These days, many would say the biggest challenge facing evangelicalism is its no-longer tenable view of the Bible. One scholar after another has exposed the weaknesses in how most evangelicals treat it and has pointed to more sensible alternatives. This book comes in that category. It is
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 by Peter Enns (Hodder & Stoughton, 2019).
This is Enns’s second book along these lines. The traditional ‘rule book’ approach to the Bible, he maintains, fails to take account of the fact that it is ‘ancient, ambiguous and diverse’. He outlines what he means by that, and how we need to adapt accordingly.
He proposes a ‘wisdom’ approach. That means looking at its varied, and often contradictory, messages and using Spirit-given wisdom to apply them sensibly to situations we face. After all, the Bible is all about Jesus, who ‘became for us wisdom from God’ (1 Corinthians 1:30). We should read it, then, intent on being wise in the way we interpret its broad guidelines. And these are broad indeed. Rarely do they come as unambiguous instructions but, instead, in a variety of forms requiring us to make choices.
The author has opted for an ‘amusing’ style for this book—presumably to broaden its appeal. For me it doesn’t work. I had the occasional smile, but most of the humour is anchored in American culture and thus, since I’m British, went over my head. A humorous style trivialises this serious topic anyway, I feel. That aside, it’s sound and thought-provoking stuff.
Enns illustrates ‘wisdom’ from the Book of Proverbs, showing how statements there flatly contradict each other—and that this is not a problem, because we are meant to exercise good sense in the way we apply the conflicting principles in everyday situations. He goes on to show, with many examples, how God’s laws, too, change and evolve with circumstances, requiring the same wisdom. The same feature marks the writings of the prophets of Israel.
Underlying the searching and insights of every past generation has been the question, ‘What is God like?’ The ancient Israelites could only express their conclusions within the limits of their time and culture, expressions mostly inappropriate for our own day. They saw him, for instance, as one god among many, and attributed to him the kind of violence typical of pagan deities of that era.
The most radical reimagining of God was triggered by the coming of Jesus, which forced Jews like Peter, John and Paul to stamp onto their ancient scriptures a whole new meaning. They honoured the tradition, but reworked it drastically to suit their new situation. Language featured in this. When the Hebrew Old Testament was translated into Greek (the Septuagint), the translators tweaked many a statement to make it fit their current situation better. And this modified document was the ‘Bible’ that the New Testament writers used and quoted.
The fact that we have four Gospels, not just one, and that they don’t match up, points to the need to bring a ‘wisdom’ approach to the life of Jesus. The same is true of the New Testament letters where, Paul, for instance, struggles to identify the exact relation between ‘the Law’ and the gospel. He tussled in the same way with the ‘temple’ and ‘land’ themes. His was a major ‘wisdom’ exercise as he sought to tie the story of Jesus to Israel’s tradition.
When it comes to ‘faith versus works’, Paul and James bring different emphases. How both can be ‘true’ is difficult to specify. But again, this is ‘wisdom’ territory, and what we emphasise will vary from one situation to another, depending on the need. And that, Enns maintains, is a good thing; it is how the Bible is meant to work.
Even the nature of the atonement retains a degree of open-endedness. Vicarious or substitutionary atonement was a newish idea by the start of the New Testament era, and the apostles applied it to the work of Jesus in a variety of ways, leaving us requiring wisdom in how we understand and apply it.
Enns looks at some contemporary applications of the ‘wisdom’ principle. One is how Christians should view Romans 13:1, which labels governmental authorities as instituted by God. Does that mean we should never criticise political leaders today? He suggests not! He goes on to show how the same principle might affect the perennial hot topics of slavery, the place of women in society and the church, and homosexuality.
He concludes by warning against getting stuck in any stage of the church’s past. The creeds, for all their value, were a staging point only. The Reformation did not mark the end-point of revelation. We are to honour the past, retain only what is of lasting value, and keep moving forward in wisdom.
I recommend this book as a key to help unlock evangelical Christians from the constrictions of a questionable attitude to the Bible. Were it not for the annoying ‘humour’ element, I would give it an ‘Outstanding Book’ rating.
Here are some quotations, with page numbers.
The ‘problems’ we encounter when reading the Bible are really problems we create for ourselves when we harbor the misguided expectation that the Bible is designed primarily to provide clear answers. (4)
By ambiguous I mean that the Bible, perhaps surprisingly, doesn’t actually lay out for anyone what to do or think—or it does so far less often than we have been led to believe… The Bible is diverse—meaning it does not speak with one voice on most subjects, but conflicting and contradictory voices. (8)
If polar opposite positions can keep claiming the Bible’s support, then perhaps providing ‘clear teaching’ might not be what scripture is prepared to do. (10)
When the Bible is seen as a source of wisdom rather than an instruction manual of universally clear and consistent ‘teachings,’ we will learn to be comfortable with the provisional nature of how we think about God and therefore not shy away from interrogating our own faith with gentle candor. (16)
What the Bible says about raising children is ambiguous once we pay attention to the details. It’s even morally suspect in places, in need of being questioned—even interrogated. And here is the bigger point of all this: How the Bible addresses this one topic of child rearing is a window onto how inadequate (and truly unbiblical) a rulebook view of the Bible as a whole is. (28)
[Re Proverbs 26:4-5] The lesson we learn from these two little verses sums up not only how Proverbs works, but how the Bible as a whole works as a book of wisdom.
Some of you might have thought ‘contradictions’ in the Bible were ‘bad.’ They’re not. They’re revealing. (32)
The ambiguities in Proverbs are often tied to the book’s antiquity. When we read Proverbs, we are crossing a chasm of time and culture. The methods of disciplining children we’ve seen most certainly reflect the rather harsh climate of Iron Age tribal culture (1200–500 BCE), where physical violence among peoples and nations is a ho-hum matter-of-fact reality. Even God is depicted as a warrior who ruthlessly slays the enemy. (36)
Wisdom became a prominent image for Judaism, which sets the stage for how the New Testament writers processed the idea of wisdom through a Jesus lens—the place held by wisdom would now be held by Jesus, ‘God with us,’ who, as Paul put it, became for us wisdom from God (1 Cor. 1:30). (43)
The same wisdom that was with God when God ‘ordered’ creation (Gen. 1) is available to us as we seek to ‘order’ the chaos of our lives. (45)
Given their uncompromising and stern tone, biblical laws have a surprising quality: they tend to be ambiguous, which should be rather disconcerting given what is at stake. (52)
Readers from ancient times have always understood that keeping a law means more than ‘doing what it says’; it means deliberating over what the command actually requires here and now. Discerning how a law is to be obeyed, in other words, is an act of wisdom. (53)
Jewish tradition has always understood that keeping the sabbath law—and any law—means working out how. And that insight still holds for today as we too seek to know God in the pages of scripture. (63)
Times change, and laws that made sense at one point in time don’t necessarily make sense in another, and so they need to be amended. (64)
[Re Exodus 21:11, 23-25; Deuteronomy 15:14-15] These two slave laws of Exodus and Deuteronomy don’t match up, even though they are both said to come from the same divine source: God revealing his will to Moses on Mt. Sinai. Let that sink in. (66)
Ambiguity in the Bible isn’t a problem to be solved. It is a self-evident reality. It is also a gift, for this characteristic is precisely what allows the Law to be flexible enough to fit multiple situations over time. (69)
When we accept the Bible as the moving, changing, adaptive organism it is, we will more readily accept our own sacred responsibility to engage the ancient biblical story with wisdom, to converse with the past rather than mimic it—which is to follow the very pattern laid out in the Bible itself. (77)
I’ve learned—by reading the Bible again and again—to accept and be grateful for this messy Bible we have, which drives us away from thinking of it as a stagnant pond of rules and regulations and toward thinking of it as a flowing stream that invites us to step in and be refreshed anew every day in following Jesus here and now. (81)
Whoever was responsible for Deuteronomy apparently had no hesitation whatsoever in updating older laws for new situations and still calling it the words that God spoke back then to Moses on Mt. Sinai (or Horeb, as it is called in Deuteronomy), even though they don’t match what God said in Exodus. This writer wasn’t an idiot. He knew exactly that his words differed. But by saying that his words were the ones spoken by God to Moses a generation earlier, he was making a huge spiritual claim that we simply cannot miss and should take to heart: The writer of Deuteronomy sees his updating of the older laws as God’s words for his time and place. And so God isn’t just a voice out of the past. God still speaks. (86)
Deuteronomy reimagines God for a new time and place. (87)
Jonah and Nahum clearly see the matter of God’s attitude toward the Ninevites differently, and the reason is . . . wait for it . . . they were written at different times and under different circumstances for different purposes. (104)
The reign of King Manasseh in 2 Chronicles—with his deportation to Babylon, repentance, and return to his homeland—is not an account of Manasseh’s reign. It is a symbolic retelling of Judah’s exile and return home after the captives had learned their lesson and repented of their sins. (110)
I know many people of faith who struggle regularly with the God of the Bible, because this God seems so locked in a world we don’t recognize, a world that is so distant from ours—a world we have worked hard to get over. (123)
‘What is God like?’ is the wisdom question around which all others revolve, the question that is ever before us, as each successive generation tries to pass on the faith of the past, which comes to us from an ancient time and in an ancient book, to the next generation that occupies its own unique moment in time and space. (124)
What made the Israelites different from their neighbors, religiously speaking, was their belief that only Yahweh, and not any of the other gods (heavenly bodies included), was worthy of their worship. To use the technical language, the Israelites were not monotheists in the strict sense of the word, but monolatrists: they worshiped one God, but believed in the existence of many gods. (130)
Having no other gods before Yahweh (meaning ‘in preference to’ Yahweh) is a command that only has force if real live divine options are available. (141)
The God of the Bible is portrayed in diverse ways. But that doesn’t neutralize the fact that one of those ways is as a harsh monarch so typical of the Iron Age world of tribal conflict. (148)
The Bible does not leave us with one consistent portrait of God, but a collection of ancient and diverse portraits of how the various biblical writers understood God for their times. These biblical portraits of God are not there to test how clever we can be in making them all fit together nicely. They illustrate for us the need to accept the sacred responsibility of asking what God is like for us here and now. (153)
The New Testament writers did not reject the God of the Old—they reimagined God, because the gospel in their time and place demanded it. The God-language of their Jewish tradition could not fully account for what the (Jewish) New Testament writers believed God had done in Jesus of Nazareth in their time. (155)
When I see God presented today as a champion of the full equality of women, people of color, refugees, or the environment, I say, ‘Yes, this is my God too. This is the God I believe in.’ But this is a reimagined God. (158)
At what point have we left the tradition by adjusting it to the present, and at what point have we killed the tradition by refusing to change at all? Addressing those questions describes the entire history of Judaism and Christianity, beginning already within the pages of the Bible itself and through to this very moment. (165)
This process of needing to adapt over time is part of the biblical fabric, baked into its pages, and a crucial yet overlooked aspect of the Bible’s character as a book of wisdom rather than a once-for-all book of rules and static information. (166)
Genesis 2:2 in Hebrew says that God finished the work of creation on the seventh day—which if you think about it suggests that God actually did some work on the seventh day and then took the afternoon off. But that would imply that God broke on page one of the Bible his own commandment to do no work on the sabbath. The Greek translators saw the problem and made a minor adjustment: he finished on the sixth day his works. Now God doesn’t contradict himself. Problem solved. (175)
[Re the Septuagint] The argument that gender-inclusive language is simply “compromising” the Bible for the sake of culture rings rather hollow when we look at what Jews were doing about twenty-three hundred years ago: they produced a culturally influenced Bible translation, the translation that—oh, sweet irony—became the Bible of the New Testament writers. (177)
Resurrection of the dead was an adjustment to the story, a reimagining of what God will do that arose (an unintended yet fitting pun) during the Greek period to solve a pressing problem that had to do with God’s justice and fairness to his people. (180)
The presence of an anti-God figure [Satan] solved (somewhat) a problem caused ironically by Judaism’s deep belief in only one God: Why do bad things happen? Where does evil come from? Who is responsible? In a world where many gods existed, you could pin horrid events on some erratic divine being. Sure, one of the gods was at the head of the table and ultimately responsible, but they couldn’t always be relied on to stay on top of everything. But once you believe that your God is the one and only God, accounting for the presence of evil in the world gets tricky. (185)
Christians have said rather freely for almost two millennia that God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and present everywhere at once (omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent). We do not always realize how completely dependent these ideas are on the ways Greek thought influenced Judaism before Christianity and how ill-fitting these descriptions of God are, biblically speaking. (186)
Wisdom didn’t stop being a big deal when Jesus came, as if now finally all answers are given and we can start following the rulebook. Wisdom continues to be fundamental to faith. Jesus and the gospel have more to do with wisdom than we might be used to hearing. (197)
If Jesus’s main goal were to be crystal clear, he wouldn’t have introduced thick layers of ambiguities and possible misunderstandings [parables]. But that’s what he did. Because he is a sage. (199)
Another sagely side of Jesus is how he answers questions when challenged by the guardians of the status quo. He rarely if ever goes for a straightforward answer and often answers the question with another question. (200)
Following Jesus’s teachings is following the path of wisdom—it is your actions, what you say and do to others, not maintaining a hard-line doctrinal stance or turning faith into an intellectual abstraction. (202)
As the Word with God at creation, Jesus is described in a way that unmistakably echoes the description of wisdom we already saw in Proverbs 8 (especially verses 22, 30) and wisdom’s role in creation. (204)
Each Gospel is its own unique retelling of the life of Jesus centered on the needs of each writer’s community of faith. We’re in wisdom territory here again. (206)
Paul doesn’t reject the Law of Moses, as some in Christian history have thought, but he does marginalize it, decenter it, by placing at the center of God’s plan for the world not our obedience to Torah, but Christ’s obedience to go through with the crucifixion to defeat Sin and God’s raising of Jesus from the dead to defeat Death. (221)
Judging from the Sermon on the Mount, for example (Matt. 5–7), Jesus has no place for nationalism or political power, whether Roman or Jewish. Recovering the land of Israel—meaning an Israel the Jews run as their own with their own king, as in the old days—never gets so much as a whisper of support in the Gospels or anywhere else in the New Testament. Rather, the opposite is the norm. (233)
Paul came to the conclusion that God’s raising of Jesus is Phase 1 of the ‘end times.’ Phase 2 will come at some future time when all will be raised in the normal Jewish way of thinking about it. But (more confusion coming) the final judgment that God would announce at the future time (Judgment Day, we often call it) has, for Paul, already been announced for believers in Jesus now. (243)
The letters of the New Testament are wisdom documents. We are watching some of the earliest followers of Jesus working out what it meant to walk with God in their moment in time. When we read these letters we are watching wisdom in action. (256)
Far from being an unalterable law that simply has to be obeyed by all at all times because Paul said it and it’s in the Bible, Romans 13:1 is a demonstration of wisdom at work, of choosing the best path for Paul’s here and now. Rather than simply doing what Paul told the Christians in the Roman capital to do two thousand years ago, we today follow Paul best by exercising the same kind of wisdom he did—discerning for ourselves how best to follow God in our time and place. (260)
Paul brought gender equality into his world as far as he could. Christians today can—and should—build on that wise trajectory and take it farther. (265)
The creeds are not high moments of the Christian tradition simply to be recited as if that’s the end of it, though they tend to be seen as that. Rather, they are monuments to wisdom that we revisit with profit, but dare not hold up as the non-negotiable high moment of the tradition. That place is taken by Jesus, the true subject that all creeds are trying to put into words. (274)