Review: Inspiration and Incarnation by Peter Enns


Inspiration & Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament

by Peter Enns

(Grand Rapids: Baker 2005) pbk. 197pp $19.95 ISBN 0801027306


Reviewed by Rowland S. Ward in The Presbyterian Banner, May 2006


This book is by the Professor of Old Testament and Biblical Hermeneutics at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. [Enns has left the Seminary as of mid 2008.] He was also editor of the Westminster Theological Journal 2000-05. My initial knowledge of it came through a somewhat abrasively hostile review in New Horizons (the Orthodox Presbyterian Church magazine) last year, which I am surprised was published in that form. At the other extreme a positive, certainly non-critical, review appears in Evangelicals Now! (UK) May 2006, while Bruce K. Waltke of Regent College and Reformed Theological Seminary gives one of the blurbs on the back cover. I confess my own reading of the first few chapters was a positive experience, but as I went further on I revised my opinion somewhat. Let me explain.

In five chapters Enns outlines his vision for a more adequate appraisal of the OT. Chapter 1 (pages 13-22) suggests that adequate attention has not been given to the human character of Scripture whereas we should, says the writer, use the model of the incarnation to stress that Scripture is truly human and truly divine. B.B. Warfield’s excellent 1894 essay on the Divine and human in the Bible is cited. The difficulty perhaps is that your initial comfort with this idea is dispelled somewhat because Enns, unlike Warfield, does not adequately develop the aspect of Scripture as truly Divine as well as truly human, and to that extent his incarnational model breaks down. In Enns’ hands the emphasis on the humanity of Scripture seems imbalanced.

His Chapter 2 (pages 23-70) sets out the challenge to the nature of Scripture from its setting in the ancient near east. For example, the OT text has similarities to Akkadian and Babylonian creation and flood accounts, similar customs in the tablets discovered during the 20th century at Nuzi, similar laws in the Code of Hammurabi, who predates Moses, and it seems to borrow wholesale from the Egyptian book Instruction of Amenemope in Proverbs 22:17-24:22, and so on. Enns does not want to conclude that the Bible is just a bunch of stories derived from ancient cultures, or that its similarities to these other books reduces its inspiration or that the Bible is dependent upon these other accounts. However, he does say there is a ‘conceptual similarity’, that as the OT was given in the ancient world’s cultures, all of which had myths of origins, it is understandable that the OT would have its own myth, defined as ancient, premodern, pre-scientific ways of addressing questions of ultimate origins and meaning in the form of stories (p.50). It is surely right of Enns to insist God speaks to man in his real-life situation. It is surely right to insist that Genesis does not address modern questions of a scientific nature. (No one will accuse me of rejecting that proposition!) Of course he is also right to insist history is always interpreted history, always selecting and presenting with a purpose in mind. Yet one cannot help feel that Enns leaves us in some ill-defined area where we can concede lack of fundamental historicity, and indeed where we have such a bias in the history that our conclusions can only be provisional.

Chapter 3 (The Old Testament and Theological Diversity pp. 71-112) accentuates one’s unease for to me Enns is magnifying difficulties to prove diversity. For example, Proverbs 26:4 & 5, cited on p. 74, are not diverse but two parts of one whole, just as is the case with Galatians 6:2 & 5. The diversity in the theology of Chronicles compared to Samuel-Kings is not a contradiction but arises from selection and emphasis for the changed context after the exile. Enns admits this, but somehow you think that he’s wanting to lead you further, since an anchor point for the divinity of Scripture is not as clearly made as for its humanity. The diversity in the two forms of the Ten Commandments, particularly the motivation for keeping the 4th commandment, is well known and its implication, that the heart of the commandment may be expressed in a different context in a slightly different but complementary way, should be fully acknowledged, but hardly impacts on traditional Reformed hermeneutics.

Chapter 4 (pp. 113-165) looks at the use of the Old Testament by the NT writers, and here one really sees orange lights turning to red. Having preached through pretty much the whole of Scripture at least once, I’ve tried to face NT use of the OT honestly. My view, which Enns rejects, is that even in those cases where you might at first think something odd is happening (‘rabbinic exegesis’ is the in-phrase), one usually finds on further reflection that the NT has rightly perceived the true intention of the OT passage in the overall context of Scripture. Enns boldly asserts that ‘the New Testament authors were not engaging the Old Testament in an effort to remain consistent with the original context and intention of the Old Testament author’ (p.115). Somewhat confusingly he adds that they were explaining what the text meant, that is, they were explaining what the text means in the light of Christ’s coming. Reading on, we find that Enns argues the ‘odd’ interpretations reflect the traditional way the text was interpreted in the apostles’ day and to which they were heir. An analogy might be the way some Christians think of Rahab’s scarlet cord as a type of Christ (cf. p. 161). Clearly that is far fetched, not grounded in the passage at all, but it is ‘a layer of meaning’ that many have found edifying. In the same way, suggests Enns, the apostles employed an interpretative method which was relevant to their hearers, even though it violated the canons of grammatical/historical exegesis as we understand them. I found this section loose and somewhat confusing, even self-contradictory at times. There are good things mixed with less than satisfying argumentation.

The short closing chapter offers no further help. One agrees far too many evangelicals read the OT with a poor paradigm in mind. It is too easily read through the interpretative grid provided by polarised evangelical–liberal positions. It is easy not to face real difficulties honestly. But after making every allowance I can only say that Enns’ book should be considered with considerable caution. It is attractively written and there are useful bibliographies. As it is, it doesn’t really quite match the standard of careful Reformed scholarship that we would expect from Westminster Theological Seminary. One can only hope and pray that the issues raised by this book will be dealt with on their merits. Perhaps its author can free it from imbalances and ambiguities in a further edition.

Note: Enn’s connection with WTS ended mid 2008.