How the Bible Actually Works (Intro)

How the Bible Actually Works (Intro)

I received my copy of Pete Enns’s new book today, and next week we will begin blogging through it in more detail.

As I’ve said in our recent posts on The Bible and the Believer, one of my tasks this year will be to work on answering  two questions that Pete raises regularly in his writings and podcasts:

  1. What is the Bible?
  2. What is the Bible for?

Whereas his earlier books focused on the first question, this one moves to the second. This is an important move, one which I as a pastor appreciate.

It may be all good ivory-tower fun to discuss the nature of the Bible, to examine various critical theories that help us understand who wrote it and why and what kinds of literature they used, and how it all fits together and became “the Bible.”

It is another thing altogether to ask how this sacred book, as it is actually constructed, speaks God’s message to people of faith and helps us know God and live as God’s people in the world.

Pete Enns begins by describing the Bible we actually hold in our hands, using three terms (not usually emphasized in my evangelical background) to describe it:

  • Ancient
  • Ambiguous
  • Diverse

We’ll come back to these characteristics next time, but for now, here’s the money quote about where this is all leading:

I believe that God knows best what sort of sacred writing we need. And these three characteristic ways the Bible behaves, rather than posing problems to be overcome, are telling us something about how the Bible actually works and therefore what the Bible’s true purpose is—and the need to align our expectations with it. (p. 9)

17 thoughts on “How the Bible Actually Works (Intro)

  1. This echoes concerns of my own, from what I’ve heard of Enns writing. His pursuits seen noble, but it is much easier to criticize how other people’s experiences, culture, and perspective cloud their approach to the Bible than it is to see how our own does. Color me skeptical of appeals to higher objectivity. It is too often subtly switched to “here’s why this perspective is wrong, but I’ve learned better with my new perspective.”

    I’m sure Enns’ fans don’t recognize that in his work, but I’ve seen signs of it in just excerpts I’ve read. He’s a great thinker, and possibly a necessary balance to the excesses of fundamentalism among American anti-intellectuals, but he is an apologist for certain progressive hermeneutical trends nonetheless. It seems like he looks down on even the Biblical writers for being mere men of their times, while failing to realize how much his ideas make him much the same thing.

    Personally, I prefer to be a man of a quite different time, that being one long past. Chronological snobbery is as bad in theology as it is in music.


  2. Thanks for the link.
    Keen offers a good critique of Enns’s thesis.
    One of the things that Keen alludes to in her piece is the almost wholesale rejection of the supernatural by modern day progressive divinity scholars (not just Enns).


  3. Look him up. He lost a big career for his convictions, & unlike those who only believe that people change their mind on anything to do with the Bible as they want to justify immorality, he’s still married to the same woman, teaching about the Bible, following God, & so on.

    He is fantastic example of a great scholar who has allowed the Bible to change his convictions.


  4. “Weaponized Scripture” sounds like a good description for the de facto use of “Bible Literalism and Inerrancy”.


  5. That’s it in a nutshell, isn’t it?! So many people–especially literalists and inerrancy-ists and YEC-ers–believe every single thing can be boiled down to an answer by turning to the scriptures…

    Extreme Islam turns to their Koran as a divine answer book for every single thing. (Though the Koran apparently lends itself to Detailed Answer Book more so than the Bible.) Look at the results, especially when their Puritans reboot the 1.0 Beta version and Return To “As It Was In The Days Of The Prophet” whenever it looks like it could change.


  6. Hello Rick Ro.

    I was thinking that a person who asks questions is ‘questing’ or looking for the truth, or wanting to understand, or to find meaning in something;
    and how such people are infinitely more pleasant than know-it-alls.

    Is possible we’re closer to God when we ask, than when we think we know all the answers.


  7. I like the “subtitle” of Enns’ book–“In Which I Explain How An Ancient, Ambiguous, and Diverse Book Leads Us to Wisdom Rather Than Answers-and Why That’s Great News”–particularly these two parts:

    “Leads us to wisdom rather than answers” – Wow! That’s it in a nutshell, isn’t it?! So many people–especially literalists and inerrancy-ists and YEC-ers–believe every single thing can be boiled down to an answer by turning to the scriptures, when really it’s like the difference between “knowledge” and “wisdom.” Yeah, you can read the Bible for answers, but that won’t make you wise.

    “And why that’s great news” – Love that line, too! The Bible is full of examples teaching “wisdom is better than anything else,” and I think that’s applicable to the Bible itself! The great news is… the Bible is a source of wisdom, not answers!

    I think this relates to a revelation I’ve had recently as I’ve studied the book of Isaiah. Take away the “spiritual” aspect of the Bible and it’s still a trove of wisdom about human nature, and the perils of pride, arrogance, power and greed!


  8. +1.

    Enns’ challenge to those who wield the Bible like some sort of Truth Weapon is to be commended. Bible “Literalism and Inerrancy” is unhealthy for many–believers and non-believers alike–and if nothing else I give Enns credit for showing people there are other ways to do the whole Bible thing; and not only other ways, but perhaps “more correct” ways.


  9. I wholeheartedly embrace what he has brought to this discussion. He has done much to encourage evangelicals to take the Bible off of the Altar of Literalism and Inerrancy and to remove the white gloves and get their hands dirty digging into its complexity. It has cost him much. I applaud his bravery.


  10. Hello RDavid,

    I found this from Karen Keen to be interesting:

    “There is much more to the Old Testament than violence or contradictions, but that is hard to see in Enns’ book. I understand he had a particular objective in mind—to make us really reckon with the difficult passages. We do need to reckon with them. However, he could have provided some nuance. Using over-the-top descriptions such as “perennially hacked-off warrior-god” is an inadequate and incomplete presentation of Israelite theology.
    Similarly, nuances could have included mentioning that ?erem (conquest killing) is largely confined to parts of Deuteronomy and Joshua.”

    If Enns has failed to clarify the ‘herem’ or as my tradition calls it , ‘The Ban’, then I don’t think he has been complete in his work, as for so many in fundamentalism, that ‘God of Wrath’ of the OT is seen as giving them reason to be judgmental of those not like themselves, and the authority to be intolerant of ‘the others’, which we know is not acceptable to the God revealed in Jesus Christ.

    That the ‘Ban’ is not understood by people who read the Scriptures literally has created terrible problem in the Church and for the witness of the Church. So any author of note who is willing to help explain the ‘herem’/ ‘the Ban’ is sure to do a service to the Word, especially in these days of maximum culture war fever.

    Thanks for the Keen link. I found meaning in some of what it has to say and I am glad that you shared it here.


  11. I hope he overcomes some of the problems in his previous book:

    Like Keen, I appreciate some of what Enns has brought to the table, but I too see problems in some of his approach. He likes to have some things both ways.
    I am interested to see if his emphasis on “Ancient- Ambiguous- Diverse” tries to swing too far to one side. For example, does the “diverse” include some parts that are not “ambiguous”? Does the “ancient” totally downplay the credibility of the writers (as Keen points out about one earlier book)?


  12. As NT Wright wrote:
    “I have argued that the notion of the ‘authority of scripture’ is a shorthand expression for God’s authority, exercised somehow through scripture; that scripture must be allowed to be itself in exercising its authority, and not be turned into something else which might fit better into what the church, or the world, might have thought its ‘authority’ should look like; that it is therefore the meaning of ‘authority’ itself, not that of scripture, that is the unknown in the equation…All of this has been designed as a plea to the church to let the Bible be the Bible, and so to let God be God—and so to enable the people of God to be the people of God, his special people, living under his authority, bringing his light to his world…So what am I saying? I am saying that we mustn’t belittle scripture by bringing the world’s models of authority into it. We must let scripture be itself, and that is a hard task.”


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