The Bible Tells Me So: a review
The Christian’s relationship with God is mediated through Scripture. He speaks to us today through His inspired Word. Everything we need for salvation and living the Christian life is contained in the Bible. So the question of what we think the Bible is and why it was given to us is one of the most important questions the Christian has to answer, and it will have effects in every area of our life.
In his latest book, Peter Enns is quick to say what the Bible is not. The Bible is not “a holy rulebook” (p. 3), “a cookbook”, “an owner’s manual”, or “a contract” (p. 23). Instead, Enns says, “When we open the Bible and read it, we are eavesdropping on an ancient spiritual journey” (p. 23). He says, “This kind of Bible—the Bible we have—just doesn’t work well as a point-by-point exhaustive and timelessly binding list of instructions about God and the life of faith. But it does work as a model for our own spiritual journey. An inspired model, in fact” (p. 24).
Enns spends the rest of the book showing us how the Bible is a ‘messy’ book, how it doesn’t follow our expectations, and how we have to let it speak for itself. But he never actually spells out what that means practically for how Christians should interpret the Bible.
Enns says: the Bible is wrong about God, and wrong about history
Enns rejects the idea that “What the Bible tells us about God simply has to be the way God is … That mentality has produced all sorts of stressful solutions, not to mention a few atrocities” (41). However he seems to fail to see that if the Bible could get God wrong, how wrong can we say it is? Is it wrong about the deity of Christ? How can we tell between the things the Bible gets right and the things the Bible gets wrong? This would seem to be a fairly important matter to explain.
For instance, Enns says “God never told the Israelites to kill the Canaanites. The Israelites believed that God told them to kill the Canaanites” (54). But it’s okay that Israel collectively misread that memo, because “Biblical archaeologists are about as certain as you can be about these things that the conquest of Canaan as the Bible describes did not happen: no mass invasion from the outside by an outside army, and no extermination of Canaanites as God commanded” (p. 58). So according to Enns the Bible gives a wrong view of God, and a wrong view of history.
Enns says that “The Bible looks the way it does because ‘God lets his children tell the story,’ so to speak” (p. 63). This means that Moses (or whoever wrote Exodus in Enns’s view) wrote things that God didn’t say and do because Moses had a limited (and wrong) view of God, “but we do get a good picture of how these ancient Israelites experienced God” (p. 64). Of course if this is true then Enns is overturning one of the central teachings of the Protestant church, Biblical inerrancy. This concept (based in Scripture itself) means that the Holy Spirit guided people in writing exactly what He wanted them to write (2 Timothy 3:16).
Enns doesn’t address the fact that God really cares how His people perceive Him. For instance, when Israel chose to portray God as a golden calf, He killed a whole bunch of them—they were not free to ‘experience’ God through idolatry. And Nadab and Abihu were God’s priests, in God’s Temple, only doing one thing wrong in offering unauthorized fire, and God killed them. So God’s children don’t have nearly the latitude that Enns seems to think they had.
Did Jesus get creative in His interpretation of the Bible?
Enns doesn’t think Jesus was any better at interpreting His Bible than the Jews were at writing it. In fact, he blasphemously titled a chapter “Jesus Gets a Big Fat ‘F’ in Bible”. He says:
But my main point holds. Loosey-goosey handling of the Bible gets you a bad grade, because you can’t just make the Bible mean whatever you feel like making it mean. You have to stick with what it says. Everyone who takes the Bible seriously knows that. Except for Jesus (p. 168).
To make his point, Enns quotes Matthew 22:23–33, and argues that “No reasonable connection exists between what the burning bush story says and what Jesus says it says” (p. 169).
Now a Christian, for whom Jesus is Lord and Saviour, would probably want to pause and give this passage a few moments of careful reflection before stating summarily that Jesus is pulling interpretations out of thin air. For one thing, the Sadducees were unable to answer his argument. They didn’t come back and say “Wait a minute, Jesus! No reasonable connection exists between what the burning bush says and what you say it says!” Too bad they didn’t have Enns around to bat for their team!
Jesus was interpreting Scripture as a first-century Jew, with a couple of innovations which the early Church carried into its interpretive tradition (though the constraints of this article do not allow for elaboration on this concept). However, Jesus was also doing so infallibly.
Note as well that Enns contradicts himself when he says (in the quote above) that “You have to stick with what it [the Bible] says”. But he obviously doesn’t do that elsewhere as we have seen. So ultimately Enns has positioned himself as somehow knowing when and where the Bible should be taken as plainly written and where it should not based on his own fallible human mind. But he doesn’t explain it.
Enns makes use of an argumentation strategy all too common in Bible books by liberal authors: he appeals to what “we know” about the Bible, while conveniently omitting mention of the many respected scholars who think we can believe quite a lot more of the Bible than he does. There are many inerrantist scholars who do not feel the need to reject large parts of the biblical narrative.
In fact, the inerrantist has an advantage over Enns. Enns assumes the Bible errs, and so it is easy for him to essentially ‘give up’ and say “Oh well, what do you expect from ancient people!” While an inerrantist believes that God is behind the text, and so will work harder to find a logical solution.
Also, Enns seems to use a fallacious argument to make his point in at least one place. Enns says:
How do we celebrate properly the Passover meal?
Exodus 12:8–9 and 46: Make sure you roast the Passover lamb (and whatever you do, definitely do not boil it or eat it raw) and eat it at home.
Deuteronomy 16:7–8: Boil the lamb and eat it only in the central sanctuary.
But as Dr Brian Mattson explains, this is fallacious. He is worth quoting at length:
The word b-sh-l in Exodus 12 is modified by a rather important prepositional phrase: “in water”. If you want to say “boil”, you add this prepositional phrase to give it the proper specificity: “cook in water”. In other words, b-sh-l is a general term meaning, “cook”. If you add “in water”, voila! You get, “boil”.
Deuteronomy doesn’t give a prepositional phrase. It just says, “b-sh-l and eat it.” In other words, “Cook it and eat it.” Not a word or hint about H2O, water, rain, steam, precipitation, or boiling. Just, “cook it”. If Deuteronomy wanted to say “boil”, it would’ve added the necessary, “in water”.
If Pete wants to argue otherwise, he can feel free to believe that in 2 Samuel 13:8 Tamar took dough, kneaded it, made cakes in the presence of Amnon and then boiled (b-sh-l) them. Uh, say what?
Exodus says “Don’t boil it. Roast it.” Deuteronomy says, “Cook it.”1
So this is a case of Peter Enns presenting a contradiction that doesn’t really exist, and as someone who knows Hebrew, he should certainly know better. What possible motive could he have, other than to cause people to doubt the plain reading of Word of God?
When we conflict with Scripture
Anyone who thinks about their faith at all will come to parts of Scripture that clash with preconceived ideas. At some point, practically everyone wants the Bible to allow their pet sins or some aspect of the culture. But when the Bible and the believer clash, the true believer has to bring him or herself into alignment with Scripture, not the other way around.
The Christian who believes the Bible has the ultimate authority has some assumptions that help us along the process of coming to alignment with difficult passages. First, we believe that God has inspired Scripture, and so the true interpretation of Scripture will be true, and will be morally good because God is good. Second, because God cannot err, God would not inspire error in Scripture, therefore there is a solution to any perceived problem. Third, because Jesus is God’s ultimate revelation of Himself, we will interpret Scripture in light of Christ (even the majority of it that was inspired before the Incarnation).
Resolving these sorts of conflicts is actually an opportunity to grow in our faith and in our understanding of God’s revelation to us. However, Peter Enns seems to lack any faith that there are answers. In fact it seems like he is glad there are (supposed) contradictions because it undermines a plain reading of the Bible which means it helps it conform to his unbiblical ideas. And while he still calls himself a Christian, one strains to see how far that definition can be stretched before someone falls into the category of a ‘false teacher’ described in the Bible. One would like to ask him, “Is there a teaching of Scripture that you would affirm despite the opinion of current scientific theory or cultural norms? What about virgins giving birth, men walking on water that isn’t frozen and dead people coming back to life for example?” In what way is Scripture different in authority from the latest offering from Oprah Winfrey in regards to day to day living or National Geographic discussing world history?
In Eden, the serpent invited Eve to reinterpret God’s command not to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Today, Peter Enns and many others like him are inviting us to reinterpret God’s word—but there is absolutely no reason for the Christian who trusts in Scripture to listen to him.
References and notes
- Mattson, B., This argument has reached retirement age, drbrianmattson.com/journal/2014/10/29/this-argument-has-reached-retirement-age, 29 October 2014. Return to text.