*This was written on July 7th, 2018.
I picked up Peter Enns’ book, Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, recently and found it informative and helpful. So, in the spirit of this blog/guild, I’ve decided to do a quick summary and review of Dr. Enns’ work since it covers some issues that would most likely interest our readership (i.e., the three of us). Keep in mind that this review will be both informal and selective since I was forced to return the book to the library before I extracted enough notes to adequately review it (#NerdProblems).
In this work, Enns seeks to illuminate the problems that evangelicals have had with the Old Testament in light of recent findings within linguistic, cultural, and archeological studies. In the past 200 years, these fields in tandem with the rise of biblical criticism have generated some serious problems for modern Christians and especially for evangelicals. Considering himself a “progressive evangelical,” Enns’ goal is to bring these problems into the light, seriously consider the evidence provided by modern scholarship, and offer an alternative solution as opposed to the explanations given by modern evangelical scholars.
For Enns, evangelicals have often avoided the claims of modern biblical scholarship all together or have selectively chosen to address it. Much of the solutions offered by evangelicals today consist largely of a superficial flattening of the bible or answers that seem to quickly end any serious discussion. This places evangelicals in a vulnerable position as the evidence continues to mount yet they refuse to adequately address it. Apologetics for the evangelical within this realm becomes finding ways to dismiss modern biblical scholarship’s findings at any cost in order to preserve traditional positions (e.g., inerrancy). The focus becomes how to not change theological positions while still dealing with the evidence—an approach often that leads to selective interaction with the evidence and the Scriptures.
This is where Enns breaks off from his evangelical colleagues. Instead of ignoring or selectively engaging with modern scholarship in order to preserve a traditional position, Enns deeply delves into the findings of modern biblical scholarship and seeks to adequately integrate it into his perspective when the evidence deems necessary. Instead of hiding behind the evangelical notion of inerrancy or infallibility, Enns sees the need for evangelicals to adapt to what could be compared to a Copernican revolution of sorts. Because of this, Enns argues it may be time for evangelicals to adequately address the evidence instead of hiding behind the security provided by the rigid old arguments.
Evangelicals’ Problems with the Old Testament
Enns divides the problems that evangelicals have with the Old Testament into three categories: 1) the Old Testament and other near ancient east literature 2) the theological diversity within the Old Testament 3) the New Testament authors’ use of the Old Testament. Each of these issues pose problems for the modern evangelical. The Old Testament’s literary contemporaries have been shown to have a remarkable similarity to the Old Testament in regard to their political, legal, religious, and ethical systems (here the Bible’s uniqueness is in question). The multiplicity of theological opinions of Old Testament authors makes it difficult to see the Old Testament as solely divine since its authors seem to have differing opinions about Israel’s history, the 10 commandments, and its wisdom literature (here’s the Bible’s integrity is in question). The New Testament authors’ use of the Old Testament also creates problems because of their seemingly arbitrary use of Old Testament texts and the inclusion of Jewish inter-testamental interpretations (here the New Testament’s interpretation of the Old Testament is put into question).
The Old Testament and Near Ancient Eastern Literature
In the first section of the book Enns introduces readers to relevant near ancient eastern texts that have significant similarities to the Old Testament. Each of the texts demonstrate at least some religious, political, legal, or ethical similarity to the Old Testament. Theses similarities are often systemic, such as the sacrificial system of the Old Testament or the political system of Israel. Enns considers these to be human “marks” on the scriptures and that these should not be ignored or quickly explained away. The first human mark is the fact that the Old Testament was written in human languages (Hebrew & Aramaic). Another significant mark is the Old Testament’s religious system (i.e., the sacrificial system) that consisted of priests, temples, and physical sacrifices, which were also present among Israel’s contemporaries and before even the Old Testament was written. This also could include the prevalence of prophets within Israel, who mediated God’s will; a role that was also firmly situated in other near ancient eastern religious systems. Israel’s political and legal systems also share similarities with its contemporaries. The people of Israel’s plea for a king “like the other nations” reflects this, although this could be seen as a divine concession, the throne of David seems to be situated appropriately within its near ancient eastern context. The remarkable similarity between near ancient eastern legal texts (e.g., The Code of Hammurabi, Hittite Suzerainty Treaties, etc.) and the Old Testament is an example of the likeness of Israel’s legal system to that of its contemporaries. All of these reflect the fact that there are significant similarities between both the content and the format of the Old Testament and its near ancient eastern literary contemporaries.
All of these human marks may be unsettling for some evangelicals. The discovery of other creation narratives such as the Enuma Elish (the “Babylonian Genesis”) pose the serious question of whether Genesis’ creation narrative is in a format that should be considered “mythical.” This particular example, the Enuma Elish, is housed in a format that a reader of Genesis would be quite familiar with. There is a creation of the world out of darkness, a creation of the sun and moon, and even a separation of waters like the Genesis narrative. Although the theological message is starkly different, the format and order are quite similar. The other question that these “marks” pose to evangelicals is whether revelation is indeed unique. Near ancient eastern customs and laws, some of which are considered much older than the Old Testament, have correspondences that would make the evangelical question if the Old Testament is distinctive from other ancient texts. Furthermore, the issue of historiography poses another inquiry. Can modern readers of the Old Testament trust the historical accounts of its authors? Although Old Testament authors’ sometimes unheroic interpretations of Israel’s history seems to deem it more legitimate, near ancient eastern histories tend to serve political agendas.
The study of near ancient eastern literature and cultures has unearthed significant findings that call into question what Christians should expect from the Old Testament and the bible as a whole. Evangelicals remain in the crosshairs of these findings if they don’t discover some way to adequately address them, particularly in regard to the remarkable similarities between the Old Testament and its literary contemporaries.
Theological Diversity in the Old Testament & NT Author’s Use of the OT
Although I would love to go into detail about Enns’ treatment of theological diversity in the Old Testament & the New Testament authors’ use of the Old Testament, I must refrain due to needed brevity and the fact that I no longer have Enns’ book (#NerdProblems). To summarize, there are a number of apparent disagreements among authors of the Old Testament regarding the ten commandments, how to prepare a sacrifice, wisdom literature, and facts regarding Israel’s history. These pose problems for someone who holds that the Old Testament is chiefly divine. For those who do hold this position, these differing opinions are often either ignored or harmonized in an unorthodox or irrational manner.
Regarding the New Testament authors’ treatment of the Old Testament, Enns’ shows readers that the New Testament authors interpret the Old Testament in light of the hermeneutical tradition that existed when the New Testament was written. This traditional treatment of the text was not exegetical in a modern sense and often did not take the historical context of the text into consideration. Evangelical’s solution to this problem is to argue the New Testament authors were “divinely inspired,” which gave them license to reinterpret the Old Testament however they pleased. Enns’ argues that this was not “divine license” but instead was New Testament authors interpreting the Old Testament in the way any other Second-Temple Jewish person would have interpreted it in addition to a newfound understanding of the Messiah being Jesus Christ.
Both of these issues (theological diversity & hermeneutics) create problems for evangelicals and their current perceptions of the Old Testament. The diversity of opinions between Old Testament authors should be adequately treated and not “flattened out” in the name of inerrancy or infallibility. The New Testament’s use of the Old Testament should be considered in light of inter-testamental hermeneutical traditions and not just assumed to be divine apostolic interpretive license.
The Incarnational Analogy
Up to this point, Enns has unveiled a few problems for evangelicals and their treatment and perceptions of the Old Testament. Instead of leaving them “out to dry” at this point, Enns offers a simple analogy to help evangelicals think differently about the Old Testament. Enns calls this the “incarnational analogy.” The incarnational analogy draws a parallel between the incarnation of Jesus and the nature of the Scriptures. Just as Jesus was both fully God and fully man, Enns argues that the Bible is both fully divine and fully human. This means that just as Jesus was wrapped in human flesh and dealt with the difficulties of human existence, the Bible is also wrapped or “encultured” into the context of the near ancient east. This means that when it comes to interpreting the Old Testament, both the divine aspects of the text and the human aspects of the text should be considered. Just as Jesus became a Jewish man at a specific time in history, speaking a specific language, and having a specific worldview, the Old Testament as was delivered to the people of Israel at a particular time in history, in a particular language, and within a particular worldview. This last point is worth briefly expounding upon. The worldview of the near ancient east was far different from our modern one. The example regarding science may be helpful in drawing out Enns’ point here. God obviously knows that the world is not flat and that the earth is not at the center of the universe (as we think at least). Therefore, why did God communicate through Old Testament writers that the world was flat and that the earth was at the center of the universe? If God knew this not to be true, why is it assumed in the Old Testament? Enns would argue that this is assumed because the Old Testament is encultured within its near ancient east context, and that this includes its perspective and beliefs on scientific matters. Basically, God was revealing himself in a manner that people like Abram, for example, would understand. Enns would even go so far to say that this explains the similarities between the Old Testament’s sacrificial system and its contemporaries. Instead of “recreating the wheel,” God used what made sense to Abram to communicate his existence and his reign over all other gods.
Enns’ incarnational analogy helps evangelicals reconfigure how they approach the Old Testament in light of the modern understanding of near ancient eastern cultures. Although Enns does not go into details explaining the intricacies of this analogy, he offers it as a starting point for evangelicals to reconsider what they should expect from the text.
Since this article has already got a bit lengthy, I’ll be brief in my review. Enns does an excellent job of 1) introducing evangelicals to the socio-historical context of the Old Testament—chiefly in regard to his selection and explanation of near ancient eastern texts that are relevant to the Old Testament 2) offering a simple “Occam’s razer-like” tool (i.e., the incarnational analogy) for evangelicals to reevaluate what they expect from the Old Testament 3) adequately showing the thoroughly encultured nature of the Old Testament within its near ancient eastern context. With that being said, I would highly recommend any Christian (especially an evangelical) to pick up Enns book. Its strength is in its conciseness and accessibility.
On the other hand, Enns’ conciseness contributes to the works most notable weakness—its lack of fleshing out the incarnational analogy. Here the Occam’s razor cuts both ways since he provides no boundaries or guidelines for evangelicals to use this newfound analogy to approach their Bibles. At best, the analogy is just an analogy. It’s a starting point and not much more. In this instance, Enns may have acknowledged that he’s a bible scholar and not a theologian and decided not to give an extensive treatment of the analogy. Enns also gives unnecessary weight to the diversity among opinions of Old Testament authors. Most of the discrepancies that he points out are minor at best and should be expected among any anthology of diverse works like the Old Testament. The discrepancies within Proverbs, for example, could easily be attributed to the genre of the book itself—something that most evangelicals would most likely understand.
I’m very grateful for the friend who recommended this book to me, as well as for Dr. Enns. He has bravely sought to introduce evangelicals to pertinent issues that most evangelicals would have ignored, quickly explained away, or never have been exposed to anyway. I’m sure this has probably caused some issues for him as a scholar and as a self-identified evangelical. Often situations like this lead to being forever ostracized among evangelicals and conservatives. Regardless, I applaud Enns for boldly engaging with the evidence and caring enough to present it to other evangelicals in an accessible and noncondensing manner. So, in the spirit of truth, let us all continue to sapere aude (dare to know)!