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Fall 2020 · Vol. 49 No. 2 · pp. 202–205 

Book Review

How the Bible Actually Works: In Which I Explain How an Ancient, Ambiguous, and Diverse Book Leads Us to Wisdom Rather Than Answers—and Why That’s Great News

Peter Enns. New York, NY: HarperOne, 2019. 304 pages.

Reviewed by Ken Esau

Peter Enns (Abram S. Clemens Professor of Biblical Studies at Eastern University) is a well-known and gifted popularizer of modern biblical scholarship. His recent books deal with difficult questions and are especially targeted to those who are disillusioned with simple answers and at risk of leaving the faith altogether.

The format of these recent books is by now predictable. To borrow Enns’s own gameshow analogy, behind Door Number One is a simplistic, non-messy, uninformed “fully divine” (read “inerrant”) understanding of the Bible where one ignores all critical questions. Behind Door Number Two is the embracing of this simplistic, uninformed view while trying to defend the Bible against biblical scholarship’s methods and conclusions. Enns seems to assume that evangelical colleges and seminaries fall into this second option. Door Number Three is where Enns provides a sort of exposé of the seemingly irrefutable conclusions of biblical scholarship in contrast to what evangelicals have been teaching and preaching. In the end, Enns argues that the only way forward is to acknowledge that the Bible is essentially a record of ancient human thinking about God. Multiple human authors who are just like us, steeped in their historical and cultural contexts, naturally would produce a messy document with historical, theological, and ethical contradictions and things we find distasteful today. What else would we expect? For Enns, embracing this sort of Bible is what God wants; it is a sign of our growing spiritual maturity and faith, and the only path to intellectual integrity. {203}

This pattern is also evident in How the Bible Actually Works. The problem is that many Christians today want a rule-book Bible providing clear, straightforward, and prooftexted answers to every ethical and spiritual question one might face. Enns argues that such a simplistic expectation would lower God to a sort of “stressed-out helicopter parent” (15). Instead, the Bible is hopelessly ancient, ambiguous (read “conflicting and contradictory” [8]), and diverse, written by “human beings like us whose perceptions of God and their world were shaped by who they were and when they lived” (9). Enns’s alternative is to regard the Bible not as an “authoritative guide for faith and life” (as the MB Confession describes it) but as “an invitation to join an ancient, well-traveled, and sacred quest to know God, the world we live in, and our place in it” (10; his emphases) best summed up by the word “wisdom.”

Enns uses the word wisdom to refer to the process of thinking something through for ourselves, and not to the quality of the end result. Most of the book argues that the Bible is not a repository of theological and ethical conclusions to apply to today but rather a model of how humans have thought things through. The Bible’s human authors, when faced with new situations, didn’t just embrace the earlier material but updated ethical claims, reimagined God in new ways, and even reshaped and fabricated history. This is evident when one compares Ezekiel to Deuteronomy, Nahum to Jonah, or Luke to Romans. For Enns, the Bible is not some sort of “final word on what God is like” but a “recording for us [of] genuine experiences of God” (144) and a “model” for us to do the same in our time and space. Even Jesus with all his parables and the four diverse Gospel accounts are part of this and show us that the need for ongoing wisdom does not stop with Jesus and the New Testament. Paul embraced the huge task of reimagining the Old Testament God in light of Jesus and we are called to walk in this same path “by exercising the same kind of wisdom he did—discerning for ourselves how best to follow God in our time and place” (260). Spiritual maturity calls us to warmly embrace “our own sacred responsibility to reimagine God” (277).

Enns observes that since the Bible is a compilation of ancient human wisdom, it has distasteful and conflicting portrayals of God, and distasteful and conflicting ethical guidance. Wisdom means that following the model of the biblical writers, we are free to reimagine God and update ethical claims that we imagine to be a better fit for our situations. Enns argues that the statement “ ‘[d]o what the Bible says’—misses how the Bible actually works” (47), since we have “the responsibility of going beyond it” (88) and “reimagining God in our time and place” (125; his emphases).

For reasons I don’t understand, Enns argues that the wisdom option of thinking things through carefully, “heals us to see God as God is,” which means “as a good parent, full of grace, love, and patience” (17). Seeing {204} the Bible as modeling the wisdom process frees us from false expectations about the Bible (e.g., a rule book), and false understandings of God (“harsh, vindictive, at best begrudgingly merciful” [16]). Apparently, thinking things through as best we can allows us the freedom to reject images of God in Scripture we might find distasteful (e.g., Warrior, Judge, Holy One, Father, King) and to reimagine God in ways that we prefer like Friend, Gracious Parent, or whatever else we come up with as we “ponder God anew in our here and now” (8; his emphases). Enns’s wisdom process seems to lead to a theological vision more closely resembling that described in William Paul Young’s The Shack than the richly multivalent and admittedly difficult portraits of God in Scripture. Enns does not explain why the results of our thinking things through for ourselves will be more accurate, truthful, or wise than what we find distasteful in the Bible. The Sadducees, Pharisees, Zealots, and Essenes all pursued the wisdom path of reimagining God and pursuing trial and error—and all were rebuked by Jesus as foolish. It is not clear to me why many of our present efforts at reimagining God or redefining ethics would not deserve the same verdict.

Enns continually reassures us that our wisdom journey of going “beyond” the Bible (“we can never simply appeal to the Bible as an unchanging standard” [271]) is actually God’s will for us and is a sign of spiritual maturity. Enns reassures us that we should not worry about making mistakes since God wraps us in “unconditional love and acceptance” (15). Jesus and the New Testament authors do not provide nearly as much reassurance as Enns does on this question.

The greatest weakness in the book is Enns’s use of the word “wisdom” as a synonym for the process of humans thinking about God and ethics, rather than what results from that thinking. The process of thinking something through is not normally what the Bible means by wisdom. It is only the product of that thinking that should be called wisdom or foolishness. Enns makes the claim that “God’s perfect will seems to be for us to seek and follow wisdom” (45). This statement is nonsensical unless wisdom is defined not as the process of thinking but as what results from that thinking (e.g., faithfulness to Jesus, the kingdom of God, shalom).

I wish Enns could find a middle ground between the extremes of a simplistic rule-book approach to the Bible and his conclusion that the Bible is merely a collection of ancient human thinking about God with limited relevance for theology and ethics today. Could intellectual integrity and Christian discipleship not coexist with a belief in the Bible as the source of true wisdom? The Bible records the grand God story with various stages pointing to a kingdom culmination in Revelation 22. The Bible surely is messy and ancient and often ambiguous, but true wisdom involves bringing the whole God story to bear on our context {205} including the parts we don’t like and the theological portraits we find challenging. And the pinnacle of the story is what the New Testament claims happened in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, a story that will achieve its telos with his return. Godly wisdom comes by joining this trajectory and submitting ourselves to living within its trajectory. Jesus and his kingdom mission is the controlling hermeneutic. Jesus is wisdom (1 Cor 1:30) but our theological and ethical thinking is only wise if it is consistent with Jesus’s words about obeying everything he has commanded us (Matt 28:20).

I’m much more hopeful than Enns that the Bible, while fully human and messy and requiring illumination by the Holy Spirit, is more than just a recording and a model of its human authors’ spiritual journeys. It contains divinely inspired revelation of God’s character and mission, and significant clarity and even answers about how to live as God’s image bearers participating in God’s great and ongoing kingdom restoration story. A good and wise parent who provides such clear guidance for a child should not be labeled a stressed-out helicopter parent. Not providing this kind of guidance should raise questions about whether that parent deserves to be called good or wise at all.

Ken Esau
Biblical Studies Instructor
Columbia Bible College, Abbotsford, BC

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