Biblical Inerrancy: Peter Enns – An Argument Against Inerrancy

{This is the third post in a series on the book Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy. ed. J. Merrick, S. Garrett, and S. Gundry. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013. See the first and second posts.}

{Disclaimer: I’m using the Kindle Edition of Five Views, which uses “locations” rather than page numbers, so my citations will be noted accordingly.}

null.jpg_174Peter Enns, Old Testament scholar and professor at Eastern University, continues the conversation on inerrancy with his essay, “Inerrancy, However Defined, Does Not Describe What the Bible Does.”


With a title like that, it isn’t hard to guess on which side of the debate he lands.

We can also see from his title that, unlike Mohler, Enns works to develop a doctrine of Scripture from a description of what it does rather than from presuppositions about what it should do based on what we believe to be the character of God (i.e., God is perfect, therefore the Bible must be perfect).

According to Enns, “The Bible is a book that tells one grand narrative, but by means of divergent viewpoints and different theologies” (Loc 1351).

When it comes to the question of inerrancy, Enns believes that God has not given us a Bible that can fit into that category.  Moreover, he suggests that the category itself is a modern imposition on a group of texts written millennia ago.

The majority of Enns’ essay is spent tearing down “inerrancy,” which he believes to be a barrier honest, truth-seeking discussion. The CSBI, in his opinion, “Obstructs the kind of critical dialogue clearly surfacing within evangelicalism…” (Loc 1377).

In his view, presupposing the text’s inerrancy requires a constant twisting or ignoring of evidence, even from within the Bible itself (as we will see with the “problem texts”). “In my opinion,” he states, “the distance between what the Bible is and the theological hedge placed around the Bible by the CSBI has been and continues to be a source of considerable cognitive dissonance” (Loc 1386).

The CSBI takes a heavy beating from Enns. He points out that it refuses to acknowledge how deeply imbedded Scripture is in the culture and understanding of its ancient recipients. It portrays God as one who is so removed from human limitation that he cannot possibly “speak within the limitations of his audience.” He goes on to say, “Ironically, inerrancy prevents us from grappling with the God of the Bible” (Loc 1489).

Rather than spending our efforts trying to prove the Bible’s inerrancy or bend it to fit what the Bible actually does, Enns suggests an alternative: Incarnation. Like Christ, Scripture reveals a distinctly human component as well as a divine purpose. He admits that the analogy is imperfect, but contends that it is a helpful starting place for a doctrine of Scripture that conforms to what the Bible actually does.

Dealing with the Problem Texts

Concerning the historicity of Joshua 6, Enns contends that the only people who question the majority view—that Jericho was sparsely populated, without walls—are those who wish to prove the Bible to be inerrant. Since he does not believe the Bible fits into that category, he has no problem agreeing with the historical/archaeological perspective. At most, Enns believes that the biblical account of the conquest of Jericho is a “significant elaboration on a historical kernel” (Loc 1566). That “historical kernel” being that some Israelites came to occupy the territory known as Jericho. Historians call this literary technique, “mythologizing history,” and it is very common in the literature of other national histories written around the same time as the OT. For Enns, this is a productive way to view some biblical episodes. For him, the Bible’s authority does not stand or fall on its historical accuracy, but in its Incarnationality. Unfortunately, Enns ends there and we are left wondering what this kind of authority looks like and how it functions in the life of the church.

The conflicting accounts of Saul’s conversion in Luke 9 and 22, according to Enns, presents another kind of challenge to the inerrantist perspective. While there are numerous inconsistent historical accounts in Scripture, this one is in the same book, by the same author. Rather than try to conflate the two versions, Enns points out the similarities between Saul’s conversion/calling and the Old Testament accounts of those called by God to perform a certain prophetic task. Saul’s experience is reminiscent of Ezekiel (Ez 1:28) and Daniel (Dn 10:5-14). It is no question for anyone in this debate whether the New Testament writers tell stories in such a way to remind their readers of Old Testament stories. For Enns, the conflicting stories show the irrelevance of whether Luke’s account of Saul’s conversion is a historical, shot-for-shot record. Luke is accurately depicting Saul as a man called by God to perform a specific task. Each account Luke gives different versions because they serve different purposes. Enns suggests a possibility for the differences is that Luke needed “to defend Paul as a Jewish prophet in Acts 22, and not in chapter 9” (Loc 1691).

Enns earns himself some theological enemies with his interpretation of Deuteronomy 20 in light of Matthew 5. Though, his interpretation is a relatively common one and should not be rejected without consideration. He proposes that the Old Testament gives us the theology of the ancient Israelites, which is consistent with the theologies of other ancient societies. Namely, that the gods are tribalistic warriors solely concerned about the preservation of their tribes. In the Incarnational model of Scripture, this shows how God is able to meet people where they are and move them in the direction he desires—toward the full revelation himself: Jesus Christ. When Jesus arrives on the scene, Israel expects Yahweh to work as their ancestors supposed and lead a military campaign. But, Jesus reveals that God is not concerned with that—in fact, God does not desire to extinguish his enemies at all, but to love them and serve them in order to draw them to himself. Enns anticipates that some will question why God didn’t just say this to the Israelites of the OT. “One answer,” he states, “is that Israel’s depiction of God vis-à-vis the nations unmistakably, and understandably, reflects the tribal culture at the time. Jesus said, in effect, ‘That was then, this is now; you have heard it said, but I say to you’” (Loc 1829-1838).

A Response

Doubtless, many will have serious problems with his denial of inerrancy, specifically with his approach to the Old Testament. But, the challenges he presents for strict inerrantists are pertinent. Unsurprisingly, Mohler states, “…inerrancy is the single issue that truly distinguishes evangelicalism from liberal Protestantism” (Loc 1916). This only serves to prove Enns’ point that inerrancy’s main function is to place a hedge around Scripture which determines who is “in” and who is “out.”

Though, Mohler (along with the rest of the contributors) rightly wonders what kind of truth Enns would suggest the Bible transmits. While I believe Enns’ essay is genuinely challenging and helpful on many levels, he spends most of his time explaining how inerrancy falls apart, and not enough time explaining what he believes about the nature of Scripture. To be fair, this book is mainly concerning his “view on inerrancy”—which, he gives in no uncertain terms. Even still, it would be far more productive to his cause to spend more time on what it means for Scripture to be “Incarnational.”

I guess we’ll just have to read his book on this issue, Inspiration and Incarnation, to get that side of his argument.

Finally, Enns fails to address a major critique of his perspective, which Michael Bird points out in his response: What role does faith play in our doctrine of Scripture? What about the resurrection? If scientific evidence proves this to be impossible (which it does), then should we accept the consensus of the scientific community and forsake our faith? We would then be, as Paul says, “of all men most to be pitied” (1 Cor 15:12-19). Perhaps Enns would have a sufficient response to this, but alas, we have none.


3 responses to “Biblical Inerrancy: Peter Enns – An Argument Against Inerrancy

  1. Pingback: Biblical Inerrancy: John R. Franke – Redefining Inerrancy | Tylor Standley·

  2. Pingback: Biblical Inerrancy: Kevin Vanhoozer – Augustinian Inerrancy | Tylor Standley·

  3. Pingback: Biblical Inerrancy: Michael Bird – Innerancy is Unnecessary | Tylor Standley·

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