Interpreting the Bible: The False Assumptions of Modernism

John ArmstrongHermeneutics

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