How the Bible Actually Works by Peter 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 by Peter EnnsSubtitle: In Which I Explain How An Ancient, Ambiguous, and Diverse Book Leads Us to Wisdom Rather Than Answers—and Why That’s Great News

I first read Peter Enns in 2011 as part of a discussion of his Inspiration and Incarnation. I was very frustrated with the book. But after processing and in context of spending about a year reading about and thinking about hermeneutics, I basically agree with his main points. The three follow up books to that, all more focused on the lay reader than the academic reader, have been helpful.

I think How The Bible Actually Works is where I would suggest most people start with Enns and his project. In an overly simplistic summary, Enns is suggesting that the best way to read the bible is to pay attention to how it works internally and historically and how early readers read it. And that means we acknowledge that the bible speaks with diverse voices. That it is often ambiguous and sometimes contradictory. And that the point is not to give us clear rules of life, but to help teach us wisdom.

“Reading the situation—not simply the Bible—is what wisdom is all about. It’s also, as we’ll see, what the life of faith is about. Sometimes it’s best to answer a fool, sometimes not. Which option is best at this unscripted moment depends on all sorts of factors that are impossible to anticipate, and so each time I read a nasty comment, I have to decide in the moment what the best way forward is in this situation.”

Like Enns’ other books, I think How the Bible Actually Works  is going to be misread by many. First, the title is tongue in cheek. There is a lot of humor in the book. Enns’ podcast is called, “The Bible for Normal People” with the tagline, “The only God ordained podcast”.

Second, while Enns is trying to help the reader think about the bible differently, he is not reducing the bible to only wisdom literature or as in the quote below, reducing Jesus to just a sage. He is introducing those ideas, not reducing them to only those ideas.

If Jesus’s main goal were to be crystal clear, he wouldn’t have introduced thick layers of ambiguities and possible misunderstandings. But that’s what he did. Because he is a sage.

Enns is focusing on the bible as wisdom because it has for much of the last couple centuries been looked at as a rule book with very simple straight answers or a history book with a modern understanding of history, or a pro-science book. To counter that narrative, Enns is focusing on the wisdom aspects. At the start of Fleming Rutledge’s book Crucifixion, she talks about the importance of Historical-Grammatical work on scripture. But she also talks about how, now that we have introduced those aspects to the conversation, we need to return to the theological reading of scripture. I think that is really what Enns is doing here.

Because I have read three previous books by Enns. And because I have read quite a bit about hermeneutics more generally, this was a very quick read, or actually listen. Enns is narrating the audiobook and his humor and lightness come through well. This was a book I could put on in the background while I did chores. But I do think that for people that are less familiar with either Enns or hermeneutics it will be more challenging.

I do not agree with all of Enns conclusions. But I do think that the larger point, that Christianity is to teach maturity and wisdom, not rule following, is right. But that point necessarily means that we will not end up with the same solutions because we have different thought processes once we start working through the issues.

I also think that you really need his book The Sin of Certainty along with How the Bible Also Works. The Sin of Certainty focuses on trusting Christ and loving others as the primary call. This does not mean he views doctrine as unimportant, but that doctrine (knowledge) apart from practice in love distorts what Christianity is about. I think the Sin of Certainty will balance some of the focus here and to move the conversation from the individual to the communal.

What Enns is pushing us toward is maturity. Maturity is about obligation to others, not just freedom. Mature adults know that while their own desires and needs are not unimportant, that they have an obligation to both their (or other) children and their community. Reading scripture through the eyes of wisdom, in the pursuit of virtue and character, for the service of others, rooted in love, is a call to maturity.

Update: As I have been thinking about this, part of why I think it needs to be read paired, at least, with The Sin of Certainty is that How the Bible Actually Works in presented as an individualistic project. I was concerned about this but did not include it initially, but as I was listing to the Persuasion Podcast doing an episode about Thinking Together, I realized I needed to at least mention the problem.

I have heard Enns enough to think that he would acknowledge the reality that we really do need a community around us to help us think through and use the wisdom of scripture. But at the same time, Enns has been treated badly by the Christian institutions around him (again see The Sin of Certainty). So he would give lots of allowances for going it alone. And I would too. I understand the problems of Christian community. But I do not think we can really achieve full wisdom and Christian maturity apart from Christian community. As Eugene Peterson and Douglas Bursch as well as many others (I think) convincingly write, the actual people seem to be an important to the way that we become mature Christians. Even though people are often hurt by the church (and I do not want to minimize this at all) healing and maturity often also comes by the church.

While I still really do agree with the main points of How the Bible Actually Works, I do think it needs to make clear that the way that the bible works is by using it in community to gain wisdom and maturity. We have been created as finite beings and without being challenged and pushed on our blind spots and biases, we cannot over come our own sin and limited perspectives without other people. We need people to become mature. That may not always be through a local church, although I do think that is the most common. But I do not think we can really become the Christian that Christ desires us to be without some Christian community around us.

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 by Peter Enns Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition, Audible.com Audiobook 

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