Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament
For most evangelical Christians it is a given that the Bible (by this is meant the canon of scriptures recognised by the early church fathers, minus the books dismissed as ‘apocryphal’) is infallible and without error. The reasoning goes something like: scriptures are ‘God-breathed’ (2 Tim 3:16) and God does not lie; therefore we can treat the Bible as if God himself spoke every word, and every verse is perfectly true. Some allowance is made for simile, hyperbole and interpretation, but within strict limits. If someone’s opinion or a scientific discovery are found to be conflict with the Bible, well they must be wrong.
The problem with this stance is obvious. If one single verse of the Bible can be proved to be false, then the whole belief will collapse under its own weight, taking with it our confidence in the scriptures and our faith in God. In my view this stance is fundamentally disrespectful to the scriptures and to Christ. It treats the Bible as so fragile that a smallest question will undermine its authenticity and also leads to a faith centred on the Bible instead of on God.
In this book Enns aims to demonstrate that is it possible to hold firmly to an evangelical position that the Bible is ultimately from God and is God’s gift to the church, but at the same time acknowledge that the Bible bears the weaknesses and flaws of its human authors and the cultures in which they lived. Moreover this is the way that God meant it to be. Just as God incarnated himself as a man who took on sin, suffering and disgrace, so the Bible itself is an incarnation in which God can be found revealing himself through the lives and writings of people who had some very bad ideas and practises. This view is radically different to a ‘liberal’ dismissal of divine inspiration and should in fact result in a greater respect for the scriptures.
In around 170 pages Enns considers a few aspects of the issue:
- Similarities between the Old Testament and (earlier) near eastern literature, covering creation and flood stories, history and civil and religious law. If the Bible is directly from God, then why do these parts draw so heavily on earlier non-Jewish literature?
- Theological diversity in the scriptures themselves; parallel proverbs, histories and even versions of the Ten Commandments that differ and in some cases contradict each other. If all these scriptures are infallible and inerrant, then why the differences. Granted some are fairly minor differences, but some are opposites (God requires complex ritualised animal sacrifices; God never required sacrifices…).
- The treatment of old testament scriptures by new testament writers. Paul for example often takes OT passages and totally subverts their meaning. Jesus himself regularly does the same, reflecting the way that contemporary Jewish theologians treated the OT scriptures.
That these issues are problems at all are a symptom of the way that evangelicals use the scriptures. As Jonathan Sachs has recently observed, ‘fundamentalists and today’s atheists share the same approach to texts. They read them directly and literally, ignoring the single most important fact about a sacred text, namely that it’s meaning is not self-evident’ (Not in God’s Name, p218).
Enns finishes by tentatively suggesting approaches to understanding scripture that incorporate both its inspirational (God-breathed) and incarnational (born out of human persons and culture) nature. We must remember that that it is impossible to divorce the Bible from the cultures from which it emerged, and also impossible to divorce our interpretation of the Bible from our own culture. In considering diversity in the scriptures, we can trust the Bible not because we can ‘argue away’ its diversity but because we believe, by the gift of faith, in the one who gave scripture to us. We trust God, not our conceptions of how the Bible ought to be.
This view is radically different to a ‘liberal’ dismissal of divine inspiration and should in fact result in a greater respect for the scriptures. It is Enns’ conviction that, ‘The primary purpose of scripture is for the church to eat and drink its contents in order to better understand who God is, what he has done, and what it means to be his people, redeemed in the crucified and risen Son.’ The Bible is not a fortress that we defend, it is a path that we walk. Conversations about interpreting scripture in a changing world are therefore essential and must be full of humility, love and patience.
I recommend this book to all who love the Bible but are troubled by the way it is still used to justify beliefs and practices that would otherwise be self-evidently wrong, for example, young-earth creationism, discrimination, patriarchy, misogyny, homophobia and even genocide (although of course all that’s in the past!). You are not faced with a binary choice: accept that good is evil, and evil is good; or reject the Bible outright. There is a third way, viewing the scriptures like we might view men and women, flawed but nevertheless bearing the image of God, revealing the nature and purpose of God, and bearing witness to Jesus. Isn’t this like The ‘Word of God’, who not only took on human nature but also took on all the flaws and sins of mankind on the cross, the greatest revelation of God?
Pete Enns is the Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University (St. Davids, Pennsylvania). You can read more of his work at http://www.peteenns.com/. Inspiration and Incarnation is published by Baker Academic.