Peter Enns on Inspiration and Incarnation

This is the third post in a series on the nature of Scripture and inspiration, following a discussion on views of the early church fathers and Kenton Sparks’ adoptionist proposal.

In Inspiration and Incarnation, Peter Enns proposes an incarnational model for understanding the nature of Scripture and inspiration. Just as Jesus is 100% divine and 100% human, so also the Bible is both divine and human (17). Jesus was “God with us.” Even though he is divine, he took on human flesh and all the cultural trappings of this world. In the same way, the Bible is sacred yet clearly reflects the cultures that produced it. Enns recognizes that the incarnational analogy is not an exact fit. Thus, he suggests “incarnational parallel” might be a better way to phrase it (18, 168). The point is understanding Scripture as both divine and human is a crucial tension to maintain. There are tendencies toward two extremes: those who see the obvious cultural influences in the Bible and therefore only consider it a human book, and those who are uncomfortable acknowledging the earthiness of Scripture and overemphasize its divine qualities (18). The latter fall into Docetic heresy which claimed Christ was fully divine, but only appeared to be human. Enns states that the human dimension of Scripture is what makes it what it is. Recognizing that the Bible is both human and divine affects what we should expect from it and what we should do with it.

Like the early church fathers, Enns views the human marks in Scripture as God condescending to humankind. God “must speak and act in ways that they will understand” (20, 56, 109). If God had tried to speak in a manner totally disconnected from the ancient world, no one would have understood God (21). In this way the human nature of the Bible is a gift, not a problem. It represents “God with us.” God adopted ancient ways of thinking in order to reveal God self to us. He asserts, “We must resist the notion that for God to enculturate himself is somehow beneath him. This is precisely how he shows his love to the world he made” (56). We learn something of who God is because God chose to go “very low to know his people” (109). When we try to divorce the Bible from its cultural context we are reading and interpreting it in a non-incarnate manner foreign to its nature (168). However, regardless of how we interpret the text, Enns does not believe we can ever grasp the fullness of it. Like Christ, its depths go beyond us (168).

Enns examines many of the human fingerprints evident in Scripture, including the common languages used to write it—Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic. He points to similarities between ancient Near Eastern culture and Israelite literature, ritual, and laws. Like its surrounding neighbors Israel had a worship structure comprising temples, priests, and sacrifices, as well as prophets. Depictions of primeval history in Genesis resemble other ancient Near Eastern myths such as Enuma Elish, Atrahasis, and Gilgamesh. The Israelite law codes share commonalities with other ancient Near Eastern laws. Some wisdom texts reflect knowledge of and borrowing from pre-existing literature such as the Egyptian Teaching of Amenemope. Significantly, all these texts seem to precede the biblical texts. For those accustomed to equating the “uniqueness” of the Bible with inspiration, these similarities between Scripture and its ancient Near Eastern context can be disconcerting (39, 42). How is the Bible divine revelation when it clearly resembles other ancient artifacts? Enns seems to suggest a kind of general revelation wherein God has “set up the world in a certain way and that way is imprinted on all people” (58). But he especially emphasizes that the evidence of human traits in Scripture “is a necessary consequence of God incarnating himself” (20). Where Enns does see the uniqueness is in “Israel’s claim to be connected to the one true God” (59). Similarly, the Bible is the only book “in which God speaks incarnately” (168). The divine and human collaboration is what makes Scripture unique.

Enns maintains that we must attend to extrabiblical sources to grapple with the nature of Scripture (48). Not doing so results in “bizarre conclusions” (117). This leads him to explore questions of historicity. He understands Israelite primeval history in Genesis to reflect the common ancient Near Eastern literary genre of myth: “Is it not likely that God would have allowed his word to come to the ancient Israelites according to standards they understood, or are modern standards of truth and error so universal that we should expect premodern cultures to have understood them?” (41) Enns defines myth as an “ancient, premodern, prescientific way of addressing questions of ultimate origins and meaning in the form of stories: Who are we? Where do we come from?” (40) Similarly, he believes biblical law and wisdom texts do not reflect inspired moral standards but “the accepted cultural norms of the day” (42). We wrongly assume Israel’s laws and proverbs are unique compared to their neighbors. However, contradictorily, he suggests that Israelite laws “were to be obeyed in order to form Israel into a godlike community” distinct from their neighbors (57) and to bring “a certain standard of conduct to bear upon Israel in order to make them into a certain kind of people—a people who embody the character of God to a world that did not recognize him” (58-59). I am unclear how Enns is drawing a distinction between moral standards (held in common with the nations) versus a “certain standard of conduct” and embodiment of the “character of God” that the other nations did not seem to have.

Enns states “doctrinal implications of the Bible being so much a part of its ancient context are still not being addressed as they should” (47). If we did so, it seems one implication for Enns is greater reliance on the Spirit to guide the church (49). His view also proposes greater acceptance of differing opinions among Christians. Our understanding of Scripture is “provisional” and “incomplete.” Enns believes how we understand the nature of Scripture has important implications for how we use it—for example, what is normative and what is not (67). The Bible should not be treated as a timeless rule book. What was binding for the Israelites is not necessarily normative for us (it would be interesting to know how he views the New Testament on this). He writes, “[E]very generation of Christians in every cultural context must seek to see how God is speaking to them in and through Scripture” (67, 168). The Bible is not static but has a “built-in dynamic quality” (94, 170). The Bible does not provide rules, but rather “trajectories” (170). Enns denies this implies relativism but only that each generation “has to make the gospel message its own by wrestling with how the gospel connects with the world in which that generation is living” (67-68).

Enns seems to view the Bible primarily as a story in which Christ is the climax (120, 154). In fact, he understands the Old Testament for the Christian in the same way one reads a novel twice—we see certain things the second time around that were missed the first time. In other words, with the coming of Christ we know the end of the story and thus can now see the build up of the story (in the Old Testament) better in retrospect (154). Enns proposes we read the Old Testament in a christotelic way (as opposed to christocentric or christological). That means we don’t exegete the Old Testament as if Christ can be read into everything we find there, but rather that the Old Testament is a story that is pointing forward toward an ending in Christ. The purpose of studying the Bible is “so we can know better who God is and ultimately what he has done in Christ” (173). This study is the “means by which God forms us into the image of his risen Son.”

There is much I resonate with in Enns’ book. I highly recommend it. It provides a cogent exploration of the nature of Scripture. I appreciate his attitude that all our questions and answers on these matters is “not nearly as important as the posture from which we attempt these answers: that we fully respect the Bible as God’s word at the outset, not because we can make sense of it all but despite our inability to do so at times” (66). I sensed this posture of respect throughout his book and it’s what, from my experience as a reader, marked a distinction between his work and Kenton Sparks’. Even though the two authors share similar ideas, I did not sense the same posture in the tone of Sparks’ book. Its true that Enns’ incarnational model is not wholly sufficient as a doctrine of inspiration—the human Jesus was 100% divine and sinless, traits the biblical authors did not share—but the incarnational parallel is helpful for understanding that human traits in the Bible are not a problem any more than Jesus’ humanity is a problem. It also provides a way of holding together the tension of the human and divine without resorting to tendencies to emphasize one over the other. Where I might disagree with Enns or have further questions are:

1. How might we articulate a doctrine of inspiration that captures the phenomenon of God collaborating with human beings who don’t share the hypostatic union? Pneumatology might be more useful than Christology. In my next post, I examine John Webster’s thoughts on this.

2. While Israel is very similar to its neighbors, study of the Bible’s ancient Near Eastern context actually helps to delineate unique aspects of it that Enns does not get into. For example, despite similarities with other ancient myths, the primeval history articulated in Genesis is theologically distinct (e.g. the God of the Bible punishes with a flood because of humanity’s wickedness as opposed to the gods being upset because human beings have disturbed their slumber). Other ancient Near Eastern law codes do not tend to have theological motivators or addendums attached to them (e.g. “You shall not oppress a hired servant . . . . lest he cry against you to the LORD and you be guilty of sin”) nor are they framed in narrative or combined with ritual laws. There are also differences in how the Israelites interpreted some circumstances. Sumerian laments tend to express bewilderment over why the gods allowed their city to be destroyed, especially in light of the righteousness of the inhabitants. On the other hand the biblical prophets do give reasons and it’s precisely because the inhabitants are not righteous. Prophets in the Bible tended to confront kings—the opposite of the trend we see with other ancient Near Eastern prophets. In essence, I agree the Bible’s “uniqueness” is often overstated, but at the same time I find Enns can sometimes understate it.

3. Enns book proposes greater charity in disagreement on issues since there has always been diversity in the church. He also suggests Scripture is not necessarily normative in its practices, the uniqueness (at least of the Old Testament) is not one of ethical distinction, and every generation needs to read Scripture anew to determine how to apply its truths. All these points raise questions about how we affirm truth. How does this work out “on the ground,” for example, on contentious issues like sexuality? Does Scripture give any guidance or truth on sexual ethics? How should disagreement on substantive issues be handled in the Protestant tradition comprising competing denominations and authorities? How do we walk alongside people who are trying to make significant life decisions on these matters? Is it solely a matter of prayer and the Spirit’s leading? How does Enns grapple with the concept of “sound doctrine” and the church’s responsibility (according to Paul) to teach and uphold it? In other words, some of Enns’ views require further fleshing out to determine how his proposal works in praxis.

Addendum:

Peter Enns wrote this book 10 years ago. During that time Enns has continued to process and explore how he understands Scripture. Some of that processing, from my perspective, has been a shift toward more willingness to view Scripture as fallen in the direction of Sparks. Or perhaps he is more comfortable expressing that in a direct manner now than he did before. That is evident, for example, in his essay on inerrancy in Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy. To read Enns’ more recent thoughts and opinions, see his blog. Tentatively, I would say I resonate more with Enns’ book Inspiration and Incarnation than some of the tone I sense on the blog. However, I still find him to be an important voice for thinking through various issues.

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2 thoughts on “Peter Enns on Inspiration and Incarnation

  1. Karen, I have just recently found your blog and have been enjoying it very much.

    You said; ” Significantly, all these texts seem to precede the biblical texts.”

    I recently had a discussion with someone who basically said that it was the other way around- that the ideas found in the surrounding culture was a corruption of the ideas found in the biblical text (early Genesis). Could you point me to a discussion/materials that discusses why it is thought that the biblical material is the latecomer- or perhaps you have written about it on this blog? Thanks much.

    • Hi Doug! Thanks for leaving a comment. I grew up in a tradition that made the argument that you have presented. There was an assumption that the Bible could only be revelation from God if it presented something very unique and different from all the other cultures. So, when a wealth of archaeological finds occurred in the 1800s and 1900s that unearthed a good deal of ancient Near Eastern texts and it was discovered there were many similarities, this felt threatening. And the apologetic response was to try to assert that all the biblical ideas preceded these other texts. I would suggest that this was simply a misunderstanding about the Bible and Enns does a good job of showing that there is nothing threatening about realizing that God is with us–meaning God shows up in cultural clothing, just as God did in Jesus who wore sandals and spoke 1st century languages etc.

      We know these other texts preceded because they come from cities and times that existed before Israel–especially the Mesopotamian and some Egyptian texts. Even if you date Moses to 1400 BC, the other ancient Near Eastern law codes, for example, are much older-by hundreds of years. That might be a good entryway for you if you wanted to study it further on the dating and similarities.

      You might check out my post discussing OT laws and there are some references at the bottom to explore as well:

      https://interpretingscripture.wordpress.com/2014/02/28/fifty-shekels-for-rape-making-sense-of-old-testament-laws/

      Also, my posts on How Did We Get the Bible? addresses some of these issues:

      https://interpretingscripture.wordpress.com/2014/07/27/how-did-we-get-the-bible-series-collection/

      Hope that helps! If you have further questions or comments, I am happy to engage. Thanks for checking out the blog!

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