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Pete Enns & The Bible for Normal People

What We Have Here is a Communication Problem

Engaging the Bible admist communication problems

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.

Years ago, my post on John Piper and his view on Canaanite genocide garnered a plethora of responses—specifically regarding his view that, “It’s right for God to slaughter women and children anytime he pleases.” 

I will say, however, that, although some pushback comments were very insightful and brought to the table issues of importance, a number of them were implicitly working from a false, though common, dichotomy: pitting against each other (1) engagement of Scripture informed by what we know of ancient context, and (2) any notion of biblical authority, inspiration, etc.

The church has a long track record of grappling with the problem of history in the Bible.

Such a posture is a lamentable innovation of recent generations of Fundamentalist influence on how Christians think about the Bible, prompted by some uncomfortable developments in biblical studies over the last two centuries. But in truth, the church has a long track record, going back to the 2nd century, of grappling with, let’s call it, the problem of history in the Bible, i.e., what it means for a transcendent God to speak within the humble and limiting circumstances of the human drama.

Of particular interest at the outset was how God’s actions in the Old Testament, especially his violence, can be squared with the not only the ethics of the gospel but common reason and decency. One early solution that stuck was to read these passages of violence allegorically. At the end of the day, I don’t think that solution works, but let’s not lose sight of the motivating factor:

God does things in the Old Testament that cause theological problems for Christians, and so we have to think about what to do about them.

We today are latecomers to this conversation, although some, apparently, do not seem to be aware that it is even an issue.

Engaging Scripture’s ancient context honors the Bible as a product of antiquity.

What marks off recent generations is not that a renegade group of scholars and other troublemakers are now, all of a sudden, allowing “historical context” to invade our understanding of the pristine Word of God. Rather, the problem is that we have come to understand much more of that ancient context than ever before. The fact that many Protestant communities are deeply committed to Scripture as a clear word from God, which, therefore, can safely be understood without engaging the messiness of  history, creates an antagonistic attitude toward those who are perceived as sacrificing Scripture on the altar of (unbelieving) scholarship.

With all this in mind, those demonizing the thought of bringing historical scholarship to bear on the issue of  Canaanite genocide labor under the false assumption that to do so is to reject, dismiss, or undermine the Bible; to “pick and choose” willy-nilly what we like and what we don’t like.

Not at all.

Engaging Scripture’s ancient context, especially in our day, is part of a subtle and challenging process of trying to understand how to understand the Bible as a product of antiquity, and then to think through how that understanding is to be brought to bear on current faith and practice.

If anyone thinks that in doing so there is a plot afoot, some sinister revolution or insidious innovation to the study of Scripture by a huddled band of scholars determined to undermine the gospel, I can only suggest that a study of the history of Christian interpretation (that predates 19th century Fundamentalism) will relieve you of this misunderstanding.

Some of the specific issues before us today may be new, but the principle of reading Scripture in context–which is nothing less than the principle of grammatical-historical exegesis, so esteemed in conservative circles–is not.

Go where the questions lead.

The problem, again, is that the more we know of ancient contexts, the more uncomfortable grammatical-historical exegesis has become, and so threatens to undermine the very Evangelical theological system that relied on it so heavily. Rather than abandoning the method, however, it is wiser, I feel, to be willing to do the hard work of trusting God, going where the questions lead, and rethinking theological articulations when necessary, knowing that the survival of the Christian faith does not hang in the balance.

So, all this is preamble for returning to the issue of Canaanite genocide, which I briefly describe in several articles available for your reading pleasure.

Your turn: what are the ethical problems of saying that God commanded the extermination of an entire population?

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