Our assignment before next class is to read the first 70 pages of Peter Enns‘ Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament. This covers the book’s first two chapters, and if you’ve ever questioned the point of Genesis, or indeed of the whole Old Testament, as I have, you need to read this book.
It’s not exactly written for the masses, but it’s accessible, and the thoughts Enns conveys are unique in that he assiduously walks the middle road, affirming over and over his belief that the Bible is completely from God while hammering home the fact that it does not present an “accurate” version of history, as we understand accuracy.
Which is exactly Enns’ point. He argues conservatives and liberals studying the stories of Creation, the Flood, Babel, etc., make the same mistake: They insist that if the Bible is the inspired word of God, then it must be free from error, as error is defined by 21st-century standards of truth, science and history.
Which is crazy because the Old Testament was written 3,000 years ago, when modern science did not exist, modern notions of truth and fiction had not been created and history was essentially oral tradition handed down over generations. Why would we expect a God who meets us where we are not to meet the writers of the Bible where they were? They weren’t in the United States c. 2011. They were in the Middle East, c. 1000 B.C.E.
Enns approaches his study with one overriding assumption, which he makes clear immediately: “The Bible is ultimately from God, and it is God’s gift to the church. Any theories concerning Scripture that do not arise from these fundamental instincts are unacceptable.”
Nevertheless, doctrine based on the Bible is more malleable, and when scientific evidence forces us to rethink our doctrine, that’s not an indictment of the Bible but an indictment of our poor understanding. A famous example is the church’s resistance to the scientific fact of heliocentrism during the 1500s. Was the Bible “wrong” for describing the sun coming up and going down? Only to the extent you and I are when we do the exact same thing every day. No, the church was wrong for taking simple, pre-scientific observations and turning them into ironclad scientific doctrine.
As Enns says, “The problems many of us feel regarding the Bible may have less to do with the Bible itself and more to do with our own preconceptions.”
For those on either side of the debate who insist the Bible must be free from error despite being written in a pre-scientific era, Enns compares its inspiration to the incarnation of Christ (thus the book’s title). Jesus was fully God yet also fully human. So, too, is the Bible. The words are breathed by God, but they were breathed to a people – and written by them – with an understanding born of a specific place and time in history. We should not – indeed, we cannot – divorce the culture of the Bible from its words. “It was not an abstract, otherworldly book, dropped out of heaven,” Enns writes. “It was connected to and therefore spoke to those ancient cultures.”
Both liberals and conservatives make the same error. They both assume that something worthy of the title word of God would look different from what we actually have. … They share a similar opinion that nothing worthy of being called God’s word would look so common, so human, so recognizable. But, when God speaks, he speaks in ways we would understand.
I’ll discuss Chapter 2, which really opened my eyes, tomorrow.