Book Review: Inspiration and Incarnation

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 EvangelicalismTrevin 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

3 thoughts on “Book Review: Inspiration and Incarnation

  1. Dave,
    Glad to see you’ve read I&I. I’ve benefited from your critical eye and helpful comments. What about the positives of the book? Would you agree with Enns’ discussion on a Christotelic reading of Scripture? Perhaps you’ve already mentioned this in your earlier review of the “Three Views” book, but I haven’t re-read that post.

    Also, regarding chapter 2, the similarities between ANE documents/culture and the Hebrew Scriptures have been well documented, affirming the influence of the ANE upon the Israelites. Examples would include the Suzerain-Vassal nature of Deuteronomy, the parallels of the tabernacle/temple structure with that of pagan temples, similar material in the Code of Hammurabi and the Law of Moses, a close resemblance between The Instruction of Amen-em-opet and Proverbs 22:17-24:22, and so on. In this way, much of the structure, form and substance of the OT is not so unique. So we can’t dismiss this entirely, and I think, in some way, this has to be communicated. What is unique, as you have said, would be the content and focus of biblical account over against the ANE (i.e. that the biblical authors were under divine inspiration). However, this doesn’t discount the authoritative and unique nature of the Bible, it just has a different flavor in certain parts. I think Bruce Waltke’s comment about the Proverbs is helpful here: “The Proverbs mixes seemingly mundane sayings that may have originated outside of Israel with distinctively theological sayings pertaining to the Lord to give a holistic view and a theological interpretation of wisdom peculiar to Israel.”

    Although I think that Enns is wrong to cast a shadow of doubt upon the text, the influence of ANE culture is there nonetheless. I only mention this because I think that there is much to learn from Enns’ comments on this subject. I just think the comments are misdirected. In trying to affirm “inspiration” he actually detracts from it.

    Great discussion, brother!

    – Josh

  2. Well said Josh. Everytime I re-read this review it got longer, so I stayed with the things that seemed most important, which were the things that were most troubling.

    To answer your question, I think the basic assertions that Enns makes are okay, but since the whole of his book is gives details and seeks to find problems (that I don’t think are as big as he makes them out to be), I focused on the negative

    For instance, that Scripture is like the Incarnation’s conjoining of the divine and the human is correct, in general. But no one would debate that. GK Beale’s statement is helpful that while Christ is 1 person, 2 natures; Scripture is actually the result of 2 person, 1 nature. This begins to show some of the similarity and difference.

    That there are in ANE documents genres, structures, echoes, and textual similarities with the OT is without question. The question is whether these elements how much these similarities can interpret the Bible? Did the OT writers absorb the ANE religious, aetiological, and cosmological stories and originate their writings from these sources (indirect inspiration, low view of revelation, in my opinion), or was there something more direct, like God speaking to Moses, giving him the law, instructing him in the specifications for the Tabernacle, etc? I would affirm the second one, while conceding that cultural context may help us read the documents better (i.e. Suzerain Vassal Treaties and Deuteronomy). Enn, however, goes the other way, emphasizing the cultural and temporal aspects to the exlusion of the Divine Revelation. Both must be kept in balance: Moses did grow up in Egpyt learning the wisdom of that culture, but he also was divinely selected and confronted with by the Holy One of Israel, and commissioned to declare the oracles of God as one who had seen God and the heavenly court. Enns does not keep this balance.

    Beale in his book that responds to Enns–which will be the next post– suggests 3 ways that this ANE/OT relationship could be handled: 1) the direct parallels serve as polemic arguments against the ANE’s false metanarratives; 2) general revelation explains the reason for similarities, but only the biblical revelation interprets the events of creation and history correctly; and 3) both ANE and the biblical record draw upon a common reflection on ancient tradition. In other words, since all religions find their origins in the primordial history of Genesis 1-11, it makes sense that they would share similar stories about creation, flood, and babel. While this historical event has been corrupted and perverted by pagan religions, God’s covenant faithfulness to Abraham’s children preserves this account and the YHWH’s direct leadership of Moses confirms the inerrancy of this Scriptural record. The differences in God’s specific work in creation, worship, and sovereign rule between ANE and OT outweigh the similarities in literary form and the inclusion of similar kinds of stories.

    One more thing that Enns does not pick up, neither does Beale (so far in my reading), is the revelatory act of the Exodus. There seems to be a retrospective kind of revelation going on in the exodus. God in showing himself as the God of Israel, as the God who saves (Ex. 20:2), reveals something about himself that is truly special revelation and that effects the whole biblical narrative (cf. Gen. 3:15; Noah as a type of righteous redeemer who brings rest to his people). Not until the Exodus do we have recorded Scripture, and it may be because this event is needed truly communicate all that happened previously.

    This kind of argument, which is made by Warren Gage, if it is correct, goes further to show the problems with Enns, because he gives no place for the revelatory act of the exodus in this work… and I think that is a big problem, because the exodus imagery is developed throughout the whole Bible (Gen to Revelation).

    So on the whole, I would say that Enns gets the basic things right (i.e. Christotelic, a basic incarnation similarity, recognition of similarities between ANE and OT, and diversity within the Scriptures including OT and NT), but he does not balance these ‘problems’ with the faithful evangelical explanations espoused by guys like Daniel Block, Walter Kaiser, and Richard Pratt, and thus he leads his readers astray. There is much incarnation and little inspiration, and even the incarnation is hazy because he never sets forth a clearly defined doctrine of Christ’s incarnate nature.

    Josh, thanks for weighing in. I appreciate your biblical acumen. I would love to keep up the dialogue.


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