Is the Bible, like Christ, both human and divine?

As I’ve been reading through Peter Enns’  Inspiration and Incarnation,  I’ve been struck by just how perfect it is for our series on learning to love the Bible for what it is, not what we want it to be 

Enns, an Old Testament scholar, has an approachable, lively writing style that makes his books informative and easy to discuss, but what I love best about Enns’ work is that each page betrays a rigorous commitment to preserving both intellectual integrity and faith. I’ve had the privilege of meeting and talking with Enns, (so hopefully I’ll be able to include an interview in the series), and he is one of a handful of scholars and mentors who has helped me realize that much of my anxiety surrounding  my reading of Scripture has to do with the expectations I place upon it. He has consistently challenged me to accept the Bible on its own terms, honoring it for what it is, not what I think it would be. 

Enns’ committment is evident in these words from the books’ preface:  “I believe with all my heart that honesty with oneself is a central component to spiritual growth. God honors our honest questions. He is not surprised by them, nor is he ashamed to be our God when we pose them...Being a part of God’s family is ultimately a gift to us, not something to be obtained by us. God has freed us in Christ and made us his children. And, as all children do, we ask a lot of questions.” (p. 10)  Anyone who has read Evolving in Monkey Town will know how profoundly these words resonate with me. 

Inspiration and Incarnation focuses on three specific problems/questions raised by the modern study of the Old Testament and uses those specific problems/questions to engage in a broader conversation about the nature of Scripture, to “provide a theological paradigm for people who know instinctively that the Bible is God’s word, but for whom reading the Bible has already become a serious theological problem—perhaps even a crisis.”  The book is divided into five chapters, so we’ll take on one chapter per Monday, for the next five weeks. 

Let’s begin with Chapter 1, in which Enns lays out the purpose and scope for the book and introduces an important metaphor for understanding the nature of Scripture. 

Turning “problems” into insights...

Enns begins with the assumption that “the Bible is ultimately from God and that it is God’s gift to the church.”  However, modern study of the Old Testament has reinforced the fact that the worldview of the biblical authors affected what they thought and wrote, and so it is necessary to take the worldviews of the biblical authors into consideration when we interpret the text. According to Enns, many evangelicals have assumed a defensive posture when it comes to confronting the linguistic, historical, and archeological evidence that shows the Bible to be “firmly situated in the ancient world in which it was produced,”  for fear that such “situatedness” detracts from its divine nature.  This need not be.  Rather than ignoring or lamenting the evidence, Enns suggests we allow it to teach us something about how the Bible ought to be read and interpreted. 

“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,” he writes. “I have found again and again that listening to how the Bible itself behaves and suspending preconceived notions (as much as that is possible) about how we think the Bible to behave is refreshing, creative, exciting and spiritually rewarding.” (p. 15)

Here Enns highlights three issues that he believes have not been handled well in evangelical theology: 

1. The Old Testament and other literature from the ancient world: Why do parts of the Bible look so much like the literature of Israel’s ancient neighbors? (For many, this question challenges the Bible’s uniqueness.) 

2. Theological diversity in the Old Testament: Why do different parts of the Old Testament say different things about the same subject? (For many, this question challenges the Bible’s integrity.) 

3. The way in which the New Testament authors handle the Old Testament: Why do the New Testament handle the Old Testament in ways that appear to take it out of context?  (For many, this question challenges how the Bible ought to be handled when it comes to interpretation.)

Enns hopes that by exploring these issues and questions , we can elevate the conversation by allowing them to challenge us on a more fundamental level. “What is needed is a way of thinking about Scripture where these kinds of issues are addressed from a very different perspective,” he writes, “where these kinds of problems cease from being problems and become windows that open up new ways of understanding” (16-17). 

The Incarnational Analogy... 

Here Enns introduces a controversial and intriguing analogy to help us understand the nature of Scripture:  As Christ is both God and human, so is the Bible. 

 (It’s important at this point to note that this is an analogy—a metaphor—and as such, it certainly isn’t perfect.) 

Writes Enns:

“Christians confess that Jesus is both God and human at the same time. He is not half-God and half-human. He is not sometimes one and other times the other. He is not essentially one and only apparently the other.  Rather, one of the central doctrines of the Christian faith, worked out as far back as the Council of Chalcedon in AD 451, is that Jesus is 100 percent God and 100 percent human—at the same time....This way of thinking of Christ is analogous to thinking about the Bible. In the same way that Jesus is—must be—both God and human, the Bible is also a divine and human book.” (p. 17)

Just as Jesus assumed the language, culture, and life of a first-century Jewish teacher, so the Bible “belonged in the ancient worlds that produced it. It was not an abstract, otherworldly book, dropped out of heaven. It was connected to and therefore spoke to those ancient cultures.” 

Enns argues that many modern-day evangelicals have assumed an attitude toward Scripture that is analogous to the Docetism heresy, which held that Christ only appeared to be human.  They believe the Bible comes from God, but treat the marks of its humanity as only apparent, problems to be explained away. “But the human marks of the Bible are everywhere,” writes Enns, “thoroughly integrated into the nature of Scripture itself. Ignoring these marks or explaining them away takes at least as much energy as listening to them and learning from them.”  (p. 18) 

Examples of these human marks include the fact that the Bible was written in Hebrew and Greek, that the Old Testament world was a world of temples, priests and sacrifice, that Israel as well as the surrounding nations has prophets that mediated divine will to them, that Israel was ruled by kings, that Israel’s legal system shares striking similarities with those of surrounding nations, that the creation narrative and the story of Noah resemble other ancient stories of the time, that the writers of Scripture operated within the paradigm of ancient cosmology, etc. 

“What is so helpful about the incarnational analogy,” writes Enns, “is that it reorients us to see that the Bible’s ‘situatedness’ is not a lamentable or embarrassing situation, but a positive one: That the Bible, at every turn, shows how ‘connected’ it is to its own world is a necessary consequence of God incarnating himself. When God reveals himself, he always does so to people, which means that he must speak and act in ways that they will understand....It is essential to the very nature of revelation that the Bible is not unique to its environment. The human dimension of Scripture is essential to its being Scripture.”  (p. 20-21)

Enns concludes the chapter with this astute observation:

It is somewhat ironic, it seems to me, that both liberals and conservatives make the same error. They both assume that something worthy of the title word of God would look different from what we actually have. The one accents the human marks and makes them absolute. The other wishes the human marks were not as pronounced as they were. They share a similar opinion that nothing worthy of being called God’s word would look so common, so human, so recognizable. But when God speaks, he speaks in a way we would understand.” (p. 21) 

With this analogy in mind, Enns moves on to apply it to the first of three Old Testament “problems”—the Old Testament and Ancient Near Eastern Literature—which will be the subject of next week’s discussion. 

***

I find the incarnational analogy imperfect, but incredibly helpful when it comes to managing...(in fact, challenging)... my expectations regarding Scripture. What about you? Does the metaphor resonate or totally break down? How have your ideas regarding the nature of Scripture evolved through the years?

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Wright's 5 Recommendations for Reading Scripture Today

It’s Monday, which means it’s time to continue our series on learning to love the Bible for what it is, not what we want it to be.

As part of the series, we’re working our way through several books, and have already discussed The Bible Made Impossible by Christian Smith. Up next up is Inspiration and Incarnation, by Peter Enns.  But currently, we’re discussing Scripture and the Authority of God by N.T. Wright, and today I want to discuss Chapter 8, entitled, “How to Get Back on Track.” 

Wright really picks up the pace with this chapter, which begins with a reminder to readers of what he means when he talks about “the authority of scripture.” 

The authority of scripture...

“The whole of my argument so far leads to the following major conclusion,” says Wright, “that the shorthand phrase ‘the authority of scripture,’ when unpacked, offers a picture of God’s sovereign and saving plan for the entire cosmos, dramatically inaugurated by Jesus himself, and now to be implemented through the Spirit-led life of the church precisely as the scripture-reading community...We read scripture in order to be refreshed in our memory and understanding of the story within which we ourselves are actors, to be reminded where it has come from and where it is going to, and hence what our own part within it ought to be.” 

According to Wright, “this means that ‘the authority of scripture’ is most truly put into operation as the church goes to work in the world on behalf of the gospel.” 

One thing I’ve appreciated about Wright’s approach in this book is the emphasis he places on dynamic, spirit-led activity—the call to God’s people to join in God’s work of redemption, reconciliation, peace-making, and creative activity in the world. This way of speaking about the authority of Scripture stands in contrast to how it is often spoken of among Christians, as a phrase invoked to shut down conversation and bolster one particular interpretation of Scripture. (For example:  “I don’t believe in evolution because, unlike you, I believe in the authority of scripture.”) 

To me, Wright’s approach makes the most sense of 2 Timothy 3:16:  “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” 

The authority of scripture affects the work of God’s kingdom, “at every level, from the cosmic and political through the personal,” says Wright.  “Though this can happen in the supposed ‘desert island’ situation,’ where an individual reads the Bible all alone,” he says, “it normally comes about through the work of God’s people, from those who translated and published the Bible itself (even on a desert island, one is dependent on others!) to those who, like Philip with the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8, helped others to understand it and apply it to their own lives.” 

In other words, the Bible is intended to be read, wrestled with, applied, debated, cherished, and celebrated in community. 

Tradition....

Honoring the authority of scripture means living in dialog with previous readings and respecting tradition, Wright says.  Those Christians who have come before us may have been wrong about some things, he notes, but “every key figure in the history of the church has left his, her or its mark on subsequent readings of scripture.” 

“Paying attention to tradition means listening carefully (humbly but not uncritically) to how the church has read and lived scripture in the past. We must be constantly aware of our responsibility, in the Communion of Saints, without giving our honored predecessors the final say or making them an ‘alternative source,’ independent of scripture itself.” 

This approach reminds me a little of Scot McKnight’s approach in The Blue Parakeet, where he encourages Christians to read scripture with tradition, not merely through it. 

Reason...

Honoring reason in the reading of scripture means “giving up merely arbitrary or whimsical readings of texts, and paying attention to lexical, historical considerations,” says Wright. This keeps us from accepting readings that propose, for example, that Jesus was really an Egyptian freemason or that the book of Mark is about overcoming alcoholism. (Apparently, these views can be found in actual published books!) 

In other words, the interpretation should make sense. 

Honoring reason also means “giving attention to, and celebrating, the many and massive discoveries in biology, archaeology, physics, astronomy, and so on, which shed great light on God’s world and the human condition,” says Wright.   And it means engaging in civil, reasonable discourse. “This is why public discussions and debates, rather than shouting matches, are such an urgent requirement, says Wright. “Far too much discourse on contentious issues has consisted of rhetorical moves designed to wipe one’s opponent’s pieces off the board before the game has begun...Reasoned discourse is part of God’s alternative way of living, over against that of violence and chaos."

A good reminder.

Five recommendations...

Wright concludes with a five-part recommendation for approaching scripture today: 

1. A totally contextual reading of scripture: “Each word must be understood within its own verse, each verse within its on chapter, each chapter within its own book, and each book within its own historical, cultural, and indeed canonical setting,” says Wright. A contextual reading of scripture also means understanding and appreciating our own contexts and the way they predispose us to “highlight some things in the Bible and quietly ignore others,” Wright adds. “Such a contextual reading is in fact an incarnational reading of scripture, paying attention to the full humanity both of the text and its readers. This must be undertaken in the prayer that the ‘divinity’—the ‘inspiration’ of scripture, and the Spirit’s power at work within the Bible-reading church—will thereby be discovered afresh.” (Love that.)  This is an exhilarating process that will never be finished, Wright says, (with all the enthusiasm and joy of someone who truly loves his job as a biblical scholar). 

2. A liturgically-grounded reading of scripture: “The primary place where the church hears scripture is during corporate worship,” says Wright. “This means, we must work at making sure we read scripture properly in public, with appropriate systems for choosing what to read and appropriate training to make sure those who read do so to best effect.” Anglican worship, (to which Wright is certainly partial!), at its best, serves as a “showcase for scripture” in which “the authority of God places a direct challenge to the authority of the powers that be,” and in which the reading of scripture together in community is itself an act of worship. (Wright offers some specific suggestions for preserving a liturgically-grounded reading of scripture—including warnings against dropping certain portions of scripture from liturgical readings because they are startling or strange, as well as warnings against making sermons the focus of corporate worship— that we don’t have time to discuss in detail here.)

3. A privately studied reading of scripture: “For all of this to make the deep, life-changing, Kingdom-advancing sense it is supposed to,”  Wright says, “it is vital that ordinary Christians read, encounter, and study scripture for themselves, in groups and individually.”  Wright notes that Western individualism tends to highlight individual reading as the primary mode, and liturgical reading as secondary, where he sees the two working hand-in-hand. 

4. A reading of scripture refreshed by appropriate scholarship: “Biblical scholarship is a great gift of God to the church, aiding it in its task of going ever deeper into the meaning of scripture and so being refreshed and energized for the tasks to which we are called in and for the world,” says Wright. This means honoring the “literal sense” of scripture—not by taking everything literally, but rather seeking to understand what the writer intended.  Biblical scholarship can help Christians do this better, and therefore “needs to be free to explore different meanings.” Such scholarship needs to be accessible and applicable to everyday Christians. 

5. A reading of scripture taught by the church’s accredited leaders: Leaders must be trained and encouraged to keep the teaching and preaching of scripture at the heart of the church’s life, “alongside and regularly interwoven with the sacramental life focused on the Eucharist,” says Wright. 

I think these are strong recommendations. I especially appreciate Wright’s emphasis on both individual and corporate readings of scripture. This is one reason why I love combining Episcopal worship on Sundays, with good, old-fashioned Bible studies on weeknights, with private “quiet time” with my Bible and a book of hours each morning and/or evenings. For me, this represents the best of all worlds, and powerfully integrates scripture into my daily life. (Too bad I rarely engage them all in a given week!) 

What do you think of Wright’s five recommendations? 

Where do you see your own church tradition excelling, and where do you see it falling short?

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N.T. Wright on the Enlightenment, postmodernism, and common misreadings of scripture

It’s Monday, which means it’s time to continue series on learning to love the Bible for what it is, not what we want it to be.  

As part of the series, we’re working our way through several books, and have already discussed The Bible Made Impossible by Christian Smith. Up next up is Inspiration and Incarnation, by Peter Enns.  But currently, we’re discussing Scripture and the Authority of God by N.T. Wright, and today I want to address Chapter 6, entitled “The Challenge of the Enlightenment,” and Chapter 7, entitled, “Misreadings of Scripture.” 

I confess I checked out few times while plowing through Chapter 6, which explores the effect of the Enlightenment on biblical interpretation and scriptural authority. Because this is just the sort of stuff you bring up at parties to make friends. 

Here Wright notes that “much of what has been written about the Bible in the last two hundred years has either been following through the Enlightenment’s program, or reacting to it, or negotiating some kind of halfway house in between.”  And so Christians need to be aware of which Enlightenment assertions “must be politely denied, which of its challenges may be taken up and by what means, and which of its accomplishments must be welcomed and enhanced.” 

Without casting Enlightenment rationalism as categorically evil, Wright details some of the problematic consequences of Enlightenment assumptions regarding the biblical text: false claims to absolute objectivity, the elevation of “reason” (“not as an insistence that exegesis must make sense with an overall view of God and the wider world,” Wright notes, “but as a separate ‘source’ in its own right”), reductive and skeptical readings of scripture that cast Christianity as out-of-date and irrelevant, a human-based eschatology that fosters a “we-know-better-now” attitude toward the text, a reframing of the problem of evil as a mere failure to be rational, the reduction of the act of God in Jesus Christ to a mere moral teacher, etc.  

Wright then discusses how the rise of historical biblical scholarship has both helped and hurt the Church, arguing for something of a middle-way between anti-intellectualism on the one hand and the glorification of it on the other. According to Wright, “to affirm ‘the authority of scripture’ is precisely not to say, ‘We know what scripture means and don’t need to raise any more questions.’ It is always a way of saying that the church in each generation must make fresh and rejuvenated efforts to understand scripture more fully and live by it more thoroughly, even if that means cutting across cherished traditions.” 

And I especially like this: 

“Not all who try to follow the Bible in detail as well as outline are fundamentalists,” says Wright,  “nor are they all guilty of those cultural, intellectual, and moral failings which North American (and other) liberals perceive in North American (and other) conservatives. Equally, not all who question some elements of New Testament teaching, or its applicability to the present day, are ‘liberals’ in the sense pejoratively intended by North American conservatives or traditionalists.” 

Wright urges Christians to avoid plugging their ears and refusing to acknowledge the insights that can be gleaned from historical criticism on the one hand, and accepting historical criticism wholesale on the other. 

“There is a great gulf fixed between those who want to prove the historicity of everything reported in the Bible in order to demonstrate that the Bible is ‘true after all, and those who, committed to living under the authority of scripture, remain open to what scripture itself actually teaches and emphasizes,” he says.  

As the chapter continues, Wright tackles postmodern scholarship, which he believes has offered some helpful critiques of Enlightenment assumptions while providing useful analyses of how certain texts might be received by particular groups, but which tends to veer into the complete dismissal of large portions of the biblical text. And so Wright sees postmodernity’s effect on contemporary Western readings of Scripture as “essentially negative.” “Postmodernity agress with modernity in scorning both the eschatological claim of Christianity and its solution to the problem of evil, but without putting any alternatives in place,” he says. “ All we can do with the Bible, if postmodernity is left in charge, is to play with such texts as give us pleasure, and issue warnings against those that give pain to ourselves or to others who attract our (usually selective) sympathy.” 

Wright’s solution is “a narratival and critical realist reading of scripture,” which he doesn’t flesh out in this chapter, but will in future ones...which is good, seeing as how I don’t know what the hell he’s talking about. 

Chapter 7 gets a little more interesting because Wright lists common misreading of Scripture—by the religious right and the religious left. 

His list of misreadings on the right includes:

- the rapture 

- the prosperity gospel 

- the support of slavery (so I guess he’s referring to readings both past and present) 

- undifferentiated reading of the Old and New Testament

- an arbitrary pick-and-choose approach to Scripture, complete with an implicit canon-within-the-canon, which, for example, is tough on sexual offenses but says nothing about the regular biblical prohibitions against usury

- support of the death penalty

- “discovery of ‘religious’ meanings and exclusion of ‘political’ ones, thus often tacitly supporting the social status quo”

 - readings of Paul that leave out the Jewish dimension through which his letters make the most sense

- attempted “biblical” support for the modern state of Israel as the fulfillment of scriptural prophesy - an overall failure to pay attention to context and hermeneutics

[I can think of plenty more, starting with this idea that the Bible presents us with a singular picture of “biblical womanhood” that more closely resembles the June Cleaver culture of pre-feminist America than the familial norms of biblical times -  not that I’m biased on that one or anything. :-) ]

His list of misreading on the left includes: 

- claims to objective or neutral readings of the text

- claims that modern history/science “disprove” the Bible or render it  irrelevant or unbelievable

- the cultural relativity argument which assumes that “the Bible is an old book from a different culture, so we can’t take it seriously in the modern world.” 

- caricaturing biblical teaching on some topics in order to be able to set aside its teaching on other topics

- “discovery of ‘political’ meanings to the exclusion of ‘religious’ ones”

- the proposal that the New Testament used the Old Testament in an arbitrary and unwarranted fashion

- the claim that New Testament writers did not think they were writing ‘scripture,’ so appealing to their work does them violence

- “a skin-deep-only appeal to ‘contextual readings,’ as though by murmuring the magic word ‘context’ one is allowed ot hold the meaning and relevance of the text at arm’s length."

- reducing “truth” to scientific statements on the one hand, or to deconstruct it altogether on the other. 

Wright believes a critical realist reading of the text is something of a third way between two extremes, one that can “take the postmodern critique fully on board and still come back with a strong case for a genuinely historical understanding.”

He argues that we do have serious and academic methods by which we can “say definitively that some readings of ancient texts are historically preferable to others,” and that those should be employed thoughtfully and humbly by the Church. 

In chapter eight, “How to Get Back on Track,” Wright will propose a five-part recommendation for approaching scripture today.

Good. 

It's all getting a little theoretical to me.

 ***

So, did any of that make sense to you? What do you think of Wright’s assessment of the Enlightenment and of postmodernism? What would you add to the list of biblical misreadings—on either the right or left?

Check out the rest of our Bible series here.

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Comment Policy: Please stay positive with your comments. If your comment is rude, it gets deleted. If it is critical, please make it constructive. If you are constantly negative or a general ass, troll, or hater, you will get banned. The definition of terms is left solely up to us.