The Bible has been a part of my life as long as I can remember.
I don’t know how many I’ve owned over the years, but I feel that I’ve always perceived it one way: it’s God’s word, given to us from heaven, good for everything that we can ever come across.
Of course, that general view has been slightly altered at different times, but it’s generally been that way. However, in recent months, I’ve begun asking some questions about the Bible that I never asked before, and honestly, was afraid to ask.
Is all of it really from God? Should we trust every single word? Are there errors? Are some of the instructions and commandments morally or spiritually wrong?
It’s in that backdrop that I read Pete Enns’ “How the Bible Actually Works: In Which I Explain How an Ancient, Ambiguous, and Diverse book Leads Us to Wisdom Rather than Answers — and Why That’s Great News.” It’s available worldwide later this month, and you can read more about it here.
I’ll cover how I view it as a piece of literature — because I’m a writer, I have to do that — and then I’ll tackle the theological points posited.
Enns is a professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in Pennsylvania and host of the podcast “The Bible for Normal People.” His background includes Old Testament interpretation and a doctorate in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations from Harvard, and it shows, but in a way that’s digestable.
You might think a book that covers deep theological topics and translation issues might be difficult to read, and that would be perfectly understandable. I bet there are few Christian books that really cover those issues in the way that Enns does. He uses comparisons to his mailman, the New York Yankees and parenthood to get across his points, making the subject matter relatable and accessible. Enns also employs humor quite well most of the time, making even the footnotes worth the read for whatever fun fact might be found.
Enns flows from topic to topic fairly seamlessly, and it’s a fairly enjoyable read, but I do have one qualm with his writing. He often uses the word “reimagining” when it should be a different word, like “re-imaging,” that might get across his point better. And that brings us into the theological part of this review.
Enns’ point is best summed up this way: each book of the Bible was written to fit the culture in which it was written and is best used as a guide for wisdom, not a step-by-step instruction manual that provides a how-to for being a Christian.
When processed, that thought might be difficult for many Protestant Christians. After all, the Bible has been taught to us as God’s word, given to us, completely inspired and inerrant, perfect and completely applicable to us now. To take a different tact than that is in and of itself bold, but Enns’ argument is worth a listen.
Enns argues that the Bible is ancient, ambiguous and diverse, which means that we can’t take each and every command and directive and make it mean the same today as it did when it was written. He says that the Bible itself and the Jewish and Christian traditions that follow it have had the adaptive approach of what God was seen to be, a “reimagining” of who God is.
In the end, Enns says, that’s what his book and the Bible itself is about, seeing who God is through the lens of the author and their experiences and the culture around them. After all, we all do it.
“God is relentlessly reimagined all around us,” he writes. “American Christians have imagined God as feminist, environmentalist, capitalist, refugee, soldier, Republican, Democrat, socialist, and on and on. Some portraits of God I agree with more than others (and let the debates begin), but the act of reimagining God in ways that reflect our time in place is self-evident, unavoidable, and necessary” (157).
Enns cites seeming contradictions in the Bible as examples of that, not the least of which is a couple Christians today take for granted.
The Old Testament seems to describe the coming Messiah as a new king of Israel that will rule over its enemies and provide a land for them. The New Testament re-images that Messiah as Jesus Christ, the self-proclaimed Son of God whose kingdom is not of earth, but of a different realm (John 18:36).
The Old Testament commands that followers of Yahweh make animal sacrifices and men to be circumcised. In the New Testament, Paul re-images what God asks of His followers by saying we need to be circumcised of heart and that the sacrifice of animals was replaced by the eternal and sealing sacrifice of Jesus (just read all of Hebrews).
The practical outworking of some of these contradictions Enns presents, which he acknowledges, is that God is not the direct word-for-work speaker of these passages. It is the authors utilizing their wisdom, which the Bible provides, to re-image God for the time they live in.
Side note: Enns uses the term “reimagine,” which I feel doesn’t accurately capture his point. “Reimagine” almost intimates creating something new, while “re-imaging” means developing a new understanding of. I feel “re-imaging” is more to his point, but that’s just a small quarrel I have.
Anyway, this becomes a challenge for the evangelical reader that might pick up this book. Enns has been criticized in the past for his perspectives on the Bible, particularly his hint toward a lack of God-direct inspiration.
And I can understand the criticisms. Some of his arguments in How the Bible Actually Works seem a bit stretched to cover the Bible as a whole while they may only just apply to that one passage. And he consistently says something the effect of “and there are many more examples” without providing a list or passages to go to.
Perhaps this is an academic’s attempt to make his thoughts accessible to a common audience, and I don’t blame him for trying.
Something else that will also lose some audience is a failure to handle the verse most Christians go to, 2 Timothy 3:16, as the basis for their interpretation of Scripture.
Not One Way or the Other
I firmly believe that Enns doesn’t have the same perspective of the Bible as many people I know or those I grew up around. But I do believe his perspective can fit in or even go with most of what evangelical Christianity believes.
We generally believe that each book of the Bible needs to be read in the context of who wrote it, where it was written, when it was written, etc. So we don’t apply each of the Old Testament laws, but try to glean wisdom from them as necessary.
We also try often to understand what God or Jesus would say or think about a certain issue. We do it every time we answer a “why” question about a piece of Scripture that doesn’t have an obvious answer. Why does Paul say this, or why does David imply that?
I don’t think evangelical Christians need to completely dismiss Enns’ view out of hand. I think you can believe the tale of Jonah is a fictional account meant to encourage Israelites to accept outsiders and realize God cares for Gentiles, as Enns suggests, and still inspired by God.
And I think most, if not all, Christians can abide by Enns words near the end of the book:
“Whatever else we do, and especially with issues that generate so much conflict, wisdom must be pursued by all and invited to take a prominent place in these discussions — if only so that they may remain discussions and not an exercise in lobbing back and forth ‘clear’ Bible verses as grenades. Using Bible verses to end discussions on difficult and complex issues serves no one and fundamentally misses the dimension of wisdom that is at work anytime we open the Bible anywhere and read it.”
*Note: I received a free copy of the book from HarperOne as part of the book’s launch team. Thanks for that and for the encouragement of those who were part of the team, who encouraged me more than they know.