Book Review: The Bible Tells Me So… by Peter Enns

ForTheBibleTellsMeSoLooking for a book that is educated, controversial, and disarmingly funny? Your search is over.

Peter Enns‘ latest work “The Bible Tells Me So… Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It” reads like a mash-up of N.T. Wright’s biblical scholarship, Anne Lamott’s refreshingly honest humor, and Rob Bell’s penchant for stirring up dissension.

Enns takes aim at the modern attempt to defend the Bible that has been so characteristic of many Evangelical communities in the recent past:

“I want pious people to see that judging by how the Bible actually behaves – God did not design scripture to be a hushed afternoon in an oak-paneled library. Instead, God has invited us to participate in a wrestling match, a forum for us to be stretched and to grow. Those are the kinds of disciples God desires. This book, in other words, is a giant permission slip to let the wrestling begin…
This kind of Bible – the Bible we have – just doesn’t work well as a point-by-point exhaustive and timelessly binding list of instructions about God and the life of faith.
But it does work as a model for our own spiritual journey. An inspired model, in fact.” (page 22 and 24)

The result is a book that is sure to offend the “gatekeepers” of Christian orthodoxy yet likely to be a breath of fresh air for Christians who struggle with tensions between their Bible and their faith. To be clear – by no means do I agree with everything Enns argues for in his book. But I have grown increasingly tired of the conservative tendency to label divergent viewpoints as “heretical” or “liberal” simply so they can be dismissed without thought. Enns’ argument deserves a seat at the table, and even if some of his conclusions might cause a conservative Evangelical to cringe in the core of their soul, there is still much to be learned from his book.

Three things stand out as obvious about Peter Enns from his latest work:
1) He knows the Bible very well. This book seems to be aimed at a popular audience, but is still chock-full of rich biblical insight.
2) He values and seeks to follow Jesus. This can’t be denied just because one disagrees with some of his thoughts.
3) This has led him to struggle with some aspects of the Bible: like why God does a lot of killing and plaguing, why archeology often contradicts biblical accounts, and why the biblical writers often disagree. The Bible Tells Me So… is an account of these struggles and Enns’ conclusions.

If you want a book that won’t challenge the naive assumption that the Bible fell down from heaven typed directly from the inerrant fingers of the baby Jesus, don’t read this book.

Enns contends that we should take seriously the ancient Isrealites’ tribal culture when we read their literature. He argues that the Bible’s version of “history” doesn’t meet modern standards of objective-story telling, but that maybe God is okay with giving us “ancient accounts of history.” He claims that Jesus didn’t use a “historical-grammatical” method of interpretation when handling the Old Testament and that neither did any of the other New Testament authors – “watching the New Testament writers at work yields a valuable lesson for Christian readers today: explaining Jesus drove the early Christian writers to read their Bible in new, sometimes radically different, ways. The Bible was nonnegotiable as God’s word, but it wasn’t God’s final word. Jesus was.” (195)

Overall, Enns has produced a challenging and engaging book that attempts to take seriously the Bible just as God gave it to us. It’s an interesting thesis: God could have given us a clearly-outlined systematic theology textbook as our Bible, but he didn’t. My humble opinion is that even though many won’t agree with his conclusions, perhaps there is still something for almost everyone to learn from this enjoyable read.

(Enns references this comic on page 89)

Note: I received this book from HarperOne at HarperCollins in exchange for an unbiased review.

The Difference a Trinity Can Make

I grew up in an evangelical, Protestant church, which meant that much of the focus of my Christian upbringing was on the importance and study of scripture.  I am very thankful for this background.  It has given me a great appreciation for the accessibility of scripture and fed my thirst for knowledge.  But there was one thing that was hardly ever mentioned, the Trinity.  Of course the belief in the Trinity was affirmed, but you would be hard pressed to find one sermon or class on it.  So in honor of Trinity Sunday, I thought I would write a short reflection on what a robust Trinitarian theology can do for our everyday spiritual formation.  This is something I have come to appreciate more recently due, ironically, to some very Catholic–leaning Protestants that have helped widen my perspective.

Before I move into the specifics, I want to add that my increasing study of the Trinity came alongside with an increasing study of church history.  The glaring gap in the Protestant church today is our lack of understanding of the Church Fathers before the Reformers.  I believe this gap will continue to be detrimental to the continued survival of Protestantism.  If it does survive in a post-Christian America, it will be severely weakened because it has denied itself of a primary source of nourishment.  We do ourselves a disservice to no longer know the works of Athanasius, Irenaeus, and so many others.  Our faith is not something we have made up.  It is an inheritance that has been passed down to us, protected and articulated again and again by each generation.  It is these early Church Fathers who gave us the language of Trinity, and hence why most Protestants hardly ever talk about it or even know how to explain it apart from analogy.

So why does the Trinity matter?  Isn’t it just a product of the philosophy of the day and nothing more?

Here is what I have come to learn and appreciate through study and contemplation on the Trinity.

1. A deeper understanding of salvation.

Salvation has always been explained to me very simply as “justification by faith.”  I was a sinner, I couldn’t pay the necessary price, but God paid it for me by sending his son to die for me.  Salvation was described as a legal action with God as my judge.  This is not to say that God is not a judge or that justification is not used as an image for salvation.  But it is not the only image used and God is more often referred to as my Father than my judge.  The image of the Trinity is one where  the Father and Son are eternally passing back and forth a love that spills over into creation.  All life and existence are possible only because of their connection to the source of existence.  This means that salvation, and the only possibility for life and existence, is to be drawn into the source, which happens to be an eternal relationship characterized by love.  It is not just the cross that makes this possible, salvation begins at the incarnation.  Jesus is sent not just to die, but to share what is his: sonship and knowledge of the Father.  In the Gospel of John, Jesus says that salvation is to know the Father.  This sounds very different from the justification analogy or the Roman road.  It also reveals that salvation is a process of continued and deepening knowledge of God.  I think more Christians can relate to salvation as a process than a “Damascus road” experience.  This creates both humility and excitement, for we learn that we will never be able to know all there is to know, at least not this side of eternity.

2. A greater appreciation of the Holy Spirit

My evangelical background was very Jesus–focused.  Again, that is not a bad thing, but it left out a pretty key player, the Spirit.  The more I learned about the Trinity, the more I realized that my liturgy and prayers essentially had only been addressing Jesus.  Once I started paying more attention to the Spirit, I started to learn about its crucial role in new creation and my own spiritual journey.  I knew those things before, but I started to address the Spirit directly.  Our actions matter, even the small adjustment of closing my prayer with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  It helps me keep all three persons on the forefront of my mind.

3. A healthier view of the Bible

Many Christians in my context growing up came dangerously close to replacing the third person of the Trinity, the Spirit, with the Bible.  I believe Cessationists actually do this when they say that the gifts of the Spirit are no longer available post-canon.  The Bible is given a god-like status to the point where even the Bible has become an idol.  Yes, even the Bible can become an idol, in fact Bibliolatry is characteristic of many of our “Bible wars.”  I always grew up learning that the Bible was my foundation.  Again, I have a very high view of scripture, but the Bible cannot be my foundation.  The Bible is ultimately a revelatory tool that is used by the Spirit to form us.  But our foundation must be the Father, Son and Spirit, any other foundation is idolatry. (I can already anticipate the angry comments to follow that statement).  Again, let me clarify, I believe that the Bible is inspired by the Spirit and is vitally important for figuring out who God is, but the Bible is not God.

So it turns out the a deeper look into the Trinity has changed quite a lot in my own spiritual journey.

What are some other areas you can think of that are impacted by a robust view of the Trinity?