Higher Criticism, Pete Enns, and Biblical Authority

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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Yeah, Paul picked up His riff.

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You keep mentioning God commanding rape in the Old Testament, and I’m not completely sure what you’re referring to. Are you talking about the OT law that says a woman has to marry her rapist (/possibly seducer)? Or the warfare command that after the Israelite kills the fighting men of a region, they can the surviving women for themselves as wives? Maybe there’s some other rape command I’m not recalling atm. Also I’m not as bothered by the “dashing infants” thing in the Psalms as I am by the Canaanite conquest stuff, since that verse was clearly the personal feelings of a fallen man (David) and not a command from God.

Yeah, I’d probably say the same thing to my friend if he used that argument. It just doesn’t make a lot of sense from an inerrancy perspective.

I’m guessing you don’t believe in the substitutionary atonement model, correct? Because a key piece of that model is the idea that any sin, even a relatively minor one, is infinitely bad when compared to the standard of a perfect, Holy God.

There are certainly many homophobes in the church who believe in inerrancy in order to justify their hatred, but there are also many people for whom it went “the other way around.” Because they came to believe in inerrancy, they came to believe that God see same-sex intimate relationships as sin – but it’s obvious from their lives, their words, their actions, and the way they treat people that there is no personal hatred or animosity or suspicion in their hearts. I’m thinking of people like Preston Sprinkle and Wesley Hill.

“Based on the Cross I tend to think [that God doesn’t see same-sex intimate relationships as sin].” You’ll have to connect the dots for me. I don’t see what Jesus sacrificing his life to deliver people from sin has to do with whether same-sex intimate relationships are moral or not.

To your first point, fair enough. To your second point, quite a bit, for those who actually believe in inerrancy, although there is a lot of natural divergence due to passages that are hard to understand or Biblical themes that seem to be contradicted in different parts. There’s unity in the essentials.

I agree with you that committed, consensual, monogamous same-sex intimate relationships don’t seem to be directly harmful or hurtful to outsiders. So these relationships would generally be considered “moral” from a Utilitarian perspective. But the problem is that I’m not convinced that God is Utilitarian. Maybe Divine Command Theory is the correct way to view morality, or Natural Law theory. If that’s the case, then same-sex intimate relationships would be sinful simply on virtue of “going against the natural order established by God,” as Paul seems to imply in Romans.

Also, even if Utilitarianism is correct, perhaps there are serious negative consequences to same-sex intimate relationships that have gone unnoticed by people so far. Obviously God, as God, has a much better understanding of which behaviors are healthy and which relationships are hurtful than we do.

So discovering what is moral unfortunately isn’t as simple as using common sense and seeing what seems hurtful and what seems healthy. Especially when you consider how culturally relative that approach is.

Fair enough. But there are 6-9 passages that touch on it, which is enough to take seriously if it’s true that the Bible is the authoritative word of God. I’d have to take it seriously and really wrestle with it if I were the one experiencing same-sex attraction; especially since there are no positive affirmations of gay relationships in Scripture to “cloud the issue.”

Fair enough. I haven’t studied enough of the arguments against a literal Exodus to know how strong your argument is, but I know some apologists of inerrancy believe the numbers in the Old Testament are mistranslated or possibly even exaggerated and that the Exodus actually involved a much smaller group of people than traditionally believed, which explains the scant archaeological evidence.

I can’t remember if you said you believed in a literal, physical resurrection. But if you do, there are plenty of wondrous dying-and-rising god stories the world over, too. Why not say that the gospel writers invented the story of the Resurrection in order to make some theological point in some mythological genre?
(Also, what does it mean for Jesus to really be the new Moses if there was no historical “old Moses”?)

There are interesting arguments to support your perspective. But why do you think God would allow the Church to put words into Jesus’ mouth in that way? Jesus was the climax of human history in a lot of ways, the most important person and life and event the world has ever experienced. Wouldn’t God want to make sure Jesus’ life was adequately recorded and remembered?

Again, I appreciate the discussion :slight_smile:

If it’s just the Old Testament that’s told from a human perspective, then I have a bit less of an issue. But Enns takes it further to say that even in the New Testament, there are contradictions and debates between authors and culturally polluted passages.

It’s definitely an interesting theory, though, and it makes more sense of a lot of the “weirdness” of the Bible. And I definitely believe that the ancient Israelites didn’t receive a full revelation of God, only a partial revelation that was made more perfect in the revelation of Jesus. That’s compatible with inerrancy, as long as it doesn’t include saying that the Old Testament passages actually “got God wrong” in some way.

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Well, if the Bible is inspired by God in the manner conservatives say, then it is just as much “God’s psalm” as David’s. Isaiah 13 for the rape. Its not my contention that the Old Testament speaks favorable of rape or programmatically suggests it. I mean, women being treated like property and sold by their fathers to whoever he chooses certainty comes close as with the Moses line about taking the unmarried virgins for yourselves, but clearly as a judgment against Babylon God says he will have their wombs cut open, their infants killed and their women ravished. Sounds like a fun guy.

Morality is simpler than most make it in my eyes, If it doesn’t hurt anyone and you aren’t just a self seeking hedonist and are grounded in God, have at it. I have no need for any other primitive morality. There are plenty of odd moral rules in the Bible no one follows, or get conveniently dismissed as “the Old Dispensation.” I can defend slavery and misogyny from the Bible too. It is not difficult. Hell, we can tie misogyny into the very created order. I have no interest in letting anyone from 2,000 years ago that wasn’t God incarnate dictate sexuality to me or convince me that two consensual adults that love one another and are treating one another properly are doing something wrong. I don’t even know if Paul would have condemned this process if he were alive today. Is it all things gay, lock stock and barrel? Or pederasty, male prostitution, cultic orgies, etc., that Paul was opposed to? Paul lives in a very much different time and worldview.

Also, of your 6-9 verses. I am aware of 7ish, the majority of which are in the Old Testament. I would immediately dismiss ANY attempt at arguing for modern morality by proof-text hunting an OT passage. I could quote 50 more no one follows today. And some scholars do try to interpret the verses differently: “The author believes that these do not refer to homosexual relationships between two free, adult, and loving individuals. They describe rape or attempted rape (Genesis 9:20–27, 19:1–11), cultic prostitution (Leviticus 18:22, 20:13), male prostitution and pederasty (1 Corinthians 6:9–10; 1 Timothy 1:10), and the Isis cult in Rome (Romans 1:26–27).” I mean are you really going to use the story of Lot where he so easily offers his two daughters up to be raped over the two men? I mean, that is just insane to me. That story is so far removed from anything I know about the world its absurd to me. And I see little evidence Paul ever speaks on direct, monogamous, loving homosexual relationships. He very well may have, but the context of most of these passages is not completely clear. I am personally not much interested in any of that. All my morality comes from the Love of Jesus on the Cross and how he summed up the Old Testament. I can’t see a good reason why homosexuality is wrong in and of itself.

To them Moses was real and the story does tell a timeless truth about bondage and liberation–oppression and freedom. Jews were under Roman occupation at the time so this story would have been especially poignant and they ultimately did trace the Law to Moses. There are many problems with the Exodus but I can’t say its impossible God didn’t give the law to a guy named Moses 3500 years ago. That is beside the point to me. The foundational narrative was powerful. Their way of life came from Moses on Sinai. Matthew is elevating Jesus way above this. He is casting Jesus in some of the strongest possible cultural terms he could at the time for Jewish Christians. Also, a parable can be as moving as any historical story. We underestimate the value of fiction. Though I do not think anyone really doubted the historicity of Moses in Jesus’ day.

We still put words into Jesus’ mouth today, claiming he meant things he never did. Also, I never said his life was not adequately recorded, just that he didn’t say or possibly do everything attributed to him in the gospels. I absolutely believe we are left a reliable record of the incarnation that the Holy Spirit can use to move believers to repentance and mediate the Sacred. If I didn’t, I would just drop inspiration altogether. What would be the point if overall, the NT gets Jesus more wrong than right?


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Because of the sleight of hand I see evident in the way you are using it. Some of the general ideas in it are correct but I certainly don’t think they exclusively support your understanding of inspiration. You’ve also repeated 3-4 times in various threads here by my count, most of the time where it seemed vague in context if not completely off-topic to me.

“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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