Inspiration And Incarnation Paperback – Apr 1 2009
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About the Author
Peter Enns (PhD, Harvard University) has served as an adjunct professor at Eastern University and Fuller Theological Seminary and previously taught at Westminster Theological Seminary for fourteen years. He is the author of Poetry and Wisdom, Exodus Retold, and Exodus (in the NIV Application Commentary series).
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Orthodox Christianity declares that Jesus Christ was uniquely 100% human but also 100% divine. On the same premise, Enns asserts that we should also consider Scripture as being equally human and divine. The Holy Spirit inspired the essence of the message but each biblical author was influenced by tradition, culture and historical events--his worldview--in how it was stated and referenced. Enns provides multiple examples of how writers were influenced by extraneous, non-canonical, sources, and occasionally included their own interpretations which were (at least in terms of traditional scholarship) canonically noncompliant. It seems that the message--from both the divine and the human intention--was tailored to fit the receptivity and understanding of designated audiences, a fact which may not be grasped by audiences many centuries later. Enns states: "That God willingly and enthusiastically participates in our humanity should give us pause. If even God expresses himself in the Bible through particular human circumstances, we must be very ready to see the necessarily culturally limited nature of our own theological expressions today....there is no absolute point of reference to which we have access that will allow us to interpret the Bible stripped of our own cultural context. We must avoid the extremes of (1) jettisoning our context and (2) becoming slaves to our context.Read more ›
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Enns is a Professor of Old Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary. Westminster is a Reformed seminary with a commitment to Biblical inerrancy. Thus, Enns writes from within a Warfieldian concept of Biblical authority and a Reformed epistemological stance.
Enns tackles several difficult questions for Evangelicals who take the Bible seriously but who also recognize that "all truth is God's truth." These include the stories of creation and the flood and their similarity to ancient near eastern (ANE) myths, the sometimes imprecise, non-linear nature of Biblical history, and the way in which the New Testament Apostolic authors often took Old Testament passages out of context and infused them with new, spiritualized meanings. Contrary to many popular efforts at addressing these problems, however, Enns avoids the temptation to propose strained harmonizations that purport to explain away tough questions.
Instead, Enns' central thesis is that we must approach the Biblical text as an incarnational text. Jesus, as God incarnate, is God's ultimate self-revelation to us. The church has long recognized the error of minimizing either Jesus' human or divine natures. We are not surprised that Jesus experienced human limitations such as tiredness, thirst, pain, and even fear, because he truly was fully human, even as he was fully God. This antinomy is known to us by the gift of faith and is not fully comprehensible to our human minds.
In similar fashion, Enns argues, we should not be surprised that the Biblical text reflects the human contexts in which it was created. The Bible is not a disembodied instruction manual; it is an incarnational text, by which God entered the world of his people and spoke to them in terms and through stories and symbols they could understand. Here Enns hearkens back to Calvin's view that in scripture, God accommodates the limitations of human reason and understanding, and presents Himself in language people can understand.
Enns' application of this concept to the creation and flood stories, I think, is particularly helpful. I'll quote his summary at length:
"Therefore, the question is not the degree to which Genesis conforms to what we would think is a proper description of origins. It is a fundamental misunderstanding of Genesis to expect it to answer questions generated by a modern worldview, such as whether the days were literal or figurative, or whether the days of creation can be lined up with modern science, or whether the flood was local or universal.... It is wholly incomprehensible to think that thousands of years ago God would have felt constrained to speak in a way that would be meaningful only to Westerners several thousand years later. To do so borders on modern, Western arrogance....To argue, as I am doing here, that such biblical stories as creation and the flood must be understood first and foremost in the ancient contexts, is nothing new. The point I would like to emphasize, however, is that such a firm grounding in ancient myth does not make Genesis less inspired; it is not a concession that we must put up with or an embarrassment to a sound doctrine of scripture. Quite to the contrary, such rootedness in the culture of the time is precisely what it means for God to speak to his people.... This is surely what it means for God to reveal himself to people - he accommodates, condescends, meets them where they are."
I think Enns is exactly right about this. Understanding the incarnational nature of the Biblical text is a fundamental step towards a more robust Evangelical intellectual commitment in light of our present scientific outlook.
In terms of postmodern epistemology, I do not believe Enns could strictly be described as a postmodern thinker. However, the Westminster tradition of presuppositionalism seems to underlie some of Enns' argument. It seems to me that there could be some potentially fruitful cross-polinization between presuppositionalism, Reformed Epistemology, and some postmodern epistemologies. Indeed, Enns provided a back-cover blurb for John Franke's The Character of Theology, which suggests to me that Enns' is sympathetic to the "postconservative" Evangelical commitment to move away from a modernist, "scientific" approach to the Biblical narratives.
This commitment on Enns' part shows through most clearly, I think, in his discussion of Apostolic hermeneutics. As Enns correctly notes, the Apostolic New Testament writers often used Old Testament texts in ways that would give Evangelical exegetes indigestion. The Apostles often incorporated methods and presuppositions indigenous to their Second Temple Jewish context, and sometimes borrowed concepts and phrases from apocryphal books popular at the time such as 1 Enoch. As a result, the Apostles often read Old Testament passages out of context and applied them in ways not suggested by historical-grammatical exegesis.
Evangelical commentators tend to explain these instances by arguing that the meaning found by the Apostles was inherent in the original text, or that the Apostles had special authority to reinterpret the texts. Instead of these strained approaches, Enns proposes that these are examples of the incarnational nature of the text. The text came to us through a human community, which included some of the presuppositions of Second Temple exegetical methods.
This suggests that the text is to be received and understood in community. As Enns states,
"But biblical interpretation is a true community activity. It is much more than individuals studying a passage for a week or so. It is about individuals who see themselves as a community that reaches far back into history and extends to the many cultures across the world today. Truly, we are not islands of interpretive wisdom. We rely on the witness of the church through time (with the hermeneutical trajectory set by the apostles as a central component), as well as the wisdom of the church in our time--both narrowly considered as a congregation, denomination, or larger tradition and more broadly considered as a global reality, all of which involves the direct involvement of the Spirit of God.... Such a journey is not always smooth. At times what is involved is a certain degree of risk and creativity: we may need to leave the main path from time to time to explore less traveled but promising tracks. To be sure, our job is also to communicate the gospel in all its simplicity, but that does not mean that biblical interpretation is an easy task--the history of the church's interpretive activity should put such notions to rest. Biblical interpretation always requires patience and humility lest we stumble."
Once again, I think Enns is exactly right here. Too much Evangelical theology is about mechanically drawing the "right" set of systematic propositions from the Biblical texts, as if they were scientific journal articles. Propositions and systematics can be helpful, but we must remember that the Biblical texts at their heart are narratives given to living communities, each guided by the Holy Spirit within their particular historical and cultural contexts, and each joined to the broader community of the Church throughout the ages.
In short, there are many riches to be mined from this book, and I recommend it heartily.
Enns proposes a solution to this by utilizing what is called the "incarnational analogy" that makes the comparison between the nature of Christ and the nature of Scripture. We confess that Christ is both fully human and divine, not a fraction of one or the other. So too with the Bible it has a divine and human nature, neither of which can be eclipsed by the other. As Christ is sinless, the Bible is errorless, and as he was situated in a time and place, so were the biblical writers. For Enns, God's revelation necessarily entails accommodation to human modes of communication. Thus, we should not be surprised that the Bible behaves the way it does in that it reveals a God who uses the cultural and literary forms of the day to communicate its truth.
In the end, I must confess I am of two minds with regard to this book. The Bible student in me thinks what Enns has done is adequate and helpfully delineates a synthesis in which these problems can be addressed. Ideas about the "perfection" of the Bible and expectations of it can take a backseat to what the Bible actually is and who its ultimate author is like.
However, the philosopher in me was left disappointed on several accounts. The law of noncontradiction is foundational to the doctrine of inerrancy whether we think it is "extrabiblical" or not. Scripture's own self-attestation--its human form and marks of diversity--are not sufficient to demonstrate inerrancy in any meaningful sense without the law of noncontradition making the necessary distinctions between truth and error. By focusing more on the phenomena of Scripture than the doctrine of Scripture, we are not given any tools to avoid the conclusion that some of the cases he presents can easily be understood as contradictions. For example, what did Nathan actually say (2 Sam 7:16; 1 Chron 17:14)? Certainly both cannot claim to be "exactly what Nathan said." If revelation necessarily entails accommodation, the pressing question becomes at what point does God's revelation limit its accommodation to human behavior? Does God allow himself to accommodate the conflicting memories of his creatures? It certainly seems odd if this is so, and we certainly cannot know what exactly Nathan originally said.
With these criticisms in mind, though, one can thoroughly enjoy Enns's book. Biblical literacy includes raising our awareness at how the Bible behaves and how difficult some of its methods and texts can be for modern readers. Amazingly, the Bible is still a fairly easy book to understand if one is simply searching for the basic story (creation, fall, redemption, future judgment/blessing). This unity among the stunning diversity is something to be admired and treasured and motivates further research into the depths of the Bible's teaching and literature. I can only be thankful to Peter Enns for making me a more discerning reader of the Bible.
In "Inspiration and Incarnation," Peter Enns joins the debate, especially as it relates to the Hebrew Scriptures. He identifies three "problem" areas:
1. The Old Testament and Ancient Near Eastern Literature. In many ways, the Bible looks like the literature of the surrounding Gentiles. If the Bible is God's special revelation shouldn't it be unique?
2. Theological diversity in the Old Testament. Different authors seem to have different opinions on the same subject, at times even flatly contradicting each other. If God only has one opinion shouldn't the Scriptures always say the same thing?
3. New Testament interpretation of the Old Testament. The NT authors seem to quote the OT out of context, making it say something the author never intended. If we have to use the grammatical-historical method shouldn't they?
Enns shows that these issues are real; they are not simply cooked up by liberals who want to dismiss the Bible as hopelessly contradictory and irrelevant. What are we to do with this unexpected book? Enns provides an answer:
"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." (page 15)
The problem is not whether the Bible is God's Word; the problem is with our notion of how God's Word ought to behave. We're looking for something neat and clean. And, consistent with his modus operandi, God does something completely different.
Enns suggest we use the Incarnation as our way of understanding the nature of the Scriptures. (Lutheran theologian Hermann Sasse suggests a similar approach.) Christ, the true Word of God, is fully human and fully divine. In him the two natures subsist, neither diminishing the other. The Scriptures, also the Word of God, are fully human and fully divine. Christ came to us as a first century Jew, fully a part of that culture. The Bible comes to us over the span of hundreds of years and is a part of the culture in which it was written. Yet, supremely in Christ but also in the Scriptures, God reveals himself. This is not to say that the Bible merely "contains" the Word of God in some way. We do not say that of Christ. They are both the Word of God.
God came to the Biblical authors where they were. He did not zap them out of their context and dictate something to them for which they had no understanding. There is a progression in God's revelation throughout the OT leading to the final revelation in Jesus Christ. This certainly creates a problem for those who want a "flat Bible". But although it might require us to adjust our expectations of an inspired Bible it does not detract from Scriptural authority. The incarnational analogy allows us to hear the Bible speak in its own voice, which, mysteriously, is God's voice.
This is an excellent book for those who believe the Scriptures are the Word of God yet are uncomfortable with the definitions enforced by the battlers for the Bible. If you are like me it will challenge dearly held, if tenuous, views. In the end the Word of God may look messy, but it will be endlessly fascinating.
These questions are important for evangelical Christians to discuss openly and honestly. The reason why I gave this book 4 stars, however, is simply because this book is not for everyone. This is not a bad thing, but people should be aware that this was written specifically for evangelical Christians who already have a firm footing in their faith.
I personally found this book extremely challenging and humbling. I was excited to read such honest examinations of these very challenging topics from someone who is not only an evangelical Christian but is also a professor at Westminster who knows the potential trouble areas of biblical interpretation very intimately. I walked away from reading this book realizing that my definition of biblical interpretation has been too narrow and that learning about God through the bible can be an on-going, exciting journey that is much more than simpling studying alone with bible references and exegetical rules.
The one thing that would have been helpful in this book is an appendix with the author's thoughts on an apologetic approach to these issues. I know this is out of the scope of this book, and I know that a lot of the content in this book can indeed be presented with an apologetic spin. But after reading this book, I personally felt the need to process much of this information on my own in light of how it could be presented to people who are either not of the Christian faith or even may be struggling in their faith. Although the author makes it clear that he does not intend on providing final answers in his book as much as he strives to open honest discussions, in the end, I could have still used some guidance in knowing how to present the issues in a balanced way to those who do not share my views or my faith. (e.g. "Yes, Genesis looks a lot like the creation stories of the surrounding cultures, but that does not explain how the small, minority nation of Israel came up with radical ideas like monotheism." or "Yes, the Old Testament's criteria for historical accuracy may be different from our Western, scientific, 20th century criteria, but no matter what criteria we use, it is hard to dismiss their consistent view of a God whom theologian still marvel at today.")
In the early church, there was a similar discussion on the nature of Christ. The Arian view denied the deity or divinity of Christ. The Docetist view denied the humanity of Christ. The orthodox view was and is, Christ is 100% human and 100% divine.
Peter Enns first discusses how the modern discussion on the nature of Scripture is ultimately an issue of one side claiming Scripture is 100% human but ignoring the divine, Arianism, and the other side claiming Scripture is 100% divine and ignoring the humanity, Docetism. Instead Scripture, like Christ, needs to be seen as both 100% human and 100% divine.
Enns' key contribution occurs in the first 20 pages or so where he outlines the basic problem. It is key, because he appears to be the first person to understand and state the problem. There is no other book on this subject. These first pages will prove timeless. Enns develops what should have always been the orthodox view of Scripture, Scripture is 100% human and 100% divine.
What follows adds to Enns' thesis, these are the ramifications of the various views. It is still very important but potentially subject to revision as the implications of the first 20 pages becomes lived, rather than just intellectually understood.