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Pete Enns on the Incarnational Model of Scripture

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May 8, 2010 Tags: Biblical Interpretation
Pete Enns on the Incarnational Model of Scripture

Today's entry was written by Pete Enns. You can read more about what we believe here.

Today's blog post is an introduction to Pete Enns' newest Scholarly Essay. Enns also discusses the incarnational model of Scripture in a related "Conversation" interview.

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.

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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Martin Rizley - #13193

May 11th 2010

Jeffrey Vaughan,  I don’t see anything contrary to divine inspiration or to the humanness of the text in acknowledging the fact that Moses used sources for writing what he wrote.  This would have been true especially of the material in Genesis, since he was not an eyewitness of the events described in that book.  Indeed, there is evidence of this in the text.  In 5:1, Moses mentions “the book of the genealogy of Adam” which appears to be an allusion to an ancient document to which he had access.  The specific dates and measurements and detailed descriptions given in the flood narrative may also have come from records kept by Noah and his descendants, perhaps on tablets.  The following passages also suggest that a certain amount of later editorial updating was involved under the direction of the Spirit of God to bring the text to the canonical form we now have (Genesis 14:14, 36:31, 47:11).  But I believe it is accurate to view Genesis as the work of Moses, since he was the author-editor-compiler of the bulk of the material in this work.  It is his authorization of the contents of Genesis that makes him the author, not the absence of pre-Mosaic source material.

Marshall - #13208

May 11th 2010

Hi Martin,

I hope the “Marshall, Marshall” at the beginning of your last post to me doesn’t indicate that you’re getting frustrated. I’ve enjoyed this discussion since we’ve established quite a bit of common ground—much appreciated after butting heads a bit on other issues. Neither of us believes Moses wrote the entire Pentateuch, but we do believe he played an important role in it (both as a character and as a source). From the passages you cited, it appears we also both agree that some methods of textual criticism can reveal clues about authorship. Both of us agree that there were later authors and editors who wrote material, and that the end result is inspired by God. Neither of us believes the laws of Sinai are just “made up”.

We do have substantial disagreements when it comes to how to read certain portions of the Pentateuch, but we agree that it is God’s inspired word. When it comes to authorship, I only see differences of degree: how much was written and edited well after Moses’ time, not whether this took place. I can’t get too worked up about the differences, because I’m happily celebrating our commonalities.


Jeffrey L Vaughn - #13216

May 11th 2010


It is only the genealogies that test different.  The criticism of Radday on “logical grounds” still does nothing to answer the fact that the the rest of P matches JED.  Radday falsified the DH.  He provided his data and a detailed description of his method to everyone interested.  Did any of those critics redo Radday’s analysis?  Or did they show why it is irrelevant?  Or did they merely complain that Radday couldn’t have done it right because he didn’t get the right answer?

The JBL reference concerns work Radday did on Zechariah.  Here’s an interseting link that describes that work in context of a great vareity of SL work.

http://books.google.com/books?id=EdqXxFWxKjkC&pg=PA28&lpg=PA28&dq=Yehuda+Radday+JBL+103+1984+11&source=bl&ots=aAgGHBrKbI&sig=LUEWsy1RQ31NHdJDVYvZ9Yyk_5s&hl=en&ei=WovpS-LwCZiWlAeAscDwAw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CBIQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=Yehuda Radday JBL 103 1984 11&f=false

It appears that the bulk of the work confirms Radday’s original analysis.


Martin Rizley - #13222

May 11th 2010

Marshall,  The double reference to your name was due to nothing but a lack of adequate proofreading!  Sometimes, I fail to edit carefully what I have written before sending it off, and as a result, missing words and sometimes double words don’t get caught—that’s all that “Marshall, Marshall” was—a mistake, not an expression of frustration!  Actually, I, too, am encouraged by the commonalities in what we are saying.  There are many biblical scholars today who deny that Moses had anything to do with the content of the Pentateuch; they believe that it was all a post-exilic creation by anonymous Jewish writers with different agendas.  In my judgment, that view of the Pentateuch does not at all do justice to what the Bible says about Moses as the covenant mediator of Israel through whom the Law was given to Israel, nor can it explain Moses’ personal appearance on the Mount of Transfiguration—not as an ‘unknown’ person whose mere memory inspired the writing of the Pentateuch, but as a person whose life typified and whose writings—well known to Israel—foretold in many different ways the coming of Christ (John 5:46).  (continued)

Martin Rizley - #13223

May 11th 2010

In closing, I would simply reiterate the importance of the repeated biblical references to Moses writing down carefully all the laws that God gave him. (e. g.,  Deut. 31:9—“So Moses wrote this law and delivered it to the priests, the sons of Levi, who bore the ark of the covenant of the Lord, and to all the elders of Israel.”  Deut. 31:24-26—“So it was, when Moses had completed writing the words of this law in a book, when they were finished, that Moses commanded the Levites, who bore the ark of the covenant of the Lord, saying: “Take this Book of the Law, and put it beside the ark of the covenant of the Lord.”)  Josh MacDowell points out that the repeated insistence in Deuteronomy on Moses writing the words of the covenant “cannot be used to prove that Moses wrote the Pentateuch; but it does at least presuppose a considerable book that at least refers to Deuteronomy 5 through 26, and indicates a large amount of literary activity by Moses.”  I would also point to the structual parallels between Deuteronomy and Hittite treaties of the second millenium B.C., which supports Mosaic authorship, as explained by Meredith Kline in his book “By Oath Consigned.”

Marshall - #13225

May 11th 2010

Sorry I picked out a typo, Martin. That wasn’t my intent. I’m curious about the book you mentioned and will look it up and perhaps borrow it. I’ve appreciated Kline’s writing in the past. His chapter (co-authored with Lee Irons) on the framework view of Genesis 1 helped to put a lot of pieces together for me that before that point had remained separated.

The chapter is found within The Genesis Debate: Three views on the days of creation. All views presented in the book affirm inerrancy and come from within the evangelical tradition. They also all reject evolution, yet while I disagree with them over some science issues, I still greatly enjoyed their exposition of Scripture.

gingoro - #13245

May 11th 2010


I read an essay by Elton Trueblood years ago where he said that the great Christian words are not either/or but both/and.  Sure there are exceptions but I have long subscribed to the truth of his words. 
Love your neighbor as yourself
Love God and your neighbor
Dave W

Nathan - #13285

May 12th 2010


The reviews and the JBL article criticize the statistical methodology of Radday, and so, yes, attempted to show the irrelevance of his findings.

The link you sent was helpful, since the author summarizes multiple applications of the statistical linguistics to Zechariah, and highlights how each attempt to do this produced different results.  Thus, on page 29 of the book you linked, Klein rejects the results of Radday and others since “most conclusions reached by linguistic methodologies fail to convince the statistical practitioners since the underlying methodology has yet to prove persuasive.”

If the application of statistical linguistics for authorship identification of ancient texts can’t produce consistent results, Klein is right to reject it.  With the methodology itself so in question, it is probably overstating to say that Radday has definitively “falsified the DH.”

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