An excellent new book, Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament (Baker Academic, 2005), by Professor Peter Enns of Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia), has begun to stir controversy in very conservative circles. This is particularly sad to me since I know Professor Enns to be a careful scholar who is totally faithful to the authority of Holy Scripture.

[A review of this book will appear in our Reformation & Revival Journal in a forthcoming issue.]

The first review that I have seen of Inspiration and Incarnation appears in the current issue of New Horizons (Octoebr 2005), the magazine of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. This magazine, read by many OPC pastors and elders, as well as by other conservative Reformed ministers, will have some influence. I can only hope it will have very little negative influence with regard to this very excellent book. Let me explain.

Dr. Enns writes for Christians who think deeply about the nature of Scripture and who are also committed to a confessionally high view of inspiration. He believes, however, that there are some questions, raised by serious work in the text of the Old Testament, that warrant a better evangelical response than what we have generally been given. Here is the direction he takes: Since the Old Testament looks much like other ancient Near Eastern literature, and since there is a wide diversity of perspectives within the various books of the Old Testament, and since the New Testament frequently cites the Old in ways that are out of the original context, how then do we answer the "Is this God’s word or man’s?"

Enns believes that the ways liberals and conservatives have handled these problems are parallel with the ways the old docetic errors misunderstood the human/divine Christ. If you want to protect Christ’s divinity then you stress this to the virtual exclusion of his humanity. If you wish to stress his humanity then you do the opposite. I recently encountered this problem again when I heard of a conservative Reformed layman arguing, to great extremes frankly, that the divinity of Christ meant he did not really mean what he said when he uttered these words: "No man knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father" (Mark 13:32). This particular layman referred to this text as "a figure of speech" that could not mean Jesus didn’t know when he would return since he was divine! Simply put, Pete Enns believes we often argue in the same way with regard to the Scripture itself. This is why he uses "the incarnational analogy" to argue for the full humanness and divinity of Scripture.

What Dr. Enns undertakes is massively important. I believe it is part and parcel of a recovery of a healthy and proper view of all things theological. But reviewer Brenton C. Ferry, in New Horizons, writes that "readers will be provoked by the extent to which Enns is willing to embrace the Bible’s humanness." Consider one idea Ferry attacks.

Brenton Ferry refers to Enns’ reference to the opening chapters of Genesis as mythical history. Man, if you want to stir up old battles, and recruit soldiers for your cause, use the word myth and then do not carefully define what is meant by it. Ferry does exactly this in his short review. He cites the words of Enns in these sentences: "God adopted the mythic categories within which Abraham–and everyone else–thought. But God did not simply leave Abraham in his mythic world. Rather, God transformed the ancient myths so that Israel’s story would come to focus on its God, the real one" (Inspiration, pages 53-54). But Enns does define myth. He calls myth "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?" (Inspiration, page 50). What seems to trouble Ferry, and I feel sure that it will trouble others, is how Enns distinguishes between myth and history. Enns believes, correctly I think, that "history seems to be a modern invention. It presupposes–without stating explicitly–that what is historical, in a modern sense of the word, is more real, of more value, more like something God would do, than myth" (Inspiration, page 49). Ferry concludes: "How much historicity is being denied?"

The problem here, at least for Ferry, is all too common. It comes down to the use of terms. It really comes down to the word "fact" itself. He employs a very modern use of the idea/term, one rooted in the Enlightenment and the thought of Descartes. This is the problem many fundamentalists have had with the text of Scripture for nearly a century. Facts, in this view, are "things known for certain to have occured or to be true" (The New Shorter Oxford Englsih Dictionary). In this Cartesian view, assumed by many conservatives without an awareness that their assumptions are so devotedly modern, facts are different from the world of private beliefs and values. If Christians are to defend the Bible against the critics then we must prove that it is factual, that it is a scientific account of all things that we can know with a kind of realistic certainty. This all sounds plausible, even biblical to many moderns. We now even use terms like "objective facts" or "objective truths." The structure this argument embraces is an entirely modern scientific method which says there is an ideal of knowledge rooted in what we call "facts." This knowledge, moderns assume, is independent of the personal commitment of the knower. Says philospher Alasdair MacIntyre, "Fact is in modern Western culture, a folk-concept with an aristocratic history." The aristocrat he refers to is Lord Bacon, who told his contemporaries to collect the facts, and then to refuse all speculation. By speculation Bacon meant that we could not understand anything in terms of its purpose or end. Thus one who used this method could engage in value-free data and facts and come to conclusions that were much like the work of the mathematician.

What has all of this to do with the book Inspiration and Incarnation? Everything, if Ferry’s review is any indicaiton of the kind of response that we can expect. Modernists, who appear as conservative biblicists, will argue that the categories used in this excellent book are not factual, thus Enns is denying the inspriation and integrity of the Bible. This is utter nonsense! Why? Becuase Enns is employing a paradigm for solving an important question that modern readers have of the text. This category simply does not fit into Ferry’s assumed scientific approach to truth. For Ferry, and readers like him, there are only "facts" and "errors." Myth equals errors. The world is neatly to be divided into these dualistic categories. Anyone who moves beyond them philosophically, by going back to pre-modern ideas, as Pete Enns does, is seen as liberal.

So what does Ferry conclude? What one would expect. He writes that "Enns writes beyond the boundaries of the Reformed tradition as exemplified by chapter 1 of the Westminster Confession. When he says the Bible looks human, he means it does not look divine." Who says? Only a modernist reader who assumes the dualism of the modern categories of facts and values. Enns doesn’t meet Ferry’s philosophically modernistic categories so he concludes he is denying the Reformed view of Scripture. Not only is Ferry wrong about the Westminster Confession (which is itself historically conditioned) he is wrong because he doesn’t understand Enns’ paradigm. This kind of review is the very reason why some of our very best students and scholars leave some Reformed contexts for places where they can think outside the box of Cartesian modernism, which colors all the old liberal-conservative arguments right down to the present. A much better way is coming, I believe, in the next generation. Some will see it while others will employ language like Ferry’s to attack, and wrongly conclude, what a writer really means when he writes the kind of book Enns does in Inspiration and Incarnation

Related Posts


  1. Craig R. Higgins September 29, 2005 at 5:42 pm

    Well said, John. While I have not read the review in New Horizons, I have read Pete Enns’ book (full disclosure–he is an old friend) and find the idea that it reflects a low view of Scripture simply ludicrous.
    In fact, it is a profoundly CONSERVATIVE book in that Enns is calling us (in the words of an old evangelical slogan) “let the Bible be the Bible” rather than reading it only in the terms laid down by the Enlightenment. The old modernism did that when they said that the resurrection could not have happened. Now we have conservatives committing the same mistake, saying “the Bible couldn’t mean that.”
    Pete Enns follows in the footsteps of many of his predecessors at Westminster Seminary–people like Harvie Conn and Cornelius Van Til–who raised questions by challenging long-held assumptions. And like Conn and Van Til, he does so by faithfully calling us to hear the Word of God in Holy Scripture.

  2. Gene Redlin September 29, 2005 at 8:45 pm

    I was recently forwarded a test a mainline denomination uses for screening ordination candidates. I took it. It was hard enough. What’s sad is some conservative Lutheran pastors (Mo Synod) did pretty well, a few Pentecostal Pastors, (90+%) but by and large most established mainline denominational pastors had abysmal scores. This was in a test of about 40 Pastors I know. My only conclusion is that many sermons, polity, social positions and theological assumptions put forward by “Thinkers” are based on very dis or mis informed pastors in our chuches today. Pastors need to read the Bible. If I read what you have written today and using my gift of the interpretation of tounges (It’s a little hard to follow) my assumption is not improper interpretation of scripture but interpreting scripture without knowing scripture.

  3. September 29, 2005 at 9:34 pm

    Regarding Inspiration and Incarnation

    Dr. John Armstrong, founder of Reformation and Revival Ministries, has some great comments about Peter Enns new book, Inspiration And Incarnation: Evangelicals And The Problem Of The Old Testament.
    This book will challenge some of the traditio…

  4. Brandon Withrow September 30, 2005 at 2:09 pm

    Inspiration and Incarnation: Armstrong’s Review

    John Armstrong has reviewed Pete Enns’ book Inspiration and Incarnation at his blog. Well worth the read….

  5. jck October 3, 2005 at 11:49 am

    The problem is that Enns neglects the way “myth” has been used in biblical scholarship and in the NT (something which is exclusively the product of the believing community, independent of revelation). It is ironic that Paul uses ‘muthos’ in 2 Tim. 4:4 in contrast to . . . inspiration (pasa grafe in 3:15) and incarnation (the past and future appearance of Jesus in 4:1). This is not to say Enns can’t rightfully employ the category of myth; only that he didn’t do enough work to be able to use it in a biblically supernatural way.

  6. Mark Traphagen October 3, 2005 at 7:14 pm

    First of all…thanks John for pointing out the fallacies in the New Horizons review. I could’ve spit nails when I read it earlier this week. The Enlightenment/biblicist paradigm is in the beginning of its death throws, and reviews like that of Rev. Farris only prove it to be so. So glad someone of your wisdom and erudition has responded.
    That being said, I think “jck” (whom I suspect I know) has a point. It’s a criticism I have heard elsewhere by those who are sympathetic to Enns’ project. The book needs to give a short course on the use of the word “myth” outside of the biblical/NT scholarship narrow usage…in other words, from the way it is used in the literary world. Tolkien and Lewis understood this; Lewis referred to Christanity as the “true myth.”

  7. Sacred Journey October 3, 2005 at 7:44 pm

    Armstrong Responds to Enns Critic

    John Armstrong has written an excellent response to Rev. Brenton C. Ferry’s review of Peter Enns’ book Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament. The review was in the latest issue of New Horizons, the house organ …

  8. Pete Enns October 5, 2005 at 8:45 am

    Mark and the unsuccessfully anonymous “jck” :-),
    Thanks for the comments about the use of myth. You definiely have a good point. It is such a problematic word for some, and in a number of respects for good cause. I did, though, define twice in the book how I was using the word, and I was hoping, without chasing a rabbit trail (let alone the “short course” Mark suggests), that that would do the trick for most readers. Still, your point is a good one and I wish there were an efficient way of doing this better than my attempt.
    I actually see my definition of myth to be much more in line (although at a distance) with Lewis and others than with how the words has been used, at least in earlier generations of biblical scholarhsip. Having said that, though, you can imagine what sorts of reactions one might get from saying that Christinaity is the “true myth.” That likely won’t be reassuring for a modernist mindset.
    Most importantly, guys, thanks for being both sympathetic while also critical readers! We are all trying to honor Christ and be his servants in bringing the Gospel to a fallen world.

  9. centuri0n October 6, 2005 at 1:29 pm

    Just to stir the pot here a little bit, how do we take this thesis and make sense of it given this statements by Saul of Tarsus:
    1Tim 1:3-7
    1Tim 4:6-10
    2Tim 4:1-5
    Tit 4:10-16
    Not to mention the statement of Peter:
    2Pet 1:16-21
    Thanks for your time.

  10. centuri0n October 6, 2005 at 4:19 pm

    To be clear, I think “jck” is trying to make this point, and maybe uses some hot rhetoric which might obscure his credibility:
    Paul and Peter both make the categorical distinctions between “muthos” and historical fact in the exposition of why the Gospel ought to give assurance to the believer. That categorical distinction militates against the thesis that “myth” (as defined by Prof. Enns, and in that in a practical way if not a propositional way) is the category in which the NT writers viewed the OT faith history.
    That’s my point in citing these 5 passages, and I think “jck” is trying to make that point also. I’d be interested in seeing some interaction with the criticism that the writers of the NT *did* have historical and fictional categories they used to the of literature at their disposal.

  11. centuri0n October 6, 2005 at 4:21 pm

    That last paragraph should read:
    “That’s my point in citing these 5 passages, and I think “jck” is trying to make that point also. I’d be interested in seeing some interaction with the criticism that the writers of the NT *did* have historical and fictional categories they used to classify the kinds of literature at their disposal.”
    Sorry about that. 🙂

  12. Mark Traphagen October 11, 2005 at 8:36 pm

    The burden of proof is on you, Centurion, to demonstrate that Paul’s and Peter’s uses of muthos is = the way Prof. Enns is using it.
    Your move!

  13. James B. Jordan October 20, 2005 at 12:53 pm

    I object to characterizing a traditional reading of the text as some kind of conservative Enlightenment modernism. Those who disagree with Peter’s approach to Genesis are reading the text the way the Jews read it, the way the Church Fathers read it, the way the Medievals read it, and the way the Reformers read it. There’s nothing new or Enlightenment about it. If there is such a thing as the Spirit’s guidance of the Church, we ought to be careful here.
    I would argue that all of the Bible is rigorously “historicist” and that our understanding of history is a fruit of the Bible, which from the beginning stood starkly in contrast to the mythic cyclical cosmological viewpoint.
    I realize that Peter is not using “myth” in that sense, of course. But I’m not persuaded by his new approach to Genesis.

  14. P. Andrew Sandlin October 21, 2005 at 12:32 am

    Without necessarily endorsing Peter’s thesis on myth in the OT, I’d like to suggest that the attempt to ferret out the actual meaning of the text as it emerged historically is nothing less than taking the Bible seriously as a supernatural Word inextricably bound to that history. I address this hermeneutical commitment to history more fully in the current issue of the Reformation and Revival Journal.
    While we wouldn’t want to dismiss traditional interpretations, neither would we deny sensitive attempts at uncovering ancient Semitic history out of which the meaning of the text largely arises. To hang out only “within the canon” and thereby impose a theological interpretation is to remain impervious to historical insights and is really a form of Docetic hermeneutics. The Bible is not chiefly a piece of literature; it is the Word of God situated in a specific history. The history precedes the text, both logically and chronologically.
    We do justice to the Bible as the very Word of God when we do justice to the historical matrix out of which God determined it should rise.

  15. James Jordan October 24, 2005 at 3:40 pm

    But Andrew, does the Word of God “rise” out of history? I don’t believe it does. It is sung into history by the Spirit, and stands against the cultures into which it was sung. The writers of the Bible were at odds with about 90% of Israelite society and its worldview, and about 99% of the gentile world’s worldview.
    You say that the meaning of the text “largely arises” out of semitic history that we must uncover outside of the text. I must completely reject this. The text exists to demythologize us, to exorcise us. This is needed because the world in which we live is insane (Romans 1). The worldview system of thinking of fallen humanity is simply insane. The Bible is given to restore sanity. This is not going to happen if the insanity of the world is allowed to override the internal meaning of the text.
    The Bible is EXTREMELY self-referential. This is so because of its exoricising function.

  16. P. Andrew Sandlin October 25, 2005 at 7:15 pm

    Jim, perhaps the contrast between our views is less stark than first appears (we both affirm Biblical authority, for one thing, and we both believe the Bible judges sinful people and cultures), but I do think some of your comments are excessively sweeping.
    Does Holy Spirit-inspiration circumvent the history, personality, culture, psychology, and thought forms of the writer? If so, God wasted a lot of time, because the Bible bears all the marks of the historical situations in which it emerged. This is a genius of the Bible — its relevance is proportionate to its time-boundedness. The Bible is not chiefly a piece of “literature” or a Christian version of the Koran. It’s all about God’s work with man within history. We may as well banish God from the Bible if we’re to banish history (I’m not accusing you of doing this).
    “EXTREMELY self-referential”? Surely this is overstatement. The oddity, rather, is how little self-reference there is in the Bible. There’s some of course, but we don’t learn much about Amos from Luke or about Ecclesiastes from Joshua. I don’t deny a unified theme of the Bible (Jesus’ Lordship) but we can’t just pretend as though the Bible is designed to furnish a “theology” that we elicit by flitting hither and thither in its pages. This Book has profound meaning because of the historical circumstances in which it rose. I want to know what Amos was trying to say and I know that by reading Amos and by reading books that help me to understand the history in which he lived and which he was addressing.
    That’s why, it seems to me, grammatical-historical exegesis is so vital. I need to know either from the text itself of from historical investigation what was really going on back there so I can understand what the Bible was — and consequently is — trying to say.
    I’m not carrying the NPP banner, but at least I’m open to this view precisely because I’m interested in anybody who can help me understand the Judaistic view of the law against which Paul was reacting. I get some of that data in the text, but I also get it from historical investigation. I don’t have the luxury of assuming that Luther understood Paul better than the latter’s Jewish contemporaries, and I can’t get the historical data just by reading the Bible.
    The scandal of the Bible no less that of Jesus is the historicity of each.

  17. Jeff Meyers October 26, 2005 at 12:48 pm

    Some of you may not have seen Joel Garver’s thoughtful review:
    I recommend it.
    I’m only 2/3rds of the way through Enns’s book. I must say that I am having some trouble with a good bit of it. Of course, I don’t think he’s outside of the Reformed tradition or anything silly like that. But I do wonder if his critique of modernism’s methods doesn’t also end up calling into question pre-modern exegesis as well. And even though he scores some nice hits against Enlightenment presuppositions and methods, he still seems to assume that the results of “modern” historical methods are more reliable than the biblical record itself.
    So on page 50 he says, “We must begin our thinking by acknowledging that the ancient Near Eastern myths are almost certainly older than the versions recorded for us in the Bible.”
    Surely this is true if we are talking about the completed book of Genesis after all the amendments and additions made by later (inspired) authors. But the stories seem to have been collected by Moses, not composed from scratch. Why can’t we believe that Adam, Noah, Abraham, and Jacob passed on written accounts of God’s acts and words? I’ve always read my Bible this way. The garden of eden, the flood, etc. – these are all the original, historical versions of the distorted variations we find in ANE myths and legends. Why isn’t that perspective even considered?
    Enns answers this on page 52: “But could it have happened this way? Yes, I suppose one could insist on such a thing, but it would be very difficult for someone holding such a view to have a meaningful conversation with linguists and historians of the ancient world.”
    I know Prof. Enns doesn’t want us to think that it’s all about maintaining academic respectability – at least I hope not – but it sure seems like apologetics is driving this. I’ve had some conversations like this and I’ve had no trouble having a “meaningful” conversation with such people. We both understand each other perfectly. That’s not the problem. The problem is that the modernist intellectual or even the man on the street thinks I’m a complete moron for believing that the stories of creation and the fall and the flood happened just as the Bible says they did. There’s no way to get around that. It’s the offense of biblical religion, I believe.
    I got frustrated with all this apologetics in the OT department when I was in seminary. We never seemed to get to the text of the Bible itself. We spent so much time dealing with matters or authorship, historicity, etc. that we didn’t really learn the Bible itself. The impression given to many seminary students was that extra-biblical historical research determines how we are to read the Bible.
    But once I started serving a local congregation, I found the tyranny of apologetics to be quite unhelpful. People need to learn the details of the text of Genesis – the stories as they have been told, as God has inspired the text, details included. It is positively dangerous for them to be second-guessing the details, wondering which part might be God’s “using pagan mythical motifs and literary structures” and which part is the straight stuff. This also leads to people saying such goofy things as, “The details are not important as long as we get the main idea or application.” But, of course, this has been the problem in Reformed churches – ideology trumps the stories every time.
    Just some thoughts.

  18. Fosterium November 8, 2005 at 9:21 pm

    Enns and outs of Scriptural Interpretation

    John Armstrong’s posted a review of a new book on scriptural interpretation in his blog a few months back. I just bought the book and and working through it. If you read the article and the various comments and links it’s rapidly obvious that this book…

  19. Steve Ranney December 26, 2007 at 2:12 pm

    I think the review of Enns book is great. Armstrong captures the essential issue which is the thing about the ‘Baconian’ approach to truth, reflected in the modern perspective that requires that everything in the scriptures reflects how we think it otta be, never mind that Abraham lived many centuries ago.
    Mark Noll talks about this in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind when he critiques dispensationalism and the idea that the Bible is like a rock that the scientific exegete can study and get the ‘facts’ about the end times.

  20. Larry Allen Brown February 13, 2008 at 9:40 pm

    >”Anyone who moves beyond them philosophically, by going back to pre-modern ideas, as Pete Enns does, is seen as liberal.”< And that is somehow, a bad thing? Being a liberal? Why? Isaiah 32:5-8 states in rather unambigous terms, "The vile person shall be no more called liberal, nor the churl said to be bountiful. For the vile person will speak villany, and his heart will work iniquity, to practise hypocrisy, and to utter error against the Lord, to make empty the soul of the hungry, and he will cause the drink of the thirsty to fail. The instruments also of the churl are evil: he deviseth wicked devices to destroy the poor with alying words, even when the needy speaketh right. But the liberal deviseth liberal things; and by liberal things shall he stand. That's from the King James Version. Pretty well accepted by most Christians. It seems quite clear to me that God much prefers liberals to those that would demonize them.

Comments are closed.

My Latest Book!

Use Promo code UNITY for 40% discount!

Recent Articles