How the Bible Actually Works (2)

How the Bible Actually Works (2)

Today we continue blogging through Pete Enns’s new book on the Bible.

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?

It is that second question which this book addresses. Countering popular notions of why God gave us the Bible and what it is designed to do in our lives, Pete offers an alternative vision of how the Bible actually “works.”

Rather than providing us with information to be downloaded, the Bible holds out for us an invitation to join an ancient, well-traveled, and sacred quest to know God, the world we live in, and our place in it. Not abstractly, but intimately and experientially. (p. 10)

Rather than providing “clear teaching” that leads us to indisputable “answers” (a notion easily dismissed when one considers the variety of contrasting interpretations the Bible has produced) or a “rulebook,” or an “instruction manual” that give plain, unambiguous guidance for the many situations with which life presents us, Enns’s reading of scripture leads him to suggest it is designed for another purpose.

The Bible is designed to lead us to wisdom.

Wisdom is about the lifelong process of being formed into mature disciples, who wander well along the unscripted pilgrimage of faith, in tune to the all-surrounding thick presence of the Spirit of God in us and in the creation around us.

…the Bible is a book of wisdom rather than prescripted answers, and inviting us to accept the sacred responsibility of pursuing wisdom and thereby learning to live well in God’s creation. (pp. 11-12)

This means, to use an illustration from the book, that God is not a “helicopter parent,” giving us the Bible as an exhaustive information source and instruction manual and then hovering over us every second to make sure we are following its clear directions. And solving every little problem for us along the way so that we stay on the right path.

If God were that parent, the Bible would not look and act at all the way it does.

When we are too committed to harboring and sheltering our familiar false expectations, the Bible itself has a wonderful knack of disrupting those expectations, challenging our categories, and, if need be, agitating our complacency. And the Bible does this simply by—I will say it again—being its ancient, ambiguous, and diverse self, oblivious to our expectations, so ill-suited as a field guide for faith, so reluctant to be co-opted by our questions and the agendas that drive them. (pp. 15-16)

As Pete Enns reminds us, God has given us the Bible “to invite us to explore, ponder, reflect, muse, discuss, debate, and in doing so work out a life of faith—not to keep that hard work from happening.” (p. 20)

54 thoughts on “How the Bible Actually Works (2)

  1. From the beginning Judaism has been one long argument. Jews arguing with Jews. Jews arguing with Gentiles. Jews arguing with God.

    One Jewish contact of mine long ago said he would not be surprised if the expression “Two Jews, Three Opinions” dated back to Roman times.


  2. My advice, if someone from the evangelical world wants to know about Islam and the Koran, is to make an appointment with an imam from a mosque and go for dialogue with him.

    Too many ‘assumptions’ are floating around and too many judgements have been made based on extremists . . .

    imagine if Muslims judged all Christian people based on the likes of Westboro Baptist Church or the ‘Jesus Camp’ people who abuse children emotionally . . .

    time to sit down and talk with ‘real’ people if any real understanding is going to come in future


  3. Eeyore , that is a very good short review of the Koran. The Koran was inspired by the life and values of the prophet who winged it. Going from Medina to Mecca changed everything and called for one of the first rewrites.


  4. Well then, they’re both diseases, aren’t they?

    Lewis knew whereof he spoke/wrote in the academic world. I don’t think much has changed in that milieu. As for his view of what the Bible is for, it seems it was completely orthodox. I don’t know about Williams.

    I think the over-exactitude and lack of faith in intuition (“northern”) is the flip side of the coin of Sentimentality (“southern”). Both can be deadly. All the more reason to seek the best interpretation of Scripture – which is neither.



  5. Yes, I have read Rohr. When I get behind his use of the title Christ, I find perennial philosophy-mysticism with very little connection to historical Christianity, and very little of the “scandal of particularity” that comes with the Incarnation.


  6. Robert, have you read much Richard Rohr. I find his and a good number of his colleagues’ approach more compelling and sustaining than anything I’ve encountered in my Christian journey. Maybe I’m just getting old and tired.


  7. Now wait a second — how did Merton prove that he was right? By saying it. Now Mule has said something in the other direction; Merton had no epistemological advantage over Mule, all other things being equal.


  8. The Koran has the virtue of having been written by one (probable) author in a comparatively very short timespan compared to the Bible. In that sense, it is more “coherent”. On the other hand, it is VERY repetitive, and derivative from prior Christian and Jewish texts.


  9. You dont get to rewrite what Merton said so it agrees with you. He said what he said. If he’s wrong, prove him so.


  10. I understand, CM. These are my preliminary observations, perhaps fueled a little by being pretty familiar with Enns’ blog. But I will wait and see.


  11. I’ve been reading Enns’ blog for a while now, and his reconstruction seems to be into a vague perennial wisdom/philosophy mysticism. He looks to Richard Rohr, and others like Rohr, to resource this reconstruction. I find nothing compelling or sustaining in it.


  12. HUG may ridicule, or warn against, the fundamentalist Muslim approach to the Koran, but one rumor I have heard that the Bible (both Testaments, but the Old even more so than the New) is far more robust in its internal architecture and thus more resilient to the critical method than the Koran, which supposedly dissolves like cotton candy in a thunderstorm the minute it is subjected to the smallest amount of textual or literary criticism.

    How true is this, or is it just more Christian triumphalism?


  13. Fr. Louis has described our current political impasse extremely well, but I would amend that the devil has another, opposite, but equally deadly strategy:

    Another characteristic of the devil’s moral theology is the elimination of all distinctions between this and that, good and evil, right and wrong. These distinctions become burdensome and objectionable divisions. No longer is there any sense that any fault exists at all, and that we might be expected to change our behavior in any way, it being self-evident that there is no truth out there to find, just preferences. On the contrary, in the devil’s theology, the important thing is to put up with everything and to insinuate that the inability to do so is absolutely wrong.”

    Kenyans in the aggregate are very distinct from Norwegians in the aggregate, but there are also a large number of similarities between them.

    To my mind, the doctrine of the Trinity, no, make that the tri-existence of the Blessed Trinity, means that neither the distinctions nor the similarities are ultimate, but are held in tension.


  14. I have to agree with you about Moltmann (I read Tillich years ago, but don’t have enough recall of it to comment now), Mule. It seems to me that he’s making it up as he goes a long, guided mostly by what he wishes and thinks should be true. It’s all scattershot and bald assertion, with little sourcing to substantiate. It is all so curiously lacking in humility.


  15. Williams was reacting to something CS Lewis shared with him about “Northern” and “Southern” diseases of the soul; metaphors from his The Pilgrim’s Regress. The Northern disease of the soul is one of over-exactness, contempt for intuition, and a faith in algorithmic systems so as to eliminate as much as possible ‘the subjective element’.

    The Southern disease was one of laxness, indulgence in feelings, and a monistic belief that all things were really the same because everything could be transformed into everything else if you just ignored or devalued the distinctions. Williams really kindled to Lewis’ diagnosis of the ‘Southern disease’, as Williams was one of the most precise religious writers I have ever read. One of the difficulties in his prose is that it is far too ‘Northern’. He would rather coin a word that, to his mind, conveyed exactly what he wanted to say rather than risk misunderstanding by using a word that had been ‘corrupted’ by overuse in the ‘commerce’ of thought.

    In contrast, there are dozens of ‘Southern’ religious writers (Moltmann and Tillich spring immediately to mind) I have read who lather great snowy abstractions on top of great snowy abstractions page after page in an attempt to avoid saying anything that anybody can pin then down on.


  16. I remember a blog posting by Rabbi Boteach many years ago in which he stated that of the three Abrahamic Monotheisms, only Judaism is full of mortals questioning and arguing with God:
    * Abraham haggling the three strangers into sparing Sodom if there were ten Righteous in the city. Haggled down from a larger number over several steps.
    * Jacob getting his leg broken wrestling with an Angel (Divine Being?)
    * Lots of prophets yelling at God in lamentation or emotional turmoil.

    Whereas Islam (and to a lesser extent Christianity) is all about knuckling under in Submission.


  17. I’m certainly not saying that wisdom is unimportant, or that the Bible does not intend to impart it to us or guide us on its path. But, if it is accurate to say that the purpose of the Bible is to lead us to wisdom, from a Christian perspective that wisdom is not an abstraction, but has a name: Jesus Christ. When describing the purposes of the Bible, if you are writing from a Christian theological perspective, that name should not be left out, in fact it should play a prominent role in your definition of the Bible’s purpose. This has nothing to do with altar calls, Sinner’s Prayers, the mode and timing of baptism, or any of the other things you mention, HUG. It has to do with Christian scholars and theologians having a commitment to the primary focus of Christianity, Jesus Christ, and using that name prominently instead of abstractions when defining the purpose of the Bible.


  18. Hello Stephen,
    I think questions are honored in Judaism because they indicate someone is seeking truth. . . . and that is a humble thing, to want to understand, to know, rather than to assume what everyone has told you is the case

    Walt Whitman wrote these words,
    ““re-examine all you have been told in school or church or in any book,
    and dismiss whatever insults your own soul ”

    Consciousness of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ require us to question what we encounter in life, to evaluate it, to make choices and decisions based on OUR conscience, so that we can be held accountable for our actions in this life . . . we don’t want to end up saying ‘I was just following orders’ in some future trial that resonates of Nuremberg’s justice, no

    If we want to be human, we must examine, we must ask, we must seek the truth out and choose what is right according to the ‘still, small voice’ God engraved on our hearts. We are not puppets, no. We have been given ‘choice’ and so we quest for the right paths in accordance with our consciences.


  19. No, saying Scripture’s purpose is leading us to wisdom does not preclude it being about leading us to Jesus Christ; but you would think that Enns would want to make mention of that convergence up front, rather than leaving the personal name out in favor of emphasizing an abstract concept as the purpose of Scripture. The omission is suspect to me, but I’m willing to wait and see.


  20. “Another characteristic of the devil’s moral theology is the exaggeration of all distinctions between this and that, good and evil, right and wrong. These distinctions become irreducible divisions. No longer is there any sense that we might perhaps all be more or less at fault, and that we might be expected to take upon our own shoulders the wrongs of others by forgiveness, acceptance, patient understanding and love, and thus help one another to find the truth. On the contrary, in the devil’s theology, the important thing is to be absolutely right and to prove that everybody else is absolutely wrong.” – Thomas Merton


  21. From the beginning Judaism has been one long argument. Jews arguing with Jews. Jews arguing with Gentiles. Jews arguing with God. The tradition is not the answer to the argument, it is the argument itself.


  22. He said it; it’s some measure of your responsibility to figure it out. It certainly entails that lives are lived in a conscious awareness of His presence.


  23. ah, the Hagia Sophia

    it is still graced with this magnificent mosaic of ‘Jesus Christ Pantokrator, the Ruler of All’


  24. Saying Scripture is about wisdom does not preclude it being about Jesus Christ. From 1Corinthians1:

    “For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, ***Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.*** For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

    “…God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in ***Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God,*** and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

    Jesus Christ is the ultimate Wisdom of God. Paul isn’t saying that signs and wisdom are wrong – only that ultimately that’s not how Christ reached us. He reached us in and through Humility. We need wisdom, and Christ became that. So yes, Scripture is “about” him. Let’s hear what Enns has to say further.

    (The largest church building for hundreds of years was Hagia Sofia, Holy Wisdom – which is a title for Christ in the Orthodox Church. Visual here:



  25. I’ve read Enn’s book and I was fortunate to be on the launch team. Which means I’ve also been able to see all of the discussions behind the scenes.

    There’s good and bad in Enns’ approach.

    His book is helpful: if you’re wrestling with the question “what is the Bible” and you’re confused about what “inspiration” and “infallibility” mean. If you recognize the internal conflicts and aren’t satisfied with scripture being a rule-book of proof-texts. If you wonder why the God of the Old Testament often bears little resemblance to the Jesus of the gospels. If you wonder about Paul riffing from the Old Testament with reckless abandon.

    In short, if you’re in the process of deconstructing your faith you may find this helpful.

    The bad: Once you have deconstructed your faith – what exactly is going to take it’s place? Enns provides nothing of substance. Wisdom is just a squishy accordion word where you can pump more air as necessary to meet your current need. The fundamental problem is that it’s not clear what Enns is constructing. Indeed, it’s not clear WHY Enns thinks we should look to the Bible as any source of truth. Why would I read the Bible and not Deepak Chopra? What gives the Bible any more right to be considered a guidebook for life – oops – a source of wisdom for life – over any other sacred text or contemporary literature? Why is Enns even a Christian?
    Everything is reduced to a Jewish version of Greek myths – myths to explain natural events. Where is God? Because if God isn’t involved…..then why read the Bible? But if Enns were to say “these events ARE true” – that takes away his mantra of committing the sin of certainty (a previous book of his). It’s like he’s caught in his own self-constructed whirlpool of doubt and uncertainty – and he enjoys going around in circles. Enns spends the ENTIRE book encouraging us to use wisdom when reading scripture at the same time he deconstructs any reason to actually read the Bible as anything that might be containing universal truth.

    Ultimately, it’s not anywhere clear though WHY Enns feels the Bible or the Christian faith is worth accepting over any other. It’s just squishy wisdom with no rules, no boundary markers. It’s a religious form of utilitarianism.

    And in the end, the Bible becomes just one cart at the smorgasbord of syncretism where the Bible is merely one witness among many (a common phrase among the launch team members).

    You’d get more out of Brian Zahnd than Pete Enns. imho


  26. Mule,

    I haven’t read Williams (yet… so many books, so little time). What is the context of that quote? Is he discussing Scripture or related topic?

    In any case, what it depends on is a person’s repentance. Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me.



  27. I suspect that the ‘wisdom’ of God is not at all exclusive to scholars.

    I would clearly delineated ‘the wisdom of God’ from ‘the wisdom of men’. We have some explanation of this in St. Luke’s Gospel

    ” Luke 10:21
    At that time, Jesus rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and declared, “I praise You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because You have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this was well-pleasing in Your sight.”


    St. Paul mentions the difference in his letter to the Corinthians, this:
    “1 Corinthians 1:26
    Brothers, consider the time of your calling: Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were powerful; not many were of noble birth.”

    is possible the ‘wisdom of God’ is conveyed to humankind through the Holy Spirit and touches those who are not deemed ‘wise’ in the eyes of men . . . . and we see the result of this by the gift of God’s grace, we may witness it when the ‘fruit’ of the Holy Spirit is seen in the lives of those who are severely mentally challenged, by their displays of love and kindness towards those less fortunate than themselves . . . . that, in my own view, is an example of God’s ‘wisdom’ indeed, beyond the understanding of all who do not share the depth of that empathy for those worse off than themselves . . .


  28. And what IS this Non-negotiable “Remain in Him”?
    Walk the aisle on the Altar Call and Pray the Sinner’s Prayer?
    Be baptized as an infant and come-of-age through Confirmation?
    See how deep the Theological Rabbit Hole goes?
    Culture War Without End, Amen?
    Witness 24/7?
    Pray 24/7?
    Whatever I Do that You Don’t?


  29. St B — Whoa, whoa. Let me remind you and all of our readers and commenters that we have to take it step by step in these book reviews and continuing series. Nobody said Enns denies that the Bible is about the saving grace of Jesus Christ. I mean, come on! We are talking about a particular aspect of the Bible at this point, and I would urge us all to be patient and not to jump to premature conclusions.


  30. Long before ‘the second Testament’ was assembled by the Councils, the Church was proclaiming Christ and from the Church came the news that awakened the world to the faith, this:


    so as much as the Church reveres and views the sacred Scriptures as sacramental, the Proclamation began much before the formation of the Canon, and long before any pen was put to paper to begin the written work that the Church later brought together to form the New Testament.

    The Proclamation of Christ Crucified and Risen From the Dead precedes the writing of the New Testament.
    The blood of martyrs witnessing to this Proclamation was spilt long before there was a canon.

    The timeline of events that occurred in the early Church calls us to recognize the Proclamation of Christ by the Church as the beginnings of the Good News in this world.

    Bibliolatry gives us some strange goings-on but it rarely celebrates PROCLAIMING Christ. Bibliolatry seems more geared towards celebrating the man-made ‘interpretations’ of sacred Scripture for purposes of control, Seems to me the further people get towards replacing the Church with ‘the Bible’, the more they forget about the first mission of the early Church: to PROCLAIM Christ,
    and the early Church spread out into the world from Jerusalem and was very successful at this proclamation and in time, when Our Lord did not soon return as was expected, it was THEN that a formal testament to Him became a reality.

    The early Christians looked for Our Lord to return soon. But the Apostles did not write a testament as soon as they experienced Pentecost, no; instead, they went forth and PROCLAIMED CHRIST


  31. Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, is the center of all things; all of life flows from that. If we remain in Him, and He in us, we will produce abundant fruit. Apart from Him we accomplish nothing. (John 15:4) This is the beginning of wisdom and the path it follows. Non-negotiable.


  32. Something I’ve noticed about Judaism — at least the post-70AD Rabbinical Judaism.

    Judaism allows for contrasting interpretations instead of a One True Way. And seems to strive for a dynamic balance between those contrasting interpretations. Like the fable of the blind men and the elephant, each interpretation is a specific point of view touching on a slightly-different angle, and form a dynamic balance illuminating ha-Torah from several angles.

    Whereas we Born-Again Bible-Believers are too much like Wahabi Islam with a One True Way — “IT IS WRITTEN!” And in that micromanaging One True Way, we lose our humanity.


  33. And after you’ve accepted the saving grace of Christ? How then do you live?

    In my experience, YOU DON’T.
    You just sit clutching your Rapture Boarding Pass looking upward or burn yourself out on Wretched Urgency Drive-By Witnessing.

    THAT is the fruit of a Gospel of Personal Salvation and ONLY Personal Salvation.


  34. Only if your conception of authority is crystal clear marching orders and lists of Blunt Facts.

    With religious police enforcing those “crystal clear marching orders” with whips and death by stoning?


  35. This means, to use an illustration from the book, that God is not a “helicopter parent,” giving us the Bible as an exhaustive information source and instruction manual and then hovering over us every second to make sure we are following its clear directions. If God were that parent, the Bible would not look and act at all the way it does.

    It would look more like the Wahabi take on the Koran.
    Micromanagement to the hilt.


  36. Of course the Bible is a book about wisdom if that “wisdom” leads you to the understand the “story” of the Bible is Jesus, Son of God, savior to all who trust in Him that He is what he said He is. It is a story with a beginning for believers and actually no end.

    So the Bible is about the Word of God and we know who the Word is. You can believe it literally if that is your intellectual bent, you can believe it in a scholarly research manner, you can believe in it emotionally with no questioning or you can sorta believe it as long as you accept Jesus as described in John 3.16. I would write a book about it but I had a hard enough time writing the above.

    My Bible commentary would be no comment. From the Alpha to Omega if Jesus does not come then the Bible is just another self help, Dr. Phil type document with a lot of puzzling stories as well as some great life changing stories. Cut the baby in half, how wise. If you do not read the Bible or hear it you will be hard pressed to find Jesus on your own.


  37. I think the same thing is true of the Sermon on the Mount. Many people either ignore it (e.g. dispensationalists who see it as ‘kingdom law’ for the future earthly kingdom – which begs the question – in the dispensationalist’s version of the ‘future earthly kingdom’ why would I need to be told not to hate my enemy?) or see it as ‘law’. In reality the Sermon on the Mount is full of illustrations that demonstrate principles and values of kingdom life (e.g. ‘turn the other cheek’ or ‘pray in private’). When it is treated as casuistic law addressing specific issues (e.g. divorce) it becomes a problem – pluck out your eye to prevent lust probably wouldn’t solve that problem for most. It, like much of the Old Testament (e.g. Torah [which can be, and often is in Judaism, translated as ‘instruction’ rather than ‘law’, or Proverbs), is about wisdom for (kingdom) life, which should not surprise us at all.


  38. And after you’ve accepted the saving grace of Christ? How then do you live? I think you are setting grace and wisdom in opposition when they actually are both part of the whole picture.


  39. Robert, you are exactly right on target. The Bible was given to us to tell us about the good news of Christ. If Enns wrote about that he would not be selling any books. The notion that it’s all about wisdom and not the saving grace of Christ and the deeds he performed is crap.


  40. “Wisdom is the ability to perceive order and establish it. Likewise, this instruction in wisdom should be recognized as having a very different intention from legislation. Whereas legislation has the expected response of obedience, instruction in wisdom has the expected response of comprehension and application.”



  41. “…the Bible is a book of wisdom rather than prescripted answers, and inviting us to accept the sacred responsibility of pursuing wisdom and thereby learning to live well in God’s creation.”

    This brings to mind the new book by John Walton and his son on the Torah, which Scot McKnight blogged about this week:

    “Instead of relying on legislation (a formal body of written law enacted by an authority), order was achieved through the wisdom of those who governed society. But have we treated the Torah this way? We have too often looked to the Torah to construct legislation as if the Torah were intended to be legislation. If, as we contend, it was never intended as legislation, then that is the wrong approach. If the focus of the Torah is order and wisdom, then it will provide for us an understanding of order and wisdom at least in an Israelite context. We will then have to determine the relevance that has for us today…The lists of legal sayings provide wisdom for judges who have to decide on cases in their towns. These lists showcase the wisdom of the king to discern what justice will look like. They are not the laws of the land, they are not legislative decrees, and they do not constitute a prescriptive code enforced in society. The king has not promulgated these as laws. He has had them compiled to convey his wisdom because, as the king designated by the gods, his responsibility is to maintain order on behalf of the gods. Wisdom is the ability to perceive order and establish it. Likewise, this instruction in wisdom should be recognized as having a very different intention from legislation. Whereas legislation has the expected response of obedience, instruction in wisdom has the expected response of comprehension and application.”


  42. The Bible “so ill-suited as a field guide for faith.”

    Well that statement pretty much guts its authority.


  43. I had thought that, from the Christian perspective, the Bible/New Testament was meant to express Jesus Christ to us, to express his teachings to us and communicate his deeds, as well as what he meant to the first Christian communities that knew him personally and out of which the NT was written, and I thought all this had something to do with salvation/redemption extended to us uniquely in and by Jesus Christ — is all that incorrect? And if it is, if the Bible is designed not for those purposes but to lead us to wisdom, if that is its purpose, if that’s what it’s for, I wonder what makes it preferable to other writings or systems designed to lead us to wisdom? For instance, the writings of the Stoics, or the Buddhist canons, or the twentieth century existentialists?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: