Peter Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2005).
Peter Enns, Old Testament scholar, author, and blogger, has stirred up the evangelical community with his book, Inspiration and Incarnation (Baker, 2005). Challenging evangelicals with a bevy of interpretive problems that he finds in the Bible, Enns proffers a new approach to reading the Bible that attempts to move past the fundamentalist-modernist impasse (14-15). He suggests an incarnational analogy for understanding the Bible (17-18), and he explains how this model, which mirrors Christ’s humanity and divinity, better articulates Scripture’s concurrent inscripturation.
I am not so convinced. Let me summarize and analyze:
In chapter 1, Enns attempts to move past the “Bible Wars” and to provide a better way of reading the Bible. The model he proposes is one that aims to avoid the strictures of dogma; one that instead reads the Bible in its own culture and presentation. That sounds great, but just doesn’t work. By ignoring the lessons learned from the modernist controversy, Enns heads in the same perilous direction–diminishing, if not denying, the uniqueness, unity, and inerrancy of God’s inspired Word.
In chapter 2, Enns discusses Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) similarities to the OT documents and the impact that recent archaeological discoveries have had on Old Testament research. While his survey of the extant material is itself helpful, his conclusions blur the uniqueness of God’s Word. Enns compares Genesis 1-11 to the pagan myths of Israel’s neighbors, without advancing positions that retain God’s unique and direct inspiration of the biblical authors; he equates the OT law with the common laws of the ANE world, discounting their divine authority; and he shows how Israel’s Monarchic history may not contain the full accounting of historical events, which cast a shadow of doubt on the text.
Taken together and without any opposing voice, Enns chapter leaves the reader with gaping holes in his ability to trust the veracity of Scripture. Methodologically, he fails to present other evangelical and scholarly explanations for these matters, that have given more faithful, and in my opinion better explanations for the issues at hand. G.K. Beale exposes this shortfall in his JETS article “Myth, History, and Inspiration” (2006), pointing to D.J. Wiseman, Alan Millard, Meredith Kline, Daniel Block, and Richard Hess as better Old Testament interpreters.
In chapter 3, Enns highlights many source of diversity in the OT (i.e. Wisdom literature, Chronicles, and the Law). To Enns diversity is not a commendable expression of God’s complexity in divine revelation, but a human problem that arises from competing truth claims–though “truth claims” may be too dogmatic and propositional for Enns. These ostensible contradictions are better seen as divinely inspired tensions in Scripture that thicken the unity of Scripture than multi-authored inconsistencies.
The intentional complexity and tension of the Bible can be seen in passages like Proverbs 26:4-5, which on the surface seems to present two antithetical statements side-by-side. On further consideration, however, these opposing proverbs are better understood to give a balanced and situational word of counsel for thos handling a fool–sometimes you respond, sometimes you don’t (cf. Ecc. 3:1-8). So then, Scripture is filled with tensive verses that add texture, clarity, and nuance the metanarrative, but it is an unnecessary conclusion to reject unity at the expense of perceived diversity.
Then in chapter 4, Enns addresses the issues of the New Testament interpretation of the Old. He argues that NT authors employed the same interpretive methods as their Jewish counterparts in Second Temple Judaism without qualification. “What is true of the Wisdom of Solomon is true of the New Testament” (128). So it seems that Enns is forcing on the NT writers the precise hermeneutic of their day, leaving no place for any kind of Spiritual leading (cf. 2 Peter 1:19-21) or revelation (cf. John’s apocalypse and Paul’s heavenly vision). Now, his approximation of Second Temple Judaism with the New Testament does not require denial of the Holy Spirit’s involvment, but Enns fails to articulate any kind of divine revelation. Rather, the New Testament authors, steeped in the culture of their day, are manipulaters of OT texts to speak a fresh word from God.
Consequently for Enns, the method of interpretation used by the apostles entails allegorizing and reinterpreting the OT text without respect to the OT context. This creative hermeneutic is then endorsed by Enns as the way we ought to read and apply Scripture. However, Enn’s “apostolic hermeneutic” looks like a train without any brakes. What of authorial intent? apostolic authority? and divine inspiration? The result is more than just a hermeneutical spiral that correlates the biblical text with the reader, it fringes on a postmodern, reader-response method of interpretation that allows contemporary settings and local identity to redefine the passage of Scripture.
In the end, Enns book while attempting to read the Bible “honestly and seriously” (107) results in focusing on incarnation to the exclusion of inspiration–ironically,”inspiration” which is a part of the title, doesn’t even get a reference in the subject index.
Whereas previous evangelicals have emphasized God’s sovereign inspiration of the Bible, and perhaps at times they have done this too mechanically (i.e. dictation theory of the inspiration), Enns goes too far the other way and ‘humanifies’ the Bible so much that Scripture’s uniqueness, unity, and inerrancy are left undefined and compromised. Any biblical theology built on this foundation will have insufficient support to build straight; inevitably the doctrines erected on this foundation will lean, totter, and fall.
And I am not the only one to see this. Most notably, G.K. Beale’s evaluation produced a 300-page rejoinder, The Erosion of Inerrancy in Evangelicalism. Trevin Wax also evaluates Enns doctrine of Scripture while providing a host of links that extend the conversation.
Sadly, Enns books stands in a long line of texts that seek to find a middle road between historically orthodox, protestant, and evangelical interpretations and all those competing models that “erode” the Biblical witness (cf. Gnostic, Catholic, Modernist, Postmodernist). History teaches us that a middle road is not possible. Only those systems of theology which begin and end with a full-orbed doctrine of Scripture–inspired, infallible, inerrant, authoritative, necessary, and sufficient–can ever produce and sustain over time doctrines that cohere with the content of Scripture. All other attempts build with wood, hay, and stubble, and the results are disasterous.
May we not grow weary in contending for the faith once for all given to the saints. The integrity of the Bible deserves our life and our sacrifice. And as we labor, may we continue to pray for those who teach us the Word of God and for ourselves that we would not be deceived into following the temptations to minimize God’s inerrant Word.
Sola Deo Gloria, dss