How the Bible Actually Works (3)

How the Bible Actually Works (3)

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?

Last time we discussed Enns’s point that the Bible is designed to lead us to wisdom. It is not designed to give us “answers” or to be a “rulebook” or “instruction manual’ for life. As Pete summarizes:

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)

In subsequent sections Pete Enns talks about the ambiguous nature of much of the Bible’s teaching, even in parts that we might think of as “clear instructions” — such as the book of Proverbs or the Law. Just a moment’s closer thought reminds us that even legal statutes must be interpreted and applied, and that this is the task of wisdom. When the Ten Commandments say, “Honor your father and mother,” or “Keep the sabbath,” the inevitable question is “How do we do that?” Turns out these “clear instructions” aren’t so clear and simple after all.

Then Pete takes up the idea that the Bible is a diverse book. He suggests that this is a key to understanding how to approach the Bible’s teaching and instructions.

The Bible’s diversity is the key to uncovering the Bible’s true purpose for us.

…The diversity we see in the Bible reflects the inevitably changing circumstances of the biblical writers across the centuries as they grappled with their sacred yet ancient and ambiguous tradition.

…The Bible (both Old and New Testaments) exhibits this same characteristic of the sacred past being changed, adapted, rethought, and rewritten by people of faith, not because they disrespected the past, but because they respected it so much they had to tie it to their present.

…The Bible isn’t a book that reflects one point of view. It is a collection of books that records a conversation—even a debate—over time.

When I began to see that for myself, a lot of things fell into place about the Bible’s purpose and what it means to read it with the eyes of faith. When we accept the Bible as the moving, changing, adaptive organism it is, we will more readily accept our own sacred responsibility to engage the ancient biblical story with wisdom, to converse with the past rather than mimic it—which is to follow the very pattern laid out in the Bible itself.

• pp. 76-78

This is the understanding of scripture that Michael Spencer wrote about in his classic essay, “A Conversation in God’s Kitchen.” He likens the Bible to the “Great Books,” which brought together significant writings from the history of the Western world in a set that allowed for a “conversation” to occur between the diverse voices across history yet also present an overall metanarrative we call “Western Civilization.”

The authors suggested we approach these books not as a single narrative, or as an education by installment, but as a great, roaring, unruly conversation across the ages. Greek dramatists debating with English scientists. Russian novelists sparring with German psychologists. Gibbon debating Homer. Augustine versus Tolstoy. It was a conversation that never occurred, but was allowed to occur by bringing all these writings together, and then studying them to hear what each writer had to say.

This idea, of a great conversation taking place over time and culture, and then selected and presented for my benefit, has become my dominant idea of what is the Bible. It has proven increasingly helpful in a number of ways.

The great conversation model has allowed me to jettison any defense of the Bible as single book whose human origins and methodologies present significant difficulties that must be explained. For instance, I view the Bible as a selection of purely human literary creations. I may lay aside my faith, as many critics do, and study the Biblical material purely in their historical and cultural settings. This eliminates the need to force the Bible to be divine in origin, and gives me the freedom to hear each Biblical writer saying what he/she had to say in the way he/she chose to say it.

Or I may read the Bible with my eyes, mind and heart alive to the faith that is at the center of the Biblical conversation. The humanity of the conversation is not an obstacle, but an invitation to understand the Bible even as we understand ourselves and our histories, experiences and cultures.

The rich diversity of the Bible is frequently lost in our fear that seeing a book as exactly what it appears to be will ruin the inspiration and divine authority of the book. Is God so small that the humanity of a text matters to His use of it? Further, the particular “voice” or style the text uses to talk about God may come to us in ways that are strange and uncomfortable to modern ideas of reality and truth. But if we are listening to a conversation and not predetermining what it must be, these factors are almost meaningless.

The Bible is “timeless,” not because it is characterized by propositions and teachings that transcend the various times, places, and circumstances in which its different parts were written (“timeless truths”), but precisely because of what Pete Enns calls “its unwavering commitment to adaptation over time” (p. 80). The Bible was not written to us, but it was written for us and for people in all generations and cultures. In order for the Bible to speak to us, we must take words written for others in vastly different circumstances and seek God’s wisdom to know how to walk with God faithfully in our own day.

The Bible shows us that obedience to God is not about cutting and pasting the Bible over our lives, but seeking the path of wisdom—holding the sacred book in one hand and ourselves, our communities of faith, and our world in the other in order to discern how the God of old is present here and now. We respect the Bible best when we take that process seriously enough to own it for ourselves… (p. 82)

24 thoughts on “How the Bible Actually Works (3)

  1. So should we then be like Islam’s Wahabi, forcing everything back to The Way It Was in the Days of the Prophet, PBUH? Because “IT IS WRITTEN! IT IS WRITTEN! IT IS WRITTEN!”?


  2. S.K. reminds me of the cult of Celibacy in Medieval Clericalism, where only single and celibate Priests, Monks, and Nuns had any standing before God.

    The opposite of today’s “Salvation By Marriage Alone” where only Marrieds matter in the sight of God (and the fuller their Quiver the better) and all us singles can go to Hell.


  3. No I’m not talking about science and history. The bible is not a science textbook, and I think one of the biggest problems people can give themselves reading the gospels is thinking they are written like our modern day biographies. I was thinking more of the truths which the Bible teaches about God and about how God calls us to live as Christians.


  4. Jon, I hear your concern, but I think you are leaving out an important context. We read the Bible as people within a community of faith.

    It was within the community of Israel that the different writers and interpreters of scripture debated with each other, argued with each other, disagreed with each other, and set forth their various stories, poems, prophecies, and writings. They differed within bounds — the bounds of a faith community that agreed upon many essential things. Likewise, we are Christians, we have boundaries that are set by what the early church called “the rule of faith” — essentially the Apostles’ Creed. The very books considered for inclusion in the Bible themselves were judged by that standard, and only those in agreement with the rule of faith were included. So then, today, we interpret scripture also within the boundaries of that rule of faith.

    I don’t know exactly what you mean by “contradict the Bible.” If you mean saying that the ancient people who wrote about the natural world in the Old Testament didn’t understand the findings of science that we have come to accept in today’s world, then yes, by all means we contradict the Bible. We have to understand the cosmology they knew and translate it to today’s world. If we judge some of the history of the Bible by today’s standards of historical writing and not by the way they wrote history in earlier eras, then we will have trouble with the “contradictions” and “errors” we find, but if we understand that they wrote and passed along stories and traditions in their own ways, then we can understand them better.

    So maybe you could say more about that.


  5. Wow! That’s cool! But… I have no real need of the internet. I’ll happily trade it for several hundred book sales when my sci-fi book comes out.


  6. And I’ll expand on this. If I am free to contradict the Bible, to say it is wrong, or this particular writer was wrong about this issue, then I become the judge of scripture. And I see no more use for scripture than the writings of a philosopher, or another religion’s holy writings, with the exception of the fact that it shares the history of my own particular faith. But as far as it being any kind of authority, that would be gone. Now again, I am fully aware I could be misreading Enn’s. But that is my concern with what I have read so far.


  7. See my reply to Eeyore. Here is the gist of my concern with Enn’s ideas, does it leave open the door for us to disagree with scripture, to say, “You know what I don’t think Paul was right about this, or Peter about that, or John about that.”


  8. That’s a good point for the NT, doesn’t do much for the OT. But here is my real problem with what I think is implied in Enn’s teaching, and if I’m wrong, I would gladly be corrected. It seems that he leaves open the possibility that we might need to “correct” the biblical writers. By this I mean we can read the NT letters and look at the instructions we are given for anything, and it leaves open the door to say, “Well, this was a different time and culture and wisdom is showing me that the writer is wrong about (fill in the blank with whatever you want).”


  9. Pete writes:

    The biblical writers were human like us, and nothing is gained by thinking otherwise. Someone might say, “Well, okay, sure they were human, obviously, but the biblical writers were also inspired, directed by God in what to write, and so not simply ordinary human writers.” I get the point. To see the Bible as inspired by God is certainly the mainstream view in the history of Christianity (and Judaism), but what that means exactly and how it works out in detail have proved to be quite tough nuts to crack.

    Answers abound (and conflict) and no one has cracked the code, including me. But any explanation of what it means for God to inspire human beings to write things down would need to account for the diverse (not to mention ancient and ambiguous) Bible we have before us. Any explanation that needs to minimize, cover up, or push these self-evident biblical characteristics aside isn’t really an explanation; it’s propaganda.

    Okay, I’m getting a little negative about this. Sorry. It’s just that there was a time when I was also very keen to work out some abstract theory about God’s role in producing the Bible, but that task no longer interests me. I’ve learned—by reading the Bible again and again—to accept and be grateful for this messy Bible we have, which drives us, as I’ve been saying, away from thinking of it as a stagnant pond of rules and regulations and toward thinking of it as a flowing stream that invites us to step in and be refreshed anew every day in following Jesus here and now.


  10. I sometimes think , well actually I seldom just “think”, but my comment you all have waited for is this.

    What if the Bible fell into the “dustbin” of history as the talking heads like to say or if it was not promoted and transmitted down though the ages. I would say that the Bible is the foundation into what we now call western civilization. As people discount and walk away from taking the Bible as foundational to meaning of life, I am not sure were that will take us

    Mark Twain, believed the survival of the Jewish people was a miracle. I believe the origin , oral history, written history and the survival of the Bible is truly a miracle. it is a book but more than a book. It is what it is to sum it up. Where would we find Jesus with no Bible? I believe the Bible is a gift of God and it is what I call ————————————————————–The Good Book———-


  11. “Why should we hold these documents up in Christianity as an authority or even just as a guide, if it is just another person’s thoughts, which may be no better than anyone else’s.”

    Because, at least for the NT, they are the nearest witnesses (chronologically and literarily) we have to Christ.


  12. I understand, and I hear the truth in what S.K. says about our avoidance of following Jesus. But remember that he believed only single men, not women or even men hampered by family commitments (and certainly not children), could follow the path laid down by Jesus, could be Christians, so burdensome did he view discipleship.


  13. How is the Bible as a whole, and its individual units, inspired in a way different from any other other literature communicating wisdom, and how does that difference result in a way of reading the Bible (and its individual units) that is different from the way we read any other wise literature? The answer to that question wouldn’t necessarily imply that we don’t read the Bible the way we would other literature, only that there must be a way of reading it above and beyond the way we approach the others corresponding to it special inspiration. If it is not specially inspired in a way different from all other literature, and if as a result there is no special way of reading it that we would not read other literature, then what do we mean, if anything, when we say it is inspired?


  14. He lived in a time when Disenchantment in the west was precipitous. Tough to push against that, esp with the philosophical resources he would have studied.

    But I do think he makes a point about how we find ways to *not* do what Jesus tells us to do.



  15. I still can’t see what the role, if any, God plays in Peter’s view of the creation of the Old and New Testament. It seems to be strictly a human document giving a particular person’s view of God or how God is at work. And if it is no more than that I see no reason to give scripture any more authority than the writing of Socrates or Kant. What am I missing here. Why should we hold these documents up in Christianity as an authority or even just as a guide, if it is just another person’s thoughts, which may be no better than anyone else’s. I’m sorry, it just sounds like, “Read the Bible for wisdom, but be careful, it is only from human authority, it is dated, and might be wrong.” In which case I become the judge of scripture and wonder what is the point.


  16. I prefer the metaphysical version: our ancestors were (and we are) grappling with the living God. You just can’t avoid metaphysics when you are dealing with a transcendent as well as immanent creator. Besides, I find that when people try to throw metaphysics out the front door, it always sneaks in by the back door. I’m not sure that the idea of existence itself doesn’t contain metaphysical assumptions. I wouldn’t call the Bible a record in any case, because some of it is quite plainly legendary and embellished, not history or even national memoir.


  17. –> “My own opinion is that Pete is doing his best (as a biblical scholar) to figure this out for himself and to help those of us who have come to see that the simplistic biblicist approach we were subjected to for much of our lives does not take the Bible seriously as it is written”

    That’s how I view his books, too. In them, he’s taking us on HIS journey, hoping that HIS journey might be able to help those who have, like him, suffered through some unhealthy Christianity.


  18. I’d say Jordan Peterson’s phrasing matches my (often) approach! That could also explain why Ecclesiastes remains one of my favorite books.


  19. Good quote, but I fail to see how it relates to the subject of the post.

    The question is not whether we should treat God’s Word as sacred scripture, a book to be read, meditated upon, prayed over, and applied to our lives. The question is, how do we do that? How does the Bible we have before us “work” to help us know the living God and to live accordingly by loving God and loving our neighbor?

    My own opinion is that Pete is doing his best (as a biblical scholar) to figure this out for himself and to help those of us who have come to see that the simplistic biblicist approach we were subjected to for much of our lives does not take the Bible seriously as it is written. That approach reduces it to a rulebook, instruction manual, or collection of clearly stated theological propositions. It relieves us of the hard work of knowing how to read this book as it is and trying to interpret it for our own lives.

    There are certainly things that are abundantly clear in the Bible (The Apostles’ Creed summarizes the story and there is no question about Jesus’ call to “love God and neighbor,” etc.), and any approach that tries to avoid such teachings is certainly to be challenged. But that’s definitely not what this book is about.


  20. The matter is quite simple. The bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world? Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you? Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.

    –Søren Kierkegaard


  21. I think even the expression “the Bible is designed to…” might be a step more than is necessary. I rather like Jordan Peterson’s (deliberately non metaphysical) phrase “a record of our ancestors’ grappling with the problems of existence”.


  22. “The authors suggested we approach these books not as a single narrative, or as an education by installment,
    but as a great, roaring, unruly conversation across the ages.” (Michael Spencer)

    “Now go,
    write it before them in a table, and note it in a book,
    that it may be for the time to come for ever and ever . . . ”

    (Isaiah 30:8)

    I’m wondering if this may be how Michael Spencer got the idea for Imonk: ‘a great, roaring, unruly conversation’ across the divisions (or in spite of the divisions) of those who join the conversation (?)
    Wherever the idea came to him, I think it must have inspired, yes.


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