Growing up as a Christian, there are a variety of subjects from the Bible that lead any thinking person to ask questions eventually. How does the creation story relate to modern science? How could the God revealed in Jesus command the extermination of the Canaanites? What about all those other weird, even horrific and immoral, rules in the Bible?
A variety of answers are available, some more and some less satisfying. Peter Enns, in his book The Bible Tells Me So:Why Defending Scripture Has Made us Unable to Read it, offers his answers to these questions. This is one of those books that can be both liberating and confusing at the same time. The answers Enns offers are liberating in helping the reader realize that such answers are acceptable within a serious Christian faith. At the same time, they are confusing because you realize that many other Christians will see such answers as questionable, perhaps even un-Christian.
For example, the Canaanite genocide is often explained by saying that God is just and can judge whomever he wants whenever he wants. All people deserve judgment and it was their time, the answer goes. I have found this answer both true and satisfying at times. At the same time, it often leaves a lot unsaid or unanswered. Sure, God can judge people of evil. But does this include viciously exterminating even children? Enns’ answer is to question whether God actually commanded this. The Bible is an ancient book written by ancient people. They, as we do today, filtered their views through their culture and worldview. In those days it was common for gods to command extermination of enemies. So the Israelites thought this was what God wanted. As Christians, with our clearest revelation of God in Jesus, we realize God does not command exterminations of people. To avoid making God appear schizophrenic, ordering death and execution on one page and commanding we turn the other cheek on the next, Enns’ reading realizes the human element. So we do not need to spend loads of time and reams of paper trying to reconcile these two contradicting views of God. As Christians we read scripture through the lens of Jesus.
Enns’ book is helpful and challenging. To some, he is tossing out too much and ought to be considered a dangerous heretic. To others, he is offering liberation from awful views of God, perhaps allowing people to remain in the faith who were going to walk away. At the very least, he has offered a helpful book for Christians that will make any reader think deeply about who God is, how God speaks and what God demands. And if our faith truly is centered on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus then we should be willing and able to debate and discuss the sorts of things Enns discusses here.
Enns’ main point is that rather then defending the Bible we need to let the Bible be what it is. It is a waste of time to try to prove the historical truth of various stories or to prove that all the stories in the Bible portray Jesus alike. Instead the Bible reflects different people’s stories from various times through history. And that’s okay. Enns argues that God loves stories. So God wants these stories in scripture, even if their picture of God is not correct.
I think Enns’ book is really an argument for a form of progressive revelation. All Christians accept that through scripture more of God’s character is revealed. There is a fuller understanding by Paul then by Moses, for example. Where Enns differs is that he is more open to saying that Moses’ view was wrong in light of later understandings. Other Christians would try to hold earlier writers as correct in what they said with later writers extending these truths in deeper ways. Perhaps the question is, does Jesus contradict and overturn what came before (not all of it) or does Jesus extend and fill out what came before?
From a practical standpoint, I wonder how to teach Enns’ view in the church setting. I imagine my experience is typical – I learned the stories as a kid, took them as just the way things happened. Later in life I relearned them, coming to realize things were not as simple as when I was a kid. Perhaps this is just the way it is and there is really no other way to learn the Bible. This is personal to me, because I have a three year old daughter. Sometimes we read story books of Noah and the flood. Eventually she might learn about Joshua and the battle of Jericho. How does Enns’ understanding play out in a child’s sunday school room? For example, do we simply teach our kids that Noah’s flood covered the whole earth and later on teach that maybe it did not literally cover the whole earth? Do they have to learn at one point only to unlearn and relearn later? Or do we try to bring some of that nuance into a children’s classroom? And how would we do that?
That aside, this is a fantastic, funny and engaging book. I want to emphasize that it is readable. To some degree this book reminds me of Bart Ehrman as Enns is seeking to make mainstream scholarship accessible to the church. But where Ehrman does so as a skeptic, Enns does so as a Christian. For that reason, Enns and his work is valuable for the church.