“Losing our religion”: a review of “The Bible Tells Me So” by Peter Enns

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By Alan Bean

Peter Enns wants to work with the Bible God gave us instead of the Bible we think God should have given us.  He wants a messy Bible that refuses to behave because that’s the only Bible we have.  The Bible isn’t history–in the modern sense of the word–it’s a book of stories written by ordinary people trying to make sense of God and the world.

And the stories in the Bible kept changing over the one thousand or so years during which the book was being compiled.

Narratives that worked for people during the reign of Old King David didn’t work after that kingdom split in two.  Stories that worked during the divided kingdom proved inadequate when the Assyrians “disappeared” the ten northern tribes.  Stories told when the southern tribes of Judah and Benjamin were keeping the dynastic dream of David alive failed to deliver the goods when the Babylonians carried God’s people into exile.

We shouldn’t be surprised that this diverse assemblage of stories produced contradictory portraits of God, dueling theologies and inconsistent moral codes.

Like most biblical scholars, Enns thinks the biblical writers were free to re-craft traditional texts to meet their own needs.  Sometimes these stories give us valuable historical information; sometimes they are pure inventions, usually they are literary inventions rooted in a smattering of historical knowledge.  For the storytellers who gave us the Bible, the issue was never what happened back then; it was always about what’s happening now.

The same pattern holds in the New Testament, Enns believes.  Jesus introduced a radical reinterpretation of his inherited faith.  The infinitely compassionate God of Jesus calls his people to live by the impossibly non-violent rules of the kingdom of God.  There are intriguing foretastes of this God in the Old Testament, but Jesus pushed inherited ideas to their logical extreme while flatly rejecting narratives and notions that conflicted with the God he called “Father”.

Enns says there is no way the kingdom ethic of Jesus can be squared with the portrait of a genocidal tribal deity in the earliest strata of the Old Testament.  The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ could put entire nations under “the ban”, demanding mass slaughter, pillage, and the enslavement of foreign peoples.  The God Jesus proclaimed would have no interest in destroying the entire human race (a single family excepted) in a great flood.

So, what does professor Enns do with the conquest of Canaan as depicted in the bloody book of Joshua?  Simple, it didn’t happen (more on that later).

Jesus sets the standard.  If we insist that Jesus and Joshua must share a common understanding of God’s character we end up signing off on genocide, and that is precisely what millions of would-be disciples are refusing to do.  Tragically, they are heading for the church exits and they aren’t coming back.  Jesus and Joshua disagree, Enns says, and twenty-first century Christians must decide whose side they’re on.

The author isn’t saying that we lop off the bits of the Bible we don’t like.  Everything in the book is 100% Bible; the book we have is the book God wanted us to have.  If God had wanted to give us a self-consistent operators manual he would have done so; but that’s not the kind of book God has given us.  Pretending the Bible is what it obviously ain’t leads us off in the wrong direction.

If you, as a good liberal, were offended by the use of male God-pronouns in the previous paragraph, you will be offended by The Bible Tells Me So.  Enns understands the ethics of inclusive language, but he doesn’t want his syntax to distract from his message.  So God is a “he” and a “him”, theological jargon is kept to a minimum, and the narrative is studded with jokes and bits of whimsy.  And there are no footnotes.

Enns could churn out oceans of terse academic prose if he wished (he has a Harvard PhD in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations for God’s sake) but he is casting a broad net with The Bible Tells me So and that demands a simple, witty, colloquial style that may strike purists as glib, annoying, or even irreverent.  The readers Enns is targeting won’t be concerned.  For reasons that will become clear shortly, this author no longer cares what the guardians of literary or theological purity think.

Enns wrote The Bible Tells Me So for potential Jesus-followers who have been taught to read the Bible as a how-to instruction manual and can’t seem to make it work.  Young people are powerfully attracted to the non-violent kingdom Jesus talked about, but wonder how Jesus fits with the stuff in the rest of the Bible which can be confusing, troubling, horrifying and downright weird.

Noah’s flood and the conquest of Canaan aren’t the only challenges Enns confronts in his latest book, but Old Testament carnage enters the discussion early and is frequently revisited.  This extended quote will give you a feel for the colloquially comic style I mentioned earlier but you will also feel the urgency behind the quips and clever asides.

Christians today . . . denounce genocide as evil.  After all, it’s hard to see Jesus, who gave his life for others, advocating the systemic extermination of a population.  Plus, he told his followers that true children of God love and pray for their enemies.

Some of Israel’s ancient prophets strummed a similar chord.  The book of Isaiah says there will be a time when Israel’s God will settle all disputes between nations without violent conflict.  Swords and spears will be forged into farming tools; war and fear among nations will cease.  All will be at peace, because the true God is a God of peace, not of war–and certainly not of an assembly-line slaughter of people from the wrong tribe.

Slight problem though.  Earlier in the Old Testament, God also orders the Israelites to (ahem) enter the land of Canaan, march from town to town, and (embarrassing shuffle of feet) wipe out their pagan inhabitants–men, women, and children–and take over their fields and live in their houses.

Then Enns shows how these blatant contradictions have marred the history of the Church.

To the Spaniards, the ‘Indians’ were simply their contemporary version of Canaanites.  The first Europeans to settle North America also tended to see it as their Promised Land and the local Native American population as Canaanites who had no divine right to the land, and their fate was similar . . .

You don’t have to be Stephen Hawking to figure this one out.  Christians, taking the Bible as a how-to book, have killed pagans, taken their land, and rejoiced in God’s goodness.  I mean, if it’s in the Bible, it can’t be bad, right?  RIGHT?

Enns then takes his readers on a whirlwind tour of biblical, God-sanctioned massacre. He shows how the Canaanites were set up as the bad guys in the biblical story from the beginning so the eventual conquest of Canaan would appear justified.

No need to be afraid to attack and kill, because God will be right there with them making sure they come up winners.  He will be at the side of the Israelite soldiers as they gut young non-Canaanite husbands and take their wives and children into slavery.  He will stand and watch as they run their swords through every living thing in Canaan: men, infants, someone’s grandmother, or pregnant wife, and even livestock.  God will be with the Israelites, pleased as they level town after town, deaf to screams and cries for mercy.

As a boy, I was bothered by the conquest of Canaan.  If God loved everybody, I asked, how come he had it in for the people of Canaan.  My interim solution carried a chillingly contemporary relevance.  There was only one holy land, the Canaanites were in that land, so God had to move them out so the chosen people (the “real” people) could have “a land flowing with milk and honey.”

I was never satisfied with this logic, but it was the best I could do with what I had.  The conquest was mentioned in Sunday school (it’s too central to the story to ignore), but the full horror was muted by a selective reading of the text.  I didn’t realize how dreadful the narrative can be until I got to seminary, and even then my professors were too polite to dwell on the obvious.

If you don’t think the commands to commit genocide in the Old Testament are a problem, just watch Pat Robertson struggle to explain why biblical genocide differs from the kind practiced by groups like ISIS:

Enns dwells on the conquest so long and hard that the most callous reader will feel the problem deep down where it hurts.  His goal is to continually ratchet up the horror until his readers are begging for a solution, a way out.  But Enns won’t provide a hint of relief until he shows us how badly the traditional solutions to the problem fail.

The Reformed tradition tells us to sit down and shut up because God’s ways transcend the comprehension of our puny minds. But “this isn’t a solution,” Enns says, “It’s simply restating the problem.”

Then he touches on a more serious response that demonstrates how impossible it is to “get” Jesus if you are forced to accept Jesus and Joshua as reflections of God’s character:

Sure, Jesus talks about loving your enemies, but Jesus also talks about throwing sinners into hell to burn forever.  Since eternal damnation is far worse than exterminating merely one ancient people for their land, the argument goes, don’t get all worked up about the Canaanites.

Enns points out that most of our ideas about “hell” spring from the medieval imagination and find no place in the Bible.  Making Jesus as bloodthirsty as the God of the conquest is no solution; in fact it’s a big part of our problem.

Nor does it help to “balance” God’s nice and nasty sides–they can’t be balanced because they stand in stark contradiction.  You don’t have to wait until the New Testament to find God’s people wrestling with the wrath-mercy contradiction; it’s right there in the Book of Jonah.

When Israel celebrated a tribal deity who vanquished their enemies, Enns points out, they were simply being what we would expect them to be: citizens of their own place and time.  It was perfectly natural for them to think of God as a tribal deity because that’s the way the nations around them pictured their gods.

The Israelites shared with their neighbors a tribal view of the world around them: We are the good guys, and all of you out there are the bad guys.  We hate you, your gods, and your strange ways.

Enns’s solution to the God problem begins by pointing out that there is no archaeological support for the conquest.  Most of the towns mentioned in biblical narrative have been thoroughly excavated and the evidence for conquest simply isn’t there.  In fact, Enns says, according to the best evidence at our disposal:

The Israelites were probably originally made up of a mixture of groups: an indigenous population of Canaanites and outsiders, likely nomads or others who wandered into this part of the world after Egyptian (to the south) and Hittite (to the north) decline left a power vacuum in the region.

Armed conflict between these peoples would have been inevitable and, Enns surmises, “as time went on and Israel became a nation (after 1000 BCE), stories of these earlier skirmishes grew and turned into exaggerated stories of Israel’s wars against the Canaanites in days of Old.”

What most everyone is certain about . . . is that the Bible’s version of events is not what happened.  And that puts the question ‘How could God have all those Canaanites put to death? in a different light, indeed.

He didn’t.

All of which leads to an obvious question.  So maybe it is natural for a tribal culture to tell stories about how their God brought them glory in battle back in the day, but if God really is like Jesus describes him, why did he allow his children to write things that weren’t so?

The answer is remarkably simple.  God lets his children tell their own stories in their own way.  God likes stories.

Like all storytellers, biblical storytellers invented and augmented dialogue, characters, and scenes to turn past moments into a flowing story–not because they were lazy or sneaky, but because that’s what all storytellers need to do to create a narrative.  They shifted and arranged the past, or wove together discrete moments, all for the purpose of telling their story for their audience.

To illustrate this point, Enns shows how the authors behind the two books of Chronicles handled the same stories we find in the two books of Kings very differently.  They weren’t correcting the earlier narratives; they were reworking these stories to meet the needs of their own place and time.

Even the origin stories in the early chapters of Genesis reflect the concerns, interests and theological challenges of a later period.  For instance, the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden foreshadows the Babylonian exile.  In both cases, the moral is the same: “Obey and you stay; disobey and be exiled.”

For the ancient Israelite storytellers, living in the shadow of the crisis of the divided monarchy and then the exile to Babylon, the takeaway point of all this is: we are still here, for the God of old, the mighty creator, the one before time, the God of ‘back then and up there’ is on our side here and now.’

The same point is made with reference to the four gospels.  Matthew and Luke depart from Mark not because he got the story wrong, but because they were applying a story they inherited from Mark to different people living with different problems and concerns.

Enns wants us to work with the Bible we’ve actually got, not the Bible we think we must have.  The Bible God gave us is the Bible God wants us to have.  Here’s the heart of the problem:

There’s an irony: the passionate defense of the Bible as a ‘history book’ among the more conservative wings of Christianity, despite intentions, isn’t really an act of submission to God; it is making God submit to us.

In its more extreme forms, making God look like us is what the Bible calls idolatry.

The Bible we have, Enns argues, proves that God loves a good story and isn’t fussy about historical precision.  The Bible we have shows that God wants us to wrestle with the hard places in our lives, asking how the God of the Bible relates to the lives we live today. “A book like that shows us what a life of faith looks like.”

A big chunk of The Bible Tells Me So is dedicated to the rich diversity of outlook, insight and aspiration found within the Bible, even within a single tradition.  The Torah ascribed to the pen of Moses contradicts itself at every turn.  Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes give us three very different takes on whether “wisdom” can be found in this wicked world.

And then we come to Jesus.

Jesus often reads his Bible in fresh ways that challenged old ways of thinking about God and what it means to be the people of God.  Specifically he often focused attention on himself, as if he was somehow not simply interpreting the Bible but that he was the Bible’s focus . . . Jesus was no rulebook reader of the Bible.  Jesus was bigger than the Bible.

And that is the critical point Enns is making: ultimately, the Bible is a book about Jesus.  If we insist that the Bible must speak with only one voice, we will try to make the teaching of Jesus consistent with the rest of the Bible.  Jesus wants to introduce a radically new way of thinking about God, but we can’t hear him until we stop worshiping the Bible.  To find Jesus, we must lose our religion.

Peter Enns wouldn’t have written a book this challenging during his sojourn as a tenured professor at Westminster Theological Seminary.  Westminster was founded in the late 1920s as a conservative (all right, fundamentalist) alternative to the “modernist” Princeton Theological Seminary.  John Gresham Machen, the schools’ most eloquent and influential founding father, envisioned an institution rooted in the Westminster Confession, a pristine expression of Reformed (Calvinist) theology.  A place for everything, and everything in its place.

Peter Enns grew up with this theology, and was tutored in its fine points as a Master’s student at Westminster in the 1980s.  But his work with Jewish professors of religion at Harvard introduced him to the wild theological variety on display in the Hebrew Scriptures.  Rather than striving for uniformity of opinion, Enns learned, Jewish theologians allowed radically opposing views to co-exist in peace.  As believers wrestled with God, and with one another, surprising truths and insights emerged.  A messy business, perhaps, but there was no other way.

After graduating from Harvard in 1994, Enns returned to his alma mater.  Westminster remained a theologically conservative school, but it prized academic rigor and the humorous and engaging Enns brought prodigious skills to the table.  He was exactly the marriage of orthodoxy and academic excellence Westminster was looking for.

And then, in 2005, Enns published Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament.  The Bible is like Jesus Christ, Enns said, fully God and fully human.  The humanity of the Bible is on display at every turn and evangelicals can admit as much without abandoning their traditional focus on the sufficiency and divine origin of the Bible.

It is likely that Enns would have escaped serious scrutiny if Westminster hadn’t hired a new president, Peter A. Lillback, a man determined to return the school to the Reformed orthodoxy of the sainted Dr. Machen.  Lillback was working on a book that portrayed George Washington, America’s first president, as an orthodox Christian.  The book, published a year after Enns’ Inspiration and Incarnation, languished in obscurity until Glen Beck stumbled upon it and began selling it to his audience as a must-read for every patriotic American.  In other words, Lillback is a Reformed version of faux historian David Barton.  What Barton did with Thomas Jefferson, Lillback has done with General Washington.

It was clear to Lillback that if his vision of Christianity was to prevail at Westminster, Enns, a natural rival if ever there was one, had to be silenced.

The seminary president’s first step was to convene a panel of professors in order to examine the theological purity of Enns’ Inspiration and Incarnation.  When the faculty gave the book a ringing endorsement, Lillback took the matter to the board of trustees, a group that, traditionally, had no dealt with matters of theological import.

Lillback knew Enns was a popular professor, but he was determined to see him gone. This quote from an article in Christianity Today, captures Lillback’s dilemma.

Inspiration and Incarnation has caught the attention of the world so that we have scholars that love this book, and scholars who have criticized it very deeply.  We have students who have read it say it has liberated them. We have other students that say it’s crushing their faith and removing them from their hope. We have churches that are considering it, and two Presbyteries have said they will not send students to study under Professor Enns here.”

Westminster Seminary circa 2005 was a microcosm of American evangelicalism. Many evangelicals will read The Bible Tells Me So (a book far more provocative than the volume that got Enns in trouble at Westminster) with a mix of relief and elation; others, sensing where the argument is headed, will lay the book down after a couple of chapters.  It is significant that two-thirds of the professors at Westminster Theological Seminary had no beef with the theology of Peter Enns and that the nine trustees who supported the popular professor resigned in protest when he was sacked.

The bold thesis advanced in The Bible Tells Me So will be rapturously embraced by thousands of American Christians and I am one of these people.  Enns has admirably summarized the rough scholarly consensus about the Bible and I hope his particular emphasis on the the conquest of Canaan and the character of God will spark a debate too long deferred.

But official evangelicaldom will recoil from TBTMS with horror and revulsion.  If Enns is right about the Bible we will have to rethink our Christianity from the ground up, and when we are done we will find ourselves in a brave new world of faith and practice.

The men (and they are almost all men) who run the megachurches, parachurch ministries, and flagship academies of American evangelicalism will be forced to damn Peter Enns as a godless heretic (the Grand Inquistor story from The Brothers Karamazov comes to mind).  To quote Upton Sinclair, ‘It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

If Enns wins, the theory of biblical inerrancy is finished as a bedrock doctrine.  Since American evangelicalism is an edifice built on an inerrant Bible it must reject not just the author’s ideas but the author himself.  “Let him be anathema,” will be the cry.

A new kind of Christianity is emerging in America, but, as yet, it has received very little institutional support.  Can existing congregations, evangelical or mainline, debate the merits and demerits of Enns’s thesis; or will pastors continue to ignore the hermeneutical elephant in the room?  These ideas will be debated online, but few preachers, however much they love Peter’s book, will be willing to spark the necessary conversation.

But the conversation is happening nonetheless.  If there had been an internet when I was struggling with the conquest of Canaan as a wee lad, I might have worked my way out of the evangelical straight jacket much sooner.  In most urban settings, the right pastor could fill a new congregation with hundreds of young seekers eager for a real conversation about the real Jesus.  I don’t know of any denominations ready to support these hypothetical churches . . . which may point to the need for new, post-denominational, webs of support.

I have no beef with a high view of biblical inspiration, so long as that doctrinal commitment doesn’t dull the message Jesus injected into the world.  I know of many Christians with impeccable conservative credentials who appear to be hearing Jesus loud and clear inerrant Bible and all.  May their tribe increase.  So long as the Jesus of the Bible stands at the heart of Christian piety, it doesn’t matter how we regard the Bible.

But most of us can’t find Jesus until we lose our religion.  If we must believe that every chapter and verse of the Bible is the inspired, inerrant, infallible Word of God, we will be tempted to add Conquest to Christ and divide by two.  Sure, we rarely talk about the God of the Conquest; we no longer believe in that kind of a God.  But we can’t open ourselves to the miraculous dynamism of Jesus either.  The Galilean contradicts the tribal God of Joshua so emphatically that he must be exaggerating for effect.  Because, like it or not, every gory detail of the conquest depicted in Joshua is true in every detail and reflects, in some twisted way we can’t quite grasp, the character of God.

That’s why I am thankful for Peter Enns.  I’m glad he addressed the elephant in the room.  I’m glad he eschewed academic jargon and learned footnotes.  I’m glad he had the courage to reveal the humorous side of this debate (from God’s perspective, our attempts at theology must be hilarious).  I’m glad Enns chose to express himself in simple, proletarian English.

And I hope the backlash against The Bible Tells Me So will be so over the top that millions of young people will wonder what the fuss is all about and pick up this wonderful book.

31 thoughts on ““Losing our religion”: a review of “The Bible Tells Me So” by Peter Enns

  1. I’d like to read the book. I agree we need books that deal with biblical studies written in non-technical non-theological language. The title (without the subtitle) may attract some readers who are “defenders of the faith once delivered to all the saints.” And that’s good. They need to read this; maybe a few will be persuaded. And the title (with the subtitle) may attract some who are not defenders of infallibility/inerrancy. They need to read it too. I am not optimistic that the backlash will be so over the top that millions of young people will pick up this book to see what all the fuss is about. I remember an OT prof at dear old Southern Seminary saying, during the Elliott controversy of the early ’60s, that the battle of the Bible was basically over, and that the fundamentalists had lost. “Oh there’ll be a few skirmishes,” he said, “and a few people [like Ralph Elliott] will get killed, but basically the fight is over.” And what did he know? His school (and mine) then on the vanguard of progressive thought (though no one called it that in those long ago days) has been transformed into a bastion of fundamentalism, even to the extent of defending a 6,000 year old earth, give or take a decade or two. At that time the president of New Orleans Baptist Seminary was reportedly defending Bishop Usshers chronology (the earth was created on October 4, 4004 BC at 10:00 AM Greenwich time.)

  2. If I’d written a book on the Bible this would have been it! Thank you to Peter Enns for reflecting so clearly what I’ve come to believe over recent years.

  3. With Enns coming from a Calvinist background and not holiness doctrine, it doesn’t surprise me he has an issue with a ‘Holy’ God paradigm. Without the Old Testament reality of a Holy God demanding holiness from His people there is no need for Jesus of the Bible even Enns view. It seems cowardly and narcisstic to throw stones at those who believe in a literal hell and absolute truth then say my truth is the real reality. Without a Holy God who is just even in punishments eternal life versus eternal punishment we are all our own god’s. Enns and many are in for a rude awakening when the bubble we live in the United States pops and Isis or other unholy man made doctrines begin to have more influence similar to Enns. Yes, put me in with the crowd who think Enns is a heretic remaking sound doctrine to soothe his fragile ego and sensibilities. Enns book will come and go but the Word of God will stand forever and those who have humbled themselves before a Holy God in reverence and fear with repentance will not only inherit eternal life but escape eternal damnation in a literal hell. If I’m wrong no worries, if Enns is wrong many will fall away by his false hubris teaching.
    John 15 is a great framework for a balanced approach to holiness doctrine that allows for the mercy and justice of God. The Old Testment walking in Gods presence under His laws was a way of abiding and there was consequences for not responding to His call to holiness. Under the new covenant abiding in the Holy presence of Jesus bearing fruit to a holy life is the call to holiness. When we, like Enns is suggesting, take away the holy wrath of God we remove ourselves from the flow of the Holy presence of God into our lives suggesting we are our own god. We lose all power or ability to see the supernatural transforming power of ethical change from God resulting in a wilted useless branch disconnected from God worthy to only be thrown out. We must not trample the Word of God.

  4. One of the best reviews I’ve read so far about a much needed book. Well done and I loved the book.

  5. Amazing review! If I ever write a book, I’ll want you to either write it, edit it or review it!

  6. “A new kind of Christianity is emerging in America, but, as yet, it has received very little institutional support. Can existing congregations, evangelical or mainline, debate the merits and demerits of Enns’s thesis; or will pastors continue to ignore the hermeneutical elephant in the room?”

    Huh? Why is this “a new kind of Christianity” if its exactly what they’ve been teaching at Princeton Seminary (nevermind Harvard) for decades? Isn’t this garden-variety mainline Protestant understanding of the Bible?

  7. Princeton and Harvard don’t stress the centrality of Jesus or the coat of discipleship. The new Christianity I am talking about honors critical scholarship, but only as a tool for interpretation. The goal is to see the world through the eyes of Jesus. I wish that was the primary interest of the Protestant mainline, but I’m not convinced it is.

  8. Adam Hamilton is pastor of THE leading United Methodist congregation in the US. That’s mainline. In “Making Sense of the Bible” he honors critical scholarship as a too for interpretation. He writes in non-technical language. I expect if you put him and Enns side by side, you would find broad agreement. Hamilton is catching some flak from the UM right, but his church gives too much to UM causes for their criticism to gain much ground.

  9. Yet Jesus himself endorsed the Genesis account of the days of Noah, and some of the more troubling teachings about the anguish of hell come from his lips. Certainly the Old Testament prophets, with their concern for mortal men and mortal kingdoms did not spend too much time on an afterlife. I suppose Peter Enns simply pretends Jesus never said that either. I suspect that if we edited the Bible based on Peter Enns’ likes and dislikes we’d have a much smaller book.

    Yes, the gospel writers used memories of Jesus’s life in different ways depending on their focus and their audience, as the writers of Kings and Chronicles did for the period they were writing about. The Bible is history as story, as you’d expect from an oral culture where writing was an aid to memory, not a replacement for it.

    The Hebrews were kept from Canaan until the Canaanite’s iniquity was complete, until their sin had accumulated to the point that God could no longer overlook it. That may have been as long as 400 years (as if God delayed punishment on America until 2414), then God used the Hebrews as a scourge to punish Canaan, as he later used other nations to punish Israel for similar sins. In a collective culture you lived and died with the tribe, so the language of “total extermination” is entirely appropriate. Even then, given it took decades, even centuries until the time of David, for the Hebrews to take all of Canaan it’s doubtful that that language was ever intended to be taken literally. Rahab tells us that the Canaanites were in terror of the Hebrews, so it’s likely as time went by the majority simply left for other lands. Israel just having to clean up the hardened remnants. We have the burned remnants of Joshua’s Jericho (although Kathleen Kenyon misdated it), and the main reason we don’t find large scale building change is for the most obvious of reasons. If someone has vacated a perfectly good house you don’t knock it down and build another one, you go live in it.

    It appears that Peter Enns’ imagination only works for producing scenarios that don’t allow the Bible to be correct in what it says.

    Remember inerrancy only means that the Bible is without error when considered in the culture of the people that wrote it. If they record something that is intended to be taken as rhetoric and polemic rather than with wooden literalism then it is not a threat to inerrancy. Likewise, if retelling a story with a different perspective is normal practice for that culture it is not a threat to inerrancy.

    Basically Enns is simply equating American fundamentalist wooden literalism with inerrancy, claiming the Bible doesn’t fit the requirements of wooden literalism, then claiming that inerrancy is refuted. All he has managed to demonstrate is that wooden literalism is not a good way to approach any text, especially an ancient one. Inerrancy is a far more subtle doctrine than that.

    I’d speculate about his motivations for doing so, but then I prefer to leave that sort of thing to the higher critics.

  10. Skipping all the supernatural stuff, I am a Christian because Jesus personifies kindness and caring for the welfare of people. I like simple.

  11. Jason, I think it would help if you read Peter’s book. He isn’t saying that we should throw out any part of the Bible. You can’t understand the teaching of Jesus, for instance, unless you understand the tradition in which he stands. Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” Unless you understand the tribal religion with its clear division between us and them, you won’t realize that Jesus is changing the rules. Moses said this; but I say something very different. There is a theological strain, beginning with the creation narrative, moving through God’s intention to bless all nations through Abraham, and culminating in the prophetic vision of swords beat into plowshares that Jesus took to its logical, and theological, conclusion. And there is another tradition in the Old Testament that advocates genocide, divorcing foreign wives, and a distinct wall between Jew and Gentile. Jesus chose the first tradition and amplified it. If we believe that Jesus is truly the Son of God, we must go with him on this, and we must go with him all the way. Making this point is not about subtracting the texts we don’t like: the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness of Joshua makes the light even more brilliant. The Bible is no longer inerrant (unless you drain that theological term of all meaning), but it is all revelatory. Every word of Scripture is inspired by the Holy Spirit, including those teachings that Jesus clearly and unambiguously rejects. The Bible is a debate, and Jesus, in some respects, provides the concluding argument. Christians go with Jesus; that’s why they call us Christians. When we want to honor both the teaching of Jesus and make a place in the heart of God for genocide we are no longer following Jesus. We don’t really reckon with the sheer horror of “the ban” (as some of the comments above suggest), and we can’t really take Jesus at his word. We are betwixt and between and we lose our witness. That needs to change.

  12. Enns just double talks his way through. He’s the Bishop Spong of Scripture. The U.S. theological conspiracy club keeps the fairy tale alive.

  13. I am amazed that we all forget the scripture that all scripture is given by inspiration of the Holy Ghost.(2 Timothy 3 v 16) The gentlemen seems to have an issue with judgment and genocide. So the Creator is not allowed to destroy the nations he creates that after time practice child sacrifice and demon worship. In Noah’s day where there were no morals and man had become a total slave to sexual sin.- What is the righteous God of Heaven and Earth meant to do? This gentlemen s type of religious pacifism will allow Isis to come and take america without a shot being fired because ‘God does not judge sin and wickedness’ according to this man. I wonder ho angry and retaliatory he would be if he saw his people being slaughtered like we have seen thousand of “Boere” in South Africa since 1994.
    He would not submit to the authority of the ‘Word’ he wants to control it. He obviously has the historical knowledge of Israel and the beginning of time and Godly wisdom, that we dear mortals are too deaf and blind to exercise.

  14. Except Alan, Moses didn’t say that. Leviticus 19:18 says love your neighbour as yourself, it doesn’t go on to say hate anyone. It is the culmination of God commanding his people to demonstrate loving kindness to everyone within their community.

    That is why Jesus adds the qualifier, “you have heard it said”. It was not something taught by Moses, it was something added to Moses by the teachings of men. To the extent Jesus was a radical, he was a radical Jew, calling people to a Judaism free of the distortions added by men. When he disagreed with Moses it was because Moses didn’t go far enough. Moses allowed divorce under certain circumstances, and certain teachers of the law had played the “any reason” card to allow divorce for any reason. Jesus (in agreement with Hillel) clarified that only adultery was grounds for divorce. Moses said love your neighbours, Jesus said love your enemies too (Chesterton observed that that was probably because they were the same people). There are not two traditions, there is only one.

    Solomon had many pagan wives, and they turned his heart to foreign gods. Israel didn’t have a good record of keeping their foreign wives from leading them to worship pagan gods. From that perspective separating themselves was the necessary thing to do.

    When God declares judgement on a wicked nation, as he did many times with Israel, it is up to him to determine the punishment, and the means by which it is inflicted. Against Israel he used the Moabites, the Assyrians, the Babylonians and the Romans, culminating in the complete destruction of the nation of Israel after the Bar Kochba rebellion. Was the destruction of Israel genocide? Certainly many were killed, but others were taken as slaves to Rome, and others simply driven out of the land. The language of complete destruction can be hyperbolic.

  15. Well, in reading a third of this so far my burning statement/question to write before I finish is, “Jesus read the Old Testament scripture available to Him when He was here on earth. If there was something wrong with it then wouldn’t He have corrected it? Paul, alive during Jesus ministry and eventually selected by Jesus to be an Apostle, was a Old Testament scholar. Again, if he found anything wrong with the scripture then don’t you think he would have corrected it?” Also, what seems to be a good presentation of why that which took place in Canaan did is spelled out clearly in Phil Vischer’s What’s In The Bible series. I might detail that later here if anyone is interested. There is reason. Also, also , I am just reading Gideon. God doesn’t seem too Christ-like when it comes to sparing Mideanites or Amalekites.

  16. A couple of things, Jason. First, Enns isn’t saying there’s anything wrong with the Bible. The problem lies in our expectations of the Bible, what it is and how it should behave. Secondly, do you not see that the fact that Gideon “wasn’t very Christlike” means that we must look to Christ, not Gideon when considering the place of violence? There is an important difference between Gideon and Joshua, however, in the sense that Gideon was protecting land from an invader while Joshua was the invader.

  17. The conversation here ought to point out that we live today in different cultures, different tribes. Some are indeed choosing to paint epicycles upon epicycles to justify “inerrancy” that didn’t exist until it became a shibboleth to separate out the other tribe. One of these attempts was the Oxford Movement. In the face of apostasy they intended a might fortress. But the fortress is Christ, not the Bible and so the effort is as doomed as a Scalia or Bork’s Originalism … which picks and choses which tree is absolutely vital while missing the forest, which tribal members are the chosen while missing the Body of Christ. Jesus himself does Midrash with the Torah. Some of our debates reminds me of a couple symbols from America: Flute Boy and Kokopelli. Our popular art takes the image of Flute Boy and the story of Kokopelli and sticks them together. Does anyone think that the Norse story of Loki was told in order to show how to behave? So also the figure of Kokopelli (a fertility trickster god) was shown to teach people how NOT to behave. We would be impoverished culturally if we stripped out the bad stuff like Marcion. The sadder impoverishment is when we forget that the larger point of obedience before sacrifice will be discovered in our own cries of “Crucify him”. Embracing violence, even against God, seems to be a choice our cultures have long made … and in doing so, we have embraced idolatry even as the people of Israel did. Forgiven but not perfect. It isn’t the whole picture but it is a needful part when today our cultures embrace a commercial form of Manifest Destiny in our offices every day. It is our justification for paying ourselves twice at the expense of the poor.

  18. Well Alan, we see here some of the over-the-top backlash against the book by people who have probably never read it. I hope it does provoke some people into reading the book (both Enns’ and the Book) to see what all the fuss is about.

  19. Reminds me of Jethro Tull
    …1 In the beginning Man created God; and in the image of Man created he him.
    …2 And Man gave unto God a multitude of names,that he might be Lord of all the earth when it was suited to Man
    …3 And on the seven millionth day Man rested and did lean heavily on his God and saw that it was good.

  20. I haven’t read the book, but I read your review and have a question about this statement: “The Israelites were probably originally made up of a mixture of groups: an indigenous population of Canaanites and outsiders, likely nomads or others who wandered into this part of the world after Egyptian (to the south) and Hittite (to the north) decline left a power vacuum in the region.” Why does the author not want to use the Bible’s own explanation of the Israelites being descendents of Abraham as the definition of who made up that population?

  21. Shelly, as my review indicates, Enns doesn’t accept the biblical account of Israel’s origins because it appears to contradict archaeological evidence, and because it was written from a tribal perspective in which God protects us while demanding genocide for our enemies. If this tribal perspective reflects Israel’s earliest attempts to reckon with divine reality, then it follows that God favors them over all their enemies. But if, as Jesus teaches, all us-them categories must be dispensed with because God plays no favorites, then the origin stories in the Old Testament, which are inseparable from us-them thinking, are best understood as an initial stab at making sense of God and the world. Jesus, it appears, reached very different conclusions (as did Isaiah, the author of Jonah and several other conversation partners in the Old Testament). I hope that answer doesn’t muddy the waters even more. The best solution is to read Enns books so you will have his take and not my, highly subjective, interpretation of his interpretation of the Bible.

  22. Alan, thanks for this review–I really need to read this book and follow Enns’ work more closely. (As a former professor at an evangelical college, I know all about the institutional pressures you were talking about, alas!) I have a couple of issues with Enns’ position as you describe it–I’m not convinced, for instance, that “tribal genocidal deity” is an adequate description of the picture of God in the parts of the OT that describe the conquest of Canaan, and I’m not convinced that hell can just be blamed on the poor old Middle Ages. But I need to read the book, and fundamentally I agree with the thesis as you’re describing it.

    I think you’re too hard on the mainline, though. I don’t know where you are coming from, but I have found that many evangelicals who become disillusioned with evangelicalism are still influenced by evangelical stereotypes of the mainline as a lifeless conglomerate of stuffy institutions that have a form of godliness but deny its power. I grew up with those stereotypes too, but I’ve been Episcopalian since 1998 and I have found plenty of spiritual life in the Episcopal Church, and plenty of focus on Jesus. Recently, I played the organ for a month for an extremely liberal church in Berea, Kentucky (Union Church), and was impressed, again, with the spiritual vitality of that congregation. The mainline that fits the stereotype really is dying, but in the ruins there’s a lot of life stirring. I wish disgruntled evangelicals would give the mainline a more serious look instead of trying, yet again, to reinvent the wheel. The rhetoric of “a new kind of Christianity” is exciting, I know, but we’ve seen it over and over and over again since the Reformation. I’m pretty disillusioned with it, myself (so much so that I am in the process to become Catholic, although I continue to have some misgivings, mostly about the effect conversion would have on my family).

  23. Thank you for your thoughtful reflection, Edwin. I am not down on the mainline, per se, nor am I necessarily opposed to conservative evangelicalism. If you are happy in the Anglican fold, that’s wonderful. When I speak of a new kind of Christianity, I am not suggesting that everyone will want to play or that it will be easy to create institutions around this new way of thinking. I am simply saying that there are a whole lot of potential disciples out there who need help making sense of the Bible. We are losing these people and, more to the point, they are losing Jesus. My beef with most mainline churches is that they accommodate the faith to an upper middle class perspective as opposed providing a genuine Christian counter culture to emerge. The Roman Catholics, for the most part, have the same problem.

  24. You stated in a reply: “Enns doesn’t accept the biblical account of Israel’s origins because it appears to contradict archaeological evidence, and because it was written from a tribal perspective in which God protects us while demanding genocide for our enemies.”

    So Enns and others get to determine what is true and not true accounts in the Bible? This does lean close if not completely into the Marcion heresy. Sure, Enns tries playing it safe that one has to accept the “whole Bible” as God’s Word. Yet, we see that in reality, Enns does not bend the knee to God’s Word until man made science and archeology first states that it is okay to do so. To make the claim that this is some “tribal” account, one sure does need to do some hermeneutical gymnastics.

    In other words, Marcion took the direct route in cutting off the OT whereas Enns and sadly others are going about the insidious ways of denouncing the authority of the text from within.

  25. The comparison to Marcion is natural, but not really on point. Marcion believed that the God of the Old Testament wasn’t the Abba Jesus talked about but was a demiurge, a kind of junior god that the High God used to create the world (a gnostic idea). He also rejected the Old Testament more or less completely. Enns thinks there is only one God, and that God has always been the Abba-Father Jesus preached. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the biblical accounts of the conquest of Canaan lack historical veracity since they associate intentions and attitudes with God that cannot be squared with the teaching of Jesus. The critical point is that the biblical account of the conquest remain Holy Scripture. The story is revelatory and helps us understand God and the world, just not in the way we might have imagined. If our defense of the Bible makes God look less loving than Jesus said God is, we’ve got a problem.

  26. If anyone has not yet already dismiss Enns this is a great reason to. He just doesn’t understand what he is talking about.

  27. Enns points out that most of our ideas about “hell” spring from the medieval imagination and find no place in the Bible.

    Really? Admittedly what Jesus is reported to have said is not consistent – sometimes it suggests those who are judged unworthy of heaven will simply be destroyed, sometimes that they will suffer eternal torment – but there’s certainly enough of the latter, and neither particularly suggests the attitude one would expect of a loving father, or even a minimally decent one. Here’s a collection of the words attributed to Jesus concerning hell and the day of judgement, taken from Greta Christina.

    Matthew 5:22: “But I say to you that every one who is angry with the brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council; and whoever says ‘You fool!’ shall be liable to the hell of fire.” (Sermon on the Mount, said to the crowds)

    Matthew 5:30: “And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go to hell.” (ditto above)

    Matthew 10:28: “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (said to disciples)

    Matthew 10:34: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have come not to bring peace, but a sword.” (ditto)

    Matthew 11:21-22, Jesus: “Woe to you, Chorazin! woe to you, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it shall be more tolerable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you.” (said to crowds in cities, for not repenting when they saw his miracles)

    Matthew 11:23: “And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You shall be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you that it shall be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you.” (ditto above)

    Matthew 12:31-32: “Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. And whoever says a word against the Son of man will be forgiven; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.” (this is the Blasphemy Challenge thing, said to Pharisees when they said Jesus cast out demons because he was a demon himself, not by the Holy Spirit)

    Matthew 12:33-34: “I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” (ditto)

    Matthew 12:41: “The men of Nineveh will arise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.” (said to scribes and Pharisees, on people not repenting when they heard his preaching and saw his works)

    Matthew 13:30: “Let both (wheat and weeds) grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.” (said to crowds — explained later in 13:40-42)

    Matthew 13:40-42: “Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the close of the age. The Son of man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and evildoers, and throw them into the furnace of fire; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.” (said to disciples, in explanation of previously quoted parable which was said to crowds)

    Matthew 13:49-50: “So it will be at the close of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous, and throw them into the furnace of fire; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.” (said to disciples in explanation of a different parable)

    Matthew 18:8-9: “And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life maimed or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire..” (said to disciples)

    Matthew 22:2, 11-13: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a marriage feast for his son
 But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment; and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, an cast him into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.’” (said to priests and Pharisees)

    Matthew 23:15: “Wie to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you traverse sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.” (spoken to crowds and disciples, about scribes and Pharisees)

    Matthew 23:33: “You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?” (ditto above)

    Matthew 24:48-51: But if that wicked servant says to himself, ‘My master is delayed,’ and begins to beat his fellow servants, and eats and drinks with the drunken, the master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know, and will punish him, and put him with the hypocrites; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.” (said to disciples; part of a long passage replying to the question, “What will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age?”)

    Matthew 25:30: “And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.” (ditto)

    Matthew 25:41: “Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” (ditto — this is the parable of the sheep and the goats)

    Matthew 25:46: “And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (ditto above)


    Mark 4:28-29: “Truly I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the sons of men, and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemies against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.” (said to scribes — this is the Blasphemy Challenge part again)

    Mark 9:43-48: “And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, where the worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched. For every one will be salted with fire.” (said to disciples)


    Luke 10:11-15: “Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off against you; nevertheless know this, that the kingdom of God has come near. I tell you, it shall be more tolerable on that day [Judgment day] for Sodom than for that town. Woe to you, Chorazin! woe to you, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. But it shall be for you more tolerable in the judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And to you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to Heaven? You shall be brought down to Hades.” (said to disciples — not to the 12 but to 70 sent to prepare the way for him in towns he was about to go into, about cities that didn’t repent when they saw his miracles)

    Luke 11:32: “The queen of the South will arise at the judgment with the men of this generation and condemn them; for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here. The men of Nineveh will arise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.” (said to crowds, again about people who didn’t repent when they saw his miracles)

    Luke 12:8: “And every one who speaks a word against the Son of man will be forgiven; but he who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven.” (again the blasphemy thing, but this time it’s spoken to the disciples, and not in the context of getting mad at the Pharisees for denying that he used the Holy Spirit to cast out a demon, but just in the context of explaining to the disciples how things were going to be)

    Luke 12:49: “I came to cast fire upon the earth; and would that it were already kindled!” (said to disciples, about Judgment day)

    Luke 13:2-5: “And he answered them, ‘Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered thus? I tell you, No; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen upon whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, No; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish.’” (said to multitudes)

    Luke 13:23-34, & 27-28: “”And some one said to him, ‘Lord, will those who are saved be few?’ And he said to them, ‘Strive to enter by the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able. But he (God) will say, ‘I tell you, I do not know where you come from; depart from me, all you workers of iniquity!’ There you will weep and gnash your teeth.” (said to crowds)

    Luke 16:22-29: “The poor man died, and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried; and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes, and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus [the poor man] in his bosom. And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy upon me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in anguish in this flame. But Abraham said, ‘Son, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’ And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.’” (said to Pharisees)

    Luke 17:28-29: “but on the day when Lot went out from Sodom fire and sulphur rained from heaven and destroyed them all — so it will be on the day when the Son of man is revealed.” (said to disciples)

    Luke 21:22: “for these are the days of vengeance, to fulfill all that is written.” (said – I think, it’s a little unclear – to disciples in hearing of crowd)

    Luke 22: 31: “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat” (said to disciple Simon – the “sifting like wheat” reference is about judgment day being like separating the wheat from the weeds)


    John 5:22, 26-29: “The Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son. For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself, and has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of man. Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come forth, those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment.” (said to “the Jews” — not specified which ones, but in context it may be the Pharisees, or it may simply be the crowd)

    John 10:39: “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may become blind.” (said to blind man whose eyesight he cured)

    John 12: 48: “He who rejects me and does not receive my sayings has a judge; the word that I have spoken will be his judge on the last day.” (not clear who this is said to or about)

    John 15:6: “If a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned.” (said to disciples)

    John 16:8-11: “And when he (the Counselor, a.k.a. the Holy Spirit) comes, he will convince the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no more; concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged.” (ditto)

  28. As a 70-something former fundamentalist Baptist and evangelical I read Peter Enns’ book with great delight, finding conclusions there which I had come to in an extended roundabout way. I am reminded of something I read in one of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s books, that the Bible (for him the Old Testament) is God’s’ revelation and man’s response. My opinion: that it is man’s response, yet shows and teaches us the character of God.

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