Peter Enns and the Docetism of Scripture: A Review of “The Bible Tells Me So”

I am grateful to know Pete Enns on somewhat of a personal basis. Though I’ve never taken a class with him or met him in person, we have shared a few correspondences over the past year, all of which I can say reflect a man who doesn’t keep his theology in his head but puts it in his words and actions (he even humored me once as a guest blogger–I can only imagine he must have been drinking that day). For as much as one on the more conservative front may wish to disagree with Enns’ methods, data, or conclusions, I think if one looks beyond “controversy” one sees a deep-seeded desire to see the Bible become alive for the broader world. Enns has a heart for the world and sees Christianity as entirely relevant for the lost, hurting, an outcast. enns

It’s within this vein that Enns has written a new book, The Bible Tells Me So (Harper Collins: 2014). Subtitled “Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It”, Enns’ new book attempts to challenge the standard evangelical hermeneutic of biblical simplification and inerrancy. Of course, Enns doesn’t use the word “inerrancy” and that may be in part due to his intended audience and, in other part, because he sees inerrancy as only one doctrinal symptom of a larger problem: if I may be so bold as to put words in Enns’ mouth, “the docetism Bible.”

If I’ve lost you with that word, docetism was an old heresy in the early church which looked at Jesus and insisted that he could not be both fully God and fully human. To be human is to be too messy: God is perfect; the wholly other; the untouchable; and the unconquerable. Of course, all these are true in a sense but the Christian story that the Gospels tell takes all these attributes and inverts them: Yes, God is perfect and yet he became temporal and aged, nicked himself shaving, and had hormones; yes, God is wholly other and yet he became one of us; yes He is untouchable, but he bled; and yes, He is unconquerable, and yet he died. The Docetists, of course, didn’t like this inversion and so they insisted that Jesus’ humanity was only an illusion. He didn’t really die and he wasn’t really human. He only appeared to be.

This is where Enns’ critique lies (much as my own): the docetism of the Bible. What does it mean to simply let the Bible be itself? What happens when we allow the Bible to speak for itself and by itself, without us coming to it and trying to clean up the messes it makes? “The problem”, says Enns, “is coming to the Bible with expectations it’s not set up to bear.”

Enns is obviously frustrated with inerrancy based attempts to reconcile the complexities of the Bible into some seamless portrait of how all things work together. Enns correctly sees inerrancy as a deductive approach to the Bible: one decides, at the very beginning, how the Bible should behave and then deals with complications, contradictions, etc. in light of the presupposition. But this is not, according to Enns, how the Bible “behaves” inductively. I am reminded by Bill Craig’s admission a few years ago about how one will never arrive at inerrancy from within the text. And this is exactly what Enns means by “behaves.” We cannot, against the inerrantists and conservative apologists, read our expectations into the Bible. Rather, we must let the Bible be itself: human element and all.

Enns sees that human element throughout the Bible. And this is obvious. The Gospel authors shaped, reshaped, and even changed parts of Jesus’ story to match their theological portraits of him. There is simply no need to insist that because the Synoptics put the temple cleansing at the end of the Gospel narratives and John puts it in the beginning that Jesus cleansed the temple twice! No, all four Gospel authors are telling a story about the God-man, the redeemer, and to boil it all down to modern notions of historical fact verses lie leaves no room for the power of story. In fact, it only contributes to misguided notions about the Bible and the insistence by some that an inerrant Bible is no Bible at all (here I think of stories like Bart Ehrman’s).

I constantly was reminded through reading Enns’ book about C.S. Lewis’ insistence that “myth” is not necessarily false; it is a way of describing truth in a way in which ordinary human language cannot. One need not insist that Genesis 1-2 is a scientifically proven, non-contradictory historical account of origins for one to find truth and beauty and majesty in it: in fact, it is in portraying creation as myth that it has a greater potential to convey truth and beauty and majesty to people in all places and all times. When I want my kids to tell the truth, I don’t tell them stories about politicians or convicts (same thing I guess) or even my own life: I tell them the story about the boy who cried wolf. It sticks more; it means more; and in no way is it a lie. As Enns sees it, insisting that the Bible square up in all its stories to a historical point of view “isn’t really an act of submission to God; it is making God submit to us” (128). In philosophical terms, this means that the view of Scripture as primarily epistemological (that is, for knowledge) is something we bring to the text; Scripture’s own testimony about itself–from beginning to end–is soteriological (that is, for salvation). William Abraham made this point clear in his classic Canon and Criterion but Enns manages to put it in laymans terms. Scripture wants us to find faith and redemption, not necessarily factual knowledge. And if God, by his revelation, chose to do that through utilizing various genres, stories, myths, and redaction (the editing) of historical events, then that is actually a beautiful thing for it means that God validates the human experience and wants us to participate with him in revealing what he uses as his primary canon of faith: the Bible. In other words, Scripture testifies that God meets us where we are. He doesn’t go around us or above us; Scripture’s own nature testifies that God’s plan of redemption happens through us and in our contextual midst.

This means that there will be points of Scripture that just seem strange. They’re beyond reconciliation. Parts of Scripture seem to speak of a “host” of other divine beings. Some of the laws in Scripture contradict each other blatantly. Some stories leave little to no trace of historical record. Others are morally troublesome. I’ll be honest, Enns’ first section on the conquest of Canaan is worth reading the book alone. There is simply no way, according to Enns, that we can reconcile Jesus’ command to love the world, including our enemies, and the total genocide of men, women, children, and animals in Canaan, much less the previous command to take neighboring nations as slaves (“kill the men if they refuse”) and property.” I agree. As I’ve said before, men have been waging war in God’s name (“God Wills It”) for as long as we’ve been making weapons (especially if there’s land involved) and if this story was in the Qu’ran or other religious literature one would be quick to use it as an example of divine barbarism.

But Enns doesn’t want to dispense with these stories entirely, as some will no doubt suspect him of doing. No, rather as one reads through the Christian story–the climax of the Bible–the whole Old Testament is to be seen through the lens of Jesus. It’s as if Jesus is looking back at Israel’s story of origins and saying, “It’s not by conquering others that the Kingdom of God is enacted; it’s by allowing others to conquer you.” This is part of Israel’s story and Jesus–the true Joshua (that was Jesus’ real name in Hebrew) and the true Israel–contrasts his own self alongside it. This is important for it reveals what underlays Enns whole position on morally troublesome passages: Inerrancy isn’t Enns central hermeneutic as it is for many. It is Jesus’ command to 1) Love God; 2) Love Neighbor.

If I am to offer some criticisms of Enns’ book (as a general rule of book reviews, if you can’t say anything negative you shouldn’t say anything at all), I think he discounts a bit too much history. Not because this history somehow validates Christian truth or faith, but simply from a historical perspective I think more caution is needed, especially for lay readers. I’m more along the lines of a biblical maximalist. That is, I tend to take a position of innocent until proven guilty. A lot of Scripture has been validated over the past century through archeology and ancient discoveries. Of course, I don’t have a Ph.D in Old Testament studies like he does (and thus, I am beyond the specifics on any particular event), though having an M.A. in biblical studies I think that there is more to be said for the maximalist position than Enns gives credit for (an excellent source here is Provan, Long, and Longman’s A Biblical History of Israel and K. Kitchens’ On the Reliability of the Old Testament).

I am also not entirely prepared to give up the notion of a historical “first couple” (more in the C.S. Lewis sense), primarily because I think that with it must go some of our Augustinian notions of original sin (which is a preliminary theological discussion that most people, discounting Adam and Eve, don’t have). I actually think this is a valid conversation worth having, as Jews traditionally have not taken to original sin in the ways that Christians have and, equally so, neither do Eastern Orthodox Christians. The two deserve to be addressed in tandem, which is something I have not yet seen done well.

There is also the problem that while Enns does a lot of deconstructing, I wish that there was more construction on the authority of Scripture. I agree with him regarding the issues of inerrancy, but I think Enns needs to flesh this out a bit more than he does.

Finally, I would push Enns to really spell out at what extent history becomes important for Christian faith. No doubt, some scholars on the more liberal spectrum (i.e. Crossan, Borg, etc.) put the the deity of Jesus and the resurrection as a “story” and a “myth.” Enns doesn’t go there; Jesus is the Son of God, not just a great moral teacher. And the resurrection was a literal historical event with eschatological implications for the final destruction of sin, evil, and death in time and space. I would have liked to see Enns delve more into the limits of story and myth and why, in his opinion, the “problem of death” is a problem worthy of true historical divine conquering and not mere existential/spiritual acceptance.

Of course, if Enns thinks that his book will generate only 5-star reviews on Amazon and universal acclaim, winning him the Nobel Peace Prize and an invitation to throw the first pitch at the next Yankee’s game, I’m afraid that he’s in for some bad news. This book is bound to generate some major controversy and it’s only a matter of time before 1 star reviews on Amazon start pouring in with labels of “heresy.” How do I know this? Partly because that’s the response Enns has already received on some of his other projects and partly because those reactions have been had on much less controversial books. Oh well…there will always be those when it comes to the taboo subjects of politics and religion that are so closed off to hearing anything outside of their own mental voice that the best they can muster up are exclusionary phrases.

P.S. I guess I should probably say this: the book is funny too. So buy it…It will make you think!

(I should also note, in full disclosure, that I was sent the book free of charge from the publisher for an honest and thorough blog review).


  • Paul Bruggink

    I enjoyed reading and learning from Peter Enns’s book and enjoyed your review. I even typed up a bunch of quotes from the book in preparation for a 5-star Amazon review that I never wrote since 20+ people had beaten me to it.

    So I sent the notes in an email to a conservative reformed pastor friend of mine to see what he thought, as part of a process to get him to take Genesis 1-11 literarily rather than literally. He responded with the equivalent of a 1-star review, acknowledging that it was based only on my notes, not the book itself.

    Since I had accidently pre-ordered the book twice, I gave him the extra copy. It will be interesting to hear what he thinks after he reads it (if he does), although I’m thinking that I might have been further ahead to have given him a copy of Adam Hamilton’s “Making Sense of the Bible: Rediscovering the Power of Scripture Today.”