On publication in 2005, Peter Enns’ book Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament caused quite a stir. It led, eventually, to his departure from his post as professor at Westminster Theological Seminary.
What was the fuss all about?
The main thesis of the book is that evangelicals need to take more seriously the human aspects of Old Testament. Enns identifies three areas for exploration.
The Old Testament and the literature of the Ancient Near East
We need, says Enns, to recognise that the literature of the Old Testament has much in common with other literature from the Ancient Near East. This literature includes
- creation and flood texts, raising the question of whether the early chapters of Genesis are myth or history
- customs, laws and proverbs, raising the question of whether biblical revelation is unique
- accounts relating to Israel and its kings, raising the question of whether history (including Israel’s own history, as recorded in the Old Testament) is objective or biased.
Theological diversity in the Old Testament
There is diversity, says Enns, in
- the wisdom literature (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Job)
- Chronicles, which puts a different slant on Israel’s history compared with the books of Samuel – Kings.
- the law (compare the versions of the Ten Commandments in Exodus and Deuteronomy, for example)
There is even tension, according to Enns, in the accounts given in the Old Testament to the existence of other gods: is Yahweh the only God, or is he the supreme God among many others? Then again, there are passages which speak of God in very human terms: not knowing certain things, or changing his mind, for example.
According to Enns, evangelicals have been too ready to ignore, or to seek to harmonise all these differences and tensions. Instead, we need to accept this diversity, and think of it as an inner-biblical ‘conversation’
How the Old Testament is interpreted in the New Testament
Today, we value grammatical-grammatical exegesis of the Bible. This is to say, we insist on the plain meaning of the text, studied in the original language and taking into account its historical and cultural setting. We would consider it wrong, for example, to find in an Old Testament text a meaning that was never intended by the original author. But the New Testament writers, being of their own day and culture, approached things rather differently. For them, the most important thing was the coming of Jesus Christ, and they felt free to (re-)read the Old Testament in the light of that coming. And (says Enns) we too may take just such a ‘Christotelic’ approach.
An incarnational approach
How then do we put together these two ideas: that the Bible is both ‘from God’ and yet is in so many ways a human product?
The answer, for Enns, is in an incarnational approach. Just as Christ was fully human and divine, so is Scripture.
Let’s stop feeling threatened by the human aspects of the Old Testament, stop being so resistant to change, and join the conversation about what the Bible really is and how it can function as divine/human today.
What’s wrong with an incarnational model?
Many evangelicals have had a habit of drawing a parallel between the divine and human aspects of Scripture and the divine and human natures of Christ.
This matter is discussed by A.T.B. McGowan, in his book The Divine Spiration of Scripture (Apollos, 2007, pp119-121). McGowan cites Peter Enns’ book Inspiration and Incarnation as attempting to solve some of the questions facing evangelicals with regard to various issues raised by Old Testament scholarship by appealing to an incarnational model of biblical inspiration.
One of the problems with an incarnational model is, according to McGowan, that it not taught in Scripture itself. Another, more fundamental, problem is that only God is divine and therefore only God can have a divine nature. Of course, the Scriptures have divine characteristics, but they cannot have a divine nature.
John Webster puts it well:-
Like any extension of the notion of incarnation (in ecclesiology or ethics, for example), the result can be Christologically disastrous, in that it may threaten the uniqueness of the Word’s becoming flesh by making ‘incarnation’ a general principle or characteristic of divine action in, through or under creaturely reality. But the Word made flesh and the scriptural word are in no way equivalent realities. Moreover, the application of an analogy from the hypostatic union can scarcely avoid divinising the Bible by claiming some sort of ontological identity between the biblical texts and the self-communication of God.
D.A. Carson, in an extended review of Enns’ book (now published in Collected Writings on Scripture), points out further inadequacies of the model (as expounded by Enns). One of these is that:-
The only thing that Enns draws from the doctrine of the incarnation is that Jesus is truly a human being; he does not merely appear to be a human being. In other words, for Enns an adequate affirmation of the incarnation entails the abolition of docetism, and the parallel with Scripture entails the abolition of a kind of scriptural docetism, in which Scripture only appears to be human, but is not truly human. So far so good. But the doctrine of the incarnation was used to fight off multiple errors, not just docetism. For instance, it equally fights off Arianism, in which Jesus is not truly God, but at most is an inferior god, or perhaps merely godlike. If incarnation is to serve as the controlling model for how Scripture is to be understood, why does not Enns use it to refute the voices that confess the Bible to be only a human document, or a collection of human documents?
In other words, if Enns is to persist with an incarnational model for Scripture, he must show not only that Scripture is a human word, but also that it is a divine word. True, Enns does concede that the Bible is ‘God’s word’, but ‘but because he does not tie that confession to incarnation, or warn against a kind of scriptural Arianism, or probe the difficulties inherent in Scripture’s dual nature, the result is remarkably distorted.’
There is much to appreciate in Enns’ book. He needs to be taken seriously when he asserts that evangelicals need to be more accepting of the cultural setting of the Old Testament, less defensive about (apparent) theological diversity, and more flexible in their understanding of how the New Testament authors interpret the Old Testament.
According to Enns himself, the general criticisms of his book come under the following headings. Inspiration and Incarnation:-
- Is Inconsistent with the Reformed Faith
- Ignores Other Possible Solutions
- Denies Inerrancy
- Lacks Precision and Clarity
- Has Been Criticized by Some Important Scholars
Having put the criticisms like this, Enns has made his task of refuting them quite easy. He can (and does) say, ‘confessions of faith should never have the last word’; ‘I only ever claimed to be presenting one possible solution’; ‘I only deny some other people’s rather narrow definitions of inerrancy’; ‘I have been no less precise and clear about my incarnational model of Scripture than those who seek to expound the mystery of the incarnation of Christ himself’; ‘disagreement happens in scholarship: how could it be otherwise?’
Having criticised evangelicals for being too defensive about their conventional view of biblical inspiration, I find Enns similarly defensive about his own book. His selection and statement of ‘general criticisms’ of his book are biased in his own favour, and his responses lacking in self-criticism.
Trevin Wax offers a more balanced summary of criticisms of Enns’ book:-
1. Enns has been criticized for emphasizing the human nature of Scripture over against the divine.
2. Enns has written that the first chapters of Genesis are firmly grounded in ancient myth, which he defines as “an ancient, premodern, prescientific way of addressing questions of ultimate origins in the form of stories.”
3. Enns claims that Scripture is inspired and inerrant, however the way he describes Scripture seems to counter that belief.
4. Enns does not seek to harmonize seemingly-contradictory parts of Scripture because he believes the diversity of Scripture is complementary.
5. Enns rejects the idea of objective unbiased historiography.
Actually, I think that the most serious problem with the book is the first of these. As Carson puts it, in attacking ‘scriptural docetism’, Enns leaves the door wide open to ‘scriptural Arianism’. Now, I know that he would want to say that he only ever set out to emphasise Scripture’s human aspects, and that he more or less took for granted its divine inspiration, but I think that it was a mistake to do so. We are, for example, left with little idea of what Enns thinks about the miraculous element in the Old Testament. We are not told how reliable he thinks the historical aspects (including the sojourn in Egypt and the exodus) are. We look in vain for any indication that he thinks that the Old Testament truly points forward to Christ (only that the New Testament authors read that meaning back into the Old Testament).
The result is that what we hear from Enns is an invitation to participate in a ‘conversation’, not a summons to heed ‘the word of the Lord’. And that’s rather tragic.