Podcast S1E10 - Pete Enns

Another new podcast episode dropped today. This time it is my conversation with biblical scholar Pete Enns. Many of you on the Forum will know that Pete used to work for BioLogos and still has a lot of well-read articles here. It’s also no secret that he now has a wide following on the progressive end of Christianity. We talk in some depth about the nature of the Bible, its authority, and how to interpret it today. And of course the topic of evolution comes up.

What do you make of Pete’s view of Scripture? Is it helpful, or does it create more problems than it solves? What about authorial intent vs. re-reading Scripture for our situation today?

Find the episode on our website here: Pete Enns - God is not a helicopter parent
Or if you listen on iTunes, we’d really appreciate it if you’d leave a review.

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“… but that’s a lot harder than prooftexting.”

That tail end of a quote sums up a lot of my troubles with this kind of approach to the Bible. :wink: But I appreciate some of the examples Pete gives here even though I’m not 100% on board with the approach. The question that always seems to come up in my mind is along the lines of, “but then how will we know who is right and who is wrong?” which probably reveals plenty of weaknesses of my current approach anyway, so I do get a lot out of these discussions.

I also liked the brief contrast of the before-and-after of the Protestant Reformation. It’s nice to be reminded that this was not the be-all-end-all of church history, and that there are many more diverse viewpoints than are often seen just within American evangelicalism.

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If he reveals issues that are real, would it be better not to know? Perhaps we should not be so helicopter-parent-like toward our faith? I prefer to think I have my faith invested in what has shown itself to be the best fit so far. If something comes along to challenge my faith, might it not also refine and improve it.

@Randy turned me on to Pete Enns. I’m sorry he isn’t still more heavily involved here but it is good to get these updates. Thanks!

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That is also essentially the core issue I take with Professor Enns’s approach to the Bible. He goes to great lengths to teach what the Bible isn’t… what it doesn’t tell us, how essentially human the Bible is, that Scripture’s divine nature (whatever that means) doesn’t keep it from error, that Scripture contains a record of primitive, erroneous, uninformed and often wrong-headed opinions of ancient tribal peoples that didn’t know any better, etc., etc.

But if I were to follow his principles, I should recognize that ALL beliefs about God which are derived from Scripture are similarly tribal, baseless and suspect. He rejects the God of wrath that called for the Canaanite massacre on the basis that this reflected tribal beliefs etc. but those same ancient tribal peoples also came up with the idea that we ought love our neighbor, treat aliens with kindness, care for the poor, and that God was gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in love.

On what basis, specifically, do I reject the former but embrace the latter?

He simply gives no basis that I’ve ever found by which I would be justified in rejecting the parts of the Bible or characteristics of God that he rejects while embracing other beliefs or parts of the Bible he affirms as true or accurate about God. I’m left to conclude he believes certain things about God and rejects others (and embraces certain parts of scripture as reflective of God’s true nature and others as erroneous human opinion) based only on his own subjective personal and/or cultural preferences, rather than any objective criteria.

Essentially, it appears to this observer that his approach to Scripture is simply a rather sophisticated exercise of erudite-sounding cherry picking.

I imagine Dr. Enns would largely agree with you there, but simply say (as he’s indicated before) that that’s inevitable, and that trying to read the Bible without any cultural preference is futile and can blind us to our own misunderstandings.

In other words, although I don’t disagree that there may be some cherry picking involved, don’t we all do that? Even the most fundamentalist people I know don’t take the Bible in an entirely literalistic way – they all believe there are some passages that are written metaphorically and some rules that we no longer have to follow. I guess the question is more about where we draw those lines and why.

But still, even though I don’t feel that I need to be in possession of “the one ultimate correct” reading of every single Bible passage, there do have to be some things we agree on in order to be Christians. I suppose that’s why we developed creeds.

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I think you and I can agree that God is good. If he were not good, He would not be God.

First, thank you very much for this interview. It’s great Dr Enns material, in my opinion.
However, regarding your question, @jstump, I have a hard time really gauging this. My understanding is this, as in “The Bible Tells Me So”:

  1. Second Temple Judaism misquotes Torah to the point that if we did that, we’d be kicked out of Bible school
  2. We have to remember that we are not bound by that, and if we make the same error as 2nd Temple Judaism, we will miss critical biblical interpretation of the OT
  3. Dr Enns: It’s OK for evangelicals to do that, as all the Bible does it.

It sounds to me as though he’s accommodating our errors. However, I don’t agree with that. I would rather ignore mischaracterizations and misappropriations of the OT./Torah. I believe in Christ and His salvation without the allusions to the OT which were out of character from the original intent.

Am I missing something? Thanks.

I’m afraid the options are erudite and sophisticated cherry picking, or simplistic and unsophisticated cherry picking!

Seriously, all biblical interpretation has to adopt a lens through which we attempt to make sense of the many disparate texts. You can go for logical consistency and prioritize some texts (e.g., Sermon on the Mount, or Romans) and read others (e.g., Leviticus) in their light; or you can try to give all texts the same weight and end up with lots of inconsistencies. I don’t think there are any other options.

And yes, our interpretations will be subjective and influenced by our place and time. How could it be otherwise?

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In the interview he concedes that it is a valid option to take the progressive revelation route and say the NT reinterpretations are definitive. Does that get you out of your dilemma? I know lots of people who think that.

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I really appreciated Enns’ observation in this interview that the characters of the bible model for us a creative appropriation (my paraphrased choice of words there) of the inspired traditions they had available to them in their day; and our own responsibility (his actual word, I believe) to follow their lead in appropriating and applying the scriptures (such as we have now received) for our own time. I heartily agree, and in fact think that may be a sign of the presence and action of Christ’s Spirit promised us.

On the basis of what Christ has now shown us. We are now shown that, but all of those then had not yet seen it. We do have an advantage: Christ. You might (correctly) point out that Christ himself does not dodge the “wrathful God” issue, but in fact has plenty of parables that seem to put God’s wrath on display. But I think it revealing that nearly all of those (all that are coming to my mind right now, anyway) show a wrath against religious elitism, against those unwilling to forgive others, or against those who don’t live out God’s love for the poor. In other words, we are shown a tender and merciful God who is provoked to anger on behalf of his vulnerable and defenseless children. But when we see how Jesus actually treated people (even his enemies), I argue that we are seeing love in action. And I suggest that it is a mistake to put both wrath and love on the same level. One of those is the superior and commanding quality - and it is not the former one. While the former certainly exists, it is subsumed by and utterly subservient to the latter. There is no equality to be had between these two attributes. One is eternal, the other not. So just as we should never commend an abusive parent (who has let wrath get the upper hand, casting out love), so we must never think of God as such an abusive parent. The only wrath we’ll see from God (frightfully considerable as that will no-doubt be) will be against that in us which would separate us (or any of his children) from Him. That is the good shepherd in action, and is the revelation of God that trumps any other understanding you may purport to get from the old testament or anywhere else.

So yes - I gladly follow Enns - or more importantly, follow the Spirit of Christ in this “cherry-picking” of scriptures to appropriate it toward this end of revealing to us a loving (but [and therefore] still disciplining) God that Christ showed to us.

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Dr Stump, Laura, and all, appreciate the thoughts. I think one clarification / distinction might be helpful…

  1. There’s no question (and I suspect very little controversy), to the idea that we cannot avoid being selective about what commands, guidance, laws, or instructions are in force or directly applicable to us today… eating shellfish, sexual morality, animal sacrifice, etc. this I agree is unavoidable, though I’d still recommend we avoid simply using personal or cultural preference as the determining factor.

If this is all Professor Enns was saying, then while I might disagree with particulars, I don’t object at core to that general category of “cherry picking” per se, and agree it is inseparable from our cultural and personal experiences.

  1. However, Professor Enns takes it into a totally different category, when he suggests we can be selective about the character of God himself, cherry picking the attributes of the God we want to worship, based on personal or cultural preferences. This is where I do so strenuously object to his method.

It is one thing to wrestle with whether this or that command of God contained in Scripture is still in force or applicable, informed by our cultural or personal situation. It is another entirely to reinvent, redefine, or reimagine God himself according to our personal or cultural preferences.

Enns’ endoresement of certain biblical commands or guidance as relevant to us and rejection of others as irrelevant… there I may have particular concerns or specific disagreement, but no categorical philosophical objection.

His endorsement of one part of the Bible’s beliefs about God himself and disapproval of another part, however… are all but guaranteed to result in a God of his own imagination; such an approach simply cannot reveal to us anything about God as God revealed himself.

(especially if Enns is correct and Scripture does not contain God’s self-revelation in any significant sense, but rather is a collection of diverse, contradictory, humanly derived, fallible impressions of God. If so, then our endorsement of certain baseless human guesses about God and rejection of others would be simply an exercise in baseless speculation, no?)

I think it might be a bit closer to what Enns suggests if summarize it rather that … “we have been selective about the character of God …”.

In other words, it isn’t so much that Enns is trying to “grant us permission now” to do something that has always been forbidden, but is noting that this has always been a time-honored [Bible-inspired!] practice and is, in fact, unavoidable.

Old testament times were a time of competing and warring tribal gods, and if one were to try to insist that the Israelites were somehow “above” dignifying such petty competitions (i.e. – "yeah - we know you all have your gods, but our God is a whole different class), then I would suggest this view could only be maintained by someone who has not in fact read the old testament. At all. Because it is immediately obvious that life for them was very much a contest among national gods, and furthermore that they conceived of their own God as a just such a god - only they would add: the greatest one of course! Go team!

We don’t see God as merely a leader among peers in such a contest now. And that is fine and as it should be. We are living in different times and now have access to newer spiritual revelation and wisdom both from scriptures since then, and more importantly the Spirit of which those scriptures speak and to whom they point.

Think of the scriptures more as a narrative of how people have slowly grown to better and better know more things about the true God. There is a progression of revelation and resulting knowledge of the peoples of God all through history. As one would hope there should be from a theistic outlook. Scriptures show us the story of that, which I think might be a fair summary of much of what Enns is noting in this interview.

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…and since I still seem to have the floor for a moment…

Another thought that I believe Enns expressed well at some point(s) in the podcast was to call us all on the arrogance of thinking that we have now (unlike all generations prior to us) finally arrived at the era in which the “true” take on God should finally be attainable for all time. Becoming guilty of the theological equivalent of “privileged position” we have deemed ourselves now the true “heirs” of understanding that “all truth must satisfy this particular century’s physicalist notions of what truth must be.” And it isn’t just young-earthers who have become smashingly drunk on this modernist koolaid, but all of us are guilty of it.

It’s heard in our latest echoed (of every generation prior to us too) moanings that if we ourselves can’t get our current (ostensibly now finally biblical) values put down as permanent absolutes for all time, then future generations will just fly untethered in all sorts of directions. Conservatives today of course insist that this has already happened (either in the 60s, or under Obama, or … just pick your favorite bad-boy ‘iniquitous innovators’ depending on how old you are - I suspect every generation over the last thousands of years has a whipping boy.) And it isn’t that they’re wrong. We are all innovators of iniquity. What is exasperating is that each generation thinks themselves unique with their righteous indignation and the imminent danger they are in since they alone have ostensibly arrived at the ultimate set of now-violated morals that should now be chiseled in stone for all time.

So at this point, one could fairly ask: “Aren’t Christians accused of doing exactly this when we claim that Christ has now definitively revealed God to us for all time?” To which I must reply: “guilty as charged, and as I must remain.” So, yes, I am continuing in this particular time-honored tradition, and will, Lord help me, live it out as true, passing it along to future generations to the best of my ability. What I need to shed however, is the expectation that no further refinements or insights or new context-sensitive applications will ever be possible. Such will almost certainly happen and probably in ways that may provoke our stunned disapproval were we time-machined forward into it, given that it’s usually enough to provoke violent disapproval even among exposed contemporaries [think of Jesus with the religious elite of his day]. So I think what we could wisely acknowledge is that what we bemoan and fear (as our conservative selves, wanting to stymie any change) has always been happening in every generation and has not always been a bad thing, though perhaps not pleasant for those living through it.

Note: this should not be interpreted as an anti-conservative screed, as many times the conservatives may be quite right to resist certain changes. They should only be reminded that they are the heirs of much significant change to have arrived where they presently are.

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The theory of evolution and reinterpretation of what Adam could mean (or not) would fit, perhaps, in the latest great change.

I can see why this is something to be cautious about, because we are all capable of worshiping something of our own making. But I have to wonder whether these categories are quite as clear-cut as you make them. Don’t we also learn a great deal about the character of God himself based on the commands, guidance, laws, and instructions he’s given us?

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I appreciated this deep talk, and found Dr Enns’ humble attitude about how the church (and we) have stumbled through history, refreshing. It was great to hear him interacting here again (although I started coming after he had left). Some of his video shorts about the rethinking of Adam were what attracted me most strongly to this website at the beginning.

Perfect.

Put another way, there are those who know they cherry pick and those who don’t realize they do. Accepting one’s dose of uncertainty with grace leads to more of ‘us’ and less of ‘them’.

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This one is my new favorite and another example of exploring the theological implications of evolution coupled with a remarkable knowledge of the Bible.

I kept waiting for an explanation of the helicopter and finally gave up right near the end and googled it, only to have him explain it right after that. It is about what I expected – the idea of God hovering and micromanaging which Peter observes is something that God only does at special times. I noticed this too and compared it to Parenting. But even in that comparison, Peter was right about special times rather than just when we were immature. Like when a baby learns to crawl, we need to hover to make sure that isn’t going to get them in trouble. And then again when they learn to walk. With every new power learned comes new possibilities for danger and so we have to watch carefully then.

Peter’s comment on never having to shift from the religious to the academic reminded me my own attitude in seminary where it all seemed connected to the different facets of the religious experience.

The comment about Paul being wrong about Adam being historical was not appreciated for I have never understood this because there is nothing in evolution or science that precludes an historical person. It is only the treatment of Adam as magical golem and the sole genetic progenitor of mankind, which does not work so well with evolution. After all it is part of an overall pattern in the Bible where God selects individuals in order to make a change, letting the change in thinking spread from them.

Then we come to one of the priceless quotes of Peter which we encounter several times in the podcast: “The power of scripture is ironically not limited to the intention of the human author. If this is God’s word then it cannot be.” Amen to that. I have always been a little dubious about arguments supposedly reconstructing a Bible author’s original meaning. Frankly I think they only do that when don’t like the plain meaning of the text and need some excuse to fiddle it. I don’t think there really is such thing as a plain text meaning in the first place – interpretation is always a part of it. And this is something Peter Enns explains quite well with this idea about fundamentalism and evangelicalism possibly being just a phase we are going through. It really is rather absurd to imagine that we now finally have everything figured out, with the one correct understanding of the Bible. Don’t you think that is the difference between God being the author of salvation rather than imagining ourselves to be? As Peter said, God is way ahead of us. And so it only makes sense that God has a lot more planned for us to learn.

The next priceless quote is a quote of the Bible in Ezekiel 18:2 “Parents have eaten sour grapes, but the children’s teeth are set on edge.” And while Peter and many commentaries are ready to explain this in terms of the story, what jumps out at me, is what a perfect description of the generation gap this is. We old folk confront changes which are sour grapes to us because the system we have devised for understanding the world isn’t working very well, meanwhile the children react to our sour grapes with teeth on edge because we are the ones who are out step. The point is not that there is nothing to learn from us old folk and that everything in the next generation is always better, but more that it goes back to the same point about the foolishness of thinking that our understanding could ever be the end of the story. God has more to teach. I would fervently hope so!

Peter’s next comment, “It is not about repeating the past,” is one which I finish with… it is about learning from the past. And this hammers in the same point which follows with a fantastic observation about the influence of culture. He talks about the influence on the Israelites of Alexander the Great’s efforts to spread Hellenistic culture. This is something I have often pointed out, suggesting that the cup referred to in Jesus’ prayer in Gesthsemane was the cup of Socrates – the death willingly embraced because one is unwilling to compromise on principle. The point Peter then makes is priceless. When people are adamant about refusing to let culture influence our understanding of scripture the truth is they are just choosing a culture of their own which has influence their understanding and there is no reason to presume that it was a better one. Consider the fact that it was a culture that shipped Africans like cattle in ships to be slaves in America which was the culture which has been the basis for understanding scripture in a good portion of this country for a long time. That was NOT a better culture by which to understand scripture!

The discussion then turns more specifically to understanding Genesis in the light of evolution. James was wondering about Peter’s seeming reluctance to work out the apparent contradictions. Besides suggesting that science and the Bible are speaking with different languages about different things, I think Peter just wanted to be wary of settling such issues with too much finality, thinking that an open discussion of this is more fruitful. Some of the issues, like about why death, suffering and even violence might be necessary are far from easy ones to answer. So it is not so much that Peter thinks we shouldn’t try, quite the contrary. It is just that we should be wary of setting answers in stone, especially, I would say, when science is still digging up a lot more information about things.

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Very well put.

Good point!

I would like to read your thoughts on his book, “Evolution of Adam,” which is much better detailed in terms of the Jewish and Christian interpretations (and the Second Temple Jewish variations) than anything I have read anywhere else. I learned a tremendous amount.

“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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