Pete Enns on the Incarnational Model of Scripture
Christianity is a faith rooted in historical events. Christians, therefore, take history seriously. You can confirm that notion by flipping through a decent study Bible. It is filled with maps, charts, timelines, and footnotes. Most Christians like seeing how their faith fits in the ancient world. We feel more connected the Bible’s message when we understand its historical context.
The historical nature of Christianity creates a problem, though. The modern study of history surrounding the events of the Bible has raised some pretty serious challenges to certain traditional ideas within the Christian faith. It seems that the historical study of the Bible and lay expectations about the Bible can conflict. How can these two worlds be in conversation with each other?
As a first step, we need to think of fresh ways to talk about the Bible so that the historical work of biblical scholars is not automatically perceived as a threat to lay readers. In other words, we need theological models that show clear respect for the Bible and the challenges of historical study that are before us.
One such theological model is called an incarnational model. Simply put, this is the idea that the Bible is no more a book dropped out of the sky than Jesus is some superman who flew down from heaven. Instead, just as Jesus was a human being, the Bible is a book that fully reflects its cultural contexts. Jesus is “God incarnate,” both divine and human. Likewise, the Bible is a book that speaks God’s word but thoroughly reflects the thoughts, ideas, and worldviews of the human authors.
An incarnational model is by no means the only model for thinking about the Bible. Neither is it necessarily the best model. It is just a way of talking about the Bible where the challenges of historical study can be seen in a different light. An incarnational model helps us to see that we should expect the Bible to bear the marks of the perspectives and worldviews of ancient writers.
An incarnational model is neither a recent trend in Christian theology, nor is it considered risky. Princeton theologians B.B. Warfield and A.A. Hodge, famous for defending the doctrine of inerrancy, took this view in the nineteenth century, as did the later Dutch Reformed theologians Hermann Bavinck, Abraham Kuyper, and Herman Ridderbos. C.S. Lewis wrote about it on a lay level. These scholars may not have addressed all of the challenges that are before contemporary readers, but the message comes through loud and clear: the Bible fully reflects the times in which it was written.
Biblical writers wrote in ways that seemed natural and appropriate to them in their world. That means they cannot be expected to operate by scientific or historical standards we take for granted today.
In fact, the very nature of “inspiration” means that God’s word must be fully clothed in the human speech of the time. Any other sort of Bible is actually inconceivable. When God speaks, he necessarily and willingly condescends to the human level. He did this with Jesus, and we should not be surprised if the Bible reflects the same divine pattern of communication.
If we look at the Bible this way, we may begin to see the challenges of historical study as a window to look through rather than a wall to bang our heads against. If we expect the Bible to reflect its ancient historical settings, we may be more willing to have our own thinking challenged. Rather than resisting change in our thinking, we may be open to seeing how deeply God is involved in human history when he speaks.
We should not have to build a fence around the Bible to protect it from the findings of serious research. That does not mean every bit of historical reflection is right or beneficial. But it does mean that we should create a “culture of expectation” that celebrates the work of historical research rather than resisting it because of the challenges it raises. This will help relieve the tension many Christian readers have experienced for generations.
Historical research and Christian faith, no matter how challenging, is not an either/or but a both/and.