Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament by Peter Enns

Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old TestamentTakeaway: Scripture is a diverse, important, human-written, God-breathed book.  

Over the past couple months I have been wandering through an exploration of scripture, what it is, how we can understand it, what we should be doing with it.  Inspiration and Incarnation is the latest book in my exploration.  I was lucky enough to read this one with friends and have an email discussion about it.

Emotionally, I am a bit disappointed by this book.  I knew it was controversial.  Enns resigned his position at Westminster Seminary after controversy with the board of the seminary and this book.  After reading the first two chapters, I kept thinking ‘no wonder he was fired’.  There really are controversial statements in the book, but I think much of the controversy could have been minimized with a better editor.  He seems unnecessarily provocative in a few areas where his point is not controversial.  Intellectually, I am intrigued.  He is pushing in many of the areas I think need to be pushed in the Evangelical understanding of scripture.  I am not sure about some of his conclusions, but the discussion is useful.

This is wide ranging book so it is hard to carefully summarize without harming his argument.  His first real point (in the second chapter) is about the literature of the Ancient Near East and how it is similar to parts of our Old Testament.  This is provocative to many because scripture is often presented as a something fundamentally different from all other books.  But it is hard to really miss the point because the Old Testament is similar to other literature, some verifiably older than the Old Testament.  Enns says that it is because the OT was written in the ANE culture, so it should be expected to be part of the cultural milieu.  I do not find this point all that controversial, but it becomes controversial because of the  history of teaching about the bible.  Enns brings up a metaphor in the first chapter that he uses throughout the book.  He wants to compare scripture to Jesus Christ.  Christ is completely God and completely man at the same time.  Enns wants to say in a similar way, scripture is completely God breathed and completely human written.  We need to treasure it as Holy because it is God breathed, but understand that it was written at a particular time and with a particular cultural understanding because it was written by humans.  This is not to minimize scripture at all.  I think it shows how much God is interested in connecting with us because it shows how God uses our particular cultures to show us himself.

The third chapter is concerned with diversity within scripture.  I did not find this all that controversial either, but it will be a controversial point with many.  Enns shows that there is diversity in The Law, Wisdom Literature and other points of scripture.  I think it is easiest to show in the two creations accounts of Genesis 1 and 2 or in the two different approaches to history from 1 and 2 Kings and 1 and 2 Chronicles.  These cover the same area, but have different focuses and different authors or traditions that influence the way the story is told.  Enns point is that the diversity shows the human side of scripture (to stay with his metaphor) but it should not scare us to have diversity within scripture because the divine that oversaw scripture allowed it to happen.  He has a further point that diversity of interpretation should also not scare us because we can see that there is diversity within scripture itself.

Chapter four was most controversial to me.  Enns walks us through how New Testament authors use OT scripture and what the scripture hermeneutic was like at the time (using Dead Sea Scrolls and other 1st century era writing to compare to NT authors).  His point is that much of the NT author’s handling of scripture would be seen as bad hermeneutics if we did it today.  But it was appropriate for the time.  The NT authors have a ‘Christological’ hermeneutic, they find Christ throughout the OT places that would not normally seem to be concerned with Christ, if we were only looking at the original meaning of the Old Testament passages themselves.  One of my reading partners summarized it as:

1) the NT writers methods were a product of their time, just as
2) our methods are a product of our time, and
3) neither set is inherently better than the other, so
4) we can take a both-and approach that says “theirs authoritatively demonstrated the proper hermeneutic while ours helps us bound the variety of interpretations that are possible”
In other words, recognizing that their methods were valid in their day does not necessarily mean that we have to adopt them, because we also affirm that God is involved in the shaping of cultures. So we can propose that he no longer wants us to use those methods, but rather use the methods he has led us to in our own cultural setting.

I have to admit that I have pretty much bought into the historical grammatical method for scripture hermeneutics. So that last chapter threw me for a loop. I am still trying to process what that really means for me.  I think this is an important book that needs discussion.  I am left with a lot of questions in the end, however.  The main one being how to evaluate whether our reading of scripture is a good reading or not.  NT Wright in Scripture and the Authority of God (my first reading, second reading) commends reading in community.  He wants to encourage everyone to read for themselves, but in partnership.  Wright is careful to say that some readings are better than others and that there is a responsibility for those that are reading in community to instruct, while being open to the meanings generated by the less instructed.

My problem with where Enns left us, is that I am not sure now how to evaluate which are better. It cannot be an emotional acceptance of a reading. And Enns seemed to leave the historical grammatical ‘better reading’ a bit weaker in its ability to be the better reading.  In some ways I think we are left only with ‘the guide of the Holy Spirit’ and our best judgement, which seems fairly shaky.  This does reveal some of the problems of the post-modern world of scripture interpretation.

Inspiration and Incarnation Purchase Links: PaperbackKindle Edition (This book is Kindle lendable if you would like to borrow it.)

3 Comments

Wow. Sounds very interesting. I’m intrigued. I would like to borrow it from you, but I’ve got so much to read this week that I’m not sure I should request it yet.

How long did it take you to go through it. I will also look up that NT Wright book. Sounds interesting too.

    I will hold it for you if you want. I would read Scripture and Authority of God and the Lost World of Genesis One both before this. This builds on some ideas that are better illustrated by those two books and then this takes it to the next step. Unfortunately while I have kindle version of both of those, they are not lendable.

    I spend a month on this, but that was primarily because I was reading it in a group and we did one chapter a week.

Good insights on a difficult and sensitive topic. I always try to be sure to get a handle on a new perspective before I give up the old way I have things figured out! It does finally boil down to how we interact with the historical and spiritual aspects of our understandings of God and His communication with His people. I will have to read this someday along with more on NT Wright!

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