How the Bible Actually Works Review

(I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher, Harper One.)

The subtitle to this book reads, how an ancient, ambiguous, and diverse book leads us to wisdom rather than answers, and why that’s great news. Those three words ancient, ambiguous, and diverse are really what hit you when you start paying attention to the Bible. As Peter Enns does a great job of arguing, the Bible is incredibly old, it is ambiguous (just look at Rabbis who have debated various Old Testament passages for three thousand years, and the plethora of Christian denominations and sects), and it is diverse. I think of all the words that could be used, diverse is the hardest for evangelicals to swallow. After all, evangelicals believe in a unified vocal reading of the Bible where God is the ultimate author and thus must have one single message being communicated. Any divergent voices are either misinterpretations, apparent contradictions, or some other phenomenon. Yet, when we pay attention to a close reading, the diversity within the Bible is just there waiting for us to see it. Once we can embrace that a whole new world is opened to us. We can then take part in the dialogue that is taking place within the text.

However, this means that you cannot simply take the Bible and find a prooftext for any and every situation that can be taken without thought. The Bible simply doesn’t work that way as a rule book for life, where the answers are there just waiting for us to cull them. On top of that, the fact that it is ancient and ambiguous means that the pages therein must be interpreted and then applied to a modern setting that is strikingly different from its own time. This is why Peter Enns directs us to seek wisdom from the Bible rather than answers. In these page we can find wisdom from God, rather than answers. God is not a helicopter parent, you have to learn to think for yourself, and God wants to help us do that.

In this book Peter Enns is at his most daring because he isn’t taking us through deconstruction as he did in “The Bible Tells Me so”, or assuring us at it is ok to doubt and deconstruct as he did in “The Sin of Certainty”. Rather he is taking on the project of reconstruction, which means he has to offer us a plausible path forward. He has to set forward a positive theory, and this is one of those cases where the proof is really in the pudding. The cash value is whether or not you can actually take this and use it in your life.

Perhaps Enns’s most interesting concept is that of reimagining God, which he sees as the source of most of the diversity that takes place. Jews had to reimagine God during and after the exile in order to understand why they were in exile, and then post-exile why they still had foreign rules. When would God restore the throne to David’s line? God had to be reimagined again after Jesus came, and the first Christians began trying to figure out how Jesus fulfills the Old Testament and creatively interpret it to do so. Jesus doesn’t match any of the expectations that Jews had coming from the Hebrew Bible. Instead he shatters their ideas of what God was up to. Jesus is crucified and resurrected, which is not what was supposed to happen to God’s anointed one (Messiah).

Following this lies the task of reimagining God in our own time and place, and Pete argues that we are following the Bible when we do so. There is not a straight line from the Old Testament to our own time, rather we have to use wisdom to interpret scripture, reimagine God, and follow him in our own time. This is a wisdom task, one that the Bible models for us.

I have read most of Pete’s other works including “Inspiration and Incarnation”, “The Evolution of Adam”, and the previous books mentioned earlier. I have enjoyed all of them, but I find “How the Bible Actually Works”, to be his most rewarding yet. Biblical scholarship is a critical task, and spending much time with it will leave you with many questions about the Bible and your faith. I think this is a positive and enriching process, and this book aides in the process of taking you from the place of analysis to the place of asking “now what?” as someone who is a Christian seeking to follow God in a life of faith. What can you do with the Biblical scholarship you have learned, and live a Christian life? Pete’s work points a valuable way forward. I highly recommend it and hope everyone will have a chance to read it for themselves. His humorous style of writing will leave you both informed and entertained. Thank you Peter Enns, and we look forward to whatever you have in store next.

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