As you may know, I am a Christian. You may also know that I am a scientist. Furthermore, you may be aware that there is an enormous movement within the church, known as fundamentalism, which demands that everything written in the Bible (Athanasius’s 367A.D. canon) must be taken absolutely literally (or at least as literally as the loudest authority figure demands), and also that there is a pretty large movement outside of the church, known as the New Atheists, which grew in response to fundamentalism, demanding that everything that is religious is absolutely worthless and harmful to human flourishing. I would argue that we need to land somewhere between these two perspectives.
Ever since I’ve been able to read I have enjoyed learning about science, starting with astronomy and gradually working my way towards the particle physics I study today. Early in my (private Christian) schooling I was taught science by some qualified, but also some extremely unqualified teachers. The most egregious example of my bad education (honestly lets call it what it is, intellectual abuse) came in 7th and 8th grade, where my science teacher was the school’s assistant football coach who was mindbogglingly unqualified to teach anything, let alone science. He would spend most days just making us read from our (Christian and badly biased) textbooks and even worse, he would often subject us to Ken Ham’s Answers in Genesis lectures and propaganda videos. On top of this, my church also had an ample supply of videos explaining how evolution had to be false because of the existence of complex animals, and other incredibly easy to debunk claims that continue to be perpetuated by the 7th Day Adventist inspired segments of the Creationism movement. Needless to say, by the time I was 16 or so I was pretty messed up in the head and the only science I trusted or understood was the astronomy and physics I was getting through science journalism. If I hadn’t had my view of biology so badly distorted who knows, I (and many other similar people in The South) probably could have become a doctor, who knows. Additionally, coming to terms with all the lies and propaganda I was subjected to has taken years of reading and work and struggling through various doubts, none of which I would want to go through again.
All this is to say that modern fundamentalists read the Bible incredibly incorrectly and are a danger to themselves and their children, either through the lost opportunities of going into technical fields, a destruction of critical reasoning skills, the evaporation of trust in the methods of science and its results, or through religious doubt induced by recognizing the folly and lies of the leaders who also hold claim to spiritual truths. Fortunately, many scholars have taken the traditional literalistic reading of the Bible that gives rise to the host of problems faced by fundamentalists today and have corrected it by putting the ancient texts back into their proper literary and historical contexts. In his fantastic and colloquially accessible book, “The Bible Tells Me So…”, Dr. Peter Enns manages to show how harmful it is to the actual message of the Bible to continue making the kinds of demands that fundamentalists have made for so long.
Enns shows the Bible for what it is, an ancient text which records the conversations about God and life that the nation of Israel has with itself, as well as the way that this conversation is reinterpreted and retold based on further developments, such as foreign exile and the person and work of Jesus Christ. He fights against the view that the Bible is somehow a literal transcript of words spoken by God or that every verse is meant to be taken as a prescription. He goes through a lot of the contradictory or morally offensive portions of the Bible to show how what was written is more a reflection of the writers than their god and should not be taken as a modern historian’s portrait of reality, nor as a series of laws and rules about God and life to be memorized and enforced, but rather an ancient oral tradition aiming to convey more broad ideas and provoke further discussion, not shut it down.
Enns basically takes an entire seminary course on exegesis (similar for instance to the standard textbook “He Gave Us Stories,” with a few more conclusions about how we should treat legalism and respond to the Bible thrown in as well) and condenses it down into a few hundred pages of much easier to read and understand common language. I don’t want to go too much into the details of Enns’ discussion, but I do want to point you to an interview he gave on The Liturgists Podcast about the book, as well as make the claim that the damage I and many others have suffered can easily be avoided if more people approached the Bible in the healthy and rigorous way that Enns exemplifies in this great book.
3 thoughts on ““The Bible Tells Me So…” by Pete Enns”
I agree that many modern fundamentalists have an overly simplistic way of exegeting scripture which does not consider the genre of the text, such as forcing an overly literalistic interpretation onto prophetic and apocalyptic literature when the author does not intend such an interpretation. At the same time, we should avoid falling into the Marcionite heresy of treating the scriptures as the mere uninspired and fallible thoughts of men, as Jesus and the apostles clearly did not see them that way, nor should we give up on difficult passages, but should heed Paul’s words that “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17), as well as the advice of the reformers that:
“All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.” (WCF 1.7)
“The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture, is the Scripture itself; and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it may be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.” (WCF 1.9).
As for the conflict between scripture and science, I think that scripture encourages the use of evidence and inquiry, but a consistent Christian epistemology must be grounded upon scripture as the standard against which all else is measured. Again, I think the WCF speaks well to this:
“The Supreme Judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.” (WCF 1.10)
Ok, but the Westminster Confession also says that the planet Earth was created in just 6 days, whereas it is obvious to the scientifically trained person that this is patently false. Maybe we shouldn’t use the Westminster Confession as the dogmatic source from which we derive truth in the world.
Additionally, how, if God literally wrote everything down, do you explain the inconsistencies in the historical parts of the Bible? Were there actually millions of slaves leaving Egypt? Why do Chronicles and Kings tell the exact same stories but have different details? It seems to me that perhaps there were individual men writing down their perspectives on the historical events, trying to convey a meaning through them to their audiences. We shouldn’t treat these texts as divine history lectures because they aren’t. They are men taking God’s inspiration and writing to their contemporary audiences, and Jesus and the disciples understood this, which is why we must take their twistings of ancient old testament writings in the context of their contemporary creative style of exegetical practice.
This is what Pete Enns advocates – an informed reading of holy scripture – it is not heresy, and the Westminster Confession is wrong about some things some times, seeing as it was written by men and not God and is therefore subservient to God, not the other way around.
Sure the Westminster Confession has it’s faults. I’m a 1689 London Baptist Confession guy myself, but since the language I quoted came first in the WCF, I cited it instead. The LBCF agrees on these points.
I’m also not going to call someone a heretic for taking a day-age or other old earth view on the creation account, though I do believe that the historicity of Adam and Eve and the fall is essential to our understanding of sin and salvation. As for the apparent discrepancies in the historical narratives, countless commentaries have been written by far more faithful and learned men than I (John Gill, Matthew Henry, etc.), so I won’t seek to reinvent the wheel here.
Also, as a presuppositionalist, I think that we have to take Jesus and the apostles’ interpretations of the Old Testament texts as our ultimate authority on the meaning of those texts. We may not quite understand how they arrived at those interpretations in every case, but we should recognize that they had a measure of Spiritual illumination which we don’t.