Book Review: Peter Enns’s Inspiration and Incarnation (Chapter 1)

Since it is the tenth anniversary of the publication of Peter Enns’s Inspiration and Incarnation, it seems like a fitting time to re-read it. So, as I read it I will post a little review and reflection on each chapter. This past year, I have enjoyed reading Enns’s more recent book The Bible Tells Me So. While I do not agree with some of Enns’s conclusions and interpretations of particular biblical passages, I think Enns does a great job of expressing and bringing to the foreground questions that many Christians have but, in some cases, are afraid to ask. The Bible Tells Me So is written for a popular audience and adequately presents many of the issues that evangelical Biblical scholars grapple with on a regular basis. I have and will continue to recommend this book.

Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament (Baker Academeic, 2005)


Chapter 1: “Getting Our Bearings”

Using the analogy of the incarnation, a key theme in this book is the essential human nature of the Scriptures. Many Christians refer to the Bible as the “Word of God” and are correct to do so. However, as Enns correctly notes, the emphasis on inspiration and special revelation often leads to an approach to Scripture that neglects or even denies the essentially human nature of these writings. He continues by comparing some Fundamentalist and Evangelical understanding of the nature of Scripture to Docetism.

Docetism was one of the earliest false teaching the Church addressed. Likely influenced by a common Greek understanding that the material world itself was evil, some Christians affirmed Jesus divinity but denied that the incarnation. Jesus only seemed to be human. He only seemed to be human. Jesus only seemed to suffer (because according to the Greek understanding God by definition could not suffer).

While there is a spectrum of views on inspiration, I think Enns is correct about the general tendency and popular understanding of inspiration that places emphasis on the divine and downplays the role of the human authors. Coincidentally, on his blog, my friend Joel Anderson was reminiscing about one extreme example that he encountered in a textbook intended for Christian highschool students. The view of inspiration in this textbook is more akin to channeling or automatic writing than a traditional and biblical Christian view of inspiration. In this view, Paul would wake up from a trance and would be eager to see what God had written through him.

While this example is extreme (though not far from the view of the bible that Answers in Genesis promotes), Enns notes that this tendency often results in a reactionary and defensive posture extrabiblical and intrabiblical evidence that points to the historical particularity of the texts, the limited human understanding that such particularity entails, and the suggestion that these writings are similar to other Ancient Near Eastern cultures.

I first in encountered the incarnational analogy through the teachings and writings of my professor J.I. Packer. He uses it at once to affirm his understanding of biblical inerrancy while at the same time critiquing the Fundamentalist, Dispensationalist, & Creationist methods of interpretation for failing to take the historical setting of the authors seriously. He suggests that evangelicals often assume the inerrancy of a particular interpretation of scripture rather than the inerrancy of Scripture itself.

Now, to me, it is clear from the outset that Enns sees himself as speaking from within and primarly to those who identify themselves as evangelical (something that G.K. Beale seems to miss in his less than charitable and rather defensive review of this book) but it does not surprise me that Enns engaging style has gained him a broader audience.

At this point, I simply want to let Enns himself tell you what the book is about. If these comments resonate with you in some way, then this book may be a book for you.

The problem many of us feel regarding the Bible may have less to do with the Bible itself and more to do with our own preconceptions. (15)

Like the Docetists and Jesus contemporaries (including his apostles), we often have preconceived notions of how God can and cannot act. If Scripture itself and other evidence is suggesting that we have put God in a box, then we ought to be at least open to considering a revision of popular understandings of how God acts.

He focuses on three issues each of which highlights the essential humanity and the its “connectedness” with respect to the authors’ surrounding cultures and historical settings:

1. The Old Testamentand other literature from the ancient world.

2. The theological diversity in the Old Testament.

3. The way in which New Testament authors handle the Old Testament.

1. The first speaks to the Bible’s uniqueness. For Enns and many others, consideration of these elements points to the rather ordinary human nature of this extraordinary collection of texts. Recent discoveries have shown us that in some respects Biblical authors are writing in the available genres, answering questions, and even sharing some commmon conceptions about the nature of the world. Some like Ken Ham find bizarre ways to account for this similarity. Others use this similarity to dismiss the Bible because it is “just another” ancient text.

  • Enns will argue that “It is essential to the very nature of revelation that the Bible is not unique to its environment. The human dimension of Scripture is essential to its being Scripture.” (20) God speaks to us in language we understand, if only we listen.

2. The second speaks to Bible’s integrity its trustworthiness. As Enns notes, it is a common expectation that the Bible be “unified in its outlook.” Yet, the Bible, especially the OT seems to convey differing opinion. Think of Job being set alongside Proverbs. Think of the treatment of foreigners in Ezra-Nehemiah compared with Ruth and Jonah. Our tendency is to harmonize but that usually entails drowning out one fo the perspectives. I cannot recall how Enns addresses this particular issue. So, I am eager to read on. However, I have come to think that some things are unresolved for Israel before the coming of Jesus. For instance, I think Jesus clearly decides that the approach of Jonah and Ruth is the way forward with respect to Gentiles and, in doing so, he rejects the Ezra-Nehemiah model. Jesus is entering a world of conversations, debates, and disagreements.

3. The third speaks to the Bible’s interpretation. This points to often confusing situation of figuring how we get from a passage in the OT to the use made of it in the NT. In my opinion, this area is one fo the most exciting scholarly discussions at present. Yet, it suggests that even the Apostles’ way of reading the Scriptures which was for them the OT (likely in Greek translation) is shaped by their culture and their received community of interpretation even if also radically altered by Christ’s teaching and resurrection and the experience of the Holy Spirit.

Like I said, if any of these issues or the many questions they raise pique your interest, then take a peek at Enns’s Incarnation and Inspiration and return to my blog as a I re-read, review, and reflect on this book. IP

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