A Review of Peter Enns’s, Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: 2005)

A Review by Norman Geisler of Peter Enns’s, Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: 2005)

by Norman L. Geisler
August, 2009

Points of Agreement with Professor Enns

This book has done exactly what the author intended-it provoked a scholarly “conversation” (167) on a very important evangelical topic. Like most books of its kind, there is much with which one can agree; some things on which there is disagreement, and other things that need further discussion. Let me begin with some points of agreement. Professor Enns confesses that “Bible is God’s word” (15, 108, 161). Likewise, he asserts that the Bible is unique book in the “coming together” of divine and human elements (168). Furthermore, he claims correctly that “for God to reveal himself means that he accommodates himself” (109). Also, he rightly contends that the “incarnational model” (of comparing the Bible and Christ) is a helpful one (20). Likewise, he acknowledges the “full humanity” (20) of the Bible, an important part of which is the diversity in Scripture (77). Like most other evangelicals, he holds that the “canon is closed” (67). He properly claims to rejects a “cultural relativism” (168) where the Bible is not “standard for faith” (169).

As for the relation of external evidence to the Bible, we agree with Professor Enns that our assumptions determine how we understand evidence (48). We also concur that Genesis does not borrow from Babylonian origin stories because the similarities are only conceptual, not textual (55). Enns also points out that there are similar truths in other religions known from General Revelation (58). He correctly points out that similarity of Genesis with other ancient texts does not diminish the inspiration of the Bible (39). Nor is the directly dependent on creation and flood stories (29). Archaeology supports historicity of Israel’s monarchy (43). Our problems with the Bible are largely due to our misconceptions (15). He rightly acknowledges that conflicting passages are sometimes not addressing the same situation (90). Thus, there is often no “fundamental contradiction” between apparently different (96). Even conflicting proverbs are both correct in their specific situations (76). He also affirms that one cannot properly apply the law without recognizing the different situations that are addressed (94-95).

As for his view of God, Enns is correct in asserting that God does not need creation to be complete in Himself (103). Also, God knows far more about what the Bible teaches than the human writers did (161). God transcends the world, nonetheless, he can and does interacts with the world (104-105).

On the matter of biblical interpretation, there are several points of agreement as well. Enns rightly observes that the Old Testament should be understood in light of the climax of Israel’s history which is Christ (120). Also, Christ is both the beginning and end of Bible interpretation (163). There is Christ-related “coherence” in the Bible (170). Further, the Bible is clear on the central matters of our Faith (170). The real dilemma about how the New Testament writers used the Old Testament is: Either we should follow the apostle’s use of Old Testament (and violate historical-grammatical view) or not follow them and admit they were misguided or using a view we can’t use today (156).

Of course this list is not exhaustive. However, it does suggest that there are significant overlaps with his view and the historic evangelical view of Scripture.

Areas of Disagreement with Professor Enns

In spite of the many good things Professor Enns affirms, there are many troubling things to ponder. First, we will list some of them and then we will engage the most important ones.

Disagreement about the Nature of the Bible

Professor Enns claims that the non-Christian world view of their day influenced what the biblical authors wrote (14). He also holds that it is a misconception to think Bible is unique, unified in outlook (16). He says myth is proper way to describe Genesis, even though he claims it is also contains history (41, 49). Enns believes that “The Bible seems to be relativized” by culture of the day (43). He claims that we cannot reason back from the evidence for the historicity of later Old Testament books to that of earlier ones (43-44). There is no objective unbiased view of history (45). He believes it is fallacious assumption that Bible is accurate in all details (47). He holds that all attempts to state nature of Bible are open to examination (48). Genesis was not recorded until first millennium B.C. (52). God adopted the mythical categories within which Abraham thought (53). He also asserts that God transformed the ancient myths to focus on Him (54). The Bible does not say Flood was universal (55). He affirms that Israel’s laws were not new in content but were uniquely in that they were connected to a monotheistic community–Israel (57). OT history is not untrue because it is not objective (62). Samuel and Kings were not written until the 4th or 5th cent. B.C (63). There was only one cleansing of the temple by Jesus (65), even though the Gospels list two at different times. OT laws are culturally relative and not normative (67). Some moral laws of the OT are not biding on us today (67). The Bible not a timeless how-to book that applies today (67). Diverse factual content is not incompatible with theological message (73). There are contradictions in Ecclesiastes (77, 78). Enns claims that Ecclesiastes has no notion of an after life (79). There are inconsistencies in the moral law in the Old Testament (85). Even the Law is inconsistent. Exodus conflicts with Deuteronomy (87). God allows the Law to be “adjusted over time” (87). NIV is wrong for assuming inerrancy as a basis of its translation (92). He also believes that the Bible was written over a 500-1000 years period which is 500 years less than most evangelical scholars hold.

Disagreement about God and Theology

We also disagree with Enns that God learned through his interaction with Abraham (103). Or, that God reacts to man’s actions (104). Or, that Moses got God to actually change his plans (105). He rejects the view that God does not really change (105). He rejects any “behind the scene” view in favor of taking the Bible as it is (106). Our prayers do have an effect on God (107). He speaks against an apologetic stance that defends the Bible against the charge of error (108). He is opposed to apologetics that defends the perfection of Bible (109). We accept the Bible as the word of God by faith (66. 169), not by reason or evidence.

Disagreement about Interpreting the Bible

NT writers use 2nd temple hermeneutics (117). The traditional grammatical-historical is generally a good approach, but “original context” means not only grammar and history but the hermeneutics of the time (117). Daniel was given a deeper meaning of Jeremiah’s words about the 70 years (119). The biblical writers dig for deeper “mysteries” in the text (131). There is a “superfullfillment” in Christ of OT texts that were not speaking of him (136). Abraham’s “seed” had double and deeper meaning (137). Paul changed an Old Testament text, adding a word (and changing the meaning) (140-142). Non-historical tradition is part of the New Testament interpretation of the Ole Testament (143). Apostles did not come to view that Jesus is Lord from an objective interpretation of the OT (153). The New testament takes the Old Testament out of context and puts it in another context (of Christ) (153). Israel is replaced by the Church (God’s higher, deeper meaning) (154). Historical-grammatical method is not normative method (159). God intended more than the human author of the Bible did (160). Bible is [merely] a written witness to Christ (161). Christian interpretation is well beyond scientific markers (objective criteria) (162). Proper interpretation is a community activity-a historic community, the family of God. The Bible interpretation is not a fortress to defend but a pilgrimage to take (162). Inerrancy or infallible can never be fully understood (168). We have no absolute point of reference to interpret the Bible stripped of our own cultural context. Incarnational model helps us to see multidimensional gospel (169). The Bible is not a timeless rule book or owner’s manual (169). Available evidence transcends the labels of conservative or liberal (171).

Interacting With Central Issues

Now that we have set forth many of the areas of agreement and disagreement with Professor Enns, we will interact with several issues relating to the nature and understanding of Scripture. First, we will look at Professor Enns’s understanding of God. For it is axiomatic that the statement “The Bible is the Word of God” (which Enns endorses-21, 108), is no stronger than what is meant by “God.”

Relation of Biblical and Systematic Theology

Despite the fact that Enns claims his view does not lend support to the Openness View of God, which claims that God has no infallible foreknowledge of human free acts (106), the evidence is to the contrary since all the following affirmed by Enns clearly supports the Openness View of God: He declared that: (1) God actually learned through his interaction with Abraham (103). (2) God reacts to man’s actions (104). (3) Moses got God to change his plans (105). (4) He rejects the view that says God does not really change (105). (5) He rejects any “behind the scene” in favor of taking the Bible as it is (106). (6) He also holds that our prayers do have an effect on God (107).

Since we have addressed Open Theism in details elsewhere (see our Battle for God, Kregel, 2000), we will only note here that these conclusion are both contrary to Scripture which affirms that God does not change (1 Sam. 15:29; Heb. 6:18; Titus 1:2: Jas. 1:17) and sound reason which demands there be an ultimate unchanging Being by which all change is measured. As for infallible foreknowledge, the God of the Bible knows “the end from the beginning” (Isa. 46:10). Hence, he was able to predict the Cross of Christ before the foundations of the world (Rev. 13:9; Acts 2:22-23), predetermine the elect (Eph. 1:4; Rom. 8:29), predict Judas would betray Christ (Jn. 13:26; 17:12; Acts 1:16) and make numerous other infallible predictions, including whole world kingdoms (Dan. 2, 7), and the birth (Micah 5:2), death (Isa. 53), and resurrection of Christ (Psa. 2, 16 cf Acts 2:24-30). Indeed, God’s test for a false prophet (namely, if he gives a false prophecy) assumes only God can make infallible predictions of the future (Deut. 13:2-3; 18:22).

He also claims that there is no evidence that God providentially guided the customs of the day (57) so as to be a fitting vehicle of his Word through the human authors. But the Bible speaks of God’s providential knowledge and care extending to details like the death of a sparrow or the number of hairs on our head (Mt. 6:25-30).

Enns also opposes any apologetics that defends the perfection of Bible (109). He claims we accept the Bible as the Word of God by faith (66. 169), not by reason or evidence. Yet, as we shall see next, he accepts extra-biblical evidence as being all but determinative in deciding the meaning of the biblical text. But if this kind of extra-biblical evidence can be used so strongly, then why cannot other archaeological evidence be used to support the historicity of the Bible. Indeed, Enns admits that such evidence supports the historicity of Israel’s monarchy (43), though he denies that the Nuzi material supports the historicity of the Patriarchs (30). Other than an anti-supernatural bias, there is no reason that similar evidence can be used to support the historicity of New Testament books like Acts and Luke. But once one admits this, he is already doing evidential apologetics which Enns rejects. Ironically, Enns is rejecting his own incarnational model by positing a deeper, mystical, allegorical meaning to the biblical text than the historical-grammatical method reveals. For in the Incarnation there was a union of the divine and human so that what Jesus said was one with what God said. There was a divine concursus in the adaptation to human finitude (not error) in what God said and what Jesus said. If so, then both were affirming one and the same meaning and truth. There was no separation. To deny this is to employ a heretical view of the union of the divine and human natures in Christ. Likewise, by analogy in the incarnational model of Scripture, God and the human authors affirm one and the same thing in one and the same text. The fact that God knows more about the topic than the human author-or that more is affirmed elsewhere-is irrelevant. The truth is that in the union of the divine and human in Scripture is that both are affirming one and the same thing.

Relation of Extra-biblical Data to Interpretation

Many of the novel and questionable views expressed by Enns seem to be related to his misunderstanding of the relation of extra-biblical data to the Bible. He declared that the Genesis story is “firmly rooted in the worldview of its time” (27). He even acknowledges that this extra-biblical data is sometimes highly influential role in determining the meaning of the Bible (48).

In this connection, Professor Enns is clearly overly enamored with the alleged “Second Temple” interpretation he feels the New Testament writers are making of the Old Testament (155). In these New Testament texts he sees them using a midrash-like non-factual spiritual embellishment of certain Old Testament passage, such as Paul’s allegedly making the rock that followed Israel a midrashic-like story to emphasize his Christotelic interpretation of the Old Testament. Space only permits a brief response to this mistaken interpretation. First, even Enns admits this is a minority view among evangelicals. Second, he also acknowledges that ere are no clear rules to prevent us from taking his “Christoletic” view too far (162). Third, Enns is aware that this involves developing “deep intuitions” (102) in order to come to these conclusions. Likewise, he acknowledges that one must reject the traditional historical-grammatical method of interpretation to do this and come up with multiple layers of meaning (161). Finally, other evangelical scholars have offered alternative interpretations without jettisoning an objective hermeneutic to do so (See D.A. Carson’s article in JETS).

Objectivity and Interpretation

Enns also embraces a post-modern form of subjectivism in interpreting Scripture. He contends that the traditional grammatical-historical is generally a good approach, but it is insufficient (159). It must be augmented with a so-called “Second Temple” midrashic-like view that adds spiritual embellishment to the text (117). He believes Daniel was given a deeper meaning of Jeremiah’s words about the 70 years (119). He claims that the biblical writers dig for deeper “mysteries” in the text (131). There is a “superfullfillment” in Christ of Old Testament texts that were not speaking of him (136). Abe “seed” had double and deeper meaning (137). He sees non-historical tradition as part of New Testament interpretation of the Old Testament (143). Further, Enns affirms that the Apostles did not come to view that Jesus is Lord from an objective interpretation of the Old Testament (153). He uses this to support his replacement theology that Israel is replaced by the Church (God’s higher, deeper meaning) (154). Indeed, he claims that Christian interpretation is well beyond any scientific markers or objective criteria (162). Indeed, he believes that proper interpretation is a community activity-a historic community, the family of God. Hence, biblical interpretation is not a fortress to defend but a pilgrimage to take (162). He affirms that inerrancy or infallible can never be fully understood (168). We have no absolute point of reference to interpret the Bible stripped of our own cultural context. The Bible is not a timeless rule book or owner’s manual (169). New Testament writers use Second Temple hermeneutics (117). The traditional grammatical-historical is generally a good approach, but “original context” means not only grammar and history but hermeneutics or the time (117). Daniel was given a deeper meaning of Jeremiah’s words about the 70 years (119). The biblical writers dig for deeper “mysteries” in the text (131). There is a “superfullfillment” in Christ of OT texts that were not speaking of him (136). Abraham’s “seed” had double and deeper meaning (137). Paul changed the passage, adding a word (and changing the meaning) (140-142). Non-historical tradition is part of New Testament interpretation of the Old Testament (143). Apostles did not come to view that Jesus is Lord from an objective interpretation of the OT (153). NT takes OT out of context and puts it in another context (of Christ) (153). Israel replaced by the Church (God’s higher, deeper meaning) (154).

According to Enns, the historical-grammatical method is not normative method (159). God intended more than the human author of the Bible did (160). Christian interpretation is well beyond scientific markers (objective criteria) (162). Proper interpretation is a community activity-a historic community, the family of God down through the centuries. The Bible interpretation is not a fortress to defend but a pilgrimage to take (162). Inerrancy or infallible can never be fully understood (168). We have no absolute point of reference to interpret the Bible stripped of our own cultural context. Incarnational model helps us to see multidimensional gospel (169). The Bible is not a timeless rule book or owner’s manual (169). Thus, he is unwilling to call his view either labels or conservative (171). As a matter of fact, it should be called neo-Barthian.

The evaluation of this subjectivism can be brief. One cannot deny that objective meaning can be derived from the text without having an objective understanding of the text. Nor can one say all interpretation is progressive without standing outside the progress to make this pronouncement. Further, there is no way to know that God intended a deeper meaning for a given text when all we have is the written text to inform us what God mean. To use other text to get this alleged “deeper” meaning does not avoid the problem for two reasons. First, even here all we have is the written text to go by. Second, what the biblical text says elsewhere does not add to what another text says; it simply gives us more on this topic. A given text cannot affirm (or deny) any more than that given test affirms (or denies). To claim any more for it is to attempt to read beneath, behind, or beyond the lines-rather than reading the lines. In the final analysis, Enns is not augmenting the historical-grammatical method of interpretation; he is negating it.

The Incarnational Model

Professor Enns is correct in positing an incarnational model that includes two important factors: 1) the “full humanity” of Scripture; 2) the unity of the divine and human elements of the Bible. However, he seems to be in serious error in his understanding that these elements involve factually and historically incorrect materials (168). Likewise, he contends that this model handles diversity better (73). Also, it aids us in seeing a multidimensional gospel (169). But this does no escape the charge of hermeneutical relativity which is self-defeating.

On closer examination it becomes apparent that by “incarnational model” Enns does not mean what is traditionally meant by orthodox theologians who make this comparison between Christ and Scripture. For they argue that just as Christ was fully human without sin, even so the Bible is fully human but without error. After all, both the Savior and Scripture are called “the Word of God.” But God can neither sin nor error. Hence, God’s word (Living or Written) cannot sin or error. Indeed, both are called perfect (flawless) in the Bible. The Living Word of God is said to be “without sin” (Heb. 4:15. “without blemish or defect” (1 Peter 1:19), one who “committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth” (1 Peter 2:22), “righteous” (1 Peter 3:18), “pure” (1 Jn. 3:3), one “who had no sin” (2 Cor. 5:21), “holy, innocent, unstained, separate from sinners” (Heb. 7:26). Using the biblical incarnational analogy, it is difficult to see how the Written Word of God could be imperfect and errant. Indeed, the Bible is said to be “perfect” (flawless) (Psa. 19:7), “truth” (Jn. 17:17), “God-breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16), “unbreakable” (Jn. 10:35), imperishable (Mt. 5:17-18), Spirit-utter words (2 Sam. 23:2; Jn. 14:26; 16:13), and comprised of “every word which comes out of the mouth of God” (Mt. 4:4). Clearly, the incarnational analogy as presented in the Bible favors the inerrancy of all the Bible affirms.

The “Accommodation” View

While it is acknowledge that historically orthodox theologians have held that a divine adaptation is necessary for God’s communication with human beings, nonetheless, there has been a serious shift in the meaning of “accommodation” in more recent times. So serious is the shift, that we have for some time advocated that evangelicals discard the term “accommodation” for the word “adaptation.” This will not be the first time that it becomes necessary to use a new terms to describe (the word “gay” once had different connotations too). Certainly, when God revealed himself in Holy Scripture there was an adaptation to human finitude. But there was no accommodation to human error. For God cannot err (Titus 1:1; Heb. 6:18). Unfortunately, Professor Enns seems to believe that God can accommodate Himself to factually incorrect affirmations (i.e., errors). But this is a denial of the inerrancy of Scripture. This is manifested in several things he said.

First, he uses some ambiguous terms of the Bible, such as the Bible is “messy” (109) and Jesus “completely assumed” cultural trappings of world around him (17). Hence, the Bible cannot be kept from the “rough and tumble drama of human history” (109). But he nowhere clearly disassociates this from implying that the there are affirmations in the Bible that entail factual mistakes or misrepresentations. Indeed, at time Enns seems to admit that there are these kinds of errors in the Bible. For example, he holds that the biblical authors really believed there were other gods (i.e., polytheism) (98).

Second, by using a true incarnational model, words and phrases like “messy” (109), “completely assumed” cultural trappings of world around him (17), and entering the “rough and tumble drama of human history” (109) are, at best, ambiguous and, at worst, they veil a denial of the inerrancy of the written Word of God and, by comparison, the sinlessness of the Son of God.

Third, Enns speaks against an apologetic stance that defends the Bible against the charge of error (108). If he believed the Bible is inerrant, he should have no hesitation in trying to defend it against false charges that it is not.

Finally, Enns believes there are inconsistencies in the moral law in the Old Testament (85). Even the Moral Law is inconsistent. He believes that Exodus conflicts with Deuteronomy (87). He says that God allows the Law to be “adjusted over time” (87). Also, he held that the NIV translation is wrong for assuming inerrancy as a basis of its translation (92). But what is this but a denial of inerrancy.

In view of this, it is apparent why Enns prefers to move beyond the “battle for the Bible” which is over whether or not the Bible affirms any errors, namely, statements that are factually incorrect. It is because he does not believe in inerrancy. Indeed, Enns seems to favor a neo-Barthian view of Scripture wherein the Bible is merely “the written witness to Christ” (161). Or, the book wherein God “speaks to the church” (46). These statements are true as far as they go, but they do not go gar enough. Indeed, they seem to be a cover for a neo-Barthian view which denies the historic orthodox view that the Bible is the infallible and inerrant written Word of God.

Conclusion

When the true view of Enns is unveiled, it is easier to understand the kind of theological paranoia Enns reveals about his view when he exhorts others not to speak of his views like his with “judgmental suspicions” (172) or “predispositions against new ideas,” or to consider such views to be “on a slippery slope.” Likewise, we warns against “power plays” and attempts to “vilify person holding” such views, or against those who “go on the attack” against it and “jump to conclusions” about one’s motives and engage in “build[ing] our own kingdoms” All of this he calls the “angry evangelical syndrome” (173). Of course, the net effect of ad hominem phrases like these is to build a protective wall around his admittedly minority and clearly unorthodox views. By so doing, he hopes to ward off any critical analysis that would consider them unbibiblical and/or unorthodox.

It is always a danger when one sets out, as Enns does, to reconcile his view of Bible with “modern biblical scholarship”(13). More often than not, when this takes places one trades orthodoxy for academic respectability. This criticism should come as no surprise to Enns since he recognizes that one’s world view influences how he interprets the Bible (14). He wrote: “the assumptions we have about the nature of God (which includes notions of revelation and inspiration…), and so on, will largely determine how we understand the evidence” (48). Why then should we expect that most of “modern biblical scholarship” (which he wishes to accommodate), based as it is on antisupernatural biases, is not reconcilable with the Bible. An attempt to reconcile a supernatural God who performed supernatural events recorded in a supernaturally inspired Book with naturalistically based scholarship which denies all of the above is doomed to failure.