I have read (and used as teaching tools) two of Enns’ previous works: The Sin of Certainty and The Bible Tells Me So. Thankfully, I was able to receive an advance reader copy from HarperOne of How the Bible Actually Works in exchange for writing a review and being a part of the launch team for the book. And even though a well-meaning colleague (and supervisor for that matter) called me a heretic for carrying around the copy, I am more than happy to fulfill my obligations before being burned at the stake.1
However, it was with some other fear and trepidation that I approached this particular work of Enns’. The subtitle set off little alarm bells in my United Methodist self – “*In Which I Explain How an Ancient, Ambiguous, and Diverse Book Leads Us to Wisdom Rather than Answers – and Why That’s Great News.” The word “ambiguous” was one that I do not believe that I had ever heard in serious Biblical Scholarship before. I chalked the subtitle up to Enns’ tendency toward the sensational and sometimes sarcastic and dove right in.
I have no problem seeing the Bible as either “ancient” or “diverse”. I have known for quite some time that it is important for us to understand the context of the Biblical writers and realize that the Bible does come from divergent opinions. I must say, however, that Enns breathed new life into the whole historical critical study method in several ways in How the Bible Actually Works. By nailing a third leg to this milking stool for the Bible, namely the thought provoking word “ambiguous,” Enns is able to show how to use the ancient, diverse text in new ways.2
Many people, including the most traditionalist of Bible readers, make the claim that “the Bible proofs itself” and that we should only judge “Scripture with Scripture.” Very few mean it. Peter Enns, however, doesn’t just mean it, he encourages us to start and finish our work with it. By using the way the Bible itself is structured, he challenges those of us who wish to take The Book seriously to read the Bible in the same way it written.
In an adroit manner, Enns prompts us to see a link between revelation (the act, not the last book of the Bible) and imagination3. Since biblical authors came from different times and were experiencing faith in sometime very different situations than previous people of faith – one just doesn’t know how important the Babylonian exile can be to faith until they read this book – what was revealed to their imaginations about God were quite different over time. Enns rightly calls this process of taking what was previously learned about God, adding the current experience, and working out what God is saying to the Biblical writer for that time, an act of wisdom. (Note to Enns and publisher…kill the capitol on “wisdom” in the subtitle…that usage makes it seem like the whole of Biblical writing is pointing back to the genre of Wisdom literature.)
But that is not the great news he has for us in this book. No. The great news is that by following the pattern of Biblical writing into current day Biblical interpretation, we are invited to continue the act of finding wisdom in the Bible rather than twisting and proof texting to some absurd level to try and make the Bible into some book of rules that should be followed. The living Christian faith is not basketball and we should not treat our bible the same as the rules for basketball. Yeah, Enns is stuck on baseball and that pinstripe wearing team of hackers from New York City, but we all know the best sports analogies come from basketball.4
As I said earlier, I read and taught from two of Enns’ previous works. At the end of them, I, along with others, were wondering, “Okay. This is good, but ‘what’s next?’” How the Bible Actually Works offers that “what’s next” and opens up the whole of creation for the human endeavor of understanding God as revealed in and through the Bible.
Is this book perfect? Far from it. Some, but not me, will indeed be put off by the lack of “scholarly sounding” writing. Others, like me, will tire of Enns promising “more on that later” – which I would humbly say is a real fault in his writing style. I didn’t go back and actually check, but I do not believe Enns came back to every single thing that he said he would. If I am wrong, I apologize, but it makes my point for me. There were too many of them to keep up with and I’m just short of being compulsive enough to go back and check each one. May those with eidetic memories make the proof that is needed!
Even with those slight problems, this is a great book. It needs to be read and reread often by those who take seriously the Bible and especially those of us who regularly teach and preach from the Bible. We have abdicated through laziness the effort that is really needed to understand such a holy book and Enns has offered us the possibility of recovering not just the proper discipline we need, but the hope that using this discipline will break us out of our sloth and allow us to find new ways to unify the ever splintering Christian kingdom on earth.
May wisdom be with you. (Yep…I crack myself up.)
The book is released on February 19, 2019 so go ahead and preorder your copies. (Yes, you will want extras to give to someone else so that you can talk through some of this stuff.)
1 – I must add that no real harm should come to this reviewer. Said colleague gladly accepted the loan of the previous works…then again…that could be in preparation for my trial. Hmmmm.
2 – Okay. This may not be all that new even according to Enns. He acknowledges the existence of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral towards the end of his book. May I just say, “Glory be!” and refer you to note four on that response.
3 – There is a fair amount of use of the words “imagining” and “reimagining” in this book. Some may find it a bit too human of an endeavor for reading the Bible and understanding God. My only response is, “What else do we have left to use?” Imagination and revelation are “pneumatically” linked in humanity. Either that or we are all drunk. Just read Acts 2:15.
4 – Sarcasm. (Yeah, this note may be seen as plagiarism. So noted. They wanted me to write the
review. Consider this an instance where this writer wishes he had thought of this idea first and didn’t have to “borrow” it.)
2 thoughts on “Truly Great News – A Review of “How the Bible Actually Works” by Peter Enns”
Great review. I haven’t heard about Peter Enns but the approach he takes to reading and studying the Bible is similar to what I’ve been enjoying at the church I belong to. I’m passing your review on to my Pastor. Thanks.
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Thanks. I’m glad you found a connection with Enns material. He is an excellent writer of this type of biblical interpretation.