A few days ago I mentioned Peter Enns’ Inspiration and Incarnation in my post titled “Fundagelicals.” I cannot recommend this book highly enough. For any who, like me, have wrestled with how to make sense of the Old Testament without putting the brain in neutral, this book will come as a refreshing breath of theological fresh air.
This book has opened my mind to ways to remove much of the apparent tension between scripture and secular science/history. I’ve always felt that the two should not be seen as necessarily mutally contradictory, even when they seem to conflict, but Enns has expressed it in ways that really make a lot of sense to me.
As he puts it, “The problems many of us feel regarding the Bible may have less to do with the Bible itself and more to do with our own preconceptions.”
I was particularly struck by his point that God meets us where we are. This caused me to think a lot about scripture and what it really means. It seems to me that the Bible is best seen as a narrative revelation of the character of God. Through the Bible, God reveals himself to us using a variety of literary and rhetorical genres–including poetry, proverbs, and parables. I think we don’t do the Bible justice if we treat it merely as history.
Dr. Enns draws an important distinction between history and historiography. It is virtually impossible to have true objectivity in historical writing. The worldview of the historian simply cannot be erased, and biases are impossible to avoid. We see that regularly in reporting of current events. If we can’t even consistently agree on reporting and interpreting current events, how can we expect historians to be completely accurate and unbiased in reporting events from the past? So if we forget the notion of trying to identify and adjust for biases, errors, etc., and just accept the fact that it is intended to have a bias and to serve a purpose beyond just reporting the facts, then we don’t need to worry too much about whether the narrative is completely “accurate” as history.
The major issues tackled by Dr. Enns include the apparent fact that stories very similar to those in the first eleven chapters of Genesis existed in other ancient Near East cultures long before the Hebrew stories were first written, the fact there is theological diversity and apparent theological contradictions in the Old Testament, and the curious way New Testament writers seemingly rely on extrabiblical religious writings and apparently misapply the Old Testament on occassion.
With regard to the Genesis stories, Dr. Enns carefully unwinds issues of genre and perspective. His use of the word “myth” was a little shocking at first, because we have come to associate that word with “fairy tale” or “nonsense”. Instead, Enns writes, “Myth is an ancient, premodern, pre-scientific way of addressing questions of ultimate origins and meaning in the form of stories.” Once I understood his point, I was not only comfortable with it, but I have a strong sense that he is fully correct in applying it to the Genesis stories. Myth is how ancient peoples would describe their origins. It is not intended to be history or science in the modern sense and need not be.
It is unreasonable, for example, to expect God to reveal the details of creation to prehistoric shepherds in terms that would be acceptable to 21st Century scientists. While I think we have to be humble in how we think about this, I believe it is entirely reasonable and possible that God took the existing pagan creation stories and re-worked them for the benefit of his people, to present it to them in terms they could understand–so that the essential points would be made. God may have been saying something like, “You know those stories that say the world was created as a collateral effect of some feud among the gods? They are baloney. I alone created the world, intentionally and deliberately, out of love, and you are created in my very image.” The point of the story therefore wasn’t how many days it took, or in what order it occured, but rather to reveal that God did it intentionally and lovingly, and that humankind is the pinnacle of his creation. Had God revealed instead the precise scientific and historical details of creation, the people of those days couldn’t possibly have comprehended it (for that matter, I doubt the greatest minds the world has ever known could) and the essential points would be lost. The vastness of the universe and of time would have simply overwhelmed them. (Personally I think all we really need to know about creation is found in the first few verses of John–but that’s a different matter.)
I’m rambling, but the point that struck me is that God meets us where we are. He is not a man, yet he came to the world as a man, to reveal his truth to us. Thousands of years earlier he had begun revealing his truth to man through stories that would have made sense to them in their current worldview. That doesn’t make the stories untrue. They are absolutely true in the way God wanted them to be. The vital truth resonated with them because God presented it to them the way he did. The stories are still true, but we don’t have to read them as if we were ancient shepherds.
I like the way Enns puts it: “The Spirit leads the church to truth–he does not simple drop us down in the middle of it. (Insistence that Genesis is history, not myth) presupposes that what is historical, in a modern sense of the word, is more real, of more value, more like something God would do, than myth. So the argument goes if Genesis is myth, then it is not of God. Conversely, if Genesis is history, only then is it something worthy of being in the Bible.”
Ultimately Dr. Enns suggests that a Chrisitian reading of the Old Testament is like a second reading of a novel (or a second viewing of a movie). Reading the book a second time, knowing how it will unfold and end, usually permits the reader to see things, and the significance of things, that he may have overlooked in the first reading. Enns argues convincingly that this is how the apostles and early Christians read the Old Testament. He calls it “Christotelic hermenuetics”. Reading scripture christotelically is to read it already knowing that Christ is the end to which it is heading. This is how the apostles read the Bible–being driven by the reality of the risen Lord.
There is just no way I can do this wonderful book justice in a blog post, and I’ve given up trying to edit this into something more sensible. But if some of my poor words have whetted an appetite for a fine thoughtful treatment of some of the most perplexing issues in evangelical old testament scholarship, then dive into Inspiration and Incarnation.