Last fall, Old Testament Bible Scholar Peter Enns came out with a book entitled The Bible Tells Me So: How Defending The Bible Has Made Us Unable To Read It. It is not my intention in this post to give a chapter by chapter review. What I really want to focus on is the subtitle. Apologetics is all about defending the Christian faith, and that includes defending scripture, and not just defending Scripture in the generic, but defending it as true in every sense of the word. That it must be inerrant in history, geography, science, etc., with no internal contradictions and inconsistencies. Peter Enns wants us to understand that defending the Bible in this way, has actually made it so we cannot really read it and learn from it. This is because we are trying to force our own preconceptions on the Biblical text. We know what it is supposed to be like. However, the Bible doesn’t want to behave itself and follow our preconceived understandings.
There are a few specific examples that Enns uses to demonstrate this. First, the Canaanite genocide narratives. He looks at several different options for how we are to understand the passages where God commands Israel to exterminate all the men, women, and children. For many, it is a troubling part of Scripture (and if it doesn’t trouble you, it probably should). If we take the position where we have to defend Scripture as inerrant, then we must accept these passages as what happened in history. According to Enns, this forces us to defend God’s commands, which leads us to arguing for a variety of potential reasons. The one I always resonated with was that the Canaanites were just plain immoral and sinful. They participated in child sacrifice and other horrible practices. However, Enns points out that all the other nations around there were no different in their wickedness. The real problem was that the Canaanites were in the wrong address. He argues that Israel, writing from the exile and post-exilic time period, writes all the offenses of Canaan into their earliest stories, so as to show they were guilty from the beginning. It was also customary for ancient near eastern nations to use propoganda to show how evil the other guys are so they had an excuse to do them in. A center piece of Enns argument, is that the archaeological evidence supporting the Canaanite extirmination is slim to none. For Enns, this is good news. It would mean that God never actually gave those commands, and Israel was just writing what they thought God would have wanted, because for them God was a tribal warrior deity, who fought for the tribe of Israel. Why would God allow this in his scripture? Enns argues that it is because God lets his children tell the story. I don’t know whether or not Enns is correct in his conclusion, but I like that he is actually making an effort to try to think this through, rather than merely defend received traditions. We should be searching for truth, and modifying tradition as necessary. Not defending the indefensible.
The next place where Enns turns, is to our understanding of the New Testament, and, specifically, how the New Testament handles the Old. In every single passage of the New Testament, whereever the Old is quoted, the OT is taken out of context. For instance, Matthew quotes Hosea as a fulfilled prophecy when Jesus returns to Israel from Egypt. The passage says “Out of Egypt, I called my son.” In its original context, the passage is referring to Israel during the Exodus, not Jesus returning from Egypt. What the New Testament authors are doing is actually very common for that time period. They are creatively reinterpreting the Old Testament in order to make sense of what is going on with Jesus. Nobody expected a Messiah that would die on a cross and rise from the dead. This meant they needed to go back into the Hebrew Scriptures and try to understand it in light of the needs of the present moment. This was a very common practice among Jews at the time, so it was actually right at home for them, but for us it can be unsettling. This is because we moderns are very use to the histrical-grammatical method of interpretation. This means we always want to understand a passage in its historical context. But Jesus wasn’t doing that, and neither was Paul. We see great wisdom in Jesus expounding on Scripture in his clever answers, but often he took Scripture out of its original context to make his point. And his interlocutors never took the opportunity to accuse him of that. Instead, they were rendered speechless because of how he interpreted Scripture. Enns argues that if we used these methods in seminary, we would get an “F” because we didn’t use the correct methods for interpretation.
There is much else I could explore from the book, but I think this drives us to the essential point. If we want to understand scripture, we cannot do so from a defensive posture. God doesn’t need defenders. He is perfectly capable of doing that himself. What we need to be willing to do is search for the truth no matter where it lies, and always hold our current understanding with an open hand, because we may be wrong. All apologetics is not bad. But when it forces us to defend tradition just because it is tradition, rather than truth, it has lost its use. To be useful, apologetics must also involve rethinking Christianity in order to make it stronger. Even if we return to the place we were before in our understanding of our faith, at least we will do so from a place of better understanding. We are all on a journey, a pilgrimage, and utopia is not the end, but Christ is. Scripture is not the center, but Christ is.
IF you want to read a book that will challege you and make you think about important issues and ideas in a new way, then you should read this book. If traditional answers don’t satisfy you anymore and you need to go beyond that, then you should read this book. I’m not sure I agree with him on everything, but he does force you to realize that these issues are more complex than we realize and he gives us the tools to think through this, and to do so outside the conservative evangelical box, but still within orthodox Christianity.