"Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament" by Peter Enns

Tremper Longman
Thursday, May 3rd 2007
Nov/Dec 2005

In some evangelical and Reformed circles, biblical scholars and systematic theologians are speaking to each other, but they aren't communicating well. Biblical scholars sometimes get the feeling that theologians are telling them what the Bible can and cannot say without really grappling with the thorny issues of interpretation, while theologians occasionally believe that their colleagues in the Bible department have "sold the ranch" in order to buy some broader academic respectability. What is unfortunate is that this "dialogue" occurs between people who sincerely and intelligently affirm that the Bible is God's Word. Peter Enns's new book struggles with both ends of this impasse by providing a robust understanding of biblical authority that accounts for the nature of the phenomena of Scripture as most evangelical and Reformed biblical scholars see it today. Thus, Enns's Inspiration and Incarnation is to be applauded for its contribution to the formulation of a healthy doctrine of the Bible, even if one can't, as this reviewer can't, agree with it in every detail.

I begin with a short description of the thesis of the book. The Bible is the Word of God, and that should remind us, of course, of Jesus Christ, who is the Word of God. In terms of Christian orthodoxy, Jesus is fully God and fully human. He is not apparently human, but really God. The same may be said for the Bible. The Bible is also fully divine in its origins, but it is also fully human in its origins. This, in a nutshell, is Enns's "incarnational analogy" of the Bible. Fundamentalists treat the Bible as if it is only apparently human; liberals as if it is only human. The proper approach is to affirm both aspects. Affirming that the Bible is fully human is not to attribute error to Scripture any more than affirming that Christ is fully human attributes sin to the Son of God. Of course, precisely how this analogy works out in practice is more difficult and open to disagreement than the statement of it. To his great credit, Enns chooses three difficult topics to discuss.

The first has to do with the relationship between the Old Testament and ancient Near Eastern literature. He rightly describes the extensive parallels between the Old Testament and Near Eastern myths, history, legal codes, wisdom literature, treaties, and more. Indeed, if he can be faulted, it might be for trying to cover so much material rather than settling down to extensively discuss a couple. However, the survey approach does give the reader the sense of the extent of the relationship between the two and makes his point well that the Bible has a close relationship with the Near East raising the question of distinctiveness.

First, though, we can see how he is making the point about the humanity of the Bible. God did not give the Bible authors a new language, but Hebrew that is closely related to other languages (Ugaritic and Aramaic, for example). He did not create new genres, but used genres that are found throughout the ancient Near East. He did not create new metaphors to apply to Yahweh that were not applied to other gods (warrior, shepherd, king). The Bible's authors even use similar language to talk about creation, and Enns is right to raise the issue of the degree to which Genesis participates in the worldview of its ancient neighbors. This discussion is immensely interesting and important, and he is right to locate the Old Testament's uniqueness in one place, the person of the God, Yahweh.One insight to highlight in the section on the creation narrative is that "ancient peoples were not concerned to describe the universe in scientific terms" (40). While the Old Testament has implications for how we assess modern scientific views of creation, the interpreter needs to read these texts in the first place against the background of the Enuma Elish and the Baal Epic, not the Origin of the Species.The second difficult topic he treats is the theological diversity of the Old Testament. Enns is totally correct to resist the tendency to homogenize the whole Old Testament. Samuel-Kings and Chronicles present two accounts of Israel's history for a purpose. They are not identical by any stretch of the imagination (just compare the reign of Abijah in 1 Kings 15:1-8 and 2 Chronicles 13), and Enns does a masterful job at explaining these diverse voices here and elsewhere in the Old Testament.

However, here he sometimes overplays his hand by not then discussing how these diverse voices ultimately sing the same tune. He is occasionally overly concerned to correct the abuse of not hearing the different voices, so he downplays the legitimate task of canonical interpretation that harmonizes. Again, he is right to hear the diverse voices first, but it is also important to say why they "go together." One instance of this is in his interpretation of Ecclesiastes where he criticizes those who see "Qoheleth as a fool himself, someone whose lack of faith will not allow him to see past the end of his nose. The end of the book does not cancel out the words of Qoheleth" (79). No, they don't cancel them out, but they situate them, especially when it is realized that Qoheleth is speaking from an "under the sun" perspective and that the second wise man who is quoting him to his son (12:8-14) is trying to lift his son to an above the sun perspective.But, again, what Enns is trying to avoid is a harmonization that in reality wipes out one pole of the diversity. Thus, for instance, I applaud him as a fellow Reformed interpreter for holding the biblical teaching that God does not change his mind, and holding the direct biblical statements that God changes his mind together without erasing one side of the pole (an error into which some Calvinists as well as those who advocate the "openness of God" fall). And indeed, in the final analysis, Enns himself rightly acknowledges that Christ himself is the proper focus of Scripture's unity.

Finally, in perhaps his best section, Enns looks at the use of the Old Testament in the New. This subject is an important one and a topic about which Enns is especially knowledgeable. If one honestly reads the New Testament use of the Old Testament, one will sometimes scratch one's head. For instance, in 1 Timothy 2:14 when Paul says "Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived," one wonders whether that really puts Adam in a better position since he was "with her" (Gen. 3:6) during the whole episode. Or reading the Old Testament account of Samson in Judges one wonders from where the assessment of him as an example of faith in Hebrews 11 comes.

The best part of this section, though, is in his encouragement of what he calls a Christotelic reading of the text. Though I still think "Christological" is a better term, he is right that the New Testament authors understood that the whole Old Testament pointed to Christ. And he does a magnificent job helping the reader to recognize this important fact about the Old Testament, while still maintaining a proper reading of it within its original setting. My only problem with this part of the book is that I got confused in his discussion of whether or not the church should read the Old Testament in a similar way. I am still not sure what his conclusion is, but he seems to lean at the end toward Longenecker's view that we do not live in the Second Temple period (and I would add are not writing literature which, in his terms, is fully divine as well as fully human) so that we can make similar connections to those that the New Testament authors make. At least I hope that's his final position, because I think that is the correct one.

In conclusion, this book is a must read for any scholar, particularly evangelical and/or Reformed, who is concerned with biblical interpretation and its relationship with theology. I suspect and hope it will generate debate and passionate discussion. That would be helpful and constructive. On the other hand, we can safely ignore anyone who simply pronounces that Enns's viewpoint is "outside the camp" or theologically "out of bounds," because he is correct that "a doctrine of Scripture that does not think through this incarnational dimension is inadequate in light of the evidence we have" (67).

Thursday, May 3rd 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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