Some Scattered Thoughts on Peter Enns Ideas on Scripture, the Enlightenment and God

This post is basically an edited and condensed version of some comments I made at Rachel Held Evans blog and on Alastair Roberts blog:

It seems that despite Enns not wanting keep the Bible at a safe distance in all its troubling messiness, he does a remarkable job of keeping it at a safe distance while allowing some fairly modern presuppositions to shape how he reads it.

For starters, I wonder what makes our current and modern sensibilities the standards by which everything must be measured, which seems to be a given for Enns. I’d also wonder about his method of reading Scripture – i.e. to see the violent portrayals of God as ‘tribalistic’ etc and his, despite his insistence that he’s not doing so, dismissal of such portrayls. These are examples of his holding Scripture at arms length – can’t have those violent pictures of God, can we? Chalk em’ up to a primitive tribes record of their experience of God seen thru their own agendas and assumptions. Hence, no need to really believe the same thing as those Israelites wrote down – we now know better. This seems to be little more than Enns holding Scripture at arms length. I get that his project is to ‘wrestle’ with the ‘messiness’ of Scripture, take it on its own terms blah blah blah – got it. I really do . The end result of that, however, is that certain parts of the Scriptures that don’t conform to his method are jettisoned as being the imaginings and mistakes of an iron age tribe engaged in primitive warfare. Hence it’s not really wrestling with the texts or allowing them to really speak on their own terms. Hence my comment. (And, as an aside, invoking things like ‘enlightenment presuppositions’ does more to muddy the waters than anything else – what is an example of an ‘enlightenment presupposition’?) I could probably argue that Enns’ thinking is actually quite influenced by ‘enlightenment’ presuppositions, honestly. It strikes me that a position such as Enns’ isn’t far at all from the very real Enlightenment idea that we are free from the past and must progress past it. Alastair observes a rather important point that seldom gets noticed:

‘One could also argue that Enns et al are directly in line with the Enlightenment ideal of universal reason. Revelation conditioned by historical particularity is instantly exposed to suspicion because it doesn’t attain to this ideal. The historical and cultural particularity revealed in the Scriptures is cause for distrust for those of us who have attained to the regime of liberal universal reason. We must free Scripture from its cultural shackles and discover the timeless and universal truth that it was straining towards within its problematic cultural embeddedness.’

The picture of God that emerges from Enns’ thinking bears a suspicious resemblance to a lot of very modern, liberal ideas – ‘enlightenment based sensibilites’, to use those terms, hence (again) the point of my comment – for all his attempts to let the texts speak on their own terms, it seems like he ends up with a view of God based on some a priori viewpoints he has than what the Scriptures actually say.

The issue surrounding the use of ‘enlightenment’ is that there is no one ‘Enlightenment’ way of thinking, or, if there is, it’s so broad and vague as to be almost meaningless (‘progress’, could fit, but that is, as I said, so vague as to be usless.). In terms of the natural sciences, it refers to Newton, an anti-a priori/pro-empirical approach (for the most part – Newton made plenty of hypotheses), in terms of political philosophy it refers to individualism, the development nation-state and nationalism, John Locke, private property and the beginnings of liberalism, in metaphysics it refers to the blank slate, Hume, Locke, suspicion towards classical metaphysics and scholasticism, skepticism and the way of ideas, in terms of historical study it means Lessings broad ugly ditch and the march of history, in ethics, the categorical imperitave, the project of morality without God and the absolute moral autonomy of the self – there is no one monolithic way of thinking that we can invoke by saying, ‘you and your damn enlightenment presuppositions!’ It’s a buzzword, honestly, that is invoked more often than it is critically examined.
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15 thoughts on “Some Scattered Thoughts on Peter Enns Ideas on Scripture, the Enlightenment and God

  1. Kevin Davis September 16, 2014 / 10:42 pm

    I guess one upshot of this book from Enns — and the whole controversy surrounding his theology for the past 5 years or so — is that it makes for an admirably clear reference point for all future discussions. “God never told the Israelites to kill the Canaanites. The Israelites believed that God told them to kill the Canaanites.” Well, it doesn’t get clearer than that. Elizabeth Esther in the comments had the right question, how is it “the Word of God” anymore? The answer is simple. It’s not. For Enns, the Word of God is the narrative’s teleological endpoint (Christ), and everything in Scripture that conforms to this endpoint is the Word of God. Who decides what conforms? Enns of course. The point of canonicity is that it guarantees the superordinate authority of the text over the church. This is entirely subverted by Enns.

    None of this is new, as everyone but benighted fundie-evangelicals (as Evans once was) know. Enns is about 50 years late to the party. The difference is that the old mainline scholars did not have a passionately biblicist audience at hand, as Evans and Enns have. The question that lingers for me is why Evans and Enns have not embraced the mainline, which is ready-made for them. Once Evans can get over her AWANA nostalgia, she would make a perfect United Methodist.

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    • whitefrozen September 17, 2014 / 11:05 am

      ‘For Enns, the Word of God is the narrative’s teleological endpoint (Christ), and everything in Scripture that conforms to this endpoint is the Word of God. Who decides what conforms? Enns of course.’

      Don’t even get me started on the ‘christ centered’ or ‘christocentric’ ‘hermenutic’ deployed by Enns and co. Suffice it to say that such a method, as Andrew Wilson and Derek Rishmawy have both pointed out, is a tea-strainer rather than a lens, and that’s putting it nicely. I don’t have much patience at all for such vague invocations of ‘christ centrered’. Argh. I made this comment in regards to such invocations on Facebook:

      ‘Obviously since Jesus was like all about love and the god of the OT does like war and killing and stuff that isn’t all about love we can chalk it up to a primitive iron age tribe recording their interpretation of their religious experience and be able to talk about problematic texts without being embarrassed since Jesus’ gospel was really about nonviolence and Jesus and the OT god obviously aren’t the same so now we can throw out parts of the OT that offend our sensibilities and now we’re being Christ centered.’

      It’s supposed to be a little corny, but now that I read Enns and Evans, I’m like, huh, that’s pretty spot on.

      ‘None of this is new, as everyone but benighted fundie-evangelicals (as Evans once was) know. Enns is about 50 years late to the party. The difference is that the old mainline scholars did not have a passionately biblicist audience at hand, as Evans and Enns have. The question that lingers for me is why Evans and Enns have not embraced the mainline, which is ready-made for them. Once Evans can get over her AWANA nostalgia, she would make a perfect United Methodist.’

      I’ll be honest, I see both of them drifting out of Christianity altogether in the next 5 or so years. That, or taking up a Tillich-ian way of thinking – symbols, ultimate concern, etc – about God and Christianity which reduces to to an existential anthropology.

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      • Kevin Davis September 17, 2014 / 11:33 am

        Thanks for the link. I like Derek and Andrew a lot, though I have only been following their blogs for a few months now.

        I don’t see either Enns or Evans drifting out of Christianity, for the same reason that I don’t see any of my liberal PCUSA classmates drifting out of Christianity. They have too much invested in the “community” of Christ’s church. And, of course, I don’t care to question whether there is a genuine faith in Christ, albeit horribly distorted in many cases. Whether consistency should lead him or her in the direction of apostasy is another question, and I am inclined to agree with the atheist’s comment to Alastair’s comment in Evans’ post.

        I am curious to see the reaction to Enns’ book in the evangelical world. I would love to see James White take it apart. White and I do not agree on everything, but I respect a lot of the work he does.

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        • whitefrozen September 17, 2014 / 11:44 am

          You know, it’s funny you mention White. I didn’t think too highly of him for the longest time – everytime I saw his name it was in connection with presuppositional apologetics and thinkgs like that that just left a bad taste in my mouth. But I recently watched a 2-hour thing where he talked to a hardcore KJVO guy, and he impressed me a lot. Smart guy. I have a feeling he wouldn’t take too kindly to Enns approach, tho, to put it mildly.

          WRT faith/apostasy – yeah, I didn’t mean to question the genuine faith of a given person – I’m not saying Enns doesn’t have genuine faith in Christ, I was referring to the gradual ‘gutting’ of Scripture and Christianity that’s happening in the more liberal circles. It just seems to me that there’s less and less to actually ‘believe in’, know what I mean? Christianity slowly becomes a vaguer and vaguer animal – look at Evans and how she couches her definition of ‘faith’ almost entirely in the language of feelings, personal committments and ‘community’. See what I’m sayin?

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        • Kevin Davis September 17, 2014 / 1:51 pm

          Oh yes, I definitely know what you mean about defining faith in that way, and I assumed that you weren’t questioning the genuineness of their faith. It’s tricky to communicate the nuances here through a keyboard.

          I saw the KJVO discussion as well. It was fascinating to watch how someone defends KJVO-ism (basically, “God speaks to me when I read the KJV, not when I read the NIV…and I doubt the salvation of those who claim to know God through reading the NIV.”). Anyway, yes, White can be very impressive. I was turned off by him at first, years ago, because he could be a bulldog. But he is a bit less bullish now…though not that much less! His knowledge of Roman Catholicism is actually very good. He may not be the most sensitive in understanding why people convert, but he knows all of the arguments and their weaknesses. His recent discussions about Matthew Vines are also right on target.

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    • Chris Falter October 6, 2014 / 1:08 pm

      I’d say he’s almost 1900 years late. Marcion planted the flag in this territory a long way back.

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  2. Andrew September 17, 2014 / 5:33 pm

    Of Enns published work I’ve only read his book on the historical Adam. I can’t say I was that impressed. Some people seem to love it, though.

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    • whitefrozen September 17, 2014 / 7:02 pm

      I may have read one of his books, I don’t remember, weirdly enough. His writing from about that time was pretty good, though – he raised lots of interesting and legitimate questions and showd how important understanding ancient texts/genres is to getting a handle on the OT as a whole. Regarding that stuff, I enjoy what he has to say and respect his learning on the subject. His most recent work though, as I’ve indicated here, is pretty subpar.

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  3. Joel September 20, 2014 / 10:52 am

    I’ve read the free excerpt from his new book, and the writing style really turns me off – he seems so flippant and cutesy. It’s always annoying to read someone who thinks he’s way funnier than he is, and that’s the feeling I get. Just comes across as talking down to the reader, at least to me.

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