The Erosion of Inerrancy in Evangelicalism: Responding to New Challenges to Biblical Authority
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by G. K. Beale
Description: A leading biblical scholar examines recent efforts to redefine the traditional evangelical view of scriptural authority. Providing scores of arguments that demonstrate inerrancy, his sound logic presents formidable challenges to postmodern suppositions.
eBook Publisher: Crossway Books, 2009
eBookwise Release Date: July 2009
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [595 KB]
Reading time: 350-490 min.
Is a Traditional Evangelical View of Scripture's
Authority Compatible with Recent Developments in Old Testament Studies? Part 1
Below, with minor revisions, is my initial review, "Myth, History, and Inspiration: A Review Article of Inspiration and Incarnation by Peter Enns,"[1.] which appeared in JETS 49 (2006): 287-312.
[Footnote 1.: P. Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005).]
[Footnote 2: I am grateful to several scholarly friends around the country who have graciously read this review article and have offered very helpful comments in the revising stage.]
Peter Enns has written a stimulating and yet controversial book on the doctrine of Scripture. Scholars and students alike should be grateful that Enns has boldly ventured to set before his evangelical peers a view of inspiration and hermeneutics that has not traditionally been held by evangelical scholarship.
After his introduction, in chapter 2 Enns discusses the parallels between ancient Near Eastern myths and accounts in the Old Testament. He says that the Old Testament contains what he defines as "myth" (see his definition later below), but, he affirms, this should not have a negative bearing on the Old Testament's divine inspiration. God accommodates himself to communicate his truth through such mythological biblical accounts.
In chapter 3 Enns discusses what he calls "diversity" in the Old Testament. He believes that the kinds of diversity that he attempts to analyze have posed problems in the past for the doctrine of inerrancy. He asserts that this diversity must be acknowledged, even though it poses tensions for the inspiration of Scripture. This diversity is part of God's inspired Word.
In chapter 4 Enns shifts to the topic of how the Old Testament is interpreted by New Testament writers. He contends that Second Temple Judaism was not concerned to interpret the Old Testament according to an author's intention or to interpret it contextually or according to modern standards of "grammatical-historical exegesis." This hermeneutical context of Judaism must be seen as the socially constructed framework of the New Testament writers' approach to interpreting the Old Testament, so that they also were not concerned to interpret the Old Testament contextually. Accordingly, they interpreted the Old Testament by a "christotelic hermeneutic," which means generally that they had a Christ-oriented perspective in understanding the purpose of the Old Testament, including the meaning of specific Old Testament passages. This also means that "the literal (first) reading [of an Old Testament text] will not lead the reader to the christotelic (second) reading."[3.]
[Footnote 3.: Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation, 158; page references cited in text pertain to this work.]
The final chapter attempts to draw out further implications from the earlier chapters for Enns's understanding of an "incarnational" doctrine of Scripture.
At various points throughout the book, Enns appeals to this incar-national notion, contending that since Christ was fully divine and fully human, then so is Scripture. Accordingly, we need to accept the "diversity" or "messiness" of Scripture, just as we accept all of the aspects of Jesus' humanity. Also at various points in the book is the warning that modern interpreters should not impose their modern views of history and scientific precision on the ancient text of the Bible. Such a foreign imposition results in seeing problems in the Bible that are really not there.
The origin of Enns's book and its strength derive from the author's attempt to wrestle with problems that evangelicals must reflect upon in formulating their view of a doctrine of Scripture.
Enns has attempted to draw out the implications of postmodernism for an evangelical doctrine of Scripture further than most other evangelical scholars to date. He argues that liberal and evangelical approaches to Scripture both have held the same basic presupposition: that one can discern the difference between truth and error by using modern standards of reasoning and modern scientific analysis. He is proposing a paradigm for understanding scriptural inspiration that goes beyond the "liberal vs. conservative" impasse (pp. 14-15). He wants to "contribute to a growing opinion that what is needed is to move beyond both sides by thinking of better ways to account for some of the data, while at the same time having a vibrant, positive view of Scripture as God's word" (p. 15). This, of course, is a monumental task that Enns has set for himself. Enns says we must go beyond this impasse, and he presents himself as one of the few having the balance or the new synthesis that solves these age-old debates.
The book is designed more for the layperson than the scholar but is apparently written with the latter secondarily in mind. He says his thesis is not novel, but, in reality, the main proposal for which he contends throughout is "novel": he is trying to produce a synthesis of the findings of mainline liberal scholarship and an evangelical view of Scripture. Many who will judge his attempt a failure would probably wish that he had written a book that goes into much more depth, and even those who agree with him would probably wish for the same thing.
There is much to comment on in his short book. At some points, especially in the first three chapters, Enns is ambiguous, and the reader is left to connect the dots to determine his view. What follows here is an attempt not only to summarize and evaluate his explicit views but also to connect the dots in the way I think Enns does in areas where he is not as explicit. Thus, I quote Enns sometimes at length in order to let readers better assess his views and to try to cut through the ambiguity.
This chapter will focus primarily on the first part of Enns's book, which deals with Old Testament issues.
Enns's Incarnational Model for Understanding Biblical Inspiration
In Relation to History and Myth
Perhaps the overarching theme of Enns's book is his conception of divine accommodation in the process of scriptural inspiration. For Enns, Scripture is very human, which means that God meets his people in a very human way in his Word. Enns repeatedly compares this to Christ's incarnation: "As Christ is both God and human, so is the Bible" (p. 17; likewise pp. 18, 67, 111, 167-68). It is out of the incarnational analogy that Enns develops his view that "for God to reveal himself means that he accommodates himself" (p. 109; cf. p. 110). Enns is certainly right to underscore that the divine word in Scripture is also a human word. What this means for Enns is that much more "diversity" in the Bible should be recognized by evangelicals than has been typically the case in the past.
In particular, he is concerned that conservatives have not sufficiently recognized ancient Near Eastern (ANE) parallels with the Bible, particularly the parallels with the Babylonian myth of creation and the Sumerian myth of the cataclysmic flood (pp. 26-27). Enns says that "the doctrinal implications of these discoveries have not yet been fully worked out in evangelical theology" (p. 25). For example, he says that if the Old Testament has so much in common with the ancient world and its customs and practices, "in what sense can we speak of it as revelation?" (p. 31). But, as he acknowledges, these discoveries were made in the nineteenth century, and evangelical scholars have been reflecting on their doctrinal implications ever since the early nineteen hundreds.
It is important to remark at this point that (1) some evangelical scholars have seen the presence of similarities to supposed ANE myth due to polemical intentions,[4.] as have some non-evangelical scholars, or to direct repudiation of pagan religious beliefs and practices. (2) Others see the presence of similarities as rising from a reflection of general revelation by both pagan and biblical writers, and only rightly interpreted by the latter.[5.] (3) Still others have attributed purported ANE mythical parallels in the Old Testament to a common reflection of ancient tradition, the sources of which precede both the pagan and biblical writers, and the historicity of which has no independent human verification (like the creation in Genesis 1) but is based ultimately on an earlier, ancient, divinely pristine revelation that became garbled in the pagan context and reliably witnessed to by the scriptural writer.[6.] (4) Yet another view is that revelation did not always counter ANE concepts but often used them in productive ways, though still revised in significant manner by special revelation. For example, ANE concepts may have helped give shape to the theology of sacred space in the building of Israel's tabernacle and temple, e.g., the eastward orientation, the placement of important cultic objects, the designation of areas of increasing holiness, the rules for access to the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place, etc.[7.]
[Footnote 4.: E.g., see in this respect the article by G. Hasel, "The Polemic Nature of the Genesis Cosmology," EQ 46 (1974): 81-102. Cf. A. Heidel, The Babylonian Genesis (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1954), 82-140. Hasel does not believe there is enough evidence to be certain that the Old Testament creation narrative was dependent on the Babylonian one and concludes that some of the significant differences in the former are unparalleled in either the Babylonian or the Assyrian cosmogonies.]
[Footnote 5. : Enns's discussions of wisdom literature and law in chapter 3 of his book would appear to be consistent with this viewpoint.]
[Footnote 6.: E.g., see D. I. Block, "Other Religions in Old Testament Theology," in Biblical Faith and Other Religions, ed. D. W. Baker (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2004), 43-78, who, in essence, affirms these first three views, though the majority of the article elaborates on the first perspective. See also Heidel, Babylonian Genesis, 139, who cites a scholar representing the third view.]
[Footnote 7.: E.g., see J. H. Walton, "Ancient Near Eastern Background Studies," in Dictionary for the Theological Interpretation of Scripture, ed. K. Vanhoozer (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), 42; see the entire article (pp. 40-45), which is helpful. Walton registers agreement also with the preceding three perspectives on ANE parallels, though aligning himself most with this fourth view. See also Block, "Other Religions in Old Testament Theology," 47-48, who also appears partly to align himself with this fourth view.]
Of course, another option, in contrast to the preceding four views, is that the biblical writers absorbed mythical worldviews unconsciously, reproduced them in their writings, and believed them to be reliable descriptions of the real world and events occurring in the past real world (creation account, flood narrative, etc.) because they were part of their socially constructed reality.[8.] Divine inspiration did not limit such cultural, mythical influence.
[Footnote 8.: See Walton, "Ancient Near Eastern Background Studies," 43. Walton repudiates such unconscious absorption and use of myth in the Old Testament while affirming that "God's communication used the established literary genres of the ancient world and often conformed to the rules that existed within those genres," 41.]
Does Enns agree with this latter view, still nevertheless contending that God used myths to convey truth? Does Enns believe that these Old Testament "mythical accounts" do not contain essential historicity, so that he uses the word myth with its normal meaning? The following analysis of Enns will contend that his view, while sometimes consistent with some of the four above views, does not primarily align itself with any of them. He appears to give an affirmative answer to the preceding two questions, though one must work hard at interpreting Enns to come to these conclusions, since, at crucial points in his discussion, he is unclear. It would have been helpful to readers if Enns had acknowledged the above variety of ways that the Old Testament interacts with ANE myth and where precisely he positioned himself with respect to various Old Testament passages.
According to Enns, the ancient peoples around Israel asked questions about their ultimate being and meaning, "so, stories were made up," especially about the creation (p. 41). The Genesis account of creation "is firmly rooted in the [mythological] worldview of the time" (p. 27); in other words the Genesis passage presupposes and utilizes the mythological creation stories circulating in the ANE (including, presumably, the background of the account about "Adam's" creation?). The main point, according to Enns, is to show that Yahweh is the true God and not the Babylonian gods (p. 27). The same conclusion is reached with respect to the flood account (pp. 27-29).
Enns likes the use of the word myth to describe these biblical accounts, but how does he define myth precisely? Enns says that not all historians of the ancient Near East use the word myth simply as "shorthand for 'untrue,' 'made-up,' 'storybook,'" a position with which he appears to align himself (p. 40). Yet, enigmatically, he goes on to define myth in the ANE as something apparently very close to this. His formal definition of "myth" is as follows: "Myth is an ancient, premodern, prescientific way of addressing questions of ultimate origins and meaning in the form of stories: Who are we? Where do we come from?" (p. 50; so likewise p. 40).
Note well that there is no reference to history or actual events in this definition. But then Enns proceeds to affirm, despite his earlier apparent qualification about "made-up" stories, that ANE myths were "stories [that] were made up" (p. 41, my italics) and were composed by a process of "telling stories" (p. 41), and that "the biblical stories" of the "creation and flood must be understood first and foremost in the ancient contexts." This means, interpreting Enns by Enns, that the biblical stories had "a firm grounding in ancient myth" (p. 56, my italics); to reiterate, with specific reference to the Genesis creation account, he says it "is firmly rooted in the [mythological] worldview of the time" (previous page). So, what is Enns's view of myth in relation to real events of the past?
In this respect and in connection with some of Enns's directly preceding statements, he poses a difficult question:
If the ancient Near Eastern stories are myth (defined in this way as prescientific stories of origins), and since the biblical stories are similar enough to these stories to invite comparison, does this indicate that myth is the proper category for understanding Genesis? (p. 41)
He answers this by asking another question:
Are the early stories in the Old Testament to be judged on the basis of standards of modern historical inquiry and scientific precision, things that ancient peoples were not at all aware of? (p. 41)
He answers by saying that it is unlikely that God would have allowed his Word to come to the Israelites according to "modern standards of truth and error so universal that we should expect premodern cultures to have understood them." Rather, more probably, God's Word came to them "according to standards they understood" (p. 41), which included mythological standards of the time. Recall once more that part of Enns's definition of myth includes stories that were made up. He concludes that the latter position is "better suited for solving the problem" of how God accommodated his revelation to his ancient people (p. 41).
Enns acknowledges that beginning with the monarchic age (1000-600 BC) more historical consciousness arises, so that history "is recorded with a degree of accuracy more in keeping with contemporary standards" (p. 43). He immediately adds, however, that a negative answer must be given to the question, "Can we not also conclude that the same can be said for Genesis and other early portions of the Bible?" (p. 43). He continues, "It is questionable logic to reason backward from the historical character of the monarchic account, for which there is some evidence, to the primeval and ancestral stories, for which such evidence is lacking" (p. 43). He says the same thing even more explicitly on page 44:
One would expect a more accurate, blow-by-blow account of Israel's history during this monarchic period, when it began to develop a more "historical self-consciousness," as it were. It is precisely the evidence missing from the previous periods of Israel's history that raises the problem of the essential historicity of that period [my italics].
So, in one respect, we are on somewhat firmer ground when we come to the monarchic period because it is there that we see something more closely resembling what one would expect of good history writing by modern standards: a more or less contemporary, eyewitness account.
Likewise, Enns says a little later:
The Mesopotamian world from which Abraham came was one whose own stories of origins had been expressed in mythic categories.... The reason the opening chapters of Genesis look so much like the literature of ancient Mesopotamia is that the worldview categories of the ancient Near East were ubiquitous and normative at the time. Of course, different [ancient] cultures had different myths, but the point is that they all had them.
[Footnote 9 : It is probable here that Enns is including the patriarchs and Israel in this "all."]
The reason the biblical account is different from its ancient Near Eastern counterparts is not that it is history in the modern sense of the word and therefore divorced from any similarity to ancient Near Eastern myth. What makes Genesis different from its ancient Near Eastern counterparts is that ... the God they [Abraham and his seed] are bound to ... is different from the gods around them.
We might think that such a scenario is unsatisfying because it gives too much ground to pagan myths. (p. 53)
God adopted Abraham as the forefather of a new people, and in doing so he also adopted the mythic categories within which Abraham--and everyone else--thought. But God did not simply leave Abraham in his mythic world. Rather; [sic] God transformed the ancient myths so that Israel's story would come to focus on its God, the real one. (pp. 53-54)
The differences notwithstanding [between Babylonian myths and the Genesis creation and flood accounts], the opening chapters of Genesis participate in a worldview that the earliest Israelites shared with their Mesopotamian neighbors. To put it this way is not to concede ground to liberalism or unbelief, but to understand the simple fact that the stories in Genesis had a context within which they were first understood. And that context was not a modern scientific one but an ancient mythic one.
The biblical account, along with its ancient Near East counterparts, assumes the factual nature of what it reports. They did not think, "We know this is all 'myth' but it will have to do until science is invented to give us better answers." (p. 55)
To argue ... that such biblical stories as creation and the flood must be understood first and foremost in the ancient contexts, is nothing new. The point I would like to emphasize, however, is that such a firm grounding in ancient myth does not make Genesis less inspired. (p. 56)
It is important to note three things that Enns says in these extended quotations. First, if ancient Old Testament writers did not record history according to modern historical and scientific standards, it means that they did not recount historical events that corresponded with actual past reality but that corresponded to ANE myth; indeed, Enns wants to "emphasize" that "such a firm grounding in ancient myth does not make Genesis less inspired" (p. 56)! Thus, uncritical and unconscious absorption of myth by a biblical author does not make his writing less inspired than other parts of Scripture.
Second, and in connection with the first point, Enns says that "the evidence missing from the previous [pre-monarchic] periods of Israel's history ... raises the problem of the essential historicity of that period," which, in the light of all Enns has said above, most likely means for him that these pre-monarchic accounts are not to be viewed as containing "essential historicity."
Third, the main distinction between the ANE myths and Israel's myths lies not in the latter recording reliable history but in the latter proclaiming that Israel's God "is different from the gods around them." It appears fairly clear that the distinction between the ANE mythical accounts of creation and the flood and those of the Genesis accounts is not in the former containing non-history and the latter representing reliable historical events, but the difference is to highlight the biblical God as true in contrast to the false ANE gods. This is the primary way, then, that "God transformed the ancient myths," not in presenting a historical account that corresponds to past historical reality, but causing "Israel's story ... to focus on its God, the real one" (p. 54).
Enns concludes those thoughts by saying, "We might think that such a scenario is unsatisfying because it gives too much ground to pagan myths" (p. 53). Yes, I think that many practicing respected Old Testament and New Testament evangelical scholars (and not only fundamentalists) will think that he indeed has given way too much ground to "pagan myth."
In addition, the fact that Enns affirms that the Pentateuch positively adopts mythical notions in the essentially normal sense of the word (i.e., non-historical and fictitious narrative) is also apparent later when he addresses the question of polytheism in ancient Israel. Here again Enns explains what he means:
It is important here that we not allow our own modern sensitivities to influence how we understand Israel's ancient faith. We may not believe that multiple gods ever existed, but ancient near Eastern people did. This is the religious world within which God called Israel to be his people. When God called Israel, he began leading them into a full knowledge of who he is, but he started where they were.
We should not be surprised, therefore, when we see the Old Testament describe God as greater than the gods of the surrounding nations. In the Psalms, for example, this is seen in a number of passages. (p. 98)
I suppose one could argue that the psalmists ... didn't really intend to be taken literally.... For the comparison [between God and other "gods"] to have any real punch, both entities must be presumed to be real. For example, we may tell our children something like, "Don't be afraid of the dark. God is greater than the Boogey Man." Of course, adults who say this know that the Boogey Man is not real, but they know that their children believe he is real. Even in contemporary Christian expression, we compare God to many things: our problems, our challenges, our enemies, and so on.[10.] And each comparison is made between two real (or perceived to be real) entities. This is what these Psalms are doing as well. (p. 99)
[Footnote 10.: The meaning of this sentence is unclear to me.]
What would have spoken to these Israelites--what would have met them where they were--was not a declaration of monotheism (belief that only one God exists), out of the blue. Their ears would not have been prepared to hear that. What we read in Exodus is perhaps less satisfying for us, but it would have set the ancient world on its head: this god Yahweh ... meets these powerful Egyptian gods ... and ... beats them up. (p. 101)
They [Israel] were taking their first baby steps toward a knowledge of God that later generations came to understand and we perhaps take for granted. At this point in the progress of redemption, however, the gods of the surrounding nations are treated as real. God shows his absolute supremacy over them by declaring not that "they don't exist" but that "they cannot stand up against me." (p. 102)
I have quoted Enns as fully as space allows, since his full views should be clearly seen, and my attempt is to present them as accurately as possible within limited space and despite some of Enns's ambiguity. First, he affirms a developmental view (some would call it "evolutionary"), asserting that early on Israel believed in the reality of many mythical gods but was to worship only the one God, Yahweh, and that it was only later that Israel came to have a monotheistic faith.
Part of the problem with Enns's developmental view is that he sees the same non-monotheistic view expressed in some of the psalms, all of which were written after the patriarchal and early Israelite periods (e.g., Psalm 86 is presented as "a Prayer of David"). Enns says that unless these other "gods" are "presumed to be real," then the biblical comparisons of God with the other "gods" lacks "punch."
Therefore, he is espousing that early parts of the Old Testament held to henotheism, belief in one god without asserting that this god is the only god. Is this a necessary deduction from the evidence that he has presented? There are other viable interpretative options for understanding the biblical view of these other gods.