Pete Enns & The Bible for Normal People

a quick comment on why biblical literalism makes baby Jesus cry

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works.Tweets at @peteenns.

arkA few days ago (October 23 to be exact) my homie Brad Jersak posted on his Facebook page the following proposal. I thought it was an interesting—and even vital—point to make, and so I asked him for permission to post it here. He said no but I’m doing it anyway (jk). (Paragraph divisions and emphases are mine.)

Proposal: Open Theism (with much love to my open theist friends) suffers from the same foundations of biblical literalism that separation theology and literalized wrath depend, and binds the three into an unfortunate package.

To illustrate this, when Open Theism demands that God literally changes his mind, we must ask from what to what, and one what basis. The Fathers understood that such a move literalized repentance in God such that God would actually change his mind from literal wrath (as divine violence) necessitated by some law of justice in God (that created emnity) towards a grace that was contingent on some act in us.

They opted instead for a dogma of infinite love without shadow of turning and recognized the wrath of God, repentance of God, and relenting of wrath as anthropomorphic, phenomenological and existential.

The problem is that Open Theists imagine this to be a philosophical problem re: God’s omniscience or God’s relationality. That was not really the issue. It was to begin with whether God is fickle and reactive and violent … or whether he was, rather, constant and unfailing in his love.

God is ever for us and toward us, and never turns his back on us, so the OT descriptions of God doing that came to be interpreted as anthropomorphic … already by the time Philo had integrated Hebrew and Greek thought prior to Christ.

I am not reposting this to pick a fight with open theists. Rather I can see Brad’s point here to be applicable to any issue where biblical literalism leads to theological problems. 

The only thing I as a biblical scholar would add to Brad’s comment, especially in the second and last paragraph where he refers to anthropomorphism, is a robust comment about the ancient tribal context of the biblical writers (although that is presumed in his triad “anthropomorphic, phenomenological and existential”).

In my opinion, no discussion of divine violence and the wrath of God can get very far without acknowledging the core factor of the historical context of the biblical writers and the theological implications for how we view Scripture when we take that context seriously.

People, I just can’t stress that enough.

Be sure to check out Brad’s theologically subtle and pastorally sensitive book on divine violence A More Christlike God.

***I discuss divine violence and the nature of the Bible in  The Bible Tells Me So (HarperOne, 2014). See also   Inspiration and Incarnation (Baker 2005/2015), The Sin of Certainty (HarperOne, 2016), and The Evolution of Adam (Baker, 2012).***

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