensive approach accepts the worldview offered by modernity and defends the Bible by a rational standard that, according to Enns, “the Bible itself challenges rather than acknowledges.” 

As evidence, Enns works his way through multiple examples of theological diversity in the Old Testament—from seemingly conflicting advice  found in Proverbs, to the tension between the deed-consequence pattern found in Deuteronomy /Proverbs and the story of Job, to stark differences between the accounts of David’s reign in Chronicles and Samuel-Kings, to differences in wording between the 10 Commandments as recorded in Exodus and the 10 Commandments as recorded in Deuteronomy, to contrasts in laws regarding everything from slaves to the generational consequences of sin to Passover. Enns engages each of these examples with too much depth and insight to summarize here. He does not offer explanations meant to resolve the tensions, but rather acknowledgements meant to understand them—context, genre, authorship, culture, intent—suggesting that “the Bible is diverse because life is. And god does not shy away from it.”  So, for example, Enns explains that an author recounting the reign of King David  to an exilic audience (Samuel-Kings) would have an entirely different purpose, perspective, and agenda than an author recounting the reign of King David to an audience that has returned to the land after being released from Babylon (Chronicles). A book of wisdom literature, he notes, would assume that advice differs from context to context, situation to situation.  I highly recommend reading this section for yourself as it contains great insights without glossing over these important differences.

Enns concludes that the diversity found in Scripture is not fundamentally contrary to the Bible being the word of God, but instead “tell us that there is no superficial unity to the Bible.” So what does it tell us about the nature of Scripture, and by extensions the nature of God?

 According to Enns, it “demonstrates to us how fully God participates in history.” 

“If we take seriously both the historical dimension of Israel’s story and God’s making himself a part of that story,” he writes, “one would expect this complex historical matrix to be reflected in the pages of the Old Testament, which is precisely what we find. The various books of the Old Testament were written in differing historical contexts and for different purposes. This is why...Samuel-Kings and Chronicles can look so different from each other while talking about the same things. And not only are there different historical periods to take into account, but different genres of literature as well.” 

This reinforces Enns’ incarnational analogy, which we discussed earlier in the series

“For God to reveal himself means that he accommodates himself,” concludes Enns. “To be understood, he condescends to the conventions and conditions of those to whom he is revealing himself. The word of God cannot be kept safe from the rough-and-tumble drama of human history. For the Bible to be the word of God implies the exact opposite.”

In this sense, “the diversity of Scripture—and the tensions that this diversity introduces—bears witness to God’s revelation rather than detracts from it.” 

The chapter ends with a reminder of the importance of Jesus, God’s word in human form:

“Can Christians speak of a unity to the Bible? Yes, but it is not a superficial unity based on the surface content of the words of passages taken in isolation. The unity of the Bible is more subtle but at the same time deeper: It is a unity that should ultimately be sought in Christ himself, the living word.” 

Next week we will move on to Chapter 4 in which Enns discusses the Old Testament and its interpretation in the New Testament.

So, what do you think of this analysis? Have you struggled to reconcile every potential conflict in Scripture? How have your views on this evolved?

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