The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It by Peter Enns

I am reposting this 2015 review because the Kindle Edition is on sale for $1.99 again.

Takeaway: A high view of scripture is not based only on literal reading. It can also be based on how seriously we take the insights into God.

This review is not going to be adequate to the book for a couple reasons. First, I am writing it right before it is being posted, so it is not as well thought out as it should be. Second, my wife is due with our second child today, and I just haven’t had time to devote much to lately. But because The Bible Tells Me So went on sale on kindle last night ($1.99), I thought I should get a few quick thoughts down now (it ended up not being quick).

First, I want to say that The Bible Tells Me So is a popular level book. It is fairly short and quite often funny. This is not the academic slog that was Enns’ Inspiration and Incarnation. (I thought it odd that several of the complaints on Amazon reviews were mostly about being put off by Enns using humor.)

The main point of the book is that the modern understanding of Scripture as rule book or guide-book or science book actually changes scripture to something that is different from what early Christians understood and how the writers seem to have intended.

After a few years of reading about Hermeneutics (theory of how we interpret) and being frustrated by Enns and Christian Smith and others, I have come to an equilibrium on the matter. But these ideas are often disconcerting to those that are coming to them for the first time. Most Christians know that the bible was written by humans. Some believe that it was directly (word for word) inspired by God. Others believe that the biblical authors were inspired by God, but God gave them freedom to do the writing on their own. (And some don’t believe that the bible was inspired at all.)

Enns’ main metaphor in Inspiration and Incarnation was that we should think of scripture like we think of Jesus’ incarnation. Jesus is fully human and fully God. Similarly scripture is from God but still human written.

When we think of scripture as primarily from God and not written by humans with a particular point then it is easy to have our faith shaken by any threat to scripture. This is why creation is so important for many. Many believe (and I have frequently been told) that if a 7 day literal creation did not occur or the entire world was not covered by water in Noah’s flood, or Jonah was not literally swallowed by a fish then we can’t trust scripture and we can’t trust God.

But John Walton has (to me at least) successfully demonstrated that the original author and readers were not talking about the physical creation in Genesis 1 and 2 but the functional creation. The original readers were more interested in why than how. And Walton says they would have all understood Genesis 1 as a temple dedication ceremony where God was creating the earth as a temple for himself so that we as humans could act as his priests and worship him.

Enns builds on this type of idea and suggests that Genesis and many other parts of the bible that we usually read as history had other intentions. Not because the biblical authors were attempting to trick us as readers, but because they were writing in a different time and culture with different literary conventions that allowed for the molding of a story in ways that were not primarily focused on the history but on the narrative being told.

So much of the Old Testament was probably compiled during either David/Solomon’s time or during the Babylonian exile. Genesis and Exodus, Judges, etc. were about creating a national identity (or reminding the people of their identity) more than being a modern conception of history.

One point that Enns did not pick up here that I think is important, is that this line of thought is not primarily about minimizing the supernatural as some critics contend. Walton, and I think also Enns, are not against God working supernaturally in the type of ways that are being show in scripture. Instead they think the miracles are about showing God’s power over other deities or the ability to care for Israel more than about the ability to be supernatural.

The real strength of the book is Enns’ literary biblical insights. We modern Christians are so used to thinking of scripture as a string of historical narrative that we forget that there are literary allusions throughout scripture. So Matthew has a ton of literary allusions comparing Jesus to Moses (only greater). And there are a number of other subtle allusions to Noah and Creation or the Exodus scattered throughout scripture. These types of insights can only come from biblical scholars that have enough time to study and are a significant reason why we as Christians need to read the bible, but also read about the bible.

There are a couple other points that will be controversial to some. First, the New Testament authors use the Old Testament in ways that would have surprised the original authors (and readers) of the OT. Quotes are taken out of context and sometimes altered to support a point. No modern pastor would be allowed to do Biblical interpretation like some of the authors of the NT do and be credible. But Enns suggests (and others scholars agree) that this was a common method in the 1st Century Jewish culture.

A second controversial point is that Enns thinks that we should stop trying to harmonize scripture and allow the cacophony of voices to carry through. Not only the different stories of the Gospels or the alternate history of 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Chronicle or the alternate creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2 but also the different tones and approaches to God. The pessimistic philosophy of Ecclesiastes does not really mesh well with much of the adoration of Psalms for instance.

A third controversial point is Enns’ handling of the genocide of Canaanites. This is over simplifying, but essentially Enns does not believe that the Israelites were told by God to kill everyone. Israel of the time was a tribal community with insiders and outsiders and outsiders were dangerous and to be avoided. So whether the genocide of Canaanites happened or not, Enns is pretty sure that they were not told by God to kill everyone. He is more comfortable with the concept of the taking of the land being Nationalistic myth and not having happened (or not completely in the way described) than a God that calls for genocide.

For Enns scripture is not about finding a rule of faith or a model to live by, but designed to give us insight into God, which leads us to a relationship with Jesus.

My main complaint is that I wish Enns had specifically spent time on building a case for the role of the Holy Spirit in both the writing of scripture and the interpretation of scripture. That is understood in the background, but not explicit enough.

I do not really think that The Bible Tells Me So is for everyone. If you are comfortable with your understanding of scripture, maybe you should skip this. Not because Enns is wrong, but because there is no reason to seek out a crisis of faith. (I am reading a good biography of Jonathan Swift that makes this point, sometimes we don’t need to push ourselves beyond where we are right now.) But if you have been frustrated by either scripture or Christianity as a whole, I think this is a good book that can help you re-imaging what faith can be like and give you a new view of the wonder of scripture. Christianity as a whole and the bible in particular are much bigger and messier than what many modern Christians seem to want to make them.

The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It by Peter Enns Purchase Links: Hardcover, Kindle Edition, Audiobook 

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