I just finished reading Peter Enns’ book, The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It. It was an easy, enjoyable read. I have rarely (okay never) read a book covering biblical history and biblical interpretation that has actually made me laugh out loud. You would have thought I was watching a Jim Gaffigan stand-up special. He’s a genuine funny scholar. Yeah, I know, hard to believe. It was hard for me to put down. I read it in 3 days.
The controversial nature of the topic from a controversial scholar also made it hard to put down. Dr. Enns who was let go from his professorship at Westminster Theological Seminary in 2008 for writing a previous book that they determined violated the seminaries statement of faith regarding the inspiration of Scripture. The endorsements on the back of The Bible Tells Me So reads like a Who’s Who in the “I like to think outside the box” publishing group (Brian McLaren, Rachel Held Evan, Rob Bell, Tony Campolo, Tony Jones). When Tony Campolo is quoted as saying, “I have some problems with what he’s written,” you know you’re in for a ride.
So here is my summary of the book: “Don’t read the Bible like it is faith’s owner’s manual, recipe, or a rule book. If you do, you’ll completely mess it up and you can be accused of trying to make the Bible behave like you want it to. Instead, read it like what it is – a model for our own spiritual journey – even though it’s got some disturbing parts in there. And also, read it like it’s God’s Word even though very little of it can be trusted to describe anything that actually happened. It’s not history per se, it’s stories from people who had an encounter with God and told a story to make a point about that. For Christians, the Bible is all about Jesus so read it like it’s all about him, that’s what the early Christians did.”
Now to dig a little deeper.
In the book, we learn that Enns does not believe that God worked in the ways described in Bible, because he does not think most of it happened. Instead he believes that the majority of the stories in the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, are “encounters with God” that are “genuine, authentic, and real.” But he sees the narratives in most all the Bible as unhistorical or embellished stories at best. For Enns, these “encounters” with God were real in some way other than witnessing things that actually happened.
According to Enns, the Bible is to be seen as “God letting his children tell the story.” This means that we can count on a lot of embellishment, contradicting accounts, made up stuff, and straight up errors. Enns explains away the Canaanite killings in Joshua as “God never told the Israelites to kill the Canaanites. The Israelites believed that God told them to kill the Israelites.” What he means is not that the Israelites were delusional about their task to take over the Promised Land. Actually, he believes that nothing in Joshua or the Pentateuch really happened, including the killing of the Canaanites. It was just a story told by one of “God’s children” who was wrong or making it up.
Enns believes that the stories in the Bible before King David have no historical basis. Enns is concerned that the silence of archeology and other ancient histories, like Egypt’s, don’t come up with anything that would confirm the historicity of the Old Testament narratives before David. Even after David, Enns believes that even though there is some historical and archeological evidence to stand on, there was a lot of freedom to embellish history to make some point the author had in mind. He points to the differences, or “contradictions,” in the histories in Chronicles and Samuel/Kings as his example of this.
Okay. If the Bible cannot be counted on, for the most part, to tell us things that actually happened, how should the Bible be read according to Dr. Enns?
Enns believes that in the Bible we should look to discover a “model for our own spiritual journey. An inspired model, in fact.” He throws the word “inspired” in there once or twice but does not define what that looks like for him other than a general belief that God had something to do with its composition. The more you read the book though the more you experience a picture of the Bible as a human work written for human reasons as opposed to a work overseen by the sovereignty of YAHWEH and guided by his Spirit (the orthodox view of the inspiration of Scripture). It seems to me that the God of Scripture, if he indeed can be adequately understood through the narrative of Scripture, would want the readers of his Word to feel confident in it as a reliable witness to the historical religion it describes.
A final point of note is Enns’ Christocentric Hermeneutic. He believes that Jesus is the lens through which we are to read the entire Bible. He displays how the New Testament writers, and Jesus himself, felt free to use the Bible to make whatever point they felt was important to them, even if that point was never in the mind of the Old Testament writer. They used the authority of the Old Testament Scriptures to make a new point about what God was doing through Jesus. They might have failed Old Testament Exegesis class but they made great first generation Christian theologians.
So what do I think?
Enns believes that ancient Scripture writers, both ancient Israelite ones and the early Christians, “encountered” God somehow, to give us mostly fabricated stories with which we should “model” our spiritual lives. Sounds nice, but I don’t think that’s what the biblical writers intended. Enns goes on a tour of Biblical literature to make his point that the Bible cannot be read as a “rulebook,” which is Enns’ antagonist in the book. Although I definitely think that the “rulebook” reading of Scripture is faulty and dangerous, and also not the way that the biblical writers intended it to be read; his own proposition, conclusions, and approach do not seem to me as any less dangerous to faith.
Enns’ reading of Scripture as a “model” left us hanging for the most part not knowing what to do with all the troubling historical conclusions about the Bible he just exposed us to. I know that much of what he has to say about the historical background of the composition of the Bible has validity (there is no way to address these without a lengthier response to an already long review), but I wish he would go more in-depth about how to put his hermeneutic in practice in a community of faith.
In his concluding chapter, Enns states that an “unsettled faith is a maturing faith.” I think that a faith that wrestles with God is a maturing faith, but I’m not sure about how beneficial it is to have an “unsettled” faith that is unsure whether or not the witness of Scripture is historically trustworthy in even its redemptive events. But to be fair, Enns wants to say that Scripture is not the foundation of our faith – Jesus is. Scripture points beyond its imperfect witness to a perfect Savior. Fair enough. I agree. But I fear that Enns’ view of Scripture does not help a struggling faith grow, but instead just erodes its trust in its foundational witness to Christ, leaving in its wake a Christian without a place to stand.
One final reflection, I detect a spirit and tone in Enns that I have heard from other Emergent writers such as Brian McLaren. An attitude of “I can’t stand my fundamentalist upbringing and its form of Christianity. I want to be able to think freely.” I completely understand this sentiment. I can go there myself sometimes. I also believe in freedom of thought and I have serious concerns with fundamentalist hermeneutics. Like McLaren and our postmodern culture, Enns does not believe that coming to final answers is as important as the questions we ask. Enns sure does raise a lot of questions in this book. This is what I want to ask though: All questions are valid but are all questions profitable for maturing and promoting faith?
I learned a lot, had some “aha” moments, some “that’s what I have been suspecting” moments, a lot of “I wonder if he really believes God is responsible for the Bible” moments, and many “that’s hilarious” moments. Ultimately, I hope and pray that “assuring people of faith” is what this book does, but I am afraid that it does not.
This Book Review was also published on Wineskins.org. You can see it here.