Recently, Peter Enns posted an article in which he was asked by the website hosts to “list ten things he wishes everyone understood about the Bible.” His answer was posted on the website with the subcaption, “The 10 Commandments of Bible Reading.” Perhaps the website hosts imposed a restriction on the length of the article, and that may account for the sound bite character of these commandments. So, perhaps Pete would have nuanced things a bit if permitted to write a longer statement. But in their present form, these ten commandments are not really very helpful. Here they are, along with the reasons why you should reject most of them.
“1. The Bible doesn’t answer all—or even most—of our questions. Many of our questions, even some of the more pressing questions we face daily, aren’t answered in the Bible. The Christian Bible isn’t an answer book but a story of how Jesus answers for us the biggest question of all: what God is like.”
First of all, I am not quite sure what Enns really intended to say. Did he mean “all—or even most” as he puts it in the first sentence? Or did he mean “many . . . even some” as he puts it in the second sentence. In any case, more importantly, I have no idea what kinds of questions he thinks should be excluded from our expectations. Which sock should I put on first? Should I attend a major university or a junior college? Should I buy a Chevrolet or a Ford? Should I root for the Yankees or the Mets? I agree that these questions aren’t answered in the Bible (though Pete has provided cogent biblical arguments for the Yankees!). However, when it comes to life’s most pressing questions, with regard to what we should believe and how we should live—i.e., questions of faith and practice—the Bible addresses all these questions; and it is seriously misleading to say that it doesn’t. If Enns thinks these kinds of questions are excluded from the Bible’s answering function, then he is very wrong. Now, he is certainly correct that the Bible tells us what God is like. But that information has profound implications for most of life’s major questions: Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going? What should I believe? How should I live? The Bible provides not only answers to these questions; it provides definitive answers, answers which God expects us to accept and act on.
“2. The Bible isn’t like God’s version of Apple’s “Terms and Conditions” agreement. The Bible doesn’t lay out before us God’s terms and conditions, where failure to adhere to one clause in the middle of page 87 will cause a breach of contract and banishment from God’s graces. The Bible is more like a grand narrative that reorders our imaginations and holds out for us an alternate way of seeing reality—with God at the heart of it rather than ourselves.”
I very much appreciate what Enns says in the last sentence. But what comes before it is terribly un-nuanced. The Bible is a covenantal document. It definitely does lay out God’s terms and conditions. And it does so in so many places that it is absolutely mind-boggling how one could understand otherwise. Even if we were to confine ourselves to just the “red letters” in the Sermon on the Mount, note how Jesus articulates the situation:
21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ 23 Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ 24 “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. 26 But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.” (Matthew 7:21-27)
Further, note what Jesus said earlier in the sermon:
13 “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. 14 But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” (Matthew 7:13-14)
Jesus considered compliance with the “terms and conditions” to be a matter of life and death. Now, if Enns means, by referring to “one clause in the middle of page 87,” that there are gradations in the biblical commands, I would certainly agree. And God is certainly a gracious, merciful, and most compassionate God. But that does not by any means take away from the seriousness of God’s commands. Again, even though there are gradations, Jesus, in those same “red letters” in the Sermon on the Mount, regarding God’s law, makes that well-known reference to “not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen,” not “one jot or one tittle” (Matthew 5:18). It would seem that Jesus considered even the minutiae to be quite important.
“3. The Bible isn’t a sourcebook for fighting culture wars. The Bible isn’t a club we use to gain political power or a way of forcing secular culture to obey our rules. America is not God’s country and the Bible isn’t its constitution. Stop it.”
On the one hand, I appreciate Enns’s basic drift in this one. There are, however, two very important considerations to keep in mind. First, to be sure, the Bible isn’t a “club” to be used in “forcing” a pluralistic society to “obey our rules.” However, the Bible is a document which shapes our values, and we have a right to bring those values to bear in our participation in democratic and legislative processes. A Christian, for example, who is persuaded by reading the Scriptures that abortion is wrong, has every right to bring that conviction to bear with regard to voting, mobilizing, and lobbying. And if that Christian is a legislator, he or she also has the right to work for laws that would outlaw abortion. Indeed, this is exactly what happened in both England and the United States with regard to slavery. Force? No. Bring strong pressure to bear? Yes.
Second, the way this particular entry is worded, it seems to be aimed toward the “religious right.” But I am curious as to whether the author would also apply this to the “religious left”? When the religious left tries to bring pressure on the government or secular culture to adopt their values, which it does quite strenuously and quite vocally, should they not also be told to “Stop it”?
“4. The Bible Doesn’t Guarantee Success in Life. Don’t listen to those T.V. preachers. The Bible isn’t a step-by-step guide to success, as if buried there are deep secrets for being happy, healthy, and rich. It is a book that shows what dying to self and surrendering to God are about. The Bible crushes our egos.”
If Pete is referring here to the “prosperity gospel” preachers, then I certainly agree. But the false “prosperity gospel” is only attractive because it actually has a measure of truth to it. And that measure of truth must be given its due.
1 Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers. 2 But his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night. 3 He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers. (Psalm 1:1-3)
“Blessed” (happy). “Yields its fruit” (healthy). “Prospers” (rich). Okay, maybe not rich, but at least successful. Yes, we are to die to self. Yes, we are to surrender to God. Yes, the Bible does crush our egos. But these truths can coexist with the truth that, generally, as the Psalms and Wisdom Literature teach, those who follow the ways of the Lord are also the ones who will succeed in life. There is no “guarantee,” as books like Job and Ecclesiastes, several psalms, and even some of the proverbial material make clear. Nevertheless, the Bible is a guide to success in the skill and art of living.
“5. The Bible is open to multiple interpretations, not just one meaning. The Bible is ancient and obscure, and its stories are “gapped” and flexible, which allows—even demands—readers to interpret the Bible legitimately in various ways. This is exactly what has been happening among Jews and Christians for over 2,000 years.”
There are a number of problems with this one. I’ll mention only three.
First, to say that the Bible is open to multiple interpretations is not very helpful at all. Homer is open to multiple interpretations. Shakespeare is open to multiple interpretations. So is the constitution. So is the instruction sheet that comes with Ikea furniture. So is the stop sign down at the corner. So is Enns’s article.
Second, the assumption in the Bible itself, and in particular with Jesus and the apostles, is that there is a right way to read the Bible. Paul argues that there are right and wrong ways to “handle the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). Peter argues that the Scriptures can be distorted (2 Peter 3:16). And when Jesus finished the Sermon on the Mount, the people “were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law” (Matthew 7:28-29). The Bible places no value on finding multiple interpretations of its teachings. Now, to be sure, there are many places in the Bible where the authors may have woven multiple nuances, clever double entendres, and polyvalent symbolism into their writings. I myself would rather understand these as multiple layers of what is essentially one meaning. Interpretations which depart from this meaning are wrong interpretations.
Third, granting for the sake of argument that the Bible is capable of multiple interpretations, the ironic result of this is that it severely compromises the rest of the points that Enns makes in this article. It actually negates several of his commandments. As it turns out, the Bible can be interpreted as answering most or even all of our questions. The Bible can be read like Apple’s “terms and conditions” agreement. The Bible can be used as a club to gain political power and force secular culture to accept our rules. The Bible can be interpreted as guaranteeing success in life. And even super-ironically, with respect to this fifth point in particular, the Bible can be read as having only one inflexible meaning! Enns’s fifth point says that the Bible can be read in all these ways! And when Enns says we shouldn’t read the Bible in these ways, he is breaking his own fifth commandment.
“6. The Bible invites debate. An extremely important lesson for Christians to learn from Judaism is that the Bible invites debate. In fact, it can’t avoid it, given how open it is to multiple interpretations. Winning Bible feuds with others, getting to the right answer, isn’t the end goal. The back-and forth with the Bible, and with God, is where deeper faith is found.”
Since this commandment goes along with the fifth one, some of the same problems I noted previously also apply to this one. I appreciate Enns’s wise words about the pointlessness of trying to win at a game of “Bible feuds.” But I am not as enthused with his denigration of the search for the “right answer.” And I would also argue that it is not “the back-and-forth with the Bible, and with God,” where “deeper faith is found.” Rather, deeper faith is found in submission to the authority of God and to the authority of God’s word. And if the answer cannot be found, for there are indeed some things that are hidden, then the attitude of the psalmist is a good one to emulate:
1 My heart is not proud, O LORD, my eyes are not haughty; I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me. 2 But I have stilled and quieted my soul; like a weaned child with its mother, like a weaned child is my soul within me. (Psalm 131:1-2)
“7. The Bible doesn’t “record” history objectively but interprets it. The biblical writers didn’t try to get history “right” in the same sense an author of an academic textbook does. Instead, they interpreted the past in their place and time, for their own communities, to answer their own questions of faith. That’s why the Bible contains two very different “histories” of Israel and the four Gospels that recount Jesus’ life differently.”
There’s probably a bit of an agenda here; but I’m largely in agreement with what Pete says. I’ll let this one slide.
“8. The Bible was written by Jews (and at least one Gentile in the New Testament) in ancient times. This may sound too obvious to say, but it’s not. The biblical writers were ancient writers expressing their faith in God using the vocabulary and concepts of their ancient cultures. When we transpose our language and concepts onto biblical writers, even if we are trying to understand the Bible, we will actually distort it.”
Hey, I’m feeling magnanimous, I’ll let this one slide too. Besides, I pretty much agree. I will add however, that most of the time our concepts are not very far removed from those of the biblical writers; so this at least lessens the possibility of distortion. In fact, if there were no shared world of concepts, we would be unable to read the Bible at all.
“9. The Bible isn’t the center of the Christian faith. Some form of the Bible has always been a part of the life of the church, but the Bible isn’t the center of our faith. God is—or, for Christians, what God has done in and through Jesus. The Bible doesn’t draw attention to itself, but to God.”
This one is just absolutely incomprehensible and incredible, especially coming from someone who supposedly relies so heavily on the incarnational analogy. What is this obsession that Enns and so many other writers of the so-called “progressive evangelical” stripe have with separating God from his word? And how completely unbiblical this tendency is.
4 In God, whose word I praise . . . (Psalm 56:4)
10 In God, whose word I praise, in the LORD, whose word I praise— (Psalm 56:10)
7 The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul.
The statutes of the LORD are trustworthy, making wise the simple.
8 The precepts of the LORD are right, giving joy to the heart.
The commands of the LORD are radiant, giving light to the eyes.
9 The fear of the LORD is pure, enduring forever.
The ordinances of the LORD are sure and altogether righteous.
10 They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold;
they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the comb.
11 By them is your servant warned;
in keeping them there is great reward. (Psalm 19:7-11)
14 I rejoice in following your statutes as one rejoices in great riches. (Psalm 119:14)
18 Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in your law. (Psalm 119:18)
20 My soul is consumed with longing for your laws at all times. (Psalm 119:20)
45 I will walk about in freedom, for I have sought out your precepts. (Psalm 119:45)
47 for I delight in your commands because I love them.
48 I lift up my hands to your commands, which I love . . . (Psalm 119:47-48)
54 Your decrees are the theme of my song wherever I lodge. (Psalm 119:54)
72 The law from your mouth is more precious to me than thousands of pieces of silver and gold. (Psalm 119:72)
96 To all perfection I see a limit; but your commands are boundless. (Psalm 119:96)
97 Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long. (Psalm 119:97)
103 How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth! (Psalm 119:103)
120 My flesh trembles in fear of you; I stand in awe of your laws. (Psalm 119:120)
127 Because I love your commands more than gold, more than pure gold . . . (Psalm 119:127)
129 Your statutes are wonderful; therefore I obey them.
130 The unfolding of your words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple.
131 I open my mouth and pant, longing for your commands. (Psalm 119:129-131)
162 I rejoice in your promise like one who finds great spoil. (Psalm 119:162)
164 Seven times a day I praise you for your righteous laws. (Psalm 119:164)
172 May my tongue sing of your word, for all your commands are righteous. (Psalm 119:172)
“Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Matthew 4:4)
35 “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.” (Matthew 24:35)
63 “The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life.” (John 6:63)
23 For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God. 24 For, “All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, 25 but the word of the Lord stands forever.” And this is the word that was preached to you. (1 Peter 1:23-25)
I suppose Enns might come back at me and say that the Bible is not coterminous with, or to be understood as identical to, “God’s word.” But I would argue that it is. As Enns says, “Some form of the Bible has always been a part of the life of the church.” And I would argue that the “word” or “words” mentioned in the biblical passages above are incipient forms of what eventually resulted in what we call the Bible. The canonical discussions which took place in the early church were taken up with the question as to what documents constituted the authoritative “word of God.” And that “word of God” is indeed at the very center of the Christian faith. To say that the “Bible isn’t the center of our faith; God is,” is a nonsense statement. It takes away any content from our concept of who God is and what he is like. The word, “Bible,” for the Christian, is simply shorthand for “what God has revealed to us about himself.” If there is no Bible, there is no Christianity. You simply cannot just repeat the words “God” or “Jesus” over and over again like some mantra. Eventually, you have to say something like “God is . . . ,” or “Jesus is . . . .” And what comes on the other side of that word, “is,” is from the Bible. The Bible is at the center of the Christian faith, precisely because it is God’s word. I don’t just believe God; I believe his words. I don’t just believe in Jesus; I believe in his words. And those words are light and life.
“10. The Bible doesn’t give us permission to speak for God. At least not without a lot of wisdom and humility behind it. Knowing the Bible is vital for Christian growth, but it can also become intoxicating. We don’t always see as clearly as we might think, and what we learn of God in the Bible should always be first and foremost directed inward rather than aimed at others.”
Everything Enns says after the first sentence contain a great deal of wisdom. But that first sentence is just inexplicable. The Bible explicitly gives us permission to speak for God. In fact, it commands us to speak for God. If we do not so, we are being derelict in our duty.
18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)
17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. (2 Corinthians 5:17-20)
16 Yet when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, for I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! (1 Corinthians 9:16)
These are only a few of the numerous passages that place upon those who believe in God and his Christ the responsibility to speak on their behalf. To be sure, this requires wisdom. It requires humility. It requires introspection. It requires application to one’s self before application to others. But speaking for God is not an option; it is a mandate.
Again, I would hope that, given more space in which to comply with the request, Enns would have been more nuanced in his response. But as they stand right now, these “ten commandments” just aren’t very helpful. Faithful readers of the Bible probably ought to break most of them.
October 17, 2014