Enns, Peter (2014). The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It. HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
I offer a summary of some of the book’s main points, and then an assessment.
What the Bible is not
The Bible, says Enns, presents us with at least three kinds of problem:-
- moral (God is responsible for a great deal of slaughter)
- historical (many of the events recorded in the Bible did not happen, at least not in the way the Bible describes them)
- theological (the biblical writers present diverse and contradictory points of view about God and what it means to follow him).
Conservative attempt to justify the objectionable morality, defend the dubious historicity, and harmonise the conflicting perspectives, are futile. Far better to save ourselves unnecessary stress by accepting the Bible as it is. We must let the Bible writers tell the story their way, and not our way. They were men and women of their own time, and could not do otherwise.
The Bible is not a blow-by-blow factual historical account. Nor is it an instruction manual on how to think and behave. Nor yet is it an internally-consistent textbook giving us information about God and faith. Such approaches to the Bible are crippling. They arise out of a fear of losing control, and out of a refusal to let God do things his way, rather than our way. A desire to ‘defend’ the Bible against all-comers is a project that actually prevents us from understanding it properly. In fact, those who deny, and those who affirm, that the Bible gets history ‘right’ are equally mistaken, because they are both bringing modern expectations to this ancient book.
What then is the Bible?
It is a book which ‘preserves ancient journeys of faith, models for us our own journeys.’ God, rather than issuing us with a text-book, ‘lets his children tell the story’ in ways that reflect their time, culture, and understanding. ‘What makes the Bible God’s Word isn’t its uncanny historical accuracy, as some insist, but the sacred experiences these stories point to, beyond the words themselves . Watching these ancient pilgrims work through their faith, even wrestling with how they did that, models for us our own journeys of seeking to know God better and commune with him more deeply.’
The biblical writers were men and women of their own times. They thought and wrote of their origins, their ancient battles, their heroes, and their god(s) in the same kinds of ways that people in surrounding cultures thought of these things.
The biblical story was written, not in order to dispassionately describe ‘what happened’ in the past. It was written, rather, from a particular perspective, to serve the needs of the present generation. In writing in this way, the authors felt free to edit, shape, and even create stories. This is especially in the stories of Israel’s origins (creation, flood, patriarchs, exodus, and so on), although at least some of these do probably do bear some relationship to what ‘really’ happened. But the focus is on creative story-telling, rather than objective history-writing.
The classic example of a moral problem in the Bible is the story of the destruction of the Canaanites. Conservatives seek to ameliorate this in a number of ways: (a) God is sovereign, and can do as he pleases; (b) the teaching of Jesus is, if anything, more severe than that of the Old Testament (for he spoke of eternal punishment); (c) God’s judgement against the Canaanites is balanced out by his kindness and mercy in other situations; (d) war was inevitable in those days, and the instructions to the Israelites for waging war were unusually restrained; (e) the Canaanites (with their horrific practice of child sacrifice), were particularly wicked, and so particularly deserved judgement). Each of these is inadequate, and smacks of desperation.
The fact is, however, God did not command the Israelites to exterminate the Canaanites: they only thought he did. And, in any case, the apparent extermination never happened. It was written up that way, long after the ‘event’, in order to make a theological point that was relevant at the time of writing. Indeed, Biblical archaeologists are convinced that the conquest of Canaan as described in the Bible simply did not happen. The nation that came to be known as ‘Israel’ developed gradually and without a great deal of bloodshed. ‘It seems that, as time went on and Israel became a nation (after 1000 BCE), stories of these earlier skirmishes grew and turned into exaggerated stories of Israel’s wars against the Canaanites in days of old.’
The Bible contains many examples of contradictory teachings. The Old Testament writers do not agree, for example, on whether Yahweh is the only God, or whether he is the supreme God in a whole pantheon. Then again, God is represented, in some places, as unchangeably transcendent, and it others as having very human characteristics (changing his mind, and so on). Then there are contradictory laws, suggesting that the Old Testament writers were drawing on more than one legal tradition.
Contradictions abound: differences within Proverbs; between Proverbs and Ecclesiastes; between Samuel/Kings and Chronicles; and between the Gospels. What we find in Proverbs might serve as a useful paradigm for understanding the entire Bible: the issue is not if it is true, but when it is true.
A wise parent will treat children of different ages and temperaments differently. A rule that works well for a five-year-old might well be a very bad rule for a fifteen-year-old. Wisdom, not consistency, is what is required. It is just so with God: he deals with his people according to their needs in a given time and place. ‘The Bible is not a Christian owner’s manual but a story— a diverse story of God and how his people have connected with him over the centuries, in changing circumstances and situations.’
The Bible as ‘story’
Enns tells us that ‘to do their thing, storytellers “shape” the past. They decide what to include, what order to put things in, how to compress or combine scenes to save time and get to the money shot, and so on. They also invent dialogue and scenes to knit the narrative together. They have to, since much of the past is inaccessible to storytellers—they themselves weren’t there to see and hear what happened.’
The books of Samuel/Kings, on the one hand, and Chronicles, on the other, show how two profoundly different accounts can be given of the same period in Israel’s history. Samuel/Kings was written during the Babylonian exile (6th century BC), whereas Chronicles was written much later – say 4th century BC. The earlier writings answer the question, ‘How did we end up in exile?’ The later writings re-tell Israel’s history in a way that deals questions such as: ‘Are we still the people of God?’ and ‘What future is there for us?’
The centre of the Old Testament story is the period of monarchy and the exile that followed. The narratives relating to this period are, to a large extent, historically verifiable. It is from this perspective (and during this period) that the origins stories were written. These stories, written long after the events they purport to relate, are much less verifiable historically. Their function (at least in part) seems to be to explain the present (Israel’s monarchy in crisis) in terms of an ‘imagined’ past. For example, the Canaanites are introduced as early as the Noah story, and then again in the Abraham story. The Babylonians also crop up in the early chapters of Genesis. Then again, the story of Abraham – with its journey from Babylon to Canaan, then a famine which forces him to leave for Egypt, followed by plagues falling upon Pharaoh, and then Abraham’s journey back home again – mirrors the exodus story. Another leit-motif is that of ‘water’ – in the stories of creation, flood, and the crossing of the Red Sea.
Then again, there is a pattern of favouring the younger over the older brother – from Abel, to Isaac, to Joseph, to Moses, to David, to Solomon. And, finally, it is the ‘younger’ southern kingdom – Judah – that is the one to return from exile and reclaim the land. And it was this ‘younger’ southern kingdom that was responsible for telling Israel’s story in the light of the whole crisis of the exile. And those telling that story made sure that God’s preferential treatment of the younger sibling came across loud and clear. These, and many other features, show that the stories have been ‘crafted’ to make a point, rather than written up as sober histories. And the ‘point’ is this: the story of Israel was not told in order to relate ‘what happened back then’, but in order to explain ‘what is happening now’.
So it is with story of Adam: previewing the story of Israel from beginning to end. Adam disobeys God, and is banished (exiled) from his home. And this exile is a kind of living death.
There is probably some historical basis for the exodus from Egypt, although it probably involved a much smaller company of people – a few hundred, say – than the biblical story would have us believe. The story was told and re-told, until it was written in the version we now find in our Bibles. The story about the plagues has been created to show that Yahweh is greater than the Egyptian gods. The story of the Red Sea crossing
The New Testament writers present Jesus as the climax and fulfilment of the story of Israel, but with a twist. The ending that no-one could have imagined (and which no Old Testament writer could have foreseen) was the Israel’s Messiah would die and be raised to life.
There is both continuity and discontinuity between the old story of Israel and the new story of Jesus. On the one hand, the New Testament writers want us to see Jesus as the climax and fulfilment of that older story. But the story of Jesus both re-tells and transforms the story of Israel. On the other hand, the climax (death and resurrection) was completely unexpected. Jewish people of Jesus’ day were hoping for a Messiah, but one who would kick out the Romans. Jesus offers a completely different solution, and one that would reach out to all people, in corners of the world.
When the authors of the New Testament read the OT creatively, reading back into it meanings that could not possibly have been intended by the original authors, they were doing no more than following the conventions of their own day.
As an example of how the Gospel writers present Jesus as the fulfilment of Israel’s story, but with an unexpected ending, take the theme of ‘end of exile’. Matthew begins with a genealogy, ‘creatively and carefully crafted to present Jesus as Israel’s long-awaited deliverer— descended from David, who will bring an end to the exile and restore the land promised long ago to Abraham.’ And Matthew ends with a commission to ‘go and make disciples of all nations’ – the mirror-image of what the prophets had foretold, which was the all nations would come to Jerusalem and worship Israel’s God.
In the Gospels, we find that ‘getting the past “right” in a modern sense wasn’t high priority.’ The Synoptics place the cleansing of the Temple at the end, whereas John places it at the beginning, of Jesus’ ministry. When Matthew and Luke speak of the Virgin Birth, this may be ‘creative’ writing on their part. And the stories of the Magi and the star, and of Herod’s massacre of children, probably didn’t happen. Matthew created them, not because he was dishonest, but because he wants to remind his readers of the Moses and the exodus story. The guiding star is like the pillar of fire, and Herod’s edict to kill the children, along with Jesus’ escape is like Pharaoh’s edict to kill the male infants, along with Moses’ escape. Jesus is the new Moses, God’s way of bringing Israel’s story to its climax.
Jesus as the ‘new Moses’ crops up again in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5-7). Six times Jesus quotes from the Mosaic law, and each time he contrasts what Moses said with the words, ‘But I say to you.’
Luke fashions his story in a slightly different way, presenting Jesus as the long-promised king who would deliver his people from the enemy. Luke, too, shaped (and may have created) stories such as the angels’ announcements of the birth of John the Baptist to Elizabeth, of Jesus to Mary, and their appearance to the shepherds. Such heavenly announcements proclaim Jesus (and not Caesar) as king. The Magnificat is very similar to Hannah’s song of praise about the birth of her son Samuel – who became the anointer of king David. ‘Pairing Hannah and Mary is Luke’s way of saying, “Think David when you think of Jesus.” Jesus is David revisited— Israel’s rightful king.’ Similar associations are made in the stories involving Simeon and Anna.
It would appear that Jesus himself engaged in ‘creative’ exegesis. His handling of Psalms 82 and 110 would not pass muster today. His assertion that the entire Old Testament witnesses to his death and resurrection (Luke 24) involves a thorough re-creation of the meaning of those older texts, which no-where, in their original meanings, could be taken to predict the sufferings and subsequent glory of the messiah.
So why did Matthew and Luke adjust and even create portions of the story of Jesus? ‘Perhaps by the time they wrote their Gospels, some forty years after Jesus’s life, after the resurrection, the bigness of it all, not fully grasped at first, had begun to come into its own. Perhaps over time the Gospel writers had to create scenes of guiding stars and angelic choirs in retrospect to get the real Jesus across, the Jesus they were coming to understand.’
Jesus’ followers were only in a position to begin to make sense of who he was and what he had achieved after his death and resurrection. So it was then, during the first few decades of the Christian church, that they began to read back into the story of Jesus what they now considered to be the ‘real meaning’. Christians believe ‘by faith’ that the real Jesus is the resurrected Jesus. From this vantage point of faith the Gospel writers – each in his own way – look back and re-tell the story of his earthly life in order to bring out this meaning and significance.
Paul, too, felt free to go back to the Old Testament and, using methods that were well-known and well-accepted in his own day, read into the text things about Christ that could not possibly have been intended by the original authors. Indeed, Enns tells us that one of these (the ‘portable well’) prompted a turning-point in his own thinking when he realised what Paul was doing.
Paul would find himself ‘rethinking Israel’s entire story, from beginning to end, transforming it from a story of an ethnically distinct people into a message for every nation, with even cosmic implications.’ It was Paul who thought through the implications of Jesus’ death and resurrection and reasoned from solution to plight. And that plight must have been nothing less than universal sin and universal death. And the solution must have involved a breaking down of historical barriers between Jew and Gentile, and an end to Torah-keeping. In this way Paul, no less than the Gospel writers, has radically re-written Israel’s story in order to show that Jesus was the climax and fulfilment of that story, even though he completed it in an entirely unexpected way.
Summary and conclusion
Enns helpfully provides a summary:-
‘The Bible is an ancient book and we shouldn’t be surprised to see it act like one. So seeing God portrayed as a violent, tribal warrior is not how God is but how he was understood to be by the ancient Israelites communing with God in their time and place.
The biblical writers were storytellers. Writing about the past was never simply about understanding the past for its own sake, but about shaping, molding, and creating the past to speak to the present. “Getting the past right” wasn’t the driving issue. “Who are we now?” was.
The Bible presents a variety of points of view about God and what it means to walk in his ways. This stands to reason, since the biblical writers lived at different times, in different places, and wrote for different reasons. In reading the Bible we are watching the spiritual journeys of people long ago. Jesus, like other Jews of the first century, read his Bible creatively, seeking deeper meaning that transcended or simply bypassed the boundaries of the words of scripture. Where Jesus ran afoul of the official interpreters of the Bible of his day was not in his creative handling of the Bible , but in drawing attention to his own authority and status in doing so.
A crucified and resurrected messiah was a surprise ending to Israel’s story. To spread the word of this messiah, the earliest Christian writers both respected Israel’s story while also going beyond that story. They transformed it from a story of Israel centered on Torah to a story of humanity centered on Jesus.’
Enns offers some concluding pieces of advice:-
- The Bible is not the centre of the Christ faith. Jesus is.
- The Bible is not a weapon. It is a book where we meet God. Don’t fight either about or with the Bible.
- Learning to live with uncertainty – it’s a sign of a maturing faith.
- Don’t be afraid of getting the Bible wrong, or too anxious about getting it right. It’s more important to trust God.
- Branch out, and learn from other traditions.
- Learn from Judaism that debate and conversation are important, although agreeing about what the ‘right’ answer is is less important.
- Accept the Bible as it is – a truly human book, just as we (should) accept Jesus as a truly human person.
Enns, then, faults conservative Christians for trying to ‘defend’ the Bible as historically accurate, ethically sound, and theologically consistent. But, he says, we should forget about ‘defending’ the Bible in these sorts of ways and read it on its own terms. Then, we might actually start to understand it properly.
For what we have in the Bible, says Enns, is not textbook of history, morals, or theology, but rather a story about how ancient people encountered God. Seen in this way, the Bible is not a ‘how-to’ manual, but rather a model for our own spiritual journey.
A welcome challenge
I see Enns, in this book, as travelling along the now well-trodden path marked out by other post-evangelicals, such as Dave Tomlinson, Steve Chalke, Brian MacLaren, and Rob Bell. And this is not to damn Enns by unfair association: MacLaren and Bell have both written blurbs for Enns’ book. In fact, the book may well rival Steve Chalke’s (and Alan Mann’s) The Lost Message of Jesus and Rob Bell’s Love Wins for notoriety. In a way, it deserves to be taken more seriously than those two books because this one, although popularly-written, it is by a real scholar.
Enns’ work constitutes a real and serious challenge to an evangelical view of the Bible (and therefore, given the importance of the Bible to evangelicals, to evangelical faith itself). Along the way, he has some interesting things to say about the stories of origin in the earlier parts of the Old Testament, about the centrality of the period of monarchy and exile within the Old Testament writings, about the relationship between Samuel/Kings and Chronicles, and about how the New Testament writers understood Jesus to have both fulfilled and transformed Israel’s expectations of a messiah.
A raft of questions
Some of my doubts about Enns’ approach can only receive a brief mention here, because to do them justice would require detailed exegetical work. So I just mention them as questions:-
Are the Bible writers really as uninterested in ‘what really happened’ as Enns thinks? And is not ‘shaping’ the past is rather different than ‘inventing it’. And does not this sceptical view of history-telling fail to reckon with eye-witness testimony, contemporary records, and oral tradition?
Are there not better explanations of some of the texts that Enns cites in support of his ideas? A rather glaring example here is his treatment of Luke 24:25-27 (the post-resurrection appearance of Jesus to the two on the road to Emmaus), where I think that Enns has quite missed the point of what Jesus is reported as saying. And is it really the case, as Enns asserts, that the OT nowhere predicts the sufferings of the Messiah, and his subsequent glory (as 1 Peter 1:10-12 asserts)?
When Enns says that the Old Testament writers do not agree about whether there is one God or many gods, or when he states that God is sometimes presented as transcendent and unchanging, and at other times are rather human and indecisive, has he not considered the well-known concept of ‘accommodation?
What about miracles? It is pretty clear that Enns regards many of the biblical miracles, including the Egyptian plagues, as of dubious historicity. But he scarcely mentions the miracles of Jesus. Why not?
A major sticking-point
But I turn to a more general question, which has to do with the nature of the Bible as both a human and a divine product.
The only ‘God-event’ to emerge relatively unscathed in Enns’ account is the resurrection of Christ. But his own logic requires him to say why he allows this, the greatest of miracles, to stand, while disallowing, or at least, regarding as dubious, so many of the others. The fact is that he presents an almost completely polarised pair of options about how to read and understand the Bible. On the one side, there are the Bible’s conservative ‘defenders’, who see Scripture as divine revelation, and therefore ‘true in all all it affirms’, but whose very defence blinds them to the Bible’s real nature and meaning. On the other side, there are those like himself who wish to rehabilitate the Bible as a thoroughly human book, but who have only the vaguest things to say about its divine inspiration. I say ‘almost completely polarised’ because, as i said, Enns does not follow through the logic of his own position. He accepts the resurrection of Jesus ‘by faith’. But what, apart this undefined ‘faith’, stops him from joining Bart Ehrman, say, who regards Jesus as non-divine and non-resurrected, or even Robert Price, who doubts that Jesus even existed? (Both Ehrman and Price, be it noted, gravitated to their present scepticism from an earlier evangelicalism).
Enns clearly wants to convince us that the Bible is a truly and thoroughly human book. But in what sense is the Bible ‘the word of God’? He says it is the book that God wants it to be. But the same could be said about any book. On Enns’ account, we are left with a book which is not a revelation from God, but rather an account of what certain flawed and culture-bound humans thought about God. I say that Enns is right to insist that the Bible be read on its own terms, in the context of the ancient cultures in which it was written, and so on. But I say too that he has made an error of judgment in assuming that the Bible as divinely-inspired can be ‘taken as read’. No: it is equally easy to treat the Bible as only divinely-inspired, or only a human product. The challenge is to read and understand the Bible as both a human product and divinely-inspired, and Enns has failed to meet this challenge.
In the end, then, Enns’ project to rescue the Bible from its friends is at least as flawed as its friends’ efforts to defend it against its enemies.