Review of Peter Enns’ “The Bible Tells Me So”
What is the Bible? The Word of God? Inspired? Inerrant? Infallible? Truth? None of the above?
According to biblical scholar Peter Enns, many Christians are wrong about the nature of the book they consider Scripture. In his new book The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It, Enns claims that rather than being a “rulebook” or a “spiritual owner’s manual,” as he claims many Christians believe, the Bible is an “inspired model for our own spiritual journey.” To support this view, he takes readers on a tour through the Old and New Testaments, pointing out God’s violent commands during the Israelites’ conquest of Canaan, the presence of diverse views of God and what it means to follow Him across biblical passages, and the lack of historical evidence to confirm biblical accounts of the past. Rather than try to explain away these difficulties, Enns says, Christians should accept the Bible as it is: “messy, trouble, weird, and ancient.”
It’s a controversial book from a controversial author. In 2008, Enns was suspended from his tenured position at the conservative Christian school Westminster Theological Seminary, following a two-year theological debate regarding his 2005 book Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament. When Enns was suspended, the chairman of WTS’ board told Christianity Today that Enns’ book failed to affirm the school’s standards of faith, namely the Westminster Confession of Faith, because the view of the Bible in the book did not fall within the bounds of the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. In addition to losing his job, Enns left his conservative church community for an Episcopal church because, as he writes in a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” forum, “Sometimes you have to find new communities of faith (as I did) where who you are is valued, not demeaned.” Enns now teaches at Eastern University and maintains a blog called “Rethinking Biblical Christianity.”
At first glance, The Bible Tells Me So doesn’t seem too controversial. It’s a light-hearted, humorous read aimed for popular audiences, with chapter titles such as “Jesus Was Actually Jewish (Go Figure)” and “God Seems Like a Regular Joe.” It’s entertaining. I read it in one sitting the evening after I received it as a Christmas present.
Another reason the book doesn’t seem controversial is that the view of the Bible it claims to support isn’t, on the surface, too different than what most Christians actually believe. Enns uses a collection of vague terms and phrases to describe what he believes are wrong views of the Bible: “rulebook” and “truth downloaded from heaven” and “a point-by-point exhaustive and timelessly binding list of instructions about God and the life of faith.” According to Enns, these are all wrong ways of talking about the Bible.
And most Christians would agree. It’s clear that many parts of the Bible are not rules, such as the poetic Psalms, and that the biblical works weren’t “downloaded” but were written down by people at particular points in history. For Christians, many of the Old Testament Laws given to the Israelites are not understood to be “timelessly binding,” such as the command not to eat pork. However, as Enns works through specific examples to illustrate his descriptions, the controversial nature of his claims becomes clearer.
First, Enns argues that God isn’t actually like the figure of God conveyed in the Old Testament when He orders the death the inhabitants of the land of Canaan. While most Bible readers, Enns writes, want to fill in the blank at the end of the phrase, “It’s a perfectly fine and right thing for God to order the extermination of Canaanites and take their land because ___,” in fact this blank does not need to be filled in. That’s because God isn’t actually the kind of God that would order the death of the Canaanites – this was only how He was understood by the Israelites in their context. According to Enns, God allowed Himself to be portrayed this way because “He lets His people tell their story.” The Israelites existed in a certain time and place and used the ideas available to them, which included the idea of God as a tribal warlord. However, the story of God moved on – to Jesus.
Second, Enns argues that the Biblical writers, rather than simply reporting the past, were actively shaping it in their accounts. He supports this by showing differences in the accounts among the four Gospels and differences between the accounts of the monarchies in Samuel/Kings and Chronicles as well as by identifying how origins stories in Genesis and Exodus seem shaped to explain the present at the time of the writers (during the Monarchy or the Exile). Because of this, Enns describes the Bible not as history but as “a grand story” which “meets us and then invites to follow and join a world outside of our own.”
Third, Enns identifies contradictory views of God and of proper conduct in the Bible. His prime example is Proverbs 26:4-5, which reads, “Do not answer fools according to their folly, or you will be a fool yourself,” followed by, “Answer fools according to their folly, or they will be wise in their own eyes.” According to Enns, rather than being “rules,” these Proverbs teach wisdom; each is true, butwhen depends on the situation.
Finally, Enns describes how Jesus and the early Christian writers, while “revering” the Hebrew Scriptures, interpreted them in creative ways that were not true to the authors’ original intents, but which were accepted as standard practice among Jews of the day. For example, when asked by the Sadducees about the resurrection of the dead, Jesus used Exodus 3:6, which says, “I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” Jesus takes this text as proof that God is the God of the living, not of the dead: thus, there is a resurrection of the dead. However, this use of the text, Enns says, is completely unintuitive, and there is “no reasonable connection” between Exodus 3:6 and the resurrection. Jesus used the Bible in creative ways, ways that many Christians today would think were wrong.
Enns’ book does a good job at describing many of the issues with the historical reliability and internal consistency of the Bible, particularly the Old Testament. For a reader without this background knowledge, The Bible Tells Me So can be an amusing wake-up call to the complexities and challengers of the Bible, all coming from the voice of a Christian encouraging readers to nonetheless meet God in the Bible’s pages.
Not all of the problems Enns brings up ultimately lack a solid chance at a resolution, however, and he doesn’t address all of them thoroughly. For example, justifying God’s command to kill the inhabitants of Canaan, including women and children, is possible if one accepts the Canaanites as sinners deserving of God’s judgment. Enns explicitly interacts with this view and rejects it on the grounds that the Canaanites weren’t the worst sinners out there and that the Canaanite children couldn’t have been deserving of this judgment. One can further respond to Enns, though, by saying that the Canaanites didn’t need to be the “worst” sinners in order to get the “worst” punishment. They only needed to be “bad” and therefore justly deserving of God’s judgment – other “worse” sinners can be understood to be recipients of God’s mercy. The children’s deaths could be explained with the argument that God knew that they would grow up to be like their sinful parents, and so were justly judged. I’m not saying this line of reasoning is easy to accept or is the final word on the subject – in fact I find it difficult and challenging to conceptions of justice – but I am saying that it isn’t something to be immediately dismissed.
Furthermore, it isn’t clear that Enns’ view that Jesus and the New Testament writers simply “revered” or “respected” Scripture can square with Jesus’ and the NT writers’ treatment of the text as authoritative. 2 Timothy 3:16 famously says, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” Does this description of Scripture allow us to say of God’s violent commands regarding the Canaanites, “God really isn’t like that”? It may be possible to say this, but would be difficult, and it would have helpful for Enns to interact with the the parts of Scripture that are about Scripture itself.
Finally, once the dust has settled, Enns’ consequent view of the Bible is ultimately unclear. He writes that the Bible “works,” though he doesn’t explain how. In fact, he explicitly says that it shouldn’t be explained, simply accepted. Enns exhorts readers to “Keep reading and wrestling with the Bible. It’s God’s Word and that’s what He wants.” What Enns wants is for readers to stop worrying about exactly what the Bible is, to stop “stressing” over how to resolve problems, but rather to just take the Bible and read it.
Yet, beyond simply reading it, it’s hard to see what to do with the Bible Enns describes. He spends so much time pointing out issues with the Bible that it’s hard to identify much of a positive role for the Bible to “say” anything to readers. Christians often want to look to the Bible for wisdom and guidance on important questions. Even if the Bible isn’t a book of rules, does it have anything to say about ethics? To take a pertinent contemporary example, what does the Bible have to say about proper expressions of human sexuality? Another question one can ask is, does the Bible provide any basis for making positive claims about God? Is there any possibility of a systematic theology? Simply saying that the Bible is a “model” doesn’t get us very far.
The Bible Tells Me So is a fun read that could excite those tired of seeing the Bible as a dry rulebook, challenge those who are uncomfortable with contradictions, and interest those who have too quickly abandoned the Bible as nothing a book of lies and old, irrelevant myths. However, it leaves the reader wondering about what’s next, about what to do with this inspired-but-confusing book. I haven’t read Enns’ other works, but I hope that in those and in future works he articulates more clearly a positive vision of what the Bible is and what it can do, rather than only identifying what it isn’t and what it can’t do.
Bible, confession, Peter Enns