I love you, Bible . . . just not that way

Posted by PeteEnns on February 8, 2017 in nature of the Bible 39 Comments

hugging the BibleI don’t think the Bible works well as a rule book for Christians, nor do I think, as a collection of writings, it is meant to be corralled into a work of so-called “systematic theology.”

The diversity, contradictions, and internal debates and critiques of Scripture, which are so much of the character of Scripture, are lost if we look to it as information downloaded from God’s computer mind to ours, where every part fully coheres with the others, and readers are judged as faithful to the degree to which they “accept” such a seamless, smooth, problem-free, legal brief.

Rather I think that one of the things that makes the Bible so interesting and worthy of deep study is that the parts do not cohere in all respects, but reflect the diverse and contradictory settings and experiences of the biblical writers as they reflect on the presence of the Creator among them.

The Bible certainly gives us theological information, but also and persistently reflects the diverse and contradictory triumphs and struggles of the life of faith.

And because it does not work well at all as a consistent list of instructions for what to believe at every moment, it invites its readers to think, discern, ponder, reflect, and even argue with its contents—not as an act of rebellion against God but as an act of faith, a means of coming to terms with God and communing with God.

Which is the very process we see modeled for us in the Bible itself.

“Yeah, yeah, Enns. We get it. You keep beating this drum. Can you shut up, already?”

No.

The reason I get so insistent on this point is because of the spiritual damage I see done daily to those who spend their lives recovering emotionally from being told that God demands they “believe in” a Bible that only exists in the minds those have to ignore, downplay, or manipulate it to make their case.

People who are taught that the center of their faith is a fictitious Bible leave the faith when they finally see that the Bible doesn’t work the way they were told God says it does. Or worse, they live lives of fear and quiet desperation, resigning themselves to enduring their faith rather than rejoicing in God’s presence.

There’s something very wrong when “Bible teaching” looks more like a Sean Spicer press briefing than an honest encounter with the Sacred.

And the cure is, as I never grow tired of saying, reading the Bible with care and discipline, in conversation with millennia of fellow travelers, and watching how it “behaves” rather than reading it to make it confirm to predetermined ideals that function only to give us a false sense of comfort.hugging the Bible 2

So, I do love the Bible, but not as the 4th person of the Trinity (the math doesn’t work but you know what I mean).

I love the Bible because it forces me to reflect on God in community with others.

I love the Bible because it mirrors back to me the ups and downs of my own faith, rather than setting an unrealistic standard.

I love the Bible because in its earthy messiness it reminds me of Jesus, God with us.

I love the Bible because it’s honest.

I love the Bible because it’s just plain interesting.

I love the Bible because I don’t quite get it.

I love the Bible because when I study it I am connected to men and women of faith who have done the same for over 2500 years, and so I know I am not alone.

I love the Bible because, if I’m really paying attention, it gets me out of my own head and sparks my imagination.

I love the Bible because sometimes I don’t like it and sometimes neither do some writers of the Bible, so I don’t feel guilty about it.

I love the Bible because on the whole its authority is gentle and compassionate, not dictatorial and oppressive.

I love the Bible because it reminds me that God is full of surprises.

I love the Bible because, in its own way, it points me, pushes me, drags me, invites me, propels me toward the Creator.

 

 

 

39 Comments

  • Keep saying this. I need to hear it. One of these days I just might really believe it and give up on the beatings I give myself….

  • Well said, Pete. I believe inerrancy is one of the most harmful of doctrines and the source of many other harmful beliefs (angry god, legalism, burning hell, YEC, homophobia, and so forth). I don’t believe the Bible is inerrant, but I LOVE the Bible–for many of the reasons you listed.

    I always enjoy your articles.

  • 2Ti 3:16  All Scripture is inspired by God and useful for teaching, for reproof, for restoration, and for training in righteousness, 
    2Ti 3:17  so that the person belonging to God may be capable, fully equipped for every good deed. 

    When Paul wrote this, the Tanakh was Scripture and the NT books were not yet. I accept the claims of these verses in both meanings. I try not to make too much of Scripture or too little, but right size it. I wonder how Peter understands these verses?

        • That’s a good way to do it. Pete somewhere has a link to a 3 scholar panel discussion held at U Penn. Pete Enns, Marc Brettler, and Daniel Harrington. [Protestant, Jew, Catholic] Brettler mentioned how he, as an observant Jew, kept his sanity by putting the scripture he accepted in 30 point type, and the stuff he didn’t accept in 3 point type. It’s all in there together, but are just the right size. (Pete; you need some kind of perma-link to that podcast. Or even better get an edited version with both segments on one mp3 file)

    • Inspired doesn’t mean perfect, as a young man I was inspired by the Peter Stirling the the footballer, that does not mean I became a perfect reflection of Him. I can be taught and inspired by all kinds of things, a car accident can be useful for educating people in the need to drive safelly. I beleive that many people try to make 2 Tim 3:16 say much more than it does about scripture.

      • “Inspired” is a loaded term. Because when it’s used in theological circles, it (usually) means much MUCH more than it means when used in any non-theological sense. You’re definitely right about the widespread misuse of 2 Tim 3:16.

    • The theology Paul expresses in his letters is not necessarily God’s theology. Paul’s theology is just that–his own.

  • A much needed perspective from the outset, I think. Otherwise we will find ourselves mired in frustration and/or conducting obfuscation tactics. With that said, I truly do believe 2Tim. 3:16 and take it seriously, How that plays out is all a part of the life of faith.

  • Awesome!

    I wonder how many people will actually take the time to read this post all the way through without spending all of their time arguing with your opening statements…

  • Again, Pete, while I can appreciate some of your concerns, I think you overstate your point – to the degree of maybe missing too much. To state “the parts do not cohere in all respects” demonstrates the need to go a little deeper in your investigation – if you wish to avoid distortion! How deep? All the way back to Patristics!

    The Church has always seen Christ Himself as the one who coheres all of the text in “all respects.” I don’t see this well-established Christological lens in your fine article. To “grovel at the letter”, as the Cappadocians said, demonstrates a misunderstanding of what is in front of you in the Bible. Fundamentalists in America – as well as your good article, both seem to grovel at the raw text.

    I encourage you to “take up and read!” what the Church has traditionally asserted regarding the Bible (it is NOT the lack of coherence in the text). While you seem to focus your angst against stereotypical (strawman?) evangelical thought, you might be missing well-established Christian thought.

    • I appreciate that, Robert, and I’m pretty familiar with the early church and biblical interpretation (though I always have more to learn.) Simply stated, there is wisdom there but they do not solve all our problems, nor are they a default paradigm for engaging Scripture, especially where historical matters are concerned. Where I think they do help is in establishing a trajectory of what we might call “Christian Midrash” which is *creating* coherences (not discovering them),sometimes in quite unsatisfying ways to some (including me). But they are certainly part of the discussion and a much neglected one for evangelicalism.

      • Totally agree with this response. Patristics and early tradition can help guide our approach to the Bible and our understanding of Christian faith, but can’t be our comprehensive model. The meaning of the Bible, and the faith, is open-ended, not closed up in any system or model.

  • Pete, I use the word Quadrinity to make the math work!! (I’m not sure if it works linguistically though).

    I always like to read your musings as you seem on so much a similar mind-set to me…….and I don’t think I taught you any of it. I get very frustrated and angry in discussions with many “Evangelicals” around the points where the “systematic” Inerrant view impinges on practice and belief, not least because of the highly sensitised past experiences like wot those you mentioned.

    I am trying and failing to find common ground with some in my congregation who still have very strong “traditional bible-believing” doctrine and thought processes and despair as to whether it can be found. I would like to think that with God’s help there is hope.

    I posted a long while back a comment from Barth to Schaeffer (am too old to be able to post link:-( ) commenting on Schaeffer’s sniffing out error and acting like a detective. This letter sums up I’m my mind the whole problem. It seems that many “liberals/progressives/whatever” would be relatively happy to agree to disagree, to keep community within the body. But the apologetic mission of the “fundamentalist”, which seems more aimed at dissenters within the church than those outside, puts them in the position of not being able to “agree to disagree”.

    For those who do disagree with Pete’s views above and mine. I think it very important at least to listen to his comments about how damaged and hurt some of us are by this mission to challenge our beliefs. Maybe it has been out of love that you have tried to correct us and lead us in the right path, but it sure as hell hasn’t felt like it. I would really question whether “love” is any part of it. At the same time, we have probably defended our position with a lack of love too. From my perspective, having been battered rather too often, you can get to the point where “attack” seems often the best or only means of defence.

    Just to get on the band-wagon, I also really enjoy reading the bible/scripture/Word/whatever and can really see what God and Jesus were going on about (at times). You just need to read the gospels to get a picture of how someone can be battered, bruised, mocked and abandoned by those who uphold the “true meaning of scripture”.

  • First off, please know that everything I am about to say comes from a loving, open minded perspective. I feel as though your book and your thoughts have caused my own “beach balls to surface”. I think that the quote below encapsulates my point of view and questions really well. If you could please read the quote and then respond, that might help me with all these beach balls that are now floating around in the waves and that I have no idea what to do with. Your book and your statements (in this blog) have almost created more doubt in my mind than I had before. I hope we can find some common ground. See quote below.

    “In the end, The Bible Tells Me So is a book about contradictions. Enns intended it to be a book about contradictions in the Bible. But it becomes quickly apparent that the contradictions are really in Enns’s own worldview. He claims the Canaanite conquest is immoral, yet argues the Bible provides no clear guide for morality. He claims the Bible presents a diabolical genocidal God, yet insists we still “meet God in its pages” (3). He argues Scripture is filled with reworked stories, many of which are made up entirely, yet seems to know which ones really happened and which did not. He claims the Bible provides no clear moral instruction, yet says people are “disobedient” to God and in need of the cross. He claims he’s the one reading the Bible in an ancient manner when, in fact, people in the ancient world didn’t read it the way he does.

    All of these inconsistencies stem from one simple reality: Enns has fully adopted the methods and conclusions of the most aggressive versions of critical scholarship, and yet at the same time wants to insist that the Bible is still God’s Word, and that Jesus died and rose again. While it’s clear to most folks that these two systems are incompatible at most levels, Enns is tenaciously trying to insist both can be true simultaneously. While his desire to retain the basic message of the cross is commendable, it stands as a glaring anomaly within his larger system. Somehow (and for some reason), Enns has put a box around the message of Jesus (or at least parts of it)—he protects the integrity of that story while not protecting much else.

    For all these reasons, Enns comes across as a man divided. By the end of the book, one senses he’s trying to live in two worlds at once. Such a scenario is ironic in a book purportedly trying to help those who are “holding on tooth and nail to something that’s not working, denying that nagging undercurrent of tension” (7). One wonders if Enns is describing others or whether he is really describing himself. ” (https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/the-bible-tells-me-so)

    • Ps. I’d also like to say that I do agree with your points of view about doubt being ok. I think it’s terrible that people are shunned for asking questions or having doubt. Asking questions and having doubt should never be ignored or condemned. It should be embraced and journeyed through with the Holy Spirit AND the word of God as our guides. However, when we start to allow our doubts, our understand, our circumstances, or our feelings to be our ultamotely truth, we allow room for the enemy to press lies in and mix false truths with truth. If we don’t have the Bible as our plumb line to draw everything back to, then what DO we have? If parts of the Bible are myth or simply human understand (leaving room for much falsehood), then why is any of it true? I think we ARE to experience challenges when we read the Bible (God’s word is a double edge sword right?) and then work through those challenges to find out more about God and ourselves. But we can never let our human understanding of it be the lense which we view the words. The words we are reading, and the truths/meaning behind it, should always be the lense in which we see through.

      • “But we can never let our human understanding of it be the lense which we view the words.”
        Hi Kensie,
        I hope Pete does respond to your comments, but I wanted to add my thoughts in response to the quote above. Since we are but humans, what other kind of lens do we have? I’ll never forget a discussion I had years ago with a friend after our church had recently been having a forum on predestination vs free will. We were on opposite ends of the debate, but she said she felt “the Holy Spirit” was leading her in her views. Well if that was the case, I wonder who was leading me in mine? It always seems to be the other person who uses the human lens. To me, groups like the Gospel Coalition (where you quoted from) come across as though they are “vetted” by God himself. They have carefully crafted arguments and proof-texts and hold fast to a highly systematic theology, so it’s not surprising that the reviewer would say “While his desire to retain the basic message of the cross is commendable, it stands as a glaring anomaly within his larger system”. However, I don’t see Enns putting forth any kind of “system”. From my reading, Enns is saying that you can’t create a reliable airtight system out of the Bible. And even if you do, you’re going to run into someone else’s airtight system. That’s where IMHO the reviewer really creates a straw man argument and falls short in presenting a bunch of false dichotomies. And really, what is wrong with just having a “basic message of the cross”? It’s only when we think we have to weave a perfect Bible around that where we start encountering the cognitive dissonance.

  • Pete: Your books and online posts have helped me a great deal in understanding the diversity of the Bible, e.g. the NT hope compared with absurdities in Ecclesiastes. However, I’m still puzzled about what you think God is really like when you strip away all cultural accommodation and perspectives and Second Temple spin. I know that you take a Christocentric approach to reading the Bible, but what does that really mean about knowing what God is really like? In your post today, you state that you don’t believe the Bible is meant to be “corralled into a work of so-called ‘systematic theology.'” I agree that it is not written as a systematic theology, but, as you know, you are going against both the main Protestant and Catholic traditions if you are saying that we cannot pull out of Scripture anything that objectively tells us that God has attributes x, y, z. You state “The Bible certainly gives us theological information, but also and persistently reflects the diverse and contradictory triumphs and struggles of the life of faith.” But what objective theological information does it give us? I think you believe that objectively there is a God and that Jesus is the Son of God who lived, died, and was resurrected. But what can we objectively know about the spiritual realm other than that? I hope you plan to cover this topic in detail in your next book. If you have covered this topic in any of your online posts, please point me to it. I certainly agree that systematic theology has been abused by many writers, but let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater.

    • “But what objective theological information does it give us? I think you believe that objectively there is a God and that Jesus is the Son of God who lived, died, and was resurrected. But what can we objectively know about the spiritual realm other than that?”

      But do we objectively believe there is a God? IMHO, I don’t know that this is even possible. The existence of God is the ultimate existential question, is it not? “I want to believe; help my unbelief.” What I observe is this: there are certain religious/theological groups out there who seem to believe or come across as though they are “objective” and use systematic theology as a sort of “proof” for their objectivity. But as Christian Smith illustrates in “The Bible Made Impossible”, you have many of these groups claiming a kind of “objectivity” while having apparently opposing theological views (pervasive interpretive plurality). At the end of the day, which group can “objectively” claim to have been “vetted” by God? It’s one thing to “feel” that you are vetted by God, but quite another to actually BE vetted by God (Moses? Jesus?). And then on the other hand, you have folks like Enns (and those like myself who think along side him) who have our doubts and uncertainties and alternative hermeneutics, yet still want to follow Christ, whom those religious groups who “feel” they are vetted by God go after to play the heresy card. At the end of the day, I don’t know that anyone is throwing out the baby. I think we are ultimately just going to do what we feel is right for us.

  • You Pete Enns have been lead into temptation and have replaced God’s Word with your definitions of right and wrong. Do you love/agápē Elohim? Obey him(John 14.15-16,23-24)! A cure is Mindfulness “practice” with The Sermon etched into your brain. Start by memorizing The Sermon on the Mount, something you can very likely do. As you memorize notice the different principles Jesus teaches about in his famous Sermon, connect one to the other, notice how brilliantly they flow into each other. During your Mindfulness practice meditation, observe thoughts and emotions that go contrary to the sermon and replace them with The Sermon’s teachings. Moreover, start reading the the New Testament and observe that the Sermon’s principles are practiced by Christ, but also by his apostles including St. Paul, contrary to the teachings of today’s preachers who rarely, if at all teach on the subject of The Sermon. Proceed to the Law and the Prophets and see that they too all fall short of the standards of The Sermon’s teachings. You might then argue: “If the Law’s commandments where impossible to perfectly keep, how much more so The Sermon’s requirements?” First off, perfection is taught as one who shows Christian Charity to both his enemies as well as those who reciprocate (Mat 5.44-48). If the apostles could teach it and do it, its teachings are not impossible, but note, that they where not perfect either, so be merciful (James 2.12-13). St. Paul teaches us that the battle is within us, between our egocentric flesh and our spiritual souls (Romans 7&8). Battles will be lost, but the war is won through perseverance in God’s Word (John 8.31-32, James 1). The flesh would win, if it where not for the Holy Spirit’s aid, so if you don’t yet have the Holy Spirit, get it (Luke 11.13; John 14.15-16,23-24). One very important principle in The Sermon is that it is not supposed to be an easy battle (Mat 7.13-14). Another important principle is detachment from the things of this world such as material riches, sensual pleasures and bad association, which may include avoiding your own family members. Now, suppose you believe but can’t obey, it behooves you to cut off whatever it is that’s causing you to stumble (Mat 5.29-30). Suppose on the other hand that you can’t believe but can obey, many atheist Buddhist fall in this category. These ones shall also enter in everlasting life (Mat 25.31-46). If you neither can believe nor obey, Pascal’s Wager.

  • Pete: I initially replied to this post of yours on Feb. 12. Today, Feb. 14, I happened to check back and saw that someone (Mark B.) replied to my reply. However, I didn’t get any email notice that someone had replied. I noticed that you are not using Disqus as in the past. When you used that, I did get an email stating that someone had replied to my reply. As it is now, I will have to keep checking back to see if some has replied. Is that the way you intend your Comments to work?

      • Pete: Thanks for the quick response. I personally wouldn’t mind the Disqus ads if that means you don’t have to pay a monthly fee, and it sounds like that is the case. The advantage of Disqus for me (as well as others who post) is that I don’t have to remember to go back to all of your posts to which I replied to see if anyone replied to my reply. I get an email notification if someone replied. The advantage of Disqus for you is that they have a built in spam monitor. If they detect the same text being posted at many sites, they flag it as spam and it will not show up on your site.

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