Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy: Peter Enns Says, "Inerrancy Does Not Describe What the Bible Does"
Last week we introduced to you a new timely resource for discussions on biblical truth and interpretation, Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy. It represents some of the finest, cogent work on evangelical reflection on inerrancy, facilitating understanding of these perspectives, particularly where and why they diverge.
For the next three weeks we are going to take some time to interact with the five views, allowing the essayists to give voice to their view and hear from the other respondents. This morning we heard from Al Mohler, whose view can be summarized as: When the Bible speaks, God speaks. Peter Enns, a biblical scholar and professor at Eastern University, in many ways provides a polar oppositve view: Inerrancy does not describe what the Bible does.
Enns says that he does not think inerrancy "can capture the Bible's varied character and complex dynamics. Though intended to protect the Bible, inerrancy actually sells it short by placing on it expectations it is not designed to bear..." At a deeper level, "inerrancy sells God short," because the tensions inerrancy creates is the result of the distance between a priori assertions about God and how His Book should behave and what it actually does once we interact with it. (84) As he insists, "When the Bible needs so much careful, persistent tending in order to preserve a particular doctrine of Scripture, we might wonder whether the doctrine is the solution of the very source of the problem." (84) Unsurprisingly, Enns does believe it is the problem, beginning with the CSBI.
Enns argues "the distance between what the Bible is and the theological hedge placed around the Bible by the CSBI has been and continues to be a source of considerable cognitive dissonance." (85) Furthermore, he suggests the document itself doesn't create critical reflection upon the nature of Scripture and wonders whether discouraging critical interaction was precisely the task of the opening lines of the CSBI. (86) Finally, Enns bemoans the lack of "hermeneutical self-consciousness on the part of the framers," which cripples the documents usefulness. (87)
Instead, Enns offers what he calls an "incarnational model of Scripture," in which the incarnation is the central principle that is operative in both Christ and Scripture. Interestingly, though he says the incarnation operates differently in the two he never gets around to saying how. "When seen in this light," Enns argues, "exploring what 'God speaks truth' means cannot and must not be undertaken apart from a warm embrace of the idioms, attitudes, assumptions, and general worldviews of the ancient authors." (88) The manner in which God speaks truth through human authors is central to Enns's hermeneutical scheme.
Such a view of Scripture is on full display in his handling of Joshua 6, which illustrates the perennial concern of inerrancy: "the essential historical reliability of the Bible where it clearly speaks to historical matters." (93) Unlike Mohler, Enns's presents the bulk of his arguments by spending his time arguing the textual case studies. The term he settles on to describe what's happening in Josh 6—as well as other biblical episodes—is mythologized history.
Enns quotes James Hoffmeier and his explanation of the Exodus here, "'Hebrew writers could use mythic language and images to depict specific historical situations,' adding that this 'in no way detracts from the historicity of the events being discussed.'" To get around what Enns sees as clear archaeological and historical proof of the Jericho episode's improbability, Enns suggests "the biblical story reflects a small historical core...that at some point was mythicized." (97)
In the end, Enns believes "the core Christian principle of the incarnation opens up a more fruitful dialogue concerning the intersection of these sorts of historical data and doctrine of Scripture. The evangelical discussion needs to begin there, not stall because of a faulty premise about what kind of Bible God would need to produce." (98) Which is why he argues that the Bible is like a community library containing a collection of various writings "that necessarily and unashamedly reflects the world in which those writings were produced," giving us a book that's like Christ. (115)
Responses to Enns's View
Mohler's response addresses Enns's three-part argument as he understands it: 1) inerrancy is an intellectual disaster; 2) inerrancy is erroneous; and 3) the Bible is ancient literature. First, Mohler insists that while Enns might see inerrancy as an intellectual "conversation stopper," it's a necessary part of the evangelical identity which requires intellectual honesty about the core of its DNA. Second, regarding Enns's incarnational model, Mohler says in the same way Jesus did not sin in his incarnation as fully God and human, so also the Bible is without error. Finally, Mohler suggests Enns's belief in key passages as more myth than history is a candid rejection of the truth of the Bible and the church's faithful consensus of Scripture.
While Bird agrees with Enns that you can't have an a priori view of God as the sole basis of Scripture, he departs in several ways. First Bird contests his claims that inerrancy has been central to evangelicalism's entire history, believing that if true then revising it would substantively change it. Second he categorically rejects Enns's incarnational model of Scripture, because it threatens the uniqueness of the Christ event. Third regarding Enns's rejection of the historicity of Jericho he says "prove it." Simply asserting a theory over against the extant biblical account doesn't make it more probable; Bird want's to see the evidence. Finally, Bird wished Enns would have been more constructive than deconstructive with his approach to inerrancy.
Charity leads Vanhoozer to view Enns as a champion of Scripture rather than a boogyman of evangelicalism. However, he also wishes Enns would have been more constructive. Furthermore, he suggests the essay suffers from two confusions: 1) a failure to distinguish the nature of inerrancy from its use; and 2) a failure to distinguish inerrancy's right use from various abuse. A misleading portrait of inerrancy holds Enns captive, he says. Likewise, leading modern scholarly consensus seems to hold Enns captive, which he says is his ultimate downfall.
Finally, Franke wonders if Enns is still reacting to his departure from Westminister, which seems to color his critique of inerrancy, and inerrantists. First, Franke suggests Enns overstates the implications of the view he critiques, which doesn't do justice to actual evangelical biblical scholarship. For instance, Franke rejects Enns's characterization of most inerrantists holding a dehistoricized view of the Bible. As others have noted, Franke also notes the deconstructive nature of Enns' essay. Finally, he questions why Enns's own incarnational model is more descriptive than prescriptive, which he says fails to address the contemporary function of the Bible.
Like the one before it, this overview only scratches the surface! As should be self-evident, there is a spirited debated encased within this important book, one that you'd be wise to take notice of and engage in yourself. Next week we'll pick up the discussion with Michael Bird, who will cast an international light on the subject.
In the meantime What say you? How have you reconciled for yourself the nature of Scripture, particularly with modern history and science?
Jeremy Bouma (Th.M.) is a pastor with the Evangelical Covenant Church in West Michigan. He is the founder of THEOKLESIA, a content curator dedicated to helping the 21st century church rediscover the historic Christian faith; holds a Master of Theology in historical theology; and writes about faith and life at www.jeremybouma.com.
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