"The Bible isn’t a cookbook,” explains theologian Peter Enns in his latest book, The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It. “When we open the Bible and read it, we are eavesdropping on an ancient spiritual journey.”
Your response to those two sentences will probably determine your overall response to the book. If you’re sick of seeing the Bible as a legal, formulaic, contractual book of rules and recipes—if you prefer the idea of a complex, challenging story full of puzzles, paradoxes, and plot development—then you will probably love it. If you already know that the Bible isn’t a cookbook, wonder whether anyone really thinks it is, feel like you’ve heard dozens of writers making this point before, and roll your eyes involuntarily at phrases like “ancient spiritual journey,” then you probably won’t.
Personally, I find myself somewhat torn. I really like reading Peter Enns. He is creative, scholarly, witty, and at times hilarious. His writing is easy to understand, and he lays out his case clearly. And despite his troubled personal history with conservative evangelicalism, he critiques it without rancor. More important, although the overall message of the book—that the Bible isn’t a rulebook—is a somewhat overdone attack on a straw-man, his seven chapters each make important points evangelicals have often missed.
Those points, in brief: The Bible is, and functions like, an ancient book (chapter 1). God lets his children tell the story, and what they mean isn’t always what we assume it means (chapter 2). The Old Testament narrates different stories in different ways, with specific circumstances in mind (chapter 3), and it offers different perspectives on all sorts of things, including the nature of God (chapter 4). Jesus didn’t read his Bible in the same way we often do (chapter 5). Paul read the whole Bible afresh, in light of Jesus (chapter 6). And we need to let the Bible be the Bible, rather than what we want it to be (chapter 7).
Enns also brings some sparkling insights to the table, and the book is strongest when he is illuminating particular books (rather than telling us what the Bible isn’t). He shows how Kings and Chronicles are narrated in completely different ways, because of the different situations they are addressing. He traces the youngest-son theme through Genesis, and explains its significance in light of the rift between Israel and Judah. He explains what the editor of the Exodus story is up to, links Eden to the exile, and connects three texts about the separating of waters (Creation, Flood, Red Sea). Admittedly, Enns is far from the first scholar to tackle these themes. But he communicates them to a general audience with clarity and verve, and parts of the book are a joy to read.
Yet the book is also fundamentally imbalanced. Enns is so eager to show how “messy” and “weird” the Bible is that he frequently exaggerates difficulties, presents a one-sided picture, or neglects obvious resolutions to the "contradictions" he puts forward. So, for instance, he shows us differences between sacrificial laws in Exodus and Deuteronomy and calls them contradictions, without acknowledging that the former are given for life in the wilderness, and the latter for life in the Promised Land. He finds confusion about how many “gods” there were in the Old Testament, without pointing out that biblical writers are able both to affirm many “gods” and only one God in the same text, because of their theology of idols and demons (e.g. Isa. 44:6-20; 1 Cor. 8:4-6). His paraphrases sometimes create discrepancies out of thin air. Nobody but Enns, surely, could read Leviticus 17:15-16 as saying “sure, you can eat mauled animal carcasses,” and hence conflicting with instructions elsewhere. Many more examples could be given.
Or take his portrait of Jesus. Enns is keen to show that Jesus was not a “modern” reader of the Bible, so he draws attention to various stories in which Jesus handles texts in surprising ways (like, famously, Psalm 110 in Matthew 22). But he largely ignores the dozens of texts in which Jesus speaks about Scripture as authoritative, unbreakable, true, unchangeable: Think of sayings like it is written, the Scriptures must be fulfilled, the word of God cannot be broken, not a dot will disappear from the law, and so on. This creates a substantial imbalance, especially since most evangelicals would appeal to Jesus to support their high view of biblical truthfulness. Enns never reconciles his inaccuracy-strewn view of the Old Testament (his most striking example being the implication that the plagues on Egypt and the parting of the Red Sea never actually happened) with the reverent way Jesus spoke about it.
Even more problematic, Enns describes stories where God kills people, like the Flood, as “hard to defend as the Word of God in civil adult conversation.” He spends many pages stressing what a problem divine violence is. Yet he never mentions that Jesus himself not only quoted events like this—all-destroying floods, fire and sulphur from heaven, pillars of salt, the whole caboodle—but used them to explain what his own coming would be like (Luke 17:22-37). Jesus even tells stories about people being handed over to torturers (Matt. 18:34) and eternal punishment (Matt. 25:41-46).
So yes, the picture of Jesus painted in the Gospels should unsettle fundamentalists and flat literalists. But it also should also unsettle progressives, peaceniks, and professors—especially those who think that Jesus would join them in rejecting the accuracy of the Bible's violent narratives.
Summoned to Tremble
Overriding all of these problems, however, is a larger one. Enns begins with a description of the “stress” that sometimes comes from struggling to believe the Bible, with its talking serpents, peculiar food laws, bloody wars, vindictive floods, and other anachronistic oddities. He takes swipes at all sorts of biblical stories (“magical trees” being an especially unfair example), typically the ones which most puzzle self-consciously “modern” readers. Like Rob Bell, Enns concludes that the Bible is ultimately about “mystery” and a “spiritual journey” and “the thoughts and meditations of ancient pilgrims.”
But aside from vague phrases like these, it is never clear what it actually means for the Bible to be the Word of God. How might the Scriptures call us to repent, to die to ourselves, to change, or to do anything other than listen to a spiritual conversation? Enns doesn’t say. There is no account of how doctrine should be formed, no discussion of what biblical authority really looks like, no real engagement with the teachings of the church (which has often read the Bible rather differently than Enns), and no examples of biblical ethics beyond what The New York Times would freely endorse. In short, if I were trying to write a book about the Bible that allowed progressive moderns to ditch all the bits they don’t like, this is exactly how I would have done it.
I know that is not Enns's intention. As I say, there is a good deal of interesting, humorous, and thought-provoking material in this book. Ultimately, though, he pushes so hard against the idea that the Bible tells you everything that he leaves you wondering if the Bible actually tells you anything. We are, of course, invited to ask questions of the Word of God. But we are also invited—even summoned—to tremble.
Andrew Wilson is a CT columnist, an elder at Kings Church in Eastbourne, England, and a PhD candidate in New Testament Studies at King's College, London.