The internet has been ablaze in recent weeks with talk about the suspension of Peter Enns from the faculty of Westminster Theological Seminary (see my previous post). So my ears perked up on Tuesday when the President of my college announced in chapel that there would be a debate at Dallas Theological Seminary between two faculty members over the subject matter of Enns’ book Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament. So I bought the book and made plans to attend the debate.
I finished reading the book last week and went to the debate which was held on the campus of DTS on Thursday night. Today’s post contains my reflections on the book, and tomorrow I will comment on the DTS debate.
Even though the argument is informed by serious scholarship, you don’t have to be a technician of the scholarly guild to understand Inspiration and Incarnation. The book is pitched to a broad audience. It is less than two hundred pages, and there are no footnotes. I bought the book on Tuesday afternoon and finished reading it on Wednesday (and I’m a slow reader). If you pick this one up, it won’t take long for you to make your way through it.
Enns’ aim in the book is to get evangelicals to reconsider their doctrine of scripture in light of the past 150 years of critical scholarship on the Old Testament (p. 13). To that end, Enns employs Christ’s incarnation as a metaphor for the theological synthesis he wishes to achieve. Just as Jesus Christ is both fully divine and fully human, so the Bible is both fully divine and fully human. According to Enns, liberal and conservative doctrines of scripture have been imbalanced on precisely this point. Whereas conservatives tend to emphasize the divine nature of scripture over the human, liberals have emphasized the humanness of scripture at the expense of the divine. Enns intends to correct this imbalance. In particular he endeavors to challenge evangelicals who hold to inerrancy in a way that is insensitive to the last 150 years of historical scholarship.
The heart of the book is three chapters that address three areas that in Enns’ view have not been handled well in evangelical theology: (1) the Old Testament in light of other literature from the ancient world, (2) theological diversity in the Old Testament, (3) the way in which New Testament authors use the Old Testament. Here are a few informal reflections on each of these three.
Chapter 2: The Old Testament in light of other literature from the ancient world.
Probably the most provocative claim in this part of the book is Enns’ contention that narratives from Genesis 1-11 comprise adaptations of pagan “myths.” According to Enns, “myth” is not simply a shorthand for “untrue” or “made up” (p. 40). Rather, a myth is an ancient literary genre, a “premodern, prescientific way of addressing questions of ultimate origins and meaning in the form of stories” (p. 40). Because Genesis bears striking similarities to myths such as the Enuma Elish and the Gilgamesh epic, the primeval narratives of Genesis should not be read as straight-forward historical descriptions.
There are many questions that could be raised in response to Enns at this point. The texts that Enns cites for comparison are dated in the second millennium B.C., a time roughly contemporaneous with an early dating of the exodus (about 1446 B.C.). If oral traditions preceded the written versions of these narratives, then who’s to say which story came first? The biblical one or the pagan one?
A second question would be to ask for a clarification of Enns’ definition of “myth.” On the one hand, he employs the term as a genre description. On the other hand, he uses the same term as an assessment of the historicity of narratives. He says that myths are “made up” stories and that the narratives of Genesis are myths (p. 41). What does Enns make of other texts in the canon of scripture that treat these narratives as historical descriptions (e.g. 1 Chronicles 1:1; Luke 3:38; 1 Corinthians 11:8-9; 15:45; 2 Corinthians 11:3; 1 Timothy 2:13-14)? Did these other texts get the historical referentiality of Genesis wrong?
Chapter 3: Theological diversity in the Old Testament.
Enns argues that different parts of the Old Testament exhibit diverse theological and factual claims. For instance, consider the diversity of perspective reflected in these lines from Proverbs 26:4-5:
4 Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
Lest you also be like him.
5 Answer a fool as his folly deserves,
Lest he be wise in his own eyes.
Enns notes that the diversity between verses four and five actually reflect the diversity of situations that people find themselves in everyday (p. 74). Part of the wisdom of the Proverbs is the ability to distinguish situations in which verse 4 applies from situations in which verse 5 applies. Thus the verses complement one another when understood correctly.
Elsewhere in this part of the book, however, Enns uses the word “diversity” differently than the instance above. In some of his uses, Enns employs “diversity” to refer not to complementary texts, but to contradictory ones. For instance, when Enns contrasts Ezekiel 18:19-20 with Exodus 20:5-6, he speaks of the diverse accounts as a “stark contrast” and raises the question of “whether Ezekiel contradicts the second commandment” (p. 89). Does Enns mean to imply that “diversity” sometimes entails contradictions? Certain this is an issue that needs to be developed further in a book that calls on evangelicals to reconsider their views of inspiration. Later in the chapter Enns says that “there is coherence between the parts, but that coherence transcends the level of simple statements or propositions” (p. 96). Perhaps the “stark contrasts” have coherence in Enns’ mind, but I’m not sure that Enns is sufficiently clear on this point.
I should mention one other troubling portion in the “diversity” chapter. In a section titled “Does God change His mind?” (pp. 103-107), Enns adopts readings of Old Testament texts that would seem to support an open theist position. On Genesis 22:12, Enns writes, “It is clear that the purpose of this test was not to prove anything to Abraham but to God. . . In this story, God did not know until after the test was passed” (p. 103). I’m not saying that Enns is an open theist, but his theological synthesis is lacking: “[God] is, on the one hand, powerful, one who knows things before they happen and who causes things to happen, one who is in complete control. On the other hand, he finds things out, he can feel grieved about things that happen, he changes his mind” (p. 107). Even though this statement may comprise an apt description of some biblical narratives, it’s hardly a helpful way to conclude the matter. Just because you’re a biblical scholar doesn’t mean you get to punt just as the theological implications of your exegesis become clear.
Chapter 4: The way in which New Testament authors use the Old Testament.
This chapter is perhaps the best one of the book, though it still has its difficulties. Enns notes that the New Testament’s use of the Old Testament often appears to run rough-shod over the original meaning of the Old Testament. He argues that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing since the apostles are interpreting the OT “christotelically” (p. 154). The apostles viewed the Old Testament as having its fulfillment in Christ, and so they read it as such.
The problem with Enns’ approach in this section is the assumption that the New Testament writers could be inconsistent “with the original context and intention of the Old Testament author” (p. 115). Ironically, there is not one mention of the discussions of “typological fulfillment” as a way of understanding the NT’s use of the OT. One of the benefits of this approach is that it understands the NT’s use of the OT as christotelic without abusing the original intention of the OT authors. This approach is prominent in the literature. My good friend Jim Hamilton, for instance, is making a career out of promoting this point of view (see here for instance). More interaction with this approach on Enns’ part would have been helpful.
Enns’ book is fascinating, and it is a great primer for anyone wishing to understand how critical study of the Old Testament over the last 150 years has presented challenges to evangelical conceptions of biblical inspiration. At the end of the day, however, Enns is far too dismissive of evangelical responses to critical scholarship. He acts as if evangelical scholars have been ignoring what has been going on in the wider guild. This is simply not the case.
Nevertheless, Enns is bold in this accusation. He alleges that evangelical biblical scholars often do their work out of “fear” of historical scholarship: “Fear cannot drive theology. It cannot be used as an excuse to ignore what can rightly be called evidence. We do not honor the Lord nor do we uphold the gospel by playing make-believe” (p. 172). Is this really Enns’ view of evangelical biblical scholarship? That’s it’s driven by fear, that it ignores evidence, and that it plays make-believe in its historical assessments? Enns has essentially claimed that those who would disagree with his view are refusing to engage the “evidence.” I hardly think this is the case. Thus, his charge against evangelical biblical scholarship really falls flat.
This is a serious book with a serious thesis, but I don’t think it’s very compelling in the end. The warmed-over conclusions of critical scholarship still strike me as problematic at numerous points, and there is still much that is incompatible with an evangelical view of scripture. I know Enns would disagree with this assessment, but I suspect that I won’t be the only evangelical who comes to such a conclusion after reading Inspiration and Incarnation.
[Part two tomorrow.]