04 August 2005

enns on inspiration

Peter Enns, professor of Old Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary, has written what I expect to be an important contribution to theologically orthodox Protestant understandings of Scripture. One might not agree with every example, proposal, or suggestion Enns gives, but his Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament (BakerAcademic 2005) is nonetheless insightful and provocative.

The title of the book, connecting "inspiration" with "incarnation," refers to the familiar analogy drawn between, on one hand, the human and divine aspects of Scripture and, on the other, the human and divine natures of Christ. Enns asks us to think through the implications of affirming the full humanity of the biblical text, which is just as much part of particular times, places, cultures, and languages as Christ was born to a particular woman, in a specific time, place, and culture, speaking a certain language. This is the main theme of Enns's discussion.

His argument, however, might well be summarized in another way: when we speak of Scripture being ultimately authoritative and, therefore, infallible and inerrant, we must allow Scripture itself to define what that means, rather than bringing our own preconceived notions to the text of what it must look like and how it must function in order to be authoritative. The assumptions of Enlightenment reason, modern historiography, and grammatical-historical exegesis are not necessarily the assumptions of the biblical text.

Enns's focus is upon the Old Testament and his argument falls into three main sections: the first examines the Old Testament in relation to other ancient Near Eastern literature; the second, the theological diversity of the Old Testament; and the third, the New Testament's interpretation of the Old Testament. As Enns proceeds through each of these sections and the issues they raise, he draws out the implications for our understanding of exactly what the Scriptures are as the Word of God (a kind of ontology of Scripture) and what that can teach us about a God who choses to reveal himself in these ways.

In the first section, Enns lays out some of problems raised by other, extra-biblical, ancient Near Eastern texts and then asks whether these are, in fact, problems for the Bible itself or whether they say more about us and our assumptions. He divides these issues into three sub-sections.

First, the parallels between the early stories in Genesis and other similar ancient stories raise the problem of what this means for truth and historicity of the biblical stories when they appear significantly similar to the pagan myths. But, as Enns notes, "myths" are the way in which ancient peoples "addressed questions of ultimate origns and meaning" (50) and thus it was the category that God had available to reveal himself to an ancient people. This is not to say that the early stories in Genesis aren't true or even, in some sense, historical, but they communicate that truth in a manner rather different from modern, scientific discourse and simply aren't designed to answer the sorts of questions we might have with the kinds of answers we've been taught to expect.

Second, various parallels between biblical customs, laws, and proverbs and those of surrounding cultures raise the problem of the moral uniqueness (and thus, authority) of the biblical texts, particularly when extra-biblical texts are older than the Old Testament and might even be among its sources. But, Enns suggests, perhaps this simply bears witness to the fact "that God has set up the world in a certain way and that way is imprinted on all people" (58). This is not to say there are no significant differences between Israel's customs, laws, and proverbs and those of their neighbors, yet it suggests the point is less the differences than it is God's claim, as the creator of heaven and earth, to be source of any genuine wisdom and goodness.

The second major section of Enns's book deals with diversity within the Old Testament. Enns begins by noting tensions within biblical wisdom literature, both within particular books (e.g., sayings in Proverbs that appear, superficially, to be contradictory) and more widely (e.g., Proverbs' confidence in wisdom over against Ecclesiastes' more chastened expectations). He goes on to note various other sorts of diversity within the Old Testament: the retelling of Israel's history in Chronicles, shifts within the Torah particularly between Exodus and Deuteronomy, the relativization of sacrifice in the prophets, whether the idols are other gods or non-existent, God's portrayal as both genuinely responsive and as sovereign redeemer, and so on.

Enns will not allow us to simply paper over these difficulties with some kind of neat harmonization. Rather, given that the Scriptures are indeed God's word, he asks the question what this diversity tells us about how they are God's word. None of this is to say that there is no underlying and profound unity to the Scriptures, but it is to maintain that this is a unity that emerges from within a text that bears all the features of developing over a long history and through many varied and changing situations. And it is precisely through this complex history that the one and same God has chosen to reveal himself, bringing that revelation to a climax in and through the person of Jesus Christ, in whom the unity of Scripture is ultimately to be found.

The third section of Enns's book takes a look at the various ways in which the New Testament interprets the Old, particularly when examined in light of the hermeneutics of Second Temple Judaism. An examination of the New Testament indicates that not only did the apostolic church take up some of the hermeneutical methods of Second Temple Judaism (though often applied to profoundly different ends in light of Christ), but they also made use of various interpretive traditions (e.g., Jannes and Jambres; the well of water that followed Israel in the wilderness). The bottom line is that the apostolic church was not tied down by some kind of prior commitment to grammatical-historical exegesis, but rather interpreted the Scriptures in a manner that Enns calls "christotelic," seeing Christ as the end to which the entire biblical story is directed and re-reading that story in light of Christ.

The problem this poses is whether we can follow in the apostles' footsteps in our hermeneutics. If we say we cannot, then we are either saying the New Testament got things wrong or that the apostolic authors were in a unique position, despite the fact that their own hermeneutical methods are hardly unique within Second Temple Judaism. If, however, we say we can follow the apostolic example, then that opens our handling of the Old Testament to all kinds of hermeneutical moves that seem a bit dodgy from a modern perspective. But, Enns suggests, this shouldn't be a problem if we recognize the situatedness of all hermeneutical methods, thus engendering humility about our own, and are if we are willing to embrace the christotelic vision of the apostolic church in order to read the entire Scriptures, from within the life of the church, as directed towards Christ.

In his conclusion, Enns draws together his argument and suggestions, deploying the analogy between the humanity of Jesus and the humanity of the Bible. This is not to say that Scripture is less than unique, for it "is the only book in which God speaks incarnately" (168) and that coming together of divine and human sets it apart from all other texts. Yet, this very analogy underscores our inability to articulate fully just what it means for Scripture to be authoritative, inerrant, infallible, and so on, in the same way that, while we can affirm the divinity and humanity of Jesus, his authority, his perfection, and so on, we cannot grasp that reality exhaustively.

Enns concludes from this that, if God himself is disclosed within the particularity of varying cultural circumstances and contexts, we must regard our own theological formulations with humility, as having a certain provisionality, all the more so given our own fallenness. Nevertheless, the culturally-situated nature of theological expression can be seen as akin to Scripture itself, explaining the truth of the Gospel in all of its multi-dimensional diversity.

With regard to diversity within the Scriptures themselves, this is no reason, Enns suggests, to undercut our trust in Scriptures' integrity and authority, since we trust by faith the God who gave them to us. It does mean, however, that we can't reduce the Scriptures to some simplistic set of rules or de-contextualized prooftexts. Rather, it is the overall arc of the biblical story and its trajectory that must condition our use of the Scriptures in the life of the church.

Finally, with regard to the christotelic nature of the Scriptures, Enns suggests that it is "in the person and work of Christ that Christians seek to read the Old Testament, to search out how it is in Christ that the Old Testament has integrity, how it is worthy of trust, how the parts cohere" (170). This is not to say that such an approach to biblical interpretation is always clear and straightforward or can be delineated by a set of simple rules.

Enns concludes with a call to a humility that is sensitive to how others hear us and how we receive challenges to our own preconceptions, to a love that assumes the best of others rather than beginning with suspicion or attack, and a patience that is open to correction and to those who bring correction.

While, on the whole Enns's book is thoughtful and helpful, nevertheless, there are some points at which I find myself in disagreement with Enns or, at the very least, wanting to express things in a different way or to place the issues within a wider context or ask some important questions. It is to those areas that I now will briefly turn:

[1] I find the incarnational analogy helpful, but as we shall see in what follows, I do have some questions about how we might best deploy that analogy. As Enns notes, it's not the sort of analogy in which something more obscure is explained by analogy to something that is less obscure, since the incarnation, if anything, is even more difficult to comprehend than Scripture. This observation should also warn us to take care as we make use of the analogy to explain the phenomenon of Scripture, particularly since, when using analogies, differences are just as important as similarities.

So for instance, one implication of the analogy that Enns implicitly draws (and rightly so, I believe), is that Scripture's full humanity makes the Bible look very much like other ancient literature. Just was we might not recognize Jesus as God the Son incarnate, were we to observe him only for a short while as Jewish man of first century Palestine doing the sorts of things such men do, so also we might not recognize the divine uniqueness of Scripture just by a superficial comparison with similar texts. This much I think is correct and helpful.

But where does one go from there? How does one come to recognize the humanity of Jesus as the humanity of a divine Person? What created means and forms of disclosure does the Spirit use to bring us to that confession? What does that imply for how we recognize the divinity of Scripture? And, if part of what manifests the divinity of Jesus were the words that he spoke, what does that imply about how the analogy applies to the biblical text, which is essentially words?

I don't ask those questions to undermine Enns's proposal, which is surely correct, but to suggest some of the difficulties that come along with it, even on the level of the basic analogy. We can go on to examine some more specific points.

[2] Enns several times speaks of God "accommodating" himself to us in biblical revelation, for instance, adopting the cultural conventions that were contemporary to Scripture and adapting them for his own purpose. It seems to me that there are at least two difficulties with this sort of language.

First, the notion of "accommodation" seems to suggest that there might be some other way in which God could reveal himself that would be better or more direct or less mediated through the conventions of human language and culture. This seems to suppose a sort of nature/grace dichotomy that might prove problematic if pushed too far. We can, of course, speak of "voluntary condescension" on God's part in that he directs us to the graciously given end of life together in himself as our blessedness and reward. And, insofar as this end is given and attained only by grace, the revelation of this end must also remain a gift, rather than something we could discern simply in virtue of God's creating us in his image.

Nevertheless, humanity is created in the very image of the Creator - created in and through the Son who is the eternal Word and Image of the Father. And if this is so and if humanity was given the task of stewardship over God's world, multiplying and filling that world in an ever-increasing diversity of social organism and culture, then it must be the case that human language, culture, actions, and words are always already a disclosure of the divine (however distorted that disclosure might grow through sin) and are indeed the most apt medium of whatever divine revelation God condescends to grant us. This is part of what it means for human beings, personally and socially, to exist in the image of God.

In light of this, it seems to me that on an ontological level, talk of "accommodation" with regard to to the culture- and language-bound nature of divine revelation is misplaced.

Moreover, one can even draw a sort of "impossibility of the contrary" argument here with regard to how God reveals himself. Though directed to a slightly different point, Lesslie Newbigin makes just such an argument in his Truth and Authority in Modernity (Trinity Press International 1996). He writes:
At the risk of becoming merely speculative, it is worth pausing for a moment at this point to ask whether there is any other way in which divine authority could be mediated to human beings. There would only seem to be two possibilities.

One would be that God should make his authority known directly to every individual conscience without intervention of any other human agency. But this suggestion is absurd, for no human being develops either reason or conscience except through participating in the intercourse of a human community, family, society, culture. Because no human experience is totally private, divine revelation could not be totally private.

The other possibility is that divine revelation should be a matter of public history. In that case it can be only in events that are limited to a particular time, place, culture. But the whole ongoing course of human history cannot be frozen forever at a particular point. Revelation takes place only if...it is internalized, made part of a living human consciousness that must necessarily be the consciousness of a human being living in a particular time, place, and culture. It is therefore hard to imagine how there could be any other divine revelation authoritative for the whole of human history except one that embraced the three elements we have noted above: a living community, a tradition of teaching, and the continuing work of the divine Spirit illuminating the tradition in each new generation and each new situation, so that it becomes the living speech of God for that time, place, and culture. (30-31)
The point here is that, if God was going to create a people for himself and reveal himself to them, it could not occur in any other way except by means of human historical existence in all of its particularity of time, place, language, and culture. This is not a matter of divine "accommodation," but of who God is in himself (as a community of Persons in which the Father begets the Son as his Word and Image in the Spirit) and what humanity must be in relation to God as his image.

These points, of course, do not at all undermine Enns's basic argument, but rather lend it significant support, albeit with some minor emendation. There may, however, be some implications for the precise shape and details of Enns's argument, entailed by the shift from "accommodation" to a more integralist approach to revelation.

Second, if everything I've said about human life and culture (as the only and most apt means of divine revelation) is on the right track, then it problematizes the notion of God "adopting the cultural conventions that were contemporary to Scripture and adapting them for his own purpose." The difficulty with wording things in quite that way is that it presupposes or implies both [a] the problems we've already seen regarding "accommodation" and [b] that the existing cultural conventions were already somehow "there," in place, in a matter that is prior to and unconstrained by either divine providence or their aptness for divine revelation.

The way Enns words things at times almost suggests that God, wanting to reveal himself, stumbled upon the scene and had to rummage about the surrounding cultures in an attempt to find something suitable as a medium for that revelation. One can just about imagine the Father saying to the Son (and, forgive me, Pete), "Oh dear, all we seem to have got here are these awful little pagan myths, but I suppose we can retrofit a few and cobble them together into something that won't totally befuddle that nice klatch of Hebrews we called."

Now, I don't want to argue that, somehow, the biblical accounts absolutely pre-date the mythic narratives they parallel or that it's just an accident of history that Scripture sounds, at times, very much like the cultures within which it was produced. In fact, I suspect that Enns's suggestion is correct, that Abraham's Chaldean origins and idolatrous background likely do play a significant role in the formation of the mythic world of the early Hebrews (recalling that "mythic" here means something like "a symbolic universe that embodies beliefs about ultimate origins and ends"). And I agree with Enns that this poses no problem.

But I want to step back from the details for a minute and return to the analogy of the incarnation. When God the Son became incarnate, he did so by taking a human nature upon himself. Thus humanity was one that already bore the Image of the eternal Son and that was drawn from the flesh of the Virgin Mary, "under the law" and "in the fullness of time." That is to say, through the history and story of Israel, through the family of David, and through the life of a particular woman, at a particular time, place, and culture, God the Father prepared for his Son, through the Spirit, a humanity that was perfectly suited as the vehicle of his own greatest and most decisive self-revelation.

If this is so, and if God's directing providence extends to every time, place, and culture - and, moreover, if human culture and language was always already a disclosure of the divine that was, in some manner, apt for the gift of greater revelation - if all this is the case, then we must confess, I think, that there was something particularly and uniquely suitable about ancient Near Eastern mythology for God's revelation of himself and the origins, meaning, and ends of his creation. That is to say, if God's revelation in Scripture bears the marks of ancient mythology, then that is only because God providentially directed that mythology to that end from the start. And, in that case, it is not merely a matter of God "adopting cultural conventions" since, given the context, that's all he had at his disposal.

Again, my point here does not at all undermine Enns's proposal, but lends it support, though, again, perhaps leading us to emend its precise shape. For, if I am on the right track, then we have to ask what exactly it is that is so fitting about the mythic world of the ancient Near East for bearing God's self-disclosure? Is it the case that those mythic narratives, drawing as they do upon a traditioned phenomenology of the symbolic order of the cosmos, are the myths that best preserved and continued to manifest God's primordial ordering of the world?

After all, as Christians have argued from church Fathers such as Justin Martyr to more recent figures such as Hamann and von Balthasar, if God's own self-revelation is the center of all of human history, then all human culture bears a typological anticipation of that revelation that can only be fulfilled in God's great saving acts in history, culminating in the cross and resurrection of Christ (see, e.g., Leithart's review of Hamann's thought in "The Hemlock and the Cross" in First Things; this sort of reading of even pagan history and thought is to be found in Second Temple Jewish wisdom literature as well). And might it not be the case that this typological anticipation, among ancient cultures, turned out to be, in God's providence, most suitably found among the myths of the ancient Near East?

If that is so, then the Bible's parallels to those myths are not so much a matter of God's accommodation to the ancient Hebrew mindset or conventions of the surrounding culture or a straightforward case of divine contextualization. Rather, they are arguably the revelation of the actual symbolic order of the world as the temple and house of the one and only Creator God (no doubt couched in a discourse that is simultaneously "mythic," ritual, and phenomenological), a revelation for which God had prepared Israel through the mediation of the cultures from which and to which he called them.

And, to return to the analogy of the incarnation, this implies that Scripture gives us the "true myth" of which all pagan myths are lesser and distorted images, just as in Jesus we see the "true humanity" of which all other human life is but a lesser and distorted image. Similarly, even as Jesus was both a human person in many ways indistinguishable from any other human person, as well as the altogether surprising and unexpected only Son of God incarnate, so also Scripture is a text in many respects like other ancient texts, as well as a revelation that surpasses our ability to exhaust its riches, which authoritatively re-narrates every other human story.

These two sets of observations are the main areas in which I would question or wish to supplement and emend Enns's account, though, as I've pointed out, they do so in a manner that, in the final analysis, I think, only ends up strengthening and deepening his basic thesis.

Nonetheless, there are a few other minor points I'd like to touch upon.

[3] Regarding diversity within the Old Testament, I have no major disagreements with the bulk of what Enns says. Nevertheless, on the question of whether "God changes his mind" and its relation to Open Theism, I would point you to my essay entitled "No Shadow of Turning." While I agree with Enns that the matter is one of "how the Old Testament describes God" rather than "some abstract discussion" (106), I would also suggest that, as with other forms of Old Testament diversity, the coherence and integrity of the text is to be found in the revelation of God in Christ as a Trinity of Persons. My essay on this topic provides an extended meditation on just how that is the case and how we can affirm the diversity of biblical language about God (both "Yahweh relented...and did not do as he had threatened" and "God is not...a son of Adam that he should change his mind"), as all literally true in light of the trinitarian processions.

[4] Finally, it is possible that someone might argue that this extended attention to extra-biblical context, whether other ancient Near Eastern texts or the milieu of Second Temple Judaism, somehow obscures the perspicuity of Scripture. While Enns's book provides a partial response to such objections, it seems to me that more can be said. In particular, it strikes me that such an objection misunderstands both the perspicuity of Scripture and the role of extra-biblical material.

First, consider the fact that every text presupposes some kind of extra-textual and intertextual repertoire, beginning with the basic tools of language itself. Every time we use a lexicon or a translation of the Scriptures, we are depending upon all kinds of extra-biblical data that illuminate the grammar and vocabulary of the text we are reading. Moreover, think of how we use maps to understand Paul's missionary journeys or archaeological data to illuminate the nature of Israel's agricultural year.

Second, while fully understanding that some texts may require considerable facility with extra-textual literary context, generally speaking such context is not necessary for understanding the main gist of the text.

Consider a film like Shrek (an example that Leithart has used on several occasions, I think). The humor of the film is almost entirely constituted by how the movie situates itself in relation to various pre-existing cultural conventions, classic fairy tales, popular films, and so on. We know and understand these various citations, allusions, and echoes and we laugh. We "get it" in an importantly deep sense. If, on the other hand, we were to show the film in farthest wilds of rural China, even with a translation, I imagine it would receive a bit colder reception since the audience would lack the requisite repertoire of associations in order to be able to understand the humor.

That being said, however, it is also the case that Shrek would not be entirely obscure to that culturally foreign audience. It would still clearly come through, I suspect, as an unusual sort of love story, involving difficulty and near disaster. And I'm willing to bet that a woman who could be beautiful, but prefers ugliness in order to wed the man she loves, is as much as an oddity in rural China as it is anywhere.

Or, to put this in other terms, consider the following made-up examples of two brief biblically-based narratives that depend upon intertextual echoes of outside texts (drawn from recent entertainment media) in order to carry much of the meaning they bear:
Spain: the Christian frontier. These are the voyages of the Apostle Paul. His ongoing mission: to preach the Gospel in new places, to seek out new converts, to boldly go where no apostle has gone before.

Faster than a bustling crowd. More powerful than a horde of demons. Able to heal the sick with a single word. Look, up on the mountain! It's John the Baptist! It's Elijah! No, it's Jesus Christ! Yes, it's Jesus, strange visitor from another world who came to earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men, who, disguised as a humble carpenter from Nazareth, fights a never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the reign of God.
Again, only if one were familiar with the opening words of Star Trek or Superman would the full implications of the texts be entirely within grasp. Nevertheless, even apart from those intertextual echoes, the main point of each text is relatively perspicuous on its own terms. Thus, in an analogous way, one can maintain perspicuity side-by-side with the helpfulness of extra-biblical texts for understanding the details, implications, and fuller meaning of the Scriptures.

One should also recall, in this connection, that is it not, strictly speaking, Scripture that is perspicuous. Rather, in the words of the Westminster Confession of Faith, perspicuity extends only to "those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation" (1.7). Beyond that, "all things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all." Thus "perspicuity" is only relative to a certain subset of Scriptural teaching - those things necessary for salvation - just as the clarity of Shrek or the other examples above is only relative to their central point or plotlines.

Third, we should also note that information drawn from extra-biblical texts need not absolutely determine our exegesis since the important matter is how the elements of the Scriptures that connect to extra-biblical texts are taken up into the context and unfolding of the biblical story itself. Rather than being absolutely determinative, then, extra-biblical considerations are perhaps better seen as occasioning a re-examination of the text of the New Testament itself, with an renewed openness to suspending certain assumptions and prejudgments about just what that text might be saying, in order that we might come to better appreciate the contours of the biblical message itself.

Having said all that, I must conclude that whatever differences I may have, on the whole, Enns's book is challenging and thoughtful, demonstrating an absolute commitment to the authority of God's word in Christ by faith, but also proving a willingness to deal with evidence and problems that Scripture presents to us, particularly when taken in the context in which it came to be. I would recommend the book as a provocative and helpful resource for a thoughtful reader.