Inspiration and Incarnation
A review of Peter Enns', "Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament," by Dr. M. Daniel Carroll R.
Peter Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids. MI: Baker Academic, 2005. 197 pp. Paperback, $17.99. ISBN 0-8010-2730-6.
The author, an associate professor of Old Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary, states his goal in writing Inspiration and Incarnation in the very first line of the opening chapter: “The purpose of this book is to bring an evangelical doctrine of Scripture into conversation with the implications generated by some important themes in modern biblical scholarship—particularly Old Testament scholarship—over the past 150 years” (p. 13).
Chapter One introduces Enns’ theological construct for rethinking the nature of biblical inspiration, an approach he calls the “incarnational analogy.” By this phrase, he means that, like Jesus the Word made flesh, the Bible exhibits both divine and human qualities. While it is not uncommon for evangelicals to champion the former, they often ignore—or even deny—the latter. It is precisely the contextual rootedness, that human dimension, which Enns wants to highlight. The argument that runs throughout Inspiration and Incarnation is that a comprehensive—yea, a truly honest—doctrine of the Bible must recognize that God chose to make himself and his purposes known within a certain cultural time and place. The Old Testament is not simply a compendium of timeless truths but is rather a revelation bound to its setting in multiple ways within and through which the people of God today can discern his enduring character and will. Each of the next three chapters deals with the data from the Old Testament’s world, which challenge in particular ways common stereotypical stances concerning the Bible and that reinforce Enns’ conviction that these must be rethought. These chapters discuss, in turn, writings from the ancient Near East that share elements with the Old Testament, the different kinds of theological diversity within the Old Testament, and the fascinating ways that the New Testament authors utilized the Old Testament.
In the chapter “The Old Testament and Ancient Near Eastern Literature” Enns targets the issue of the nature of the uniqueness of biblical revelation. He surveys the commonalities between the Old Testament and ancient creation and flood stories (Enuma Elish, Atrahasis Epic), familial customs (the Nuzi Tablets), law codes (the Code of Hammurabi), and the literary forms and content of certain books (Deuteronomy and Hittite suzerainty treaties; Proverbs and the Egyptian Instruction of Amenemope) and then asks how all of this might impact the belief that Bible is a special word from God. He questions the false dichotomies that sometimes dominate (and distort) evangelical discussions on such matters and unacceptable positions (such as the Old Testament accounts must predate their counterparts) that try to insulate the Bible from its world. For example, a misinformed distinction between myth and history can lead to the facile dismissal of the worldview of the ancient world (and, therefore, of the Old Testament) and thus miss how the Bible, although born within a particular setting, challenges the thought patterns of that context. What is distinctive about the Old Testament, Enns says, is not to be found in the supposedly totally different nature of its literary forms and ideas. No, God spoke to Israel in ways—both literarily and conceptually—that would have made sense in that part of the globe at that juncture in human history. What is matchless in the Old Testament revelation lies in Israel’s special history with Yahweh, in the extraordinary configuration of laws that in some ways set its society apart from the surrounding nations, and especially in the fundamental truth of the one-of-a-kind God whom it followed and worshipped.
The author correctly points out that liberals and conservatives fall into the same ideological trap. Both hold that the commonalities between the Old Testament and other literature would demonstrate that the Bible is not the Word of God, since they believe that the existence of such contextual elements diminishes the divine. Each side misses the point that this fact that revelation occurred within the concrete world of the past is precisely how God decided to reveal himself. That is, the Bible indeed is an ancient phenomenon, but its cultural connectedness should be something to embrace and celebrate. It is a reminder to us, too, that all theologizing, even today, is done within and for the world.
In the next chapter, “The Old Testament and Theological Diversity,” the author explores the richness of the variety of perspectives that are present in Scripture. Interestingly—and ironically—here again liberal and conservative constituencies make the same erroneous assumption. In this case, each maintains that anything less than absolute uniformity in the thought of the biblical authors would contradict the Bible’s supernatural origin. Actually, argues Enns, diversity is inherent in the biblical text. He presents several kinds of differences evident in the Old Testament. For example, he cites passages in Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job that appear to contradict each other. A more careful look, however, suggests that diverse circumstances in life require guidance appropriate to those situations, or, according to the author’s paradigm: “if we employ the incarnational analogy, we can see that the Bible reflects diversity because the human drama in which God participates is likewise diverse” (p. 80). Likewise, differences between Old Testament law codes as well as between those initial regulations and their actual application by later generations demonstrate a built-in dynamic flexibility in cultic and social practices if context demanded it. Still another kind of diversity is theological, and here Enns discusses the tricky issues of whether the Old Testament is strictly monotheistic or admits the existence of other deities and whether Yahweh can change his mind. Throughout this chapter he is at pains to emphasize that readers must allow the text to speak for itself, without the imposition of preconceived theological and philosophical lenses. Diversity, like the previously discussed contextual features of revelation, is an underlying characteristic of how God has inserted himself and communicated into human existence.
The ultimate unity of the Scriptures, argues Enns, is to be grounded in Christ, and this conviction flows into his final substantive chapter, “The Old Testament and Its Interpretation in the New Testament.” Here the topic is the hermeneutics of Jesus and the New Testament authors. Enns goes to great pains to establish parallels between their ways of reading their Scripture and the hermeneutical techniques of the Second Temple Period. He deals with their use of the Old Testament and their citation of non-canonical material. It will not do, he says, either to disavow the data by alleging that Jesus and the New Testament writers really were following acceptable modern methods or to claim that their status as biblical authors privileged them in ways not permissible for modern believers. While the New Testament may have utilized some means that are foreign to us, argues Enns, we must share nevertheless its efforts to read the Old Testament in light of the eschatological events of the death and resurrection of Christ and the coming of the new community of the messianic age. This fulfillment of the older revelation, in other words, is what Enns labels “christotelic” (instead of christocentric) and “ecclesiocentric.” This third dimension of the human dimension of Scripture, the contextual nature of New Testament hermeneutics, raises the challenge of reading the Old Testament self-consciously as Christians.
The fifth and final chapter briefly summarizes the argument of the book and closes with a call to try to incorporate with humility and openness any evidence that can have a bearing on the doctrine of the inspiration of the Bible.
Several features serve to help make Inspiration and Incarnation an even more useful resource. Each chapter closes with an annotated bibliography that can point interested readers to other works in order to explore topics in more depth. After the fifth chapter Enns also provides a lengthy glossary of terms pertinent to his discussions (pp. 175-86). The volume concludes with two indices, one of references from Scripture and other ancient literature and the other of topics and authors.
This reviewer heartedly endorses the goal of Inspiration and Incarnation. A book that attempts to inform an evangelical bibliology with materials with which biblical scholars have long had to deal has long been needed. The divide between the disciplines of systematic theology and biblical studies can be wide, and often that is particularly the situation at lay and student levels. What is especially commendable about Enns’ work is his commitment to integrating the two in a constructive manner. The irenic tone of the discussion and the multiple examples he provides in every chapter should lead wary evangelicals to a more nuanced and accurate view of the Old Testament as Scripture. It will be interesting to see to what degree professional systematic theologians might be willing to incorporate the data and, if necessary, reshape classical arguments. One suspects, and hopes, that Enns’ “incarnational analogy” might find a ready audience, as this book could provide substantial reinforcement to the more traditional analogical argument for the divine and human character of the Bible, howbeit in quite new ways.
My disagreements with the book are not major. It is to be expected that there would be the occasional quibble with the presentation of a certain point or the omission of material that could be important elements of a fuller discussion (such as the ethics of the Old Testament and its relationship to the New and the process of its modern appropriation). The only significant issue which this reviewer was reticent to endorse arises in the chapter on the use of the Old Testament in the New. One suspects that this part of the book reflects Enns’ Reformed commitments. To begin with, for example, it is surprising that the category of corporate solidarity does not appear in the discussion. This is a helpful way of dealing with (among other things) the continuity and discontinuity between the testaments. There are commonalities to be sure between the people of God in the Old and New, but there are important differences as well. There is not a one-to-one correspondence between the Israel of God and the church. The church can take on much of what is said of the Old Testament nation, even as it is not neatly identified with it nor fulfills all of its promises (admittedly, at this point this reviewer’s commitments come to the fore). To discern the shared items from the distinctions is a difficult task. A good treatment of corporate solidarity could help handle some of the quandaries.
In addition, I would be less quick to jump to the exhortation to read the Old Testament in toto in “christotelic” fashion. I would prefer to allow the Old Testament to stand by itself in a stronger, even independent, way in order to properly hear its voice in all of its power before moving, if and where appropriate, to a Christological reading. In addition, Enns’ “christotelic” hermeneutic is fine as a general commitment, but it becomes more difficult to assess in any detail when it is said, for instance, that the Law finds its unity in its fulfillment in Jesus—a good theological stance as far as it goes, but one which is not adequately explained. How does this hermeneutic actually work for specific texts beyond those which the New Testament itself utilizes in some form? But, perhaps these sorts of questions demand too much of a book whose purpose lies in another direction.
I will highly recommend Inspiration and Incarnation to my seminary classes. It demonstrates the theological relevance of what students have been learning in their Old Testament classes by interfacing that part of the Bible and its world with their systematic theology courses. For this I applaud and thank the author.
M. Daniel Carroll R. (Rodas)
Earl S. Kalland Chair of Old Testament