Scripture as Living and Breathing, It Has ‘Being’ and that Matters Peter Enns and Everyone Else Who Wants to Approach Scripture Naturally.

I have come to the conclusion that I have a major preoccupation with the ontology of Scripture; in other words: What is it? Scripture for me is so important, as I am sure it is for most of you who read here! As a Protestant Christian I am taken with what Karl Barth calls the Protestant Scripture principle, or what others have simply identified as a theology of the Word (instead of a theology of the Church) as the centerpiece of my theological authority base. I realize that none of this is unique to me, and that almost all of the chatter, online in particular, on theological blogs, and theological Facebooking, revolves, really, around an ontology of Scripture.

Furthermore, when I speak of an ontology of Scripture I am gesturing toward the discipline that I think is the most relevant towards establishing trajectory for this discussion; Christian dogmatics. If I am going to talk about Scripture’s ‘being’ or taxis (order), I am first presupposing that it has one, and that it comes from somewhere. It is somewhat strange to think of Scripture having an ontology, isn’t it? I mean how can something that is made up of paper, ink, binding, and leather have ‘being’? So I must be referring to its function, its instrumental place in relation to God. Yes, this is how Scripture must be thought of as having an ontology. When we understand that Scripture has a place it must have a place somewhere, not only in relation to God, but since it involves creaturely media, within an ontology of Creation. So maybe you get the picture a little. Scripture is something that is given by God to us, and as such this dictates the way we will proceed in our engagement with Scripture; not as if it is something that is merely profane, but obviously, as something that is sacred, but further, something that is not ours, but God’s. If we have this idea of an ontology of Scripture, a properly Christian one, as I was just noting, this will dictate how we ‘interpret’ Scripture; it will give us an ontology of hermeneutics. John Webster communicates it this way:

Much follows from this for a theology of Scripture. An immediate formal consequence is the necessity of a textual and hermeneutical ontology – parallel to a moral ontology in Christian ethics – which accounts for the activities of the production and interpretation of texts by referring them to divine revelation as their material, efficient and final cause. The Bible, its readers and their work of interpretation have their place in the domain of the Word of God, the sphere of reality in which Christ glorified is present and speaks with unrivalled clarity. As he speaks, he summons creaturely intelligence to knowledge and by his Spirit bestows powers of mind and will so that they may be quickened by that summons to intelligent life under the Word. This, in turn, suggests other matters of reflection in the theology of Scripture. Bibliology and hermeneutics are derivative elements of Christian theology, shaped by prior Christian teaching abou the nature of God and creatures and their relations. Again, bibliology is prior to hermeneutics, because strategies of interpretation will be maladroit unless fitting to the actual nature of the text which they seek to unfold. A common thread running through a number of essays [Webster in this paragraph is introducing what he will be developing throughout the rest of his book] is the restriction imposed on biblical study by theological inattention to the nature of Scripture, the resultant vacuum often being filled by some kind of naturalism. The cogency (as much political as hermeneutical) of this strategy was that it appeared to recall attention to the fact that the Bible and the interpretation of the Bible are human cultural activities. The recall, however, was often coupled to a kind of nominalism, in which human signs were segregated from the divine economy of revelation, as, once again, elements without principles. The misstep here is the supposition that the properties of natural realities can be grasped without reference to createdness, and that only when so grasped can natural realities protect their integrity. But in a well-ordered Christian theology, the divine movements of revelation, inspiration and illumination do not compromise the human movements of authorship and interpretation. Showing that this is so, however, obliges theology to attend to doctrinal work on creation, providence and the Holy Spirit, in order to demonstrate that divine revelation is not a unilateral cognitive force but a compound act in which the creator and reconciler takes creatures and their powers, acts and products into his service. God speaks from his human temple.[1]

I hope what I was articulating among is even a little clearer now, because of Webster’s insight.

The reason my spirit has been being stirred lately is because of what I perceive as the recklessness with which Scripture has been being engaged; in particular by folks in the mood of Peter Enns. Enns’ book, as far as I understand it (I haven’t been able to read it in full yet, but I just finished listening to an hour and a half interview he just did on the book) is reckless, for the very reasons I just opined upon. He has no overt ontology of Scripture informing his deconstruction of it; he is simply appealing to the naturalist approach to bibliology that Webster references. This is reckless, not just for him, but for the thousands (I hope that is all that his book will touch) of people who will come into contact with his book, The Bible Tells Me So. When the naturalist bible critic talks about the Bible he doesn’t talk about things like inspiration or illumination, why? Because this kind of critic has taken control of the text of Scripture, as if it isn’t something that is given, as if it is open to their handling from below; but it surely isn’t.

[1] John Webster, The Domain Of The Word: Scripture and Theological Reason (London: T&T Clark, 2012), viii-ix.

This entry was posted in Biblical Interpretation, Bibliology, Doctrine Of Creation, Doctrine Of God, Doctrine of God, Doctrine of Scripture, Hermeneutics, John Webster, Peter Enns. Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Scripture as Living and Breathing, It Has ‘Being’ and that Matters Peter Enns and Everyone Else Who Wants to Approach Scripture Naturally.

  1. Juan C. Torres says:

    I can see why Enns’ approach *may* lead to ever-increasing questioning of scripture, and, yes, perhaps even the loss of faith for *some* people.

    On the other hand, Enns’ approach may also save people from abandoning the faith: millions of believers give up on God because of the unquestioning, literal reading of scripture they grew up with and all the problems it causes.

    Progressive revelation and theological exegesis, I think, are fully compatible with Enns’ approach. One can believe all the essential features of the Evangelical Calvinism you advocate as well as Enns’ overall understanding of the nature of scripture.

    I can see you are very disturbed by the growing popularity of Enns’ approach, but I don’t think we need to be so afraid of it.

    If people confess and worship the Christ of the creeds, why make such a big deal of people’s theories of the inspiration of scripture?

    Also, how does the following quote you used in another post factor out here?

    “Just as we speak of his [Jesus’] life in terms of obedience, so we must speak of the Bible as obedience to the Divine self-revelation.” Therefore, the doctrine of verbal inspiration should not mean the inerrancy or infallibility of the Bible in a literary or historical sense. “It means that the errant and fallible human word is, as such, used by God and has to be received and heard in spite of its human expression then must point beyond itself “to what it is not in itself, but to what God marvelously makes it to be in the adoption of his grace.” If revelation [and, therefore, inspiration of Scripture] takes place in the midst of fallen humanity, we must allow the “fallenness” of the humanity of the Scriptures to have its proper place if it is to be regarded as truly human.”


  2. Bobby Grow says:


    It does matter! It is not compatible with the kind of EC I advocate for, whatsoever. Whether or not what Enns is doing keeps some people in the faith really means nothing; what kind of “faith” is he keeping them in? The kind where Scripture belongs to us, and not God. No thank you! He is simply popularizing what has been around for at least a 150 years, German higher criticism of the Bible. The Bible he presents (did you read my post?!) is a purely naturalistic understanding of Scripture where man comes before God, and Scripture is not in the domain of God’s Word, the eternal Logos no matter how much Enns wants to assert otherwise.

    Enns’ view of Scripture is not Christian and not even close to being compatible with EC! I reject it vociferously!! I also reject the Barthian conception of Scripture (which that quote above from Torrance reflects). I follow a John Webster view of Scripture, which should be clear by now; and that is incompatible with the apologetic type of style that Enns operates from.


  3. Juan C. Torres says:

    You reject the Barthian conception of scripture. I did not know that. I’d love to hear more about that!


  4. Juan C. Torres says:

    I was personally discipled by an Anglican priest for almost three years. He had a view of Scripture very much like Enns’. My posture at the beginning of our relationship was one similar to Luthers: who am I to judge the bible?! I’ll let the bible judge me.

    I had inward fears and worry for this poor priest. But as I got to study,pray, worship, and minister with him I came to see that he was absolutely the real deal. Needless to say this experience profoundly changed me. During that very time I was also learning about Barth, Torrance, Moltmann, St. Isaac the Syrian, etc.

    I do not believe you have yet grasped what I’m asking. I will try again:

    -Let’s concede that Enns’ approach is purely naturalistic, and has indeed been around for 150 years. I don;t have a problem with this.

    Now let me give you an example of how I can envision reading scripture Christocentrically and naturally as Enns does: Christians to love to talk about Genesis 1 and how the Trinity is at work there though not very explicitly. We take “wind” and demand that it be translated “Spirit,” then in Gen 1:26ff we point to “Let us…” as proof that there is plurality in the being of God, and so forth. Why can’t we first analyze the Genesis creation accounts in their ANE context, use all the critical scholarship, and then proceed to explain that as Christians we read the text theologically. Gen 1 does not say anything about the trinity, nor about creation ex nihilo, but these doctrines are throroughly Christian and can be supported from other texts in the bible. We can do the same with a lot passages in Isaiah: this is what the text means probably means in its historical context, this is how later Jewish tradition broadened the meaning, and then this is how Christians began interpreting the text in light of the Christ event. This is an honest, scholarly, and faithful approach! Isn’t it?

    To summarize:

    -If we say that Christ is both human and divine, the bible is both human and divine, why can’t we say that theology is also human (or naturalist) and divine? Enns is not a theologian. I see him working on theology from the human side.

    All truth is God’s truth. I would say Enns is right in the claims he makes (we can debate about the manner in which he does this) AND I would also say that we need to complement his approach with a theological one that acknowledges his findings but transcends them in light of the Holy Spirit’s work of inspiration, illumination, and faith-creating power.

    I hope you are able to read this charitably and respond. I’m not trying to give you a hard time. I could be wrong about all these things. I just think that your critiques so far have something missing. Maybe I can help figure out what that is.

    I am profoundly grateful for all the things I’ve learned from you, I just think there’s got to be a better way forward in regards to the connection between higher criticism and trinitarian theology;)


  5. Bobby Grow says:

    Juan, I fully grasp what you are saying; that’s why I responded so passionately in my last comment.

    What you are failing to appreciate in my “critiques” is how utterly empty the history of religions and text critical approach Enns approach is. I repudiate it, greatly!! My degrees are in biblical studies and theology Juan. I spent years studying the history and development of the type of biblical criticism that Enns is promoting and working from. It fails because it critiques the bible on terms that the bible is not open to, naturalist premises. It assumes that the history of the Bible can be annexed from the providence of God, and then somehow fit back into God. It is natural theology at its best. The criteria used by higher critics like Enns is ad hoc and arbitrary; do you understand the principles of redaction and form criticism, Juan?

    As far as doing theological exegesis after higher criticism has been imposed on the text; why would that work? These are two mutually exclusive approaches to the Bible.

    I don’t understand why you feel compelled to accept the conclusions of higher criticism Juan; why do you?


  6. Juan C. Torres says:

    It’s not so much that I am compelled to accept as it is that I do not feel compelled to reject. I just don’t see what is so troubling with higher criticism. I guess at the end of the day my theology has become more pragmatic than it used to be.


  7. Bobby Grow says:

    Juan I wish you would engage with what I presented in my post. What do you think about Webster’s points?


  8. whitefrozen says:

    So on this view, can a non-Christian say anything of any value about Scripture at all?


  9. John Webster is right, but I remain calm.

    “The misstep here is the supposition that the properties of natural realities can be grasped without reference to createdness, and that only when so grasped can natural realities protect their integrity. …divine revelation is not a unilateral cognitive force but a compound act in which the creator and reconciler takes creatures and their powers, acts and products into his service. God speaks from his human temple.” Exactly right.

    We could read Webster as calling a bluff. “You want to read the Bible as part of nature? Fine. Let’s talk about nature. Is its innermost reality not the love between the Father and the Son? Knowing that relation does not preclude our discovering many empirical things about natural processes, say those in a tree, but searching only for natural processes would conceal their innermost reality from our understanding. This is the blindness of all reasoning that is merely probable (St Thomas) or empirical (Barth). So then, does not the Bible-as-nature have (at least) the same innermost reality of love between the Father and the Son that a tree has? Knowing that should not preclude our discovering many empirical things about the natural processes that flowed through the writers in their time. And yet, would not searching only for those natural processes likewise conceal the Bible’s innermost reality from the searcher? So a believer necessarily looks beyond natural processes to the Father-Son relation for the meaning of the Bible.” For the sake of argument, he does not mention that the Bible itself makes the Father-Son relation, and indeed indeed the perichoresis of the Three, explicit. And kindly note that this view of the Bible as a creature is no more ‘incarnational’ than, say, forestry.

    Candidly, I have not read Peter Enns much at all. From what he says in public fora, I guess that his reply would be something like, “Why then, if its innermost reality is what the Bible discloses to believers as believers, must we be concerned about ANY finding whatever by anyone about the natural processes in and around it?” Given the quoted view– which, again, is not all that could be said– this would not be an unreasonable question. But if said in a hotel bar during certain conferences, fisticuffs could result. Why?

    Some people– I am not thinking of Bobby– who think about the faith in unmistakably esoteric ways get as jumpy as a mean drunk when anyone points this out, or closes the door too firmly on an exoteric approach to God. It is existentially hard for some (but not all) to accept that faith in Christ is arcane knowledge rather than public knowledge. Absent a better explanation, this contradiction looks to me like a lingering effect of remembering and cherishing a nominally modern and Christian society where everyone could be politely assumed to have faith. Meanwhile, millennial Christians may be coming of age with much less need to believe that the faith is as obvious as a fire hydrant.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Bobby Grow says:


    Yeah, I agree, the Bible belongs to Jesus, and those who belong to Jesus get to participate with him as he speaks with us in his Word. It is an exclusive club being able to read the Bible in the right way it is. It is a transformative experience, from glory to glory.


    Yes, since the Bible is literature, it was written from within historical milieu , non-Christians can say some things about the Bible at a purely intellectual level. Of course the Bible and proper Bible reading, I think, only comes from those who can speak with its author in an ongoing ever renewing way.


  11. Juan C. Torres says:

    I will read Webster’s book, Bobby.


  12. Bobby Grow says:

    Glad to hear it, Juan! You’ll be blessed beyond belief. Read his little book too Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch. I would recommend the little book first.


  13. Juan C. Torres says:

    Sounds good. I will read both then. I read a little bit through Amazon preview. It looks very helpful.

    Liked by 1 person

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