I recently just finished reading a book by Peter Enns called “The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable To Read It.”
Has anyone else read it? And if so what did you think of it?
While I have my doubts about what Enns says regarding the Old Testament war texts, I felt most of what he talked about was fairly enlightening (and told in a comical lively way). It’s made me have a different attitude towards the Bible…
I haven’t read that one, though I’ve read some of Peter Enns’ blog posts about it so I’m generally familiar with where he goes in the book. I use his children’s Bible curriculum with my kids, and I appreciate his approach to understanding the context of texts and how they fit into the big story of God’s mission on earth and Jesus as the Messianic King.
I like my Bible scholars comical and lively. (Michael Bird fan club member, right here.) I think Enns writes primarily for an audience of disenchanted young-ish folks who have been burned by Evangelicalism in its more Fundamentalist incarnations. So sometimes he can come across as abrasive, or overly antagonistic, or minimally as a bit of a smart-alek to less wounded people. And sometimes he does push the envelope farther than is comfortable for me.
What was your favorite part, or the most salient takeaway?
While I didn’t agree with everything he wrote (his comments regarding the Canaanite war seems somewhat iffy to me). What I most got out of the book was the idea of God meeting you where you’re at in life, and how trying to fit the great diversity of situations of different people, living at different times, to try to create a picture of God that is 100% consistent is a difficult hill to climb… in other words we shouldn’t expect God to behave the same way in every situation.
Take for example in Exodus where it says, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me… thou shalt not bow down thyself before them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God is a jealous God…” <<< this passage only makes sense if you assume the people it’s written too assumed there was a great pantheon of gods out there. God didn’t correct their assumptions, and say, “No that’s silly… I’m the only God.” But he was rather working within their culture and leading them along the right track. In later passage it’s more specific and says, “I am God. And there is no one else beside me.” It’s showing a transition from monolatrism (the belief in many gods, but only one that is worthy of worship) to monotheism (the belief in a single god that’s behind the whole show). It’s almost like having a six-year-old daughter who’s afraid of monsters in her closet. A typical dad wouldn’t just flat out say, “Don’t worry, sweetie, there are no monsters… now go back to sleep.” Usually that wouldn’t solve the problem and she’d still be afraid. However, if you play along with her, and go inside the closest (while ruffling your shirt and hair in the process), and yell out, “I crushed him!” then your daughter will be more at ease. You’re in a sense, “lowering yourself” to her state of knowledge… and no one in this situation would come to the conclusion that the father was intentionally lying or trying being deceptive.
The other takeaway I had was in the section called “Playing Favorites with Little Brother”. I’ve always noticed that in the biblical narrative (especially Genesis) there was a bizarre tendency to have the younger brother be raised above the older brother… which is both counter-intuitive to the ancient world and today’s world. The oldest is always supposed to gets the privileges, the car, etc. But not in the case with the Bible. This happens at least 8 times (5 times in Genesis). Cain over Abel, Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau, Joseph over his 10 older brothers, Ephraim over Manasseh, Moses over Aaron, David over his 7 older brothers, and Solomon over Adonijah. In most of these cases there’s also extreme sibling rivalry: Cain kills Abel, Ishmael gets abandoned in the desert, Esau tries to kill Jacob, Joseph’s older brothers throw in a well and sell him to slavery, Adonijah tries to get Solomon killed so he can be king. If you read these passages within the context of the Babylonian exile it makes a lot of sense. The “younger” and smaller kingdom of Israel, Judah, is the remnant that survived, while the “older” and more powerful kingdom got taken over. These stories seem to reflect that reality…
There’s also some interesting cases of Jesus, as well as other NT authors, who “creatively interpret” Old Testament passages… which, when reading a NT author say, “For it is been written etc. etc.” we come to expect that the author is doing proper biblical interpretation, and stick to what the original author was intending to say…
I also come to realize that it’s okay to “struggle with the text”… have debates about it, etc. even if you don’t, at the end, come to a crystal clear answer. That’s part of being involved in the faith. My prior conviction was, if I come across a biblical passage that’s either incredibly bizarre, or in fact, morbid / unjust etc. I would tend to push it away and pretend it doesn’t exist… but if you take the Bible just as is, you’re more free to study it…
I understand what you’re saying, and I agree with you in part. On some occasions he seems to have no problems saying something that a very conservative / fundamentalist type Christian would find either very offensive, or even heretical.
That being said, I can’t help but think he same interesting points.
For instance, in Genesis 9, Noah gets drunk. After waking up, one of his sons, Ham walks up to him and sees his nakedness. The other two come along and “walk backward” (it’s not perfectly clear what’s going on in this passage, but we can assume that the other two brothers are being more respectful to not see their father’s nakedness). After the two other brothers put a blanket over him to cover his nakedness, Noah says, “Curse be Canaan a servant of servants shall he be.” … this passage is very hard to understand for multiple reasons.
For one, whatever offense Ham did to his father for seeing his nakedness, Ham’s son, Canaan had absolutely nothing to do with it. And even more disturbing is that Ham had four sons at this time (Cush, Mizraim and Phut), but Noah’s curse singles out Canaan specifically. So not only does the curse seem misguided but also misdirected. In later passages we read about the daughters of Lot getting their father drunk so they can sleep with him and thus “save alive their seed”… what are the names of the incestuous children? “The firstborn is Moab: the same is the father of the Moabites unto this day.” “The second is Benammi: the same is the father of the Ammonites unto this day.”
If we were to read these passages in any other book we’d be halfway tempted to call this “propaganda” against the Canaanites, Moabites and Ammonites. But since it’s in the Bible we feel compelled to come up with good reasons for Noah’s curse, and the incest of Lot’s daughters.
It’s these kinds of passages that are very awkward to explain.
Thanks Eddy. I’ll have to look up C. John Collins. The particular book I was referring to “The Bible Tells Me So” isn’t about Genesis specifically, but rather an attitude towards the Bible as a whole. For instance, when we read about Jesus’ death and resurrection, it seems like a no-brainer to us Christians living 2,000 years after the fact. But if you’re to put yourself in the mind of one of Jesus’ contemporaries… would it really be that obvious? Would anyone have expected a messiah that would die and be raised up the third day? A close reading of the Gospels seems to say that the people of the day expected a messiah that would bring back the monarchy of David’s day. Get the Jews out of their current predicament of their Roman overlords… but everything Jesus does is against the grain and unexpected. The NT authors are left with a surprising twist on God’s part, that’s not readily apparent in their own Scripture. So when they read the Old Testament, they are reading it in light of Christ. Paul denounces things like circumcision and says that the Torah was “nothing but a schoolmaster, keeping the children in line, until the messiah would come” … these viewpoints are very “radical” to ancient Jews, but they are not radical to us.
I’ve heard it said a few times that Paul would have failed an exegesis class at any reputable Baptist seminary.
I can’t remember who said it, maybe it was even Peter Enns, but someone said we (as Evangelicals) always have this temptation when presented with the hard and messy biblical texts to crack our knuckles and take a deep breath and say, “It’s okay, we can deal with this…” When really the main point isn’t to “deal” with the text and beat it into submission to our pre-established systematic theology of choice. The text is supposed to deal with us. So instead of always asking “how does this fit?” it’s better to ask “why is this here?” And sometimes there don’t seem to be very good answers from our perspective.
Oh, definitely. I check out his Patheos blog fairly regularly. I think it’s very healthy for Evangelicalism to have people like Enns in the conversation. He’s never shy about calling it like he sees it, which is good medicine in our big dysfunctional family.
I was deeply disappointed when BioLogos let Pete Enns go. They didn’t even give us an opportunity to say goodbye! BioLogos had another great OT scholar on board, Denis Lamoureux, and he also got canned.
(The following is my personal opinion and should not be taken as representing the position of BioLogos, blah, blah, blah, disclaimer, disclaimer, disclaimer…)
It is my impression that Peter Enns relishes the role of the rebel who wears birkenstocks when everyone else wears a suit and tie. He likes being a lightening rod, and he likes poking bears. That’s a big part of his appeal, but it can be polarizing. In one Zondervan Counterpoints book I read where he contributed along with a few other authors, one of the other authors called him “either the bad boy or the maverick of evangelicalism, depending on who is telling the story.”
It makes sense to me that an organization that wants to focus on “gracious dialogue” and bridge-building in the larger Evangelical community, and who probably wants to expand their donor base would have to think hard about which names they want most closely associated with their brand. (As a senior fellow, his name was on the masthead, so to speak.) Enns is good at building bridges with non-believers and people who are wrestling with spiritual doubt and cynicism. He doesn’t have as much patience with the less progressive contingent of evangelicalism. I think it’s a case of the body having many members who don’t all have the same function. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord.
Pete Enns was always very gracious and kind when he was here. Just read through his posts. I think that BioLogos simply wanted to take a turn into a more conservative direction. And of course, the concern about donors is very valid.
My understanding of that situation is that BioLogos became too closely identified with certain perspectives on biblical authority held by Enns, Giberson, and other frequent authors back then. BioLogos has always tried to be a big tent (several of our early conferences were hosted by Tim Keller, who is a good bit more conservative than Enns), but too many people started to think that evolutionary creationism was indistinguishable from the very progressive positions of Enns and others (and thus alienating moderates like Keller). It was a complex situation and should not be reduced to “BioLogos doesn’t like Pete Enns” or something like that (all his stuff is still in our library, and we’re on good terms).
I personally think Pete Enns is fantastic, and his book Inspiration and Incarnation is one of the best I’ve ever read on biblical authority. I don’t agree with him on every point, however, and I understand why a lot of evangelicals see him as such a lightning rod.
We were not given a chance to say goodbye to Pete Enns. He simply disappeared. I had to ask why there were no more posts by him. When others left who were in favor with the regime we at least had a chance to say goodbye.
I enjoyed his book, and perhaps will enjoy some of his other books. But I did notice that his views had a tinge of the radical in him.
Did anyone else feel his treatment of the Canaanite business with Joshua, a little underwhelming? That God never told the children of Israel to attack, but the children of Israel told us that God tell them (yes that was a confusing statement)…?
Ironically just prior to reading the Enns book I read a book called “Did God Really Command Genocide?”. I was impressed by it’s thoroughness in covering all the bases… Theologically, philosophically, legally, morally etc. I think there’s something to be said about hyperbolic language in those war texts.
Enns impression was that it was describing genocide so we should skeptical of it’s claim… The previous book described the war texts as using hyperbolic language and we should be skeptical over the Canaanites supposed innocence.
I am more than half way through Enns’ book “The Bible Tells Me So” and finding it provocatively interesting, though I can now understand how he’s (perhaps somewhat intentionally) earned the label of “maverick”. I want to reserve judgment until I finish up with how he’s handling the New Testament, but meanwhile, I have read the section you refer to as “underwhelming” involving the Canaanites.
The trade-off, as I see it, that Enns has made is this:
Price: Be willing to give up your demand that the Old Testament (not just Genesis or Genesis 1-11!) be considered as an historically accurate record of events (by modern journalistic standards). Not saying none of these things happened, mind you, just saying that all of them are “spun” or enlisted to serve the present purposes of the people in their present circumstances of the time. He definitely would lose much/all of his conservative audience here who already were balking at the suggestion that even early Genesis might be a bit fast or loose on scientific facts.
Payoff: By refusing to force the ancient accounts into modern roles they were never meant to fill, one can begin to read and learn from the Bible on its own terms without needing to feel so uptight about all the sanitation and cleanup of inconsistencies or theological problems that suddenly crop up, forcing all sorts of theological gymnastics - all to make it conform to modern sensibilities. Oh – and that genocide that is the favorite whipping horse for atheists to trot out and for Christians to fret over? To hear Enns tell it … archaeologically speaking … never happened! It’s just a case of how history gets written in those days, and our modern inability (or refusal) to read it in that light.
There is a lot of good material in his book (even just the part that I’ve read so far) that other Christians could learn from even if they feel he over-reaches in some of it. Even if you don’t agree with him, he does back up his views with a whole lot of Scriptural reference and scholarship that does make a very compelling case that it our modern determination to make defense that is doing the greatest violence against the very Scripture that we so wish to honor. People should patiently read him through on his own terms. It may be a very dangerous read for those who wish to remain wedded to certainty in all things Scriptural. But then again, the Bible itself is about the most dangerous book of all for anybody in that category to be studying. He makes the very interesting points that New Testament characters up to and including Jesus himself did not at all read the Torah in the way we insist on reading our sacred Scriptures today.
He has a very blunt, conversant, humorous writing style that makes it an easy and fun read. I hope to come back here with more comments after finishing it.