Inspiration and Incarnation by Peter Enns

Derek Ouellette —  June 21, 2010 — 1 Comment

The following review/overview is slightly long. In an attempt to keep it from becoming overly daunting I have added footnotes for further explanation if you’re interested. The subtitled to Inspiration and Incarnation is “Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament” (3.5 Stars).

The Old Testament Problem

I confess my sweeping tendencies. I tend to read many books by evangelical scholars who in passing talk of “second Isaiah”, they take for granted that “Deuteronomy was written after the Exile”, that the “Hebrew alphabet did not existed at the time of Moses”, “the book of Chronicles and Samuel/Kings contradict each other”[1] , “Daniel was written in the second century BC” and so on. I tend to sweep these comments aside in my head only to get the authors point. Take the good, get rid of the bad.

How could the New Testament authors simply quote “the prophet Isaiah” if the text they are quoting, Isaiah did not really write [Matt 3:3]? How could Jesus quote “the prophet Daniel”, if Daniel was written by someone else [Matt 24:15]? How can the New Testament writers speak of “the book of Moses”, if Moses did not author any books [Mark 12:26]? How can the Old Testament be inspired if Chronicles and Samuel/Kings contradict each other [cf. 2 Samuel 7:16 with 1 Chronicles 17:14]?

In Inspiration and Incarnation, Peter Enns challenges us to take these facts simply as they are. He says that traditionally evangelicals have tried to explain away these discrepancies, ignore them, or lie in wait for a future time when new evidence will render the old evidence inoperative. These are the facts, he says, and if evangelical scholarship hopes to ever be taken seriously among the broader academic world, they must approach the Bible acknowledging these facts.

But the question is raised, in what sense can we speak of the Bible being “inspired”? Enns puts forth a new paradigm:

The term I prefer is “incarnational analogy”: Christ’s incarnation is analogous to Scripture’s “incarnation.” – p.18

Just as Jesus is the “God-man” – 100% God and 100% man – so too is the written word. With this in mind, the aim of Enns book is this:

How does scriptures full humanity and full divinity affect what we should expect from the scriptures? – ibid

Working Solution to the Old Testament Problem

First we must acknowledge that the Bible is the inspired word of God. This is a non-negotiable. Following this premise, we must acknowledge that what the Bible looks like – its reliance on ANE texts, its contradictions, its lack of concern for science and so on – is exactly what it is supposed to look like (since it is inspired). “It is God’s word because it is – and this is how God did it.” [p.66.] Finally it is worthy asking, did the events and conversations recorded in the Old Testament actually (historically) happen? Enns answer is simply “I don’t know, and neither does anyone else.” [p.66]

The New Testament Problem

The first problem presented in the New Testament is the same as that presented in the Old Testament. How do evangelicals handle the fact that the New Testament writers sometimes “assumed” Second Temple non-Biblical literature into the Biblical text? Are those portions to be considered “inspired” because they are in the Bible? Does that mean their original source is also inspired?[2]

The New Testament also presents a different sort of problem, namely, how in quoting the Old, the New Testament writers seem to completely disregard standard grammatical-historical hermeneutics. We are taught that the only appropriate way to interpret the Bible (or anything else) is by paying close attention to the grammar and context of the passage in question. If this is not done then anyone can create fanciful interpretations out of anything! But that seems to be exactly what the New Testament authors (including Jesus) did. They completely disregarded the grammar and context of the Old Testament when they quoted it.[3] In short, they misquoted and misapplied the Old Testament in order to make their point.

The question becomes, if they can do this with the scriptures, can we also? Why or else why not? Another more pressing question is why it is they felt they could use the Old Testament the way they did.

Working Solution to the New Testament problem

The answer is found in the reality of the risen Christ. According to Enns, the fact that Jesus is the Messiah, that he was crucified (as was not expected) and then rose from the dead (showing that God vindicated him and proved his messiahship), forced the apostles to go back and read the Old Testament in light of this fact. For example, the fact that Jesus was the Messiah forced Matthew to go back and re-read Isaiah 40-55 – Jesus as the representative of Israel – which in turn led him to apply Hosea 11:1 (which originally applied to Israel of the exodus)  on to Christ as the true Israelite.

The question becomes, do we have the same liberty with the Old Testament? Can we read it in light of the risen Christ, even in places where the New Testament authors don’t? Enns argues that if we are truly to follow the apostles examples and teachings, then shouldn’t we also follow their hermeneutics[4] as well?

Final Reflections

Perhaps I am have difficulty escaping the fact that I am a child of my time, but I still feel that it is important for the Old Testament stories to be true in a modern historical sense. I also question how good Enns “Incarnation analogy” actually works. He compares it to Christ being fully man and fully God, but Enns analogy begins to crumble at the place of perfection: as Christ is the God-man, he was still without sin, error or mistake. But Enns suggests that the “man” part of the Old Testament may be riddled with mistakes, errors, contradictions and so on. So the analogy is not the same.

Turning to his explanation of the New Testaments hermeneutical approach to the Old, I appreciate the term “Christotelic” (See foot note 4), interpreting the Old Testament in light of the risen Christ. I also think that we today should do the same since we are living in light of this same reality. For example, I have no problem interpreting Zechariah 12-14 in light of Christ – the true Israelite – and in light of the Church made up of Jews and Gentiles who is also true Israel since they are “in Christ”. I don’t think this passage has much to do with national Israel in the end times. I also have no problem interpreting Jeremiah 23:7-8 as a reference to the Cross, deliverance from the “exile” of sin, death and separation from God – something which the historical exile pointed to.

On the whole, I found Inspiration and Incarnation to be challenging and enlightening. For those interested, G.K. Beale wrote a book responding to Enns titled Erosion of Inerrancy.


[1] Cf. 2 Samuel 7:16 with 1 Chronicles 17:14. “The plain fact of the matter is that in Scripture we have two divergent accounts of the same event. The only question before us is how to handle this fact with integrity.” – p.65

[2] For example, Jude 14-15 cites the apocryphal book of 1 Enoch 1.9. If Jude is inspired, is Enoch inspired also?

[3] An obvious example is Hosea 6:1 quoted in Matthew 2:15. In context Hosea is talking about the nation of Israel back at the time of the exodus. He was not talking about Jesus of Nazareth and would be surprised to find his words twisted out of context. A more pressing example is in Luke 24:44 and 1 Corinthians 15:3-4. Jesus and Paul speak of the death and resurrection having been spoken about in the Old Testament, but one is left wondering what proof-text they can turn to support this?

[4] He refers to their hermeneutics as “Christotelic” combining the words “Christ” with the Greek word “telos” meaning “end”. Their approach was to read the Old Testament in light of the eschatological reality of Christ.

Be Sociable, Share!

Derek Ouellette

Posts Twitter Facebook Google+

a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.
  • http://covenantoflove.net Derek Ouellette

    Note: if you are interested in a traditional evangelical response to Peter Enns, G.K. Beale wrote a full series of blog posts back in 2006. Click Here.