A weblog by Will Fitzgerald

The Bible as "messy"

Extremely surprising article at über-evangelical Christianity Today: Messy Revelation: Why Paul would have flunked hermeneutics by historian and biblical studies expert Susan Wise Bauer. It’s a very positive review of a book by Peter Enns titled Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament. Enns argues that the New Testament writers interpreted the Hebrew scriptures in the writers’ own social and cultural context–the writers had come to believe in Jesus as the resurrected Messiah, and then found evidence in the scriptures. Enns calls this “incarnational;” the writers would no more interpret the scriptures as anything other than early Christians than Jesus would have come as anything other than a first century Jew. Further Enns admits this is “messy,” but refuses to succumb to a slippery-slope argument that this will lead to anyone reading anything into scripture.

In other words, the interpretation of the Hebrew scriptures by the New Testament writers was not inspired or inerrant (to use that ugly word). The “grammatico-historical method” (the general term that evangelicals use for the one true method of interpretation) is only one of many possible good ways of scripture interpretation. Enns claims that a scriptural hermaneutic must be Christ-centered, but that the messiness will remain. To think that the grammitico-historical method is the only way is to deny that the New Testament writers interpreted Scripture correctly, and Enns likens it to a kind of docetism, that the humanity evidenced by the scriptures (and the interpretation methods found therein) only seem human. Scripture is fully human-breathed and fully God-breathed, as it were.

I wrote an undergraduate paper on the interpretation of the Hebrew scriptures in the New Testament almost thirty years ago. In it, I argued what I think is a compatible stance: since the New Testament writers intepreted scripture in such-and-such a way, we were licensed to do the same. (I don’t think I impressed my professor, the wonderfully generous Fred Graham, but I think it wasn’t so bad). Enns might say this is not so “incarnational,” i.e., against the spirit of our own age. But I suspect one would find the New Testament writers remarkably postmodern (in some contorted meaning of that word) in their thinking: narrative over brute facts, experience over words, etc.

Well, anyway, good on Enns, and good on Susan Wise Bauer, and good on CT for publishing the article.


2 responses to “The Bible as "messy"

  1. the Foolish Sage May 6, 2006 at 11:38 am

    I’m one of Professor Enns’s students at Westminster Theological Seminary. One correction I’d make to you otherwise fine summary of his book is your statement that he is proposing that “the interpretation of the Hebrew scriptures by the New Testament writers was not inspired or inerrant (to use that ugly word).” Enns would shy away from the latter term (inerrant) simply because it has become charged with all kinds of unhelpful modernist meaning. But I do think he maintains that the method of interpretation of the OT used by the NT writers was “inspired.” In fact, that’s one of the main points of his book: God himself ordained and was quite comfortable with the use of the hermeneutical approaches (such as midrash) of the 1st century Jewish culture in which the NT writers lived by the NT writers. This is why he titles his book “Inspiration and Incarnation.”

    BTW, if I may be allowed a plug, the book is available at Westminster Bookstore for cheaper than Amazon or CBD.

  2. Will May 6, 2006 at 11:52 am

    You’re completely right–I was writing late at night, and of course that was a main point of the book. I’ll make a correction.

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