by John M. Frame
A couple of my friends in the Westminster Seminary constituency have urged me to make some comments on Prof. Enns’ book. I had skimmed it some time ago, but my friends wanted me to look at it in a more serious way. I have done that now. My review may be somewhat redundant, given the recent reviews of Paul Helm,1 Greg Beale,2 and Donald Carson.3 I agree with these reviews more than I disagree with them, but mine is more of a blow-by-blow account.
I would still protest that I cannot give a definitive evaluation, since I am not an Old Testament scholar, as Enns is. Nor am I any kind of expert on ancient near eastern history or second temple biblical exegesis, major topics in the book. But I have given some attention in my career to the doctrine of the authority of Scripture. So perhaps my observations will not be considered entirely irrelevant.
Given the advance warnings of some about the book, I was surprised at how much I liked it and profited from it. I especially liked its emphasis that we need to be more humble in our exegetical and theological claims. That certainly is a problem in our evangelical/Reformed context. On the other hand, I didn’t get much help toward a more confident proclamation of the biblical message.
Humility and confidence have always been somewhat at odds. In preaching classes, we tell students to be confident and authoritative in the pulpit, to say “thus saith the Lord,” not to merely share what they feel. At the same time, we tell them to be humble, to realize that they are finite and sinful, that they should shed all pretense and affectation. I don’t know of any general solution to this tension. In practice, what we try to do is to become certain enough of the meaning of Scripture so that we can ascribe that meaning to the Lord, while admitting from time to time that we can and often do get it wrong. Enns’ book is good for my humility, but it does not encourage me to proclaim the word authoritatively.
He divides the book into three major sections, each dealing with a problem: 1) The non-uniqueness of the Old Testament in its cultural setting, 2) theological diversity in the Old Testament, and 3) The use of the Old Testament in the New.
In the first section, I have a hard time seeing where the problem lies. Enns’ point is that Old Testament Israel spoke languages and had institutions (temples, prophets, priests, kings, legal codes) that were in some ways like the other nations of its time. He admits that the fact that the OT uses human languages like Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek “hardly poses a theological problem” (19), except for a few people who once thought that NT Greek was a special “Holy Spirit language.” Nor, certainly, is there anything particularly odd or challenging about the fact that nations other than Israel had temples, priests, etc. That these nations had such institutions is plain in the OT narrative. In fifty years of studying the issues of biblical authority, I have never once heard or read anybody who said that the existence of such parallel institutions was any kind of problem for the Bible’s inspiration or authority.
I have heard and read a lot of reflection about the parallels between Israel’s laws and narratives to those outside Israel. Israel’s laws are somewhat like those of the Code of Hammurabi; non-Israelite nations have their own creation stories and flood stories, their own wisdom literatures, which are both like and unlike those in the Bible. Perhaps there have been some evangelicals who have found these parallels problematic, but I think not very many. The fact that non-Israelite traditions are different, even older, does not prove or even suggest that there are any defects in the biblical versions.
God wanted his people to have a well-functioning legal system, geared to its life in its ancient environment. For this purpose, there was no need to re-invent the wheel. The Code of Hammurabi and other ancient codes addressed that same need, in similar cultures, and so it should be no surprise that God’s laws reflected the legal tradition of which Hammurabi’s Code was an instance. Moses, or some source he made use of, may well have found in a pre-existing set of laws, statutes that would fit Israel’s situation. The traditional doctrine of organic inspiration says that there is no contradiction between divine inspiration and human efforts to determine the right thing to say. The former often makes use of the latter.
Similarly, God wanted Israel to know something about the creation and flood. If we assume that these events actually happened, it is not surprising that the literature of non-Israelite nations bear witness to them. And it is not surprising that God would inspire Moses to give Israel true accounts, or that these accounts are like the others in some respects. These accounts are similar, not only because they presuppose similar literary conventions, but also because they are describing the same event. Here too it would not be contrary to the doctrine of organic inspiration to believe that Moses depended on pre-existing sources from other nations.
Enns asks, “if the Bible reflects these ancient customs and practices, in what sense can we speak of it as revelation?” (31) I reply, why not? It is revelation because it’s God’s word and therefore true. It’s like asking, “Luke and Josephus both speak of Jesus, so how can Luke be revelation?” Easy. Luke is an inspired apostle and Josephus is not. Is Enns attributing to some the view that a book cannot be revelation unless it reveals an entirely unique culture? I know nobody who says that, and such a view would be so implausible as to be undeserving of refutation. Maybe this is Enns’ own point, that a document can be God’s word even if it doesn’t reflect or establish a unique culture. But I can’t imagine why he thought this needed to be argued.
We do often refer to Scripture as unique. But we don’t call it unique because it reflects a unique culture, rather because it is the written word of God and bears a unique witness to Christ.4
Enns asks, “What does it mean for other cultures to have an influence on the Bible that we believe is revealed by God?” (38) Again, it’s hard for me to imagine where this question comes from. Most everyone in the Reformed camp confesses organic inspiration, the view that divine inspiration makes use of both human and divine causes to bring about the biblical text. Why would anybody imagine that God cannot use the influence of other cultures to do this, along with all the other historical causes that brought the Scriptures into being?
On the flood accounts, Enns says, “The problem raised by these Akkadian texts is whether the biblical stories are historical: how can we say logically that the biblical stories are true and the Akkadian stories are false, when they both look so much alike?” (40) Again, the answer is easy: (1) the Akkadian account is not simply false, but contains some false claims. (2) We know that the biblical stories are true because God inspired them.5
I kept waiting for Enns to draw some correlation between inspiration and truth, and I cannot find it. On 43 says that we should not “reason backward from the historical evidence of the monarchic account, for which there is some evidence, to the primeval and ancestral stories, for which evidence is lacking.” But does not divine inspiration constitute evidence? On 44, he says,
One would expect a more accurate, blow-by-blow account of Israel’s history during this monarchic period, when it began to develop a more “historical self-consciousness,” as it were. It is precisely the evidence missing from the previous periods of Israel’s history that raises the problem of the essential historicity of that period.
What this seems to mean is that we should suspect Genesis, for example, of lacking historicity, because it lacks detail (i.e. “blow by blow” accounts). I’m not sure what this means. Surely the stories of Genesis (including those of 1-3) include quite a lot of detail. But even if the detail is insufficient for some scholars, does not divine inspiration outweigh that? Is it impossible for us to imagine that God might have chosen to give us a narrative with relatively little detail?
On 47, Enns does respond to conservatives who appeal to divine inspiration:
The conservatives’ reaction was also problematic in that it implicitly assumed what their opponents also assumed: the Bible, being the word of God, ought to be historically accurate in all its details (since God would not lie or make errors) and unique in its own setting (since God’s word is revealed, which implies a specific type of uniqueness).
The “uniqueness” criterion is quite unclear, as I have said before, and it has never been a part of any conservative position that I am aware of. It is true that many conservatives have argued that inspiration entails historical accuracy, for the reasons Enns mentions. But the wisest conservatives have acknowledged that not every genre of literature makes historical claims, certainly not in details. The question, then, is whether Genesis makes any claims relevant to its historicity. I am willing to listen to arguments for the negative, but I have not heard any plausible ones, certainly not in the present volume.
On 40, he suggests that “myth” might be a good description of the biblical stories, since it is a common way of referring to the non-Israelite flood stories. He 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) This is rather different from many definitions of myth, but I will let that pass. In this definition and in its context, Enns intentionally avoids the question of whether these stories relate what “really happened.” But that is of course the issue. Certainly the biblical stories fit this definition of myth. Indeed, if you drop the term “origins” from the definition, all the stories of the Bible fit this definition. The Resurrection of Jesus addresses the question of our ultimate meaning in the form of a story. But the Bible itself insists that the Resurrection story, in addition to addressing the question of our ultimate meaning, tells us something that really happened. Indeed, the Resurrection would not be effective in declaring our ultimate meaning if it had not really happened. Enns’ definition of myth avoids the question of whether these stories narrate real history, and in doing so it avoids the most important problem raised in this connection.
The major problem is not the word “myth,” though the apostolic comment in 2 Pet. 1:16 (and the general perception that, contrary to Enns’ definition, myth excludes historicity) should lead us at least to hesitate in using it. The problem is that to call the Genesis flood a myth and then to adopt Enns’ definition of myth is to gloss over one of the main questions people have in examining that story. He raises a non-issue (How can a revealed book be culturally conditioned?) and avoids a real issue (Did the flood actually take place?)
Now on 49 he suggests that the second question is not legitimate. “It presupposes… that what is historical, in a modern sense of the word, is more real, of more value, more like something God would do, than myth.” He denies that presupposition. Again, I would not claim that every genre of Scripture is “historical” in the disputed sense. And I don’t deny that there may be some things in the Bible that fit Enns’ definition of myth. But I do think that ancients as well as moderns understood the difference between a story that really happened and one that is merely a kind of parable. And sometimes, not all the time, that distinction is important. The Resurrection really happened. The Exodus really happened. God created the world, not Marduc.
Jesus’ parables do not narrate historical events in this sense, and I certainly would not claim that they are of less value on that account. But the parables, like all the rest of Scripture, are embedded in the context of a narrative that clearly makes historical claims, claims that various events really took place in geographical space and calendar time.
In making historical claims, biblical faith is, if I may say so, unique among the religions. What historical claims there are in Hinduism and Buddhism are largely irrelevant to the substance of their teachings. But biblical religion is different. I remember Prof. Norman Cantor, a Jewish Medieval historian at Princeton, saying that the reason Christianity succeeded in attracting followers while the Mystery Religions did not was its “historical claim.” It really is important to biblical faith that God acts and speaks. It is wrong to suggest that the distinction between myth and history in this sense is a “modern invention” (49).6
On 50-56, Enns uses a number of arguments to show that the ancient non-Israelite mythology is older than the Bible. This may or not be true, but I don’t understand its relevance. There are a number of possibilities here: (1) Certain events took place that were later recorded by non-Israelite ancient literatures. Later God inspired Moses, having read these, to present a more adequate version. (2) These events were first recorded by oral tradition, later in non-Israelite writings. Later God inspired Moses to write a more adequate version, based on the oral tradition. (3) These events were recorded in books from the very beginning (note the phrase “book of the generations” in Genesis). Perhaps those books themselves were inspired texts. These books were passed down to Moses, who used them (perhaps with some editing) in his own writings. Before this, non-Israelite cultures produced their own accounts, based or not on the early books. In none of these cases does the antiquity of non-Israelite mythology case any doubt on the authenticity of the Scriptural account. None of these possibilities deny that Israel’s documents were like the non-Israelite documents in significant ways.
Enns rejects all these possibilities. The only argument I can find for this rejection is on p. 52, “…it would be very difficult for someone holding such a view to have a meaningful conversation with linguists and historians of the ancient world.” I cannot see this as anything but a desire for academic respectability. Enns, like many evangelicals, wants to be invited to the table with the mainstream scholars. I don’t condemn that motive, but it does not provide any kind of argument for his hypothesis.
On 56 he returns to the uniqueness issue. Israel’s laws (56-58) are much like those of its neighbors. He says, “What makes Israel’s laws revelatory is not that they are new—a moral about-face vis-à-vis the surrounding nations—but that these are the laws that were to be obeyed in order to form Israel into a godlike community.” This formulation is fine with me. And again I wonder who it is who ever embraced the other alternative. Same for Proverbs (58-59).
On the question of bias in historical writing (59-66), I largely agree with Enns. I agree that “there really is no such thing as objective historiography” (66). It is certainly true that often Scripture doesn’t present narratives in chronological order (65f). The standards of “historical” writing in the ancient world were different from our own. Evangelicals have generally recognized this.
My conclusion is that in this first section of the book, Enns fails to present any thesis distinct from the traditional evangelical view of organic inspiration, though he seems to think he has done so. He confuses issues, however, by unclear uses of the concepts “evidence,” “myth,” and “uniqueness,” and by failing to present the relation of inspiration to historicity in any clear way.
In the second section, he argues that there is “theological diversity” in the Old Testament, but his concept of “diversity” is as confusing as was his concept of “uniqueness” in the first section. “Diversity” is a very general term. In a broad sense, everything we say is diverse from everything else we say—i.e., everything we say is different from everything else. (Another way of putting this is that everything we say is “unique.”) And when we get down to more specific uses of the term, there are many diverse kinds of diversity: diversity of perspective (two authors looking at a subject from different angles),7 diversity of emphasis, diversity of disagreement. The traditional evangelical doctrine of Scripture has never had a problem with diversities of perspective or of emphasis. It does have a problem with the idea that one part of Scripture disagrees with another; for if two assertions disagree, only one of them (at most) can be correct. If we are to discuss the doctrine of Scripture, it is very important, therefore, to define specifically the kind of diversity we find in the Bible. But Enns typically speaks of diversity in a very general way, leaving the reader confused.8 Or he speaks of diversities that no evangelical would have a problem with, then uses that agreement to suggest that we should also agree to other kinds of diversity.
But obviously we should not accept diversity of just any kind in Scripture. Our view of what the Bible is clearly excludes some kinds of diversity. Scripture does not recommend faith in Yahweh and also faith in Baal. It does not tell us to trust Jesus for our salvation and also the traditions of the Hindus. It does not tell us to be saved by faith alone and also by works. It does not say that Jesus is risen and also not risen. Enns’ vague use of “diversity” enables him to move easily between one kind of diversity and another, when wisdom would call us to stop moving and look where we are going.
He then mentions some specific examples of diversity. The first is Proverbs, which sometimes tells us apparently contradictory things: answer a fool according to his folly, and don’t answer him according to his folly. Here I largely agree with Enns’ treatment, but it’s not very different from what evangelicals have traditionally said. Proverbs is poetic, ironic. It doesn’t claim to provide prescriptions that individually can be followed in every situation. Rather, it tells us that sometimes we should do this, other times that. As he says, “it takes wisdom to know how this Proverb applies to this situation, which means an intimate knowledge of the circumstances.” Sometimes wealth is a blessing, sometimes a snare, etc. Wisdom literature, as a genre, works like this. God gives it to us so that we can work through the situations of our lives in this way. This is diversity in the sense of perspective. It raises no questions about the traditional doctrine of inspiration.
When Enns moves to Ecclesiastes, he points out that in the latter book there is an even deeper tension. Proverbs suggests that wisdom always works; Ecclesiastes points out that even wisdom is not consistently rewarded, and that we will all die anyway (76-77). Here Enns seems to think he has uncovered something more than a “perspectival” diversity. He says that we should not try to “iron out” the differences. Does this mean that Proverbs and Ecclesiastes disagree? I would have thought that the difference between Proverbs and Eccesiastes could be handled like the differences within Proverbs: as wealth is sometimes a blessing, sometimes a snare, so wisdom sometimes helps and sometimes doesn’t. But Enns’ “diversity” language leaves the nature of the problem fairly murky. I just don’t know what kind of problem I’m being asked to solve. If this is a perspectival difference, no problem at all. Otherwise, we have some conceptual work to do, even though Enns tells us (80) we really shouldn’t worry about it.
In the case of Job, Enns notes that Job’s friends espouse a theology of covenant blessings and curses similar to Deuteronomy; but they are rebuked. There are various ways of looking at this. One is to note that in fact Job’s good deeds are rewarded, just as Deuteronomy says; but it takes some time. Deuteronomy doesn’t say that good deeds are rewarded immediately, or that evil is punished immediately, though some might have that mistaken impression. Job then counteracts that mistaken impression. In the Book of Job itself, the rewards come at the end of Job’s life. But if the reader considers that even that doesn’t happen in every case, the problem leads us inevitably to consider the afterlife (however rarely this is mentioned in the OT itself) as the time when Deuteronomic justice is consummated.
Enns is right to say that the error of Job’s friends is that they appealed to the principle of covenant blessing “superficially, without sufficient knowledge of the particulars of the situation” (82). But this certainly raises no problem for the traditional doctrine of Scripture, at least in its most mature formulations.
Then he goes to the differences between Samuel-Kings and Chronicles. Here, “diversity” seems to mean a difference in emphasis, stemming from a difference in purpose. Nevertheless, he talks about this as a “tension” (85) which should be “allowed to stand” even though we “struggle” with it. This language suggests some kind of deeper problem than a mere difference in emphasis, though I suppose there are people who struggle because they construe the difference as something other than one of emphasis.
Then he suggests that there is diversity even in the Ten Commandments, illustrated by the differences between the Exodus and Deuteronomic versions. Well, the two are different in some details. They do not contradict one another. The differences are easily accounted for: the Exodus version comes from the original stone tablets, written by the finger of God (Ex. 31:18, 34:1). The Deuteronomic version is taken from Moses’ oral exhortation to Israel as they prepare to enter the promised land. Enns’ accounts of these differences (87) are generally right , and he is right to say that it is important for each generation to apply the existing law to new situations. Again, I think there is nothing here that threatens, or should be seen to threaten, the traditional doctrine of Scripture.9
On Enns’ treatment of the apparent contradiction between Ex. 20:5-6 and Ezek. 18:19-20 (88-89), I think it should be added that Exodus does not literally say that sons are punished just because the fathers have sinned. The sons, like the fathers, are members of a generation who hate God. But of course the fathers are especially to blame since the cycle begins with them. Nevertheless, Enns’ point, that Ezekiel tells us not to “hide behind the law” (a law that the returning exiles may have misunderstood) is also a point worth making.
Most of Enns’ other examples in this section are similarly unthreatening to the tradition, even when Enns seems to think that they are. I will not go over all these in detail; in most cases they deal, like those above, with the application of a revealed principle to a new situation. However, there are a few arguments of his that seem to point in a different direction:
1. If he is right on the exegesis of Ex. 12:8-9, Deut. 16:6-7, and 2 Chronicles 35:13 (91-93), there is at least an apparent contradiction as to whether the Passover lamb should be roasted or boiled. This is not just the application of an old law to a new situation; it is rather a contradiction between two biblical laws. I won’t try to criticize his exegesis here or to resolve the apparent contradiction. But this is different from the other examples Enns has mentioned, and he should have warned us. It is as if he sneaks up on us, giving us bland, noncontroversial cases of “diversity,” so that we will not be alert or alarmed when he suggests an actual contradiction in Scripture.
2. Enns suggests (96) that the marriages of Ruth, first to Mahlon, then to Boaz, literally violate the stricture of Deut. 23:3 that Moabites may not enter the assembly of the Lord.10 Perhaps they did, but this is not a contradiction in the law itself. If they violated the law, that should not be considered strange; we all violate the law. And it is significant that Scripture tells stories of a number of people who sinned greatly (such as Rahab and David) who by God’s grace became progenitors of the Messiah. I don’t understand why Enns considers this a problem or a tension. He says there is a coherence here that “transcends the level of simple statements or propositions.” Sure there is; but there is also a coherence among the statements and propositions.
The transcendent coherence Enns observes here is a movement in the Old Testament from emphases on separation from Gentiles to emphasis on integration. The stories of Ruth and Jonah are part of this, and it is certainly related to the ultimate purpose of God as presented in Gen. 12:3, Isa. 49:6, and Gal. 3:26-29. The rules mandating separation of Jews from Gentiles were temporary and for a specific purpose. It is right and important to keep this in mind when we read stories like that of Ruth. But it raises no problems for the traditional doctrine of Scripture.
3. Enns (97-102) mentions passages where it seems that the gods, other than Yahweh, are nothing, and other passages in which they seem to have some kind of existence. The traditional view is that although there are evil supernatural beings, beings that receive worship and claim to be gods, they do not deserve to be called that. This fact can be expressed either by saying that no gods (=beings that deserve to be worshiped as God) exist besides Yahweh, or by saying that those popularly described as gods do really exist, but Yahweh will certainly defeat them. I see nothing in Enns discussion that requires any reconsideration of that traditional view.
4. Enns (103-107) tells us that some passages of Scripture suggest that God cannot change his mind, and others suggest that he does. Of course, this issue has been discussed often in the literature dealing with open theism, including my book on the subject, No Other God, and my Doctrine of God. I think the Reformed tradition is comfortable with the view that God’s eternal plan is unchanging, but that when he enters the historical narrative he is a changing protagonist. (He does one thing on Monday, another thing on Tuesday.) These changes, like all changes in the created world, are governed by his unchanging eternal plan. I think that deals with the difficulties Enns alleges.
Now on 106 he urges us not to ask whether God can or cannot change his mind “as some abstract discussion.” He is not interested in what God is like “behind the scenes” or “what God isreally like.” He admits these are good questions, but he feels “bound to talk about God in the ways the Bible does, even if I am not comfortable with it.” I am very sympathetic with his concern here, as with his statement that “There is no part (of Scripture) that gets it ‘more right’ than others. Rather, they get at different sides of God…” I think we should be able to tell biblical stories without always having to make theological qualifications. There is nothing wrong with saying that God went down to Sodom to learn about the sins being committed there. The text doesn’t interrupt itself to point out that this event was part of God’s changeless plan, and there is no reason why a pastor or Sunday school teacher should have to interrupt his exposition to explain that. But the question does come up, and when it does, Christian teachers have an obligation to point out higher level explanations.
The question, though, is whether the Bible presents these two sides of God (unchanging and changing) as a kind of contradiction in which we affirm two sides without having any idea how they fit together, or whether it represents these in ways that we can at least begin to fit together. Enns doesn’t quite deny that we can fit them together, and at times he seems merely to be siding with simple Christians who are unable to reconcile these “sides of God,” but who faithfully accept both. But other times he seems to suggest it is wrong to try to explain the apparent contradiction, even if we leave the impression that it is a logical contradiction. I think there are serious dangers down that path.
With his concluding observations (107-111) about God accommodating himself to human understanding, as a kind of “incarnation” of his word in history, I have no complaints. Reformed theology since Calvin has emphasized divine accommodation, and incarnation is a legitimate way of putting that. Incarnation here is a metaphor, however, and in this sort of context we have to be more careful than Enns is about the implications we draw from that metaphor. I agree that the ultimate unity of Scripture is to be found in Christ, “not simply the words on the page” (110). But the question of the doctrine of Scripture is precisely how its overall unity in Christ is or is not reflected in the words on the page.
The Use of the Old Testament in the New
The third problem Enns discusses is the way NT writers interpret the OT. Many of us have been perplexed at some of these interpretations. For example, Enns points out that in Luke 20:34-38 Jesus quotes Ex. 3:6, “I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob,” and uses it to prove the resurrection from the dead. But Enns says, “No one reading Exodus and coming across 3:6 would think that resurrection was suddenly the topic of conversation. There God is simply announcing himself to Moses as the God of his ancestors…” (114).11
Enns summarizes his conclusions about the NT use of the OT:
1. The New Testament authors were not engaging the Old Testament in an effort to remain consistent with the original context and intention of the Old Testament author.
2. They were indeed commenting on what the text meant.
3. The hermeneutical attitude they embodied should be embraced and followed in the church today.
To put it succinctly, the New Testament authors were explaining what the Old Testament means in light of Christ’s coming. (115-16)
#1 indicates that for Enns the NT writers were not engaged in what we today call “grammatical historical” interpretation. How, then, should we describe their method and procedure? He believes that the apostles largely followed a type of hermeneutic characteristic of second temple Judaism, anticipated in the OT itself. He gives examples from noncanonical texts. In the apocryphal Wisdom of Solomon, for example, he points out some interpretations of OT passages that we would now consider erroneous,12 but which seem to come from traditional understandings existing in Israel at the time (121-128). In the Qumran community a similar kind of hermeneutic operated, but it was geared to showing that “the Bible has its ultimate and final meaning in the events surrounding the Qumran community” (129). Enns draws parallels between this approach and the NT procedure of showing that Christ is the meaning of the OT (cf. Luke 24:13-35).
He then points out some examples of NT use of the OT that don’t conform to our notions of grammatical-historical interpretation, such as the use of Hos. 11:1-3 by Matthew in 2:12-15. In each case, he argues that the NT use of the OT would be considered wrong by grammatical-historical standards, but it is justified because (1) it is similar to common uses of the OT texts during the second-temple period, and (2) it aims to present Christ as the pervasive theme of the OT. I will not discuss each of these examples,13 for Enns’ argument is clear enough without that kind of interaction.
Enns sums up his approach somewhat by saying “…the New Testament authors take the Old Testament out of one context, that of the original human author, and place it into anothercontext, the one that represents the final goal to which Israel’s story has been moving” (153). I think that even on a more conservative reading of the specific examples (like Beale’s), we can see that something like this is going on. Still, we should also note (perhaps Enns does this at some point) that the original author (whether it be Moses, David, or Hosea) is also part of the Jesus-context. So the NT writer is not really taking the OT passage out of the original writer’s context. He is, rather, moving from one part of the original context to another. It is not that the OT writer is completely removed from the “trajectory” that leads to Christ; he is part of that trajectory, but at an earlier stage. If we understand that, we would not be able to say that Matthew’s treatment of Hosea 11:1 “did not speak of Jesus of Nazareth” in its original context, as Enns does on 153. Christ was inseparable even from Hosea’s “original context.”
How should we read the OT today? Enns takes the position that we should “acknowledge the Second Temple setting of apostolic hermeneutics but discern carefully what sorts of things can and cannot carry over to today” (158). We must, then, follow the apostles in their hermeneutical goal, to show that the OT speaks of Christ. But “we cannot be limited to following them where they treat the Old Testament in a more literal fashion…, since the literal (first) reading will not lead the reader to the christotelic (second) reading” (158). He continues, “…we do not live in theSecond Temple world. What made sense back then would not necessarily make sense now.” But how do we maintain the apostles’ Christotelic approach while renouncing their Second Temple methods?
Enns offers several answers. One is that we should not make so much of “method” as many do today (160). But that is simply to reject the question as inappropriate. It would imply, I suppose, that it would be legitimate to read Scripture without any method, or with a method so loose that we could freely depart from it, which is the same thing. Then anything goes. Nobody could evaluate any interpretation as better than any other. And why would we need to have seminary professors to teach biblical interpretation?
But Enns shies away from that kind of relativism. He tries to give us guidance, e.g. by telling us that interpretation is “at least as much art as science” (161), urging us to be open to “multiple layers of meaning” so that “no one person, school, or tradition can exhaust the depth of God’s word.” Our interpretation should be “as much community oriented as it is individually oriented” (162), the community working with “the direct involvement of the Spirit of God” (162). And “perhaps we should think of biblical interpretation more as a path to walk than a fortress to be defended. Of course, there are times when defense is necessary, but the church’s task of biblical interpretation should not be defined as such” (162).
Actually, I agree entirely with the points made in the above paragraph (repeated in various ways on 170-71). Yes, interpretation, is an art, a communal walk, a fellowship with the Spirit. And yes, there are depths of meaning in Scripture.14 But Enns concedes that sometimes defense is necessary: defense of one interpretation over another. And I don’t find in Enns’ account any help for those who are called to make such defenses.
In the concluding chapter, he says that “the Bible sets trajectories, not rules, for a good many issues that confront the church” (170). Frankly, I cringe at that word “trajectories.” William Webb’s book Slaves, Women and Homosexuals15 argues that on the titular subjects we have no direct guidance from Scripture, only “trajectories,” and those trajectories permit us to espouse a rather different and better ethic than that presented in the New Testament itself. I consider that a violation of sola Scriptura, even of biblical authority.16 On such a basis, our judgments about where the biblical trajectory is moving, rather than Scripture itself, become our ethical criteria. I don’t know whether Enns buys Webb’s entire argument. I hope that he does not.
I do agree with Enns’ exhortations about “learning to listen” (171-73). I’ve published similar exhortations in a number of places. We should not deal with Enns, or any other controversial theologian, by a response motivated chiefly by fear and that fails to really hear what the person is saying. I trust that, although I disagree with Enns more than I agree with him, I have listened hard to what he is saying and have tried to deal with him fairly. And, as he urges, with humility, love, and patience (172).
I commend Enns for writing a very stimulating book, packed with useful, digestible information about Scripture and the literature of the Ancient Near East. His motive is to help the church to move away from a sort of over-defensive treatment of Scripture rigidly defined by a grammatical-historical method that Scripture itself doesn’t endorse. I applaud that as well. I do nevertheless disagree with the book more than I agree with it.
1. In regard to the “non-uniqueness” of biblical laws, institutions, and literary genres, I think the “problems” are artificially created by Enns. Most sophisticated readers of the Bible understand that it is not unique in these ways, but to my knowledge very few of these, if any, see that as posing a problem for biblical authority or interpretation. So I could simply agree with Enns on the data and then move on.
But in this section he shows an unwillingness, curious for an evangelical, to say anything about the relation of inspiration to historical factuality. When he speaks about “evidence” for this or that event, the evidence is always inductive, never an appeal to divine inspiration as evidence. Perhaps Enns thinks that inspiration is such an event that we may never appeal to it as evidence. I think that position is inconsistent with Scripture’s own view of itself.17
2. When he discusses “theological diversity” in his oddly undifferentiated way, he mostly speaks of diversities of perspective and of emphasis, diversities that ought to be entirely uncontroversial. But from time to time he slides into discussing diversities that could amount to actual disagreements between one passage and another. He refuses to discuss the implications of this for the doctrine of biblical infallibility and inerrancy. Rather he suggests that to deal with such matters would be an “abstract discussion” that we should avoid. On the contrary, I believe that these questions are the real heart of the issue.
3. In dealing with the use of the OT in the NT, Enns presents a number of examples that appear to be “eisegesis” (his word), reading into the texts. He discusses Second Templehermeneutics and Christotelic exegesis to indicate what the NT writers were doing. But the discussion quite falls apart when he gets to the question of how we today should read the OT. We should not follow a method, he says, but should walk with our community under the guidance of the Spirit. This is fine as far as it goes. But Scripture itself implies that our proclamation of the gospel should be clear and certain, distinct from and antithetical to false teaching. That is to say that the Spirit witnesses to the word, and we find the truth through his “speaking in the Scripture” (Westminster Confession of Faith 1.10). Enns certainly agrees. But he leaves us up in the air as to how in practice we should judge between true and false readings of Scripture. How can we agree communally on what the Spirit is saying to us in the Scripture, when so many sects and denominations disagree as to what he is saying?
So though I find much to agree with in this book, in the end I would not recommend it as a basic text on biblical inspiration to a seminary-level reader (let alone for the less mature). Seminarians need to study biblical inspiration in a way that motivates both humility and confidence in God’s word. The present volume says much (both legitimately and illegitimately) to motivate humility. It says nothing to promote confidence in the truth of the biblical text. That, I think, is a serious criticism.
1 At httpss://www.reformation21.org/Past_Issues/2006_Issues_1_16_/2006_Issues_1_16_Shelf_LIfe/April_2006/April_2006/166/vobId__2795/pm__392/ , discussion continuing at httpss://peterennsonline.com/ii/a-response-to-paul-helms-review-of-inspiration-and-incarnation/ and httpss://paulhelmsdeep.blogspot.com/2008/01/analysis-extra-inspiration-and.html.
2 httpss://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qa3817/is_200606/ai_n17176285, discussion continued at locations noted at httpss://theologica.blogspot.com/2008/01/enns-vs-helm-vs-beale.html.
4 “Uniqueness” is a fairly vague concept. In one sense, everything is unique. Nothing is absolutely identical to anything else, for if it were there would be not two objects, but one. But there are various levels of relative uniqueness. Clearly OT Israel is like other nations in a great many ways—too much so, according to Scripture. But it also differs with them in important ways: they worship a different God, they anticipate different promises from God, etc. It would be wise to avoid talking about “uniqueness” in a general way and rather to talk about the ways in which Israel is, and is not, unique. Then we should ask how Israel ought to be unique if it is to be considered a recipient of revelation. Enns does not make such distinctions to my satisfaction.
5 I would reply similarly to the considerations he raises on 41-43.
6 Enns himself says on 55 that “The biblical account, along with its ancient Near Eastern counterparts, assumes the factual nature of what it reports…” but he distinguishes this from a concept of truth derived from modern science. He needs to distinguish, then (1) the truth that we can gain from myth, (2) the kind of “factual truth” assumed by the biblical documents, and (3) the truth given in modern scientific historiography. Really, (2) and (3) are the only concepts that need to be distinguished; Enns’ talk about (1) is really a red herring. If there are significant differences between (2) and (3) they ought to be discussed. I am certainly open to that. But I don’t think that either (2) or (3) can do without the concept of “what really happened,” as Enns sometimes seems to suggest. Only after such a discussion will we be in a position to evaluate the “factuality” of Gen. 1-3, which Enns completely dismisses as a “modern” concern in 55-56.
7 On 73, Enns defines diversity as “the Old Testament’s different perspectives or points of view on the same topic.” “Different perspectives” raises no problem with the evangelical tradition. “Points of view” might mean the same thing; or it might suggest disagreement, as when we refer to the conservative or liberal “point of view.” Later on the same page, he speaks of “diversity at the level of factual content,” an awkward phrase that seems to indicate disagreement as to what really happened in the biblical history.
8 Note how he speaks simply of “the fact of diversity” on 108, as if all his examples exhibited the same kind of phenomenon.
9 I think that here Enns is saying the same thing I have said often in reference to the “situational perspective” in ethics and epistemology.
10 I think Deut. 7:3 is more relevant here, since it specifically mentions intermarriage.
11 It is odd that Enns, in discussing Luke 20:34-38, does not take account of Jesus’ own reasoning: “Now he is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for all live to him” (verse 38). Jesus does not claim that Ex. 3:6 is intended toteach resurrection; rather, he argues that it implies resurrection. Certainly that makes a difference as we seek to answer Enns’ question, whether Jesus’ reference to Ex. 3:6 was appropriate.
12 I think Enns is a bit quick to accuse pseudo-Solomon of error. I think that its treatment of Adam, Cain, Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph can be read in more favorable ways. But I don’t dispute Enns’ larger point, that pseudo-Solomon’s reading of the OT contains some errors and some additions to the biblical text.
14 There has been some talk lately about how this and other kinds of interpretation are consistent with Westminster Confession of Faith 1.9, which says that the sense of Scripture “is not manifold, but one.” The Confession here refers to the four-fold exegesis of the Medieval period, and it speaks against arbitrary interpretations not grounded in the text being expounded. But I cannot imagine that the Westminster Divines intended to deny that the meanings of Scripture texts are often complex, especially given the “rules for the right understanding of the ten commandments” found in the Larger Catechism, 99, and the vastly complex expositions of the commandments in 102-148. Generally I think it is unhelpful to bring the Confession into hermeneutical discussions like the present one. The Divines did not address the specific problems of modern hermeneutics. They did maintain, however, the infallibility of Scripture, and any hermeneutical theory that calls biblical infallibility into question must deal with that.
15 Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity, 2001.
16 See Wayne Grudem, “Shall We Move Beyond the New Testament to a Better Ethic?” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 47 (2004), 299-346.
17 It is curious that in a book entitled Inspiration and Incarnation there is not even a summary treatment of the concept of biblical inspiration, even in the single reference to 2 Tim. 3:16 (107). One asks again and again through the book, “how is this idea compatible with the doctrine of biblical inspiration?” Enns never deals with this kind of issue.