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

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Inspiration and Incarnation (Book Review)

Enns_InspirationIncarnWhen Israel was a child, I loved him,
And out of Egypt I called My son.
As they called them,
So they went from them;
They sacrificed to the Baals,
And burned incense to carved images.

I taught Ephraim to walk,
Taking them by their arms;
But they did not know that I healed them.

~Hosea 11:1-3 (NKJV)

Above is Hosea’s brief history of God’s loving call of Israel out of Egypt and their unfaithfulness to Him. The chapter goes on to say that though God continues to love Israel, and though they will not go back to Egypt, they will still be put under the Assyrians for their backsliding and refusal to repent.

Matthew, in his gospel, writes this:

Then, being divinely warned in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed for their own country another way.

Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, “Arise, take the young Child and His mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I bring you word; for Herod will seek the young Child to destroy Him.”

When he arose, he took the young Child and His mother by night and departed for Egypt, and was there until the death of Herod, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, “Out of Egypt I called My Son.”

~Matthew 2:12-15

Matthew’s quote of Hosea 11:1, “Out of Egypt I called my Son,” is a complete misuse of scripture, taken out of context, and used by Matthew in a dishonest way. Or is it? Not if you understand that Matthew was writing to a specific audience (Jews), and he had a theme in mind when presenting the life of Jesus to that audience. Matthew wanted his readers to understand that Jesus is the true Israel and was acting as a new Moses.

The other three gospels are written by different authors to different audiences, and have different themes, and therefore present Jesus in different ways. This phenomenon is not only true for the four gospels. It is true for every book written in the bible. The bible is full of different authors writing at different time periods to different people with different worldviews, customs, and philosophies.

Therefore, when reading the bible, it is necessary to have some idea as to what the historical, grammatical, and hermeneutical context is for each book. When was it written? To what audience? What is the style of literature? What were the customs of the initial readers/hearers? What was the hermeneutical norm (the way scripture is interpreted) of the original audience? For example, what Matthew did with the Hosea passage might bother a modern Baptist preacher if done today, but apparently it was okay in Matthew’s day.

In 2018, we are as far from king David in the past as we are are from the year 5000 in the future. Think about that for a minute. Imagine if the canon of scripture was still open (it’s not), and that books written today will be a part of the bible in the year 5000. Would the readers in the future need to have some understanding of today’s world in order to fully understand what they were reading? Of course they would.

This reality of reading scripture leads to problems. What does it mean when we say that scripture is inspired? If some proverbs of Solomon are found similarly written in earlier Egyptian writings, are they still inspired? If the structure of law given to Moses in Exodus resembles the structure of law written by other near east cultures written earlier, is it inspired? How much should we take into account the existing culture that the books of the bible were written in?

Peter Enns attempts to address these issues in his book Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament. I have read other work by Peter Enns before, and I would say he comes to a lot of wrong conclusions in his thinking. He seems to be a part of that crowd which is quick to condemn the O.T. actions of Israel based solely on modern day zeitgeist morals. Which is strange as it goes against his own teaching of biblical interpretation. Perhaps I am wrong about him.

This book, however, I liked more than I thought I would. Enns suggests that, just as we understand Jesus as being the incarnation of the Son of God — meaning He is both God and man at the same time — so should we view scripture. Scripture is both divinely inspired, but also written by flesh and blood (and imperfect) men. That, of course sounds controversial and dangerous, but in this book I found Enns to be a formidable defender of scripture. Here he doesn’t deny the truthfulness of any of the biblical stories (as he might in his other work), but rather he successfully explains that there were real worldly reasons for the authors of the bible to write what they wrote, and how they wrote it.

The basic theme of the book is: Yes the bible is inspired and from God. It is what God wants it to be, and we need to trust God. The bible is also written by real men who are products of their time and place and so is their writing. Don’t let your doctrine and hermeneutical method get in the way of letting God be who He presents Himself to be in Scripture.

One illustration by Enns to support the above:

And [God] said, “Do not lay your hand on the lad, or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me.” ~Gen. 22:12 (NKJV).

The story is of Abraham sacrificing Isaac. God told him to do it, and God stopped him at the last moment. Then God says, “Now I know that you fear God…” Did God not already know? He’s God isn’t He? He declares the end from the beginning, does He not? Some would say of course God knew, but the whole sacrifice test was for Abraham’s benefit. God knew, but Abraham wasn’t so sure of himself, so God pushed him to the edge to convince him. But, that’s not what the text says. The author of Genesis could have written that if it was true, but he didn’t. The text says God didn’t know, and the purpose of the test was for God’s benefit. And we need to read it as it is. This is what God wants us to see. It’s up to you to figure out why.

Even though I can’t recommend Enns’s other work, I’m giving this book a positive review — 3.5/5 stars. I recommend it to anyone who has questions about the difficult and seemingly contradictory or confusing passages of the bible.