Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Making Sense of Enns

In a previous post I discussed Peter Enns’ fallacious diagram of biblical cosmology. As you can see below, it depicts a solid, hemispherical dome (the raqia, translated as expanse or firmament), containing the Sun, moon and stars, held up by distant mountains on a flat earth. I contended that this picture was not taught by Scripture and was not even proven to be uniformly held by ancient people. Also, it was contrary to common sense since it implied, for example, that the Sun would be at a fixed point in the sky and could not set.
In the ensuing discussion, Ben vanderGugten defended Enns. He suggested that perhaps the Sun is not actually in the raqia but simply attached to it, like a ball on a field. There are two problems with this. First, Gen.1:17 clearly states that God placed the Sun, etc. in the raqia, not on the face of it. Movement within the raqia implies fluidity rather than solidity. Second, if the raqia is just a hemi-spherical dome, what happens when the Sun sets? Does the Sun separate from the raqia, crash into the earth, tunnel through the earth and re-attach to the raqia at the other end? Enn’s diagram, taken as literal truth, leads to absurd implications.

Ben persists, “But even though I don’t understand how their system can work in a mechanical or natural sense, I do not then conclude that Ancient Mesopotamians could not have believed in a solid sky over a flat earth. I need to realize that they lived in a totally different culture than me, and some things they do and believe will not make sense to me.”

But if ancient culture was so different that we can’t understand it, how can we be so certain that their talk of a solid sky could not have been figurative or mythological? Why the insistence that they believed in a solid sky/flat earth? As I noted before, scholars are by no means unanimous; several (e.g., Noel Weeks, G.K. Beale) have presented detailed refutations of Enns' thesis.

The main question, however, is not what ancient civilizations may have believed but what the Bible actually teaches. In my last post I argued that, contrary to Enns and Seely, Genesis 1 does not teach erroneous cosmology. In particular, Genesis 1 says nothing explicit about the solidity or shape of the raqia. There is no exegetical reason why raqia cannot simply be taken to refer to the sky or space.

The basic problem with Enns is his denial of full biblical inspiration and authority. Let me elaborate. Ben notes that Enns is well aware of the discrepancy between a solid raqia and the observed movement of the celestial bodies. Indeed he is. When this objection is raised, Enns responds,

You are probably aware that the points you raise come up fairly quickly in this discussion. I wish I could ask some ancient Hebrews how they hold some of things [sic] together, but what we would consider logical inconsistencies do not call into question the Israelite participation in a commonly held cosmology. Inconsistencies are not just in Gen 1, but between chaps. 1-3, in fact throughout 1-11.”

Note Enns' hermeneutic. He assumes that Moses knew no more about cosmology than other ancients. Hence the raqia of Gen.1:7 must be solid. When this contradicts Gen.1:14, which implies moving celestial objects, Enns does not revise his view of Gen.1:7, which after all does not actually state that the raqia is solid, but simply concludes Moses erred once again. Would Enns have us believe that Moses largely plagiarized Gen.1-11 from Pharoah's library, and that he was too stupid to realize that what he wrote in Gen.1:14 contradicted what he had just scribbled a mere seven verses earlier?

It seems that Enns' agenda is to bring evangelicals in line with the results of mainline liberal scholarship. This necessarily entails a downgrading of the Bible. Thus Enns, in his book Inspiration and Incarnation, stresses the humanness of Scripture. Just as Christ incarnate had two natures, so the Bible is both human and divine. The humanness of the Bible, according to Enns, is manifested in the Bible's numerous errors and contradictions. Enns says that God was "willing and ready to adopt an ancient way of thinking," such as the categories of "ancient myth" (pertaining to creation, the flood, etc.) [p.56]. Enns contends that Gen.1-11 is full of ancient myth, which the Bible narrator mistakenly accepted as factual.

A proper Biblical view of divine inspiration, on the other hand, would affirm that, regardless of what the Bible writers personally believed, the Holy Spirit would have led them to write truth and prevented them from writing error. Since God is omniscient we can expect His word to be inerrant and authoritative, also in Gen.1-11. Since God is Truth, His word will be internally consistent.

For a detailed critique of Enns I refer the reader to G.K. Beale (The Erosion of Inerrancy in Evangelicalism 2008). Recently, another excellent analysis of Enns has been written by James W. Scott, in a pair of articles in the Westminster Theological Journal: "The inspiration and interpretation of God's Word, with special reference to Peter Enns" [WTJ 71 (2009): 129-83 & 247-79]. Among other things, Scott refutes Enns' view of the raqia (pp 248-253). His main concern, however, is Enns' faulty approach to Scripture. Here are Scott's concluding words:

"There are two ways of approaching problem passages in the Bible. If we are confident that Scripture, because of its divine authorship, is entirely true and self-consistent, then we will approach them on the assumption that inconsistencies are only apparent. We will search diligently for reasonable harmonizations or other solutions, and we will find them convincing (or at least sufficiently plausible not to draw the biblical view of Scripture into question). That is the approach taken in this article. On the other hand, we have the approach taken by Enns. He begins with the conviction that the Bible is characterized by inconsistencies of various sorts (which he attributes to its "incarnational" nature), and so when he comes to an apparent inconsistency, he assumes (unless there is an immediately obvious explanation) that it fits in with the overall pattern of inconsistency (the "accumulated evidence"), and he therefore "quickly" pronounces any proposed harmonization or similar explanation "unconvincing." Such impatience does not characterize serious scholarship. And such a dismissive attitude certainly does not characterize Christian scholarship

"...the view of Scripture propounded by Enns is greatly mistaken and must be rejected. However unintentionally, he undermines the truth and authority of Scripture, debases the Author of Scripture, and jeopardizes the Christian faith based upon Scripture. He seeks to justify his view of Scripture by basing it upon a certain view of the incarnation, but that view is equally erroneous and likewise threatens the Christian faith, and so too must be rejected. Only when Scripture is properly respected as the inspired word of our omniscient and immutable God, and therefore completely true, can it be interpreted correctly. The truth of inspired Scripture is the only reliable and authoritative foundation for Christian teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness."



  1. Dr. Byl,

    I greatly appreciate your blog. Could you comment on the scriptural issues raised by Enns with regard to the early chapter of Genesis in this recent posting at BioLogos?

  2. In this latest post Enns elaborates on his mythic view of Gen.1-11. Enns proposes that Adam is not historical but symbolizes Israel. Enns says:

    "But the “Adam is Israel” angle is at the very least a very good one—and in my opinion a much better angle than seeing Adam as the first human and all humans are descended from him. Genesis does not support that reading.
    "This “Israel-centered” reading of Adam is not a stretch. It is widely recognized, not only in modern scholarship, but by pre-modern interpreters. And you have to admit there is one distinct advantage of this reading that readers of BioLogos will recognize immediately: if the Adam story is not about absolute human origins, then the conflict between the Bible and evolution cannot be found there.
    "The conflict is found elsewhere in the Bible—namely in the New Testament and specifically in two of Paul’s letters."
    "I am saying that Gen 2-3 is not historical but mythic, symbolic, archetypal (to pick up on Walton’s language)."

    So it is clear here that Enns is adapting the Bible to evolution, that it effects not only Gen.1-11 but also Paul's letters, which he says he will address next. With Enns' view of biblical inspiration, hermeneutic and authority not much will be left of the Bible as God's Word.

  3. Dr. Byl,

    Near the middle of this post, you referenced Enns' view that the Bible is human and divine, and you seemed to treat that idea with disdain. I know that you are trying to defend against an attack on Scriptural authority, but I think that the inerrancy of Scripture and its absolute authority can be upheld even with this idea present, and that this idea can even add to our appreciation of the grace of God and the perfection of Scripture. In other words, I agree with Enns’ basic idea that the Bible is both human and divine, but I take that to mean a totally different thing than he does and I draw completely different conclusions from it.

    Obviously, this proposition requires quite a bit of qualification:

    First, I think we would agree that God didn't merely dictate his words to the human authors of Scripture, but instead (in an admittedly mysterious way) graciously guided them to use their own words in accordance with his preordained will so that what they said fit what he wanted to be said perfectly and without error. This is one aspect of what I consider the humanity of Scripture, and I think it shows an even more gracious condescension of God to use even fallen men to convey his perfect Word.

    Second, I think Enns analogy between Scripture and Christ holds, in that just as Jesus was human and divine, so also is the Bible. However, I consider what he does with this analogy to be quite egregious. He uses the humanity of Scripture to account for “errors" in the text. He seriously errs in this: being human is not analogous to being fraught with errors. Being human does not require sin, as we saw in Adam and Eve and as we obviously see in Christ—“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15 ESV). Christ was human and yet he did not sin, and there was no error in him. The Bible, then, can have a human aspect and yet not err.

    The analogy Enns uses is actually more useful, then, in arguing for the historical faithfulness and authority of Genesis, since the perfection of Christ (even in his humanity) transfers quite readily and directly to Scripture.

    --Calvin Student

  4. Calvin Student

    Thanks for your comment. You make an excellent point, with which I fully concur. The problem I have with Enns is his contention, as I noted, that "the humanness of the Bible is manifested in the Bible's numerous errors and contradictions."

    In an earlier post "Is the Traditional View of Genesis Reformed?" I cited with approval P.Y.DeJong's view of organic inspiration. He stated that, while the authors may have different styles, education and vocabularies, "the human authors were completely controlled and guided by the Holy Spirit even in their choice of words" (p.102). DeJong wrote, "The Bible, as a holy book written by men for men, abounds in popular forms of speech. Yet these do not detract in the least from the accuracy, the inerrancy of what is therein revealed to us" (p.163).


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