Herman Bavinck and Peter Enns on an Incarnational Analogy of Scripture

Peter Enns, in an online article about the authority of Scripture, summarizes his understanding of Scripture’s authority with a quote by Herman Bavinck.  Appealing to the systematician’s understanding that the two natures of Christ parallel the two natures of Scripture, Enns writes:

I can think of no better way of expressing this idea [the incarnational analogy] than by using (as I have used on numerous occasions in the recent past) the words of Herman Bavinck, the Dutch Reformed theologian. In volume one of his Reformed Dogmatics, Bavinck writes that a doctrine of Scripture,

….is the working out and application of the central fact of revelation: the incarnation of the Word. The Word (Logos) has become flesh (sarx), and the word has become Scripture; these two facts do not only run parallel but are most intimately connected. Christ became flesh, a servant, without form or comeliness, the most despised of human beings; he descended to the nethermost parts of the earth and became obedient even to death on the cross. So also the word, the revelation of God, entered the world of creatureliness, the life and history of humanity, in all the human forms of dream and vision, of investigation and reflection, right down into that which is humanly weak and despised and ignoble…. All this took place in order that the excellency of the power…of Scripture, may be God’s and not ours. (Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: Volume 1: Prolegomena [trans. J. Vriend; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003], 434–35; [Enns’] emphasis.)

This quote may give the impression that Bavinck and Enns are lockstep in their understanding of Scripture’s origin and nature.  For those familiar with Enns’ book, Inspiration and Incarnation, it may elicit the question, “What does Bavinck think about the human nature of Scripture?”  Does he, like Enns, press the incarnation model for all its cultural molding, or relegate the biblical texts to mythological stories copied from Israel’s neighbors?   What does Bavinck think about inerrancy? 

First, to put “inerrancy” into the mouth of the Dutch theologian would be anachronistic, though I think his theology harmonizes with and anticipates the idea (cf. Gaffin’s book ,God’s Word in Servant Form, treats Bavinck’s–and Abraham Kuyper’s–doctrine of Scripture in detail).  Likewise, in comparing these men, it must be recognized that their settings in time and location, as well as, their divergent scholastic aims, may not allow a straight-forward comparison.  Further, even Enns himself admits that Bavinck “says a lot more” on the subject of Scripture, thus Enns makes room for difference between the late theologian and himself.  Nevertheless, since the question was posed on another blogpost concerning Enns and Bavinck, I will try to show some of that distance.  

I think to answer the question of whether Bavinck and Enns would agree with one another, one simply needs to read the next paragraph in Bavinck’s dogmatic textbook.  As is usually the case, context clarifies, and in this case, it helps demonstrate that Herman Bavinck’s “incarnational analogy” is not quite the same as Peter Enns.   The former grounds his human authorship in the unerring veracity of God communicating by the Spirit of Truth, the other emphasizes the human factor so much that Divine inspiration takes on a new meaning.

Bavinck concludes the paragraph cited by Enns saying, “Everything is divine and everything is human” (435), and then he explicates this idea with an important caveat in the next paragraph (which begins a new section):

This organic view [of inspiration, which Bavinck eventually affirms with qualifications] has been repeatedly used, however to undermine the authorship of the Holy Spirit, the primary author.  The incarnation of Christ demands that we trace it down into the depths of of its humiliation, in all its weakness and contempt.  The recording of the word, of revelation, invites us to recognize that dimension of weakness and lowliness, the servant form, also in Scripture.  But just as Christ’s human nature, however weak and lowly, remained free from Sin, so also Scripture is ‘conceived without defect or stain’; totally human in all its parts but also divine in all its parts (emphasis mine, 435).

In the next section, Bavinck draws on trends in historical theology, showing sensitivity to more modern understandings of precision, and urging caution models of inspiration that slide from word, to idea, to ultimate denial.  He continues:

Yet, in many different ways, injustice has been done to that divine character of Scripture.  The history of inspiration shows us that first, till deep into the seventeenth century, it was progressively expanded even to the vowels and the punctuation (inspiratio punctualis) and in the following phase progressively shrunk, from punctuation to the words (verbal inspiration), from the individual words to the Word, the idea (Word in place of verbal inspiration).  Inspiration further shrunk from the word as idea to the subject matter of the word (inspiratio realis), then from the subject matter to the religous-ethical content, to that which has been revealed in the true sense, to the Word of God in the strict sense, to the special object of saving faith (inspiratio fundamentalis, religiosa), from these matters to the persons (inspiratio personalis), and finally from this to the denial of all inspiration as supernatural gift (435).

Think what you will of Bavinck’s historical analysis and slippery slope argument, but one thing is clear: Peter Enns and Herman Bavinck do not share the same understanding of Scripture.  In fact, in the pages that follow in Bavinck’s chapter on “The Inspiration of Scripture,” their doctrinal disparity grows.  I will conclude with just one more treatment of his illuminating work that highlights the difference.  Concluding his section on organic inspiration he again touches on the incarnational model, only here Bavinck develops it with a detail that exceeds Inspiration & Incarnation. (Admittedly, Enns has developed this approach with greater focus since I & I, see his 2007 CTJ article, but differences in their incarnational models remain).  Bavinck summarizes:

Inspiration has to be viewed organically, so that even the lowliest part has its place and meaning and at the same time is much farther removed from the center than other parts.  In the human organism nothing is accidental, neither its length, nor its breadth, not its color or its tint.  This is not, however, to say that everthing is equally closely connected with its life center.  The head and the heart occupy a much more important place in the body that the hand or the foot, and these again are greatly superior in value to the nails and the hair.  In Scripture, as well, not everything is equally close to the center.  There is a periphery, which moves in a wide path aroung the center, yet also that periphery belongs to the circle of divine thoughts.  Accordingly, there are no kinds and degrees in ‘graphic’ inspiration.  The hair of one’s head shares in the same life as the heart and the hand.  There is one and the same Spirit from whom, through consciousness of the authors, the whole Scripture has come.  But there is a difference in the manner in which the same life is present and active in the different parts of the body.  There is diversity of gifts, also in Scripture, but it is the same Spirit (438-39, emphasis mine).

In the end, appeals to men are like appeals to tradition.  They are helpful and historic, but they do not trump the Bible itself.  I think ultimately, Enns and Bavinck, would go back to the Bible to make their case.  Only, I think they would do so with divergent degrees of confidence in the Bible’s inspiration–Bavinck asserting inspiration from the unerring Spirit of Truth through men; Enns ascribing origination from men with assistance from the Spirit.  This a nuanced difference, but one that ultimately affirms or denies the authority of the Scriptures.  One makes Scripture God’s unique self-revelation, the other a error-proned attestation to the God who lisps. 

The point here is not ultimately to solve the inerrancy debate, but simply to observe the difference between Enns and Bavinck in their similar usage of the “incarnational analogy.”  For while Enns bolsters his case with citations from Bavinck, the superficial similarities do not go beyond the surface.  Both scholars employ an incarnational analogy for understanding Scripture, but they explain this analogy differently as the preceding quotations demonstrate.  In the end, Enns is not a reincarnation of Bavinck, but hopefully his scholastic dependence on the Reformed theologian will help others glean from Bavinck’s commitment to biblical inspiration and authority in ways that Enns does not.

[For more on Bavinck’s doctrine of scripture, see Richard Gaffin’s book on the subject, God’s Word in Servant Form].

Sola Deo Gloria, dss

Book Review: The Erosion of Inerrancy in Evangelicalism

The more I read of G.K. Beale, the more I appreciate his work.  Beale is a NT professor at Wheaton College, an excellent biblical theologian, a well-established author, and an aspiring gardener (according to Doug Moo)–if you have read his The Temple and the Church’s Mission you will understand why

In his most recent book, The Erosion of Inerrancy in Evangelicalism, professor Beale unleashes a sustained critique against Peter Enns and those who are questioning the doctrine of inerrancy.  Particularly, as the title addresses, Beale makes a case for the necessity and biblical warrant of inerrancy.

The first two chapters present responses to Peter Enns and his evaluation of the Old Testament.  Chapters three and four address Enns’ intertextual assessment of how the New Testament authors interpret the Old Testament.  Chapter five addresses the specific problem of Isaianic authorship, asserting that the NT authors were right in ascribing singular authorship to Isaiah 1-66.  Beale wraps up his case for inerrancy by looking at the cosmology of the OT and the ANE.

Chapter 1: Beale quotes Enns book at length.   He shows the weaknesses of his proposals, and concludes with eight summary points.  I have abbreviated them here (53-54; for the list en toto see Beale’s article “Myth, History, and Inspiration”):

(1) Enns affirms that the Creation and the Flood accounts are “shot through with myth.”

(2) Enns questions the accuracy of the biblical witness because the testimony is not objective history.  

(3) Enns fails to define how exactly Christ’s incarnation is like the Bible.  This analogy sounds good, but is ambiguous.

(4) Enns digs a ditch between the OT world and modern society, where present definitions of truth and error cannot be judged in a pre-scietific world.  

(5)  Enns does not follow his own evaluative proposal of humility, honsty, and charity.

(6) “Enns’s book is marked by ambiguities at important junctures of his discussion.”

(7) “Enns does not attempt to present and discuss for the reader significant alternative viewpoints other than his own…”

(8) “Enns appears to caricature the views of past evangelical scholarship by not distinguishing the views of so-called fundamentalists from that of good conservative scholarly work.”

Chapter 2: Beale replies to Enns open response (JETS 49 [2006]: 313-26), which seems to reassert points made in the first chapter.  Only in the surrejoinder, Beale is able  to defend the historicity of the Bible in more detail, expose the weaknesses of the incarnational analogy. Then going on the offensive, he challenges Enns with his own criticism, namely that Enns reads Scripture using extrabiblical standards (i.e. the surrounding cultures of the biblical authors).

Chapters 3-4: Beale begins by recognizing the merit of Enns “christotelic” hermeneutic.  This approach affirms the OT’s eschatological trajectory, aiming the whole of the OT towards Christ without forcing Jesus of Nazareth  into every verse.  However, Beale quickly delineates his concerns with Enns’ intertextual approach.  He lists five concerns (86-101):

(1) Enns determination that NT authors quote the OT in odd ways is insufficient in scope and not compelling in content.  Just because we have questions about how ancient authors are interpreting one another, does not give us freedom to discount their method as non-contextual. 

(2) Similarly, Enns denies reading of the OT in context.  The NT writers did not do this, and following their lead, we should have the freedom to interpret the passage in light of Christ’s coming and without grammatical-historical boundaries.  

(3) The pervasive and controlling influence of Second Temple Judaism predominates Enns theology.  Beale shows that Second Temple Judaism is not monolithic, yet Enns, while conceding the point, treats it as a singular interpretive method that the NT writers absorbed.

(4) While rejecting the “historical-grammatical” approach to Scripture, Enns employs his own hermeneutical grid and “imposes” theological constructs on his interpretations as much any other evangelical or fundamentalist.

(5) Enns posits that Paul adopted legendary material in his writings (i.e. Enns on 1 Cor. 10:4).  Yet, for Paul to incorporate this legendary material is to contradict his warning to Timothy and Titus about foolish legends and wives tales.

Chapter 5: Beale addresses the question of who wrote Isaiah.  He submits that many current evangelicals have adopted formerly liberal positions on this matter, and he goes on to argue for the importance of holding to a single author–the historically evangelical position.  He gives copious quotations from the NT and later Jewish writers to support this view.

Chapters 6-7: Finally, Beale examines cosmology in the Ancient Near East.  Where some scholars lump OT Israel in with their pagan neighbors, a worldview that disagrees with modern science, Beale contends that Moses and the other OT writers use phenomenological language to describe occurences as they appear.  In other places though, they use theologically-informed language to describe the universe as YHWH’s giant temple.  Beale concludes in chapter 6, “Many of the purported socially constructed, mythological expressions of the cosmos reflected in the Old Testament are better understood as descriptions of the way things appeared to the unaided eye or are related to to theological understanding of the cosmos (including the unseen heavenly dimension) as a temple” (213-14).  

This conclusion finds support from Beale’s extensive work on the temple (cf. The Temple and the Church’s Mission), which he draws on heavily here.  Speaking of the similarities and differences between OT and ANE temples, he writes, “These ancient pagan commonalities with Israel’s temple reflected partial yet true revelation, though insufficent revelation for a personal knowledge of God.  Yet Israel’s temples are not like her neighbors, merely because they reflect some degree of perception about the true reality of God’s dwelling; rather, Israel’s temple was intended to be viewed as the true temple to which all other imperfect temples aspired” (182-83).  In this regard, Israel’s temple served as a “polemical statement” against her polytheistic rivals. 

In short, OT language is not scientific with modern exhibitions of precision, but neither is it a mythical accomodation filled with modern errors.  Beale shows convincingly the makeup of the Old Testament is polemical, theological, and phenomenological.  And thus, he concludes his book with a constructive argument for understanding the Old Testament worldview.  Against Enns and those like him who flatten Israelite distinctives, Beale shows how the temple serves as a point of reference for how God’s covenant people and His revelation to them are similar yet altogether different than the religious documents and pagan worldviews from which Abraham and Israel were rescued.

Overall, Beale’s book is not an easy one to read.  While he is trying to help a lay audience better understand the problems of Enns argument and its impact for divine inerrancy, he does recruit some very technical arguments.  Moreover, the polemical nature of the book ensures that students first coming to the discussion have some background with the doctrine of Scripture and issues of Old Testament studies.  Nevertheless, Beale’s work is important because of the way it exposes a trend in current evangelicalism away from the firm foundations of biblical inerrancy, and the willingness to test historic doctrines with  novel conceptions that appeal to biblical critics.   Moreover, Beale’s work is helpful because it sets out better arguments for understanding the Bible that coheres with the Truth and encourages Christians to trust God’s inspired Word.  For that, I say thanks.

May we learn from Beale’s scholarship and fidelity to the Scriptures, and press on to know the Lord.

Sola Deo Gloria, dss

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