I will never forget my Bible college professor’s comment a month before I graduated: “Don’t forget: reading the Bible can really ruin your theology.” He intended to remind me that our theology is subservient to the Bible, not the other way around.
Christians have been doing theology ever since there have been Christians. Some traditions have well-established theological “houses” that are untouchable, such that even mild efforts to “freshen the paint” or “reorder the furniture” are met with resistance and disdain from loyal adherents. Other traditions make efforts to freshen their home a bit every generation or so. Individual Christians often talk about being on a journey where God is doing the remodeling of their heart, so old beliefs are replaced with new ones with more solid material.
I grew up in a tradition where defending the Bible was a major element to reading it. To be sure, personal devotional time and reflection upon the meaning of Scripture for my life was highly encouraged. But there were few sermons in my church where the reliability and authority of the Bible were not mentioned. It was not enough to read and study the Bible for ourselves. We had to be sure we knew how to defend it against antagonistic scholars, science teachers, or our unbelieving friends. Sunday school classes taught us how “real science” conforms to a literalist reading of the Bible or how archeologists are godless scholars undermining God’s Word.
Inheriting a faith tradition that placed a heavy emphasis on the centrality and authority of the Bible was an invaluable experience growing up. But like many things we inherit from our formative years, to keep holding on to everything would hold us back (or at least clutters our closets), preventing further spiritual growth and delaying maturity. It took me some time to realize that I was expecting the Bible to be what it was never designed to be. I had not examined my own expectations for the Bible, and, thus, I walked away feeling frustrated and a bit disappointed. (I’m sure Yankee fans can relate to this experience.)
Contemporary books about the Bible fill the shelves of Christian book stores, line the walls of seminary libraries, and crowd my tiny nightstand. Books about the Bible that fit pretty much anyone’s theological leanings are readily available. I have spent plenty of time in the past few years learning to read the Bible by understanding what it is, how it works, and how it spreads the gospel message. The Bible is indeed a difficult book to understand, despite the plentiful claims to the contrary. Still, encountering the Bible is truly a transformational experience for those who look for truth within its pages.
If you are frustrated when you read the Bible, whether for apologetic reasons (“What do I do with all these historical inaccuracies?”) or for personal ones (“How do I reconcile a seemingly genocidal deity with the God I see in Jesus?”), Peter Enns has written a book for you: The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It. Well, not just you, but I think his book will help. His explicit goal is this: “to assure people of faith that they do not need to feel anxious, disloyal, unfaithful, dirty, scared, or outcast for engaging these questions of the Bible, interrogating it, not liking some of it, exploring what it really says, and discerning like adult readers what we can learn from it on our own journey of faith.” His not so radical thought: “What if the Bible is just fine the way it is? What if it doesn’t need to be protected from itself? What if it doesn’t need to be bathed and perfumed before going out in public?” Picking up the Bible and reading it shouldn’t be an exercise in juggling our preconceived ideas about how it ought to behave.
To be sure, many fundamentalists would agree with this. Of course we don’t have to defend the Bible, it says what it says and that’s what it says! Accept it! However, Enns is not referring to the posture of an unquestioning God-said-it-that-settles-it sort of reading. He encourages us to wrestle with the text, because “the problem isn’t the Bible. The problem is coming to the Bible with expectations it’s not set up to bear.”
That last sentence has stuck with me for a couple of years (I heard Enns say it in a podcast). It has helped me reconsider what it is I hope the Bible does for me and for my faith. It has reduced my anxiety about what reading the text faithfully means. Enns drives home the point a bit more pungently: “Sweating bullets to line up the Bible with our exhausting expectations, to make the Bible something it’s not meant to be, isn’t a pious act of faith, even if it looks that way on the surface. It’s actually thinly masked fear of losing control and certainty, a mirror of an inner disquiet, a warning signal that deep down we do not really trust God at all.”
Let that sink in for a few moments. Defending the Bible is “thinly masked fear”?! A signal that we do not “really trust God at all”?! If this makes you fume a bit, I can relate. Enns’s critics will say he is undermining our faith, but the opposite is true. Enns suggests that we do more Bible reading, wrestle honestly with it, and grapple with its multilayered meanings. In the end, this demonstrates more faith in the God who gave us a text we cannot fully understand. “The Holy Bible, the sourcebook for spiritual comfort, guidance, and insight, makes you squirm—or at least fidget. It just won’t do to make believe otherwise. In fact, it’s good to come clean about it and clear the air. The question is what to do about it.” This hardly sounds like the kind of advice that leads one down the slippery slope to unbelief. This book is evidence enough that Enns is taking action to prevent the weary from abandoning the faith altogether.
Enns is a biblical scholar, but the book is laced with his quirky professorial humor. His writing is is not obtuse, but rather a pleasure to read (not just for geeks like me, I promise!). I enjoyed his somewhat sarcastic and snarky tone, although I imagine such tactics could be a liability for him with some readers. My wife got to enjoy a few of his witty lines because I often shared them with her. I cannot stress enough how fun this book is to read.
The book’s seven chapters are divided into sections that begin on a new page (so it felt like a new chapter each time). This decision was pure genius. It aided the pace of reading, which contributed to its sometimes playful tenor and style. (Did I mention this book was very fun to read?) This stylistic decision also made it easy for Enns to take a decent stretch of paper to provide tons of context (for which he apologized each time) for his most important points.
Enns wants to disabuse us of metaphors for the Bible that are unhelpful. He suggests that we understand the Bible as a model for our spiritual journey. He gives three major reasons to adopt this understanding, though he is careful to note that they are not the only ones at play. They simply hit the “big challenges” many Christians have when reading the Bible from a defensive posture.
- God does a lot of killing and plaguing
- What the Bible says happened often didn’t
- The biblical writers often disagree, expressing diverse and contradictory points of view about God
Readers familiar with contemporary debates about the Bible know these are hot topics for evangelicals, conservatives, and even some progressives. If you have wrestled with any of these questions, please read this book. Enns does not settle these issues conclusively, nor does he want to. There are other books that delve into each of these issues. Enns wants to get us back into the text by not feeling afraid to trust God because we cannot trust the Bible. He does this by taking us through the context surrounding the issues above.
Most Christian readers of Scripture assume that “context” means reading the verses or chapters prior and afterward to discern what a particular verse meant. That is certainly part of Bible reading, but that is not all we need to understand “context.” We need historical context. And part of historical context is knowing what “history” means in ancient cultures. Enns makes shocking statements that, without the context, seem anathema to biblical authority. Consider the following quote:
“To move forward, we need to look at the Canaanite issue from a different, and perhaps very new, angle. And here it is: God never told the Israelites to kill the Canaanites. The Israelites believed that God told them to kill the Canaanites.”
If there were no context to this statement, Enns’s proposal would seem a bit threatening to our trust in the Bible. But he soon follows up with this: “I am respecting the Bible’s ancient voice, trying to understand what that ancient voice is saying, and then (and only then) make a decision as best as I can, about what to do with it. Where the ‘get God off the hook’ solutions all falter is that they are not asking ancient questions, but modern ones.” You will need to read the book for an elaborate and compelling argument, but in brief, Enns says that, no matter what confusing thing we see in Scripture, we can and should trust that God made a wise decision to give us the Bible we have.
Enns does not seek to resolve every difficulty one can have with the Bible in his book. Instead, he wants to open our eyes to another consideration: maybe we have misunderstood the nature of these texts. “Reading the Bible responsibly and respectfully today means learning what it meant for ancient Israelites to talk about God the way they did, and not pushing alien expectations onto texts written long ago and far away.” We can simultaneously say that the Bible “came from God” and “was written by fallible humans” and still trust God along the way.
Enns humorously and necessarily repeats himself throughout the book, particularly on this point: “Maybe the real problem here, once again, isn’t the Bible but expecting from the Bible something it’s not set up to do.” A book of the stories of God’s interaction with people “isn’t going to be a consistent one-size-fits-all instruction manual that tells us—in all our varied circumstances—how to grow into a life of faith. A book like that shows us what a life of faith looks like.” God likes stories, and it is through those stories that we meet God.
When Enns gets around to talking about Jesus, he has led us through the context of ancient tribal culture, the crisis of the exile, and the approach Jewish interpreters took to their Scriptures. The chapter on Jesus is titled, “Jesus is Bigger than the Bible.” In it he explains why Jesus would have failed a basic hermeneutics course for his creative handling of the Old Testament. He explains why the gospel writers wrote with a particular agenda, and wrote contradictory accounts about such events as Jesus’s birth and crucifixion. He explains that Paul did what any other Jewish interpreter of the Hebrew Scriptures would do, but that he reinterpreted those texts around the death and resurrection of the promised messiah. Jesus was the “surprise ending” to Israel’s story, and the Old Testament texts had to be understood in light of that. And he explains why this is not a problem unless we are expecting the Bible to bear expectations it was never intended to bear. In Jesus’ world, this was not a problem.
The following quotes best encapsulate how Enns would suggest that we treat the Bible:
“The Bible shows us how normal and expected it is for all people of faith to be a part of the same sort of process, the same spiritual journey, of living, reflecting, changing, growing in our understanding of God, ourselves, the world, and our place in it. If there’s a sense in which the Bible “tells us what to do,” I think that’s it: as a model of the diverse and unscripted spiritual life, not as our step-by-step instructional guide.
If we read the Bible expecting it to act any other way, we will make a mess of it and, whether we intend to or not, we will show disrespect for the Bible and the God we believe, in his wisdom, gave us the Bible we have.”
“The Bible doesn’t say, ‘Look at me!’ It says, ‘Look through me.’”
If you have your theology completely figured out and have little room for questioning it, or if your goal in reading the Bible is to confirm every single belief you have about God, then you might be wasting your time with this book. If you are a spiritual seeker who thirsts for the truth and who believes is that the Bible is a book worth experiencing again and again, then Enns will likely help you. He provides practical insights from both a literary and theological perspective. He brings together themes in Scripture that will surprise and delight any reader. Contrary to his critics’ claims, Enns has demonstrated powerfully that there is more than one way to hold a “high view” of Scripture.
Peter Enns. The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It. Harper Collins, 2014. 288 pages.