Pete Enns & The Bible for Normal People

On Not Trusting the Bible (Or Taking Seriously What the Bible’s Messiness Has to Teach Us About Faith)

trusting the bible

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.

Here’s a common issue that comes up in classes, when I am out speaking, or when I get emails and comments on blog posts I write:

Pete, you’re talking about all these historical problems, tensions, contradictions in the Bible–basically the messiness of the Bible. So how can we now trust the Bible? I mean, how can such a messed up book be our faithful standard and authoritative guide for faith and life?

Here is my point in all of this: It is precisely how the Bible behaves that tells us that maybe these questions—though genuine and heartfelt—are missing the mark.

These questions presume something of the Bible that my pointing out of historical problems, etc., supposedly “takes away.” That presumption is that a book worthy of being called “sacred scripture” or “God’s word” would not behave these ways but instead be consistent, historically accurate, etc.

I reject that presumption because the Bible so clearly doesn’t behave that way. It bears these marks of messiness.

Maybe the Bible isn’t something that should be the object of our trust.

Maybe—as the Bible repeatedly says—the object of our trust is God.

And God and the Bible aren’t the same things.

Calling the Bible “God’s word” doesn’t elevate it to an object worthy of trust.

I agree with those who say that the Bible bears witness to what God has done. And saying so is a confession of faith.

Specifically, for Christians, the Bible bears witness ultimately to what God has done in Christ. (That further confession takes us on a wild hermeneutical and theological journey of trying to see how all of scripture ultimately bears witness to this act—but I digress.)

So yes, the Bible bears witness to what God has done, but it does so in ancient and culturally diverse ways.

That is the Bible we actually have and that is why the Bible is such a “mess.”

The Christian Bible was written (roughly) between 2000 and 3000 years ago. We are as distant from the “world of the Bible” as we are from the years 4000 to 5000 CE.

Let that sink in.

Respect that distance.

The writings that would eventually make up the Bible were composed and eventually collected over a period of about 1000 years, in times of war and peace, triumph and tragedy, under Assyrian, then Babylonian, Persian, and Roman rule, in a plethora of social settings, written by simply folk, kings, priests, prophets, and who knows who else, in three languages.

Respect that diversity.

The Bible we have is ancient, diverse, and therefore gives us multiple perspectives on who God is and what it means to know this God.

The Bible is in that sense “messy” and that messiness cannot be corralled into a seamless and consistent object that we are called to “trust.”

The Bible doesn’t say, “Look at me and trust me!” It says, “Look through me so you can learn what it means to trust God.”

The Bible, if we are paying attention, behaves in such a way that it decenters itself and drives us to center our trust in the living God, whose actions are neither restricted nor fully described in these ancient and diverse writings that bear witness to God’s actions.

The Bible is, however, worthy of serious reflection precisely because of its diverse and ancient ways. That is why the interpretation of the Bible and Christian theology is hard work and not simply a matter of leafing through the Bible or expecting things to line up a handy index of topics we can point to get the right answers.

A theme of The Bible Tells Me So is that the Bible does not work well as an owner’s manual, a rule book, or a field guide to the Christian life. It does work well, though, as a diverse and ancient model of the journey of faith, which is for us as diverse, contextual, and messy as the Bible itself so patiently lays out for us.

We just need to accept the Bible for what it is, not for what we would like it to be. The Bible bears the marks of messiness. Christian theology, if it wishes to be compelling and speak into people’s lives, needs to incorporate that fact, not shy away from it.

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