How the Bible Actually Works by Pete Enns // A Review

Enns, Peter. How the Bible Actually Works: In Which I Explain How an Ancient, Ambiguous, and Diverse Book Leads Us to Wisdom Rather than Answers–and Why That’s Great News. San Francisco: HarperOne, 2019.

How am I supposed to read the Bible? This is a question that has driven debates for two millennia. From allegorical approaches to mythic approaches, from literalist readings to literary readings, the church has been divided on best practices for biblical interpretation since there was a Bible to be interpreted. Our modern day is no exception, as seen in the recent publication of a number of books attempting to answer this question. Peter Enns, controversial theologian and professor of biblical studies at Eastern University, has written a new book along this vein: How the Bible Actually Works*: In Which I Explain How an Ancient, Ambiguous, and Diverse Book Leads Us to Wisdom Rather Than Answers—and Why That’s Great News. Following on the tails of two other books, The Bible Tells Me So, which questions viewing the Bible as a rulebook, and The Sin of Certainty, which challenges the assumption that a life of faith is equal to a life of certainty, Enns attempts to show that the Bible was not meant to be used as rulebook, but an ancient, ambiguous, and diverse book of wisdom.

While I disagree with Enns’ overall argument, he makes a number of commendable points. First, the push to not see the Bible simply as a rulebook to follow is a helpful critique. We need to view the Bible not as a bunch of laws which need to be followed, producing millions of little legalists, but as a book which tells the story of God and his people—a book which helps one live a life of faith, or, as Enns puts it, a life of wisdom (11). This faith then strives to respond to God’s grace with works; not the other way around. Second, Enns’ emphatic push for the scandal of the cross is a helpful reminder. No first century Jew would have thought the promised Messiah was going to die a cursed death on a cross; the fact that the true Messiah did suffer the cross was a scandal out of left field (241-250). The Messiah who came did not come to overthrow the Roman Empire through violent rebellion but to overthrow sin through submission to death—this Messiah had the long game in view.

With that said, Enns’ overall argument contains many weaknesses. First, the main argument throughout How the Bible Actually Works is that the book was written by a diverse group of people, with conflicting and contradictory voices (8), from very different times and places (9), in a manner that made sense in their cultural context from thousands of years ago (7), without much clarity (8). The Bible, Enns postulates, is an ancient, ambiguous, and diverse assortment of writings primarily compiled during the exile (5). Disregarding the Holy Spirit, who is labelled as a “life force” and “energy” (45), and his work of inspiration, Enns’ leads one to assume that there is no reason to search for a unified voice across this diverse collection books; the Bible was never meant to be used like that anyways. These diverse authors are doing something unique: they are reimagining God for their specific time and place, using wisdom to discern from the past how best to imagine God for their world—a calling that we are to emulate in our own day (10). The people were reimagining God as best as they could, and we are supposed to do the same. How does this wisdom and reimagining work itself out in our modern day? Enns utilizes a trajectory hermeneutic—a la William Webb, without attribution—to posit answers, even pushing it beyond Webb’s boundaries by stating that this hermeneutic ought to be applied to homosexuality (260-266). Not only does Enns suggest that we ought to go beyond the bounds of Scripture, something that the trajectory hermeneutic already suggests, but this raises a question: how do we know that our imaginings of God are true? If our religious tradition is simply reimagining the imaginings of those who have gone before us, what hope can we have to know the truth? On top of that, what basis do we have to believe that their imaginings are correct? It would be rather haughty to believe that our religion, our belief, is the true religion if it is simply based on the imaginings of the past. Unsurprisingly, Enns doesn’t make any claims that Christianity is the true religion. What does one do with a passage like Exodus 34:7, “The LORD, the LORD, the gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger, and abounding in love and faithfulness…,” or, John 14:6, “I am the way, the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me”? These texts seem to be making normative claims about the character of God and the exclusivity of Jesus, utterances by the Godhead himself, yet if these are simply imaginings of the past why would I bother putting hope in this God, as revealed in the Christian Scriptures? Is one simply to dismiss it? Reimagine them for our modern world? How does the work of wisdom, as Enns describes it, take seriously the normative claims that God makes of himself?

Moving on, Enns discusses how the wisdom tradition of the book of Proverbs proves that the Bible is contradictory. How is one supposed to both answer the fool according to his folly and not answer the fool according to his folly? Enns suggests one must remember that these are proverbs and interpreted based on their genre, meaning that they can be understood as ‘general truths’ for life situations (31). This is a helpful reminder when dealing with the book of Proverbs, after all it isn’t a book called ‘promises’. In some situations, answering the fool is the appropriate response, in others, it would be better to not; use your best judgment and wisdom to decide which is best. Enns takes this good hermeneutical approach for wisdom literature and pushes it to an extreme, applying it as a rule for the entirety of Scripture. Now, rather than viewing the proverbial wisdom as general truths, we begin to see the whole Bible in this manner. After all, the whole Bible is, like Proverbs, “ancient, ambiguous, and diverse. The Bible as a whole demands the same wisdom approach as Proverbs” (38). Rather than attempting to understand the cultural, historical, and literary context of a passage, instead of working down the hermeneutical spiral, we simply need to understand that it is always culturally bound wisdom. Enns, in an attempt to push back against fundamental-literalist readings of Scripture, begins advocating for fundamental-literalist readings of Scripture. In an effort to push against reading the words of the Bible literally and without any concern for the genre, Enns begins to read the words of the Bible literally and without any concern for the genre.

In the realm of Speech Act Theory, Enns is arguing that people need not simply read the words on the page (the locution) but get to the meaning of the words (the illocution) which culminates in an action (the perlocution), yet he himself argues for his position simply from the words on the page without concern for their intended meaning or action. For example, in Exodus 12:3-4 the Lord commands Moses that the people are to take a lamb for their household to sacrifice and eat within their homes by roasting rather than boiling them. In Deuteronomy 16:1-9, however, Moses tells the people that they are to sacrifice a lamb at the place which the Lord will appoint, not in their household, by boiling rather than roasting. Enns concludes that this must be a contradiction. Moses isn’t simply reminding them of what was told in Exodus but is actively reimagining what it means to be faithful to God in their time and place (67). However, utilizing some basic hermeneutical techniques, like looking at these passages in their contexts, and Speech Act Theory, one can come to the conclusion that what is being commanded here is that the people need to remember and celebrate the Passover so that they will remember who brought them out of the land of Egypt and not fall into idolatry. Different words, same intended meaning and same resulting action: remembrance and worship. It seems as though Enns is intentionally undercutting common hermeneutical techniques in order to undermine the authority, clarity, and inspiration of Scripture—a topic he doesn’t spend much time on beyond simply dismissing it as too ambiguous to define (80).

One last point of contention is Enns’ discussion of the Apostle Paul, who is said to be inconsistent, and the Apostle James. Enns looks at the letters by these apostles and declares that they are clearly inconsistent with each other: how can Paul say justification is by faith and James say that faith without works is dead? Enns concludes that this must be a contradiction which cannot be avoided. Paul and James are two guys, utilizing wisdom, who have come to two divergent opinions. This is simply wisdom working itself out (236-237). Paul has reimagined God for his situation and come to one result; James has simply done the same for his context. This claim of inconsistency between Paul and James is, without mincing words, poor exegesis resulting in a flawed doctrine of Scripture. Paul says that justification is by faith, and that faith leads to works; James says that justification is proven by the works which result from faith. Two men, two emphases, one idea: faith, which justifies, is only evidenced upon the works which come as resultant of that faith. A simple matter of theological harmonization is entirely whiffed by Enns.

There is much else which could be said, including the overarching idea of the Scripture being written by a diverse group (as Enns points out) with the guidance and direction of the Holy Spirit (which Enns seems to overlook completely) and authorship and dating of various books and letters. To sum the book in a couple of sentence: Scripture models what a life of faith (wisdom) looks like without telling us what God is like. Our perceptions of God are culturally and experientially bound, thus our subjective imaginings of what we would like God to be like becomes our authoritative means of understanding him in our life. Enns does a serious work of undermining any serious trust or reliability of the Scriptures, instead offering nothing tangible but one’s own imaginings of what God might be. Wisdom, Enns says, is learning to take the Scriptures of old, stories and traditions and all, and reimagining God into our present time and place; wisdom, Jesus says, is taking a look at the Scriptures and reinterpreting them in light of Christ and his work on the cross. Which path of wisdom will you choose? Enns writes that this book is not simply about the Bible and how it works, even if it that is what the title claims, but that it is much more about how one ought to imagine God in our present reality in light of the Scriptures continual reimagining of what this Triune God is like (273). The answer put forth could not be any clearer: however you please.

One thought on “How the Bible Actually Works by Pete Enns // A Review

  1. Hi Colin,

    You have written an excellent critique on Peter Enn’s book.  The idea of the Bible being ambiguous and the idea of reimagining God are huge red flags about the essential truth of his book as it is for you.  On another note.  The Christian Counselor I have found extremely helpful in understanding how relationships function well is Larry Crabb.  He is the one who said there are two main motivations in life, fear and desire.  After I finish studying the book of Mark, I plan to do a study on the theme of Jesus Christ is all the Scriptures -Luke 24:25-27.  Could you recommend any book that covers this topic well.  Most of the books I plan to use were written in the 19th or 20th century.–Patrick Fairburn’s, Typology; Ronald Youngblood’s, The Heart of the Old testament: Walter Kaiser’s, The Old testament in Contemporary Preaching and F.F. Bruce; New Testament Development of Old Testament Themes. The other book is a current one,  G.K. Beale, Handbook on the New Testament Use of the Old testament.



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