Peter Enns and ‘Natural’ Bible Reading

Peter Enns just wrote a blog post in response to Andrew Wilson’s Christianity Today’s review of Enns’ new and rather controversial book (for many) The jeromebibleBible Tells Me So. In Enns’ article he identifies twelve rhetorical strategies “evangelicals” like Andrew Wilson use when responding to critiques of the Bible, like Enns’, where the Bible’s historical and textual contradictions are emphasized; emphasized through a certain historist-text-critical lens. Here Enns describes the “why” of these rhetorical strategies–deployed by evangelicals as they are–and in his description what Enns believes about Scripture (in contrast to his “evangelical” interlocutors) becomes apparent:

These strategies—which are not necessarily deployed consciously—are aimed at protecting evangelical theological boundaries but do so at the expense of those evangelicals, who, through the course of reading and studying scripture, come upon legitimate questions for which they are seeking thoughtful answers. Issues like the tribal violence of God, true (not apparent) contradictions, and historical problems are quite real and cannot long be kept at bay through these strategies.[1]

For the rest of this post, we will survey (sort of) some of the history that has led Enns to become an “anti-inerrantist,” which is ironic, to say the least.

Some Of The History

People haven’t always thought of the Bible through the lenses that people like Enns and inerrantists (usually associated with evangelical and Fundamentalist Christianity [being forwarded by today, most ardently, by neo-Reformed types like John Piper, Westminster Theological Seminary, et al]) do. Prior to the turn to enlightenment modernity, and the higher criticism of the bible that developed as a result (among other things), people used to think of the bible as the place where the God of history in Jesus Christ encounters and meets us; inviting us into his life which is history. Far from discounting the historical veracity of Scripture what was emphasized more was a participation of God’s people in the history of God’s life disclosed in Scripture which found its telos or ‘end’ (purpose) in his beloved Son, Jesus. Matthew Levering identifies this conception of biblical history (the one I just said that finds its ‘end’ in Jesus Christ) as a ‘participatory’ view of history; he labels the theory of history that Enns and the inerrantists follow (solely, as far as developing a doctrine of Scripture) as linear history. According to Levering (and others, many others) linear history by the eighteenth century had become the dominate way of thinking about the reality of Scripture and the way that people ought to approach it. Notice Levering (as he provides a brief survey and diagnosis on this very line of thought):

By the seventeenth century, the participatory understanding of historical reality was on its last legs among intellectuals, although the overall unity of the onward-marching linear-historical moments was still presumed.

Hans Frei finds a similar logistic conceptualism in Enlightenment biblical hermeneutics, although unlike Lamb he does not, so far as I know, draw the connection to late-medieval thought. Discussing the “supernaturalist” position on the Bible offered–within the context of the emergence of historical criticism–by the eighteenth-century Lutheran theologian Sigmund Jakob Baumgarten, Frei notes that for Baumgarten the accuracy of biblical history “ ‘be brough to the highest degree of probability or the greatest possible moral certainty in accordance with all the logical rules of a historical proof.’” By the eighteenth century, logical rules of historiography took priority over the Bible’s narrative as the ground on which Christians could understand themselves. These rules envisioned God’s action as radically “external” to human action, and thus extrinsic to historical accounts of Scripture’s genesis and meaning. In patristic and medieval hermeneutics, by contrast, not logical rules of historiography, but faith in a providential God grounded the assumption that the books of the Bible displayed the divine pattern of salvation. This faith nourishes and is nourished by the Church’s biblical reading, understood as a set of embodied and liturgical practices constituting the Church’s conversatio Dei.[2]

Just to reinforce Levering’s sketch of things, let me also refer to John Webster who writes similarly to Levering:

To simplify matters rather drastically: a dominant trajectory in the modern development of study of the Bible has been a progressive concentration on what Spinoza called interpretation of Scripture ex ipsius historia, out of its own history. Precisely when this progression begins to gather pace, and what its antecedents may be, are matters of rather wide dispute. What is clear, at least in outline, is that commanding authority gradually came to be accorded to the view that the natural properties of the biblical text and of the skills of interpreters are elements in an immanent economy of communication. The biblical text is a set of human signs borne along on, and in turn shaping, social religious and literary processes; the enumeration of its natural properties comes increasingly to be not only a necessary but a sufficient description of the Bible and its reception. This definition of the text in terms of its (natural) history goes along with suspension of or disavowal of the finality both of the Bible and of the reader in loving apprehension of God, and of the Bible’s ministerial function as divine envoy to creatures in need of saving instruction.[3]


Peter Enns and the “Inerrantists” come from this same trajectory, the linear historical one that both Levering and Webster highlight for us. Whether you are Enns or the inerrantist, Scripture is reducible to linear-historical reconstruction and the way that sentences are syntactically structured, etc. Enns and the inerrantists might want to get to a point where Scripture can become a ‘spiritual’ thing (Enns says as much at the end of that blog post of his I linked to above; and the piety of the inerrantists bears testimony to this exceedingly so … there is a heart warmed feeling and love for God, by both Enns and the inerrantists), but the bedrock of their doctrine of Scripture won’t ever really allow them to; there are too many hurdles to jump prior to ever getting there (to living in a participatory depth in regard to the Bible and what it is in relation to its order as given by God). And so Enns and the inerrantists end up developing theories of biblical interpretation (hermeneutics) that have taken shape by their acquiescence to the bible “as history,” natural history before it is supernatural history; and this ends up having a deleterious effect upon everything else.

It is because of this (and I am focusing on Enns in this post) that I see Enns as dangerous and not edifying to the larger evangelical body of Christ (the younger or millennial generation, so called, in particular).

I hope younger Christians, in particular, will turn to a more robust and participatory understanding of biblical history. Understanding that Scripture is part of God’s invitation to converse with him, the Triune God.


[1] Peter Enns, Source.

[2] Matthew Levering, Participatory Biblical Exegesis: A Theology of Biblical Interpretation (Notre Dame, Indiana: Notre Dame University Press, 2008), 21-2.

[3] John Webster, The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason(London/New York: T&T Clark, A Continuum Imprint, 2012), 6.

This entry was posted in Biblical Interpretation, Biblical Studies, Biblical Theology, Bibliology, Doctrine Of Creation, Doctrine of Scripture, Hermeneutics, John Webster, Matthew Levering, Peter Enns, Progressive Christianity. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Peter Enns and ‘Natural’ Bible Reading

  1. Daniel says:


    So what are some other ways in which we ought to approach the Hard OT passages? I have found myself asking similar questions but unable to accept a rationalization in my answer to explain away portions of scripture in order to cope with my view of God.

    I believe I see the error in Enn NAND others like him , but any suggestions for a different framework?

    How do you accept the history of Israel and all that scripture lays before us and at the same time view scripture through the lens of Jesus ?


  2. Bobby Grow says:

    Hi Daniel,

    I would say the hard questions about God and Israel must be asked from the top down (as I suggested in my post) rather than the bottom up; this should change the whole methodology of things, in particular text-criticism and how that impinges on hermenutical theory.

    How can we not accept the history of Israel and have Jesus of Nazareth as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world?

    Read TF Torrance’s The Mediation of Christ to answer your question on Israel and Jesus.

    I will have to respond more later.


  3. Ben says:

    Hey, thanks for your blog and this post. I’m trying to understand this “participatory understanding” of the Bible more. I’m guessing this is similar or at least draws from much of what Barth wrote regarding these issues? I’m pretty new to this way of looking at it, but would love to understand it more. So one question for now, would your view allow that the “super natural” history in the Bible lines up with what actually happened in “natural history”? Or would you not make that assertion or is that just not the question you think we should be asking? If I understand this correctly I can see someone looking at the OT Stories and saying well thats God’s “super natural” history given to his people to learn of and interact with him, but its not as important to affirm its also natural history. But if thats so what do we say when we get to Jesus and his death and resurrection. Obviously that would also be viewed as God’s super natural history, but it does really matter that Jesus lived, died and rose in the worlds natural history. Does that make sense? Am I missing what you are saying? I’m really interested in more correctly understanding the view you are proposing so I appreciate your time and any thoughts you can offer. Thanks.


  4. Bobby Grow says:

    Hi Ben,

    I think you bring up a great point, and your point dovetails well with a concern surrounding Barth and his view of time and eternity, but it is different than the point of this post. For a great development of your question you should read a blog post my friend Darren Sumner wrote on this very topic:

    In reality the point I am highlighting in my post is actually more in line with medieval exegesis. I will have to get further into this later. Until then, if you are really interested in this, then you should pick up the book I was engaging with in the post; the book written by Matthew Levering: Participatory Biblical Exegesis: A Theology of Biblical Interpretation (Notre Dame, Indiana: Notre Dame University Press, 2008)


  5. Ben says:

    Hey, thank you, I appreciate it. I’ll check out the blog and book you mentioned. Looking forward to learning more.


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