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.)
“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?