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Challenging Old Assumptions

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December 9, 2010 Tags: Biblical Interpretation

Today's video features Pete Enns. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

In this video “Conversation,” Pete Enns addresses some assumptions about ancient readers and writers that are relevant to the way we should read Genesis in the 21st century.

One such assumption, says Enns, is that ancient people share the same view of the cosmos as do we. This is a flawed assumption, however, because ancient peoples did not think about outer space in quite the same way. Perhaps they imagined levels of heaven or subscribed to the notion of a three-tiered universe, but their scientific understanding of the universe was limited—and perhaps irrelevant to what they expected of biblical texts.

If we think that the biblical authors think about those things the same way, notes Enns, it may actually create an impediment for having a high view of the Bible. “Ironically a high view of the Bible is one that recognizes its lowliness—it is a positive thing to keep in mind that God is not afraid to speak in ways that people understand,” he says.

Another mistaken assumption may be the degree to which ancient authors think about writing history. Ancient “historians” did not follow the same models of documentation like contemporary historians. Perhaps the best way to illustrate that is to look at the New Testament. In the Gospels, there are four stories about Jesus that do not say the same thing about the same things. Yet, says Enns, “that seems to be okay for God to do that.” As such, our pressure is not to make these texts say the same things. “In antiquity, that’s how you get a full picture of someone—by giving different portraits,” he concludes.

Enns’ remarks echo those of theologian John Calvin, who argued in his Institutes that God must condescend to us in order for us to understand his message. He writes,

For who is so devoid of intellect as not to understand that God, in
so speaking, lisps with us as nurses are wont to do with little
children? Such modes of expression, therefore, do not so much
express what kind of a being God is, as accommodate the
knowledge of him to our feebleness. In doing so, he must, of
course, stoop far below his proper height.

Commentary written by the BioLogos editorial team.


Pete Enns is a former Senior Fellow of Biblical Studies for The BioLogos Foundation and author of several books and commentaries, including the popular Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, which looks at three questions raised by biblical scholars that seem to threaten traditional views of Scripture.


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Beaglelady - #43165

December 9th 2010

If we think that the biblical authors think about those things the same way, notes Enns, it may actually create an impediment for having a high view of the Bible. “Ironically a high view of the Bible is one that recognizes its lowliness—it is a positive thing to keep in mind that God is not afraid to speak in ways that people understand,” he says.

That’s a good point.  Muslims honor Jesus as a prophet but deny that he was crucified. Why? They claim that God would never alllow one of his prophets to be crucified!  By not recognizing the lowliness and humilty of Jesus they miss the big picture.


Cal - #43168

December 9th 2010

Beaglelady:

Or even beyond that point, that God would love so much that He would manifest Himself in lowly humanity and die a criminal death to redeem us, that to them is impossible in Islamic thinking.

I agree with Pete’s diagnosis, knowing the limitations of Human language and how God can convey such powerful messages to us in any form or forum.


Tim Bulkeley - #43170

December 9th 2010

It’s all about God who becomes incarnate.

Incarnation is God’s way of working in the world, so of course the word of God comes to us in human words. How else? Jesus could not leap tall buildings in a single bound, unless he succumbed to the temptation of the devil. But when the devil quoted Scripture suggesting Jesus use the power of Godhead to act like superman he refused also with Scripture. God isn’t in the superman business, and doesn’t write magic books, Scripture incarnates the divine message in human words.


Tim - #43171

December 9th 2010

Pete,

What genre would you assign the Birth Narratives?

I think most Biblical scholars walk away with the impression that these accounts in the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke are, more or less, fictitious in nature.  There might be certain elements you could say were historical as a Christian, such as being born to a virgin, in Bethlehem, with angels singing.  But for almost all the rest of the details, they seem entirely made-up.

I have a vague understanding of ancient historiography and well understand that the historiographer may feel at times at ease to play fast and loose with details to drive across their theme or point.  But what do you do with almost entirely fictitious accounts that look like their raison d’être was to proclaim that Jesus fulfilled the prophesy of being born in Bethlehem despite being known among the public as “Jesus of Nazareth”?


Jon Garvey - #43174

December 9th 2010

@Tim Bulkeley - #43170

All true, but to make the fact of incarnation into a universal principle is dubious.

Jesus didn’t leap buildings - but did walk on water and, because God was with him, did many other superhuman things. And he taught truth he heard directly from the Father, which is beyond us.

So in assessing Scripture’s status, it’s as important that God lifts men to his level as that he lowers himself to ours: “Men spoke from God” is as true as “God became flesh.” We still need to consider what Scripture says of itself, and what Jesus says of it, rather than simply saying, “incarnation trumps all.”

A parallel: you meet Jesus and sit at his feet. As he teaches, do you keep questioning which bits of his teaching are divine and which human? Peter tried that at least once and Jesus called him “Satan” in response. It’s a pretty cockeyed logic if one ends up denying his miracles because he was so divine they would have been inconsistent with his incarnation, and his teaching because no true human gets it right all the time.


Pete Enns - #43176

December 9th 2010

Tim #43170

You may be interested in one essay on our site I wrote about the incarnation and scripture, “Preliminary Observations on an Incarnational Model of Scripture: Its Viability and Usefulness”


Tim - #43180

December 9th 2010

Pete,

I’ve read through your article, but I don’t see any explanation for an account like the Birth Narratives.  Perhaps the closest you came to it was the mentioning that there exists a discrepancy between the Chronicler and the Deuteronomistic historian - with a caution against trying to “solve” the “problem” by harmonizing the two accounts.

But this tells me nothing of genre.  For instance the Book of Chronicles is considered by no small number of scholars as belonging to the genre of historical propaganda.  You haven’t said as much in your essay, but this would be one way you could go.

Would then the Birth Narratives be considered as belonging to the genre of propaganda?  Or is there a different genre you feel would be more appropriate?  How would we identify them?  Or is genre identification not the relevant issue here?


Pete Enns - #43189

December 9th 2010

Tim,

I was responding to TIm 1, not Tim 2. I didn’t know you were the same.

I can’t think of any NT scholars, other than those who for theological reasons would be negatively pre-disposed, who deny the role of historical embellishment for theological purposes in the birth narratives. Bob Gundry, retired from Westmont College, goes into great length on this in his Matthew commentary, sparring a bit with those who think that such embellishment is unworthy of scripture. It’s a rather lengthy treatment and I’d rather not try to sum it up.


Tim - #43192

December 9th 2010

OK Pete, thanks.  For the record, I’m not the same as Pete Bulkeley.  Sorry I didn’t catch the post # reference.  Thanks you for clarifying your position on the Birth Narratives though, and I’ll make sure to give Bob Gundry’s Matthew commentary a look if I can get a copy in my hands.


Robert Byers - #43203

December 10th 2010

The author of the thread is saying, it seems, that the opinions of the ancients on matters of outer space or history are relevant in regards to scripture.
They are not.
Evangelicals, mostly, say scripture is from the ideas of God. people were just keyboards.
so its irrelevant what ancients thought about anything in origin issues.
We say Genesis is from the witness and idea construction of God.
so origins conclusions based on genesis boundaries are rock solid in truth.
No getting away that taking on genesis is taking on the truth by historical evangelical creationism.


Jon Garvey - #43230

December 10th 2010

@Robert Byers - #43203

“Evangelicals, mostly, say scripture is from the ideas of God. people were just keyboards.” Robert, you’re confusing Evangelicals with Muslims. Evangelicals have never held to Scripture as dictation.

1 Peter says that the prophets “searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing.” My keyboard doesn’t search intently - does yours?

Nevertheless, the same passage says that to those prophets it was revealed that they were writing for the future. And 2 Peter that prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but that men spoke from God, as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. Which implies that for all that they may have been jars of clay, God produced real treasure in them with us in mind.


eddy - #43374

December 11th 2010

“...it is a positive thing to keep in mind that God is not afraid to speak in ways that people understand…”—Pete Enns.

On the other side, it is negative and scary to imagine God speaking in ways in which truth and lies are indistinguishable. There is this popular thought here that Genesis is ” God’s Word in human language” and “providing divine truth in human fables”! It is good rhetoric but if anyone here is a member in this line of reasoning how does he/she brings the mind to separate the parts in Genesis that are true to be taken very seriously from parts that are lies or myths to be taken less seriously?

For example, we all know that the universal, Genesis flood, was a myth. Still in Genesis 6 and elsewhere, you will marvel at how God is so intertwined with this myth such that coming out in the 21st century learning how it was all fable, yet assured there is divine truth in the universal lie, I will love to know the gymnastics know-how secrets capable of telling the divine truth from cosmic lies!


John VanZwieten - #43399

December 11th 2010

Eddy,

You really should take a college-level course in mythic literature, or perhaps someone could suggest a good book on the topic.  Otherwise posts like the one above just come across as silly.


Papalinton - #43447

December 11th 2010

@ John VanZwieten - #43399

Sorry John, your comment to Eddy, does not address the question he asks.  How do you tell the chaff from the wheat, so to speak?

Unless and until such a question can be responded to substantively,  reading the bible is a college-level course in mythic literature in itself.

Cheers


John VanZwieten - #43460

December 12th 2010

Papalinton,

You are trapped in the same categories as Eddy, i.e. “not-historically-factual-to-modern-standards = chaff/cosmic lies.”  That thinking leads to a fork in the road: either the Bible becomes all historically factual or it becomes a big cosmic lie.  You and Eddy have obviously taken opposite forks of that road.

It actually becomes rather comical: athiests pour over the Bible nitpicking for any and every inconsistency they can find, while literalismists concoct ever-more-fantastic scenarios to reconcile the smallest details.  Both end up “missing the forest for the trees.”


Papalinton - #43476

December 12th 2010

Hi John VanZwieten - #43460

“You are trapped in the same categories as Eddy, i.e. “not-historically-factual-to-modern-standards = chaff/cosmic lies.”  That thinking leads to a fork in the road: either the Bible becomes all historically factual or it becomes a big cosmic lie.  You and Eddy have obviously taken opposite forks of that road.”

So what you are suggesting is, there is a middle road, that is, the bible is ‘an historical not-so-big lie’? 
That is, without the ’ factual’ of one road and without the ‘cosmic’ of the other road, but a middle path between both roads.

Yes, I could live with that as a descriptor.

Your comment,  ” ... pour over the Bible nitpicking for any and every inconsistency they can find ...”  is generally called ‘Apologetics’, you know harmonisation, syncretism etc etc.

Cheers


John VanZwieten - #43564

December 13th 2010

Papalinton,

I’d rather suggest going the opposite direction.  The bible speaks through a variety of idioms appropriate to when it was written.  Failure (or refusal) to recognize those idioms and interpret the Bible accordingly is the fault of the reader, not of the Bible itself.

That said, it is amazing what effective communication the Bible has been across the milennia and across world cultures.


eddy - #43595

December 13th 2010

John, to take a course from intrepid mythic instructors who boldly proclaim truth can come from untruth does not straighten a warped thinking that God can use false stories in the Bible to tell us serious truths. You will not simply say about God on terms that do not correctly resemble what God’s nature is and expect to go away with it. If you are attempting to create your god in your own mind, that’s fine with me. However, be it known to you that God, as informed by Christian scriptures, does not ever tell the lie and you are simply coming across as someone who will just concoct a god who is consistently inconsistent.


John VanZwieten - #43619

December 13th 2010

Eddy,

Really?!  Jesus told stories all the time to communicate truth, completely without regard for whether the stories were “true,” “false,” or somewhere inbetween by the standards of silly moderns.

The fact is that stories communicate powerfully to those with “an ear to hear.”  To nitpickers and hyper-literalists, I guess they can be a stumbling block though.


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