Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament

Paul Helm Articles

A book about the identity and purpose of the Bible must be of interest to any serious Christian. But at first glance Inspiration and Incarnation seems daunting. Peter Enns, a Professor of Old Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, is an Old Testament specialist who through his awareness of the 'Problem of the Old Testament' invites us to ask fundamental questions about the Bible. However, we shall see that the big picture can be separated fairly easily from the details.

He writes about the identity and purpose of the Bible by concentrating on the difficulties of interpreting some Old Testament data. This should immediately arouse our suspicions. Nearly fifty years ago in 'Fundamentalism' and the Word of God J .I. Packer (following B.B. Warfield) had this to say

Christians are bound to receive the Bible as God's Word written on the authority of Christ, not because they can prove it such by independent enquiry, but because as disciples they trust their divine Teacher. We have pointed out already that no article of Christian faith admits of full rational demonstration as, say, geometrical theorems do; all the great biblical doctrines -t he Trinity, the incarnation, the atonement, the work of the Spirit in man, the resurrection of the body and the renewal of the creation - are partly mysterious, and raise problems for our minds that are at present insoluble, The doctrine of Scripture is no exception to this rule.(108)

God, then, does not profess to answer in Scripture all the questions that we, in our boundless curiosity, would like to ask about Scripture. He tells us merely as much as He sees we need to know as a basis off or our life of faith. And He leaves unsolved some of the problems raised by what He tells us, in order to teach us a humble trust in His veracity.....Is it reasonable to take God's word and believe that He has spoken the truth, even though I cannot full comprehend what he has said? The question carries its own answer. (109)

So Enns is beginning from the wrong end. Not from Christ's and the apostles' teaching regarding the nature of Scripture, but from 'problems', the difficulties identified by his own specialism, Old Testament scholarship.

So though Inspiration and Incarnation could be a deeply unsettling book for the orthodox Christian, it ought not to be, and need not be. Strangely perhaps, this fact has nothing to do with any of the claims made in the book about the language and literature of the Old Testament, or with what is said about the relationship between the two Testaments, on which Enns lavishes a great deal of attention. But it has everything to do with the weakness of the method that Enns has adopted.

In justification of his approach the author offers an ''incarnational paradigm' (or 'parallel' or 'analogy') for our understanding of Scripture. As the Word of God was incarnated at a particular time and in a particular cultural matrix, so the Bible was brought to us through a variety of cultural situations. 'The encultured qualities of the Bible, therefore, are not extra elements that we can discard to get to the real point, the timeless truths.....Christ's Incarnation is analogous to Scripture's 'incarnation' ''. (17-8) We must therefore give priority to the human marks of Scripture. It is only by attending to these phenomena, and especially to the successive contexts in which the various parts of the Bible came to be written, Enns believes, including the styles and methods of literary composition that they reveal, that we shall be able to understand the Bible's diverse nature and so not approach it with closed minds that shut down the interpretative options. But having in mind the diverse phenomena of Scripture is nothing new. As Packer noted

The Word of God is an exceedingly complex unity. The different items and the various kinds of material which make it up - laws, promises, liturgies, genealogies, arguments, narratives, meditations, visions, aphorisms, homilies, parables and the rest - do not stand in Scripture in isolated fragments, but as parts of a whole. The exposition of them, therefore, involves exhibiting them in right relation both to the whole and to each other. God's Word is not presented in Scripture in the form of a theological system, but it admits of being stated in that form, and indeed, requires to be so stated before we can properly grasp it - grasp it, that is, as a whole. (101)

However what is new, disturbingly new, is the claim that Enns makes about this cultural embeddedness. We discover that the Bible itself is far from unique: it's a diverse, culturally-biased product, which we can only ever hope to understand provisionally.

It'll be best to assess the book by considering a set of answers from Enns to three questions: Is our interpretation of the Bible provisional? Is the Bible unique? And finally, and most importantly, Is the Bible objective? These are among the central questions the author himself raises. My argument in this review is that in his answers to such questions Professor Enns has not gone too far - as he occasionally fears, perhaps - but that he has not gone far enough. The book is troubling not because of the profundity of the treatment but rather because of its superficiality. We shall find that Enns's answers to each of these questions take him farther and farther away from being able to maintain an orthodox doctrine of Scripture.

Is our interpretation of the Bible provisional?

Enns claims that our interpretation of the entire Bible is provisional.

But if even the Bible is a cultural phenomenon through and through, we should not be surprised to see that our own theological thinking is wrapped in cultural clothing as well. This is why every generation of Christians in every cultural context must seek to see how God is speaking to them in and though Scripture. (67)

To hear that 'Our interpretation of the Bible is provisional' is potentially unsettling and destabilising to any sincere believer. For it seems that if our interpretation of Scripture is provisional it may be replaced, like a provisional driving licence is replaced by the permanent version. The teaching we have presently distilled from it is merely a first go. Of course this is monstrous. If we think of the Bible on the analogy of a spider's web, then naturally there are many problems of interpretation on its periphery, and that fact is of some importance. Nevertheless, on the central matters, the heart of the web, the teaching of the Bible is clear. On the deity of Christ, say, or the Trinity, or the penal character of Christ's death, or election and predestination, or salvation by grace through faith, it is just madness to suppose that 'our confession of the Bible has a provisional quality to it'. (168)

Enns says that if we understand the biases of Scripture, for example, the fact that the Old Testament has an ancient Near Eastern setting, this in itself will raise the question of the normativity of the Old Testament. (67) While one appreciates that, as an Old Testament specialist, Enns gives its study pride of place, surely this suggestion is inept. For the Christian what raises - and should settle - the question of the normativity of the Old Testament is the New Testament. The New Testament treats it as the Word of God, and shows at the same time that many though not all of its provisions are superseded in Christ.

What is maddening about Enns's free use of such terms as 'provisional', 'unique', 'bias', and 'objectivity' is that each of them has multiple meanings, and the author does little to separate these from each other. Thus there is another sense of 'provisional', meaning 'incomplete', in which it is obvious that the teaching of the Bible is provisional. It tells us so itself: there are many things that at present we cannot 'bear', one day we shall know even as we are known' for at present we 'know in part', and so on. Because this incompleteness is clearly upheld by Scripture it is much less unsettling, indeed not unsettling at all, but rather to be expected. But the author's use of 'provisional' makes the stronger claim, and should be rejected. Enns seems be totally unaware of such ambiguities. He certainly does not identify them and so does nothing to clear up sources of possible confusion. To put the point mildly, this is somewhat irresponsible.

Is the Bible unique?

A similar ambiguity afflicts this question to the one just discussed. The author both denies and claims that Scripture is unique. He draws out parallels between parts of the Old Testament with ancient Near Eastern documents, and emphasises the common cultural settings of both. In these respects the uniqueness of the Old Testament is diminished. But there is nothing new here, except the emphasis that Enns gives to these facts, and his failure to tell us what he means by uniqueness. Is the Eiffel Tower unique? There is Blackpool Tower, and there was the Tower of Babel. So the Eiffel Tower cannot be unique in being a tower, for there are and have been many towers. But it is unique in being the Eiffel Tower, for it has features, important and significant features, such as its design and location, which it alone has, perhaps which it alone could have. You get the point. To deny or affirm the uniqueness of something is to make a very weak claim, until we are clear in what precise respect it is claimed to be unique. It could then amount to a very radical claim.

Is Scripture unique? Is it 'absolutely unique'(56)? The Christian answer is that it is in certain important respects unique: in one all- important respect absolutely so. It is fair to say that Professor Enns wishes to make a distinction between these two senses. Yet what makes for uniqueness? He says, for example, 'Exodus 21.2 is the preamble to the Ten Commandments and lays out the reason why should be faithful to God....God acted in history to bring the Israelites out of Egypt .'(57, Enns's emphasis) The uniqueness of the Decalogue is not its ethical content, which can be replicated from ancient Near Eastern sources (though one might think to doubt this in the case of the first two commandments), but rather that it expressed the moral demands of God to the newly-freed nation. Much more than that, presumably, given the dominical and apostolic teaching about the law. Later Enns makes the stronger claim that Scripture's 'uniqueness is seen not in holding human cultures at arm's length, but in the belief that Scripture is the only book in which God speaks incarnately'.(168) But can we be sure what God says?

Is the Bible objective?

So far we have noted that for Enns interpretations are always 'provisional' and yet the Bible is unique, in being the only place where God speaks to us. In addition Enns takes pains to highlight the presence of bias in the Bible. Does the Bible consist of facts only, or of facts and interpretations of those facts? Suppose that it does consists of facts and interpretations. Which raises the question, If the Bible states facts and provides interpretations of them, are these statements and interpretations objectively true? Objectivity, according to Enns, is complete freedom from bias. Good historiography is necessarily biased since it shapes 'the facts', it changes their shape, giving them shape from a particular standpoint where before they had none.

In fact - and this is getting to the heart of the matter - in the strict sense of the word there really is no such thing as objective historiography. Rather, all attempts to communicate the significance of historical events are shaped according to the historian's purpose. (66)

However, what according to Enns counts as bias is based on criteria which are themselves far from obvious. Further, while he fleetingly claims that a statement can be true though not objective, he appears to think that having an axe to grind necessarily implies falsity. This wholly neglects both the possibility that the 'bias' may be the true bias and that in any case the account provided by the axe-grinder may nevertheless be true. If we suppose that the human authors of Scripture are the voice of God, that he speaks to us through them, then the 'bias' is not only their 'bias', it is His as well. And if among the biases of Scripture is the teaching that God is unwaveringly truthful, and if we accept that bias, then we are led to reject the following woeful argument

(i) Everything, including the text of Scripture, is written from a biased standpoint

(ii) Whatever is written from a biased standpoint is false, or only true in part,

(iii) Therefore, the texts of Scripture are false, or only true in part.

But in the case of Scripture it is better to avoid the language of 'bias' altogether, even if we carefully qualify it, since it is so patently misleading. It is a fact that a man hung on a cross. But the significance of what was going on when he hung there - that God was in Christ reconciling the world, shall we say - is an interpretation. Since Christians confess that this is a God-given interpretation it is utterly free from bias, utterly objective, since God himself is utterly without bias. But by his appeal to the universal presence of axe-grinding bias Enns has painted himself into a corner, as we shall now see.


At frequent intervals throughout Inspiration and Incarnation Enns makes an appeal to Christ and to inspired Scripture in order to ground his allegiance to the status of the Bible as the Word of God. 'Jesus is - must be - both God and human'. (17) 'The founder of the Christian community was "God with us", worker of miracles and sin's atonement, whom God vindicated by raising from the dead'. (152) 'It is God's word because it is. To be able to confess that the Bible is God's Word is the gift of faith'. (66) 'Many evangelical instincts are correct and should be maintained, for example, the conviction that the Bible is ultimately from God and that it is God's gift to the church'. (13-4)

Is Enns here echoing Packer and Warfield? Unfortunately not. For given the terms of his argument it is far from clear that such claims are able to ground anything. The claims cannot be satisfactorily based on evidence, because (by his own arguments) all evidence is biased and provisional. So at the best the claims that Enns makes for Scripture are provisional. According to the argument presented in Inspiration and Incarnation our interpretation of Christ, orthodox or otherwise, is subject to the partiality and provisionality that afflicts all our interpretations of Scripture. If the Bible's portrayal of Jesus is culturally clothed so as to be biased, and our interpretation of that portrayal is also culturally clothed, and so biased, partial and provisional, how can we be sure that we ever gain access to the data to provide evidence to make such confident Christian claims as Enns makes? The very idea of objective evidence on which the Church's conviction that Scripture is the Word of God is based vanishes into thin air.

The conclusion to which one is driven is that Enns's Christian 'intuitions' are only possible by willing them to be true, not only without any evidence to support them but in the face of what Enns takes to be the evidence against them. By a leap of faith we fight ourselves free of the cultural bias that otherwise envelopes us. We see now that Enns's problems have little or nothing to do with the discoveries and claims of Old Testament scholarship. Instead, they are due to two basic failures. A failure in theological method, that of starting from difficulties instead of from dogma. And a failure in epistemology, a commitment to the idea of universal cultural bias that makes objectivity and finality about our faith impossible.

Peter Enns - Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005
Review by Paul Helm

Editor's Note: As one of the church's most highly respected philosophers, Paul Helm is uniquely qualified to review this book on issues of Old Testament canon, for as his review shows, Enns has written less as an Old Testament scholar and more as a (mistaken) philosopher. Helm's recently re-published title, The Divine Revelation: Basic Issues (Regent), will provide the reader with further clarity on issues of revelation.