A Book Review of “Inspiration and Incarnation” by Pete Enns (Part 4): The Theological Diversity in the Old Testament

In chapter 3 of Pete Enns’ book, Inspiration and Incarnation, he deals with another topic that can tend to make Evangelicals rather uneasy. Simply put, Enns says, “Listen, when you read the Old Testament, there is a wide range of theological diversity in it—it doesn’t all fit together in a nice and neat picture. There is a lot of ambiguity, and there are places that actually seem to reflect points of view that contradict each other…and that’s okay.”

Enns actually begins the chapter by quoting a former professor who contrasted the traditional Jewish perspective of Scripture with the typical Christian view of Scripture: “For Jews, the Bible is a problem to be solved. For Christians, it is a message to be proclaimed” (61). When you look at the Jewish writings about the OT (i.e. the Talmud, the Mishnah, etc.), you see that traditional Jewish interpretation revels in those tensions and ambiguities. They see them as invitations for further contemplation.

For some reason, though, that tends to cause shock waves to occur within some Evangelicals—“What? The Bible is saying different things about God that don’t fit into nice, neat theological categories? Is this some sort of liberal agenda?” Enns response is that no, it’s not liberal agenda. It is the way the Old Testament is, and it’s something that Jews have known all along. And that in no way renders the Old Testament unreliable—it is the way God has revealed Himself, and we need to be okay with it.

Enns makes a further comment that ironically, unlike the traditional Jewish approach to the Old Testament, both the typical Evangelical approach and (gasp!) the historical-critical scholarly approach that so many Evangelicals are suspicious of, tend to view Scripture in the same way, namely that if it is God’s Word, then there can absolutely be no diversity of theological teaching or presentation of facts. When some historical-critical scholars find these tensions, they just dismiss the Bible as unreliable and just a human product. When some Evangelicals come across these tensions, they do everything they can to explain them away, so that they can still maintain that the Bible is a “perfect” book.

Diversity in Proverbs
In any case, Enns spends most of this chapter highlighting various examples from the Old Testament where there are clear theological differences. But instead of then dismissing the Bible as a whole or sticking his head in the sand and explaining those differences away, Enns proceeds to show the way he believes we are to wrestle with such texts.

In Proverbs, you have in two consecutive verses:

“Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
or you yourself with be just like him” (26:4).

“Answer a fool according to his folly,
or he will be wise in his own eyes” (26:5).

Well, you can’t get more contradictory than that, can you? “Not so fast,” Enns says. The fact is, both sayings are true…it just depends on the situation, and, as Enns says, “the reader is expected to invest energy in discerning whether a certain proverb is relevant for a certain situation” (64). Enns shares other examples with Proverbs 10:15 and 18:11, and then 10:16 and 11:4—they seemingly say the opposite things, but all of them are nevertheless wise proverbs, depending on whatever given circumstance one might find oneself in.

Hence, Proverbs aren’t just “recipes for success” that give you simple directions to follow. If they were, then we’d have a problem, because they often say opposite things. Rather, they are observations about life, and they challenge the reader “to know wisdom and instruction, and to understand words of insight…” (Proverbs 1:2).

Diversity in Ecclesiastes
Enns then turns his attention to Ecclesiastes, and he notes that Jewish commentators had long wrestled with the problems both within Ecclesiastes itself, as well as the problems with Ecclesiastes in relation to the rest of the Old Testament. The most obvious point of tension can be found between what Proverbs says about wisdom and what Ecclesiastes says about wisdom. In Proverbs, the message is clear: wisdom works and will not fail you. That is why in 4:7, we read “The beginning of wisdom is this: get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding.”

Yet in Ecclesiastes, it’s pretty clear that wisdom doesn’t always work. It’s not always a guarantee that things will work out well for you. Sure, Ecclesiastes acknowledges that, generally speaking, wisdom is better than foolishness, but then it takes the depressing route and concludes, “What’s the point? The wise man is going to die, just like the fool. And furthermore, all he might have gained will probably end up in the hands of another fool…so what’s the point?

Now, to be honest, I feel Enns’ point regarding Ecclesiastes is something to be desired. He simply says, “Hey, we need to respect the way God has given Ecclesiastes to us; the Bible reflects diversity because human life is diverse.” To that, I say, sure, but there’s a lot more Enns could have said. Having said that, it is beyond question that the outlook of Ecclesiastes and Proverbs is radically different. And therefore, since both are in the Bible, we cannot either ignore the differences, or attempt to superficially explain those differences away. They provide a challenge to the reader to really wrestle with the realities of life: how would you respond if you “wisely” planned out a successful life and got everything you ever dreamed, yet found yourself despairing about life?

Diversity in Job
Enns then looks at Job, and points out the “problem” that runs throughout the majority of the book (those chapters from 3 to 41 that we tend to ignore!): Job’s friends’ conclusions are in the abstract, correct: normally, we assume God blesses those who are faithful, and punishes those who are sinful. That’s the mentality one sees in Proverbs; that’s the expected outcome one sees in the blessings and curses found in Deuteronomy.

But in reality, in the case of Job, that just isn’t true. And those friends, by sticking to their superficial assumptions, end up making things worse for Job by refusing to look at his particular situation and comforting him. They are in such a hurry to “defend” God, they end up making Job’s misery worse. And by the end of Job, when God shows up, he vindicates Job and basically chews out Job’s friends and says that they have not spoken truthfully—but they were just reflecting the kind of things one reads in Proverbs and Deuteronomy.

Does this mean the Bible is contradictory or unreliable? Enns says, “Of course not.” Basically, what we see in both Ecclesiastes and Job is the acknowledgment that life is a whole lot more complex than we generally like to admit. We want to keep and apply our easy formulas and axioms to everything, with no fuss. But life isn’t like that. Both Ecclesiastes and Job make it a point to drive that home.

Other Examples of Diversity in the Old Testament
Throughout the rest of the chapter, Enns touches upon countless other examples: (1) How Chronicles’ version of the history of Israel occasionally different than that of Samuel-Kings; (2) How the two different accounts of the Ten Commandments (in Ex. 20:2-17 and Deut. 5:6-21) aren’t exactly alike; (3) Other differences between the laws in Exodus and Deuteronomy, whether it involves laws regarding slaves, the Passover, sacrifice, or dealing with Gentiles.

And then there’s the issue of, “Is there a single God, and all others are false gods, or is YHWH the chief among all gods?” Sure, there are plenty of passages in the prophets that clearly state YHWH is the only true God, but then you also have a number of psalms (86:8; 95:3; 96:4; 97:9; 135:5; and 136:2) in which YHWH is described as “above all gods,” and “greater than all other gods.”

On that issue, Enns makes a particular poignant point: “We must take care to not allow our own modern sensitivities to determine how we understand Israel’s ancient faith. We may not believe that multiple gods ever existed, but ancient Near Eastern people did. This is the religious world within which God called Israel to be his people. When God called Israel, he began leading them into a full knowledge of who he is, but he started where they were” (87). That is why we shouldn’t be surprised to find parts of the Old Testament talking about “other gods,” and other parts talking about how there are no other gods, other than the God of Israel.

What it really comes down to is how we see the Old Testament in the first place: do we simply see it as “God’s directions and rule book” that simply tells us exactly what we are to believe if we want to get into heaven, or do we see it as telling the unfolding story of God revealing Himself in the history of Israel?

If we insist on the former, such diversity will seem like “contradictions,” and might cause one to walk away from Christianity altogether—I’ve known a few people who’ve basically done just that. They see these tensions in the Bible, and thus conclude, “Oh, the Bible isn’t perfect! It isn’t giving me clear, non-controversial, undeniable answers!” I find that tragic.

But if we realize that the Bible bears witness to God’s involvement in the messiness of human history, and it thus relates the unfolding drama of God slowing redeeming all creation and bringing people to a true knowledge of Him, these tensions actually can act as invitations for us to wrestle with the very real messiness of life, and continue to walk in faith that God’s salvation story still has a few more chapters to go.

What Does Diversity Tell Us About Scripture?
I will let Enns’s own words conclude his chapter about how we should understand theological diversity in the Old Testament.

  • “To accept the diversity of the Old Testament is not to ‘cave into liberalism,’ nor is it to seek after novelty. It is, rather, to read the Old Testament quite honestly and seriously. And if diversity is such a prevalent phenomenon in the Old Testament, it would seem to be important to do more than explain it away or simply take note of diversity and file it away for future reference. We must ask why God would do it this way. Why does God’s word look the way it does?” (96).
  • “Is the fact of diversity fundamentally contrary to the Bible being the word of God? My answer is no. And the way in which we can begin to address this issue is to confess at the outset, along with the historic Christian church, that the Bible is the word of God” (96).
  • “For God to reveal himself means that he accommodates himself. To be understood, he condescends to the conventions and conditions of those to whom he is revealing himself. The word of God cannot be kept safe from the rough-and-tumble drama of human history. For the Bible to be the word of God implies the exact opposite” (97).

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