Pete Enns & The Bible for Normal People

If You Want Your Faith to Survive, It Had Better Adapt

surviving faith

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.

The title of this post might not win me many friends, but that’s OK since I don’t actually have any actual friends. Plus, I’m right.

Christians talk about how God is—unlike us—constant and doesn’t change. And I think this is a wonderful thought that I don’t have any serious quibbles about (though some theologians do, which is fine, but that’s another topic).

But although God may not change, how people think about God does. And how people think about God has a lot to do with when and where they were born, their gender, ethnicity, social location, their experiences, etc.

If I may say, I think that last point is self-evident.

To anticipate a response:”OK, Enns, fine. But THIS IS WHY WE HAVE THE BIBLE! To keep us focused on what God is really like! To rein in all these different views and stay on track.”

Which works, until you begin paying close attention to the kinds of things the Bible says about God.

Not all biblical writers were on the same page when it came to describing what God is like and what it means to believe in this God.

And the reason why we see these differences is because—just like every other human—biblical writers lived in different times and places, under different circumstances, asking different questions and seeking different answers.

To put it another way, their life experiences led them to think of God and faith differently. That’s why the Bible gives us such varying—even conflicting—portraits of God.

That’s why Genesis 1 presents the Creator as something like a distant, up-there, sovereign button pusher who effortlessly made all things “very good,” but then beginning in chapter 2—as if to keep us on our toes—God seems a lot more human like.

This God has a Garden he takes walks in. He also created a woman for the man (Adam) but only after seeing that none of the animals would do. A few chapters later in the story of Noah, God is beside himself at how badly things have turned out that he is “sorry” and “regrets” ever having created humans. So he drowns them all, except for a salvageable few.

The prototype was flawed. Let’s give it another go.

This isn’t a contest. We don’t have to choose. We just need to accept that God is sometimes presented as a transcendent deity and other times as more intimate.

I don’t think that’s a big obstacle to climb over. We actually experience God, too, somewhere on this continuum: distant, absent, up-there, on one end, and with us, in us, by us, at the other.

I think we already know that diverse portraits of God aren’t really a problem: it matches our experience.

We can apply that thought to any other of the diverse portraits of God we find in the Old Testament.

How does God feel about the dreaded Assyrians? Depends.

In the book of Nahum, God’s avenging wrath falls upon them and they are wiped out—thus recalling the fall of the capital Nineveh in 612 BCE.  But flip back two books to Jonah and you see a God who actually cares for the Ninevites, so much so that he sends a very reluctant Jonah to get them to repent.

And—spoiler alert—they do (much to Jonah’s disappointment)!

The Assyrian friendly view of God in Jonah reflects a later time, after the return from Babylonian Exile, where the Judahites learned something about their God—maybe the God of Israel cares for more than just the people of Israel.


contradictions in the bible

Maybe God is bigger than we thought.

These two books present God in two different, conflicting ways because the people who wrote these books were living at different times and reflecting different experiences.

The question for us is not to decide which of these portraits is right, but to acknowledge and embrace Scripture as reflecting the varying voices of a people on a centuries-long journey of faith, of discovering what God is like—and adapting their thinking accordingly.

Frankly, watching this sort of thing happening in the Bible is a lot of what makes it interesting for me to keep reading. It reflects back to us our own experience of adapting our thinking of God to account for our experiences of God in the world.

That is how a faith tradition survives. By adapting. not by standing still.

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