How the Bible Actually Works by Peter Enns (Book Review)

How the Bible Actually Works: In Which I Explain How An Ancient, Ambiguous, and Diverse Book Leads Us to Wisdom Rather Than Answers—and Why That’s Great NewsHow the Bible Actually Works: In Which I Explain How An Ancient, Ambiguous, and Diverse Book Leads Us to Wisdom Rather Than Answers—and Why That’s Great News by Peter Enns

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

For every mile of highway there are two miles of ditch. With biblical theology the right side ditch is to treat the bible as though it fell out of the sky last week. The left side ditch is to believe that because the bible is so old and written in such a different culture, we can not know what it truly says. Peter Enns, driving a bus full of evangelical straw men, veers dangerously close to the left side ditch, if he hasn’t gone down already. The sludge at the bottom of the left ditch is a mixture of postmodern philosophy and liberal progressivism. Enns calls it wisdom.

Peter Enns makes too much of the fact that the bible is ancient and written in different cultures. I agree that we must always take that into account when studying the bible and searching for the true meaning of the text. I too get frustrated when Christians act as though a passage was written by some western author only a few years ago. We always must ask what the original intention of the author of the text was and then apply the principle of the text to our lives today. Enns goes too far though. He writes as though we could never understand those ancient authors. We are just too different now. We think entirely different from them.

I disagree. Consider this text…

Imagine what a variety of noises reverberates about my ears! I have lodgings right over a bathing establishment. So picture to yourself the assortment of sounds, which are strong enough to make me hate my very powers of hearing! When your strenuous gentleman, for example, is exercising himself by flourishing leaden weights; when he is working hard, or else pretends to be working hard, I can hear him grunt; and whenever he releases his imprisoned breath, I can hear him panting in wheezy and high-pitched tones. Or perhaps I notice some lazy fellow, content with a cheap rubdown, and hear the crack of the pummelling hand on his shoulder, varying in sound according as the hand is laid on flat or hollow. Then, perhaps, a professional comes along, shouting out the score; that is the finishing touch.

When do you think the above text was written? Is it difficult to understand? Is it too culturally odd for you to know what is being spoken of? Is it written by someone who is so different from the modern man that he might as well be from another planet? No, I don’t think so. This text was written almost 2000 years ago in Rome by a man named Seneca. This text could easily appear in a 19th century British novel and not look out of place at all. I realize that the original was written in Latin, but that does not change the fact that a man living 2000 years ago is more like a man living today than he is different.

In regards to culture, I have visited many countries and ten years ago I moved from the west to East Asia. Very different cultures. But one thing I’ve seen over and over again wherever I go is that we humans are the same — same dreams, same desires, same fears, same hopes.

Enns pushes strongly in this book that our idea of God changes with the times. Why did the early Christians change so much the beliefs of Judaism, out of which Christianity arose? To fit with the times. Why should our views on homosexual behaviour and gender be different from what is written in the New testament? To fit with the times. Enns holds to this way of thinking so strongly that it steers him to faulty conclusions. Did things change radically from Judaism to Christianity? Yes! Because of what Jesus accomplished. Not, as Enns writes, because the times were a-changing and a new belief system was necessary.

Enns writes some interesting things about the resurrection in this book which is similar to what N.T. Wright would say. I do appreciate the way Peter Enns asks difficult questions and I do believe he genuinely wants to know the truth of God and the bible.

Related reading…

Inspiration and Incarnation (Book Review)

Postmodern Jesusism

Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God (Book Review)

Jesus and Covenantal Righteousness

In the Fullness of Time

View all my reviews


The Agnostic’s Prayer

Insofar as I may be heard by anything, which may or may not care what I say, I ask, if it matters, that you be forgiven for anything you may have done or failed to do which requires forgiveness. Conversely, if not forgiveness but something else may be required to ensure any possible benefit for which you may be eligible after the destruction of your body, I ask that this, whatever it may be, be granted or withheld, as the case may be, in such a manner as to insure your receiving said benefit. I ask this in my capacity as your elected intermediary between yourself and that which may not be yourself, but which may have an interest in the matter of your receiving as much as it is possible for you to receive of this thing, and which may in some way be influenced by this ceremony. Amen.

~Roger Zelazny, from his novel Creatures of Light and Darkness

Through New Eyes by James B. Jordan

Probably the most influential biblical scholar who has shaped my understanding of the bible and of Christianity itself is James B. Jordan.

I always like to read Christian thinkers who try to define life as God wants us to. Jordan does this through his extremely detailed study of the Bible.

Below is a link to his book Through New Eyes. In this book Jordan explains the symbols of the Bible and how, through these symbols, we can understand who God is and what His plan is for this world. The book is originally available from Gary North’s website.

Here is the PDF book: through new eyes


Thoughts Without Words?


In Orwell’s 1984, the totalitarian government is continuously improving on their replacement of old English called Newspeak. The goal of Newspeak is to limit the vocabulary of the people down to the point where they won’t be able to think any thoughts the government doesn’t want them to. It assumes that thoughts can not be expressed without corresponding words, and that thoughts cannot even be thought without those words.

As Orwell writes in the appendix of 1984

“It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought — that is, a thought diverging from the principles of Ingsoc — should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words. Its vocabulary was so constructed as to give exact and often very subtle expression to every meaning that a Party member could properly wish to express, while excluding all other meanings and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect methods. This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and by stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meanings whatever. To give a single example. The word free still existed in Newspeak, but it could only be used in such statements as ‘This dog is free from lice’ or ‘This field is free from weeds’. It could not be used in its old sense of ‘politically free’ or ‘intellectually free’ since political and intellectual freedom no longer existed even as concepts, and were therefore of necessity nameless. Quite apart from the suppression of definitely heretical words, reduction of vocabulary was regarded as an end in itself, and no word that could be dispensed with was allowed to survive. Newspeak was designed not to extend but to diminish the range of thought, and this purpose was indirectly assisted by cutting the choice of words down to a minimum.”

So, is it true? Is it true that it’s not possible to have certain thoughts if your own vocabulary does not have the words to correspond to those thoughts?

In his book, The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker says it’s not true. Words and thoughts are not the same. Potential thoughts are not necessarily limited by a limited vocabulary.

“The idea that thought is the same thing as language is an example of what can be called a conventional absurdity: a statement that goes against all common sense but that everyone believes because they dimly recall having heard it somewhere and because it is so pregnant with implications.”*

“People can be forgiven for overrating language. Words make noise, or sit on a page, for all to hear and see. Thoughts are trapped inside the head of the thinker. To know what someone else is thinking, or to talk to each other about the nature of thinking, we have to use — what else, words! It is no wonder that many commentators have trouble even conceiving of thoughts without words — or is it that they just don’t have the language to talk about it?
As a cognitive scientist I [Pinker] can afford to be smug about common sense being true (thought is different from language) and linguistic determinism [the idea that limited vocabulary limits thoughts] being a conventional absurdity… [There is] a body of experimental studies that break the word barrier and asses many kinds of nonverbal thought.”**

An example Pinker uses is the false idea people have about the Inuit (Eskimos) having many different words for snow, implying they have a deeper understanding for snow than us “southerners” do. He says this is based on false data and the Inuit have approximately the same number of words for snow as the English language.

There is more to say about this. I am currently reading this book and will write a review on it later.

A good question to ask at this point is: What is the difference between thoughts and ideas?

*Pinker, Steven. The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language. Penguin, 2015, page 55.
**Ibid., page 65.

Further reading: Past & Future: Connected by Speech