Higher Criticism, Pete Enns, and Biblical Authority

I was having a conversation with a friend a few days ago, talking about how my faith has changed over the past few months. I told him that I’ve reached the point where I am very convinced that there must be a Creator to have designed all this, and that the Creator still seems to be best revealed in the person of Jesus. I also see good reason to believe in Jesus’ literal, physical Resurrection.

However, I’ve also discovered a lot of strong arguments against inerrancy and infallibility in the past few months, some of which are very persuasive to me. A good popular-level book that summarizes a lot of these arguments is Pete Enns’ The Bible Tells Me So, if anybody’s read it. A lot of these arguments come from the scholarly field of historical criticism, which I’ve noticed a lot of posters here are open to. Some of the main things that trouble me are:

  • The all-loving, all-good, all-merciful and all-just God as revealed in Jesus (and even the Book of Jonah) would never command Israel to kill every man, woman, and child in Canaan as described in Numbers, Deuteronomy, and Joshua.
  • There are many plausible examples of contradictions in Scripture due to two separate narratives being weaved together, such as the two Noah’s Ark stories and the two accounts of who killed Goliath (David or Elhanan).
  • An all-good God probably would not send anyone to eternal conscious torment in hell (although that’s more of a personal moral conviction than a higher criticism thing).
  • The Matthean birth narrative is probably an invention meant to present Jesus as a new Moses.
  • There are numerous examples of NT authors reinterpreting the Old Testament to make it say something it was never supposed to have said. For example, Matthew reinterprets “Rachel weeping for her children” to be a prophecy about Herod killing the children of Bethlehem, when the original context of Jeremiah makes it clear that the phrase refers to the tribes of Israel (Rachel’s children) going into Exile. Matthew uses it completely out of context.
  • There’s interesting evidence that early Bible authors were henotheistic or monolatrous, rather than exclusively monotheistic.
  • Jude quotes from the Book of Enoch as if it were Scripture, and 2 Peter “plagiarizes” Jude thought-for-thought in some places and word-for-word in others.
  • There’s good reason to think that the author of the Gospel of John invented much of Jesus’ dialogue, specifically the “I am” statements about His divinity (Dr. Mike Licona believes he did this to say explicitly what Jesus demonstrated implicitly by forgiving sins and such).
  • The traditional view of evangelical scholars that the disciple Matthew wrote the Gospel of Matthew doesn’t make sense with the fact that the author of Matthew copied large portions of his gospel from Mark, who would have been a relative latecomer to Christianity. The real disciple Matthew wouldn’t have needed to use a later source, since he would have been a direct eyewitness to Jesus’ ministry.


When I brought up a couple of these arguments to my friend, he was initially open to it as an acceptable doctrinal variation. “It’s okay if you don’t believe the Bible is completely historical and inerrant in all its details, since you still believe that Jesus is God. But would this view still say that the Bible is authoritative?”

I honestly wasn’t sure how to answer. How could I say “the Bible is authoritative for my life” if I believed that it contains false commands from God (the Canaanite genocide, for example), potentially false authorship (2 Peter and the pastorals), historical inventions, etc.?

How can I sincerely say that the Bible is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work”?

I can’t escape the feeling that the higher criticism espoused by scholars like Pete Enns and Kenton Sparks turns the Bible into not much more than a great work of literature; a record of people talking about their experiences with God and trying to describe what God is like, sometimes getting it right, sometimes getting it wrong. And in what sense can a book of literature be authoritative?


For those of you who are sympathetic to higher criticism in Biblical scholarship, do you believe the Bible is authoritative? Do you believe it provides guidance for your life, teaches you to be righteous, and shows you the way of God? Or am I correct that accepting higher criticism means leaving behind any notion of the Bible as providing uniformly correct teaching on what God is like?

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Hello, friend.

Have you read positions that critique or contradict Enns or Sparks? You might start there. I will not say anything in favor or against Enns/Sparks, but recommend that you become familiar with both sides and what both sides have to say.

I’m sure others here will give you helpful information.

Take care! God’s blessings be upon you. :slight_smile:
-Joshua W.

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This may not address all that you asked, but maybe some, anyway:

Dietrich Bonhoeffer


These are good questions, and as much as I resonate with some of the things I’ve read from Enns (especially things that are more critiques of evangelical culture), I sometimes feel like I end up with more questions than answers. For example, what does it even mean for the Bible to be “authoritative for my life”? Does it mean that I must abide by every out-of-context phrase I encounter that reads like a command (or only the ones in the NT)? Pete Enns has said that one of the Bible’s main purposes is to lead us to wisdom. To me that may include some “authoritative” commands, but also more of a general orientation in how we view God and others. It’s hard for me because I often have a black-and-white view of thing so as I try to get away from the “rulebook” view of the Bible while still understanding it to contain rules, I have been trying to consider more about what the overall purpose of the Bible is, as a whole and as specific parts.

Yes, absolutely. How exactly that has to work is still a mystery to me. But when it comes to authority, I have to remind myself that that authority is ultimately a person, not a book. So the Bible is authoritative to the point that it presents Jesus to us. The other information it provides can still tell us about the culture that Jesus was coming into, to help give more context to his ministry. But I still struggle with the “OT warrior God” characterization.


Hey Joshua! I appreciate the blessing. :slight_smile:

Yes, most of the arguments brought up by Enns I’ve heard from other people as well from both sides. For the question of the Canaanite conquest specifically, I read Paul Copan’s book Is God a Moral Monster?. Most of the explanations I’ve heard for the other arguments are just pointing out that none of these things are proof of a contradiction, and there are other plausible options. For example, maybe the passage that says that Elhanan (rather than David) killed Goliath was just a scribal error introduced in the copying process. Perhaps Jude isn’t quoting Enoch as Scripture specifically, just referencing it as a mythological example his audience would be familiar with. Etc.

So yeah, I’m trying to take each argument on a case-by-case basis and read articles from both sides. Some of the points are stronger than others.

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Intriguing quote, thanks! Bonhoeffer seems to be advocating a meditative approach to reading the Bible, where rather than studying the Bible in the scholarly sense he prefers to let the words sink into his soul throughout the day and listen to what God is saying to him personally. Is that the way you approach Scripture?

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Hi Laura, thanks for your thoughts!

Well no, most inerrantists would acknowledge that context is important, even when it comes to the NT. But if the Bible says that something is sin and it doesn’t seem to be a cultural prohibition, they would take that as something to be avoided today.

Yeah, that part of his theory (about the Bible leading us to wisdom) really stood out to me. Because the Bible obviously isn’t just a list of rules, it’s mostly a narrative along with a lot of poetry and theology and wisdom texts. It’s very difficult to navigate it all and figure out how it applies to my life today.

Yeah, that’s one of the main stumbling blocks for me in taking the Bible at face value. Even after hearing (what I assume are) the best apologetics arguments from the conservative evangelical side, I still have a hard time believing that the warrior, mass-killing conception of God as presented in the Old Testament is really what God is like. But I can’t see how the Bible can be considered authoritative if at least one part of the Bible (the Book of Joshua) doesn’t speak with authority on what God is like, on who God is. At best we could say that some parts of the Bible are authoritative, or that the Bible as a whole is authoritative, but not every part.


“…and listen to what God is saying to him personally” could be license to paraphrase beyond recognition or extract things that are not there as some do, so, no, I do not do that. But there are gems in the OT as well as the New, and much is lost by relegating it to the dust bin. I also use a couple of devotionals (Spurgeon’s M&E and Joy & Strength, both sweet, classics and trustworthy with only an occasional issue).

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I am not prepared to dismiss the God of the Old Testament as a genocidal monster, but I am prepared to say that I do not know enough to hubristically set myself up as his judge, given who he is and who we are.


I think it is easy to lose sight of the Spirit in this discussion. The Bible needs to be “read in the Spirit” if you want to be led to divine wisdom. Honestly, without the Holy Spirit I think the Bible will appear as any other work to a reader. The true inspiration of Scripture is found when the Holy Spirit communicates divine truths to us as we read the Bible and God pushes us, urges and moves us in certain directions. It is our sacred scripture because it mediates the sacred, gives us a record of the incarnation and the ethical teachings of God in the flesh.

Authoritative for what? Certainly not fixing a car, teaching me about relativity or C++ programming. We need to figure out the purpose of the Bible then we can talk about whether or not it is authoritative. If the goal of the Bible is to bring sinners to redemption, to change hearts and bring people to God through Jesus then authoritative doesn’t really apply. The Bible is reliable for God’s intended purpose. It serves as a witness to the Incarnation and helps mediate the sacred.

Many people quote this but leave out verse 15 which comes before it: “and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.”

Also, ask your friend how can you say the Bible is any of these things if it actually commands genocide, ethnic cleansing, depicts God as the biggest mass murderer and serial killer to ever live, condones slavery, is littered with misogyny and even commands rape. Did God really kill a guy for picking up sticks on the sabbath? I can’t help but think my sins are way worse than that. But this is not all that is in scripture. I believe the good far outweighs the bad. In the end, it might be easier to just stick with the teachings of Jesus. How did he summarize the Old Testament?

Matthew 22:34-40: 34 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35 and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37 He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

It can even be argued that Jesus was critiquing the Old Testament when he told people to love their enemies. But that can be saved for another time. The problem is we have a tendency to treat the Bible as an encyclopedia of theological knowledge and as a rule book. How is throwing rules at someone effective teaching? Throwing rules at someone teaches them to be righteous? Or does changing their heart do that? We can certainly learn from the Biblical stories and parables. Also, something can certainly be useful without being perfect.

The Bible is only inspired insofar as it serves God’s intended purposes in my eyes. It is authoritative when God speaks to you through it because, well, it’s God speaking. And while there are some serious moral problems here and there in the NT, most of the message seems to be consistent with Jesus. I mean I find a book like James to be wonderful.

If you really want an answer, simply tell your friend that anything that exemplifies Calvary–God’s great love for the world – anything that is consistent with Jesus emptying himself and dying on the cross for us is authoritative. Genocide, rape, misogyny, hatred, slavery is not consistent with the love God showed us on the Cross. The Cross is your rubric for scoring the authoritative nature of every single moral command in scripture.

Parts of it. What Christian today actually thinks the whole bible is authoritative? Ask your friend the last time he/she ate shellfish or pork, or shaved or wore a shirt made of two different types of fabric.

Absolutely. When read in the Spirit.

Jesus taught us how to be righteous by example. I see sacrifice and humility. How can you not be humbled by what He chose to do? How could you not learn righteousness from the example of the Cross?

Love is the way of God. The Cross is the answer here.

Jesus. That is what God is like. If not, Christianity is meaningless. A lot of your objections do become softened and even go away if you follow Spark’s genre argumentation as well.

As an example, you bring up Matthew but I also have long accepted that much of the Matthean infancy narrative was fictional. It’s not history and I doubt its author thought all or most of it was. The author was trying to present Jesus as a new and greater Moses. Whether or not the virgin birth is to be accepted by Christians is another matter, but the parallels between Jesus’ birth and the Exodus from Egypt are obvious. “Out of Egypt I have called my son” is absolute nonsense as a prophecy. Clearly the Birth of Jesus was being cast in terms of Israel’s release from captivity and bondage. Jesus is here to save Israel and he is much more than Moses. That is the point of the infancy narrative. The Matthean infancy narrative is not a problem or a contradiction. The only error is misunderstanding the genre and purpose of it. Forcing it to be a historical creates the error. It is a fire of your own devising.


5 posts were split to a new topic: What happened on the cross?

I’m sorry, but I don’t take your word for it. I wonder if Bonhoeffer would have.

I agree with you that God as typically understood (all-good, all-knowing, all-powerful) is far wiser than we are with a far higher perspective, and so if my ideas of morality disagree with what He sees as moral and immoral, it is infinitely more likely that I am wrong than that God is wrong.

But the problem for me is that God has to some extent shown us the difference between good and evil. Through the person of Jesus Christ, through the Holy Spirit, through Christ-following church communities, and through our own consciences that bear witness as Paul talks about in Romans. We may not have perfect moral knowledge like God does, but I think we are given enough revelation to know that it is never morally justified for one group of people to indiscriminately kill men, women, and children in an entire region through warfare. And yet the book of Deuteronomy describes God as commanding the Israelites to do exactly that.

For me personally, it seems reasonable to say that the authors of the Pentateuch were writing from the context of a tribalistic, violent, warfare-like worldview and they described God as a violent conquerer because that’s all they knew. For me that’s much more reasonable than saying that the actual God, the Creator of Heaven and Earth, ultimately revealed in Jesus, actually commanded Israel to do these things that seem evil. I don’t currently have enough positive evidence for inerrancy to balance out the negative evidence that the OT description of God is likely immoral.

“The goal of the Bible is to bring sinners to redemption, to change hearts and bring people to God through Jesus.” And it is reliable in that respect.

Okay, but even these categories get tricky once we allow for fallibility in the Bible. For example, before sinners can be brought to redemption, they probably need to know what sin is. But if the Bible doesn’t provide one unified teaching on what is sin and what is not sin, then this becomes difficult.

Super practical example: I have a close friend who experiences same-sex attraction. If I was in her shoes, what would God want me to do? If the Bible really is the authoritative Word of God, then the answer is clear: Don’t sleep with other people of the same sex, and flee those temptations. But if we allow for errors due to cultural blind spots in Scripture, then it’s much harder to know what God wants me to do. Maybe Paul’s condemnation of same-sex intimate relationships is no more authoritative than his acceptance of slavery. Maybe God doesn’t want people like her to be celibate for the rest of their lives.

You’re probably right that the Holy Spirit helps believers to read the Bible and better connect with God. But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s really hard to tell the difference between the voice of the Spirit and my own voice in my head. Conservatives believe they have the authoritative, inerrant Word of God to help judge which voice is which. How do you tell the difference?

If he were here, he’d probably answer that (1) those things happened in a different dispensation than the one we’re in, and so those texts aren’t authoritative for us today, although they were for people back then, (2) God didn’t abolish slavery and misogyny all at once because He wanted to focus on what was most important first, (3) and Paul says that the wages of sin is death, so all of us deserve the same punishment that the Sabbath-breaker got, and if it wasn’t for Jesus taking our punishment we’d be no better off than him.

Touche. The only thing I have to add is rephrasing my question earlier, how can we really know what it is to love if not from the Bible? Sure we can look to Jesus as our example for a lot of things, but he didn’t touch on everything in his time on earth (such as when it comes to LGBTQ+ issues).

He’d probably say that those laws were authoritative for a time, until Christ explicitly did away with them in the NT as confirmed by Paul in Galatians, etc.

Of course I agree that the example of Jesus’ sacrifice and humility and love is powerful, and is enough to change people’s hearts and lives without needing to know the finer details. But people do have disagreements about what it means to be truly loving, to be truly sacrificial, what “righteousness” and “right and wrong” really are. Where do we go to settle those debates if Jesus didn’t explicitly address them?

If my friend were here, he’d probably say something like: Couldn’t it also have been the case that God, in his sovereignty, orchestrated events so that they would parallel the story of the Exodus and thus be a fulfillment of typological prophecy? And Matthew is purposefully latching onto those parallels as he reports the (true, historical) events that occurred after the birth of Christ. To say otherwise is to say that the author of the book of Matthew felt free to make up events and fabricate stories about Jesus, and who knows what else in his gospel is ahistorical? Are we still to follow the teachings of Jesus if he may not have historically uttered all of them?

Although I agree with you that “Out of Egypt I called my son” obviously wasn’t originally intended to be a prophecy about baby Jesus going to Egypt (unless there’s some double-prophecy mystery going on). So perhaps the point is to show that Jesus’ life and ministry in general is the fulfillment of Israel’s story as described in Hosea.

Thanks for your thoughts!

The evidence is quite strong for it and I was only piggy-backing what the author wrote otherwise I would have listed it all. Your Bonhoeffer quote does little for me. I’m guessing there is a sleight of hand inside of it, where it confuses it’s own particular fallen human interpretation of the Bible and inspiration with God’s.


You’re correct @SeekerKid. However, if one brings the best case God to the party, He fits in just fine. Jesus gate crashed the Jewish party and rapped over the traditional music.

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  1. Who cares if it was in a different dispensation or not? Rape is rape and it’s wrong in every dispensation. That’s not a good response. But if your friend thinks rape is defensible, I wouldn’t be interested in seeing his arguments on this front. I’m going to go with dashing infants on the rocks is bad in every dispensation as well.

  2. Slavery and misogyny didn’t rate high on the list? Picking up sticks on the sabbath and a host of other minutiae did, however. Strange god you believe in. Cares more about trivial nonsense than major humanitarian concerns.

  3. A man who picks up sticks on the sabbath deserves death. Interesting. I think your friend and an insane asylum deserve one another. Interesting that a single tiny sin can warrant so much retribution and anger on God’s part. This is one small piece of a larger puzzle in Christianity where the punishment doesn’t fit the crime. It starts with the second creation narrative.

Does one need to know how an iPhone works to understand that it does or be able to use it? And your response reverts back to the Bible as a rule book. Looking for a list of specific do’s and don’ts in the Bible misses its point to
do. While we can certainly glean appropriate behavior while reading it and especially in the words and teaching of Jesus, but Christians seem content to recreate an Old Testament for themselves.

I think the deeper issue is rearing its head here. You are correct that Paul’s condemnation of same-sex intimate relationships is not more authoritative than his acceptance of slavery. And it’s pointless to quote “the Old Dispensation” after dismissing it. Based on the Cross I tend to think God cares more about the why and how two people in a relationship treat one another as opposed to how many x and y chromosomes each has in their cells.

Since when were we ever guaranteed an easy road in life? Did Jesus have it easy? His apostles? That something is hard is not an argument against it. Wrestle with it. Wrestle with scripture. Wrestle with God just like Jacob.

And what uniformity has that “inerrant word of God ever produced in the church?

Common sense. Who does a healthy, and consensual homosexual relationship hurt? I wonder how many women were expected to and forced by society to stay in abusive relationships the last 2,000 years by pious believers based on overzealous literalism and misogyny in the canon? All that abuse and mistreatment of women. I truly believe that future Christians will look back on us and find it strange and terrifying that so many Christians condemned homosexuality. Much in the same way we look back to the 1800s and are mortified by Christian justifications of slavery. Hatred isn’t a good look on anyone. There is very little by way of content in the NT on homosexuality. That is my first clue not to build a house of doctrinal sand on something the new dispensation rarely references and Jesus never does based on what he have.

So now it was God, not Herod who slaughtered the innocents in Bethlehem? God killing babies doesn’t seem like a good defense of obvious literary parallels to one of Israel’s foundational narratives and a theme that continues in Matthews Gospel. Not to mention that most literate people understand Luke and Matthew represent divergent infancy narratives. But I would also tell your friend I have equal difficulty with God literally killing all the firstborn in Egypt and I would inform your friend the evidence suggests the Biblical Exodus did not happen to begin with. So Matthew is ascribing a wondrous birth to Jesus and made up all these details to mirror a foundational narrative of Israel that may never have even occurred though there is presumably a kernel in there somewhere.

There is also quite a lot in Matthew that is ahistorical. In your list you said it was based on Mark who was late to the game did you not? But in the end the purpose of the narrative was to present Jesus as the new and greater Moses. The infancy narrative details were created because of who Jesus was. Why on earth would you judge Matthew using history when he wasn’t writing history. Do you disagree that Jesus was a new and much greater Moses at the time? I don’t. Thus, the meaning and point to Matthew’s infancy narrative is absolutely true. It’s not Matthew’s fault his genre was misinterpreted by the Church and it just be admitted that creating wondrous birth stories for Divine individuals is a common literary motif the world over. All the details need be no more literal than the two creation stories in Genesis.

I also don’t think Jesus did utter everything attributed to him in the Gospels. It’s clear to me a few things look like later beliefs of the Church being retrojected back onto Jesus. Though there is little reason to doubt Jesus actually said a host of the things the Gospels do attribute to him outside of the “I am” sayings and long monologues in John which are simply a theological reframing of Jesus.

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Yeah… so what do you think of Pete Enns’ view that God let the Israelites tell the story? That he allowed them to see him as best as they could and communicate within their own cultural framework without forcing their hands? In some ways I have to think that if the ancient Israelites had gotten God completely right, there would have been no need for Jesus to come and function as the “final word” of God.


Here is a link to the BioLogos category on Biblical Authority and Inspiration:

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So did Paul and the other NT writers provide supporting backup vocals or change the station? :wink:

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“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” -Colossians 4:6

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