Book Review: Peter Enns Double Header

Bob Trube, Senior Area Director for InterVarsity’s Graduate & Faculty Ministry in the Ohio Valley, speaking at a conference.

Bob Trube, Senior Area Director for InterVarsity’s Graduate & Faculty Ministry in the Ohio Valley, is in the top 1% of contributors to Goodreads. Even before this announcement, I had been following Bob’s excellent Goodreads reviews, Furthermore, inspired by The Best Christian Book of All Time, I had already asked Bob if he’d be willing to contribute reviews to the ESN Blog. AND Bob said, “Yes” :)

In light of the recent conversation regarding the writing of Peter Enns, I asked Bob’s permission to start with his material on Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament (Baker, 2005) and The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible does and doesn’t say about human origins. (Brazos Press. 2012). AND Bob said, “Yes” :) It’s great to have Bob join the team of contributors to the Emerging Scholars Network (ESN)’s blog as we enter the fall term. Lord.

Note to all our readers: Please feel free to share your responses to one or both of the books by Enns. As I have done such previously, I encourage you to read a book before you comment upon it :) It’s my intention that reviews such as those offered by Bob will not only provide opportunity for dialogue by those who have read the material, but also serve as teasers — helping our readers discern what books to place in their personal and book discussion group queue. If you have books you desire to review and/or have reviewed, please email me.. ~ Thomas B. Grosh IV, Associate Director of ESN, editor of ESN’s blog and Facebook Wall.

Inspiration and Incarnation

Peter Enns has stirred up something of a tempest in some evangelical circles with this book on scripture as well as a more recent book on Adam and evolution. At the same time, scholars like Mark Noll commend his work (in Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind). So, I decided to pick up this work and his one on Adam to see what the kerfuffle is all about.

I can see why some would struggle with this book. Enns asks us to set aside our conceptions of how scripture should work if it is inerrant to work inductively from the text itself asking the question of how it actually works. And what we find is that some passages we consider inspired may draw upon ancient near east traditions, passages in different books reflect diverse perspectives, sometimes upon the same matters, and the New Testament writers often interpret the Old Testament in ways that look suspiciously like eisegesis (reading into the text) rather than sound exegesis (reading out of the text). Often the responses to such difficulties have been superficial reconciliations that seem unsatisfactory to the careful reader.

Enns proposes that an incarnational approach to scripture can help us. Such an approach recognizes both the divine and human element in the writing of scripture. The human element means that writers reflect their cultural context and should be judged by its rather than our own standards. That means that they would relate to traditions of surrounding cultures, that writers writing at different times and circumstances will reflect diverse perspectives, and that New Testament writers will use the interpretive conventions of their days and not our own. I found this last most helpful and his proposal that the apostles used a christotelic hermeneutic, one that sees Christ as the end or fulfillment of the Old Testament and reads the Old Testament through the work of Christ. He also observes that Jesus himself does this and that the other “second temple” readers of scripture of his day understood and often approved this approach.

Enns doesn’t really answer the question of how we should read the Old Testament, indeed all of scripture given the apostolic hermeneutic. It seems he proposes that we accept their hermeneutic on its own terms, perhaps recognizing the christotelic character of the OT ourselves but not abandon good exegesis. One inherent self-contradiction in this approach seems to be that he has asked us to set aside our doctrinal conceptions about scripture to encounter scripture on its own terms Yet he seems to permit the reading in of our doctrine of the person and work of Christ into both how scripture works and how it is to be interpreted.

All in all, I did not, however, find Enns’ proposal contrary to good interpretive practice. But it will be interesting to see where he goes with this in his treatment of Adam.

The Evolution of Adam

I found myself torn in reading this book. Like the author, I disagree with the attempts to fit evolutionary science into the Procrustean bed of a literal reading of the early chapters of Genesis. And yet it seemed to me that the author felt compelled to fit Adam into the Procrustean bed of evolution.

Along the way, the author argues for a post-exilic setting for the compiling and composing of the Pentateuch as an explanation for the Genesis accounts. Most of all, he argues that Paul’s statements about Adam in Romans 5:12-21 reflect Second Temple Judaism cultural assumptions about Adam as the progenitor of all humanity and for Adam’s disobedience as the means through which sin and death entered the human race. He then dismisses the historicity of the First Adam while still maintaining the historicity of Jesus death and resurrection (although he admits that other scholars question this).

What was troubling in all this is that the author argues against reading our own assumptions about a doctrine of the inspiration and authority of scripture into the text while being blind to the things that are shaping his own re-reading of that same text. And he fails to address the theological implications of his position. What does the idea of redemption mean if in fact there was no fall but we all just sin? How may one die for all if one did not act for all in sinning? How can the resurrection of one mean new life for all who believe? One may argue that God is able to do this even if Paul was mistaken about the historicity of Adam as our federal head. But what have we given away in terms of the trustworthiness of scripture in the process of these theological moves?

Fundamentally, I think this author makes a similar mistake to that of the fundamentalists. He feels compelled to force some kind of reconciliation of evolution and the biblical account, in this case by sacrificing important elements of the biblical account. I think I would rather live with the tension of leaving these unreconciled and let scientists do good science (and not more than this) and to encourage biblical scholars to carefully study the biblical testimony in it historical-cultural context without forcing a reconciliation or synthesis of the two, which is usually satisfying to neither.

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Bob Trube

Bob Trube is Senior Area Director for InterVarsity's Graduate & Faculty Ministry team in the Ohio Valley (Ohio, West Virginia, and Western Pennsylvania) and leads the ministry to graduate students and faculty at The Ohio State University. He resides in Columbus, Ohio, with Marilyn and enjoys reading, gardening, choral singing, and plein air painting.

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  • kennethdlitwak@gmail.com'
    Kenneth Litwak commented on August 27, 2013 Reply

    First, since I don’t know how we can determine the precise genre of Genesis, we do not know with certainty what hermeneutic to use, so trying to figure out from the available data a proper hermeneutic is a worthwhile effort. That said,

    I have read portions of both books but not all of either, but I have read enough to see some disconcerting patterns. The most fundamental problem is that he wants to have his cake and eat it too. He regularly reminds readers of the incarnational analogy for Scripture. The problem is that the human side is often in error, and it’s unclear how it is that God reveals himself through error. I do not mean simply that the Israelites could only speak in terms of what they believed. I’m ready to grant that, but what value is a doctrine of inspiration if God is not prepared to guide an author to express truth? Enns wants to hold on to theological ideas even when he tosses out assertions that might have been intended to describe what some biblical author happened in some way or other, if it disagrees with modern science.

    If God did not make the plants or the animals, then surely he did not label them “good.” If God did not make humans, then he certainly did not say of their creation, “very good.” Enns offers a view of the image of God in humans that equals their ability to rule over all of creation as God’s representatives, but if the creation narrative in Genesis 1 does not reflect in some way actions on God’s part, e.g., humans are God’s creation, not the latest accidental random mutation from some species, then there is no reason to think that humans were made in God’s image at all. The whole passage stands together, whatever it means, and it falls together. It’s inconsistent, to say the least, to pick out the bits you want to be true and toss the rest. It’s either all a picture of God’s role in the origins of all things, or it is, as Enns puts it, one of the stories that Israel told itself to help itself with self-definition. This was combined after the return from Exile with another such story that describes the first humans, which is also a story about self-definition. That is to say, none of the material in Genesis 1-3 really speaks of anything that God did nor of anything about human origins.

    However, Enns still insists that even if there was not a Fall, which there wasn’t since Adam and Eve did not exist, there nevertheless is sin and death and Jesus came to deliver us from the penalty for sin. Yet, if there were not two human beings who fell by transgressing God’s instruction, then there is no reason to believe there is such a thing as sin. Humans, like all other things, have simply always died. Humans, like all other things, have done what their genes told them to do. Enns seems to what to have the cake, God loves humans particularly and redeemed them from their God-forsaken state but eat it too, because there was never a perfect condition to fall from. There is no good reason, if there was no Fall, to believe in sin or to see death as related to sin. Enns asserts that Paul was correct theologically and historically that Jesus died for our sins and rose from the dead, even though Paul was wrong about Adam. If Paul was wrong about Adam, when what he says required theological knowledge that only God could give, but is right about Jesus. Paul reveals true theology through error? How does that work? If Paul is wrong about Adam, what else might he be wrong about?

    This leads to the very difficult situation Enns has put himself in. We can assume the Bible is full of errors due to the human aspect of inspiration but it is true on the divine side. However, it is only correct on anything that modern science does not contradict. So Enns’ view of inspiration clearly attaches no need for truth–as opposed to cultural beliefs–for the Bible to be inspired on fundamental issues because science is, what, always right? The Bible is not infallible but scientists are. Paul was wrong, because Richard Dawkins is right. Indeed, to accept Enns’ case, I think we have to assume scientists are inerrant, because we are trusting our eternal destiny to their results. There is much that can be said in critique of Postmodernism, but one aspect of it needs to be heard loud and clear here. There are no neutral or objective observers. No scientists ever does research that is not built upon the worldview of the researcher, even for “basic” things, like making water by passing electricity through a container that has hydrogen and oxygen in it. This can be done again and again because scientists believe that the physical world is stable and predictable. I’m not disagreeing with that, but it illustrates that even at the most basic level, the unprovable presuppositions of scientists influence what and how they work.

    So, now, let’s think about the evidence of evolution. Given that most scientists are committed to macro-biological evolution (not just gray wolves coming from some Ur-wolf but everything that has ever lived coming from the first single-celled living thing. So they must, absolutely must, read every piece of data they come across through that evolutionary lens because to admit that something didn’t fit would be heresy in the scientific community. Someone who said, “I found something that goes against the theory of evolution” would have his or her career instantly burned on the stake faster than you can say “Joseph McCarthy.”

    It must have slipped past Enns that the resurrection of Jesus violates what scientists know. Bodies do not come back to life after three days of decaying. It just does not happen–cannot happen. So if Enns is going to be consistent about privileging scientific claims over those of the Bible, he needs to be consistent and follow that to its logical conclusion. He does not do this, resorting to special pleading in an effort to save the message of the gospel, but that’s totally illogical.

    So, in Enns’ reconstruction, the following seem true to me. God did not create anything. There was a big bang and after that, no deity was needed. So we can at most believe in the god of the Deists. It started everything off and then took an eternal coffee break. There is no sin. There might be things we don’t like, but there is no deity who has made humans so humans are not in any way responsible to any deity. So there are no rules but what scientists offer, e.g., gravity, conservation of matter, etc. There could not have been someone who died for sin because that does not make sense scientifically, and obviously no one rises from the dead. To me, the God that Enns wants, with the very low view of inspiration that Enns wants, hangs out with the flying spaghetti monster propounded by Richard Dawkins.

    Does evolution disprove God? No. It simply makes any deity irrelevant at best.

    There is one last thing I want to note. In the scheme of evolution, at some point, some male and some female had sexual intercourse and the female gave birth to what we would call a human being as the result of random mutation. That human would need to have sexual intercourse with another being in order to continue the line of human beings. If the “human” genetic mutation was recessive, how did it cause the entire human race to come into existence? That is to say, virtually immediately, there would need to be another human being who could mate only with a human being in order to produce more human beings, and nothing but human beings. That sounds awfully close to a first human pair to me. I’m not defending evolution by any means. I am only observing that there did have to be an Adam and Eve somehow in order for there to be a race of human beings, unless of course one posits that suddenly the same random mutation took place in scores and scores of Neanderthals simultaneously. There were the equivalent of lots of Adams and Eves. I don’t see how you can get around this, unless one thinks the first human pair was genetically engineered. I’m for that. The engineer is YHWH, the real one, not the wimpy one uninvolved in the evolution of Adam.

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