Peter Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation

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When this book exploded on the scene, I was temporarily out of the Evangelical orbit.  I didn’t find many of Enns’ proposals all that shocking.  I thought his reasoning was sloppy in a lot of places, and he routinely never challenges his own presuppositions, but this book isn’t that bad.

I think Enns’s work also suffers in one more regard. It was fashionable 70 years ago to play off the supposed parallels between Israelite culture (and its use of Leviathan) with Babylonian culture (and its use of Tiamat). The implication was that the Hebrews stole this from the Babylonians. Recent scholarship has suggested otherwise. The discovery of Ugaritic texts and its own usage of Ba’al/Leviathan suggests that the Hebrews didn’t borrow from Babylon after all. Enns completely misses this point.

I realize I am three or four years behind the times in reading this book. That’s fine. I’m more able to appreciate it now than I would have been in my apologist days. As readers will remember, this book caused a firestorm in the evangelical world, leading to Enns’ dismissal from WTS, and causing all Reformed bloggers to cry out in unison, “The Gospel is at steak!” (since when is the gospel not at steak in Reformed circles?).

I didn’t really see a problem with the book, though. Yes, I realize where Enns is out of bounds with traditional evangelical hermeneutics, and he should admit as much. Further, the implications of Enns’ project will be troubling for many varieties of Evangelical biblical scholarship, but the reality is that these problems *will* arrive in one form or another (ask any young college student who lost their faith in an OT intro class because a professor who was not spiritually sensitive presented these problems. I saw it happen by the dozen–and that’s a conservative number–at Louisiana College.) Cheap, pat answers will not work and insult the intelligence of young men and women. We need to deal with these issues and Enns is to be commended for dealing with it in a pastorally sensitive and academically sterilized environment, his colleagues’ hysterical reaction to it notwithstanding).

Enns, faithful to good Christology, suggests an incarnational parallel between the Person of Christ and the “bible.” As Christ has a human dimension (at this point I don’t care what connotation you give to that phrase), so also the Bible has a human dimension to it. Most conservatives are fine with this and a few smart ones will say, “yeah, didn’t Calvin say that God lisps to us?” And that’s true, though it’s doubtful Calvin would have approved of Enns’ suggestions.

Contrary to popular fear, most of Enns’ book is unremarkable. If the reader is familiar with John Frame’s works, then Enns’ interpretation of Proverbs and Torah in a situational perspective will sound old-hat. Enns also spends much time noting the differences between Kings and Chronicles, of which I assume many Evangelicals are familiar. Enns asks an important question, though: How do we continue to affirm “inspiration” and “revelation” given these differences represent different goals? Personally, I don’t have a problem with that question.

The real rub, though, is Enns’ treatment of Genesis 1-11. In short, his argument goes: it is indisputable that the Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) mythologies were written prior to Genesis.i Secondly, since Abraham came from Ur of the Chaldees and would no doubt have bee familiar with these stories, and given that these stories are very similar to Genesis 1-11, one is hard-pressed to avoid the conclusion that Genesis 1-11 is somewhat dependent on the ANE mythologies.

(Help arrives from an unexpected place.  John Walton suggested that it is almost impossible to prove that the Hebrews borrowed from the Babylonians in such a crass manner.  Maybe they did, but it’s hard to prove one way or another).

This leads to the next problem: what do we mean by “myth?” Enns defines myth as a pre-scientific form of answering the question of origins in the form of stories (50).ii So one could advance the next conclusion that Abraham did adapt these mythological categories but at the same time radically deconstructed them. This makes Abraham’s faith all the more radical: his God is not like the pagan deities, and this is how his God wants you to live.

I have my own take on myth and it is a lot cooler.  These “myths” are actually retellings of Yahweh’s story told by fallen members of the Divine Council.  Psyops, if you will.
Enns has other chapters on the anthropomorphic uses of language about God. While it is true Yahweh doesn’t act passionately like Zeus, and if one wants to be theologically proper, the essence of God is impassible, it’s equally difficult to read the prophetic literature and Yahweh’s interaction with his people and come to a hard doctrine of divine impassibility (yes, I affirm divine impassibility, though not without qualifications). Yahweh does indeed fight like a drunken Samson. However, much literature has been written on that point and I won’t say more.

If this sounds impious, how much more Psalm 78:65, where the Divine Warrior himself is described as a mighty man overcome with wine? Yahweh fights like Samson, but far more ferociously than Samson: He fights like a drunken Samson!”
Enns’ last chapter will also cause some problems with conservative readers. While the grammatical-historical method is a respected method and is generally preferred in how to interpret texts, the fact remains that the New Testament authors routinely violated this principle. Not only did they interpret OT texts (seemingly) out of contexts, it appears they even read into the passage elements from 2nd Temple Judaism, and even most strikingly, changed the text of some passages to make a point “fit.” Consider the following examples:

Matthew 2:15/Hosea 11:1

Hosea is not talking about the boy Jesus, nor even about a future Messiah, but is alluding to Israel’s past (133).

2 Corinthians 6:2/Isaiah 49:8

Isaiah is speaking of Israel’s deliverance from Babylon, which Paul interprets to mean the deliverance in Christ (135; for those schooled in the Redemptive Historical model, this isn’t so wild an interpretation; still, it’s not what Isaiah’s contemporaries, to whom it first meant something—remember what you learned in reading Fee and Kaiser?–which must also be determinative for us.

Romans 11:26-27/Isaiah 59:20

Paul says the deliver will come from Zion, but Isaiah says the deliver will come to Zion. Secondly, Paul applies to Christ what Isaiah applied to God (yes, that is a wonderful truth in which I rejoice, but one must also point out the diversity in the passage). Isaiah talks about those who will be delivered, but Paul talks about the Messiah’s point of origin (139).

Hebrews 3:7-11/Psalm 95:9-10

The writer of Hebrews adds a word, dio (therefore, for the sake of). On first glance it doesn’t seem to change much, but Enns makes the argument, “Whereas Psalm 95 equates forty years with the period of God’s wrath, Hebrews, by inserting dio, equates the forty years with the duration of God’s works…The forty year period is not defined by wrath, but by God’s activity. Anger is what follows this forty year period if his readers do not rid themselves of “a sinful, unbelieving heart”” (Enns, 140-141).

Now, if one simply wanted to make the above argument as a pastoral illustration and application of Psalm 95, nobody would bat an eye. But this is Holy Scripture, of which every word is inerrant.iii

Enns’ point in all of this is that the New Testament writers inherited a hermeneutical framework from 2 Temple Judaism, with much input from Wisdom of Solomon.iv They did not think they were playing fast and loose with Scripture, and presumably neither did their hearers. The unbelieving Jews might not have agreed with St Matthew’s conclusion with Hosea 11, but they (presumably) didn’t challenge his method.


I enjoyed the book and the sections on the law, the history, and proverbs were fantastic. While I have no qualms praising the book, I understand why it started a controversy. If Enns’ is correct on many of his points, Evangelicals. Some good answers will have to be given on how the Bible can be revealed and inspired, yet Genesis 1-11 appears dependent on Babylonian and Sumerian myths.


3 thoughts on “Peter Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation

  1. Interesting perspective. I agree with you (and Enns) that there is a relationship between Genesis 1-11 and ANE origin myths, but I think “dependace” is a bit too far. I’ve read most of these myths and have found, apart from a superficial similarity, that they are vastly different from the Hebrew presentation. To say that there is a direct connection stretches the data too thin and ignore many of the differences. However, they seem to point to the same events in history and thus are divergent retellings of the events. I think that, like you said in your article, this divergence was a deliberate retelling of the story by “the sons of God.” But I would go further and add that humans deliberately mythologized the stories, taking creative liberties with the details. Eusebius in his book Preperation of the Gospel quotes a Phonecian priest who witnessed this taking place. In the end, Abraham probably carried with him the source material from Genesis which was the actual historical information material and the nations mythologized it to there purposes. Anyway, that’s my theory on the relationship between the Bible and the ANE.


  2. My beef with Enns has always been that he depends upon 19th century Liberal understandings of Humanity. Perhaps such was determined by Lutheran and some Reformed divine determinism and pessimism surrounding Human nature, and yet it meant that when attacking “Christology from above” it meant giving Jesus a humanity that was full of ignorance, error, perhaps even moral foibles. Thus an incarnational definition of Scripture (being fully “kenotic”) meant that it could be full of errors and still constitute inspiration, usually with a kind of evolutionary philosophy of change-over-time = moving towards perfection. Thus Enns can’t comprehend how a fully Human Jesus could be without error or ignorance in a way that a Byzantine like Maximus would argue.

    Perhaps that’s what will gut Historical Critical method of its presupposition that the Humanity of Scripture means its failure and error.


    • That’s an excellent point. I completely forgot about that. Liberals at college would always say, “The Bible is by humans, therefore it must have errors.” That just didn’t logically follow.


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